Those closest to him witnessed how mad and crazy his last years were. Tragic in a Shakespearean sense, which he had taught for years but now embodied, his fall was like something out of Beckett, too. From Lear and the fool on the heath to Nagg and Nell in garbage cans. Endgame. The beauty of the man faded. Intemperate need reigned.
Miguel had gone through the AIDS epidemic, bravely participating in an experimental drug regime of taking Hypericin that turned him red as a lobster. He made an early public acknowledgement of HIV only to embrace his mad final reckless conduct. Without him at the switch, the Cafe leadership fractured and lost ground. Bitter fact is Miguel died before he died, as sister Irma said to Lois Griffith. Two women closest to him saw from day to day how Miguel was no longer responsible for his actions. When I heard I wrote -- So long and dangerously flirting with the final move, he went and did it! Died. Dead.
Miguel had been totally on ice at the Cardinal Cooke Nursing Home. Isolated, visited from time to time by old friends, without a phone, without mobility, he spent his days in the Day room at a little table sitting in his wheelchair, writing and reading. The TV blaring didn’t bother him. He always used TV as reference, turning headlines into poems, pronouncements and execrations. Never the Times. Only the News and the Post, the better to stir up ire and passion. He loved the flamboyance and brutality of the front page. For him it demonstrated how truth comes in blows. But he sometimes ignored how “truth” is sacrificed to spectacle.
Miguel lived keyed into the daily news cycle, the noisy rant, show biz, street politics, complaint, putdown, all that deep “blab of the pave” (Whitman); the police beat, beat streets and his people of Loisaida. He long ago named the Nuyorican world striving to gain public recognition, long long before J.Lo and showbiz took the word and cashed it in.
At the Cardinal Cooke Home, a Catholic sister—also a poet—visited him. I found them once in deep discussion. Otherwise Miguel was not surrounded by his peers. The Nursing Home was a warehouse of unfortunate lives from New York’s ghettoes. A few among the destitute he recognized, most of them, like him, in wheelchairs. One guy wheeled in, a handsome Afro-American fellow with a muscular torso and a serious demeanor. Miguel introduced us, as his friend nodded briefly and wheeled himself to the window looking out sternly at streets and buildings, another day in stir. Yet Miguel was making plans. He had invitations for readings (so he said). He needed to go downtown to his bank and get a phone and get mobile again. Then came COVID.
We had always played Shakespearean “wise” fools, madmen and zanies. We had taught Othello together at Livingston College. Iago’s insinuating voice and devious temper were always with us as possibilities to explore dramatic speech, “start an action or swell a scene or two.” We heard the mayhem and vigor of the dense Venetian streets, filled with rumor and complaint, innuendo and insinuating turns of hot “Italian” rhetoric that Shakespeare took from the Italian romances. Miguel carried Othello within him, the noble general and councilor to the Doge, a man of state, if fallen on hard and tragic times.
Thinking back on our long friendship, I came to the notion that what Miguel really taught was friendship, deep grammars of gesture and companionship. With him there was always adventure, be it to visit a cultured old world lady in Princeton long ago or to see a ballet or conduct a discussion at dinner with Richard and David, Jim, Kathy, Marilyn and me, his inner circle at Rutgers in English and Comparative Literature.
Miguel was generous with his attention. When he shone his light on thee, you were deeply rewarded. His trained orchestral power was ready to play off and balance daily happenings in restaurants, kitchens, and in all rooms where we lived, the classrooms where we were trained and taught and—crescendo!—the explosive performance space of Nuyorican, his room constructed with his peers (Lucky, Mikey, Richard, Lois, Bimbo, Pedro and the root griot Jorge Brandon).
At the end, Miguel was locked into a huge establishment with the elderly urban poor, a community he had served in his poet and scholar’s way uniquely. But now he hadn’t time or strength to take any of it on except his own condition. I brought him Amiri Baraka’s book of elegies. He leafed through it, finding friends and warriors of his battles. He and Amiri were deep, conspiring, savage friends who played their poet’s game of the dozens, putting down friends, laying down a total critique of the human situation to regale each other with raucous tales of absurdity, fighting and turmoil on every front. Joy and laughter, frustration and concentration to get such things down, register the wrongs day in day out. Hard times were more than hard, keeping it going and together even when hardest.
In conversation Miguel moved fast. He was consummate, telepathic, receiving, chatting at the bar, trading fours in mini-performances, always “on”—until with impatience and resolve he would dismiss present company and carry himself off into the night to attend a performance, make a party scene or romantic tryst.
He became pure showbiz. I used to prod him, accuse him of “star-fucking” and interrupt his litany of persons, star talk, Michael Jackson, De Niro. He got to hang with the Broadway crowd, the Hollywood music heavies, enjoy the special party pleasures, sensual rackets and diversions of late city life.
From the handsome thin willow-waisted beauty of the young aesthete, he went through dramatic visible physical changes. He became large, sometimes a huge Falstaffian man like Orson Welles. That was a long way from the first Miguel I met in 1969. He grew in girth and voice, assessing and possessing all the streets humming with teeming “Elizabethan” Puerto Rican Nuyorican life.
Speech on the street suited him. Buzz thick all around, he walked triumphantly through the torrent (“¡Papi!” “¡Oye, Papi!”) sending out vibes, humor, imprecations, street crit and crazy laughter to cajole his people “to laugh it all to rags.”
He had arrived with his family on the Lower East Side at age nine, from Santurce, a rough part of San Juan. He grew up in a still-Jewish Lower East Side as the Puerto Rican migration started, when milk was still delivered in bottles by the milkman with his cart and horse.
Miguel knew it all in his bones and ears. Yo! Just as the community was being pushed out, the Cafe became a well of local creativity and pride. At the start and well into its history it remained a live earthquake, kids breaking through, voices nurtured, sustained, and heard.
Roy Skodnick is an editor of All Area, a journal on method and place. He has published works by Charles Olson, Gregory Bateson, Julia Kristeva, Kenneth Burke, Frank Gillette, Miguel Algarín, Paul Metcalf, Ken Irby, among others. He was also a Smithsonian Fellow in 1997. Some of his selected publications include: “James Metcalf Joins the Smoky Smiths,” Gravesiana: The Journal of the Robert Graves Society (Oxford UP); “James Metcalf of Santa Clara del Cobre,” Metalsmith, Winter Vol 18, #1; “Things of August,” Afterword to Love is Hard Work by Miguel Algarín (Scribner); James Metcalf, True Son of Hephaestus (Grupo Mexico, Mexico City); Metcalf in Paris, Impasse Ronsin, Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York City; James Metcalf at Impasse Ronsin, Impasse Ronsin, Murder, Love and Art in the Heart of Paris, Tinguely, Museum, Basel, Switzerland; Axis of Observation, Frank Gillette / “The Ineluctable Modality of the Visible,” Peter Lang; A Black Mountain Couple Years After / Martha and Basil King, Light Abstracts the Smallest Things: The Aesthetics of Basil King, ed. Burt Kimmelman (Talisman); Through the Labyrinth, Kasmin Review (online), Kasmin Gallery, New York.