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Daniel has also used his creative talent in his own business, a snow-cone cart mounted on the back of his small pickup truck. Every day after work at the supermarket Daniel sells snow cones in the street, shaving the ice with a lead ice shaver he bought on a trip to Haiti. He painted the red and blue cart, a wooden structure that holds a block of ice and bottles of fruit-flavor syrup, in the colors of the Haitian flag -- part of a nationalist marketing plan he has found good for business.
"There are a lot of people here who leave Haiti because they have to," he explains. "They don't really want to be here, but there's more opportunity. They don't want to forget their culture. When they see my cart and they see I'm shaving ice like it's done back in Haiti, they'll buy a cone just because it reminds them of home."
Daniel says he would like to study commercial art someday, but for now he doesn't think about trying to make a living from sign-painting; he says that Haitian store owners pay very little. "I don't do it, because it doesn't bring in money. The shopkeepers are going to pay you maybe $50," he says. "I'm not like Serge -- he'll paint anything, any time. That's Serge."
If there is a Picasso of the painted sign, it's Serge Toussaint. Most of the images found on buildings in Little Haiti bear his name, signed "$erge." At Henry Jewelry on NE 78th Street is a caricature of a couple getting married, with a bubble coming out of the groom's mouth declaring, "They got me" in Creole. At the Dieu Qui Decide restaurant on 62nd, he painted a dramatic Apocalypse scene, with God coming down from the heavens and a stopwatch marking the final minutes. The words "Countdown USA" are written in the corner. At Quick Release Bail Bonds off 54th, he painted two conga drums covered with Vodou inscriptions. At the Little Haiti Meat Market Cafeteria on NW Second Avenue, his symbolist composition includes a chicken laying eggs, sausage links, sandwiches, and a cow wearing bottle-cap earrings that read "Serge."
His pictures may be ubiquitous; the artist is much harder to find. He painted the seascape sign at the Express Hand Car Wash, and another one featuring a red Corvette convertible. But no one there has seen him lately. Ferdinand, the car wash manager, turns off the vacuum cleaner and laughs with another employee at the mention of Toussaint's name. "Who knows where he is? Serge is a slippery guy," says Ferdinand. "Serge is no businessman."
A rapper on the stereo rails about a "motherfuckin' cop with his big ass," competing with the bouncy compas music coming from the laundromat. Ferdinand wipes down a gold Toyota SPV with last season's Tommy Hilfiger jersey, shaking his head: "If I were Serge, if I had that talent, I'd be rich."
A Creole spiritual blares from inside the studio of Radio Pep La on NE 54th Street. On the wall outside are portraits of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Martin Luther King beside sunny Caribbean scenes. A severed and bloody handcuffed hand clutches a Haitian flag above the phrase Tous pour la Liberte (Everything for Freedom). American and Haitian flags fly over a globe and the slogan "We Are the World." $erge is signed in several places, with a phone number printed underneath. That number, however, is disconnected.
"Why you need him, he going to make a million dollars?" cackles Toussaint's cousin Jumel, who owns Bortan Fabrics just down the street.
Merusbenoit heads off to look for Toussaint. A guy sitting on a plastic milk crate under a shade tree by the side of the road thinks he saw Toussaint painting on 62nd Street, but he isn't there. A skinny old man wobbles down the street in a hungover haze. Ben pulls him aside for a hushed conference in Creole, pressing some bills into his hand. "I'll bring you Serge," says the man.
A few hours later Serge Toussaint appears at the counter of his cousin's fabric store. He's a slight 34-year-old in paint-stained jeans, with a shy grin and a far-off, agitated stare. His appearance, as he has learned, is not as impressive as his artwork: "My work's all over the place and when I'm working, customers come looking for Serge. I say, 'That's right, I'm Serge.' 'No, I'm looking for Serge.' 'This is me, Serge,' I tell them. 'I'm looking for the artist who's doing all these murals.' 'It's me, ma'am.' They look at me from the ground to the top. 'You, Serge? Anyway I'm leaving a card for him to call me.' I say, 'All right, when Serge come I'll give it to Serge.' Because they don't really think I can be Serge. Because they be thinking I'm a bigger man than that. They be thinking Serge must have something to lift him up in the air, and I'm out there with a ladder, going up and down, up and down all day. And I keep doing it because I love art. That's the only thing I know all my life."