HAVANA TIMES — There are parallels between literature and life. As Paul Auster wrote: “Today, as never before: the tramps, the down-and-outs, the shopping-bag ladies, the drifters and drunks. They range from the merely destitute to the wretchedly broken. Wherever you turn, they are there, in good neighborhoods and bad.”
Yet unlike Auster’s character — who makes a long journey through the streets of New York — I walk through the main artery of Havana’s Vedado district. Here, I don’t need to go any further than 23th Street: The promenade of the impoverished.
These people are concentrated in two key sections: between G and L streets, and in the area of 23rd and 12th. The most popular cinemas and cafes in the area are also concentrated in these areas. Both types of establishments are the preferred destinations of these “homeless” people, whose numbers seem to have grown in recent times.
It’s terrible that such people are in the streets. Dirty, smelly and uncontrolled. It’s terrible and disturbing.
In a couple of minutes we can come up with reasons why these people are in these situations, why they stay stuck like this, immovable, from all appearances without any prospects for change.
We can also see the consequences of their increasing numbers. I’ve had two direct experiences. You might think they’re insignificant, isolated and don’t represent anything, but I don’t think so. It all starts with little things…
The first one was at the “Literary Café” right there at 23rd and 12th. My friend was reading my latest script and I was looking forward to her opinion, drinking down one coffee after another.
There then appeared this man with all the features of a bum – his clothes, his bag of belongings, his stench. He sat down at a table next to ours and began to mumble obscene little phrases at us, mentioning intercourse and making other off-colored remarks.
The logical thing would have been to ignore him, but his proximity and his presumptuousness threatened us with unwanted contact and spitting. I finally said to him — in a courteous tone — “Please, we’re working.”
That’s when everything erupted.
Between another gentleman who seemed to have known him and one of the waitresses, they managed to placate him and get him out of the coffee shop. But for a few seconds my friend and I were afraid of what seemed about to happen. The man had had us on the edge with his ravings and threats.
The second incident was at the Charlie Chaplin Theater. A man, whose smell also permeated the air-conditioned room, also began shouting profane comments, but this time about the film. Someone told him to shut up and that was what triggered a tremendous scene.
No one was able to calm him down. He simply left, before the movie was over, but not without first upsetting several people in the audience. This also didn’t count the long minutes he interrupted the movie or the stench that accompanied him the whole time.
As Auster also wrote: “Hulks of despair, clothed in rags, their faces bruised and bleeding, they shuffle through the streets as though in chains. Asleep in doorways, staggering insanely through traffic, collapsing on sidewalks – they seem to be everywhere the moment you look for them. Some will starve to death, others will die of exposure, still others will be beaten or burned or tortured.”
For me these people are the reflection in a giant mirror in which Cuba can be seen.