Shabby chic Cuba

Savannah Morning News

Jan. 24, 2016


This is for all you people worried Cuba may change before you get there: relax. You have a few years. Chill. Nothing’s going to change that fast. The electrical might still cut off when you’re in an elevator (don’t worry: it comes back pretty quickly). The Afro-Cuban music isn’t going anywhere (it’s everywhere). Neither is the rum, coffee, cigars, plantains or island breezes. They’re everywhere, too.

So are the old cars with the curves, the Oldsmobiles, the Buicks, the Chevy Bel Airs. Cubans are masters at retooling parts. They are survivors. The bright paint jobs – few are the original colors – aren’t changing either. Most of these cars were left when their original owners fled the island in 1959.

Maybe five years from now you will be able to use a credit card. Today Cuba is strictly a cash society.

Maybe you will get online. Maybe your phone card will work. Both are hit and miss.

What? No Ikea? No McDonalds? No Hard Rock Café? Not that I saw.

Yet, walking through the squares, past Baroque and colonial architecture from the 16th century with open plazas and tended parks you might think you were in Sicily or Rome or New Orleans not an island 90 miles from Key West.

Visa restrictions are loosening but if you’re from the U.S. you still have to travel in a group with cultural, religious, family, academic connections. Most businesses are still government-owned but there is some small entrepreneurial activity, like the upscale paladar (or homegrown restaurant) we went to. It was housed in a private home not unlike Elizabeth on 37th.

Maybe in a few years there will be a different attitude about money. But right now, in this Communist country, the subject that seems to inform so many of our decisions in life – school, job, housing – continues to confound us. A bellboy makes as much as a doctor, a bartender clears more than a lawyer, a server’s tips can exceed a teacher’s salary. This might be the hardest thing of all for us money-conscious, status-oriented, class-aware Americans to wrap our minds around. You mean a doctor makes the same $25 (or so) a month as a front desk clerk?

As bandleader Desi (as in Desi Arnaz) might have said to Lucy (as in Lucille Ball), “You got some ‘spaining to do.”

As often as I asked the question I always got the same answer: education counts. You study for the sake of learning. You study what you’re good at. You follow your passion. You get the certificate your parents want you to get. When you have a few kids you might leave your job as a lawyer and become, as someone told me, a tour guide and work for tips. But not until then.

Student debt? Unheard of. Education is free. Medical care costs nothing. Rents don’t exist. Everyone has a place to live. Supposedly when the Castro government took over in 1959 every citizen was given his or her own house. You live here. You live there. (Me? A government official might think. I’ll take this big house, thank you very much.)

Despite the decay it’s not hard to imagine how life used to be on this tropical island – before Batista, before Castro – during the Xavier Cugat, Carmen Miranda, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway and Rat Pack era of partying, dancing, gambling and mobsters like Meyer Lansky calling the shots. Now many of the grand houses are embassies while others, rich in patina and potential, stand empty with broken windows, peeling exteriors, cracked stairways.

Still, people like my breakfast companion, a man from Las Vegas in the “gaming trade,” are in Havana making inquiries, checking things out, looking for casino opportunities. He was traveling on a British-American passport. Unlike me, he did not have to be there with a group. He was betting Cuba’s socialist ideals would not last. Another man at the table disagreed. He reminded him Cuba has survived a boycott from the U.S., an abrupt pullout from the Soviet Union and before that the conquering Spanish.

Our last night there we went to the old Havana Biltmore Yacht and Country Club. Built in the late 1920s it was a playground for the rich, the privileged, and the elite. Batista, the story goes, couldn’t get in. Too dark skinned. We walked down to the ocean, drank mojitos, sat on the veranda and danced to a 10-piece band that included a drummer from the Bueno Vista Social Club.

Now the government owns the club and the people serving us a multi-course dinner are living on rations and dreams. But this I know: In a Communist country neither fish nor fowl the Pope arrived and spoke to millions, the service is good and the people, who have been through so much, are gracious, but not without an edge. The good news is there’s a faded elegance to Cuba that won’t be changing anytime soon.





Bicycle riders no worse than baby carriages, dogs and roads

Savannah Morning News

Sun., Jan. 17, 2016

“I stand and rejoice ever time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” Susan B. Anthony


Please, I say (in my head) to the driver who is changing lanes, texting his girlfriend or trying to bring up on his phone that David Bowie tune about astronauts and not looking at the road. Please pay attention to what’s going on, please do not jerk the wheel and veer into my lane because, well, there’s nowhere for me to go except into that semi truck on the other side of me. Speed limit? What is that?

Please, I say (silently) to the woman who is walking the excited purple-tongued chow whose yellow eyes have locked eyes with mine as I try to nimbly scoot around them both on a narrow sidewalk next to Forsyth Park. Please pay attention. Please, I think, estimate the length of the leash with the distance between us, rein in your precious pup and do not let your dog take a bite out of my leg because it has happened before and I did not enjoy it.

Please, I say (under my breath) to the young mother who is pushing a stroller the size of Montana at the Forsyth Farmers Market (and then stopping to talk to someone else with an even bigger stroller). Please pay attention to what’s going on and let me pass by without incident.

This is real. This happens (all the time). And this will continue to happen because people are people. We think we are the only ones on the planet. But somehow we learn to deal. We develop defense mechanisms. We know we can’t change the world. We can’t stop driving. We can’t stop sharing lanes with humongous trucks whose drivers are on a time schedule. Would that we could. Would that we lived in a metropolis with good public transportation, maybe a fleet of small buses, with thoroughfares that did not favor automobiles or the automobile industry, that does not pay homage to a construction industry that likes and lives to clear-cut, to whack down trees so we can make still more lanes for more cars.

We know we’re not going to give up our dogs. Good golly, Miss Molly. That is not going to happen. We love our dogs. They are our best friends, our confidants, our mates. They are our alarm systems, our alter-egos, our children. We rescue them and pamper them. We like to take them everywhere even if they do jump on someone’s couch or eat the cat’s food, even if they activate allergies, even if they’re at the farmers’ market, for instance, and they, bored and spoiled, decide to poke their heads into someone’s baby carriage (they are practically on the same level) to lick the newborn (yummy) or vacuum up some scraps.

Get rid of baby carriages? That will never happen. That might be construed to mean, “Get a grip people: produce fewer babies.” We tried that once, back in the ‘70s. It was big for a moment: birth control, family planning, population control. It was a bust. Earth to earthlings: there are too many people in the world. We are stretching our resources, our oceans, our skies, our land, our schools. That could be the most important key to proper environmental stewardship. Ban babies? Ban baby carriages? Deprive young family from shopping at the market and showing off their progeny? Forget about it.

If all or part of this is true then why or why is our fair city considering banning bikes from places like Forsyth Park? In my experience in the park I have a better chance of encountering an unruly dog or an oversized baby carriage than a person on a bike. Just for the record a bicyclist has never run into me while walking in the park or riding in the park. Near misses, maybe. Collision, never. We learn to navigate, as we do with dogs and baby carriages. It’s a beautiful though sometimes anoying thing.

H.G. Wells must be turning over in his grave. “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the human race,” he said.

Despair, H.G., despair.

The whole thing begs the question: where would the city brain trust like us to ride? On the Drayton Street speedway? On the turnpike known as Whitaker? Because of counter-intuitive (make that lazy) paving procedures each street has a center bump that could be a bunny run in a ski resort.

In the end if we’re going to ban bikes in Forsyth I think we should think about banning dogs, forbidding baby carriages or turning Whitaker and Drayton into bike lanes. None of the above will or should happen.