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How to stand guard at a Tokyo bathroom

“I don’t speak English,” the ñato said, pressing an index finger to his nose. Ñatos is what we Cubans called flat-nose people. In English we might have called him pug-nosed, but it’s not the same. I don’t think ñato is an offensive word, some men go by that nickname, but I wouldn’t go crazy with it.
“I don’t speak Japanese,” I replied, fighting the urge to press an index finger to my nose. For all I knew the gesture was a Japanese insult.
It was my third night in Tokyo. Before boarding the direct Pan Am, JFK-Narita flight, I’d promised myself that I would eat whatever was placed in front of me—I was a picky eater—and would be extra careful to avoid cultural gaffes. I didn’t want to offend anyone, least of all my new friend, who in broken English had told me he’d boxed professionally, as a welterweight. Judging by his boneless nose and the constellation of scars around his eyes, I could tell he’d used his face to stop many a punch.
This 1981 business trip was my first visit to Japan. I’d been tremendously excited, never imagining I would get to travel to such an exotic place. As a bonus, I got to stay at the luxurious Okura. The hotel, which features an ever blooming, Japanese cherry tree in its foyer, was located across the street from the American embassy. Also across the street was Rudi Bey’s, a peculiar bar at which, for some reason, we were sitting drinking beer.
I did know the reason: Kennedy. He liked nothing better than beer and that made Rudi Bey’s his preferred choice; a German rathskeller where one sat at long communal tables hoisting steins of beer while belting-out German lieder. I didn’t know what was more disturbing, the waitstaff—skinny Japanese boys wearing ledenhosen and zaftig Japanese girls wearing Bavarian dirndls—or that the all-Japanese clientele knew the lyrics, or that Bauer, one of my colleagues, also knew all the words to the German songs, or that I was one of the bar patrons, or that the songs were performed by a Chilean band.
The previous night we had enjoyed a traditional twelve course dinner seated on tatamis. Our hosts had arranged for a fabulous meal in a restaurant in an ordinary looking building in the middle of the city. But once inside, we were transported to a different world, to a traditional Japanese restaurant whose rooms opened to a perfect garden surrounding a coy filled pond and populated by peacocks and flamingos and cranes and other wondrous creatures. It had been my first Japanese meal and I’d been apprehensive but the dishes were exquisite and the service outlandish. Kimono garbed women served each of us, one by one, kneeling and bowing when entering the room, kneeling and bowing before serving each of us, kneeling and bowing when taking their leave and once more before exiting the room and sliding the shojis closed. (Those women must have had great abs and calloused knees).
Naturally, I’d expected that on our first free night we would expand the experience by doing something Japanese, like visiting a typical bar to sip warm Sake.
Instead we ate at the hotel and walked across the street to this German bar in Tokyo. To dial-up the bizarreness of the evening, someone informed the Chilean band—certainly not me—that a Cuban was in attendance. The band leader called attention to my presence by requesting that I stand and take a bow and calling for a round of applause from the audience. I had to take not one, but two bows. In my honor, the band leader announced that the next set would consist entirely of Cuban songs.
I was stunned. Had they never seen a Cuban? Of course I was touched, and amazed. I would have been even more impressed had I recognized any of those obscure songs, if they were Cuban at all. But hey! It’s the thought that counts, I told myself.
Not that it mattered. The crowd went on drinking and humming/singing along and laughing and my boxer friend was mighty pleased to learn I was Cuban and therefore a boxing aficionado, considering the many great boxers Cuba had produced. I did a lot of nodding and clicking of beer steins and so much smiling my face started to hurt.
After a few more beers and many kampais, we finally—and thankfully—called it a night. We followed Joe, our leader, to the front, to settle the bill with the cashier, who did double duty behind the crowded, gleaming, wooden bar. Kennedy was warned to stay away from the large bell at the end of said bar; striking it meant the ringer would be buying a round and there must have been well over a hundred people at Rudi Bey’s.
While Kennedy contemplated the bell, my Japanese-boxer-friend asked me to guard the men’s room door while his woman-friend used the facilities. Apparently she couldn’t wait for the Lady’s room to come free.
I am not sure how I get into these situations. Even before agreeing, I spied her entering the men’s room. I was considering how to point out that he would be much better suited to guard the door when I noticed that he too had slipped into the men’s room.
Kennedy rang the bell. Some animated discussion followed between the barman speaking Japanese and Kennedy, whose command of English wasn’t great, even when sober. He continued the discussion with a typical Kennedy response; he rang the bell again. Joe had paid and was urging us to leave but I couldn’t: a young Japanese man wanted to use the men’s room.
I speak a couple of languages and can communicate in a couple more, but none of them were Japanese.
I realized my predicament as I tried to explain the situation in English, augmented by improvised sign language. It only frustrated the man who decided to slip past me using some fancy footwork. I managed to keep my body between him and the bathroom door until, eventually, no doubt viewing me as a lunatic, the type of crazy, ugly American he’d been warned against, he gave up and returned to his seat.
By the time a cackling Kennedy rang the bell a third time, I had had to turn back another two men. I was being pulled away from the men’s room door by Bauer while Joe tried to get Kennedy out when the boxer and his woman-friend emerged from the men’s room.
He waved the two men into the bathroom and bowed his thanks to me.
It was a relief to step outside. It was brisk and the coolness on my face felt good. Best of all was the sudden quiet. Joe wasn’t pleased with how the evening had proceeded. He was a thoughtful, measured, serious man, not given to outbursts, but he didn’t approve of Kennedy’s behavior. He felt it reflected on him, on us, on Americans.
Joe, a tall, white haired man, had served in the Navy during the Pacific campaign. That afternoon, while he, Bauer and I were enjoying a boat tour of Tokyo bay, he mentioned that it had been thirty-six years, almost to the day, since he’d first been on Tokyo bay. Back in 1945 he’d been on deck of the USS Missouri witnessing Japanese dignitaries in formal dress and top hats signing the WW II terms of surrender. Since then he’d been to Japan many times. The Japanese treated him with deference, which he returned but, by the way he’d told us about the Missouri, I suspected he had mixed feelings.
I made it back to my room, my head spinning, feeling confused. I had only slept a combined six hours the previous two nights and, between the excitement of being in Japan, the beer, the spending an evening in a German bar in Tokyo and my tiredness, I didn’t feel like myself. I felt weird, as if it wasn’t me on that bed, as if I was living in an alternate reality.
The one guy I knew for sure was happy was ñato, my new Japanese friend. He and his woman-friend had emerged from the men’s room with big smiles on their faces. They were enjoying whatever reality they were living in.

Do Albino peacocks get laid?

May 12, 2017 1 comment

People ask how I felt returning to Cuba after a fifty-six year absence. In truth, I don’t know. Most Cuban exiles in similar circumstances concentrate on what was versus what is, like the collapsed roof of my childhood apartment in La Habana Vieja, or the sad condition of the streets and parks where we grew up. And so did I, but I’d been told, so I knew what to expect. The best part of my experience was being there.

In general, when Ruth and I travel, I like to wander around, a personal quirk she doesn’t always appreciate. This time, traveling with my sister—who was only fourteen when she left—and our spouses, neither fluent in Spanish, plus having a Cuban travel agent suggesting a framework, changed the tenor of the trip. Our Havana guide, a twenty three year old engineering student, took us along a prescribed route, down calle Teniente Rey, past Sarránow a museum—and toward the cathedral; the sort of itinerary tourists enjoy.

We started our walk on El Capitolio and because of new construction I was disoriented. When I asked our guide if this was calle Egido (it was) he didn’t know; he’d never heard of calle Egido. I soon recognized where I was and paused to peer down calle Bernaza and, of course, detoured on calle Villegas to point out the store where I worked—now people live there—and the spot where I chased and caught the bra thief, and where “Our Man In Havana” was filmed, and the hole in the wall were I drank my daily eight or ten cups of café, and the spot in the colonnade where the ostiones man had his little stand. The excitement was all mine.

Next day, when we took an enjoyable day trip to Las Terrazas, a former coffee plantation in Pinar Del Rio, now an Eco-community—I may do a full write up of the place—what stuck with me the most was the unexpected: there was a regular peacock on the parking lot, showing off his colors even though he was being harassed by tourist but, on a side patch I spied something even more magnificent. An albino peacock. ,

Of course that was my judgement, as personal as when comparing what was with what is. From the peacocks point of view the one opinion that counts will be rendered by the peahens.

Andrew Jackson and Fidel Castro

May 3, 2017 2 comments

I have been reading newspaper accounts of January 1959–refreshing my memory, not of the events, just their sequence–of the time when Fidel Castro gained power. There were lots of things that had to align just right for Fidel to succeed and for Batista to sneak away in the dead of night and it occurred to me that Fidel would have had no chance if Andrew Jackson had been president (instead of that wishy-washy Eisenhower who knew nothing of making war) Apparently Andrew Jackson was mad as hell when Castro won.

Cuba, the embargo and politics

December 18, 2014 Leave a comment

I was born and raised in Cuba but in 1961, three months after the Bay of Pigs fiasco and thirty two months into the Castro regime, having experienced and suffered under a repressive, totalitarian, communist regime, I managed to escape and sought refuge in the USA. I was nineteen at the time.
So it may surprise you that I am in favor of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Why? The embargo, designed to isolate Cuba, has been going on for about 55 years. The Cuban government blames it for some of its shortcomings, like the lack of food. Cuba imports almost 80% of the food it consumes, which is peculiar because Cuba is a very fertile land capable of three crops a year. So obviously this failure underscores the collapse of the Castro system and we finally have them where we want them, right? Wrong! The USA is Cuba’s main food supplier and Cuba’s 5th largest trading partner.
How is that possible? Well, maybe we sell them food for humanitarian reasons, right? Well, not really. As long as they pay cash our Agro businesses will argue that if we don’t sell them the food, someone else will. Might as well be us.
So instead we should use the embargo to choke of their source of income, their economy, right? Wrong again. Cuba gets most of its money from perfectly legal remittances by Cuban exiles to their families in Cuba.
So what exactly does the embargo entail?
For one thing, Americans cannot officially travel to Cuba. But Cubans with close relatives in Cuba can, and do so, often, bringing jeans and electronics and everything that their ‘close relatives’ in Cuba ‘need’ or can make a living by selling. Apparently that is different from exporting goods to Cuba which is strictly prohibited under terms of the embargo.
In short, the embargo and the lack of diplomatic relations are a political farce. The same Cubans who ‘support’ their families—and hence the regime—oppose reconciliation and the politicians, whether the Republican Rubio in Florida or the Democrat Menendez in New Jersey, eager for Cuban votes, have kept this farce going. If you don’t believe me just consider that after fifty five years of embargo the Castro brothers remain in power—Fidel is 88 and Raul, the current president, 83. We all know the definition of insanity; doing the same thing but expecting different results.
And please lets not bring up human rights or the freedom of Cubans because the USA is friends and have diplomatic relations with some of the worst offenders in the world.
So lets stop the nonsense and get on with it. If we really want the Castro regime to fail, lets resume diplomatic relations, let Americans export goods to the island, let Americans travel to Cuba and let Cubans get a real taste of how we live, let them get a hold of jeans and Rock and Roll and flat TVs and cars that run and in no time Cubans will demand access to those items, free enterprise will get a foothold and the USA will regain a friendly neighbor. Cubans are clever people who have been making do as best they can since 1959. Take it from me; some of my best friends are Cuban.

On the nature of friendship

December 19, 2013 Comments off

When I left Cuba I lost my best friend. Ernesto, unlike many of my friends, kids I’d known since kindergarten, was a Christian, and dark enough to pass for mulatto.
We met in high school (Instituto de la Vibora), on a boxing ring, facing each other from behind sixteen ounce gloves, because the PE instructor caught us arguing. [“There will be no fighting in my class,” he was fond of saying]
After we punched each other for one interminably long round, we discovered we were neighbors, started to walk to school together and became friends.
We celebrated Batista’s fall together—Ernesto is the one who woke me very early on January first 1959 with the news that Batista was gone and we had to go capture Vibora high school, for the revolution. And yet, we didn’t become Castro’s acolytes. We remained on our seats while everyone else jumped to their feet to cheer, stomp and clap every time a movie house newsreel showed Fidel, or Che, or Camilo. We discussed our learnings endlessly—we used to talk for hours and hours and after saying good bye, talked some more—and after a few months concluded that Castro’s was to be a communist regime.
But we didn’t panic. We didn’t run for the hills. We set out to see what communism was all about. I soon concluded it was not for me but my friend embraced it, hook, line and doctrine. A couple ever worsening years later, I managed to get out.
We remained friends via long letters. I imagine my letters reflected my struggles (I have been known to complain) just as his letters reflected his environment, the excitement he felt as the revolution developed. His letters were tinged with unintended propaganda. If there is one thing Fidel Castro excelled at was propaganda, constant, relentless, repetitive, pervasive propaganda.
His letters made me angry. I was poor—refugee poor—and lonely. And cold. My other Cuban friends were in Miami or New York or almost everywhere else in the world, not in Boston. I was working my way through school while my parents, who came to the States a year after I did, struggled.
I didn’t have time nor patience for more of Castro’s lies. At first I felt compelled to challenge him and reveal the real truth. It was no use. I stopped writing.
In my mind he remained my friend. I never thought of him as anything else. With the advent of the Internet I tried to locate him. After years of trying I succeeded a couple years ago, only because he had done so well. He is a respected scholar and a published author.
My first email—sent through his publisher—elicited an immediate and happy reply. We resumed our friendship as if nothing had happened but the passing of fifty years. He didn’t question me, he didn’t ask why I stopped writing. We caught up by email, we exchanged pictures of wives and children and grandchildren. Pictures of our present selves.
At times I asked him about events we shared, moments I am including in my ‘forever in progress’ memoir. Each of us remembered things the other had forgotten. We exchanged so many emails I fear the NSA must have opened a special storage facility for them.
We still email from time to time. We remain friends, albeit separated by distance and circumstances. His emails are still tainted with Castro propaganda. He can’t help it. He doesn’t see it as such. It is what he believes. It is how things are over there. He is a communist of the first magnitude because he understands it. But I’m no longer troubled by his comments. I no longer challenge or try to argue.
Perhaps this means that after fifty years I have mellowed, or grown up, or perhaps I am able to separate political belief from the person’s inherent nature. He was a good man and a good friend back then and he remains so.
I would like to go back and visit. I would like to revisit places where events took place that are important for my memoir. I petitioned for a permit. I’m willing to bet that if I’m allowed to go, we’ll embrace and resume talking and interrupting each other as if nothing had happened. Maybe this time I’ll take notes so I can remember what it was we had so much to talk about.

What does a statesman need to know?

October 19, 2013 Leave a comment

     I just learned [Thanks to Stephen Kinzer’s “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War http://www.amazon.com/The-Brothers-Foster-Dulles-Secret/dp/0805094970] that the Dulles brothers, who were in charge of overt (State Department) and covert (CIA) foreign policy in the fifties, were corporate lawyers. It gives me agita just trying to digest the idea that a background in corporate law can prepare one to run State or the CIA.

     Once given charge of American foreign policy, the Dulles brothers set out to redress their corporate defeats. First they went after Iran’s Prime Minister Mosaddegh, who’d nationalized oil company holdings of Dulles’ former corporate clients. The 1953 coup returned oil interests to the Dulles’ clients. And, oh, by the way, in exchange, it gave the Shah absolute power.

     Then in 1954 they deposed Guatemala’s President Jacobo Arbenz. He was a danger to another client, United Fruit, a company that at the time owned 40% of Guatemala’s arable land.

     The Dulles brothers didn’t stop there. They concocted the domino theory, fanned the cold war, refused to met with Stalin’s successor Malenkov, botched the Hungarian revolt, betrayed our allies after the Suez canal nationalization, got us into Vietnam after they refused to accept Ho Chi Minh’s victory and on and on, with the Bay of Pigs fiasco being the final straw. Is it all in the past? Not a chance, their legacy lives on—see Iran and Cuba and, well you get the idea.

     I earned an advanced degree in engineering from a very prestigious university and yet, to conduct engineering work for the state, county or city, I’d have to be licensed as a professional engineer. For that I’d have to pass a difficult, multidisciplinary test and be licensed by the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs. I understand, just like I understand that none of us would want to see an unlicensed physician when ill. Our medicines and medical procedures have to be FDA approved. If we want tax advice we seek it from a Certified Public accountant. In short, our government has seen fit to protect us from our own gullibility and from charlatans eager to take advantage—no matter how charismatic they might be—by requiring most professionals to demonstrate knowledge and competence by passing a test. Unless said charlatans seek public office.

     Why don’t the same licensing principles apply to those who write the laws or set policy? I would much prefer that my alderman, councilman, congressman, senator and president, regardless of sex, race, religion, culinary preferences or anything, have demonstrated reasonable knowledge of local, national and global history and geography, economics, business, law, science, and most important, that rarest of skills, common sense, before being allowed to run for or hold office.

El cañonazo de las nueve

July 21, 2013 3 comments

I fell into a pothole. One so large that the more I tried to get out, the deeper it got. I’m speaking figuratively, of course, about my writing. I definitely will complete my memoir spanning the couple years before and after Fidel’s ascent to power (1956-61), but after a few months of assiduous work, my enthusiasm has waned.
I decided to take a break and work on something more fun.
A few years ago I started “Entropy,” a thriller, but put it away because, after the very exciting beginning, (First chapter won a first prize at the 2011 Philly Writing Conference) I had no idea what happened next. Actually, I did, but it was boring.
So I dug it out, reviewed what I had, threw away most of it, and devised an exciting finish. I planned to write up a first draft in a month, put it away to flesh out later, and return to memoir writing. For these past three weeks, I woke up anxious to learn what manner of mishap awaited my heroes.
I haven’t progressed as far as I’d hoped. I’d read that Freddy Vargas, a French mystery writer, writes her first drafts in three weeks. In that same time I’ve only written about one sixth of the novel. Obviously she is fast, something I admire about French women.
It isn’t all my fault. It turns out that my main character isn’t quite who I thought he was. Kap’s plans keep backfiring and his relationship with Ellen, the woman who broke his heart ten years earlier, is not quite what I had envisioned. I’m concerned that if Kap and Ellen keep screwing up (not screwing around) they’ll compromise the exciting new ending. And then there is Millie.
She and Tico the cat have insinuated themselves as brand new characters. Not sure why, and that is a problem. I expect a visit from Chekhov any minute now, telling me I better make sure to fire that gun (or the cat, in this case), before the end. And Millie? Really? Is anyone called Millie any more? And is Kap having a thing with her? That’s what Ellen thinks. But it makes no sense: Millie is married, a ditz and not Kap’s type, ie., she doesn’t look like Ellen.

Nevertheless writing the thriller has been fun. A thriller allows me to make stuff up. The more stuff the better. And that is the fun of writing fiction. It is even more fun when the characters do it themselves. Not so for a memoir. It is only me. And the facts. “Just the facts ma’am.”
Part of the problem I’m having with the writing of the memoir is a two-fold lack of cooperation.
I have been reading copies of El Mundo, a Cuban newspaper of the time, to remind me what I knew back then, and to reorder events. I borrow El Mundo from the Library of Congress in microfiche form. But in spite of the full cooperation of the LOC, (the head of periodicals has given my requests priority), the Doylestown person in charge isn’t being helpful.
I can only hope that the next batch of El Mundo microfiche arrives soon and that it will rekindle my memoir writing. [Although reading from a microfiche machine gives me a headache]
The other source of spotty cooperation comes from my memory.
Remembering stuff from fifty plus years ago isn’t easy. Some of my friends, when asked about events they starred on, cannot even recall the event. But, to be fair, sometimes they remember events I do not, until they bring them up, like when Billy asked me if I remembered swimming with Fidel in Santa Maria del Mar.
Sometimes, events that are crystal clear in my mind’s eye lose clarity when I examine them in close detail.
Exploring those long ago remembrances is a little like stumbling inside a vaguely familiar building, and having to feel my way from room to room because most every room and hallway is dark. And when I’m encouraged by finding a brightly lit room, I often discover that the room isn’t as well lit as it seemed to be. Or that the light is uneven. And when I try to explore those murky recesses in my memory, I only have at my disposal a cranky flashlight, hardly enough to illuminate the dark corners where key details lurk.
And yet, sometimes it works. The flashlight glows bright and a completely forgotten event emerges from the shadows.
Writing a chapter on the pre-1959 period, when Batista was in power, Castro’s rebels on the hills and bombs went off every night, I wrote that the exploding bombs sounded like distant cannon. This image came to mind easily, but made me stop, to wonder how I knew back then, when I was fifteen, what distant cannon sounded like.
And then, unprompted, a brief flash reminded me that when I was a little kid living in La Habana Vieja, Old Havana, I heard a cannon fired every night.
Really?
Thanks to Google I learned that they still do. I even watched a recreation of the cannon being fired on You Tube.
My newly rediscovered old friend, classmate, and neighbor, Ernesto, confirmed it. When I asked him whether we could have heard it in Santos Suarez, our old suburban neighborhood, he claimed not to remember. But in Miramar, where he lives these days, sometimes he hears the distant rumble of the cañonazo de las nueve, the cannon fired since the 18th century—when Havana was protected by thick stone walls against pirates, privateers and buccaneers—to warn the city residents that it was nine o’clock and the city gates were about to close.