The Employee in Cuba

By Jesus Jank Curbelo  (El Toque)

Foto: Cibercuba

HAVANA TIMES – I would have to wake up at 5 AM, and I barely had time to make a coffee because the boss was never worried about what time I got to work, as long as everything was ready for 7:30 AM.

My boss was the manager: a stout man in moccasins with his own black Toyota Yaris, a really beautiful car, that he used to park every morning in one of the areas of my responsibility, once I had finished cleaning up. His wife was a pompous blond woman, who used to throw a juice box on the ground every morning before getting out of the car, and she would spend the whole day dithering about.

The arrival of my boss and his wife meant that I always had to go back to the parking lot to pick up the juice box.

I would arrive at 6:30. It was quite a big state-run bar/restaurant, and it was my job to keep all of the green areas clean, as well as the pavement and parking lot. As we arrived, we employees would change our clothes and leave them in a small room at the back, where the water pump was and other bits of junk. We also used to leave our eating implements there.

The employees: the maintenance guy, the gardener, the cleaning woman, two painters, the bathroom cleaner and myself. At 6:30 AM, the cleaning woman would have already cleaned quite a bit of the floor and the bathroom cleaner was just beginning. I would put on a blue overall and some rubber gloves, I’d pick up a rake and that plastic basket, starting off in the section of the garden in front of the bathrooms.

Starting was the hardest part, as well as working alone. This garden was a small square that I would finish up quickly, smoking and listening to the bathroom cleaner’s grumbling or songs. The bathroom cleaner was a bald, old man who would then spend the whole day collecting whatever customers left in the box in exchange for a bit of toilet paper. 

I knuckled down: picking up cans, cigarette butts, paper towels, wrappers, by hand; from the grass and bushes. Then, I would make piles of dry leaves with the rake and pick them up.

A beautiful sun would rise up above the bar, close to us, because the bar is near the beach. The walls would light up with orange for a few minutes. The leaves and the earth are still damp at this time, and there are snails, ants and birds.

I would look at all these things while moving to the planters inside the bar, between the tables, next to the bar, in front of the DJ box, in front of the accountant’s room and next to the door that leads to the kitchen. Lots of stone pots with decorative plants that are always full of the same old: cans, cigarette butts, etc.

At 7 AM, the waiters would begin arriving: young guys and women my age who are superior to me in this instance: you always want to get to where they are, although deep down you know that they aren’t really anywhere.

They also know this but here they are, higher up in the hierarchy (they earn more, they don’t get covered in dirt) and you’re just the guy that picks up the trash they also throw behind them, so they squint at you and don’t even say “good morning”.

The waiters walk on the damp earth and then go to the room where they put on their uniforms. Then, they spend the whole day taking beers and pizzas to tables, talking badly about customers and then putting a smile on for them. When the bar closes at midnight, they go home with 5 CUC plus their share of the tips.

At 7 AM, the head waiter receives them, the second in charge, a reserved, round man who smokes slim cigarettes with elegance, watching me clean. He would finish, throw the butt on the floor and say, “You missed this one”.

It seemed to me that he would laugh as he watched me go after it and pick it up. The first time he did this to me, I started to hate him. My eyes filled with tears and I wanted to kill him with punches. I didn’t say anything though, I picked up the butt, carried on with my work until I finished and went to cry in the back room. Then, I got used to it.

By 7 AM, I should already be starting on the garden out front, while the head waiter checked that everything was clean inside and sent for the waiters so he could give them some kind of morning assembly and preach about quality and commitment. The morning meeting was ten-minutes long and sometimes less because a private truck would turn up at this time with ice and they would have to unload it.

Waiters would take in the bags of ice in trolleys. Another truck delivered crates of beer and soft drinks. The waiters would unload it all and put it in the kitchen quickly, the store room manager distributed: to the bar, the restaurant: some resources from the State, some from the other source.

It was business: selling products bought on the black market at State prices. The guy selling potatoes would come on a bike and make five or six trips. He would pass the sacks of potatoes to the waiters over the back gate, a mystery I never understood because the guy selling cheese, the other one selling flour, and the one selling vegetables, would all come in with their bikes to the kitchen and take their time to unload. I never found out how much or where they were paid. The only thing I learned was that homemade soft drink cans have a couple of small marks at the bottom, which industrial machines don’t.

The gardener would work every other day. He was an old man in a T-shirt and a moustache yellow from smoking. He would put a tarp out on the floor and lie there while he pulled out roots and made holes to plant. He would spend hours doing that. I’d run into him in the gardens sometimes and then find him in the same place at lunch time.

His bones would crack when he stood up. He was 80 years old and had been working there five years already. When we would talk at lunch time, he told me that he was alone with his wife and that she had some kind of disability.

The maintenance guy would get on his nerve: “Old man, you haven’t done anything today”, but really they were some beautiful gardens. The old man would grumble: “Have you ever seen bushes more cared for than these ones?” He’d hit him a little, they’d laugh, they got on.

The maintenance guy was a bald, 50-something-year-old man. It was his job to fix a coffee machine, the oven, a window, plaster walls, whatever needed doing. He would arrive before 7 AM and would leave after 7 PM. Monday-Monday. He was my supervisor: who had to explain to me what I needed to do, all of the rules.

The bar had a counter with several rows of tables, a pool table, other games. Reggaeton would play from the minute it opened to closing time. Nearly all the customers would buy jugs of beer. A lot of noise. A lot of cars. One of those places where people come when they have a bit of money and nothing better to do. Always the same people. The restaurant was a little more intimate. The room in the bar with dim lights, that romantic atmosphere, tablecloths. Almost nobody went there. That’s why the guy who delivered rice and other kinds of food would come every two or three days.

The front garden was split by some steps and had trees, some bushes. I would clean it in half an hour, but at all haste, always crouched down. By the time I got there, I had already emptied the plastic basket twice into a dumpster next to the employee’s room; but I would always end up with a full basket again after cleaning there.

It was where the head waiter would check more meticulously and the only place the manager would look, even though the parking lot was on a hill and he didn’t come out of his air-conditioned office. At 8 AM, when the place opened and people began to come, I had changed my rake for a broom and started sweeping the sidewalk.

I never managed to overcome the shame this produced in me. I would lower my head every time somebody walked past, or a car, a bus; I would look everywhere to see if anyone would recognize me. Every day, while sweeping the sidewalk, I told myself that that would be the last time; but it was always a good feeling to have cash in hand on Sunday: I earned 3 CUC per day.

The painters were also the same age as me and they got paid to finish off exterior and interior spaces. Sometimes, if a gate needed fixing and the maintenance guy was busy, one of them would be called, as would I.

So I couldn’t leave after finishing the parking lot, after picking up the manager’s wife’s juice box and emptying that plastic basket for the umpteenth time, as well as all the garbage cans in the bar. No, I had to stay at least until after lunch.

Everyone took in their own lunch. Sometimes, the manager had had a good day and ordered a pizza for every employee. We would eat quickly, on the floor of the employees’ room, because we all had to get back to work and I had to rush off to class.

One of the painters was a bit of a freak: he wore bracelets with spikes, painted his nails black. He had been the drummer in various bands. He had videos of him playing on his phone. He wrote songs even though he didn’t have his own instruments. The second painter was a soccer coach for kids. He had won I don’t know what tournament. He lived in a homeless shelter. I was in my third year of my Journalism degree, it was summer in 2013 and my son was about to be born.

2 thoughts on “The Employee in Cuba

  • So nice to read something a little different here. Beautiful writing, I wish it went longer. Has any of your writing ever been published in the US? Please contact me if you can.

  • Great story of real life in Cuba.

    Is it different in the private sector ?

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