Friday, December 26, 2014

A Nuyorican Christmas Story

Hola Everybody…
The following is a tradition with me, so you may have read it already. I post it in the humble hope that it will bring you a cheer and remind you of the important things in life -- the things that really matter.

Sometimes things happen in your life that affects forever the way you perceive reality. Some events are negative, acting as baggage for all your later interactions. Others are life-changing epiphanies that work to make life more joyful. Which ones do we cling to?

Let me tell you a story...

* * *

 The Rosarios ca. late 60s/ early 70s

In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.
-- Albert Camus

It was a time of change and turmoil: the Vietnam War still raged and it seemed as if all the institutions we took for granted -- marriage and gender roles, Civil rights, the meaning of freedom -- were being questioned and reformulated. The strategies used by African-Americans and Latin@s in the struggle for human rights were being co-opted by a wide range of groups: women and Gays were marching for their rights. In short, it was a time of change and the times, as the song went, were a’changin’.

It was a year I would never forget. I was about sixteen, in the process of reading every “great book” ever written, helping put out an underground newspaper, young, and full of life. We had many friends and our home was the center of activities for our vast network of friends and family.

This particular year, however, was a difficult one for my family: our stepfather was arrested because of a scuffle with police and sentenced to a year in jail. He was our breadwinner and that meant that our main source of income was gone. Compounding our financial difficulties was our mother’s pregnancy, she would eventually give birth to our youngest brother, Vincent, the following June.

As the oldest child, I had always felt a deep and conflicted sense of protection toward my mother and siblings. I had to grow up pretty quick because it was expected of me to be more than a big brother; I had to be a power of example for my younger siblings. To be honest, I resented that responsibility. But a part of me felt I should be doing something to contribute and it was frustrating. What disturbed me the most, however, was when I caught my mother crying. Though I always resented sometimes having to be the adult in my interactions with her, my mother was nevertheless a strong woman who managed to make her place in a world that was both hostile and violent towards her. If she was despairing that meant things were really screwed up.

My sisters helped by working at a local supermarket after school. For a time, I worked delivering groceries and my sisters staffed the cash registers. Of course, me being the radical in the house, I was promptly fired for calling the owner an Uncle Tom and an oppressor of his own people. 

Sometimes we would get our groceries because my sisters would not charge up the register when my mother shopped. Things got worse at the onset of the holidays. We called a family meeting and we all agreed that, with the exception of our youngest brother, Edgar (who was eight), we would forego gifts for Christmas. My mother didn’t take this too well and it pushed her to her dark side, often succumbing to bouts of sadness interspersed with rage. What Nuyoricans often called ataques de nervios (nervous attacks).

We made do just as many other poor families did at that time: welfare augmented by small-scale attempts at entrepreneurship. Sometimes my mother would buy a bottle of rum, or some other item, and raffle it off at the Bingo parlor: if everyone paid in a dollar, she would be able to earn a profit and still offer a decent prize. We also had an extended family and they would help as best they could, though they too were often financially extended and living from paycheck to paycheck.

In short it was getting to be a really sad holiday season. The house became less full, as our situation served as a basis for shame and as we gradually dropped off our activities with our friends the ensuing quiet was disturbing. Then one day, the Friday after Thanksgiving, we took out the old artificial tree. We all share a warped sense of humor and my sisters and I started joking about how lonely the tree would look without any gifts. Soon we were cracking each other up, trying to outdo each other by coming up with the most twisted reason why we should, or shouldn’t, put up the Christmas tree.

In the end, we decided to put it up and, and while playing traditional Puerto Rican Christmas songs, we slowly got into the spirit of things. Soon enough, the house rang out with laughter and song and friends were called up to come and help. I don’t know if my perception is clouded by bias or the passage of time, but I swear that that old tree never looked so beautiful. We really put our creative energies into fixing up the house too: we gift wrapped doors, put up mistletoe, strung lights on the windows -- we created the best display on that Brooklyn block.

Still, the tree did look “lonely,” or bare, without gifts. So someone, one of my sisters I think, came up with the idea of collecting empty boxes and wrapping them up as gifts. Of course, as is usual in the Rosario household, we took the sentiment to an extreme. Our rather large artificial tree was soon dwarfed by a mountain of elegantly wrapped “gifts.” People would visit and comment on how “beautiful” the tree was and we would secretly laugh because we knew they were only saying that in part because of the many “gifts.” It was our own little private joke.

I have to admit that while our circumstances were extremely difficult that year, I can’t remember a more joyful holiday season. Soon our apartment sang once again with the sound of young people engaged in the daily activities of life. And the tree seemed to take on a life of its own, to radiate joy, it attracted people, and it was true that many people would come and visit. I guess maybe everyone else was having a hard time and the joy in our house was sort of like a warm fire to ward off the chill of winter in America. The tree became almost like another family member that we tended to and nurtured. People would visit and you could tell immediately that the joy was infectious. The “joke” was a constant source for new comedic material and we would create even more elaborate “gifts” to put at the base of that tree.

Nuyoricans celebrate Christmas Eve -- Noche Buena. Christmas day is for the children and for the adults to nurse hangovers. That year, a huge Christmas Eve party, attended by everybody-and-their-mother, capped that holiday season. The owner of the supermarket where my sisters worked “contributed” the ingredients so that my mother could make her famous pasteles (a Puerto Rican mashed plantain/ meat dish) and pernil (pork suckling). All our friends and family attended and the party lasted well into Christmas morning. I don’t think it snowed that Christmas, but I remember that the party became the basis for several legends -- a storytime delight to be recounted for years to come. It became a marker for community events as in BC and AD: Before and After “The Christmas Party.”

The party itself was rambunctious -- more rambunctious than normal. The reason why poor people can party is because they know all too intimately the vicissitudes of life and whenever the opportunity arises, they party with an almost religious fervor. Of course, there was plenty of drama that Christmas Eve. Old jealousies and rivalries were re-ignited, people were caught in compromising situations, and quite a few made fools of themselves. There was my stepfather’s aunt, who insisted on flashing her panties at everyone and poor old Frito who would never live down the fact that he got so drunk he pissed on himself. I mean, he just slid down the wall and pissed on himself, and laughed his ass off while doing it. Really.

The party was a microcosm of the full catastrophe of the human condition in all its shining glory. In other words -- a good time was had by all.

Finally, Christmas morning came, and it was time to clean up the house and dispose of all the “gifts.” I started collecting the empty boxes to throw them out, but our mother stopped me.

“You can’t throw out the boxes!” she yelled out, an alarming note of hysteria in her voice.

We looked at one another, fearing our mother was about to have another ataque de nervios, but then we saw her smile.

We had to tear through all the empty boxes in order to find the real gifts my mother had embedded into that huge pile. I will never forget my gift that year though I have had many richer Christmas’ since: it was a digital watch with an LED readout that were fairly new and trendy at the time. I know it didn’t cost much, maybe $5, but I treasured it and wore that watch for a long time.

Why this story?

For one, the experience taught me a lesson that was the greatest Christmas gift of all: that you always have a choice with how to respond to adversity. Yes, the fact remained that we sometimes were hungry and our clothes weren’t the best. There were times we couldn’t afford basic needs or even school supplies. But we learned to face these hardships with humor and strength of character. That year could easily have been much worse, but facing our hardships in a realistic but joyful way -- that lesson would stay with me for the rest of my life. For me, this is the taste of life itself. The One Taste.

So, if you ever catch me smiling, try to remember where that smile comes from. It comes from the knowledge that material gifts are essentially empty. I smile because I know the pretty boxes are empty but my heart is full…

Happy Holidays! You are loved. May you all know true happiness.

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

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Asalto de Navidad/ Christmas Assault

¡Happy Holidays!
A couple of people have asked that I post some of my holiday stories. This is the second story.

After doing some service yesterday, I went to see Selma (here). Ordinarily, I'm very skeptical of anything Oprah does regarding the Black Experience/ history. The Butler, for example was a disservice to many who were in the struggle (especially to Black nationalists and others whose refusal to moderate served an important function in the movement). However, Selma accomplished some things I think are crucial. For one, it humanized MLK, something that's desperately needed. He was a man, after all. Secondly, the director did a good job of shedding light on the role of women in the movement, something we almost never see. If anything, Selma helps put the current movement/ struggle against state-sanctioned violence against people of color into an important historical context.

* * *

Asalto de Navidad/ Christmas Assault
(Or: Pasteles & Collard Greens)

One of my best friends (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, the other was certain to be somewhere nearby.

And we were trouble: devious Gemini’s to the core.

Al had 15 brothers and sisters and they all lived in this huge 23-room house in the Brooklyn neighborhood of 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” and laugh 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 initially 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 also 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 come 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, 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 the rest 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 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 grownups use your real name), “Tell them muthafuckas 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 in.

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 yucca 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 gin flowed, and Ms. Pearl and my mother formed an uneasy truce, each knowing that their sons were inseparable.

I don’t know how many people were 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.

Ms. Pearl 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. Eventually, she would lose that big house on Bushwick Avenue.

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. 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 much further away – somewhere in Jamaica, Queens. I would visit, but not as often. Al and I would go our different ways, with Al beginning to get involved in petty crime that would eventually lead him to small stretches of time spent in and out of jail.

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. The last time I spoke to anyone from the family was when George called me while I was living 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 these traditions practiced as much as in those days, and I'm saddened a bit because our children don't realize how much they're missing. Here’s to Ms Pearl, to my brother from another mother, Al, and to music. I hope that wherever they are that they never lost their zest for life in the face of hardship.

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

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

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 beyond anything. 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 a good 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 when we were growing up 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 clamor 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 poor 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 finally subdued and apparently murdered and a large pot of water was set to boiling in order to plunge the turkey in for the removal of its 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 at losing face when 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 drama queens, 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 complicated.

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. One thing though, while sober, Vincent was a model of stability, however, once 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 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 resigned myself to the reality that 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, said,
“How the hell are you going to fix this, Vincent, the turkey is gone!”
Vincent, “You’ll see,” he mumbled as I left to go outside for a walk, unable to take it anymore.

When I returned, 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