OK, ok, I know I advertised this blog as my adventures in the Dominican Republic, and now I’m in New York, but I’m just going to keep writing anyway and YOU CAN’T STOP ME. At any rate, New York is just another Caribbean island, isn’t it?
It certainly felt that way on Wednesday night, when I went to search out my old New York típico friends, whom I hadn’t seen in over a year. Wednesday night is the big night for hard core típico fans and musicians, who all head over to Macoris restaurant in East New York for a beer, to see who’s playing, and trade off instruments as the night wears on. In the old days when I used to go faithfully, things got started early – nine at the latest. I didn’t really want to be wandering around East New York by myself after dark, and I wanted to talk to the owner, Juan Almonte, anyway, so I hopped on the L train and arrived about 8 o’clock.
As I was walking up to the restaurant I noticed it had a new awning – blue instead of the old red – and that it said “El Nuevo Macoris.” I was expecting the old Macoris, so I was surprised when I walked in and saw new tables and chairs and a new flat-screen TV in place of the old acrylic painting of Tatico and Siano. Juan was nowhere in sight, so I asked one of the girls behind the counter when he’d be arriving. “Juan doesn’t own this place anymore,” she told me. I was in shock. Juan had been the owner of Macoris for over 15 years, and it was because of him that it was such a típico kind of place. I leave for a year and this is what happens? How could everything change so fast, after so many years of stability?
She told me he now owned a restaurant called El Triangulo on Rockaway Blvd, just over the Queens border, and gave me his number. She also told me that my friend King de la Rosa was playing tonight, but not until after 11! Not relishing the idea of sitting around waiting for three hours, I gave Juan a call. He was surprised to hear from me and told me to hop on the bus down Jamaica Avenue. When I got to 75th street I was to give him a call. I did this, although I went on to 77th street so I could enquire when music would be happening at the Rinconcito de Nagua, another típico joint. Juan then picked me up as planned and took me to El Triangulo.
The new restaurant was very nice and a pleasant place to hang out. Juan, always a good host, gave me a huge dinner of fish, rice, and beans, and a beer for good measure. He had a plan: he’d sent friends to dig up a tambora, a güira, and an accordion so I could play a few merengues a trio with them. As soon as I finished we did this, a full set of eight merengues with Juan on tambora and various friends on güira and vocals. They were surprised and happy to see how much I’d learned with Rafaelito over the last nine months. But soon the accordion’s owner had to leave, Juan had to get back to work, and I had to get to Macoris. Promising to call me the next time music was planned, Juan drove me back in time to hear King in the middle of his first set.
I walked in to find many surprised faces of friends I hadn’t seen in ages. There was King, of course, who made me promise to stay long enough to play a few tunes here; Tano on bass; Cesar on tambora; Ray “Chino” Diaz, the percussionist and music producer, on a stool in the corner; and guitarist Edilio Paredes at a table in front of the band. And wait a second – what was that whole table of white guys doing here? It had to be the doing of my friend Greg, the only other gringo típico fan besides myself, and indeed it was. I had stumbled into his bachelor’s party, as he was getting married in ten days and wanted to use this as an excuse to fulfill his dream of a gringo típico night at Macoris. That was a surprise. I certainly don’t think I’ve ever attended a bacherlor’s party before.
All this was very lucky for me. I found three people I’d wanted to interview (King, Tano, and Ray) all in one place and was able to set up the interviews right then and there. I got in touch with Greg, who I’d also wanted to see. Cesar offered me more tambora lessons, King offered me accordion lessons, and Tano offered to rehearse with me. And of course, I got more free beer. So it was a profitable night, if a long one – I didn’t even get to play my tunes (three of them) until about 2 AM. And after me, Edilio took the stage for a couple of tunes (although he’s principally a guitarist, he learned to play accordion from King and now does both with his group Super Uba).
Also lucky was that I could get a ride home with Greg and the boys instead of paying a car service. About 3 AM or so, I stumbled into my friend Tianna’s place in Greenpoint, where I’m staying for about a month, and promptly sliced off the edge of my fingertip, I think on the razor in my cosmetics bag. Dripping blood, I searched for something to wrap around it. I went in the bathroom and found there was no toilet paper. I went in the kitchen and found no paper towels. I went back in the bathroom to look for band aids – there weren’t any. Finally I realized a tampon was my only option. Hey, they’re absorbent, aren’t they? And then I laughed and laughed as I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and put on my pajamas, all with a tampon stuck to my finger.
Postscript to that story: I thought I’d stopped the bleeding enough to go to sleep, so I found a Kleenex in my purse to wrap around it and did so. I woke up at 8 AM needing to go to the bathroom, and as I went downstairs I noticed my finger was STILL bleeding – five hours later. I felt a bit lightheaded, and there were still no bandaids. I fell back into bed feeling I would pass out. What does one do to stop bleeding, I wondered, trying to remember my ancient Red Cross training. A tourniquet! Of course! But what would I use? The elastic hairband sitting on the living room table should do the job, I thought, and so I wrapped it around my finger and hoped for the best as I drifted off to sleep again. When I again awoke a couple hours later I saw the trick had worked, although the finger was throbbing a bit. I was pretty proud of my inventive first aid, though I wondered how my accordion playing might be affected.
Luckily, on Friday, when my accordion skills were next called on I found I could play just fine even with my newly-purchased band aid. For a change from my usual Dominican fare, my friend and now roommate Tianna had invited me to play sea shanties with her and some friends on a boat on Saturday. She promised it would be one of the wackier gigs I’d likely ever play, and really, who can resist sea shanties, so I agreed to join the impromptu band formed of Tianna and her friends Hannah, Zeke, and Nathan. Nathan works at the Lomax archives and had done a fine job of digging up old shanties for us to sing.
The accordion would definitely add the right piratey touch to the ensemble, but I worried I wouldn’t find anything I could play with them because my accordion is in B-flat/E-flat, keys that combine well with the sax for típico musicians but which I didn’t think would be much used in the shanty repertoire. As it turned out, Hannah happened to have an ancient Hohner acquired at a flea market and never played, in the much more useful keys (shantily-speaking) of G and C. The only problem was that it had no shoulder straps, nor even a place to attach them, and the thumb strap was broken. The only way to play it was over the knee, fixed in place with one’s chin. This posture couldn’t be comfortable for very long. Thank goodness I hit on the answer: duct tape. This addition much improved the thumb strap and enabled me to muddle through the whole rehearsal without much incident, making it up as I went along and thoroughly enjoying singing harmony in hearty sailor style.
That was the only rehearsal we all got together, though, and the only time I was able to hear the songs before our big debut on Saturday. In Hannah’s van we - five musicians, two friends, a dog, and ten instruments – journeyed to the Gowanus canal, where we found the boat tied up at the very dead end of First Street. This very nonseaworthy ship (it must be moved each day by the dozen-volunteers-hauling-on-a-rope method) had been donated to Tianna and friends, and they thus created the Empty Vessel Project to fix it up and make it useful for musical events of all types. It’s come a long way but still sports a garbage bag ceiling, random holes and pits of varying danger levels, and a toilet made of a bucket that must be manually emptied after each event (a task all EV members fear).
The Gowanus, a stagnant morass of toxic chemicals, isn’t the most scenic spot on earth, but it was definitely novel to be on a boat in the middle of Brooklyn. There was a gangplank to walk up, citronella candles aplenty, and a generator powering the strings of fairy lights that lit the place. A bar was being set up in one corner and on the other end a DJ with a broken leg was setting up his equipment on an ironing board and an old bathtub with a plank on top. With his clomping cast he sounded much more pirate-like than the rest of us, although we had at least made an attempt at a sailor look in navy blue and white. The other workers were dressed in lace, corsets, fishnet tights, polka-dotted hairnets, fishtails, and all other manner of outlandish attire. I figured they were a bunch of Goths, and they might be, but I later found out from one of them that they’d all been in Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade that afternoon. That would also explain it.
I quickly realized the boat setting offered all kinds of opportunities for me to make puns: I hoped we wouldn’t “rock the boat” with our rockin’ sea shanties; I didn’t want to “go overboard” with them, etc. I could have gone all night but luckily for my co-conversants I had to get ready to play by first having a beer and then setting up the instruments and lyric sheets. We had been afraid someone or some instrument might pitch overboard, or that we might sink altogether, but in fact something far worse than this happened: as Zeke helped the crew extract speakers from crates and set them up, he stepped backwards right into Nathan’s guitar with a sickening crack. Nathan, who was out searching for food with Hannah at the moment, was very gracious about the accident but it did put a bit of a damper on our moods.
The gig itself went fairly well considering the amount of rehearsal time we’d had. There was only one song that I’d completely forgotton, and the rest came back easily enough, as they had very catchy tunes and fun-to-sing choruses: Heave away! HEY! Haul away! HEY! At any rate, this crowd didn’t much care that we botched some of them up. It was the spirit of the thing that counted, and we injected the needed saltiness into the festivities.