So on this Friday, May 21st around 6:30 PM Mike takes out his cuatro, starts tuning it (a long-drawn affairs because each of the six strings is double in unison like a twelve-string guitar but with a different tuning) and tells me to bring my guitar, which I do. While he keeps tuning I play Spanish scales at the top of the neck of the guitar to put myself in the mood and people start to gather around us. Wen he's satisfied with his tuning he asks me to tune my guitar to his cuatro. I ask for an A but for some reason he doesn't give it to me. I ask him to play an E minor chord and from that I tune my guitar, about a half- tone higher than the tuning I had done with a tuning fork in my room. He positions himself in front of me and close enough that I can hear his cuatro right into my ears. A fat woman in her late fifties sits down near us and shakes the maracas aimlessly.
Mike starts playing a melody and I concentrate to find the rhythm and chords that go with it, while the fat lady, still making noise with the maracas says to Mike: "Ella te esta ayudando espiritualmente." "Here we go," I think, "another spirituality nut." The woman repeats several times that I'm helping Mike spiritually. I want to say "Musically, not spiritu- ally, you stupid!" She's preventing me from getting into the rhythm with her noise and is getting on my nerves. Finally I say "Toca, mami, co~no!" (Play, goddammit!) She puts down the maracas and leaves us.
Mike starts with Autumn Leaves. "It's a tune from my country",
I say, "but it's known all over the world." But Mike doesn't wait
for the four beats at the end of each verse and it irritates and
disappoints me. So instead of sounding like this:
The fallen leaves (one, two, three, four)
Drift by the window (one, two, three, four)
The fallen leaves (one, two, three, four)
Of red and gold (one, two, three, four) etc.
the tune is shapeless. Then he plays a tune with a fast tempo on a simple three-chord harmony. I play rhythm to his melody, which he enriches with vicious syncopations but he doesn't throw me, I have a lot of fun, the tune lasts about five minutes and we finish with a soft landing. A little crowd has gathered around us and they are all watching and listening. I'm exhilarated and want to do another one but Mike disappears into the bodega and does not return for a good fifteen minutes, so I play and sing some Latin tunes that I had pulled out of my dusty music files and revised the past few days. One of my favorites is a bolero called "Cosas del Alma" from Eddie Palmieri's record "Adora'cion". I learned the lyrics back in France in 1982 or so, the late pianist Jorge Dalto wrote down the chords for me in New York in 1983, then my guitar teacher Pat Fleming gave me the guitar chords in 1988. I had never sung that tune in front of anybody and now one man in the audience crushed a tear and said "Ella sabe tocar." (She can play) which I took as an understated compliment. Most of the tunes I played were widely popular. One of them was "Caballo Viejo" (old horse) and the look of recognition in the audience's eyes was pleasant to behold. Some even sang along.
I had run out of Latin tunes when Mohammed, the grocery store owner whom I've been cutting dead these past few months entered the bodega, then left in the direction of the park. Our eyes met briefly. Then Mike returned and we played some more tunes. He asked me to play louder. I had not mastered the right-hand technique yet, I was playing classical style, and because I had to do a lot of typing, I had cut my nails short. I showed them to him and told thim that in a week my nails would have grown longer and I would be able to play louder.
The night had fallen and the wrist and fingertips of my left hand were hurting because I had not played since early 1994. A black man stopped by and asked if he could play a tune. I was glad to take a break and handed him my guitar. He played two nice Latin tunes standing with a leg propped on a step. I offered him my seat. From his accent I could tell he spoke French. I asked what country he was from. He was from Haiti. Once seated he started playing a French tune which I recognized immediately. It was a hit in the late 70's or early 80's, the kind of tune that sticks to you like chewing-gum on a hot day. When he was finished I asked him to play something from his country, and what he played was not very good. Then he said that he had to get dressed because he was going to a party. However he returned, wearing dressier clothes, and stayed with us for another hour or so.
Tony, a guitarist from the neighborhood who works at the 103rd Street subway station had arrived and replaced me. His singing voice and guitar playing were pleasant. I had taken the maracas and the Haitian was standing next to me. He told me that he played in a band and that on Sunday he would play at the 1PM Haitian mass at Amsterdam and 96th and invited me. I said that I never went to church but in a joking tone said that I would make an exception for him. He moved to face me, standing very close, asked me some personal question and flared his nostrils. What was he imagining? That I had let him play my guitar because I found him cute? I was taller than him by a good head and had a plunging view up his nose. I stepped aside.
Then came a danzon, an elegant form with an irregular rhythm structure and I put down the maracas. The Haitian grabbed them and, holding them both in one hand hit them against his thigh loudly. He was ruining the tune. After a while I held out my hand and he gave me one maraca and he kept hitting his thigh, oblivi- ous to the music. Finally I grabbed the other maracas from him. He thought that I wanted to play but I kept them under my arm. At 11PM the bodega shut down, nobody could buy any more beer, the light under the awning was turned off and everybody left.
Felix, my sugar daddy, gives me a hard time because I spend time with Mike. I say that I'm only interested in playing music with him and that I don't see anything wrong in making people feel happy, besides I have nothing else to do and I'm tired of spending all my time in my apartment. He says that this guy is "basura" (trash).
Mike and I started playing around 6 and I enjoyed it although I regretted not knowing the tunes, which would have avoided some wrong chords here and there. Mohammed passed in the street again and at 7 a man with a guitar appeared standing motionless and straight as a stick in front of me with a totally blank expres- sion on his face. Mike asked me to cede him my place. He had not told me that he was waiting for another guitarist. I picked up the maracas and accompanied them. I also sang a Tito Rodriguez classic: "Inolvidable" while playing the maracas and the guitar- ist accompanied me on the guitar and with a second voice, while Mike played the cuatro. For something unrehearsed, it turned out beautifully.
Later Pepin, the guitarist, offered me to join. When I played the first chord I realized that my guitar was completely out of tune. That is, the strings were in tune to each other, but close to a half-tone lower than the cuatro. How could this be when I had played earlier with Mike? Had somebody de-tuned my guitar when I went to the bathroom? I looked in bewilderment at Mike and Pepin but they ignored me. I asked for the A but they started playing without giving me time to re-tune. Pepin stopped playing and put a capo on my guitar, saying that it was all I had to do to be in tune, then he gave a good turn to a tuning key with the capo on! Since when does one tune a guitar with the capo on? Since I was fumbling, Pepin pivoted on his seat to face me and told me to follow his left hand, but he is left handed and plays the guitar with the neck to the right and the strings upside down. He knew perfectly that it was impossible to follow from his fingering. They were not giving me a chance so I gave up and put my guitar back in its case and picked up the maracas.
Someone in the audience asked for "Caballo Viejo". Pepin started to play it but after just a few measures he segued into another tune. "El caballo se perdio," I said (the horse got lost).
Tony stopped by to listen. From the bodega he got some salami in chunks and crackers and ate while listening, standing next to me. When there were only three chunks left he handed them to me with two crackers. I thought it was a bit of a put-down to give me his leftovers but I ate the stuff.
As the evening progressed, I felt nauseated by the horrible
breath of the men who had been drinking beer all day, by the
smell of the countless beer cans that had spilled around us and
by the smell of the garbage.
Pepin's performance left something to be desired but I could not
put my finger on what it was, except that sometimes he messed up
I ask Mike if anybody touched my guitar the day before while I went to the bathroom. He says that he didn't notice.
Later I saw Mike. I told him, stupid me, that I had been busy writing a 26 page document and that was why I had not been around the past few days. I also told him about the PSA man, and said that with all the homosexuals, transvestites, transexuals, drug addicts and prostitutes who populate the building, it was ironic that I should be targeted by mental health people.
I took it for granted that I had passed his test with flying colors and that from now on he considered me a capable musician, and since I allowed him to play his tunes, which he could not do with Pepin who played his own repertory, I assumed that Mike would look forward to playing with me. So I behaved towards him with warm comradry. I told him that Felix acted jealous because of him and he said indignantly "Es un sucio!" (He's dirty- minded), which reassured me that Mike had no sexual intentions toward me. He told me that he had a girlfriend who lived in the neighborhood, but that he didn't want to live with her because he didn't get along with her son.
I told him Felix was so cheap that I had to beg him for money every day, that he gave me two or three dollars a day and that it drove me crazy, that my landlord did not let me work otherwise I would not go with Felix, then I asked him if he would object to passing around a hat when we played and he said that was ok. I told him that my landlord was suing me in Housing Court for non- payment of rent, and that the reason I couldn't pay it was because he didn't let me work. From then on Mike and his compadre Manuel jumped on the subject to give me advice. Mike advised me to go to Legal Aid, Manuel advised me to go to the welfare office. He offered, he who can hardly walk, to accompany me there. Then a tenant, Pat O'Connor, arrived and advised me to go to the SRO Law Project. These unsolicited pieces of advice irked me. I had not asked for help nor advice. I had not complained that I didn't understand the law or that the welfare bureaucracy fazed me. I had merely stated the facts. And Manuel's insistence that he was sure that I qualified for welfare benefits seemed suspect, as if he wanted to drive home, without stating it, the reason why in fact I didn't qualify. Finally I told him that only American citizens qualified for welfare and that I was not.
Then a fiftyish woman walked up the street and stopped in front of Mike. He asked her for a cigarette and she started to search in her small purse, with extreme precautions because, obviously, she just had had a manicure with nail extensions or whatever it's called, and blood- red polish freshly applied. It took her so long to extirpate her pack of cigarette that I couldn't help thinking that this was a little mise-en-scene intended to put me down because just a few days earlier I had shown Mike my short nails. I had the confirmation of this suspi- cion when, after the woman left Mike (they had not exchanged a word during all that time) Mike's pack of cigarettes fell from behind his back to his feet. He picked it up without a word.
I mailed my letter to Nat Hentoff.
Pepin arrived around six. I found him standing at the bottom of the stairs. We started talking about music. He insists on speaking English but his accent is horrendous and I'm never quite sure what point he is making. I tell him that I need to re-learn to play chords in the first position (against the nut) the way they do in Latin music because all the jazz chords I've learnt are played away from it. I thought he was replying with some technical considerations about chord positions but in fact he was making sweeping and contradictory statements where the word "position" was undistinguishable from the word "musician". Like "It's not possible to make a living as a position in New York." And "A lot of professional positions don't know anything about music theory."
Still, I made a brave effort at communication. Regarding musical style, I said that it's dangerous to copy the improvisa- tions of an admired musician because one risks to never become able of finding one's own style, and that it's disappointing for an audience to hear an imitation. I insisted that a soloist must find his own voice and that this requires courage and integrity. I also said that too many musicians give too much importance to technique to the detriment of emotion, and, putting a hand on my heart, that a solo must originate from the heart, not from a desire to impress. Then I got bored with the lack of communica- tion and went to see if Mike was ready to play in front of the bodega.
This time Mike didn't ask me to bring my guitar and all evening I accompanied him and Pepin on the maracas. The session was fraught with disruption. A nauseating smell came from the garbage bags piled at the entrance of the alley behind us. I mentioned it to Mike but he said that it did not bother him. Oh, well. There were three excited girls who played almost in front of the bodega and screamed and chanted and danced for a good part of the evening. A full moon was rising behind the park right above the street. With the stabbing and the excited girls, I concluded that the full moon was having a bad influence on the people and I stayed on my guard. I told Mike about the full moon and that it made people a bit crazy. "Do you think so?" he asked. "I don't think so, I know so" I said. There were also three men leaning against a car in front of the bodega and they were yelling to each other for a very, very long time, although they did not need to yell.
Then around ten there was a frightening argument between a tall black man who sounded Haitian and the video man who sells pirated videotapes from his little shop under the stairs of the stoop, that opens at a right angle to the bodega. The reason of the argument was not obvious, although at some point the black man flung a five dollar bill to the video man, who replied he didn't want his fucking money and flung the bill into the street. "I could use this money," I thought. Ugly insults were going back and forth at a fast clip and the Haitian was very threatening physically. Some violent arm movement dislodged the "OPEN" sign that hung above the door but otherwise there was no property damage. The Haitian left but returned a few minutes later and started all over again. At that point I went to call the police because it seemed to me that there were going to be blows ex- changed. But when I returned from the pay phone the man was walking up the street. The music resumed and twenty minutes later the police arrived. I told them what had happened and the fight was over. They left. Later I asked the video man what was the guy's beef. He said that he wanted to force him to sell drugs from his shop. I didn't buy it. Mike said that the black man was a Jamaican and these Jamaicans were trouble.
At five minutes to eleven, Pepin asked me if I wanted to play. I declined saying that I was tired. I did not know the time because I can't afford to put a new battery in my watch, but five minutes later the bodega closed.