“Take My Picture!”
By Ernesto Perez Castillo (Progreso Semanal)
HAVANA TIMES – Guayaba jam. That’s what I was thinking about when I listened to the Cuban president explain the new temporary situation. About the large transparent glass jar with a wide rim, recently-brought from the bodega rations store on the corner and my mother putting it on the table of my childhood, for breakfast, to spread on bread, when I was 7 years old.
I was learning to read and I loved new words that would pop up everywhere. I used to read everything back then: store signs on Belascoain street, ripped posters on bus doors, billboards on the highway that were loaded with revolutionary slogans, shampoo bottles, my dad’s after-shave bottle, the guayaba jam jar.
However, the one on the jam jar is the only label I really remember, as if I still had it in my hands: printed on brown paper in a rustic and basic font, as if it hadn’t been printed but written on the machine one by one, typed up on that portable Underwood that sat in my grandparents’ entrance hall.
That’s how I remember the label of that morning-time jar, and I remember it because of one word. At the bottom, right at the end, on the left-hand side, was the word that I would never forget, that I could never forget: “provisional label”.
This “provisional label” lasted my entire childhood, reached my adolescence and only disappeared when guayaba jam disappeared, and everything else disappeared with it. That was what “provisional” was.
That’s why when I hear them talk about the new “temporary situation”, the few hairs I have left stand on end. Because if anything is true, if there’s anything I know, it’s that we have lived from one temporary situation to the next on this island, of every magnitude, color, good temporary situations, not-so-good ones, some bad ones and worse ones even, some that were light and others that were very tough, for over fifty years.
But in bad times, good intentions. I left home early in the morning to see how disastrous the chaos was because, according to Facebook posts, the world wasn’t far off from ending on Havana’s avenues.
Nearby, on 31st street, I saw a scene which could have been taken straight out of a Soviet movie in my opinion, because of its reflection of the worse and most brilliant of Socialist realism: on the sidewalk opposite stood a young woman, tall, with curly hair, beautiful, wearing a long, yellow dress. A motorcyclist zooming on a Suzuki sees her, decides to pick her up, stops a couple of meters in front of her and beeps to call her over. Not expecting this, she runs a little to the bike, he passes her a helmet, she settles on behind him, they both zoom off in a fade-out.
But what is the detail I’ve left out, that makes this seem like a scene written by Chinguiz Aimatov? Well it just so happens that on top of her yellow dress, she was wearing a doctor’s white coat and, as if that wasn’t enough, the Suzuki driver was wearing a lieutenant’s army uniform.
After that, anything can happen, I could write whatever I wanted, I thought as I walked up to the bus stop where 20-something adults and half a dozen students are waiting for something to take them where they need to go. And I watched how a miracle took place, right before my eyes: a car stops, there isn’t a stampede of people, the driver tells them where he’s heading, two or three people get in and they drive off.
Then another car stops, and then another one, and further back, I see an air-conditioned tourist bus coming down the avenue. I cross my fingers, I pray to God, the Virgin and all the saints that they flag it down, that it also picks up people at the bus stop. And it does.
I can’t help it any longer, I instinctively pull out my cellphone and take a photo: in the background is the bus, the people getting onborard, you can even see someone who is still sitting at the bus stop waiting for more direct transport, and in the foreground is the car that came before, a father with his daughter talking to the driver, who then get in behind.
The car drives off, passes by me and the driver, who has seen me with cellphone in hand, gestures at me and shouts, smiling: Take my picture!!! That guy made my morning. I was suddenly overcome by happiness. I even forgot all about the “temporary situation” for a moment.
There wasn’t a police officer there forcing people to stop, there wasn’t even an inspector imposing fines or whatever on people who didn’t collaborate. There, there were only people who needed to get somewhere and solidary people who, out of their own conscience, and because the government and Diaz-Canel himself called on them to do so, stopped to help their neighbor, to take them with them. Who stretched out their hand to those who needed it.
That’s when I remembered the days that followed the tornado that hit the capital on January 27th, when so many good people came with everything they had or could get to give it to those in need. At that time, we especially saw famous people who came to the place disaster struck, to give what they had, but also university students who left class to go and collect rubble, to do whatever needed to be done, alongside everyone else who went, to do what needed to be done.
This solidarity is now being repeated, and it doesn’t depend on our neighbor to the north’s bad temper or Nature’s devastating strength: we are willing to help each other every time, every step of the way, we can depend on artists, celebrities, and the anonymous driver, that bus driver. Solidarity isn’t temporary, it’s constant, permanent, innate.
And that’s when I went home, calm in spite of the strong winds. Things are bad, it isn’t going to be easy, but it’s good to know that we can count on all the good people on this island when we need them.