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Coming back to the States for a visit is always odd. It’s an out-of-place feeling common to most expats I suspect – awkward yet surreal, like watching a movie you know by heart dubbed in Thai or Tagalog.
For years I’ve carried my ‘Cuban-ness’ back with me and it freaks people out. I touch people while in conversation, call strangers “sweetie” or “honey” (our closest equivalent to “mi amor”) and crowd everyone’s personal space. Solidarity flows from within me for the downtrodden and I chat in Cubano with every bus boy, street sweeper, and young thug I can.
But something about this trip is different. I’ve brought more than my touchy-feely Latino tendencies and finely honed español back to New York this time. Suddenly, I’m seeing how much the Big Apple (my birth home) resembles Havana (my adopted home). And not in a good way.
The similarities are disconcerting in no small measure because they represent an entirely new perspective. For years, I’ve parsed the differences between my old and new homes. On those rare occasions when I did examine commonalities, I focused on how Havana resembled Manhattan, not the other way around. But my perception has flip flopped this trip. Have I crossed some imaginary frontier? Is this what happens when birth home cedes incrementally, but irreversibly to new home? Have I gone native?
Looking back, I realize it started as soon as I deplaned in Miami (see note 1). Approaching the escalator to baggage claim and customs, I noticed a white haired woman – old, but in no way frail – hesitating at the edge of the moving stairway.
“Would you like some help?” I asked her in Spanish. She took my arm gratefully and we maneuvered down towards customs together.
“I’m missing a contact lens. It’s hard to navigate the escalator,” she explained though I didn’t ask. Thinking about it now, it seems more likely that she had never before been on a moving staircase – you can count the escalators in Havana on one hand. Besides, she was from Varadero.
Mirta told me she was visiting her son who had left Cuba a dozen years ago. It was her first time in Miami. I told her I’ve lived in Cuba for 9 years, though she didn’t ask.
“I’ve lived there for 74,” she responded proudly.
Once we got shuttled to the customs green line (see note 2), Mirta explained that she had to call her son and tell him where she was.
“He’s too tacaño to park and come find me,” she said touching the point of her elbow – the Cuban symbol for cheap.
I liked Mirta’s spunk (see note 3) and was kind of appalled at her inconsiderate son, but I didn’t have a cell phone. Less than 30 minutes on US soil and already I was a stranger in a strange land. Even so, I couldn’t just ditch Mirta in the middle of MIA like a Cubana would her brand new husband she’d used to emigrate. I felt an obligation to ‘resolver’ the situation.
I spied a guy with a phone hooked to his belt and asked if he would lend it to us for a quick local call. He apologized saying his phone was broken. The second guy I approached was totally embarrassed, explaining that he had no money on his. Strike one and two a lo Cubano: cell phone as fashion accessory and no cash in the account. Luckily, the next guy not only had a phone and spoke Spanish, but was an MIA employee and had a soft spot for little old ladies. Mirta went from my care to his, but not before planting a farewell kiss on my cheek.
Mirta was lovely and I enjoy making deposits in my travel karma account, but I shrugged off the episode: it was Miami after all, with Cubans acting like Cubans down to non-functioning phones. But New York looking like the other side of the Straits gave me pause. And it’s not because Havana is evolving, my friends. Rather, I was seeing that shit happens, things break down, and systems fail, even in all mighty Manhattan.
It had been a long night, but I had places to be. I rolled off my friend’s couch, inhaled some good, strong coffee and hustled off to the PATH train. When I got there, all the MetroCard machines were broken. And there was no attendant in the booth. Hola? Is this Havana? I braced my arms on either side of the turnstile and prepared to hop. It’s not my fault I can’t pay, I figured in that particularly Cuban way.
“The cameras will catch you,” a woman behind me said. “Allow me.” And with one fluid motion, she swiped her card through my turnstile.
I ran to catch the train, ‘thank you!’ streaming down the corridor like a boat’s wake.
As my train shuttled past chop shops and strip clubs, I thought about how weird it was for something as necessary as ticket machines to be broken here. Weirder still was a stranger coughing up a couple of bucks to bail me out.
When I got to Newark, I had time for a bite before my next train. Eating: it’s an all-consuming pursuit of mine, especially since many of my favorite foods are as rare in Cuba as multi-tasking and fidelity. When stateside I’m a junky for Thai food, sushi, tofu, cheese of all types, bagels, pizza worthy of the name, mussels, crème brûlée, asparagus, artichokes, and something known in these parts as an almond horn.
Saliva pooled on my tongue as I approached the case packed with Black & Whites, croissants, crullers, and turnovers. There were macaroons, brownies, blondies, carrot cake, cheese cake and muffins. Danish jammed against bagels, while the bialys yearned to be noticed. But nary an almond horn in sight. Mysterious absence of normal foodstuffs: this felt familiar.
As I tried to contain my disappointment and choose from the (too) many choices, an announcement boomed throughout the station. ATTENTION PASSENGERS: DUE TO A POWER OUTAGE, THERE WILL BE NO TRAINS RUNNING UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.
A blackout? Of indeterminate duration? Here? The similarities were getting increasingly eerie – and frequent. Later that day, choosing something simple off the diner menu (faced with too many choices again), the gum snapping waiter informed me they’d run out of that dish. This is de rigueur in Havana where you eschew the menu entirely, instead cutting to the chase by inquiring, ‘what’s available?’ But here, in the land of plenty? Things run out? Since when?
Then there’s the ban on incandescent light bulbs. From the “news” coverage I’ve been able to stomach, I gather this is chapping a helluva lot of asses around here. Seems the USA is compelling people (sort of, in a way, only those willing) to swap out energy-draining incandescent bulbs for more efficient compact models. In Cuba, we did this in 2006 (“Year of the Energy Revolution”), when brigades of young folks across the island went door-to-door removing incandescent bulbs and replacing each and every one with the energy efficient curlicues (note 4).
And the potholes. I can’t remember a time when there were so many giant holes pocking New York City’s streets. Everyone is blaming it on the bad winter, but these craters are Diez de Octubre worthy, forcing drivers to swerve and veer in an effort to avoid them, exactly as we do in Havana. On some NY roads, there’s no avoiding them, they all bleed together to form one giant hueco. Is this all the fault of a harsher than usual winter? Regardless, invoking something as nebulous as the weather to justify the crumbling streets seems so….Cuban.
It’s sad – I don’t want my hometown to fall apart – but at the same time, it’s reassuring in a way. Maybe we’re all in the same hand basket, headed hell-ward, no matter if the point of departure is Santos Suarez or SoHo. Or maybe it’s simply that I’ve crossed that imaginary frontier, where my ‘otherness’ is finding its (dis)equilibrium between here and there. Either way, NY no longer feels like home.
1. As a journalist, I’m legally permitted by the US government to travel to Cuba on the 45-minute, $400 charter flights between Miami and Havana.
2. As we all know: green means go. Once I ended up on the evil red line where a buxom agent threatened to liberate me from my 5 cent cigars. The yellow line is only marginally better (and perhaps worse for all its ambiguity).
3. Dedicated HIH readers know my fondness for viejitas.
4. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I refused to swap out our bedroom light (no way I’m fucking to fluorescents) and snuck in some incandescents in my suitcase.