HAVANA — To find the heartbeat of the new Cuba, jump in a '55 Chevy taxi painted electric orange and speed away from the tourist hotel.
Roar right past the government buildings and the weary bureaucrats ending another workday. Breeze past the old revolutionary slogans, billboards and murals that proclaim in Spanish "Socialism or Death!" — except notice the colors fading on these slogans, as if not even the paint truly believes.
To find the heartbeat of a new Cuba, hop out onto a crowded street near the University of Havana, where the air crackles like live wire, where the humidity sticks like fog, where horns bleat and salsa music thumps, where life feels like a paramedic slapping paddles on an American chest and yelling, "Clear!"
Duck into a doorway beside a kiosk selling cheap jewelry. Enter a dark, sweltering living room, where the ceilings are low and the air is choked with cigarette smoke.
The first sound in this living room is a driving guitar riff screaming from an old speaker. That electric guitar is oh-so-familiar: decadent, whiny, as 1980s American as McDonald's apple pie.
Wait a second. Is that ...?
"You know where you are? You're in the jungle baby!" screams Axl Rose.
The Hustler shakes my handas the Guns N' Roses blares. He is 42, lean and wiry, sporting a black polo that exposes tattoos snaking down his forearms. He smiles crookedly and, over my protests, pours me a warm glass of rum. His glassy eyes suggest he's already had a few.
This is the main room of his family home, the center of his mini-empire, and a nice vantage point from which to understand the Cuba they don't teach in textbooks or presidential speeches.
The Hustler is ready to explain, in rapid-fire Spanish andbrokenEnglish, how he went from being a black-market bandit to a legit free-market businessman who runs this jewelry kiosk and a wildly successful print shop, the Cuban version of a Kinko's.
He's ready to show what's happening on the streets of Havana as the Cubans of a new generation, tired of their grandparents' politics, tired of the old-guard government (and ours, too), and most of all tired of having no pesos, have grabbed a series of small yet important reforms and are running with them, hard, like someone being chased.
People are making a little money now in the new Cuba. They are making a little noise. They are hustling. You better believe they are hustling.
"Call it capitalism, call it socialism, call it whatever you want!" the Hustler yells over Slash's wailing guitar.
"It doesn't matter! Things are changing."
For decades, American eyes have tended to see Cuba as a figure frozen at the edge of a cliff. We see the bearded leader who outlasted a missile crisis, a Cold War and 10 U.S. presidents. We see classic Chevys rumbling down the Malecón, their drivers puffing on giant cigars.
We see the free health care but also the ration cards, the education but also the political prisoners. We imagine the Hilton Garden Inns and Applebee's restaurants sure to come in five years or 10, and we tell each other, "Better get to Havana soon, before the embargo ends and everything changes."
That is all true enough. But what American eyes tend to miss is every bit as important.
We don't see the green shoots of private industry already growing through cracks in the Havana sidewalks, the hope that it's the beginning of a flower, the fear that the government will yank it like a weed.
We don't notice the tourist stampede that has Havana hotel rooms booked solid through spring — a stampede that will grow even larger now that the United States has agreed to allow commercial flights here. We don't recognize the upside-down economy this creates, an economy where doctors and engineers quit their jobs to take far more lucrative gigs as the world's most educated cabdrivers and tour guides.
We don't hear the increasingly loud, increasingly heated debate inside Cuba, where online media and something called The Package have rendered the old state-run media obsolete. We overlook the record numbers of fed-up Cubans voting with their feet, bidding adios to their loved ones and moving to Madrid, Miami... and Omaha, too.
We miss the question when we ask: When will Cuba change?
Cuba isn't frozen at the edge of a cliff. Rub your eyes. Look again.
Cuba is already in motion, headed over that cliff, because a quarter-century of turmoil and the reality of 2016 give it no other choice but to squeeze its eyes shut and jump toward something different.
The real question isn't when Cuba will leap. The real question is: How will Cuba land?
The real question: Is this country wearing a parachute or an anvil?
The Hustler and the Old Cuba didn't get along.
Once, he opened an underground tattoo parlor, which took cojones since he lived in a country that had banned virtually all non-state-owned business since 1959.
A man came in asking for a tattoo of the male anatomy on his shoulder. The Hustler obliged — who is he to judge what a man wants inked on his shoulder? (Plus, the man paid in cash.)
The authorities did not agree. They found the tattoo parlor. They took his inking equipment. They shut the Hustler down.
For years the Hustler operated in a black market known well to Cubans, particularly after 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba's $11 billion subsidy went to zero, and middle-class families found themselves scrounging for food.
Fidel Castro named this era "The Special Period." It wasn't.
Even today, if you want beef, you better have extra cash and know a guy who knows a guy.
Same goes for health care, one of the cherished triumphs of the revolution. Hard to argue with that success: The average Cuban lives to 78, better than almost all of Latin America and virtually tied with the United States (79) even though we spend 15 times as much per person on health care.
But do you want an appointment? Better bring the doctor a gift, or find yourself stuck at the back of the line.
The Hustler thrived in this black market and got burned by it, too, once spending months in jail.
In 1992 he did what so many desperate Cubans did. He climbed on a raft in search of something more. His raft pointed toward Panama, 1,000 miles away. A dozen people were aboard. They had no food, only sugar water to drink.
They floated for 96 hours in the Caribbean as the sun beat down and the waves swelled and crashed. The Hustler grew sure: This raft will sink. We will die.
A coast guard ship picked them up. Saved his life, the Hustler thinks, but of course ruined it, too. Soon he got locked in a Panamanian detention camp, surrounded by 10,000 other refugees. Eventually Panama sent the Cubans home. The Hustler avoided jail this time, but he couldn't get a state job, and the police watched him more closely than ever. All of Havan a was his jail cell.
"I had nothing," he says. "There was nothing for me here."
The giant rectangular cardboard boxes rolling by on Havana International Airport's luggage carousel are my first signs that Cuba is changing. One, two, five, eight, 12 boxes lurching past.
The Cuba I know, from books and a previous visit in 2003, is a country with few luxury goods or desires. A Cuba set apart from the world, locked in place by a U.S. embargo and its own unwillingness to change.
Cuba is where they tell a dark joke: The three greatest successes of the revolution are health care, education and baseball. The three