I No Crazy

Jorge Cuba 1994

I first saw Jorge, as I later learned was his name, in a party store next to my Spanish hotel in Havana. I guessed that he was in his late twenties–slight and looking not at all, to my way of thinking, Cuban. His brown hair was neatly clipped and his clothes were baggy and old but clean, his trimmed beard perhaps more the result of a razor shortage than choice.

Jorge seemed to be wandering around the store, unsure of what he would choose to buy. He lingered over the soda pop bottles and ran a hand over the small stand of chips and candy. He caught my eye and knew it. Soon he was at my side and speaking to me in English with a thick Spanish accent. “Can you help me?” he said. “I want to buy something for my daughter’s birthday party, but I do not have enough money.”

The Author Restaurant & Taxi

I had been in Cuba long enough to know that nobody had any money, that anybody lucky enough to own a car was available as taxi service, and anyone with a dining room would happily turn it into a restaurant for any tourist they could find. The night before, I had been picked up along the Malecón by a husband and wife who stuffed me into the back seat with their children and drove me downtown for one dollar. My favorite taxi driver convinced me to have dinner with a family friend. When he took me to their home, I was the only guest, and then he and the lady of the house both waited on me restaurant style, serving pork with beans and rice, fried plantain, avocado, and squash. They presented me with a bill, on a scrap of paper, asking for two dollars. They could barely conceal their delight when I presented five crisp American bills. My driver explained, “This is illegal, but we must have dollars for soap, shampoo, other necessary things.” Then he added, “Cuba boasts the best mechanics in the world, you know. When parts wear out they make new ones,” which explains how the streets of Havana are alive with cars that in America would appear only at an antique car show.

“I can give you a tour of the city,” Jorge offered. “I am embarrassed but I do not have enough money to buy something for my daughter. I am ashamed but it is not my fault.” He began telling me about his life, but thought the better of it, since this was a store for foreigners. “Not in here. . . ,” he whispered. He chose a large bottle of Coke and handed it to me. “Please?”
Outside the store, Jorge opened up as we walked the short distance back to my hotel. “I am a doctor,” he said, “but I have no medicine.” He said he did what he could for his patients but he felt cheated out of his profession and upset over how much of his practice was done at no charge because nobody had any money. He explained to me that he was divorced, his wife had taken up with another man, and he and his daughter were growing farther apart every day. “I want to get out of Cuba, but I cannot leave.”

Every day during my time in Havana, I had watched as another makeshift raft or two departed Cuba on the treacherous waters of the Caribbean headed toward Florida. Fearless and desperate men under a fireball sun shouting farewells to their families from the choppy waters.

“What would you get if you could put Moscow and Barcelona and Miami in a cocktail shaker, add a touch of Soweto, mix them up real good, and pour the drink into the Caribbean?” I challenged Jorge. He looked perplexed. “Havana,” I posited: “The communist system together with Spanish culture, a touch of poverty, and the American dollar. If you are paying in pesos, prepare to be ignored; if you are paying in dollars, someone moves you to the front of the line.”

After I explained that I was attending a library conference, Jorge asked if I would like to see the clinic where he worked. We walked into a crumbling courtyard where people of all ages were milling around under balconies that looked ready to collapse. It did not look like a clinic at all. “I have given up,” Jorge said. “I show up, I talk to patients, I leave.” He explained that he lived with friends in one of the crumbling apartment buildings along the sea.

We walked around central Havana, stopping at his apartment along the water, climbing the crumbling stairs, passing unpainted cracking wall, where he introduced me to two friends who spoke no English but clearly longed for contact with someone from the outside world. Their bathroom had not been altered since it was installed in the 1950s—the plumbing exposed and leaking, having been repaired many times over. “We do not see American tourists walking around Havana very often,” Jorge explained. Already accustomed to the safety of Cuba, I offered to take them all to the Hotel Nacional for a drink, the grandest and most elegant place in the city.

“No, no,” Jorge asserted. “Locals are not allowed. Well, I might be able to walk through with you if I speak only English and talk like a tour guide.”

“What about your friends?” I asked. The guys were already hanging back, looking and acting like the hotel would be too far above their station. I could not convince them to try, naively confident that because I was American I could bring anyone I wanted into the hotel lobby, even though I was not staying at the Nacional. Both of the guys were much darker than Jorge, scruffier, and looking painfully local; they could not pass for European. They deferred to him completely and seemed thrilled with the idea of just being able to be near an American.

Jorge and I headed inside to have a look. He nervously explained some of the history of the hotel, which opened in 1930 and quickly become one of Havana’s prime destinations for American celebrities—unless you happened to be an African-American celebrity. Not much different today, I thought, when European-looking Jorge could stroll in but his darker friends would have been thrown out, or so they said. I bought each of the guys a can of Bucanero beer, and they went on their way. Jorge went back to work, but not before he suggested we meet in the evening and go to a nightclub and hear some music.

At dusk, I walk to the same party store near the hotel, and Jorge is waiting there for me in a change of clothes. “Have you been to this nightclub?” he inquires, referring to the fancy place next to my hotel but with its own entrance, outside of which many young women stand waiting and watching for new arrivals.

Jorge explains how the game is played: “Beautiful girls wait here for a foreigner or a rich man looking for a date. If he likes one of them he will escort her inside and she will have the time of her life. He will pay for everything, all the drinks, they will dance, and if she is grateful enough she will go home with him and make sex.” He says it all without a bit of embarrassment.

“Sounds like prostitution to me,” I suggest, “and they look a lot like prostitutes.”

“No, they are not prostitutes. They are young girls who just want to have fun. There are not so many places in all of Havana where they can go and wear something sexy and have a good time and feel glamorous. Let’s go in. If I am with you they will let me in. I will pretend I speak only English and do not understand Spanish.”

“And who is going to pay for all of this?”

Jorge looks perplexed. “I have no money, but I won’t drink much and we will have a good time. I am so horny. I haven’t had sex in months. Maybe at the end, the girl will come with us to your hotel room.” I can hear American dance music playing inside the club. Tourists and young couples who appear to be local but well-heeled are hurrying in.

One of the waiting girls, a glittering bleached blonde no older than twenty, had been eyeing Jorge. He invites her to step over to us and talk. Her girlfriend giggles. She is stuffed into a short skirt that emphasizes the roundness of her butt, and she is speaking animated Spanish so fast she has to gasp for air. Clearly she is desperately eager to get into the club and trying to persuade us to take her. Jorge’s good-natured horniness is working its magic on her.

Jorge switches to English. “She is really beautiful, don’t you think? She is so sexy and beautiful,” he urges, “let’s take her to the nightclub. Then maybe she will want to have sex. She can go with me and her girlfriend will go with you. I think this is how it is done in these hotel places.”

“I don’t want to have sex with her or her girlfriend,” I state calmly. By now, the girl is waving her arms in the air, gesturing and pointing toward the club entrance, her jewelry jangling on both arms, her head whipping around like a pinwheel on her long neck.

Jorge starts to cajole, like an innocent little boy begging his father for a treat. “Oh come on, please. Listen, you can hear the music. I need sex so bad and she is so beautiful. If you don’t want her, I will let you watch. Please, let’s go.”

By now the girl is being driven crazy by my reluctance and she concentrates on Jorge, urging him on, apparently not understanding that either I go or nobody goes. She starts marching in place and her voice grows shrill.

“No,” I tell Jorge. “You don’t want to go with her either; she’s crazy!”

Suddenly the girl snaps out of her fit and looks directly at me. “I no crazy!” she shouts and stomps away. Only then it occurs to me that she probably really is just a hot-to-trot teenager desperate for some fun, the kind of fun that is more or less forbidden to the Cubans but tolerated in foreigners with cash.

Street crime is virtually non-existent in Cuba, and walking in Havana feels safe, but every day, no matter what time I walk the beach outside the hotel, young men are stationed here and there in Speedos, whistling from the distance and displaying themselves to anyone, man or woman, walking alone along the shore. I mention this to Jorge. He shrugs his shoulders. We walk on and he explains what is rationed for a family of five for one month, with a libra being slightly larger than a pound: 25 libras rice, 1 libra oil, 25 libras sugar, 1 small bar of soap, 4 packs of cigarettes, 1 book of matches, 2 packets coffee, and 1 loaf of bread for each day.

In the square, Jorge again tries to pass himself off as American. A makeshift stage has been erected and, and bassa nova wafts gently through the crowd, some people are dancing, others just stroll. Four young men surround me and two of them practice their English, talking about Cuban music. They are also hanging around on the off chance they might meet a foreigner, the day’s most enticing entertainment. We sit at a wrought-iron table and they tell me how much they like the music of the Cuban group Los Van Van, but they are more enthusiastic about their love for American music, American clothes, all things American, peppering me with questions and translating for their Spanish speaking buddies.

Back at the hotel, we drink beer and watch Fidel Castro on television talk endlessly about the Cuban exodus and the blame that belongs to the United States boycott, which, according to him, is to blame for all things wrong with the nation. When it grows late and I tell Jorge that I have an early morning meeting to attend, he does not want to leave.

“I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to go anywhere except out of Cuba. Help me get out.” He speaks in a sad but matter-of-fact way about his imagined escape that I can somehow engineer. “Can I just stay here tonight? I am drunk. I will sleep here,” he says, curling up on one of the two large beds in the room in the hotel suite.

In the morning, we both wake up early. He looks at me shyly, shirtless, blanket held up to his chest, as if suddenly suspicious that I might jump him, as if losing his faith in me.

“You have to understand,” I tell him, sitting on the bed beside him. “I like you. I can see that you are a good man, but you have a daughter here, a life here. What would you do in America?”

He looks at me as if I have lost my mind, as if saying, “Why would you of all people not understand that I have no choice but to leave this place.”

“When you get home, I will write to you and maybe you will understand and maybe you will find it in your heart to help me.”

“Get dressed and get ready,” I instruct. “You can come with me to the lecture.” And he did.

Soon after I returned to America, I received a letter from Jorge full of impassioned pleas for help and promises to do anything for me because he knew we were kindred spirits, brothers inside, if only I would help him get out of Cuba. I never answered.

I heard from him only one other time, less than a year later, by letter from Florida, where he had arrived with someone else’s help, and was building his new American life. He said he had a girlfriend and was very happy.

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