by Larry Lefkowitz
April 25, 2011
Havana. The colorful city that I had always hoped to visit. And so when someone who was more than an acquaintance but less than a friend had “business” in Havana (importing Cuban cigars) and offered me the chance to come and “assist” him, I jumped on the opportunity.
Myself, I never smoked cigars. My Uncle Arnold did so with vigor (he referred to them affectionately as “stogies”). Their odor was repellant to the women in our family, yet I liked it, probably because I associated it with my uncle, who enjoyed amusing me, then a lad, by producing imaginary knocks on the wall as if an imp or gremlin was trapped inside it. The creature had a name, but it has escaped my memory. This all happened in America many years before I immigrated to Israel and met the aforementioned cigar-smoking and cigar-importing friend.
Our first day in Havana was spent buying up cigars in various parts of the city at cigar factories. The workers in these factories recognized and greeted my pal warmly. He purchased “Cohiba” and “Monte Cristo” cigars under the table – both literally and figuratively (the workers sat rolling cigars on tables) -- at ten dollars per cigar instead of the official price of twenty-five to forty dollars each. On our second day in Havana, my companion insisted on going alone on “private business.” Cigars or a woman, I mused (he was divorced).
So I began to stroll, by myself, in Havana, feeling like Leopold Bloom - the hero of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”- strolling through Dublin, though the northern city and the southern city could not be more unlike in their temperament. Having a daiquiri at the “Flordita” bar, whose famous drink drew Ernest Hemmingway, did not interest me. Nor visiting the “Boydita Del Madio” to sample its pride-of-the-house mochito, which libation Hemmingway liked to imbibe between his daiquiris. The two establishments, at opposing ends of the city, had become two poles of a tourist magnet that visitors migrated between like iron filings attracted hither and thither on a sheet of paper. And if the diurnal Havana sun or nocturnal humidity made them thirsty on the way, “Havana Club” rum was sold on every street corner.
As I perambulated through Havana, a city seemingly proud despite its decadence - or even of its decadence - like a once rich Spanish grandee come upon hard times, I wondered whether after Fidel Castro left the scene, when Cuba would perhaps revert to a capitalist ‘success’, many Cubans would look back in nostalgia (despite their economic hardships and, for some, political hardships) to this age of Castro, just as many East Germans today look back in nostalgia (because something is missing) to the East Germany that was the German Democratic Republic.
After approximately half an hour of leisurely walking, I found myself in a square where there seemed to be some kind of celebratory event in the offing; the square was bedecked with ribbons and flags, and in its center stood a wooden platform draped in bunting which appeared to droop from the humidity, and police (more than usual) were in evidence. Suddenly, I saw a bearded figure approaching whose features seemed familiar. Surrounded by guards, he was dressed in a uniform of neatly pressed fatigues (the antithesis of Arafat who looked like his uniform was taken from a Purimspiel). The man stopped near a ribbon striped in the Cuban colors, looked at his watch, handed his half smoked cigar to an aide who tapped it against a flat piece of wood which he took from his shirt pocket, kept apparently for this purpose, put the cigar in a cellophane bag (did his frugal leader – yes, it was Fidel Castro! – continue to smoke it later or was this part of the national effort to keep the streets clean?) and took an “at ease” posture, apparently waiting for the proper time for the ceremony to begin. Or maybe waiting for the band, whose members hovered nearby, wearing straw hats and equipped with guitars and bongo-drums, to strike up a tune.
The band constituted one of the many imitations of the “Buena Vista Social Club” musicians that could be found in every part of the city, if the music it was going to play would be happier (for the occasion) than the music (and words) that could be heard all over Havana, sad and possessed of a noble decadence that echoed Old Havana’s faded pink and blue buildings and the yearning of its inhabitants for a bygone era of its splendor. Fidel looked younger than his octogenarian years.
I edged closer, eager to see this figure, for whom I harbored mixed feelings of affection and rejection. The affection stemmed from a period soon after the Cuban revolution when my older brother, then a travel agent visiting Mexico as part of his work, met two young bearded representatives of the new regime (which we were all then sympathetic to) and had his photograph taken with them. The photo appeared in our city’s newspaper. Later Castro became less a socialist and more a communist, and alienated me further by taking the Arab side (politically) in our dispute, if relating to Cuba’s Jews in a positive manner.
To protect myself from the merciless Havana sun, I wore a red baseball cap upon which was written in white script: “Cincinnati Reds.” I couldn’t recall where the cap came from, probably a visitor from the States left it with us. Now this cap apparently caught the leader’s eye, either because its red color appealed to his socialist predilection or because it sported the name of a baseball team, Fidel being an inveterate baseball fan. To my amazement, he called out to me: “Hello, Pete Rose” in English (probably because the lettering on the cap was in English and also because I looked like an American tourist). Pete Rose, as every baseball fan knows, starred as a player for the Cincinnati Reds.
I assumed that he was bantering with me, surely aware that I wasn’t Pete Rose. The others surrounding Fidel looked amused. I could hardly pose as Pete Rose, yet I felt silly saying, “I’m not Pete Rose,” which in addition to this being clear to him, sounded in my mind as a bit hostile. I removed my hat and bowed to him. He let out an expansive laugh, and his entourage smiled.
I thought that the general mirth marked the end of an amusing incident I could tell people about back home. But then El Lider Maximo waved me to approach him. I replaced my cap and walked toward him until I stood a few paces from the man whose iconic photograph I had seen innumerable times. “I’m happy to meet you, sir,” I said.
Without reciprocating my felicitations, he asked me, “Are you a baseball fan?”
“Yes, sir -- I have even written baseball stories.” My own words surprised me. They had just popped out. I assume that unconsciously I was striving to impress him.
He raised an eyebrow. “Really, what kind?”
I tried to recall a story that would interest him. “I wrote a story about how they tried to clone Babe Ruth, but in the end the guy looked like the Babe, swung the bat like the Babe, but the best he could do was dribble the ball to third.”
Encouraged by my growing rapport with the famous man, I ventured, “Although I am not Pete Rose, as you well know, I did write a story about him – well, not about him, but a story in which he played a small role.” Fidel nodded, which I took in my enthusiasm as a sign to continue. (Later, I reflected that maybe his willingness to listen to me stemmed simply from the fact that it was not yet time for the dedication ceremony to begin and he might as well pass the time in idle chatter with the baseball capped tourist.) “The story concerned a fellow named Rose, Jeffrey Rose. He committed a minor economic crime, but found himself in a prison reserved for hardened criminals because his infraction had cost a politician a considerable sum of money and the latter had arranged for his incarceration in a maximum security prison.” I feared I was getting into possible dangerous territory, politically speaking, with this talk of prisons (a sensitive topic in Cuba) and hastily moved the narrative on. “Anyhow, the cell and prison leader and his coterie gave our Rose a hard time until they discovered that he was an expert on baseball and that he came from Cincinnati, the city, which led one of them to ask him if he happened to be a relative of Pete Rose. Our Rose hesitated, then reasoned that he didn’t have much to lose, given their hostility. He indicated that he was. From that day on, he was treated with respect and even a kind of awe. However, soon enough there appeared a fly in the ointment.” “A fly?” Castro asked, puzzled. An aide whispered something in his ear, app arently a translation of the saying. He nodded. I resumed my narrative. “Another prisoner was a relative of Pete Rose, if a distant one, who cast doubt on our Rose’s story. This relative sat on death row – awaiting execution, and the others dismissed his claim to be his actual relative, reasoning that he simply was looking for sympathy. Yet our Rose worried lest the truth come out, and so he waited expectantly (not without feelings of guilt) for the real relative’s execution. As things turned out, he - our Rose - was paroled before the execution. A reporter who knew the story, asked Pete Rose if Jeffrey Rose was related to him. ‘Never heard of him,’ he answered. Our Rose did not wait around to see if this denial reached the ears of his quondam prison buddies, and prudently left the country. Rumors (the story ends) had him in Cuba, where he had obtained a job with a Havana baseball club apparently thanks to a hint he let drop that he was a relative of Pete Rose.”
Fidel scrutinized me. “Your name is ‘Rose’ – the story is based on your life?” he asked, fingering his beard absently.
“No,” I replied, regretting the fact that my name wasn't ‘Rose.’
He seemed disappointed. I was disappointed that he was disappointed. A silence ensued.
I hesitated. I looked around. Everyone watched Fidel and me. A few kids, I noticed, wore shirts bearing the portrait of Che Guevara. The shirts reminded me of another sports story I had written. It involved Che Guevara. Would what I was about to say please Fidel or offend him? I tried to sound casual. ” I once wrote a story about Che Guevera. Not a baseball story, but a sport story nonetheless. About how Che came down from heaven [ok, in the story he was actually in purgatory, but I glossed over that fact] in order to come to the miraculous aid of a Jerusalem basketball team whose young fans wore red shirts, the team’s color, with Che’s portrait on them.”
“Che?” Fidel said. “To a Jerusalem team?”
“I live in Israel,” I said. “I immigrated there from America.”
“Israel,” he beamed. I don’t know why. Maybe the fact that I didn’t live in America or that his name is Castro and Castro was sometimes a Jewish name (like the name Rose, for that matter), one of Columbus’ Jewish sailors was reputedly named Castro. Yet I doubted that my Castro knew of this genealogy. I decided against raising it. I reasoned that I had left him confused enough with my story about Che Guevera. I thought to cause him to wrestle with his possible Jewish genealogy was going too far.
He started to ask me an additional question, but at that moment the band struck up a march. Fidel smiled at me, turned to his aide who handed him a scissors with which to cut the ribbon, and did so with a flourish. He shook hands with some local officials, and as the music stopped on a signal from an aide, mounted the stairs to the platform. I was hot and tired from my walk, and perhaps also enervated from the effort of trying to make an impression on the Cuban leader. I was in no mood for a three-hour speech, even if it would have been about baseball, which it assuredly would not be. As I walked back to the hotel, a thought gnawed at me: What would have been the result if I had told Fidel Castro that my name was indeed Rose? Or more than this, that I was a relative of Pete Rose? But I wasn’t sure I wanted life to imitate art. If Fidel was to discover that I was embellishing the truth, he might not take it kindly. I didn’t want to spend time in a Cuban prison like the protagonist of my tale did in an American one. Not even a prison in colorful Havana from which one could hear from afar the inimitable music of the Buena Vista Social Club.
The stories, poetry and humor of Larry Lefkowitz have been published in the U.S. Israel and Britain. Lefkowitz is currently hoping to find a publisher for his novel manuscript "Lieberman" about a literary critic. Replete with literary references. Chapters have been published in a number of publications, including the Yiddish issue of European Judaism.
Copyright Larry Lefkowitz / The New Vilna Review 2011.
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