I was limping around Manhattan in search of a cubano, a pressed sandwich with ham, cheese, pork, and pickles, when a group of menacing Hispanic thugs carrying metallic baseball bats approached, and passed me by without really noticing I was there. Never was I more relieved.
I remembered when I was on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, a playground of Mayan pyramid, or perhaps it was a landing pad for space aliens. Influenced by the signs advertising “Cuba Trip", I wondered whether an American could get away with traveling independently there, with a briefcase stuffed with Jacksons. Cuba for some time now has been on the State Department’s list of countries to avoid, closed to American tourists (except those on government-approved bus tours). I asked some questions of a grizzled Canadian old hand, running an “import-export” business on the beach, who agreed that, of course, you can go to Cuba, but you can’t spend any American bucks there. He also said the average cab ride costs about $20.00 U.S. I could tell by the expression on his face that he thought I was a “smuggler".
With NAFTA and stuff, I thought I could squeeze under the limbo poles of the border patrols. Waking up weeks later, with one of those inky cartoon tornados over my head, signifying that I was a little bit miffed about something, I felt around for the lousy bump on my noggin. I had had a dream that I was investigative reporter Tintin, the creation of Belgian illustrator Hergé, wandering around a decrepit cockroach-infested dock area of Miami, questioning stevedores about the real contents of the cans sporting the logo of the crab with golden claws. Then I got rolled and clobbered by a lead pipe and woke up in the cargo hold of some ship bound for Havana. I came up with an idea for a Halloween movie: “Hershey’s Adventures of Tintin".
Castro was waiting for me. I rolled out of bed, fiddled about in my bureau for my semi-“illegal” duty-free Uppman cigar, a gift from a friend, its case resembling a polished porpoise. I lit up, lips wetly pufferfishing on the stem, and released a veritable atomic mushroom cloud of heavy stale smoke, struggling desperately not to inhale. Some of the bad smoke still got in. I dragged my bruised carcass over like a lumbering wildebeast to my bookshelf, scanning the ridged bindings for Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea. I poured myself a ”ron y coke", which I think in some Caribbean ports-of-call is a euphemism for cuba libre.
What was that Bay of Pigs thing about again? Despite the presence of foul-smelling communism on the impressively bearded, but historically obsolete dictator Castro’s private country club, the recent émigrés I’ve met say, in so many words, “We’re just like you; we know how to party". My foreign friends from Europe, the kind of blasé hip cats who unselfconsciously sport Speedo briefs among topless femmes fatales, do indeed report back about the obvious beauty of the blindingly white beaches and worthiness of accepting universal healthcare in return for backbreaking labor in the sugar plantations and a piddling trifle of a paycheck.
Hey free boots! No offense, but a big Caribbean island like that, just as in the old days, would be an automatic telling draw. Fred and Ethel are indeed coming to tea, Lucy. If Cuba’s economic and political system wasn’t based upon a sadsack holed up in a London flophouse, penning elegantly written manifestos, oozing sour grapes and social inferiority complexes, wondering how much pricey brandy he could drink if everyone united and worked for him for exactly five years – then, and only then, we could actually imagine some unimaginably beautiful utopia based on the vision of Sir Thomas More. But remember, he was literally beheaded for poaching. Like the fraud Freud, crazycat Karl was the most overrated Marx Brother on the planet. I prefer Zeppo.
Anyway, in every restaurant here in New York, Spanish is widely spoken, a lot of it behind our backs. I shudder in translation. With evident hilarity, the line cooks and busboys are probably buzzing and razzing me with nicknames like “left fender” and “driveby weightlessness". Every time a Spanish waiter approaches me with a ten-foot-long shaker resembling a rifle barrel, asking “Fresh Bepper"?, I thank my lucky stars and stripes that I was born in the free-trade humor zone called the good old U.S.
Someday, Cuba will become a “territory” of the mainland mind and main street Norte America. Remember Guantanamo Bay, which has operated as an American military base the entire time of the wretched cold war. "Viva la cafe con leche" I toast, curling my fingers into Spanish quotation marks, and arching an eyebrow into a tilde.
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