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TiGeorges Laguerre: Last Rites in Haiti; Chicken in Echo Park

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KCET Departures asks, "What's your or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?"

Today, we hear from chef and restaurant owner TiGeorges Laguerre :

"People call me TiGeorges. That's pronounced 'Tee George.' It means 'Son of Georges.'

"My full name is Jean-Marie Monfort Hébert Georges Fils Laguerre. I received such a long moniker because I died at birth. Truly. The priest administered last rites. Then an injection brought me back, with the only side effect a youthful limp.

"In the meanwhile, the doctor, the nurse, my mother, my father, and what seems like every other resident of Port-de-Paix, where I was from in Haiti's northwest, was adding their own memorial contribution to the baptismal certification that our city's hospital was preparing for me.

"I left Haiti in 1970, as a kid. I was one of ten siblings and six of us came together, along with my mother. My eventual journey to Los Angels began in Brooklyn, New York and a decade later continued across the continent to this city where I've resided for more than thirty years.

"In 1972 my mother opened a restaurant on Church Avenue and 33rd Street in Brooklyn -- it was one of the very first Haïtian-owned places to eat. My family owned a bakery and restaurant and a coffee business back in Haiti so it was natural to do so in the States.

"I first arrived in L.A. on August 16, 1981. I traveled cross-country in my brand new pride and joy, a Renault LeCar. I'd just graduated from the School of Visual Arts. I'd started out at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn. I did a semester at NYU. It took me seven years to get through school because I had to help my mother and my siblings. I drove a cab. Whenever I could take the time and had the money, I'd go back for the next semester. We all did what we had to.

"Heading west, I was driving alone in Kansas when I got a speeding ticket. I was so many miles away from my destination. I was lonely. I was depressed. I spotted a guy who looked to be about my age, holding a cardboard sign. The sign read, 'CA.' I drove by, then realized that was the abbreviation for California. I pulled onto the shoulder, backed up, and asked this hitchhiker if he was heading west? 'Yes I am,' he said. 'Well,' I said, 'hop in.'

"He and I spent 1,500 miles together. But you know what's funny? I never asked him his name! When he got in the car, the first thing he told me was, 'As of now, you don't spend your money. I'm buying everything.'

"So, as we went along, this guy would direct me to stop at different places. On occasion, he took me to places where black guys weren't welcome. He was white. He'd say, 'Georges, I'm going to take you to a place where, since you're black, people are not going to want to see you. I don't want you to look at them, don't make eye contact. We gonna go eat. And then we gonna leave. I guarantee you, it's gonna be okay.'

"And indeed, at this one place, there were a whole bunch of lily whites, people in their seventies, very old and conservative people. They made me feel I was not welcome. But as a Haitian man, I don't usually worry about racism. My attitude is, if he's a racist, that's his problem. Not mine.


"That said, I was nervous enough already. I'd decided not to drive too far south because in New York some of my friends had said, 'If you're black and you go to the Deep South, you may run into trouble.' But they were talking about Interstate 40. They were talking about Alabama. Nobody was talking about the prairie and Mountain West states.

"That restaurant was on the I-70. I think, in Kansas. Somewhere before Colorado. I remember Colorado well because my hitchhiker ran out of money. The Renault was climbing into Denver--you know about the mile-high altitude. My hitchhiker wanted to make money by selling some blood. He said, 'Georges, we need some money to breathe.' I said, 'Well, I still have some money, and I'm not gonna sell blood.' So now, whatever money I had left, it looked like I was gonna have to spend.

"While we were going through Colorado, closing in to Arizona, we bumped into two blonde girls. 'We're going to the Grand Canyon,' one of the girls said. 'Do you guys want to come?' We said yes, and we followed them. In the process, a big rig almost flattened us.

"The girls had quickly switched roads, but I wasn't watching closely and I slowed down quickly so I wouldn't miss the exit. The big rig was coming fast behind me, air brakes roaring. I was lucky to swerve out of the way.

"We made it to the Grand Canyon. I was still shaken, really nervous, about the near-accident. The hitchhiker says to me, 'We're going with the girls, down to the bottom of the Canyon.' I thought, 'This is a man I picked up because he was holding a cardboard sign. I don't even know his name! What if he wakes up in the middle of the night and runs away with my Renault?' I said to him, 'You can go with these girls. I'm going to sleep in the car.'

"So he went down, and I stayed up. About five or six in the morning, he knocked on the window. He said, 'Hey, Georges, guess what? You thought I was going to steal your car? You got scared!' I said, 'Yeah, I got spooked.' And he said, 'Man, it was great.' He probably had an affair with those two girls.

"We hit the road again, the hitchhiker and I. When we arrived at Las Vegas, we made a pit stop. I remember my brother Wilson saying before I departed, 'Georges, if your air conditioning doesn't work, you're gonna have problems crossing that deep Nevada desert.' Wilson was right--it was hot, a dry heat unlike anything I was used to back in Haiti, or for that matter, New York. The AC kept pumping, though. Whoever said the French can't build a decent car?

"We weren't long for Vegas. We were so close now to California that I had no interest in going to play casino games or see some showgirls. We had a burger and a soda from some stand on the city's outskirts. Then, Golden State, here we come.

"I dropped the hitchhiker off near Pomona. All in all, he was good company. So here I was--in California! I had managed to keep $300 of my road money--so that was my stake, my seed money for a whole new life.

"I've run my restaurant, TiGeorges' Chicken, in the Echo Park / Westlake Village area since 2001. I live nearby. When I first made it out here back in '81, I stayed with my Uncle Abner in Santa Monica. Living a few miles from the ocean reminded me in some ways of where I came from. I didn't see any toy boats carved out of coconuts like we had in Port-de-Paix, but I did see kids flying kites.

"I look back and realize what nerve and the audacity my family exhibited in coming to the U.S. -- especially my mother. Back home, my family were well-educated, they were business owners, my father was briefly the country's Director of Customs.

"Then your parents come to America, can't speak a word of English, and yet they have pride. That's us Haitians. We don't speak the language? Trust me, we're going to find a way. Ten kids to support? Become a nurse at Florence Nightingale. Work the graveyard shift. Make $12,000 and manage to keep all of us happy and healthy. That's the drill. That's the Haitian way. We do what we gotta do."

--TiGeorges Laguerre
(As told to Jeremy Rosenberg**)

(**And as adapted from the Laguerre-as-told-to Rosenberg's manuscript, "LET ME TELL YOU! From Haiti to Brooklyn to Echo Park; The Life & Times of TiGeorges Laguerre.")

Photo by Tor Johansen

This post originally appeared under the headline, "Arrival Story: TiGeorges Laguerre"

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