A Book Tour on the Eve of Coronavirus
January – February 2020
In what now feels like a different age on a different planet (though it was really just three months ago) I boarded a plane in New York City and headed off on a book tour with my newly- published memoir Waking in Havana that would take me from Havana, Cuba to Boulder, Colorado to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico and then on to the San Francisco Bay Area and finally to Tuscon, Arizona.
I was excited but how could this be happening to me? Famous authors went on book tours––real authors. They stayed in boutique hotels and sat, comfortable in their identity, on high, backless stools in front of an adoring audience to read from their well-thumbed books.
I jokingly called my book tour the “Friends and Family Tour”––each stop on its westward route chosen to coincide with the home of a family member or friend who had offered a place to stay and connections to a bookstore, university or community space for an event or two.
First stop, Havana, Cuba—where Waking in Havana and my decades long love affair with Cuba began in 1972, when I traveled to Cuba for the first time with the Venceremos Brigade. My long-time Cuban family of friends and colleagues were there to welcome me as always, but I also brought family with me––some who were making their first visit to Cuba. We relaxed together in an old colonial home in Vedado and took in some sights.
My partner Paul played for the Cir Habana Circus, the kid’s circus led by friends Aramis and Carlos, that has become one of my favorite projects in Cuba; my daughter Angelica got to snuggle with my honorary nieta Caro, my brother Rick and sister-in-law Val rode in style in a 1948 Dodge convertible, and my writing partner and dear friend Darlene had a heart to heart with John Lennon.
At my book launch at Cuba Libro, my favorite“characters” from Waking in Havana jumped off the page and into our loving circle of friends and family which was very special. We spent an intimate evening–– hosted by Conner Gorry and the staff of this wonderful bookstore/café/community oasis–– reading, remembering and eating far too many delicious pastelitos de guayaba from a local bakery.
And I found my youngest reader…
Next stop, Boulder, Colorado, with barely time to turn around––and there he was again––my 6 foot tall little brother, his head of thick white hair and broad smile like a beacon of warmth in the unfamiliar landscape––his strong arms enfolding me and taking my overpacked suitcase as we stepped out into the chilly crispness of the western air––the brown hills rolling in the distance under an impossibly blue sky.
The windows of my brother’s home frame the foothills of the Flatiron Mountains. I didn’t know it yet, but this trip would be bookmarked by hills and mountains––from the low-rounded humps of the Sandinas in New Mexico, the curvy serpentine hills of San Francisco and Oakland, dotted with the glistening glass and metal of expensive homes, to the jagged peaks of the Santa Cantalinas surrounding Tuscon’s flat expanse, where I would discover the hoodoos– Jenga-like rock formations that suggest ancient protectors circling around whole villages of rock people.
I crossed state lines into each landscape–– from Colorado to New Mexico in a car watching the bare aspens and snow-capped peaks in the distance give way to piñon pine and tumbleweeds.
And I learned the names of the mountains, the trees, the grasses and cacti like a child pointing to each new object and repeating its name with surprise and delight.
My pre-tour mind did not anticipate these discoveries. Pre-tour was all about checklists, about putting things in order––dates, bookstores, contacts, publicity, books, bookmarks, Facebook posts, emails, packing, re-packing, boarding passes, bills to pay, plants to water, calls to make.
Once underway I allowed my usual state of mild disorder to take over––my suitcase a tumble of clothes freed from their packing cubes, books and papers scattered on a series of beds in a series of rooms, but always before I moved on I took inventory––favorite earrings, hearing aids, computer, phone, chargers, sparkly silver boots.
And I accumulated things along the way––a delicate crystal blue necklace I spied in a southwestern tourist shop on Boulder’s pedestrian mall that I bought and proclaimed my “lucky book tour necklace;” a pair of matching blue earrings gifted by Diane, my dear friend in the East Bay; a signed book from Margaret Randall, an author I have long admired who I met for lunch in Albuquerque; a storyteller doll to take her place next to my writing desk–– my suitcase getting heavier with each stop.
Unlike the mountains, which shape the landscapes and lives of those who inhabit the valleys below them, the bookstores I visited on this tour––five in all––reflect and are influenced by the culture of each city or town.
Boulder Bookstore, a large two-story brick building, anchors the downtown pedestrian mall. Its large plate glass windows filled with colorful books are, for me, a welcome relief from the array of stores displaying sporting goods, outdoor attire, mountaineering equipment and upscale organic cotton clothing that front the walkway for blocks on end. Boulder is an outdoor town and I always feel a little out of place with my lumpy New York body dressed in black from head to toe.
Rick and I spent a silly afternoon photographing all the places in Boulder Books where Waking in Havana could be found, including an announcement on the big flat screen in front of the cash register. “Can you tell I am a brand-new author?” I asked the young clerk, and we laughed together at my excitement. Despite a snowy day, a good-sized crowd turned out and welcomed me warmly. We invited BICAP, a local AIDS organization and the Boulder Cuba Sister City Project to join us and present information about their work, which is a practice we will repeat throughout the tour.
The next day I did my first radio interview with Elena Klaver for KGNU.
Rick and Val drove me to my next stop, Santa Fe, New Mexico, where their old friends Judy and Stu offered warm hospitality and I had an adobe casita all to myself. Collected Works Bookstore, a large store with a wide range of books and a cozy space where customers can curl up on a couch with a great cup of coffee, welcomed me like a “real author” and I could feel myself beginning to own that identity and looking forward to the ritual of greeting each reader and signing their book.
After Santa Fe, I said good-bye to my roadies and traveled on my own. Next stop, Albuquerque, New Mexico, where members of MEDICC’s Community Partnership for Health Equity (CPHE) group there had planned several gatherings. I had traveled to Cuba with them in 2013, and was looking forward to reconnecting. I had the opportunity to speak with two health classes at the University of New Mexico––students preparing to become medical translators. Soon these kinds of in-person classes would be impossible but we did not know that then. At Centro Savila, a community mental health center in the South Valley, an intimate group gathered for delicious tamales and a wide-ranging discussion of Cuba’s approach to AIDS and public health. Fernando and Francisco welcomed me into their homes, and I got a taste of the warmth and familiaridad of Burque.
“Do you know Margaret Randall?” Elena Klaver had asked when we finished our interview in Boulder. “I know and love her writing,” I responded, “but I’ve never met her personally.” After exchange of emails, we were in touch and I had the pleasure of meeting Margaret and her wife, artist Barbara Bowen, for a leisurely lunch at a local café followed by a visit to their art- filled home in Albuquerque.
Margaret Randall is the author of many books of poetry and accounts of her experience living in Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua during times of political upheaval and revolution in those countries. When we met she was getting ready to begin a book tour of her own with her latest memoir, “I Never Left Home.” I am in awe of her life and her art, but she is humble and generous with her response to Waking in Havana and her time. I left her home with a beautiful piece of art by Barbara and an armful of Margaret’s books!
for more info about Margaret: http://www.margaretrandall.org
After a few days in New Mexico, it was on to the next stop, Oakland and San Francisco, the Bay Area, where I had migrated to the Haight-Ashbury with thousands of other young people in 1967 for the Summer of Love and stayed on to make it home for a few years. My friend Diane, Director of the CPHE program, provided a nest in her airy apartment filled with colorful Cuban paintings, looking out over the bay and the distant skyline of San Francisco. Diane generously guided me around the Bay during my time there––we even snuck in some down time at Berkeley, in the Redwoods, meeting her lovely family and visiting the AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco.
First up of the book events was an author talk at Books, Inc. in Alameda, where I was so honored to meet Cliff Morrison and Alison Moed-Palercio, nurses who founded the first dedicated AIDS ward at SF General Hospital. Their story is told in a wonderful documentary, 5-B, and we had a shared experience of those early years in the epidemic to talk about. Among the small group gathered to hear about Waking in Havana, were several nurses from the Alameda County Public Health Department whose supervisor had suggested they attend.
A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland wins the prize for the best named (and smallest) bookstore on my tour, but we managed to squeeze in a lively group including an old friend of Paul’s (and fellow Cuba activist) from his days at Columbia and our cousin Bob.
In May of 2018, I joined the Rainbow World Fund and the founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, Cleve Jones, for a trip to Cuba to participate in the annual Week Against Homophobia. Jeff Cotter, RWF’s Director, hosted a book party at his beautiful and historic home in San Francisco. What a setting for good food, mojitos, and a discussion about Waking in Havana. I was moved by the heartfelt comments by many in the group, responding out of shared pain.
The next morning it was time for my sermon at the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in San Francisco, founded in XXX to provide a welcoming space for LGBTQ+ folk. When I was first invited by Michael Cronin, the Associate Pastor who I met on the RWF trip, I chuckled. Me? A sermon? But then I remembered the quote from the Talmud that I use as the signature line in my emails: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Walk humbly now. Do justice now. You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
That, I thought, could be the beginning of a sermon…
Diane was taking a class at Berkeley, a perk of being a senior citizen in Alameda County and invited me to attend. On the way we passed People’s Park and I stopped to take a look around. I had been part of building the park in a vacant lot belonging to the University of California in April of 1969, with a group of kids and parents from the alternative Hearthshire School where I was teaching drama and reading. We rolled out sod, planted trees and flowers, and painted colorful signs.
The University was negotiating with the community about the future of the park and promised to let it be.
Then on May 15, Governor Ronald Reagan sent the California Highway Patrol and local police into the park to destroy it and put up a chain link fence around it.
The weeks of angry protest that followed this action and were met by violent force, including the National Guard, imposed curfews, indiscriminate use of tear gas and buckshot that blinded one bystander and killed another. I was part of a Hearthshire School group that attended what was supposed to be a peaceful children’s march and ended up running through the streets (6 months pregnant at the time) to escape the teargas that was unleashed upon us.
People’s Park, which was eventually officially established and in 2019 celebrated its 50th Anniversary, has become a sad and neglected version of its former vibrant self. Most people I asked about it said they avoid the area because of crime and vagrancy. Plastic tarps and makeshift shelters dot the park, which is slated to be developed for student housing in the near future. I wonder what the response to this new plan will be.
Who will be willing to fight for People’s Park and those that call it home in 2020?
One more event in the Bay Area remained–– at Book Passage in the Ferry Building in San Francisco–– and then I was off to Tuscon, Arizona, the last stop on my tour. I spent my final night in the Bay Area in the beautiful home of an old high school friend and his wife, and was joined by two of my sister-authors from She Writes Press––a delightful surprise.
Tuscon, Arizona––the one place on this tour I have never been to. I have some expectations––brown, dusty, flat, cacti all around. But I never could have expected this…
My friend Betts occupies an important place in Waking in Havana––a fellow gringa trying to navigate the puzzle of life in Cuba. We haven’t seen each other since 1996—or maybe we have, once in Boston but the details are funny. Chamaco occupies any space he wants to in the charming Victorian home she shares with husband Carlos, son and son’s girlfriend––would you want to get in his way. My first mastiff and I am in love with the wrinkled skin, the size of him, and his baleful looks at the top of the fridge where his food is stored.
But Tuscon has many other charms. Betts is a landscaper and knows the names and origin of everything I see—so many different types of cacti and trees––and the yards all dirt, or gravel––no grass in sight in this desert town.
Tequila happy hour becomes a time to philosophize about the state of the world. Betts is a tireless community activist and she has organized a potluck at a local church to introduce me and Waking in Havana to her community. She frets about turnout—a very familiar worry––but a good-sized crowd turns out with black beans and corn muffins and lots of dessert.
Several have been to Cuba and a lively discussion closes out the night.
Somehow we squeeze a lot in to these few last days of this trip––a dinner with family, the biggest parade of non-mechanized vehicles in the country with her adorable granddaughter, a talk at a local AIDS organization that has kept it going for 40 years, another university Latin American studies class, and even some shopping for Mexican oilcloth. She is the Betts I remember—an energetic, enthusiastic force of nature and I am so glad we reconnected after all these years.
Finally, it’s time to head home to Brooklyn. Re-entry is always difficult for me after travel. I’ll be glad to get home, sleep in my own bed, cuddle with my honey––but I will miss the sense of connection and accomplishment that accompanied me on this trip. My Waking in Havana book tour did exactly what I had hoped for––opened doors to new conversations about U.S. policy toward Cuba, Cuba’s public health system and AIDS program and what we can learn from them, and the shared human experience that can transcend international borders and different cultures within our own country. I am full of memories, ideas and new-found pride. I am a real author at last!
New and devastating challenges are right around the corner, but we will that for another day, another post.