i think i’ll go back to san juan

IT CAME OVER ME  a few years ago in a little dive of a record store off Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, a place so starved for space that the recorded output of Ziggy, Damian AKA Jr. Gong, Ky-Mani, Stephen, and Julian was grouped together under one sign, “Sons of Bob Marley.” And in that store I picked up my copy of Willie Colón’s album Cosa Nuestra. Carefully, cautiously. It had a menacing cover, a mercenary man with mustache and sinister trombone case standing over a body on a pier with a rock tied to its foot. Bad shit. And, let’s not forget, it was in Spanish.

I glanced over my shoulder and caught the clerk eyeing from me and set the disc down. “No, it’s not what you think. I mean, I’m not.” But I was just too curious to pass it up, and after that, things were never quite the same. My car was a roving salsa party. Ching ching ching, ching ching ching. I grasped for the wandering piano patterns, felt the bass skip about in that definitive way, so sublime you couldn’t tell if those strings were plucked or merely inferred notes, music you thought you heard but was never really there. True majesty.

There was a nurturing of the inner Latino, in those early Willie Colón days, especially, when I was in my old ‘hood on Long Island, I would roll the windows down, because I knew how much the local Anglos and wannabe Anglos detested the Latinos who were taking over their country with their swinging dance music and outdoor family parties and seven children and 42 grandchildren and 307 great grandchildren, and I wanted them to hear that trombone and Hector Lavoie’s boogaloo voice. They were like audiokinetic hand grenades — “Take that, you pretentious country club pricks, and that, and that, and that!” BAM! They went over. BANG! They went down. Dead, deceased. Slayed by the trombone of Willie Colón and his Cosa Nuestra. Or so I imagined.

But the frosting came the other night in the real San Juan, the day after “Three Kings’ Day,” when they children flitted about the Condado Beach park, trying out their new skateboards and roller skates and soccer balls, little Antonios and Andreses and Carolinas and Catalinas being chased by parents who seemed joyous and content and so far away from the petty clannish conflicts of the norte-americanos and who I only caught glancing into the absorbing soul sucking mirrors of the so-called smart phones in a few instances, because who needs a phone when you can have a park in San Juan? Palm trees, great big trunks of other kinds of trees that seemed to be one hundred percent roots, all decorated up with blue and white Christmas lights in night weather that still made you sweat at nine o’clock.  With true affection, the local mothers with their toothy white smiles fawned over my little Maria — “A Spanish name!” “One of us!” — but did I really care to remind them that it was an Italian name and even a Swedish one?

The braided child Sanjuaneros poked at her and prodded at her with curiosity — Who is this little blue-eyed Maria girl? — but they were always kind and playful and inclusive. In Maria’s little blue eyes, I saw two-year-old wonder, and the reflections of the Christmas lights and the street lamp lights, and the Three Kings’ felicitations. And when the breeze picked up and the palms rustled, I thought I could heard the distant salsa music playing down the street, even if it was that special, inferred music I was telling you about, those melodies and rhythms you can hear but that aren’t really there.

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