Beaned!

Two brave men take an afternoon stroll down Calle Ocho -- with a coffee break at every single cafe cubano joint along the way

Not to worry, the counter woman told us. There wasn't much trouble until the old Cuban men started getting drunk and waxing nostalgic. Stan glanced around nervously. There were old Cuban men everywhere.

"Don't worry," I reassured him, "it's too early in the day for them to drink." Of course I had no idea what I was talking about, but I said it with authority and Stan bought it. (We decided against eating there, however.)

As we walked away, Stan expressed a desire to "move things" A the heavier the better. Dr. Diaz gently suggested that perhaps we should limit our quest to only one side of the street.

The San Jose Supermarket's cafes were huge, but also smooth and weak. Almost like real coffee. "Midnight Train to Georgia" blasted from a loud but tinny speaker, rivaled in volume only by occasional shouts of "Camarones!" from a guy parked around the corner, selling shrimp out of the back of his Bronco. A buck fifty a pound if you brought your own container.

La Reina Cafeteria and Supermarket made up for the weakness of San Jose's glorified American coffee by serving the cafecitos straight up A no sugar. Pure cafe cubano so potent Stan and I both choked when we tasted it. A shady-looking character eating a pastelito laughed derisively. Bad vibes were accruing. We wanted to leave but could not remember whether we had paid. (Dr. Diaz cocked an eyebrow and looked concerned but said nothing. Was memory loss a symptom of caffeine poisoning? The doctor wasn't talking. Given Stan's skittishness, I decided to hold my tongue until I could ask Dr. D. privately.) The counterman ignored our repeated attempts to attract his attention. Finally, we just walked away, hoping an irate proprietor with a loaded gun wasn't zeroing in on a spot between our shoulder blades.

"Camarones!" was all we heard.
Las Palmas's coffee went down uneventfully, and soon we were quaffing our tenth cup at Eddie's (motto: "Hoy no fio, ma*ana si" A I don't give credit today, try me tomorrow) and settling down to a lunch of swordfish sandwiches with mounds of plantains, and rice and moros. Incredibly, Stan's blood pressure had continued to drop to 110/70, and his pulse to 70. My vital signs hadn't changed. Our medical expert could offer no satisfactory explanation for the calming effect caffeine and sugar were having on Stan's cardiovascular system.

Nonetheless, Dr. Diaz was a star at Eddie's. Three patrons, all fiftyish men with bloodshot eyes and wild hair who looked as though they had seen the inside of a taberna or two, wanted their blood pressure read. They scored identical 100/70s. Neither Stan nor I said anything at the time, but we were beginning to have serious doubts about the reliability of Dr. Diaz's equipment. As if he were reading our minds, the doctor smiled, held up the inflatable armband, and said, "Eckerd's."

The grateful manager of Eddie's, unaccustomed to so much excitement inside his eatery, rewarded us with 1993 "Season's greetings from Eddie's!" calendars.

Clutching our valuable gifts, we headed back up Calle Ocho, pausing at the El Credito cigar factory to pick up a couple of the finest stogies rolled outside of Cuba. Business is booming at El Credito; their biggest problem is finding experienced tabaqueros. According to an El Credito employee we met outside the San Jose Supermarket, there's a three-month backlog for wholesalers around the U.S. Fortunately for us, the store maintains a small supply for over-the-counter sales to their loyal local patrons. What better way to truly experience Little Havana than to stroll down Calle Ocho with a hand-rolled cigar in one hand and a Cuban coffee in the other?

And what better time to do it than during a rally commemorating the 32nd anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion? We wandered blindly into just such a celebration. A crowd of several hundred, predominantly male and middle-age, milled about in front of a portable stage where invasion veterans in three-piece suits and camouflage fatigue hats made impassioned speeches and waved Cuban and American flags. We moved with the flow, such as it was, passing a restaurant with a poster of a bikini-clad Kathy Willets checking her Christmas list next to another placard featuring a silhouette of Castro as viewed through the crosshairs of a sniper rifle.

Flag vendors, churro salesmen, and camouflaged pamphleteers lined the periphery of the crowd. Stan tried to buy a small Cuban banner, but the cost A four bucks A seemed excessive. The disdainful salesman pointed to a building where he told Stan he could find flags for one dollar in a room on the third floor.

The building was single-story.
The flag vendor had not realized he was dealing with a man with the caffeine of ten cafe cubanos circulating through his veins. Feigning stupidity, Stan returned and said (in Spanish) something to the effect of, "I couldn't find the third floor. Could you show me?" Words were exchanged. The flag man's face turned scarlet and he stomped off into the crowd, ranting as he went.

It seemed like a good time to put some distance between ourselves and the crowd. We walked for several minutes without stopping, passing four or five cafeterias in the process. When we finally looked back, the flag vendor was standing at the edge of the crowd, glaring at us and gesturing angrily. Luckily, no one paid him any mind.

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