Monday, August 18, 2008

The Fight for Life: Voyeurism and Innocence

A couple of years went by and our lives in exile in Miami improved a lot!

We all had new and better jobs --and “The Betty Apartments” was left behind when we moved to nearby “The Newhouse Apartments”, on SW 21 Ave and 7th St., where $75 dollars a month got us a real cute furnished 2 bedroom apartment!

For mami, León and I it was like a mini-palace.

Mami had found her job at Wometco, at the Candy Counter at the Miami Theatre on Flagler St.; Leon was working in a small car-rental company in Miami Beach called “Holiday Rent-a-Car”, where he was allowed to take a car home every night after work (can you imagine what a great thing!).... And ‘coward me’ was trying to make a ‘career move’!

One of my first ‘saviours’ was Enrique Bell, the husband of my dear friend Cristina Poey (she was a beautiful and very sophisticated young woman who had been engaged to my cousin Johnny in Cuba --and we had remained very good friends) who practically ‘forced’ me to quit my job at Woolworth’s when he found me a better job as ‘Travel Counselor’ for the Miami branch of the American Automobile Association, better known as the Triple A. For months -as we all spent Sundays at the rundown public beach known today as fashionable South Beach- he insisted I was wasting my time working at Woolworth (by this time I had been there over 2 years and my pay had climbed to a meager $47 a week!) and Enrique- who is one of the kindest men I have ever known- insisted I needed to get a better job.

And while we all took the summer sun and ate our brown-bagged snacks, (one time a huge roach ‘imported’ to the beach from our SW apartments came out of of them!) he explained “the need to be brave and go ahead with our lives”. He had a great position as auditor for AAA, while Cristina -- still beautiful and very admired by my friend Marta, who was struck by her strong personality and the fact that her mother and stepfather were in prison in Cuba and she never complaint about it -- worked in a bank.

“She is like Platero”--Marta would comment privately to me, refering to Cristina’s rare steel determination and comparing it to Juan Ramon Jiménez’s famous book- - “And she buys her clothes at De Pinna”.

This was really the ‘crux’ of our awe and admiration for her!

While Marta still drove the Lincoln Road trams and wore this silly ‘chauffeur’ uniform, always fashionable Cristina had a very good job in a bank on the same street --and Marta saw her all the time, walking up and down the avenue, shopping at the trendy and expensive store. She impressed us with her one-shouldered designer bathings suits, while we wore hand-me-downs with loose elastics, or a cheap ‘model’ from God knows where!. We did not ‘envy’ her, but looked up at her as the example of what we wanted to become: succesful women in this new world that was in front of us, waiting to be discovered!

So one day the coaxing paid up, Enrique lined up the AAA job for me, I went to an interview, got hired on the spot and was so afraid of losing the ‘security’ of the Woolworth job that for the 2 weeks that took my training course at AAA, I did not quit, but claimed to be sick, so they would ‘hold’ my job until I got better.

The Travel Counselor job at AAA was a great change in my life and a wonderful place to work!...Not only it paid $70 a week, but had benefits like vacation and sick days and health insurance, plus the fact that for the first time since I had left Cuba I felt useful and intelligent, doing something I had always loved: working with maps and Geography. I was trained to map-out routes to travel by car within the USA and make the famous ‘tripticks’ while tracing the routes with a transparent marker on an upside-down map!

The AAA members would come up to the counter -where for a while I was the only woman among a bunch of men!- and I would recommend the fastest or the ‘scenic’ route, whatever they wanted… At the beginning many of the men did not want to be waited on by me. They thought I was too young to know what I was doing!...Plus -as one of them said to me- “How can a Cuban know all these things about this country?”

But I was so good at it -and loved it so much- that eventually many of them came to ask for me; and ‘wait’ for my services when their turn came up!

One time this tough and rude man asked for a route to his vacation destination and gave me the name of the wrong state. I looked and looked in our Atlas and could not find this lake resort in New Jersey!...And when the screaming and yelling guy asked for my boss to complain about ‘this ignorant Cuban bimbo’ sweet Mr. Hakanson realized the mistake --and flatly told him the place was not in New Jersey but in the Catskill Mountains in New York state -where I originally thought it was!- and the made the man apologize to me --which he reluctantly did.

I loved working there and my male co-workers were great to me!...They helped a lot, while some could not avoid being ‘machistas’ and teased me all the time. I realize now that they were being very sexist, but somehow I managed to ‘navigate’ the situation, using my female instincts -and charms- to gain their respect and professional trust. After a while there were more women working and although we were treated just like the guys -- they were paid more than us!
I remember one ocassion when I went to see Mr. Finley- the General Manager, who was always very friendly to me- and explained that one of the guys -who even had less seniority , made $20 a week more than me!

He looked at me with amusement:

“But Maria, you don’t understand,...he is a man!...He has a family to support..He has to make more money than you”

“But Mr. Finley, I am the man of my house!...I give my mother 90% of my salary and I am the main breadwinner of my home”- I replied furiously

He did not budge.

“If you need any more money I will it give to you from my own pocket, but I cannot give you a raise”- he said as he pulled out a roll of bills and handed me a $20 bill- “Here, take it...”

It was infuriating and humiliating and -of course- I did not take the money, but turned on my heels and walked out of his office with burning cheeks without saying a word. I guess those were the times and there was nothing to be done!

Mr. Finley was an widower Irish millionaire, with a single son of a marrying age, whom he constantly tried to ‘fix up’ with me, and the other 2 Cuban young girls who worked at AAA. In a weird way - which now I find embarassing, because it was highly irregular, but we were so eager to have a good time- Magda, Sonia and me were some sort of ‘privileged’ employees, because whenever he felt like it, Mr. Finley would ‘pull’ us out of our jobs -and took us to spend the day at the beach!

“Girls, let’s take some sun tomorrow so bring your bathing suits to work!”- he would say and the three of us dutily complied. The ‘outing’ was a day at the very elegant (and restricted to jews and blacks, I later found out!) “Kenilworth Hotel” in Miami Beach, where Mr. Finley had a huge cabana by the pool. It sounds absurd, but he never tried anything else, nor made any ‘passes’ at any of us, but got his pleasure from seeing us three young pretty girls in our one piece bathing suits, swimming in the ocean or the pool, and later ‘feeding’ us a marvelous lunch. This ‘invitation’ came up every couple of months or so, and to all of us was a mixture of fun and embarassment. We did not dare to say ‘no’ because we were afraid of losing our much needed jobs.

And at the same time if was really a fun ocassion, where we felt like carefree heiresses on vacation. I loved the pampering, the elegant table the solicitous waiters brought poolside, the food, the pleasure of it all! It was the first time in a long time that I had enjoyed ‘a day at the club’, like the ones I knew in Cuba. The first time in many years I was in a beautiful place, surrounded by an elegant ‘ambience’ --and being part of it!

This might sound frivolous and stupid, but at age 21 I needed to be frivolous and silly once in a while. I needed to get away from the grim life in the SW section of Miami, miles away from the constant Cuban tragic stories and the daily unending problems; and while a part of me enjoyed immensily these invitations, and the chance to see another view of the world, I paid a price for it, because another part of me felt ‘dirty’. Mr. Finley’s ‘voyeurism’ made me feel less of the ‘good girl’ I still was --but I loved arriving with my sunglasses at The Kenilworth, trying to imagine my life was that a young american girl, maybe Mr.Finley’s niece or daughter. A ‘normal’ young woman who was treated with deference and respect by the waiters and cabana boys and spent an innocent day at the beach!

Years later, when I had already moved back to New York City, I still kept in contact with all the AAA friends and Mr. Finley, and when I visited Miami he ocassionaly took me out to lunch. It was during one of those trips that he made a pass at me for the first time. He was driving me back to my Aunt Tafela after a very nice lunch when he had enjoyed my funny ‘stories’ about life in New York when he asked:

“Maria, if I give you $100...Can I put my hand on your breast?”

The question astonished me so I started to cry.

“Forget it!...Forget it!” -he said turning beet red.

And he drove in silence to my aunt’s house. It was a horrendous moment.
After that incident I never saw him again. A few months later, I heard he had remarried a horrible ‘goldigger’ who ended up putting him in a Nursing Home were he died a short time later.