Let’s start with Miguel’s words:
Who ever thought it would end like this,
an old drunken Puerto Rican being led
by the arm down the path of eternity
by a Jew from New Brunswick?
This was written in my journal on the PATH ride home to Jersey on September 15, 2016, a few days after Miguel’s 75th birthday. I had walked Miguel home from another drunken night at a bar on First Avenue. Somehow it fell upon me, as it often did to get Miguel home in one piece. There were many of these nights, most often (thank God) without me. Miguel opened doors in the literary world for me and my friends in terms of invitations, readings and publications, I’ve shared the stage with him and for him numerous times, but I most value those times when I had him to myself, or in a small group. I’m not sure the last time I saw Miguel, I believe it was early 2020 before the pandemic when I went to the nursing home with Nancy Mercado. His sister Irma was there. Miguel was in good spirits, full of projects that he had to know were long shots at best, including getting him out of there. I think that was the last time.
The first time was 1976 or 77. Rob Press and I emerged from our Ford Hall dorm at Rutgers after an epic bong-a-thon and wandered onto the lawn at Old Queens Campus to see a Puerto Rican man standing at a microphone between who I later found out to be Mikey Piñero and Lucky Cienfuegos. There was a protest about cutbacks to our state university and that man at the mic was Miguel Algarin incanting: “Mongo can not penetrate/ Mongo can only tease/ but it can’t tickle/ the juice of the earth vagina…” His beaded necklace was jangling to the rhythm of his swaying. His eyes were closed and his voice was a plaintive call to the heavens. Our minds were blown.
Maybe a year later I found myself tagging along with Eliot Katz and Rob Press to the Livingston campus of Rutgers to sit in on their Modern American Poetry class with Professor Algarin. On that day Miguel did not show up. The students knew the routine, wait 15 minutes and then we were free to go. Another time he left a note on the door saying he was sorry to cancel class but he’d been called to New Mexico to mediate a prison riot. We later found out it was true. However, I did join the class for a couple of field trips to the Nuyorican Café where Miguel introduced us to literary luminaries such as Willian Burroughs and Amiri Baraka.
During our senior year our band played at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Robert and the Exploding Garbage Can Band consisted of Rob Press on guitar, and Eliot, Bruce, Carol and myself playing upside down metal garbage cans pillaged from New Brunswick streets. Picture 50 glowering Puerto Ricans standing 3 feet in front of the band with hands firmly planted over ears. The two audience members who delighted in our performance were Miguel, and Sugar whose birthday we were celebrating. As a matter of fact, we were wearing yellow inflatable hats in honor of her special day. For some reason Sugar took a liking to me in particular and thought it would be cute for me to be banging on my garbage can with her sitting on my lap. Mikey Piñero on the other hand did not think it so cute. When I got up to go to the bathroom, he told me he was gonna cut me if I went near his girl again. After he left Miguel came over, “don’t worry he’s all talk, but he’s harmless. And I told him you’re gay.” Gee, thanks Miguel.
A couple of years later, I’m living in the East Village and working as bartender/event planner at the Shuttle Theater with Miguel and Eliot Katz and we’re all working with the two crazy Sardinian owners of the establishment. Once a week Miguel and I would go down to Houston and Avenue D to pick up 8 cases of beer and 4 one-gallon jugs of cheap wine. Miguel would watch me load the cases onto the hand-truck.
“Miguel, if we both do this it will go faster.”
“Danny, you know I’m too old for that.”
“Miguel, you’re 42 years old.”
“I like to watch you glisten with sweat; it lifts my spirit.”
Miguel accompanied Nancy Mercado to our house in Hoboken a few times for Thanksgiving dinner. Caroline knew to have a fresh quart bottle of Absolut at the ready. Miguel, like Pedro Pietri always asked as part of the greeting “How’s the family?” Miguel was a most appreciative guest, complimenting Caroline’s cooking and hospitality. He usually brought along little gifts that he found on the streets or in the Port Authority. We still have a framed black and white photo of Marilyn Monroe somewhere in the house. Sometimes as the meal progressed, and the vodka bottle emptied, Miguel would get sentimental. I remember him and Mary Anne Thompson weeping openly to a Scissors Sisters song playing as background music during our meal. Of course, I gave him that cd which he thought “the most beautiful music in God’s creation.”
By sheer happenstance, Miguel showed up at Moe’s, our Brooklyn Tech teachers’ happy hour hangout in Fort Greene one Friday afternoon and stayed in his seat at the end of the bar for the next 8 months. Somehow after a couple of weeks he had all the teachers buying him drinks.
There were a few times I thought oh my God Miguel is dead and I’m left with the body, none clearer in my mind than the time I had to get him to an event honoring him at Hostos College and he was passed out drunk, no sign of breathing on his bed, while a young man I did not know sat crying inconsolably at the kitchen table. I had to drag him fully clothed into the shower to revive him, then strip him naked and dress him in nice clothes, then get him into a taxi for the event in the Bronx. I felt very much like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. After much coaxing (and a couple of drinks) he got up on stage and lit up the room.
Miguel was always well aware of the people occupying the space around him, and he cared for those he loved, except when he didn’t. He thought himself better understood as a Shakespearean character than a Nuyorican one. He was constantly thinking up projects for Eliot who was suffering from medical ailments, he repeatedly asked how Jack Wiler was doing years after he died and he worried about Nancy and how we could help her. All the while I constantly had to swat his hands away. He once told me it was my job to keep Steve Cannon quiet at the Nuyorican, but a few weeks later told me it was my job to escort him down the block to see Steve Cannon at Tribes.
Most people don’t know that Miguel and Nancy sat on my couch for two improbable Giants Super Bowl wins over the Patriots though in his own words (well really Jack Wiler’s) he didn’t know dick about football other than Tom Brady is cute and he should throw to the tight end. After the game Miguel walked to the bus stop singing “We Are the Champions.” He and I understood that he was the Giants unofficial good luck charm.
At the nursing home we talked about his next collection of poetry tentatively entitled Dirty Beauty how it was just about finished and was going to be his best book yet, a conversation we had repeated for a good 15 years. I tried to entertain him as we sat in the dismal visiting room talking about past exploits and brief moments of glory. He grew impatient with my poor pronunciation as I practiced my Spanish by reading his poems to him. On one visit we wore ridiculous green hats at a Saint Patrick’s Day party devoid of alcohol. Naturally, he asked me to go out and smuggle in a drink. I dutifully complied and when I returned with two airplane sized bottles, he was asleep in his wheelchair and I thought better of it.
How awesome it is to have him as a friend.
The void he hoped to avoid is now filled with love.
Miguel is irreplaceable, Algarin has taken his place
among the immortals. Camina suavemente
por el camino a la eternidad, amigo.
– December 2020