Village People

In the mid 1980s I fulfilled a lifelong fantasy I never thought would come true. I joined the writing staff of the Village Voice. Our editors were the best. They treated us all as important writers, giving us and even encouraging creative freedom while enforcing linguistic and intellectual (same thing really) coherence and discipline. They were brilliant individuals, none more than Ellen Willis, whom I used to read in the 60s, back when being a New York writer seemed as distant a dream as traveling to Mars.

She was tough. Being edited by her was not exactly a love-in. She called me on all my shit and I could not charm my way out of rewriting what was sloppy. She was serious and she took me seriously, which coming from someone I so admired was far more flattering than if she had thought all my writerly sleight-of-hand was cute. It was an amazing learning experience.

At some point in our editing sessions the issue of machismo came up and she encouraged me to write an essay about it, which would’ve been, edited by her, an unparalleled opportunity. Alas, like other such windows that opened for me at the time, I was not ready for it, and we agreed it was better for me to pass on it than to write something trite — not that any triteness would ever get past her.

Well, Ellen, if there is an afterlife where you check up on those you influenced, I’m ready now. In memoriam Ellen Willis, here is my ensayo, which in Spanish means essay, ergo attempt, as well as rehearsal. To be posted here in installments. 

 

 

Chega de Saudade

West Lafayette, Indiana was nothing like Bloomington, where I’d lived during graduate school. The land was flat, unlike the foothills of Southern Indiana, and there were few trees. The campus of Purdue University, where I taught for a semester, was far from sylvan, while Indiana University had untouched woods and ivy-covered buildings at its oldest end; at the other, there was a more gardened forest and modernist piles of monumental attitude and size. By comparison, Purdue seemed like an overgrown public high school.

I didn’t like the look of the place, so unlike the coziness and historicity of Eastern liberal-arts campuses. But in a moment when the academic job market was dry, I had gotten this one. My new department had some talent, including a famous historian of literature, and some smart colleagues of my generation, including a Post-Structuralist Mormon! And they were set on gathering steam and prestige. It was a good career move.

I had landed there in the middle of winter, with permanent snow banks several feet high. My department had found me a place to live, a furnished studio apartment in a modern and insipid complex, all that was available at the last moment. I took a bus to work, riding in the cold early mornings with the local women, all country ladies of a certain age who did custodial work on campus. They were a chatty lot, particularly colorful the morning after the Winter Olympics, the hyperbolic name of an annual midnight race among fraternity brothers, who ran naked in the cold February air; this was, I believe, the reason for Purdue’s claim to have invented streaking. But what charmed my ear was these ladies’ ribald tone of voice as they imagined the naked men in the flush of athletic youth.

Eventually, I would have friends, including a girlfriend in whose spacious Victorian home I’d spend a bit of my time. And eventually spring came: the temperature and my spirits lifted. But these were not enough to mask the barrenness of northern Indiana or the graceless campus, so when Purdue offered me a permanent position, I chose instead an offer from an old liberal-arts college in Pennsylvania. But before then, before the snows had melted, I was racked with longing for a home with a patina of coziness. And I had found what I wanted, though perhaps only in my imagination.

I often walked back to my dwelling from the building where I taught classes, and in those walks I passed the house where I wanted to live. It was big and gracious, but no mansion. More like an old and attractive family home of generous enough proportions. I never did see who lived there, maybe a professor and his or her brood, maybe a group of students. There were lights on inside during the dark winter. There must have been a fireplace. The house emanated a warm glow.

I wanted to walk in, take off my snow-crusted boots, join everyone for a fine meal, drink wine and joke at the table, sit later by the fire. My move to Indiana from Connecticut, where I had been teaching at a prestigious liberal arts college, was more than just my grasping at a fortunate job offer. I was ending my marriage, and this move was the beginning of a separation, not just from my wife but also from my two young sons. I learned that it's possible to be homesick even when one had not been happy at home, and, in fact, I wasn’t longing for my home but for a home. A warm inviting house like the one I passed every day on the way to my temporary studio apartmen.

I went back to Connecticut at the end of the academic year and spent the summer there before I made a permanent move to my new job in Pennsylvania. It was a happy season, though I was basically homeless, sometimes not knowing where I would bunk for the night. I slept on friends’ couches and guest rooms, and for a few weeks I house-sat a lovely faculty home. It didn’t faze me. I was surrounded by good friends and the homes where I stayed were inviting and sweet, like that house off the Purdue campus that filled me with saudade, the word Brazilians say means nostalgia for something one never knew.

That house had been all unfulfilled promise, like Joyce’s “Arabia.” I didn't live in that house. I wasn’t even inside. But it has stayed with me during a long errant existence, a nomad in spite of myself, racked all my life with feelings of homelessness, with saudade. (Is that why when I visited Rio just walking around the city moved me to tears?) 

I live in a beautiful rural setting now, in my own place that was once my parents' and after their passing I have transformed into my home, next door to my sister and her husband, with whom I share much of my life. But I still nurse a longing for that house in Indiana, surrounded by snow but giving off a light from inside. 

My friend Sarah, a poet who has studied such things, told me once when I shared my longings with her, more from dreams than from memories but they were the same, she told me Buddhists say such dreams are how the soul prepares for death. Nothing sad about it, she insisted. And she told me this so long ago that obviously there was no forecast of imminent death, nor do I think there is now as I still long for the inviting house in West Lafayette, the one I couldn’t live in or even enter as I made do with a nondescript studio apartment in the snow-banked winter.

Epitaph

Death of Achilles.jpeg

música ligera:/La Sonora Matancera — Severo Sarduy

If I die from cancer — a real possibility but one I hope doesn't materialize until I'm, oh, 100 — please don't say I lost a battle with cancer. War is war and illness is illness. Don't muddle them by using belic imagery. It does a disservice to warriors and to us civilians who carry a disease.

I've never been in a battle. I respect those who have, as long as they behaved honorably. To deal with illness is another matter. You don't fight. Instead, you subject yourself to medications and procedures. Things are done to you that you hope will do you good. Not that you are entirely passive. Compliance is important — and often difficult. But it would be vainglorious of me to claim I'm being heroic. I am no Achilles, and no amount of wrath will make a difference,

"I want you to get angry with cancer", a well-meaning friend told me. But dear friend, I had to reply, anger has been drained from me precisely by the procedures I have undergone in this so-called battle. Oh how I would love to take those balletic leaps that Brad Pitt takes, sword in hand, as the legendary warrior. But one of the things that has been drained from me is precisely my ability to leap. Well, it wasn't just medical procedures. It was age, that enemy of leaps.

See, I have slipped into belic imagery. Age is no enemy. It is what is. Battling it makes no sense. Sure, one can be stronger and more supple as one ages if one engages in activities that could include, among many options, martial arts. The arts of Mars, who by now must be a very old god.

As must be Venus. Still, we continue to imagine her firm-breasted and alluring. Mars, Venus Aphrodite, gods that enthralled me in my early life when I first discovered them, read about them, saw their images in sculpture and painting — or rather the reproductions of such works, until the day I visited the Louvre and sweet mutilated Venus was surrounded by camera-clicking admirers from Japan.

Oh gods of violence and sex. Let this mortal who has worshipped you since pre-adolescence live a little longer. Without fighting, though perhaps one could stretch the meaning and say his physicians are.

So no belic imagery in my obituary. No battles lost. Say that I loved, not always wisely, but who does? Say that mostly I sang. Achilles died, even if Homer did not tell us. But Homer never died. He was a succession of singers, he was many. And without trying, he became eternal, like the gods. So let me disappear into his fold. Without a battle. Say that I never stopped singing. And never will.

 

 

Incroyables Florides

Heston - Jackson.jpg

Florida is an act of the imagination, I'm not saying anything new. Only California rivals it. But the western state looks solid (falsely, we know) while Florida seems to be floating. Which it is, damn wet here. Still, Florida has historical depth: la Florida profunda.

It was the Bush/Gore Election Day and I was standing in the voting line with my neighbors in our small beach town. I struck a conversation with one I didn't know, a lady of retirement age who I learned had been a teacher. And, unlike most of us in line, she was a native Floridian. In fact, she said proudly, she was a sixth-generation Floridian. Her I-forget-how-many-greats grandfather was governor of Florida. "He fought with Andrew Jackson in the Seminole Wars", she said, "and in the Battle of New Orleans. Which we won."

"I know", I said.

"How do you know?", she asked me incredulously. She already knew I was Cuban, like so many Miamians.

"I learned it in high school."

In truth, though the battle was taught in my American History class, it was the movie with Charlton Heston as Jackson and a toupeed Yul Brynner as Jean Lafitte I remembered. Somehow our chat landed on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings' black descendants, whom she swept aside saying DNA tests had proven the ones who claimed this were no such thing. I thought the results showed the opposite, but before I could riposte, she clinched her case: "He would have never done that to his wife."

How little you know men, or people for that matter, I thought but did not say. No point. She was as convinced of that as she was about voting for George W. Bush. She stepped out of line for a moment and I noticed a neighbor from my own building a few places behind me. "I just met someone who's a sixth-generation Floridian and descended from a governor of Florida." "I am too", he said to my surprise. "Twelve generations ago."

My neighbor was Cuban-American and he said his ancestor had also been governor of Cuba; both the island and the peninsula had been Spanish territories. When the lady returned to the line I introduced her to my neighbor. "Your ancestor of six generations was Governor of Florida. Well, his, twelve generations ago, was Governor of Florida. Isn't that something?"

She looked puzzled. This just couldn't be. "He governed Florida for the Spanish Crown", I said, to explain what she could not understand. She muttered something like, that doesn't count, I couldn't hear her clearly. And she did not speak another word to me as we waited, our votes and some local shenanigans about to change the course of history.

Colors

I was about to write something else, about literature, which has often meant more to me than life. But life, not mine but that of the my adopted nation, has gotten in the way. Events. 

It started a while back, the debate, now an attack with a fatality, over the removal of Confederate monuments. I have no dog in this fight. I was born and grew up in a society marked by black slavery, but not this one. I can ruminate about that one and its unresolved agenda, but in this one I live close to the margin.

Not my very loved late friend Jamie, erudite and sensitive. He hated the Confederacy and had the unkindest things to say about Robert E Lee. And his opinions counted because, as I said, he was not at the margin but at the very center. You see, Jamie, who called himself a cracker, was a Son of the Confederacy, enrolled by his maternal grandmother and a source of his irritation.

I imagine he'd be in favor of removing the monuments, but he died (may he rest in peace in a Heaven where everyone gets a Martin guitar at the Gates) before this had become such a hot issue. I, his Cuban buddy, never had passionate feelings about the Civil War and its aftermath, seeing it from a cultural distance with a mixture of curiosity and fright that leaves room for decadent esthetics.

The Confederate Flag? Looks good. As did General Lee himself in his uniform. Jefferson Davis doesn't cross my radar; to me, he's just a name. The war itself was a horror. And so was the aftermath. The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth; birth of a nation indeed!  I caught its late terrible act: Jim Crow. It wasn't pretty. And from my vantage point, why did those white people, faces distorted with hate, loathe Negroes, to use the polite word from those days, with such intensity? I still don't understand. 

Ah yes, they lost the war. This marked the South. Tuning in to esthetics, I think without that loss there would've never been a Faulkner. I'm not saying great literature is worth great bloodshed in the same manner that Paris is worth a mass, but William Faulkner inherited the bloodshed and the loss and the sin (a lapsed but unreconstructed Catholic, I sense a great sense of sin in the South). In the same way we all inherit that horror movie we call history.

Which reminds me of the time a (famous but I won't name him) black writer told me, "I'm glad we had slavery because without slavery we wouldn't have Mingus." A boutade, as was his custom, but perhaps all esthetics are decadent.

Mine would leave those monuments be. How many heroic statues are free of sin? I grew up surrounded by them; like American Southerners, we Latin Americans love statuary. I never thought of them as anything but embellishment of the urban scape. However, I'm still in awe of Antonio Maceo, indifferent about Máximo Gómez for no good reason, and have very complicated feelings about the very complicated José Martí, to name the most important heroes of Cuban independence who towered over the city parks of my childhood.

But bringing it all back to my second home, should we knock down Jefferson's Palladian monument in Washington? Talk about a slave owner who knew better! Tom Jefferson was a fascinating creature, but then I'm fascinated by complicated characters, particularly if they're aesthetes.

I'm not black, nor am I a native-born American. Mine is an immigrant's perspective, a peculiar immigrant at that, and should be taken with a grain of fleur de sel. One of my favorite statues is the one of El Cid outside the Hispanic Society in Upper Manhattan, that wonderful museum of Spanish art. El Cid Campeador was the hero of Spain's national epic poem, where he acts nobly but also like a rascal, particularly in cheating a pair of Jewish moneylenders. Another complicated character, but aren't we all?

Where I'm not ambiguous is about Nazi imagery. How could anyone who calls him or herself a patriot allow the Nazi flag to fly next to them, never mind carry one, when Americans were killed fighting those sons of bitches in war? How could Southerners allow it to fly next to their beloved battle flag? Whatever righteousness there is in Southern pride is defiled by contact with that hateful image. Northerner or Southerner, Gentile or Jew, black or white, anyone who flies that flag is a traitor and the punishment for traitors is clearly spelled out and terminal. Fuck that shit.

Paternity Test

"Good Grief,” cried Candy, in a very odd voice, 'it’s Daddy!” -- Terry Southern, Candy

When George H W Bush was president I thought, that's it, the last of the Great White Fathers. Sure enough, three presidencies later we had Barack Obama. Though two white white men sat in the Oval Office before my president was black, neither one had the gravitas associated with Greatwhitefatherhood, like the Stone Dudes at Mount Rushmore, where I visited last month. As for the current one . . .

Let's face it, that gravitas is bound to not just race but class. The history of the Founding Fathers is a story of powerful white men. In the America I come from, more lip service is paid to what we today call diversity, but it's lip only. In the end, Great White Fathers have ruled and in many cases still do, even if, as in my own native country, they've strutted around in guerrilla fatigues instead of Brooks Brothers suits.

Of course, that's not the only history, even in this America. The Fathers signing the Declaration is one tableau. Ellis Island is another. And what are we to make of the scrappy and beleaguered Irish immigrants, fair of skin yet mistreated? Africans, immigrants against their wishes, and mistreated beyond the limits of a nominally Christian nation. And let's not forget those who were here first, whose occupation and oppression ranks with slavery as one of the nation's original sins, as it is in every country of the hemisphere.

Indians had their day at the Little Bighorn, a battleground I visited on this trek West. In Arthur Penn's Little Big Man, by the time the Indians have surrounded Custer and his men, there has been enough white brutality on the screen that one cannot help root for the soldiers' slaughter that is coming. Custer is the Bad White Father who, by extension, tarnishes those big heads at Mount Rushmore -- just read Jefferson's disdain for the Indians in the very words of the Declaration.

And today? Plenty of unfinished business in the land of the free. Not the business of making it great again, a nasty business that goes against the grain of its greatness. But a reparation. A recognition of historical sins that are hard to acknowledge in a culture of let's-move-on. Sure, I never killed an Indian. I never owned a black slave. But I grew up white in my corner of the Americas and then white-sort-of in a corner to the north, and I live in history. We all do; otherwise, why visit Mount Rushmore to look at those Great White Fathers? Why walk on the blood-soaked ground of the Little Bighorn?

A French intellectual whose name I don't recall once said that we turn toward ideology to escape "the terrible burden of history." As modernity makes the globe smaller, that burden becomes inescapable. No ideology can help, though knownothingness does offer as much relief as a meaningless ritual does to an obsessive-compulsive: one nanosecond before anxiety kicks in again. It may be that human consciousness cannot withstand the burden that the original Great White Fathers, in all their contradictions, tried to tame with the tools of the Enlightenment in their Declaration and Constitution.

Perhaps the current Father is right in his childish rants. It's unfair, this American democracy. Too much combative media, too many combative legislators, too many combative citizens, all of them firmly planted on the groundwork of the Founding Fathers to remind us constantly of that terrible burden of being American, a burden the current Father will not share. If only we would all follow the edicts of his tweets, if only we stopped suspecting he's a huckster, if only we stopped looking rationally at what transpired and, instead, just moved on. Beyond history. It's going to be beautiful. Believe me.

Over the Volcano

Woody Harrelson was right. Yellowstone Park is a huge volcano and it's about to blow up. Well, it didn't blow up in 2010, as in the eponymous movie, and it didn't blow up this summer when I was there. But there are signs.

Yellowstone is heartbreakingly beautiful in the most American way. Pristine. Green. Pine covered. Crystalline waters where fishermen in waders cast their lines. Then there's the wildlife, protected for so long they don't fear humans: one night a huge bison walked casually through the campsite. The big creatures often stop traffic as they slowly cross a road. Moose and elk abound, but I failed to see a fully antlered male of either. Nor a bear, neither a moderately harmless black one or the king of kings: ursus arctos horribilis. No wolves either, though one day a coyote tied up traffic as it meandered down a road, looking apologetic for being so small and skinny, unlike its wolf cousins that would give us tourists a bigger thrill.

But Woody was right. Underneath the green landscape a volcano of terrifying proportions seethes. That's why we go. To watch Old Faithful geyser up faithfully, though when I was there it was running at a languid pace. It is the wilding going on beneath the surface that gives this lovely piece of America its particular attraction. Paradiso/Inferno: too obvious, but what else is a Catholic boy to think? The geysers are sweet; however, the mud holes bubbling sulfur look as if from some evil planet. Like plague sores. We live on a thin layer of sweetness; underneath burn the sulfuric fires the Christian Brothers warned me about. The animals in the park have their own agenda

I didn't see the big bison herd that is one of the Park's sources of pride. But I saw plenty of lone creatures, though sometimes in a pair or even a small entourage. Brother-in-law Rodger told me these were young males that had been kicked out of the herd by a bull who did not care to share his cows. Their goal is to go back to challenge the old bull, beat him and become the stud bull himself.

I gave thanks that though its primal drama rang bells, in my species I was not obliged to act out a ritual I was doomed to lose. Still, I didn't have to approach a bubbling mud hole to sense the fiery turmoil underneath the soil. Here it was. In the blood of these big beasts that have played a role, real and symbolic, in the American scene.

Most of the lonely bulls did not look quite ready to take on their designated champ. They were too young and skinny and unimpressive. Some were big but seemed rather indolent and chill. But as we drove around the park I saw one that was primed. He was not posing for tourists while blocking the road or lying peacefully in a meadow chewing on grass. He was sharpening his horns on a tree trunk with all the intensity of a heavyweight contender.

For he was a heavyweight. Unlike the younger bison this bull was fully fitted with big muscles. I gave thanks again that my species doesn't do that. Not literally anyway, though Alpha games get played all the time in human male society. The bull didn't care what I thought. He was, quite literally, full of himself. All sexual urge and aggression. He swung his big neck this way and that sliding the horns along the tree trunk at just the right angles. Soon he'd be ready. And he meant business.

 

That Hoodoo That You Do So Well

One of the charms of Wewahitchka is the absence of fast-food chains. Except for a Subway. These days the sandwich chain boasts in billboards, like one on Highway 22 right outside of town, that it has a "Cubano." Yes, a Cuban sandwich. In a town where I'm pretty sure the only Cubans are my sister and I.

In nearby Panama City a number of places dispense Cuban sandwiches, and one such spot, the Key West Sandwich Shop in adjoining Lynn Haven, is known for them. They're good, particularly if you ask for the "traditional": ham, pork, Swiss cheese, pickle, mustard. They also serve black beans and rice, and it too is good. The owner is Greek-American, and the times I've been there I know I'm the only Cuban.

What Panama City -- how it got that name is a long story of little to do with Panamanians -- has is a fairly big Mexican population. A number of restaurants, most of them run by Mexicans, cater to non-Mexicans with the usual mixed combos, lots of melted cheese and no chili heat. One of these places, Maddie's La  Casita, downtown, expanded its menu a while back to include street-style tacos . And two local restaurants are the real item: La Pasadita and the wonderful La Michoacana, with downhome Mexican dishes and tacos of the very savory nasty bits like head, tongue, soft chicharrones and tripas. These cater to a Mexican clientele, the occasional hipster and this lone Cuban who loves Mexican food.

This lone Cuban is the only one pushing a cart at a Publix supermarket where I find Cuban bread, guava pastry (pastelitos) and even take-out papas rellenas, a Cuban snack food that's a deep fried ball of mashed potato with picadillo in the middle. And the deli departments of Publix and Winn-Dixie, both Florida chains, carry some version of Cuban roast pork, meaning seasoned with mojo.

Americans pronounce it like the African-American word, not with the hard Spanish "j" that sounds like an "h." Mojo de ajo (garlic sauce) is made from mashed garlic (Cubans don't cut up garlic cloves but mash them with a mortar and pestle), sour orange (preferably) or lime juice, optional seasonings like cumin and oregano, and hot pork fat. Many recipes call for olive oil instead, but that pushes it into a Spanish al ajillo sauce. Mojo gives Cuban grilled and roast meats its mojo.

Pork is marinated in mojo de ajo before cooking and then more poured on when served. However, some savvy Cuban-sandwich makers insist on roasting the pork with just salt and pepper and then basting the slices with mojo before pressing the sandwich. According to an article I assigned decades ago on the fabled Silver Ring in Tampa, where the best Cuban sandwiches were made, that's how they did their pork.

Either way, the Cubano, as Subway calls it, is now an American staple, as is mojo sauce. When a Mexican-American Trump supporter warned Americans about the dominant nature of Mexican culture, I had to acknowledge that though I disliked the guy and his presidential choice he had a point. Some cultures are hegemonic. I'd argue that's the case with African-American culture, in spite of racism, a racism that also attempts to keep Mexicans in their place. But Cubans are less (though not totally) hit by the worst aspects of racism because the bulk of the Cuban-American population is white, that mysterious race. Thus, in a country with a huge Mexican-American population, none was a major-party candidate for President last year, and two from the much smaller Cuban-American community were serious contenders. (Gracias a Dios y los santos that's as far as they went.)

Cuban culture is hegemonic. Otherwise why is the island, no longer of much economic or political advantage to the US, so in our media faces? Whenever Cuba is not in the news the people in power there think there must be a political conspiracy to keep them out. That Cuba and Cubans may not be newsworthy never crosses their minds.

And why should it? Right here, outside a backwater town in the Florida Panhandle, a billboard reads simply: CUBANO. We are the cat's pajamas, or so we think with great self-assurance. After all, we got the mojo.