Car Crazy in Havana

My first word was "car." My older brothers and parents marveled at my knowledge of every make and model on the road -- even before I could read. And my first memory is of my father arriving home at our Englewood, New Jersey house with a new car, a pale green 1953 Ford coupe.

We were a Ford family for a decade after that: a 1957 wood-paneled Cross Country station wagon, to be followed by two more of that model, all black -- 1960 and 1961. The '61 was to replace the '60 which was deemed a 'lemon'. My non-conspicuously consuming father bought the same model in the same color so the neighbors wouldn't notice he had bought a new car two years in a row. When my oldest brother Allen was ready to drive, my father surprised us with the purchase of a second car, a1963 Falcon convertible. It had a standard shift, '3 on the column' which anyone younger than me has never seen -- soon to be replaced by '4 on the floor' and again by the European 5 speed stick. For reasons unknown to me, in 1965 my dad switched to Pontiacs.

All of this came back in a rush upon arriving in Havana in 2015. Here, the Ford and Chevy and Desoto convertibles and sedans of my youth suddenly became my Proustian Madeleine's--I was again a car crazy kid in the upbeat all-American 1950's suburbs.

The Cuban blockade, however ineffectual politically, and hardship causing for the Cuban populace, has kept certain parts of mid-century life intact in a way which can be dizzying to a 64- year-old who grew up in that era.

Of course a lot of things have changed in Cuba. I'm here, for example. 20 years ago, when HIV+ men were being forced to live in restricted settlements and homosexuality was unrecognized, I would not have come. I make it a policy not to visit countries where I might be locked up for being who I am. Today there's Havana Gay Pride -- and there was an LGBT festival the week before I arrived, spearheaded by Presidente Raul Castro's daughter. Yesterday, I was driven to a gay beach in a 1954 Chevy sedan -- past meeting present.

I'm won't dare to venture an analysis of the complicated Cuban political situation. Instead, I'm going to join with my hosts, The Copperbridge Foundation, in their desire to heal the split in the Cuban people, the separation between those in exile and those at home. Children of Cuban parents born in The States or Puerto Rico are in our group. We are here for the Havana Bienal -- they are also here seeking their parents' histories, a missing part of their own story. One woman visited her mother's former house and found it strangely upsetting to see her family's furniture, art and silverware being lived with, intact, to this very day.

Forgiveness requires an acceptance that the past is over. Only then can we move forward living a present that can create a new future. I have hopes that the Cuban dilemma can slowly heal and that ending the blockade will allow Cuba to prosper in a new way.

And as for me, I'm still car crazy, although my allegiance has shifted to German manufactured convertibles in recent decades. Nevertheless, tonight, I'm taking a sunset ride in one of those 1950's convertibles. The car loving kid in me insists.