Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The King and The Palace

Hola Everybody...
It’s been several years since James Brown passed away. I wrote this back then... 

* * *

James Brown and the Pitkin Theater

At a crucial point in the award-winning film, Mr. Holland’s Opus, the teacher of the title is fighting to save the high school arts program from budget cuts. The exchange goes something like this:

Vice Principal Wolters: I care about these kids just as much as you do. And if I'm forced to choose between Mozart and reading and writing and long division, I choose long division. 

Glenn Holland: Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.

It is a telling moment in a movie that’s principally about teaching our young. The fact of the matter is that art is indispensable to education. Numerous studies have shown that children who are immersed in arts programs tend to do better in reading, writing, and mathematics, for example. The word educate comes from the Latin root word educare, which means to draw from. The implication being that education is not about filling children’s minds, but drawing out the potential that already exists. It is unfortunate that today we eat our young and then blame them for our own collective narcissism and shortsightedness. 

I won’t get into that today, but I mention the arts because it has been such an integral part of my life. Art, or Beauty, or Truth, or whatever you want to call it, saved my ass. When I was at the lowest point in my life what saved me was art. What saved me was the knowledge that in this fucked up world, full of petty motherfuckers racing like lemmings to catch/ buy/ sell/ the latest trend/ soundbite, flavor of the month, there was Beauty.

In my destitution, I could find sustenance in the intricate beauty of a Faulkner paragraph. I could drink Neruda’s passion; I could listen to John Coltrane’s fearless wide-eyed peer into the void. Knowing and experiencing the beauty of a Monet assured me that there was sanity in this world and that it was worth living. Therefore, it is with great sadness that I mark the passing of great artists – those who sustained me, when I felt I couldn’t do it myself. I feel a profound sense of gratitude for the archetype of The Artist, because they serve to remind us that there’s more to this momentary passage of time on this ball of mud we call Earth. The Artist, sometimes at great personal cost, follows her vision and sometimes points us to what matters most, though we oftentimes don’t pay heed.

And so it was with James Brown. I remember growing up listening and dancing to the sounds of James Brown. As a young teen, I danced the Camel Walk to James Brown. And who can forget his anthem to black pride when he sang, “Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!” At the time, it was a radical notion, for people of color to be proud of their skin color, the texture of their hair, and their culture. We take it for granted now, but there was a hard war fought in order for us to assume that we should be proud.

I was born of Puerto Rican parents and raised in the slums of New York City, rubbing elbows with African-American neighbors who also lived in those ghettos. I remember it was 1967 when we moved to East New York Ave in Brooklyn, right behind the Pitkin Theater (that’s the Pitkin Theater above). In those days, movie houses were built to resemble opulent palaces: velvet seats, gilded trimmings, lush carpeting in huge auditoriums facing a great stage where a huge silver screen hung. There was even a balcony and the older kids would go up there to make out.

At the time, we were one of the only Puerto Rican families living on that block embedded in a predominantly African-American community. In the beginning, I had to fight my way to and from school almost everyday. Eventually, I would befriend most of my neighbors and the first girl I ever kissed was this beautiful light-skinned girl called Gail. Actually, she would kiss me when we stood on line in school and I hated it because I didn’t like girls – yet.

On Saturdays, my mother would give each of us something like seventy-five cents and send us to the Pitkin Theater across the street on Pitkin Avenue (our apartment faced the back of the Pitkin Theater). The cost of admission was twenty-five cents and for that sum, you would see two new releases, plus the cartoons sandwiched in-between.

But the Pitkin Theater also held live shows and this is where I first experienced live soul music. I remember seeing Little Anthony and the Imperials there, and there were other acts. Many of the then up-and-coming Motown acts used to pass through in those days, part of the circuit and these were hugely popular. I remember the first time I was sitting down at the Pitkin and they were showing, between films, the hottest acts of the day. It was the first time I remember where all the white acts were booed and the Black performers cheered loudly. LMAO!

Now, James Brown, he was no up-and comer. JB was the King of Soul, the Godfather of Soul. I don’t know if he ever played the Pitkin, but whenever I think of JB, I’m reminded of the Pitkin and those long-ago days. JB took the field holler and put it to a fatback backbeat. When JB squealed, screamed, hollered, it was almost as if collective pain and anguish of the oppressed was concentrated in those musical moments. JB had the nastiest, funkiest rhythm section and if you listened closely, all the West African rhythms were encapsulated in his vocal stylings. To listen to James Brown was to be reminded that you were alive, that you were sensual, sexy, and a bad-assed muthafucka on the dance floor.

Without James Brown, popular music as it exists today would not exist. JB was the most sampled artist, the most emulated, having influenced people from the great Miles Davis to Prince and everybody in-between. Our world is a better world because of James Brown, whatever his inner demons were and today, we’re a lot less richer because of his passing.

Rest in peace, JB

My name is Eddie and I'm in recovery from civilization...

Friday, December 27, 2013

Titi Fefi (What Really Matters Series)

Please know that no one dies until their memory ceases to exist. This is my attempt to honor the memory of someone who meant so much to me.
* * *

Can you walk on water? You have done no better than a straw. Can you soar in the air? You have done no better than a fly. Conquer your heart; then you may become somebody.
 -- Ansari of Heart

I will forever be indebted to my elders -- my predecessors. From the men, especially my father, I owe the gift of love for knowledge. It is fashionable, in our shallow, consumer-based society, to look down upon learned people, but I will be forever grateful to my father and the rest of my family for helping instill in me a thirst for knowledge.

Philosopher means lover of knowledge. It was through the masculine aspect of my upbringing that I was given my mind, the ability to construct and deconstruct logic, the skill of asking questions, the knack for intellectual discovery -- these were all gifts. I am not saying these are essentially male traits. I do think that penetrating awareness is a masculine aspect (which we all possess).

For a long time I thought that it was through the mind that one evolved, but I was only half-right, there was something else missing. The other gift, bequeathed to me by the women-warriors in my life, was the gift of the open heart. It was through the feminine aspect of my upbringing that I learned that true liberation cannot come about until the mind and heart are integrated. In some Eastern cultures, there is no separate term for the mind and the heart -- they are perceived as one and the same. It was mostly the women in my life, through the power of their example, who taught me genuine unconditional love. Many people speak of unconditional love, but few truly know jack shit about it. I am not saying that the domain of the heart is essentially female (it isn’t). I do think that the heart is part of the feminine aspect of our psyches.

I think a large part of our social problems today stem from the deconstruction of the concept of the family. What social conservatives today call “family” is really a downsized version of what family has meant for thousands of years. The nuclear family -- the so-called basic family unit consisting of Mother/ Father/ Sister/ Brother -- is something fairly recent in human development. For most of our shared history, family included aunts, uncles, cousins, non biological (“adopted”) members of a larger social network, and sometimes even whole communities. It was within these extended family structures that one learned about unconditional love, community responsibility, and connectedness in ways that can never be possible within our downsized, alienated, and hectic times.

For that matter, what are social networking sites but a modern attempt to reclaim the larger, more expansive meaning of family and community? It is as if we sense a loss of connection in our materially richer but increasingly insular, and sometimes desperate modern lives, and we reach out.

I was fortunate enough to be raised in a large, extended family. We were close because we had to be -- my parents and their siblings were first-generation Puerto Ricans thrust into a hostile society that neither cared for nor welcomed them. So we stuck together: most of us lived in the same building and/ or city block and my cousins and I were raised more as sisters and brothers rather than dispensable family members. I often joked that if a bombed were dropped on 704 E. 5th St., our family would have ceased to exist. Our extended family shared resources, pooled money, served as social safety nets for one another, and the responsibility of raising the children fell on everyone.

However, there was one woman who sacrificed the most. My paternal aunt, Josefa, or as we all affectionately called her, “Titi Fefi.” She raised everyone’s children. All the adults would work, but Titi Fefi’s central role was to take care of the children, make sure they were dressed, prepare hot breakfasts and lunches, soothe scrapes, and mediate arguments. In effect, Titi Fefi was everyone’s surrogate mother -- she was a universal mother.

She never asked for anything in return and carried her burden mostly without complaint. I can honestly say that without her contributions, our family would have been hard put to survive. I could also say that most of our successes were partially (and often almost fully) connected to Tit Fefi’s sacrifices and sacrifices like hers. As the children got older and the family moved on, she would eventually work as a washer-woman and her raw hands, the outer layer of her skin often stripped from over exposure to laundry chemicals, were often the reason why someone could buy books for college, or I could have those shoes I wanted, or a cousin got a Christmas gift. We sometimes never even knew it was Titi Fefi’s doing, I honestly believe Titi didn't see it as giving, her generosity of spirit came as natural as breathing. It was what was done, period.

Eventually, as is often the case with upward mobility and cultural assimilation, the family would disperse to different parts. First, it was my uncle, Jaime, who moved to a Jersey City house on earnings culled from years toiling at a factory job. Then my older cousin, the first to finish college, married and moved his new family and mother, my aunt, Titi Sylvia, to a small upstate community. Gradually, everyone left our Lower East Side enclave, eventually leaving Titi Fefi alone. Well, actually, my father and I lived with Titi Fefi, but most of the family moved on.

We were always close as a family and the holidays were often celebrated at Titi Fefi’s house because her love was such a magnet for good feeling and connection. No matter how successful the rest of the family became, the older generation always made it clear that family came before individual success or material gain. That generation never forgot the central role cohesion played for the family’s survival in those early days and they kept that message alive.

But with the passage of time, the elders passed on, falling victim to old age and disease. As the younger generation moved farther away, the family reunions became less frequent. The children of the second generation didn’t grow up with the same values or with the experience of an extended family, and soon we all separated into little units, apart from one another. There were no more huge and festive family reunions, and Titi Fefi would now often spend the holidays alone. And though I lived with her, the truth is that at the time, I was more interested in chasing insanity.

Eventually, I would leave too, chasing women and drugs, pillaging, and plundering my way through life. I was exploring the edge of suffering and I was usually in and out of her life, meaning Titi Fefi was mostly alone. Most of us, including myself, forgot. We forgot the raw hands, the sacrifices, and the unwavering love. Titi Fefi never had children of her own, but we all were somehow her children. Yet many of us forgot. Or maybe we didn’t forget, perhaps we were too busy, I don’t know. Life sometimes does that, you know, we forget about the important things. Sometimes we are so busy trying to make a living, we forget to live.

She never complained; never uttered words of regret. She did what she had to do, just like breathing, it was for her.

I am no angel in this drama. I used Titi Fefi’s kindness for my selfish needs and often exploited it. Titi Fefi’s home was my main base, the place I could always come to when I needed a place to live and her door was always open for me. I always had a key. And when I would appear out of nowhere, the only question asked when I entered through that door was if I was hungry. In due course, my life would change and I would enter into a stable and loving relationship, but I would always visit Titi Fefi, at least once a week.

Oh, how her face would light up when I would come visit. I’m certain that even if I were a sexually motivated serial killer Titi Fefi would still love me just as much. That was who she was -- she was love incarnate, Everybody’s Mother.

By the time I divorced, Titi Fefi was in her late 80s and suffering from various infirmities, one of them being the onset of dementia. She had lost some cognitive functioning to the point that the family was concerned with her safety. I moved in with her, thinking it would help both of us.

Big mistake! LOL

For the last two years of her life, I lived with Titi Fefi and it wasn’t easy. It was almost like taking care of an unruly child. It sucked up my life and sometimes I have to admit I was resentful. Sometimes she would wake up in the middle of the night and accuse me of plotting to take over her apartment. Other times, she would become disoriented and not know where she was. Still other times she would have long discussions with me thinking I was my deceased father (whom she raised as her own child). It wasn’t easy and I was losing heart.

There were good times too: her feigned outrage when I would ask her about her sex life, for example. She would laugh at that. And we would spend hours talking about our family history. Folks, if you have an elder in your life, take the time to ask them about your history. I guarantee you, it’s a whole lot better than anything on the TV machine.

One day I found her crying. And she talked, and talked, and it was as if she was doubting the sacrifices -- wondering if they had been worth it. No one remembered her, no one visited her, she said. And all my anger and resentment about taking care of her dissipated and I knew right then that if I were to have carried her on my back for the rest of her life, I still wouldn’t have repaid my debt to her. So we stayed together, Titi and I. One day, I went out and stayed out the entire night (it got so I didn't have a social life) and I got a phone call the next morning that Titi had fallen during the night. She spent the entire night on the floor until her home health aide arrived in the morning. I felt fucked up about that.

In time I would become resentful and angry with my family because I felt they had abandoned her, so I had planned to make this speech at Titi’s burial. When I explained my idea, she asked me to promise her that I would not say anything negative. She made me promise that I wouldn’t start any shit at her burial. She taught me that day that for some people, that’s as it good as it gets and sometimes they suffer a great price for not being a little deeper. She taught me that you give because it is as natural as breathing, not because you’re doing something, or expecting something in return.

That day, at a loss for what to do, but knowing that there was something important I had to do, I asked her, “If there is message for the family that you have what would it be? Because, like it or not, I’m going to say something when they bury your ass.” After crossing herself and admonishing me for speaking of such things, this is what she said:

“I want this to be my message to my family that I love so much: Tell them that family is the most important thing in life, that no matter what you become or what you do, it means nothing if you don’t have family. Tell them that.”

This was her message and her life's work and I give this message to you today because, while it might not be deep, or earth-shattering, and you might not even get it, it is the most important lesson you will ever learn and you will never understand it fully until you become that message.

Her last admonition to me was to leave her alone because she was tired and she didn’t want to answer my teasing questions (“Titi! Do you use condoms?!!” “Are you practicing safe sex?!!”). I was surprised that she refused to eat the pizza I had brought (her favorite treat). Sensing her tiredness, I kissed her cheek goodnight and she rolled over to go to sleep. She smiled…

She passed away during that night and the next morning, when I went to wake her up, she had that same look on her face.

This is for all of us who have known, and will know, the pain of loss, and for those of us who have disconnected from our hearts. There are some today who may not have anyone, or whose family is far away or gone. There are many of us confused about this world gone slightly mad and deep inside perhaps we despair, uneasy smiles on our faces. My aunt’s power of example was that the only sane response to such despair and uncertainty is to love -- to reach out and become engaged, enriching the lives of those around us in the process.

May you all find it in your hearts to give gratitude and cherish the gifts we are all given.

Though you may not know it, you are loved. You are loved for being who you are, right now this moment, and you will always be loved in that way.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Assault

¡Hola! Everybody... 
Well, I went to see A Miracle in Spanish Harlem
 a couple of weeks ago, and while it probably won’t be seen by too many people, it was a delightful little holiday movie. I guess someday I’m going to have to write the definitive Nuyorican Christmas story myself. :)

* * *
Asalto de Navidad/ Christmas Assault

My best friend (we were inseparable) when I was growing up was Al. We were born on the same day, one minute apart. He was born on a Monday morning June 6, 1955 at 3:28 AM and I was born a minute later. Al was a dark-skinned African-American with fine features, very handsome. He played trumpet and I played trombone and percussion. We wanted to become Latin Jazz musicians and Al came from a family of musicians. We were night and day, yin and yang, if you saw one, you were certain the other was somewhere nearby.

And we were trouble: devious Geminis to the core.

Al had 15 brothers and sisters and they all lived in this huge 23-room house in the Brooklyn neighborhood known as Bushwick. I know it had 23 rooms because I counted. Ms. Pearl, Al’s mother, would tire of throwing me out of her house. She used to refer to Puerto Ricans as, “All you mira, miras.” I think she got that from constantly hearing PRs exclaim, oye mira, mira! On the streets of what was at the time a diverse neighborhood. She would chase me out of her house, but would send out her sons to look for me if I stayed away too long and then scolded me for staying away. Of course, she would throw me out the door and I would climb through the windows. Al got all his looks from his mother, she was a very dark-skinned, fine featured, woman with long, fine hair, still beautiful in spite of all the children. Her house was run like a conglomerate, with varying levels of management. I was totally fascinated.

She didn’t like PRs and let me know it, but I think she loved the heck out of me. She would call me “Black” in jest because I was so light-skinned. The name stuck, I was known as “Black,” as in “Yo, Black,” in her house. However, she couldn’t abide by those noisy “Po’ Reekans” as she referred to us.

Therefore, it didn’t surprise me when she was outraged when my family decided to show up on her doorstep one Christmas Eve in observance of the Puerto Rican tradition of the paranda. She looked at me and said, “Nigga, what the fuck are all those mira miras doing out there on my front door?” My family had its share of musicians, my uncle having led a salsa band for decades. My stepfather was also something of a musician and my mother, much to my embarrassment, can’t sing to save her life. But there they were, on Ms. Pearl’s doorstep singing some whacked out PR Christmas song with Al, her favorite son, at the head playing trumpet.

For Puerto Ricans, the celebration of Christmas is more of an assault than a normal celebration. You see, a group will get together and march en masse to each doorway. They arrive complete with instruments, real and makeshift. Puerto Ricans consider pots and pans, for example, instruments. As are beer bottles (full or empty) or anything else that makes a percussive sound. There are, of course, the real instruments, guitars (cuatros), congas, cowbells. For Puerto Ricans, anything -- any kind of instrument -- is considered game. If you played a harp and had one handy, you would be “encouraged” to tag along, harp and all.

So, there they were, my whole family and what looked like a sizeable contingent of the PR community, banging on pots and pans, congas, bongos, and guitars, with my mother screeching at the top of her voice. Now here’s the real kicker: PR paranda tradition holds that as you go from door to door, each household gets hit (el asalto). Once outside your door, Puerto Ricans will not leave until you feed them and get them drunk and then you have to go out there with them to the next house.

“Edward, Ms. Pearl said (you know you’re in trouble when grown ups use your real name), “Tell these people and my son to get the fuck out of my door before I call the police.” This is where I had to explain the part where they wouldn’t leave until they were well fed and drunk and, with a “Hell no,” under her breath, she opened the front door to give my people a piece of her mind and that’s when the whole group just rushed in, mistakenly thinking they were being invited.

That was a helluva Noche Buena, as PRs call Christmas Eve. Ms Pearl ate lechon (pork suckling) and pasteles (meat embedded in mashed plantains and yuca wrapped in plantain leaves) for the first time and her sister, Aunt Gerty, got so drunk, she literally lost her wig. In the process, traditional PR food collided with soul food. Flan mixed with sweet potato pie, greens crashed with pasteles, James Brown mixed with Willie Colon, the rum and the vodka flowed, and through all of this, Ms. Pearl and my mother formed an uneasy truce, each knowing that their sons were inseparable.

There were easily over 100 people there that night, some we didn’t even know. Every Christmas Eve after that, I know Ms Pearl would anxiously await the ruckus of “All dem mira, miras.” She would never admit it, but I know she loved those parties. She would say that “Porter Reekans” knew how to party like black folk and that’s probably the greatest compliment Ms. Pearl could give.

Eventually, Ms. Pearl would lose that big house on Bushwick Avenue. She could be stern, but she was so supportive of the young people in the neighborhood. She would allow, for example, her son George’s band, The New Breed, to practice in her basement. Now, you have to understand this was about a 16-piece band with Marshal amps. We also played loud, performing songs from diverse sources, like Buddy Miles, Grand Funk Railroad, Kool & the Gang. Her son, George, was a gifted drummer who practiced at least 8-10 hours a day -- everyday. Ms. Pearl supported all of that.

George would go on tour with Gloria Gaynor. Al and I worked as freelancers for various local bands, mostly salsa. Some of the horn players of The New Breed would break off and play with BT Express and other groups of the day. Eventually, I would become discouraged with the music business and leave it all behind. When Ms. Pearl lost her house, she moved to a smaller one further away – somewhere in Queens. I would visit, but not as often. Al and I would go our different ways, with Al beginning a life in crime that would eventually lead him to a life spent in and out of prison.

The last time I saw Ms. Pearl, she hugged me and tenderly caressed my face. She told me to make sure to take care of myself. Shortly thereafter, I left New York for some time and lost contact with her. The last time I spoke to anyone from the family was when George called me while I was staying in Houston. He was on a world tour with Gloria Gaynor and had left some tickets for me at the Forum. When I saw him, I hugged him as I would a brother.

I never saw any of them again...

I look back now and realize, as I did then, that those were special days. I lived during a time where there was community and while times were hard (they always were), people somehow looked out for one another's children. Today, I don't see community as much as in those days, and I'm saddened a bit because our children don't realize how much they're missing.

My name is Eddie and I'm in recovery from civilization...

Thursday, December 19, 2013

What Really Matters Series: The Fake War on Christmas & Silent Night

¡Happy Holidays mi Gente!
Leave it to the Christian right and conservatives in general to fuck up a good thing… There are two parts to today’s post. One illustrates how conservatives use religion to foster fear, the other illustrates how spirituality can be a powerful force, even in the midst of unbelievable violence and insanity.
* * *

The Manufactured War on Christmas
What we preserve in the larger human story determines what we believe is possible in the world.

I’m so sick of it. Every. Fuckin’. Year. The perpetual and manufactured outrage over a supposed liberal plot to destroy Christmas. As if pro-free market deregulators needed any help in destroying whatever vestige of meaning Christmas still has. Fox News, led by blowhard bully, Bill O’Reilly and now Megyn “Whites Only” Kelly), are really great at manipulating low-information viewers with faked or exaggerated “news accounts” of the War on Christmas. They’re almost all of them either outright lies or spin. I won’t recount them -- Media Matters collects and debunks the propaganda every year (here and here).
The [fake] War on Christmas is definitely real and perpetuated by Fox News and other conservative outlets in order to increase ratings, foment fear, and viewer rage. Last year, as I was scrolling through my Facebook page I came across the following (several times):

I'm inviting all my Facebook family and friends to join me in returning to the traditional greeting of "MERRY CHRISTMAS" instead of the politically correct "Happy Holidays"!! If you agree with me, please re-post this message.....
MERRY CHRISTMAS! We need Christ back into our lives
° ° ˛˚˛ * Π_˚
˚ ˛ •˛•˚ *____~\。˚ ˚ ˛
˚ ˛ •˛• ˚ 田田 |門|
If God is also welcome in your House, repost this!

I fail to understand the animosity toward “Happy Holidays.” I’m sure God, or a Higher Power of some sort, is in the home of my Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan, and Wiccan friends. I wouldn’t say “Merry Christmas” to them not because I want to be “politically correct” but because it would be rude. I value and respect other people’s beliefs. It’s tragic that the “us-vs-them” mentality has spread to the point that common decency is dismissed as “political correctness.”

But let’s get this straight, the fake war on Christmas is not really about Christmas, but rather it is in reality conservative code for religious intolerance, anti-Semitism, and bigotry. It’s the dog whistle to rile up the rabble.

The whole “political correctness” smear is bullshit anyway. People who bitch about political correctness remind me of a bunch of jerks whining because they can’t belittle and demean other people with impunity. Conservatives have been very successful at demonizing perfectly good words and concepts; in fact, it’s one of their most basic tactics. They have demonized the whole concept of politeness, of tolerance, of respect for other people. In their worldview, you’re either “us” or “them”; you’re either “with us” or “against us.”

I am a practicing Buddhist, but I celebrate the spirit of Christmas. I was raised as a Catholic and I join with family and friends to celebrate it, though I don’t believe in a God in the Christian/ Judeo sense. So what? I’m very much a spiritual slut and try to learn from wisdom traditions of all types. At the core of The Nazarene’s message is a powerful and sublime philosophy: that we love one another, and that we should treat one another with respect and tolerance. Of course, Christmas really isn’t about that at all. Shit, if there is a war on Christmas, it was won long ago by a consumer culture grounded in the mindset of mindlessly acquiring material possessions rather than self-actualization or compassion for one’s neighbor.

And that’s the tragedy here because the message is lost. And if you doubt the power of the true message of this spiritual teaching, then check out the following story…
On Christmas Eve in 1914, two lines of homesick soldiers, one British, one German, were dug into the trenches on the Western Front in the middle of World War I. Now, you have to understand that WWI was considered the “war to end all wars.” It was one of the most vicious wars because in those days, you had to look your enemy in the eye as you stabbed or shot him. You were more likely to die from starvation, exposure, and disease as you were at the hands of the enemy. So, there are these two front lines and between them was a fire zone called no-man’s land. On this moonlit, snowy night in a God-forsaken landscape, the Germans lifted army issued Christmas trees sparkling with tiny candles over the edge of their trenches and set them in plain sight.

The British shouted and cheered with delight. The Germans began to sing “Stille Nacht… ”and the British began to sing along with “Silent Night.” This encouraged the Germans and they set down their guns in the moonlight and heaved themselves from their trenches carrying candles, cake, and cigars toward their enemies. The British responded in kind, carrying steamed pudding and cigarettes.

These men met in the middle of the forbidden zone, exchanged gifts, sang carols, and played soccer. This seemingly spontaneous truce eventually extended for hundreds of miles among thousands of soldiers. The really funny thing was, having seen each other’s humanity, they could no longer shoot each other…

The war essentially stopped.

Horrified, commanders on both sides had to transfer thousands of men to new positions until the enemy became faceless again, something killable, not a human being -- not a brother.

Almost a hundred years later, scholars are still studying this event, reading soldier’s journals and letters that refer to it, seeking to understand “the breakdown of the military mindset,” or attempting to understand how a spontaneous peace movement could spread even in the cold heart of war.

Today you will hear countless other stories. Stories of death and unspeakable cruelty. You will no doubt hear stories justifying, in the name of global economics or religion, the starvation and killing of innocent men, women, and children. You will see or read approximately 80,000 messages today bombarding you with the agenda to get you to buy something -- most of it will fly under the radar of your awareness. But if you remember anything, remember this story because it is true and it speaks to who we really are and the essence of what it means to be a human being.

Most of all, remember the contrasts between the two parts of this post today. The first part emphasizes difference and domination, the second part reinforces what is good in all of us, regardless of what or who we believe in.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving With the Rosarios

Hola mi Gente
Thanksgiving, for very personal reasons, is one of my favorite times of the year. I love ritual of breaking bread together and honoring gratitude -- giving thanks. I’ve heard it said gratitude and sadness cannot coexist and that’s been my experience.

But I love Thanksgiving most of all because all the great childhood memories. The following, believe it or not, is based on true events…

* * *

Frankenstein’s Turkey
[Note: an animal was harmed in the making of this post]

It really was too much -- embarrassing to the nth degree. Everybody on that 60 Wilson Bus was staring at us and the best my uncle could do was laugh that fuckin infectious, jolly laugh of his. He thought it was hilarious and, sensing my embarrassment, it made him laugh harder, causing the other passengers to stare more intently.

There it was again, a movement from the cause of my embarrassment. You see, in Puerto Rican neighborhoods, it wasn’t uncommon to purchase live poultry from el vivero -- a marketplace selling live fowl. Usually that entailed picking or asking for a particular chicken and the proprietor would take it out of its cage, go to the back, and prepare it for you.

But this was the day before Thanksgiving and my mother had insisted I accompany my uncle to the nearest vivero to buy a live turkey. At the time we were living in the then mostly African American Brooklyn neighborhood on East New York Avenue (right across the street from the back entrance of the Pitkin Theater) and the nearest vivero was a bus ride away. My uncle Onofre, Tío Nofrín as we called him, was already in his cups though it was still early in the day, and he insisted in a live turkey to take home. This was unusual, I thought at the time, because normally we would tell el vivero to prepare the bird for us. But my uncle insisted we take the fucker live, so el vivero, somewhat peeved, put the turkey in a large brown paper grocery bag and off we went. No sooner than we sat down on the crowded bus, the turkey, perhaps sensing this wasn’t going to be his day, began making a fuss and engaged in repeated and often violent attempts to escape the paper bag. This in turn caused all the passengers to stare, which made my already slightly inebriated uncle to laugh out loud.

He obviously thought it was hilarious, the passengers were alarmed at the tipsy Puerto Rican with a live turkey in a large brown grocery bag, and I wanted to die from embarrassment. You see, part of growing up in a society that sees ones culture as different or alien, is that there’s an internal tension between the very strong pull to assimilate (and escape the alienation) and the tug of cultural pride. I was raised to be proud of my Puerto Rican heritage, but I decided that I drew the line at live turkeys on the 60 Wilson bus.

My uncle Nofrín, already a happy-type person sober, became even happier the more he drank. And the happier he got, the more he laughed. He had this patented outburst, “Ayyyy Coo-Coo,” an idiomatic expression that didn’t mean anything except that it usually followed a punch line to a joke/ prank or when something outlandish happened. For example, if grandma fell on her butt in front of everyone, you can be sure Tio Nofrín would follow that up with a hearty, “¡Ayyyy Coo-Coo!” and start cracking up. So here I was with Tio Nofrín, wrestling with a live turkey on a crowded New York City bus laughing his ass off and yelling out, “Ayyyy CooCoo!” every time the turkey attempted to break free of the paper grocery bag. Embarrassing.

But I’ve been a little unfair to you, my dear reader, and I need to backtrack just a little at this point because I’ve started this story at the wrong juncture. This particular Thanksgiving actually began with my sister, Darlene, winning a raffle at the local Catholic Church where we took our weekly catechism classes. The prize? She won a large truckload of groceries. We were so happy! The fact was that while I can’t say we starved, there were times that food was scarce. I guess this is what they now call “food insecurity.” I know all about food insecurity. For example, “wish” sandwiches weren’t uncommon in the Rosario household and it was rare that we had enough capital to do food shopping for a whole week. My mother often had to scrape up dinner on a day-to-day basis. So the prospect of having a whole truckload of groceries was something my siblings and I saw, as Martha Stewart would say, “a good thing.”

My mother is a proud woman. Even as a child, I often marveled at how my mother could walk down the worst ghetto street and still manage to appear regal. To borrow the South African phrase (used in the Paul Simon song), my mother walked as if she had diamonds on the soles of her shoes. She had a way of holding herself, an attitude, so natural it didn’t offend people. People just assumed she was entitled to that regal bearing.

She walked straight, with perfect posture, and her manner, though imposing, was unaffected, head held high, her perfectly sculpted nose, and those cheekbones to die for, adding a sublime beauty to that imperial pose. When she barked out an order, people listened and though she was in actuality a petite and small woman, she always seemed taller than her actual size. And while it was true we were poor, my mother would dress us in the best clothes -- clothes bought at a fraction of their original price at used clothing stores and Salvation Army centers located in upscale neighborhoods. And she taught us to walk in that same way. In fact, to slouch in front of my mother was sacrilegious.

That's why, perhaps, when my mother saw all these groceries being carted into our third-floor tenement walk-up, she became enraged thinking it was charity. She managed to insult the priest and throw the delivery boys out before we could convince her that Darlene had won all that food in a raffle.

So what did my mother do? Did she squirrel away the food, making sure we would have groceries for, like, evah? No! First, she gave away two of the (three) Butterball Turkeys to neighbors in bad straits and then proceeded to call all of the tribe for a big, family Thanksgiving dinner.

And that’s when she charged my uncle and me to “go get a turkey from el vivero.” When we finally arrived with the live turkey, a great hue and cry ensued. First, my mother wanted to know what had gotten into my uncle that he would be crazy enough to bring a live turkey to her house. Her instructions were clear, she enunciated in tones usually reserved for intellects hovering at the idiot level. I feared she would task us with returning the damned thing, but then my grandmother insisted that she could “prepare” the turkey. After all, my grandmother reasoned, she had been raised in small Puerto Rican town, and slaughtering and preparing food wasn’t something foreign to her.

A quick, impromptu family meeting was held in order to decide how to go about preparing the turkey and soon a full-scale heated debate broke out which culminated in my grandmother rushing out, grabbing the turkey by the neck, and spinning it violently above her shoulder. According to my grandmother, this was a sure-fire way of killing the turkey, a technique apparently used for generations in Salinas, the town she was born and raised.

Unfortunately for the turkey, this twisting only resulted in a wicked crook in its neck, which became immediately noticeable as soon as my grandmother let go and it started running wildly around the apartment seeking a way out of its predicament. I felt so bad I almost opened the door for it, but the turkey was doomed, and with his neck now at a right angle to its body, I doubt it would’ve been able to exploit an escape opportunity even if it recognized it. By now, half the family was in determined pursuit of our potential meal and the other, younger half was screaming traumatized. I'm sure some of my cousins still have nightmares of screaming turkeys with crooked necks. The only one who was clearly enjoying himself was Tío Nofrín who was yelling out “¡Ayyyy Coo-Coo!” as he joined in the chase for the wayward turkey.

Eventually, someone caught up to the turkey and it was then decided that the best, most merciful course of action would be to slit its throat, an action that my stepfather, Vincent promptly committed. However, all this accomplished was that the turkey, resuming its valiant quest for life, ran spraying great splotches of turkey blood everywhere. Eventually, the turkey was subdued and a large pot of water was set to boiling in order to plunge the turkey in for the removal of the feathers. No sooner than the turkey was plunged into the boiling water that it quickly jumped out and again made one last attempt at life. This time, everyone was traumatized, screaming in horror. Finally, my grandmother, clearly upset that her fool-proof turkey killing technique was shown to be ineffective, grabbed the poor fellow, and with one last pull on its deformed neck, finished him off.

Suffice it to say the turkey no longer gave anyone trouble and before you knew it, it was de-feathered and prepared in the pavo-chon Puerto Rican style (a turkey that tastes like a lechon). Soon all the aunts, all high-strung, creative cooking geniuses, were busy preparing the dishes they were best known for (and getting on each other's last nerves in the process) and the rest of the family settled in for fun and games.

You have to understand that I come from a family of cheaters. For example, my grandmother, bless her soul, was a notorious card cheat. Mind you, she wasn’t a good or adept card cheat, in fact, she was quite bad at it. But a card cheat she was, and in our family cheating at games is actually allowed. What isn’t allowed is being caught at cheating (the sole exception to this rule being my grandmother). People who marry into our family have a difficult time understanding our ethics, but I assure you we have our moral standards, they're just somewhat nuanced and difficult to describe.

We’re also a family comedians and pranksters and if you happen to commit a gaffe, or do something particularly embarrassing, you will forever be associated with that action/ event. For example, one friend of the family had the tenacity to stick her finger into some food an aunt was preparing and she was quickly chastised with a whack to the head with a large metal ladle. From then on she was known as La Lambia -- the greedy or starved one. I have an aunt who’s predisposed to exaggeration (actually she’s compulsive liar) and part of “family fun” was asking her questions about events we all knew she would exaggerate and then make fun of her for her exaggerations. One part of the family, my mother’s sister’s brood, were known for their bad tempers and were called the “Pissed Offs.” Another part of the clan was called the “Mini Munchkins” because they were all short.

Individuals were similarly named. For example, I was affectionately known as mal tiempo, literally translated as bad time, but is a phrase normally used to describe natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods. My sister, Darlene, was called La Princesa because of her pretentious airs. Also, if you were an unfortunate victim of an accident, that too was fodder for humor. One cousin, who accidentally shot himself in the foot, was ragged on for that for years. Even something as mundane as taking a shower during family get-togethers was fraught with danger, as a cousin would invariably rush in with a Polaroid camera to snap a picture or a brother or mother would dump a pail of iced water on an unsuspecting bather.

Suffice it to say that fun and games in my family was in actuality an excuse to engage in all manner boundary trespassing, psychological torment, cheating, hysterical and inappropriate demonstrations of affection and anger, and ridiculing. And you know what? It was hilarious! As long as you weren’t the butt of the joke, of course. And every year, there would be a different theme and a different butt of the "holiday joke."

So here it was Thanksgiving Eve and the music was blaring, the home warm with all the cooking, fogging the windows, and you could smell all the great food being prepared. Family members were all engaged in the joyful activities of family holidays when the men decided they would all venture on a “Boy’s Night Out” outing, much to the expressed dissatisfaction of the women. One of my earliest lessons as a young man was that one should never anger the women on my mother’s side of the family, for they are a ferocious group of women-warriors. In any case, the men went out and they took me along with them because they wanted to school me in the ways of men. Going out, for the men, meant going somewhere where there was liquor, loose women, and illegal gambling. Apparently, being man meant being able to hold your liquor, no matter how much of it you imbibed, and demonstrating your virility by flirting with/ picking up women my mother would kill for even thinking of looking at me.

And this particular night, the night before Thanksgiving, there was a lot of gambling going on. At first, my stepfather, Vincent, was making a killing, and while sober, Vincent was a model of stability, inebriated, he lost all self-control. Instead of quitting while he was ahead, he instead lost all his winnings and his paycheck to boot. This I knew was bad news, but Vincent was beyond listening to my appeals for sanity. Eventually, he convinced my uncles to lend him money and in that way help him win his money back, and he went on another winning streak, only to commit the same error, managing to lose the money loaned by my uncles.

It was 5 AM in the morning before the men began to sober up and come to the realization that they would eventually have to go back home to a group of assuredly angry women waiting for them. So they came up with the following plan: they decided it was best for me to go upstairs first in order to scope out the situation. No sooner that I walked into the apartment that I realized things were worse than even I expected. Most of the women were sitting at the kitchen table silently seething, waiting for the men to return. You could actually see the waves of anger emanating off of their bodies, distorting the air like heat waves.

I went back downstairs and dutifully gave my status report and most of the men balked at going upstairs, thinking (quite wisely), discretion was the better part of valor. But Vincent, who seemed to not have sobered, guffawed, got out of the car, and with a swagger told everyone else he would show everyone who wore the pants in his home and proceeded upstairs. I followed, honestly fearing the worst.

There was this long flight of stairs that reached up to a small foyer-like area to our apartment, and it was here where my mother confronted a clearly incoherent and inebriated Vincent. Somehow she surmised he was gambling, had lost his money, and was drunk, and she became so incensed, she pushed him out of anger. Vincent, still drunk from the huge amount of rum he had imbibed, didn’t stand a chance and he went down that long flight of stairs landing in a way that no human body should land, his neck now at an angle eerily similar to the turkey’s neck the day before.

I turned to my mother, said, “You killed him.”
My mother, “I did not!”
Me, “Ma, I saw you push him. Look at him I think his neck is broken.”
My mother, “Don’t you say that! I didn’t push him, he was so drunk, he fell on his own!”
Me, “No he didn’t mom, you pushed him!”

At this point my aunt, the compulsive liar, who up until now had been asleep, appeared out of nowhere and said, “I saw everything and Lydia didn’t push him, he fell!”

Before I could continue several of her sisters and my grandmother came out and all stated, though not one of them had witnessed anything, that Vincent had fallen of his own accord and they all gave me this look that clearly indicated it was dangerous to persist in this line of reasoning.

By this time I realized the whole conversation was a moot point and went downstairs to check on Vincent. I was certain he broke his neck, but no sooner that I called his name that he opened his eyes, smiled, and managed to get up. I guess it’s true that God loves children and drunks because to this day, I don’t know how he survived that fall.

Right then, I felt rather than saw something fly over my shoulder and land with a loud crash. My mother, in her anger, had thrown the turkey, which had been slowly roasting in a low-heated oven for several hours, down the stairs and it crashed, pan and all, and broke into several large greasy chunks of turkey parts. Thanksgiving, which had begun on such a high note, had now been ruined and we didn’t even have a turkey. My mother and her sisters quickly dressed and left the house, the rest of the men probably getting similar treatment outside.

My sisters, and some of my younger cousins, immediately gathered and started an impromtu choir of wailing and crying because Thanksgiving had devolved into a dysfunctional madness and the turkey had now died -- yet again. And I was so upset with Vincent that I told him he was responsible for all the crying and for the ruination of Thanksgiving dinner.

Upon hearing this, Vincent seemed to sober up a little, pulled himself up, said, “I’ll fix this,” and began picking up the pieces of the turkey.

I was beyond shocked, “How the hell are you going to fix this, Vincent, the turkey is gone!”

“You’ll see,” he mumbled as I left to go outside for a walk, unable to take it anymore.

When I came back, Vincent and my sisters were busy trying to sew the turkey back together again and it was so funny, I had to laugh and we all started laughing. I mean, this turkey was all discombobulated, legs akimbo, stitched all together like some horror story monstrosity. And true to form, we christened the turkey, “Frankenstein’s Turkey,” and while attempting to put it together, one of my sisters chuckled and intoned, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” and we all started really laughing.

Eventually, when the rest of the family finally returned, my mother saw us all laughing, took one look at the turkey, and she started cracking up. I mean, it was impossible to look at this thing and not laugh. And that’s how we spent that Thanksgiving, eating a horribly tortured and reconstructed turkey. And believe it or not, we often reminisce about that day thankful that we have these stories to tell.

May you have much to be thankful for… Happy Holidays

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…


[un]Common Sense