By Brent Feasel
I was a boy when I first met him. I thought I was a man but I was young. I thought he was brilliant, but now I am not so sure. He was very wise, very charismatic… but he was ignorant. He did not understand people. He tried to understand the needs of the people, but never the needs of the people themselves.
I am of course speaking of the man who lives upstairs all by himself, alone and unwilling to come down from the clouds to see the world outside his restaurant.
When I first met Fidel Castro he was trying to get into the restaurant to impress his friends. He wanted to get a table and show them that he was a big shot. Everyone knows that he is full of himself. He likes himself very much, but why shouldn’t he? Lots of other people like him also.
Fidel came to Mariposa with a whole party full of people. It was not the Mariposa then, of course. It was called something else but I would be fired for even saying the name so I have not for many years. The midnight revelers were dancing in the lobby and drinking and smoking and just enjoying life. Some of them knew that the place was impossible to get into. Others thought so much of Fidel that they were willing to try for his sake, because they knew that no one else they knew could ever get them in.
There were doctors and lawyers, like Fidel himself, but they were not good enough people to get in. I was probably the lowest form of life that ever got in here as far as Batista was concerned, which is sad to me since they served shrimp and other creatures that live on filth at the bottom of the ocean.
Batista was a rude man. He was short with us, the help. He rarely had a kind word for any of us. He would say terrible things to us one minute and turn around the next with a smile for a wealthy man and a kiss for the hand of the wealthy man’s wife. He loved status. All he could wish for was that the people who came to his restaurant had a good time and spent lots of money. In a sense he too did not care for the world outside of the tower.
Young people did not get into what is now Mariposa without being wealthy. It was also helpful to be American or connected to the Mafia. These were the kind of people who would show up on a regular basis. The faces you saw in the newspapers could have been plucked from any group photo of any night we were open.
We were not open on Sunday. Sunday was the day of rest. No matter what sort of horrible things went on here, night after night, we still believed in God. We did not go against Him on that. Now I work on Sundays sometimes but because I am old I usually let the young kids who do not care about God work it.
Fidel wanted to be an American I think. He wanted to be like Americans. He liked American cars. He loved baseball and basketball, both American sports. It is said that he even tried out for a baseball team in America, but if he did I never heard it from him. He talks about baseball a lot so it should have come up, but who am I to say, maybe it is just another thing he did not want to talk about.
When he stepped into the front door of the lobby he looked big. I was actually there. I was returning from an errand and had the luck of seeing him. Fidel had chosen the worst of nights to come in. Batista had just begun to call himself the general manager.
I don’t know what that meant except that I understood that he was going to be in charge alone and just tell the other managers what to do. He already did that a lot. He usually would come in and swirl around like a hurricane giving orders, checking to see how clean the kitchen was and making sure that the bar was stocked. Then he would sit, actually sit, at the tables of some of the guests, with them. And they loved it. They thought he was such a charming man.
He also spent a lot of time on the casino floor, which is just below the restaurant. The casino didn’t spin. It could but Lansky, the little Jewish guy who ran it for Batista, couldn’t stand the spinning. He had some kind of problem that made him dizzy so the casino never spun and Lansky never went upstairs.
I am getting way ahead of myself though. Fidel had come to see the sight from the top of the restaurant. He had climbed the highest mountain in Cuba as a boy but he wanted to climb to the top of the Mariposa for several reasons. He wanted to see what Havana looked like. He couldn’t see it from the mountains. Also he wanted to be a part of the lifestyle that could see Havana from the sky.
When Fidel went in, he went with only his brother Raul. Raul was a quiet man. He was a sober man even when drunk and his standing there would give credit to Fidel who was wearing a suit with a very loud tie. The others were at the far end of the entranceway that led to the elevator. A man who sat behind a counter guarded the elevator itself.
Fidel stepped up in front of the man, who was from America, and who handled reservations.
He said simply, "I want a table."
The man replied, "No."
Fidel asked the man again as though he had not heard the answer, "Do you have a table for twelve."
Now, the man whom we all called Guido, although that was not his real name, looked up for the first time. He did not change his expression but there was a certain glimmer of anger in his eyes.
"You didn’t hear me," he began, "I said there are no tables."
"You said no. That tells me that there are tables and I can not have one," said Fidel. "So which is it? Are there tables or are there not any."
Guido responded, "There are tables. You cannot have one of said tables. You are not a guest of Mr. Batista. Tonight is a closed party honoring him. Therefore there are no tables."
I was late getting back upstairs but I did not want to move. I had seen Guido get angry but I had never seen him have to rough up anyone. I was curious as to whether or not he could take this well-built man who was getting more upset with each passing moment. I was hoping he could not.
" I like how you think you are so wonderful," retorted Fidel. "I enjoy the fact that you can tell me that I can not pay good money to come into your establishment and eat. If you were starving to death and you came to my house I would bring you in and feed you. I would make, for you, all the good things I could. This I would do, for you, without asking for any money. Yet, you tell me that I cannot eat in your restaurant."
"You had better leave, " started Guido.
"Or what," came Fidel’s quick reply.
"Or this," said Guido as he opened his jacket to reveal a holster with a gun in it.
Raul, who had remained silent throughout all this, whispered something into his brother’s ear and it made Fidel change his mind. He looked at the crowd down at the other end of the hall, still dancing and rattling the gumball machines, the only thing in the entire restaurant that was without class, except for Batista himself. He looked back at the stone-faced Italian, who had just threatened him without any particular concern and said, "That is fine. You will not seat me tonight. Tonight I will go home and have a big dinner. A big traditional Cuban dinner. And someday soon I will come back here and I will have a table prepared for me. I will eat your heart out of your still warm carcass and wash it down with your blood."
With that he and Raul walked away, Fidel strutting in front and Raul just behind him, glancing back occasionally to look at me. Well, perhaps mostly to look at the man who had just threatened their life. But we did make eye contact and I felt a connection to him.
After that we did not hear from Fidel for a long time. He did not come back to feast on Italian as he threatened and the incident was largely forgotten. During this time Fidel was busy.
There was not much money to be made in Cuba. This meant Fidel would have to go to America. The Americans made most of the money and took it back with them to the states anyway. Hollywood made movies out here. The casinos, like our very own, brought in tourists from America who were tired of horseracing but the money they spent went from their pockets to Lansky’s who took it back to the mysterious foreign owner of the restaurant, Uncle Sam. We did not know who he actually was but we called him that. He was the man who had built the tower to be the "Jewel of the Caribbean", which incidentally, is what Cuba itself, is referred to as.
Uncle Sam had provided the money but Batista presented it as his tower. He treated it like his home and no one argued with him. We couldn’t. He paid us more than anyone else would. I’m sure it was less than Americans got paid for the same jobs but to people like me it was a lot of money. As a young man I would have crawled naked over broken glass for a job that would provide for my family.
Now, I am here because I don’t know anything else. I am stuck. It has been so many years I would not fit in anywhere else so I stay. It is not hard work after you get used to it. I started out washing the dishes. I had many burns from the scalding hot water and I was not attractive because of the grease that gave me acne. I don’t wash dishes anymore. I usually sit where Guido used to sit so many years ago. I sit on his stool. I sit at his counter. Neither the stool nor the counter looks as good but I look better. I am an attractive old man. I have aged like wine.
The next time Fidel came back to the restaurant I was not here. I had gone to the wedding of a cousin in Santiago. This time he came alone. He looked the bottom floor over for a long time. He looked at the entrance. He looked at the lobby area and the chairs and the gumball machines. He studied everything in great detail. Fidel did not say a word to anyone but Guido eventually saw him.
Guido walked away from the counter to the phone next to the elevator and picked up the receiver. He spoke in Italian to Lansky who was sitting carefully in a fixed position on the second floor. They had a brief conversation about the lawyer at the other end of the lobby and about his odd activities. After a moment he hung up the receiver and returned to the seat I now sit in and looked towards the arch of numbers above the elevator.
There is a basement, the lobby of course, and then from there it goes to the casino level. Above that is the restaurant proper and beyond that are two more floors. The first is a level similar to the casino in size, which is to say smaller than the restaurant. This is now living quarters. I’ve never seen it. You have to have a key to get up to it and few people go up there. Above that is an even smaller area that is a mystery to all. Nobody has seen it. I don’t know for sure if Raul has even seen it. I have a feeling Che did; certainly few others have.
As Guido sat watching, and as Fidel kept snooping, the needle indicating the floors came towards Guido from the casino level to the lobby.
When the door opened there were three men inside. All of them were wearing identical suits. We didn’t, at that time, actually have any sort of security staff, not like we do now. This was just a group of hired goons who looked like Pavlov’s dogs and Guido had just rung the bell. They walked slowly in a tight v- shape with two in front and one in the rear. I don’t know for sure but I have heard that the front two were Cubans and the back guy was a different Guido.
Anyway, they walked down the corridor like a street sweeper cleaning up everything in their path. There are several small trashcans in the lobby to accommodate smokers and those suffering through the rare occurrence of a wait to be seated. As the men moved down towards where Fidel was carrying on with his obvious transgression, they picked up small, perhaps invisible pieces of trash and put them in the appropriate receptacles. They did this without once taking their lusty eyes off of the man now making his way to the door.
I’m not sure that he was aware of the others presence at first but at some point he must have sensed the potential danger and rather than flee, decided to move out of the scene as though nothing were the matter. He had moved to within a few feet of the entranceway when the three men picked up the pace as a cohesive unit.
They reached him within two or three steps of the doors and in one sweeping motion the front two snatched him off the ground and carried him outside, while the third one closed the doors behind him. Aside from an initial remark of surprise from Fidel himself as he was picked up, there was no noise other than the quiet latching of the old monastery doors that stood silent rendering no judgment of the restaurant or the events unfolding outside.
Outside, on the cool street, there were several people who were there to protect Fidel, including Raul and others that are still important in his life. Although the three thugs were bigger there were more of Fidel’s men, or so they thought. Then from the parking lot came a large black sedan that jumped the curb and came to a stop just behind the entourage of Castro. From it four more men emerged wearing similar dark suits as the first three.
To this day I am not sure who these men were. As I said there was not a security force visible at the restaurant and I cannot think of another time where they were employed so heavily, but they were obviously connected to Lansky who could always be counted on to have all the arrangements taken care of.
At this point Raul, Fidel and the others including one woman named Maria tried to make a run for it. They were immediately stopped and the punishment for their crime was handed out swiftly. All of Fidel’s group, including the woman, was given a thorough beating. After a few minutes the police showed up and without asking any questions they began putting Fidel and the others into the back of a truck sent, as it appeared, for them specifically.
Again there was a time in which I did not see Fidel. Again I had almost forgotten about him. He and the others were sent to jail, paid for all the way by Lansky’s money that helped oil the wheels of progress for him and Batista.
Upon my return from Santiago I received a slight pay-raise and was put in charge of the dishwashers so I was content. The story of what had happened didn’t even make its way to my ears for some time. I did not work as hard as others, younger than me, and some of the scars on my arms and fingers began the slow process of fading into character marks, as my wife would later refer to them.
Castro’s name did not disappear completely. He served his sentence with the others all close and committed friends in the same prison on Cuba’s northern coast near the spot made famous some years later as the landing site of a battle that didn’t happen.
While in prison, Fidel encouraged the others to read books about famous Cubans of the Revolution such as Jose Marti who Fidel affectionately referred to as Papa Marti. Fidel spent much of his time reading books about business and management. In his head a plan had been forming. He was preparing to come back to the restaurant and the next time it would be to stay, or to die.
Upon his release from prison he again swallowed his pride and went to America to receive financial aide. He went to New York, the capital of the world, more immense than God Himself.
Fidel does not like America. He does not like New York. He likes the glitz and glamour of it at first but he hates the smells and the traffic and the noise. He told me personally about this one time. He told me that his skin crawled every time he had to go north. Havana is much better says Castro. It has personality and music and Cubans whereas New York has rats, trash and Cubans who left us which are like the other two but worse, says Fidel.
After visiting America Fidel made the most important journey of his life. He went to Mexico. He went for money, money. It was always about money. But in Mexico he found something better.
Raul, told me about the meeting of Che and Fidel. He said that Fidel was at a bookstall in a little market and had happened to pick up a copy of Das Kapital by Karl Marx. While he was breezing through it a wild looking young man suddenly popped around the corner and said, "That’s a good book. Not for bedtime reading though. It always keeps me awake."
"Yes," replied Castro, "it certainly does have some good things to say doesn’t it."
"Marx is better than God," said Che, "He doesn’t judge, he simply wants everyone to be good because their fellow man depends on it."
From there a discussion began, and by the end of it Fidel was a changed man. He had read about Communism a good deal and had been involved with student uprisings in his school days but now, with his mind so focused on the task of acquiring the glittering tower of his obsession, he was able to assimilate all ideas into furthering his goal. From this point on there would be a trinity. Two had become three, and at points Che Guevara would become another of Castro’s brothers.
They made plans for Che to travel to Cuba to help in the arrangement. Che liked the idea of having a way to produce a symbol of Cuban pride. Having this symbol exist with Communism as its underlying principle was even better.
At this point some might speculate that Raul would not enjoy having his half of anything reduced to one third for a man whom he had not yet met. On the contrary, it was fine with Raul to now be out of the role of being a wall through which Fidel would bounce off ideas. Raul was a smart man. It had nothing to do with his inability to understand his brother. He just did not share the same enthusiasm, as did his brother. He in fact was the more contemplative of the two, his mind was also abuzz with ideas, but he did not wish to carry out the things that came to mind. For him being told what to do was a much better alternative. He had time to think what he liked and never had to make his own mistakes.
Upon arriving with Che, Fidel began to explain what was going on to anyone in his group of twelve who would listen. These twelve, who put in their reservation as Los Doce the first time they dined at the Mariposa, enjoyed the ideas put forth by Che and Fidel. There was beginning to be cohesiveness to what it was they were doing. They were going to be equals in an endeavor to return the tower to some unknown former glory. They were all going to participate in the running and staffing of this restaurant and cater to all people not just the elite. The Mariposa would serve only traditional Cuban dishes and become the centerpiece of Cuba’s civic pride.
Within weeks the group had prepared for the task at hand. On one front they began a campaign to slander foreign owned businesses that did nothing for the Cuban economy. Then they began a campaign of protesting outside of the restaurant, encouraging would –be patrons to dine at family-owned-and-operated Cuban restaurants. Within weeks things were going bad for Batista. Profits trailed off and then losses began occurring. The seemingly stable man downstairs from Batista showed signs of wear as well. Uncle Sam had grown weary of Batista’s managerial skills and Lansky knew that the lack of money meant lagging support.
The death knell came for Lansky when Uncle Sam made him aware of new casino’s opening in the oasis in the desert, the oasis known as Las Vegas. Nevada, thanks to the Mafia’s influence in the corrupt United States, had been convinced to legalize gambling to increase travel and tourism. Bigger and better casino’s in a climate more in keeping with Lansky’s preferences made the offer too sweet to refuse.
He jumped ship and with him went Batista’s support from the north. Alone, without this support or any income, Batista’s days were numbered. He was no longer able to lure the "A" crowd to come to his restaurant. He sat alone at his tables night after night as the crowds dwindled. He may have been crying, although I find it hard to believe. Others think they saw him do so but I never did.
Finally, one day the roof came crashing in. Actually though, it was the floor. Like a smaller version of the goons who had roughed them up, Raul and Fidel with Che behind them charged through the heavy wooden doors and silently ascended to the restaurant where they came upon Batista just as I had described him. Alone.
He gave up without a fight and declared himself out of the restaurant business. All that was left was the transfer of authority from Batista to Uncle Sam back to Castro and everything was a done deal and business could get back to normal. What Batista and Uncle Sam could not understand was that Los Doce had no intention of running the business of another, particularly of an American whom they did not know.
The day following was Batista’s farewell party. The whole affair was thrown together hastily and was a New Year’s celebration since that was Batista’s favorite and most revered party. All of his former regulars who would come were welcome back for one final night of American-style partying and eating before the metamorphosis from American to Cuban began.
I was working that night. All of the employees were on hand awaiting our fate. It was assumed by us all that the Guido’s and other Americans of which there were a number would be let go, but it came as a surprise when they began handing us Cubans pink slips. We thought we would help make the transition from American to Cuban a smooth one and at the time we knew nothing of Los Doce’s plan to exist separate from Uncle Sam and deny him ownership of the rotating tower which gave the best view of the Cuban capital.
As we approached what we were learning was our end, Raul came up to me. He looked at me for a moment and left to talk to Che who was across the room. They spoke in a hushed tone about something very quickly as the line progressed. Che gestured at me and Raul nodded. I was fearful that they had a different plan in store for me for not helping them either time they had had trouble in the lobby. Che walked towards Castro while Raul approached me. Che began speaking, again in a hushed tone, with the man only a few feet in front of me. Raul put his hand on my shoulder as I walked up to receive what I deserved. I looked Fidel in the eye. He was not that much older than me, but he seemed so much more worldly at that moment, so much more a man than me.
"Dishwasher," as he addressed me, "Che tells me that it is custom to keep something old when a business changes hands so that there will be early prosperity. With that in mind… I would like to offer you your current position within my new restaurant. I do not want to keep any of the terrible reminders of our colonialist empirical past. I hate America. I do not want a single piece of the trash that is occupying this beautiful monolith to represent the culture we will destroy. If I keep you around you will not speak of the old owners or of the way this place has been. You will look forward to being an equal with us and a partner in making this bold experiment survive."
He went on to say, "I trust that you are willing to change your life for the better and I am pleased to have you in the employment of our new and improved restaurant Mariposa, Papa Marti’s flower of independence."
I was pleased. I still wonder why I was singled out to be the one thing that is older than the Mariposa. I am still here. I am still strong. Che is not here anymore and I miss him. He died trying to bring nationalistic restaurants to people of all nations. It is hard to still be here without him. Raul is still here but he is older than me and will probably be gone soon. He has been a good friend to me through the years.
I don’t know Castro. Nobody does. His brothers do…I suppose. I wonder if I can out live him. I wonder if anyone can. He is still unwilling to give into America. He would rather have a run down restaurant that few people choose to go to than have a bright and shiny American icon replace us. He will not give in. He will outlive America. I may outlive him. However, I will be too tired and someone will come in like before and ask me to leave because they will know better than I do what to do with this place.