Dear friends, family, readers new and not, informants, and detractors:
I’ve been (too) quiet here lately and for this, I apologize. It’s for worthy, horizon-broadening reasons however, and for that, I’ll never seek pardon. But enough with the ‘justificaciones’ as my friend and Havana Bike Polo champ Tomás likes to say.
To the grano:
I had this idea for a bookstore/café a couple of years ago. Like many of my ideas, it was ambitious, quirky, and against the grain. Furthermore, it was quite possibly impractical and practically (but not quite) impossible. I cooked it up slowly, adding ingredients and letting it simmer while I built momentum and strength (see note 1).
When I roped my Cuban family into it, I never imagined all the valuable experience and lessons – all the magic – we would live in the three short months since opening Cuba Libro (see note 2). And those experiences and magic were imparted and shared by some extraordinary people of all ages and genders, orientations and many nationalities, too. Being Cuba, every color of the skin spectrum has walked through our doors – another thing I love about this island. We’ve even imparted/shared with a little person (i.e. a dwarf), who had a voice delicious enough to eat – I could have talked to him all Havana day long.
In short (no pun intended), the people we’ve met and talked to, read and laughed with, are inspiring and surprising us daily.
There’s Marta, the English teacher at the grade school across and up the street. And I do mean across and up: the school is divided between two Vedado mansions a block apart and the cute, uniformed kids are shuttled between the two – single file, hand-in-hand – a few times a day by Marta and others. When Marta came in to see about the possibility of getting some bilingual dictionaries (neither the school nor the teacher has one), we hatched a donation drive. Thanks to some folks visiting from afar, we made the first, small delivery of a few dictionaries a couple of weeks ago (see note 3).
Then there’s the guy in the orange-tinted, 70’s porn star sunglasses peddling black market coffee (see note 4), his breath perennially laced with Planchao. One morning around 11, he came in, plopped into the Adirondack chair under a palm tree, began mumbling drunkenly and nodded off. We rousted him gently and ushered him on his way. The combination between comfort and coolness at Cuba Libro is why we don’t sell any booze. If we did, we’d have people passed out in the hammocks, on the couch, the bathroom floor…
The avocado seller is another memorable character in Cuba Libro’s world. One day he saw me standing in front of the gate and asked: ‘Hey Blondie! Why’s someone as pretty as you all alone?’
‘I don’t know. I guess no one can tame the beast,’ I responded, laughing.
He sidled over with a gap-toothed smile. ‘I know how to tame the beast. Love and tenderness.’
When he saw me a couple of days later he said, ‘remember Blondie! Love and tenderness!!’
It’s still avocado season, but he hasn’t been around in a while. I miss him.
There’s the rough-around-the-edges fellow who passes by at the same time every single day pulling two boxes on a chivichana. We hear him before we see him:
‘CREMITA DE LEEEEEEEECHE!!’
‘BARRA DE GUAYABAAAAAA!!’
If you know some enthusiastic, deep-throated pregoneros, you know we can hear this sweets seller for blocks and blocks and blocks and…here he is now!
Doctors and students, parents, grandparents, expats and diplomats. They’re coming in droves. But it’s the artists – from scriptwriters to sculptors, composers to poets – keeping things frisky. We’re getting all kinds: painters, photographers, actors, costume designers, puppet makers and musicians. Some famous, all talented.
I’ve taken a personal shine to Samuel. Red-haired, with big green eyes (a striking combination in any context, more so in Cuba), he’s a violin player who showed up at our most recent art opening. He lives in the neighborhood and was just passing by he told us. The party was in full swing, just comfortably shy of packed.
‘Would it be okay for me to play a while in the garden?’ he asked.
‘OK?! It would be phenomenal!’ I told him, blue eyes meeting green.
So he unzipped his case, grabbed his bow, tuned up, and ripped in. Samuel is 16 years old.
Then there are the little kids, many of them Cuba Libro regulars. Nikki (I’m not sure how to spell her name but given the Cuban penchant for funky, medio cheo names, this is probably close) is a handful and already a troublemaker at the tender age of eight (see note 5), but cute and charming. She’ll go far in this life.
We also have a tribe of 10-year old guapos coming in. They like to break rules, brag about fantasy conquests, and steal the condoms we offer free for the taking – but not for balloon making, which is what these kids use them for (see aforementioned fantasy conquests).
But it’s sweet, polite Jonathan, a tow-headed kid who says por favor and gracias while looking you in the eye shyly, who has won my heart. In his first year of pre-school (also across the street, but contained in one building por suerte), he came in with his grandmother Aracely a couple of months ago. Havana was still in that weird monsoon vortex where we’d get hours-long, sheets-of-water downpours every day, but that afternoon was sunny. I set Jonathan up swinging in a hammock and started talking to Aracely.
Like Cubans do, she said right out and straightaway: Jonathan is six, an only child. His mother, (Aracely’s daughter-in-law), died of a heart attack in March. She was 27. I touched Aracely’s arm and said ‘how awful.’ I told her how sorry I was. I asked after her family, after her son, after Jonathan. Her eyes went soft and moist as she confided that they were doing the best they can.
They came in a week later during another break in the rain. As Jonathan dashed for the hammock, Aracely told me: we were walking to school the other day. It was 7:30 and he was all excited, pointing as we passed by: ‘look abue! That’s where I drew with the colored chalk. In that garden. Let’s go back!’
And they’ve been in several times since. Jonathan always gets a lollipop, a box of colored chalk, and plenty of driveway-cum-canvas to draw his heart out. And Aracely always gets a cafecito on the house.
This is some of what and whom have kept me from writing lately. And that’s just fine by me.
PS – This post was ready two weeks ago but no manner of internet gymnastics/expense allowed me to post it. GRRRRRR.
1. 2011-2012 was a hell of a time for me, with great and multiple personal losses – hence the need for strength-gathering.
2. It actually started in earnest about 6 months ago when we started fixing the space up.
3. Anyone interested in donating, please drop a line to email@example.com.
4. We don’t buy it, of course. That would be illegal. Regardless, it clogs our espresso machine. How did we discover that black market coffee clogs the machine? Don’t ask; don’t tell.
5. Not unlike another female Scorpio I know. Ahem.