Tricks of the Light

“Venice thinks it is Amsterdam once again” Sartre writes; the sickly city accepts its grey pallor, using it to play tricks, the sky and the sea switching places, constantly shifting. Today, Providence thinks it is Berlin. The sun never rose. Instead, it destroyed itself, scattering light evenly across the blanket that envelops the city. We become characters in a hermetic work of art, sealed off from the world beyond, a world that no longer exists. The grey offers no escape; the boundlessness of blue skies has been destroyed, replaced by a curtain that isolates us from the horizon. Buildings lose their sense of depth, becoming monstrous, imposing facades, overwrought stage sets looming over the individual. The industrial world’s falsity and meanness become manifest in them, overwhelming us, restoring an awful beauty to the structures that was thought to be lost. There is honesty in this, an honesty clear skies don’t contain. A boundless blue in November promises warmth, a temporary reprieve that it does not deliver. Instead, the clear air bites, stealing skin with each gust of wind. The skies of July whisper that the day should be used for play only to stymie all movement, reabsorbing the nascent energy it pretended to give.

Yes, blue skies are tricksters, but despite their trickiness they offer a truth. The world is overwhelming, it stretches on forever, just like the sky above, and it will never fully be known. How terrifying, these images of a world so filled with information that any attempt to learn is futile, that no matter what, one cannot make a dent in what we do not know. The weather is dialectical, the trickster finds the truth.

Grey skies, on the other hand, offer a comforting lie. You are sealed in, stuck in this separate world. There is meaning solely by existing and a concrete limit on the known. Nonetheless, a terror lurks. That the boundary exists negates the possibility that Providence is a world unto itself; if works of art can only be understood as a whole, as the sum of a myriad of seemingly contradictory elements mediated into truth, then we can never understand what we are in, for we are never outside of this. The absence of truth haunts us as we walk. Where the does the breathtaking horror at the stone cathedral come from? We do not know and so it seems inherent, ontological, a state of being. The wet black pavement begins to reflect what little light there is, turning it into a shining darkness, each step promising the void. The staged nature makes the abstract feel more real, offering an epistemology we cannot grasp. I take a step and the void hardens into asphalt, becoming physical. It is reality’s futile attempt to impose itself, holding only until my shoe lifts again.

On Irma

“There may not be an airport. It is in the salt ponds.” That was my mom’s response when I told my family I wanted to fly to Key West to help clean up once Irma passed. She’s right. Last I heard, downtown hadn’t flooded, but the worst was yet to hit. Our friends taking refuge on the second floor of our house haven’t been able to communicate since 2 AM.

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Once, in a letter, I wrote that “a certain type of person moves to Key West: those who see themselves in the shimmering heat, in the promise of a cooling wind of the power boat, a wind that in reality brings with it turbulent waters and spilled beer. Key West—an island with mediocre beaches, good bars, a modicum of history, and filled with obese tourists hailing from Alabama and Kansas—is only livable when seen through a specific set of eyes. The difference between the Harvard professor on vacation there and the homeless man he became, throwing Frisbees up and down the beach while yelling to himself, is a suntan.”

Now I wonder whether this was truly the case, whether there is something more at play. How does one live on an island with no future, a place that will be underwater in seventy years—that is, if the hurricanes don’t destroy it first? In such a situation, what else can one do but drink and fuck?

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Homelessness in Key West is pervasive and visible in a way not often found elsewhere. An island with warm nights, drunken tourists, and an accepting ethos entices those who the nation has failed, those we try to sweep under the rug, those we hate and attack for no reason beyond their sheer existence. As I watch television footage of waves crashing over the southernmost point and winds shaking even the most structurally sound houses, I wonder if this is nothing less than a genocide, our cruelty driving them to Key West while our obsession with meat and cars sentences the island to death.

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The most recent time I was in Key West, the wind tried to blow, but the air was too thick with humidity and heat, oversized particles moving faster then they were ever meant to, blocking the cooling breeze before it started. Two friends had accompanied my family and me down.

Halfway through the trip, we took a motorboat to our favorite beach, an unexplored nature preserve filled with mosquitos, crabs, and spiders. As we stood in the lukewarm water, one friend turned to me and said, “this will be underwater soon.”

The heat beat down. Behind us a storm was forming. The humidity thickened until it consumed me, the heavy air becoming an extension of my body, a weight that could be neither carried nor dropped, inescapable to the last.

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It is not, as is commonly supposed, that heat and insanity are closely intertwined, that the former causes the latter—sunbeams whispering in the ears of the unwell, pushing the unstable to the edge. Rather, tropical warmth is insanity; the rich drunk with his hand in the pool is no different from a heat wave; the man muttering on the sidewalk is not caused by the humidity but is in fact a manifestation of it. Climate change is nothing more than the amplification of a world gone mad.

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I don’t know why our friends didn’t evacuate when they could, why they stayed put while even the most stalwart of locals ran. I wonder if they regret it. Probably not. Whatever the case, I cannot imagine them in our attic terrified, shining flashlights out to watch the encroaching waters. In fact, I can’t imagine any local like that. I wonder if they’re having a two-person party as the world collapses around them, drinking and trying to find joy in the horror. I wonder if, in the back of their mind, they know that this is only a practice run for what will become the new normal, that the indeterminate future has become the present, that the American public has weighed the options and decided their lives aren’t worth the extra hassle of biking to work. I wonder if the drinking is defiance or resignation.

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My friend’s prediction has come true sooner than any of us could imagine. The preserve has undoubtedly become swamped. That is the least of the Keys’ problems. People say that we won’t know the extent of the damage until the storm passes. But the storm will never pass. Irma is just the first act, a warning shot that hit us in the stomach, a rude reminder that our modern peace with nature was only an armistice. The coming barrage will be infinitely worse, nature’s inimical violence responding to human degeneracy in kind. It won’t make us change direction, of course; we’ll keep marching straight towards the barrage, putting those we care about least in front. Future generations will see us as no different from the Victorian era British viceroys who ignored drought in India, letting millions die to prove the legitimacy of the free market. Like them, most of us will face no official consequences for our actions. There will be no trials, no formal declaration of human rights violations. Just the slowly rising water, it’s cosmic timeframe letting us slip into eternity before it can deliver its sentence. In the meantime, we will sacrifice our most vulnerable in a failed attempt to appease that which has no morals. In doing so, we will find the same about ourselves.

Havana Libre: Smartphones, Socialism, Futurism.

The reason 50’s futurism fizzled out, the story goes, is because we chose to pursue communicative technology instead of transportation tech. We have IPhones instead of teleporters, exploding Samsungs instead of Fords falling out of the sky. It’s true—though when visiting Cuba, with its somewhat maintained 50’s architecture, one realizes this is not the entire story. There is an aspect of utopia in all mid-century futurism. But this hopeful element is a disavowal of itself. The architecture promises a post-scarcity world, yet it is inseparable from the system that built it, a capitalism that demands artificial shortages and discrimination. The style provokes—overwhelming nostalgia, indescribable anger, uncontrollable laughter. In this emotion, there is a danger to the dominant economic order, however miniscule. Better to abandon the whole charade, replace it with something more manageable—technologies whose utopian promise comes not from its form but from the insistence of its corporate creators. This isn’t to suggest some grand conspiracy, that a cabal consciously switched our path—just that capital mutates itself and society to insure its survival. Modern technology refuses to express the alienation it has accelerated.

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Flying Saucer or Water Tower?

The Habana Libre Hotel, formerly the Havana Hilton, is a particularly enjoyable piece of 50’s futurism, with a grand foyer that includes a Flintstones-looking interior pond surrounded by plastic plants lit via strategically placed light orbs. Though seemingly ceiling-less like a post-modernist Portman monstrosity, it has none of the invocations of late capital, none of the overwhelming feeling that money is moving somewhere above, though god knows where or how. The attached restaurant looks like something you’d see out on Route 66—the lack of turquoise mini-skirts is the only thing saving it from kitsch. The Cuban government has restored but not renovated the interior, freezing the building in its non-existent future. The reason for this stay of construction is not the U.S. embargo, as most Americans believe, but a Castro-era law that bans eviction and demolitions within cities. What are melancholic remnants in the United States still dominate the Havana landscape, ghostly utopian figures built by exploitative mobsters. A mile west from the Habana Libre and a couple blocks closer to the coast sits the Riviera. Meyer Lansky built it in 1957, right around the time Bautista sold the country to the mob. Indeed, it was part and parcel of that fire sale. The mobsters are gone and the fountains in front no longer work, but the building’s revolutionary power is stronger than ever. Though not in the condition of the Habana Libre, it’s been mostly maintained, simultaneously a reminder of colonial exploitation and a stepping-stone on the revolutionary path to utopia. The buildings are the aesthetic promise of free education, an admonishment to prioritize universal healthcare over nationwide 4G. Back in the lobby of the Habana Libre, twenty-three floors below Fidel’s first office, locals and tourists alike stare at Samsungs, whispering prayers that they connect to the spotty wi-fi.

 

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The similarity between the Cuban countryside, with its warm greens and soft browns, and its North Carolina counterpart is startling. Sure, there are differences—sand is more prevalent in the land of the pines, diversifying the hues of brown and darkening the overall landscape; Cubans prefer corrugated tin shanties to the trailers of the same material and cost found in Oriental. But the prevalence of the tobacco fields dotted with out of place deciduous firs, the three house towns, the obsidian-colored remnants of controlled fires, the unshakeable feeling, no matter how inland you go, that you’re on the coast—all of these things outweigh the aesthetic difference between cotton and sugar-cane.[1]

There is one overwhelming difference, however: mountains. The portion of the Appalachians running through inland North Carolina is wide and broad and filled with valleys, fully dominating the landscape. When nearby, one recognizes that they’re in the highlands. Contrast this with the Sierra Maestra, a range rising out of the plains, thin enough at points as to appear a single row deep, the spine of a sleeping giant ready to awaken at any moment. It lends the landscape a sci-fi air; the traveler feels like an explorer, their chartered bus a landing shuttle, driving through a virgin world where Marxism has remained dominant. Teenagers on horses leave their pink stucco homes, riding past propagandistic graffiti—“if we arrive, we win”—and spray-painted portraits of Ché. Not even the tour guide’s IPhone had reception in the area.

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The classic cars that dot Havana are protected—the government views them as vital to the city’s fabric. The ban is a result of the boom in European tourism in the early 2000’s; visiting Germans would fall in love with 1950’s Firebirds held together with duck tape and ingenuity and end up trading their lightly used BMW’s for them. Around the same time, a taxi industry using the doddering Dodges became popular among tourists, turning the owners of the cars into members of an upper class—itself newly formed because of a quirk of the two-currency system. The currency for tourists, the Cuban Convertible Peso (or CUC), is twenty-five times stronger than the local peso. A tip from a traveler, given in USD or CUC’s, is much greater than even what a surgeon earns in a day. Further, in an effort to maintain separation between tourists and locals, places like museums, orchestras, theatres, even ice creams shops across the nation have two lines—a longer one for local currencies, and an express line for people paying in CUC’s. Cubans with access to CUC’s can choose either line, paying more for shorter waits and better seats, an explicit signifier of class difference where none previously existed. As the cabbies ferry tourists around Havana, they remain glued to their IPhones, drifting between lanes and ignoring the architecture around them.

The last night in Havana, our group took some of these classic taxis to the restaurant where we were celebrating my grandmother’s 80th birthday, hoping to simultaneously transport us across space and her back in time. As the driver shut the passenger side door, we began to roll backwards, slipping toward the Riviera, sliding down the hill we were halfway up. The driver, playing on his Samsung, didn’t notice the movement.

 

[1] This, of course, neglecting the similarities of the two with regard to their historical position as cash crops with all that entails, i.e. that for centuries the economies of the two places were tied to Europeans’ desire for sweetener and/or lightweight, breathable fabrics in a way that actively harmed the lives of those producing the products.

A Few Things to do During Your first Week in Hong Kong.

Update: Hong Kong has grown on me somewhat since I wrote this piece.

Don’t sleep on the flight. Land in Hong Kong. Wait in the airport. Buy a SIM card. Wait some more. Get on a train. Fit your luggage onto the comically small luggage rack. Find a seat. Squeeze into said seat. Watch the dots between stations on the map disappear. Get off the train. Take in the smell. Look for your ride. Look some more. Gape at the amount of neon. Miss someone you shouldn’t. Look at the decrepit high rises. Gaze at the brand new ones next door. Feel the city’s claustrophobia. Try to sleep. Wonder if Hong Kong is on a fault line. Debate whether it’s better to Google and risk lots of anxiety, or not know and have a constant hum of worry. Wake up at 5:00. Scroll through twitter. Read. Feel bad. Try to explore. Get stuck. Take a taxi. Pass a tent village, then immediately after a Ritz-Carlton. Notice a dog in the street. Force your taxi to change lanes. Hope the other cars do to. See the dog’s owner trying to fix her blanket house. Get to a new hotel. Stand by the window. See aluminum lean-to’s in the alley across the street. Get stuck in a glass box. Eat noodles. Walk by a flipped taxi. Gawk. Hail a different one. Fasten your seatbelt. Send a text you’ll regret. Throw up. Try to sleep. Fail. Read. Take Ambien. Wake up at 6:00. Feel sick. Go for a walk. Get rained on. Realize you forgot a raincoat. Compulsively check for a read receipt. Put in earphones. Can’t escape the city noise. Try to explain the city’s simultaneous over- and under-saturation. Walk through an empty museum. Breathe. Drink coffee. Fall into a half-sleep. Hail taxi. Overpay. Try to film. Realize it won’t work. Walk through mall. Worry you left part of camera. Don’t go back. Worry more. Let the worry consume your body. Get in a taxi. Get out of the taxi. Get into a new taxi. Open up twitter. See election news. Close twitter. Agree to wingman. Pontificate. Leave bar at first opportunity. Stare at passing Maserati. Smile at homeless man next to you. Take in the neon. Get into a taxi. Try to tell the cabbie your address. Sigh. Get out of taxi. Hail another taxi. Try again. Pay and get out a block early. Stumble into your room. Watch Road to El Dorado. Hear sirens outside. Complain. Yell. Fall mostly asleep. Wake up. Try to go back to sleep. Get up. Drink coffee. Walk to a park. Trip over someone’s heel. Fall into the street. Get berated. Shudder at the number of people in the park. Realize it’s a workday. Walk to the garden. Put in earphones; still no silence. Look around; see ugly high-rises on all sides. Get claustrophobic. Be overwhelmed by the stickiness of the air. Don’t stop scratching yourself. Refuse to use the front of your hands because they touched the street. Think there are spiders on your legs. Check. Get rained on. Stare at yourself in a window. Stare more. Loathe everything. Wish you could throw up again. Check your read receipts. Debate going to a museum. Move to a new hotel. Sit in the new hotel’s lounge. Smile at the sun nearly shining through the clouds. See a group of six police officers approach a fruit stand. Furrow your brow. Observe a long discussion between the police and the three women running the stand. Remember the staggering number of police vans on a single street in the commercial district. Wonder why the police travel in large packs here. Get nervous. Think about why you are nervous. Think some more. Believe the superstition your travel buddy made up is widely believed. Consider if you’re racist. Consider more. Get out of a taxi. Get into a taxi. Close your eyes as it nearly hits a bus. Pray. Think of ways to convey the overwhelming nature of the city. Worry you’re abandoning your few strengths. Order an Uber. Debate whether using Uber makes you a bad person. Settle on yes. Get into the Uber. Call your sister. Talk about the disparity here. Turn down the AC. Watch shirtless construction worker outside shake his water bottle. Fall half-asleep. Dream about checking your read receipts. Try to run from the noise. Try to pull the sticky air off your skin. Wish you could throw up. Pass a homeless man. Learn your hotel has an espresso machine free to use.

Devils We Know

I wrote this up quickly yesterday morning, and it hasn’t had time for much editing. Apologies for its rough nature.

Vox.com, the occasional bane of my existence, published an interesting article yesterday. On its own, this is not particularly noteworthy—though they have fucked up massively in the past, and Matthew Yglesias isn’t worthy of the three seconds it’d take to make a joke about him, they do some good work. What was arresting, however, was not just that Vox had published a very good piece, but the content of the piece itself: “The smug style in American liberalism,” and everything such a title entails. In it, Emmett Rensin decries the attitudes of liberal elites who, for the past two decades, have adopted a form of posturing that portrays all who disagree with them as dumb rubes. In essence, it’s several thousand words bemoaning that liberalism has become performative. He’s not wrong. We all have the family members and friends on Facebook that share articles about how Fox news watchers are dumber than those who listen to NPR or truly think that sharing that funny John Oliver video about Donald Trump will change voters’ minds.[1] Let’s get this out of the way: it won’t and if anything will only reinforce the belief of Trump supporters or those who watch Fox that liberals are elitists who feel only disdain for those who disagree with them.[2]

That said, something in his argument struck me as uncharitable to disenfranchised conservatives—especially when he got to the section on Kim Davis. It brought to mind the summer after my junior year of high school. I spent much of the it travelling across Georgia for golf tournaments. Despite the reputation of the sport, people’s financial and educational backgrounds were quite varied. A lot were like me—well off, from urban centers (particularly Atlanta), and preparing to pursue college degrees at elite universities (both public and private) across the nation. Plenty however, were from incredibly rural areas across Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. They almost universally planned on joining the military—it seemed to them the only way to proceed in life.

It was someone from the latter group that got stuck in my mind as I read Rensin’s piece. He was from rural Mississippi—I don’t remember exactly where. It was the second day of the tournament, and we were both so out of the running that the greater competition was to not be last. We started talking about our plans for the future. I told him I was planning on going up north to study physics and philosophy.[3] He turned to me, a bit wide-eyed, and asked, “so you believe all that stuff?”

I looked at him quizzically (an eyebrow may have been raised) and asked, “what stuff?”

“Like, the Big Bang and all that. You think it’s real?” There was no disdain in his voice, just genuine curiosity. I wanted to respond in kind, but seventeen years of metropolitan elitism is hard to shake, and there was probably a fair amount of contempt in my voice as I responded, “yeah, of course.”

He took it in stride, and gave me a look I’ll never forget. Sincerely interested and more than a little skeptical, he knotted his brow and asked, “Can you explain it to me? They never really taught us it in school.”

I was taken aback and filled with guilt for being so dismissive. From a distance we probably looked pretty standard, two rising seniors walking down the fairway, towards the woods where’d I hit my ball, chatting away. No one would have known I was trying (and failing) to answer his cosmological (and once he found out I was culturally Jewish—religious) questions, and asking him plenty of my own about where he had grown up.

I’m sure Rensin is right about why a lot of poor and working class whites now vote against the Democratic party. Plenty of it is probably out of the anger provoked by neo-liberalism when it moves jobs out of the country, demolishes labor unions, and takes food out of their mouths. He’s right that liberals project an elitism that certainly doesn’t help and, in fact hurts, the cause. He’s right that sharing the Daily Show’s sick burn and the culture of knowing (which is different from knowing), creates a self-perpetuating cycle that will permanently alienate the metropolitan liberal from those he or she purports to care for. He’s right that liberalism should not be perfomative. But there’s an underlying current in the argument, one that never reaches the surface but at times can nonetheless be seen clearly: It’s not that conservatives in rural areas are dumb, it’s that they are borderline malevolent. It’s not that Kim Davis misunderstands Christianity, but that Christianity is bad, she knows it, and follows it anyway. It’s uncharitable to the people and region, to say the least, and certainly inaccurate. It’s also a belief not uncommon around Vox. Remember when David Roberts (aka “Dr. Vox”), called the Southeast the most “barbaric” region in any developed democracy? It’s a moral elitism instead of an intellectual one. And it’s just as harmful to paint someone as evil as it is to paint them as an idiot.

The final question the boy from Mississippi asked me was whether, as an agnostic Jew, I believed in hell. I responded no—though I’m not sure what the Torah has to say, I personally couldn’t imagine a benevolent, omniscient god would eternally punish people for the mistakes of a single earthly life. Especially, because usually, they’re just that: mistakes. We’re humans, with all that entails, not devils.

[1] Never mind how uncomfortable it should make people that our response to someone being anti-immigrant is by shaming them for having a Germanic ancestral name.

[2] Let’s also get this out of the way: my politics are murky, but I’d call myself a leftist before I’d call myself a liberal.

[3] Those who know me now understand how badly I understood myself then.

Caviar of Ghosts: The 1% Take Cuba

Note: Names and some identifying features have been changed.

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José Martí airport in Havana is, like much of the city, pleasantly antiquated—at least to the privileged traveler. To the rest, it’s probably just antiquated. When passengers disembark onto the tarmac, they find themselves surrounded by ravishing rainforest, engulfed in a silencing humidity. The customs area smells like an old bowling alley; In lieu of welcome mats, travelers wipe their feet on cardboard Havana Club Rum boxes. After grabbing their luggage from an airy baggage claim with green and orange walls, they sit in a bar and order beers while they wait for an air-conditioned bus to arrive. Members of the Exeter Center for Entrepreneurs followed this pattern to a T when they arrived in Havana in early October.[1] The Center, which is founded and run by Val Exeter, acts as a multi-faceted advising tool for high growth entrepreneurs. They hold CEO roundtables—seminars led by Val in which executives discuss common problems they face—act as an investment bank to the companies, and organize educational retreats such as the one that brought thirty some-odd innovators to Cuba. They had left their hotel in Miami a little before five o’clock in the morning for a nine AM flight, mostly because of an unrealized fear of bureaucratic red tape delaying them.

“Where you were when the west was won?”

The first stop in Havana for the sleep-deprived group was the headquarters of On Cuba magazine, the first American publication to have a full-time office in the country. Run by Hugo Cancio, a charismatic Cuban-American from Miami, On Cuba has grown from a single in-flight magazine to a budding dynasty that includes periodicals on art and real estate. With his square jaw and broad shoulders—accentuated by a sharply cut blazer—Hugo seems built to be the gravitational center of a room. After a short speech that explained the magazine and how he thought Cuba would progress over the next decade, he took questions from the entrepreneurs. The first was whether the government had ever censored him. He explained that they hadn’t; though the magazine had published articles that the Cuban leadership wasn’t happy with, nothing more than a cordial lunch meeting ever came of it. The second question was from someone the group eventually took to calling Military Man Stan. He had wispy white hair and a Marlboro permanently attached to his cracked lower lip. Wearing a red polo under a tan fishing vest—a variation of the uniform he would rock every day of the trip—he stood up and stated that when the Internet arrives in Cuba, the country will collapse because everyone will leave. Slightly flustered at the lack of a question to respond to, Hugo pointed out that when the group arrived all the people around the office were on Facebook. Though slow, Cuba has Internet. Stan refused to accept this response, insisting that since Adam Smith said everyone acts in his or her own self-interest, everyone will abandon Cuba. He compared Internet in Cuba to “getting in on the ground floor of Apple in 1995.” Apple’s market cap in 1995 was a shade under five billion dollars.

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The View from On Cuba’s Headquarters (Photo Courtesy of Kaete Erskine)

“To the victor go the spoils”

The Hotel Nacional is a grand building; it was built by Robber Barons trying to imitate aristocracy. Opened in 1930, the firm that designed it also built the old Penn Station and The American Academy in Rome. The entrance sat perpendicular to a long hallway that made up the lobby. To the left, a stylized drawing of Castro rallying the rebels stared at a gift shop. The concierge and elevators were on the right. Dead ahead were two glass doors that opened up to a massive courtyard. Most of the entrepreneurs spent their late nights there, ordering drinks from one of the two bars, lounging on the sofas near the entrance or talking around tables that overlook the ocean and smoking cigars. A ten-foot cliff marks the end of the property. Below this sat the Malecón, a four-lane road that contoured to the smiling shape of the seaside. On Friday and Saturday nights, thousands of Cubans gather along the wall to listen to music, talk, laugh, and drink.

On the second night of the trip, a few of the drunker entrepreneurs left the comfy confines of the courtyard to join the locals. Upon arrival, they began to take photos in front of the seemingly limitless ocean. A local approached Leila, a nineteen year-old country music singer from rural Tennessee, and asked, “Podemos tener un poco de su ron?” The entrepreneurs stared, confused. He repeated the question. Leila began to stammer out, “no hablo ingles.” Val’s son Nate and I both understood Spanish, and interrupted her to translate. “He’s asking if they can have some of your rum.” She shook her head and responded, “no no no.” Still flustered and slightly fearful, she pulled out a solitary cigarette and held it out to him; nodding as if to say, “have this instead.” He accepted it with a “gracias” and returned to his group. As she watched him, she commented, “I didn’t want them to think Americans are selfish.” Several times during the trip, she mentioned she was not opposed to voting for Donald Trump.

As the scene unraveled, a few of the entrepreneurs got restless. To their right, the sidewalk was empty for thirty yards—a constant spray of seawater from the waves breaking on the wall kept the sane away. Chris, the founder of a personal finance company that focuses on investing with integrity, decided to walk down the drenched patch of concrete to see if any water would land on him. Swigging añejo rum straight from the bottle, he insisted that it wouldn’t, that it’d be “a reverse Jesus” situation. He walked through and back unscathed. As the other entrepreneurs laughed in amazement, he explained that though there was constantly water splashing, the probability that it did so at the exact point and time he was walking through was low. A form of statistical logic backed his drunken bravado.

The night before, people hit the hay early. They had been up since 4:00 in the morning, and most snuck off to their rooms to clandestinely check email before collapsing. Only a few members lounged around the courtyard, sampling the mixed drinks and exchanging stories in two distinct groups. As the numbers dwindled, the two cliques merged, six people sitting on a few couches as waiters swept the floors and the live band packed up their guitars. Among the group was Dana, the granddaughter of an entrepreneur who founded a major fried chicken fast food chain and then opened the first health food restaurant in Atlanta. With long black hair and oversized sunglasses, she drew comparisons from members of the coterie to Jackie Onassis Kennedy. Soon, she began telling the group about her humanitarian trips to Haiti, how she “spread the good word of the gospel” for only $1500 a trip. Her main job there was making connections. She insisted that all Haitian men loved her and all Haitian women were frigid. She felt she made a difference convincing young women and girls forced into prostitution to run away from their pimps, though she always saw them back on the street when she returned months later. The girls really inspired her; when she got back, she “swore to give up [her] five dollar lattes, but [she] always found herself back at Neiman Marcus four weeks later.” She used the trips to work on her Creole, “you know, bonjour, rapido, rapido.” (Rapido is not creole.) When asked about voodoo, her eyes widened. “No, no. They’d take my eyes. They like our eyes,” she explained when asked if she had seen a ceremony. “The houses they use for it are painted.” They don’t try to convert those houses. Her fate was sealed. For the rest of the trip, a subset of the group referred to her as “White Savior Girl.”

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The Hotel Nacional Courtyard (Photo Courtesy of Kaete Erskine)

“Desperate Times Call for Desperate Slogans”

A meeting with an economics professor from the University of Havana the second day went much like the conversation with Hugo, down to Military Man Stan raising the specter of Adam Smith. At lunch afterwards, an orthodontist named Dede stood up to give a toast. She’d just sold a portion of her practice and was in a relationship with Val. As the waiters scrolled through Facebook on their phones and the entrepreneurs pondered the veracity of the professor’s insistence that he’d been able to teach classic economics—“[Milton] Friedman, [Friedrich] Hayek, and Adam Smith”—since the ‘70’s with no reprimands, she loudly announced “how inspiring it’s been to see all these incredibly oppressed people struggle vainly but bravely.” As she pontificated, Nate rolled his eyes and melodramatically downed the remainder of his Cristal, a Cuban light beer. She’s the apotheosis of everything he, and supposedly his father, hates. She dresses like a pre-adolescent who’s just discovered floral prints at Forever 21; she’s rabidly right wing and (more damningly to Nate) never fails to announce as much. She’s entrepreneur in name only; most orthodontists start their own practice at some point. As he did this, she stared him down with a botoxed frown; he was well used it by now. Having sucked down the last drop of the tawny, translucent beer, Nate returned the can to the table, where a small ring had developed on the tablecloth.

“Then Says Cain, ‘I did it once brother, and I’d do it again. Look Out’”

Tucked away in the back corner of the Hotel Nacional courtyard, nearly hidden from view, sat a small museum dedicated to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The main room was a bunker constructed after the Bay of Pigs invasion. Underneath the tourists’ feet, trenches and underground passages created a labyrinthine structure that held various artifacts from the two weeks the world spent on the brink of nuclear winter. The posters in the main bunker gave a quick overview of the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis in Spanish, English, French, and Russian. In Spanish, the Americans were described as “imperialist Yankee Americans.” In English, they were just Americans. Sitting in the corner of the main bunker was an eighty-four year old retiree. He had worked at the Nacional for several decades, and during the Missile Crisis was stationed as a volunteer in the dugout where he now sat. Over the course of the weekend, individual members of the group wandered into the bunker and accepted the man’s offer of a tour. On the third day, four of the members who had gathered in the courtyard for a morning beer discussed their impressions.

Military Man Stan was not impressed. He was annoyed because the man was shorter than him, which meant, when combined with the stoop of age, that he easily slipped under hanging edges that Stan nearly busted his head upon. Besides, he felt claustrophobic in the small tunnels. He barely had room to swing his backpack around without it hitting a rock wall. Dana, on the other hand, had no such issues. She was enamored with the volunteer who gave the tour. He was “just the sweetest thing. And it’s his birthday today! He’s 84!” She barely noticed the history lesson on the wall, and dismissed the vast differences in wording between the translations, “As something that happens in languages, ya know?” Expressing her dismay that the man probably receives very little pension-wise from the government, she said she wished she could help him more. I asked if she tipped him for the tour. A look of utter confusion gripped her face as she stared at me. No, why would she do that?

Chris had spent the longest on the tour. Though he spoke no Spanish and the guide spoke little English, he felt that there wasn’t a real language barrier. Standing in front a piece of the downed U2 plane, somewhere between the industrious waves of the Atlantic and the soft lounge chairs of the courtyard, he seemed to have an understanding with the man. Chris learned the reason the man volunteered is because he wanted to make sure no one ever forgets how close we were to nuclear annihilation; he emphasized that the U.S. and Cuba weren’t too different, yet were willing to end it all nonetheless. At one point, the two approached the uniform worn by members of the militia who volunteered to protect Cuba during the crisis. The old man smiled and pointed. “moй.” “‘Mine’ in Russian” Chris explained to us after. Chris had spent over a year in the former Soviet Union, and realized that the two could probably hold a conversation in Russian. As they continued walking, passing a periscope on their left, the old man switched back to Spanish. When Chris had a question, he asked in English.

2015-10-03 12.09.08

“Oh Abel, Cleaning all the crumbs from the family table”

At dinner that evening, Val handed out awards to the group. They ranged from serious (fastest growing entrepreneur) to aspirational (top entrepreneurial student) to sarcastic (The Lindsay Lohan award for Biggest Hot Mess). In between two of the awards, Military Man Stan stood up to give a speech. While the members drank wine, snuck sips from the rum they had brought in, and laughed merrily, Stan told the story of how he met Val and explained why his wife had to cancel accompanying him at the last-minute. She had developed breast cancer and though it looked like she would be okay, she couldn’t risk leaving the United States at the moment. As he told the story, the room quieted. He finished, and as Val patted him on the back, he walked outside for a smoke. I followed him out, ready to extend my sympathies. He graciously accepted them, then shook his head and bemoaned the fact that Cuba will certainly collapse when the Internet arrives. He was confident that doctors and other highly educated members of society (which is nearly everyone in Cuba), would abandon the island upon the Internet’s arrival, and he wouldn’t have any protestations that the Internet already existed there. At this point, I was stuck, unable to return to the party inside. His ire then turned to Obamacare. Dinner arrived at the tables indoors. I suggested that the bevy of doctors on the trip seem to support the legislation. He shook his head; “Doctors hate it. It’s ruining them. And it’ll ruin America.” Inside, an ear, nose, and throat doctor lit up a $25 cigar.

“Dinner is getting cold.” I pointed out, attempting to extricate myself.

“I don’t give a damn.” He stamped out his cig. “Let me ask you a question.”

“Shoot.” I eyed inside for help.

“Have you read a man named Adam Smith? The Wealth of Nations. Read it. He said—” the recipient of the Lohan Award had made her way outside.

“Talk inside, so you can eat.” She said, shepherding us in and giving me a knowing wink.

“Gotta sneak something or you’re bound to get bored”

On the bus ride back to the hotel, the joke awards continued. “The Hemingway award, for best young, drunk writer… Here’s a fedora in commemoration.” As the group laughed, Stan once again grabbed the microphone, causing moans to reverberate through the tail end of the bus. He told a story about his son, who as a child adored the all you could eat caviar at the hotel they would stay at in Seaside, Florida. While working for Enterprise car rental, the son was hit by a trucker and killed. Almost exactly a year later, Stan was in a hotel eating breakfast when a bowl of caviar he had not ordered arrived at his table. He took it as a sign that his son was happy in heaven. As he told the story, concentrated laughter emanated from the rear. There was a bottle of booze being passed around the back of the bus, leaving Stan to stew alone.

“Then says Cain: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper or just a vagabond again?’”

The final morning, the bus was quiet. Later, while sitting in the airport, several joked about catching a cab back to the hotel, bemoaning a return to the ceaseless grind of 24/7 connectedness. Eventually, the boarding call for the flight to Miami was announced. The group got up and trudged forward—past the green and orange walls and over the soggy Havana Club Boxes that slid across the linoleum. Each heavy step brought them ever closer to the land of perpetual texts and unceasing email. Behind them, the barkeep scrolled through Facebook.

 

 

 

[1] Not even the fact that it was only a tick past ten could prevent a mass migration to the bar as they waited for the bus.