There’s nothing like driving from one of the northern-most states to the southern-most state to get a good idea of just how large and diverse this nation really is. That diversity, of course, is reflected in the political rancor of our time and it is also why a two or three percent difference in voting is now considered a mandate.
But there is one thing we all seem to have in common as Americans: strippers. Yes, that’s right, strippers. From the Rust Belt to the Bible Belt, if you drive on any major freeway, you’ll never be very far from a place with strippers. In the heart of the Bible Belt on I-75 in Georgia, they don’t even mince words in advertising. Multiple billboards scream out in giant letters, STRIPPERS! And then, in smaller text it says, “Need we say more? Exit now.”
While there are no strip joints in Sun City Center (that I know of), it’s just a short jaunt over to the edge of Tampa to find several places advertising them. Some people claim that the Tampa Bay Area has more strippers per capita than any other city. That’s not true, of course. We’d have to work diligently to attract enough strippers to topple places like Las Vegas, let alone a few third-world countries that would seem to be promising locales for finding those willing to shed their clothes in exchange for compensation.
And speaking of strippers, the conversation brings to mind the age-old profession of prostitution. I’ve never hired a prostitute so I don’t know what is involved or where to look, but it probably wouldn’t be hard to narrow things down to a few promising parts of town.
When Michelle and I visited Havana in the late 90s with a few dozen other American sailboats, the marina we stayed at was awash in prostitutes. As a result, we sought them out. Our church had given us a bunch of little New Testament Bibles to hand out. And in those days I was a serious frequent-flyer with an impressive collection of hotel soap bars we also brought along to hand out. Back then and, possibly today, soap, aspirin and the like were in extremely short supply in Cuba. So, we’d seek out someone who appeared to be a prostitute and give her a bag containing a Bible, soaps, aspirin and a five-dollar bill. Yep, five bucks was enough for a whole menu of services from a Cuban prostitute, but there were no strings attached. Besides, Michelle probably would have frowned upon that. Also, we weren’t Bible-banging them over the head, it was just a gift, something we had to give.
Why would we seek out prostitutes? Because most were young women who would probably rather be anything else or be anywhere else, but they needed money to survive. Five bucks went a long ways in Cuba back then. It probably still does.
The little Bibles were hugely popular. We were told that anything written in English was popular so people there could better learn the language. As such, you can blame us and others like us if the trade embargo disappears and large sections of the population appear to be speaking to you using the words “thy,” “thee” and “smite.” In fact, they were so popular, that we ended up running out and donating our own personal Bibles — one was a small New Testament from when I was a kid — it had my name and home address in it.
Three months after returning from our trip, my Mom received a letter at that address from a woman who very politely wrote to thank us for the money, soap and Bible. She was a government employee with a Department of Fisheries and was curious as to what prompted us to give that to her. Regardless, she appreciated it. I remember giving it to her; she didn’t look like a prostitute but just seemed to be a nice lady. She smiled when we handed over the bag.
Before we set sail, we were told by those who knew someone who knew someone else who had an uncle who had been there that Cuba would not be all that welcoming of the little Bibles. Thus we spread them out around the boat so it didn’t look like we had corruptive plans for banging innocent Cubans over the head with them. Our worries were for naught, however, when the customs official who boarded our boat upon arrival was the first person to take one. He asked about it on our bookshelf and we told him to have at it. The small parade of people who boarded to clear us in took that Bible, a Corona beer (it was 5 a.m.) and a can of Diet Coke (carefully placed into his briefcase to enjoy later, or, more likely, to present to his kids as a surprise).
The Diet Coke we had was almost as popular as the Bibles. When the parade of officials returned for clearing us out of the country, the representatives of various governmental departments cleaned us out of it, as they tore our boat apart looking for guns. We didn’t have one on board but they told us they were concerned we would get in trouble with the U.S. if it turned out we did accidentally have one. Whatever. We enjoyed meeting the gun and drug sniffing German Shepherd they brought aboard and he enjoyed the dog treats we had.
There is a good reason for the popularity of Diet Coke. Cuban soda is scary. Almost as scary as the orange hamburger that Michelle had from a street vendor in Havana. Yes, orange, but that’s another story.
Entering Florida and leaving the Georgia strippers behind, the billboards only slightly become more nuanced. “WE BARE ALL!” they scream out as families with little Johnny and Susie pass by making their way towards Disney World. At least we seem to have that in common, as we shout out, “SOCIALIST!” “COMMUNIST!” and “NAZI!” to our neighbors (usually anonymously via the Web, pronouncing that this person or that will bring on the end of our nation, passing harsh judgment upon those we deem to be too fortunate or, more frequently, not fortunate enough to warrant simple human compassion).
Meanwhile, back in Havana, a young woman tucks another five-dollar bill into a little Bible, quietly saving for dreams of better days. She can’t imagine, let alone wish for, problems like ours.