The Piano Player, Ambos Mundos Hotel
I am nearing the end of my most productive trip to Cuba. I came here with a specific objective. I am armed with a camera well suited to achieving that goal, and I never leave my apartment without it in my hands, loaded with film, finger in the ready position. I move slowly, stay constantly aware of my surroundings, and respond to people and events that I encounter. The hours and miles of walking that I invest are producing many pictures and stories about which I am excited.
Today I seem to have hit a wall. I've been working since morning and have exposed some film, though I know it contains nothing interesting. But following the old sports adage I am going to “play until the whistle blows,” so late in the evening I am walking back toward my room, a roll of high speed film in my camera, looking and listening. I hear the sound of a piano and turn to see through the open window of a lounge a man sitting at the keyboard. He has no patrons to entertain but plays anyway, maybe just because he likes to play. Similarly unburdened with clientele the bartender has assumed the quintessential pose of his profession, leaning on the bar and staring disinterestedly into space. I have just enough time to raise the camera to my eye and make one exposure before the bartender decides that he can be bored elsewhere and walks away, weakening the composition. Only then do I notice that I am standing outside the bar of the Hotel Ambos Mundos.
In the 1930's many artists, writers, and other creatives stayed here, the most famous of whom was Ernest Hemingway who lived in Room 511 for the first seven years of his time in Cuba. Some of Hemingway's work is among my favorite literature, such as The Nick Adams Stories set in another place that I love, Michigan's Upper Peninsula. My wanderlust is partially sated by his stories of Africa, and well, any lover of Cuba must have “The Old Man and the Sea” on their bookshelves.
I enjoy reading books set in a place where I am at the time, so reading “Islands in the Stream” in Cuba seems a good choice. Like the Nick Adams stories that chronicle a soldier attempting to heal the wounds of war, it is more or less autobiographical. The lasting memory that I have of the book is Hemingway's painfully detailed description of his protagonist, a successful painter named Thomas Hudson, going into Havana after finishing his day's work. Hudson drinks to excess, picks fights with other patrons, and proves himself an unpleasant drinking companion. The book is depressing to me, but it does seem to provide a window into the psyche of the author.
As I look into that empty bar I envision the place nearly a century earlier; Hemingway loudly and drunkenly holding court at the head of a table filled with other artists and various sycophants and hangers-on. But at least the piano player would have had people for whom to play, and the bartender some customers to keep him occupied.