It gives you an uneasy feeling. The “Veterans Home” old-men’s shelter at Agustina and San Miguel, one block from 10th of October Avenue, is a two-story building, neglected and dirty, painted a color that many years ago was sky blue.
On these cold, wet, sunless mornings you can see several groups of old men, huddled together, bored, dressed in dirty overcoats that have been worn-out since the last century, their eyes bleary, longing for a hot coffee with milk to get the body moving in the face of this cold wave of January 2010.
The poet Raúl Rivero, now in exile in Madrid, says in one of his poems “when it’s cold, hunger carries a jackknife.” Ask Urban Fernández — an old man of 75 years, the last seven of which he has lived in the institution, beset by aches and cruel arthritis — what do you miss most in daily life? He looks at you calmly with his clear eyes, the only part of his body still alive. “I feel nostalgia for a clean bed, some children to care for me in the few years I have left, and a decent hot meal,” says Fernández, while he asks for cigarettes and money from the people who pass by on the streets surrounding the asylum.
People often look the other way when they walk by this run-down geriatric center. No wonder. The spectacle is depressing. Old cripples, hungry, some with advanced senile dementia, playing dominoes or turned into beggars.
“Once we were young and strong,” says Jesús Garzón. “I played baseball, I was a shortstop.” With his hands trembling like vanilla custard, he tries to demonstrate how he caught the ball. Now, debilitated by advanced Alzheimer’s, he is almost always in bed. His family hasn’t visited him in years.
“I am a burden, a nuisance. All I ask for this 2010 is to die as soon as possible.” And suddenly I wondered if someday I could take him to Latinoamericano Field, to the old Cerro Stadium, to watch a baseball game.
Another group of elderly men, covered with faded and darned quilts, play a game of dominoes, and comment on how much they would like to eat a joint of fried chicken. From a nearby cafeteria you can smell the aroma of frying chicken. “But it costs 25 pesos, and I get only 197 pesos (less than eight dollars) from my retirement, explains Reinaldo Peña, age 69.
According to Peña, they spent Christmas and New Years without tasting pork. “These days they gave us a thin soup, white rice, and fish full of bones. The attendants send us to bed early, so they can listen to music and drink rum with their buddies. Boy, you better pray fervently to God that when you reach old age you have a family to look after you,” says the old man, as his dull, nearsighted eyes well up.
Pedro Carballo, 84, has lived in the shelter longer than any of the other old men. “I’m going on 12 years. I’ve seen many die, some good friends of mine. Being in a nursing home is like being a prisoner. Because no one sees me. The attendants who look after us are poor devils who flock here because they don’t have a better option for earning a living. The government doesn’t pay them a living wage, so all they’re interested in is stealing as much food, oil, and detergent as they can,” Carballo said in a calm voice.
And he tells me that when they get donations from abroad, the workers divide them among themselves. “To us mangy old shits who refuse to die, we always get the worst,” said the angry old man.
A group of five or six octogenarians approach and give further details. “Those of us considered part-time, that is, we only come here to eat and sleep, we hit the streets at dawn, trying to earn a few dollars, to make life less hard. I sell newspapers, I have several customers who pay me 30 pesos a week to deliver the newspaper to their homes. With that money, I can dine on something better,” explains Norberto Arias, 78, a thin black man wearing an old wool coat and shoes with the sole detached, fixed with wire.
For Norberto, to “dine on something better” is eating rice, beans, root vegetables, and boiled fish, in a gloomy, dirty state joint that sells food at low prices, called El Encanto. Most of the old guys in the facility state spent Christmas watching TV or telling stories, boasting about when they were young and had an army of beautiful women, dressed elegantly, and drank beer.
In a corner, Norberto Arias commented: “This is the only thing that distracts us, spinning yarns and living in the past and the nostalgia. Our reality is hard. We hope that God will take us soon. Many Christmases have passed since we ate candies or had a nice hot meal. Our families reject us. We don’t blame anyone, it’s the hand we were dealt,” Arias said while lowering his head and weeping silently.
This is what remains of one of the Veterans Homes that existed in Havana before 1959, where former Mambises, as they called those who fought in the wars of independence from Spain, could live out their old age with dignity. You can see from the photo, taken February 24, 1952, when a group of female students from a public school (among whom is my mother) went with their teacher to take tobacco and spend some time with these history-laden old men. All impeccably dressed, with their linen guayaberas.
Now it is a gloomy and sad shelter, on Calle San Miguel in the 10th of October municipality, the most populous of Havana. If you’re not shocked to read how these old men live, please go to the cardiologist.
Translated by: Tomás A.