How Tito Puente saved me before there was a “#MeToo” movement.
I was on my way to interview Tito Puente, the King of Latin Music, and my first major assignment as a writer. I was excited, elated to have been picked for this project, and nervous, very nervous. Absentmindedly, I bit the last of what remained of my right thumbnail thinking of the many questions I had researched over the past few days as the #1 train pulled into my station. It was hard to see the stop from inside the bubble-art, graffiti-covered car, “Taki 183” tagged all over the windows. I already knew to get off three local stops after Seventy-Second Street. Climbing the stairs at the Fiftieth Street exit, I pulled the yellow piece of paper from my pocket: RMM Management, 1650 Broadway and Fifty-First.
My mouth was so dry I stopped first at the corner Nedick’s for an orange soda. Adjusting my pea coat and turtleneck sweater in the nippy October air, I looked through my pouch, checking for my tape recorder and notes. I was really wanting an Orange Julius, but I felt too good to push through all the pimps, dealers, hustlers, hookers and junkie thieves to get to Forty-Second, even though I was early for the 9 pm appointment. Besides, the beasts in blue were all over the place after the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst. The cops seemed to be on a mission to get rid of blacks, and Puerto Ricans, especially after Governor Rockefeller imposed his draconian drug laws to toughen up his presidential profile. Shit was really getting ugly here. The Serpico cops were few and far between, and by the time the movie had come out earlier that year, the four-year-old Knapp Commission the city set up against police corruption had already lost its steam.
It’s late for an interview I thought as I waited on line for my soda. I shouldn’t have been surprised, after all, this is the entertainment industry. Isn’t that where I wanted to be? I could hear the TV on the counter behind the register, my vision blocked by the colossal Afro on the dude in front of me. The volume was loud enough to hear the latest on the Watergate trials. Nixon had resigned. Ford was the new president. My orange soda arrived.
I grew up listening to Puente. I learned those mambo steps as I held my mother’s arms, my feet on her shoes, going through the paces. I loved Latin music, but I loved me my R&B too.