Odd Jobs in Life

By Alfredo Fernandez

A portion of the port of Santiago de Cuba. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

HAVANA TIMES – In the early hours of February 18, 1996, at a funeral home in Santiago de Cuba, I discovered that I had a strange attraction for odd jobs. My grandmother’s corpse, which had just lost life, had entered the funeral home and that was where I discovered the first of these odd jobs: mortuary makeup artist.

I remember that the man responsible for doing this work at the funeral home was a slim, tall and grey-haired man. My father gave him 20 pesos and he really did improve what would be the last image of my grandmother, who had died at 84 years of age, after 17 days recovering from a cerebral hemiplegia.

The man did his work with great integrity and professionalism, I remember him slowly and delicately brushing on specks of powder to make up my grandmother’s defenseless face.

If I’m sure about anything, it’s that nobody thinks when they study a make-up course that they will end up beautifying dead people’s faces. You only make it into this profession by having taken detours and falling from a strange fate, which I don’t want to call adverse, but strange, yes.

At the turn of this century, I remember how in Havana, in the middle of a concert at the Amadeo Roldan theater, a young woman with a walking stick and sunglasses walked onto the stage from one end, guided by a theater employee. She walked up to the piano located on one side of the proscenium and tuned it, as was needed for the next piece that the orchestra would be playing.

I am sure that this young woman, blind and still in her youth, never saw herself as a piano tuner, at least that’s what I think. Maybe she imagined becoming a great pianist, or at least a prestigious teacher of the instrument. But no, there she was, in front of a full theater and with an impatient orchestra, who waited for her to finish tuning the piano that she would never play, at least in front of a large audience.

I also once met a Mexican man in Havana, who worked as a “Cake decorator” in Mexico City. He told me that business was good for him, that his business had quite a few employees; they made the cakes and to top them off, he decorated them. He had lots of customers, so many that he was able to travel every now and again to Havana to look for female company.

Then, he told me that he had dreamed of being an architect as a child, that this was his only frustration. That he imagined himself designing skyscrapers and modern buildings, but that Life had put him there and he didn’t complain, because in some way or another, decorating cakes was a parody of the architect he never was.

Writing is when I feel the closest to doing an odd job. Yep, being a writer is definitely an odd job in my eyes. You can also be a make-up artist, or tuner, or decorator… of words, all of these things all mixed up in one.

Except for rare cases, writers normally run a very similar luck to the jobs cited above, with a work that is generally written for shadows, or to go neglected, which is the same thing. It is rare for a writer to reach a thousand readers with a novel, it’s even rarer for them to earn money with their words.

Life’s dizzying pace, audiovisual information overload, and the sublimation for something instant, has made readers a rara avis, and many editors warn that there are more writers than there are readers.

It doesn’t matter, like that make-up artist who turned my grandmother into a sight for her last moment, or the blind tuner who got the piano ready for an orchestra which she will never play in, or the anonymous cake decorator in Mexico City, the act of weaving words with some sense around a story will always give pleasure to the person doing this, at least. The rest – Fate – is in God’s hands, who deals us our cards in life.

Alfredo Fernandez

Alfredo Fernandez: I didn't really leave Cuba, it's impossible to leave somewhere that you've never been. After gravitating for 37 years on that strange island, I managed to touch firm ground, but only to confirm that I hadn't reached anywhere. Perhaps I will never belong anywhere. Now I'm living in Ecuador, but please, don't believe me when I say where I am, better to find me in "the Cuba of my dreams.

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