Category Archives: Cuba

20 Years Later

On Sunday, I sat on a plane that flew from Los Angeles to Newark. Flying always shocks me. It’s the take off, really. No matter how many times I do it, I still sit there, strapped down, picturing the pilot moving the throttle. Nose up, wheels up, wings up, and suddenly we’re at some unnatural angle going some unnatural speed at some unnatural height, and every time I think “What a feat of engineering and physics!” I become jealous of those tuned out on whatever device they’re allowed to have on or whatever movie they’re trying to download or whatever book they’re reading. The plane levels off, and about 45 minutes to an hour in, I’m able to relax—sort of—and crack open a book, though I’ve learned that reading while doped up on Klonopin means not remembering what you read once you’re off the plane. If it’s a smooth ride, I relish the view from 36,000 feet.

I had to make this flight (I have walked away from the gate before) because on Monday, I was scheduled to participate in a reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village—West Village, to be precise. I had attended a reading at this venue last year. It’s a wonderfully classic Beatnik kind of space, a basement below a restaurant that is narrow and dark with a small stage draped by a red velvet curtain and doused with bad lighting. If the cafe allowed smoking down there, none of us would have been able to breathe, for there are no windows.

The participants were from the inaugural Cuba Writers Program; I was one of six readers. I read a piece that was recently published in Catapult about a waiter I met in Havana. His name is Alexander, and he got me cornflakes when I was feeling sick. We need more Alexanders in the world.

This was my first public reading. I was told I did an “excellent” job, and even came across as funny and engaging. People I didn’t know came up to compliment me. On stage, I could sense the audience was enjoying the piece, so I started to relax into my own words, and reading your own words aloud always sounds different than writing them. Whatever happens with my writing career, at least I can say my first public reading was in Greenwich Village to a standing room-only crowd, and that the audience liked me.

There was an after-party a few blocks away at this writer’s apartment. He organized the event and lived on Bleecker Street. If you don’t know New York City, Bleecker Street is, or at least once was, the heart of Greenwich Village. I lived at the corner of Bleecker and Mercer Street 20 years ago, and as we were walking to this party, we walked past my old building. We also walked past the CVS pharmacy that I had once signed a petition to help keep out. The Grand Union where I used to grocery shop was gone. Bleecker still had record shops, a few loud bars, cafes, and a tattoo parlor, and maintained that noisy, gritty vibe I remember when living there. New York University is right there, so the neighborhood teems with students, and 20 years ago, I had been one of them, pursuing a master’s degree in journalism.

The party was held in this gorgeous apartment filled with gorgeous mid-century furniture protected by several large, clean panes of glass windows overlooking Lafayette Street, a north-south road that takes you into Chinatown, Little Italy and the rest of the Lower East Side. The street is named after the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolutionary War, and I wondered what he would have thought of this big, garish thruway with its giant billboard about a film that sort of, kind of makes fun of war, because those big, beautiful windows offered a clear view of that promotion.

A couple of strange things were going on in my head that night, and this is without wine or Klonopin. One, that just the day before, I had been in Los Angeles looking out at the Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory and palm trees through large windows long overdue for a cleaning. That had been my view for 10 days. Two, that I was a guest of a man who had lived in this stunning apartment for the past 23 years, and that 20 years ago, he and I and unknowingly been neighbors, unaware that in two decades, we would meet at an airport in Miami. I wasn’t invited to such parties 20 years ago, where accomplished people hung out, drank wine, talked about books, and could take in the view from wherever they stood because the view was everywhere. I was a bit of a wreck 20 years ago, very bitter about a family court battle I had been dragged through, completely broke, borrowing money from an ex-boyfriend generous enough to help an ex-girlfriend, struggling to make ends meet and to stay focused on my studies at NYU. In July 1996, I dropped out of the NYU journalism graduate program and got a job at a small newspaper in New Hampshire, basically applying my degree before I had it while earning a much-needed paycheck. I was 12 credits shy of finishing my master’s, and never went back to complete it. I do not come from an educated family, so no one was around to advise whether dropping out to take a newspaper job was a good idea or not, which means for a 23-year-old, I was quite free to chart my own course and make my own mistakes. And I did. No one stood around grooming me for success, as I see so many parents do with their children now, and as we gladly do with our 12-year-old daughter.

For years, I felt hugely embarrassed about being an NYU dropout, and for being the emotional and financial mess that I had been in my 20s. My roommate and classmates were A students from upper middle class families who summered in South Africa and Germany, who took unpaid internships at large-city newspapers because they needed experience, not cash, while I sold flowers for $8 an hour at the Union Square farmers’ market, which, to this day, remains one of my favorite jobs ever. At age 23, I lacked just about all the things my peers had to become successful. If my 43-year-old self could have talked to my 23-year-old self, she would have said “Chill, sister. It’s going to be a weird road, but an interesting one, and you’ll get there, just not in the same way your classmates might get there.”

Walking by all those purple NYU flags that dominate Greenwich Village didn’t affect me Monday night. It used to, whenever I was in Washington Square Park or bopping around MacDougal Street to meet a friend for lunch. I had enjoyed myself on stage. People whose names I don’t remember praised my work. I was a writer reading in Manhattan heading to a party at the fabulous apartment of another writer. I felt my own kind of take off. Either it was the jet lag or maybe New York was softening towards me. New York City is not easy on anyone: writers, actors, musicians, people in general. A colleague of my husband’s recently left New York for L.A., worn down by the city’s frenetic pace and stress junkie tendencies. We’re looking to move to L.A., too, and sometimes I wonder if we’ll be packing up just as New York decides to like me after all.

I Stink At Blogging

It’s June 22, and I just realized that my last blog post was two months ago. Unless you’re a famous author like George R.R. Martin and know that you can blog whenever you feel like it, and hundreds or thousands of people will still read you, blogging is supposed to be more of a regular thing, something you maintain, like toned triceps or abs. My husband is good at this, this blogging thing, as is his colleague, Chuck Wendig, who seems to fire-breathe copy while I sit on my front porch, laptop open, shitting kittens over every word, fussing with phrasing, trying to recall everything Jim Shepard said when I was at Sirenland this past March. And maybe Chuck shits kittens over every word, too. He’s just more of a pro about it.

So the blog gathered dust (it’s also undergoing a redesign because I’m tired of all this blue). Meanwhile, I was traveling, writing, and getting published, so no complaints here. I had my first piece for AFAR, about camping in New York City. Then, there was an essay I wrote about a waiter I met in Havana last month. That same week, my first article for The Week was published, so I felt a bit splattered across the Internet in a short amount of time. Is this how Chuck Wendig and George R.R. Martin feel when their stories go viral (certainly more viral than I ever will), and when people they don’t know comment on what they wrote? It’s a cool, weird experience that I am still getting used to.

And while I haven’t been blogging, I have been reading—a lot. I finished Naomi J. Williams’ brilliant “Landfalls”, which I scored as a free gift for attending the annual One Story Debutante Ball. I didn’t know anything about Ms. Williams or the book; I literally picked it up at a table because I liked the cover—18th-century ships being bullied by moody green waves—and I love me a good journey story. I brought the book to Cuba with me last month, and had to keep putting it down because it was so good. Now I’m reading Louise Erdrich’s “LaRose,” which is equally gripping. In between, I tried reading Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s blockbuster novel “The Nest,” and got 104 pages in before I decided I can’t take reading about affluent white New Yorkers anymore and the shit storms they create for themselves. Same thing happened this past winter with Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s “The Ramblers,” though there, I only lasted 40 pages. Rowley’s blog is titled “Ivy League Insecurities.” I started wondering if I should have such an emotionally-charged, socioeconomically-loaded blog title, but only came up with “State School Struggles” before recalling that I had learned—after graduating from state school—that alliteration is for amateurs, and, really, just plain uncool.

I’ll try to blog more often for those dedicated 2.5 readers out there, but in the next few weeks, I have something I’m working on for The Scofield, a mega-thinky platform led by the intrepid Tyler Malone (thanks, Tyler!) and a few assignments about Cuba I gotta focus on, and writing about Cuba always makes me happy. I can’t explain it. I’m a blonde suburban mom who grew up in the Snow Belt, who studied French instead of Spanish, and I’m as gringa as they come. But Cuba feels right. Maybe I’ll blog about that someday.

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Remembering the Cuba I Visited

Last year while walking underground through Montreal’s subway tunnels, I became extremely jealous of Canadians. I’ve always liked them but now I suddenly resented them. There, plastered before us while we waited in sub-zero temperatures for our train was a massive ad promoting a sunny beach vacation in Cuba.

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The ad displayed the usual eye-catching tropical hues of blues and oranges and yellows. I wanted to walk right into that poster. I wanted what the Canadians had, the freedom to pack sunscreen, fly directly to Havana, bask on Cuba’s pristine beaches, shimmy to bachata music in the streets of Havana, dine on “Moros y Cristianos” and slippery pork sandwiches, and buy whatever else fancied them without worrying about not having purchase power.

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It wasn’t that way when Mike and I went to Cuba in 2003. We flew through Cancun. Our connecting flights on Air Mexicana were purchased in Mexico. We arrived at 1 am in pitch dark. There were Che Guevara posters and murals everywhere. Everyone smiled and no one stamped our passports. Without credit cards or any access to our money, we had to make the cash stashed in our various pockets last the week. No splurging. We counted pennies and mojitos (just one per meal to stay within budget). What we didn’t account for was that the beachfront hotel where we were supposed to stay had gone out of business. Our cab driver, a young sympathetic guy who actually carried a cell phone, took us to another beachfront hotel that cost a bit more. We could swing it, but it would be tight. And it was. But what a week.

What I remember most about Cuba is its unblemished beaches, sand so white and fluffy it looked like fresh snow fall. The water was that distinct Caribbean blue you can’t find anywhere else in the world. This was the cleanest beach I had ever seen and covered with Canadians and Germans sprawled out on towels and blankets. I remember the fully-suited guards surveying the water with their binoculars, strolling the sand. One came up to me to inform me in rapid Spanish to close up my purse. I remember a beach vendor selling Pringles potato chips, that the beer was about $1, that old men really do play chess all day in Havana, that the chicken dishes I ate in Cuba tasted very chewy and stringy, and that the coffee was phenomenal and made me want to pull up a chair next to those abuelos, sip coffee and play chess til the sun went down.

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Today’s news from President Obama brought this all back. I never understood this mid-century trade embargo with Cuba and it appears millions of others never did either. We always kept trade going with China despite their human rights record while this bizarre, dysfunctional relationship with an island nation 90 miles from US borders needlessly withered. Meanwhile, the Cubans developed a kind of perseverance and resilience and resourcefulness that can only grow from living without, raising generations of MacGyvers who can readily take a bunch of random objects like a battery, an old toothbrush and a spare tire and make a functioning machine. Seriously, you won’t find a better mechanic on the planet than those tinkering in Cuba.

I want US-Cuba relations to normalize, if that’s the word we’re going to use, but at the same time I don’t want Cuba to become the next Punta Cana pit stop. What will the “new normal” with Cuba look like? Las Vegas in the Caribbean? I was drawn to Cuba while walking around Vienna in 2002; I saw a magazine cover story about Havana’s colonial architecture crumbling. Cuba did not have the money to preserve its own history and its yellowed, cracked buildings were slowly collapsing with age. I traveled to Havana as a journalist the following year because I wanted to see what might not be visible for much longer: 17th century architecture, those 1950s classic cars, streets free of McDonalds and Starbucks. You know how hard it is to travel the world and not trip over an American retailer? I’ve only visited two places so far where I didn’t have American capitalism in my face: Isla Isabela in the Galapagos and Cuba. Cuba is old and beautiful and I want it to stay old and beautiful, though I know that’s an unfair demand. Yet, still I worry about what’s going to happen now. American corporate sugar daddies were just waiting for this moment, for a new generation of leaders to scratch their heads and ask “does anyone recall what we were fighting about?”. Economic prosperity is for everyone everywhere, but I’ll selfishly admit here on the Internet: I hope Cuba says no thanks, or at least doesn’t permit American businesses to overrun what makes Cuba so Cuban.

So how did I leave things with Cuba? Money was squeaky that week, but Mike and I made it back to Mexico with 15 cents to spare. By the time our six days were up, we had just enough money to cover a cheap lunch at the airport, which was a sandwich and an ice cream that we split, plus our airport departure tax for two. I had to pee before boarding, so I went to an airport bathroom and bought some single-ply toilet paper from the attendant because the stalls didn’t provide freebies. Mike thought that was a bit of a binge–that I’ve gone in the woods without toilet paper before–why did I have to blow money on some wipes now? But I just couldn’t fly back to Mexico feeling that way so I gave the attendant the coins I had left in my pocket and she gave me back 15 cents because I had overpaid her. Flushing my last bit of spare change now didn’t feel so hard. We left Cuba with 15 cents between the two of us, which was 15 cents more than what I expected to leave with so I felt like a winner walking out of a casino. About two hours later when we were settled into our hotel at Cancun, we ordered a massive dinner, too many daiquiris and charged it to our credit card. We were back in full capitalistic action with that youthful feeling that anything in the world was ours again if we could afford it. But I admit, feeling broke in Cuba gave me a bit of a thrill. Now with the embargo set to lift, American tourists can buy all the toilet paper in Cuba they want, wiping without worry, but they won’t appreciate it the way we travelers did under the embargo.

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