Sunday, January 31, 2010

Good Guys vs. Bad Guys

1983, Nevada, Iowa

Our high school was so small you could be the good guy and the bad guy. In other words, if you had a good enough reputation with the other students, if you were popular, being a good athlete was a big plus, then you could practically get away with murder.

One way of being popular was to have a car. I had an Econoline Van that would seat up to 12 people, tinted windows and card table in the back complete with drink holders for the long hauls. We spent hours and hours driving around and drinking, I was like chauffeur to the stars, cruising around the loop or heading over to Ames to see what was happening in the big city.

The night before graduation we loaded up the Econoline for the biggest night of our adolescent lives. We wanted to do something big, make an impression, leave a mark. I drove, as always, but this time I put an American flag on my head, trying to emulate my hero Abbie Hoffman. No check points or cops to stop us, we headed over to the school armed with dozens of cans of spray paint.

I waited in the Van while the others attacked the school with aerosol. Class of ’83 rules, Mr Ball Sucks Balls, Stop the War in Central America, written all up and down the announcer booth at the football field, all across the front doors of the school, over the windows to the cafeteria. Graduation was only a few hours away, the misty solvent still pungent in the morning air.

No sleep and it was time to go to the graduation rehearsal ceremony. I was playing in the concert band as well as giving a speech because I was student council president and it was customary to give a short speech to sum up our careers at Nevada High. Mr. Ball, the principal, was at the podium testing the microphone when I walked in with my trumpet, and he looked right at me across the auditorium, saying some vandals attacked the school last night and he would find out by the end of the day who was responsible and they would not graduate.
I couldn’t tell if he was eliciting my help, thinking I might know something, or if he thought maybe I was one of the spray painters too. Hey I just drove, what my friends did with those cans is none of my business.

For graduation we had planned a big surprise, everyone put me up to it, and expected me to unofficially graduate those friends who had dropped out or had been kicked out during the year. I was to stop in mid speech and call the five or six names, handing them a rolled up piece of paper when they came to the podium amidst thundering applause. To make a long story short, I chickened out but half of them didn’t show up anyway.

I wanted to say something profound and leave an impression on the townspeople. I basically said not to expect much from a generation grown up on Brady Bunch family values and Ronald Reagan’s sense of right and wrong and what the truth is. Overcoming all the brainwashing would not be easy, and standing up to the powers that be, whether they be your teachers when they try to feed you the Myth of America and expect you to swallow it, or your president when he gets on television and tells you the Sandinistas are coming through Texas any minute now, would be a life long challenge. Some of us would be up for the struggle while others would swallow the pill, sedated by the false dreams of consumer culture and war mongering in the name of democracy and the American way of life. The class of ’83 might not change the world, but some of us were going to try.

The spray paint had all been removed by the time the townspeople filled the auditorium, and Mr. Ball never mentioned the incident to me again.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Malecon Romance

March 2000, Havana, Cuba

On our first trip to Cuba, Arthur was hoping to get to know his wife Sady a little better. They had only been married a few months before we arrived, tying the knot after three days on Arthur’s first trip down with other friends.

Actually, it was an accident that they met and got married in the first place. Initially Arthur was going to meet another woman there, and had seen pictures of her and everything. Kind of like a mail-order bride. On the way to Cuba, in the plane, his friends told him oh by the way Art, she’s pregnant. Of course he flipped out, stuttering angry words through his gaping, toothless mouth, drool spilling on the food and drink tray. This is how I imagine the situation, I wasn’t on this trip. When he and his friends arrived, they definitely understood that he wasn’t going to marry a pregnant woman. Apparently he was hoping, at the age of sixty, to have a child of his own. Or maybe it was just more complicated for the U.S. Special Interests Section in Havana to deal with. The pregnant woman’s replacement was another friend of this group, and actually had experience with disabled people, so she was brought over to meet Arthur.
It was love at first sight. Sady was thirty years younger, a big woman, like his ex-wife, and I’m sure he felt like she could take care of him. He told me they had sex a few times, the first time in seventeen years for him, and he was madly in love and couldn’t wait to see her again.

The first day they were alone for quite a long time, but I sensed something was wrong. Sady didn’t look too happy and basically treated Arthur like a baby. She paid more attention to me than to Arthur, and she hooked me up with her sister Loida in the meantime. It seemed like Arthur wasn’t having his honeymoon revisited like he had hoped, and things were getting tense between them.

I acted like a marriage counselor for them, but it was really not going anywhere. I couldn’t be a shrink for them and offered no advice. I simply interepreted. We sat on a park bench together and Arthur explained how he wanted to have a baby. Sady looked at me for some validation, some comprehension of how ridiculous it sounded. I offered none. She told us that it would be dangerous, the child could be born with defects. It could get passed on. This was refuted, but she said when an old man comes, it doesn’t go up as far so this can also lead to defects. We were going round and round. In the end, he conceded to the fact that, at least on this trip, he wasn’t going to have sex with his wife unless a dramatic change of heart occurred.

It wasn’t part of my job description, but the next thing I knew I was wheeling Arthur downtown looking for hookers. Maybe this was the caregiver part of the job, or the intepretation part. In any case, it wasn’t my suggestion. We went down to the sea front wall known as The Malecon, dozens of young women with their uncle-pimps lined up all along the long walkway, waiting for the American Dream to arrive. Arthur was a blue-blood American, that’s for sure, but not exactly a woman’s dream come true.

The moon reflected off the water as we wheeled along, looking at the girls like they were in a shop window. When we stopped in front of two girls it was as if we had put a coin in the slot, because suddenly they came to life, acting all flirty and nice. They couldn’t quite figure out who was the John, or maybe both of us were looking. I explained Arthur was my Uncle, it was his birthday and we wanted to do something extra special for him. We decided he would have both girls for an hour for fifty bucks. That’s two girls, one hour, fifty bucks. I don’t know what the prices are like in other parts of the world, but Arthur and I both thought this was a good deal. I wasn’t going to participate because I had to guard all the stuff hanging off Arthur’s wheelchair, the digital camera and booze and other things we were carrying around.

The uncle-pimp took over once the deal had been set up. He directed us across the road to a waiting car, a 1960 Bel Air with Soviet tractor parts to keep it going. We climbed in and drove a couple blocks to a little house. A woman in full Santeria priestess white dress and yellow beads met us at the door, as if she had been called in advance. I didn’t see anyone make a phone call, maybe Santa Barbara told her. We wheeled into the living room and went to close the deal. I gave the uncle-pimp two 20s and a 10 and he put it in his pocket. I told him I was going to wait outside while Arthur and the two girls spent an hour, not half hour or forty-five minutes, together in privacy. The girls were flanking Arthur, who was in drooling ecstasy, one of them sitting on his lap. The priestess whispered to the two girls and they all shot me glances. They must have thought I was going to be next because they still couldn’t believe Arthur could possibly perform anything more than slumping over and shitting his pants.

I saw them disappear into the room. The uncle-pimp then tried to trick me. He pulled out the money and showed me the 20 and 10, claiming I still owed him another 20. I was drunk, but this was no time to get into a fight. I gave him the old swindler’s knowing smile and told him it was a good try, but I had seen him pass it to the priestess before she went into the room with Arthur and the girls. This was true, I was expecting something to come up, but they couldn’t do anything no matter how hard they tried or how drunk and stupid we seemed. He didn’t let up, getting in my face and saying he was going to stop the girls, this was robbery. We call them sinverguenzas, a true rascal this one. I couldn’t keep from laughing it was so obvious, this high handed caribbean way of getting a gringo’s money. I guess they think eventually you just give them the money to shut them up and get their stinking breath off your face.

Coming out of the room, the priestess produced the nefarious bill from her bodice, waving it in the air. She had heard us quarreling through the wall and guessed I couldn’t be taken for a ride this time. The uncle-pimp’s memory came back to him when he saw the 20 and we both chuckled. He put his arm around my shoulder and lead me outside to a couple milk crates in the alley. I kept my eye on Arthur’s wheelchair and all our stuff just inside the open door. The priestess came out to join us, and the uncle-pimp walked a few houses down, saying he’d be right back with something special for me.

I asked the priestess to order a bottle of rum for us and she sent a young girl scurrying to the store with a crumpled up ten dollar bill, promising to bring back change. She was back in a couple minutes and I offered the priestess a drink, pouring her half a plastic cup full of the two dollar aguardiente. I followed with a burning shot straight from the bottle. We sat and chatted and waited. She asked me why I didn’t want to go with the girls, they are very nice and good price. I told her it was a birthday present for my uncle Arthur, maybe we’d come back another day for me. Not likely with Loida around, I thought. She hardly let me out of her sight.

The uncle-pimp came up the street with a young girl and told me I could take her for 15 dollars one hour. We didn’t look at each other. She must have been 16 years old. I repeated that this was a birthday present for my uncle and I wasn’t going with any girls tonight thank you very much. He was insulted and called me maricon, faggot. I could see the girl looking up at the moon, giving a little bite of her lower lip, a little hip jutting out. I just said no thanks, your cousin is nice, but no thanks. She hit the uncle-pimp on the shoulder with the back of her hand, clucked her tongue in disgust and skipped back down the street. He glared at me like I was costing him money again by not playing along.

Again the priestess intervened, shaking her head at us and saying they were all open to whatever preference people had, it was okay. I tried to explain that I wasn’t homosexual, but accidentally said amiga to the uncle-pimp instead of the male amigo and his eyes bugged out, pointing and saying now you see, its true, maricon. I let him run with this idea and figured Arthur was just about ready to pop out and we could just get the hell out of there.

Which is exactly what happened. After only about twenty five minutes Arthur appeared in the doorway with the two girls. He was smiling as they held his hands and rubbed his bald head. I asked him if everything was good, you still got a good half hour if you want it. He groaned a satisfied no that’s okay lets go and we thanked them and wheeled up the alleyway toward Calle Obispo to get some pizza and recount another conquest.

Monday, January 4, 2010


Spring 2000, Portland, Oregon and Havana, Cuba

My friend Arthur was married for twenty years in Portland, the last 17 of which were celibate. When his wife asked for a divorce, he was crushed and went into a fit of depression, starting to drink again after 15 years of sobriety. In the midst of his rise to the depths of the gutter, his great Aunt, a benefactor and philanthropist and friend of Oregon National Parks, bestowed One Million Dollars to Arthur in her will. The party had just begun.

I had just got back from one year in Costa Rica and everyone supposed my Spanish was pretty good. My friend Derek knew Arthur and told me he was looking for someone to accompany him on a trip to Cuba, all expenses paid, to act as interpreter and caregiver. I had never done either, but decided to meet Arthur anyway and see if there was a good rapport between us.

I didn’t realize how severe his Cerebral Palsy was. Some people have only a dignified gait, or you can see it in their hands and mouth, the signal from the brain to the muscles choked off, like there was a short in the line somewhere. For Arthur, this little glitch in his brain messages caused him to stutter and at first he was unintelligible, I couldn’t understand a word and Derek had to interpret for me. My first thought when seeing him was as long as I don’t have to wipe his butt, I’ll do it. Talking to my friends and mulling it over, I came to call it Doing the Deed.

Arthur had a big jug of Carlo Rossi red wine on the table at all times and three glasses, water, coffee and wine, each with a flexi straw popping out. He sidled up to the edge of the table and miraculously wound his Gene Simmons tongue around the straws, alternating between the drinks as we talked. I had also stopped drinking in Costa Rica during the last few months, but it was becoming apparent to me that if I was going to go to Cuba with Arthur, I was probably going to have to start drinking again, just to be on the same wavelength and have the same excuses. I was hoping the drink would make me into some pickled Buddha, able to withstand the many difficult situations that surely were to come on our adventure. Besides, he was going to pay for all of it, so drink up snakes, as I always say.

A few days after our first meeting I decided to go, even if I had to Do the Deed. I still didn’t know, it just didn’t seem respectful or discreet to ask. Derek said he didn’t know, he had only seen Vicky, the morning caregiver, going into the bathroom with him, but he never saw or asked specifically about it.

We began planning. He needed everything arranged, plane tickets, how to deal with money down there, documents to present at the US Special Interests Section on behalf of his new bride, Sady. I went to his lawyers, the bank, Cuban friends of his wife, made hundreds of phone calls, and in the end if I hadn’t figured out all of this, he wouldn’t have had anyone to help him. He thought he could use his credit cards there and he wanted to buy some property as well, so the family could move out of Old Havana and for him to use when he visited. He of course knew of the US embargo, but some things just didn’t cross his mind.

At one point in all of the configurations I did indeed have to wheel him into the bathroom, he only had caregivers in the morning and at night. Once I got him on the toilet, he asked me to peel him off a few slabs of toilet paper and put them folded in his lap, then I could go out until he called me. I even heard the flush just before he grunted out OKAY behind the door. I didn’t have to Do the Deed after all, and my conscience was clear for not asking such a trite question.

Things went smoothly despite the fact that now I was full blown back into the whisky. I even got both hands on that Carlo Rossi when times got lean and slugged back a few bloody drinks to keep me blind. We hit all the bars, people knew Arthur from way back, and he paid for all my drinks. The waitresses took a liking to me as well, just for being his friend, but the whole thing was too twisted for them, I ‘m sure they thought I was taking advantage of this poor man.

We went through Cancun Mexico to change flights to Havana, and stayed a couple days there. In the Cancun airport, I forgot my wallet in the checkpoint, with $750 in cash, and almost had a heart attack before the trip had begun. I had to leave Arthur in the terminal minutes before the flight was to take off, run back and ask the girl about the wallet. She seemed disinterested and disappointed, going to a little desk, bottom drawer way in the back and fishing out my fat bankroll. She handed it over with a limp gesture and a kind of scolding look, but I didn’t count it until I was out of her view.

Horrible place, Cancun. It was like a strip mall on the beach. We tried to meet people but they just stared, and the waiters copped a bad attitude. I told everyone he was my Uncle and that worked pretty well, after all we both had blue eyes and they understood the bonds of family down there.

We finally arrive into open arms in Cuba, and after a few days in Sady’s house next to the garbage dump, we rented a nice family place on the outskirts and settled in for the month. Sady knew some musicians from the old vaudeville type variety show she used to promote and act in. They worked around this little touristy beach town, I don’t remember the name, and we heard great Cuban and Mexican music all the time from this great quintet, all singers and multi instrumentalists.

One twilight evening we were sitting and enjoying a concert on a thatched terrazza along main street. Jesus was improvising like crazy, making up verses about me and Arthur, making fun of us. I understood about half, but it was really funny and everyone was laughing. The people in the restaurant looked at Arthur in wonder and amazement, but I think most people thought he was mentally retarded, like a child. When he leaned back his head and opened his mouth so I could pour him another shot of whatever was at hand, Jameson’s or White Rum like moonshine, there was a mixture of laughter and disdain from the people.

During a break, I was talking with Miguel, the band leader and cousin from Mexico. He was really wasted and we were laughing about everything. I told him the joke about how do you make a Cuba Libre. He cringed and looked around as I gestured the punch line, stroking an invisible beard with Cuba and cutting my throat with an imaginary knife with Libre. He said when you joke I sleep. He was afraid some country bumpkin police might give him some trouble, or some overzealous patriot would put the finger on him for being anti revolutionary.

Arthur came over and laid a $20 bill on Miguel for the music. This is for the whole band he said, and Jesus and Antoine the percussionist saw what was happening. The next thing I know the other band members were having a huge shouting match with Miguel glaring silently at all of them, taking the leader stance. Jesus told me the next day that they didn’t get any of the money, but Miguel took what would be basically a month’s worth of tips and pocketed it.