A Whole New Ballgame (cont.)
As the players took the field everyone
stood. Alfredo turned to me and said in broken English,
“Get up for national song.” Just like home,
I thought, until, instead of placing their caps over
their hearts, everyone held their right arm, horizontally
in front of their chests in a gesture that appeared
to me to be very communistic. Looking around I noticed
another subtle difference: At an American park you’ll
see advertisements for all manner of products and
services ranging from beer and soft drinks to insurance
and real estate agents. In Cuba they have billboards,
too, though theirs bear decidedly different messages
including, “Socialism or Death,” “Viva la Revolucion,”
and “It is more important to build the muscles of
the spirit than those of the body –Fidel.” Apparently,
no matter which politico-economic system a nation
subscribes to, a little advertising never hurts.
As the teams took the field, Alfredo told me that
Cienfuegos is the team supported by the self-reputed,
worst behaved fans in all of Cuba, which I quickly
witnessed for myself. After a first base umpire didn’t
call a check swing strike, the fans proceeded to call
him every name in the book, including taking shots
at his sexuality, humanity, and the size of his rear
end. They were as inventive with their name-calling
as the most seasoned Yankee Stadium Bleacher Bums.
But it would have been a much more effective display
had the stands been filled nearer to capacity. There
were barely a thousand people in a stadium that can
hold 60,000. The fact is most Cubans can’t afford
the 1peso(.05$US) price of admission. So they stay
home and watch games on TV for free.
When the game was finished, Alfredo and I decided
we’d get something to eat. It was late, and the only
places open on a week-night would be the state run
fast food joints called Rumbos, which you’ll
find all over Cuba. Alfredo told me that his cousin
Frank (pronounced Frang,) worked at one of
these places, and it’s where all the young people
liked to hang out. So we hailed another taxi, and
this time headed for the quiet Vedado neighborhood.
We arrived at a small outdoors diner with hard plastic
booths lit with mosquito attracting, fluorescent bulbs.
The place was filled with teenagers, laughing and
drinking Tropicolas, a suspiciously Coca-Cola-tasting
beverage. We were greeted by a guy in what I remembered
to be the same outfit worn in malls across America,
by the employees of the Hot Dog On-a-Stick chain.
This was Frank. Cubans are very gracious folk, so
no sooner had we shaken hands, Frank was offering
us everything. Would you like a beer? Perhaps
some fried chicken and fries? What about some ice
cream? I wasn’t sure whether or not to accept
when Alfredo gave me a nod of encouragement. “Yes,”
I said, and soon began the parade of fast food dishes.
As we sat there, enjoying a cold drink, at 11pm on
a hot Wednesday night, two vans pulled up. Out came
eight special police officers, four of whom were armed
with semi-automatic weapons. I glanced over at one
of the vans about five feet from where I sat and noticed
a tiny opening with a pistol sticking out, and just
above it, a tinted window with a face staring at us.
No one flinched, and I just sat there sweating. One
of the guards went in the kitchen. I had no idea what
was going on, but it didn’t look good. For five minutes
I sat motionless, while my Cuban friends continued
to chat. Didn’t they see the guns?
It turned out, though, that the guards were just there
to collect the dollars, probably about 500 of them.
I asked how often they came around, Frank told me
twice a day at every Rumbos, and all other
state-run, dollar establishments around the country.
We left the Rumbos after midnight. I was
within walking distance of my hotel. I felt as though
I had stepped into an old episode of the Twilight
Zone. Sensing this, Alfredo put a hand on my
shoulder and said, “It’s like your country, but instead
of apple pie we have Fidel.”
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