COLUMN FORTY, DECEMBER 1, 1998
(Copyright © 1998 Al Aronowitz)
The first taboo to fall was tourism; the second, prostitution; and the third, gambling. I don't read or watch TV anymore: Blackjack is a despotic master. It's not a bad way to make a living, I'm not complaining. I learned by chance that gambling is permitted again in Castro's kingdom through a Spanish traveling magazine, at a dentist's office in Toronto. It hailed the return of the vice as a "a major step, the coming of age of the Cuban tourist industry."
"Why not?" I thought. Maybe down there I could escape the losing streak that had followed me all the way from Atlantic City to Toronto, my bankroll dangerously dwindling. "Who knows, perhaps it's the Promised Land. . ." So, prodigal son, returned to the island I left in a raft 14 years before. All my elaborate disguise and my two foreign legitimate passports resulted superfluous: the only thing the customs officers at Varadero airport wanted to know was how many imperialist dollars I had to declare.
A garrulous taxi driver who professed to be a moonshining gynecologist took me to the hotel. His first question was "Do you want to buy pesos?" The second: "Do you want to meet a nice clean girl?" He should know. When I arrived in the Spanish owned "Meliá Varadero" I had a sense of dejá vu: for a moment I thought I was in Cancún. The hotel was built like an Aztec---or was it Maya?---pyramid. Chichén Itzá. And its casino, "El Conquistador," was garishly decorated with massive ferocious gods and Mexican motifs. Whoever designed the whole shebang hadn't the faintest idea about Cuba's history. Or perhaps some architect put the plans away in a drawer and resurrected them. Cheaper.
I wandered around, casing the place for the telltale signs of good action. The inevitable clanging racket of the slot machines, two hundred of them, each manned by a fellow traveler with his or her Styrofoam cup full of silver dollars. Seems it was de rigueur to lose your T-shirt to feed the Cuban children. Three "Hold'em" poker tables, full, but the bets chickenfeed. Roulette. Craps. Big Six. Baccarat. Keno yonder. A good crowd, mostly Americans, Canadians and Scandinavians. A few tight-fisted Spaniards. Finally I came to my domain. A slaughter house. Plenty suckers alright being wiped out under rip-off rules: Minimum 10 and maximum 20, the equivalent of the one-two in boxing; Dealer-Must-Hit-Soft-17s; eight decks; Doubling limited to 11 and 10. Conspicuous Cuban shills, palas, at third base in every table. Disgusting.
But there I was, stranded for a week, so I tried to make the best of it. I waited patiently for a seat next to third base. Sat up when a fleeced Canadian matron left muttering under her breath. I put my Walkman on, the 30th Anniversary Concert at full blast. Super-ego taking over, playing by instinct the Basic Strategy, keeping the running count, the true count, and the Ace side count, without enjoyment, my only expectancy to break even and while the time away. Accepting free daiquirís and mojitos from the mini-skirted, opulent Mulatta hostesses, thus violating my very first rule: no booze while working.
Almost 1:00 AM already. Losing 200 and, deep inside, bored as hell. And, with a couple cocktails too many. I called quits and glanced around for some carnal entertainment. And it was coming to my table, sumptuous and voluptuous, with a flowing mane of ash blond hair, a classical nose, perfect lips, high cheekbones; Candice Bergen reborn in her early twenties. She had bursting faded tight blue jeans, with her nude breasts pointing defiantly under her white "Venceremos" Brigade T-shirt. But her blue eyes under the surprisingly dark eyelashes were cold, hard and as cynical as those of a 40-year-old hooker.
And trailing her, the possessor, rejoicing like a pig in clover in the limelight of her beauty and the envious stares of every man: el compañero Juan Almeida, not a day older, just a few
in an ocean
white strands on his kinky hair and mustache. The only Negro in the Party's Politburo, and one among a dozen in the whole Central Committee. But whose avowed main ability was composing "boleros," Cuban romantic songs.
Brought with them a whole retinue. She, a Nordic isle in an ocean of negritude. Three Cuban heavies closing the rear: sunglassed, shaved oiled skulls glistening; attired in basketball T-shirts and sneakers, blue jeans, shoulder-holstered guns bulging ominously under the windbreaks. Didn't look like bodyguards but like Mafiosi. They took places around the table, but facing outside, watching the crowd.
With the group came the chief pit boss, a fawning poofter, an Iberian Liberace of 50 or so with a whining Andalusian accent, who started dismissing the players.
"Sooorry, yens, ladies, but dis table haas a miiiinimum of a hundreed dollars. . ." he cooed with his thickly accented English.
The players started to leave, grunting, but I wasn't going to budge that easy. Suddenly I was sober as a parson.
One in clerical garb sat next to me. A black Evangelist from "Pastors for Peace." I touched wood and put my wad on the table. "Suits me fine."
The dealer, Guyanese or Trinidarian, said:
"Sorry, Sah, but this table is reserved---"
"I ain't talking to you, boy. . ." I cut him off and addressed the great man himself:
"Compañero comandante, do you mind if I stay
at this table?"
"Not at all, it's not mine..." he answered genially and returned to the blonde, whom he was regaling with an anecdote about his exploits as a guerrilla leader in the Sierra Maestra. Ancient history. She looked more bored than impressed, listening halfheartedly to the translation from Cuban into Brooklyn English by an aging Black Panther, complete with beret and beard, who seemed to know the story by heart. Bloodshot, red eyes vague and distant.
The dealer looked at the chagrinned poof, who shrugged his scrawny shoulders, nodded, and left taking the shoe with him. Once alone, the dealer opened two new "Bicycle" decks and started shuffling them.
"No way, boy, you ain't goin' to pull that stunt on me. . ." I warned him pleasantly in my best redneck accent. "I want two different color decks. . . blue, red, and youse bettah deal clean or I'll tell the comandante heah..."
I knew perfectly well that if he wanted to deal bottoms or seconds it wouldn't make any difference. But I wanted to get under his skin: a personally committed dealer is a weak one. He looked pissed off. Good. I had found a chink in his armor and from then on twisted the dagger in it without mercy; twang sottovoce,/I>.
In the meantime the great man pulled his own wad and got a tower of black chips, which he shared with the blonde. Her indifferent blue eyes had suddenly lit up with greed like a slot machine at the sight all those green portraits of Ben Franklin, carelessly tied with a red rubber band. For an instant she looked ugly. She grabbed from the proffered tray the bottle of "Carlos III," and poured herself a full brandy glass. On the house. Servile smile in the face of the pit boss.
Later I would learn that the great man wasn't being generous at all. It seems he was instrumental on convincing the Castro brothers about reinstating gambling, so berated at the start of the Revolution as an evil of Yankee imperialism. A gambler as well as a ladies' man, Almeida traveled every two weeks to Mexico City on the Sunday "Cubana" flight, the seats around him occupied by his fighting cocks on their wicker cages. He also bred pit bulls which he used on dogfights against other aficionados from the Cuban ruling elite, all betting heavily in US dollars. When touring the casinos at Varadero beach he was only exacting his dues, accepting discreet bribes from the grateful foreign management. The dealers were instructed to let him win, busting on purpose. At the same time he impressed his potential mistresses, a whole harem of them, with his generosity and gambling skills.
Which were nil. He was reckless, and lost consistently; while the blond "brigadista" was stingy, anal-retentive with her bets, dosing her chips one at the time. Perhaps she reckoned she would keep her booty. Fat chance.
I was going nowhere. I didn't seem to get a pat
"Let's see if this fucker is hot or it's
"Whoooaa---he is not counting."
As if tailor made I got a natural: the ace of spades and the ten of diamonds; black and red, beautiful, larger than life in the green baize. His hand retracted as if bitten. And then reluctantly pushed towards me 12 black chips and four green.
"¡Insh Alláh. . .! ¡Alláh Al Akhbár. . .! ¡I've got Baraka!"
That mystical gift bestowed by the Prophet himself unto the few faithful, the unremisible streak of good luck beyond all odds and against all possibilities. Baraka!
From then on it was like shooting a penguin in a barrel. The pat unbeatable hands came to me, flowed of themselves. The black eyes of the Indian dealer hating me: not watching his guard anymore, just intent on busting me.
That's the mathematical, clear, Pascalian pure beauty of Blackjack, spiced by that involving against the dealer that you don't find in any other game. Especially when he's trying to cheat.
There was this sense of déja vu, the endless hands of theoretical Blackjack stacked somewhere in my memory during all those months of the most abject squalor. An almost exact science, esoteric Chess-like games, developing on the screen of the computer. Reasoning reaching art. Etched "with fire and flaming rods, using ideas as my maps." Kasparov Versus Karpov; Uston Vs. Thorpe.
Blackjack: 30% Mathematics, 20% photographic memory, 50% luck. But that's valid only under positive omens, like a happy overview of the table, sacrificial entrails gushing like snails. Vibrations. Eagles darting in the right direction. Orula beads and Cordón de Ochún.
After a few more hands what had started as a slow flow of chips from the comandante and his doxy, to the swarthy dealer, and then to me, became a torrent, benevulum et aureus. My Anatolian ramparts: green, and then black walls. His chips first and then hers were mercilessly sucked into their diastole and my systole. Fools high in dopamine and Colombian marching powder. Plus the free gratis mellow, smooth alien alcohol, honey trap.
I caught the blonde's look, predatorial, over the shoulder of the comandante, appraising how many thousands of dollars I had before me---16 grand or so, enough to buy a new car. While Hers and His own chips had diminished to nothing.
The corps evangelist looked worried too, a nervous index grappling with the Roman collar. Aware that he was there at all, even if American, by the casino's highhanded courtesy,
Two go go Mulatto girls, stark naked, revolved nonchalantly under the disco lights
Blacks cavalierly discouraged by the Spaniards. And which let him bet 10 to 100, white and red cheap chips. Humble Grants and Jeffersons painfully wrenched from the worn wallet.
Two go go Mulatto girls, stark naked, revolved nonchalantly under the disco lights. I clicked my fingers, and asked the hostess for a can of Hatuey beer. Tipped her a green chip and seemed genuinely surprised and grateful. The forgotten childhood stream refreshed my sore constricted throat. Like Proust downing tea with magdalenas. I lit another "Smith & Wesson" menthol too many. But a night is a night, and I was enjoying this one. I felt invincible, at the top.
Not eking a precarious living in the Atlantic City-Windsor-Casino Rama route. But 20 grand or so in the black, the salación lifted. Tonight I had Baraka. I had haché. I gambled dimes in the island where I grew and toiled for a dollar a day, and it was only poetic justice: I had paid my whole pound, blood included. I was entitled. It was my due., Moira.
There was this sudden pause Opera style. The great man relished his brandy. But something was wrong. His chips and hers were gone. He stared at his gold Patek Philippe: half past one and he hadn't won; on the contrary, the unthinkable was taking place, he was losing.
He looked at my ebony towers, and seemed amazed.
"How come you're winning so much and we are losing?" he asked with and edge of suspicion.
"You see, comandante, the problem is this Indian dealer here. He lets me win because I'm white, and cheats you all because, begging pardon, you are black. He's fleecing that black Reverend too, see. And he just said that the señorita here is white trash---a blanca asquerosa."
"It's that so?" He glared at the dealer. Then produced another wad and replenished his chips. He wouldn't give her any this time. Thick lips sternly determined, regrouping his troops at the Sierra Maestra. Perhaps secretly comparing himself with General Maceo. He wasn't going to take any shit from these gallegos.
From then on, I bet just occasionally, and always to the kill. No use wasting charmed life. Beyond caring, a distant CPU processing the information. Dealer 10; myself pair of 8s, the cruelest stiff. Split. An Ace in the first hand, 19, Stand. In the second, Jack, Ace, pat 19 too. He drew a 2 and a 5. The ignoble House lost another 1,500.
And only then the dealer glanced at his depleted rows, and it downed on him like a sledgehammer that he was more than ten grand in the red. Devout Hindu, he fondled his Brahmin necklace and his goatee. A quandary: if he busted on purpose from now on, both the great man and me were going to be on the take, and maybe the two other would go along for the ride. Sort of a side contest took place between the anxious dealer and the fuming comandante. The latter was too rash and eager, doubling bad bets. He was like an overweight rookie gladiator against a skilled, seasoned retiarium. With voyeuristic pleasure I watched the one-sided contest fought in the small green anfiteatrum, to its logical climax.
So did the pit boss, who came on his rounds. After surveying the butchery, he bit his bony hand and began to make frantic signals to the dealer, who went on frenzied and oblivious. One of the heavies pushed the pit boss in the pigeon chest, and he retreated and watched from afar, from the very mouth of Huitzilopochtli, underneath a fake Rivera fresco: herculeous Indian in iron mask, hands outstretched.
The last of the comandante's black tin soldiers were slaughtered, and the great man hit the green baize with his fist.
"¡Gallegos de mierda! Tomorrow I'll
close this joint---!"
He abruptly got hold of the blonde by the wrist and departed, followed by his black pageant. The pit boss trailed after him, offering a marker and a gold Parker that was thrown to the floor contemptuously.
I tossed the dealer a green chip.
"Here, boy, buy yourself some ganja. . ."
It was the proverbial last straw: his mouth snarled, white teeth menacing, his big black bovine eyes froze in sheer hatred, and he came after me.
The heavy in the rear punched him once, the hardened fist exploding in his nose, and he dropped cold. A couple of armed Cuban security guards came at the sound of the ruckus. But they knew which way their bread was buttered, and made a cautious about-face.
The poof turned on me furious.
"Get out! And don't come back! We don't want your custom!"
"Do you know who Antonio Maceo was?"
I showed him Maceo's portrait in a green five-pesos Cuban note.
"This negro here."
"I don't know and I don't caaare. . .!"
"You better do, bud, because this negro kicked you Spaniards out of Cuba, and soon we are going to do the same."
I left him to his tantrum, and went straight to the bulletproof cage and the Cubana cashier, a cordial Oriente Mulatta in her mid-thirties, really enjoyed seeing a Cuban beating the stingy Spaniards where it hurt. She passed through the slot the wages of her lifetime. I pushed my last five black chips towards her.
"¡No, no, señor. . .!"
I didn't wait for the rest, and left. I had Baraka! ##
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