Mami

A blurred line of headlights made a tunnel in the mist, as we filtered off the Hutchinson River Parkway South, at Boston Post Rd, toward towards Co-op City, a massive development of 35 monolithic, Le Corbusier styled, somber, authoritarian red-brick high-rise apartment blocks and 236 townhouses, lit at ground level by a worn carpet of orange lights.

With 47,000 mostly African and Latino-American inmates, incarcerated in 15,372 homes, the brute is so big that if it were a municipality it would be the 10th largest city in New York State and it is the largest cooperative housing development in the world.

It had been constructed on a swamp connecting the Hutchinson River and Westchester Creek that had been, for four loss making years, home to Freedomland U.S.A., an amusement park in the shape of the United States, with 50-foot Rocky Mountains, ersatz Great Lakes, late-1800s New York streetscapes, and swarms of mosquitoes, that along with the parks’ remote location, and an opening day stagecoach accident that injured ten people, conspired to keep visitors away, and the park went bust in 1964.

  We’d moved into to our Co-op City town house quite suddenly in early 1973, by which time the entire shoddily built complex, had started to sink back into the swamp, and the residents were at war with the Directors over who would foot the bill for the resulting cracks, leaks, and pest invasions — a conflict that culminated in the longest rent strike in the history of the United States and led to the removal of the entire board. 

Every townhouse except ours was split into two apartments, a one-bedroom on ground level, which has a small yard and a three-bedroom duplex on the second and third floors, which has a terrace on the second floor.  We had the entire townhouse to ourselves and I had never asked why, or how we’d jumped a waiting list that can stretch into future lifetimes.[i]

We slid off the “Hutch” and onto the service road travelling north and turned in to Erskine Place where streetlights flickered off her rock and tumbled around the cab goading me:

“Husband, ex-husband, boy-friend, ex-boyfriend, or a treat from a passing fancy?” I snarled at the ring, taking offense.

She found her outrage quietly: “Now you know me enough to call me a whore?”

“We all make mistakes when we get excited. I thought that he might be one of yours?”

“It was a gift from Papi.”

“The fruit of a poisonous tree!” I snapped back from the depths of a poisonous forest, as we turned left onto De Reimer Avenue and cozied up to the right curb at 2212.

“I didn’t ask where it came from Degas. Some things are so extraordinary that you just say gracias al Señor.”

The night slapped me a second time as I opened my door into a gusting wind and walked around the cab to open hers.

I rounded up the $30 fare to $50 on account of Jay-B’s fast and furious maneuvers to lose the X5, asked him to stick around for a return journey, and led Monica up the garden path to Mami’s front door.

I used my own key to open the latch.

Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, was there to greet us. Her deep-throated contralto massaging Johnny Pacheco’s, ‘La Dicha Miá;’

The song tells the tale of Celia’s trek from Cuba to New York City, but it could have been written for Mami, who joined in — singing ‘I thank God and the saints every day for my luck,’ along with Celia without a trace of irony, certain that faith could turn her shit around.

Music was the one passion my parents shared. On cold winter evenings, we’d sit in front of the walnut-veneered music-center like some families sit around a fire, listening to his Gods, — Parker, Miles, Mingus, Monk, Trane, and hers —- Cruz, Pacheco, Colon, Puente and Lavoe, warming our souls.    

Mami, topped by a blue and white, beehive, wig and clad in an orange silk and white lace, José Arteaga designed, Rumba dress, was singing to her clenched fist as we entered the living room, which was lit like a supper-club by a chandelier designed to grace a far higher ceiling and a cluster of flickering candles that Monica’s rock multiplied.

She shrieked when she saw us, Salsa’d over to the music center, pulled the stylus off the vinyl roughly, causing a scratch to yell like nails down a chalkboard, and planted kiss-kisses as she wrapped us in a hug that tied us together more closely than felt comfortable.

”Monica, I want you to be happy, happy, happy here. My message is always felicidad,” she said in a clarion voice.

It was a big welcome from a tiny lady with a huge capacity for adoration. Perhaps because she used so little love on herself.  Perhaps to get some love in return.  She had gotten more extrovert with time — suggesting it was borrowed.

They were clues I had somehow missed.

She wrapped an arm around Monica and dragged her over to a plastic-wrapped gold velour, Chesterfield-style, couch. So, I perched myself on the back of a gold-steel faux-bamboo Chiavari party chair.

A pot of tea and a circular arrangement of Goya Maria Tea biscuits on an oval FLAG OF CUBA PORCELAIN SERVING PLATE, sat on a polished chrome and smoked glass coffee table that squatted at the center of things.  The couch, the Chiavari chairs, the coffee table and the sideboard were all a part of a living room set that retailed for $1,500, but that cost Mami $4,158 over two years. Rent-to-own being the latest and greatest post-subprime scam around New York City’s usury laws.

Mami poured the tea and passed the biscuits, which Monica politely declined. I supposed she didn’t want to accept anything from Mami and then break her heart.

“You’re a pretty girl,” Mami gushed from her bottomless well of compliments.  “What are you doing with Degas?”


Monica, hesitated.  She had something to big to say but didn’t quite know how to frame it to minimize the hurt. She chose simple and to the point.“Beatriz. I’m not the kind of person who visits people she doesn’t know and makes small talk. I’m here to work and not to make friends. I’m a periodista --- I went to see Degas with your story.”


Mami winced at that and turned around to face me wearing an appeal.

I shook it off, and tag-teamed: “Is Abraham Katz my Papi?”

She winced again — 51 years after the fact, she was still unprepared for that question. So, she bought a little time by splitting hairs.

“He loved you very much Degas.”

Mi padre biológico? I pressed.  “Because Monica has papers that suggest that he isn’t, which makes sense, as it explains why it was so easy for him to leave and never turn back.”

Monica brushed me with a smile to steer me away from my 47-year-old hurt. I blundered on regardless: “Mami, do you need to see the papers or are you going to tell us what happened, from the beginning — straight no chaser?”

A lone tear ran down Mami’s cheek. It was quickly joined by a congregation — their tracks glistening as cars passed by, strafing the living room window with headlight. Monica dipped back into her tote for Joe Kunt’s Will and a pocket pack of tissues, which she passed to Mami, who dropped the Will on her lap, but the tissues came in handy.

Mami’s voice when it came was unsteady and broke with irregularity as she struggled to find words she had hoped to never use.

“Monica, my parents were both teachers at the University of Havana. In September 1961, one week after my 10th birthday, they sent me on a boat to the United States — alone. They were afraid that if I stayed in Cuba, I’d be sent to school in the Soviet bloc.”

A sip of tea caused a pause, which Monica used to set her phone on the coffee table and ask for permission to record.  Mami’s nod caused her wig to lean sadly to one side.

“A Sister from ST. JOSEPH VILLA met me in Key West. She was working with OPERACION PEDRO PAN, a society of Catholic Charities that helped displaced Pañales like me.”[ii]

She popped a bright smile, which clouded over as her tale became twisted. “The Sister took me to Union City, New Jersey, to live with a blind, distant Aunt and her thug husband, Shangó, who touched me when he drank. So, he touched me all the time.”

She shuddered as if the touch still hurt.  “I begged him stop, but he wouldn’t leave me alone; él no me dejaría ser.”

She carried her pain  over to the sideboard and picked up a black & white photo in a CUBA FLAG LICENSE PLATE FRAME.  The couple in the photograph were standing face to face, arms resting on each other’s shoulders under a Royal Palm tree, very much in love.

“Mis padres died in late October 1965, in the Camarioca Boat Lift.[iii]  They’d spent the month before building a sailboat from scraps of driftwood in an abandoned tobacco-drying barn owned by my gran tío, Manuel Quesada Sr.  He sold tobacco to Alonso Menendez and Pepe Garcia at H. Upmann to make Montecristo’s, to Ramón Cifuentes to make Partagas, and to Fernando Palicio to make Punch’s and Belinda’s. But he kept the best leaves for himself and hand-rolled them into long Panetelas that spiced the air around us with nutmeg, cedar, coffee and the sweetness of raisins[iv]  in 1957 Manuel gave Fidel 100,000 pesos — – which was worth $100,000 at the time — to finance for his rebellion against Fulgencio Batista, a Dictator who had in 3 decades turned Cuba into a playground for US mobsters like “Lucky” Luciano and Meyer Lansky and into his personal piggy bank.  So, when the rebels won Manuel thought he’d be ok, because Fidel would return the favor,” She said chuckling at the naivety of the faithless.

“But Fidel wasn’t wired that way. He didn’t play favorites and he snatched Manuel’s business was along with everyone else’s when his Movimiento 26 de Julio nationalized the tobacco industry on September 14, 1960.  The only difference was that Fidel came to take the keys to Manuel’s warehouses himself, grabbing a few boxes of Manuel’s best 1949 Panetelas as he left, and forced Manuel to stay in Cuba for a year to teach his new dogs the old tricks.  Manuel’s escaped to the Dominican Republic eighteen months later and built a new empire in the Yaque Valley, where he produced hand-rolled Panetelas, Fonsecas, and Double Robustos each with a red and gold band.  His grandson Manolo runs the business now with his two daughters, Patricia and Raquel.  His cigars are distributed exclusively in the USA by Shangó and his gang of Santeros.”

Mami kissed the photo and poured: “Papi’s boat, ‘the Beatriz’ was built to carry six people, but they sailed for the US with fifteen. 8 hours out of Havana the boat sunk when a storm made a giant wave out of a US Destroyer’s wake.  I got sick after that. I wasn’t producing enough white blood cells and the doctors said I might die. Shangó wouldn’t hear it.  He said he could cure me. He made a small broom from branches of the Escoba plant, chained me naked to a chair, and beat me seven times with the broom.  That night, I was a little better.  A week of beatings later I was cured.  A few months later I found a stash of Clozapine, along with fat rolls of $100 bills, two loaded pistols and ammunition, bags of coke and a set of scales, in the false ceiling over the bathroom, and I worked out I’d been poisoned and that the cure was to make me forever grateful, forever his.”


She chuckled, but there was no joy in it, just life; over-cooked, refried reheated. She’d been suckered once or twice --- she won’t get fooled again.


“I spent the next 4-years planning my escape from Havana by the Hudson to Money Making Manhattan with its streets of gold. At nights, I learned to type faster than anyone else; take shorthand more quickly and accurately than anyone else, and I waitressed at the weekends to earn the money I needed to get the clothes I needed to play the part of secretary on her way up.  Monica, I was fabulous!”

Monica giggled: “Sí es usted Beatriz, yes you are!”  Then she picked up Beatriz’ story and spun it like a top.  “On graduating high school in the early summer 1968, you registered with Kelly Services Inc., on Lexington Avenue by Grand Central Station.  They almost immediately placed you with the Kunt Organization in Queens. You were 18 years old.  Joseph Patrick Kunt had built and operated an empire of more than 2,700 low-income apartments and row houses in in Brooklyn and Queens that generated a mountain of mostly unreported cash. Your job was to prepare letters to late and delinquent tenants and schedule evictions — to lick ‘em, stick ‘em and send them on their way!  Occasionally you got to make the deposits.  Joe’s son James Alexander joined the Kunt organization a few weeks after you. Now the fucker is President elect.  My question is, what are the Kunt’s to you.?”

It was a question I assumed she’d already answered and that she was only waiting on Mami out of respect and because a true confession is the rarest and most valuable gusher of all.

“I liked the job. I had responsibility. And it was better paid than most because I got to share in the eviction bonuses.  After a while the Grillo gave me more responsibility y un poco mas de dinero when he made me the secretary of Countywide Building Supply & Maintenance, which did nothing except mark-up purchases the Kunt Organization had already made to justify rent increases and to ‘fuck the taxman.’  She said mimicking Joseph by rolling out Archie Bunker’s slow Queens drawl amid hollow giggles that quickly caught a chill.


“But, sometimes Joseph asked me to work late, and when I did his hands wandered onto me.  I laughed it off at first, because it felt good to be appreciated by a rich powerful man.  Even if he was old enough to be my abuelo.  But it got worse --- paws on ass, paws on breasts and then paws up my skirt.  It got so freaking bad that I started layering granny panties under two pairs of tights at work.“So, you battened down the hatches and hoped to ride out the storm,” snorted Monica. who had been there done that and recognized the long hard road between containment and cure.


Mami’s head shook but her eyes were locked on Monica.

“On James Alexander’s first day at work, Elizabeth-Anne, who is Joseph’s wife, visited.  She took one look at me, said something to Joseph, and the touching stopped.”

“I’m sure you weren’t the first pretty, young, Latina he’d molested, and she recognized the signs,” snarled Monica whose face was clenched around her lips and I knew that if I looked down to her fists they’d be clenched too as Mami’s story had become shared.

“But not forever!” Monica prodded.

“No, not forever.  On his birthday, October 11, 1969, Joseph asked if I would stay late to help him identify ‘all the niggers’ renting in Kunt Village, our development in Coney Island, as he’d decided, once and for always, to clear them out.   As I had no  legal way of identifying the race of the tenants, I went to his office to ask for help, and found the old man with his pants rolled down his ankles, masturbating.


When I turned to leave, James Alexander blocked the doorway, stretching out his cheek with his tongue grotesquely. Laughing, he told Joe to put his toadstool dick away, and then he asked me what I was going to give his Pops for his birthday?  I started to cry, which was exactly the wrong thing to do, because it made them feel more entitled, mas poderoso.  And the monstruo pushed me down to the floor tearing at my dress, ripping a string of imitation pearls off my neck, that fell underneath me printing a rash of circular bruises on my back.


“I cried out  Ayuda, auxilio! Estoy siendo violada so many times I lost my voice along with my virginity,” she said in a hoarse whisper made of mad laughter and screams.

“He was so heavy on me. So greedy. So disgusting,” She whispered shaking her head to and fro and to and fro.

“Tienes un bajo a podrido encima! I yelled at them.” She growled with all of the little she had left of her voice.

“But nobody came!  And to silence me and for kicks the old man put his hand over my mouth.  Me hizo daño!!!  Yes, the fucking Kunt’s hurt me! And they would not stop — ¡No se detendría!”  She said bitterly.


"No más Prince Charming dreams. Only the lingering tormenting memory of pain, then blood, then more pain and the everlasting shame of being violently penetrated for the very first time by a stranger.  Contra mi voluntad, mi voluntad,  mi voluntad --- Elia you were born 9 months later.”


I closed my eyes on a truth that would never leave me. I was the son of the rape of my Mami, who had all eyes on me, measuring my shock, my disapproval, my embarrassment, my disappointment and my hurt.

So, I made damn sure she saw only my admiration and my love.

Monica had the jugular and clung on: “And a few months later you met up with Ray Cohn and traded your silence for $20,000 and a leap up the waiting list for this Co-op city palace.”

Mami nodded and turned back to me to wrap-up, fraught but she would not weep: “Elia, you are my everything and I did what I did to protect you, but in doing so I lost myself.  And I wasted what remained of my dreams and my pride by marrying the first man that would have me, who turned out to be already married.”

She turned from us both and went back to the music center, tucked Celia back in her sleeve, and reached for The Montuno Sessions; a bootleg live album from Studio ‘A’, 99.5 FM, in New York City, which she placed on the turntable.

She placed the stylus at Henry Fiol‘s churning, swaying, pleading, romantic salsa tinged Son remake of Cheo Marquetti’s classic “Oriente,.” a ten-minute journey made of guiro, delicate melodic piano, heartbreak horns and a mysterious otherworldly croon: “Yo me voy a morir / Caramba, me voy a matar.”

It was our song for tough times. So much so that it was difficult to imagine anyone else being lifted, moved, possessed by the song in the same way. Mami didn’t need my forgiveness, she needed her own, which by the sound of things was going to take time.


As for me? Born of extreme violence. Robbed of my birthright. I was the bastard that was going to take the President down and save us from ourselves. By any means necessary.


I took Mami in my arms and we danced saddest song of all round and round the room until she handed me to Monica, who pulled away — a deer in the lights.

“Mami, Degas isn’t my type.”

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