Monday, September 22, 2014

A small branch of a huge tree

Two weeks ago I visited the local Alcoholics Anonymous outpost, in the town of Sosnavar, pop. 800 or so and a kilometer away from us, and was struck by the awesome superficial differences—and similarities—among the millions of members and tens of thousands of branches of this remarkable organization.

In Sosnavar meetings are held in a stone granary dating back at least a century to when the town was a large hacienda and everyone worked for the owner much like in an antebellum Southern plantation but without the formal institution of slavery.

Different venue, same stories
The windowless granary felt dank and cave-like. The only natural light filtered through a few translucent plastic roof panels, half covered with dirt and leaves. Later someone climbed on a chair to screw in the lone and anemic bulb, connected to an extension cord that went out the door, garlanded over a couple of trees and disappeared somewhere in the property next door. As soon as the bulb went on a moth began circling it, projecting its shadow on the stone walls.

When I got sober in Chicago, about a year after Stew, I got to attend a myriad meetings and meeting houses, where I ran into just as many differences in people and stories of recovery.

Some meetings catered to special groups, such as gay men or women, ecstatic evangelicals or dour atheists. Some followed a special format such as reading excerpts from the Big Book of Alcoholic Anonymous or listening to individuals talk about their personal travails. A few took place in discreet meeting rooms of corporations or hospitals presumably to protect the privacy of prominent attendees. One "gay" meeting I used to attend in the basement of a Catholic Church was held by candlelight that gave it the ambiance of a séance.

For pure spectacle, though, my favorite venue was the Mustard Seed, a converted Chicago firehouse not far from downtown. The name, I presume, referred to Matthew 13:31-32: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and landed in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch on its branches."
The seeds that landed at this meeting house, though, were more like motley wildflowers blowing in from all social and economic corners of the city: smelly homeless men; all age groups including a few teenagers; folk with years of sobriety or just days; laborers in their soiled work clothes; natty professionals in Armani suits; Gold Coast dames in fur coats smoking nervously as if waiting for miracles to occur—which often did as when individuals were able to cast, or at least hold at bay, their personal demons. Meetings were held and still are 
from early morning until late at night, though at a different location. 

Home, as humble as it may be.
Yet I never ran into an AA affair quite as dismal or startling as the one in Sosnavar. As I grabbed one of a half-dozen plastic chairs, the type usually found at beachfront cantinas, a voice in my head whispered incredulously: "Jesus Christ, if someone walked in here feeling miserable about their drinking, this joint could drive them over the cliff."

The seven o'clock meeting didn't start until twenty-past, in accordance to traditional Mexican punctuality. Even then, attendance consisted of only three other guys aside from me. A fifth guy showed up later but he was drunk and incoherent. Everyone was cordial but somewhat surprised by the arrival of a six-foot-three-inch güero, a white guy. My attempts at chit-chat in Cuban Spanish didn't break the ice.

Still, I stayed out of respect and later, growing sympathy and solidarity with this group of men trying to recover from alcoholism. As dissimilar as we were in appearance and the Spanish we spoke, we shared a common affliction.

The props, though some damaged by water leaks and general lack of housekeeping, were typical of AA meeting rooms throughout the world: posters of the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions; a small book of daily meditations; framed photos of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the two founders of AA; a table, a few chairs and a wooden lectern from which hanged a sign with the name of the group and date it was founded—not quite two years ago.

Instead of the inevitable AA coffee pot this group had a two-burner hot plate, a sauce pan, a five-gallon jug of drinking water and plastic cups for instant coffee and tea bags. The draw from heating the water caused the bulb to flicker nervously and occasionally go out altogether, in which case there was a flashlight at hand.

Health concerns about smoking haven't reached Sosnavar and so there were tin cans everywhere filled with ashes and butts. In a room this large cigarette smoke was not bothersome, and when I heard my three companions' tales about alcoholism and their struggles to recover I realized that smoking was the least of their problems.

The guy with the longest period of sobriety—20 years—was named Cruz. Though he had deep lines crisscrossing his face and gray stubble from a skimpy beard, I couldn't guess his age. The ravages of the sun, backbreaking labor plus in his case a life of hard drinking, conspired to conceal his true age. He could have been seventy or fifty years old. Later I figured that whatever his age the feat of staying sober in Sosnavar, where there are no fancy rehab centers and until two years ago not even a local AA meeting or any kind of encouragement, should qualify him for a Nobel in survival and raw cojones.

He talked very little and kept his straw hat on except when he got up to the lectern to speak. His delivery was barely audible and almost prefunctory, which combined with his rustic brand of Spanish made it hard for me to understand. He chain-smoked, elegantly holding the cigarette in his left hand, between the thumb and index finger while flicking the ashes with his pinkie. His message was one which any recovering alcoholic could nod to, about how his pride always got in the way of admitting he had a problem.

Cruz concluded by thanking God and AA for the "good and happy life" he enjoys now. Looking at his ragged clothes and face I thought that was an ironic remark until I realized how much more of a disordered mess his life must have been before quit boozing.

Then it was Gregorio's turn at the lectern, who was a younger, much more talkative and affable fellow probably in his early thirties. If you listened to his mind-boggling life story through a partition you would have guessed he was at least seventy. From his father he learned to drink pulque, a cheap tequila-like type of booze derived from cacti, and later, at eight years of age, denatured alcohol that he mixed with Coke to soften the horrible taste.

I found Gregorio's vivid way of expressing himself as amazing as the details of his life. His delivery was not florid or dramatic but the descriptions were detailed and bone-chilling. Stories about entire nights of hallucinations when he felt his body gravitating off the bed and floating away while ant-like monsters crawled on his skin, plus, in his case, the less dramatic stories of mistreating his wife and kids.

"Ultimately I realized that suicide is the worst sin in the eyes of God and drinking was my own suicide," Gregorio concluded.

A round of the customary AA applause followed and then came my turn to speak. It felt like being shoved on stage to do a comedy skit right after a set by Joan Rivers or Robin Williams.

I stammered, hemmed and hawed, and cleared my throat several times before I explained how I had stopped drinking with the help of AA, my best friend Stew and Jim Winters, a friend with whom I have lost contact.

Anything I said sounded totally lame compared to what these guys had been through until I started connecting the links of denial, arrogance, resentments and other alcoholic traits that I and these lowly Sosnavar alcoholics had in common.

They nodded knowingly as I talked and I suddenly I didn't feel so out of place anymore.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

And so Arno bought a baby donkey

Summers in the country bring countless newborns, from long-legged foals to fluffy lambs and tiny frogs perched on window sills seemingly frozen in place. Sadly, many of these babies include puppies and kittens abandoned by their owners, assuming they had owners in the first place.

Not beautiful but cute indeed. 
I find all of these animals cute, adorable, lovable and all that—I even like baby mice—though newborn snakes can challenge my sense of lovey-dovey-ness.

Two days ago by the side of the road we spotted a baby donkey, no more than a few weeks old, and which—without a contest—gets the ribbon for the cutest bugger in the prairie. He seemed to be by itself.

Our neighbor Arno, head of Amigos de Animales, a group that provides low-cost or free spaying and neutering of dogs and cats, also had seen the tiny burro looking lost. Arno has a ranch about the size of ours, seven and a half acres, where he runs a sanctuary for eighty plus dogs, fifteen donkeys, an one-eyed albino mule, plus a half-dozen sheep and God knows what else.

These babies come equipped with adult-size ears.
Arno immediately set out to investigate who owned the baby donkey and why he was wandering around on its own. A couple of blah-blahs later, the donkey joined Arno's menagerie. Its mother had died shortly after giving birth, he found out, and her owner didn't care much for the baby donkey, also a female, which was left to fend for itself.

Yes, Arno bought the donkey, for $150 pesos or a little more than ten dollars.

What makes baby donkeys so attractive, if that's the correct description, is hard to describe. The ears are way too big; the bodies come covered with a rough, long, curly fur that hides their eyes; the hooves don't seem big enough to support them so they seem to tip-toe unsteadily. Not a beautiful sight, but one you instinctively want to reach out to and pat on the head, a compliment this girl donkey readily accepts.

Of course, what Arno paid for this animal is but a tiny down payment. Donkeys can live up to thirty years and with the pampering the animals receive at his emporium this one will easily fly past the normal life expectancy.

Yes, a cute critter indeed. No, Stew and I don't have any plans to adopt any donkeys or more of anything right now.


Monday, September 15, 2014

A near-fatal canine drama

Dramatis canes: (in order of appearance)

Lucy: A Labrador-ish fifty- or sixty-pounder found abandoned on the side of a highway when she was a few weeks old and turned over to the local shelter where we adopted her about seven-and-a-half years ago. On the alpha ranking in our pack of five dogs, she's the queen bitch, the leader.

Gladys: The San Miguel mutt from Central Casting. We found her in the parking lot of a condo development where we used to live, a year after we adopted Lucy.

She had a piece of rope still around her neck and showed signs of either a recent accident, perhaps getting hit by a car, or abuse by her former owners. We bet on the latter because she initially reacted very aggressively (or defensively) to cleaning women wielding brooms or anyone who came near Stew and me.

Gladys and Lucy teamed up famously and Gladys became Number Two on the alpha order. She never has been aggressive toward Stew or me. On the contrary, she's one of those stray dogs that seems eternally grateful someone adopted her.

Gladys is considerably older than Lucy, we figure she must be about twelve by now, fairly rotund and not moving nearly as quickly as the others in the pack.

Domino: A hapless male with black blotches on white fur (hence the name) that we found at the pound, cowering at the rear of his cage. Domino landed at the pound as a puppy where he spent the first eighteen months of his life. He is very timid, though he can suddenly turn on strangers when startled. On the alpha order of this pack, Domino ranks as clueless.

Roxie: Massively built, an undetermined mix of Rottweiler, Doberman and something else. Beautiful markings, weighs an all-muscle fifty or sixty pounds. We found her a year ago at a nearby ranch when she was three or four months. Extraordinarily sweet and blubbery with us, Félix and Félix' family—but very aggressive with strange dogs, farm animals or people who might approach the gate of the ranch. When crouching, growling and baring her teeth, she's menacing.  Roxie would be third on the pecking scale, though visibly eager to move up.

Felisa: A most mixed-up of mixed breeds: short legs and stumpy build; longish body like a Dachshund; splayed front legs a bit like a Basset Hound; thick, coarse fur reminiscent of a German Shepherd and a too-long tail that wags furiously whenever she is awake. Now a ten-pound twerp, Félix found her under a bush in April when she was the size of a large rat. Her bark is more like a shrill yelp.

Roxie is her model, idol and surrogate mother. If Roxie is Edgar Bergen, Felisa is Charlie McCartly, ready to bark, run or do whatever Roxie does.

Act One

On Saturday morning the dogs are nervously milling in the kitchen waiting for food, except for Gladys who is still on her cushion not wanting to get up. When Stew accidentally taps Gladys with the kitchen door, she lets out a painful yelp that triggers a furious reaction from the other dogs, except Domino who stands by the sidelines.

Lucy, Roxie and Felisa simultaneously attack Gladys from all sides with the clear intent of trying to kill her or inflict serious injury. Stew calls me and we separate the dogs and stop the fight.

If we hadn't caught this attack in time, Gladys surely would have been killed or badly harmed.

Gladys is left cowering on the floor, eyes bulging, her body trembling uncontrollably. She's terrified.

We don't know what to make of this attack, particularly by Lucy, Glady's lifelong sidekick. For the next two days Gladys stays to herself, away from the other dogs, though she is eating normally and going outside for her needs. We can't find any injuries or anything wrong with her.

Dowager Gladys: Chubby, gray-whiskered and not too agile.
Photographed the day before she was nearly killed. 
Act Two

We call our neighbor Arno who has eighty-plus dogs at his ranch, and ask him for advice. He says that dogs often turn vicious toward other dogs they perceive as sick, weak or injured. He has a dog with epilepsy that has been attacked when she's had convulsions. Our vet concurs that dogs will attack a member of the pack they perceive sick, hurt or near death.

An article I found on the internet confirms those opinions:

"Some people who keep groups of dogs together have faced the grisly scene of coming home to find the pack of dogs has killed an elderly or sick member. Would this perhaps be nature's way of giving a quicker and more merciful end to a dog in the wild with no chance of survival? The behavior by the dogs who do the killing is certainly instinct, and not murder. Horrendous as it seems by human standards, this reminds us that dogs are not humans."

Gladys seems fine, particularly now that she has calmed down—except she is clearly the oldest member of the pack and slowing down.

Act Three

The other dogs sniff Gladys curiously, who stiffens up with fear. By herself, Gladys runs around the yard merrily, but she keeps away from the others when they are all together.

Act Four

Almost three days after her fur-raising experience, things are returning to normal with one probable exception: Gladys clearly has lost her Number Two spot on the alpha order of our five-member pack. She is now sidelined as the grandma.

So what have learned?

One, we can't leave Gladys alone with the other dogs when we're not here.

Two, no more dogs. I've said that before but this time I'm really, really serious, despite what soft-hearted Stew might say. I'm really serious. No kidding around.

Three, Mother Nature at times can be a cruel bitch, in more ways than one.

Curtain down (though this might not be the last act.)


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Annie get your gun? Or probably not.

I used to believe, naively, that a "home invasion" was a melodramatic synonym for "burglary" until two weeks ago, when at about ten-thirty at night four punks in their twenties broke into the small ranch of a retired American couple in their late sixties who live a few miles deeper into the countryside than us. The assailants tied up the woman and then seriously beat up her husband when he tried to intervene, despite pleas to the burglars to just take whatever they wanted and leave them alone.

The couple's ranch looks like the original Ma and Pa Kettle spread, what with a vegetable garden, chicken coop and small corral with seven goats, rather than a rich gringo's fantasy of a Mexican hacienda. A substantial portion of their income comes from selling goat milk products, such as cheeses and yogurt. One of the biggest losses was a stash of pesos they had saved to fix the roof of the house. Around here they are known as kind souls and unreconstructed hippies, she with graying braids over her shoulders, he with a pony tail, both with matching round eyeglasses.

The assailants reportedly went at it for an interminable forty-five minutes and their motive seems to have been equal parts theft and gratuitous violence. Similar home invasions have taken place elsewhere in the countryside but also in the heart of San Miguel, in some cases driving the victims to leave town if not Mexico altogether.

Annie Oakley looked like a confident, empowered
gal though her hair needed a little work. 
Where is the police you might ask. The San Miguel police came to the couple's ranch alright and one of their first questions was what possessed them to live so far out in the country, which is like scolding a rape victim for wearing a too-tight pair of jeans. In response to another burglary nearby a few days later, when the owner was away, the cops officiously dusted the premises for fingerprints.

No one expects any arrests or results; Mexican law enforcement is famously inefficient at solving any crimes. The system is more like a bottomless cold-case file. If anything officers seem more adept at shamelessly shaking down citizens, usually poor folks. Three months ago we heard a story of a traffic cop stopping a pick-up near our ranch carrying a half-dozen people on the truck bed, a technically illegal but universally common practice. When the driver said he didn't have enough money to pay the mordida—as bribes are known in Mexicothe cop calmly suggested he ask the riders to pitch in. They did and so the case was "solved."

Which takes us back to guns. The couple whose home was invaded are part of a small cluster of Texans with small ranches and the first response from the group was to buy guns—an idea that for the first time resonated some with Stew and me, lifelong liberal wusses on the subject of firearms.

A couple much closer to us who'd never touched a gun in their lives—she's an Italian architect and he a pianist from Ohio—even enlisted a local to demonstrate how to use a revolver and try some target shooting. Nobody hit anything during the outing, a bad omen for a nascent vigilante campaign.

Stew and I have installed a couple more deadbolts and padlocks, adding two more keys to a collection that anymore resembles what the warden would carry at a medium-security prison. We also ordered a remotely activated alarm triggered by a fob on a key ring.

Still, the fear of assault and injuries beyond the loss of property hovers over our minds. Stuff can be replaced far more easily than a broken jaw, lost teeth or possible eye damage, all of which our neighbor—the one with the goats—suffered during the invasion of his home, aside from the bone-chilling fear that still haunts him and his wife.

Following a previous posting in this blog about guns, Stew's brother Greg, an enthusiastic gun owner, argued with us that owning a gun most of all gives you a sense of empowerment, the confidence that you're no longer a hapless victim waiting to be pounced on.

Right now that argument rings a bell. Stew and I have talked about getting a gun and walking around the ranch at night, shooting into the air, howling at the moon while grabbing our crotches and generally putting on our our best impression of a couple of macho Texas ranchers. Wouldn't all that theatrical racket scare off potential home invaders?  It might. Or they might just laugh at the show.

Then there's reality. First, there's the challenge of getting gun permits and the legal morass that would be created by an American shooting, possibly killing, a Mexican citizen, even in self defense. Dealing with the Mexican legal system is like falling into a pool of molasses from which you might never come out.

Our gardener Félix, an eminently sensible Mexican, made a second point: The scenario of two old gringos—no matter how loudly they howl or how empowered they feel—fighting off four or five young Mexicans, some of them armed, doesn't sound like good odds. The scene of a ballsy owner protecting his castle against a gang of intruders still seems like something out of a National Rifle Association comic book—amusing, interesting or reassuring—but not very real.

Still, I'm going to call the government agency in the nearby town of Irapuato in charge of gun licensing. We might even talk to the guy our neighbors used for some target practice, just to see what a gun feels like in our hands.

But owning a gun and keeping it in the night stand? Not quite. No matter how much we try to channel ol' Annie, we just don't seem to connect—yet.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Locavores, eat your heart out

Growing up, my diet was stunted by two major constraints: My father was a very picky eater—meat, rice and blackbeans, mostly—and my mom was a terrible cook who could turn even excellent ingredients into mush almost as if on purpose. At the foster homes where I stayed when I came from Cuba the fare wasn't much better, hitting bottom with the last family I stayed with. They were immigrants from Belfast, the housewife a devout practitioner of British cuisine particularly in her knack for roasting meats to between desiccation and incineration. A thin cloud of smoke from the kitchen served as an indication dinner was about ready.

Stew's family, on the other hand, was blessed with the talents of his mom Frances who could rummage through the refrigerator or the pantry and conjure up a great meal in minutes out of whatever she found. Stew remembers a few mishaps, such as the time his dad lit the charcoal grill in the basement of their house in Cedar Rapids. Or when the neighbor's Basset Hound ran off with the remains of the Thanksgiving turkey that was resting on a tray in the garage which doubled as an energy-free refrigerator during the winter.

But those were exceptions and none Frances's fault: I can't recall a bad meal at the Hammers. Still, this was the American Midwest at the height of the Betty Crocker Era, so menus relied heavily on meats and gravy while arugula, kalamata olives and vegetables in general, aside from iceberg lettuce and tomatoes, were regarded with suspicion.

It's what's for dinner tonight. 
When we moved in together, Stew and I brought our limited palates and they didn't expand much despite regular ventures to the myriad ethnic restaurants within a mile of our home in Chicago and the presence of a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe's also nearby. Too much alcohol before and during meals probably didn't help.

All that has changed since we moved to our small ranch in Mexico, whose garden has become a cornucopia of vegetables and fruits neither one of us would have considered before. Lemon cucumbers, a couple of types of squash, five or six kinds of tomatoes, including three heirloom varieties, along with various types of beets, radishes, carrots and a seemingly endless cavalcade of different lettuces plus Swiss chard and kale that continue producing during our mild winters.

Big-city locavores define locally grown produce as that grown within 100 miles of where it's sold. Most of our produce comes within 100 feet of our kitchen and it's all organic unless the sheep and horses that contribute manure to our compost snort cocaine during full moons.

Last night we had home-grown peas, which redefined my idea of what peas ought to taste like. Stew sauteed them in butter with a little bit of salt and that was it. Quick and simple unless you count the half hour it took for the two of us to coax the little buggers our of their pods. There's supposed to be a little string to zip the pods open but we couldn't find it.

Soups have become Stew's culinary forte, largely to accommodate all the vegetables Félix brings from the garden. Stew's copy of Marian Morash's "The Victory Garden Cookbook" is well dog-eared and stained.

The bounty from our garden hasn't turned us into vegetarians, much less vegans. Félix has turned up lumpy fennel roots neither Stew nor I can deal with. Who planted that stuff? Stew likes beets a hell of a lot more than I do. Chilis, which Félix plants and caresses, have limited appeal beyond the common Jalapeños and Serranos. Two tiny volcanic Piquín chilis rest on the kitchen window sill looking menacing. I expect them to eat through the ceramic tile.

The vegetable garden hasn't been foolproof either. Sweet corn just doesn't grow for us—despite some of friends' bragging about theirs—and neither do strawberries, which sprout lush foliage but little fruit. Okra didn't even peek from the dirt and just as well. I tried it somewhere and its oleaginous texture was a turn off. And Idaho potatoes smuggled in from the States just rotted in the Mexican soil.

The laws of produce supply and demand remain elusive. We would have liked more peas but they're finished, except for a batch from seeds we brought in from Portugal that are starting to flower. There's more Swiss Chard and kale than two human beings can eat; Félix refuses to take any home as if the stuff were radioactive. Lemon cucumbers, which look like lemons until sliced, were not a big hit though we got several.

We might envy some big-city treats like concerts, bookstores where you can fondle the merchandise while sipping an espresso and the real feel of an ink-and-paper version of The New York Times.

But locally produced vegetables? Fahgettaboutdit.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


When Stew and Félix last checked, about a month ago, their two beehives, particularly Stew's, appeared to be in a state of deep lethargy. The bees were buzzing around alright—both Stew and Félix were stung seriously enough to require medical attention—but the bees didn't seem to be making any honey. The rectangular frames on which the bees deposit the honey were practically barren.

It was an odd, even somewhat alarming, situation because we're in the middle of a very green summer, with plentiful rainfall and flowers popping everywhere, both wild and those that Félix has planted. Around the English Lavenders, here almost as common as weeds, there seemed to be a traffic jam of bees, but there was activity elsewhere too, including a patch of gaudy zinnias, Mexican sunflowers, gazanias and even some sunflowers.

A patch of English Lavender, with Mexican Feather Grass
 (golden color) and Mexican Sunflowers (bright red).  
Felix, who is averse to discarding anything—probably the result of growing in poverty—had saved a packet of sunflowers the wild birds had snubbed during the winter along with dahlia bulbs I thought were dead.

In front is a battalion of yellow flowers supposedly from
 South Africa and whose name I don't know.
What I do know is that they are extremely aggressive,
 marching out in all directions, and are very resistant to dry conditions. 
He discreetly planted them and a week ago showed me the results of his frugality: A batch of dahlias in a corner of the back garden, and sunflower plants practically everywhere, as if the seeds had been tossed from a helicopter. The sunflowers in the vegetable garden are ready to open.

"You shouldn't throw so many things away," Félix admonishes me regularly.

So where were the bees and their honey? Had we been hit by the plague that has decimated bee colonies in the States, particularly California?

Sorry, but we have no answers to those questions, even hypothetical or anecdotal, let alone scientific.

But the pall over the bees and the honey production apparently has lifted. This afternoon Stew and Félix discovered seven supers loaded with honey.

"Supers" are boxes in the hives each holding eight rectangular "frames" on which the honey collects. I wonder if our bees' fondness for lavender plants will affect the taste of the honey.

Entrance to front patio: At the bottom, Mexican sage,
 and over the wall, "Llamarada" vines.
Stew and Félix are very happy apiculturists right now, eagerly awaiting the arrival of a hand-cranked stainless steel centrifuge for extracting the honey, from an apiculture supply house in Aguascalientes, northwest of here.

That should minimize the mess of collecting and bottling the product and substantially increase production because under the previous extraction arrangement the owner of the centrifuge claimed half the honey as his fee.

Profits? Hmm, er, well. The centrifuge cost around US$400, including shipping. A friend of Stew has offered to split the costs if we let him use the extractor. But factor in the labor costs of maintaining the hives, packaging and labeling, and profits for this operation might not rise too far above the U.S. minimum wage.

There's also the emotional toll on the residents of Rancho Santa Clara. As I write this, two of our dogs are hiding under the desk after getting stung by a bee that got in the house. Our old dog Gladys flew into our office whining and didn't stir for about an hour.

The honey is great stuff though. Friends have mentioned it and a few weeks ago, during a coughing fit, I made a side-by-side comparison of Stew and Felix's honey versus the commercial stuff from the local supermarket.

No contest. Ours is far better—really and truly. So when I give the word, buy some, eh? Sorry, last year's production of about 20 jars is already exhausted.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Profiles of courage and survival

What began as a relaxing retirement-type project, to digitize stashes of family photos and documents and convert them into an online photo book, has instead turned into a replaying of the hard times my family went through after the political whirlwind of 1959 and the subsequent installation of the Communist dictatorship in Cuba that survives to this day.

I knew the outlines of my family's tale, their having to leave the island and abandon the things they owned and loved, such as the family home and my father's collection of classical music LPs. But the documents, scraps of paper and other memorabilia I uncovered just last week has helped me fill some of the holes in their heartrending story and appreciate the pain they must have gone through.

Indeed, in their own unheralded way my mom and dad emerge as courageous or at least indomitable people who would not bow to a hurricane of adversities.

My mother collected most of the memorabilia I found. It's almost as if she feared people would not believe our family's tale of survival so she'd better save some of the evidence. But some of the scraps I must have saved myself even though I don't remember doing so. Did I instinctively stash away those items as mementos of a family I might never see again?

I left Cuba alone in February 1962, sent into exile by my parents who feared what would become of their only child under a Communist regime. The middle class in Cuba was rattled by daily rumors that all children, particularly the boys, would be forcibly sent to the Soviet Union (not true); or subjected to Communist indoctrination (certainly true) or conscripted into the Cuban army for service in Africa or God-knows-where (partially true).

As I read about the tragedy of Central American parents today sending their children to the U.S. to escape the poverty and criminal mayhem at home, it reminds me of the terror my parents must have felt. Just yesterday, Stew and I ran into a young Honduran family that included a young child and a baby, all filthy and malnourished, begging for coins at the parking lot of Luna de Queso, a local deli. The father said they hoped to reach the U.S. soon. These folks looked as desperate as my parents must have felt.

And just like some of the Central American kids arriving alone in the U.S. I spent three long months at a refugee camp in Florida while the authorities decided what to do with me. My initial destination turned out to be a maternal uncle whom I had never met and who lived in fourth-floor walk-up in the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his wife, daughter and a fat, un-housebroken mutt named Cachucha. It turned out to be an infelicitous interim arrangement when it became clear that my parents would not be coming to the U.S. to claim me any time soon.

To this day I wonder what my parents were thinking to send their only child, who had just turned fourteen, to a strange and huge country like the U.S., with no definite address or destination except an assurances that some charitable organization would pick him up at the Miami airport. Did they figure that the Castro regime would fall in a matter of months and the family would be happily reunited in Cuba? Or that they would follow me out of the island shortly if the initial ideal scenario didn't pan out? That there simply were no good alternatives?

Neither one of the first two options materialized. The Missile Crisis in October 1962 led the Cuban government to shut down the daily flights out of Cuba, while the commitment by the U.S. not to invade Cuba in exchange for the removal of the offending Soviet missiles cemented the political status quo in the island.

In effect we were stuck, me attending junior high school in New York and my parents in Cuba trying to find a way to get out of there. That impasse took three years to resolve when my parents flew to Spain and then to New York in 1965.

After my uncle notified my parents he was no longer willing to house me, I bounced through two other foster homes in Long Island. Included in the latest cache of documents I uncovered are carbons of long letters my mother wrote to two of my favorite teachers at Joan of Arc Jr. High School on the Upper West Side, essentially pleading with them to look after me. I remember both of the teachers fondly—Veronica Mazzarro and Geraldine Schiff—two extraordinarily kind human beings who did indeed informally adopt me, a frightened teenager trying to learn English.

Dreams of a father: A mock-up of a business card
for his Cuban-born son. 
My mom occasionally would grow impatient and send me telegrams nudging me to write more often, in the style of a complaining Jewish mother. For his part, my dad, who was a commercial artist in his younger days, sent me a prototype of a business card proclaiming I was a "Cuban born Chemist and Engineer." In his own way—he was not much of a talker—he was encouraging me to finish high school and go on to college. Though a very intelligent guy and insatiable reader, my dad was the only one in his family who never finished high school.

Mother's complaint: Why don't you write?
The family business in Santa Clara, Cuba was a small printing shop and stationery store that employed probably no more than a dozen people. Older Cuban exiles in Florida often boast—prompted by nostalgia or garden-variety Latin gas-baggery—about the fabulous family wealth and vast land holdings they left behind. I tell American friends that Cuba would have to be the size of Brazil to contain all the imaginary plantations and cattle ranches exiles prattle about.

In the cache of scraps collected by my mother I found a couple of business cards for my dad's small business as well as an ominous-looking and barely legible official document, in onion-skin blue paper, detailing the inspection of his business prior to its confiscation by the government. My dad was in his mid-fifties and the business he and my grandfather had taken twenty or so years to build was taken away by no other authority than the florid signature of a mid-level bureaucrat. All gone overnight.

My dad's last business card
When I visited Cuba in 1998 I found that the building still stands but all the printing presses and other equipment had been hauled out years ago to make room for a warehouse for foodstuffs. The family home, a very modest affair that would have fit nicely in Chicago's bungalow row except for the architecture, also was in ruins except for the wrought iron rocking chairs still in the patio, mute witnesses to the total destruction of my family's life in Cuba.

My parents' exit for Madrid was equally disgraceful, a final spit on the face by the Communist government as they left the island. I found a small printed note advising travelers how much they were allowed to take with them into permanent exile, mind you, not a weekend jaunt to Bermuda. Three each: shirts, pairs of socks, underwear, handkerchiefs and ties. One hat. A tube of toothpaste and a bar of soap per family, both manufactured in Cuba. A razor, but NOT ELECTRIC. A wristwatch and a wedding ring valued at no more than $60 pesos. Anything exceeding these limits was confiscated on the spot and probably pocketed by the airport inspectors.

Final insult: What you were allowed to
take into exile.
The list also includes some requisite documents from the Department of Urban Reform, I suspect certifying that the family home and all its contents had been duly surrendered to the government.

I knew my parents spent a few winter months in Madrid awaiting their visas to come to the U.S. but didn't realize the penury of their lives at the time until I discovered a ticket for what seems to have been a soup kitchen issued by a welfare agency of the Spanish government. Looking at this innocent piece of paper I remember that my proud mother had once confided—but only briefly, as I suspect she was humiliated by the experience—that sometimes they went hungry and cold during their sojourn in Spain, where they wore heavy winter coats donated by some charity.

Their arrival in New York was not a happy end to the family story, though considerably happier than it would have been if we had stayed in Cuba. During my two visits to Cuba, and talks there with relatives and classmates at the Catholic school I attended who had stayed behind, "There but for the grace of God go I" became one of my most cherished mottoes. There would be plenty more hardship for our family in the U.S., but nothing like what I witnessed in Cuba.

My mom's meal ticket in Madrid. 
For starters, my parents' acrimonious divorce had been finalized before they left for Spain, something no one had mentioned to me.

In his typically cryptic fashion my dad advised me that he and my mother would be arriving in the same Iberia flight from Madrid "together but separate." My mom's furious dreams of reconciliation, of a second wind for their marriage in a new country, went nowhere. I went to live with my mother, and dad with his new wife who arrived shortly.

For a while my dad and I worked weekends washing dishes in the basement of Carl Hoppl's Restaurant, a huge establishment on Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream, Long Island, that had wondrous mechanized conveyor belts on which we placed the dirty plates that cascaded from upstairs all night. The shift ended by the hosing and scrubbing down of the floor and other surfaces by the then all-Cuban crew. Some things in the U.S. labor market don't change much: Hispanics still preside over menial restaurant jobs except now they are mostly Mexican and Central American.

Eventually my dad found a job at a small printing shop in nearby Lynbrook, where he stayed until retirement to Miami on Social Security. His employer offered no retirement.

My mom found a job as a "nurse's aide," a wishful repackaging of the title "orderly", at a nursing home run by Nassau Count, helping out with the washing and daily care of bed-ridden residents. Despite her lowly position and meager pay—a precipitous come-down from her previous career as a school teacher—she considered herself fortunate to have a secure government job and became an outspoken member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Above all, she never seems to have lost her self-esteem or drive to survive. In this trove of family memorabilia I found small business cards advertising her services as a Spanish teacher ($3 an hour) and a dress-maker: