I come from a medical family. I know how to wash my hands. All my role models washed their hands like they were scrubbing for surgery, no matter how minor the task. All but one that is, my uncle Al (Tio Al), who was a psychiatrist. For many years in his early adulthood his was a card-carrying communist. Then he got rich. He bought and ran a private psychiatric treatment hospital on 243 prime acres in Westchester County, Portchester, NY and built a proper house to go with it. My brother called him, “The Baron of Portchester.”
With a new Cadillac every year, building an even more proper house on the hospital grounds to live in, a burgeoning stock portfolio, fame in his profession, a foundation, grand vacations and the lot, one would think capitalism would have won him over. Change him it did, but not change him over. He became an early version of the man one reporter recently called everyone’s crazy grandfather. That would be Abuelo Bernie, Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Al was a social democrat and a left leaning one at that. He was Bernie before Bernie.
From the moment Fidel took over Cuba, Uncle Al had a soft spot for the guy and the country. Like Bernie he over-looked the bad, commenting that it was bad, but then accentuated the good. Castro, he said, was building a first rate medical care system on the island. His medical schools were turning out doctors in droves, and good ones. Every neighborhood in the city, and every small town in the country had it’s own doctor. In some parts of Havana a doctor was only doors away. Doctors were paid no better than whatever the system allowed for payment. Treatment was free. Of course, a bottle of rum, a live chicken, a cooked roast beef tended to get you to the head of the line and a longer visit but what the heck. Even President Trump brushed off the ability of whole basketball teams to get tested for the virus while millions of citizens screamed for theirs. He said, ” I guess that’s life, the way the system works.”
For Uncle Al the system worked just fine in Cuba. He took a medical tour to the island and came back raving. He raved about the hospitals, the competency of the medical personal, there being as many doctors as rats, and mostly that these omipresent doctors were given no special social status and you didn’t have to have the right insurance and the right bank account to see a specialist and be treated.
Al didn’t live as long as Fidel. He would have I’m certain mourned the Leader’s death. And we would would have fought like two wet cats in a sack after I took a religiously oriented trip to the island, a beautiful island too, I must say. That however ends my list of compliments–not really. The food is excellent, the people charming and friendly. So what if the toilets bought from China had no seats and the bathrooms had no toilet paper. We have seats but to be fair, we don’t seem to be able to get our hands on toilet paper any more.
Brother Raul was presidente now. Being on the island and being able to talk to people–carefully, off in corners or on the promenade where the Atlantic’s waves crashed out the sounds of conversation–I heard about another Cuba. It was a Cuba that invested in 5,000 buses built in China that came with no spare parts to a country so broke it couldn’t buy them. So few were functional that a law was passed that anyone driving a vehicle that had room for another passenger could not pass a bus stop with people without picking them up. “Filling up” took on a new meaning…
A country where the American automobile of the ’60’s was king. People had cars with a million or more miles on them. Necessity being the mother of invention, mechanics built tool dyes to make parts for these relics. Housing was difficult to find and in pretty bad shape when you did.
And then there was the medical system. The doctors were frustrated and demeaned. There were shortages at the hospital, some houses of worship depended on foreign worshippers to bring all manner of goods with them and ran their own pharmacies. My urologist gave me a thousand catheters to bring. People brought hundreds and hundreds of bottles filled with anti-biotics and patent medicines. It was all illegal, but El Presidente sort of blinked at it. Why? One reason was the goods were needed. Another was he allowed the people to do that while he discovered how to make money from the surplus of fine doctors Cuba was still turning out.
Here was the game. All of Latin America and Brazil were short of doctors. Cuba had plenty. Castro #2 started a lend-lease program except with doctors not ships. He would sign a contract with let’s say Peru for “x” number of doctors for “y” number of years and off they would go, families in tow. The doctor had no say since he/she was a state worker. Castro, a wizard at the art of capitalism, got top dollar for them. The money was paid to the state while the doctors were paid their Cuban state wages plus of course the occasional chicken or pot roast. One of the problems this creates is that now not every neighborhood has a doctor and often the ones that remain in Cuba are older, semi-or completely retired, and maybe not quite up on the new practices of their profession.
My uncle must be turning over in his grave–at least from my perspective.
Like you, Bill Gralnick is pushing his memory to remember what it was like to go shopping, visit friends, and not worry where the next roll of toilet paper is coming from. An ad on line for a one brand that is available promises “no splinters” and duel purpose use as toilet paper and paper towel. Ouch! So more than ever he urges, “Read! It’s good for both of us,” and reminds you of his book, “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales from Brooklyn.” Amazon.com or B&N.com, paperback or e-book or his website http://www.williamgralnickauthor.com. As one reader reviewed, “I couldn’t stop laughing.”
Right now a laugh seems in order until the toilet paper shows up.