By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Michael E. Miller
Andree Kahl, the American friend who was sleeping in Zirwas's apartment when he was murdered, said his years in Cuba had softened him. "He felt like he had grown a lot," Kahl e-mailed New Times last year. "At one point in his life he was a conservative Republican, very repressed and judgmental. He wasn't bitter about the church, though. He still maintained that core belief."
On his tropical island, planted amid Havana's ornate gray ruins, Zirwas re-created something like a kitschy, pop-culture version of his former pastoral existence. He was a Calle Mazón fixture, ensconced with a laptop computer on the sofa just inside his front door, greeting passersby and eagerly sending long, literate, and catty messages into cyberspace. Under the name El Juez (the judge), he presided over the entertaining Green Screen, a much-visited chat site set up to assist travelers to Cuba. (Zirwas maintained an illegal Internet connection through the Cuban phone service, with the help of clever Cuban friends, until Internet cards -- similar to phone cards -- became available.)
Ulises met George on his first visit to the island, in late 1997, in a high-rise apartment overlooking the Malecón, Havana's storied seawall. Ulises says they both were considering renting the place, and for a while George did live there. After the landlord showed them around, George, who then spoke almost no Spanish, asked the landlord to invite Ulises to lunch with him. "I said, 'Me?'" Ulises recounts. "And that was how it started. It was love at first sight. George told me that up until then, he didn't think there was such a thing as a gay couple."
Several months later Zirwas found the apartment on Calle Mazón. The place was in good repair and clean, with a small private courtyard where he and Ulises hung plants and birdcages. In the front room, which Zirwas decorated with Byzantine-style iconography, sat a comfortable couch and easy chairs and a glass-topped coffee table.
Bemused neighbors looked on as the genial American gushed over Taco and Tico, pampered his handsome young boyfriend, and daily played his favorite Supremes hits and show tunes from Evita, Phantom of the Opera, and Cats. Once they got past the mariconería, the gay stuff, though, the residents of Calle Mazón grew impressed by Zirwas's openness and generosity. He supplied the sound system and CDs for the wedding of his landlady's son; he bought medicine and clothes for the old and infirm; on holidays he handed out ten- and twenty-dollar bills. Every morning the santera (Santería practitioner) who lived down the street would arrive with a bunch of flowers, her small gift in exchange for the American's five-dollar donation. He'd always ask the santera to pray for his mother, though he scorned that pagan-Catholic hybrid religion.
Members of Zirwas's social circle ranged from academics and artists to pingueros (young male prostitutes) and other interesados -- opportunists attracted by his dollars. Internet contacts from all over the globe visited him on Calle Mazón and wound up his fast friends. Some, like Andree Kahl, would actually stay at the apartment, renting the back bedroom.
"You could not not like him," Kahl commented by e-mail. "As he dominated the Green Screen he was also the central personality of this circle of people who gathered around him.... George had a bitchy side. But even then he would make people laugh. His favorite word was camp, which means something is ironic. It was a gay phrase he picked up in Ft. Lauderdale. He loved irony so much. George was interested in people. Whenever people had problems they would go to George and he was always keenly interested."
He was also constantly in a position to guide and assist visitors, gay and straight, with everything from lodging to sex; he dubbed his apartment the No-Tell Motel. It's not that he ran a casa of ill repute, as has been conjectured. Instead by all accounts Zirwas's familiarity with the island and his gregariousness made him a natural but discreet liaison.
As the months progressed, some in his group became uneasy with Zirwas's congeniality, believing he should be more circumspect with strangers. "I was his first friend in Cuba," explains Ricardo, an artist who wants only his first name used. Zirwas first telephoned Ricardo from Costa Rica, seeking advice before his initial visit to Havana. "He was a good person, and he really loved Cuba. He made a lot of friends. But he was what we call ingénuo -- naive in some ways. I used to tell him: 'George, you're too open. You trust people too much.' After a while I withdrew from that group. I just wasn't comfortable."
Ricardo doesn't want to specify what exactly made him uncomfortable, but he's emphatic it wasn't anything like porn or group debauchery. Zirwas's acquaintances insist he abhorred pornography and didn't even permit party guests to drink alcohol. About the raciest it got at Chez Zirwas, visitors report, were lip-synch performances by transvestites. "On holidays George would decorate the apartment with all these beautiful lights, and he asked permission first," affirms the daughter-in-law of his elderly landlady. The landlady herself became fond of Zirwas and was touched by his daily phone calls to his mother. "They always had lots of people around," continues the daughter-in-law. "They were always entertaining, but it wasn't like those wild parties with music blaring. They never bothered anyone."