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Paseo del Prado,Havana: A Street a Time
El Dandy sauntered through the Sunday crowd on Havana's Paseo del Prado living up to his nickname. Slender and stylish with his tan gabardine suit, cane and lapel flower, he smiled and waved to friends and strangers alike. It hardly mattered that the suit was frayed and the flower was actually a piece of blood-red cloth he had folded and tucked into a buttonhole.

El Dandy, born Everildo Alfonso, still carried himself as if he were back in 1952, when the suit was new and he was 31 years old. He was at home on Paseo del Prado, a promenade that dates from the 18th century and still offers a peek into worlds old and new.

''The unseen is food for the eye,'' El Dandy said to me. ''The wonders that you have yet to see nourish it.''

Paseo del Prado is the Havana street that I return to on every visit to see something or someone new. On one of my first walks here I met Lazaro, a young man whose love for all things American led him to have pictures of the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan tattooed on his back. Another time, some friends and I met Marta and Eddie, a newlywed couple who invited us to their tiny apartment for a raucous wedding reception filled with bongo-playing and dancing. Cubans are always ready to ask foreigners -- especially Americans -- to their homes for conversation or a cup of strong coffee.

As I walked under the thick canopy of trees that line Prado's granite walkway, I ignored the young hustlers with their come-ons for cigars, rum or restaurants. The night before, in a smoky bar on the Malecón, I had spent a few hours listening to a small combo that played songs that make women swoon and men get that far-off look in their eyes. So, today I went looking for conversation and music on a street that, like El Dandy, is still sharp, though a bit worn.

Paseo runs for a mile or so, from the Malecón, the seaside boulevard, to a little past the Capitol building. It starts out tranquil, with the sound of the waves crashing on the sea wall, and ends up hectic, with scores of people jostling for taxis in the shadow of the Capitol dome. Once filled with theaters and dance halls, the street is still filled with music, from the passing cars to the sidewalk cafes.

El Dandy smiled broadly as he recalled the days when he, a baker by trade and a musician by proclivity, went to dances here. It was an era when the music was romantic, unlike the stuff he hears these days.

The rolling thunder of stomping feet echoed under the arcade that runs outside the Centro Andaluz de la Habana, a cultural center for the descendants of immigrants from Andalusia. Inside, young girls in long skirts went through the paces of a flamenco dance, raising their slender arms and slowly moving their hands like flowers.

At night, the school turns into a cabaret and flamenco tablao that has impressed Spanish flamenco stars like Cristina Hoyos and Eva La Yerbabuena. A stern-faced old man guards the entryway, though people often just stop on the sidewalk to gawk through the long windows. While Yahima Gomez, a dancer with the troupe Habana Flamenca, got enthusiastic applause, a few over-the-top lounge-style crooners drew smirks at best.

Life on the Paseo moves to different rhythms from block to block and from hour to hour. Teenage boys skateboarding during the day are replaced at night by

Every day, dozens of people hoping to trade apartments gather in the middle of the Paseo. Some are looking for smaller places because their children have grown up, while others are looking for a better location. Any difference in price is made up in barter or cash.


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