Wednesday, April 5, 2017

288. Havana Today


Bill Hope: His Story: ($20: Softcover: 6X9”, 158pp: 978-1-68114-305-7; $35: Hardcover: 978-1-68114-306-4; $2.99: EBook: 978-1-68114-307-1; LCCN: 2017933794; Historical Fiction; May 17, 2017) is the second novel in the Metropolis series. New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his scorn for snitches and bullies; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; his brief career on the stage playing himself; his loyalty to a man who has befriended him but may be trying to kill him; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder. In the course of his adventures he learns how slight the difference is between criminal and law-abiding, insane and sane, vice and virtue—a lesson that reinforces what he learned on the streets. Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a yearning to leave the crooked life behind, and a persistent and undying hope.
          This is the second title in the Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.  The first in the series is The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), mention of which appears at the end of this post. 

         The book can be ordered from Amazon and will be shipped after the release date of May 17, 2017.  But the paperback, which goes for $20, will cost an additional $4.95 for shipping, unless you order books totaling $25 or more.  The book is also available now from the author and will be mailed immediately ($20 + postage).  And now let's visit Havana, Cuba. 

            This will be a minipost, a quick stab at a subject, a glance at a city that presents a sharp contrast to New York.  My friend Naqiya, a Pakestani American, recently went to Havana with two friends; none of them spoke a word of Spanish.  They were there for a week, staying in private homes that rented out rooms (the hotels are fearfully expensive), and saw only Havana itself, didn’t travel to other parts of the island.  The photos that follow were taken by Naqiya.  She tells me that Cuban society is remarkable for a number of reasons.

·      Free education for all.
·      Health care for everyone.
·      Scientists and trash collectors and everyone else all get the exact same salary paid by the government.
·      Music everywhere.
·      Beautiful old buildings, and a seaside promenade all in marble.
·      Art sold in little ground-floor studios.
·      No abject poverty.
·      Old-model cars painted in bright colors.
·      No crime.
·      A seemingly happy people.

Proud of their brightly painted old cars.

Beautiful old churches everywhere.

Friendly to American visitors.  A bathroom attendant who hands out
another rare item: toilet paper.

But of course there are negatives:

 The salaries are never quite enough, so everyone has to have a second job.
·      No free discussions of politics.
·      The beautiful old buildings have cracks; three or four a year just plain crumble and collapse.
·      People avoid the sidewalks, walk in the streets, so as to avoid falling debris from above.
·      No crime because the penalties are grievously severe.
·      Though scrubbed up and shiny in appearance, the cars, lacking spare parts, are in bad shape, go only 20 miles an hour at best.
·      No Internet.
·      Many basic items rare or nonexistent, as for example plastic cups and utensils, even toilet seats.
·      An economy crippled by the longstanding U.S. embargo.

A sunset view from the room where she stayed.  The aerials catch non-state-sponsored TV, mostly
high-drama stories from Latin America.  The dome in the background is the Cuban capitol, modeled on our own in D.C. and undergoing renovation, hence the scaffolding.

            Wherever the three visitors went in Havana, there might be complaints and resentments regarding Yankee imperialists, but they were treated well; when informed they were Americans, vendors often refused to charge them anything, begged for help in learning English, which wasn’t taught in the schools, where Russian was favored.  Having no Spanish, the Americans resorted at times to gestures, but many Cubans spoke a slangy American English picked up from clandestine TV.  Yes, the Cuban males gave them plenty of attention, but it was flattering, not offensive.  And if lovely old buildings were crumbling, new ones were going up: luxury hotels for the hoped-for swarms of foreign tourists. There were still few Americans, but plenty of Russians and Argentines, some of whom exhibited the crassness and ill manners of the Ugly American of yore.  And everywhere, a flourishing black market.  Renting out rooms in private homes had once been illegal, but the government found it impossible to suppress the practice; the solution: make it legal and tax it, which they did.  Indeed, everything is taxed, and the taxes pay for the generous benefits.

            After one week, what did my friend conclude?  A creative people, but constrained.  A happy people, especially when compared to other societies where the poor are not so well cared for.  Happy and cared for, but not free.  And all this in a lovely old city that was crumbling.  All in all, a situation that she called (and she used the word repeatedly) unreal.

            Now compare Havana with New York.  New York is free, has toilet seats and toilet paper and (too many) plastic coffee cups, but is there music everywhere?  In New York we have all the Internet we want, and go about with noses stuck in mobile devices, but do we have free education, health insurance for all, no poverty, and no crime?  Our cars aren't always brightly painted, but they go more than 20 miles an hour.  (In 2015, 230 of us died in traffic accidents in New York, which was hailed as progress, since 257 died in 2014).  Freedom vs. security, the Internet vs. free education, soaring high-rises vs. charming old buildings that are crumbling: not all choices are easy.  But who really has a choice?  Havanans don't, and neither do New Yorkers.  We take what is given us and make our peace with that.

*                *                *                 *                  *                   *           

          BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series,  tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client   It is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

            Coming soon:  Food to die for – dishes, snacks, and meals that I have experienced here and abroad, most of them exceptional.  Beware of viewing it on an empty stomach.

            ©   2017   Clifford Browder


  1. Great chronicle. And who knew that everybody earns the exact same salary?
    As Naqiya said, unreal!

  2. I didn't mean to imply that Cuban people are unreal. Sorry if my comment seemed to imply that.

    1. No, they aren't unreal. It's the ambiguities and ironies of their society -- free but not free, happy and creative but constrained, etc. -- that seem unreal.

  3. That's what I meant, thanks Cliff. Also, I did not know everybody earned exactly the same salary. That's what seemed unreal to me, even for a supposedly socialist society.