Home > 1, Music, Puerto Rico, The Music Business, The Virgin Islands > Book 1. Isla Grande.3 Continued…and Book 1. Cortijo Y The Symphonic Friction of Silk, Skin and Satin

Book 1. Isla Grande.3 Continued…and Book 1. Cortijo Y The Symphonic Friction of Silk, Skin and Satin

Book 1. Isla Grande.3  Continued…

It’s difficult for me to write about our time in Puerto Rico, in Condado and our next move, to Ocean Park, because revisiting how I felt in that time and place is completely depressing, and frankly, I have worked long and hard to not feel that way any more. Depressing for me, for Gale, for Mud, for our little  brother Larry (who was born during that time and started life sleeping in a drawer) for Howard, and for all of those suffering in poverty and humiliation everywhere.

 Puerto Rico wasn’t the problem, Puerto Rico was an entire universe and the universe after all was beautiful. The problem was that we were living in the predictable consequences and painfully pitiful side effects of acute alcoholism, and were ignorant of that fact and further, powerless to do anything about it.

 I have been both actively and acutely strung out on alcohol myself and I have been a child in the middle of the chaos of familial alcoholism, and I will tell you that in my experience, being a powerless kid is by far the worse of the two, because there was next to nothing that we could actually do about it. And…Just as alcoholism is a progressive condition, so too is the ever-growing psychological AND physiological malaise you experience as you feel progressively worse and worse about yourself and your ever more pathetic situation.

There were other kids in the building, well, mostly in the big breezy one, more “Yankee/Ricanio” kids who unfortunately tended towards the uppity condescension’s of “Americano/ Castiliano kids” rather than the more proletarian “egual egual” of regular “Ricanio” kids. I could list blow-by-blow, enough humiliations, embarrassments and disappointments to sink a ship, but going through it all Uno by Uno is just too friggin’ depressing and who needs any more of that.

 I remember having a fight over something that one of the rich kids in the building said about me or my mother or my sister, or Howard and being too friggin’ weak to win. The boy sat on my scrawny chest holding my wrists taunting me and I was not able to budge the bastard even the slightest bit, it was among the most frustrating and humiliating things that I’ve ever experienced. I wasn’t a namby pamby, and was well used  to rough and tumble in St. Thomas, but I was unable to contain my self, and I burst into tears of rage, frustration and humiliation.

Even then tho, I didn’t have the good sense to.. ah..I mean actually  giving up was out of the question even then, so when the poor rich kid finally got tired of winning the blasted fight he had to let go and run for his life back into the rich peoples building and safety. Yep.

It’s funny how perfectly well I remember the helplessness that Gale and I felt watching  friends laughing with one another, leaving for the movies, the amusement park, or the ball park and not being able to go. In fact, not even invited because they knew,  and looked upon us with (God help us) pity, because we wouldn’t have the money to go, because we never had the money to go.

The flippy flappy fluppy flupping of the soles of your shoes and then the worn through cardboard, Gale’s cracked lense, broken and scotch taped glasses.

 I remember with great sadness one Sunday morning with nothing whatsoever to eat and mother taking me to a tidal pool on Condado Beach, armed with a safety-pin on a string looking, hoping, to find  something, anything to eat for breakfast, and failing completely. The little man that wasn’t, the little hero that couldn’t.

I can only imagine how Mud must have felt.

Life that way, is like living in some debilitating floor to ceiling drone that sucks the spirit, the light, the hope and the joy out of you. Leaving you more and more physically weak, and more and more psychologically vulnerable to insult and humiliation and more and more subject to the seeds of a focus less self-pity, a faceless anger and resentment.

I will mention that among other things we (our little family) got “boils”. Big fire red volcanic God awful biblical curse killer boils, that left you dizzy with pain and shame for days and weeks and when they finally exploded, well, you can imagine that mixture of revulsion and relief.

I got a hernia that went untreated for lack of moolah. Food poisoned by another Castilian Abuelita  when her friendly grandson brought me to their house to play, she fed us lunch, and then told me to leave and to go directly home. Within the hour, alone in our apt, I was experiencing the worse  sweats, trembling and abdominal pain of my life. I realized that if I knew what was good for me, I wouldn’t be going back to play with her grandson anymore. Gale was sick in bed for many, many, many weeks with TB that went undiagnosed and untreated (years later it was diagnosed by the scarring on her lungs). Both Mud and Howard wound up in the hospital at the same time for a month (she having complications and then a baby, he having Delirium Tremens). Followed by a long stay in the VA, leaving Gale and I to have a grand adventure taking care of ourselves on our own in Puerto Rico at 9 1/2 and 11.

Of course the first thing to go by the wayside was school, (we were going to “La Escuela de Santa Teresita” on Loiza Street at the time and we could never afford the tuition anyway).

 My job was to go out every day looking for, rather “hunting and gathering”, Coca-Cola bottles to turn in for deposit and for the pennies thrown away (two at a time) in the cellophane wrapping of cigarette packages. Cigarettes sold for twenty-eight cents a pack in cigarette machines and the two cents change was stuck in the wrapper. With my earnings Gale and I would go to the store and buy sugar and flour. All the ingredients we  needed to make our favorite dishes, fried sugar and fried flour cakes.

We would set the table like civilized children and gobble up our dinner as if we were on top of the world.

However, we  lived in acute fear that someone would tell the authorities that we were living all by ourselves and we would be caught and sent to…God knows where.

Fortunately, the only adult interventions came in the form of the bright red apples or neatly wrapped sandwiches or containers of Spanish rice that we would occasionally find leaning against the door when we would come back to the apartment from our flour and sugar runs. Continued… 

Book 1. Cortijo  Y The Symphonic Friction of Silk, Skin and Satin

I recently attended an interesting event in observance of “Virgin Islands/Puerto Rico Friendship Day” a discussion of the impact of Puerto Rican music on the music and culture of the Virgin Islands. For those of you who don’t know much about the music of Puerto Rico, it is as varied as “Trio Los Panchos” is from “Cortojo Y su Combo con Ishmael Rivera” with every kind of Jibaro (Puerto Rican “hillbilly”) thrown in for double good measure.

 Afro-Cuban is more well-known in the states, and I have nothing negative to say about “La Muisca de Cuba” but being “all but Borincan” my self I must confess a personal affinity for “La Musica De Puerto Rico”.

I am not on the panel this year, but the influence of La Musica De Puerto Rico on my music and on my excitement with the idea of making music, is very powerful. I am very happy to offer my recording of “El Gringito” as a demonstration of that, it is a classic Jibaro style song and arrangement, and our Guitar based recording (as opposed to the piano based one) of “Surrender To The Sun”  as partial confirmation of the fact that we’ve got a serious case of Borenquen in the soul of the Virgin Islands. (That is the great Jeff Medina playing those beautiful guitar lines).

The great Emile Francis of “Milo And The Kings” ( by far the most popular virgin Islands band of the last fifty years, was all but a Ricanio himself, and the band (with many players with familial ties to Puerto Rico) was second only to Cortijo when it came to full blast sizzling hot Mambo and Meringue.

In 1959 and 60 Tuts and Anibal and I were working at a dance hall that doubled as a skating rink or vice versa. “The Carousel”.

Skating was/is great fun, and being a skate boy/bartender at fourteen and fifteen, was certainly the best of both worlds. Leaping and spinning and flying around the rink at speeds exceeding eighty or a hundred miles per hour (I don’t care what the physicists say about the limitations of ball bearings in circa 1960 skates, or resistance of masonite floors, skinny kid legs and the self-limiting properties of all the atoms involved, as conclusive proof that actual speeds were probably no more than one-third of those claimed) we were flying and when you dipped too low and slid too far on a turn, smashing your shinbone into the sharp edge of a door jamb or support pillar, you knew, and everyone else that heard the crash-bang and the screamin’ and cussin’, would agree, that you had to have been doing at least a hundred. 

Sweet “styling” for the teenaged girls, and being ever-present and accounted for on the Saturday Night Rock and Roll radio show that originated at the center of the universe, the skating rink, was great great fun.

But when “Cortijo Y Su Combo Con Ishmael Rivera”, was there, and the scratchy forty fives were replaced by the live blasting trumpets and blaring saxophonicas and banging timbales Congas and Bongos, guiro, maracas, clavos, Guitarra, bass and crazy piano along with simply the best of the best singers in Ishmael Rivera, all together “tedando” the hottest mambo in sixty galaxies, and the giant mirror ball (on top of the rum) had the room and everyone in it spinning in eight directions at once, and the mounting scent of the sweat of pure passion and the perfumey fumes rose up to your brain and voodooed into it as tight as a Turkish towel and the sandpaper sound of oh so tightly wrapped and bursting at the seams, silk and satin bottoms  frictioning and bumping, rubbing, and sliding one against the next ‘til the place was about to spontaneously combust  like a flambo..

All a lusty young lad boy  had to do, was  solo dance himself out to the middle of the floor where he would find himself transported to heaven. Crushed breathless  amongst and betwixt the mambo frenzied bums  of five hundred panting, heaving mamacitas. Each cheek and Chica fully charged, and determined to out shake her neighbor… demonstrating for their dance partners and every one else in the world (or rather, anyone that dared to look) exactly who had the hottest haunches and the sweetest salsa pot, and further, exactly how these endowments could be expected to perform as soon as time and place conspired to align and allow them to do what they could do. (what we used to call “de ting”)

And, perhaps most importantly, and paradoxically beyond the immediate promise of things to come, was the clear once and for always illus/demon/stration of what “the poor pendejo who wouldn’t proclaim his love and fling down his life for her, this very night and forever more”, would and could surely count on missing every day and night of the rest of his miserable God forsaken time on Earth.

Many more than one of Uncle Sam’s poor intoxicated swabs found themselves swept up in this divine, elemental maelstrom, missed his boat and was sunk. Other wise good men who have had to answer questions like these ever since, “Son, how could you disgrace the family by getting a dishonorable discharge?” and “Dad, how long did you have to stay in the brig when they said you deserted from the Navy?” and “Dad do you think they’ll ever forget what you did and let you get a good job and move us out of this trailer park?”

I suspect that the concerned family members are quite puzzled when an odd sweet smile followed by a faraway glazed look is the only answer they get.

We of course had our own band that (as soon as we figured out how to play anything beyond “Perfidia” and “Ruby Dooby Doo”) would be just like Cortijo.

Tuts played the trumpet, I was the singing sax man, Anibal, played “an instrument to be named later” and our friend Guillermo who played the conga, was so taken by the excitement that we think he ran off to Old San Juan, where he may have tried a “stick up a mulberia” to get a set of timbales, and is probably still in La Princessa Prison, just outside of Rio Piedras.

Anyway, I don’t think I will raise my hand and try to offer that kind of testimony from the floor this time, but by God when it’s my turn to be invited onto the dias, I will have this and much more to say. Yes indeed,


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