April 10, 2017
Exploring the Malecón, I passed several times today an older man working on a table with his carpentry tools. The tabletop was just visible over the edge of his stone balcon wall, his apartment immediately accessible from the Malecón via a trio or so of steps. Right next door was the Cristobal restaurant, a middle-class eatery popular in guides and with tourists. Because of the carpentry tools and the seriousness of the man's regard, I thought of my grandfather. While he noted when I passed, he kept his attention to his work and gave no sign of hello.
When night fell, I passed his home one final time. Lit from within, the single room was now visible, and I was brought up short by the wall just right of the entrance. It was entirely covered with pasted pictures, much from magazines and print media. Anywhere in the world, for me, this pasted mural would feel notable; here, it felt simply surreal, even after a day of being welcomed into personal homes and seeing firsthand the accumulation of quotidienne relics overwhelming small spaces with horror vacui.
Approaching, I was gestured up the stairs. What did I want? To see the mural. Like had happened again and again among the Cubanos, I and my camera were made welcome. I took a few steps within, not wanting to trespass on privacy or take too much advantage of this privilege. Yes, just inside the door and above the couch facing a television, stretching most of the length of the room, was a découpage of magazine and personal imagery. Celebrities, swimsuit models, views, babies—the edges of each image was lined up with precision, and the whole of the composition balanced. The composition felt replete with one meaning: the desire to cover a world with beauty. Even in a country where everyone is highly aware of order, cleanliness, attractiveness, color, and the charm of objects, this man's vision was unique.
The rest of his world was ordered: the table he was working on in the middle of the room; the TV playing a French film with Spanish subtitles; a small table in a corner; a fridge in another corner, behind which was a set of shelves full of cups and table wear, two little stuffed toys dangling from a ledge. He spoke a little French, and in this way, he talked a little with me. Amèr. Bitter. He was amèr about the life here. Nobody does anything for them—not the government. He waved me further into the apartment. At its end, he opened a door. It led into the center of the building with its traditional balconies and ever-present makeshift plumbing and electricity cables. He pointed to a gaping hole in the rez-de-chaussée floor of the courtyard. Lives of people were in full view. Twenty-five families live here, he said. Yes, bitter. He explained that he would like to have contact with tourists, to create a better life for himself, but he knows no one to make this happen. I thought: They are right there under your balcony as you work. But the answer was obvious from his manner and his restraint: He is too dignified to consider giving a hawkish wave to passers-by.
Lazaro was his name. As I re-entered Lazaro's apartment to access the Malecón, I took in the table to the door's right. On it sat an Eiffel Tour. I pointed it out. Lazaro's face lit up. He'd made it! Swiftly taking it in hand, he held it out to me. A gift. I couldn't—not even in this moment of instant generosity. I couldn't take out of this apartment something so beautiful. He turned it over, held it out for me to explore. A lamp. And I did want it—this delicate object of the hand, made by this dignified, amèr man. Made by an artist—a worker artist. Not an outsider artist, or an insider artist. An artist without the life on an artist, his apartment-room resplendent even in its spareness with an aesthetic worldview, down to an abstract painting he'd created that hung further on down the wall. Again, I thought of my grandfather, an electrician who spent his free hours painting paint-by-number murals in the living room and crafting wood objects downstairs in his workshop. Aesthetic passion and precision, the vehicles for layering the world as it truly is with the world as desired.
I could not walk down the Malecón or explore its buildings again without Lazaro's words echoing: Families live here.