7/17 - 7/18/06
I figured I’d better get out and hear some more music on Sunday, a good night for tipico in Queens, so I made plans to go out to El Rinconcito de Nagua in Woodhaven. But first, both excercise and brunch were in order. Tianna’s Tucson friend, Danielle, was in town. It felt a bit like a slumber party, and we all woke up groggy and giggling. Tianna suggested we try a Kick & Punch class at the neighborhood Y to get us moving. We did, but didn’t last long. It was pretty intense, and exactly what I’m not supposed to be doing for my knee. Instead, we did about fifteen minutes of bedroom yoga, gossiped about Tucson people, and then, starving for both food and caffeine, headed towards Saint Helens, where we had the slooooooowest brunch I’d yet encountered. It was tasty, but I don’t think anything was tasty enough for that kind of wait.
Later that evening, I had to meet a new friends whose acquaintance I owe to this very blog: Lidia, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Texas who is studying Dominican foodways in Tamboril and New York. Needless to say, we had a lot to talk about, and since we both found ourselves temporarily in Brooklyn we made plans to meet up down on Grand Avenue, near my old East Williamsburg haunts. We touched base via cell phone. “Keep walking east on Grand, and I’ll be walking towards you. If we stay on the same sidewalk, we’ll run into each other eventually.” “But how will I know you’re you, and how will you know I’m me?” I wondered. “I think I can recognize you from your blog,” Lidia said. “And I have big hair.”
I did recognize her from her masses of long, curly hair, more than enough to make the hair-deprived (such as myself) jealous. We headed to an old favorite of mine, the Salvadoran restaurant “Bahia.” While living in New York, I found Salvadoran food often provided the best substitute for the Sonoran food I missed from home. They have corn tamales with no meat inside, not quite the green corn tamales with chile and cheese I longed for, but close enough. They also have delicious refried black beans. We ordered a “plato tipico” consisting of fried sweet plantains, homemade cheese, beans, and cream, as well as cheese-filled pupusas topped with tangy cabbage salad. This kept us pleasantly occupied as we discussed research plans and I gave her some contact information for all my favorite people in Santaigo. We even gave Hector, the palero, a call - I wanted to check on my car, anyhow. The connection wasn’t very good, but we managed to touch base, at least.
Unfortunately, Lidia couldn’t go with me to El Rinconcito - her crazy New York existence meant that 10 PM on a Sunday night was the only time she’d been able to find to meet up with an old friend. So we parted ways at the Grand Avenue subway station, but made plans to have a tipico night some other day. Taking the L to the J train out to the 75th Street stop, I made surprisingly good time to my destination. Once there, I claimed a table near the door, feeling a little odd because I didn’t recognize anyone in the small but highly appreciative audience, making me a curiosity in more ways than one. Still, I did know Leopoldo, the accordionist, and Junior, the guirero, and once they finished the set they came over to say hi and buy me a second beer. Before long everyone in the place wanted to dance with me, it seemed. Good thing, as I needed the exercise both for the usual reasons and in order to stay awake
In the second set, I was asked to play so I cranked out some of the usual suspects, “La Cartera Vacia” and “El Puente Seco.”: Junior thought I’d played better than the day before, and this immediately made me a lot of new friends who wanted to know all about me. One who asked me to dance told me he was both a bodega-owner and one of the biggest merengueros or tipico fans around, so I asked his name. He turned out to be Fermin Checo, a name I’d heard often both from the musicians I know and in homenajes, recorded songs of homage. This was a fortuitous meeting and, naturally, I made plans to interview him.
For neighborly reasons, this gig has to end at 1 AM sharp - all the better for me - so at that time we repaired to the sidewalk, where I stood around talking to the New York-born bass player until Papo, one of those ultra-persistent fans who never misses any of the shows, offered me a ride to the Myrtle Avenue L station, much more convenient for me, and we sped away in his delivery van.
On Monday I tried again to reach Tano. Guess how well that went?
On Tuesday I was more successful: not with Tano but with Heidy, one of the only professinal female guira players around, and an old friend from the days when she was playing with Rafaelito Polanco and I was working in the public sector. Turns out she now has three kids and thus is not playing much anymore, especially since Rafaelito went back to the island. We made plans to meet up at her new apartment near Myrtle and Broadway.
When I got off the bus under the elevated M train, I tried to call Heidy for the address but couldn’t get through. Eventually I decided I might as well have some lunch, so wandered into the nearest Dominican restaurant for a lunch plate of rice, beans, and fish. It was enough for three people, but I was glad to have leftovers. When I finished I tried again and found her. Then I found the building, one of those tall apartment blocks built by city services, without trouble. Heidy opened the door to her extremely tidy first-floor, two-bedroom place accompanied by her one-year-old daughter who was rolling about in a pink walker.
A Bushwick native, Heidy had never thought much of tipico until highschool, when she was able to hear some of the local bands playing at restaurants in the neighborhood. One of her sisters had recently come up to New York from the DR and played accordion, sparking Heidy’s interest further. She started out as a dancer with a band, but when one of the percussionists suggested she take up an instrument instead she realized the guira was for her. After practicing a few months along to tapes of Fefita, she was surprising everyone in the tipico world with her self-taught skills. She ended up playing for about seven years straight with Rafaelito Polanco, one of the most demanding accordionists, and greatly enjoyed proving that women can indeed be awesome percussionists.
After an hour or so of interview, Heidy had to go pick up her twin son and daughter at school. I went along for the walk. Her son, Eli, quickly decided I was OK. As soon as we got home, he was showing me all his toys. (His twin sister was more interested in potato chips.) Heidy showed me her new guira and a framed newspaper article on her wall - the one I’d set up with El Diario several years ago, which featured a picture of her with Rafaelito and Pablo, the bass player. I couldn’t stay too long as I had to go into school to pick up some stuff, but we discussed plans to meet up later to go out for more tipico.
Back at the ranch that evening, Tianna arrived home with another houseguest from Tucson, this one a traveling physicist. Apparently, he roams around the country in a vegetable oil bus giving physics demonstrations at schools, while he’s not teaching at community college. I asked if he was like a snake oil salesman, only for science, and he said yes, but without the sales. Tianna tells me that the their biggest challenge came in the South. There, people thought they were psychics. Apparently, they couldn’t read the “Physics Factory” sign. The physicists hadn’t counted on illiteracy.
He didn’t have that problem to contend with at our place, but he did have to contend with our sleeping situation: Tianna has a futon, I have what she terms “the crib” but is actually an armchair and ottoman that fold into a very narrow bed. The rest of the space is taken up by piles of laundry, a drum set, computer equipment, desks, books, a Casio keyboard, a typewriter with a sheet of paper in it that reads “first word best word. She lived in an attic, like the artists of la boheme,” two entirely unnecessary space heaters, a football, some potted plants, cowboy boots and hats, but no other sleeping equipment. The physicist solved the problem by deciding to sleep on the roof after we’d climbed out the window to enjoy the view of Manhattan and a blood-red moon, indicating the city’s current smog level.
The next day, Tianna had to work early so I entertained our new, temporary roommate with brunch at a diner, a visit to the Strand, and lunch at Dojo, my usual place. After he left I had a pretty average afternoon of library visits and all. Guess which musician I was still unable to reach?
Back at home that evening, the evening of one of the hottest days of the year so far, Tianna looked out our kitchen window only to find our downstairs neighbors inexplicably sitting around a campfire. “Come on down! We’ve got beer!” they called to us. Seemed like a good invitation, so we went down and wandered around the basement until we found the exit to the backyard - the rather lovely backyard, with a thick carpet of grass, a pear tree full of young fruit but no partridge, tomatoes, peppers, basil, and marigolds. In the midst of all that bounty, two guys drinking beer and eating Sunchips around a metal firepit shaped like a 1950s UFO. Soon I too had a beer in my hand and they were telling us how they’d been inspired to collect the wood after last Wednesday’s rain and windstorm, the same one that had resulted in the freak tornado in Westchester, and saw all that unclaimed bounty lying about the streets of Brooklyn. They felt like manly men as they ran around collecting firewood and hacking it into manageable pieces with their hatchet. It made quite a change from their day jobs at financial firms on Wall Street.
The fire and beer party was actually being held in honor of our downstairs neighbor’s birthday the next day, which, when we joined the festivities, was only an hour away. We decided to wait for it in order to make a toast. In the meantime, we threw peanuts to the firegod. Then two friends of the birthday boy, punk rock girls with crazy hairdos and a punk rock band. We discussed horror movies and how these days they’ll just make one about any old thing. I imagined the writers at work: “What are people not sufficiently scared of yet?” “I don’t know - rubber duckies?” And thus is a horror movie born. The rubber ducky horror could really go places, too, as his water-dwelling habits open up all sorts of possibilities for new deaths involving drowning, electrocution, etc. One of the financial advisors also suggested the squirting of acid out of the ducky squeaky place. In the movie, whenever one heard SQUEAK-Y! SQUEAK-Y! One would know horror would follow. But tonight, all that followed was a toast, bourbon, and bedtime.
I’ve been getting the most interesting mail from my blog readers. Thanks, readers! Keep it coming! Anyway, last week I got one from the assistant to the frontman of a popular folk rock band which shall remain nameless, but which is beloved to my nephews. They’re apparently looking for recommendations for a latino accordionist to work with them on a recording project and go on tours and all. It could be a great opportunity for someone but I wasn’t sure who, so I started calling around to see what my tipico-playing friends thought. It’s always good to start with the ones who want to marry you, because you know they’re likelyto help. Sure enough, Alejandro came up with a good possibility. But first he asked, “are you SURE they don’t need a bass player?” Then I called another friend for advise. He said he’d ask around, but first he wanted to know, “are you SURE they don’t need a percussionist?” Jeez, maybe I should just get a whole band together and take it on tour myself...
It was an interesting end to the week, and after that, there was only vacation to worry about. Along with my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews, I’d been invited out to visit our cousins at their summer homes in Quogue (near the Hamptons in Long Island). It was an offer too good to refuse, especially with the heat rising in the city. (Why do we need so much *&^%$ cement and asphalt?!?) So we rendezvoused in Flushing and headed east. There we spent a lovely though too short two days and one night playing in the pool and on the beach, enjoying the surprisingly cool breeze in the forest (I even needed a sweater at night!), eating and drinking, bicycling and being amused by the antics of small people. If only I’d had batteries for my camera I would have captured the cutest moment ever. One of our cousin Amy’s children, Owen, wanted to go down to the water and jump waves with his grandfather Lou, and took his hand. Once my smaller nephew Aiden saw this he wanted to go too, and took Lou’s other hand. And then Owen’s twin brother Oliver saw this and decided he’d better not miss the action, taking his brother’s hand. My larger nephew, Aaron, not to be left out, grabbed Aiden’s hand and they all paraded out to the ocean, five men all in a row.