Havana Is No Longer So Elegant

By Frank Simon 

Frank-Simón--1-juan-suarezHAVANA TIMES — The tough guys in the neighborhood are the perfect oracles, the guides, the seers of today. They fill the night with their smoke and words loaded with double meanings or no meaning at all.

Havana has lost all its elegance. In fact, it’s like a bad neighborhood, getting by whichever way it can, like one of those women who are only interested in business. She’s like a woman with curlers, unkempt, gossiping in the middle of this huge tenement building where we all live.

The balconies of Centro Habana are anything but elegant. From these, people can hurl a Santeria spell or dump a bucket full of urine on top of you. You have to be wary, on the alert, apprehensive, because the tough guys see everything. They know the country inside out because they were born for these times.

To walk down Centro Habana is like taking a bus into a dark forest, to go deep into the jungle, run the risk of getting stranded, surrounded by threatening animals. So many vulgar words spoken, so many people looking at you as though you weren’t there, or shouldn’t be there – as though you did not exist. Retorting to an insult, shielding yourself from a shove in a crowded bus, playing the gentleman and resorting to ethical principles can all cost you dearly.

You can’t become one of them, play the tough guy, put on a show. You stand nothing to gain from putting on blaring music, not against those who were born to blaring music, those who know Havana like the palm of their hand, those who can drag you across the ground, step on you, beat the shit out of you.

Frank-Simón-2-juan-suarezBar-de-La-HabanaYes, they can fuck you up and leave you for dead, make you their bitch, because you don’t belong to the jungle, you’re not of that lineage that knows of urine flowing down the steps of the building, you don’t have the genuine smell of public bathrooms. No, you’re nothing and couldn’t be anything, not even if you tried and said you were turning your back on your hometown, that you were ready to become a fellow from Centro Habana through and through, not even if you smoke a joint and act tough and beat your chest. You’ll never be from the neighborhood. You’re destined to smell like shit, like a poor immigrant, all your life.

The guys from the neighborhood define everything. They are like sorcerers. They are blessed by vulgar but true cabbalas. They are the ones who survive, while you become diluted in that waterless sea that is Centro Habana, that sea of dilapidated walls, old ladies that will not die, gossip passed on from generation to generation, unbreakable and breakable people, broken people.

Frank-simon--3--juan-suarez-Calle-Puerta-CerradaHavana is anything but elegant and yet looks elegant. A rowdy Havana, a Havana made of decaying walls, a Havana that becomes lost and is found again, a Havana that sells you a joint at three in the morning. You spit out the smoke and find it is not like the smoke in movies and you discover you’re not like the winner in those films, even though your life is like a bad movie.

A Havana made of immigrants, full of tough guys, where you’d want to be one of them, stand with them on a porch, some corner, sit down wearing shorts at three in the afternoon and talk about the lottery, the country, your bad luck, the good luck that only a few people have, about the Malecon ocean drive, about 1994, the neighbor, the situation (or, as they say, the “thing.”). Havana dissolved on you, a delirious and clear-minded old harpy, deceitful, angry, light.

The tough guys are right. Havana belongs to no one, stands no one, gives in to no one. You have to go out and look for it, rough it, until the ocean dries up. She is nobody’s girlfriend and nobody’s whore, she has no manners, nothing defines her, you can’t catch a true glimpse of it, she appears hazily in the Santeria cauldrons – no one can divine her, though many predict it. A Havana about to explode, a Havana about to sneeze and destroy the country, an unstable, screaming, whorish Havana riding on history, the altar of the Capitolio, home to illustrious rabble.

The tough guys are right. They possess her, leave her by the side of the road, throw her out as bait into the ocean. This is not Lezama Lima’s Havana, nor Cabrera Infante’s, nor Marti’s distant dream before a sea of rocks. This Havana is not the elegant bastion of Julian del Casal, where newspapers no longer speak of stoning and suicidal poets, where newspapers no longer even speak.

Frank-Simon-4-EscuelaThis is a Havana that suffers from Stockholm Syndrome, a Havanackholm, a Havana turned into cocaine dust, a brief Stockholm that alienates itself in a hot winter, with an artificial temperature, an old Caribbean rag sought by tourists in the midst of sumptuous copulation, orgiastic yelling down Reina street, where transvestites greet you, a coarse world, a mute world that does not cease to scream.

The tough guys are right, they are the seers, the elite, the survivors, the mack daddies, the ones who stayed, the bigwigs, the tough, they are and you feel you are not, never were and never will be. That’s the long and the short of it.

(photos: Juan Suárez)


5 thoughts on “Havana Is No Longer So Elegant

  • About 10 years ago when I first started visiting Cuba I stayed at a Casa in Centro Habana at Belescoin and Neptuno. It was certainly a rough area of Habana, and this was during the daytime. I walked those streets alone many times during the day with my camera, capturing some beautiful images that few tourists are ever allowed to see. My camera was insured and I was prepared to lose it rather than fight for it. Hopefully I could keep my memory card. Then many late nights I also walked those dark streets alone without my camera. Though I always dressed like the locals did, actually the locals were all mostly dressed better than I was. I looked as if I was poor, maybe just one of them… When passing people I kept my eyed down and walked on by. Ignoring them the same way they were ignoring me. I had maybe 20cuc in my pocket and well prepared to lose it. Yet equally prepared to buy a stranger a Cristal. I just tried to disappear into the walls and blend into the darkness. Though I knew that many times I was taking a great chance as a tourist with very little Spanish/Cuban words in my vocabulary. If buying a beer or some cigarettes I said as little as possible. Mumbling and moving on. Though few times I felt scared or threatened. Maybe things are different now with the influx of tourists into Habana. Or maybe I was just lucky. And these tough guys the writer speaks of I feel as if I have met. I think that maybe they either thought that I was crazy to walk where I was walking, in their neighbourhood, or maybe I was just just stupid.Though somehow they left me alone. Some even became my friends and remembered me every time I returned. I guess they knew that I would offer them a beer and a cigarette before they even had to ask for one. Maybe it was because I was not from there that I threw caution to the wind and did these late night walks in Centro Habana. For I certainly would not have ever been foolish enough to do this in my home town of Toronto Canada… This was a great experience, a chance I am glad I took.

  • The conditions in Toronto are not at all like those in Havana.

    The crime rate in Havana is higher than in Toronto.

    The political repression in Havana is horrendous, while people in Toronto enjoy freedom and human rights. Political & police corruption is endemic in Havana, while it’s the exception in Toronto.

    The buildings and infrastructure in Havana continues to decay and collapse. Toronto continues to build and develop housing, infrastructure and commerce.

    The poor in Havana are a far greater percentage of the population than the poor in Toronto.

    When the author wrote above of “a Havana made of immigrants” he was referring to those Cubans who travelled to Havana from other parts of the island. In contrast, Toronto truly is a city of immigrants with over a hundred languages from all over the world spoken in our streets.

    But sure John, other than that, Havana is just like Toronto.

  • It is great writing, I agree…I also agree it could be said about most big cities around the world, Toronto, Canada, included

  • Nice writing. It could be about any poor inner-city. Maybe even a metaphor for life. Excellent

  • Sounds like the south side of Chjcago!!!

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