HAVANA MIGHT BE my favorite city in the world. It is warm and crumbling and beautiful. It is safe and exotic and teeming with marvels. I fly down there with my boyhood friends, and we smoke black cigars by the boxful and swim in rooftop pools, and we walk along the seafront, and we hide away at night in tiny pocket bars, drinking goofy drinks that we wouldn't dream of drinking anywhere else. It is paradise for me, and it's made even more of a paradise because I know too well that Havana, this current and latest edition of Havana, is doomed.
You might think less of me in this instant for having gone there -- for having propped up the Castro regime, for indulging my gross northern appetites in a city marked in some ways by the suffering of its citizens, for ferrying whatever other random sins you might believe I stowed in my carry-on bags. I don't care. First, I'm Canadian, and we don't have the same psychic burdens about Cuba that Americans do. Cuba is just another escape pod from our godforsaken winters. But more important, because I know that today's Havana will vanish tomorrow, that soon it will be jammed with armies of tourists in their wide-brimmed hats, and the stray dogs and belching old Chevys will be taken out back and shot, I can't afford to let your judgment get in the way of my love.
You can love Richard Sherman, or Alex Rodriguez, or Jay Cutler. (Trust me, you can really love Jay Cutler.) Of all people, Ernest Hemingway taught me that. Every young writer finds an idol. When you're starting out, you need someone to show you the way. Young male writers, especially, are drawn to the same well-worn clutch: Hunter S. Thompson, James Joyce, maybe Norman Mailer. The truly sad and dispossessed choose Hemingway. I was one of them.
It began with his books: The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Moveable Feast. They were so clean and pure, muscular and vulnerable at the same time. Later, I fell for his grand and well-stuffed life, and I followed in his footsteps in ways that I never could as a writer. I ran with the bulls in Pamplona. I hunched through the streets of Paris with my notepad like a prig. And then I went down to Havana. I drank in his bars, and I stood in his hotel rooms, and I went to his house in the trees, perfectly preserved.
Two or three trips later, when my friends and I tried to break Hemingway's daiquiri-drinking record at El Floridita (to answer your question: no), I became red-faced about my choices. Part of that was some stupid teenage holdover, some fear of being a cliché. More, I think, was that I had grown to know him too well. Hemingway was, in so many ways, a terrible man. He was a human wrecking ball, leaving damage and dead animals and finally his brains in his wake. How could I admire a man like him?
So I left Papa, just like that. I left my other heroes too. I left Billy Bragg and Patrick Roy and Carlton Fisk. Maybe that's part of growing up. Maybe that's only smart, that we would betray our heroes before they get the chance to betray us, the way they almost always do.
But I will tell you that the poorest years of your life will be when you don't believe in anyone. You grew up in love: with your father, with the girl next door, with the Silver Surfer or Tony Dorsett. Admiration was your most natural state. And then you were disappointed, or you were embarrassed, or you decided that to be your own man, you couldn't be caught in the shadow of another. You abandoned everything but what your precious peers might think of you. You took down your posters. You closed your books. You stopped listening. You went your own way.
One day, though, if you're lucky, and if you haven't already, you'll come back. You'll realize that perfection is a lot to demand, especially from a stranger. You'll get better about keeping the parts of someone you need and overlooking the parts you don't. You'll grow less certain, not more, and in your doubt you'll return to your old anchors. You'll walk shamelessly through the streets of your own particular Havana one last time, and you'll remember who brought you there in the first place, and when, and you'll be so grateful that they did.