HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 13 — Today is my day to buy gas. We don’t have a gas line coming into the house from the street, so I have to buy a “balita,” as we call the bullet-shaped tanks of gas here.
Every two weeks I go to the supplier with my ration card, my mother’s ID, the receipt and the empty tank so that I can replace it for a full one.
None of this would be necessary if we had gas coming in from the street, but I’m not complaining – mind you. I know what it’s like to live without gas at all.
Before I was born, they had to cook with kerosene at my house, and when I was little I started to suffer from asthma. But we still had to keep using kerosene, despite all the times my mother requested a gas line and even though our kerosene stove was dangerous.
Cooking with kerosene had its advantages though. The families that used it were the first ones to “benefit” (?) from the plan of the Energy Revolution (beginning in 2004) to reduce the consumption of electricity and fuel.
Before anybody else, we received our rice cooker, electric pressure cooker (called a “Reina,” or Queen), and an early electric hot plate, which later had to be replaced. I don’t know if we reduced our energy consumption, but along with the “granting” (really our purchasing) of the equipment, our electric bill went up.
In any case, the new appliances represented a reduction in the use of kerosene, except in the case of a hurricane and the resulting blackout, or blackouts when there are no hurricanes; or when the appliances break down and you can’t find parts (if that happens you’re going to pay through the nose).
But since early 2006, I’ve had my gas balito. Until a few months ago, we paid a “courier” to buy the gas for us and to deliver it to our house.
The couriers are men around 70, some approaching 80; men whose retirement checks aren’t enough to live on. Each one of them will push around three or four tanks in their cart. If the house is an upstairs apartment, they have to carry the balito up the stairs on their shoulder. Each customer pays them twenty pesos (about $.80 USD).
The courier who carried our tank finally reached his limit, strength wise. Now I’m the one who has to go to the station every fifteen days.
There aren’t any men in our house, but that’s no problem; after I buy a tank and cart it home in a wheelbarrow, there’s always some neighbor who will do the favor of carrying it up the stairs. One virtue that we Cubans have retained is that of solidarity.
On gas day, I have to prepare myself psychologically and workwise to lose a couple of hours in the morning. I get to the station at about 8:00 in the morning to “mark” my place in line. By that time, there are always seven or eight couriers already there. They crack jokes between each other, making fun of their own ages, or of those who have lost their teeth, laughing about women who they can no longer have, or kidding about their own decrepitude.
Recently, one of them forgot whose tank he had in his cart, which was enough to make the rest of them bust up laughing. All they do is laugh and make everybody else laugh.
Another virtue we Cubans have conserved is our sense of humor.
Like a friend of mine said to me recently, we would laugh at the rope that’s about to hang us. The couriers laugh and joke around like kids. It seems the shortest way back to childhood is old age.
At 8:00, there’s almost never any gas at the station, but the truck usually shows up around half past eight or nine. Unloading it takes about a half an hour. So around 10:00 or 10:30 I’ll be home with the full tank. That’s what happens on a good day.
Today is not one of those days.
At ten o’clock, the truck still hasn’t turned up with the gas, but I came armed with a book and patience. The couriers are still cracking jokes. However, at half past ten, the truck still hasn’t arrived and all I want is for the geezers to shut the hell up.
But by then, they too have started to lose their legendary Cuban sense of humor, their endurance.
They start to turn into what they really are: old men, who after having worked all their lives, after having thought they’d be able to retire and take it easy, have found out that they have no choice but to continue struggling to survive. Most of them have been here since 7:00 a.m. or earlier.
At close to 11:00, a woman around 70 shows up and asks to find out who’s the last person in line. Someone indicates, mistakenly, that it’s a nearly 80-year-man who got there before 8:00. He has his eyes fixed and doesn’t open his mouth, not wanting to lose any of the crumbs from a pound of bread he bought a half-hour earlier.
The woman asks him if he’s el ultimo (the last one in line), but he doesn’t respond. When she asks again, he squawks back telling her to go to hell.
By 11:30, I’ve read more than half the book, for the second time. The first time was on Friday when someone lent it to me. It’s a book by Marguerite Duras titled Escribir (Writing).
A 60 year-old stranger sees me reading. He too likes literature, and he likes Marguerite Duras. This is the best thing that’s happened all day, talking about literature with a stranger in the gas tank line.
But eventually the man goes on his way, yet there’s still no trace of the truck. I keep hoping. A courier, one of the old guys, says this isn’t anything new or strange, the truck might even show up as late as one in the afternoon.
Life isn’t so cruel. The truck came shortly before noon, and I bought my gas and headed home at 1:17 p.m.