NOTES FROM THE UNDERGRAD

Off the Rails
Discovering the lives my grandfather didn’t live.

 

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Self-portrait of the artist as a young man: Rene Polin before he joined the railroad.

 

 

 

By Joe Polin | Santiago de Cuba, 1933:

The doctor examined the newborn twins, his forehead wrinkled with concern. He bent over the nearer one to listen to his breathing.

“Are they okay? Are they healthy?” the father asked.

The doctor finally straightened up, meeting the father’s gaze. After a moment of consideration, he said, “Give this one your name, he is perfectly healthy. This one”—he pointed to the smaller of the two twins—“isn’t going to make it. He’s too weak to survive.”

Seventy-eight years later, my grandfather is sitting across from me and saying, “In other words, I was supposed to die the moment I was born.” There is a hint of pride in his voice, like an underdog recalling all the naysayers after a huge upset. And I suppose this really is a miracle, this small kitchen with a table cluttered by newspapers and a refrigerator wallpapered by a collage of friends and grandchildren. My grandfather should not be sitting across from me, scratching his bushy eyebrows and tapping a pen distractedly. But he is, and a stressful birth was only the first of many obstacles in the path that brought him to the chair across from me, talking over a plate of Grandma’s chocolate muffins.

Breaking eye contact for a moment, I reposition the digital recorder so that it’s midway between us. I’m only in Cleveland for the weekend, having flown home from Philadelphia specifically to perform this interview. I know it sounds a little crazy to spend hundreds of dollars on plane tickets simply for an English paper. But I have a feeling that what I’m about to hear is worth it.

“What was it like growing up in Cuba?” I ask.

He opens his mouth, considers for a moment, and then begins: “I never had a toy.” I again sense that subtle streak of pride that often comes from someone who encountered and overcame hardships. His father—Joaquin Polin—was a farmer and soldier from China who had fought in the Manchurian war before settling down in Cuba. As a decorated soldier, he climbed easily through the ranks of the Chinese community in Cuba, and eventually became leader of the Chinese Society. He also owned a grocery store.

Within his own household, however, “he wasn’t really like a father,” my grandfather explains matter-of-factly. “He was very cold.” The pair would routinely walk miles at a time without speaking a word, every silent step widening the chasm between them. In the place of a true father figure, my grandfather was raised by three women: his Cuban mother, a gypsy, and a black woman. He laughingly refers to them as his “three mamas.” Yet he was anything but a mama’s boy. When the neighborhood children picked on him for being half-Chinese, his “black mama’s” advice was simple: They mess with you, you fight.

My grandfather followed the instructions without question. After a particularly violent skirmish with some other children, he was forced to wear a splint on his injured hand. When his enemies saw this, they jumped at the chance to heckle the injured fighter. “The way I figured it,” my grandfather says, “the splint was there to protect my hand. So I went ahead and whopped them.”

The worst consequence of his injury, however, was the fact that he couldn’t play baseball with the splint—not as well, anyway. Growing up, my grandfather spent most days escaping to the cement-like sand flats that passed for baseball fields in Cuba.

“Man, I could hit …” he says, gazing at the wall behind me but seeing something thousands of miles away and many decades earlier. “No one could strike me out.” He stands up in the small kitchen and assumes a left-handed batting stance. Brandishing an invisible bat, he demonstrates how he used to keep his feet close together and step into the pitch, leading with his hips and following through with his wrists. I can almost hear the crack of the bat on the ball. He looks me dead in the eye, suddenly a coach talking to his player: “It’s all about timing. They couldn’t strike me out because I had timing. Timing is everything.”

Yes, it is. One day in 1947, an artist passing through Santiago came into Joaquin’s grocery store to buy some things. Turning down the appropriate aisle, he was stopped in his tracks by a young boy sketching a beautiful portrait on a carton of strawberries. The man immediately forgot about whatever produce he was looking for and ran to my great-grandfather. “Your son is a tremendous artist. Don’t waste that talent!” The older artist was met with unsympathetic silence, but a few weeks later, he returned with his cousin from an art institute. When the men examined my grandfather’s work more closely, they were astounded at the quality, especially for someone who had no formal training and had dropped out of high school. And so, at age 14, my grandfather was offered a full scholarship to the top fine-arts university in the capital. Upon learning that my grandfather was also somewhat of a baseball phenom, the men pursued him even more eagerly. It dawns on me that this is why he speaks so proudly of the bad hand that life dealt him. In the face of terrible odds and a seemingly stacked deck, he still managed to win the jackpot.

He pauses, savoring this adolescent moment. Everything was set; the future could not be more promising. Like a roller coaster perched at the top of a hill right before a thrilling descent, my grandfather found himself on the cusp of a prodigious career. I silently urge him to continue talking. I’m anxious for stories of artistic masterpieces being featured in shows or walk-off home runs flying over the right-field fence. What famous people would he meet, what amazing places would he see? Ultimately, which amazing gift would he end up dedicating his life to? Finally, he takes a deep, heavy breath.

“And then my father died. Goodbye scholarship, goodbye art school.”

Timing is everything.

Joaquin’s family barely had time to process the cancer diagnosis before he was forced to take to his bed. When death was imminent, the Chinese community flooded my grandfather’s home to pay their last respects. They somberly milled around the modest house, talking quietly. The passing of their leader was understandably a significant event. After a few hours, his successor-to-be slid into the bedroom and walked over to Joaquin’s wife.

“Lola, the Society owes your father good money. We’ll take care of you and your children. Joaquin, do you hear me? We’ll take care of your family. You have my word.” Joaquin could only nod slightly. It was one of his final expressions before passing away a few hours later.

With his father dead and his older brother lost to alcoholism, my grandfather assumed responsibility for the rest of his family. He met with the Chinese man who had promised financial support and attempted to cash in the verbal guarantee. The man brushed him off, claiming that the Society didn’t have money to spare for a widow and her children. They mess with you, you fight. A heated argument ensued and, before storming out of the man’s office, my grandfather pointed at him: “Your business is going to burn. And guess who’s going to burn it.”

As he recounts the dialogue, he leans forward and narrows his eyebrows. “I won’t go into the details, but his business did burn,” he says. “And when it was on its last legs, I stood in his doorway and said, ‘How’s that for a guarantee?’”

He leans back in his chair, face still deadly serious. He isn’t proud of what he did, I can see. At the same time, whether he was driven by a sense of duty or a desire for justice, he certainly doesn’t regret it.

No matter what my grandfather had done, however, the sobering fact remained: he was now the man of the house. He dutifully turned down his scholarship and began working in a Chinese grocery store to support his mother and sister. He was 15 years old, and the father who had given him nothing had also taken everything.

“Joseph, he ruined my life.” I don’t hear the pride he displayed when recounting his other setbacks and disadvantages. But I don’t hear bitterness or anger, either. Just regret. He sighs, and gives a light shrug.

“My wife, and my children, and you and all my other grandchildren are the best thing that’s ever happened to me. And if things had gone differently, who knows if we would be sitting here talking.” For the second time in the interview, I consider the improbability of the circumstances. Except this time, rather than embracing them as a blessing, my appreciation is bittersweet.

“Did you ever try to re-start your art career once you came to the United States?” I ask.

“No, not once,” he answers without hesitation. Before I have a chance to move on to my next question, I hear my grandmother clear her throat behind me. I turn to see her glaring at my grandfather, eyebrows raised accusingly.

“That’s not quite true,” she says to me, keeping her eyes fixed on my grandfather. “He took some evening classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art.”

“Oh no, that was only for a few days,” he says dismissively.

“More like a few years,” she corrects him, finally turning her eyes to me. “When I get back from church, I’ll show you some of the portraits he did when he was younger. They’re very good.”

I nod appreciatively, and express my interest. As my grandmother instructs him to pre-heat the oven while she’s gone, I consider why my grandfather refuses to recognize those classes as “pursuing art.” I finally realize that for someone who was considered worthy of a fully funded fine-arts education, how can a few evening classes per month compare with the career he might have had?

By now I have technically obtained enough information for my paper, but I leave the tape recorder rolling and listen to his stories about fighting in the Cuban Revolution and sparring with his friend “Sugar” Ramos, who eventually became the World Featherweight Champion in boxing. I learn of his journey to the United States with nothing but the clothes on his back, and then his career working on the railroad in Cleveland. I badly want to include these experiences in my piece, but to condense a life worthy of a book into this paper would be a crime, not to mention impossible.

“How long did you work on the railroad?” I ask.

“Thirty years.” He pauses, then, with a slight chuckle, adds, “More importantly, 30 winters.”

I shiver at the thought of my grandfather, who never stopped missing the scorching Santiago sun, lying in the snow, repairing a brake cable with numb fingers. These were the same fingers that used to track down fly balls and throw out runners foolishly tagging at third base. The same fingers that sketched beautiful portraits by day and boxed with future world champions at night. In one of their most triumphant moments, these fingers shook the hand of the fine-arts university’s admissions officer.

Perhaps, as those fingers double-checked the frozen brake line, it was for the best that they were numb.


Joe Polin is a sophomore from Cleveland, Ohio.

 
     
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 8/26/11