The War for Independence at the Hotel Port-au-Prince
A Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie story by Greg Swann
Did I tell you about the war I saw? Not much of a war, I guess, by
contemporary standards... Nothing worth 'we interrupt this broadcast',
nor 'on the spot' coverage with two cameras and a color-man. But it was
a war, or a significant battle in a war. Anyway, it was the war I have
What happened was this:
July 3, 1986, 16:41
A family of Asians was walking east along Thirty-Second Street. They were on the south side of the street. People who walk Thirty-Second always walk the south side. On the north side, near Herald Square, is the Hotel Port-au-Prince.
A family of Asians? An extended family of Asians, with everything from a rickety but unbowed granny to stocky-beefy men to pretty young matrons to tall, smiling teens to eager kids who were just as apt to skip ahead as to hide gigglingly behind mommy's hem, and to do both in the aura of a heavenly smile. All the way down to two cuties who couldn't leave home without a bathroom attached.
Things I guessed: Coming from the Garden or the Felt Forum, where one of the taller youths had received his Ph.D. or had been inducted into the Bricklayer's Union. Either of which, I know from experience, would bring out the whole brood, to be proud, to share in the event, and to celebrate the future successes of the younger youngsters, whose path was that much better assured.
As the family was passing that immemorable office building that has been so besieged by the Port-au-Principality, a gaggle of Princely youths ambushed them from all sides. Mostly young boys, scruffy-dirty in short pants. Foul mouthed and brandishing beer bottles with 'Fourth of July' bottle rockets protruding. Two of them had cigarettes lit; they used them to shoot the rockets like bullets, into the small crowd of Asians.
Most sped past them, but a rocket hit one of the stocky men. It fell to the ground and exploded, causing the infants to wail. The man spun around and swung out at the nearest of the attacking children. The kid backed away, but a crowd of the Princely began to surround the Asian family.
What had been a non-event had become an incident. And it was trending toward a crisis. This is known as escalation.
And now I have to say something about the Port-au-Prince. New York's intellectuals will remember that hotel from its glory days. But if they saw it now, they'd wish to forget.
The Hotel Port-au-Prince is a Welfare Hotel. Not precisely that: it was one of the hotels that was commandeered by the city several years ago to 'solve' the 'problems' of the 'homeless'. I should also say that most of the Princely reflect less light than myself and most of the persons reading this (is that the nice way of saying they are black?). Also, they are animals. I don't hold it against them that they're on Welfare. That's irrelevant. I don't hold it against them that they're (mostly) black. That's irrelevant. I do hold it against them that they are animals.
I don't want to tie up your time with a lot of examples of the animality of the Princely (the hotel's mattresses are changed so often that my friend the iconoclast jokes that 'forty acres and a mule' is now rendered as 'twenty mattresses and a pea'). You won't believe me, anyway, so see it for yourself; if you reprieve your lunch, you'll leave the area cleaner than you found it.
A Crisis Unfolding: The Asians organized into a circular skirmish line. Granny took the center with one infant in each arm and the toddlers clutching at her hem. The bigger men and youths, including some of the taller females, took the outer perimeter, with the matrons and kids making up the second line. One of the men threw a remark over his shoulder in a language I don't know. Granny gave a clipped reply. All of them, even the smallest kids, looked unreservedly mean.
The milling crowd of Princely was growing: smudge-fingered kids to sticky-fingered youths to fat, angry Princely matrons, to the few scrawny males who hang-out with the females. Another giggling gangster shot a rocket at the Asians' defensive line. The target, a tall, broad-shouldered youth, caught the rocket in mid-air and threw it back toward the Princely. It sped past them, but an angry growl seethed through the crowd.
Reinforcements. Through a process of communication I don't fully understand, that pocket of Herald Square was suddenly flooded with Asians. Electronics dealers, still clutching the cassette tapes they were stocking. Street peddlers carrying those baseball bats that are always on display but are never for sale. Shoppers with bags from Macy's and Toys 'R' Us. Men, women, children, all come to the rescue.
The 200 or so millingly enveloping Princely were surrounded. Trapped between an advancing line and a blocked retreat. The more muscular of the rescuers elbowed their way forward, like blood cells surging forward to attack fleeing germs. I heard marching orders in what sounded like several different tongues.
"Hold it!" called one of the stringy Princely males. "Hold it!"
The Asians stopped advancing. They didn't stop looking mean.
"Now, we ain't got no cause to fight!" the Stringy Prince continued. "No cause at all..."
"[Umph!] them!" yelled a sweaty, flabby matron. "They take everything and don't leave any for us!"
"Yeah!" called out one of the Rocket Launchers. "And they get all the good grades in school!"
The temper of the Princely was building, but I noted that most of the men were trying to calm things down. The Asians had managed to organize themselves fairly well; the shimmering image of a command structure was emerging in the tone of their rapid conversation.
Some of the more imposing Asian males elbowed all the way through the loose line of Princely to the besieged family. There they turned and served as an escort for the women and younger children. They emerged as a convoy, with a firm line of angry muscle to cure the Princely of bad ideas.
The Princely just stared; the males inspected their shoes.
When the Honor Guard regained the corner of Broadway, Granny turned to face the crowd of bewildered Princely. "We celebrate peace," she said in barely intelligible English, "we shoot rockets that way." She pointed to the sky. Her gaze swept from the Princely to include the entire crowd, rescuers and on-lookers. "Happy Independence Day!"
As the Asians dispersed, two gangsters shot their rockets skyward. One smashed his beer bottle on the pavement. He giggled.