Across 161st

Their talent transcends generations yet they all wanted to hear my ridiculous story.

I glanced around at the empty chairs. There were hundreds of them in this empty section of the marquee. I wasn’t very interested in the dance routines. I had seen them all already and I knew all the performers. I was just eager for the party to begin. This was the second annual Singapore Salsa Festival and its organizers were trying to build a brand. In true Singapore style they went big, inviting the 2-time Grammy winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO) to play the entire weekend.

Sitting alone in the semi-darkness enjoying a particularly good piece set to a little-known SHO danzon, I was joined quietly by a white gentleman that took a seat very near me among the empty chairs. His proximity was odd enough to break me out of my trance and I studied him a bit. He seemed vaguely familiar so I probed him. “This is a fantastic song.” I said. “And these dancers are turning it into something amazing.”

“They are fantastic aren’t they?” he replied.

It dawned on me who I was talking to. “You’re from the band aren’t you?” I asked somewhat rhetorically.

“Yes” he replied. “I’m Mitch Frohman and that’s my flute you’re hearing.”

I’ve since come to understand why he sat so close to me that night. The guy is extremely friendly and gravitates towards people. Luckily I also enjoy talking to strangers and we developed a quick rapport. We discussed the music and the dancers and the amazing party that would last all weekend. I taught him a bit about the Salsa community of Singapore and Malaysia and answered his questions about a lovely Indonesian dancer he had his eye on. (Suci Kurniati; the 2007 Asia/Pacific Latin Dance Champion. She and Mitch met that night and they’ve been together ever since.) Eventually I decided to tell him my best New York story.

Cadet Parking

I slapped the steering wheel in frustration. Time was slipping away and we were stuck in traffic on the George Washington Bridge. I viewed every other driver with unbending hostility and provided plenty of hard glances and rude gestures to let them know it. This was New York City and my fellow motorists were clear the feeling was mutual. The stakes were high. When the authorities at West Point discovered my roommate Randy and I were not in our beds that night they would surely sentence us to spend the next six months of weekends marching up and down the square in our dress uniforms…rain or shine. It was a daunting consequence, especially in Winter, but worth it. We had spent a couple month’s pay on tickets for this event and we were determined to get there. I refocused my hostile attention on the lunatic in the adjacent lane and mouthed one last vulgar insult before cutting her off en route to the exit. The giant baseball bat at Yankee Stadium guided me like a beacon. We were on our way to game one of the 1996 World Series, the Yankees’ return to the venerable Series after a 30 year absence…and we had already missed two innings.

Freed from the tyranny of cross-Bronx traffic, the race was on. The radio reminded me the game was passing us by and that we need parking…quickly. The garage was certain to be full and not an acceptable option. Instead, I would do the unthinkable and park on the sidewalk next to Yankee Stadium. In the South Bronx in 1996, this was tantamount to driving my car into the river. The security surrounding the game would be very tight indeed and if the cops didn’t take my car, the criminals would. Mayor Giuliani and his powerful Police Commissioner were just starting to clean up the streets of the city after the decay of the Dinkins years but car theft in that part of town was still a major problem. I patted a fond farewell on the dashboard of my nondescript 1985 model Oldsmobile and backed it into an open spot on the sidewalk. I was certain I would never see it again and that was just fine. As far as I was concerned, I had gotten my money’s worth. Now, having just parked on the sidewalk in the middle of 161st Street next to Yankee Stadium during the World Series, I contemplated throwing the keys away.

Yankee Stadium Parking 161st
Cadet Parking: The arrow indicates the impossibly dangerous piece of South Bronx sidewalk where I parked during the World Series. My well-worn 1985 Oldsmobile was probably mistaken for an undercover cop car.

SHO

When I told this tale I must have been in a great storytelling mood because Mitch was dumbfounded and amused. He ranted a bit about the risks I took and chided me for not leaving early enough for the opening pitch. He laughed and scolded and liked the story so much he began summoning other members of the band to hear it.

“Listen to this!” he told them. “You’ve got to hear this guy’s crazy story!”

I did not want to disappoint. I found myself amidst the heroes of Salsa music. Men like Mitch, and Oscar Hernandez, Ray de la Paz, Frankie Vazquez, and Luisito Quintero. These men were part of the foundation of the music that marked my life. They had played and created and wrote and produced with the most amazing artists in latin music history; Tito Puente, Joe Cuba, Cheo Feliciano, Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaria, Charlie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, Jimmy Sabater, and the list goes on. Even those not into Salsa music can recognize the tremendous professionalism and skill of a group like SHO. Though they wouldn’t describe themselves this way, they are giants of the genre with a musical heritage that runs to the foundations of the art form. Their music will still make us all dance long after all the individual artists are gone. Their talent transcends generations yet they all wanted to hear my ridiculous story.

Since many of them grew up in the Bronx, they knew better than I just how crazy the story was. I told it three or four times that night and it got a little better with each telling. At the end, one of them said. “Hey, we like you. The next time you’re in New York, you come and hang out with us.”

What a night.

The Code

Though I have not had the chance to party with SHO in New York, they eventually summoned me. I received an email from Mitch in 2013 inviting me to a show in Lyon, France (I was living within driving distance at the time). The city’s summer jazz festival takes place every year in the fantastically preserved Roman amphitheater overlooking the unique double valley of the Saone and Rhone rivers. Mitch gave my wife and me all-access passes so we could hang out with the band in catering, backstage, and even in their dressing rooms. We took several meals with the guys and put down plenty of French wine. During the show we danced backstage and on the floor but the real highlight for me came the night before.

Lyon France Roman Amphitheater Jazz Festival
Spanish Harlem in Lyon: My wife and I backstage with the band at the Roman Amphitheater on Fourviere Hill in Lyon.

After dinner that night Mitch sat us down in the lobby of his hotel and taught us the secret history of Salsa. Using YouTube as a tool he regaled us until three in the morning with tales of bands I’d never heard of and concerts played in neighborhoods in the Bronx or in tiny clubs in El Condado. No grandstands, no ticket booths, no sponsors, just legendary artists and their fans. In these venues one can see the real relationships between the greats and pick up the origins of meaningful lyrics and bits of melody that keep cropping up in songs across generations. I felt Mitch was revealing a sort of code that illuminates the deep connection between the music’s present and its past and makes each song a part of a larger story.

And it is a single story. Salsa is not just about partying, it’s about everything in life; from the agony and ecstasy of loss and love, to war, addiction, privation, friendship, fun, beauty, brutality, and everything on the road from birth to death. Like most great art forms that beautify our world, there exists a single thread that binds all Salsa music, and a code that, if one cares to look for it, will reveal how it all fits together.

NYPD Undercover

So you may wonder what actually happened at Yankee Stadium that night in 1996. Arriving at our seats in the left field bleachers just in time to see the first of two Braves home runs land in our section, the New York fans were in a foul mood. These were the cheap seats and those around us were doing their best to hurl the vilest vitriol at the Atlanta pitchers warming up in the bullpen just below us. There were fights. Fans were throwing increasingly dangerous items at each other as first one, then another Braves home run sailed over the fence. One suicidal maniac had the nerve to do the Tomahawk Chop (a Braves cheer) in our section. It took a dozen security guards to safeguard his escape. When the Braves’ score reached double digits I started looking at my watch and began to wonder whether the rest of this terrible game was worth a half-year of our freedom. After only three innings in the stands, Randy and I decided it was not.

Oldsmobile Undercover NYPD
Undercover Olds: This is the only known photo of the infamous Oldsmobile that fooled New York City.

Dodging flying drinks and scuffling fans, we hustled our girlfriends out of the stadium, hoping against hope my car would still be there. Without it, there was no way to make it back to West Point in time and we would be doomed to march up and down the square. We rushed through the turnstiles and into the alley under the elevated train on River Avenue. Sprinting ahead, I prayed my car still had windshields and seats and I imagined I may have to convince a tow truck operator to unhook it so we could make our escape. My anxiety was peaking as I rounded the corner onto 161st Street and saw my car – by some miracle of New York World Series magic – just as we had left it an hour and a half before.

Years later, after an extended and vigorous forensic debate in Singapore with the band, Mitch was convinced there was only one way to explain how the hell my car remained untouched in those circumstances. Clearly, he believed, no random civilian would dare to park a car on the sidewalk next to Yankee Stadium, let alone during the World Series. Every New Yorker, including the police, would assume that my beat up Oldsmobile was part of an undercover operation by New York’s finest.


Lino MianiLino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Suci’s Epilogue

The day I wrote this, Mitch told me the following infuriating story:

As I mentioned earlier, Suci Kurniati is a world-class dancer. Since she met Mitch over eight years ago, she has been coming to New York City on a legal non-tourist visa and has been able to stay up to six months at a time.  Her visa was valid through 2019.

Suci is Indonesian. She is a Muslim. Rightly or wrongly, these facts have occasionally brought her extra attention from U.S. immigration officials.  Until recently she had always been allowed to enter the country but in May of this year things changed. Enroute to New York from Jakarta, U.S. immigration officers took her aside for “extra screening” during a plane change in Abu Dhabi. After a 22 hour ordeal, despite Suci’s possession of a return ticket, a valid visa, a spotless eight year record, and printed advertisements for upcoming performances outside the United States, the agent in charge sent her back to Jakarta because “she could not convince him she would return to her country.” Her visa was instantly voided. The door closed.

Naturally, her friends and students are disappointed but none more than Mitch. He is upset but convinced this is all a mistake and is trying to work through the system. He first helped Suci apply for redress with the Department of Homeland Security. After two months she was informed she could re-apply for a new visa. In support of her application, Mitch engaged the assistance of a U.S. Congressman who wrote an appeal on Congressional letterhead and even called the American Embassy in Jakarta on her behalf. On the September day Suci went to the Embassy to apply for her visa she had the Congressional letter (and others), in hand along with proof of her long-term employment in Jakarta. Surprisingly, her visa was immediately denied. The reason: a failure to prove strong enough ties with her homeland to guarantee she would return.

SISF, Mitch with Reyno, Lani, & Suci
Mitch and Suci the night they met. The person on the right is not a terrorist or an illegal immigrant.

Mitch may still have confidence in the system but I have less patience. As the husband of a legal alien, I have some sense of how this should work. I know the shortcomings of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) better than most and I can tell you this was not due to a bad call by an individual immigration officer, nor was it a failure of the system. This is the brutal result of a bad policy made for short-term political gains of dubious value to the United States. Indonesia is a country of enormous strategic importance. Its foreign policy is traditionally independent but has a predictable influence on all its Southeast Asian neighbors. In the past, the United States has been able to shape that in positive ways but this will be harder with a hostile immigration policy in place. Indonesia will not react well to its citizens being treated poorly and American businessmen will suddenly find it hard to match the $25.2 billion in trade they achieved in 2016.

This is not making America great. It is not safeguarding us. It is not getting us a better deal. It is allowing certain members of our political class to claim they are doing something. It is also reducing our credibility around the world with people and governments that expect a certain level of stability in our foreign policy. We don’t need protection from people like Suci Kurniati. What America needs is to be the kind of place talented, honest, good-hearted people like her want to be.

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