By Aurelio Pedroso (Progreso Weekly)
HAVANA TIMES – Although I have no firm proof, Cuba might be one of the few countries where finding the good (or terrible) services of a trades person requires a great deal of patience, pleading, luck, and even that old supplication “do me the favor, for your mother’s sake” – even though you may live to regret it, in many cases.
We’ve been through worse times, let’s be fair. Those days in the late 1960s when everything was “consolidated” (barbers, electricians, watch repairers, even spiritual advisors) and when finding a carpenter, a mechanic or a plumber to come to your home was akin to a covert intelligence operation, super-covert even.
The tools arrived from one direction, the repairman from another because no one should find out about it, least of all the CDR [Translator’s Note: Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, neighborhood watch organizations.]
The government’s blessing upon self-employed workers has managed to allay those nightmares. But something’s still wrong. Either those people are very much in demand or they lack respect for their clients or are not serious or punctual when responding. Heaven protect you if it’s a combination of two or more flaws.
Be careful, very careful with those people the Spanish call “manitas” [handy people]. They come to you as jack-of-all-trades who know everything. They criticize the work previously done in your house, wreck everything around you and disappear without a trace in the hubbub of the street or the darkness of the night. Real household vandals.
Out of this pleiad of good and bad day laborers, I ran across an elderly repairman of gas kitchen appliances who lived and had a shop in El Vedado. This senior citizen’s excellent skills and initiative made him extremely desirable. People could recommend him without later hearing that he was a phony.Today, his grandchildren run the business and every time they finish a job they clean their tools the way their grandfather taught them.
Another dependable worker is a repairman of household appliances at 26th and 15th streets, also in El Vedado. Sitting on a school desk next to a small table, he instantly fixes any defective appliance – and for a reasonable price, too.
But these examples are almost exceptions. The other itinerant handy people need to be avoided at all costs, the way bullfighters dodge the bull. For the moment, they live at the top of an inverted pyramid, where they earn more than a surgeon, who faces a lot more challenges when he walks into the operating room.
There are various ways to interpret this situation. It would seem that the drowsiness and lack of gumption learned from the bureaucracy, inefficiency and lack of drive run through the veins of some of these new microentrepreneurs.
Time, that battered yet valuable concept, will hopefully put them in their rightful place. Some years ago, a foreign friend of mine kept asking me what would happen in Cuba when time played its real role. We can already see what is happening.
Something peculiar happens with mattresses. Day and night we hear the calls of street repairmen offering to fix your mattress. The most ramshackle mattress, with the most stories to tell, mattresses that anywhere else would be tossed in a dump, will be made new for about 30 dollars, they claim.
Not bad, because a new mattress will cost you more than 200 dollars in a furniture store, and, as my grandmother used to say: “How does the cockroach sit down?” [T.N.: A Cuban expression meaning an unattainable wish. Cockroaches can’t sit down.]
One way to measure the passing of time is to realize that freelance repairmen no longer shout “I stretch bed frames! Babies’ cribs, adults’ beds, I stretch them all!” a cry that once was made into a popular song. The classical bed frame has disappeared, replaced by planks of wood that, paradoxically, are good for your spinal column.
These mattress repair people are all over Havana. And it appears that the demand equals the supply. I would like to summon a gathering of furniture experts and listen to their conclusions. I bet they’d agree that the new mattresses are extremely expensive and of the worst quality.
I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those experts said that we lie down and sleep excessively (two different activities) to the detriment of our health and the humble mattress’ structure.
Summing up, we have much to look forward to in terms of private initiative. For better or for worse. For better, hopefully.