TAMPA — Knock on the door that bears the Jesus picture — No. 111 — and a voice inside yells "Entre!"
From a chair by a window, Jose Casanova smiles charmingly. He hands over two copies of metered prose and says in Spanish: "What do you think of my poems?"
He is 85.
"I am the poet named killer," he says, although his voice is not all it used to be. "Do you want me to sing for you?"
You came to visit me
It's an honor to have you here
That's why I'm preparing this song for you
My mind is not what it used to be
But I have a song for you.
Casanova then picks up a harmonica and the serenade continues as a Jesus pendant swings gently from a chain around his neck.
He says he was born a poet. But in Cuba, he held his verses in, even his favorite, the traditional Hispanic decima.
Especially the decima.
"You have to thrust yourself into it," he said, "which I was not able to do. I couldn't take any risks. Nobody would even dare put out a poem. Being a communist is bad."
Being lonely is bad, too. Casanova misses his brothers and sisters, two sons, a daughter and two young grandchildren back in Cuba. He has few visitors here at Manhattan Place, an apartment complex on Manhattan Avenue for renters 62 and older on fixed incomes.
Casanova was drafted at 18 into the Cuban army. When Fidel Castro took over, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He had served almost 15 when he got a chance to leave with the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, which brought about 125,000 Cuban emigrants to Florida.
Experts say America's elderly immigrants are among the most isolated because of language barriers and conflicting cultural values, according to a recent New York Times article. Seventy percent of recent older immigrants speak little or no English, like Casanova. Most do not drive.
Since 1990, the number of foreign-born people over 65 has grown from 2.7 million to 4.3 million, the New York Times said. Their ranks are expected to swell to 16 million by 2050.
In his room at Manhattan Place, Casanova has a story he wants to share.
Back in Cuba, he says, he got in an argument with a painter. The man contended that painting was a stronger artistic medium than poetry. Casanova told the man, you can draw a dove, you can give it a beak, but you can't give it the words for expression that it needs.
Poetry can do that. Whenever he feels something intensely, he pours out layers of nimble rhythms.
He wrote one about Fidel, but he doesn't recite it in polite company.
He wrote one on Sept. 11.
He wrote one when his mother died:
I was in New York when I got the telegram
Mom, I won't be able to see you again
But I'm doing here on Earth what I promised
He wipes his eyes. "It's too hard."
Life has not been easy. As a Cuban soldier, he was shot in his right knee, which still pains him and renders him unable to walk without assistance. He was shot in the neck while going to work along Nebraska Avenue in Tampa and spent years recuperating in a nursing home.
He used to take his scooter out for spins to a grocery store, but his arthritis keeps him home these days.
But he says he's never bored.
He has no teeth but still enjoys Cuban beans and rice and flan.
Everything makes him happy, he says. He points to his framed citizenship and an American flag on his scooter. He won't leave until he dies. He likes his life calm. He doesn't think of bad things and has no vices — except coffee, he says.
"You will come back and I will make you some," he says, and "when my chest is better, I'll give you a good song."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.