Skilled at surviving on the edge

Clifford Berrette, 11 years old and 4 feet tall, moved like a determined little man through the choking exhaust of the bus terminal in scuffed white sneakers, unnoticed in the crush of people hurrying to leave town.

He picked up a rag from the ground and began to wipe the dirt off a blue minibus, clambering up bumpers and tires to reach the high spots. A taller boy started to clean the vehicle too, but Clifford wasn’t going to let him horn in; he shoved him away. Then he extended a small palm to the driver.

“Pretty good job with just a rag,” driver Gilbert Pierre said, handing Clifford 25 gourdes, about 50 cents. Beaming with pride, Clifford retreated to the shade, removed one of his sneakers and put the money inside.

It would be safe there until he could give it to his mother. “She promised to cook food tonight if I brought her money,” he said.

A child made the man of the family too soon, Clifford works the margins of an urban landscape that’s all margins. He’s what Haitians call a kokorat, one of more than 4,000 children who work the streets of Port-au-Prince, the capital, hustling for coins and food, and sleeping wherever they grow tired.

In the nearly three weeks since a massive earthquake struck, Clifford has moved through the maze of ravaged streets -- his streets -- like a post-apocalyptic Oliver Twist. Following him over the last week, it was clear that Clifford was a skilled survivor in a hard, unforgiving city of survivors.

But something else was clear: He was just a little boy.

The massive earthquake strikes

Clifford was begging for loose change outside the presidential palace when the quake knocked him to the ground -- five times, he said -- and the palace crumbled behind him. He didn’t know it, but his mother and 5-year-old sister also were on the street, panhandling in front of the main cathedral, which also was toppling.

Begging probably saved their lives.

His mother, Natalie Pierre Charles, hurried back to their home, a one-room shack on St. Aude Road. She had left her younger daughter, who was 2, with a neighbor. The neighbor escaped with a broken leg, but Charles’ daughter didn’t make it out. Her body still hasn’t been recovered.

For nine days, Charles searched for her son in his usual begging haunts. She asked friends if they’d seen him, but they all said they thought he was dead. She went to stay with an uncle, sleeping in the open foyer of his collapsed home.

Clifford had spent that first night sleeping on a concrete wall in the Champs de Mars, a park across from the palace, where thousands had gathered. The next day, he panhandled some change, and then he did what any kid might do: He used the money to rent a bike for an hour.

“I didn’t have anything to do for fun,” he said.

He spotted his mother on the street a day later, but he hid. “I thought she’d be mad at me,” he said.

It wasn’t until a week later that his mother found Clifford, eating rice someone had given him. Her first words were: “Can I have some of what you’re eating?”

As they ate, she told him that his baby sister had died in the quake. For the first time in a week, he cried.

10 days after the quake

Clifford, wearing a tattered shirt, was at a Total gas station near the uncle’s house, begging for coins from a long line of motorists and passengers. He was barefoot; he had taken his shoes off and put them out of sight so he looked even more deprived. His usual sweet-faced smile disappeared, replaced by an expression of utter misery as he held out his hand.

The take, after an hour, was about 50 cents.

Then he walked to the national soccer stadium, where displaced people had gathered, now a brutally hot bowl smelling of cooking fires and urine. He joined a group of boys kicking a soccer ball and was soon racing nimbly up and down the field, his worries left behind.

Later, American troops arrived to give out packages of food, and a mass of people crushed toward them. Clifford scaled a gate and wormed his way along the ground, popping up along a fence in front of the troops. But the food was gone before it was his turn.

Clifford spent the night with the family of a friend he’d made on the soccer field. He didn’t know the boy’s name.

12 days after

Clifford decided he wanted his soccer ball, so he made his way home, to the shack on St. Aude Road.

“Everything’s crumbled,” he said, trying to absorb what he saw. Homes and businesses on the twisting dirt road had collapsed and left piles of broken cinder block on the road, which was slashed with deep gashes opened by the quake. Some buildings tilted precariously on their foundations, as if seen through a fun-house mirror.

Clifford climbed over the wreckage to a rocky ravine and the small room where he, his mother and two sisters had slept on a single piece of plywood covered with carpet. The shack’s rusted, corrugated-iron walls and roof were intact. Goats and pigs roamed nearby.

As he approached the door, Clifford saw something covered in blue plastic. Was it a body? He was too afraid to find out, soccer ball or no soccer ball. He fled.

That night, Clifford decided that he wanted to stay with his mother. He fell asleep on a sheet of cardboard with his sister, Bebe, and a friend.

13 days after

In the morning, a long queue formed near the palace, where United Nations troops from Brazil were handing out family packs of food.

Clifford, wearing a blue shirt that someone had given his mother, cut in line. But by the time he got to the front, the soldiers had run out of food packs and were handing out packages of crackers and two bottles of water. He didn’t mind -- he had scored.

As he walked away, he ran into his mother and gave her some of his crackers and the water. Then he sneaked back into line for another handout.

Sitting in the shade of an almond tree, he shared his food and water with several passersby. “When he has, he gives,” his mother said. “He’s a good boy.”

Later, he tried to cut in line again. But this time people complained to one of the blue-helmeted soldiers, who gently shooed him away.

As the sun set, he walked back to the stadium, dodging pedestrians and the groaning, brightly painted buses known as tap-taps. He was tired, and all he wanted to do was play soccer.

14 days after

Clifford was back at the gas station. He hadn’t eaten since the day before at the stadium. (“A nice lady there gave me some rice and gravy,” he said.) And his mother had told him that she’d make him a meal if he brought her some money.

It was tough going. “Even when they have money, they won’t give,” he said. He took a break to watch with fascination as a woman skillfully used a knife to peel oranges, which she was selling from a plastic bucket. A young pastor driving a pickup took pity on him and gave him 50 gourdes -- about $1.

The Creole word for begging is bwose, and the streets are filled with people doing it. “I sometimes feel really bad when I have to bwose,” Clifford said. He’d rather have a job, he said, but that’s not an option for a young boy.

He strolled a few blocks to Portail Leogane, the staging point for buses headed to the countryside south of Port-au-Prince. As he walked, he playfully twirled a long strip of sugar cane bark he had picked up from the road. A one-legged man struggling with crutches caught his eye, and he walked up for a closer look, staring unselfconsciously from a few feet away.

At the terminal, sweltering passengers were sitting inside large buses, awaiting departure. Looking up at the windows, Clifford called out, asking passengers if they needed anything. One said he wanted a cellphone case, so Clifford found a peddler. That got him a tip of about 10 cents.

As he roamed the station, he paused to write the word “police,” in English, on the dusty window of a minivan. He grinned impishly and looked around to see if he’d been seen. Then he rubbed it out with his hand.

Later, Clifford said he wants to be a policeman when he grows up, “because then no one will mess with me.”

Natalie Charles is a small, thin woman of 27. When Clifford was 9, she worked as a cleaning woman. She earned enough to pay the $14-a-month rent on the shack and had enough to put Clifford in school. The school fees were about $30 a year; she paid them what she had, $20.

Each night, she remembers, Clifford would come home from school and show her how he was learning to write his name. “He’s a very intelligent boy,” she said.

But she couldn’t pay the $10 she owed and, after three months, the school kicked him out.

She has relied on her son to support her since they were reunited after the quake. She’s tried to beg for money, she said, but “people tell me they are as bad off as I am.” A child, she knows, particularly one as cute as Clifford, has an easier time. And survival, not guilt, was foremost on her mind.

Charles never knows, from one night to the next, whether her son will be home.

“Clifford doesn’t like to be around a lot of people at night,” she said. “It’s difficult for him to share a bed.”

Her dream is that someday, someone “will help me take care of him, so he can do something good with his life, something better than he’s doing now.”

15 days after

In the afternoon, Clifford was back in front of the palace, where the U.N. soldiers were handing out large bags of rice to hundreds of people lined up in the sweltering heat.

Clifford sneaked into the line, made it to the front, and collected his rice. Struggling to hold the bag with both arms, he headed off to see his mother, but a man cut him off and demanded that he hand over the rice.

Frightened, Clifford gave him half the bag -- but he made sure he got some money too, about $3.

That night, Clifford’s mother borrowed charcoal from a friend. She was going to make Clifford and his sister a proper dinner.