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It was Sunday and it seemed like the whole neighborhood was out getting their coffee and Times. When we entered the bagel store – a cubby hole joint so Jewish it’s closed on Saturdays – a scrum of hungry New Yorkers clustered around the display case of smears. They may have had sleep in their eyes, but these natives had sharp elbows; both safety and common courtesy required we not cut in front of anyone. But where was the front? Where was the “line?”
“We have to start implementing el último here,” my sister said as we loitered awkwardly on the fringe of the amorphous mass.
“Who’s last in line?!” I boomed to everyone, no one and someone – exactly who, I wasn’t sure. Once I had my answer and we knew where we stood, I dedicated myself to studying which of the 57 juices for sale struck my fancy.
El último is an institution and key survival skill on this side of the Straits. It’s one of those inventive measures that is at once simple and brilliant – in short, pure Cuban.
I don’t need to tell you that lines here can be long. It’s an enduring cliché of the one party state and waiting on those lines is a daily reality for me and my neighbors. Mastering el último, therefore, is obligatory.
Here’s how it works: when you come upon the scrum at the bank/bus stop/ice cream parlor/bakery, the first thing you ask is ‘¿quien es el último?’ Who’s last in line?
We accomplish a lot with these four words. Everyone knows immediately the line’s sequence which instills instant order to an inherently disorderly affair, plus it allows us to abandon the line concept altogether. Once you know who you follow by taking the último, and once someone shows up to take the último from you, there’s no need to actually stand in line. The system gives us the freedom to disperse and loiter, catch some shade or take a load off.
Taking and giving el último was one of my very first lessons Here in Havana (the other was never, ever trust the guy weighing your produce). I loved its elegant simplicity and how it allowed me to slip seamlessly into local practice.
It took me a bit to get the second part of el último – the part where you ask ‘¿detrás quien va?‘ Who are you behind? This follow-up phrase to who’s last in line? is every bit as important as ascertaining who you follow in the first place. Consider what happens if I take el último from you, but suddenly your lover putters up in a Polski or you get fed up and decide to walk (as if! but let’s just suppose). Your disappearing means I now have no idea who I’m behind. Your exit leaves me in the lurch, poised to screw up the heretofore well-ordered procession.
It’s common courtesy (admittedly in shorter and shorter supply these days it seems) when you’re ducking out of line to let the person behind you know. As in: ‘I’m outta here. You’re now behind the compañero in the Yankees cap.’
There are those who ignore lines here entirely. Typically they fall into two categories: Cubanos descaraos (ingrates) and pushy foreigners. Both boil down to feeling superior, like their time is more important than yours and so they’re entitled to jump the line. I know people like this. Their attitude is: ‘fuck it. I’m not waiting in line.’ I find their behavior distasteful – especially as I blow 20 minutes waiting to change money.
There are others who are just line spastic. These folks typically show up and wait patiently, but without ever taking or ceding the último, throwing a wrench into the works. My husband falls into this category (another major motivation for me to master the system as quickly as possible once I landed on these shores).
Clueless foreigners also form part of the line spastic phylum. They just don’t know, poor dears, and so screw up the system with their ignorance. With that mix of pity and paternalism with which many Cubans view foreigners (as if we are all just big inexperienced kids; as if we’ve collectively just fallen off the turnip truck), they usually just let them pass to the front of the line. They do it in good humor mostly, chalking it up to ingenuousness and our general non-Cuban state of being.
Then there are those who don’t have to take el último. These folks go straight to the front of the line like an entitled or unknowing foreigner. Women with babies and blind folk usually fall into this category and pregnant women always do. Or so I thought…
It was September 2008 and Cuba had just been walloped by a duet of hurricanes. The aftermath was dramatic, the future uncertain: 10% of the nation’s GDP had been swiped away by the 193 kilometer an hour winds and it was unclear how well the country was going to pull through. It felt like that moment when the ref is standing over the boxer, sweat and blood pooling on the mat, and the crowd is holding its breath as the count goes to 3, 4, 5. Was there any fight left?
Fresh food was nowhere to be found in Havana. The agros were empty, the stalls streaked with the mud of long gone squashes and string beans, cukes and yucca. When some produce finally started dribbling into the city it was rationed: 2 pounds of plátano macho per person for instance or one calabaza a head. Lines were as long as I’d ever seen them, anywhere, anytime.
We took the último in two lines (another benefit to the system: by marking your place in this manner, you can do double duty, waiting in two lines at once, even though you need not be present in either once you give ‘el último‘) to buy our coveted one head of cabbage. Both lines crept forward. After 45 minutes, we began to wonder if the supply would hold out until our turn. We stood on tiptoes to see how many cabbages were left. We could wait all day if need be – we couldn’t remember the last time we had a fresh vegetable. ‘Will they run out?’ people were commenting around us. The line grew restless as the mound of white-green globes grew smaller.
‘¿¡El último?!‘ someone shouted from behind.
‘¿Última persona?‘ they repeated.
‘¡YO!‘ shouted a broad-chested guy dressed head to toe in white.
¿Detrás quien va?’
‘Her,’ he responded, pointing to an elderly lady with hair dyed that same purple they use to stamp meat in the States.
People on that line were quiet, too quiet. They weren’t making conversation to pass the time like nromal. It was unusually tense.
‘Seventeen people to go,’ the woman behind me whispered, counting heads with a crooked finger.
We stood there like cattle watching the cabbage mound dwindle. Some looked at their watches with the raised eyebrow and pursed lips that in Cuban means ‘Dios mío, carajo.’ The line grew tight all of the sudden, with some energetic shuffling up towards the front.
‘Pregnant woman coming through!’ the lithe mulatta shouted as she walked to the front of the line. We looked at her. We looked at the cabbage. We could see loose leaves at the bottom of the container. The supply was dangerously low.
‘Pregnant?! My ass you’re pregnant!’ someone near me said.
He was right: she didn’t look en estado, but that’s often the case…initially. But by cutting the line, she’d crossed a line – that line dividing survival from just giving in and lying there on the mat while the ref counts 6, 7, 8…We’d been here over an hour and in strolls (supposed) mom-to-be claiming her right to forgo el último.
These Habaneros were having none of it.
¡La cola, la cola! someone shouted – did she need to be told there was a line as long as the Malecón?
‘How pregnant are you?’ another person asked – as if a woman who would lie about her gestational state wouldn’t lie about how far along she was.
‘Get to the back of the line!’ shouted another. ¡Estás collao!
While people argued with her, the cabbage ran out.
The crowd dispersed, heads hanging, plastic bags slack.