Cuba on Skates: King of the Road

By Amrit

Joaquin showing his old wheels.

HAVANA TIMES, March 9 – Joaquin P. Gonzalez Cabrera flashes past like a whirlwind skating down Alamar Avenue. In one hand he grips a rubber tube to protect his knees and elbows in case he falls and on his head he has a helmet that says “Alamar, Lone Skater.”

I’m just another bystander waiting impatiently for the P-11 to take us to the other side of the tunnel, gazing with envy at the dwindling form of the old man as he vanishes into the distance.

I wrote once that we append that crude organism of locomotion known as the bus to our bodies to compensate for the absence of wings. But now I remember how I felt when I was twelve years old and tried out my first pair of skates and how the world suddenly became mobile and started to whirl around me.

Of course there are other ways you can fly. As Joaquin assures me in the living room of the apartment where he lives alone since he became a widower. One of his sons lives next door, in a partition of the same home.

I lost the piece of paper I jotted his address down on, but it didn’t matter in the end. I’d had no difficulty locating his house: everyone knows where the Lone Skater lives.

HT: Joaquin, I have the impression that in general, by the time people turn 40 or 50 here they’ve no energy left or they’ve lost hope, but you, you’re quite the exception …

Photo of a photo of Joaquin.

Joaquin: Look, I’ve got two letters here from Las Tunas, from a very good friend who is 50 years old and he saw an article about me in the Juventud Rebelde newspaper and wrote congratulating me, calling me the “The Tireless One” and that I’ve been an example for others. But I could tell you thousands of stories like that. People stop me on the street and say, “Ah, who wouldn’t like to be like you, with all that energy, and so healthy too…”

HT: What sign are you?

Joaquin: I was born on November 6, 1928.

HT. November 6? Ah, a Scorpio, like my son. They say Scorpio is a bird that only flies in stormy weather”

Joaquin: Oh yeah? Well I’m a bit like that, yes sir. I like things that are difficult.

HT: When did you start skating?

Joaquin: As a child; they gave me those skates over there as a present on the feast of the Epiphany.

HT: But when did they become a means of transportation?

Joaquin: Since I moved here, and I’ve been here thirty years. No, more like since I retired. Before that I skated for pleasure, but wasn’t doing any long trips yet. But I started building up my strength till I got really strong physically and felt really confident.

HT: And didn’t the Alamar streets bother you, with all those potholes?

Joaquin: Me? Yes of course, they’re a big nuisance and dangerous too. I’m not afraid of anything but I got used to it early on.

HT: Have you ever had an accident?

Joaquin showing the breaks.

Joaquin: No, never. The occasional fall, but you have to remember I’ve only fallen six or seven times in thirty years. I’ve landed on my knees, on my elbows; once I broke a tooth on the dental plate I have but that was because it was dark and I put my foot in a hole. I even skated on the ice, you know. Out there, and you know it’s not all that dangerous because it’s smooth, and there’s no potholes and no stones. What happens is you slip and fall and get scratched and that scares people. It can happen to anyone who wants to learn to skate.

HT: How do drivers react to you?

Jake: I think they got nervous at the beginning, but not anymore, cyclists in fact are more dangerous than cars, they’ve got no manners and they go:”ching,ching” with their bells. Look at this. I’ve got this little club I made years ago because a dog bit me and it has even come in handy for cars that get too close. You’re looking at something that’s hit fenders!

They hassle me but they’re in the wrong since I stick to the right. But today it’s quite unusual for them to mess with me; they usually stop for me. Even young women drivers stop and offer me a lift. Because I have to stop when I get to the tunnel and there’s always someone speaks to me and asks me things and I’ll say, “Are you taking the tunnel?” And they’ll say yes and I’ll say “Okay, take me with you and that way we can go on talking.”

HT: What is the longest distance you’ve covered?

Joaquin: From here to Guantanamo (503 miles)

HT: But you stop on the way, right?

Certificates of recognition.

Joaquin: I do stops for lunch, for a beer, a soft drink but I can’t stop long because my body gets cold. Generally I can take a lot, I’ve got pretty good resistance. At the moment I don’t go too far as I’m a bit hard up and need to earn more… I have like six or seven trades: driver, mechanic, rastrero, welder, mattress repairer …I also fix furniture; see the pieces here? I upholstered them myself. But before I was repairing mattresses, I started renting skates to the boys. Of course when the inline skates (or rollerblades) started to appear they spoiled my little sideline business. (laughs).

HT: And have you not tried teaching skating to children?

Joaquin: No way, they asked me once but I don’t have the patience. Turning circles in the park? What’s the point of that when I take the steps three at a time?

HT: Where do you get the skates?

Joaquin: These here and those others, I brought from California, but some I make myself. Look, these wheels, I had them melted down. And those old skates there, I don’t use them any more of course, but they were the ones that gave me the strength. Those skates made me sweat big drops and that really drains you. (He shows me skates very similar to those I had when I was a child, with the wheels at the ends).

HT: How long do they last normally?

Joaquin: I’ve had these since 2000. The brake shoes are what get worn most but I make them myself.

HT: When you got these skates, I mean, when they were new, weren’t you afraid somebody would take them from you?

Joaquin: No, because I have my club with me; sometimes some wise guys approach me, you know, but this wand in my hand puts a stop to any ideas they might be getting in their heads.

HT: Did your wife ever skate with you?

The skates Joaquin is currently using.

Joaquin: Yeah, when she was young.

HT: What about your children?

Joaquin: No, not one of them. One day one of my sons put on those skates and came back and said, “Daddy, this isn’t working.” My grandchildren would like to get their hands on those pairs you see there, but I keep them as relics.

HT: Why did you put the “The Lone Skater” on your helmet?

Joaquin: Because I’m skating on my own. They come up to me but when we get to a slope you’ve got to go down, they don’t take it and when its uphill, they drop off.

HT: And do you take the hills? Coming into Alamar, for example?

Joaquin: And the ones from here to Pinar del Rio, from here to Guantánamo. How many is that? Some a bit steep but I go up them. With others I have to take to the side and go up walking almost but keeping my skates on.

HT: What advice would you give young skaters?

Joaquin: That they take care, don’t fool around. On the hill of Alamar a car sometimes passes and I’ll say to the driver: “Look at the speedometer and see how fast I’m going”, and he’ll say “You’re doing 30 to 40 kilometers.” And at that I’m putting the brake on, if I release it, you better watch out! I’ve asked the boys “And how do you take the hill going down?” And they’ll say without braking and it’s true, but I’ve seen them roll over too, because, as you can expect, they have to brake. That’s why they banned skating in the street.

HT: Is it illegal to skate in the street?

Joaquin: Yes, it’s illegal.

HT: How do you see the world when you’re on wheels?

Joaquin: The world? Well, I feel part of everything, feel like a king… People come up to me, women, men, and children. They say wonderful things to me. Some people ask me: “And when are you going to stop skating?” And I’ll say. “When I get old.” Then they’ll say “But aren’t you old already?” And I respond: “I haven’t given it a moment’s thought” (laughs).