By Erasmo Calzadilla
I could hardly make it anymore. Every day I had to bear the pain of trying to walk and to give classes standing while wearing a pair of shoes whose heels had collapsed.
I repeatedly stuffed the cavities with cardboard and wads of cotton, but they soon gave way, and were back to the same shoddy condition.
Although I’m the first to applaud the achievements of this form of so-called socialism, every day I fear that the system -where it’s impossible to buy a decent pair of shoes on your monthly salary- is becoming unsustainable.
Yet when I look at the feet of my fellow citizens, save a few exceptions, I’m confused to find that their situation doesn’t seem as critical as mine – despite my wage being above average.
I suppose that family remittances, private employment, and workplace theft are some of the reasons that explain the literally well-heeled youth who usually surround me.
Over time, I scraped together a few pesos and went reluctantly to spend them at Carlos Tercero, one of the biggest malls in Havana. As is the norm, the shopping center charges in a currency that it does not pay to its workers.
Let me take a moment to explain. With the national currency with which one is paid, it’s almost impossible to buy shoes or any other article of basic necessity. I also have to clarify that when you change national currency to hard currency, they charge you a tax on the transaction.
In any case… in the store, I first stopped to relish the shelf of Adidas running shoes, the favorite of champions, but the prices only made my blood run cold. After marveling over the latest in footwear technology, I turned to where the shoes produced by lesser-known factories are displayed and sold. These have the reputation -wrongly or rightly- of falling apart in a week.
Almost no pairs in that section went for less than 15 CUCs (Cuban hard currency), which is a little more than half of the wage that I earned when I worked at the University. However, that was a figure that never remained by the end of the month, since everything went for more necessary items. I found myself conflicted in an internal debate: on the one hand, my feet complained sorely, but on the other, my pocket refused to let go of 15 CUCs.
To make matters worse, since my conscience became aware that I was there considering buying new shoes, it put me on guard, preventing me from opting for anything made of animal leather, though these are the strongest and most attractive. I knew this was the pretty face of cruelty transformed into business. The more I was tempted, the more I envisioned cows raised with care for when they reach a certain age, at which time they’re stripped of their “raw materials.”
In short, between the compunction of my conscience and the circumspection of my pocket, I decided to make a half turn. I left in pain to go to other stores in search of shoes that would meet two requirements: they had to be cheap and not made of leather.
At the exit of the store I was faced with an enormous poster with Fidel’s words of revolutionary fervor, though it struck me as absurd that this would be located in a place where indispensable articles were sold at unaffordable prices.
In another store I finally came across what I was looking for, but since I didn’t have any experience buying shoes, I ended up with some that were a bit too big. I almost felt the joy in my soul when I paid only 7 CUCs for them, but this still wasn’t the end of my concerns.
While I was paying the cashier, she said -looking at me fixedly in the eyes- that the merchandise could not be returned. I didn’t quite get the message at the moment.
Later however, once outside of the establishment, I sat down on a bench to put on the new shoes and to throw the old ones far away. At that very moment, two old men were passing by.
One stopped to say to me, “You want some advice? Go and return them right now because they’re rotted. In a week they’ll be splitting at the seam. That happened to several of us who work here next door, at the cinema. We came out like you, all worked up and excited about having found something attractive yet cheap, but they turned out to be shit.”
Then I thought about the cashier’s words, and I understood that she was trying to keep me from trying to return the shoes once they fell apart.
I thought of returning them at that very moment, but I had my doubts. They looked so nice, and my feet were so comfortable!
If worse comes to worse, I won’t be able to say that I wasn’t warned, but I will still complain to the clerk.
This week still isn’t over, and I’m already a little nervous.