The other day, watching a triumphalist report on the news about the unrestricted sale of construction materials and under pressure from his wife who has been asking him to build a closet in the bedroom for years, my neighbor Chicho made the trek to the corner of Paseo and 33rd to buy washed sand, gravel, cement, and four-inch thick blocks. The rest, the tools and the knowledge, he already had, having been a bricklayer for more than six years in those long-ago days of the microbrigades*.

He walked from his house to the place hoping to find someone there with the entrepreneurial spirit to offer to transport the materials, and indeed, outside was an old Toyota with a little trailer and two men with wheelbarrows waiting for customers. They gave him a little signal meaning “we can load up and get out of here right now” and he entered a kind of office where a woman was filling in the orders and taking money. “Who’s last in line?” he asked, purely as a formality, as there was only one person at the counter. When it was his turn to be helped he said, “My dear, put me down for 40 four-inch blocks, a sack of cement, two sacks of sand and another of gravel.”

The woman looked at him as if he were a Martian, and with her best smirk asked him, “Didn’t you see what it said on the chalkboard?”

Only then did he realize that at the entrance there had been a piece of black cardboard written on in white chalk, but he’d overlooked it in the excitement of trying to behave like a customer. “My eyesight is poor,” he fibbed, to justify himself. Then the woman told him, “For sand, you have to come on Monday and check in early. That same day you can get the cement and the blocks but the four-inch aren’t available now. But look, the gravel is only available on Thursdays.”

“So I have to come twice and pay for two separate deliveries?”

“Look here, son, not only are you near-sighted, you’re deaf, or are you making fun of me?”

* Translator’s note:
Microbrigades = “In 1971 a novel form of sweat equity, the microbrigades, accompanied government investments. Under this system groups of employees from given workplaces would form brigades to build housing while other employees agreed to maintain production at current levels. Housing units were then allocated among the employees from that workplace…. Microbrigades experienced a revival in 1986 due to several social forces.”
Source: Kapur and Smith, Housing Policy in Castro’s Cuba, 2002

12 October 2011