HAVANA TIMES — Crazy people, those who have lost all touch with reality or their “marbles” (as it is said colloquially), the “mentally insane”, as they are also called, abound in all countries around the world.
Well, folks, Cuba has had no shortage of crazies either. Our history and the changes the country has experienced, has made their numbers increase or decrease at different points in time.
For example, in the 70s, there was a 30-something-year-old fellow in my neighborhood who’d stand by a bus stop and, gesturing towards an imaginary interlocutor, hold entire conversations about Marxism and communism. People said the Party had “fried his brains”.
Around the same time, in Santiago de Cuba, two well-known and slovenly lunatics walked the streets of my grandma’s neighborhood: Stale-bread (a woman) and Firefighter (a man).
Both were over 40. When Firefighter walked by, children (who can be cruel in their innocence) would yell: “Firefighter, put out the fire!” and run after him, throwing stones at him. Stale-bread would get a similar welcome, replying to every stone-blow in anger. According to my grandma, he had once been a fireman and the woman been left by the man she loved.
Other examples come to mind. During Cuba’s Special Period, one would see people walking down the streets of Vedado or Old Havana in dirty, ragged clothes. Some looked like vagabonds (people who, for family-related or economic reasons, were out in the street all day) and mingled with those who were allegedly deranged.
Many got by with the things they found in the garbage and by salvaging plastic cups or bottles, which they later tried to sell to ice-cream parlors or shabby soft-drink kiosks.
You’d see them wielding a stick like a sword, talking to themselves, or yelling at passersby.
How hard it was for me to see Carlos Embale, a renowned Cuban singer, peddling around the Cathedral crafts fair in Old Havana, offering to sing in exchange for a few coins. People said he had suffered a mental breakdown and run away from home.
One would also see an elderly gentleman drumming on tin cans, a man who lived out on the street until recently, who eked out a living with the coins people dropped in his cans. And a fellow who would roll metallic tanks at the entrance of Galiano boulevard. Both created a pleasant atmosphere in the public space about them.
For the longest time, I would also come across a father and his son – well-groomed and proud-looking – who would very respectfully ask people at the Palacio de Armas Park for cigarettes. It was well known that they were homeless.
Today, you see less of these kinds of people marauding the streets, running into them only occasionally. Their hair and clothes hardened by filth, they usually smell like they haven’t seen a bath, or roof, in a very long time.
Truth is, we are separated from so-called nut-jobs by a very thin line, a line we are always afraid to cross. This may be the reason we mistreat them so much, because they are a kind of mirror showing us a reflection we do not want to see.
Every one of us has a different way of reacting to sudden changes or pressures in our lives and, just like living cells, some people respond by assuming a new interpretation of the reality that surrounds them.
The point, folks, is that being rejected by society is never a pleasant situation, no matter where in the world this happens, and we should be mindful of this. In the social upheavals that await us, I am sure these individuals will again make an appearance, to speak to us about where we can end up or who we can ultimately become.