In our memory banks there are places and then, there are places. Looking back, it seems amazing that one city block (exactly 100 meters) would carry enough weight to remain attached for a lifetime. But so is the case for that block of Boullon (Calle 25 today) Between Santa Cruz and Sta. Elena. My world's center for most of the first 15 years of my life.
“Paco… dame una Materva, que me muero del calor”… “Paco, give me a Materva (local soda); I’m dying from the heat!!”
This would be a very common cry during any summer afternoon. The place where this cry was usually heard would be the corner “bodega”(store): combination soda fountain, hangout, quasi bar for the afternoon home returning working crowd and general food store. In Cienfuegos, Cuba in the 1950’s, there were no supermarkets as we know them here; instead, it was the corner store, much like the small towns across the USA. In our case, we had two from which to choose: the store owned by Pedro y Paco, or a similar store at the other end of the block. We were loyal to Pedro y Paco; it may have helped that I could buy stuff and put it on the proverbial “account” to be paid at the end of the month by my grandparents. Also, there were two very cute girls across the street from this particular store. Two sisters, one of whom would eventually be known to the music and film world as Maria Conchita Alonso. Besides these two stores, we had the local butcher as well as the small “quincallitas” (housefront kiosks) where small things could be bought for pennies. My favorite small thing to buy here would be flavored ice cubes for one penny. My bacteria defense was much higher then than it may be now.
This was a one block neighborhood in a small city of neighborhoods, where I lived for most of the first 15 years of my life; in the same house where my grandparents had lived since the 1930’s. I knew all the neighbors: on our left, Carmen and her daughter Maria, then in her 20’s. Maria would come to our house to use the phone, always almost wearing summer light clothing. I would do all I could to make sure she would position herself against the light… It was great viewing, and she knew it; and enjoyed showing off a pretty decent body.
Across the street there was a subdivided old house, where in each room there would be a small family living. The communal water source was at the center of the inner “courtyard” and the common showers and bath were at the end of the courtyard. Always yelling and screaming at each other and amongst themselves (this was Cuba, no?) and also always ready to bring out the chairs and guitars and start a “guaguancó” (Impromptu get together to create music, sing and dance). One of the neighbors in this communal house, occupying the largest room (subdivided) and having an outside, direct entryway, was “Varón”. That was his nickname; he worked at my grandfather’s factory (as had his father) and lived with his wife Martha, his daughter Bárbara and his son Juan, who was my age and a good friend.
Around the corner was Lolita, my tutor. A spinster, around the ancient age of 45 (ah, just in the flower of youth m’lad!!. My, how perspectives change over the years). Every afternoon at precisely 4:20 I would walk down to the corner, turn left and go to the other end, where she would be waiting for me in order to review the day’s learning, homework and all. Every day from 4:30 to 6pm. Of course, everyone was out on the streets at the time either playing or talking, so I would get to see them all and say “Hola”. This daily trip expanded my own neighborhood to that other block as well.
On our right, there were two “next door” neighbors: The outside door was a double entrance, with one door leading upstairs to an apartment and the other one leading to the house directly next to us. In the upstairs apartment lived a mother with her two daughters: Maria and Irma. Both in her late 20’s and with a very checkered lifestyle. We became friends and I believe there is something about them somewhere else in these writings. Needless to say that they showed me more than I could ever show them at the time.
Our other neighbor lived through the other door with his wife Caridad. They, especially she, became very good friends with us. I slept over there once in a while and shared much with them. Ma. Caridad could have no children and we were handy and very likeable (why are you snickering?). Actually, this friendship did eventually allow us to leave the country, since our next door neighbor had the misfortune to become the president (only one besides Mr. C. himself) of the island under Castro. We were fortunate, having him there allowed me to leave the country; he was not so fortunate. Being the president at the time, meant being responsible for all the failures of the de facto government (Castro) and he paid with his life for this privilege.
One block in a small neighborhood in a medium-small city. A lifetime of memories.
Be Back!! Be Well!!