“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perceptions deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
That night in Kid Chocolate, during the last fight of the evening at the National Boxing Championships, a hometown Havana kid was beating another boy from Sancti Spiritus very badly. So badly, in fact, that someone in the crowd raced down from the rafters and threw his bunched-up towel into the ring since the Sancti Spiritus coaches had refused to throw in their towel.
He’d cupped his hands to scream at the referee, “Alright then you son of a bitch, I’ll spend the night in jail for your crime you motherfucker!”
The crowd ignited as they watched that towel leave the man’s hand in a clump and sail unraveling under the lights toward the ring and the referee conspicuously unaware of the assassination attempt.
I was seated next to Brea and the rest of the Havana team at ringside and all of us betrayed our fighter in the ring to cheer on the heckler.
When the towel found it’s target and compressed like an accordion against the referee’s ear and we heard every last sweaty-drop behind the wet-slap of its impact, Brea nudged me, “This man is a noble martyr for Sancti Spiritus. If I was his father I would be proud.” Another coach turned to Brea, “What makes you think you aren’t his father?”
Brea was delighted by this possibility but conceded, “He didn’t get an arm like that from me.”
As the protester stood on the stairs glaring at the referee and screaming obscenities with both hands high over his head spinning like gerbil wheels, the referee calmly halted the fight to pick up the towel and held it with both hands contemplatively before making any attempt to locate the heckler. Even the judges at ringside were having trouble keeping a straight face over the situation.
The rest of us in Kid Chocolate saw the uniformed policia storming down the steps to arrest the protester. He never flinched when the four cops grabbed his arms and shirt and pants and began hauling him toward the exit. He kept his eyes on the ring.
The referee patiently held on to his new towel while the commotion was dealt with.
But then something magical happened and nobody in the arena had a worse time holding their composure together than the referee.
Another towel entered the ring and lightly—almost obediently—touched down on the canvass near the referee’s feet.
Sancti Spiritus had finally had a chance to inspect the damage on their fighter and quit.
There was agonized panic to get this point across to our arrested towel-thrower before it was too late.
The protester was in the doorway of the exit when he broke loose of the police grip enough to look back over his shoulder and grasp the full extent of the moment.
Time stood still as we all waited to see what he’d do next.
Suddenly his hands shot up as he wailed screams of vindication and even the police laughed as everybody got to their feet to cheer and whistle his achievement. The referee shook his head and smiled and waved the fight off.
When the revolution triumphed, one of the strange and beautiful sights across Havana was the destruction, by the thousands, of any and all parking meters.
I went outside into the parking meter-less night and walked over to the corner of the block and bought a peso ice cream from a pretty mulatta reading a weathered and wrinkled-up celebrity magazine from the 80′s. She held the cone under the spout and pulled the arm of the machine all the while hypnotized by a photograph of Madonna. She handed me the cone and reached up and took her hair in a fist trying out the hairstyle. So I watched her for a bit trying other styles until the security guard from the little US dollar grocery store next door began flirting with her. When she gave him a smile he turned with satisfaction in my direction.
The grocery store he was supposed to be guarding had dozens of people lined up outside the entrance, peeking through the windows inside the glass display cases of chocolate, makeup, gum, toothpaste, soap, suntan lotion, American cigarettes and other items.
It was worse a few blocks down the street at the Adidas store on Calle Neptuno. You’d see kids buying sneakers at American prices with the equivalent of a Doctor’s eight month salary acting casual about the transaction. Phony designer t-shirts were already a pretty common sight. Cellphones were hard to get a hold of and insanely expensive, but some of the Cubans in the nicer neighborhoods had them. Things were changing.
The designated tourist Lada taxis were waiting across the street in front of the steps at the Capitolio and the drivers were leaning over the hoods of their cars chatting and smoking with a few of the drivers of horse-drawn carriages. A lot of the tourist drivers were doctors and lawyers desperate for American dollars. Taxi drivers are some of the most connected men in Havana. Some were pimps and drug dealers while others were just eager to let you know about the benefits of the Mercado Negro and wanted a percentage. “You don’t like the food? Don’t you know the best meals are cooked in secret locations? Would you like to visit the famous private home that cooked for Steven Spielberg? Let me show you…” “Have you tried Cuban yeyo with one of our girls yet? A nice young girl who knows how to treat a man right, not like yours back home. I know one whose uncle has several boxes of Trinidad Cigars stolen from Castro himself. Don’t worry my friend…”
Nothing notifies me I’m in danger like preemptive assurances of my safety.
All the hustlers worked this area of town day and night looking for tourists to ride. Which was fair, because tourists pretty much only frequented the areas of Havana where they could give Cubans a ride.
Cops were everywhere but lots of product was being moved in secret stashes all over Havana. Everybody had a friend or a relative who could get it for you.
Then I wished there were some parking meters left as the tourist buses pulled in and parked alongside Central Park and unpacked a herd of Germans marching down Calle Obisbo for some Hemingway daiquiris at El Floridita. The daiquiri was invented there and recently they’d built a life-sized bronze statue of Ernest leaning against the counter in his favorite corner of the bar.
The first day I ever visited Havana, when I was 20, just before Elian Gonzalez was sent back to his dad from Miami in 2000, I bought a Cuban a drink at El Floridita.
Carlos was 30 and an elementary school teacher and close friend of the family where I was staying. I had no Spanish and Carlos had no English, but he’d helped me for a few hours to learn some and I invited him for a drink at the only famous bar I knew in Havana other than La Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway’s other bar.
He wasn’t pleased with my choice but I didn’t know why.
Carlos only wore white and looked like a smaller, more intense version of Nat King Cole. An unusual quality about him was that while extremely gracious and friendly, he almost never smiled.
It was an hour walk to El Floridita and with our lack of a common language we played a kind of paint-by-numbers charades about who we each were and our lives. We both tried to ignore the tedium and laboriousness involved in communicating, but the frustration had Carlos chain-smoking before long.
During that hour he was stopped by the police three times and asked to show his papers. Each time Carlos seemed terrified he’d forgotten them. If you had forgotten them, you spent a night in jail. They questioned what he was doing with me and asked me if Carlos was following or harassing me. I didn’t understand anything about what was happening and thought it must be a joke of some kind. Carlos insisted we were friends. One of the cops, who was maybe 19 years old, went through his bags and smiled as he intentionally tried to humiliate Carlos by asking if he was a prostitute.
In many areas of Havana there are police on nearly every street corner. On the books, police make more money than any other profession.
When we finally got the bar they didn’t want to let Carlos in. They called another cop over. Carlos looked queasy.
Once we got inside the bartenders in brilliant red and white uniforms wouldn’t make eye contact with him. I wasn’t sure what was going on so I asked what Carlos was having and ordered him a beer while I tried what everyone else in there was having, the Papa Doble.
An old woman came round to sell Hemingway junk. A band came in with a lovely girl singing. The entire bar was more a gift shop than anything.
Both drinks cost me 11 American dollars and when I gave it to the bartender Carlos watched it leave my hand very carefully.
I asked if he’d been to El Floridita before and he shook his head: “Nunca.”
After he finished his beer we’d returned home to the family where I was staying, he had one of the teenage daughters act as a translator to ask me some questions:
“You seem like a nice kid but this journey today was upsetting for me. What does it say about a country when a citizen cannot enter a bar in his own city of birth and even if he can, it costs him two weeks salary to pay for a beer?” He went on, “I understand that relative to where you come from, you are not wealthy. And I understand that 11 dollars relative to where you come from is not an amount of any real significance to anyone. But what does it say about my country that to enter a bar such as this as a hardworking, honest, law-abiding citizen and I am looked at under suspicion as either a criminal or a prostitute? What does it look like to you?”
Which in turn started a huge argument in the household between the three generations worth of people living there until the neighbors came over to join in. It was right around this time that I bummed the first cigarette of my life off Carlos. That earned a smile and a spooky warning: “Welcome to Cuba.”