Cuba's Creative Panhanders

I am impressed by the creativity of Cuban panhandlers. On the Calle de Mercaderes, a man in a white T-shirt tells me he is a cigar maker. He has some of the finest cigars I could possibly want. I tell him I don’t smoke. Undeterred, he wants to know where I’m from. When I say Massachusetts, he says he has relatives there. He says he has five little kids at home. He wants me to contribute one peso each to their care and feeding.

Farther up the street, an old man catches my eye. He is a wizened old man with no teeth, sunken cheeks, lips like anchovies, and a ferocious stare that suggests he’s read Coleridge.

“I am a poet,” he declares.

He begins to recite a long poem. Then a shorter one, La Paloma. This is his way of asking for money. I think of the opening lines of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

Excuse me, I say. I have to go. Unlike the wedding guest in the Ancient Mariner, I manage to extricate myself but only physically. This will be the face that comes to mind every time I read the Ancient Mariner.

The most astonishing approach of all occurred when I left the Hotel Saratoga to go to a paladar for dinner. I had just stepped out of the front door when a man of about fifty with a barrel chest, a pushed in fighter’s face, and wearing a yarmulke said, “Are you Jewish?” It was almost as if he had been waiting for me. How did he know? Do I look Jewish? I couldn’t tell a Jew in London if my life depended on it. Yet this guy’s Jew-dar scored a direct hit. I was too startled to counterattack. I told him that I was. I didn’t tell him that I haven’t been to a synagogue for years, that my views on religion are very complicated and that, if we are to see eye to eye, we need to sit down somewhere and discuss it like two sensible adults.

Instead I asked, “Where are you from?”

“Poland,” he said.

“When did you come here?” I asked.

“1980,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

He said business was terrible in Poland. He thought it would be better in Cuba.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“Sell gas,” he answered.

“For cars or for everything?” I asked.

He gestured grandly. I took that to mean everything.

He said—all this is happening in English—that there is a synagogue around the corner and that I needed to come on Sunday. I told him that I wouldn’t be here on Sunday. He didn’t take “no” for answer. Instead, he took the four fingers of his right hand and stuffed them into his mouth. Then, so that he could speak more clearly, he removed them just as quickly. He said he had five small children. He needs money.

This guy I didn’t listen to any longer. I knew that Jews don’t go to synagogue on Sunday. Saturday is the big day. Even so, he does have a yarmulke. Is that his shtick? Could it be that he really isn’t Jewish? He looks Jewish, but what do I know? I think he is Jewish. I also think that this is the first time in my life that I have ever been hit up by a Jewish panhandler.

I came to Cuba for this?