Vicente Morin Aguado
HAVANA TIMES — Whenever I can, I spend part of my afternoon at El Toledo, a small bar and restaurant located at the intersection of Barcelona and Aguila streets, a stone’s throw from Old Havana’s Capitolio, the beautiful building where the phone company is currently located, the San Rafael boulevard and other emblematic places in Havana.
As a child, I enjoyed talking with adults. This is one of the reasons I came to love the “bohemian scene”. Today, I miss those special times one had in Havana (perhaps lost forever), which began when most people went to bed.
Evoking the days of Nat King Cole and Nicolas Guillen, two important cultural figures, tourist guides say that the “bohemian scene” was most lively at La Bodeguita del Medio, one of Havana’s most famous bars and restaurants.
The walls of this renowned establishment are covered with the signed comments of many celebrities that have visited Cuba in the course of years, from the honest, democratically-elected president of Chile Salvador Allende, through famous soccer and baseball players, gangsters and filmmakers to the renowned Judge Garzon.
Bohemia was also the name of a weekly Cuban magazine which, during its golden age, was considered Latin America’s best publication of its kind. On its pages, Fidel Castro eloquently and courageously condemned the excesses of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship. The magazine’s editor in chief, Miguel Angel Quevedo, proved just as courageous for allowing the publication of those statements.
Today, we have lost these two bohemias. The renowned Bodeguita is a State-run restaurant with a rather dull night scene, devoid of the innovative spirit inherent to times past, and the once-acclaimed magazine is today something resembling a bulletin, a bi-monthly publication as boring as any other contemporary Cuban State periodical.
This is the reason I go to El Toledo, where I can reconnect with the old days by looking at the bar’s two beautiful stained-glass windows, incredibly well-preserved after half a century of revolutionary history, accompanied, as though in a doll-house, by old Spanish tiles and engravings showing bull-fighting scenes and the waters of Spain’s famous Tajo river, flowing beneath a roman arch, in the city that lent its name to the establishment.
The barmen (and one exceptional bar-woman) are quick to serve you, skillfully negotiation the many orders of the customers, boisterous (as Cubans tend to be) and a tad spoiled, being regulars at the place, as well as the inefficiencies of the State’s commercial system, which denies them basic supplies such as lemons and ice.
Here, you can sit back and enjoy free shows, staged by a veritable abundance of unexpected performers. As the popular song goes, “Havana is full of nut-cases.” Don’t be surprised, therefore, to suddenly find yourself before amateur singers and dancers that stage performances in exchange for a few drinks, people willing to engage in all kinds of conversations, and inveterate, silent loners dwelling on their problems at some corner.
This is the kind of place where a pensioner will come in, with money for only one drink, and will be asked to stay by his grateful compatriots who, evoking the past, will pay for their second round (or third or fourth, depending on the number of people at the bar, the day of the week and the circumstances).
As in many other places in Havana, the winning numbers of a Miami lottery (announced on a Spanish-language TV channel), are repeated in a low tone of voice by the bar-goers. This is a lottery popularly known as “la bolita.” If an El Toledo regular wins the lottery, well, everyone at the bar simply rejoices.
Claribel (the bar woman) and her faithful canteen companion skillfully ride out the storm of a bar disputed by Cubans. They smile, calm down those who get a little excited, add the bit of ice they’ve bought themselves, the lemon juice (similarly procured) and cunningly wink at you, reminding you of the tip.
Most prices at the establishment are in regular Cuban pesos. Some canned beers and drinks are sold in hard currency, at the lowest market price but still too expensive for us Cubans, who, even with a few drinks on us, cannot forget we are paid in a currency that is one twenty-fifth the value of the currency those products are sold in.
That said (hold on to your hat) you can get a small plate of shrimp or a steak for 25 Cuban pesos, that is, a little over one US dollar. These dishes are served at the bar by waitresses from the neighboring cafe. From time to time, they offer pork cracklings for 5 Cuban pesos the serving. Also: the establishment is air-conditioned, a magnificent gift in Havana’s hot, humid afternoons.
At this point in my story, I must be coming across as the classical Cuban liar. Believe me: this place exists, and my fear is that it will one day disappear, like any broom does after a long time of sweeping away the filth that accumulates before us every day.
Unfortunately, despite its many pluses, El Toledo closes its doors early (at nine at night). There appears to be a rather perfidious official maneuver, impossible to confirm beyond mere conjecture, aimed at preventing the reemergence of a bohemian scene in Havana.
These popular establishments, with prices in Cuban pesos, all close before the late hours of the night. What are left are tourist locales, with International prices, where foreigners (and their Cuban companions) reign.
Next to nothing of Havana’s former bohemian scene survives today. A vestige of it can perhaps be caught sight of in the domino games some play late into the night, beneath the light of a streetlamp, boastingly announcing their victory over their rivals with a vigorous slap on the game table.
At the much-advertised Bodeguita del Medio, one can still find a picture of Ernest Hemingway, drinking a mojito, and the chairs where Nat King Cole and Nicolas Guillen, with a lot or little money, once savored their drinks into the early hours of the morning. The rest is an undecipherable mass of signatures penned by celebrities.
Vicente Morín Aguado: [email protected]