Christmas Assault (Collard Greens and Pasteles)

My best friend (we were inseparable) when I was growing up was Al Braxton. We were born on the same day, one minute apart. He was born on a Monday morning June 6, 1955 at 3:28 AM and I was born a minute later. Al was a dark-skinned African-American with fine features, very handsome. He played trumpet and I played trombone and percussion. We wanted to become Latin Jazz musicians and Al came from a family of musicians. We were night and day, yin and yang, if you saw one, you were certain the other was somewhere nearby.

And we were trouble: always starting all kinds of shit.

Al had fifteen brothers and sisters and they all lived in this huge 23-room house in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. I know it had 23 rooms because I counted. Ms. Pearl, Al’s mother, would tire of throwing me out of her house. She used to refer to Puerto Ricans as, “All you mira, miras.” I think she got that from constantly hearing Puerto Ricans exclaim, oye mira, mira! On the streets of what was at the time a culturally diverse neighborhood. She would chase me out of her house, but would send out her sons to look for me if I stayed away too long and then scold me for staying away. Of course, she would throw me out the door and I would sneak back in through the windows. Al got all his looks from his mother, she was a very dark-skinned, fine featured, woman with long, fine hair, still beautiful in spite of all the children. Her house was run like a conglomerate, with varying levels of management. I was totally fascinated.

She didn’t like Puerto Ricans and let me know it, but I think she loved the heck out of me. She would call me “Black” and laugh because I was so light-skinned. The name stuck, I was known as “Black,” as in “Yo, Black,” in her house. However, she couldn’t abide by those other noisy “Po’ Reekans” as she referred to us.

Therefore, it didn’t initial outrage didn’t come as a surprise when my family decided to show up on her doorstep one Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) in observance of the Puerto Rican tradition of the paranda. She turned to me and said, “Nigga, what the fuck are all those mira miras doing out there on my front door?” My family also had its share of musicians, my uncle having led a salsa band for decades. My stepfather was also something of a musician and my mother (much to everyone’s embarrassment) can’t sing to save her life. But there they were, on Ms. Pearl’s doorstep singing some whacked out Puerto Rican Christmas song with Al, her favorite son, at the head playing trumpet.

For Puerto Ricans, the celebration of Christmas is more of an assault than a normal celebration. You see, an intial small group will get together and march en masse to each doorway. They come at the ready with instruments, real and makeshift. Puerto Ricans consider pots and pans, for example, instruments. As are beer bottles (full or empty) or anything else that makes a percussive sound. There are, of course, the real instruments, guitars, congas, cowbells. And for Puerto Ricans, anything — any kind of instrument — is considered game. If you played a harp and had one handy, you would be “encouraged” to tag along, harp and all.

So, there they were, my whole family and what looked like the rest of the Puerto Rican community, banging on pots and pans, congas, bongos, and guitars, with my mother screeching at the top of her voice. Now here’s the real upshot: the PuertoRican paranda tradition holds that you go from door to door. Each household gets hit (Asalto — assault). Once outside your door, Puerto Ricans will not leave until you feed them and get them drunk and then you have to go out there with them to the next house.

“Edward,” Ms. Pearl said (you know you’re in trouble when grown ups use your full name), “Tell them muthafuckas and my son to get the fuck out of my door before I call the police.” This is where I had to explain the part where they wouldn’t leave until they were well fed and drunk and, with a “Hell no,” under her breath, she opened the front door to give my people a piece of her mind and that’s when the whole group just bum rushed her, mistakenly thinking they were being invited.

That was a helluva Noche Buena. Ms Pearl ate lechon (pork suckling)and pasteles (meat embedded in mashed plantains and yucca wrapped in plantain leaves) for the first time, and her sister, Aunt Gerty, got so drunk, she literally lost her wig. In the process, traditional Puerto Rican food collided with soul food. Flan mixed with sweet potato pie, greens crashed with pasteles, James Brown mixed with Willie Colon, the rum and the vodka flowed, and Ms. Pearl and my mother formed an uneasy truce, each knowing that their sons were inseparable.

There were easily over 100 people there that night, some we didn’t even know. Every Christmas Eve after that, I know Ms. Pearl would anxiously await the ruckus of “All dem mira, miras.” She would never admit it, but I know she loved those parties. She would say that “Porter Reekans” knew how to party like black folk and that’s probably the greatest compliment Ms. Pearl could give.

Eventually, Ms. Pearl would lose that big house on Bushwick Avenue. She could be stern, but she was so supportive of the young people in the neighborhood. She would allow, for example, her son George’s band, The New Breed, to practice in her basement. Now, you have to understand this was a 16-piece band with Marshal amps. We also played loud, performing songs from such diverse sources like Buddy Miles, Grand Funk Railroad, Kool & the Gang, James Brown. Her son, George, was a gifted drummer who practiced at least 8-10 hours a day — everyday. Ms. Pearl supported all of that.

Eventually, George would go on tour with Gloria Gaynor. Al and I worked as freelancers for various local bands, mostly salsa. Some of the horn players of The New Breed would break off and play with BT Express and other groups of the day. I would become discouraged with the music business and leave it all behind. When Ms. Pearl lost her house, she moved to a smaller one further away – somewhere in Jamaica, Queens. I would visit, but not as often. Al and I would go our different ways, with Al beginning a life in crime that would eventually lead him to a life spent in and out of prison.

The last time I saw Ms. Pearl, she hugged me and tenderly caressed my face. She told me to make sure to take care of myself. Shortly thereafter, I left New York for some time. The last time I spoke to anyone from the family was when George called me while I was living in Houston. He was on a world tour with Gloria Gaynor and had left some tickets for me at the Forum. When I saw him, I hugged him as I would a brother.

I never saw any of them again…

I look back now and realize, as I did then, that those were special days. I lived during a time where there was community and while times were hard (they always were), people somehow looked out for one another’s children. Today, I don’t see these traditions practiced as much as in those days, and I’m saddened a bit because our children don’t realize how much they’re missing…

Here’s to Ms Pearl and to all the Ms Pearls of the world…



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