Sunday 25 March 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

There she is just like everyday. Dirty, blue coat covering her slender frame, thick-rimmed glasses sitting on the bridge of her nose and a hunched back pinned down by the weight of her years. There she is just like everyday. Braving the cars while kneeling down on the road named after a county in East Anglia, checking under the parked vehicles, not once looking around to see what the traffic going past her is up to. She just keeps searching, checking, seeking... what? I don't know. I see her when I drive my daughter to school. My little one's also noticed her. The elderly, grey-haired woman who's always clutching the same dirty, blue coat, rain or shine, winter or summer. My daughter asks me "What's she looking for?" I don't know is my answer. At first I thought it was cigarette butts. It was common in Havana in the 90s, why should it be different in London in the noughties? But no, this woman is searching for something else. Her lost past, a dear relative who died in dire circumstances, or shall we go for the grandstanding statement: her soul? Or maybe there's no rational explanation for her out-of-the-ordinary daily activity?

If all the world's a stage on which we're merely players, surely it should follow that there ought to be leading and supporting roles on it for all of us. It's the latter we rarely remark upon. The bit-players, like this woman, who help (involuntarily, mind) make our lives more bearable and colourful. Even if sometimes their contribution comes at the cost of their health, physical and/or mental.

We all know who these characters are. They're the silent ones (although that doesn't necessarily imply introversion) who become accidental backdrops to our lives. The irony is that we only notice them when we stop seeing them all of a sudden. It's like the unexpected realisation that Cezanne's Still Life with Onions is missing a pungent bulb. That happened to me once, actually. I dreamt that a couple of onions were gone from the painting. The dream was so vivid that I woke up concerned that there were just ten onions instead of the sixteen - if I got the number right - that appear in the still life originally.

It's strange to think that this supporting cast can have such a deep impact on someone's life and yet sometimes we're unaware of it. Cuban readers of my generation will probably still remember Guagüita, a tall, lanky, black guy who pretended to be a bus (hence his nickname, "Little Bus") and travelled down Havana's main avenues standing his ground against the mad traffic around him. He obviously had mental problems and legends about him abounded. Some said that he'd been a bright university student once who'd burnt out too soon. Others attributed his state of mind to love; he'd been rejected by a woman for whom he'd fallen head over heels. Whatever the reason for his mental deterioration, Guagüita became part of the cityscape with which I grew up. I can't recall when I first saw him or when I last spotted his registration number (he had one, tucked in his belt and beaming at the vehicles behind him). I do remember once my friends and I riding our bikes, cycling past him and shouting out: Guagüita! Guagüita! And he waved back. Ironically he could have taught some drivers a thing or two about being careful behind the wheel. He did all the manoeuvres perfectly, including indicating, braking and overtaking.

These are the real characters of one's life, the unsung heroes whose presence we recall with misty eyes and grey hairs. Like the elderly gentleman who turns up at some salsa events in London (I've seen him at the Southbank, Clissold Park, Victoria Park and Barbican) dressed smartly and dancing his head off. By the way, it's not precisely salsa what he's dancing, but who cares, he's having so much fun that it's hard to be pedantic about his style.

Our lives are full of leading actors and actresses: our parents, other relatives, our children - those of us who have them - and our friends. Occasionally we step into that role, too. These characters are the ones to whom we delegate the most important lines, the soliloquies that will accompany us for most of our lives. Yet, there're also the brief appearances by a supporting cast whose cameos steal the show every now and then. Their charisma, whether intended or not, is enough for them to leave an indelible mark on our lives. It could be the woman with the dirty, blue coat looking under parked cars, or the young, tall, black man pretending to be a bus, or the actor who played Hamlet the night before and is now on the same queue the morning after. Queuing just like you, laughing at your jokes, fixing you with his tired eyes and asking you about your family. And reassuring you inadvertently that there are still sixteen onions in Cezanne's painting.

And this is all from me for the time being. I will be taking a cyber-holiday for Easter and will return on Sunday 29th April. In the meantime my blog will have music and I'll probably publish a couple of older posts again. Think of them as a couple of tracks from a "Greatest Hits" collection. I wish you all a Happy Easter!

© 2012

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 28th March at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Do you think Thomas Wolfe was right when he penned "You can't go home again?"

  2. These folks wake us up from our "normal" states. They shake our sense of self just for a moment, enough to help us ponder about our own reality.

    Cuban, these reflections of yours better become a hard-back of sorts, so we can all leaf through on a dull morning, and discover the shining nuggets in our mostly fogged days.

  3. Hi Cuban,
    I'm not going to read this post, yet, but I'll try to answer some of your questions about my blog...there have been a lot of programs in the United States, especially in the 60 and 70s, that brought young, 'white' people into poor neighborhoods to work...the theory sometimes being that if they were artists, they would help bring a community of folks together in the projects who hadn't been connected together, but who would thus form friendships. I worked on one of these, doing photographs...I don't imagine I connected anyone.

    And then I worked at the Guggenheim with kids having difficulties in school, making a movie with them so that they'd write a play and feel some sense of accomplishment by designing and painting scenery...

    and then I taught 2n'd grade failures (can you imagine failing in second grade?) colors and numbers, etc., the sorts of things their parents, who didn't speak English, weren't teaching them...
    I certainly needed the money from all of these temporary jobs, marginal as I was, supporting my daughter...but there are, rightfully or wrongly, some negative comments about those 'do=gooding'white folks, coming in and.... blah and blah...
    What was so delightful about Lawrence Works is how nicely the 'white' guy was accepted, and also that he had used the services, dinner groups to get neighbors together, long, long before he started working there.

    I've heard of organizations where 'white' people aren't particularly accepted, even with fluent Spanish...and good work ethics...
    it's all interesting...
    and thank you...

  4. nice, nice, nice post.
    thank you...

  5. I love how you notice and consider people that others might just drive past. And I appreciate you As You Like It reference. Big cities do seem to have more odd characters, but maybe the odds are higher of seeing them in a concentrated population. Perfect musical accompaniment too! I love the Dire Straits. Happy Easter! Enjoy your blog break.

  6. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Vicomtesse, I would like to believe that I can still hgo back home without any fear of reprisals. :-0

    Rosaria, nicely said. Re the book, are you reading, agents/editors/publishers? Rosaria's spoken. :-) Oh, yes, and hardback, of course! I still buy them, by the way, and take them with me on holidays.

    Melissa, thanks for your detailed explanation. It helps me understand certain elements of US culture.

    Sarah, I just had to play some Dire Straits! Air-punching music for the end of term.

    Greetings from London.

  7. Thank you for your thoughtful post, which made me think of the memorable strangers I have seen regularly in the past, and the ones I see now.

    Warm regards from South Beach

  8. If all the world's a stage on which we're merely players, surely it should follow that there ought to be leading and supporting roles on it for all of us.

    This really struck home as so true and so in need of saying - and repeating. As a teacher it was always the main intention when staging a play to give everyone a part - and it was never that difficult. Thanks for a great post.

  9. I wonder if your life, which like mine has spanned a wide spectrum of social states by virtue of being an immigrant, makes you more susceptible to seeing ... and appreciating ... the "invisible" among us.

  10. A beautiful post, beautifully written. I am reminded of two "street performers" from my own observation. When I lived in Atlanta 30 years ago there was a man who ran every morning along a busy suburban street waving his arms in the air. People who drove the street often were accustomed to his wild waving, but strangers would slow down thinking perhaps he needed help. The other is a man who lives here on my island. I know him a little. He runs to the ferry every morning, then runs to Bellingham (about 20 miles) and then runs all around Bellingham during the day, and finally comes back to the island about 4 in the afternoon, all on foot. Sometimes he comes back with several plastic bags of groceries. He told me that sometimes he acts as a free courier for local businesses and he gets tips, but he never asks for pay. I can only guess at the reason -- perhaps he is prone to severe depression and the endorphins generated by his constant running help. I have watched him in all the 12 years I have lived here, and he is getting older. What will he do when he is too old to run?

  11. We have a 'Little Bus' in our town too. He is a fixture alongside a bad road and just walks and mumbles to himself. Occasionally he will do exercises. He is very noticeable. I think until we take the time to really see these folks sometimes we never even notice them.

  12. Sorry, vicomtesse, I just realised that that smiley should be a proper smiley! :-)

    A good acquaintance of mine on Facebook told me that there was one such character in her life when she was growing up. He was an alcoholic, and yet he'd led an interesting life. My acquaintance only found out when she spoke to his wife years after he'd succumbed to drink.

    Dave, I can perfectly imagine you as a teacher allocating roles. As a blogger, I'll have you know that you have no minor role in my life. I love your poetry and seek it out whenever I can.

    Judith, you are right. Being an immigrant opens up yet another window, or maybe it develops another sense.

    Tina, I'm glad you have your own version of our Little Bus.

    Mim, thanks for your kind comments.

    Thank you all for your feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  13. In the French village where I sometimes live, there's an old guy with a long beard, worn-out clothes and the same hat on his head every day. He hangs around the square all day long, knows everybody, and is often at the cafe having a beer and a smoke (outside!). I found out recently that he has a big house down the hill, but that he can't seel it because it half-belongs to a brother who's in a mental institution. I was reassured that he had a place to live, but it seems he can't afford to heat the place. Hence the cafe.
    You have such a gift for ideas, for seeing the not-so-obvious, and being able to spin a whole tale from what you observe. Rosaria is right about that hard-cover book, Cuban! Happy Easter, and enjoy your holiday.

  14. Beautifully evocative post Cubano. You have a keen writer's eye. There was a woman that I always saw when i was growing up on the south side of Chicago. She walked around in the bright satins and feathers of a 40s show girl. I was told that she was once a dancer at the famous Club Delisa jazz club. She was elderly but well preserved and she glided around the streets like she was preparing to perform.

  15. I loved reading about your familiar stranger. Somehow they add so much to our lives, don't they?

  16. a familiar stranger? loved reading your post.

    simply brilliant!
    aw, your writing always affects my senses.

    you're an inspirational writer, cuban.

    wishing a great day!

  17. Mi amigo pasando por tu bodeguita y brindandote amor. Que tu y tu familia esten bien. Cuidate y gracias por hacernos lucir en el mundo.

  18. What a beautiful post - such memories of Cuba and such philosophical wisdom. PS - love your new header.

  19. I forgot to add that any post that contains a reference to Cezanne's onions and ends with a video of Dire Straits is right up there and beyond the best of today's writing.

  20. And then they suddenly disappear and you wonder what on earth happened to them - there used to be a guy around soho proclaiming the end of the world on a hand written sign - what happened to him? We all know these characters - thanks for a fascinating post - greetings from the riviera...

  21. We are all players, but I think of us more like an ensemble cast rather than one person being the lead and others supporting.

    You're right that there are people who come into our lives, however briefly, and make an impact. They might not even know it. Like that lady in the dirty blue coat. I hope she found whatever she was looking for. If it'd been me I probably would have been hunting for my contact lense!




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