A light rain fell that night. A reprieve from the heat of the day; an illusion of cool. He knew it would be short-lived and the vapor mixed with the putrid smell of urine would rise from the asphalt with a vengeance once the shower passed. Little Havana was merciless in the summer.
He walked past the Domino Park in the darkness, remembering his grandfather tirando un partido de domino in a distant memory handed down to him by his father. ‘He loved playing there’ his father told him with a glint of memory in his eye. He could almost see him sitting there with his tank-top and an unbuttoned sort-sleeved shirt he had picked up at the Methodist church on the corner out of a donation box for the needy. It’s where the family sometimes got their clothes. It fit him perfectly but leaving it unbuttoned fit his swagger and the polyester was too hot in the heat of Miami anyway. He could see his grandfather sitting there slapping down the fichas, laughing and mocking his opponents in this dual to the death on the small square table, his hands aged from life as a carpenter in Cuba and later as a janitor in Miami. It was a moment with friends and strangers; familiar faces all. He would play there regularly chain smoking his pack of Lucky Strikes.
The park was empty now in the dark of the night. Tomorrow new faces would fill it again as they have for decades, with their tank tops and open cabana shirts.
As he walked past the Domino Park that night he came upon the once majestic Tower Theater with its once grand marquis consumed by the brightness of the new digital placard with its annoyingly fluorescent display. The marquis shown with all the glory of a distant past, refusing to bend to the will of time and ruination. “Who the hell came up with that idea?” he thought as he walked past, “There was nothing wrong with the marquis” She is still as beautiful as ever.
Crossing 8th Street is a feat of bravery in daylight but at this late hour you have time to cross without getting hit by an angry Miami driver. But they’re just as angry at night too so one can’t be too careful; he ran a bit to get across. The music was calling to him you see; that music that’s reminiscent of days gone that you can still here in places like Little Havana. Ancient rhythms calling to the heart of every Cuban son, even in slumber. The drums. The beating base of the tumba reaching out to even the whitest of Cubans of Spanish blood.
The clave… tak, tak… tak tak tak….
The Ball & Chain was crowded as usual. A Maserati dropped off a group of excited Miami club rats, starting their night here before heading to South Beach. The dresses were impossibly short and he found himself looking. He caught himself and realized he lost track of time. The music brought him back from his momentary departure.
Tak, tak… tak tak tak…
He walked slowly through the crowd into the Ball & Chain. On the wall, he noticed a ripped and aged poster announcing Chet Baker’s performance there in a time long past. This was no ordinary bar. It was special. Life had happened here. The poster had been lacquered over to preserve it. He felt he was the only person who had noticed it there; the only one who cared.
He thought of his grandfather walking past this building in the 70’s, not even thinking twice about it. Miami wasn’t part of his memory. Havana was. Memories of Rolando Lasiere playing at the rec hall of his town in Havana. Of Olga Guillot performing at the Tropicana when he was a young man wishing he could get in, if only, to hear that amazing voice and catch a glimpse of the dancers. Those hips… those amazing Cuban hips! This place Miami was nothing compared to what he knew in Cuba. ‘Un pueblo guajirito… pobrecitos…’ This little farming town… poor devils.
Tak, tak… tak tak tak…
The clave was calling him to the back lot of the Ball & Chain. This is where the magic happens. His favorite band was playing tonight. PALO! would be hitting the Pineapple Stage under the Miami moon. He liked it here because he could smoke his cigar and outsmart the tyrannical anti-tobacco gods who tormented him at every venue in his city. Here he could smoke in peace. It was the one place everyone seemed okay with it. Cigars are part of the culture here and everyone knows it; the smoke adding to the mystique and allure of the place.
He lights his stick. He smokes an H. Upmann tonight but not because it’s his favorite smoke. His father worked for H. Upmann in Havana. He landed the job in 1958, the year before Castro filled the void left by Batista (the “triumph of the revolution” they call it?). He’s careful to toast the edges of the rolled leaves. He knows the cigar in his hand is a far cry from the Upmanns and Montecristos rolled when his dad worked there, and the names meant something, but he doesn’t care. The clave is going “tak” and the timbales are rattling a symphony of time and clashing of cultures.
His father and grandfather come to mind, and they are smiling at him.
He smiles back and takes his first puff.
Leslie Cartaya smiles… the most beautiful broadest smile. He is captivated. The drums and her voice interweave a spell over the crowd. He feels the rhythm deep in his soul and it calls back to everything he is and all he has ever been. Leslie belts out a chorus, improvises and never misses a note.
Is this what it was like hearing Olguita de Cuba live?
He remembers Billie Holiday also sang at the Ball & Chain and wonders how fortunate those sons who heard her; how in that moment they didn’t realize the greatness before them.
“I am a fortunate Cuban son, aren’t I?”
The smoke billows above him. He likes when the smoke lingers unmoved by the atmosphere, a liquid dance con aroma de tabaco an inch from his face. Like everyone at the Pineapple Stage he is no longer concerned with the coming and going of the drizzling rain threatening to bring the night to ruination.
We will not bend. This moment is beautiful and we will not bend… tak, tak… tak tak tak…
The H. Upmann is glowing bright. Some tourists who were taking Salsa classes in Berlin in preparation for their trip to Miami start dancing. He smiles. How long and wide and deep is the breadth of Cuban influence in the world.
PALO! breaks into a Lucumi prayer set to song. The crowd keeps dancing like pagan worshippers at a U2 concert when Bono sings “40”, missing the context and taken up into it at all at the same time. The drums sail off trance-like into the night. Philbert continues his prayer. No one knows what he’s saying but the music speaks a thousand words.
He instantly remembers his grandmother on her death bed. “Abuela, would you like to sing a song?”
Quiquiribu, mandinga!”, she responded in her weakened state.
‘Would you look at that…’ he thought. Even near death and in a distant land all of her history cries out. Esa Negra Tomasa…
The smoke keeps billowing from the H. Upmann, and he is taken back to memories given to him by his parents. Of Santeros playing long into the night calling out to the “Unknown God” through intercessors known to them. Of small towns and gum for a penny. Of paper kites with razor blades. Of hope in times of despair. Of family no matter what and of family torn asunder. For a moment, his eyes well up.
All of history and all of culture culminates in the pounding vibration of drum and dance.
And he thinks how long and wide and deep is this love that would bring him to a place such as this on a night like this, the H. Upmann pouring out billows of memory and emotion. How gracious the hands that brought this sliver of history to unaware passersby; these fortunate sons.
How mystical is this Little Havana.
Tak, tak… tak tak tak…
Marcos Ruiz – November 2017 Miami, FL