July 1958 I developed an elaborate ruse to excuse my absence from home for a week and, with Alan Page, took off from North Carolina, thumbing down to Florida in-route Cuba. I was 15 years old.
It was the summer before Castro came to power.
I used to say if I stood still long enough I could tell a person what happened every minute of the three days and two nights we stayed in the tenderloin area near the harbor in Havana. It was a powerfully impressive time and place for a wide eyed small town southern boy.
‘Though the incident that resonates most about that trip was a family Page and I met on the way back home.
This is the true story from notes I made back in the 50s and 60s.
“Back in Miami after clearing U.S. customs we walked out in front of the terminal. With four dollars between us, we discussed going back through Lake Wells, but decided instead to head straight north up the east coast of Florida. We had sold Page’s suitcase for a few dollars in Havana and Page said he felt like a woman shopper with his clothes in a paper bag.
The states looked differently from when we left. Cleaner. More organized. We walked to the nearest intersection and I stood in front with my thumb out. A local delivery truck picked us up within five minutes.
We were standing by U.S. Highway 1 north of Daytona Beach when darkness fell. Page was eating an ice cream cone, staring vacantly at the oncoming traffic as I stood on the side of the road with my thumb out. A dark green station wagon pulled over. Holding his ice cream out to the side, Page reached down, got his bag of clothes and waddled behind me toward the car. I reached first and got in. Page slid in beside me. We shared the back seat with a small boy wearing glasses.
“Where you fellows heading?” asked the middle-aged driver as he moved the car back into traffic.
The young boy elbowed me away from him. I looked down and gave him a tight smile as I said, “North Carolina, how far you going?”
A woman in the front passenger seat said, “I don’t know, don’t ask me. Hubert’s the only one who knows anything in this car, right, Hubert?” Still looking straight ahead, she nodded her head toward the driver.
“We’ll probably try and get another seventy five miles tonight, I reckon. We’re heading back to New Jersey. Been down for a little vacation.”
“Some vacation. I didn’t want to come to Miami Beach in the summer. Who wants that? Shit, it’s fucking eighty degrees in New Jersey and he wants to go where it’s hotter. Now how do you figure that, huh?” The woman turned around and faced first me and then Page. “What are you doing with that ice cream cone in my car, young fellow? You’re going to get sticky shit all over everything and Junior or I will have to clean it up.” The woman was incredibly ugly. She had warts, large ears that stuck out of dirty hair and rhinestone eyeglasses.
“I’m sorry. I’ll throw it out.” Page rolled down the window but as he started to throw the cone out, some of the wet ice cream blew back in his face. He put his hand up to wipe it off and what was left of the single scoop on the cone fell off into his bag of clothes.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” the woman screamed.
Page looked up at the woman, “Ma’am it fell in my bag of clothes. It’s OK.”
When the ice cream had fallen Page had lunged for it and I moved out of his way. The kid elbowed me to move me back in the center.
“Let them alone, Jane. Turn around and let them the fuck alone. I want to talk to ’um.”
“Why don’t you talk to me? I’m sitting right here. Huh, why don’t you talk to me? You shouldn’t have to pick up strangers to carry on a goddamned conversation.” Her voice was getting louder as she spoke. “Why don’t you talk with the boy in the back if you’re so fucking lonely and don’t want to talk with me. Huh, why don’t you talk with the kid?”
The man looks in the rearview mirror at me and raises his eyebrows in resignation.
Page was bending over trying to get the ice cream out of his toilet article kit.
“Where you boys been?” asked the man.
“We went to Havana, Cuba,” Page said as he sat back up.
“Havana, Cuba, do say,” the woman turned around again. “What were you doing in Cuba?” She looks directly at Page. Hard.
“Nothing, just sightseeing. Nightlife. Clubs. Bars.”
“Do say. Sightseeing? Do you believe that Hubert? Huh? Do you?” The woman didn’t take her eyes off Page.
“Well, if they say so,” said the man.
“Well, I think he’s lying. I don’t think anyone who eats ice cream on the side of the road goes to Cuban nightclubs. What do you say to that, fatso?”
Page looked in my direction for help. I looked straight ahead. He finally answered in a low voice. “It’s the truth, lady, but if you don’t want to believe it, that’s up to you.”
“Well you’re goddamned right it’s up to me. I believe what I want to.” Her face was flushed. The kid broke wind or just an unclean smell drifted our way. “Jesus fucking Christ, Junior, did you shit your pants? Roll down some windows.” She turned back to the front and cranked down her window handle. Page looked at me and opened his mouth wide in disbelief.
“Did you folks have a good time here in Florida during your vacation?” I tried to make some light conversation.
The woman said, “I told you it was hot. Didn’t you hear me? I wasn’t talking just to exercise my jaw.” The man was moving around in the rearview mirror trying to catch my glance. I finally looked at him and he smiled.
“Did you find any good restaurants?” I wasn’t going to give up. I was going to establish some rapport with this group.
“Fuck, no. They eat Jew shit down here. That’s all. Corned beef and pastrami. Breakfast, noon and night.” The woman crossed her legs in the front. She was wearing bell bottom slacks and serious black lace up shoes with large three-quarter heels. She snorted and rolled up her window.
“Yea, I didn’t like it either. I agree with you. Food’s a little outlandish, especially at the price they charge.”
“You making fun of me, sonny boy?” She turned halfway around and looked at me out of the corner of her eyeglasses.
“No, no. Indeed not. I didn’t enjoy the food.”
“Where did you eat?”
“Oh,” I paused searching for something to say. “I forgot the name. It was on the main boulevard down Miami Beach. What do you call it?”
“Colliers Street,” she said.
“You sure?” I asked without thinking. Page winced, anticipating her response.
She turned completely around and put her knees on the front seat so that she was facing the rear. She leaned in toward my face. “You are just goddamned right, I’m sure. You calling me a liar, huh? You saying I don’t know what I’m talking about? In my own fucking car? Is that what you are saying? Say it. Tell me what you are saying. I want to hear it.” Although I was leaning back as far as I could, her face was close to mine. As she talked spittle sprinkled my cheeks.
“I think that this is about as far as we want to go tonight and we want to thank you for your hospitality. If you would just pull over and let us out, just anywhere here. Just any ol’ where.”
The car did not slow down. The woman continued to lean over into the back seat with her face a couple of inches from mine. Finally she leaned back on her heels. “I don’t like them either one, Hubert. They are rude people.”
I noticed a highway patrolman passing in the opposite direction. If only he knew we were hostages. The woman was crazy. She sat there in the front, looking back at me.
“Can we pull over or something? This isn’t working out for either of us.” Page finally had something to say. The woman turned around and faced the front. She started talking to the driver under her breath.
I turned and asked the kid quietly, “Are they OK?” He shrugged his shoulders, which seemed normal enough.
“OK,” the woman turned around and faced us. “We’ll let you out for fifty dollars.”
Page and I exchanged glances. We smiled. “Lady, we got less than two bucks to get us to North Carolina.”
“Give me one.”
We were entering a small town and a stoplight ahead forced the car to slow and finally stop. Page opened the door and got out. I followed, grabbing my suitcase from the back as I did. The light turned green before I got the suitcase out but the man didn’t pull away until I had gotten out and Page had slammed the door shut. There was a “Love Jesus” sticker on their bumper.
On the sidewalk I said, “Page, I looked deep into that woman’s eyes and saw into her soul. There were bats and things flying around in there. That woman was crazy.”
“And that man and kid weren’t too hot either,” Page said, but we laughed.
Page fished his toilet article case out of his paper bag and dumped it into a trashcan as we headed back to US Highway # 1 to continue thumbing home, better for the experience of meeting the interesting New Jersey family.”