The Domino Diaries: The Havana Zoo
by BRIN FRIESEN
I saw a little girl get bit by a dog this afternoon in Central Park. I watched her from a stone bench beside the Esquina Caliente (Hot Corner) crowd of men arguing baseball just down the street from the Capitolio. She tried to pet one of these Goya-nightmare stray dogs and it snapped at her hand. She went off like a car alarm but it was the way she screamed that made the old men give up baseball and rush over to console her. In 30 years it is the solitary bonafide miracle I have witnessed. You’ll have to take my word for it, but if the Hot Corner heard Slim Pickens himself was falling from the sky straddling an atomic bomb, slapping his cowboy hat against his hip and yee-hawing his way down onto their heads—there wouldn’t be a flinch— “We’re talking béisbol here coño.”
Sweet bait on fearful hooks. That girl I mean. Or what was at stake.
Boy the face she made.
She’d never touch a dog again.
You’ll find a clock in a Vegas casino long before you find a veterinarian in Havana.
She might not even remember why she’d never pet a dog again.
The Esquina Caliente finally cheered her up enough that she smiled and jammed her head against her mom’s shoulder. The men went back to baseball and the mom carried her child home.
I closed up my notebook and followed the little girl and mom to Calle Neptuno where they caught a cab and I decided to walk over to the mother of a friend who sells guarapo (sugarcane juice) out of her garage near the Malecón.
I wondered if maybe that girl would pet a dog again.
I wondered why some of us are flexible on that point where others are hardened against something for keeps.
It was a strange day.
I’d gone to the park after boxing with some of the national team kids in their run down gym in old Havana. The gym at Kid Chocolate was being used for a weight lifting competition.
The gym, Rafael Trejo, is located near a famous neighborhood called San Isidro. The biggest funeral in Cuban history was for a resident of this neighborhood, Alberto Yarini Ponce de León, who was a politician but more famously a pimp. Women from all over Havana would converge on the path he took each morning to get his coffee at the Cafe El Louvre. He seduced the most beautiful woman in Cuba and her lover, a French gigolo named Luis Lotot, challenged the Cuban for her love and ended up murdering him in revenge.
I’d started a laughing fit at the gym that day because I’d mentioned I wanted to meet Felix Savon, the three time Olympic Heavyweight gold medalist. Most the coaches at Trejo are either Olympic gold medalists themselves or have coached Olympic gold medalists either on the national team or the Olympic team. Everybody knows everybody in Havana anyway. I wasn’t aware that a not-too-closely-guarded state secret was that Felix Savon was a homosexual.
(I’m standing on a platform here, Felix is 6′5 to my 5′10)
“Sure you can meet him! We’ve already talked to him about you. He’d like to meet you in the Presidential suite at the Nacional this evening. He’ll bring his medals to show you but he won’t wear them around his neck.”
The Cubans have a saying you’re reminded of on a daily basis, reinforced with good and bad material: “Life is a joke to be taken very seriously.”
While I was grinning to myself about this, I got to a street corner and noticed a sweaty, filthy, beaten up old man crawling on the ground like a crab across the intersection. All he had on was a loincloth. Out of perhaps 400 people walking on the sidewalk, and the 15 taxis, 10 bicycle taxis, forty cars on the road, I had the only pair of eyes staring. I appeared to be the only person unaccepting and remotely concerned of this man’s role in the universe. Keep in mind there aren’t all that many traffic lights or stop signs in Havana and yet I’ve never ridden a local taxi going under 45 miles an hour through a street as busy as Times Square. In New York they have arguments with their horns, in Havana they have opera. As he progressed to the center of the intersection, still in the middle of the street with the cars patiently waiting for him to pass, I noticed there was a rope attached to his ankle tied to something that remained off stage behind a lamppost. I reached into my breast pocket and took out a cigarette waiting with my match until I saw what in the baker’s fuck he was dragging. Then I saw the edge of the rock and with some more heaving and Sisyphean anguish, the full bulk of its size: a truck’s tire.
I lit that cigarette and zigzagged a few streets till I got to that garage where my friend Lesvanne was jamming sugar cane into a grinder while his mother dumped a pail of guarapo into carafes full of ice and poured one of those into the cups of waiting construction workers on their break. After the first sip you have to wipe the chilled foam off your lips.
Lesvanne had just come back from Miami.
Lesvanne used to sleep with American tourists for gifts provided they weren’t from California. He was a man of principle.
The first time I met him he showed me his worn digital camera. He showed me a few photos of his common-law wife and a few hundred photos of the American tourist female “friends” he’d made.
I’d asked him if his American “friends” presented any kind of problem with his “wife” and he asked why it should?
“Would you like to see a video of my wife?” he asked.
I said sure.
All I could make out was underwater blurs of color undulating in curious ways.
“What am I looking at here?”
“That’s her gallbladder. Isn’t she beautiful?”
Later, when I could breathe again, I asked him why he would film his wife on the operating table having her gallbladder removed.
“Because I love all of her, man. Inside and out. I want to know all of her.”
Lesvanne also looks and dresses a helluva lot like Sinbad which makes his principles and wisdom especially surreal to contend with.
Emotionally, I’ve never met a Cuban who required you taking your shoes off before entering into their lives. Self-consciousness isn’t really part of the equation. Lesvanne has a little more fun with it. He taunts you with his enjoyment.
“How was Miami?”
“Let’s walk. I’ll show you the pictures.”
“First I have a question.”
He smiled. “What about him?”
“Obviously. Proximo pregunda (Next question).”
“On my way over here there was a guy in the middle of the street dragging a fucking boulder. Nobody was evening looking at him.”
“Why was he doing this?”
“Religious thing. For 3 days he drags the stone across Havana.”
“Down the middle of the street?”
“What can you say? Colorful people in my city. Let’s go.”
We walked from Old Havana into Centro Habana.
From Centro Habana past the University into Vedado.
He showed me photos from his visit to Miami. While he tried to show me the pictures he was stopped in the street dozens of times. People from their homes invited us for coffee. Kids egged him on to play pelota. Store keepers shook his hands. Old women selling sweets and flowers asked about his mother. He kept embracing people over and over with affection and warmth. Every time he tried to show me a photograph people came over to look and ask questions about his trip.
Nearly all of the photos were an inventory of all the stuff Lesvanne saw in Miami that he was determined to own once he moved to America and got busy making a success of himself: hummers, houses, pools, jewelry, women, bars, boats. Lesvanne had one favorite outfit he wore nearly everyday that he washed every night. It was blindingly bright.
I didn’t say anything until he’d finished showing all the pictures.
I’d lost count of how many people he’d kissed and hugged hello on our walk. It threw me because after breaking up a couple times with long term relationships I went months before I realized that I was having no human physical contact. How did that happen?
We found a bench in a quiet park and I noticed a statue of John Lennon on another bench down the path from us.
“Castro put that statue here because he banned the Beatles in Cuba. He was embarrassed about it later so he put this here to apologize.”
“So you want all this shit once you’re settled in Miami?” I asked him.
“Of course I do. I’ve never had anything here. I’d like to work for these things.”
“Castro should have you fucking shot.”
“Okay. You get all that shit—hummer, house, pool, hot wife, jewelry, yacht. That whole photo album of other people’s stuff becomes your stuff. You’re loaded. Then you’re happier than here?”
“Okay, so you’re loaded but maybe you’re also afraid of losing everything all the time. Your afraid your wife is gonna take you for half. You have to live in a gated community because you’re afraid of everyone. You have no sense of community or even give a fuck about your neighbor. Your kids don’t respect you and just want money to buy shit to distract themselves from being bored all the time. All the old people you know are in old folks homes because nobody wants to deal with them. You can’t be friends with any kids because everyone will think you’re a pedophile. You can’t can’t hug any guys because they’re afraid you’re gay orthey’re gay or everyone is gay. You can’t really touch anybody without second guessing it.”
“If I couldn’t touch anyone I’d die, man. I’d die. This country is a fucking cage. Cuba is a zoo.”