HAVANA TIMES — Last Sunday, I washed some rotten lentils down the drain and ended up clogging the pipe. I had no choice but to look for a plumber and pay to have it fixed. I called a plumber who had fixed a number of other things around the house, with whom I’d never exchanged more than a few words of greeting and the inevitable “how much do I owe you?” He is a polite and quiet man with a reassuring smile that seems to tell you everything will be alright.
On this occasion, I stood next to him, watching him unclog the drain. We started a conversation for the first time. Without turning away from the basin, he told me he had been a photographer and, before that, a teacher of Marxism in junior and senior secondary school. “I had my graduation at the steps,” he said, referring to the steps of the University of Havana (UH).
For a very long time, I’ve had the impression that a degree issued by the UH is more impressive than one issued by another university. When I say I am an English language graduate, people enthusiastically ask me: “from the UH?” Their enthusiasm vanishes when I reply: “from the Pedagogic Institute.”
Luis, the plumber, does not evince the pride of many from his generation, particularly black men, who have their degrees framed and hanging on a wall in their living rooms. Neither does he speak with the pessimism of others who, today, feel they wasted their time studying at university. His tone is casual, the same he uses when he asks me to hand him a bucket to place under the sink.
Why does it still surprise me that this man in overalls, who finds it increasingly difficult to crouch under sinks and basins and would like to be a photographer again (because it requires less effort, though the digital age has left him behind), graduated from the UH with a Social Sciences major? I don’t know.
I’ve heard many similar stories and they still leave me in shock. The most intriguing thing, for me, is the reason they leave behind the classroom, the engineering project or the clinic. It took me a while to get my answer in this case, because Luis kept losing himself in anecdotes about city historian Eusebio Leal.
They were classmates for a while, and Luis described him as a “simple and kind” man. Leal had every qualification for the position of City Historian, save for the university degree. He would often miss classes and exams because of his job. He would have to take these in the classroom later, in the middle of a lecture. “He would hand in the exam twelve minutes later,” Luis told me. “What about his grades?” I asked. “Always the highest.”
I managed to get him to tell me why he quit his job as a teacher, presuming the reason had been his low salary at the end of the 1980s. His answer was even simpler: “I taught Marxism-Leninism and, by the end of the 80s, when the socialist bloc collapsed, I no longer believed in any of that, particularly the twist given to the subject here, by this fellow (our Eternal Leader, Comrade Fidel Castro).”
When he quit education, Luis got a job in tourism. The hard years of the Special Period didn’t hit him that hard, but one day, in 1994, at the end of his vacation, he told his wife he would not be going back to his job. “I was too old to have the police knock at my door. There was a lot of corruption, people were stealing a lot. They didn’t simply take what they and their families needed, they took things by the truckloads. I got scared.” Around that time, he also handed in his Party membership card.
Now, he makes a living as a plumber and by selling pru (a traditional, fermented drink from Cuba’s eastern regions). His older children live in the United States. Perhaps, with their help, he can get his hands on the equipment he needs to work as a photographer again.
After making sure the pipes were draining properly and charging me for the job, he said goodbye to me. His story was interesting to me from the beginning and I asked him permission to tell it. “I won’t use your name,” I assured him, in the hope he would give me permission and allow him to take some pictures. “Write it if you want,” he finally says, “without using my name.” His name isn’t Luis, but that doesn’t matter, because, as he says at the door, “my story could be that of any Cuban.”
I watch him go and think about other Cubans like him, about my own father, people who believed in a bright future and even acknowledge some of Cuba’s achievements, but who do not see any balanced relationship between these achievements and what they cost the country.