Swimming Upstream

Detail from “Woman Before a Fish Bowl” ~ Henri Matisse (1922)

Walgreens is an impulse shopper’s paradise.

Established in 1901, after Charles R. Walgreen purchased the Chicago drugstore he’d served as pharmacist, the chain grew slowly, but steadily. In 1926, a hundred stores existed. By 1984, there were a thousand.

Over the years, Walgreens moved beyond filling prescriptions: as a way to accommodate people who needed something to do while waiting for their prescriptions. Greeting cards appeared, along with hair brushes and shaving soap. Eventually, detergent, envelopes, candy, and socks were added to the inventory, and a newer, more modern version of the general store was born.

Even in these days of online ordering and drive-through pick-up, the stores have continued to thrive. People do run out of toothpaste, get sudden cravings for chocolate, or need single sheets of yellow and red construction paper at 9 p.m. on a Thursday night, and Walgreens fills those needs.
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Daring to Make Our Own Groceries

She hangs in my kitchen, this nameless woman who holds a chicken in her lap.  She watches me as I move between stove and sink, and I return the favor. Over time, I’ve come to imagine I know a thing or two about her. The directness of her gaze tells me she isn’t afraid of being seen. She’s a busy lady – her apron tells me that, and her distinctly practical hair. She didn’t mean to be posing this morning, but someone came along and she cooperated, no doubt happy for a moment’s rest.  Surprised by her inactivity and suddenly wary, the dog presses protectively against her, but they’ve spent his lifetime together and her hand is enough to calm his fears.

Around her portrait, bits and scraps of ephemera hint at the realities of her life.  A letterhead from A.E. Want & Company, one of Ft. Worth’s premiere wholesale grocers at the turn of the last century, provides elegance to a simple invoice. The invoice is dated September 14, 1921, nine years after the company gained a certain noteriety by suing the Missouri,  Kansas & Texas railroad over a carload of frostbitten Minnesota potatoes.  The potatoes, valued at $155.87, were judged defective, and the railroad ordered to pay. Continue reading

Imagining a Ban


In recent weeks, Cuban policies limiting citizens’ access to certain goods and services have been liberalized.  Farmers no longer are required to purchase materials from state-run stores, and it’s now possible for more individuals to rent cars. 

Restrictions on personal cell phone ownership have been eased, and bans lifted on the purchase of electronic or electrical consumer items of all sorts, including computers, video players, televisions, pressure cookers, rice cookers, electric bicycles, microwave ovens and car alarms.

Raul Castro’s reforms have been scrutinized closely for practical as well as political significance.  Apparently desirable, they are filled with irony.  In a nation where most individuals are not allowed to purchase a car, car alarms seem somewhat beside the point.  The scarcity of many basic food items and the prohibitive cost of others make the possibility of possessing an electric rice cooker or microwave seem amusing at best.

While the sudden availability of televisions, computers and cell phones has created a bit of a stir in the world outside the Island, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez and others suggest Raul Castro’s easing of restrictions instituted by his brother Fidel is nothing more than bowing to the inevitable.  At this point, there is no stopping the influx of technology into the country, so it makes sense to get ahead of the curve and gain political advantage wherever possible.  Even more cynical observers suggest that easy availability of cell phones simply provides one more way for the government to keep track of its citizens.

In any event, the reforms have been noted with cautious approval and general agreement that, while the reforms are lovely, they probably are cost-prohibitive for most Cubans.  Writing in the April 1 Washington Post, Manuel Roig-Franzia notes that “Cuban state workers make an average of $19 a month… (while) car rentals in Cuba – also managed by the military – are among the most expensive in Latin America, with vehicles typically going for as much as $100 a day.”

The additional fact that such items and services must be purchased with Cuban convertible pesos, a stronger currency than the national pesos paid state workers makes things more difficult.  Cubans who receive tips from tourists or have money sent in from abroad have access to convertible pesos, but the existence of a de facto dual monetary system does little to increase purchasing power across the board.

The same issues arise when it comes to a less-publicized but symbolically important March 31 move by the Cuban government to lift restrictions on Cubans’ freedom to enjoy resort beaches, stay at luxury hotels or purchase services provided by the hotels.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequent economic difficulties for the Castro regime, the practice of keeping Cubans and tourists apart became so rigid it was known as “tourist apartheid”.  Some of the most beautiful places in the country were off-limits to Cubans: Varadero Beach, Cayo Santa Maria, the Vinales Valley in Pinar del Rio Province.

For most Cubans , being allowed to move beyond that “apartheid” and indulge themselves in the luxury of a hotel stay will be as symbolic as the right to purchase a computer or DVD; it simply is too expensive. A quick look at current rates published by TripAdvisor tells the tale: a night in Havana?  $201 to $369.  A little stroll along Varadero at sunset?  $169 to $305.  Guardalavaca? $255.  Guardala? Coming in high, at $455.  There was a listing at Guama for $3, with a description  that proclaims “twice the charms”.  If not a misprint, it’s either the world’s best bargain or the world’s worst decision: who knows?

In any event, it doesn’t take a genius to do the math.  Quoting Roig-Franzia again, “on (the salary of the typical Cuban), it would take nearly two years to earn enough for one night at the Saratoga.” 

Resort living and luxury hotels aren’t for everyone, of course.  Even as an American with a perfect right to head off to the Hilton, I prefer to make other choices.   I suspect there are Cubans who feel the same.  If I were Cuban, I’d be far more interested in regaining my right to travel to places like the Vinales Valley.

One of Cuban’s most remarkable natural attractions, it’s been declared a National Natural Monument and listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1999 as “a cultural landscape enriched by traditional farm and village architecture.”  Surrounded by mogotes with rounded tops and steep slopes, the valley is a luxurious mix of tobacco, taro and bananas, unusual plant life and exquisite vistas.   For decades Cubans showed off their treasure, until access was limited by the government.  In the words of Rafael Ferro Salas, “The old road was closed.  Now only the rented vehicles of foreign tourists travel the new route, and those carrying visitors invited to the spot by government officials.  For Cubans who live in the island nation, traveling is prohibited on the access road leading to the valley’s vantage point, the site where the view is loveliest and most unforgettable.”

In words of unutterable poignancy, he goes on to add, “Pinar del Rio is full of natural beauties.  The most beautiful sites are being left like a footprint in the fog of memory.  So far no one knows when the day will come when they can go back to traveling among them.”  (CubaNet, October 1, 2004)

Writing in Babalu, Val Prieto notes some uncertainty whether areas such as the Vinales Valley are now accessible to Cubans.  It may be the lifting of restrictions applies strictly to tourist beaches, hotels and services.  Whatever the final result, the changes certainly stimulate thought.  Whatever happens in the next months, whether Varadero, the Cays, the Vinales Valley and other prohibited sites become open to all Cubans, it remains a fact that for years Cubans have been barred from their own country, banned from visiting sights celebrated world-wide for their beauty and historical significance.

For a Cuban to be banned from Vinales is not unlike an American being banned from Yosemite, prevented from traveling to or enjoying its splendor because the government prefers to reserve it for those who will pay well for the experience.

What others experience can be hard to imagine.  But imagine, for a moment, being banned from the Everglades while tour boats filled with foreigners are granted special passes to enjoy the wonders of the River of Grass:

Imagine being banned from Anasazi ruins throughout the Four Corners area because a politician prefers to show off the sites to his cronies:

Imagine being banned from Cape Hatteras because the government intends to restrict contact between you and visitors from other countries:

Imagine being banned from Death Valley for the sole purpose of buttressing your government’s sense of entitlement and control over your life:

Imagine being banned from Niagara Falls simply because the government has the power to do so and decides it will do so for the simple delight of exercising power:

For some people in the world, such banishments are a bitter reality, limitations on freedom imposed by rulers intent on controlling other peoples’ lives.  It’s impossible to look at the world and not understand that such bans lead inexorably to other constraints.  The freedom to travel, to assemble, to speak without fear with whomever we choose, the freedom to participate fully in the life of a country or community – all those freedoms begin to erode when a valley, an historic site or an occasion is declared by the state to be “off limits”, made a punishable offense for the sole purpose of maintaining power over individuals.

As I read about the possibility of change in Cuba, and ponder the strange significance of open beaches and hotel stays for the cause of freedom, I can’t help remembering an expression I once heard someone use in quite a different context.   “I’m banned, and I’m proud,” he said. From my perspective, it was an odd statement.  I suspect a few Cubans would find it even more odd.



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