CIENFUEGOS

    I turned in the rent-a-car at the Hotel Jagua, a short walk from the casa where I always stay at least a week in Cienfuegos, "the pearl of the south coast," my favorite Cuban city.
   It's on a large deep bay with a very small entrance, easily guarded from pirates by one fort. A city of 125,000, it's clean and spacious, its Prado is prettier and pleasanter than El Prado in Havana, and Palatino's on Parque Marti is one of the two best sidewalk bars in Cuba.
    74. A MILITANT WHORE:  Cuba is changing.  The capitalist enclave for tourists may be creating actual whores - even though the number of visible amateurs is diminishing. Maybe the invisible jineteros have found a need to fill,  recruiting girls and running them. But that's based on slight evidence. Strangely, generally sedate Cienfuegos seems to have more action per capita now than Havana. But Cuba certainly has no sex "industry."
    It was a hot night and I'd been cooling off outside the El Rapido (Cuba's fast ham-sandwich chain) on the malecon, where all the  teenagers hang out, laughing at two young chicas trying to vamp me in their slinky gowns and platforms.  They claimed to be grown-ups but looked barely 15  and I told them they'd be smarter to dress like that wholesome young woman over there - the one in the neat beaded shirt, pretty kerchief in her hair, and mildly hip-hugging jeans.
    After they gave up and left, she walked by twice, checking her watch as if stood up, then sat down at my outdoor restaurant table. We were surrounded by acres of lawn and a huge athletic field complex.  Horse cabs, bicycles and 50's cars passed on the kilometer-long malecon, and on the bay wall on the other side sat an endless row of couples and groups.
    I asked why she spoiled her casual look with high heels.  She said she's short and wants to feel big.  She was about 25 and overconfident, but low key.  Her name was Etabel and she was a beautician and she was good at it.  Her cosmetics were barely discernible.  She looked like a great potential girlfriend. She was asking $35 in her own apartment.
    I asked her if she had signed the petition.  She said she's a member of the party, and she signed to tell George Bush what she thinks of him.  I believed her.  She asked me to buy her a beer, but didn't open it.  I talked to her for awhile and decided she was easily sophisticated enough for her ambiguous approach to life. 
    I told her I didn't know, but maybe I'd see her tomorrow.  I had to go.  But I circled and saw her give the beer to a guy hanging back in the landscaping. Too bad.  She was really something.  But a girl at the Trova on her own, maybe scoring, is a chica.  A girl with a set price, working with a man, is a whore.  Cuba is changing.
    75. A SYMPATHETIC SOBREVIVIENTE:  A sobreviviente, a survivor, is one of the pre-revolution upper class who stayed in his or her house and puts up with the revolution, which returns the favor.
    Three old ladies checked the flowers in the yard of a 2-story victorian on Punta Gorda, Fat Point.  I stopped and discussed the heat with them.  The damage the hurricane had done to the baywall and some nearby houses was visible, and we talked about the hurricane, too.
    One had a son visiting Spain, Asturias, and they were all sure Spain was the most beautiful country in the world, though none had seen it.  I told them I'd been to Asturias and it is beautiful, but had they read Don Quixote?  One had, so I told her Cervante's joke was that La Mancha is so plain, it's a ridiculous place to seek adventure.
    When the other two had retreated inside to their fan, I asked the literary one if she had signed the petition.
    Yes she had, and she's too old to care about pressure or even consequences, and nobody would bother her anyway.  She signed because she's content.  She thought it had been good to end the poverty of capitalism.  Of course, she is one who has always been well off.
     So when she spoke again about the storm damages, I told her, when you live on Fat Point, you have to pay the bill sometimes.  She liked that.
    76. A MUSEUM GUIDE:  Unable to find  a paladar where I'd eaten in '00 and '01, I went into a museum in the home of two martyred sisters I still know nothing of, to ask directions.
    But before I could ask, the woman in front signaled an imposing  young woman who said, "Follow me," and I followed her switching hips through a long inner patio to a room in back, with a chair and a camera.
    "Sit in this chair and face the camera."
    "Why?" 
    She laughed at herself, and started to show me the exhibit.  I went along with it until the picture of the girls' parents, when I had to tell her they were the wrong parents.  They were both white, the girls were mulatas.  In Cuba that was only interesting because the girls had died in '58, before the revolution ended racism.
    My guide smirked and said it wasn't part of  her official spiel.  But she showed me other pix that proved my point.  "What's your name?" I asked, and she spilled it all, name, age, how many kids, and she was on her second husband, and what about me?
    When she heard of my survey, it opened her flood gates.  I thought she'd never stop. Sometimes, I got to speak.
    Did I want to know why she signed? Did I know what it's like in Haiti? In Nicaragua? In Brazil?  Well, she told me.  She saw it on TV.  Listen.  No Cuban is hungry.  There are necessities but nothing serious.  We don't have flies crawling on our faces.  We don't have cops beating us up. Don't believe the jineteros.  They're just liars who don't want to work.  And the Miamistas and their puppets in Cuba?  They're just another kind of jinetero.  The jineteros work harder trying not to work than they would work working.  And the gusanos make themselves unhappier complaining than they would be participating.  She knew the kind of people who are always saying, They don't like Cuba; they don't like Fidel; and well, she said, she doesn't like them.   If they don't like it here, they should go to Miami, and if they meet a shark, good for the shark!  And if they don't meet a shark, what will they get in Miami? Expensive toys? They're stupid.  Listen. Cuba is fine just the way it is. 
    "Some people tell me they need dollars to buy things they need, like soap," I injected quickly.
    Like soap?  Everybody has soap.  Like platform shoes and ridiculous gowns and jewelry, you mean.  Look at me.  She pointed at everything she wore, telling me what it cost and where or how she got it. I wasn't sure if I was touring her clothes or what was in them, which looked very good; but the clothes were OK, too.
    She lives on  her salary and her husband's salary and the ration, and they are doing fine. Some things are hard.  It isn't perfect. "Hay que sacrificiar."  But they can save money even.  Look.  OK.  I looked again.  This skirt cost 13 pesos. This blouse cost 8.50. Listen.  Cubans like to eat. And Cubans eat.  Do I look like I don't eat? She certainly didn't. Do you see anyone who looks like they don't eat? We're OK here.
    "Militante? Yo? No. Consciencia? No. Fidelista.  Pero, si, Comunista, socialista, Fidelista"  She talked for an hour and a half, and when I finally found out where the paladar was and was leaving, she said "Make sure you come back and talk to me again."
    I said I'd try.
    77. A FISH FILLETER:  He was really just sitting on the window ledge of the   paladar his parents run, talking to girls who kept stopping.  He seemed popular.
    But he told me he fillets fish.  He doesn't want to do anything else.  He likes filleting fish. Sometimes he waits tables and gets tips.  He'd rather not work but he has a lot of girlfriends.  It's a hard life, he said.
    I asked why.  He said it's hot.  So I agreed.  As July progressed, it was getting hotter and hotter in Cienfuegos, even with its wide streets that let the Caribbean air flow freely between the white buildings.
    He was 25 and still dependent.  He'd taken no classes after the segundaria, not even gastronomia, though he obviously expected to go on living on his parents' paladar.
    "Are you happy?"
    "No."
    "Do you like living in Cuba?"
    "No."
    "Where would you like to live?"
    "I don't know.  Where do you live?"
    "En la Oosa."
    OK. He'd like to live there, too.  Did he sign the petition? Yes. Why? 
    "So people won't squint at me.  So I don't have to explain. I don't like to be alone. Not much company that way.  Right?  I didn't want to lose my friends.  That's all."
    78. THE RIGHT WING BOHEMIAN: In Cuba, the bohemians are bohemians, of course, which is all bohemians ever are or ever have been.  Some credible philosophers sometimes hang with bohemians, like Melville living with the cannibals,  but only out-of-touch conservatives and their media and, sadly, everyone who believes that media (often including bohemians, who are a very gullible lot) confuse bohemians with the actual left.  Bohemians are just bohemians and it's not really odd that bohemians in Cuba are rightists.
    Cienfuegos, for some reason, has more than its share.  They're a hit with one kind of western blonde. The actual intellectual community in town calls them "sin-verguenzas, sin ideas," just as some San Franciscans call the  Haight-Ashbury sidewalk sitters "vapor."  Same point.
    Dodging along the sidewalk on the Prado near Copelia's, I was stopped by a costume under some reggae hair (though he was white), that at first I thought was a tourist in need of directions.  But he was local and, like a Watchtower pusher invading your porch, he wanted to tell me how things really are.
    I think also he divined I'm from the promised land and he wanted to touch my hem.  Things are very bad in Cuba, he informed me. "What do you mean?"  He wanted out.  At least, we were speaking Spanish.  Usually, this is in low-voiced English, to  keep it secret, but I think he knew the people all around us.
   "Why?"  He wanted libertad.
   "What's that?"  I didn't listen long.  Bohemians bore me and the word "freedom," without a specific context, bores me, and his fumbling response wasn't pinning it down.  I wouldn't have sought him out for my survey, and it was hot.  I stopped him and delivered the museum woman's message to him.  It sounded Republican alright.  But everything else in this survey should clarify the difference.  What I said and what he said I'll skip.  I asked if he signed the petition and he said he did because something might happen to him, so I put him down as signing from fear of consequences, the 4th and last person to claim that distinction.
    I guess my rudeness generated some bad karma, since two blocks further on a kid on a  fast bicycle snatched my hat.
    79. A RAILROAD MAN:  Coming out onto the porch one morning I found the street full of young people repairing hurricane damages, including on Ana Maria's porch.  Ana Maria came out and told me they were "good boys," juventud.  So was everyone on the street.  I could have finished my survey with 21 militants between the porch and the corner.  And she blew my cover by boasting about what I was doing.  She always tells everyone I know more about Cuba than the Cubans.
    So I retired the survey for the day and strolled down to the park on the point.  But in a big yard, I found an old black man sweating in the sun without a hat, hoeing around a flower bush.  I thought he lived there, but he told me he was doing the people there a favor, because he just liked working.
    I told him he needed a hat, but he said he liked the sun on his head.  I asked if he was a gardener and he proclaimed himself an "ayudante de todos" now, everyone's helper, but, by profession, he was a railroad man, retired.
    He was sweating so profusely, I suggested he should go fishing instead.  We could see people fishing along the point.  He said he'd lived in Cienfuegos all his life, including his 43 years on the railroad, but doesn't like seafood and has never fished.
    But he liked to talk, and we talked in the hot sun. When he started on the railroad, at 16, in '58, he worked in the baggage cars, like a slave, he said.  Only blacks did such work.  But after the revolution, he became a package clerk, traveling between Santiago and Havana more times than he could count.
    He loved it, but he likes working as he is now, too. What did he think of the revolution?  Listen. He started his life as an oppressed person.  Now all his needs are taken care of and his children's needs.  They're all healthy, all educated, all with good jobs, plenty to eat, and freedom.
  Maybe, to be "even handed," I should have asked what that meant, but I just let him talk.  We were both running sweat.  He leaned on his hoe. I leaned on the fence.
    In Bautista's time, he said, you couldn't talk.  Now you can talk to anybody about anything and nobody comes around and puts a cap on your mouth.  And you can learn, because, besides the schools, the TV teaches you, if you want to watch and listen.  And you can go where you want to whenever you don't have to work.
    He signed because the way it is is "lo mejor que hay."  Everybody signed.  There are 80 people on his block.  Most of them were waiting Saturday morning for the petition to arrive.
    80 & 8l. THE MIXED COUPLE:  You see so many of them in Cuba, you stop seeing them, but this black and white couple made a good picture, because they were at a table in Palatino's with a lot of very white tour-bussers around, so I signaled the guy not to alert the blonde and tried a couple of shots, neither of which worked.  My photo successes are always luck.
    He invited me to sit with them, which I did but I declined the rum, signaling the waiter who knows me and brought me a Cristal, shrugging an apology because it was all they had that day.
    The guy was a conspiratorial sort. She was dumb.  She was dressed like a chica and he was really casual for a Cuban, dressed almost like me.  We talked about drinks and the town.  She was studying accounting, not working.  He didn't work much either - some - was studying commerce. She was sure there would be work in Cienfuegos for an accountant.  There always was.  He didn't know.
    I made sure they knew I was not anybody official before leading up to the question.  She wasn't a suspicious type anyway.  "Sure.  I signed.  Everybody did?"  Why?  She had no reason.  She had no politics.  She never thought about such stuff. She didn't care if she signed or not.  But everybody else seemed hot for it, so she signed.  "It was just that everyone  signed.  So I did.  Didn't you?" she asked him.
    He stared at me long and hard before telling me in a very low, determined voice, "No firme."
    "Why not?"  He rolled up his T-shirt sleeve to the shoulder, revealing a blue tattoo on his dark brown skin:  U.S.A.  He had another on his other shoulder, and a third repetition on his chest.  He was of course very theatrical about it.
    "Everything is bad here. Everything you want costs dollars." etc.  But he wasn't afraid.  He hadn't even looked around before his unveiling act.  All his friends knew he didn't sign. But he didn't know anyone else who hadn't.  He didn't think it was a matter of fear or bravery, though.  He thought everyone had been fanatically eager to sign except him.
    82. A CAMERA SHY LADY:  Walking west from the park toward the tracks, the street gets grayer with age, but not like Old Havana, because it's wide and the buildings are only two stories high.
    An old lady was standing in her window behind an ancient decorative grate.  "Hola," I said, and she shyly asked where I'm from.  So I stopped.  She said the TV predicted more rain.  I looked up and said maybe.  It was getting hotter, but it was overcasting, too.
    She was 80 and had lived in that house for 40 years.  She had grown up in another house just like it in Cienfuegos, too, but moved here when she married.  She still felt healthy and strong.  I could see she had near convincing false teeth.
    She said life is hard but she's cheerful.  Her husband had died and some relatives lived with her.  She had never worked.  She'd lived half her life with different customs.
    So she had just her ration to eat?  Oh no.  She had all she needed. Everybody else had a salary.  Cubans eat 3 times a day, she told me.  I told her about the dirt eater.  She laughed.  She'd never seen anyone eat dirt.  She said sometimes they didn't have what they want, but they always had something.  Of course she signed. She didn't know about everybody, but everybody on that block did.
    I asked if I could take her picture and she dodged back.  I lowered the camera, and she reappeared to tell me it wasn't her custom to have her picture taken. 
    83. AN ELECTRICIAN:  In a garage  turned into a carpenter shop, the neighborhood electrician had just fixed the electric motor on the carpenter's saw and they were trying it out.   Two customers were waiting with some beat up looking furniture they wanted the carpenter to turn into pieces of wood for something else.  The saw worked, and I, having just appeared, and the electrician were in the way, so he and I stepped out into the street to talk.  He  looked more like a rough old sailor than an electrician. 
    He explained that I was, indeed, looking at two private businessmen, but it was peso business when it wasn't trade, so they paid no taxes and nobody cared.  It was like old men supplementing their pensions selling newspapers,  or people who didn't use sugar trading their sugar ration for something someone else didn't want.
    But did it get discussed in the CDR?  What did the CDR do here?  This and that.  He wasn't much involved.  Some woman was the leader.  People just did these things. But the party let it go on.
    Were all the leaders communist?  No, but the woman he mentioned was. Him?  No.  He was just an electrician,  and he worked for the state as his regular job.  Whew!  For a minute, I'd thought I'd warped into  the 19th century.
    He was old enough to remember half that far back, so I asked him how he fit into the revolution.  He said he did his work and everything worked. Things were better than when he was a kid.  He's not politically involved, but he appreciates the advantages.
    Since he was a small businessman, a kind of capitalist, would he like to change the system?
    "No.  I'm not a capitalist.  A capitalist is rich. I'm not rich.  I don't want to change anything."
    According to the electrician, everybody on that block signed the petition because it was the right thing to do.
    84 & 85. THE DEBATERS:  I'd just passed a guy washing a 50's car, the classic Cuban contrast to the old, gray building row that led the street another half block before the train tracks stopped it, and I was stopped by a bicycle.  The guy had almost clipped me and he wheeled and parked in my path to apologize. 
    "Where are you from?"  When I told him, he yelled at his friends, "There's an American here."
   The white guy washing the car and a black guy came and helped form a semi-circle in front of me.  They wanted to know if I'd have to pay a very big fine for coming there.  
    I told them nothing would happen because the law against coming is against the law and can't be enforced. The car washer asked me what was the first law of America.  He couldn't think of the word, though he spoke a little English.  I assumed he meant the First Amendment.
    He told me he worked in tourism and tourists had told him that Cuba should have a law like that, but he said they do.  They have free speech with few exceptions, and the gang I was looking at were very free speakers and arguers. The car washer and the black guy, who was a nurse, were bosom debating friends.
    The bicycler asked if I knew Lucius Walker, but his pronunciation of Lucius baffled me, so  they invited me inside to see it in the newspapers. Past the old, gray front, the car washer had a slick home, with beautiful floors, well furnished for comfortable arguing, with big chairs around a coffee table and a modern CD player, which he turned off so we could talk.    
    OK, I had met Walker, who had recently crashed the Texas border again and was now in Cuba for the 26th of July celebration in Ciego de Avila, where the hurricane had hit hardest. But when they asked my opinion of the Pastors for Peace, I swallowed it and asked the nurse how crucial the medicines really were that the pastors were bringing.
    My actual opinion is that the pastors should go to Haiti instead or figure out that Cubans are living good and start saying so.  By casting themselves as saviors of a Cuban population suffering from the embargo, they falsely imply that Cubans are suffering, which implies that Cuba's system has failed, all of which is 180° off reality, and their frequent declaration that "the embargo hurts only the people and not the government" is outright misinformation, insidiously unjust to the government and  helpful to Cuba's enemies. 
    The black guy said they were bringing medicines that Cuba was short of, that they could get and would get, but that were chronically short.  Who knows, he said, someone might die in his clinic for lack of one of those medicines at the right time.
    I asked if that was really likely because I constantly ask in pharmacies and ask medical people I meet about that.  He said it wasn't likely.  Cuba isn't really desperate for medicine.  They produce close to 90% of what they need.  And most of the rest comes from a list of countries he recited.  But he thought the shipment the pastors brought would be symbolically important.
    The car washer asked why he hadn't mentioned China.  The nurse said China isn't communist, anymore, and that Cuba is now alone against the world.  His friend disagreed, and they were at it.  They argued about everything I said, and everything they said or read in the paper, and each presented his case like a Cuban, like Fidel, at great length. I knew a lot they didn't, but they knew a lot.  Finally, I mentioned my survey, and the nurse caught me off guard.  He didn't sign.
    After over 80 interviews, I'd met my 2nd and 3rd non-signers 4 or 5 blocks apart. But the nurse was totally different.  He was open and cheerful about it, everyone around him knew it, and he'd lost no friends, though it provided food for another fierce argument, because his arguing partner, of course, had signed.
    He was for communism, he said, but he wasn't a joiner or a follower.  I said I'm the same way, but, in this case, it wouldn't have hurt to bend.  He said he could only sign once, and he knew everyone would sign, so it made no difference. 
    The bicyclist interjected that it proved nobody had to sign.  The car washer said he wouldn't sign with a gun to his head, but to prove the unity of Cuba, yes.  I said being communist is more important than being Cuban, but self respect and credibility as an existentialist may be equal to or more important than that. The nurse understood that, but his friends didn't, so we talked on.  This has been a  much reduced version of the conversation even to that point.
    I took their picture outside, but I'd just snapped the interior and forgot to reset the lens opening, so it's a lousy picture.
    86. A VISIONARY ARTIST:  I kept meeting and talking to Eugenio Perez Estrada at Palatino's, where he and another artist sketch tourists and sell them the sketches.  I have my own cartoon portraits from '00, '01, and '02 (and '04 and '05).
    But Eugenio, an uncommonly tall Cuban who wears hats and whom I always imagine with a turban, is a serious artist and a specialist in eyes.  He showed me his work in the museum next door, where I flirted with an attendant with a Russian name whom Eugenio thought might be the woman for me.
  When that didn't work out, he invited me to his house to see a work in progress that would clarify his artistic philosophy.  But, because I told him my opinion of Havana Vieja and of the vanity of pouring more money into it, we walked past a new housing project on the way that tourism had paid for.  We also stopped by the mercado so he could show me a fighting cock there.   The new 4-plexes or 8-plexes were white and beautiful, a far-cry from the older Russian inspired edificios.  They were already tiled and even had air conditioning, he told me.  Each condo was for a family in one of the city's poorest homes.  Maybe some from the braced
up and modernized but still cave-like dwellings he showed me only 2 blocks away.        Everyone in Cuba in a substandard home is on a list for a new one.
    He lived on a homely street in the northwest quarter, upstairs, in a narrow flat with a balcony, which was his studio.  The floors were worn but proud old tile; the furniture was old but solid and included a large table big enough for 6 diners or a philosophers' conference. 
    The place was large for two but cramped for him, his wife, and two grown daughters with boyfriends always around, plus, of course, his friends. I talked there with a boyfriend who was a scientist about powering cars with vegetable oil, and about Eduardo Galleano with a professor of German just back from doing research in Africa.
    The current painting on the balcony featured a campesino and two fighting  cocks whose eyes formed a dramatic triangle. I was more impressed by a collection of American Indian masks he had enhanced with realistic faces.
    After I explained Hemingway's theory of finding a story by editing away excess from around it, Eugenio told me that signing the petition was a chip off a marble block inside which resides the beautiful communist future of Cuba.
    87. MINNIE MOUSE SHOES:  "I don't want capitalism here!" she declared emphatically. 
    I call her Minnie-Mouse-Shoes, because her shoes are too big for her, as are all her clothes.  She's happily married, but when she told me, "You are bad!" for asking if there wasn't room inside them for company, she was actually pleased.  She told me all Cubanas have hot pants, but if I want them to stop bothering me, all I have to do is announce I'm not going to marry anybody.
    She helps run a heladeria on Parque Marti and is very conservative. When they married, she and her husband turned down a new house.  They wanted an old one they could work on, and she was happy with the ongoing project, paid for, she told me proudly, with money they saved from their salaries by living sensibly.
    I've heard the famous complaints about the inadequate salaries and rations and the supposedly desperate need to get dollars by hook or by crook, but too many people like her have also told me that nobody actually needs more than their peso salaries and the ration to doubt them.
    Minnie Mouse Shoes described herself as a militant. She's a charming counter person who makes banana splits without bananas (because: "Listen!  This isn't America. This is Cuba!") and is popular with all the bus tourists from Varadero who stop there on the way to Trinidad and know nothing about her.
    88.  A SATISFIED SUNDAY DRUNK:  I had just taken a picture of the new 2-story edificios Eugenio had shown me and retreated into the shade of a building where two guys sat on adjacent door steps looking bushed.  It was Sunday and the hottest day of the summer so far.  I looked bushed, too.
    "Hot!" I said.
    "Hot?"
    "Let's say picante," I amended myself. "Mas sabroso!"  They asked where I'm from.
    "American? Is it true that people don't have houses there?"
    "No."  Then I realized he meant street people, so I admitted what I had to and asked if there were street people in Cuba.
    "Yes," said the one who looked tiredest.  "I live on the street.  I sleep on that sidewalk over there."
    "He's lying," said the other one.
    "Do you live in one of the new houses?" I asked.
    "I'm still waiting," said the liar. "Here, you wait forever."
    "So you don't like it here?"
    "No? No. I'm not even thinking about leaving.  I like it here."
    "You like this heat?"
    A third guy came outside and sat between them.  The liar was tipsy, but this one was drunk and carrying half a bottle of rum. "This heat is OK," he told me. "Don't you like it?"
    "I can't stand the shade," I told him, declining the drink he offered me. "I don't drink rum or tequila."
    "Neither do I," said the tall black guy who had told me his friend was a liar.
The one with the rum was white.  The liar was mulato.
    "I don't want to go anywhere," said the one with the bottle. "I was born here. I'll die here."
    "Me, too," said the liar, accepting the bottle but only sipping from it before handing it back.
    "But are you a militant?"
    "Militant?  No, the ones in the party are militant.  Not me,"  said the bottle man.
    "What are you?"
    "Nothing.  Cuban. I'm Cuban and I'm not leaving Cuba. It's fine here. Here we have..." and he recited the whole list.  Why not? It's an impressive list.  "Nobody is sleeping on the street here.  Nobody's eating garbage." He asked if I'm a communist.  I asked if he was.  "Yes, man.  What am I telling you?"
    "Bueno."  He shook hands with me for the third time.  I'm leaving a lot out.  "Did you sign the petition?"
    "Sure.  Everyone signed.  Because I work in a restaurant, see?" And he was a sub-something and they gave him everything.  The half bottle of rum was left over.  They gave it to him to take home and share with his friends. "We're all brothers, black, white, mulato, chinese, mestizo - family."
    OK.  Everyone shook my hand.  That was an ugly block of row houses.  Inside, they were all OK, but not like the new ones in the next block.  Not yet.
    89. AN AVOCADO SELLER:  She was 86.  She was sitting in a chair in the doorway of a very simple house selling avocados from a large basket on the threshold.
    "Two for 5 pesos," she told me.
    "I have no pesos."
    "You have no pesos?"  She was sympathetic.  "Why not?"
    "I'm not Cuban."
    "Are you Italian?"
    "Los estados unidos."
    "What?"  She was deaf.  A voice inside shouted, "Està de los estados unidos."
     It was the same hot day, and she appeared in a slip, a woman in her 30's, only slightly plump. "Don't you want any avocados?  They're good."
    "No. I don't have a kitchen.  I'm living in a rented room.  And I don't like Cuban avocados.  They have too much water.  They aren't good for guacamole."
    She knew nothing of guacamole nor of tortilla chips nor of Mexican salsa.
The word tortilla in Cuba is the Spanish word for an egg patty.  When I explained, she asked if I was a Mexican, too.
    "No.  But we eat Mexican food in California."
    "Come on in.  If we're going to talk, come in and sit down."  She apologized for the broken chair she offered me.  The house was basic, with plain brown tiles, the walls green painted concrete, one room wide, another behind it with kitchen appliances, a table, but also an old couch and a TV; a curtain indicated a bedroom and a bathroom past that.  There was also a bed in the small front room where we were, and a staircase.  The old lady told me there were two bedrooms and another bathroom upstairs.
   "You have two baths?"
   "They do.  I can't go up the stairs.   I'm too old."
   "Is she your daughter?" She wagged her finger. The woman, a teacher, and her husband, a bus driver, were caring for the old lady,   not even a relative, because she had no relatives.  But, I thought, she has a ration and maybe a pension. When the teacher was ironing in the other room, the old lady said, "She's very militant."
    She herself was not political. She remembered Bautista and how terrible it was, but most of her family had gone to Miami, leaving two older sisters, who had died.  She was diabetic and had to take medicine that cost one peso a week. Could any gusano be dishonest enough to pretend that peso was worth 4¢?
    "An artificial price," I said, but the old lady didn't understand.  She thought a peso was enough, but the teacher called out that it was a medicine Cuba didn't make that cost a lot to import.
    She had to take a bath and asked me to stay and talk to the old lady. I asked the old lady about the petition and she didn't understand, but the teacher called out from the shower I could hear running, "He wants to know if you signed it."
    Then she remembered signing it.  Why?  "Because I'm Cuban."  People started buying the avocados, which were from the teachers' father's tree.  The teacher had reappeared in jeans and a shirt, and every time the old lady was paid, she hobbled back to turn over the money or get change, using my shoulder as a crutch.  I felt like I was in Nicaragua, but the house was 20 times better than the homes of the kids we put through school in Matagalpa.
    The old lady was very happy to be photographed as I left.  The teacher told me she'd never seen another tourist going around visiting people in their homes.

INTERVIEWS 90-100