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Sometimes I think I would rather watch movies and listen to music
than eat or sleep or even (blush) you know. When my friends
Werner and Cathy and I recently saw “The Buena Vista Social Club”
Wim Wender’s
fantastic
performance documentary on a band of pre-Castro Cuban musicians and
singers joyously resurrected by visiting American guitarist Ry
Cooder

– it was a revelation. Panning the desolate streets of Havana littered
with rusting hulls of 1950s American cars, the camera makes no judgment
until it lights upon the fantastically gifted passel of aging,
indigenous instrumentalists granted this unique opportunity to
demonstrate how extraordinary music transcends politics, language,
culture, and biases to unite rather than divide us. This luminous film
is a testament to music’s impact on the human spirit. For me it was
nearly a religious experience, a must-see miracle.

“This music is alive in Cuba, not some remnant in a museum that we
stumbled into,” says Ry Cooder. “Music is a treasure hunt. You dig and
you dig and sometimes you find something. In Cuba the music flows like a
river. It takes care of you and rebuilds you from the inside out. …”

Though Fidel Castro

never really interested me much except as the longest-living dinosaur in
the Cult of the Personality, or as a textbook example of how beards
disguise men, I was always fascinated with Cuba. On my several trips to
Key West, I would always stand at the southernmost tip of our country
and squinch my eyes trying to see Cuba across the water. I devoured
Ernest Hemingway’s
reminiscences of
Finca Vigia. I envied the
American radicals who’d go pick Cuban sugar cane in solidarity when it
was risky to travel there. I snickered at the growing numbers of randy
American men who used Cuba as a sexual pit stop.

One Saturday night during yet another summer heat wave I attended a
Les Blank film festival at
Werner and Cathy’s house. We’ve all been friendly ever since my former
marriage to a musician. The Zinfandel and Macadamia nuts flowed. They
showed movies til everyone was bleary-eyed. Quirky documentaries on the
polka, garlic, gap-toothed women, New Orleans street festivals — all
outrageously different but with filmmaker Les Blank’s signature scenes
of unforgettable hilarious Freudian sausage-making footage jamming
ground meat into unending strings of clear intestine skins — clearly
the auteur has some, uh, issues.

Besides bits like “Is there beer in Heaven,” or “Are gap-tooth women
more passionate,” or “Does garlic keep disease away as well as
vampires?” there was also a low-key but witty
SCTV

send-up of an unbelievably
dorky musical duo named the Schmenge Brothers played to the hilt by
Eugene Levy and the late John Candy (before he choked to death on a
leftover bite of Janis Joplin’s ham sandwich or something).

In spite of myself, I was captivated by an impeccably nuanced cameo
appearance of beetle-browed Rick Moranis — who I normally hate — as a
lizardly Las Vegas casino crooner, an oleaginous “On the Road Again”
cross between Wayne Newton and the former Prince. Some of these flicks
were taped off a public TV station, and I was astounded to see a
fund-raising spiel by the same obnoxiously flirtatious fella I once met
at a party who — after simultaneously proposing to the six unsuspecting
women in his secret harem — was dethroned and drummed out of town when
they discovered each other’s existence and suffered simultaneous
heartbreak.

Startled to see me there at Werner and Cathy’s was another party
guest, “Derek,” a talented photojournalist I used to work with in the
mainstream media. Derek was fresh from a photo shoot in Cuba for a
magazine story portraying it in typically superficial fashion as, yes, a
sexual pit stop for shallow horny American playboy-types slaking their
lust on exotic foreign women who treat them like kings unlike U.S.
counterparts who seek some reciprocity — like, stick around and let’s
have a relationship, why don’t you?

Derek was curious about my ideas on Castro’s country, which I had
always yearned to visit. “I loved your photograph of that musical
instrument, the normally upright stringed bass being carried across town
by two men, only without any strings, mute, on its side, like a silenced
person,” I complimented him. His eyes shone and his whole being glowed,
right down to the roots of his ponytail.

“What would YOU have done? As a writer?” Derek asked me. “To me,
there are several very very interesting things about Cuba,” I told him:
“That they have had this dictator, this dom, running the country all
this time, reviled as a despot yet revered almost as a dad; that’s one
thing, and the complex psychological consequences on his people of that
power. Their desperation to escape yet their irrevocable attachment, to
their country, and to him.” I recall hearing about something called
the Cuban Missile Crisis
in history, and how so many American college girls fearing imminent
death as virgins sought to immediately relieve themselves of their
chastity with the first unsuitable male who presented himself, and then
campus literary magazines with definitive minimalist poems like “Cuba
Cuba Cuba Cuber.”

For me, a big part of Cuba, I told him, always was imagining it — or
trying to, as I stood in Key West
on one of my many
visits there looking across that incredible expanse of water straining
my eyes to see Fidel. “On the one hand the people had that incredible
attachment to him, and on the other hand that absolute desperation to
escape,” I mused, thinking of the evolution of my feelings for some men
in my life. “You would see these flimsy ingenious little hand-made boats
wash ashore at Miami that were miraculous for getting anywhere, let
alone getting off that island. I’d photograph the boats, because the
boats symbolize their hope, and their fear,” I continued. “So imagining
Cuba from Key West, then re-imagining it once you were actually in Cuba.
Like their billboard, ‘There Are No Homeless Children in Cuba.’
No,” I pointed out, “there aren’t. But nearly everyone is hungry!
There’s the myth, and then the reality.”

For some reason, Cuba always reminded me of Woolworth’s. So much was
promised to so many. The same thing with Woolworth’s. Finally, after
umpteen years as America’s favorite variety store chain, when they
closed, I was inconsolable. Woolworth’s was always the place you could
get anything you wanted, under one roof. Everything for everybody.
Woolworth’s defined
downtown, small-town, big-town, up-town. Therefore, to me, it
represented American optimism, the best of American possibility, the
idea that all your wants could be satisfied under one roof, there and
then, that all your wants were worthy of satisfaction. You could get it
all at Woolworth’s — from camera film to picture frames to toy
handcuffs for your, um, cops-and-robber games to dirt-bikes to live
tropical fish to turtles
to flower pots to unusual
plants to kicky fabric to foam rubber for pillows to picnic
refrigerators to fashion watchbands to offbeat Halloween costumes to
lunch-counter hot-dogs to last-minute additions to your wardrobe for
that quick trip, Woolworth’s was IT! Architects commended its products
for good design at low prices. Woolworth’s was the epitome of cheap
chic!

I remember stopping off at Woolworths for a last nostalgic look, and
feeling like I truly entered a time warp. The Muzak was playing a song
called, “You Can’t Change the World.” Which went something like:
“Youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu caaaaaaaaannnnnnnt, youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu
caaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnt, youuuuuuuu cannnnnnnnttttttt chaaaaaaaaaaaaange,
ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh yoooooooouuuuu
cannnnntyoucannntchaaaaaaaaaaaaange, youuuuuu cannnnnnnnnt
chaaaaaaaannnnnnnnaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnnnggggggggggge
chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnngggge the
wooooorrrrrrrrllllllllld, the the the
worrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrldddddddddddd.”
Wailing witness!!! Seemed
like a reminder to me, your resident “Liberal,” that some things MUST be
evolutionary.

That last week, the place was a-bustle with a veritable United
Nations of shoppers, Chinese ladies and African American ladies and
plain vanilla ladies, too. Cashiers who would soon be laid off were
saying emotional good-byes to their loyal customers. It was truly
heard-rending. Waiting in line at the cash register — I was buying a
mini-mini-umbrella — I heard a voice in my ear. “Temptation,” the voice
went, “That’s temptation.” I turned around and saw a little old church
lady pointing to a foot-long Tootsie Roll stick. Temptation, indeed.
That’s not candy; that’s a lethal weapon. You could kill someone with
that thing. On the way home, I bumped into “Zondrea,” a neighbor,
little boy in tow. “What a coincidence. I’m headed to Woolworth’s. I
just read it’s closing. Where will I ever get my underpants now? Not at
Penney’s, I just can’t imagine life without Woolworth’s.”

Buying power, it all comes down to buying power, doesn’t it?

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