Hats | Michele Carlo

“Christmastime, glasses clinking! ’Cause its time to start drinking!
A beautiful sight: this bottle so bright! Walking in Coquito Wonderland.
Go away, Borden’s eggnog, champagne punch and Swedish glogg…
…what I have right here, is Latino cheer—walking in Coquito Wonderland.
In a blender you can put some vodka—only if you want a bellyache!
Take a tip from Carmen, you’ll be smarter…to add as much dark rum as you can take!
Have a shot—you’ll be smiling. Not too much, or you’ll be flying!
It’s 500 Proof—you’ll go through the roof! Walking in Coquito Wonderland…
Walking in Coquito Wonderland!”
© Carmen Mofongo’s Coquito Xmas 2000 / Michele Carlo / All rights reserved

I sang that onstage wearing a hat that was a millenary melding of a fully lit menorah and Christmas tree, trailing a 30-foot extension cord and carrying a half-gallon of homemade Puerto Rican eggnog, aka “Triple-X Coquito,*” as the audience cheered. It was early December 2000 and I was a Lower East Side icon: Carmen Mofongo: New York City’s One and Only Latin Lady with Stuff on Her Head.

Carmen Nofongo promo

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was just one player in a larger “milieu” — what was then known as Manhattan’s “Alternative Comedy/Performance Scene.” From the early-1990s through the early-2000s, the area bordered by Houston, Allen, Delancey and Essex Streets slowly transformed from a neighborhood no one paid attention to, with crumbling tenements, empty storefronts and rat-and garbage-choked streets, into a less-run-down, less rat-and-garbage-choked epicenter of an art-and-performance renaissance. Orchard, Ludlow and Rivington Streets teemed with “artholes”: storefront galleries, theaters, cafés and performance spaces such as Luna Lounge, Nada, House of Candles and The Piano Store, Pink Pony, Max Fish and Baby Jupiter, and the two “mainstages”: a one-story ex-brothel that housed the Collective:Unconscious theater group and the second-floor ex-crack den that was the performance space Surf Reality.

I’d discovered the open-mics in 1996. A friend had told me about Surf Reality, which on Sunday nights housed “Faceboy’s Open-Mic,” a performance free-for-all where every week anyone with $3 and a dream could get eight minutes to perform … or to try and fail and try again, until either you became good at whatever it was you were doing … or gave up. On a typical night you’d see traditional stand-up; character and sketch comedy; someone play guitar, accordion or saw; someone read from a journal or chapbook, show a video, or perform excerpts of their epic poem, play or rock-opera-in-progress. And then there was the (almost) always entertaining, genre-defiant naked performance art! The best part was, you never knew who or what you would see on any given night. The original four members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, or a teenager channeling Billy Idol while he stripped off all his clothes and writhed on the floor–all got the same amount of respect, time, and attention. It was an inclusive, supportive, experimental environment where anyone could play–and maybe even grow.

Around that time I’d seen a documentary called “Bananas is My Business” about 1940s Brazilian singer/actress/icon Carmen Miranda and I became obsessed. But it wasn’t her talent or beauty that hooked me. What intrigued me about Carmen Miranda, or Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, was that she wasn’t really Brazilian at all–but a Portuguese émigré whose family had moved to Brazil when she was a small child. That someone could completely embody and be a national symbol of an entire culture without actually being born in that culture blew my mind. As a redheaded, freckle-faced Puerto Rican who grew up in an Italian/Irish Bronx neighborhood–and who had to continually navigate (at times unsuccessfully) between two cultures–this fascinated me. And I thought, “What if the spirit of Carmen Miranda was reincarnated for my generation … in the body of a Puerto Rican from New York City named Carmen … Mofongo? Yes, that’s it!”

Mofongo is the closest thing we of Puerto Rican heritage can claim as a national dish: a mound of double-fried green tostones (plantains) mashed with shredded perñil (roast pork) and/or chicharrones (crispy pork skin), with olive oil, garlic and seasonings and a tomato-based criolla sauce on top. It’s the Latin equivalent of “heart attack on a plate” (and it’s delicious)! To go with the tasty name, I gave Carmen Mofongo my Corozal-born grandmother’s accent – and my art-college-educated vocabulary. In all my thirty-odd years of watching movies and television, I’d seen every foreign accent considered desirable and elegant – except a Latin one. Most movie or TV characters with heavy Latin accents were depicted as unsophisticated and déclassé at worst, or as comic foils or powerless sex symbols at best. In my own small way I was going to break that antediluvian cultural stereotype. So in everything I wrote for Carmen, I found a way to use words like “juxtaposition,” “congruence,” “xenophobia,” “antediluvian”–and more.

Carmen Mofongo made her debut at Surf Reality in 1997 and if not quite a Hollywood star, then certainly an avant-garde performance-art icon was born. As “they” say, “you could look it up.” To complete the character, I channeled her signature headdresses (with my then-husband and theatrical partner as designer and millenary mastermind) into dozens of fantastic hats depicting everything from a traditional Puerto Rican dinner to an Art-Deco Miami Hotel–to unique, satirical takes for every holiday. And for the next decade plus, Carmen Mofongo brought her Spanglish-speaking unique blend of sass, class … and fundillo to life. In December of 2000, our homage to “A Christmas Carol,” “Carmen Mofongo’s Coquito Christmas 2000,” was our biggest extravaganza yet.

Each sold-out show (OK, it was only a 55-seat space, but it did sell out … with SRO) featured Carmen getting visited by the ghosts of Coquito Past, Present and Future, eventually forming an alliance with Santé Claus. At the end of each show was a trivia contest: three lucky audience members who could name all of Santa’s reindeer, the seven dwarves and the original seven NASA astronauts (yes, I am also a nerd) won their very own personal-sized bottle of Coquito.* The rest of the audience was consoled with shots from the half-gallon bottle.

In 2001 Carmen Mofongo appeared somewhere at least once a week and hosted her own monthly variety show, while Michele wrote a solo play that got booked for a six-week autumn run at our “uptown annex,” the Under St. Marks Theater in the East Village. The first week of September, the week before my solo show’s opening night, I went to an open-call audition at MTV requiring unusual “talent.” In full Carmen Mofongo regalia, I impressed the producers when I rolled my “r’s” for 30 seconds and they gave me a callback for the following Wednesday. I soared all weekend! After years of struggling as a performer, artist and writer, it seemed I finally had a chance to “make it.” But the day before that callback–was Tuesday, September 11.

There was no callback, of course, at MTV. My solo show was postponed until the final two weeks of its run. By that time it was mid-October and all of lower Manhattan still lay under the cloud of the fallen Twin Towers. Instead of playing to standing-room-only audiences, I soldiered on in front of maybe a dozen people, total, for the entire two-week run. But I told myself I was lucky – I hadn’t been hurt or lost anyone that horrible day. In December, I did do a “Coquito Xmas 2001” show, but by then another corner had been turned. Our little “off-the-radar scene” had been “discovered.”

Time Out New York and The New York Times ran regular articles about the cafés, bars, performance spaces … and performers. Some of the open-mikers began to become successful, going on to become writers and actors on Saturday Night Live, and other comedy shows, or opening their own theaters. Soon, one storefront space after another didn’t have their lease renewed. New restaurants began to appear, with prices none of us could afford. Lines of uptown and suburban crowds of “slumming” finance types and frat kids began to appear on the streets, clamoring to get into “our” bars. The open-mikes became crowded with talent scouts searching for the next Upright Citizens Brigade or Comedy Central star, and many performers became less experimental and more “I’m looking for a new manager.”

By the middle of the 2000s all of the performance spaces and most of the artists I knew would be gone. Some found varying measures of success as actors, comedians and writers. Others, like myself, migrated to what The New York Times would later call “The New Standup,” the entertaining and influential form of personal storytelling exemplified by “The Moth.” Some gave up NYC altogether and went back to their hometowns, while still others were blown east, carried by the promise of empty storefronts and affordable rent, to land in another area no one was yet paying attention to: smack in the middle of Brooklyn, in a neighborhood called Bushwick.

New York City is nothing if not a great white shark, always in motion – if it stops swimming, it will die. And we artists are like its remoras: in our symbiotic relationship, we groom and tend our host, clean away its parasites, make it presentable and enable it to keep going. And in return, we go along for the ride and don’t get eaten … until we do. But what happens to the remora when the shark finally does die? That’s a question I’m afraid to know the answer to.

But I’ll always be grateful to all who showed me there was more than one way to wear a hat. I still have most of them. Perhaps I’ll see you at what is perhaps NYC’s last (as yet) un-corporatized place to go and play, Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade, sometime…

* Coquito is the quintessential Puerto Rican holiday libation, a tropical twist on eggnog: a delicious, sweet, creamy blend of: rum, coconut, rum, milk, rum, eggs, rum, vanilla, rum, spices…and rum. It’s very tasty.

Michele CarloMichele Carlo is the author of the memoir Fish Out Of Agua: My life on neither side of the (subway) tracks, (Citadel 2010). As a storyteller, she’s appeared across the U.S., including the MOTH’s GrandSlams and Mainstage in NYC, and on NPR with Latino USA. Her essays and stories can be found in Mr. Beller’s Lost & Found: Stories From New York, SMITH magazine’s Next Door Neighbor, F***ed In Park Slope and Huffington Post, among others. She was also featured in the recent PBS documentary “Latino Americans of NY & NJ.” The stage adapation of “Fish Out Of Agua” is coming soon.

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