“Just once before I die I want to climb up on a tenement sky to dream my lungs out till I cry then scatter my ashes thru the Lower East Side.” — Miguel Pinero, “A Lower Eastside Poem”
My pal Raymond Barry takes a break from hitting the punching bag at our home away from, the Hollywood YMCA. He has a wistful look. What? He says he’s thinking about Miguel Algarin, his “dear friend and mentor.”
Algarin, I discover, is a Puerto Rican poet, writer, retired Rutgers professor of English, and co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café — still expressing its needful voice in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Hollywood actors who came through it include Rosario Dawson, Rosie Perez, John Leguziamo, Luis Guzman, and the one and only Miguel Pinero, a now deceased poet, playwright and a barrio kingpin, who’d been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his play, “Short Eyes.” Jennifer Lopez was so inspired by Algarin’s Cafe, she named her production company Nuyorican Productions.
Raymond Barry is a playwright himself, who’s had many of his plays performed, and all of them published. He’s also appeared in dozens of TV series (Gotham, Ray Donovan, The 100, Justified), and critically acclaimed movies (Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Man Walking, Training Day), but proudly says he used to perform and direct plays at Nuyorican. He feels an enormous artistic love and bond with Algarin, suggesting, “Miguel educated me, I write today because of him and guys like Pinero, a man with an eighth grade education. These Third World people at Nuyorican introduced me to the value of the written word and educated me as much as going to Brown and Yale did. They provided the medicine of poetry to heal their beloved barrio’s wounded spirit.”
Barry met up with his beloved friend in 2011 and also most recently in March 2017. Algarin has been living with the ravages of HIV for many years and Barry doesn’t know how much longer Algarin will still shuffle on this mortal coil. So he wrote an essay, an ode to his pal. These are some evocative excerpts:
Having escaped this predatory environment of New York City landlords, escaped to Hollywood and made a decent living. Now I’m just visiting. You might call it slumming, but...there are human values here to pay attention to, values that one wouldn’t find in a white, middle-class environment...not much is happening in the suburbs by way of aiming for the jugular of life, the essence of one’s existence. I sense the vibrant spearhead of vitality itself in the hall of the Nuyorican Poets Café. I am alive in this room, on this bar stool perched before a glass of Coke and speaking about what has taken place over the past thirty years, speaking about the important things, the necessary ingredients that compose vitality of life itself. Miguel’s presence forbids waste of precious time. Words are expressed easily between us, words that accompany lack of pretense...When the subject of AIDS comes up, Miguel whispers for dramatic effect, ‘I feel like a killer. If my juices were to enter someone’s body, they would die; a killer, who could take a life...’
Nuyorican means a Puerto Rican living in New York, and Algarin and his compadres created something that still lives at Nuyorican Poets Café.
Barry’s story continues:
For me, the room represents Miguel’s canvass; his brush and paint are its local poets who read their work. Their lives matter by means of written metaphor, describing the battleground in which they live. The man before me has provided an arena for their poetry and theater that will live on when he will be dead. The Café encourages young and old to notice the world’s struggle, to write their perceptions onto the white pages of their notebooks, in some cases to memorize the words they have written for the benefit of its audiences. The Nuyorican Poets Café is a neighborhood university, where people are free to think and study the puzzle of writing itself and finally to express the barrio’s collective consciousness. This hall is a place of learning, a university of the streets, where local youth is encouraged to discover the full potential of their thinking minds.
It also occurs to me that this might be the last laugh we'll have together, considering Miguel’s illness, but I keep it to myself. Miguel is my one genuine friend, after so much creative work and many arguments between us, mostly bullshit having to do with our fragile egos, but as we grow older I respect and care for him more than ever. And I miss you, already, Miguel.
My pal Ray continues to be a constantly working actor, a septuagenarian who looks 15 years younger. He pounds away at the bag, then breaks out laughing, a mirthful, vital sound that reverberates up from his still powerful frame. He’s aware that life is ticking away its clock on Miguel, on him, like on all of us. He recites a sentence from his Miguel essay: “...the spouting fountainhead of your mellifluous melody, Miguel, your poetry, I am stricken by the meagerness of my own parched attempt.”
Then Ray adds, that when he recently surprised Miguel at the ABC bar in Alphabet City, he came up behind and good heartedly whispered: “Move over, you old fuck!”
Smart old dogs still breaking balls, Nuyorican-style.