Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Trials and Tribulations of the Ukranian Conguero

I have been mistaken for El Acheloo, Un Tipo Feo, La Hara, Un Camaron, The Po Po, The Man and 5-0 on many ocassions. In fact I have walked into some blocks in Loisaida back in the 80s to a chorus of "Bajando." Those of you who have had a brush with the lifestyle will of course recognize the warning. Now this is a double edged sword. Both a blessing and a curse. I am sure it has prevented me from being robbed or worse but it has also garnered much unwanted attention. This is a story of some of that kind of attention.
My compay Angel Rodriguez had a steady gig with a piano player named Saeed Dupree at a club/bar called the Gallery which was located between 152 and 3rd on B'way in Manhattan. The club has been gone for years, another footnote in the musical history of the city. I get a semi panicked call from Angel telling me something had come up and he needed me to cover the gig for him that night. I happened to have been free, knew the bands book and could use the money so I agreed. The best thing was that Angel had left his drums in the club so all I had to do was bring myself. He explained to me that the drums were in a closet at the foot of the stairs in the basement. For some reason, I got to the club early. In fact it turned out to be to early. I was the first member of the band to arrive yet no one at the club was expecting this White guy to come strolling in.
Without hesitation, I went to the staircase but couldn't help notice that I had the full focus of the 8 or 9 people who were in the club. There were about 5 guys in suits and each one looked a little meaner than the other. As I descended the staircase I became aware that three of them had followed me down..their hands inside their suit jackets in an ominous way. When I get to the bottom of the stair case I see a room across from the closet and hear the clatter of what sounded like those old cash registers every bodega seemed to have. When I look inside...there are three guys (they were mean looking as well) seated at a big table..with three adding machines and a small mountain of money piled in the middle of the table. It was at this point that I said to myself, "Holy Shit."
I raised my hands and turned to confront my escort and began to explain as quickly as possible what the hell I was doing there. I went to the closet, pulled out one of Angel's drums and began to play in a way that would have made Mongo proud. Well...they all looked at each other and busted out laughing and after awhile I nervously joined them in the laughter. I was slapped on the back, apologized to and was bought several rounds of drinks as my facial expression (when I saw the money) became the topic for the evening. By the time the rest of the guys from the band showed up, we were old friends, me and the mean guys that is. Saeed asked me if everything was cool and I just said, "you don't wanna know."
I found out later on that this club was "Un Punto" a drop for the numbers banks in the neighborhood. The proceeds of the days activities would be counted there and hits paid off. Not long after that..the Gallery was firebombed, a victim of a struggle over control of the numbers racket in Harlem. The gig went well, I had a good time and called Angel the next day and I cursed his ass out as we laughed.

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