The Beautiful Cadaver

Visiting Havana for the first time, and returning to find everything (and nothing) has changed


La Rampa is alive with nightclubs, a steady stream of bodies looking for fun on a Saturday night. The taxi zips up the road, leaves the burnished bodies emerging from the shadowy foliage of the Copelia ice cream park behind, the 20-story hotels, passes through the tumbled down buildings into Vedado. It’s dark, no streetlights, just the glow of the headlights that bounce along the pockmarked road. I notice a neon sign glowing green over an unlit high-rise.

REVOLU ES STR

“What’s that say?” I ask Patricio.

“Hah. That? Revolu Esther,” he says it like someone’s first and last name.

“Great isn’t it? Revolución es construir.”

“Revolution constructs?”

“Close. Revolution is to build.”

I don’t say anything, just look out the window.

It seems cliché, borders on documentary stereotype, but I’m taking a ride in a “classic” Chevy in Havana, Cuba. But it’s not parody, it’s reality, no escaping it.

“What year is it?” I ask.

“Fifty-six,” the taxi driver replies in English. The question is about the car, but I realize I could be asking about the vision outside the window just as well. “You like?”

“Yes. Very much.”

He radiates smug pleasure in the machine. His baby. I understand the feeling having watched my own father toil in delight under the hood of one of these antiques: replace old couplings, grease fittings, jimmy stubborn metals into tight spots. But while Dad could call up a body shop and find parts at junkyards to restore the relic to its former shiny glory, surf the Internet and order expensive chrome rims and replica nameplates for glove compartment and grills, this proud owner has no such luxury. The driver’s car has been wound with wire for a door handle, a Soviet Lada valve soldered to work in its American brother’s heart. Bondo covers rusty gashes and lumpy red paint attempts to blend the hewn collage together.

Earlier we trundled down the Malecón — the main artery that follows the sensuous curve of the ocean — past stacks of buildings covered in flaking green, yellow and pink paintjobs. I am on the trip with my boyfriend Patricio, an American professor of architecture, and I’m here legally: an architecture conference organized and recognized by both governments that allowed me to travel with him as a couple. He’s told me of his interest in the way people have transformed these former mansions and apartments into self-sustained communities, shown me digital images he’s taken over the past few years he’s been traveling to research the phenomenon of barbacoas and explains how the city has suffered from a housing shortage since before the Revolution, an event that took place nearly 50 years ago but is still felt everyday.

“This is never a vacation for me,” he admits. His family left in 1960, relocating to Miami and Puerto Rico, like so many others. Now, when he returns, he witnesses what could have been his life if his parents hadn’t left.

Don Salvador’s vanity.

It’s dark when Don Salvador opens his eyes. He recognizes morning by the way the air sticks to him, settles on his skin. He doesn’t need light. He pushes himself up on his elbows and then swings his feet to the floor where he feels the dusty wood. He runs his big toe back and forth across the grains of the wood to bring circulation to his foot. He’s still dressed in his pants and a sleeveless undershirt. He reaches for the edge of the bed where he finds his blue cap.

First, start the coffee. He leans forward, putting weight on his knees and bends forward at his waist. He looks like he’s going to jackknife from the Malecón into the ocean as he did as a boy; yet now he needs the momentum to rise out of bed. He shuffles from the bed toward the front room, past his wife’s old vanity. He walks to the table and feels the backboard where there used to be a mirror. He fumbles for the Bic lighters and puts them in his pocket.

Left-right-left around the ladder, to the kitchen. He finds the aluminum coffee pot and dips for water in the old oil drum. He finds the jar of coffee and packs it tightly into the base of the pot, screws the two parts together. He puts the coffee on the stove and finds the switch for the gas. When he hears the hiss, he takes the Bic and — whoosh — luz. The blue light sputters and the gas flame casts flickering shadows against the chalky walls where he’s lived these past years since his corazón passed; the space where he’s fashioned his place, like the others around him, from the old Santa Teresa convent.

He thinks of La Habana Vieja when he was young. Before the army. Before El Caballo, the horse: Fidel. Everything changes, he thinks. He hears the familiar boil of the coffee, pours it into his cup, takes his seat by the stove, and does what he has learned to do best. He waits.

The Santa Teresa convent in Havana with residents.

The entrance on San Ignacio Street in Old Havana is a barrier that towers higher than two grown men on each other’s shoulders. Outside shirtless men and boys play handball against the wall. The medieval looking door is thick, dark, scarred. I step over the threshold with my guides: Patricio and Mario, a local Cuban architect who works for the Office of the Historian which overseas the city’s preservation, building history and future developments. Forced to duck through the portal, the three of us enter the centuries-old building.

The zaguán, the wide interior entry that once would have acted as a “garage” for buggies or cars, is dark and smells musty, dead. We brush aside live electrical wires, like so many webs, to enter the light, fresh air of the patio. The open space is populated with skewed front doors, windows that have relaxed and gone trapezoidal. Cubes punch through antique porticoes, suspended rooms that function as kitchens, toilets. Thick stalks of spiral stairs grow upwards. All is pulpy soft; varnish and paint have gone gummy, boards and poles prop up sagging balconies that support bedrooms, plant life, all life, of the building.

Children greet us. “Yes, we live here. What do you want? Yes, this is where many families live. Yes. Do you have chiclé, pens, anything?”

I search for gum in my pocket. It’s soft and gooey. The children yelp and giggle. They don’t save any for later, pop it all into their mouths with white-toothed grins, enjoying it while they can, no thought for the future.

Something enters my peripheral vision: a fishhook inches down near our heads to nearly snag my cheek. Keys are looped on by a neighbor and hoisted up, hand-over-hand, to the fourth floor. “Forty-six families live here now,” a woman says. She smiles — full of grace and patience. “Fifty before a fire and the government moved them out.”

All these families piled together They call to one another across the patio, from grated windows, to front doors. A narrative network of centuries contained in each compound, behind every craftily constructed wall. I’ve heard it described as a living archaeology, and now I understand why.

In other ageing world cities — whether Paris, Buenos Aires, Cairo — one detects the sweet, silent rot of time. Here life is loud, it swells inside the walls, it’s already growing from the decomposition, outsmarting time, not letting it catch up. No past or future. Just so much present.

Don Salvador

The vanity is now heavy with bricks. Don Salvador took them when the building collapsed. It seemed everyday another building fell, usually after the rain. The water soaked into the plaster, the stones swollen, the cement brittle. Then the sun beat down, drying the whole thing up. The building would shrink. He understood, he could still hear the cracking and shifting, like his own joints and bones, until the building tumbled down. He walks in the center of the street these days to avoid the possibility of being hit: He’s too old now to run for cover when he hears the crack-snap — the only warning before a wall slides down and the building crumples. He and the others — men, boys, women, children — all watched as the dust settled and then began to collect the pieces to add to their homes.

On the way back he saw a man selling elbow pipe fittings on a sidewalk and stopped.

“How much, compañero?” he asked.

“What do you have?” the man winked.

“I have these bricks. I could get eggs.”

“Deal.”

Don Salvador left four bricks but kept the others. He shuffled home and snuck by the family that now looks after him.

When his sister visits from Miami she gives the neighbors money and medicines, and they promise to keep Don Salvador safe and healthy. But he knows they are just waiting for him to die, when they can take over his home. It’s a game of give and take: They need him for the support his sister supplies; they need him gone so their family can expand next door.

Gracias, mija,” he mumbles. He’s grateful for the lighters his sister brings in bulk so he doesn’t have to visit the street vendor to refuel them. Disposable she calls them? Right, mija, nothing is disposable these days. The mother in the house next door visits and talks to him in the early evening. “What are you doing, Grandpa?” she asks. But he doesn’t want her to see his bricks.

Don Salvador places them in drawers. He weighs down his wife’s vanity to become a wall, a barricade to the children that play outside his room. He fondles the cabinet hardware, the smooth wood, and remembers his wife sitting in front of it. She didn’t make it. She never saw what their beautiful city has become. He has survived, but he isn’t sure for how much longer.

Dusk along the Malecon in Havana, Cuba (photo via Wikipedia)

“The city is a cadaver with a good body,” Pedro says. He grins and adds, with more mischievousness than malice, “Be careful. She is a dangerous lady.”

He’s bold enough to break from the party line to admit that he’s embarrassed when foreigners, especially other architects, visit Havana. It’s a comment that, if overheard by the wrong ears, could possibly cost him his job or the small amount of influence he has gained to rent out his home to tourists. “You know I am no longer really an architect,” he says. “I’m now a hostel keeper. I make more money that way.”

We’re taking a coffee with artists, architects, writers near the Plaza Vieja, a focal point in the La Habana Vieja lauded by the Office of the Historian as a symbol of good urban renewal. It demonstrates their power in cleansing the city of the “decadencia,” or decadent decay, that has slowly crept in to mar the beauty this dangerous lady once possessed. Like a heavy makeup over acne scars, Havana’s choicest buildings are coated in flashy paintjobs, fountains are fenced off and restoration projects create the semblance of what Havana should look like to impress visitors into capturing a glimpse into a particular history, instead of the harsh reality of its present.

Before Mariluz, another architect and planner, leaves the table for the restroom, I notice her tear her paper napkin. She stands and folds it to conceal in her palm; her other hand digs for a peso in her purse. When she offers the coin in a tray at the door as a tip, she refuses the proffered tissue as payment and enters the dark restroom alone. The attendant checks the coin and follows after Mariluz to turn on the light. She calls a “Gracias” and returns to her post.

This sort of fastidious grace strikes me as a learned necessity my grandparents or their parents would understand, something hardwired from the Depression or times of scarcity during one of the World Wars. A people who understand the value of an object, know its uses, adapt everything to every possible permutation even if that’s not what the instructions call for.

Her tip is one of respect since she’s aware that she would not usually be dining at such a restaurant, not because it’s not allowed, but because it’s prohibitively expensive and would be equal to several months’ salary. I feel a pit open around the table that I must carefully maneuver around, the same as in all my dealings here. A bond exists between every Cuban I’ve met — a recognition, a quiet perseverance — that I can’t quite understand and fear I could so easily romanticize and exploit.

When she returns to the table, Mariluz interrupts Marta, an Italian woman at our table, when she orders a coffee with milk. “Don’t order the café con leche,” she counsels. “It’s one dollar more.” She reaches back into her purse. “I brought this,” and she produces a CoffeeMate container, which she passes around. Ana blushes, the powdered creamer a sacrilege in her coffee culture, as are the heaps and heaps of sugar spooned into the dark-roasted brew. When the pot of sugar is emptied, Pedro asks for another, which also quickly disappears into the cups. Why not? It’s “free.”

***

It’s been more than a year when I return to Havana, this time (illegally) via Europe, and little appears to have changed. Castro has once again reformed the use of the U.S. dollar, his still powerful presence on television rants against the “Oppressor” to bolster confidence. At the same time, thousands have been living without water for weeks with no promise of relief except for the trucks that dispense potable water to lines of people armed with buckets, bottles, pots and pans. Busy streets are crowded with tourists to whom industrious hawkers repeat their familiar cry: “Cigars. Puros. Real Cubans.” New buildings are being renovated in the city center; others have finally succumbed to gravity and fill the streets with rubble. This is literally the calm before the storm. Two days later Hurricane Charley whips through the city, holing tourists up in their hotels, knocking down ropey banyans on the Paseo del Prado, felling unlucky buildings and people.

When we visit the Santa Teresa convent, Patricio points out that the web of wires that were once draped over eaves, threaded around poles and wrapped the courtyard are now bundled together and collected in plastic tubes to be managed safely. As I walk up the stairs, through arches, under damp, mildewed vaults, I feel the protection these walls offer, the solace, the peace. It’s a community of life calmly maintained; a precarious inertia that refuses to cease.

We walk up the stairs and are confronted with children dressed in white underwear, shirts and short skirts, their skin brown and soft from the sun and the sea as they cartwheel on the concrete.

Hola, kids! Where is Don Salvador?” Patricio asks. They look up at us, an interruption in their games. Their eyes widen at the foreigners, but they’re not afraid, just curious.

“He’s not here anymore,” they answer. “He died.”

“Really? When?”

“Yes. Yes.”

We continue walking down the corridor created where the other barbacoas jut out from the wall, crowding the balcony. A space near the end is now empty. The plaster is colored darker where walls once gripped and mold grew. The front walls can be further mapped on the floor where we stand — a space that I could hardly lay down in without bending my legs. The back living quarters are sealed off with a cement barrier. The vanity that once held part of the man’s story, the walls and doors that could be read as phrases in the narrative of the city, have been erased. Don Salvador has evaporated.

We ask around to other neighbors and they confirm the children’s information. Don Salvador fell ill six months ago and didn’t recover. He was taken away and his home destroyed. Several others were transferred as well, including the family that acted as his caretakers. Did we notice the other changes? The State has been here to check on things. “They’ve made improvements,” one woman tells us. “Perhaps, one day, we’ll see, maybe we will see big changes. Until then, we’ll wait.”

That tug of the future can be seen in their eyes. Progress. Plentitude. Possibility. But as they trade their homes quilted into the interior fabric of the city for concrete high rises on the edge, I wonder what will be lost. It’s not a new story: As the government seeks to resurrect and preserve a grand history it inevitably erases another. The tales written into the bits and pieces woven together to construct these ciudadelas, these fortresses preserving community and culture, will eventually be erased and forgotten. Don Salvador will just be an anecdote, an unfortunate footnote, the incorrect solution to an unpleasant, unattractive condition. We already know those in power control history, but it’s only now that I recognize that it’s not written just with language. History is stories: Stories constructed with bricks and sweat, patience and risk, words and memories. Those materials now seem more durable, believable to me. Those stories, like the people who have shaped them, may just last.

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