Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Queues. Whenever someone in the UK complains about queues, as if they were a species indigenous only to this sceptred isle, my reply is the same: You ain't seen nothing until you've seen a queue in Cuba.

Seen? Nah, how about felt? Been assailed by the various emotions that lines in Cuba awaken: aggression, calm, ennui and excitement. A Zen-like peace can easily be shattered into smithereens in no time. This is quickly followed by a violent desire to gun down the person in front of you in the queue, preferably wild west style. He who draws first... well, gets in first, too.

Queues. Dear reader, we Cubans learn about colas very early in our childhood. Maybe it's the first word we utter the minute we come out of mummy's belly: ¡Cola!. And our parents know that it's not the carbonated soft drink to which we're referring. Nein doch! What we really mean is the snaking, never-ending, Wall-of-China throng that is often euphemistically called a single file.

Queues rule our cultural and social life in Cuba. You learn the ropes very quickly. First off is the password, the phrase that cannot be translated into any other language. You see, over here people ask you "are you in the queue?". In my beloved island we get to what looks like the tail end of this gargantuan reptile and like a town crier in centuries gone by, intone in a mighty voice: ¿Quién es el último? (Who is the last one? But really, that translation doesn't do any justice to the Cuban expression). Once you find this person who is almost like the equivalent of the lighthouse - albeit a temporary one - in the queue, the enquiries begin: ¿Detrás de quién va usted? ¿Y él? ¿Y ella? Suddenly information concerning at least the next half dozen people lining up in front of the "last one" comes forth. And this is where the second element comes in: social interaction. You will be told that the "last one" is queuing up behind the "prieto con las gafas negras" (the dark-skinned man with the black shades), and he's right behind the "mujer entra'ita en carne con el vestido rojo y las puyas negras" (the plump woman with the red dress and the black high heels) and so on. For the next two or three hours (some queues last longer) you and your companions will be discussing the comfort or pain of high heels and the idiocy of wearing sunglasses when the sky's overcast. Lines are to the casual observer on social interplay what the Galápagos Islands were to Charlers Darwin.

Dear reader, picture this. Mid 1980s. Eleven(ish) o' clock at night and the party's over. Curfew looms on the horizon ("be back by 11:30"; "yes. mum!" Bang! Door is closed, freedom at last!). Coppelia ice cream parlor is the next and last stop. The various tribes are already congregated here. Ergo, there are lots of queues. There're the "pepillos" with their baggy trousers (bombachos) stretching all the way down to their moccasins, instead of stopping mid-point on their knees. Three pleats on either side of the fly signal the fashion that arrives (a bit too late) from the "bad guys from the North". A white shirt two sizes larger covers their still undeveloped bodies, whilst a tie (probably done up by grandpa in a rush whilst little Pedro splashes Moscú Rojo on his face and arms) hangs down their front moving to and fro like a pendulum, reaching out to adulthood but suddenly swinging back to childhood. A mullet adorns their barnet. The closing melody from the party is still reverbarating in their heads: "I'm never gonna dance again/guilty feet have got no rhythm/though it's easy to pretend/I know you're not a fool". Yes, before adventures in lavatories the cute one from Wham was the voice that brought parties from Vedado to Santiago de las Vegas to an end. Once the track finishes their guiltless feet shuffle rhythmically to Coppelia, the Mecca of ice-cream. To join the queue.

Down this end come the roqueros (rockers). Tight jeans, sometimes tucked inside their heavy Russian, pardon me, Soviet boots. This is still 1984-5, Gorbachev has yet to come up with his famous perestroika and change the Spanish vocabulary forever. The roqueros descend on Coppelia like allied forces bombers closing in on Dresden circa 1945. They've probably been stopped a few times by the police before venturing into the Cathedral of Ice Cream. And here they are, joining the queue.

Then there are the guapos. The tough guys who listen to salsa and dance casino. Their trousers are worn Michael Jackson style during his Billie Jean years. Their shoes are polished to an impossibly fashionable lustre. Their swagger boasts a no-nonsense attitude. On their arms are perched their girlfriends like knock-off bagatelle.

The last group seems to almost inhabit Coppelia. It's the proximity of both cinematheques, La Rampa and Chaplin, that makes los trovas an autochthonous species. A love for experimental theatre, classical movies and unheard-of books characterise this tribe. Their long jeans suffer from that perennial sartorial disease: hem drag. But they don't care, it's part of their cachet. And on this sweltering Saturday night, when the sweat-soaked shirts worn by los pepillos look as if they were made of gauze, they all end up doing the same at the same place: queuing at Coppelia.

Come with me now, dear reader, and I'll take you somewhere else. Let's go into a Cuban barber shop. The line is shorter but the waiting time is longer. Because Cuban barbers like nothing more than chewing the fat. And the fatter the fat the more they love masticating it. No wonder Billy Joel's famous doo woop hit number "The Longest Time" is said to have been inspired by a trip to a barber shop in his native New York. Where they don't so much chew the fat as sink into and swim in lard.

I can still picture my haircut routine at my local barber's. Situated on San Francisco Street, almost on the corner of Neptuno, the famous Neptuno: (Cha cha chá-un-dos-Cha cha chá) A Prado y Neptuno/(Cha cha chá-un-dos-Cha cha chá) iba una chiquita/(Cha cha cha-un-dos-Cha cha chá) que todos los hombres la tenían que mirar; this is the place where you come to have your "Carl Lewis" (short sides and back, squar[ish] top) or your machinbra'o (shaded sides four to one, or four to zero) done. The soundtrack is a mix of discussion about baseball (This is Industriales' year, you'll see, Ayón is the man!), local gossip and impromptu singing. Especially from the older generation, who want nothing fancy or too stylish: "Just a touch-up, son". I can still remember a gentleman - alas, I forget his name - who used to perform in one of the big bands from the 50s at the National and Habana Hilton (by then, Libre). He sometimes breaks into a song all of a sudden, especially when there's a lull in the chatter and the air is filled only by the metallic cutting sound of the scissors and the robotic drone of clippers mowing down hair: "Mujer, si puedes tu con Dios hablar, pregúntale si yo alguna vez te he dejado de adorar". When he finishes, we all look at one another and nod in agreement, even me, rock'n'roll obsessive. This cat's still got it. Unfortunately he won't live much longer to make it onto the Buena Vista Social album. His voice and his presence stay here, however, in these four walls, one of which is taken over by big mirrors. The queue in the barber shop is that time when everything around you stands still and your memory takes a Polaroid photo which, in years to come, no matter how yellow and faded it is, you take out and look at.

It is in queues where some people find (illegal) employment. Waking up at five or six in the morning, they will head for markets, cinemas, the aforementioned Coppelia or any other place where long lines are likely to form and take their turn several times. As soon as they spot a "customer" they approach them and tell them that they've got a place near the front and would they like to buy it. Listen, it's only five pesos, but if you have more people coming with you, then I can go down to three pesos per head. Just make sure that if people ask you any questions, you say you're my cousin. No, it doesn't matter that your hair is red, you have freckles and pale skin and I look like a totí. Genes, mamita, genes! Listen, I have more business to do, take it or leave it? And take it she does. If el colero was capable of exporting his business model abroad, neither Greece, nor Ireland, nor Portugal would be now mired in the financial crisis in which they find themselves. Believe me.

The queue in Cuba, and specifically, in my beloved city, Havana, is our music, our magic, our politics. It is the place where we philosophise, not just about the "big subjects", Aristotle-style, but also about the consistency of ice-cream and the advantage of foot brakes in Russian bikes (yes, we can call them "Russian" now) versus the hand version in the Chinese ones. The queue is the campfire around which we perform our daily routines: conversing, falling for and out with people and, quipping. It represents the Latin American Film Festival every December, the rationed meat one gets once in a blue moon, the bus that takes you to uni and the posada on which you depend for intimate encounters with your other half because, unfortunately, the housing situation is tight and you live with half a dozen other relatives at home. That is the queue and much more.

What we need in Cuba is a monument. A mammoth public statue, in proportion, obviously, to the average sized line, that will acknowledge the social and cultural contribution made by this very criollo phenomenon: the queue.

© 2011

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 17th July at 10am (GMT)


  1. When I lived in the US, and I heard people complain about crowds and queues, I had a similar reactions, 'wait till you see the crowds and queues (and sometimes the absence of queues, which will make you wish that you had queues) in India'.

    Loved your words describing Cuba. Made me feel as if I was taking a stroll through the streets, pausing once in a while to register what was going on.

  2. What a terrific post -- who would have thought that I could read so avidly a post about lines? Your writing is completely engaging, full of your trademark wisdom and sly humor. Thank you, Cuban!

  3. Es cierto, aún recuerdo la cola de la croqueta en Regla.
    Me gusta esos recuerdos que escribes sobre Cuba.


    En mi post de hoy, noticia sobre nuestra querida isla.

  4. You really created a vivid visual image of the long lines, and in the process rendered social commentary as well. Socio-political commentary too? Terrific. I loved this.

  5. Oh! Oh! Oh! Cuban!!
    Have you submitted any of your work to magazines like The New Yorker?
    I don't want to gush, and as much as I'd love to come up with something completely original to say about this piece I'll just say it's so, so, very good.

    Do it. Find a bigger audience. You've got what it takes.

  6. Many thanks to you all for your kind feedback. It means a lot to me as these are memories of a very personal nature.

    Have a great weekend.

    Greetings from London.

  7. This brings back fond memories of my trip to Cuba - especially the ice cream :)

  8. Another beautifully written and insightful piece about a country that most of us will never visit. What I like about your writing is that you were there, it's was your country and you saw the problems and are honest about them - while loving the spirit of the place. Here, in the US we have the right which demonizes Cuba and the lift, which idealizes it. Last week, Anthony Bourdain, a food and travel writer on US TV, visited Cuba. He focused on baseball and pretty much ignored the rest of the country. He pontificated, as he always does - and it was irritating. I found myself shouting at the TV "Go read Senor Cuban in London. NOW THERE"s a guy who has both writing talent and insight." You know, my TV never answered me back.

  9. That sentence was supposed to read "The LEFT (not lift)...


  10. Many thanks, Rachel and Namastemancy for your kind words.

    Gretings from London.

  11. This post had me grinning because I've always thought of queues as an English institution. I had no idea it was so much worse in Cuba.

    Which comedian was it who once said that British people look for queues to stand in? And they exported this culture all over the world to the point where we can't go anywhere or do anything without first joining the queue? British people get in queues even when they don't know what the queue is for!

    This, of course, is all radically different from India where queues are a kind of euphemeral theory as opposed to practice. People queue in their minds, mentally negotiating the situation, then go - ignoring all other bodies who might have a different view. It's like in that Jet li film Hero. You know the bit where the two fighters close their eyes and fight with their minds? And all of a sudden the fight is over and someone is dead. That's the state of queues in India.




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