BACK TO HAVANA90. THE WOMAN WHOSE DAUGHTER NEEDED PRETTY GLASSES: The fast Via Azul bus stopped only once to rest on the freeway between Cienfuegos and Havana. There was a woman there trying to sell postcards and T-shirts. She wanted to sell me a box of cigars.
She told me the state had provided her daughter with glasses, but the frames were ugly. "She's such a pretty girl, it's unjust." In Havana, she said, she could buy some very pretty frames for $80 (dollars), and she seemed sure I'd like to help.
The plan was for me to buy a box of cigars, make a big profit in the U.S., and send her the $80. I asked if the glasses worked and then told her that was all that mattered. Really pretty girls make whatever they wear look good. Pretty houses, I told her, are more important than pretty glasses, and there are no glasses frames worth $80.
She said some people have ugly houses. I agreed and asked, since she had so much to complain about, if she'd signed the petition to keep things as they are or the other petition to change things.
"I'm not complaining," she insisted. She said she has a very pretty house. And she wasn't begging like some jinetero. She thought the cigar business would be good for both of us.
"I don't want to change anything," she said. In Sagua Grande, where she lived, she said everybody signed the petition. Maybe it was because everybody knew if you did or didn't because it's a small town. But she herself signed because she doesn't want capitalism.
"Except a little speculation in the cigar market," I said. She didn't understand. I thought maybe speculaci˛n wasn't a word in Spanish. I couldn't think of another one and the bus was leaving.
91. A JINETERO AT LAST: "Hey, mon, whair you frome?"
He had to be one. The shadow who'd saluted me that way in Baracoa maybe wasn't. It's not a sure sign. I once seriously insulted a guy by assuming it was. But it's 99% sure. Virtually every one of the many jineteros who'd pestered us in 2001 opened with, "Hey, mon, whair you frome?" And this guy went on, "You want a casa? A restaurant? You want a guide?" and in a lower voice, "A chica?" He spoke English, of course. That's how the hustlers capture and trap the tourists' dependence on them.
"Hey mon," I said. "Whair you ban?" I was on a cafe veranda on the east side of the Plaza de la Catedral, trying to remember if I'd ever seen a crowd entering or leaving a church in Cuba. He had commandeered an adjacent table, waving the waitress back inside.
He said he'd been around. He denied working on hurricane damaged houses or having been in jail.
I told him I had a room; I knew where to eat and drink. I even had a date. I didn't need help. He asked how I liked Cuba. I asked him how he liked Cuba. He said he was Cuban. I asked if he had a job. He said he was a guide. I said, "No es cierto. I think you're a jinetero."
"How much do you make an hour?" That made him laugh. Sometimes he got $5, he said. Sometimes nothing. But that was a day.
He lived with his girlfriend, who he claimed actually worked for the tourist office. He had a degree in something, but there was no work. That's what he said. "When will you have enough to escape?"
"Ooh, mon, I'm not going away. I'm Cuban. I'm muy bien here." He was trying hard to look cool, but I was making him nervous.
I asked if he ever took tourists to the shanties by San Miguel Padrone to show them how Cubans really live. While searching for a dirt floored shanty anywhere in Cuba the year before, we'd been led to the artificial enclave, one of several such places that had sprung up during the depression or were faked up by refuseniks who'd left good houses in other towns to hustle tourists in Havana, including by exhibiting their artificial poverty, sharing donations with the conmen who brought the suckers. We'd gone door to door to verify that nobody needed to be there, though some had the excuse of the depression when they'd first arrived.
"Noo, mon, that's what the gusanos do. Do I look like a Miamista? Why would I do that?" He'd do it for dollars, but he meant he's black. Most jineteros are black because blacks don't have relatives in Florida to send them money.
I didn't even believe the periods and commas in anything he said, but I asked if he had signed the petition. Yes. His girlfriend told him to. "You don't tell that chica no, mon!" And he thought it was right, because "I'm Cuban. Right?"
I asked if he had a lot of friends. He said he did. And did they all think the way he did? That was certain. Except I had no idea how he thought. He was the only jinetero I saw in Havana in 2002.
92. THE BATHROOM ATTENDANT: Yanis is interesting for two reasons. One is that she's a real blonde, pale skin and pale blue eyes. She's about 40 and wears her hair like the far side woman, at work anyway. She isn't fat and is wearing slowly. She must have had fun as a blonde when she was young, and she tends to touch me while we talk and smile sideways as if she thinks she still could.
She describes herself as a soltera, but I suspect she threw away her last good man while she was still in demand, and now she lives with one of her two grown daughters and a granddaughter.
The other interesting thing is her job - a bathroom attendant. She also sweeps and mops the old tile floors of a second class saloon where Cubans and tourists mix when a tour bus is parked nearby.
Mainly, she sits on a stool by her supply table and talks to people while attending the door of what looks like a portable bathroom, making sure each person has paper and guarding the paper supply.
She told me in a private voice that she doesn't like tourists anymore. They spend too much money. "How can you keep eating in restaurants?" She didn't go out much. She liked to watch TV. But if I came to her house, she' d cook me a real Cuban dinner.
The state pays her 200 pesos a month, and she gets tips. Technically, she's supposed to pay 40% taxes on dollar tips.
Of course she signed. Both her girls were born and grew up under state care. That's a real incentive. A Cuban woman once told me that one of the stumbling blocks to effective birth control education, which is vigorously pursued in Cuba, is the fact that prenatal and child care are so good.
Yanis was born in '62 and has never known another situation, except the difficulties of the depression from '90 to '95. Fidel's presidency is like gravity or sunshine to her. Socialism is a word. It's the way her country works, so naturally, to her, it's right.
She has no complaints. She has never wanted to go anywhere further away than Guanabo beach. All Her memories are of her own part of Havana.
"Why are you asking me all this?" She's puzzled that I should go to such lengths to find out if 98% signed the petition. Everyone knows that. She knows there are dissidents, but they are just a few worthless loafers. Nobody she knows would have thought twice about signing. They signed like gravity or sunshine.
93. A DRUNK FISHERMAN: Ferries go from Muelle de la Luz, across the street from Dos Hermanos, to Regla or Casablanca. I think it was the one I rode to Casablanca that day that was highjacked out to sea the next year, leading to the execution of 3 of the highjackers, which was widely protested.
But the ferry is only a water bus, a light barge with a potentially slippery deck and no seats, ridden by old people and children and bicyclers and girls in high heels, nobody dressed or equipped or supplied for hours on choppy seas, and if you'd ever been on it and also read what happened on the Granma website, you'd be for shooting somebody, too. But U.S. Coverage wasn't very real.
I took pictures and talked to people in Casablanca and was focusing on a small boatyard when I was accosted by a red-eyed, stubble-jawed drunk who told me I couldn't take the picture. I snapped it and then asked him how many CDR's were in a small town like that.
He told me none; the fishermen were all anti-communist. "Everybody here is gusano." But he didn't speak loud enough to be heard by the table inside the gate, where other fishermen were drinking and playing dominos. There was another, more sober domino game in a small park about 20 yards outside the gate.
I asked, since he was a fisherman and had all these boats, why didn't he just go to Miami? He claimed 20% of the townspeople had, but he was 40 and he knew he couldn't get work in Florida. Here he had a house and they had to take care of him.
"I don't want to trade the shit I know for the shit I don't know." I said I was looking for people who hadn't signed the petition to talk to and maybe this was the place. He lowered his voice almost to a whisper to tell me he hadn't signed, but then he blustered a little louder, "Nobody here signed."
"Then I want to talk to everyone."
"No. No good. Listen. Some kids are swimming over there a little. You want to take a picture of that. Follow me."
I didn't really want to talk to more drunks, but I approached the other domino game, while the drunk tried to steer me away, and said, "I've heard there are a lot of anti-communists here." A teenage boy waved his hand at the fisherman and told me, "Don't listen to him. He's a drunk. Ask the cook."
The cook was a very big man at the head of the table. "There are no gusanos here," he told me sternly, without lifting his eyes from his play. The drunk fisherman had retreated into the boatyard.
I took his word only for himself, so he was the 4th and last person I talked to who didn't sign.
94. THE SHOOTING GALLERY MAN: I got to the dock just as the boat left, so I had to wait. There was a small tin shack nearby rigged as a shooting gallery. A couple were shooting pellets at beer and soda cans, juice boxes, and other junk, propped or sitting on or hanging over parallel shelves on the back wall. Two small boys watched. I took a picture of the cigar smoking old man in charge, and he asked why I didn't shoot the chica.
I told him he had a face with character. "What do you mean?" Like somebody in a movie or a book, I told him. We talked about the boat and the shade and the big statue of Christ (I guess) on the hill above. He said I could go up there by stairs and catch a bus back to Havana through the tunnel.
He was 72, nearly 73, and remembered Batista well. He said some people there might seem stupid to me because they were too young to remember. He was retired and had a pension of 109 pesos. He ran the shooting gallery just to do something. People supposedly paid to shoot, but nobody did while I was there.
When nobody was shooting, he let the two little boys retrieve pellets to try to use up their energy, and the rest of the time had to keep grabbing them and warning them to keep them out of the "danger zone." They were like two frisky puppies.
He told me before the revolution people worked all day for 2 pesos. But weren't pesos worth more then? "Cierto," he said, "but besides the pesos all they had was misery."
He said you could tell the CDR's in Casablanca were good, because the place was always clean. He had never been in the party or the juventud. One boy thought that was a joke and asked how old he was and how old I was. The boy was 10 and had 4 girlfriends. The old man kept gently removing them from behind the counter.
He signed the petition from consciencia, not for himself but for younger people with their lives to live. He was sure everybody in town had signed.
95. A PORT GUARD: I was back at a Dos Hermanos sidewalk table, and across the wide street in the hot sun, she was patrolling the long line of pier and warehouse buildings and was conscious enough of her tight uniform to wag a negative finger at me. I waved and she smiled.
When she came back by later with a guy, she ignored me until they were past, the guy looking ahead, and then waved at me behind his back. So when I left and she was back again, I crossed over and talked to her in the hot sun.
At first she denied noticing me, but when I told her how obvious it was that that she thought she looked pretty good in the tight uniform, she laughed and admitted everything.
She was 31, had one son, had been married only briefly, lived with her mother on her salary, and denied needing any additional money. She liked her job and loved her life in Cuba, though she preferred any month over July and August.
She wasn't very political but she thought she understood things. Like almost everyone I talk to, she loathed the gusanos, which is what a lot of Cubans call the dissidents U.S. media consider heroes. She said I must have met some in Dos Hermanos. She saw them acting like bigshots there all the time. She thought a lot of them didn't sign the petition, but she didn't doubt the 98% figure. "This is only a small corner of Havana." She signed because she's militant, not active, but she used to be juventud.
I asked her if she was sweating under her uniform as much as I was. She squinted sideways at me as if reading my mind, then smiled and said, yes she was.
She wouldn't make a date with me because she said she spent her time off with her son, but maybe if I was in Cuba for awhile we could talk again. When I said goodby, I was glad to walk into a shady side street (named Sol). Her uniform was light khaki, but I don't know how she took the heat.
96. THE OLD-TIME SINGER: In a small arts and crafts shop across the callejon from O'Reilly's, I met 71-year-old Marina. She said she'd never had a job, but she'd once been a famous trova singer.
She sang the tree song for me ("Que Has Hecho") and she sounded good. In fact she was in very good shape, except she had a few new teeth. I kidded her about looking sexy and she liked that but told me she didn't find me handsome.
She remembered when Fidel came into Havana in '59, because she was 28 then and very popular, and she hated Bautista, so she immediately loved Fidel. So she has been a Fidelista ever since. She signed the petition for Fidel, but also because she's been content ever since Bautista left.
She had two sons educated by the revolution, and she has relatives in Miami who have never done anything for her, not even write. I've heard that a lot. I'm sure that means something. I was a little high, so I don't have good notes, but I talked a long time with Marina, which I guess means something, too, if she was as famous as she said.
97. A NEW SINGER: She was a mulata but looked Nicaraguan except for her shoulder-length kinky hair. She shook two maracas with a never varying side to side swinging motion as she sang, which was innocently appealing.
She went around collecting the tips after every set, and because I automatically flirted with her, the bartender and waitress and the rest of the band decided we were in love and started pushing for a tryst until they made a date for us.
But when her shift was over and the cab was there - a coco cab - to take us to her favorite restaurant, she suddenly got skittish, not about the date, but about the openness of the coco cab, which is like a big yellow football helmet half encasing a 3-wheel moped with a ricksha seat.
The cop-boyfriend of the woman at my casa told me next day she probably had been carded several times and was afraid of reaching a limit. That she actually thought she'd be spotted hurtling along in a coco cab with a tourist, recognized, and suspected of something, if he was right, could only be laid to the Cuban tendency to overdramatize.
Anyway, she wanted to go in a closed cab or separate coco cabs and, since another coco appeared, there ensued a Marx brothers level overdramatization. Because she changed her mind enroute about the restaurant, and then decided the two cocos could detour to the Havana Libre for a switch to a single cab, we whined down the malecon mostly side by side yelling between coco cabs.
Dignity regained in the paladar, I learned she's from Sancti Spiritus, where she got half way through music school, which she keeps meaning to complete in Havana, where she lives with her aunt.
She gets 200 a month and shares tips with the band, about a dollar a day each, 25 pesos every working day. So she makes about as much as a cop.
She's still part of a CDR in Sancti Spiritus, but signed the petition at her aunt's because she thought everybody should. Like the divorcee I picked up by Sagua, she said it didn't matter because they counted who signed not who didn't sign. The % estimate was based on a population estimate for the island, she pointed out.
98. THE PROFESSOR: Behind the university at the deadend of H Street, I think, there is a juventud sponsored market holding a standard price line to keep other markets honest. It's not big, but it's popular partly because it's manned by professors and administrators.
My conversation with the professor was twice interrupted by former students coming by to pay homage.
I didn't know any of this when I complained, "You have no limes."
"Can't you want avocados instead?"
I again criticized Cuban avocados for not making it as guacamole. He asked if I was Mexican. I changed the subject to the date everyone kept reminding him of.
It was his birthday party, for which the other professors intended to "assault" him. Why were professors working at a vegetable stand? Because things are so tough in Cuba that even professors have to work.
I told them about Cubans eating all the dogs and cats, which they hadn't been aware of, so they offered me a sip of home made rum which they re-named Sangre de Gato.
When I explained why I was pestering them if I had no kitchen, the professor launched into a long criticism of Fidel for not doing what I was doing, for losing touch. One of the strangest myths in America about Cuba is that it's dangerous to be heard mentioning Fidel's name.
He said he signed the petition as a communist, not to please Fidel, and because he resented the U.S. Lecturing them and bullying them. But he thought the government should open up to professors who were more in touch. Nobody lowered their voices.
99. THE PEANUT VENDOR: If there's anything as popular as ice cream, it's peanut cones. It's not easy to talk to a peanut vendor, because he's always selling peanuts. This guy was harder because he made faces instead of talking. Holding a row of cones between all your fingers while doing business with the other hand and talking to a gringo may take eye-hand-brain coordination past all reasonable limits.
He wouldn't give me the kind of figures the old lady selling peanuts at the same bus stop had given us the year before. He admitted he sold a lot, enough, but beyond that, only a wrist turn and a smile. "You do OK?" He half kissed the air and shrugged. The old lady had rattled off the data as if we were the IRS and told us she made 1000 pesos a month.
My notes say she paid 150 pesos a month in taxes. He wouldn't discuss that. When he had a minute, he wanted me to tell him about the U.S. "You want to go there?" He frowned and switched his chin side to side. He'd apparently forgotten about the petition. It had now been close to two months. A 3-cone customer reminded him.
He shrugged a shrug that would mean "Who cares?" in English. But everybody had jumped on a departing bus, leaving us alone, so he smiled and told me Fidel had asked him to sign, so he did.
"In person?" He squinted at me. So I changed it to "On TV?" He looked relieved I wasn't nuts.
A camel bus arrived, a picture I wanted, he was mobbed, and I had to cross the street to get the picture, a bad idea in retrospect.
100. THE ANGOLA VETERAN: I'd been talking in Dos Hermanos to a reporter from Mexico with his eye on the ferry landing because, in Cuba, he always lived in Casablanca. He told me the drunk fisherman was probably lying even about himself, because Casablanca is almost all militant.
He disagreed about the negative effects of tourism, saying the economy was starting to boom. "The economy," I said, "not socialism." But the bartender, who knew the reporter and was now sitting with us, told me he thought socialism is getting stronger, too.
The reporter's ferry came, and a little later a hugely muscled man dressed, I guessed, for dock work sat in the street-side chair at my table, showing me an empty beer bottle he was carrying. The bartender started to chase him away, but I said he was OK, though I wouldn't buy him a beer.
He told me he was a street cleaner. But he used to be a fighter in Angola. He helped train the MPLA and fought with them against Jonas Savimbi. Now he was a street cleaner. He thought that was funny and wanted to know what work he could get in America.
"Go and see," I said. "If you get past the sharks, you'll be welcome."
"The sharks?" He constantly leaned heavily forward and constantly squinted menacingly at me.
I told him to quit trying to intimidate me with the ugly look. "It's boring."
"So I can't scare you. See if you can stare me down." More Cuban theatrics. I thought Angola may have done something to his brains. He gave up within 20 seconds, buried his face in his forearms and laughed. "Listen. I don't want to go to Miami. I'm friends with Fidel, and all my other friends are here, too."
"I think you're afraid of the sharks."
"That's right. And also I don't want to go to Miami." I asked if he signed the petition. "Not everyone signed the petition," he said.
"I know that. But did you?"
"Yes, man. I am for Fidel, but listen. Not everyone signed." He tried to stare me down again and I told him to quit it. He asked me for a dollar, and I told him, "Adios." He asked if I had ever fought in a war, and I told him I'm not that stupid. And, again, "Adios." I'd had several beers.
"You're telling me adios?"
"Yes, because you asked for money, and I'm tired of your ugly stare."
He stood up and put a mitt-sized hand on my shoulder and said, "Adios." I thought he was going to hit me, but he walked away.
I took my notebooks with me to the paladar Sarasua, on 25th street near the University, where I had a date with the building guard I interviewed second. She refused to look at them or let me read them to her. She knows what she knows because she's Cuban.
-Glen Roberts (2002)