Authors: Oscar Hijuelos
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BostonÂ New York
Some truths really are self-evident, and among them are these: that Oscar Hijuelos changed the history of American Literature; that he was among the best writers of his generation; and that his books were vital, alive, and a delight to read. I have noticed some other aspects of Oscar Hijuelos's work, and while these are not quite so obvious on first reading, they still exist nevertheless. For instance, he was able to invoke a concern for our humanity, for our most intimate longings and fantasies, and he did this with a delicacy of touch and an almost spiritual grace that I find heartbreaking. This profoundly poignant and reassuring quality is present in its most intense form in this story,
Another Spaniard in the Works.
To be precise about this tone, I'd like to invoke another story of his,
Lunch at the Biltmore
. Here is one of those exquisitely delicate moments. At the end of
Lunch at the Biltmore
a scene takes place between a son and a father. Both have been sick, and the son has not been able to eat the rich food that was served in the Cuban household where he was growing up. The father has just had a heart attack and is somewhat frail, but he takes his son to the Biltmore, where the father works, and there he asks a cook to make the son a delicious hamburger, just the variety of food that the son had been forbidden.
It is described like this:
Then he called out to Diaz, “Ruben, how about making one of your finest hamburgers for my boy.” My father cut up some Idaho potatoes, and cooked them with onions, butter, and oil. Soon, those wondrous and forbidden delicacies appeared on a platter before me. My father smiled, watching me as I happily ate. “It is our little secret,” he said to me.
The delicacy and humanity here is in the invocation of the moment when a child begins to become an adult, since this takes place the first time a child understands and keeps a secret with a grown-up.
Another Spaniard in the Works,
that same delicacy exists, but on a scale that is almost impossible to invoke. The subjects this tone enhances are not only a matter of coming of age, but an almost complete list of those items human beings are concerned with, such as mortality, fame, fantasies, politeness, character (in the sense of how to feel and to behave), ambition, hopes that didn't quite work out, and, of course, expectation.
I don't want to do any spoiling of what happens in this story, since what is going to happen is part of the pleasure of reading it, but a mention of some of the characters in the beginning, in the setup of this lovely story, is a way of suggesting two things: the fun of the story, and to hint at the delicacy that is so much a part of this.
The story is an account of a young manâour narratorâobviously of Cuban descent, who has a dull office job in Manhattan in that time, now so seemingly innocent, just before John Lennon was murdered. This young man is a sort of Bartleby the Scrivener, but unlike Bartleby he has a profound consideration for other people, not to mention that he has a very clear idea of his own circumstances and the nature of his dreams, which are at once large and touchingly, achingly real. On his way home from work he buys from a street vendor a copy of John Lennon's
A Spaniard in the Works.
When he gets to the Upper West Side, he finds John Lennon and Yoko Ono in front of a newsstand near the Dakota, where Lennon is buying some magazines. It is a perfect expression of Hijuelos's sensibility that he mentions the magazines that Lennon buys with just the right combination of an understanding of humanity and a delicate lack of judgment.
The young man speaks to Lennon, who responds like such a gentleman, with such politeness and consideration that the story begins to move into that realm of informed sensibility that is haunting. I say “informed” because, of course, the world of this story, while sweet, is still brutal, too. Still, the narrator, who has just bought his copy of Lennon's book, asks Lennon to inscribe it, and Lennon does, to “another Spaniard in the works.”
The narrator is also an aspiring musician, with a partner who is at once hilarious and realistic, and the narrator managesâor he may have managedâto get a copy of a cassette with some of his songs on it to Lennon. What happens next, I think, is at the heart of the story, and it deserves to be read without anyone giving anything away.
Still, in the conversations that the narrator has with Lennon, real and imagined, in the subjects they discuss, Oscar Hijuelos touches on humanity's eternal questions, such as what happens when we die, what happens to our dreams, and how we come to terms with them, and it is all done with that exquisite lightness of touch and profound understanding.
I'd like to add one personal note: Oscar and I used to get together a couple of times a year to have dinner, and when we did, I was always invigorated and moved, too, because of the fact that, in addition to the jokes Oscar liked to crack or the stories he liked to tell, underneath it all I felt that same delicacy and lightness of touch, not to mention understanding, that is so evident in
Another Spaniard in the Works.
On an October evening in 1980, at the end of another day's drudgery at my office job in midtown Manhattan, I happened upon a down-on-his luck black man selling books outside the 40th Street and Seventh Avenue entrance to the subway. Among the frayed and time-curdled volumes the vendor had laid on a piece of plastic sheeting over the sidewalk, it delighted me to find a pretty good copy of
A Spaniard in the Works,
by John Lennon, for two dollars. This I soon tucked into my raincoat pocket and happily perused as I stood below on the crowded station platform, waiting for my train. Having planned to stop and visit a guitar-playing buddy of mine, Max Stein, who lived on West 83rd, I was climbing up the steps of the 79th Street station, the book's open pages in hand, when, coming to the newspaper kiosk on the northwest corner, I saw John Lennon himself standing before the girly-magazine racks, his wife Yoko Ono beside him, watching his every move adoringly.
Though the buzzing life of Manhattan at 5:45 teemed everywhere around him, and the bells of a church on that corner clanged loudly, Lennon exuded a serene presence. Not an overly tall fellow, about five feet ten in height, his hands were long and slenderâ “artistic,” as my Cuban mother would put itâand his fingernails clean. He had clear brown eyes and a striking rosiness to his cheeks, as if he had just spent a crisp winter's day on a horsedrawn sleigh. Quite nineteenth-century looking, with longish hair and mutton chops, he resembled a Dickens shopkeeper, I imagined. In his own bubble, and a cheerful sort, Lennon, as I encountered him, was singing one of his own tunes, “Across the Universe.” He was wearing blue jeans, a denim jacket, and sneakers. His socks were black. Around his neck hung some kind of turquoise amulet, perhaps a Navajo charm or an Egyptian scarab, and two red ballpoint pens with red nibs were sticking out of his jacket pocket. His head bowed, eyes intent, he flipped through the glossy pages of magazines, adding a copy of
to his pile of
. I watched him pulling open a centerfold, which he looked over as if reading a scroll; then he popped a piece of chewing gum into his mouth. As for myself, though I was half dead after a day of stupefying office life and a shy fellow, I dispensed with my usually reserved manner and, stepping toward him, said, “Excuse me, Mr. Lennon, you're not gonna believe this, but I just picked up a copy of your book a half an hour ago.” And I showed it to him. “Pretty amazing, huh?” I could not help myself from adding.
Underneath my raincoat, I had a shirt and tie and jacket on, and my loafers were scuffed. I was thin in those days and my hair was cut short, in the style appropriate to a soul-destroying office job. As I had approached him, I could feel my face heating up, my large ears, just like my father's, flushing red.
“Really, where'd you find it?” he asked, with a soft Liverpool lilt to his voice.
That's when I improvised: Because I didn't want to hurt his feelings by explaining that I had bought the book from a toothless black man for two bucks on the street, I told him, “The Gotham Book Mart.”
“Yeah? What'd you pay?”
“Twenty-two fifty,” I answered, that seeming a plausible number for a book by a former Beatle.
“Twenty-two fifty? Goodness.” And he turned to Yoko, saying, “You have the pad?”
Dressed as if she had just returned from the silver region of Mexico, in high suede books and a heavy woolen tassel-fringed shawl, his wife brought out a small yellow-covered Aquabee artists' sketchbook from somewhere underneath and scribbled down that annotation. From what I could see, its pages were filled with all kinds of things: names and addresses and telephone numbers, perhaps even with ideas for new song lyrics. I supposed that he kept track of everything, even what his books were selling for around town. In any event, I asked Mr. Lennon if he wouldn't mind signing my copy of
A Spaniard in the Works
“Just my name, nothing else?” he asked me.
“Well, can you sign it âTo Victor Mercado'?”
How's that spelled?”
And so I, a nobody twenty-seven-year-old clerk, stood next to him, reciting aloud the letters of my last name, which he, being a real gent, took very special care to get right. My good impression of him was further enhanced when he handed back the book and I read his inscription. It said: “
For Victor Mercado, another Spaniard in the works, with all best, John Lennon
,” in a whimsical and looping scrawl. Then he shook my hand, thrilling me, for it was really the greatest thing that had ever happened in my life.
While my sense of pride lifted me toward the upper atmosphere, he turned his attention again to the magazines, which he had gathered on the kiosk counter, in a pile of about ten or so. As the vendor, who resembled a boxer of the old school, his head dense, nose and ears flattened, added up the cost of the magazines, Lennon examined the contents of a racetrack Blue Sheet. Even as amazed passersby stopped to gawk at him, he seemed to hardly notice them. I lingered about dumbly, wanting to go off on a high note. Searching for something clever to say in parting, a hundred notions went through my mind.
In fact, I wanted to tell Mr. Lennon that even the lowliest junkies in my neighborhood uptown had always enjoyed his music; that I had started playing the guitar when I was a kid because of the Beatles; that I knew many of his tunesâand that, thusly inspired, I was something of a songwriter myself. I had thought of telling him that I almost made it out to Shea Stadium to catch them performing in 1965 but could not come up with the money and that I had felt sick to my heart for months after. I felt like telling him that I also made drawings, though more realistic ones than his own; and that, as a kid, on certain difficult nights at home, when things were not good between my mother and father and they'd have it out, I would lay huddled under my sheets in bed with a transistor radio plugged into my ears, ever delighted when a Beatles song came on over the air, because hearing them always made me feel happy, as if there could be real hope in the world.
But in that moment, the best thing I could come up with was, “Take care, Mr. Lennon, and thank you from the bottom of my heart!” He seemed genuinely touched, as if seeing someone of kindred soul in me. Just then, in fact, I felt something else about him: a kind of sadness, of someone throttled by fame but still bent upon civility. I nodded gratefully at Yoko Ono, who had stood by without saying a single word, until she told me, “So long now,” and she sweetly, demurely smiled. Then I left them, my imagination enflamed, crossing Broadway into traffic, toward Amsterdam Avenue, and a few blocks north to where Max lived, the signed book warm and breathing like a dove in my hand.
*Â Â *Â Â *
Now, at the time, my meeting with John Lennon so shortly after I'd happened to have purchased a used copy of his book seemed beyond any ordinary coincidence, as if this simple event had taken place for some higher, mystical reason. It was not much of a stretch for me, believing as I did in a lot of superstitious things. After all, my mother, Elena, had raised me with not only a strong faith in Catholicism but in spirits, reincarnation, and mild forms of clairvoyance. Mainly, she had always advocated the presence of God, whom one should address and thank every day of one's life, for whatever blessings He put in our path; He had his reasons, after all, and so, I decided,
âor destinyâmust have been behind my encounter with John Lennon.
The answer, swirling magically through my mind as buildings whisked by and passing faces seemed aglow, rested with one of myâand Max Stein'sâpipe dreams. In those days we got together once or twice a week to write songs, which we would record on a reel-to-reel Sony, our grand scheme being to eventually sell a tune to an established singer. With that money, I would pay for graduate school: I had hoped to become a history teacher, while Max's aspiration was to become a rock star and sleep with three girls at a time. It should be mentioned that our songs were of dubious commercial and artistic merit, and, frankly, neither of us fit the then-prevailing “rocker” image. I was a straight-laced, properly mannered Cuban American fellow, long throttled by family pressures and, in any case, prone to conformity. Long haired and crazy, Max remained a throwback to his hippie past, neither of us resembling one bit the hip Mohawk headed artistes, like the kind of guys in punk groups with names like the Dead Kennedys and the Squirts, then emerging into current vogue.
As for our collaborations: Raised with many an old Cuban bolero playing on our rickety phonograph, and under the influence of stoop-side doo-wop singers, I was good with melodic hooks and chorus sections. Max, a brooding folky, idolized the darker lyrics of Bob Dylan and the psychedelic lullabies of performers like Donovan and the Moody Blues. Our two styles, one more or less happy and melodic, the other soulful and morose, collided in interesting but un-popish ways.
Nevertheless, on our behalf Max would make the rounds of the record companies downtown, dropping off cassette tapes of our songs with disinterested producers. He had a cousin in the business, Harvey, who had seemed enthusiastic enough about our songs, but he never did anything with them. So far, our greatest hope had rested with Neil Sedaka, for Max had once been his neighbor on West End Avenue, and Mr. Sedaka, a friendly man, occasionally offered us kindly advice on how to tighten up our compositions; but nothing had come of that connection either.
To be honest, this songwriting enterprise sometimes struck me as a lark, but being so young, I had endless amounts of energy and patience for even the remotest of schemes. And although I did not in my heart of hearts have the highest hopes for the enterprise, I much enjoyed our collaborations. They eased my inward loneliness, and music, at that point in my life, was about the only form of male bonding that I felt comfortable with. Skinny, nonathletic, and frail, I had never been aggressive or confident enough to thrive in street games; nor had I ever fared well in fights. The thought of hurting anyone was unthinkable to me, and if I had survived in my sometimes rough neighborhood, it was because I was prone to a kind of social invisibility, and because, when noticed, I projected, in my quiet ways, a gentleness that inspired the protection of the strongâamong them my older brother, Manny.
And gentle people attracted me. That's why I first befriended Max in a Central Park meadow, as he sang beatifically of butterflies and river rats on a spring afternoon, some years before.
*Â Â *Â Â *
In my own bubble, I had almost reached Max's building, when something else hit me, something I had forgotten: that in my back pocket I had a cassette of our songsânot a great cassetteâjust a rehearsal tape, featuring a few of our “greatest hits.” Suddenly I stopped dead, wondering why I hadn't had the presence of mind to think of that cassette when, face to face with John Lennon, a nice guy, I could have just fished it out and handed it to him. Who knows what John Lennon might have made of our songs? If he liked them, I daydreamed, it could have been the beginning of something wonderful for me and Max. It hit me so hard that I immediately backtracked, but by the time I reached that corner of 79th Street again, Mr. Lennon and Yoko had long since gone; the kiosk guy, puffing on a cigar, seemed hardly aware that anything so traumatic had happened to me.
*Â Â *Â Â *
Later, I finally got to Max's building and up to his rambling fourth-floor apartment. I always liked going there. It did not matter to me if Max's living roomâwell, it was his grandmother's placeâwas a chaos of dumped clothing, jacketless record albums, leftover food and dying plants, a stinking kitty-litter box, and piles and piles of underground comics. Nor if Max himself, in his continued and quite nostalgic experimentation with drugs, often seemed out of sorts or kept strange company. (Among them, two conk-haired middle-aged Cuban lesbians from down the hall, ladies I liked, just because they were Cuban.) As usual, Max, bearded, in a bathrobe, his hair all wild and straggly, greeted me at the door. We had our rituals: I'd find a space on a couch, while he, toting a gallon jug of red Gallo wine, lit up a water pipe filled with hash-tinged pot or, on the best of days, opium, the only thing I ever really liked. Usually as Max finished up the business of getting highâor even higher than he had beenâwe rarely ever talked about anything pertinent to us. I don't think he ever had much of a notion about my interests in art or in history, or even of my family life; that I was Cuban rarely occurred to him, since my musical syntax, once I picked up a guitar, covered a whole range of styles. He thought me the meanest of blues players even when I hardly thought much about those licks.
The only book he ever talked about was Carlos Casteneda's
A Yaqui Way of Knowledge
, and he could go on about it for hours at a time. Musically, his favorite prop was a drone machine from Katmandu, which drove me crazy. He'd say, “I have a new tune.” And, putting on the drone, which was like a deep sitar hum that went on endlessly, he'd fiddle with some scales on his guitar and play the same things over and over again.
Somehow, because he always seemed to be wanting, I once brought him home to my folks' apartment on Tiemann Place, just off 124th Street and Broadway, for dinner. In my Cuban household the stylistic caprices of hippie youth had never been particularly appreciated. And yet, when faced with Max in his unwashed splendor, my mother, staring at him for a long time, had decided that, deep down, he was a decent lost soulâor, in the parlance of Cubans,
, a fellow who, like me, had been thrown, through no fault of his own, from the happy parade of life. To this day I have no idea how Max won my mother over, since he had passed out after dinner, but I imagine it had to do with the one thing I told her about him: “His father was a psychiatrist who committed suicide.” After hearing that, my mother, hard as she could be, forgave his every folly and, sending him home with a pot full of leftover
arroz con pollo
, always spoke of him reverentially, as if he were somehow related to the family. (My superintendent father, on the other hand, told me, shaking his head, “You do not want to end up like him.”)