The torture of the pregnancy was unceasing and Elsa’s visits to the maternity clinic interminably long. On the days that Elsa didn’t skip school she acted unconcerned. If teachers asked her what was the matter she said, “Nothing.” When she began showing in her sixth month word finally got to the principal. The guidance counselor set up a time when she had to bring in her mother. Carefully, in very bad Spanish, they explained that her daughter couldn’t stay in school if she was pregnant. They recommended a GED certificate or night school after the baby was born. Her mother nodded politely, never letting on that she read, wrote, and spoke English quite adequately. When she got outside she spit on the ground and cursed mightily. “They don’t have mothers,” she said in Spanish, dismissing them all as sons of bitches. It was March. New clothes. Easter. Bonnets. Her mother bought her a beautiful maternity dress and a hat and they went to church and in the afternoon Milagros’s husband came to pick them up to go to their apartment in the Bronx to eat dinner.
In time she got used to being alone, and the weeks began to pass more quickly. Then she was finally in the maternity ward of Bellevue Hospital, rushed there by her mother when her contractions began coming 20 minutes apart. When her water broke it was nearly 2:00 in the morning. She was lying in bed dreaming of being at Orchard Beach where she often had gone with her homegirls. To go to the beach in those days, they would all walk over to Spring Street on summer mornings and take the Lexington Avenue local, christened the Number 6 line by the Transit Authority in the winter of 1947 though always known as the Pelham Bay Local until 1967, when everything was spiffed up and made modern and the lines were color coded on the maps so that everybody began calling it the Number 6—"El Número Seis"—Bobby Rodríguez y La Compañía’s salsa number about the train which was their link to the sea, running from the Lower East Side up to East Harlem and into the South Bronx.
The neighborhoods were like towns in Puerto Rico. El Barrio, Loisaida, Los Sures, Bushwee, and, of course, El Bron which was their very own even though they had not yet colonized it, or brought it into the hegemony of salsa, Spanglish, the insouciance of being Rican and of mañana being synonymous with the next party. Hers was the Lower East Side which extended, in her childhood, from 14th Street to Canal Street, at one point bisected so that north of Houston Street became the East Village, part of which would be christened Loisaida by the Celestial Warrior, Bimbo Rivas, converted into the Loisaida of poetry and dreams, with its bohemian ambiance and garishly painted bodegas and restaurants and signs in Spanish.
Among his other tunes Bobby Rodríguez had one which they liked even more. It was kind of a Charleston with a Latin tempo. “She’s a Latin from Manhattan” was like nothing they’d ever heard. They sang it in a chorus. All of them going crazy as they danced to it and sang to each other like there was a dialogue between several people:
sent her to me
Over the sea from Spain.
Ah! She’s the one in a million
I found my romance
When she went dancing by;
Ah! She must be a Castilian,
Is she from Havana or Madrid?
But something about her is making me doubt her,
I think I remember the kid.
She’s a Latin from Manhattan,
You can tell by her “Manyana.”
She’s a Latin from Manhattan
And not Havana.
Though she does the rhumba for us
And she calls herself Dolores,
She was in a Broadway chorus,
Known as Susie Donahue.
She can take a tambourine and whack it,
But with her it’s just a racket,
She’s a hoofer from Tenth Avenue.
She’s a Latin from Manhattan,
She’s 42nd Streeter,
She’s a Latin from Manhattan,
One time when she was 13, her sisters Hilda and Nancy dressed Elsa up. They put lipstick and eye shadow on her and did her hair so that when she looked in the mirror she didn’t recognize herself. Her sister Milagros, who was married and pregnant with her first child, said she looked like Ava Gardner. Elsa felt her face get red and flushed because Ava Gardner looked so beautiful in her films. The three of them had gone up to Hunter College for a Bobby Rodríguez concert, Hilda already engaged to be married and Nancy about to graduate from Seward Park. It was the first concert of any kind she’d gone to and she couldn’t believe how excited she’d felt sitting in the dark, wanting to get up and dance, wishing Joey was there to dance with her.
After Bobby Rodríguez y La Compañía played “She’s a Latin from Manhattan,” some homegirl interrupted Bobby Rodríguez while he was introducing the next number and said: “Why you gotta call the girl a hookah, huh? Why, cause she’s Rican, huh?” Bobby had pointed his clarinet at the girl and said: “Not hooker, darling. Hoofer. A dancer.” And he made a little step and the audience applauded and then the orchestra played “El Número Seis” and Elsa couldn’t stop smiling she was so happy. She thought about what she’d say when answering Joey’s letter. He was in a place called Camp Lejeune.
For a time she thought she’d like to become a dancer. She recalled Joey and herself, the two of them dancing the fast salsa numbers, spinning and twirling, her feet so quick and light and her entire body feeling smooth and easy as they went through the complicated steps, the two of them like they were electronically synchronized, so well did they anticipate each other. Whenever they went dancing people moved into a circle to watch them do their routine. Joey even talked about starting an act or maybe competing in ballroom dancing contests. Joey knew every dance there was but salsa was his thing.
Elsa loved those times with her homegirls, learning new steps and listening to records and laughing and carrying on. Her sisters all agreed that the girl in “Latin from Manhattan” had to be Rican.
“She’s not from Havana or Madrid, right?” Hilda had said.
“Yeah, right,” said Nancy.
“And she’s a Latin from Manhattan.”
“Yeah, so?” Milagros said, looking up from a book. “What’s that gotta do with it?”
“What Latins we got the most of in Manhattan?” Hilda challenged, getting up from the couch. “Ricans, right?”
“Yeah, right, but what’s this booshit about Señorita Donna Who?” Milagros said. “She lives on Fifth Avenue. That sounds like some rich girl to me.”
“Oh, that just means they’re making fun of Americans, girl,” Nancy said.
“Yeah, cause they can’t pronounce Doña and they’re trying to figure out who this girl that can dance up a storm is,” said Hilda, sitting back down.
“She’s a Latin from Manhattan,” Nancy took up the argument once more. “She’s from El Barrio, from up there on Fifth Avenue, maybe around 110th Street. I can tell from her mañana, cause they probably picked up on our accent. They probably asked her when she could start and she probably said, yo, mañana and whatnot. I’m sure when Bobby Rodríguez wrote the song he was talking about a homegirl called Suzy Dolores Rivera and they probably asked her mother’s name and she said Doña Moncha or Doña Suncha. And when the American didn’t understand, he said: Donna Who? So they call her Señorita Donna Who? Like, what do Americans know about our shit and whatnot?”
That was as good an explanation as any, until last year when Elsa was at a party out on Long Island at one of Barry’s friends and they were talking about old times and Barry’s friend, Tony, brought out some old records and they played “She’s a Latin from Manhattan,” this more than 20 years after the concert. Everybody agreed that the girl had to be Puerto Rican except Nando Alvericci from WBAI, who had a Latin music show on Sundays. He was an authority on the history of Latin music. He said that the song was really about an Irish girl, Suzy Donahue, who’s trying to pass herself off as a Latin dancer called Dolores.
“The song is from the ’30s,” Nando said. “A show tune. I think it’s in a movie, but I can’t remember the name of it or who was in it. Bobby Rodríguez and La Compañía made it Latin. The girl’s Irish. Suzy Donahue.”
Everyone questioned his opinion, but he asked everyone to listen to the lyrics more closely and each person at the party began to nod their agreement.
“What’s this stuff about Fifth Avenue? That’s gotta be in El Barrio.”
“The Irish lived on Fifth Avenue, up in Harlem,” Nando said. “In those days Fifth Avenue was Irish. Maybe being a 42nd Streeter just meant that she was a Broadway dancer. Bobby didn’t write the song. I think the composer was Harry Warren.”
They played the song three or four times in a row and she listened, feeling like somebody was forcing her to drink poison. But Nando was right. It was so clear. That the girl in the song was Irish made her blood boil.
She went out on the back porch of the house and stared out at the sea, digging her fingernails into her palms in rage. Barry came out and asked her if she was all right, knowing she wasn’t, and beyond that knowing it was best to leave her alone. He asked if she wanted a drink. She said Scotch would be fine. A bottle if there’s one handy, she said. After Barry returned with a half bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and handed it to her and then a glass, which she refused, she took off her sandals and went down the stairs to the beach.
Dolores, she thought as she walked, tilting the bottle back and letting the liquor burn her throat, the alcohol making her woozy. She walked on and on, her feet digging into the now cool sand, the beach desolate as the sun began setting; walking and her heart raging at everything that was wrong with her life until the sun went down and she sat on the sand, drunk by then, and listened to the sea and cried. Billy Farrell, Irish. Suzy Donahue, Irish. Vidamía Farrell, her daughter, Irish. She was never prejudiced and now all this hatred was surfacing in her life, threatening to choke her, maybe turn her into a drunk. Wouldn’t that be lovely. The Irish were supposed to be the drunks, but PRs could outdrink the bastards any day. She lay down and heard the sea far away as she drifted off. When Barry and Tony found her, the incoming tide was lapping at her feet. A few more minutes and she would’ve been carried off, Barry later told her. He wanted to know what had happened but she couldn’t discuss it with him. It had to do with Billy Farrell, and she didn’t want to talk about him.
When Monday came she still couldn’t believe the entire matter of the song and canceled all her appointments for the next two days as she made call after call to music stores, trying to get the sheet music to the song. She finally was able to get it at the Colony Record Shop on Broadway at 49th Street. She looked at the lyrics and there she was, Suzy Donahue, except that the name on the music was spelled Susie and not Suzy. The more she read the angrier she grew. She asked the man who’d brought her the sheet music about the song back in the ’30s, expecting that somebody like Xavier Cugat had performed it. The man was in his seventies, gray hair and skin, his eyeglasses thick.
“Jolson,” he’d said, matter-of-factly.
“Al Jolson?” she said, unbelieving. “‘Old Man River’? ‘Mammy’? ‘Swanee’?” Her display of the knowledge of America made her feel superior.
“That’s him. Nice Jewish boy from New York whose papa wanted him to be a cantor.”
“Do you have the recording?”
“I got a tape. You want it?”
She nodded and when the old man came back with the tape she took it and began to go into her wallet for her credit card, when she saw him reach up to adjust his glasses. As his sleeve crept up she noticed the faded blue numbers on his arm. Tears filled her eyes, the numbers reminding her of the fate of the parents of her old therapist, Barbara Gelfand.
“He sang it in a movie,” the old man said.
“Really?” she replied, feigning brightness. “The song? What was the movie?”
He smiled, his dentures too large and yellow—she guessed the Nazis had probably pulled out all his teeth—and told her that the film was called Go into Your Dance and featured Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, Helen Morgan, Phil Regan, Barton McLaine, Patsy Kelly, Betty Rubin, and Glenda Farrell.
“It was the only film Jolson and Keeler did together,” the old man said. “They were husband and wife.”
“Really?” she said, once again annoyed, but not sure why.
The coincidence of the name didn’t hit her immediately. She paid for her purchases, hailed a cab and headed for Grand Central Station for her trip back up to Tarrytown. Once again she heard the lyrics in her mind, and the words cut through her. And then she heard the old man again reciting the names of the actors. Glenda Farrell. She couldn’t believe it. Farrell, like the William Farrell of her impulsiveness, of her bollo loco days. Irish. She read the lyrics on the sheet music and there it was. Of course. “Tenth Avenue . . .” Hell’s Kitchen! That’s where the little bitch lived. Passing herself off for a Latin, the cunt.
As the train moved, she heard the lyrics again and felt her fingernails digging into the palms of her hands. “She can take a tambourine and whack it, but with her it’s just a racket . . . She’s a Latin from Manhattan, Señorita Donahue.” Who was Harry Warren? She was positive that like Al Jolson, he must be Jewish and had simply changed his name.
When she got home she made Barry sit with her and listen to the Al Jolson rendition of the tune. It sounded dopey, outdated, the Latin music like something out of a Carmen Miranda movie. The year was 1935 and they were making a movie with a song about a Latin in Manhattan. Some of the lyrics made her laugh, but the laughter hurt. Bobby Rodríguez’s version excluded certain lines but she couldn’t imagine why. Barry, who knew a little about music said maybe they didn’t fit with a salsa beat. He was right. I found my romance when she went dancing by. She must be Castillian, Sí, Sí.
The next day, having induced sleep through a combination of pills, she went back into the city and went to the library and learned that Harry Warren had been born in Brooklyn. His parents were from Calabria, Italy. His name was Salvatore Antonio Guaragna. He was Italian.
Harry Warren, who was Italian, wanted to be American. What did Señorita Donahue want? What did anybody want? Maybe Susie Donahue just wanted to eat good food and wear nice clothes and be around classy people like she did. The recognition that her desires were so petty made her hate herself even more. She knew she had no burning desire as a psychologist to heal people. It was a means to an end. She wanted to be wealthy and forget where she’d come from. She heard the lyrics once more and then began drifting off.
Though she does the rhumba for us
And she calls herself Dolores,
She was in a Broadway chorus,
Known as Susie Donahue.
Back then, Elsa and her homegirls left early in the morning, hauling big bags full of sandwiches, beach towels, and suntan lotion and combs and brushes and makeup, “darling, because you never know when some fine papi’s gonna come along and you looking like the wicked witch from the West Village, honey”; and giggling and talking loud about boys as they rode the Number 6 all the way up to Pelham Bay Park, 35 stops; refusing to take the express train, “because how you gonna go all the way up there to Orchard Beach standing up? Like what am I some sort of pendeja I gotta stand up while all these blanquitas are sitting down warming their white culos? Fuck that booshit, girl.” Twelve or 15 overactive Puerto Rican girls on the loose talking all at once in English and Spanish, going back and forth from one language to the other with the ease with which they and their relatives went back and forth from the States to the island so that later on when she was in college she heard someone say at a party that with the money Puerto Ricans had spent on airfare coming and going between Puerto Rico and the States they could have built themselves a bridge and simply driven to the island. But back then giggling and singing and playing hand-clapping games like they were still in grammar school. Lining up and down the middle of the subway car like a chorus line while their big bags held their seats, they sang and danced to the Wallaby song.
This is the way we wallaby, wallaby, wallaby.
This is the way we wallaby all night long.
Step back, Sally, Sally, Sally.
Step back, Sally, all night long.
I called the doctor and the doctor said,
I got a pain in my stomach cause my baby’s dead.
I got a pain in my side cause I went for a ride.
I got a pain in my back cause I sat on a tack.
Roll em, roll em, cigarette man.
Or else they’d do a cheer they had learned at summer camp from a little blanquita-looking girl with blue eyes from uptown who had a Rican father who’d married some white woman. The blanquita girl’s name was Ali Sue, some name like that she thought. “And she was Rican?” somebody said. “Yeah, she speaks Spanish better than dopey Mandy Betancourt and her sister Connie who think they’re guineas and whatnot.”
Eenie meanie pepsodeenie
Ah bah boobaleenie
Achy, pachy Liberace,
Ann’s brother George got a peach, got a plum,
Got a stick of cherry gum.
And if you want one,
This is what you say:
Amen, Amen, A-mendiego, San Diego
Hocus Pocus Dominocus
Sitting on a bandstand, beating on a tin can.
Gees, gees, gees boom bah.
Horses, horses, yah, yah, yah.
Crazy-ass shit but she still remembered it all. Everything happened so quickly. One minute they were all girls wondering what boys were all about and the next they were women, all of them having done it with differing degrees of success, some claiming that they couldn’t believe what the big deal was about and only a few, like Carmen Texidor, who was always the hippest of them and always reading weird shit, saying dopey things like: “Man, it’s better than ice cream, girl. You just gotta relax and tighten up your butt and move your thing.”
And they all went: “What?”
“Girl, wherechuget that?”
And she said: “Cosmo.”
And everyone looked at her like she was crazy.
“Yeah. It says you tighten your butt like when you have to go caca and you don’t wanna let it go cauze you in the elevator going to your house and whatnot.”
They all giggled and looked at each other but they all started doing it in the park and Lily Betancourt said: “Oh, my God. Girl, that is too much. How much it costes that magazine?”
“What are you ohmygodding about, girl?” said Baby Contreras.
And Carmen Texidor stepped in and said that maybe Lily was having a thing.
“What thing?” they all said.
“A orgasm,” Carmen said and they all went: “A what?”
And now they really giggled and gave each other fives and pushed each other and Beatrice Cordero called it an oregano and that’s what they all began calling it and eventually read in Cosmo about multiple oreganos which she herself now reported had happened with Billy Farrell when she had been on top of him and moving and all at once her tontón had started moving on its own; and she could hardly breathe and all she could do was throw herself on him and hold on and her body felt like it was flying away from her and her head like it had gone totally blank so that when she told it all her homegirls looked at her with their mouths open and said things like: “For real?” But it stopped happening soon after for Elsa and hardly ever happened with Barry except the first year or so. It didn’t matter. Her homegirls had all gone and gotten pregnant over and over; some of them had kids by three different guys and some didn’t even know who their kids’ fathers were. It was like she had started the whole thing with her stupid infatuation with Billy Farrell, damn him and his destroyed life.
Twenty-two hours she had to wait for her to be born.
Excerpted from No Matter How Much You Promise To Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again by Edgardo Vega Yunqué, to be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2003 by Edgardo Vega Yunque. All rights reserved.
—Edgardo Vega Yunqué, author of The Comeback, Mendozo’s Dreams, and Casualty Report, was born in Puerto Rico and lives in Brooklyn. His work has been adapted for the stage and has been anthologized internationally. His novel No Matter How Much You Promise To Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again will be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.