April 2011

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Dave Eggers may be best known as the author of such gems as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and, most recently, Zeitoun, but he’s also one of the founders of several tutoring workshops from Brooklyn to San Francisco dedicated to improving the writing skills of kids 6-18. Last night he was talking about the second such workshop he opened up in San Francisco called 826 Valencia. It’s in the Mission District and Eggers said when he and his wife first looked at the building they thought it was perfect. Only problem was that it was zoned for retail. They needed to sell something inside the building. So, for no particular reason as he says, they decided to become the only pirate supply store in the Bay Area (heck, probably in the whole state of California). You could buy glass eyes, pirate flags, eye patches, peg legs—you know, basic pirate stuff. The thing is, the retail part of the tutoring workshops, which were held in spaces behind the pirate supply store, actually became quite successful. They were making money. One of their more popular items, said Eggers, was planks. But Eggers being Eggers, he decided they should diversify the types of planks they carried. So there was the hamster plank. And then the parrot plank. And finally the kitten plank.

Now when Eggers said they’d sold a kitten plank, a groan went up from the assembled group. Eggers immediately acknowledged it. “I guess the kitten plank is where we crossed the line,” he said. “It’s okay to sell a hamster plank but no one wants to hear about a kitten plank.”

This is a very long-winded way of explaining how I also seemed to have crossed the line recently in my blog. As I wrote a week ago, while I was fishing on a boat off the coast of Cuba, I had some interesting conversations with a young friend who was reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. He didn’t really like the book, mostly because he didn’t understand the “Lost Generation” references or why all the relationships were so screwed up or why the language was the way it was. So I decided that I’d do sort of a parody of the book making the people who were on the boat in Cuba the characters with him as the protagonist based on the Robert Cohn figure.

I forget sometimes (okay, all the time) that not everyone is as enamored of literature as I am. I forget that when someone says Gee, it would be so fun to live in Paris and I answer, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” that they have no idea that I’m referencing the final line in The Sun Also Rises. I forget that you can say Brad and Angelina and everyone will know exactly who you are talking about but if you say Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley they will look at you like you’re crazy.

So for two weeks I wrote this parody on my blog, none of which was true, although the setting on the boat in Cuba was true, and people read it and thought it was factual. Even people who knew I was writing a parody of the book. I started getting these crazy e-mails from readers who were worried about me and, even more distressing, the friend who I’d turned into the Robert Cohn figure started getting phone calls from his mother saying she was getting calls from her friends all over the world distressed that her son was being portrayed as such a cad.

In short, it seems that I had begun selling kitten planks—I’d crossed the line. Of course, to me it all seemed a bit silly and crazy. But that doesn’t matter. The fact is that it sincerely distressed some people who I am extremely fond of and for that I’d like to apologize. And make it very, very clear: The character in the blog, who was named Cameron, was never in a relationship with a woman named Suliet (although there was a Suliet on the boat). Nor did he ever strike me or get drunk or do any of the other Hemingwayesque activities I attributed to him and to me. The lad is a fine person and nothing like the Robert Cohn figure at all. I hope everyone understands that now (including his worried mum). And there’s no need to worry about either him or me or even Suliet. It was all just a dream. And I promise not to sell any more kitten planks in the future. Really.


Havana’s old cars

The dashboard of our Impala taxi. All photos by David Lansing.

I’m not a car guy at all. In fact, if I lived somewhere like NYC or San Francisco where you can actually get away without owning a car, I would. But the cars in Havana are special. They aren’t the sort of tricked out vintage automobiles you’ll see at a typical car show where the emphasis is on original equipment. In Cuba, nobody cares whether the car is made up of the original components; they only care that it runs.

Whenever we rent some car that is 50 or 60 years old, the first thing we ask the driver is if most of the parts are original. We don’t ask him that because we care. We ask him that because all Cubans take great pride in showing you how they have cleverly converted parts from different makes and models to keep a car running that, in the States, would long ago have gone to the junkyard. For instance, yesterday we rented this old Chevy Impala to tool around in. The driver told us that the speedometer was from an old BMW, the radio originally resided in a Russian Volga, and there were other parts from a ’57 Chevy and a Japanese pick-up truck. Very cool.

So I thought today I’d just present a gallery of some of the old cars of Havana I shot the past couple of days. God only knows how many miles they have on them (the Impala driver told us that his car had well over 300,000 miles on it) or where the parts came from, but they all have on thing in common: They work.

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The wiener dog con job

That's me taking a photo of the con man's wiener dog. Photo by Nick Fletcher.

You meet every kind of con artist there is on the old streets of Havana. I don’t mean con artist in a criminal sense, although certainly there are plenty of those as well, but in an inventive sense. As in, Yes, what I am trying to sell you is completely ludicrous but you know it and I know it, so why not? As a Cuban told me when I asked about an iPod that had been left on a bus that we both knew was still there, despite the fact that he adamantly swore that it was not there, “In the United States, you just go out and buy another one. Here in Cuba, this is not possible. So, no, there is no possibility we will find your iPod on the bus.”

But I’m not even really talking about this sort of thing when I say there are a lot of con artists on the street. I’m talking about guys like this local we came across in Habana Vieja who was riding around ostensibly selling miniature Cuban flags from a basket on the back of his bike. Also in the basket was a dachshund. The man stopped us and asked if we’d like to buy one of his flags. “Very cheap,” he said. “Just five pesos.” Which was enough of a bargain to get us to actually stop and have a look. But here’s where the con comes in.

The guy wasn’t really interested in selling us miniature Cuban flags. What he wanted us to do was get interested in the wiener dog that was riding in the basket on the back of the bike. A wiener dog who was wearing a child’s denim hat, John Lennon glasses, a pink wristwatch on one paw, and a Superman cape. Oh, and the dog was sucking on a pacifier. Now, you see something like that, you’re going to stop, right? Which is what the guy is counting on. Then you’re going to grab your camera and start taking pictures of the dolled-up wiener dog. And the dog’s owner is happy to oblige you. He’ll take off the dog’s denim cap, if you like, and replace it with a straw hat. He’ll have the dog sit up on his hind legs and wave to you with his paws. He’ll even have the dog stick the pacifier in its mouth and pretend to be asleep.

Then, when you’re done taking your photos, he’ll smile, put out his hand, and ask everyone who took a photo for five pesos. Which, in our case, meant that in about a minute, the guy on the bike with the dog made twenty bucks. Which is a typical month’s salary in Cuba. Even though none of us bought a Cuban flag.

Of course, we could have just blown the guy off and walked away. But why do that? This was a very good entrepreneur and it seemed only right that we should reward him for his moxie and industriousness. Even if he was a con man.

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Maria at Partagas

Fletch and Nick with our tour guide at the Partagas cigar factory. Photo by David Lansing.

As I said, in Havana everything is always the same; everything is always different. We decided to take a tour of the cigar factory which we had not done in five years. Back then, you could take your camera; this year you had to go to a coat-check room and store your camera. I asked our guide about this and she said that with “special consideration” you could take pictures. I took this to mean that you needed to pay someone. For a country that hates capitalism the government participates in a great number of capitalistic enterprises.

Yet the very fact that everyone who works here, from the director of the cigar store to the portly man in a Panama hat who does nothing but open and close the door for visitors to the factory, is protected by the state means that insolence and derision are part of the uniform for anyone in the so-called service industries. Take, for instance, our guide at the Partagás factory, Maria. The first thing she did was ask us where we were from. When we told her the U.S., she rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, god. Americans. I have a headache already and they give me Americans.”

I asked her what was wrong with Americans. “You talk too much,” she said. “You talk more than old women. It gives me a headache.” It just so happened that as she was telling me this, Hardy and Fletch were standing at the rear of our little tour group having a private conversation. Maria stared at them as if she were an exasperated grade school teacher. “This is what I mean,” she said to our group which included four Russians. She worked her hand in the air like a shadow puppet. “Talk, talk, talk. They never shut up, these Americans.”

Then Maria gave us the ground rules for our tour: Do not go anywhere she did not go. Do not talk to the workers. And, most importantly, do not try and buy any cigars from the rollers. “If you try to buy a cigar, then the tour is over. Immediately. Understand?”

This was an odd restriction as we soon found out when we reached the top floor of the factory. This is the room where fifty or so cigar rollers sit at long tables side-by-side rolling the Cohibas and Montecristos that are for sale in the cigar store downstairs. When I asked Maria what happened to a roller who tried to sell a cigar to someone like me, she said dismissively, “They would be fired, of course.” Yet we weren’t in the room for two minutes before one of the rollers propositioned us to buy his cigars. “Good price,” he whispered while Maria’s back was turned. And he wasn’t the only one. Four or five other rollers, both men and women, offered to sell us cigars. And none of them seemed particularly worried that they might get caught doing it. I was tempted to buy some. Just to see what Maria would do. But then again, maybe she wasn’t bluffing. And the poor bastard would be fired. The possibility of that was enough to keep me from causing any trouble. Which is probably what Maria had in mind when she laid out the rules.

The funny thing was that as rude and obnoxious as Maria was during the tour, the minute it ended and Fletch handed her a $20 tip—or about a month’s salary for her—she suddenly became very pleasant. She said she loved Americans. “God bless America.” And then she suggested that we take some photos with her. Which we did. With her wrapping her arms around the boys and grinning as if she were the winner of the Miss Cuba contest. Amazing what a little dinero can do.

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Partagas in the morning

Photo inside Partagas VIP room by Nick Fletcher.

Every year it is the same here in Havana; every year it is different. Always we start off by going to the Partagás factory to buy cigars. Every year we have met the director of the cigar shop on the ground floor, Abel Expósito Diaz, a tall, handsome man who will cradle a box of Cohibas in his hands as if it were a child. Always Abel comes over to us on the sales floor and says, “So you are back in Cuba. Welcome, welcome.” And then he will fish out a small tarnished bronze key from his pants pocket and open a locked drawer behind the counter and grab a handful of cigars that have no bands, no name. These are specially rolled cigars, something that you cannot buy, and he will dole out one to each of us, smiling and looking hard in your eyes as he slips it to you, as if he were divvying up the loot from an especially sophisticated bank heist that he had orchestrated.

While it is encouraged to smoke cigars in Partagas it is not polite to smoke these particular cigars on the sales floor. It would be like sipping Cristal at a wine tasting while everyone else was getting tiny pours of an Australian merlot. So Abel will come out from behind the counter and say, “Come on, my friends. Come with me,” and lead us to the special room in the back with the walk-in glass humidor and the well-worn leather armchairs and the wood paneled walls with photos of Fidel and Raul and even Che. Abel will invite us to sit down and he will light our cigars while a waiter pours us glasses of aged rum and Abel will ask us how we like these cigars and if we think Havana has changed since we were last here, and we will ask him about his family.

This is what we have done almost every year since our first trip five years ago, but as I say, everything is the same and yet everything is different and this year there is no Abel and when I inquire about him in the cigar shop the young clerk will shrug and feign that he has never heard the name although I do not believe him. So without Abel and without an invitation, we go into the VIP smoking room anyway, almost daring one of the young salesmen to stop us or ask us what we are doing. The room is exactly the same as it was the last time we were here and yet it is completely different. On our last visit, the room was crowded with buyers from Japan and Germany and France and the smoke was so thick that Abel immediately turned on an industrial fan. This time there was no smoke and no clients; the room was empty. I had never seen it empty before. It looked the way a house does the morning after a particularly raucous party when the harsh light of day streams in and everything that had looked romantic and convivial in the candle-lit room now simply looks tired and threadbare.

We slipped into the walk-in humidor and examined the stacked boxes of Montecristos and Cohibas and then Hardy pulled out a color Xerox of a story I’d written about us at Partagas that also had a photo of him blowing smoke directly at the camera. He slipped the article and the photo between two framed photos hanging on the wall and we all admired the addition to the gallery and then someone came into the room and told us that the tour of the cigar factory above us, which we had already paid for, was about to begin so we hurried out of the shop, wondering if it would be possible that the story and photo of Hardy would still be pinned to the wall if we returned next year while knowing full well that it would not.

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