A tale of Two Cities
Here I was in Chicago, sweet home Chicago, in an apartment with a back porch from which you can see Wrigley Field, off in the distance, wedged in between a nearby building and another one across the street.
See if you can spot it in the photo above, in the center.
Back in my day, Wrigley Field would not have been so easy to spot because back then there were no lights protruding from the top deck. Mr. Wrigley believed that God had meant for baseball to be played in the daytime and he wouldn’t consent to having his Cubs play in the nighttime under artificial lights.
God bless Mr. Wrigley and his chewing gum. God bless the laws that allowed him to do as he saw fit with his ball club. He gave every high school student in Chicago a perfect reason to skip their afternoon classes.
The Cubs were pathetic back then, and they are still pathetic. Lovable, but utterly pathetic. I thank them for turning me into a sports atheist. Were it not for the Cubs, and their very transparent utter lameness and all the disappointment they brought me, I might have never learned that life is much sweeter when you don’t care about professional sports. Thank God for disillusionment.
Anyway, here I was in Chicago. Home sweet home. No other place on earth feels so much like home. This morning I had time to reflect on Chicago, and to snap a photo of the view from that balcony near Wrigleyville.
Chicago is a lot like Havana, in some ways. It sits right on the shore of a vast turquoise sea, and it has a major road right along the seashore, a Malecón of sorts, against which killer waves slam with abandon. So what if the sea is a fresh water lake? And so what if it turns grey on cloudy days and it freezes over, every now and then? You can’t see any land on the horizon. It looks the same as a tourist-worthy sea, especially on a sunny day, when it can be mistaken for the Caribbean or the Mediterranean.
Da Lake. We Cubans called it El Lago. Chicago Jews had a great expression: geh kaken in der laken. Go take a crap in the lake. It meant “get lost,” Chicago’s version of “get outta here.”
But Havana had an advantage on Chicago: the backs of its buildings didn’t skimp on looks. In Chicago all the buildings have very nice façades, but their sides and backs are nothing but cheap brown bricks. Back porch views in Chicago are not too pretty. But in Havana, back before the Castro Dynasty, no builder or architect dared to skimp on details or to look like a cheapskate. Every side of every building had to look good, and all of Havana was pretty, front and back. At least, that’s what I remember.
I digress. Thinking about Chicago and thinking about Havana go together for me. Both are home. No place feels so much a part of my identity as Chicago. More so than Havana, which might as well be on the Planet Mongo, or on Pluto.
Here is what came to mind this morning: Havana is in ruins, but Chicago is thriving. Even its rear-end views are better than any in Havana.
Back in 1965, when I first arrived in Chicago, the inner city was an empty shell. The same disease that killed Detroit was killing Chicago back then. The middle class had fled to the suburbs and kept fleeing at a fast clip. In 1965, Havana was still halfway decent, and seemed on a better trajectory than Chicago, since Cubans couldn’t flee anywhere, and the destructive forces of Castroism had not yet wrecked the entire island.
Fast forward to late 2013.
Havana is dead, a zombie city. It is the very epitome of zombieness, or zombiehood, of living-deadness. In contrast, Chicago is more than alive. It is starting to look a lot like a European city. The center is alive, gleaming and growing, and the decay is receding. Areas that were slums in 1965 are now high-rent districts, all spruced up, full of life and commerce. Not just one neighborhood, but dozens upon dozens of neighborhoods. Decay banished. Slums turned into decent, attractive neighborhoods.
Prosperity. Free enterprise.
I found myself in what used to be a slum. I went into a store in a neighborhood that was just an inch above hell in 1965, only to find that the cheapest item for sale at that exclusive emporium was a t-shirt tagged at 140 dollars.
Who are these people, who can pay $140 for a t-shirt? In a former slum?
It doesn’t matter. The point I am straining to make is this: if the Castro dynasty had not hijacked Cuba, and democracy and a free market economy had been restored, what would Havana be right now? Would it be a labyrinth of ruins? No way. Would it be something akin to Chicago or Miami? Most probably.
I felt the rage trying to take over me, as it did in Puerto Rico a couple of weeks ago: the rage caused by all things Castrogonian. But nothing in Chicago could bring out the rage in me that those Spanish fortresses did in San Juan. Instead, everything in Chicago made me feel like Billy Pilgrim, the time-traveling protagonist in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five, for whom past, present, and future were all equally accessible.
That balcony near Wrigley field –or porch or deck or whatever you want to call it– was a time machine. Every time I set foot in Chicago I am back in 1965, washing dishes at the Conrad Hilton Hotel, living in a basement apartment, at the very bottom of the heap. Back then, Cuba still had some chance to turn itself around, if it could rid itself of the Castro dynasty. It still had some potential, maybe the same as Chicago. But fast forward to the future, to 2013, and what do you have? Utter destruction, total desolation.
The contrast is too painful, too much to take in. The future turned out much worse than the past for Cuba. It became Castrogonia, a festering tumor on the map: a plague-bearing abscess most in the world choose to ignore or even prefer to see as a beauty spot, more fetching than the one on Cindy Crawford’s face.
So, what is a Cuban exile to do, in Chicago, other than to feel the pain? Why, go to the Lake, of course — El Lago– and not write any more words at all, and just stand back and let it all be, like the poets in Springsteen’s Jungleland.
Me voy pa’l Lago. Y no me jodas. Y no me hables de Obama, por favor.