Wednesday 1 June 2011

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Back when cities were nothing but mere villages there were four standard pillars whose synergy was central to the efficient functioning of the community: the church, the town hall, the school and the court. If the law didn't deal with you properly, the Lord would.

I grew up in a similar set-up but, with the exception of the religious institution, the symbols differed greatly: a bar, a radio station, a church and a park. Whatever couldn't be solved by the Bloke Upstairs, could be settled by a bottle of rum in no time. The diminishing influence of Catholicism (helped substantially by a government bent on imposing its own version of religion) meant that when it came to alienating themselves from the tropical ennui Cuban socialism stood for, people, mainly men, decamped to the "barcito de la esquina".

At a very young age I became acquainted with some of the characters who frequented this bar. Since my father was a famous musician (please, understand, 'famous' by Cuban standards; he appeared on a few television programmes with his band and performed many times on the aforementioned radio station) many times the local drunkards would find their way to our flat and ask "¿El músico está?". To what my mother, already used to this ilk, would reply: "No, he isn't, but also if he was, he wouldn't be joining you. You know that". Never mind her obvious discomfort, a couple of nights later they would knock on our door again. These were the same characters dozing off on one of the benches of the nearby park and waking up in a pool of their own vomit. As I grazed my knees climbing walls, they plunged deeper in their own inferno.

Amidst this heterogeneous dramatis personae, there was a man I remember perfectly. Maybe, because the last time I saw him alive I was already in my teenage years and the sight of his hands shaking uncontrollably has stayed with me all these years. He had also been a pianist like my dad, but he'd fallen prey to alcohol and had not been able to beat it. One night, he actually came into our house and sat down. Hardly any of the local drunkards went beyond our front door. But, surprisingly my mum let him in this time. She was not nervous at all, but I was. The guy was a wreck. He was in such an intoxicated state that he called my mother by several names. He also asked for money. In his breath I smelled the acrid stench of death. In his smile I saw a limping Ms Hope boarding a train that read Despair on the front. I remember thinking then, no newspaper will write about this man, he will make no headlines, he will die and someone else will take his seat at the bar and he'll probably ask his new drinking partner: "What's become of So and So?", "Didn't you hear?" they'll reply. "He died". And at the thought of that word "die", my adolescent body would jerk as violently as the guy's veiny hands.

After he left that night, my mum gave our sofa a thorough clean. She used alcohol. She used a special type of alcohol to wipe clean a sofa on which an alcoholic had sat down. Of such ironies is life made.

On Sundays there was an extra pillar to our shapeless square (the park, the radio station and the church were lined up on the same road, only the bar remained defiantly apart, like a drunkard who refuses to accept that it's closing time): dominoes. Decades before, families would have filed past our building on a Sunday morning on their way to the house of God, dressed to the nines. But now the only sartorial requisite was a vest, a pair of shorts and metede'os. The stage was set, the lights dimmed and the actors had learnt their lines...

... And the sight of Bacchus's followers arriving at 10 or 11am, an hour before the bar opened...

... And the old Selena radio (jukeboxes had ceased to exist by then) blaring out old boleros and sones courtesy of Rosillo's Discoteca Popular de Radio Progreso, La Onda de la Alegría...

... And the banging of domino pieces on the table once the game started. The square piece of furniture would normally come from Juanita's, whilst the cajones would be provided by El Jabao. The same Jabao who would turn the temporary seats into percussion instruments as soon as the rum flowed and the mood turned festive...

... And the furtive glances of some of the players, looking around to see if there were any coppers nearby. The bets, the money passing hands, the child running, coming out of nowhere and being told to put "dos pesos al 33 fijo y tres al 1 corrido que soñé con tiñosa con barba ayer por la noche". Yeah, he dreamt of a bearded vulture, he played the 33 and 1 hoping to get a "parlé". The Voice of the Táchira ruled over the game, but that guy, he would have to wait until Monday to find out if the bearded vulture had brought him fortune. Because it was Sunday then. Day of rest... and libations...

... And the wife who came to take her husband home because he was drinking their money away. He was legless, beyond recognition and she wrestled with him, dragging him away and looking up to the sky at the same time, asking, imploring, begging, cursing Santa Barbara bendita, mi'ja, que salación es esta, coño, que mal yo le hecho al mundo, Dios mío...

... And wallets came out and more alcohol was bought. And the sound of the domino pieces hitting hard on the table was deafening: "Oye, asere, no me mates la mía, chama", "Coño, consorte, suelta la gorda, no te quedes más con ella". yes, the fat one, let go of her, there was never political correctness in el barcito or when playing dominoes. There was always El Tuerto, El Mongo, El Flaco, El Gordo, El Gamba'o. No fear of linguistic reprisals. Language was the real social leveller. I call you what I want, you do the same...

... And wallets kept coming out. But this time, not taken out by their owners. The alcohol kept flowing and money disappeared, some in the direction of the bar, some to someone's house...

... And the guy who ran the bar talking to me one day: "You, study, right? You hear me? You, study, because you don't want to end up like me". And his face, another day, beaming, when the film crew rolled into our neighbourhood and chose his bar as the set for a movie. It wasn't the first time, though, but before, he'd been told to close the bar because the film demanded that the whole area be cordoned off. This time, though, it was a co-production and there were foreigners around and he'd been told to let the locals in and pretend that it was a normal day. Well, what is a normal day, uh? He asked himself. Everyday is a normal day around here. And I don't know whether him chewing gum was because he wanted to impress los extranjeros or because he really thougth his ship had come in...

... And when I sat down in the cinema a year later, to watch the movie in which the barcito de la esquina featured in the very first scene, and when I found out that the movie had been shortlisted for the Oscar as the Best Foreign Film, I thought of the local drunkards, of the dramatis personae, of the four pillars, of the dominoes game, of the drunkards going from the bar to the radio station to be part of the live audience of one of the more popular programmes in Cuba, and then, going back to the bar for a nightcap, only that it wasn't just the one nightcap, this night had to be capped several times...

... And them, later, much later, probably sleeping their binge off in one of the park benches or the piss-soaked floor outside the church....

Because in a city like Havana, if God didn't deal with you properly, the bar (one of the four pillars) would.

© 2011

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 5th June at 10am (GMT)


  1. Another amazing post - incredible, beautiful, insightful and painful to read about those tormented, wasted lives. I live pretty close to SF's Mission District where we still have a number of old dive bars. I remember walking past them on my way to work, early in morning, and seeing the "regulars" lined up, waiting for their first drink of the day, the first of many. They scared me with their beaten, battered faces but I also felt sorry for them. No matter how bad or difficult your life, it's only made worse by addiction - which you convey so well.

    Senor Cuban - you are a poet!

  2. Wow. Head shaking wow. You took me right there to that bar, to the smells and sounds, to the fears, despair and ennui, to the amazing capacity we humans have of existing even in the face of the most life-crushing circumstances. There are so many stories waiting to be told about that bar and its inhabitants. Do the world a favor and write those stories, Factual or fictionalized, short or long, cinematic or textual, tell those stories, Cubano, as only you can tell them.

  3. Oh my god, Cuban. You are so very good. I'm scratching my head for some better adjectives than 'brilliant and fabulous' which do not do you justice at all. You were born to write, because you are such an alert and intelligent observer of people. It doesn't hurt that you come from a world that is so different than mine, either. And again, and again, I am stunned by your craft, which would already be remarkable for someone whose native language is English, but exponentially more so because yours is not.
    I read you sometimes without leaving a comment, which is not fair at all, but I just can't always come up with anything that begins to do justice to what you write about and how you do it.

  4. One of your best!

    Warm regards from South Beach . . .

  5. what a wonderful insight into growing up in Havana and the influences that swayed you - marvellous!! what is the title of the Oscar film you refer to?? Greetings from Mexico!!

  6. It’s amazing to think you survived this childhood and can write about it so well. You have a lot of good material here if you ever wanted to write a memoir or a fictional account (these days, the line is blurry!) My heart goes out to your mother as well. The church may not have much influence in your community, but you had a saint in your home. I can see why you find faith in family.

  7. Many thanks for your kind feedback.

    This column is one of many on the subject of growing up in Cuba. It's my way of sharing the good, the bad and the ugly with fellow readers and bloggers. Is it a memoir, or a springboard to spur me on to experiment with fiction writing? Only time will tell.

    My immediate interest is, however, to tell the story of a Cuban within the confines of Cuban culture. Too often I have found myself attempting to decode another person's literary work and failing in the process. There are two ways to face up to this: give up and come back later or weather the storm and carry on. I used to choose the former almost without a second thought years ago, but with age comes patience and these days a novel like 'Ulysses' will have me ploughing through until the very end, even if half the symbolisms Joyce so well places on the reader's path are sometimes left behind unexplained. iT's my turn now to encode my writing and for you to decipher the symbols.

    What are we made of? And which is our strongest identity marker? In my case, after my self-avowed humanism, is my Cubanness. It shaped me in the same way I shaped it, my country, I mean. Maybe it was just a small dent, but I would like to believe that growing up within those four pillars was a two-ways process.

    The bar gave us a cast of famous characters: drunkards who were amusing (to us) as they were on the road to perdition, sadly. The park gave us a place where to play when we were children. There we learnt the value of friendship and disillusion. And years later, it was the foundation stage of our sexual education. The church was nothing but a distant symbol of a bygone era. Yet, in the early 90s and steadily thereafter, its role as the go-to soothing balm, could no longer be denied. The radio station was one of the local entertainment spots. It cost nothing to enter and there was always a willing producer ready to fill up the audience with the local AA. As long as the dipsomaniacs were not too far gone to the other side and they still retained a modicum of decency, they were fair game.

    Ah, and something else before I forget! No image this time. On purpose, mind. Although I have photos of the aforementioned bar, 'Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana' will remain photo-free for the time being. I would like you to come up with your own images of the place in which I grew up, not just my 'barrio', but also my city.

    Greetings from London.

  8. Love this, love the descriptions, the characters, the lingering, nostalgic light that illuminates those tables and those games. This is pure poetry, a rendering so detailed and so clear that transported us to a time and place and culture in one big sweep.
    This is world-class narrative.

  9. This is so vivid - cinematic in fact. I'm about to "tweet" it. Your direct prose conveys the world of the bar without pathos. And the lack of photo is a good touch, to fire the imagination. Thanks Cuban...

  10. Cuban, this post gave me such a sense of that setting - one slice of life in Cuba. So well written.

    Also, when people get to that state of alcohol dependence (or in any type of addiction) it's very sad. I've seen it several times myself - the shaking hands, the urine soaked clothes, the incoherent speech. It's such a waste of a life.


  11. My senses are filled with Havana. Loved the story of the drunk, and how your mother used special alcohol to clean the spot where alcoholics sat. Such wonders for a child to think about. So glad you studied well, but I can hear your warm memories. And your heart missing home and yesterday.

  12. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.



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