Dispatch From the Balcony of Time Travel

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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.  




4 thoughts on “Dispatch From the Balcony of Time Travel”

  1. You’re right. Chicago is an absolutely gorgeous city. Most surprising to me a lifelong New Yorker accustomed to our cold gray Altantic ocean [that passes for beaches in NYC] was Lake Michigan–an absolutely beautiful turquoise, warm body of water with waves! A lake with waves! And so vast that you see the horizon! Anybody who doesn’t know better would be fooled into thinking that it’s really a sea! The neighborhoods are beautiful too–so well tended and with so many trees and flowers–and much more affordable than NYC. I would move there at the drop of a hat! But, I go off on a tangent. You are right vis-a-vis Havana. It’s heartbreaking to think what would it be now had it not been for castro who like an infinitely more harmful A-bomb did more harm to Havana than the Americans did to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. What was once an elegant city is today overrun by ghetto trash that would fit well within the housing environment of the former Cabrini housing projects in Chicago. That generation that castro destroyed who despite their flaws [and they had many for allowing castro to rise to power], nevertheless have contributed so much to all the countries where they have moved to. Everywhere you turn there is a Cuban from that generation [or his son or daughter from the following generation] who is now in a position of prominence whether it be a Grand Duchess in Luxembourg [Maria Teresa], a legendary beauty pageant entrepreneur in Venezuela [Osmel Sousa], the founder of a TV station in Argentina [Goar Mestre], U.S senators [Bob Menendez, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz], or some CEO [i.e the late Roberto Goizueta of Coca-Cola]. The list would be endless. But what would have happened if those peoples instead of taking their talent to another country, had stayed in Cuba and used their talent there? Take for instance, the Cuban Jew, Gerry Gingsberg who founded the multimillion dollar company Movado Watches here in the USA. Imagine an industry like that in Cuba? It’s heartbreaking to consider what could have been [sigh].

    castro has been successful in ridding the country of its best, families like the Barcardis [known philanthropists] who are now dispersed all over the world. And the architecture, lets not even think about that. What would the Havana skyline look like today? Would we be competing with Dubai to built the biggest building in the world? Considering the competitive spirt of the Cuban [just look at our Capitol building that is larger than the US Capitol], I wouldn’t be surprised.

    But alas, the mainstream media credits castro with saving Havana. According to them, Batista was going to destroy all of Old Havana and built Mafia-run hotels and casinos everywhere. They euphemistically call the total ruin of a city, charming gentle decay. And as for the peoples, the mainstream media thinks that they are noble savages, while we are those awful Cuban exiles. Instead of recognizing the contributions of the exiles, they prefer people like that old hag with the cigar in her mouth [who has become the living representation of Cuban women]. She confirms the image that they have always had of Cubans [or at least, always felt that we should be like].

  2. If people who take pro sports seriously cared as much about the state of our government, we’d be in far better shape.

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