Well, okay. I booked a room at the Miami International Airport Hotel, counting on the efficiency of being inside the airport itself at dawn’s crack. We’ve been told to gather at Terminal ‘G’ at 6am to begin a four-hour boarding process for the forty-five minute flight to Havana. There is no day or night in an airport, just the ebb and flow of travelers’ agita. I am reconnoitering goggle-eyed (Coffee? Coffee?), when I see Alden Jones coming towards me. “The Bitter Bitches of Bleecker Street,” she says, grinning. I grin back. That’s the title of the essay I’d submitted for the Cuba Writers Program. Alden’s one of our leaders on this adventure. She represents the literary angle, while Tim Weed supervises logistics.
I feel like I’m at square one at last, the trip’s beginning, no longer dawdling in a soup of plans and hypotheticals. She heads back to the hotel, but reassuringly aims me toward Terminal ‘G’. Writers accumulate. Pleasantries are exchanged. Judgments are made. I knew there’d be some youngsters, undergrads, judging from the stack of pieces I’ve read. Oh, yeah. They’re trying to slather hip chatter onto a layer cake of anxiety. Not buying it. I’ll stick with familiar faces. Besides Alden, there’s Dona, who I know from the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and Phil, from Bennington. I’m cool.
We board flight 3141 under the banner of the resurrected Eastern Airlines, same color scheme, same logo. Banking over Miami, one by one I start to connect islands, at first easily confused with the shadows of clouds. These are the Keys, dangling off mainland Florida, a floating garland of dark green in an infinitely changeable palette of blues and greens. We’re over open ocean for just a few minutes when the captain relays the announcement to prepare for landing. Bump. Bump. Applause. A covered staircase is wheeled to the plane and we descend to the tarmac. The air is warm. A big orange metal building welcomes arrivals. The lines for passport control and customs go quickly and we follow one another to the parking lot and bus number 3794.
Tim welcomes us to Cuba by introducing our guide and driver for the week – Thalia and Rogelio. Thalia, the muse of drama, offers light and engaging banter on our way to Revolution Square, the epicenter of Havana and a shrine to José Marti, the island’s founding father. It’s a vasty pavement, prostrating before a tower of gray marble. Popes hold Mass there. The island’s famous sixty-five year-old American cars have lined up looking for passengers. They are dazzling and candy-colored, like someone spilled a big bag of Skittles. They submit to photographs willingly. The convertibles beg to be ridden in.
After lunch, we have time to kill before we can get into our rooms at Ambos Mundos Hotel in Old Havana, so we stop at the Hotel Rivera on the Malecon, Havana’s corniche. The Rivera was built by Meyer Lansky in the ‘50s in an effort to make Havana compete with Las Vegas. It has been preserved by circumstance almost perfectly. The great terrazzo lobby stretches forever, flanked by public rooms, including the Copacabana nightclub. I wander through to the great blue swimming pool. A blue, tiered, diving tower, designed perhaps by Dr. Seuss, dominates the far end.
Then I wander back through the long gloom of the lobby and tug at the padded door to the Copa. It opens. Musty light confronts me. I step back and door closes quietly. I pull again and step inside. The club is upholstered in blues with blue velvet on the walls. Tiers of tables back up and away from the dance floor. Not a chair to be seen. Two dramatic platforms float on either side of the stage. I imagine two rows of naked showgirls in ostrich feather headdresses descending from the staircases. But instead of a glittery chorus line, a stack of mattresses, a dozen or more, fills the stage. Still, I can easily see Freddo Corleone sitting in the first row.
On the bus back to the hotel, Thalia points out a statue of José Marti holding a child pointing into the middle distance. The joke, she says, is that the kid is indicating the old US embassy and telling José – ‘That’s where the good toys come from.’