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Things are pretty tough around here lately, what with the new economic regulations driving prices up, the cash-strapped out, and the sane a little crazy (you heard it here first). It’s all a bit wild west at the moment, with Cubans frenetically feeding on nascent capitalism, tasting the fruits as it were – some bitter and unexpected, to be sure. But I’ll leave all that to a future post.
We’re also in the throes of summer, which influences the Cuban state of mind in ways even I still don’t understand. On my side of the Straits it’s brutally hot, the mosquitoes are nasty and dogged, and tempers are running unusually short.
When it gets like this, when the hole feels so deep I have to will myself to stop digging, I go to Coppelia for 4-cent scoops of ice cream or head to a theater for an 8-cent movie. The AC combined with 2 hours of unadulterated English (see note 1) always seem to soothe what ails me; no matter that I’m alone. Travel, dining, moviegoing – I have no problem flying solo.
I’ve been going to the movies alone since I moved to Havana. It’s the sweet-sounding English that jacks me, surely, but it’s also privation: I couldn’t afford $10 tickets in my hometown of New York (a city which hasn’t seen a bargain matinee since the days of Spaldeens and Phil ‘The Scooter’ Rizzuto). So when I discovered Havana’s faded movie palaces with cheap screenings day and night I did a little jig of joy.
Then I became hip to the tiradores and that joy turned to dread.
My first introduction was at a showing of Moulin Rouge. As I marvelled at Nicole Kidman’s pipes, the guy two rows away started pumping his pinga as if his life or libreta depended on it. Taken aback and a wee bit shocked – this wasn’t the Times Square of my youth after all, with its peep shows and porn, this was mainstream Havana, population: tiny – I moved to a row far, far away, plopping down beside a couple; they shot me a sympathetic look during the next well-lit scene.
Not long after my public masturbatory cherry was popped, it happened again, this time during a showing of Schindler’s List. Jacking off to Kidman in fishnets I can understand. But stroking the Pope to scenes of genocide? This demanded stronger measures.
‘¡OYE! What are you doing? Quit it or get lost, man!’ I said loud enough for everyone to hear.
Public shame: never fails.
I started to wonder, though: had I’d stumbled upon a shadowy cubano habit and hobby that was destined to ruin my moviegoing experience? The next time it happened, I decided to consult an expert. As soon as I sensed the rythmic jiggle nearby, I strode from the theater to the lobby, where the ticket taker was having her nails done.
“Amor, I just wanted to let you know there is a disagreeable man doing disagreeable things in the theater.”
“Really?! That’s weird. I didn’t see any of our regulars come in today.”
“Sure, the regular tiradores. We always seat people as far away from them as possible, but I didn’t see any come in today.”
This was deeper and seedier than I’d expected. After years of going to the movies alone and observing Cuban society ufrom within, I now know this is a major diversion. And not only in theaters – guys are masturbating in parks and bushes, at the beach, and at least once that I saw, on a moving bicycle. Sure, Havana is super-sexed in general, but that’s only part of it. The other part, I think, is the overcrowding and housing crisis, meaning many private acts occur in public.
During one memorable film festival, I had just settled comfortably into my seat in the coverted juror’s section of the theater. Serving on a jury is a gas for many reasons, but the preferred seating perk was especially meaningful to me. The single man sitting two rows up, therefore, concerned me not at all.
The lights went down, the titles came up and we were off! Unfortunately, 10 minutes later, the guy in front of me starts getting off in his way, making all manner of furtive movements in his lap, rustling a plastic bag as a ruse. At first I thought he was just extracting something tricky from his noisy plastic sack, but the movement was too rhythmic, too prolonged.
‘How dare he!’ I thought. ‘Greasing the weezer in the juror’s section!’
Again, public shame was in order.
“Compañero! WHAT are you doing?!” I boomed in a voice magnified by the dark.
The guy whipped around, panic-stricken.
“Connie?!” he asked, aghast (see note 3).
“Frank?!” I rasped, not sure I’d seen right. “¿Qué haces chico?” I asked my friend and co-juror Frank Padrón.
“Nothing! What did you think?”
We still joke about this case of mistaken mastubatory identity, but I swear Frank was rustling that bag for an awfully long while….
Some time has passed since I’ve been to the movies solo, but things are rough in my neck of the woods you’ll remember and this drove me back. Perusing the listings in search of a little frivolity to take my mind off things, I hit upon a Natalie Portman vehicle called Sin Compromiso. I headed out…
It was a 6:00 showing which attracts an odd mix of tiradores, drunks, and people who just can’t quite face home after a day’s work. There were only four of us in the theater as the lights went down and the English title came up: No Strings Attached, underneath which was the Spanish title: Sexo Sin Compromiso. Somehow, the listing I’d consulted had omitted that all-important ‘sexo’.
With that one little word I knew I was in for it. When I saw Ashton Kutcher, Natalie’s masturbatory-worthy co-star (if you like them well scrubbed), I knew I was in deep. These two hotties were going to have some heavy sexo sin compromiso and the tiradores were going to have a field day. I prayed it wasn’t NC-17.
The movie was terrible, but the theater remained surprisingly, refreshingly masturbator-free.
Fluke or sea change? I’ll let you know next go ‘round.
1. Some readers might be surprised to learn that Hollywood blockbusters and US/European indie films are primarily what Havana theaters show (plus Cuban films). Cubanos are raging movie buffs and so have the requisite disdain for dubbing, meaning foreign movies in theaters are subtitled.
2. This isn’t limited to movies: before I came to Havana, I’d never been to the ballet, had been to only a handful of jazz clubs, and finally had to forego concerts altogether since where I’m from they are prohibitively expensive for the working poor.
3. I’ve always hated it when people call me Connie – it’s not my name after all – but Spanish speakers get a pass since Conner is hard to pronounce, not to mention remember.