Each of us is "one and perishable", as Allen Ginsberg wrote, which is why I regret missing some. I don't mean those I should've been closer to, though God knows my conscience carries them too. I mean people deemed important whose presence I had a chance to know but stupidly or haphazardly didn't.
Let me start with the most important. Duke Ellington. I was teaching at Purdue University in Indiana when the Duke and his orchestra performed there in March 1974. I noticed the signs but chose not to go. At the time, this sorry-ass Latino white boy was still under the influence of the radicalism of the previous decade, which included the gross misreading that Ellington made jazz, aka Black Music in certain circles, for white folk. The black radicals who made that assertion had a right to their views, but WTF was I doing swallowing it hook, line and sinker? A couple of months later the Duke was dead. Years later, when I had concluded that Duke Ellington was arguably the best musical artist ever, I regretted my gullibility. I still do.
Fast forward on the same track, music, to the 1980's. I was no longer a teacher in the Midwest but a Latin music journalist in Manhattan. Like a dream come true. I was meeting all kinds of important artists, in some cases "discovering" them for a non-Latin audience. And not just musicians. One who did not need my "discovery" was Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Another dream come true: my literary hero was becoming a friend. Though he lived in London, he was in New York, and when we got together he told me of someone I should meet, Cuba's preeminent composer Julián Orbón. Guillermo made a date to introduce me when he called on the musician the next day.
Ah, careless me. There were plenty of drugs in 80's New York, but the most intoxicating was the city itself. Though born and raised in a sophisticated capital, Havana, I had become a rube (or maybe I always was one regardless of where I lived) and New York spun me around and then spun me some more. It was great fun, but it accounted for a lot of stumbles. This was one. To begin with I was very late getting to Orbon's apartment building, so much so that I ran into Guillermo and his wife on the hall as they were leaving. He urged me to go on and knock on the door of Cuba's great composer.
Truth is I'd never heard of him until Guillermo mentioned him. The writer, who was always extraordinarily kind to me, did not disparage the ignorance of this journalist who had the nerve to pass himself as a connoisseur of Cuban culture in the New York press, but simply told me who Orbon was. And here I was at his doorstep. Guillermo and Miriam Gomez, his inseparable wife, got in the elevator to the lobby, leaving me in front of an apartment door and a bell I was supposed to ring.
I hesitated. There was no one to introduce me, but Guillermo surely had told Orbon I was coming. What would we talk about? I knew nothing of Cuba's classical tradition. Nothing at all, except Ernesto Lecuona's compositions, some of them popular songs. My hesitation turned to indecision. My indecision to the wrong decision. I turned around and took the next elevator down. I never met an icon of my country's culture, which I was posing as knowing.
There are many more, but I might as well mention the world's best known Cuban. Fidel Castro. I had already seen him in the mid 80's, when as foreign press covering the Havana Film Festival I was on a reception line to meet our host, Cuba's President, a title many would deny. The meeting was minimal. We were each supposed to give our name and where we were from. When it was my turn I said, "Enrique Fernandez, Cuban from New York." "Oh!", said Fidel. The head of the festival, who was standing next to Castro, piped in to clarify, "Village Voice." "Ah!", said Fidel. Apparently my newspaper's leftist credentials were solid enough to justify the presence of what might seem like a Cuban exile facing the island's leader. And that was it.
But that was not the big miss. A few years later I was back in Havana on assignment for another publication. This was to be a general travel piece, but I had chosen the time of the film festival because I knew all the luminaries of Cuban culture would be around and I could lasso some for my article. One morning, a friend from New York who was very well connected in Cuba saw me and said, "I was looking for you last night to invite you to a party at Gabriel García Márquez's house." The Colombian writer, whom I had interviewed at length a few years back, made Havana one of his homes because, as everyone knew, he was a close friend of Fidel.
Indeed. Though I was OK with missing Gabo, there had been a surprise guest at the party. Fidel Castro. Some of my Cuban friends in New York had been appalled that I had been at a formal reception with the hated Castro. A party would be worse. And every time I went to Cuba on assignment someone would ask later, did you interview Castro? To which I would reply, Fidel and I have an agreement: I don't get involved in his life, he doesn't get involved in mine. But to meet him at a party! What a gold nugget for my story. I was out when my friend tried to find me for Gabo's soirée. I missed my chance to party with El Caballo and perhaps have a chat that went beyond "Oh" and "Ah."
My story turned out all right without Fidel, and probably that's for the better. My immersion in my native country's culture, however, would've been enriched if I had rung Julián Orbón's bell. And my life is most certainly poorer because a careless young professor did not understand his need to catch the great Duke Ellington and the regret that would haunt him for the rest of his life.