I MET the other face of Cuba last month in a parking lot in Havana. It was after 3 a.m. and he was a little drunk -- a small man in his early 50s with a sailor hat on his head.

I had been there for more than an hour, wandering hopefully among the palm-lined driveways of the Tropicana night club with a genial Georgian named Beauregard Cutts -- two journalistic fugitives from an international yacht race improbably adrift in the Revolution.

We had been searching for a ride to the Hotel Nacional some distance away. But what taxis there were in Havana's fading fleet of pre-1959 Detroit models were packed with homebound revelers from the Tropicana.

A dozen or so Cubans shared our situation. They waited patiently, musing with us through my pidgin Spanish about the uncertainties of revolutionary transportation and the frequent vicissitudes of fate.

Then along the street came the man in the sailor hat, humming softly to himself in the night.

"You are going to the Hotel Nacional? vamanos! We are going that way," he said, never pausing in his motion forward. "What is your country? Canada?"

"U.S.A.," I said.

He stopped suddenly, turned toward me and touched my arm, his eyes suddenly very sad.

"America," he said. "Oh, I want to go there."

He said his name was Jesus and he worked in a nearby restaurant.

"This is my friend Joselito," he said. A grinning six-footer in his 20s came loping up. "We have been drinking. It is all right to drink, you see, because now we are off work. Sometimes it is very good to drink . . . When we drink we forget."

Joselito flagged down several cars and at length found a '57 Chevrolet whose driver he seemed to know. We all piled in and rattled off toward the Hotel Nacional.

"It is good to talk the English," Jesus continued, to no one in particular. "I learn it in my church. They teach me to speak slowly and very clearly. But it is 15 years now that I do not speak it. I should have go to American then. now it is too late."

"But you have made much progress in Cuba," I said. "I have seen the housing and the clinics. There seems to be little real poverty and the children seem well fed."

"That is true, all true," he said, staring out the window. "But, you must understand. There is no laughter."

We drive through the darkness of downtown Havana, past the rich colonial buildings of the old city where once the cafes and flower stands and orange vendors had graced the broad, tree-shaded avenues.

Nowadays the broad streets are largely empty. The Revolution has shifted the focus of the city from the streets and buildings of the colonial past to those of the socialist future. The center city now surrounds a huge mural of Lenin on an avenue that is angular and gray.

"I practice the English even when I do not speak it," said Jesus, pulling thoughtfully on a moribund cigarette butt. "'to be or not to be -- that is the question.' You see?"

He flicked the cigarette out the window and watched it sail off into the pre-dawn darkness.

"Even the cigarette is free," he said mournfully, "but I am not free."

In the front seat, an ebullient Joselito babbled happily about rum and women. He pulled out a cigarette but couldn't find a match. My friend Cutts handed him a Bic lighter. Joselito used it, then turned it over and over in his hand, examining it with obvious fascination.

"My friend asks how much such a lighter costs in the United States and whether you would consider selling it," Jesus translated.

"Tell him I would be honored if he would keep it as my small thanks for helping us with the taxi," Cutts said.

Joselito beamed with joy, leaned over the seatback and embraced Cutts, nearly jarring the driver into a parked car. "Amigos! he said happily. "Amigos!"

"My friend is very happy. He does not think of these things," Jesus explained. "Many here do not think of them. But I think of little else."

At the Hotal Nacional we paid the driver and the two men bade us goodbye.

"Amigos!" said Joselito, with much embracing and handshakes.

"I think," I said to Jesus, "that you should not go. We must have yet one more drink together to honor you for your help.

"It is very late," he replied, "but perhaps one drink more."

By this time it was nearly 4 a.m. The hotel bar was closed, but we wandered to another nearby called El Gato Tuerto -- the one-eyed cat.

On the way, Joselito began singing loudly.

"Your friend sings with much grace, but I think he will get us arrested," I said to Jesus.

"Let him sing. A man should be free to sing in his own country. His is the only music that we will hear."

"Do you know what they sing of Cuba in the States?" I asked. "It is a beautiful song: Cuando sali do Cuba/Deje mi vida y mi amer. When I went away from Cuba, I left my heart buried there."

"But you would not bury your heart in a cemetery," Jesus cried with exasperation. "And my Cuba today, she is a cemetery." He was silent a moment. "I think I drink some rum."

In the One-Eyed Cat, Joselito embraced several waiters, whom he appeared to know, found us a table, greeted the proprietor and ordered drinks for us all around. Everyone appeared glad to see him.

Then he lit a cigarette happly with his new Bic lighter and beamed anew."Amigos!" he said. "Mucho gusto."

"Joselito," said Cutts, "you're okay."

"My friend likes American things very much," Jesus said.

"You know," Cutts said to me, "I bet this guy deals in Levis."

"Levis?" wondered Joselito."Que es?"

"Blue jeans," said Cutts. "Denim."

Joselito still drew a blank.

"Levis," Cutts said, and pulled at his pant leg.

"LEVVIES!" cried Joselito. "You have Levvies? Oh, amigos!" More embracing.

"My friend says he had been searching for some of these Levvies," said Jesus who had been thoughtfully drinking rum and soda. "Such things are difficult to obtain in our country."

"I have one pair, but they are very old," I said.

"No problem."

"But they are faded and have a spot."

"No problem."

"They might not fit him."

No problem."

Joselito fumbled through his rayon slacks and came up with 20 pesos (about $25) which he stuffed in my shirt pocket. "Levvies," he said.

"I've got a pair I could sell him, but they're my favority sailing pants," Cutts said. "Besides, they have a rip in the crotch."

"I've got a pair I brought down to trade in case I met any Russians," I said. "I could let him have those. I also have a Nixon T-shirt -- one of those with the Levine caricature that says, 'Don't buy books by crooks -- boycott the memoirs.'"

"Does that translate?" he asked.

I thought a moment. "I don't think so," I said.

"Vamos a les Levvies" said Joselito. He had somehow made the check disappear without paying it. The waiter seemed to understand. Everyone shook hands.

"I think we've caught up with Havana's black market Mafia connection," said Cutts without alarm as he walked back up the hill to the hotel.

"I don't know," I said. "He doesn't look very dangerous."

Joselito was singing "Guantanamera" very loudly. Jesus was talking softly to himself, face downcast.

Three clerks looked suspiciously at us as we paraded into the cavaernous marble lobby. One American in a three-piece suit, another in sandals and a white cotton shirt and slacks, and the two Cubans in dark baggy rayon slacks and sport shirts. Jesus still wore his red and white sailor hat.

We all went up to Cutts' room; then I went to my room to get the Levis. When I returned, Joselito had Cutts' suitcase open on the bed and sifting raptly through the wrinkled contents with faint exclamations and moans. Jesus sat in a chair, drinking rum from a bathroom glass.

"Casima bonita!" Joselito cried, holding up a torn alligator shirt.

"Hey, that's my sailin shirt!" Cutts protested.

Joselito threw it down on the bed and lunged for the Levis. He held them up, muttering rapidly.

"My friend says they are somewhat older than he thought," Jesus said, killing the last of Cutts' rum. "But they will do."

"Because he his my friend I will throw in this fine shirt," I said, holding up the Nixon T-shirt.

"Que es?" Joselito asked.

"Noxon es el Batista de los Estados Unidos," I said with hyperbole excessive even by Latin standards. I tried to translate the slogan on the shirt.

Joselito stared at me, uncomprehending, then turned to his friend.

"Como?" he asked. Jesus shrugged. "Bueno," said Joselito, wrapping the T-shirt in the pants. "Amigos!" he said, and shook hands all around. Then he dove back into the pile of clothes. He seemed to be looking for something he couldn't find.

Then he straightened up and unzipped his fly.

"Hey, now listen . . ."" protested Cutts.

But Joselito merely wanted to point out an aged pair of jockey shorts, riddled with holes. "Bambachos?" he said.

"I think he wants your underwear," I said to Cutts.

"You've got to be kidding. Does he realize it's not exactly clean? I mean, we been here damn near a week."

"I don't think it matters," I said.

Cutts searched through another bag and came out with four pairs of shorts, sending Joselito into new rounds of exclamations, handshakes and embraces.

"Amigos!" he said. "Mucho amigos."

"My friend would pay 11 pesos for the shirt and four underwears," said Jesus. "These things are hard to find in this country where I am not free." j

That about $13; it would cost more than that to replace them at home," said Cutts. "11 pesos for two of the shorts."

"Veinte pesos!" cried Joselito with delight, indicating the underwear was to be lumped in with the jeans for 20 pesos.

"No." I said, "the jeans are finito. Finito los Levvies."

Joselito looked briefly wounded, then started rummaging through Cutts' toilet kit. He emerged beaming with three packs of Doublemint gum, one packet of Dramamine and a can of spray deodorant which he sampled and claimed. Then he tried on Cutts' dark glasses and checked himself in the mirror.

"Once pesetas!" he said.

"Maybe," Cutts said. Joselito then tried to roll up the underwear, the jeans and everything else.

What the hell is he trying to do?" said Cutts. "We said no on the underwear."

"Amigos!" cried Joselito, with more embraces, reluctantly surrendering the underwear.

It went on like this for about an hour.

Finally the deal was completed, involving, to the best of my memory, the exchange of 11 pesos for the gum, deodorant, dark glasses and a bathing suit, but no underwear.

"I wish he had bought the underwear," said Cutts. "It would have been better copy if I'd sold my underwear."

"My friend regrets he cannot buy the underwears," said Jesus, rising stiffly from the chair. "He has no more pesos with him. Perhaps he meets you tomorrow."

"But tomorrow we must go," I said.

To America?" Jesus said. "Take me with you."

I wish we could but that is not possible, my friend. We came in sailboats and we return on a very small plane. There is no room and anyway there would be great risk."

"i know," he said sadly. "It is too late. I should have go long ago. Now it is too late."

He stuck the bathing suit into his back pocket while Joselito gaily stuffed the jeans and shirt into the sagging crotch of his baggy paints. The other items somehow vanished into other pockets. For Jesus there seemed to be no joy in the transaction.

We walked the two men down through the high vaulted marble lobby and out into the pre-dawn darkness. It was nearly 5 a.m.

"Perhaps we will come back to Cuba and drink with you again," I said. "We both would like that very much. This is still a very beautiful country and you are good friends."

"No, you must go," said Jesus. "It is better to go to America because there a man is free."

We shook hands all around. Everybody seemed a little reluctant to leave. There were more embraces, especially from Joselito, who was still a little drunk. "Amigos," he said, sadly.

Then they wandered off toward downtown Havana and the faint beginnings of the dawn. They never looked back.