Revolutionary Entrance to Havana

The MickAt thirteen, the object of my highest desire was a two-tone ’57 Pontiac Bonneville with the Chief Pontiac hood ornament head glowing honey-amber as he led the car through the intractable curves of a Shannock, Rhode Island summer. My friend Jack will tell you the engine’s displacement, the months till Pontiac came out with its first Wide-Trac model, the significance of that burnt umber lower body separated from the creamy ivory upper body by a long chrome strip that signified a boy’s freedom. He will understand that freedom in his own way.
Me, too. Especially since I saw the car again this afternoon. It was perfect even though the ’56 Chevy, cherry red, polished to a deep reflective sheen that almost outshone that chrome comet’s tail, was parked just behind it. The owner of that unlikely taxi doffed his straw cowboy hat and asked what I thought it was worth. “$25,000?” “You kidding? Here in Havana you couldn’t come close to this for under 50 grand. But you know your ‘56es, man.” “It was my childhood.” “Right… You think Obama’s going to lift the embargo?”
And just like that, Revolution Square ceased to be the best taxi stand in the world and became what it otherwise looks like: the shabbiest dictatorial square around. No Forbidden City at one end. No St. Basil’s at the other. Instead, there is a rough statue of José Marti sitting before an immense and pointless tower.
But never mind. What lingers is the parade of ‘40s and ‘50s cars, the delicate lavender painted above the slightly deeper lilac that turns a ’55 Chevy into an Easter bonnet. A pumpkin orange Buick convertible. The wallowing boat of a late-50s Oldsmobile like the one my Aunt Chichi drove, so vast a car that she peeked between the spokes of the Gulliver-sized steering wheel to see the road. A blue Plymouth with those ungainly fins rising behind a fish mouth grill from the years just before Desoto went belly up.
General Motors lays a strong claim to Cuban capitalist hegemony; the ’55 Ford with its chrome Nike swoosh still flashes around the squre; and poor Chrysler with the ugliest cars ever produced slinks along behind, hoping that no one notices.
Does it matter that the perfect ’56 Chevy has a new Toyota engine and a Toyota transmission? Depends on what you’re willing to pay.

Here’s a name to conjure with: José Fuster. Fuster might have been Gaudi’s child, a master of assembling tiles, mirrors, steel tubes covered with mural-creating tesserae. The color and oddity are pure Barcelona Modernisme. The drawing, painting, tile design are sometimes Braque Cubism, sometimes Mexican folk figures, sometimes Diego Rivera huge murals. It would be wonderful enough just to have the tiles assembled into the occasional wall hanging or, more prosaically, laid flat as trivets (the probable fate of the one I bought). But besides showing his work world-wide, he has also decorated the exterior of 50 houses in his neighborhood here in Havana. Likewise, his studio is a kind of theme park: all the colors of the Chevrolet and Pontiacs’ palate, all the characters from folk tales, the military heroes of the Revolution (in modest numbers), tutelary animals of all kinds, portraits of children, banditos, high-breasted women and their swooning beaux, cacti with powerful long arms reaching from one house to another. Obsessive zaniness of all flavors.
Imagine an entire environment disguised as the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. That’s Fuster’s neighborhood.
(In a later post, I will have more to say about neighborhoods and the artists who live in them.)

A short taxi ride brings you to the calm of the Caribbean seen from the fifth floor room in the Hotel Nacional, the Unesco-protected hotel where the Room of History boasts photographic collage portraits of famous guests, decade by decade. Meyer Lansky, of course. Churchill. Jimmy Carter. Lots of Chinese Premiers and Vice-Premiers. Vladimir Putin. Yuri Gagarin. Spencer Tracy. A smirking sultan whose title is The Highest Man in the World. Singers and actors. Sean Penn. Errol Flynn and Buster Keaton. Casals and Stan Musial. Betty Grable and Nat King Cole.
And the man I most wished to drive ‘round Demarest in my Pontiac, the top down so that everyone could see him smiling to keep company with me, just there beside Ava Gardner who gazes lovingly up at Old Blue Eyes: Mickey Mantle who made being 12 and 13 and 14 two-toned and chrome heaven.
Welcome to Havana.

6 thoughts on “Revolutionary Entrance to Havana

    • Jack, In a bit, after I finish with several posts, I will make you a cd-rom of all the car pictures. You should also look out for the 1950 Bulgarian tractor, completely dismantled and looking as if it’s meant to just rust away. In fact, all its parts, freshly cleaned and oiled, are spread out on the ground awaiting new assembly. I’m sure the same is true for the Chevy/Toyotas.

  1. Peter, What fun to get first hand reports and photos from Cuba. You’re the first person I know who’s gone there since it was easily possible. I love the old cars – I love bright colors, and the lines of the cars trigger nostalgia.

    I wish you would also report from your home front, because I love your descriptions of dailiness with your daughters and granddaughters. Good writers can make anything fascinating and fun.

    I have time to write as I am stuck in the house in Boston; I can’t get a flight back to FL til Thursday. Forced slowing down can be good. Anne

    • Sorry, I don’t know. Our guides hired six of them as a surprise for us, and we all piled in for a 20 minute zip through the city, horns blaring out Dixie. That must be worth more than a Hyundai ride.

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