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Book 1. In Nueva York!

June 6, 2010 1 comment

BOOK 1. In Nueva York!

 We arrived in Nueva York that night with the wind a blowing and the snow a snowing… Mud walked out of the plane, down the stairs and across the tarmac  with little Larry snuggled in her arms, Gale and I following behind. People looking in amazement at this woman and her children dressed for  the fourth of July, apparently completely ignorant of things like baby blankets, mittens,, noggin toppers and the like. An older white gent looked pityingly at Mother with her little brown babe in arms, and took off his heavy overcoat, draping it over Mother and child. We knew instantly that we were in a world, a reality that was  completely foreign to us, we (Gale and I) had spent over half of our young lives surrounded by people of color, or colors, immersed in cultures and climes very much other than this one. 

I can’t speak for Gale on this but I had come to view the world from the position of an underdog with “something to prove” and white folks as “odd otheren” that we did not particularly identify with or fully understand.

It was very strange to see “the othern” all around us, and to all but hear them making judgments about Mother and Larry and Gale and I, things became even stranger when we saw our first  so called “American Negros” all relegated to subservient positions in the airport, and saw (and felt) the tense and toxic vibes that existed between the Blancos and los Negros and vice versa.

The number of shifting realities present in those first minutes in the terminal at Idlewild Airport that winter night was fantastic.

Our survivor antenna were sparking and spinning like never before…our exposure  to the new “who is what to whom and which is where and why and how and what is what is what” would take intense sorting out and every day that followed would bring more and more of the same…

For example, the very next day while riding in Mud’s twin sister Lea’s husband Jack’s (who had been on the verge of marrying Mud in St. Thomas before she choose Howard instead and we wound up in Puerto Rico) car, I saw a white kid my age running like crazy down the middle of a four lane avenue, a huge box of Jujubes in his hand with the lean mean  grown up manager of a nearby supermarket right behind him. The kid was flying…

I was filled with curiosity and strong emotions   as I watched, in large part because I had never seen a white person in either of these roles. Why would a white kid have to steal anything? Why does a grown up white man care enough about a box of candy to be running around in the street traffic and risking his life, like this?  “Suppose the man catches him? is he going to kill him or just hurt him? Will the kid fight him and bite him? Will they call his parents? Does he have any parents? Will the police come, will they beat him up? I thought It was among the strangest things I had ever seen, but only because the people were white. 

In my experience, white people didn’t work, and certainly they didn’t run through traffic risking their lives over a box of Jujubes, white kids didn’t have to steal candy they were rich and got what ever they wanted by whining for it.

The white adults I knew were wild eyed  artists or owned things like hotels or jewelry stores or were plump and pale effete tourists, the only white children that I’d ever seen (or could remember having seen…-although we may have seen some such before we went to the Islands in the first place) poor enough to perhaps have to help themselves to a bon bon  from time to time, were Gale and me, and of the two of us I was the only white child that I know of in the whole wide world that had actually stolen (and eaten) candy. In reality, I had stolen some pennies and a quarter, some nickels, and dimes, half a handful of change from the cash box of a little shop in the Islands owned by the parents of friends of Gale and mine.  (I was so young that I didn’t yet know how to count, or I was so upset at what I had done that I didn’t want to know how bad a deed it was, I bought some penny candy with it just outside of the Barracks Yad and stuck the booty and the little looty left over under my pillow. Apparently I had scooped up more than I needed for the penny candy I wanted, so..not knowing what to do with the overage, I  may have thrown it away by the road side) Nevertheless, even though I was only six or seven when I lost my state of grace to petty penny pilferin’ misery, I still felt terrible about it. (Ah..In fact, I still do) Against that background, I struggled with what I was seeing play out in the middle of the traffic before us. A light changed somewhere and we moved on down the road without seeing the conclusion of the tableau or act three. (My hope has always been that the boy got away but was so upset by his actions and outcome that he never never never did anything like that again. It may be an unlikely end story however, because frankly the little white kid looked like a pretty tough little guy already. Another something novel and new to me)

Lea and Jack were pretty blasé about the whole thing it, and I got the impression that stuff like that happened all the time. It “blew my mind” (which means it exploded my preconceived notion of a particular reality) Yep,

Then there was this thing called television, and its crazy crazy shows like “Queen For A Day” and “$64,000 Question” and something called “The Mouseketeers” with a beautiful soulful looking girl named “Annette Funichello”. We were in someplace called “Kew Gardens” in a world dunked and  dyed this God awful brown and gray. A color that I’ve since dubbed “Brey” the essence of depression that ran under over and through everything everywhere you looked.  The sound track to all of this was an Ookity Dookity song called “Catch A Falling Star And Put It IN Your Pocket And Save It For A Rainy Day” by a singing barber named “Perry Como” who made Pat Boone look like Humphrey Bogart. The song was #1 in this, the world of Rock And Roll, one more reason why  Gale and I along with Mud and Little Larry  were thoroughly  disoriented and confused.

 One day I was looking out the window and  saw some scruffy older kids  messing around with the great New York City equalizer,  Stickball. However, just as I had earned my own place in the scruffy lineup, the whole kapassel of us (Mud, Lea, Jack, Hansie ( Lea and Jack’s little guy John Just about the same age as Larry) Claudia (Lea’s beautiful little girl,around two years old at the time) Gale, Larry and I.) left for Far Rockaway and Wave Crest Gardens.

“Wave Crest Gardens” (two or three blocs of “private” public housing type buildings, each “Bloc” consisting of two U-shaped six-story buildings facing each other from either end of a  raised central space containing park type benches and the odd patch of grass, stunted trees and bushes. The “Gardens” were a block from the board walk and the beach at Far Rockaway. A far so far  that the Board walk actually ended there. It reminds me of  El Ultimo Trolley in its lonely finality.

 Now we were in another world, inside another world, because most of the people living there were a kind of white people called “Jewish” a people with some interesting thoughts and experiences around race and cultural prejudice themselves. Of course up to that point the whole Jewish New York reality might have been a Chinese opera for all we knew, however we soon realized we were foreigners again with much to learn. And we did.

Probably first and foremost was the realization that the ideas that we had about white people were pretty much adopted from black people and brown people who had been oppressed and disrespected by “the white people” and were jusifiably wary of any universe that contained them.  Consequently, our understanding of “white people” was cockamamie and incomplete. We realized that up close, there was (for us at least) no “the white people” rather there were innumerable groups of disparate peoples (many of whom and didn’t like each other one bit), fought constantly and said nasty things about each other. We were now living among a “white people” who had been wronged, abused, brutalized, and murdered due to prejudice. However, inspite of that, I was surprised to discover that some of the kids had some hateful prejudices of their own.

Fairly early on as we all jockeyed for places in the hierarchy of cool (roughly based on appearance, ability to fight, demonstrated skill in Stickball, Punch ball, Handball, Stoopball, and your ability to sound like the singer on a Rock and Roll record) some of my age peers (11 or 12 years old) came running breathlessly to tell me that “Alan” a hither to coolish  bigger, older kid, had called me a…a…a…”spip or spuk or snik or something”, a word I had never heard in my life and had no meaning whatsoever for me.  “What’s that? I asked them, “It’s a person from Puerto Rico!” they exclaim-s’plained, a person who comes from Puerto Rico! “We came here from Puerto Rico, but what’s the matter with that”? I wondered and asked. They were flabbergasted…how could I not know what that word meant? How could I not be outraged by the word? How could I not know that someone had tried to be completely demeaning and insulting of me and what the idiot thought were my people? By calling me a word that had no meaning? I didn’t get it, It was ridiculous. 

I didn’t even know what he and they were talking about. It took quite a while for me to understand and realize that this Jewish kid (a bigger older kid who I had respected and thought worth learning something from) thought he was putting me down by calling me a spluk or something. It really was ridiculous. (Years later a New York Taxi Driver trying to hip me to the ways of the City and educate me about Borinquenos, proudly explained to me that “People from Puerto Rico are “Spanish Puerto Rican Indian Coloreds” and that’s why we call them that word.

I still didn’t get where the insult is in being “Spanish Puerto Rican Indian Colored”, because in fact there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s a beautiful joining of beautiful peoples with a powerful and romantic heritage and history.

Anyway, that kind of cruel idiocy seems to be one of the common threads connecting all of human kind, it’s always disappointing when it shows up but most especially from someone who you think might have suffered enough to know better. As I said earlier, we would  learn a great deal  in Far Rockaway, New York, USA in the Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, of 1957. Continues…

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Book 1. Isla Grande #7, El Ultimo Trolley And Book 4. Juxtapositions…

Book 1. Isla Grande #7,  El Ultimo Trolley

In the Dark Age just before Gale found our salvation in Rock and Roll, one day out of the blue our Pop or, the man we knew as “Frankie” showed up ah… came to visit. He peeked in on Howard, in bed with a bottle of Don Q, spoke “be-bop jargon” to Mother (Gale and I had some sort of linguistic flashback, we hadn’t heard “be bop” since we were babes in arms, all in all, considering the wild and varied verbilations that we sprang from and were steeped in, it’s  wonderly that we speak any Angleish ‘tall. “Fee is uk and foo is ock mon! No?”

Frankie wasted no time in showing us how much fun that we’d been missing, Laughing, joking, singing, punch ball, stoop ball, stick ball. Hey ya want some ice cream? Sure, why not! He spent two days with us and when he left, we were so frigging turned inside out, bummed and depressed that it was beyond words. What the frig are adults thinking?

It wasn’t that Howard was a bad guy it’s just that he was chronically disabled by the rum, he was a drunk guy that stayed in bed drinking and throwing up, Mud scrambled all over the place juggling Howard, Little Larry (who was home from the hospital and sleeping in a drawer) Gale and me and whatever freelance typing jobs she could find in Puerto Rico for secretaries who don’t speak the language, and God help us,  her own wants, needs and dreams.

I accept the possibility that I may have been somewhat pre-occupied with self  at ten, nevertheless, I loved my Mudder and even I knew that this life was not what she had in mind when she and her beautiful twin sister Lea, skipped blithely away from the life they knew, to the Frangipangi scented trade winds, blue seas and blue skies of the Bonny Bongo Isles. Mud was a Jazz baby (in fact Baby was her nickname) and music was a central part of her heart and soul. Her most prized possession by far was a steamer trunk filled with her “Jazz baby” collection of 30’s, 40’s and early 50’s 78’s. This is Billie Holiday, Early Sarah Vaughan, Ella, Julie Christy, Dakota Staton, Billy Eckstein, Mr. Five by Five, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan, Gale’s own God Father Dizzy Gillespie, and many many others.

To any hip music lover, the trunk was worth ten times its weight in gold. A local department store agreed and allowed her to use her collection as collateral for a loan, a loan which she eventually could not repay and one day in the dark ages they came and took Mother’s mother lode of music and happiness away.

I will never be able to explain to you what that means if you don’t already know, and if you know, you know.

I was not able to understand how Howard would allow that to happen. Why he didn’t stick up a Muelberia, or a Lechonirea,  or ultra leverage heaven and hell somehow, someway, anyway, to get it back. That is until years later, in St. Thomas, all grown up and talking with him about music, he proudly announced to me that his favorite musical artist/singer of all time, was Edie Gorme.

Anyway, shortly after Frankie’s visit and the loss of Mother’s most centrally important possession, we lost the pad on Ashford Avenue and moved to a part of Santurce called Ocean Park.

Ocean Park was a “working class” neighborhood very light on anglish and very heavy on macho. And, to tell you the truth, (even though it was always maximo stressful to maintain) macho worked for me. Although I was significantly undersized and underweight, I could run and leap and field and throw and bat and all around play ball with the best. We were going to “Santa Terisita” (I had just started the sixth grade) and los Guapos (the tough guys) in the neighborhood  were amazed and proud that “Ocean Park” had a “little Gringito”  who seemed fearless and could and would catch “all the fuego” that they or anybody else could throw. Ocean Park had a little Guapito Gringito to call it’s own.

As a little white boy in the West Indies, my basic defense mechanism was an absolute commitment to death over dishonor, to dying rather than to be thought of and treated as less than. The boys from Ocean Park and I had good times playing ball in the school yard at Santa Teresita (where even though I was the smallest, I was one of very few who could hit the ball over the wall) and at a poetically named place that resides in my imagination still, like some perfect Spanish three word  haiku “El Ultimo Trolley”.

This field of dreams was a sandlot large enough for a traditional baseball diamond, along the right field line was an actual old trolley car (the last trolley car in PR, or El Ultimo Trolley). Why a thing like that would stimulate such romantic feelings in me even as a boy, is a fine mystery. (My imaginings relating to it run more to Panama hats and Pan Am Clippers,  than to baseball caps and the Yankee Clipper), in spite of the fact that it was the first place that I had ever actually played on a baseball diamond. I, up to that time had great and highly developed skills for alley ball or coconut trees in the middle ball or a sock with a rock in the middle ball, but…diamonds? Fortunately my skills as a stone throwing ragamuffin were transferable, and the baseball diamond was grooveland for me.

I had a great arm, (trained and fine tuned in St. Thomas “teefin” mangos by knocking them out of the tops of trees)  so I was a Center fielder and a pitcher. (Frankie was a great pitcher too and tried out for the “New Yawk G’ints”, his dream of dreams was to be the boy in his poem “Now Pitching For New York!” (a poem unfortunately lost to the depredations and natural disassemblage of life and the things of life in beer can ridden rusty trailers on the skeeter riddled edge of the western Everglades). Were it not for Jazz, ball might have been Frankie’s thing, And were it not for “just around the corner Rock and Roll”, ball might have been my thing also.

Around that time Gale and I were put out of school for the family’s inability to pay the tuition. Mud tried kitchen table school  but with the afore-mentioned set of responsibilities that she had, good old book larnin’  went the way of the wind.

Meanwhile, Shortly after Father’s visit, he sent us a smiling photograph of himself standing next to an almost new car with a beautiful Blonde woman and a brand new little baby in his arms. Gale and I felt pretty much completely abandoned.

 A couple of things occurred to cheer things up, one was me smacking the neighborhood bully in the face so hard that he burst into tears, and the other was Howard finally landing the Civil Engineering job that had been the carrot that had brought us all to La Isla Grande two and a half years earlier, in the first place. Continued…..

 Book 4. Juxtapositions…

 Last night a young man brought a pristine copy of “SOUTH ATLANTIC BLUES” to the Saturday night gig at the Collective (The Middletown Area Arts Collective or MAAC), for me to sign. Digital Dave took an interesting photograph of the young gent and me holding the record between us and shaking hands.

What a frigging “Plur-iverse” of thought and emotion the occasion stimulates and unleashes in me.

The young man was interested in talking about what happened with “SOON” (My January 1971 Broadway produced Rock Opera and the backlash that it created in the music business towards my writing partner Joe  and I) You can be sure that in time I will exhaust all there is to say about SOON, but in the meantime, “SOUTH ATLANTIC BLUES” in itself was a good illustration of how wide the chasm between “show” (meaning the art of show and the show of art) and “Business” was and is.

 In 1967, Jerry Shoenbaum was the head of Verve-Forecast, the hottest “Folk-Rock” label in the world, My manager at the time, Herb Gart (who I had signed with in hopes of rubbing noses with his client Buffy Saint Marie,) shopped SOUTH ATLANTIC BLUES to Jerry, he loved it and was about to sign me and the album to Verve-Forecast, when ATCO (who wanted to get in on the Folk-Rock market), offered Jerry the presidency of ATCO and Bo-coup fazools if he would leave Verve and come there. Jerry said Ok, but I’m bringing Scott Fagan and “SOUTH ATLANTIC BLUES” along to be my first release on ATCO, so… while Jerry negotiated his deal, it was decided that I should go ahead and sign with ATCO, which I did. However, ATCO never came to terms with Jerry, Jerry Schoenbaum never signed with ATCO. And there I was. It happens that I loved ATCO because Ben E. King and The Drifters, who had been my favorites for years were there, but ATCO, basically Ahmed Ertigun, was not well inclined towards me, or my album (To Ahmed I was “the kid who sings with a lisp”), and on the other hand, I considered him a jiveass racist thief) and naturally, the new incoming head of ATCO Jerry Greenberg, (one of Ahmed’s protégés) was not at all inclined to elevate and promote Jerry Schoenbaum’s pet project. In short, “SOUTH ATLANTIC BLUES” got buried at ATCO.

Folks can argue the reletive merits and quality of the lisping, the songs and the recording back and forth all they want (and they do) but Jasper Johns discovered “SOUTH ATLANTIC BLUES” in a cutout bin, listened and fell in love with it. Jasper did a lithograph of the A Side of the album and immortalized it as “SCOTT FAGAN RECORD” a lithograph that wound up in the permanent collection of the National Gallery, MOMA, The Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art, The Israeli Museum in Tel Aviv, and many others, among them perhaps most ironically, the personal collection of Ahmed Ertigun himself.

 In my view, “SOUTH ATLANTIC BLUES” is a good and interesting, first album or “record” by and of a sincere and fairly unusual artist at a particular time and place. The follow-up album was to have been the Rock Opera “SOON” (which we will finally be able to release this year, better a little late than never)

I am in it for the music, the impact that it may have for the good, and the hope for positive change in the lives of my little ones and the worlds that they live in. That’s how it was, that’s how it is and that’s how it will be…