COLUMN THIRTY-SEVEN, SEPTEMBER 1, 1998
(Copyright © 1998 Al Aronowitz)
THE SAGA OF MANUEL MENÉNDEZ
PART 1: AN S.O.S. FOR MANUEL
I have to send out an S.O.S. for Manuel Menéndez, who has now crashed-landed in Hackney, London, after having been kicked out of Canada. He needs help. Exiled from his native Cuba, where he has a 22-year-old daughter and a mother pushing 90, neither of whom he has seen in I don't know how many years, Manuel keeps getting shuffled from country to country. I've lost count of how many countries have kicked him out. America is one of them. Not only did America refuse to let him live within its borders, but our government instead granted asylum to the brutal Castro functionary who tortured Manuel in a Cuban prison. You can read about that if you click on COLUMN SIX.
Originally a Havana journalist, Manuel got into trouble after revealing to fellow journalists that he was fed up with being told what to write. Until 1978, he was, he says, what Solzhenietisyn called himself at one time: "one more among the rabbits." Manuel says he had "impeccable 'revolutionary' credentials," adding that he was active in Cuba's "Literacy Campaign of 1960 and lots of follies like that." He also served three and a half years of compulsory military service and cut cane during four harvests in Camaguey province, the Cuban Siberia.
"In 1975," he wrote, "I joined Radio Havana, the regime's official shortwave station." He describes himself as having been an "efficient apparatchnik," although he "always avoided entering the Party."
"In 1978 I was ordered by the deputy-director, Jose Prado, to write an editorial about the 'violations of human rights in the United States.' I was in a small office adjoining the main newsroom, with three of my colleagues. By then I was fed up with the Castro regime, and was leading a sort of schizophrenic life, pretending what I didn't feel. I could not contain myself any longer, and exploded. I made a remark to the effect that 'these fucks have the gall of talking about human rights and they are violating each and every one of them.' One or more of my colleagues denounced me.
"I was summoned to a meeting with the director, Alfredo Vinas, comrade Prado, and another man I'd never seen before, probably a State Security officer. Questioned by them, I ratified my assertion and also elaborated on it: I committed political hara-kiri. I was expelled from the station, from the Radio and TV Institute, and from the Cuban Union of Journalists. My labor dossier---every citizen has one that follows him from job to job---was blackballed so I couldn't get work again in Cuba.
"Some days later the personnel boss called me on the phone, and told me 'come fetch your work papers.' On my way there I was detained by two policemen, put into a patrol car, and taken to the Havana Provincial Psychiatric Hospital, known as Mazorra. I was thrown, naked and barefoot, into the Carbo Servia forensic ward, which is a filthy, medieval-like asylum for the criminally insane. It's feared by even the most hardened criminals because of the abuses of electroshock treatment. Dissidents are locked there to intimidate them or, if they don't recant, destroy their minds.
"The facility belonged not to the Health Ministry, but to the Ministry of the Interior. The chief nurse at the time of my incarceration, a sadist named Heriberto Mederos, had unlimited power. The electric shocks were given on a sodden mattress on the floor, amid urine and feces. Four trustees, mental patients themselves, pinned you to the mattress. Mederos threw a bucket of water on you, so you 'caught the current real good.' He applied the electrodes to your temples two or three times. (Mederos, who has denied repeated allegations of torture, says he was following doctors' orders when he was administering electric shocks.)
"I was given a dozen electroshocks in a row, maybe more, I lost track of the number. Later I learned that if electroshock therapy has any legitimate use at all it must be given under anesthesia and muscle relaxants---I was administered neither---and with a maximum dose of three shocks in a week. The only medication I received was a powerful depressant, Levomepromazine, at 600 mgs daily---six times the therapeutic dose. It's related to Thorazine, and used to calm down raving maniacs. I was a zombie, my hands and limbs trembled like those of a Parkinson's patient; I couldn't walk straight, and once when my parents and sister visited me I didn't recognize them. I spent five months at Carbo Servia, all that time drugged. The ward was overcrowded, and I slept for months on the bare floor. I was beaten once by three trustee inmates. For years afterward I suffered from partial amnesia, flashbacks and depression. Ironies of life: Mederos, the torturer, went to the United States as a visitor in 1984, requested political asylum, and got it. However, I, the victim, have been twice refused an American visa.
"I spent the next five years unemployed, living hand to mouth with my parents, three people depending on my father's pension of 90 pesos a month. In 1980, during the Mariel exodus, I presented myself at a police station and requested to be sent to Miami. No luck, they wanted common criminals and homosexuals. I regretted bitterly being straight and law-abiding. Instead of escape I received a beating at the hands of the CDRs, the block committees that watch and snitch on neighbors, and conduct the pogroms known in Cuba as actos de repudio.
"In early 1981, a letter I wrote to the Venezuelan ambassador was intercepted and opened in the post office. I didn't express in it any opinion whatsoever about the Castro regime; I merely explained what happened to me in Carbo Servia, my forced unemployment, and requested a visa to travel to Venezuela. Shortly after, I was detained again. At 5 a.m., three plainclothes policemen knocked at my door, pushed my mother aside, and erupted into my room flaunting their Makarov pistols, as if I were Al Capone. My mother has a heart condition, and my father---now deceased---was at the time confined to a wheelchair, with a broken hip. They searched my house for six hours, and confiscated my writings, letters, and a dozen books they deemed subversive, among them a Bible.
"I was taken in an unmarked car to Villa Marista, the State Security headquarters. I was strip-searched, given a pair of yellow overalls, and put into a cell nine feet long by seven feet wide, with no window. The door was made of thick iron plates, and resembled that of a bank vault. There were four iron bunks, tied by chains to the walls. Beside the door, there was the 'bath,' a hole on the floor that served as a toilet, and a water tap above to wash yourself. An incandescent bulb, protected by wire-mesh, burned day and night. After a week of this regime your biological clock goes haywire. You can only guess the time of the day by the meals, which came in aluminum trays, passed through a slot in the door. We numbered eight men in the cell, and the air was so foul that we took turns breathing through the cracks of the door. I suffer from claustrophobia, and every minute in there felt like every bit of a year.
"I was interrogated by Lieutenant Carlos Peleta, an arrogant, green-eyed mulatto, and it was a case of hate at first sight. He was bent on pinning on me a charge of 'enemy propaganda,' punishable by from two to five years in prison. It was groundless, since I never printed or distributed propaganda of any kind, and the only evidence against me, the letter, was obtained illegally. I refused to answer any questions or to sign any papers, which made him angry. For about 10 to 12 days I was not allowed to sleep. The guards came for me in the early hours and took me---through a maze of corridors and stairs---to an interrogation room. Sometimes I was questioned, other times I was left standing in the corridor with my hands behind my back for several hours. I was forbidden to sleep during the daytime, and the bunks had to be tied to the walls.
"More than the lack of sleep, what bothered me the most was to be deprived of tobacco. Only snitches are given cigarettes. Sometimes the guard opened the Judas window and blew smoke inside, just to annoy us. I was threatened but not physically punished. It seems that psychological torture is more effective when dealing with political prisoners. The beatings and corporal abuses would come later at the prison.
"I was resolved not to spend several years in prison, where you are mixed with highly dangerous criminals serving long sentences, and you face repeated rape, or the necessity of killing in self-defense. So I went on a hunger strike that lasted more than 30 days, I reckon about 36. My only demand was a change of charge. After a week fasting in the cell they took me to a small infirmary with six green leather couches, and tied me to one of them by my arms and legs. Every second day I was force-fed by a catheter through my nose. I developed scabs all along my back. While in there I saw a man die of a heart attack after only two weeks fasting. He was in his early 50s, and was named Ifain Verdecia.
"Hatred kept me alive. Lieutenant Peleta was replaced by Captain Pedro Amador, who had a crippled hand. He offered me a deal: to change the charge to Desacato (slandering the State), which carried a smaller sentence. I knew it was the maximum concession I could extract from them, so I ended the strike. They never admit a mistake or let an innocent man go free.
"I was transferred to the Combinado del Este penitentiary, south of Havana. On arrival on Block 2 one of the escorts told the receiving guards; 'That skinny guy over there is a chantajista.' Going into a hunger strike is regarded as blackmailing the authorities. 'Don't worry, we'll fix him,' they replied. I was weighing at the time around 90 pounds and could hardly stand. A corporal nicknamed 'Guanajay' and another guard took me into a bare room and beat me until unconscious. They kicked me in the kidneys and I urinated blood for a week. I received no medical attention of any kind: I was a 'malingerer.'
"I was locked in a galera, or ward, intended originally for 33 inmates. We were more than a hundred. For about three months I slept on the floor. The police only enter the galeras twice a day for the head count, at dawn and dusk. In practice the prison is run by the nanigos or Abakua, animist secret societies brought to the island by the African slaves. During the years they evolved into tightknit criminal gangs bound by blood oaths. The penitentiary officials name these nanigos galera bosses, and instigate them to abuse and harass the political prisoners. They carry clubs and shanks, and smuggle drugs into the prison.
"We were supposed to get two hours of exercise in the courtyard twice a week; however, sometimes we passed three weeks without a ray of sunshine. This lack of sun produces a deficiency of vitamin B-12, and every scratch on your skin develops an infection. We were fed rotten food, and epidemics of diarrhea ensued. There was a single toilet for the whole galera, a hole in the floor. There was running water for only one hour a day. In Block 2 alone, there were two isolation galeras for inmates with tuberculosis, and one for those with venereal and other contagious diseases, the three of them full.
"The overcrowding made the prisoners irritable, and fistfights took place several times a day. I saw an inmate cut the face of another with a razor blade, right to the white bone. I also saw one stabbing. Gang rapes were rampant. Suicides were also commonplace. An inmate surnamed Valladares hanged himself with a makeshift rope; a couple of homosexuals who were going to be separated carried out a suicide pact by slashing their wrists during the night. Lice, caranganos, roaches, bedbugs and other vermin are a normal part of prison life.
"We had no books or magazines, nothing to read but Granma, the official newspaper; it was compulsory to read it aloud. We rarely received mail: It was easier for the guards to throw the letters into the garbage bin than to sort them. The boredom and the monotony encroached on your sanity. The inmates lived only for the visits. Three close relatives are allowed to see you for one hour every 45 days. When I was imprisoned, in Cuba there was no bail, or parole, or discounted time for good conduct. If you got 20 or 30 years it was exactly that, to the last day.
"I was one of the lucky ones. In the end---between Carbo Servia and the others---I served a total of 18 months. No big deal, even if I was innocent of any crime.
"After my release, I prepared to escape on a raft and chose the precise place and date: Arroyo Bermejo, late August 1983. Incredibly, in May that year I was granted a Spanish tourist visa, valid for three months and rubber-stamped, 'not allowed to work in Spain.' "
Manuel thus began a serial exile in Switzerland, which deported him after he failed to give most of his wages to pay off Swiss officials. Next, Manuel went to Italy, where he worked as a janitor in a brothel and delivered sacks of coal to sixth-floor walk-up apartments. Then he crossed back into Spain, where he was now illegal. He survived by picking cardboard from dumpsters at night and selling the cardboard to scrap dealers.
"I ate in soup kitchens," he wrote. "Lived among Gypsies in a room with broken window panes and no heating. I got pneumonia, and afterward, a hernia while carrying bags of debris for an Andalusian mason on welfare and his son, who repaired apartments for cash in hand."
Next, Manuel tried Australia and New Zealand and saved enough to travel to the United States. He migrated from Hawaii to San Francisco to the Northeast, where he worked in a factory in New Jersey, a bonsai store in Manhattan, and finally by chance landed a job in the catalog department of The New York Public Library, a job with "all kinds of benefits" including a scholarship to Columbia University.
"And then my father's illness," he wrote, "and my mother's accident---a broken hip at 78, seven months in bed and never mentioned it in her letters. I returned to Havana in 1989, and I just can't bring myself to go through my father's death and the four years I wasted in Cuba, that living hell. Please omit them from this account, the same way I have from my mind. They left behind a bitter taste of ashes."
When Manuel was finally able to leave Cuba once again in 1993, he had a choice of going to Mexico or Canada. He chose Canada, but was turned down for political asylum. He was still in Toronto when he wrote this account for the Miami Herald.
"As for Toronto," he wrote, "well, it's just a matter of scrounging around eking a living. Survival. The only remarkable thing is my novel, Iroko, written in three languages, and in the case of Spanish, parts of it in Cuban slang and prison jargon, unintelligible even for other Hispanics. At the present rhythm, its completion will take four or five years at best, and I very much doubt that it will ever be published. I'm going through it because I need to get it out of my system."
Otherwise, he said he was writing pieces that were "only piano exercises for a single hand. This is much more ambitious, and many times I doubt if I'm up to it."
The Miami Herald printed Manuel's account of his travels along with one of his stories, Cuba Libre, a fantasy about that Island in post-Castro 2005, both published in the November 26, 1995, edition of Tropic the Herald's magazine supplement. The Tropic story about Manuel was entitled Night Writer:
"The computer disk arrived without explanation or accompaniment addressed simply, 'Editor, the Miami Herald. Taped to the disk was a cut piece of Manila paper with the handwritten name, Manuel Menéndez, and an address in Toronto, Canada. Nothing more. . . A letter went unanswered for several weeks. Finally there was a voice on the phone: 'I have only just received your letter. I am sorry, sir, that I have not responded more promptly.' The voice was accented, and the English far more halting than anyone reading the eloquent writing on the computer disk would have presumed. 'You see,' Menéndez said, continuing to apologize. 'I live in somewhat desperate circumstances.'
"It turned out that he rented by the week in a small room in a rooming house where he shares a bathroom with five other people. He said it was possible to send him a fax on the machine at a health clinic down the street. They knew him there. He had been unloading trucks at night but the commute was more than an hour each way and the pay was below minimum wage, so now he goes every day to the state employment center, where he stands in line for the chance to punch into a computer and discover that there are no jobs for him anywhere in Canada that day.
"To save money, he doesn't eat, except for the occasional piece of toast and peanut butter. Once a month, when he thinks he needs a dose of protein, he will eat two hard-boiled eggs. This prolonged fast isn't difficult for him. . .
"He writes every day. He wears his pajamas and sits at the computer inches from the narrow bed where he sleeps in a fetal position. The only decoration in the room is a picture of the 7- year-old daughter he was forced to leave behind when he fled Cuba. She is 21 now, and her letters are the high point of his exile's life. As he sits before the computer, the green glow from the screen illuminates the dramatic scars on his face, imprinted by professionals with brass knuckles who attacked him after his essay appeared in a Spanish-language newspaper. He doesn't know if the thugs were hired by right-wing exiles or Castro's agents. He does know that he can't sell his writing in Canada any more."
For me, Manuel's story serves to illustrate that, no matter how benign, altruistic or idealistic a country's Constitution or its leader may pretend to be, the country inevitably has to have a government. No government can govern without administrators and, by its very nature, a government's administration ends up as a bureaucratic dictatorship.
I've already told you in COLUMN SIX how I came to meet Manual when I was giving a reading in Toronto's Cineforum, operated by Reg Hartt until city officials shut him down because of zoning laws. At my reading, Manuel got drunk and Reg had to kick him out. In one of his letters to me, written September 25, 1995, Manuel explains:
I'm sorry that I gave you the impression I'm an alcoholic; on the contrary, I can't drink. What you saw was the effect of three or four Canadian beers, which are like piss, and have only 5% alcohol. I cannot drink anything at all with all these pills I take for the endogenous killer depression I have been suffering since 1978. And which has ruined my life, literally. Now, here in Canada, I have improved thanks to a new drug. . I feel human for the first time in ages. And that Saturday I thought what the heck, it has been a fine day, let's celebrate a bit And I guess I made an ass of myself, which doesn't require much effort on my part. . .
Soon after my visit to Toronto, Manuel began corresponding with me and contributed pieces for COLUMN SEVEN and COLUMN TWELVE . He began phoning me every Saturday and soon announced that he had adopted me as his surrogate father. He also wrote me regularly. He began his letters to me sometimes with Cher Maitre or sometimes with Caro Maestro or sometimes with Deah Mistah Al or sometimes with Dear Mr. Aronowitz and the letters he sent proved to be as interesting as the stories he wrote. I have enough of them to fill a small volume, but of course no publisher is interested in putting out small volumes either under my byline or under Manuel's. I offer selected excerpts from his letters:
ABOUT TOBACCO: "I'll never quit. Even if the doctors tell me I have lung cancer I will go on. One of the fast little pleasures left to me is, when I awake in the morning feeling like hell, to drink a big mug of strong Colombian coffee, and smoke 'Players' Navy Cut in a fresh, clean water pipe, which I leave prepared the night before. I'm aware that I'm going to make my exitus from something to the lungs: they are my locus minoris resistentice, and while in Spain I had two massive pulmonary embolisms. I survived by sheer chance, because I fainted in Alcala Street and the police took me to a hospital. . . I lived on Madrid's version of Skid Row, 'La Montera' in the heart of the red light district. And later among the Gypsies. . ." (September 25, 1995).
ABOUT HIS DIET: "What I consume is eggs, and once in a while a tin of tuna or sardines from the food bank. . ." (October 10, 1995).
ABOUT SEX: "I think I'm impotent already. I haven't gotten laid since let's see, yes, 1986. That's 10 years ago. I suppose I could have gone with a hooker, but I tried once and lost my money: they leave me cold. . ." (October 10, 1995).
ABOUT HIS ILLNESS: "If you don't hear from me in the immediate future is because I have kicked the bucket. From the lungs, naturally. Have my third lung thrombosis. Hope I'm wrong but I know the symptoms well. . ." (November 9, 1995).
AFTER DISCHARGING HIMSELF FROM ST. MICHAEL'S HOSPITAL IN TORONTO: ". . . Went back to my old metier: blast furnace operator, the job I did for two years on Australia. Only that was 10 years ago, I was 36 and 37, and now I'm 47, and totally out of shape. I'm an old fart complete with baseball cap and bifocal glasses. I myself wonder how I could stand those first three days---luckily I started on a Wednesday. They say that when you learn to swim or to ride a bicycle, you never forget. But I indeed had forgotten: in the beginning was the Heat. That red-white hot blast at 1,550 degrees Fahrenheit, that dehydrates you to the extent that you don't sweat or piss anymore. All the water of your body evaporates, leaving only salt on your skin. Compounded dehydration, because the last three days I had the trots, shitting the bed and all, to the extent that this guy next door who works in an asylum for senile and Alzheimer patients brought me some disposable senior's diapers. Crapping myself under the overalls, nothing I could do 'cause once you start casting you can't stop for a single second. But somehow I survived, and expect to hold on to this job for the 90 days probation period. At least I know where the rent, the medication---$213 a month---and other expenses come from, and can spare some money to send my mother and daughter. Funny. Down Under, I used to complain and hated that job each and every minute of it. But this is worse. It's a private company, non-unionized, and they squeeze you like a lemon. And worse paid too: ten years ago I got $8 Australian an hour; now, after all that time, I get 9 Canadian loonies. And life was then dirt cheap. I paid $140 a month in rent, and you get all the good beer and wine and Queensland grown sinsemilla you wanted for chickenfeed. Had a huge place with a huge backyard for my cats. Now I pay $320 a month in rent, and don't even remember the taste of the aforementioned Nepenthes. It would have been much better if I stayed there. . . I wake up at 4 a.m., leave this joint at 5:30, and come back at 6:30, sometimes later. So tired, exhausted, that I just wash my body. . . and fall into that bed like a corpse, to sleep badly for six hours and return in my dreams to that accursed island. Every night, I dream about Fidel Castro himself. . ." (December 27, 1995).
ABOUT BOB DYLAN: "You see, once upon a time I used to be a Dylanologist myself. To the extent that I was writing my Master's thesis about him. As a matter of fact Old Bobby Zimmerman ruined my life. . . I was depressed, utterly. And I sought refuge against reality in drugs and his music, I don't know which was more addictive. You see, I listened to him for the first time when I was 36. I remember I was working at this foundry in Sydney and bought a Sanyo ghetto blaster, and some tapes to play, among them a double casette entitled Masterpieces, which brought the picture of a guy with a funny cowboy hat with a feather. I was working the graveyard shift, and I remember it was about 5 p.m. and getting dark; I played the first tape and the first song that attacked my senses was "A Hard Rain's A-goin' To Fall." I called sick, and spent all that blank night listening to the music once and again and saturating my depressed brain with that mellow, golden Queensland vegetal poison, 15% THC, as strong as hash, and booting it with Australian Cabernet-Chiraz wine, about two gallons per day plus a bottle of cognac for a chaser. And I was hooked. Totally. I ordered from the CBS all his tapes to date, and requested from Knopf Lyrics 1962-1885. Started translating it, and wrote to him asking for permission to translate it into Spanish. Never answered. I quit the foundry and locked myself on my room, and went into a solitary binge, trying to flee a reality I couldn't stand any more. . ." (December 27, 1995)
ABOUT THE DAUGHTER HE HASN'T SEEN SINCE SHE WAS SEVEN: "Perhaps the sorest point of my present is that only daughter of mine, all 22 years and 5' 11" of her. . . Four and a half months without writing, only a brief note asking me for money. . ." (January 31, 1996).
ABOUT HIS JOB: "This job is a-killin' me. And those four hours of commuting. To go to the factory I have to take the subway until the end of the line at the other side of town; then the RT train, and then two buses, or if I miss the last one, walk all the way to the foundry. One mold was not enough, they think I'm Superman or something: now I'm loading, fluzing, alloying and degassing the big furnace, and running the two big molds at the same time, without literally a minute to smoke a cigarette, eight hours in that infernal heat. I'm drinking six cans of soft drinks, two liters of water and several cups of coffee every shift. Even so, you reach a point when you don't sweat or piss any more. If a drop of sweat falls into your eyes, it stings like salt water. And I wonder: if it is like this in winter, what about summer. . ." (February 21, 1996).
MORE ABOUT HIS JOB: "I was fired today from that grimy, grinding factory that I hated to my bonemarrows, but that was my lifeline. I destroyed, in fractions of seconds, the cone of an industrial drill, worth $2,000. I took the wrong decision in split seconds. The day before I had received another poison letter from my former wife, a mediocre Mulatto Guantanamo whore, and it had poisoned my mind to the extent that I couldn't concentrate on my job. So what am I going to do now? . . ." (December 6, 1996).
On January 22 of this year, I received this Email, captioned please help me:
Hello my name is Jessica Paulmann and I have to do a profile on a columnist. The one I chose was Manuel Menendez. I would be very grateful if you could send me any bio on him. Thanks for whatever you can do.
When I re-emailed her asking for which publication she was writing a profile and could I use it in my column, I think I scared her. It took two Emails before I got a reply:
Thank you for your quick response. I am afraid that I may have created some confusion between us. I am a high school senior and am doing a bio for my publications class. You see every week we have to pick someone who wrote an article and do a bio on them. So if you don't mind helping me I'd really appreciate it. If you have any questions please write to me.
Thanks for whatever,
It was right around then that I got a phone call from Manuel. He was in a detention cell. After he broke the drill at the foundry and got fired, somebody ratted him out to Canadian immigration authorities, who picked him up and held him for deportation. They were going to put Manuel on a plane for Spain.
Then, in a hand-written letter dated January 15, 1997, he wrote:
My heart is a time bomb. I talked to my doctor on the phone and she gave me the diagnosis: isguemia and coronary sclerosis. I'm 48 and an old fart already, with bifocal glasses, baseball cap and a nitroglycerin spray in my shirt pocket. This week I'll be tossed to the external darkness. When I was achieving some literary recognition, when I was settled, squalidly but with some security.
I'm on the road again, and I don't know if I'm up to it. I have the sense of not having lived. I had no youth, I never lived the roaring Sixties. I discovered drugs when I was 36. I haven't had sex for 11 years now, and doubt that I ever will again. At least you lived the '60s to the hilt, and knew Bob Dylan and the Beatles in the flesh. And people like Ginsberg and Corso and Jack Kerouac. Memories to treasure. But I look back and that lost time seems ugly, barren, a wasteland, ashes. Like Jose Feliciano said: "Life leaves on me a bitter taste of not having lived."
I'm turning a new page. I'll try to reach Ireland, and failing that, the UK. I don't want to live in Spain ever again. Madrid is beautiful, yes, and so is Barcelona. But there are no libraries, people don't read, just watch stupid TV. A mediocre country, a cultural backwater. Spanish is not my first language anymore. It feels like a straitjacket. I regret I couldn't send you the diskettes with my last stories and The Crucifixion of Renaldo Arenas. This deportation stuff is going to set back my work in progress for at least two or three years, until I get employment and another computer.
I look ahead, Mr. Al, and it's a hate. I feel like the Wandering Jew. No place to rest. And all those memories that haunt me What's upmost in my mind is my old mother, 86. My sister told me on the phone that she's developing arteriosclerosis fast. And I intend to pay some woman to spend time with her, so she won't be alone. I'll have to keep feeding her white lies, she's constantly thinking about me, alone in that huge, old dilapidated house. Of her four sons, she loves me the most---so did my old father. Perhaps because one loves the most the son that makes us suffer the most. The prodigal son.
I can't afford to get depressed, not now, I'm trying to fight this black shroud that falls on me and crushes me, this cancer of the soul. And I'm taking double the dose of my precious, life-saving Zoloft. I'm going to need badly, like a diabetic his insulin; more, because when I lack it, I fall into a coma, and can't speak straight or even think straight. Thanks to it I started to write. Shame I didn't have it 20 years ago. My life would have been totally different.
I'm smoking like a chimney, heart or not. Who cares? Almost two packages a day. But what I miss is a drink, an icy cold can of beer or a shot of whiskey, and a good fat joint afterwards, and to sit in front of my computer to write, and play blackjack or poker. I wasn't happy, not by a long shot. But when I got moderately drunk and thoroughly stoned I forgot the world and my poverty, my squalid life, and that factory that was grinding me. That room felt like home. I was content on my loneliness.
Now, when they tossed me in a plane Spain bound.
Sunday, January 16
Another boring Sunday here. I have to stay in this dining room from breakfast until 2 p.m. No decent books to read: there are four bookcases, but they hold only Danielle Steele romances and cowboy crap. Read already the three or four decent books there were. Reread them, rather. Noble House by James Clavell, Funeral in Berlin, by Ken Deighton, and The Citadel by A.J. Cronin. And another one, that's all there was. I called my neighbor, and no mail for me. I'm waiting for the answer of this Jewish lady, the literary agent in New York whom I sent the MS of Sink Casino Rama. Almost finished. Only it was a feat of imagination: I never went to the casino. And I'm afraid I'll never go. I take my software with me, until I can buy a Macintosh and play and keep in shape. Maybe there are casinos in England. I'm not sure. If I had had a bankroll, some money stashed away, perhaps I could have made a living here, gambling. And I wouldn't be here in this detention center for alien undesirables. I don't know if I'll ever have a tombstone, but had I one, the epitaph would be: "If. . ." In the mornings I don't feel so depressed, but come the dusk, I plunge into that black hole, and I have a lot of trouble sleeping. I have withdrawal symptoms from my tranquilizers. I'm an addict now. I want to get out of here, get into a plane, and buy myself a bottle of brandy and Spanish cigarettes. As I told you, sorry if I repeat myself, my aim is to go to Ireland. The unemployment rate is higher than in the UK, but there are no blacks or dirty Indians, and it is a Catholic country. The last one in the whole planet: no divorce, no abortion, no contraceptive pills, not even condoms: they are smuggled from Northern Ireland and sold in the black market, as if it was dope. I get along well with the Micks, I lived with one, by the name of Lorraine Boyne, in Sydney. I should have stayed there and married her. Ah, well, I had several chances of being happy, but I took the wrong path at every crossroads. No point in grieving and whining. I have many defects, but self-pity is no longer one of them. I suffer for my mother and my daughter, but not for myself. I'll survive: you die when you can, not when you want to.
I don't know, Mr. Al. I'm quoting from Macbeth, from memory:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps with its petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time
And all of our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then, is heard no more.
It is a tale told by an idiot,
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. . .
That's the most accurate description of life I've seen. A tale told by an idiot, without rhyme or reason. Here today, gone tomorrow. And this the only life there is. No soul, only the mind, that is, the brain, a machine made of meat. No afterlife, no Armageddon, no resurrection of the flesh. Nothing but silence and darkness. Only the memories we leave behind survive in the mind of those who loved you, as brief as a human lifespan, and afterwards oblivion. Unless you are a Van Gogh, or a Hemingway, or a John Lennon. An artist whose work survives him, for men to enjoy in future generation. I had the feeling I was one of them, only I lacked the patience and single-mindedness of a true artist. And now I regret the wasted time, time being the scarcest commodity on this world. Not even the President of the United States can live forever. Neither can Bill Gates or Donald Trump with all their moolah. Yes, they can prolong their lives, even buy a kidney, a heart or a liver from a strong, young healthy donor. But they can't live forever. Even if they are frozen into a stainless steel crionic capsule.
I'm not saying goodbye, Mr. Al. I'll keep in touch, and I still have those stories. I have no face to lose, and besides I'm an emotional Latino, who don't hide their feelings. But you are a sort of surrogate father. I loved my biological father beyond measure, but he wasn't my intellectual equal. Intelligent, yes, but only reached grade school in his native Spain. You know, Mr. Al, only two persons in this planet remembered my birthday: my mother and you. My daughter couldn't give a fuck about me, and she won't change: intelligent, smart with a gift for languages, but frivolous, superficial, manipulative, and without pity, not even for her grandmother who raised her and dotes on her, and is dying of cancer, and my daughter doesn't give a fuck. So you and my old mother, going downhill into arteriosclerosis, near death, 86 years old, are the only ones that care for me.
Take care, Mr. Al. I'll keep in touch. Maybe this change is to the good, who knows? I hope so. I need peace of mind and stability to finish my work.
I believe Manuel told me hat he was going to have to sell his computer real cheap to have enough money to buy a plane ticket to Dublin or London as soon as he reched the airport in Madrid. Next came a post card from the Spanish capital.
Dear Mr. Al: I write you from Barajas Airport, Madrid, while waiting for the plane to London. It scares the shit out of me, this trip to the unknown. I haven't slept or bathed in 3 days, exhausted from jet lag, and broke to boot. I'll write more later on. Take care.
He had had 300 U.S. dollars when he reached Madrid, enough money to buy a plane ticket to London. The last I heard from Manuel was when he called collect from England. He gave me his address: 164 Evering Road, Hackney, E58AH, England. I wrote to him there but, as of this writing, have as yet received no response. I tell you all this in the hope that any readers of this column in England can give Manuel a helping hand. He has so many needs and, aside from his writing talent, so few resources. As I've already said, this is an S.O.S. in his behalf. ##
PART 2: NO LONGER ILLEGAL
I was going to print the above Part 1 in Column 21, dated May 1, 1997, but then Allen Ginsberg died and I had to dedicate Column 21 instead to his death and to beginning my serialization of THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ, which is still being serialized, although not necessarily in successive or consecutive columns. I have lots and lots of BEAT PAPERS and the serialization will continue for some time. Meanwhile, Manuel Menéndez's existence has undergone several transformations.
"In the first place," as he explains in an email to me, "As for my status here in England, I have a Spanish passport that I never cared about. It was only when I arrived here [in England] that I learned I'm a European Union citizen and as such have the right to work, and am entitled to Social Security benefits."
In other words, in England, he is no longer an illegal alien. And, because of his multi-lingual skills, he quickly was able to land a job for a high-tech company compiling a database of commercials run on Italian TV and also on the television channels in certain Latin American countries. For Manuel, this kind of work proved a snap. He easily outperformed the 100 or so others who'd also been hired to do the job.
Accustomed to penury, the previously poverty-stricken Manuel soon found enough pence in his pocket to move out of the dump he'd rented in that seedy shithole of a rooming house in Hackney, to which he'd been steered by other alien newcomers to England, legal or otherwise, black or white. Clapton turned out to be a fleabag in which he had to share the loo with the mob of other roomers on his floor. Things became a little less terrible for Manuel when he got the bread together to move to another crib, a less seedy shithole located on Colenso Road in Clapton.
For Manuel, his job was a snap! Endowed with a brilliance and unafraid to proclaim it, he struggles, like me, to make himself known. He and I share brotherhood in our burning search for readership and recognition. He'd work at his IBM in the office all night and then he'd go home to work all day on his brand, new state-of-the-art Mac which he was able to purchase after he bullshitted some bank into giving him a credit card. Before long, he was hooked into the Internet and he didn't have to write me long letters any more.
Here are some excepts from his emails:
I spent a whole week sick like a dog, still am, but had to go back to work because they don't pay me sick leave. That's the last trend in the European Union: You work on a free-lance basis, with a temporary contract for three months. No benefits of any kind. And of course, a lot cheaper. Which means there's no more Welfare States.
I apologize for not having called you, but this night shift is akillin' me. I just come to this hovel and drop in that bed in a coma. I'm sick and tired of it, worse, tired and sick, going through a depressive phase on my long psychosis.
Great news, I almost got laid! When I get the UN money in June I'm going to spend a whole night with her. The most beautiful hooker human eyes had seen. Unfortunately, or luckily, I hadn't gone to the bank and only had 30 quid on my wallet. If not I'd go bankrupt, credit card fraud, the works. Brunette, about 40, big tits and shaved pussy, the way I like it.
The taste of a cunt, caro maestro, I didn't even remember the flavor after this long abstinence. Ambrosia, Nectar, Nepente, Myrrh and Frankincense. Living like a fucking monk, I am.
By now, It's April 5, 1998.
My last one to you was overoptimistic: I was under the influence. I scored some Texas Medicine, and after three weeks on the wagon started drinking like a fish again. So it seemed rosy for a while, but now I have a killer depression, 7 points in the Richter scale.
You see, this is only the second time I've paid a woman in my life. The first one was a Gypsy, in Madrid, in 1983 or 84, when I still had puissance. It didn't work, couldn't get a hard-on and lost my thousand pesetas. Now so many years later, this one, so beautiful and clean, and desirable, I couldn't fuck her either. Guess at the time a sweet cunnilingus seemed marvelous, but I got no release, and besides I feel guilty for all the dough I wasted, which could have gone to my family in Cuba.
I tried one of this supposedly miraculous injections, then I tried another: I could have been mainloading Vichy water into my dick. You know, the only thing that can make [it] alive again is love, that strange commodity, and lots of patience on the part of the woman, another scarce commodity nowadays, when they want to grow food in the moon and eat it raw, like old Bobby Dylan said.
Have you heard about him? Stingy bastard. Hope I could do something for your Ginsby memorial, although he too treated me like shit. I wrote to both of them, wouldn't give the time of the hour, even if I was rendering them the greatest homage you can render to an artist: translate his opus to another language.
Monday, April 6, 1988.
. . .My flesh is lately a cesspool of desire, unfulfilled and burning like a wild fire in the recesses of my mind. In your case it's understandable, but I'm 49, three years younger than the Big Creep, who wears jockey shorts to keep his ankles warm, and gets fellated everyday by a saucy White House intern or an ambitious widow. I was reading in the subway that he achieved a petty victory on Paula Jones suit. I really don't know what you can see in Democrats like Clinton, Al Gore, the Most Reverend Jesse Jackson, Farrakhan's buddy and that ilk.
True, the GOP is also rotten, is the party of the big money, of the industrial-military complex, but at least their candidates are too old to get blowjobs in the Oval Office under the very portrait of Abraham Lincoln. And this Clinton is plain scum, even more ineffectual than Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer. George Bush and Bob Dole were decorated heroes in the most devastating war humanity has seen. They have a degree of integrity, while William Flatus Clinton has the morals of an alley cat: smoking marihuana "but I didn't inhale." A draft dodger, just lucky to have presided during a boom in American economy, which he can't control in any way. If there's some merit in this long bull market it's the due of Allan Greenspan, not his.
Ah, well if and when I come into this money from the UN I'm going to have a honeymoon with this same lovely hooker. I'll hire for a whole night, and I'm going to fireball, and if even after that I don't get a hard-on, I'll quit for life, I'll resign myself to be a eunuch, a castratum, and that's it, I'll plain stop trying. I'll try instead to relive the past, the many wonderful throws of my youth, to plasm them into words and sentences and Epiphanies.
Take care, my good friend. I'm going to sleep like the dead: I did two shifts on Sunday to pay a day I lost, sick like a dog, but I have no contract, no sick leave, no pension plan, I don't want one anyway. As Antonio Machado wrote: "Because we leave blow by blow/because we aren't even allowed to say we are who we are/our songs cannot be without sin a trinket:/we are touching the deepest bottom. . ."
Tuesday, April 14,1998.
Dear Mr. Al:
First of all sorry for not having written in all these days: Easter and Bank Holiday coincided and we had a bridge here: Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. I worked the four days, doing all the overtime I could before the lean cows come again.
I'm not going into an argument with you about Bill Clinton: that reptile is not worth while my time. I don't envy him anything, including what you call his "virility." I do envy Picasso and Chaplin, who fathered sons and daughters in their seventies. The guy is a creep, and I have despised him since he was first campaign in 1992, when he admitted that he smoked marijuana "but didn't inhale." And because he is a coward and a draft dodger. A guy that deliberately commits perjury, denying under oath that he was fellated on the Oval Office by this Lewinsky broad, this shiksa. He's lying through his teeth, and it's obvious to anyone.
As for myself, I got laid at last Saturday, this same hooker, Michelle. I hired her for one hour and cost me 80 quid which I could ill afford, what with my family in Cuba that needed that dough. So I feel guilty, but at the same time I got rid of a big worry: That I had become totally impotent. There's still hope, but the only thing that can truly cure me is true love. Am afraid it's too late in my life. . .
Friday, April 17, 1998.
Dear Mr. Al:
You've got a point there, about my dislike for Clinton. The problem with me is that politically I'm to the right of Genghis Khan, hence I'm a recalcitrant Republican. But it's just about the Republican's policy towards Cuba that drives me to their camp: that bastard Clinton sold us Cubans down the river. He de facto abolished the 1967 Cuban Immigration Act, that granted automatic asylum to any of my countrymen who set a foot on American soil. He has been returning the Cuban balseros, those who escape from Inferno in flimsy rafts, while well aware about the punishment they'll face back in Cuba, three years imprisoned in inhuman conditions.
But what you say about the zealots I agree with you a 100%. I hate zealots of every denomination, from Islamic fundamentalists to hard-shell Baptists: Give a Bible to an ignorant and you'll collect a fanatic. I have seen it happen. Fuck all the churches. I never believed in God, that abstract concept, and my atheism became scientific while studying Marxism. Marx's economic theories were bullshit, pipe dreams, but he was right about Dialectic Materialism, that is, scientific atheism. There's no vengeful God, be it Moslem, Hebrew, Catholic or Protestant; there's nothing, and the Bible is a lot of crap. But through the centuries and these two millenniums cowards got their way, offering. . . life after death. And drew millions of fellow cowards to their ranks. . .
So Manuel and I are both fellow freethinkers, fellow non-believers, fellow pot-lovers, fellow frustrated sex addicts, fellow unfulfilled writers, fellow unrecognized artists and, in a way, fellow failed philosophers. We share so much in thought. So how come he's to the right of Genghis Khan? How come he sides with the far right Christian fundamentalist loonies, who have taken over the Republican Party and are trying to drive Bill Clinton from office? They are organized and regimented in a way that only single-mindlessness can achieve and they have deep pockets. They share a hatred of Bill Clinton which is beyond reason. They are only a small minority, but driving Clinton from office is merely the opening thrust of their crusade to impose their will upon the rest of us by establishing a neo-fascist regime in America. If the morality police can do it to the President, they can do it to anybody.
When I first told Amiri Baraka about Manuel, Amiri dismissed him as just another "anti-Castro Cuban fascist." Amiri, one of America's greatest living poets, once described himself to me as "black and red." I, of course, am neither. Amiri is vehemently pro-Castro. Manuel is equally anti-Castro. They both have good reasons. As for me, I hailed Castro's defeat of Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista years ago, but I've now evolved to the opinion that all governments eat shit.
However, I am one of those mushy headed liberal cornballs who believes that artistry is universal and that love and respect of artistry, like intermarriage, can cross all boundaries, even ideological ones. I joke that Manuel is a fascist pig, but I find him also to be a friend and a true artist who is certainly as tortured, talented, dedicated and in search of self-realization as I am. Yes, he's a spellbinding storyteller and I'm proud to have him as a contributor to my BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST cyberzine.
I will continue to serialize Manuel's soap opera, as told in his own emailed words, although not necessarily successive columns. I will also continue to cyberpublish his stories and I'll start in May of 1997, when he mailed me a copy of the Miami Herald's Tropic supplement of April 20, featuring Manuel's story, DANCING ON MARX'S GRAVE. Manuel wrote it not too long after his arrival in London and sent it to the Herald with a letter that said, "Any payment would be a godsend. My exile here in London is precarious to say the least." I reprint it here with Manuel's permission. ##
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