A Hustler Close To Me / Fernando Damaso

Fernando Damaso, 29 August 2015 — In my distant childhood in the El Moro neighborhood of Mantilla, currently a part of the Arroyo Naranjo municipality, I had the good fortune to know and live with a character that left deep traces on me. Manolo “The Pole,” as everyone called him, was the son of Syrians or Lebanese who had emigrated to Cuba. His real name, if I remember correctly, was Manuel Sahinz Anhus.

One day he appeared at my house, because of his relationship with Carmen, the daughter of Sara “The Galician,” with whom my mother and I shared — like a single family — the large house on Rodriguez Street. Manolo was dark complexioned and over six feet tall. When I met him he was practicing boxing, participating  in Saturday fights in covered space where a ring was installed, on Route 4, near the Juventud campus, Professor Nilo’s college, where I studied in elementary school. He almost always won, which earned him some pesos, from the bets.

On formalizing his relationship with Carmen, he decided to look for a more stable means of making a living, and with some savings bought a wooden cart with a canvas roof–similar to those of American old west–and two mules, and started to manufacture soaps of charcoal and mud highly prized by the Chinese in their car washes and by makers of sweets.

I participated in their manufacture, in my free time, in a workshop constructed in the backyard patio, and in their sale in Havana’s neighborhoods and districts, as co-pilot of the cart. We packed them in wooden boxes of 100 cakes for 30 centavos, but we also sold them at retail.

When he married Carmen they went to Pennsylvania on their honeymoon, where he had family. Soon their first son was born and I was the godfather, but the boy died of gastroenteritis in a few months.

Hit hard by this misfortune he abandoned the business, more than anything because of the annoyance of being covered with ashes all the time, and bought an old green panel Ford, and became a distributor of bubble gum, the ones that came on a blank post card that when you licked it with your tongue and exposed it to sun, showed a photo of some important athlete.

Later he became a cockfighting enthusiast, transforming the abandoned workshop into an enclosure and dedicating himself to breeding the cocks, offering fights on the weekends, where juicy bets were placed. Of this time I remember that he gave me two “retired” cocks.

When Nury appeared, an employee of the Shell refinery, as the boyfriend of his sister Ramona, he convinced him to sell his job, and with the money earned, plus a portion provided by him, join him in buying a Dodge dump truck to transport construction materials on contract. At that time he had another son, whom they named Manolito, like the deceased son, and to whom I was also a godfather.

In 1952, a few days after Batista staged his coup d’etat, recommended by a neighbor who was turned from a taxi driver into a National Police captain, he started working as a driver for the then Minister of Education Manuel Fernandaz Concheso and, on the minister’s premature death, for his wife, who replaced him in office.

Then, driving an elegant black Oldsmobile 98 with air conditioning, January 1, 1959 [the day Castro came to power] took him by surprise.

At that time our two families had already been separated, with him, Carmen and Manolito living in a wooden bungalow on Managua at El Lucero, across from the Chic cinema, then known as “the house with the statues” because of the number of them installed in his garden.

I visited him several times, to see my godson and bring him toys, until one fine day they disappeared from the place, perhaps abandoning the country and moving to Pennsylvania.

It could be that the sequence of all this is not exact, but the facts are.

This great hustler was my best friend in those long ago times.

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