Treacherous Memories of Allen Ginsberg’s Days in Havana
“This cannot go on. It’s been enough already, José Mario, Manolito; enough clowning around. God, there’s too much at stake!”
The three of us were sitting at a table in a discreet corner of La Roca restaurant, and the one doing the talking was none other than José Rodríguez Feo, a mediocre former member of the Cuban upper class and intellectual wannabe who had built a niche for himself in Cuban culture purely on the basis of his deep pockets, and who at that time was one of the top bananas in Unión, the official Writers’ Union magazine. For us, and at that precise moment, he was also an emissary of the powers that be, and of course, the one who would pick up the tab in the restaurant.
Practically hours earlier, at dawn, we had been released from the filthy dungeon in which we had been thrown in a police station in the corner of Zapata and C streets, and warned very seriously that next time we would not be treated as kindly. When we demanded to know why we had been detained for 24 hours, the police unit chief just burst out laughing.
All the previous evening and afternoon that same goon had been trying to coerce us both into signing statements accusing Allen Ginsberg of offering to change dollars in the black market, and in my case, of sexual abuse. We refused to sign such slanders, so we were threatened again and again with jail time, and finally put in a stinky cell full of common criminals and mentally diseased persons. Once in a while, someone would come along to say they had “other methods” to make us sign.
“And what’s supposed to be at stake, if we may know?” I asked then, pretending to look stupid as I savored a portion of the filet mignon cordon bleu I had ordered in the posh restaurant.
“The revolution’s reputation,” Rodríguez Feo answered without thinking twice, munching on a morsel of snapper meunier. “Do you think that’s nothing?”
Oh, by now that shitty reputation is nothing, I said to myself, quite amused. Because it seemed that our brutal arrest had not gone unnoticed and someone –a good soul, no doubt– had the good sense of alerting Ginsberg of what had happened right away. And just a while later the American poet had conjured a true revolt among the judges of the Casa de las Américas Literary Contest, who had threatened with packing up and moving to the airport unless we were released immediately. What a racket. So the beast had to open up its jaws and let us go.
I was told much later that as a result of this incident Haydée Santamaría, a heroine of the revolution and nominal president of the Casa, had suffered a breakdown that had resulted in one of her frequent bouts of drunkenness.
“This scandal ends today, right here, between us,” Rodríguez Feo insisted, pushing his plate aside. “For this reason I was sent to speak to you, and I will not leave here before you promise not to meet with Ginsberg again, and that the little private meetings and all the gossip will end.”
José Mario and I looked at each other.
“I couldn’t care less about that American, I don’t even like him,” José said, shrugging off the subject as he bit again into the juicy chicken breast that remained on his dish. “I care about his poetry, and we already have it and we’re going to publish it, so…”
I refused to believe José Mario was not as outraged as I was. You could expect that, after all the mistreatment and the humiliation. But perhaps I was too quick to be surprised. These ambiguous and tepid attitudes were common among the people of El Puente, and among Cuban intellectuals in general at that time. In the end, as we know now, this would mean their ruin.
“I am glad you agree. It’s most wise,” Rodríguez Feo said then. “I will tell María Rosa.”
María Rosa was, of course, María Rosa Almendros, a Casa official who outwardly pretended to be a liberal, but who closely followed Ginsberg’s steps on the orders of the secret police. I almost sprung up and turned the table upside down, with all the tasty stuff it still had on it. I felt like puking, but I told myself it was better to offer an image of acquiescence than to show my bellicose cards too early in the game. There’s nothing more useful in life than a well-managed moronic face, so I continued to enjoy the food in silence.
Of course, it was a difficult bite to swallow –and I’m not speaking of the filet mignon exactly. I tried to be as patient as I could be, but… how disgusting it was to deal with that slimy old queen, Rodríguez Feo! Soon enough, however, I would be turning the tables on her, as she deserved. And with a vengeance!