The Old Custodian

Irina Pino

Parking lot where the watchman works.

HAVANA TIMES — You’d see him come into work with a tattered backpack, a stocky, dark-skinned man with a full head of gray hair. Almost immediately, a yellow dog would come running, merrily wagging its tail, and start playing with him. It would stay with him while he looked after the cars in the lot.

The man, pushing 80 but still brimming with enviable energy, was a custodian who worked every two days, sometimes as many as 12 hours a shift. He worked at the parking lot of the CIMEX*corporation and earned a salary of 250 Cuban pesos, plus a monthly 25 CUC incentive. These custodians do not carry firearms and wear a distinctive uniform.

There was a time when this parking lot was guarded by SEPSA* personnel. These custodians were paid much better salaries (in terms of hard currency incentives). Every month, they were also given cooking oil bottles, packaged chicken and other food products. When the company was restructured and the management changed, the SEPSA custodians were replaced with people of very humble backgrounds, including elderly people. I believe this was done to save on the other things given the previous custodians, and that the new recruits were far cheaper (all they get is their basic salaries).

How is an elderly gentleman expected to keep guard on an entire parking lot, where there could be as many as a hundred vehicles (between cars and motorcycles), and then patrol the place throughout the early morning without getting a wink of sleep? Are the 35 CUC a month worth it? The answer is yes. Many people cannot pass on a salary like this one, even though it doesn’t cover all of their needs (to say nothing of the high prices at stores and markets, where product prices have no real relation to their incomes, or the amount added to the real price at many places).

This type of work should be done by young people who are able to recover in their day of rest. An old man, however, isn’t as strong and becomes more easily exhausted both mentally and physically.

The back side of the CIMEX parking lot.

Whenever I saw him and said hello to him, I would tease him and tell him he was no longer fit to do that kind of work, that he ought to be resting at home and enjoying his free time, watching movies and going out with friends, that all that toing-and-froing on buses and the nights without sleep were going to do him in. He would burst out laughing and tell me he was a widower and that his daughter and grandson barely paid him any attention, that they didn’t even seek his advice on anything, and that he got bored at home. What’s more, as a retired trucker, he earned a miserable pension. At the parking lot, at least he spent the time talking to people…and the dog kept him company.

Once, I got back home in the early morning and realized I didn’t have the key to the gate outside my building, and this good man did me the favor of repeatedly calling my son (who was sleeping) from his post, so that he would come down and open the door for me. I will always remember him gratefully for that simple, kind gesture.

He always seemed to be in a good mood, though there were weekends in which he became grouchy, seeing that his workmates weren’t doing things properly (other custodians let cars owned by people who didn’t belong to the company park there to earn a little extra cash). He hated injustice and bribery.

I didn’t see him for a couple of weeks and, when I asked about him, I was told he had died of a second heart attack.

He had squandered his last years watching over other people’s cars. But the worst part is that this man wasn’t able to enjoy the love of his family during this time, nor any form of entertainment that could have nourished him materially and spiritually. His was an existence thrown overboard, silenced – as though that human being had never been important to anyone.

Many people around here have already forgotten the old man and his dog.

*CIMEX: Cuban State company founded 20 years ago, characterized by its financial stability (both at home and abroad). It is made up of over 80 branches scattered across the island, as well as specialized divisions that operate in broad and important sectors of the Cuban economy.

*Empresa de Servicios Especializados de Protección, S.A (“Specialized Protection Services Company”)

Irina Pino

Irina Pino: I was born in the middle of shortages in those sixties that marked so many patterns in the world. Although I currently live in Miramar, I miss the city center with its cinemas and theaters, and the bohemian atmosphere of Old Havana, where I often go. Writing is the essential thing in my life, be it poetry, fiction or articles, a communion of ideas that identifies me. With my family and my friends, I get my share of happiness.

5 thoughts on “The Old Custodian

  • Hi Charles Boesen,
    I translated it into English, although there must be a better translation somewhere, for sure. I did quoted the name of the poet, who lived in around 4 to 5th century.

    the rest was all mine…

  • For the kindness shown to you and other neighbors, for his indomitable spirit, I don’t think his life was in vain; his actions, his spirit, his personality live on, and are an incentive for us to live lives with kindness, compassion and consideration. Thanks for giving us a glimpse of his life, and how he affected you.

  • I see from your article a portrait of an elderly man who was able to still find a sense of purpose in his life. We live in a time when, in many parts of the world, the experiences and wisdom of elders is not valued by younger generations. And where jobs are scarce, some people believe that seniors need to move on to give younger generations opportunities for work. In our very busy and needy lives, these attitudes add to the isolation of elders.
    For this gentleman, who felt that his family did not need him, this job provided him with a chance to improve his life, to socialize, to take pride in his work, and to feel needed. If he was able to fulfill the requirements of his employment, why would his age deny him that right?
    I disagree that his last years were squandered – this was his choice above other options. And even though he may be forgotten by many (something that we can all eventually look forward to), I appreciate that I have had exposure to this human being’s integrity and spirit through your article.

  • I truly enjoyed the story. Secondly, August Zhao, did you write the quote in your response? “If we only look…” I really appreciated it and would like to re-post it, and give proper credit. Thank you.

  • “Relatives might still be mourning;
    while others have stared singing;
    the after-matter of death;
    is to become part of the mountains”
    by Chinese Poet Tao Yuanming (365-427 AD)

    If we only look at our physical beings, then we all end the same way, no matter who you are. So the bigger question we should ask ourselves, is what we are doing while we still alive? What is the purpose of my life?

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