Here was our first sight of our new landlord in Havana: on the landing behind a barricaded white door, a faked sticker on the jamb allowing him to rent, his pimp hat askew, grayed T-shirt too tight, belt buckle too big. My early life in Northern California should have taught me never to trust not Greeks bearing gifts but rather men of any nationality bearing ostentatious belt buckles. That said, there are lessons that lack guidebook, exam or even popularizing self-help book: one gets to keep on making the same mistakes over and over.
From under that pimp hat, Juan Ruiz smiled.
In contrast to everyone else in Cuba, even his Spanish vowels came out with a slow drip, as if incredible pumps of internal pressure and springs of ethical concerns, pushed against the coils of hard life lessons, made him respect the speed of words: they emerged in inverse proportion to the thoughtfulness required just to deal. Because “stoic” and “taciturn” are adjectives rarely wielded in my family about anyone, I had to respect the
guy. After all, I had come to Cuba to research boxing, and the sophrosyne of boxers—sophrosyne being perhaps one of the most beautiful of the four classical virtues, a self-discipline requiring that one hold off from the temptations of lesser wisdom—drew me.
Juan Ruiz, in his self-presentation, exemplified sophrosyne, a trait above and beyond the usual weary endurance of Cubans barely subsisting off the tickets in shrinking ration books.
“You want rent?” he said, because he had rented to other foreigners and liked to practice English.
In this venture toward understanding sophrosyne, in the interest of expanding everyone else’s horizons, I was in Cuba with semi-willing artist mate and two curious daughters, aged eight and four. It is not that I had lacked a certain amount of propagandizing in selling everyone on the plan. “You could do pen-and-ink studies of Old Havana!” I let slip to artist mate. “Before it becomes Starbucks and McDonalds.” To the oldest daughter, I had suggested the possibility of becoming fluent in Spanish, making friends from a world as removed as possible from our tiny upstate New York hamlet, which no one would ever describe as ethnically diverse, and practicing swimming in the blue waters, a sort of Disneyland approaching embargoland, as if one could accomplish some part of the rubber-raftable ninety miles back to Florida. To the youngest, I was not sure what to say, but she liked the idea of going to Koo-ba, which probably sounded like a cute emporium in which plush teddy bears frolic.
I was talking to Juan Ruiz while standing next to a saintly woman whom I had met in one of the shared ten-peso cabs. Contemporary Cuba runs on two currencies: one is the convertible currency, meant for foreigners, in which one can buy such luxury items as, well, soap, cereal, and, it has to be added, in a proleptic maneuver, water. The other currency is the national currency, in which most Cubans are paid an average of twenty-six dollars a month. With this money, a citizen’s ration book in hand, most go to the government markets, often open-air affairs but sometimes looking like a dark tobacconist’s stall or a big meat warehouse, and for ten cents get a good amount of rice, for the odd twenty cents even some packaged foods, usually imported from China, such as crackers, and whatever vegetables Fidel’s minions have mandated onto the trucks that day: on one day, every stall will be serving up eggplant, unripe pineapple, and onions. A family can survive, almost.
Most families I encountered, living in small apartments into which they had been literally grandfathered, make do with their salaries by such mild rackets as paying off their monthly water or electricity inspectors five dollars in foreign currency, a currency you get from consorting with tourists, relatives abroad, or from sisters married into proto-prostitution with some Italian or Swiss man, a man usually as rich in avoirdupois and emotional autism as he is in gifts of cash. Back on the island, such foreign remissions, whether generated night or day, matter. Five foreign bucks and a whole building can use an infinite amount of electricity or water. The apartments, in which inhabitants conspire with well-revolutionized collectivist zeal, usually boast a reserve water tank on the roof in the event, not infrequent, that the city fails them. Viva la Revolución! scream the banners around the city, or the more oxymoronic 53 Years of Revolution!
That impossibility noted, one of the best aspects of Cuba—despite all the foreign press about its failed transportation system—remains the way you can travel within a city. Your two main choices, if you live close to the way most Cubans live, remain these: you may ride a bus or you may attempt to hail a ten-peso cab.
About the first: never before have I encountered a worldly paradise like that of a Cuban bus. To approach a bus in Cuba with a child or two is to encounter the true moral being of the revolution, the new man about whom Che opined. There the bus, provenance 1972, with its broken windows and ill-fitting tires, screeches up to the corner. Bodies stagger out from the press of others. There you approach, a humble petitioner, your coins and a stroller, perhaps, hanging off one hand, a child off another. Then comes the magic moment of comprehension. Because the mind of the crowd understands: the magi have come.
Miraculously, as if there were room to do this, a path carves through bodies. Hands hoist your child as if she were less bodysurfing punk star circa 1988 and more saintly visitation. Your child, exhilarated with a tiny dose of terror, doglegs past the driver, to be given a prime seat at the front of the bus, often on some grandmother’s lap, a woman who acts as if for this exact moment she had been born, as if holding a little sweaty child on her lap redeems all life’s sufferings. Never mind that the weight of an American child could impair the inevitable varicosity in her legs after years of sugar-and-coffee-fueled backbreaking work at a factory or at one of the dark tobacconists.
No. A child comes and joy lights the faces of all bus riders. This is more than making do; this is humanity as celebration.