Cuca, Queen of Harlem

Anthony Salas

Last night, I sat on the Uptown D train. My pink wig and flashy jewelry made me look like a young Celia Cruz (Cuban singer). The bubble gum pink wig, electric blue (faux) fur coat, sparkly gold dress, pink heels (which obviously complemented the wig), and dramatic eye shadow gave me a bit of an edge. It was also a nod to Edie Sedgwick. One little hindrance became unavoidable.
“Mommy, are those water balloons,” asked the little boy sitting next to me.
His loud voice garnered my boobs much unwanted attention. I smiled nervously. His mother, who looked like an urban earth mama (stringy hair, yoga pants) hushed him. After looking me up and down, she became increasingly interested in my appearance. I fiddled around with my purse, as a way to avoid her. The mombie kept smiling at me, in an obvious attempt to garner attention. After smiling back, she analyzed me further.
“You look a bit like a younger Celia Cruz. Really love your outfit! So, where are you going tonight,” she asked.
“Thanks, just came back from a work party. I work at this cool coffee shop in the East Village, St. Mark’s Coffee,” I said.
She nodded her head in agreement as the little shit next to her swung on the subway pole. Some guys and even old ladies slyly stared at my tits. “Shit, fuck, shit,” I thought to myself. Obviously, my boobs were artificial. Having unwanted attention made me nervous. In the grand New York tradition, I ignored their glances and adjusted my pink wig. It was one of those nights. Obvious sexism and gawking would’ve provoked me to kick someone, with my very sharp high heels. As fabulous as they were, it’s doubtful anyone would want to deal with one angry queen (or my fabulousness). I just wanted to get home to enjoy a campy film marathon.
The subway tunnel faded. Columbus Circle Station appeared. Throngs of people with shopping bags waited for the train’s arrival. The mombie and her little shit prepared to exit. She gave me a wink and walked out. Most of the train emptied out. New passengers arrived in the subway car. Passengers battled for seats. Music roared from headphones. The old and young read paperbacks, gleefully.
Before the train’s doors could close, three teenage boys with a boom box arrived. Unassuming New Yorkers looked on in dismay. The train doors closed. Quickly, the train roared out of Columbus Circle station. One of the younger boys dressed in a red Adidas track suit switched on the music. Grandmaster Flash blasted from the boom box, as the three boys struggled to hold their balance. Then I stared at my boobs, and thought, “This can’t end well.”
One of the boys yelled, “It’s show time.”
These two words struck terror in even the most jaded of New Yorkers. Their break-dance routine began. One boy clapped. One boy spun on the floor. A brave-boy swung from every pole. As he swung, my fake breasts stared back at me. If this kid accidentally kicked me in the boobs, the train would be flooded.
The express train slowed down, and then sped up. Train lights went on and off. 72nd Street, 76th Street, 86th Street flashed by, as the music grew louder. As 110th Street approached, the dancing only intensified. For once, I internally prayed to La Virgen Maria. “Por favor, don’t let these assholes make my boobs explode.” Reaching for the rosary (from my purse), I suddenly became a good Catholic.
The train came to an unexpected halt at 116th Street. After the longest delay ever, the subway train sped up again. Simultaneously, the break-dancing show ended. Some people clapped. Most people rolled their eyes. The “show time” boys asked for generous donations from the subway riders. Obviously, I refused to give them any money. As I stared down at my fake boobs, they were still intact. Afterwards, the “show time” boys ran into the neighboring subway car.
Gritty 125th Street station looked like the promised land. I was almost home (with my tits intact), just one more train. A local B train waited in the opposite track. Maneuvering in uncomfortable high heels, I made it into the next train. It would take me to 135th Street. Then a lady ran into me. My boobs exploded. Water flowed from my chest to the grimy subway car. My black dress was drenched. People ran out of the train. They thought I had pissed myself. Mortified, I just stared at the puddle.
“Surprise, my boobs are really water balloons,” I yelled.
“I am sorry, mija,” said the fortysomething lady, in a heavy Cuban accent.
The voice sounded familiar. She looked into my eyes. I looked into her eyes. The train doors closed. As the train headed toward 135th Street, I stood in shock. The lady also stood in shock. Her grocery bag was drenched. Taking a gulp, I muttered something. Then it became legible. I muttered it again.
“Ma, I’m sorry,” I said.
My ma looked at me. She folded her arms. I wasn’t sure, if I was going to receive a bit of Cuban Catholic guilt for dressing like a fabulous lady. She obviously didn’t know I was a drag queen. Taking off my wig, short black hair was revealed. I became a boy again.
“You look good, but shit I have to teach you to do make-up, mijo. You look a little like ‘la grand Celia Cruz,’” She said.
“That’s the point, ma,” I said, with a chuckle.
The train arrived at 135th Street. She handed me a grocery bag. We exited the train and walked toward the 135th and St. Nicholas exit. Anxiety rushed through me. Predictably, uncomfortable silence followed.
“You make a pretty girl, Alex, just no water balloons as tetas next time,” she said.
“It’s Cuca, Ma,” I replied.
We finally walked up the stairs onto the busy 135th Street & St. Nicholas Avenue. Buses, gypsy cabs, green cabs, car horns, and flashing deli signs welcomed us home. We reached our beautiful brownstone with its bay windows and commanding stoop. The “great subway odyssey” was over. My evening campy film marathon commenced (Polyester, To Wong Foo & Pink Flamingos). Cuca no longer had to hide in the drab shadows. When I look back, love, acceptance, and a bit of Cuban guilt are the main themes of that most colorful evening.

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