My First Car
At the tender age of 8 and 9 and when we left El Encanto Department Store in the city of Havana my mother would recompense me for accompanying her on an afternoon of shopping with a delicious chocolate Sunday and/or some orange slices candy to take home, which we bought at Woolworth’s, otherwise known as “el ten cent”, which was located across the street from El Encanto. “Hold hands!” she said loudly to everyone in our party, as we crossed the street.
To get to El Encanto, of the three main department stores, for sure the largest and classiest of Havana, on Galiano and San Rafael streets, we’d take the city bus no. 32. It was a long way from the western suburbs of the city where I lived, also known as “the beach” for its ideal location on the shores of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, also known as the Straits of Florida. Sometimes we’d travel with my father by car early in the morning while he commuted to his downtown office, and we always came back with him. He would drive by in a swarm of traffic to pick us up. We would stand in line on the curb trying not to block other people while we waited on the crowded sidewalk. They were days of traffic jams and horns tooting in gentle 1950s tonalities. You could tell a Chrysler from a Ford from a Cadillac. And there more some exotic sounds too, more likely to come out of an Alfa, a Porsche, a Citroën, or other European imports. Most of the sidewalks of old Havana were narrow, so crowds rushed around and into stores, hair salons and cafeterias, as downtown is always busy. Who could predict that this would all end one day when communism took over? Yet time has not erased the memories, even when they are those of a child.
Many years later, in a magazine published by the association of former employees of that famous store, I saw a picture of a toy car that was just like the one I had: a red Ferrari! As I wondered if it came from the store indeed, and it probably did, I remembered that my mother had worked there for a while before she got married. In that toy car I heard what I believe is my first joke: one day, while driving it in the middle of the street of the residential area where my house was located, a real automobile prudently stopped right next to me… the driver, looming high, said in a very serious tone: “do you want to trade”? True, at age 8 and with the Havana Grand Prix making headlines, I felt emboldened that I was very much “in”!
As my family left Cuba and lived in various countries before settling in New Jersey, I remember that when the magazine published by the association of former employees of the store El Encanto arrived in the mail, everyone rushed to read it and ask questions of my mother: about the people and the things that were mentioned in it, and we found it all so fascinating. Havana albeit Atlantis was coming back to life. These and many other memories stuck long enough, and came around full circle when we saw that, despite the collapse of the iconic main building of the store, and after three generations of government rations, some of the buildings of the former subsidiaries in the provinces are now being refurbished as stores with a variety of goods. Some still have the familiar signs and logos of El Encanto.
Much later, and while living in Upper Montclair , New Jersey, and vacationing in Wainscott, I remember the line of cars on Montauk Highway with the occasional Ferrari, mostly VW convertibles that we called “buttercups” , and of course the Beemers and Benzes and also the occasional antiques and SUVs that have become commonplace today. I felt in good company when my Citroën met other Citroëns on the road, notably Carlos Montoya’s, the black ID that he drove around in. Passing Richie’s place on 27 in Southampton is always a pleasure when I see the little red Cit and the many Aerican and foreign vehicles that he has, waiting for true love (of restoration)!
As to Cuba, its old cars, my little red Ferrari, and the former elegant department store whose name is still remembered, it is fair to project that future generations who have preserved a name after five decades of socialism during which most everything was decided for them, can once more aspire to pick a dress or a toy of their choice, and one can even hope that it result in better times to come for them. And we shall return too.