Watching Havana in Habana: Part One by Nathaniel Kostar

I’m sitting on the curb at the corner of Animas and San Nicolás in Centro Habana. To the West, an orange-sorbet sun falls, fuzzes and impregnates the distant cityscape horizon that rises beyond two seemingly endless rows of apartments—their fading walls the colors of bruised banana, papaya, mango. Colonial and Baroque facades like pastel abstracts, some minimalist in style—subtle shades bleeding, others overlaid with Basquiat’s palimpsests—declarations of love and an endless litany of scratched names. Everywhere a distinct wildflower, a colorful eye-kiss in the unframed city.

To my left the block bursts with people. More than thirty kids between the ages of five and eighteen play marbles. The group divided, they face each other from opposing sidewalks and transform the beer-bellied street into a six lane bowling hall. Occasionally the game is interrupted by some slick-shined 1950 ruby-red Classic Chevy Bel Air smoothing past, or the just-as-frequent rattle of a jalopy patched brown and black and coughing up clouds of smoke, but the machines are an afterthought. The street, at least in this particularly block of the city, belongs to the feet.

I have never played marbles, so I watch with the intention of understanding. From what I can see the game goes like this:

On one side of the street the kids set up their marbles. Any pattern is permissible but a diamond shape using five marbles placed about a foot apart seems to be the most effective, or at least the most popular. On the other side the thrower rolls one at a time in an attempt to strike the arranged marbles. When a marble is bumped, which is not often, the thrower receives the marbles the catcher has caught thus far, and they begin again—

Phew! Are you still with me?

I can already see fluffy first world children in Lazy Boys screaming the horror! the horror! as their hands hesitate between Nintendo Wii joy sticks, 32 oz Slurpees and bulging waist-belts. But make no mistake; these marble-tossing extraordinaires are not bored or wanting. They shout and laugh and jump. They lean over at the hips, eyes tunneled in dark focus like major leaguers. They roll marbles like some kids throw cricket, or the way I imagine my grandfather tossed ski balls at the Jersey Shore, or how I once shot a basketball under summer lights.

But the street is not theirs alone. In the middle of the block, a smaller group plays a similar game with bouncy balls, and just passed them eight to ten men in their 20’s huddle around a doorway talking and watching five gamblers crouched over a sidewalk card game. On the distant corner, I can make out the orange-shadowed silhouette of Habana’s ubiquitous domino game. As usual, it is arranged around a makeshift table on the sidewalk and is enveloped by auras of silent-seriousness intermittently interrupted by boisterous laughs and arguments.


The men I see are young, strong and sharply built with shiny heads and clean haircuts. And also rough-handed, cube-shaped, old and worn. All of them wear T-shirts with stories indubitably epic, tedious and magical—but like the tales of their own lives, stories hardly known and quick-forgotten.

At any given moment there are as many as a hundred people on the block—young kids, teenagers, mothers, fathers, grandparents, talking, watching, playing, passing through. And as far as I can see, with only the vague hint of fading with the sun, the street goes on like this, one big block party, one big orgy of human interaction.

Well-dressed ladies in heels and abuelas cradling groceries pass nonchalantly, marbles whizzing unaffected between their legs. Two kids play wiffle-ball with a broken broom-stick and what looks like one of those teacher’s apples you stick pins in, and further up the side-street another group of baseballers uses a bottle cap for a ball.

An old woman lowers a basket attached to a rope from a third-floor wrought-iron balcony to a wiry man on the street bearing a tape-wrapped package. The balcony has partially succumbed to rust-rot and is being refashioned in sections with concrete and brick. It is dressed wildly in white sheets, socks, and colorful T-shirts that tickle-dance the Caribbean sunset-breeze. The balcony is old and new. Continually dying and being reborn. And as she hand-over-hand-pulls at the rope, I am the only one that fears it might collapse. Perhaps because I am the only one who does not know, it never has.

Two barefoot, shirtless, sun-skinned teenagers lean against a wall and crack jokes while their friend flirts with his girl under a small, blue rubber yawning hanging out over a doorway. A woman stops in the middle of the street and shouts up to a top room a word I cannot decipher but what sounds like “Javier! Javier!” A passing chubby man in his fifties requests marbles from one of the kids and tries a few rolls unsuccessfully.

The soft and cool sea-breeze wisps over the Malecón—Habana’s sea wall—from just a few blocks away. Around the corner a Che Guevara mural is painted high on a crumbling wall.

The kids sport Mohawks and tight fades, fancy patterns and asymmetrical-styled haircuts. They wear jeans rolled to the shins or knees, white wind-pants, tank tops and T-shirts, sneakers and sandals. They are skinny, spry, athletic. They are young, confident, strong.

But I have had enough.

Enough of the kids, the abuelas, the piss-poor old cars—the commotion, the endless faces, the chaos. The people everywhere, everywhere you look, everywhere you turn, everyone outside moving under the dying sun.

I finish drawing the last few letters of a “NO LOITERING” sign, stand, and walk over to Che’s handsome fading face. With a twisted hemp-rope, I hang it on a fortuitous crack in the wall—Habana is full of cracks and incongruities, problems and conversations you don’t want to fix or have—and I begin my walk home in a dream, one wave at a time.

In the quiet, peaceful suburbs of America where I live, I will reclaim the freedom to sit inside my own oversized house fenced off from my neighbors, swim in my own pool, drive my own car that is parked in my own garage, and keep my own gun under my own pillow in case anyone tries to take what is rightfully mine. And in my neighborhood, that is a strong possibility.

On most days, unless I make a conscious effort to do otherwise, I will be free to have virtually no contact with anyone. Except of course, to eye-sleep the television and navigate the internet with an entire country, or even a world.


About Nathaniel Kostar