Authors: Oscar Hijuelos
The show continued on its course. A few gags followed: a costumed bull with flowers wrapped around its horns came out dancing an Irish jig, its horn poking into Ricky’s bottom and so exasperating him that his eyes bugged out, he slapped his forehead and started speaking a-thousand-words-a-second Spanish. But at that point it made no difference to me, the miracle had passed, the resurrection of a man, Our Lord’s promise which I then believed, with its release from pain, release from the troubles of this world.
In the Hotel Splendour 1980
EARLY TWENTY-FIVE YEARS
after he and his brother had appeared on the
I Love Lucy
show, Cesar Castillo suffered in the terrible heat of a summer’s night and poured himself another drink. He was in a room in the Hotel Splendour on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, not far from the narrow stairway that led up to the recording studios of Orchestra Records, where his group, the Mambo Kings, made their fifteen black brittle 78s. In fact, it could have been the very room in which he had once bedded down a luscious and long-legged party girl by the name of Vanna Vane, Miss Mambo for the month of June 1954. Everything was different then: 125th Street was jumping with clubs, there was less violence, there were fewer beggars, more mutual respect between people; he could take a late-night stroll from the apartment on La Salle Street, head down Broadway, cut east on 110th Street to Central Park, and then walk along its twisting paths and across the little bridges over streams and rocks, enjoying the scent of the woods and nature’s beauty without a worry. He’d make his way to the Park Palace Ballroom on East 110th Street to hear Machito or Tito Puente, find musician friends at the bar, chase women, dance. Back then, you could walk through that park wearing your best clothes and a nice expensive watch without someone coming up behind you and pressing a knife against your neck. Man, those days were gone forever.
He laughed: he would have given anything to have the physical virtuosity now that he did when he was thirty-six and first brought Miss Mambo up those stairs and into the room. He used to live for that moment when he could strip a woman down on a bed: Miss Vanna Vane of Brooklyn, New York, had a mole just below the nipple of her right breast, and, boom, his big thing used to stick out just like that, just by touching a woman’s breast or standing close to her and sensing the heat between her legs. Women wore nicer clothes back then, more elaborate delicate things, and it was more fun to watch them undress. Yes, perhaps that was the room where he’d take Vanna Vane on those glorious unending nights of love so long ago.
He sat in the flickering street-lit window, his languorous heavy-jowled hound’s face glowing like white stone. He’d brought up a little phonograph, used to belong to his nephew Eugenio, and a package of old records made by his group, the Mambo Kings, in the early 1950s. A case of whiskey, a carton of cigarettes—filtered Chesterfields (“Folks, smoke Chesterfields, the preferred tobacco, the Mambo King’s favorite!”) that had wrecked his nice baritone voice over the years; and a few other items: paper, envelopes, a few BiC pens, his tattered address book, stomach pills, a dirty magazine—something called
El Mundo Sexual—
a few faded photographs, a change of clothes, all packed in a beaten-up cane suitcase. He was planning to stay in the Hotel Splendour for as long as it would take him to drink that whiskey (or until the veins on his legs burst), figuring he’d eat, if he had to, at the Chinese place on the corner with its sign saying, “Takee Out Only.”
As he leaned forward, placing on the buzzing phonograph a record called “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” he could hear footsteps on the stairway, a man’s and a young woman’s voice, the man saying, “Here we are, baby,” and then the sound of the door opening and closing, and the moving about of chairs, as if they were going to sit in front of a fan together to drink and kiss. Black man’s voice, Cesar figured before clicking on the record player.
A sea of scratches and a trumpet line, a habanera bass, a piano playing sentimental, sad minor chords, his brother Nestor Castillo in some faraway place in a world without light, raising the trumpet to his lips, eyes closed, face rippled by dreamy concentration . . . the melody of Ernesto Lecuona’s “
Sipping whiskey, his memory scrambled like eggs. He was sixty-two. Time was becoming a joke. One day, young man; next day, old man. Now, as the music played, he half expected to open his eyes and find Miss Vanna Vane seated on that chair across the room, slipping her long legs into a pair of nylons, the cheery white light of 125th Street on a Sunday morning burning through the half-open window shade.
On one of those nights when he could not sit still in their apartment on La Salle Street back in 1954, he was in the Palm Nightclub listening to the fabulous Tito Rodríguez and his orchestra and watching the cigarette girl: she was wearing a too tight leopard-skin leotard and her blond hair was long, curled, and swept to one side, so that it fell pouty over half her face, like Veronica Lake’s. Every time this blonde walked by, Cesar Castillo bought a package of cigarettes from her, and when she would set her cigarette box down on the table he’d hold her by the wrist and look deep into her eyes. Then he’d give her a quarter tip and smile. In a sheeny black top, her breasts were splendid and large. He’d once overheard a drunken sailor saying to a pal in a bar, “Look at the torpedoes on that broad, mamma mia!” Loving American expressions, he thought of torpedoes with their pointed tips, and was enchanted by the line of sweat congealing across her diaphragm.
After he’d bought his eighth package of cigarettes from her, he invited her to have a drink. Because it was very late, she decided to sit with them, these two handsome brothers.
“My name is Cesar Castillo, and this is my brother Nestor.”
“Vanna Vane. Nice to meet you.”
A little later he was out on the dance floor with Miss Vane, putting on a hell of a show for the crowd, when the orchestra broke into a furious jam: a conga player, a bongo player, and a drummer with an American kit, pounding out a fast, swirling, circular rhythm. Their playing was so conducive to spinning that the Mambo King unfurled his breast-pocket handkerchief and in a variation of the scarf dance slipped one end of it between his teeth and urged Vanna to do the same with the other. Joined by a pink-and-light-blue handkerchief clenched between their teeth, Cesar and Vanna started to spin quickly like two whirling acrobats in a circus act. As they spun, the crowd applauded, and a number of couples imitated them on the dance floor. Then they dizzily zigzagged back to their table.
“So you’re a Cuban fellow like that guy Desi Arnaz?”
“That’s right, baby.”
Later, at three in the morning, he and Nestor walked her to the subway.
“Vanna, there’s something I want you to do for me. I have this orchestra and we’ve just made a new record. We’re thinking of calling it something like ‘Mambos for the Manhattan Night,’ that’s my idea, and we need someone, a pretty girl like you—how old are you?”
“—a pretty girl to pose with us for the cover of this record. I mean to say”—and then he seemed flustered and bashful—“that you would be good for this. It pays fifty dollars.”
Decked out in white silk suits on a Saturday afternoon, the brothers met Vanna in Times Square and walked over to the photographer’s studio at 548 West 48th Street, the Olympus Studio, where their photographer had outfitted a back room with fake palm trees. Turning up with their instruments, a trumpet, a guitar, and a drum, they looked quite slick, their thick heads of hair conked high into shining pompadours. Miss Vane wore a ruffle-skirted, pleat-waisted party dress with a tight bodice, gleamy black seamed nylons, and five-inch-high heels that lifted her rump into the air and showed off her nice long legs. (And behind this memory, he didn’t know what they called that muscle up at the high end inside a woman’s thigh, that muscle which intersected the clitoris and got all twisted, quivering ever so slightly when he’d kiss a woman there.) They tried a hundred poses, but the one that made the album cover was this: Cesar Castillo with wolfish grin, a conga drum strapped around his neck, his hand raised and coming down on the drum, his mouth open in a laugh, and his whole body bending toward Miss Vane. Her hands were clasped together by her face, her mouth forming an “Ooooh” of excitement, her legs bent for dancing, part of her garter showing; while to her left, Nestor, eyes closed and head tilted back, was blowing his trumpet. Later the artist who did the mechanicals for Orchestra Records would add a Manhattan skyline and a trail of one- and two-flagged notes spewing out of Nestor’s trumpet around them.
Because Orchestra Records worked on the cheap, most of their recordings were 78s, though they also managed to put out a few party-size 33s, with four songs per side. In those days, most record players still had three speeds. Pressed in the Bronx, these 78s were made of a heavy but brittle plastic, never sold more than a few thousand copies each, and were to be found in
—religious knickknack shops—alongside statues of Jesus Christ and his tormented disciples, and magic candles and curative herbs, and in record stores like the Almacén Hernández on 113th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem, and in bins in the street market and on tables manned by friends at dances. The Mambo Kings would put out fifteen of these 78s, selling for 69 cents each, between 1949 and 1956, and three long-playing 33s (in 1954 and 1956).
The A and B sides of these 78s were titled “Solitude of My Heart,” “A Woman’s Tears,” “Twilight in Havana,” “The Havana Mambo,” “Conga Cats and Conga Dolls,” “The Sadness of Love,” “Welcome to Mamboland,” “Jingle Bells Mambo!” (“Who’s that fat jolly guy with the white beard dancing up a storm with that chick? . . . Santa Claus, Santa Claus dancing the ‘Jingle Bells Mambo!’ ”), “Mambo Nocturne,” “The Subway Mambo,” “My Cuban Mambo,” “The Lovers’ Mambo,” “
” “Alcohol,” “Traffic Mambo,” “The Happy Mambo!,” “The New York Cha-cha-cha,” “Cuban Cha-cha,” “Too Many Women (and Not Enough Time!),” “Mambo Inferno!,” “
” “Malagueña” (as cha-cha-cha), “
,” “Solitude,” “Lovers’ Cha-cha-cha,” “How Delicious the Mambo!,” “Mambo Fiesta!,” “The Kissing Mambo!” (And the 33s: “Mambo Dance Party” and “Manhattan Mambo”—1954—and their full-length 33,
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,
June 1956.) Not only did the Mambo Kings feature winsome and beautiful Miss Mambo pinup girls on each of these records, but sometimes a dance instruction box was included. (By the mid-seventies, most of these records had vanished from the face of the earth. Whenever Cesar would go by a secondhand store or a “classic” record rack, he would search carefully for new copies to replace the ones that had gotten smashed or lent out or given away or just worn out and scratchy from so much use. Sometimes he found them for 15 cents or 25 cents and he would walk happily home, his bundle under his arm.)
Now the narrow entranceway of Orchestra, where those records were made, was blocked off with boards, its windows filled with the remnants of what had become a dress shop; a few manikins were leaning backwards against the glass. But back then he and the Mambo Kings used to carry their instruments up the narrow stairway, their enormous string bass always banging against the walls. Beyond a red door marked
was a small waiting room with an office desk and a row of black metal chairs. On the wall, a corkboard filled with photographs of the record company’s other musicians: a singer named Bobby Soxer Otero; a pianist, Cole Higgins; and beside him, the majestic Ornette Brothers. Then a photograph of the Mambo Kings all dressed in white silk suits and posed atop a seashell art-deco bandstand, the photograph crisscrossed with looping scrawls.
The studio was about the size of a large bathroom and had thickly carpeted floors with corkboard- and drape-covered walls, and a large window looking out on 125th Street. It was hot and airless on warm days, without air-conditioning or ventilation when they were recording, save for the rusty-bladed fan that sat atop the studio piano, which they’d turn on between numbers.
Three big RCA ball microphones in the center of the room for vocals, another three for the instruments. While making their records, the musicians would remove their shoes and walk quietly about, careful not to stomp their feet during the recording session, as this would get picked up as “thumps” on the microphones. No laughing, no breathing, no whispering. The horn players would stand to the side, the rhythm section—drummers and string bass and pianist—on another.
Cesar and his brother Nestor side by side, the Mambo King playing the claves (the wooden instruments making the 1-2-3/1-2 clicking sound) or shaking maracas, strumming a guitar. Sometimes Cesar played trumpet melodies with Nestor, but usually he stepped back and allowed his brother to take his solos in peace. Even so, Nestor always waited for his older brother’s signal, a nod, to begin. Only then, would Nestor step forward, his mournful solos flying like black angels through the group’s lavish orchestrations. With that, Cesar returned to the microphone or the pianist took his own solo or the chorus sang. Sometimes these sessions lasted until the early morning, with some songs coming easily, and others played again and again until throats grew hoarse and the streets seemed to blur in a phantasm of lights.