Three thousand miles away from that same refugee center where he was processed in May, 22-year-old Frank Alvares is working the room at Los Angeles' celebrity-studded: Ma Maison like a Tinseltown regular.
He jokes with Ed McMahon, a man whose guffaw he can imitate perfectly from clandestinely watching hundreds of hours of videotaped "Tonight" shows.
He points out Judity Krantz, whose visage he has memorized from a paperback copy of "Scruples" left at the Habana Libre Hotel by an American tourists.
He introduces himself to Orson Wells: "I have been greatly moved by your films," he says, in perfect English, "but of course this plaes in meeting you."
It is as if they are old colleagues -- this young immigrant who arrived in the Land of Plenty on May 20 and the portly eccentric director and actor who is chomping on a fat Cuban cigar. They break into conversation in Spanish, which, Welles sporadically interprets for the other table guess.
"The way to understand Castro," says Welles, "is to realize that he was a monumental case of bad casting. He was never a good dictator and now this massive exodus is a great slap in his face."
But Castro and Cuba are behind Frank Alvarez, who also had to leave his mother, Carmen Guerrero, and his girlfriend, Rebecca Centeno, when he boarded the yacht Olo-Yumi in Havana harbor with 51 other Cubans to flee to Miami.
Now he stands at the gates of Disneyland, reading an inscription that declares, "here you leave today and enter the world of Yesterday, Tomorrow and Fantasy."
It is an appropriate passage. For although he was raised in a land devoted to communism (his brothers are named Fidel and Raoul), Frank Alvarez was born to enter the Magic Kingdom.
Today, he thinks his life here will be as neatly ordered as a Beach Boys lyric. He has the sly naivete of a renegade, used to the order of his totalitarian society while happily rebelling against it: Marxism awash in the Me Decade ethic. And unlike the thousands of youths in communist countries wearing out bootleg copies of the latest Fleetwood Mac album, Frank Alvarez has made his rock 'n' roll fantasy his life.
"I have no doubt," says Richard Roth, who produced the film "Julia" and gave Alvarez his copy of "Pentimento" after befriending him on a visit to CUba, "that Frank will prosper in America. And he's come to the right place. This guy belongs in Hollywood. He believes in making myths come true."
"This country is the land of opportunity," says Alvarez, "and I'm proving it. Yesterday I bought a '71 Torino and drove it on the Hollywood Freeway without ever having driven a car before."
Frank Alvarez's journey to America began long before he bribed a Cuban policeman with his Omega Speedster wristwatch and 250pesos to board the Olo-Yumi, long before the 50-foot boat hit a storm and capsized, long before 19 of his shipmates drowned and a U.S. Air Force Helicopter plucked the 33 survivors out of the Atlantic 30 miles off the coast of Florida.
Onenight, a dozen years ago, he was lying under the covers in his bed, fiddling with the dial of his small transistor radio. And blaring through the static came an epiphany: KAAY, Little Rock, broadcasting The Doors' "Light My Fire," a fierce, dark song of greed for sensation.
"This was a culture I didn't know existed," says Alvarez, "and I was hooked."
In that brief instant, the 10-year-old knew there was something bigger and more vital lying 900 miles to the north.
He had been born into an aristocratic family. Hs grandparents had owned sugar mills, and his grandfather eventually served as a vice-consul in Washington at the Cuban Embassy during the presidency of Calvin Coolidge. His father continued the tradition of government service, but switched his loyalty from Batista to Castro.
Yet even at the age of 7, Frank Alvarez had difficulty reconciling Castro's tolerance of his family's wealth, with the professed goals of the revolution. He had attended a birthday party for Hildita Guevara, and aftr the presents had been given to the girl, father Che rounded all the children into his car and drove them to an orphanage, where they were instructed to distribute the spoils of capitalism.
"I admired Che," says Alvarez, " and that made me wonder what communsim was all about."
As he grew older, he wondered less and less. His radio kept him plugged into the American culture frothing through the '60s. He heard Bob Bylan's "Motopsycho Nightmare Blues," with its lampoon of Castro, and Billy Joel's plaintive hymn to the common guy, "Piano Man." He learned English and devoured books by Kurt Vonnegut.
When his father traveled around the world he would bring home Levis for young Frank, oblivious to the political implication they held for his son.
Although he learned to spout the part line at school and attended communist boys camp, he was happier roving about Havana with the few friends who shared his secret passion. He had become a closer American teen-ager.
When his family decided he should be a doctor, he grudingly went off to medical shcool, where he spent less time on studies than on watching smuggled video cassettes of "Blow Up" and "Nashville" and "Saturday Night Live."
"He knew more about America than I did," says Sol Zabar of the famous New York food emporium who met Alvarez on a trip to Cuba two years ago. He asked us to send him very specific things: a particular type of blue jeans, a Peugeot distributor cap for a friend's car. He was very charming and seemed like an encyclopedia of American music."
Indeed, in his homeland.Frank Alvarez had an uncanny ability to zero in on American tourists. He would have been dismissed as a common street urchin had he not spoken English so fluently and displayed so keen an awareness of American culture.
He was a hustler once removed, lusting not for the small change of a black-market money conversion, but rather for updates on the latest events in the Land of the Free. He was the consummate charmer. He knew how to worm his way backstage to meet his idol Billy Joel when the rock musician performed in Havava last year. And he could size up a tourist and know exactly how to begin a conversation.
"Frank walked up to me when I was in Cuba last year," says Washington musician Mike Henley, and he said. 'You look like Frank Zappa.' It blew me away.It was like somehow he knew I was a musician. He started talking about the second cut on the second side 'of so-and-so's album, and I'm thinking, 'Oh boy, are we gonna get hustled. What is this guy after?' It turned out that all he wanted was someone to talk with about this mythical idea he had of America: the land of plenty; not the place whre poor people get the s--- kicked out of them.
"Frank will rise to the top," says Henley. "He smart and he cares about himself."
In May, when thousands of his countrymen began to leave Cuba, Frank Alvarez was confronted with an awkward dilemma. To leave the country most likely meant that he would never again see his mother, his father or his girlfriend. He discussed the prospects with his mother, and came to a decision.
"I wanted to live in a place," he says, "where a person can become what he wants depending on how hard he fights -- and if he doesn't like it he can just fly away and leave it."
He could not discuss the matter with his father, he says, because his political position would have forced him to discolse his son's plans to officials trying to squelch the exodus.
And so he sneaked off alone at night, and bribed his way aboard ship. And when he finally arrived here, everyone who met Frank Alvarez recognized an American who had been on ice for 22 years.
When he and his shipmates were being flown from Key West to the Ft. Indiantown Gap relocation center, Alvarez was asked to explain their destination over the plane's PA system. When they arrived in Pennsylvania, Alvarez immediately befriended the relocation commander, Gen Grail L. Brookshire, and was out in 48 hours.
Frank Alvarez walked out the gate, kissed the ground and called a tourist from Harrisburg he had met in Cuba. He spent the next day at Three Mile Island, "because," he says, "this is an important part of American culture in the last year."
He went to New York, where Sol Zabar proposed some job possibilities: a clerk at his store; manual labor at an Earl Scheib body paint shop: a telephone sales clerk at Sears. Zabarlent him some money. Frank said he would think about the offers, and checked into the YMCA -- "just like The Village People song," he says, "But I agree that disco s---." He paid a visit to Billy Joel's office.
His plan was to leave New York and fly to Miami, where relatives had agreed to help support Frank.
"But this was not my idea of America," he says.
And so at 9 p.m. on a Thrusday night, Frank Alvarez heard the call and decided to head for Los Angeles on the red eye -- "like the John Sebastian song," says the college of rock 'n' roll knowledge.
He ran down to the baggage room at the Y, only to discover an Indian -- "as in Hindi," he says -- attendant closing up for the night. He regaled the man withtales of his nonexistent trips to Calcutta and New Delhi, and got his luggage. He hailed a cab. He did not have enough money to get to the airport. He noticed the cabbie's name.
"You Cuban?" asked Alvarez.
He got there free.
Frank Alvarez has unleashed himself on Los Angeles. He is happy working in the central cash vault at the Crocker Bank.
"Many of the Americans I met in Cuba thought I was a little bit of a hustler," he says. "I took this job to prove I am honest."
He is happy with all the Billy Joel albums he bought with his first paycheck. He is happy racing through holographic asteroids in Disneyland's Space Mountain rollercoaster -- "a long way," he says, from the Havana municipal recreation facility called Lenin Park.
"Sometimes," he says watching Mickey Mouse cook fried eggs in a cartoon. "I feel like I've walked into a movie theater and stepped through the screen."
He is happy riding the freeways in his '71 Torino, rolling through the city that Fitzgerald called "a mining down in lotus land," living out the dreams he snared with his little transistor radio.
ANd if you listen carefully, you can hear him trying to sing along with a song he's only heard a few times. The Kinks' "Celluloid Heroes":
You can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard
Some you can recognize, some you hardly ever heard of /
People who worked and suffered and struggle for fame /
Some who succeeded and some who suffered in vain/
Everybody's a dreamer, Everybody's a star /
Everybody's in show biz, It doesn't matter who you care /
And those who are successful be always on your guard /
Success walks hand in hand with failure along Hollywood Boulevard.