Best of Breslin: The Cuban Baseball Fan
The legendary reporter heads to Cuba, the island of baseball fanatics.
HAVANA — Campos’s street-cleaning cart has crooked wheels and when both yellow drums are filled with trash the weight causes the wheels of the cart to wobble and threaten to fall off, and Campos finds he must stop and give his cart a rest.
One of the rest stops was under the portico of a building that is on one of the streets of Old Havana, a good place for Campos on this day because he was protected from the morning rain and at the same time nobody was about who would look at him and see that he was standing there, dry and in important conversation, while the cart was out in the street.
“Rogelio Garcia is the greatest pitcher in Cuba,” Campos said.
“What hand does he throw with?” Campos was asked.
Campos pumped his right arm up and down and pulled his body back and came forward like a baseball pitcher. “Garcia!” he shouted. He wiggled his hand and his hips to show how Rogelio Garcia can make a baseball curve. Campos’s eyelids drooped and his mouth, which always shows amusement, became an oversized smile. When the interpreter and I laughed, Campos was even more delighted.
Campos is sixty now. His jowly face is a sun ray. The nose of a great nobleman presides over a thin mustache. Campos is proudest of his thick hair that is almost entirely black; he keeps his frayed cap tilted so that curls of his hair, only the very tips of which are gray, can be seen by the people on the streets he sweeps.
Campos earns about six dollars a day for seven hours of street sweeping. He works twenty-six days each month. Now, Campos stuck his head out from under the portico, squinted as he felt rain, pulled “his head back in, lit a cigarette, folded his arms, and smoked the cigarette without taking it from his mouth.
“What did you do in the revolution?” Campos was asked.
He shook his head. “Working people are not political,” he said. “I was not part of the politics and I did not fight in the mountains. I am a working person, I do my job every day, and then I go home to my house and have my dinner and at night I watch the baseball.”
“You own a television?” he was asked.
“I saved for one whole year to buy a television so I could watch the baseball game,” he said. “The television costs six hundred and fifty dollars.”
When his cigarette was finished, Campos leaned out from under the portico, felt only a few drops of rain this time, and decided to push his cart through the streets again. He went up a narrow street that was covered with banners proclaiming the twentieth anniversary of the Cuban revolution. Campos halted his cart in front of a building that was cloaked with banners and posters of Lenin and Che Guevara. He faced the posters.
“Agustín Marqueti!” Campos called out. He swung an imaginary bat and waved his arm at a spot far over the posters of Che and Lenin. “Marqueti! Boom! He is the greatest hitter in Cuba. I have eight children and I try to raise one of my sons to be a baseball pitcher.”
Campos pushed his cart around the corner, passed an office of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, and at the end of the block he was at the opposite end of the same portico he had just left. He stopped to give his cart another rest. He folded his arms and inspected the air.
The streets that Campos sweeps each day are narrow and many of them seem useless to sweep because they are lined with high piles of debris. Nor could the strongest, most dedicated sweeper accomplish anything: Havana has so many army vehicles driving around that it looks like an army base, but a sanitation truck stands out in traffic like an emerald. Campos, however, had an objective on this street by the portico. He went to his cart, took out the broom, swept leaves away from a drain, and then pushed the puddles into the drain. He took out a shovel that had a broken handle and scooped up leaves and some sticks, placed them in his garbage drums, and went on to the rest of his route.
An open-air bar was at the first corner. An old woman in a yellow housedress stood at the bar and drank rum with her husband. The woman’s legs were streaked with bright blue veins and the husband wore muddy rubber boots. The bartender, who wore a shirt that was several sizes too big for him, had one foot up on a ledge and smoked a cigarette and stared at the street. I went automatically to the bar, but Campos stood in the street and held up two fingers to show that he works until 2:00 P.M. and would not drink on his job.
Campos pushed on. He swept the gutter in front of a small store, a minimart, that had a long line of people waiting to buy things. Inside, the store had a couple of rows of empty shelves and a shelf lined with a single row of cans of condensed milk. Another shelf had several jars of mayonnaise and about a dozen cans of creamed chicken. Under the front counter were two old boxes filled with thick black cigars. On the floor behind the counter was an open wooden barrel of lard that had flies circling it. Another open barrel contained flour. A sign on the wall proclaimed that there had been a revolution.
Out in the street, Campos now had a hemp bag tied to the handle of his cart. Somewhere over the day, if he found a breadline that was not too long — breadlines seemed to be everywhere and they never seemed to move — he would buy a loaf to bring home. We agreed to meet later. I went to the bar and he strolled on.
Making an appointment such as this is at least difficult in Havana this week. Reporters are awarded escorts, who appear to be special agents and station themselves between the people and the reporter. I won a special agent who was tall and amiable, but always present, so I lost him right after breakfast, hooked up with an interpreter, and went looking for a working citizen of Havana. We started in a Catholic church, where a couple of women stood through Mass — there were no pews — and a dog wandered among them. It was the only Mass of the day; most of the priests in Cuba had been from Spain and they departed when Castro took over, leaving Havana with little Catholic religious guidance, and the countryside probably with none. Outside after Mass, we found that the women preferred not to talk, but then a few blocks away we came upon Campos, an aristocrat of his island.
When he finished work at 2:00 P.M., Campos took his sweeper’s cart to a yard and, bread sticking out of his hemp bag, left for home. He took two buses, the entire ride costing only five cents, but for the second bus, Campos had to stand on a muddy corner for over an hour. The interpreter did not travel by bus with us. All the way home, Campos kept fumbling with his hands and laughing in embarrassment because he could not speak English to his visitor. The fact that the visitor was unable to speak Spanish went unnoticed by Campos.
The ride was long and in a crowded bus, whose shock absorbers were useless. The street outside was crowded with people who stood for no particular reason except to watch the traffic. At almost each group of stores, most of them empty, there was an office for the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Each of these offices has a mimeograph machine for propaganda leaflets and for the use of people who oversee delivery of municipal services and medical care. The committee offices also keep names of every resident in the vicinity and are the central desk for all spying on and denouncing of the man next door. A backyard fence that can be dangerous.
Campos got off the bus at a muddy corner with no stores and walked down a mud street to a railroad crossing. He turned onto the tracks, which ran between tin-roofed huts. The rain had left long puddles around the shacks, many of which had tar-paper roofs, with oilcloth spread over the tar paper. Old auto tires and rocks were atop the oilcloth to keep it from blowing away.
Campos’s hut was three steps away from the tracks. It was cinderblock with a tin roof. He removed his boots before entering. When his visitors tried to remove their shoes, too, Campos stopped them. He went inside and came out with a machete, which he used to scrape the mud from the visitors’ shoes before leading them inside.
The low ceiling had damp spots from the heavy rains. The hut is one room that is partitioned into three tiny bedrooms. In the front room, there is a bed, a television set, and four wooden chairs, the bed decorated with two bride dolls. Campos explained that his son and daughter-in-law sleep here. They have been married only five years, he said. In the next room there are two beds for other sons. Campos and his wife sleep in the last partition, which looks into the kitchen.
His wife, Deisy Rojas, a plump woman with long black hair, squealed with delight when she saw that her husband had brought guests home. She motioned to her daughter-in-law, who immediately sat at the small Formica kitchen table and spread rice on a cloth and began to pick impurities out of the rice. Campos sent one of his sons out to get beer and he was embarrassed when his son came back and said he could find no beer in the neighborhood.
Campos showed pictures of his family. “See, there are eight children,” he said. “So I told you the truth when I said to you today at work that I have eight children. Do you see that if one tells the truth, one has nothing to worry about? If I had told you a different number of children you would have been here and found out that Campos lies. But I told you the truth. See? Here are the pictures of the eight children.”
The married son asked if a medicine he had written down on a piece of paper could somehow be sent to him from America. He said that he and his wife are attempting to have children, and the doctor prescribed this medicine for her, but there is none of it in Cuba. It is common in Havana for people to ask for medicine; there is not enough coming from Russia and America does not permit medical supplies to be traded to Cuba.
The other son, the one Campos wanted to play baseball, walked in. He cannot play until he finds a job, because a sports license in Cuba is given only after clearance with the employment authorities, a rule that hampered the career of Campos’s son, for he was more afraid of work than of drowning.
The women put a clean tablecloth on the kitchen table and served a dinner of bean soup, rice, tomatoes, and meat patties that were the equivalent of Spam. The cooking was done on a two-burner kerosene stove. The kitchen had one spigot for water. The hut has a toilet, but no bath or shower.
The guests were nervous about eating the meat because Cubans are allowed only three-quarters of a pound of meat every nine days, but Campos, who would not sit until his guests ate, would have been outraged if the meat was left untouched. He made a speech about this: “In spite of us being poor, we have love and an open heart,” he said. “We share whatever we have with people.”
Campos’s delivery had a little Castro to it, the chin rising in self-satisfaction, and he was asked if he had seen Fidel’s speech on television the other night. Castro spoke on the twentieth anniversary of the revolution.
“I was the one in this house who paid attention,” Campos said.
He was asked if the other people who lived in his area had watched. He thought they had. “They are all hoping to hear that they will increase the rationing, but this they did not hear.”
“Castro’s speech had been concerned mostly with America. “Cuba will not be bought by the Yankee dollar,” he said. He also said, “American cannot buy Cuba.” After he said each of these statements for the fifth or sixth time, Fidel’s head turned momentarily to the wings, as if in prayer and hope that somebody like Paul Austen of the Coca-Cola Company suddenly would run onto the stage and buy Cuba. On the stage as Fidel spoke was the Cuban Communist Central Committee, which was all white or damn near, except for one token black, a man so old as to be harmless. Meanwhile, in the audience drawn from Communist and Third World countries, Russian generals and their wives, all with chests jutting out equally, shifted in horror as their neighbors, Africans as black as Baldwin pianos and wearing dashikis, rubbed shoulders with them.
In his speech, Castro said little about Cuban troops fighting in Africa. Now, in this hut in Havana, Campos was asked about it.
“I lost my nephew there,” Campos said. “He was nineteen. He was killed in Ethiopia five months ago.”
The wife, Deisy Rojas, said, “They told us that once the boy finished combat, he died in an accident. They always say that it is an accident.”
“The last time I saw him,” Campos said, “he came to this house with his record player and his girlfriend and they danced and then they said good-bye and he went to Africa. That is the last time I see my nephew.”
“How did they tell the family that he was dead?”
“A committee came to my brother’s house and said that the boy had died in Ethiopia.”
The wife said, “He is dead five months and the mother has not received the corpse and she is very “upset.”
“There was a symbolic burial,” Campos said. “Five or six soldiers had a small coffin and they were standing guard over it at the place where the regiment has its headquarters.”
“The mother is still very upset,” Deisy Rojas said. “She has not received the corpse. The mother says that when you see the body you can be more relaxed. When you do not see the body you always wonder and worry.”
At seven-thirty, everybody left the kitchen and sat on the bed and chairs in the front room to watch a television show called “The Adventurers.” It is Cuba’s most popular show, a nightly half hour of people rushing about and firing blank guns from behind stage scenery. The show concludes each night, as it did on this one, with a fuse burning to the top of a drum of dynamite. Tomorrow, you will see if the fuse reaches the explosive. Campos adored the burning fuse.
His face went blank, however, and his eyelids lowered when the national news came on at eight. The news opened with a report on a Latin American congress of students which will be held in Havana in March. The next story was about a province which leads in building cooperatives. Footage of a crack sugarcane cutting brigade followed. Then there was a story about a commemorative service for policemen who died defending the Bay of Pigs.
Now there was a long report on the opening of a newspaper in the city of Sancti-Spíritus. The film showed printers at Linotype machines made in Russia. Following this there was much footage of printers’ hands placing type in galleys.
“The workers you see are the most important to a newspaper,” the voice over the film said. “The workers on the paper are more important than the writers. The writers for the new newspaper were chosen from the different political organizations of the province.”
Now the sports announcer came on. “Ah,” Campos said. His eyes opened and he sat up. But his face immediately became sad as he heard the announcer say that the baseball game had been rained out.
The evening over, Campos insisted on leading his guests out along the railroad tracks. There was nobody standing in the darkness in the mud. One hut had a light on, and the light beamed through several openings in the tin roof.
The interpreter, who had driven out, had his car waiting where a mud street crossed the railroad tracks. Campos shook hands. We left for the hotel. He went back to his hut to sleep so he could rise at 5:00 A.M. and walk through the mud to the bus to another day of his job sweeping the streets of Havana.