February 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

“But who can say what’s best? That’s why you need to grab whatever chance you have of happiness where you find it, and not worry about other people too much. My experience tells me that we get no more than two or three such chances in a life time, and if we let them go, we regret it for the rest of our lives.”



The Sunset Over Key West

February 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

At the very tip of Key West, Florida there’s a monument proclaiming the “Southernmost point,” in the continental United States. That spot is approximately 90 miles from Cuba, and if you squint, it almost feels like you can see the geographically close, but ideologically remote island.

Everybody from Chinese tourists to Hell’s Angels wait in line to get a photo next to the “Southernmost” monument with the horizon and ocean blending together into one seamless blue landscape. What’s often missed is a smaller plaque nearby, commemorating all of the Cubans who have made the trip to Florida, by boat, raft, and anything else that can float, since Fidel Castro took control of the island in the 50s.

There’s no similar plaque on the Cuban side of the sunset, of Americans who headed south 90 miles looking for something a little different. And while I’m not suggesting the economic downturn in the US will prompt laid off factory workers to brave shark-infested waters. I do think it’s time to study our Cuban neighbors and learn something.

A few weeks ago a group of 26 people arrived in the Florida Keys via boat. A fairly unremarkable sight considering more than a million people, many of them arriving via cruise ships, disembark in the Keys every year. But in this case the mode of transportation was a speedboat, and the human cargo, trafficked Cuban refugees.

According to Coast Guard statistics, the number of Cubans setting sail for Florida is up from past years. In the past four months 316 Cubans have been intercepted in the Florida Straits, and returned home. The US Government’s policy known as “wet foot-dry foot,” simplifies things to, if you make it to dry land, you are fast tracked to stay, and if your feet are still wet at sea when you are discovered, you go back to Cuba.

Growing economic uncertainty, and the continued strain of lifetimes spent under a communist regime certainly get at the root of the continued Cuban exodus. An additional 5,000 Cubans are said to have crossed into the US via the Mexican border last year.

But looking out towards Cuba from Key West, it’s a bit of a wonder what Cubans must think before they set out for this life changing adventure, and their reaction when they arrive dry footed at their desired destination.

I’ve been on both sides of that view in the past year. First in Cuba, looking back from Havana’s historic and majestic sea wall, north towards Florida. I remember sunsets off of the Vedado neighborhood. A few families gathering to listen to some local musicians play a song and maybe even dance a little. Mist from the aquamarine sea spraying up and cooling everyone just a little as they sip beers. I feel a sense of calm just thinking about a long Havana stroll.

A few weeks ago I landed on the other end of the telescope, looking back at Havana from the colorful, crowded tip of the Keys. The serenity I felt a year ago was obliterated by a complicated mix of tanned pleasure seekers riding around in ramped up golf carts looking to consume “southernmost” tattoos, beers, and offensive t-shirts. For somebody coming from a country void of capitalistic beacons like McDonald’s golden arches, the Florida Keys must stir some new emotions. Kind of like trading your sip of rum at the unadorned corner stand in Havana for a world that looks like it was organized and decorated by Hooters.

These recently arrived 26 Cuban migrants are very different than the original dry footers, who were fresh from watching their businesses and haciendas expropriated by Fidel Castro. The newer migrant crowd has largely not known wealth, only socialism. But they are aware of the world outside, from a mixture of relatives who escaped and from pirated National Geographic channel DVDs. And they aren’t so sure about Florida, even though 60 % of the Cubans in the US live there.

One rental car employee, who noticed my Cuban baseball hat (purchased at a game in Havana last year), was overjoyed to talk about his home country. He misses it he says, especially the camaraderie and sense of community. He told me he’s dying to get out of the US and head to Spain. “I’ve lived here in Miami for a few years and I’ve never met my next door neighbor.”

I guess, having had the view from both sides of the Florida Straights, I’m left wondering, what if 26 US citizens washed up on the shore of Havana, and were absorbed into Cuban society. What would they feel like in a world void of fast food chains and box stores? Would they stay? Would they choose the unobstructed, low-key view of the sunset from the Havana malecón? Or would they miss the light beer sponsored sunset circus on the Key West pier. I know it’s not that simple, and like many Westerners, it’s easy for me to idealize a very complicated island after a visit.

But while talk in the US continues to revolve around economic downturns, and struggling American families, it might help to look south 90 miles to put things in perspective. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to consume a little less, and have a little less money to focus on. While Cubans continue to suffer greatly in many ways under a dictatorial government, they also have learned a few things that we might embrace. Like knowing and relying on your neighbor, and enjoying the unencumbered version of the sunset, the one where that last brilliant light of day isn’t overshadowed by a billboard.

The Fraternity

February 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

a dispatch from Buenos Aires

The aging proprietor has his back to the TV as he pours house wine into a dime store glass reserved for tap water in most parts of the world. Wine flows like water here, which is evident as the barkeep heaves a jug up to his shoulders and directs the red flow into a funnel. The funnel leads to some green glass bottles whose faded labels suggest they have seen some use over years, not days. The barkeep squints through thick prescription glasses as his pour splashes onto his burgundy apron, a cloth shield that absorbs the red drops perfectly. He is still pouring a few minutes later when he begins to bark at the TV. Although the barkeep has yet to actually gaze at the screen he yells with such confidence that this must be a routine. A series of mumbled explicatives stream out with a climax of, “You Suck.” The 12 patrons of Tabare Café-Bar take their maestro’s lead and chime in with their own variations on “You Suck.” 
The object of disdain is a soccer game and in particular the home team, Boca Juniors, a capable squad that has just taken a 1-0 lead. In fact the Boca players are more than capable, seemingly unbeatable as they dance around their helpless opponents as if intoxicated with the spirit of the tango, a dance that got its start a few blocks away from the stadium.
Just a few days before Boca Juniors was rated the best soccer club in the world.
To this the unimpressed reply, “You Suck.”

Is Tabare Café-Bar enemy territory? Are these men watching their team get beat by bitter rivals? A quick glance around the room provides a response. The walls are covered with three things, a layer of grease from years of short order meals, dozens of pictures of Christ in various poses, and Boca Juniors.
Welcome to Buenos Aires, a city where you can be the best in the world and in the eyes of locals you still “suck.”

On a late Sunday afternoon the first service of the day, mass, is over, and the second, soccer, is just getting going. The Boca stadium, also known as the Bombonero because it is shaped like a box of chocolates, is filled to capacity with screaming fans. The general mellowness of Café Tabare, a Boca stronghold, sits in direct contrast to the scene on the TV above. The feeling is that these men could easily be at the game but why bother.

The strongest glimpse of emotion in this discrete Boca shrine comes from a picture of Christ who sheds a tear as he embraces a lamb. The picture sits just to the left of a bottle of whiskey. Nearby is a team photo of Boca Juniors in their world recognized blue and yellow jerseys looking particularly cocky after winning yet another trophy. If these near perfect footballers suck, it begs to wonder what these hard to please locals make of Christ, god’s version of perfection.

Perhaps upon reading the bible for the first time in parochial school they were likewise unimpressed. Christ’s accomplishment of turning water into wine conjured a “You Suck,” because he didn’t turn grains of sand into chorizo as a complimentary feat.

This seems plausible as the chorus of boo’s increases as Boca passes the ball effortlessly around the field. The mostly 50 something crowd continues to ignore the soccer game except for the occasional glance when the announcers’ voices pick up. They are more engrossed in a game of cards that is being contested with dried lima beans instead of money.

A cat skirts across the room at the sound of a dog barking across the street. The cat disappears behind a curtain in the back of the room. A younger man appears from the curtain almost simultaneously. His furry appearance, big curly hair and a scruffy chin, begs a wonder if the cat simply took on a human form so it could drink some wine and catch the soccer game. Cat-man slaps a few patron backs, grabs a beer from the fridge and heads to the kitchen. The bar has begun to transform into a sort of halfway house for local soccer fans. Grease spatters as Cat-man fries something in a large pan. A few minutes later he sits down with a small t-bone steak and proceeds to gnaw at it so vociferously that one expects to hear an animal-inspired growl.

Back on the TV Boca Juniors star forward has just clipped an opposing player from behind and received a red card. Boca´s coach, the controversial Argentinean Ricardo Lavolpe, is up off the bench and screaming. Lavolpe has just returned from a 20 year exile in Mexico where despite coaching numerous professional teams and even the recent Mexican World Cup team he is still considered a loser and not Argentine enough. Lavolpe is apparently trying to convince his countrymen otherwise as he has transformed himself into a caricature of a Latin man with gelled hair, jeans, and a white dress shirt unbuttoned almost down to his waste exposing a hairy chest and gold chains.

The Tabare fraternity don´t talk much about Lavolpe, which is a testament to just how bad he sucks in their opinion. He is an interloper. Go back to Mexico they say.
While the overly emotional Lavolpe kicks equipment and screams at the referee the bar is a sea of calm as it debates the merits of the red card. The Tabare fraternity seems unworried this turn of events will hurt Boca´s chances of winning. This is the paradox of these men, their indifference is equaled only by their self-assured cockiness. They are not unlike their beloved Boca players, except instead of defeating their opponents with physical skill and grace, these guys dribble and pass with their wits and sarcasm. The result is an equally stifling array of talent.

A tall man with slicked back hair and a black second hand suit walks in to a quiet welcome. He stumbles a bit as he approaches the bar, appearing to have already spent the post mass afternoon drinking. Whatever prayers that were said apparently couldn´t save this guy from some rough moments, a big smile reveals no front teeth. The barkeep pours him a glass of red wine and he shoots it like tequila right through the gap in his teeth. Another glass of wine quickly follows. The man in the suit looks up at the TV screen, sees the 1-0 score, shakes his head and throws a ¨You Suck¨ at the Boca players before he turns and heads out the door.

The poker game heats up and everyone is engrossed. They miss a great 2nd goal by Boca off a set play. Cat-man, still pawing at his steak, doesn´t bother to look up at the TV but is apparently paying attention as he begins to yell por fin! por fin! Finally! Finally! Boca is doing something. The barkeep is across the room at the makeshift poker table losing badly and almost out of beans. He goes back to the bar cracks open a bottle of coke and grabs a pastry from a display case, tearing off half with his incisors as he heads back to face his poker reality. As the game wears on and the Barkeep gets more involved, a sort of open house starts to develop as patrons grab food and drink as they feel like it. A few men grab handfuls of ice from the freezer and dump them into glasses, forming a line in front of a bottle of whiskey. The barkeep grabs another pastry from the display case and eats it quickly. He is back a few minutes later for a third.

The tall man in the suit walks back in the door with wet hair and a change of clothes. He is now wearing a pink golf shirt. Mr. Tall continues on to the bar and picks up right where he left off, shooting glasses of wine, although this time he is mixing a little water in to dull the effect or perhaps so he can drink more.
The Barkeep is now back behind the bar rummaging around for something. He checks a shelf that hosts a curiously eclectic shrine: tabs of aspirin, white out, a figurine of the Virgin Mary flanked by incense and a shot of rum, a flashlight, and an enormous jar of olives. The barkeep gives up for whatever he was looking for and turns his attention to the jar of olives. He sticks his arm in up to the elbow and rummages around for a good juicy prize. After a minute of fishing he finally snatches a keeper and holds it up as if a jeweler looking at a priceless diamond. The barkeep then pops the 24 karrot olive into his mouth and walks back to the poker game.

His grin exudes extreme contentment.

Boca Juniors score a third goal, this time people take note, it is a beautiful curling strike into the left hand corner. A few nods hint at pleasure. 3-0 for Boca.
This strange satisfaction lasts less than a minute as the opposition kicks off and immediately marches down on a lazy Boca defense to score.
The chorus is back, ¨You SUCK!!!¨
Order has been restored.

The barkeep returns to the poker game a phone rings at the end of the bar. Not a cell phone mind you, no, this is the kind of place where you wouldn´t want to be caught dead with technology. Somebody with a laptop or cell-phone would last about five minutes in Tabare, the evil stares alone would send a man reeling towards the nearest Starbucks. No, this is a circa 1970 payphone that is shaped like a box with a coin-slot at the top.

One of the patrons answers it and begins to chat up the other line. It is not clear if the call was for him or not. In this time-warp of a bar details like that don´t really matter. What matters is that you can simultaneously embellish and complain about the best things in life. If you embrace the intricate logic that something can both suck and still be the best, then you are not only welcome at Tabare, you can also pour your own drink, grab your own olive, and fry your own steak.

Top that Christ.

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