One thing has become painfully obvious from the Amarlys episode: Manuel and I aren’t equipped to do this without professional help. Romo is that help. We’re meeting him to cut a deal tonight. The meeting is set for 11 p.m. at a Latin dance club in the Bronx called Purgatorio. The club is just over the bridge from Inwood on West Fordham Road. I used to pass it while visiting my mother in the nursing home. As an added benefit, one of the hottest Dominican salsa acts, Clasicom, is performing tonight. It’s late for both of us. Working out at 5:30 virtually every morning precludes late-night outings, especially during the week, to say nothing of what we would have to tell our wives. In a way, this whole evening is a little bit of an adventure. I haven’t been out to a nightclub in a long time. And this is a salsa club to boot.
The club provides valet parking. That’s good because the last thing I want to be doing at nearly 11:00 at night is looking for a parking space along Sedgwick Avenue. This neighborhood is still more than a bit unsavory.
Behind the rope is a very large, very muscular bouncer in a black nylon shirt at least two sizes too small for him. The buttons strain across his chest. It’s a warm, humid night and he’s slick with sweat. Manuel addresses him in a rapid-fire Dominican Spanish mumble. The velvet rope magically opens and we’re ushered in past the sweating throng waiting outside.
“How did you do that?” I ask.
“I told him we were here to do some business with Romo la Rumba.”
“Romo la Rumba?”
“Yeah,” he says, suppressing a laugh. “That’s his nickname. I didn’t tell you?”
“I thought he was an ex-con?”
“He’s a thief, but he’s also the best dancer I’ve ever seen,” Manuel says.
“As a matter of fact, after he met you, he was asking all kinds of questions about you. I told him you are un Dominicano honorario, that you like our food, our music and our women, so you might have to dance a little tonight.”
“Hermanito, you’re making this shit up,” I say.
“No, you can’t make this shit up. You’ll see, you may have to dance tonight,” he teases me.
“Not a problem,” I say. “I hope not.”
Laughing, we proceed down the hallway into the club. The hostess is standing at a narrow podium just at the end of the hall wearing a very short red skirt, a black, sleeveless, strap- less top and five-inch spike heels. Her breasts are bulging out of the top, but not the in the same way Rosalie’s do. Her hair is piled high on her head, exposing her long neck. Her skin is the color of cinnamon. She looks like one of the girls in the posters on Amarlys’ walls.
“Buena noche,” the hostess says. “Buena noche,” we both reply.
Manuel continues in Spanish, “I’m meeting Romo la Rumba.”
“Ay sí, sígueme,” she says.
Inside, the room is pulsating with the sound of salsa. It’s old salsa, from the ’70s, heavy on the brass section and the beat. The dance floor is mostly empty at this hour and the dancers are not the best. The real competition won’t start till later. By my recollection, it’s still quite early for a place like this.
The DJ’s booth is above and to the right of the stage, which is directly behind the dance floor. The stage is ready for Clasicom. The first set starts at 11:30. I have a sense of déjà vu. I am transported back to my college years during the disco revolution when I worked as a disc jockey in a nightclub. DJ White Ice, that was me. I smile to myself that I could have made a career out of it, had my parents not convinced me that it was a dying business in which you couldn’t make a living, and wasn’t appropriate for a Jewish boy anyway. Instead, I waste my days at the bank kowtowing to the son of a rich man. Think of Jellybean Benitez. He’s having a lot more fun than me. And he fucked Madonna.
We follow the hostess through the room, toward the left side to the back. There behind another rope and a pulled back curtain is the VIP section. Romo is sitting on a red leather banquet flanked by four young women, two on either side. They are exquisite. To his left in leather armchairs are two large, muscular guys, one with cornrows and the other with a shaved head. On the table in front of them is an ice bucket with two bottles of Cristal, one open and the other chilling. Romo, slight as he is, looks a little ridiculous surrounded by the girls and the “protection.” The “protection” rises as we approach the VIP area. Romo waves them off and stands to greet us.
“Primo, qúe lo que?” he says to Manuel as he embraces him. “Todo bien?”
“Sí, todo bien,” replies Manuel.
“Y tú, Blanquito?” he says, extending his hand to me. “Igual?”
“Sí, igual,” I say.
“Please, sit down, have a drink,” he says, switching to English. “I’m happy we finally got together on this again. I was thinking you were pussying out on the whole job.”
“No,” I answer, “it’s just taken longer than I expected to put the deal together.”
“I see,” he says. “Well, we have all night to talk this out so why don’t you guys have a drink and let me introduce you to my girls.”
Romo makes the introductions. Tinaya, a tall, leggy brunette with a complexion the color of light coffee, is dressed in short shorts with black leather stiletto boots and a camisole top. Ariela, her sister, is similar in look and complexion but larger on top, with round breasts pushed up by the leather bustier she is wearing. Floryse, a black girl, is shorter than the other two and wrapped in a red cocktail dress. Her head is shaved and her skin is very dark; in this light, it appears almost ebony against the scarlet of the dress. Finally, there is Dawn, a white girl with blond hair. She is Floryse’s roommate. They share a studio on the new Upper East Side, formerly Spanish Harlem. I take each one’s hand individually as they are introduced. I am like a kid in a candy store. My eyes don’t know what to focus on first.
“Sit down, guys,” Romo says. “Ariela, pour them a drink.” Ariela uncrosses her legs and rises from the couch in one motion. She takes two glasses from the tray on the table and pours Cristal into both, passing each of us a glass with a broad, seductive smile.
“I hope this is OK. Or would you prefer something else?” Romo asks. “A cocktail?”
“No, no, this is fine,” we both say before sipping at the bubbling, cold liquid. It’s delicious.
“So, Manuelito, how is the family?” Romo asks. “Todo bien.”
“Junior is playing ball this summer?”
“Yeah,” Manuel says with a smile. “Maybe he’s gonna go a little further than we did.”
Romo laughs a little. “Further than you, maybe. Further than me, definitely. I was the worst.”
“I remember,” Manuel says. “I tried to teach you to play when we were kids. You were a challenge.”
“And the girls, son feliz?” “Contenta y linda.” “And Wilma?”
“She’s fine,” he says, hesitating a bit.
“I heard you had a little trouble,” Romo says.
Manuel’s face changes when he hears this. “What you talking about?”
“Manny, hermano, I know. Your mother-in-law, she told your mother and she told my mother and, well, I do speak to mi mamita every day. Who helped you? They said someone helped to get her out.”
Manuel looks in my direction. “Elliot,” he says. “He called his uncle and he got Wilma out, but she has a hearing in six weeks.”
Romo rises from the chair and walks around the table to- ward me. He sits down on the table, offers his hand, and says, “Muchas gracias, Blanquito. Manuel is my brother. When you help him, you help me.”
While I am flattered by his gratitude, I can’t help but think that his Tony Montana imitation is laughable. “There is nothing to thank,” I say. “He is a brother to me too. I couldn’t do less.”
“So, we should get down to business,” Romo says, returning to the banquet. He tells the girls to leave us for a while. They rise slowly and seductively and walk off past the velvet rope. We are alone except for the steady beat of the music and the rising din of conversation coming from the main floor of the club. Clasicom is coming to the stage. The “protection” recedes toward the rope, backs to us, guarding the VIP lounge and, I suspect, listening to the conversation.
“So, what’s up?” Romo says. “Where you at?” “I think we have a deal,” I say.
“You think?” he says. “Yeah.”
“For how much?”
“I don’t know that yet.” “Then you don’t have a deal.”
“No, primo,” Manuel says, “they want the painting and we know we have the painting, like I told you.”
“OK, so we know they want it, but we don’t know how much they gonna pay us for it,” Romo says.
“Right,” I add.
“Well, when you gonna work that out?” “Tomorrow, I hope.”
“How you gonna do that?”
“We’re gonna call this woman in London and cut a deal,” I say.
“Who’s gonna make the call?”I pause and look at Manuel. He stares back at me, his eyes telling me to tell Romo the truth. “I have someone to make the call,” I say. “I’m not making it.”
A smile creeps up around the right corner of Romo’s mouth. “Good, Blanquito, I’m impressed you figured that out for yourself. Better off that the mark can’t identify you yet. So, who’s making the call?” he asks again.
“The woman who helped me identify the painting,” I say. “Yeah, I remember, you told me, your wife’s friend. Can you trust her for this part?”
“OK, so how you gonna do this? You got a secure phone line?”
“Romo, shit, you think I’m an idiot?” Manuel says. “I got that covered.”
“Prepaid phones?” he says.
“Sí,” Manuel answers. “Like the ones we used—”
“Primo, basta, what you talking about? I told you I got that covered,” Manuel says, interrupting him. The one’s we used?
“Bueno, so you guys seem to got it all covered. What you need me for?” he says. He’s a real comedian.
“For the rest of it,” I say.
“What’s the rest of it?” Romo asks.
“Romo, why you torturing him?” Manuel says.
“I’m just bustin’ you rocks a little, Elliot,” Romo says. “Before we talk about the actual job and how we gonna do it, we gotta discuss something else, you know, boys, the money.”
“OK,” I say.
“So what’s my cut if I do this?” Romo says. “How much you want?” I ask.
“How much you gettin’?”
“I’m thinking I’m going to ask her for $3 million.” “Why $3 million, why not $10 million?” Romo says. “Why not $20 million?” I answer. “Because my friend did some research into the value of the painting and I think we can get $3 million.”
“Ask for more,” he suggests.
“OK,” I say with a laugh, “I’ll consider that. Now, what about you?”
“I take 30 percent of the total, with a minimum of $900,000. I pay my boys from my take and cover my expenses.” I start calculating roughly in my head. I gotta pay Amarlys, Rosalie and Elise, and I still have to do something about the security guard at the building. Executing the job will cost money and I don’t know exactly how much. There are bound to be other things along the way that will require “lubrication.” I’ve already laid out thousands of dollars. Manuel and I have to split even. Where does that leave me at the end? What am I coming out of this with?
“What else do we get for 30 percent?” I ask, realizing I’m treading into dangerous territory. As Manuel has pointed out, this isn’t one of my fancy real estate deals with my tight-ass, over-educated, upper-class clients.
“I take care of the details,” Romo says. “I rent the truck, I get the uniforms for me and my men, I transport the stolen goods and, most important, if we get caught, I take the fall.”
His fronting the operation and transporting the goods is in itself worth a lot of money, but I’d like to cut his percentage down a bit anyway. “Romo,” I say, “that’s a pretty big cut. There are lots of other people involved here…”
“I know,” he says, “Manuel told me, too many. It’s getting dangerous.”
“I have to cut them all in too,” I say.
“Yeah, but without me, how you gonna pull this off?” he says slowly, in a low, hard tone, eyes focused on his fingers as he brushes them with a napkin.
As I’m about to respond, a roar comes up from the main dance floor. We all look up and there on the stage, completely unexpected, is Marc Anthony. He’s from East Harlem and he occasionally shows up at local clubs. He joins Clasicom for their big hit, “Le Dio Pami.” The crowd goes wild.
Romo jumps up on the table and shouts to the “protection” to find the girls “inmediatamente,” turns toward us and says, “Come on, we talk later.”
The next thing I know, I’m on the dance floor with Tinaya. Manuel is to my left with Dawn, and Romo is to my right with both Ariela and Floryse. He leads both of them with precision. Manuel is right, he’s a terrific dancer, something you wouldn’t expect looking at him.
Tinaya can dance. Her body moves in two directions, below the waist in one movement, above in another, but synchronized all the same into one seductive movement that says, “Te quiero.” I want you. I have no trouble keeping up. In fact, it’s a pleasure to salsa with someone who can follow, who can feel the moves. I don’t feel like I’m pushing a sack of potatoes around the dance floor. She takes the turns naturally. Her body lets me know what direction she wants to move in and I lead her that way. When she moves close to me, her body brushes mine, the touch charged with energy that makes me want more.
I hear Romo laughing to my right. “Blanquito, I’m impressed. Where did you learn to dance like that?” he says.
“From my Puerto Rican neighbors a long time ago,” I shout back.
“Here,” he says, placing Ariela’s hand in mine. “Try two.”
I haven’t done this in over twenty-five years, dance with two women at once. I used to do it at Studio 54 in the late ‘70s. Except then it was the hustle, not the salsa. I get a bit flustered. A moment later, they’re turning in unison. Somehow I don’t think this is the first time they’ve done this.
The music comes to a crescendo and the number ends. The audience roars with approval and applause. Tinaya and Ariela each kiss me sensually, then each other. As I turn, Manuel is behind me, a broad smile on his face, arms open. “Hermano, ven aca,” he says. He gives me a huge hug. “Elliot, I’m impressed. You enjoying yourself?” “Yes,” I say.
I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn to see Romo standing beside me. “Excellent, hermano,” he says. “Now let’s go finish our deal.”
We follow Romo back to the VIP area as the band takes a break and the DJ takes over. He is, we all are, a little out of breath and sweaty. He pops the cork on the second bottle of champagne, pours it and sits down.
“So, I was telling you I get 30 percent, with a minimum of $900,000,” he says without missing a beat, “and I take care of my boys. I tell you what. I like you. Manuelito is right about you, you un Tiguere. I’ll take 25 percent of the net, whatever it is. I will need some front money, though. Deal?”
I shoot a glance to Manuel and detect the slightest nod. “OK, Romo, we got a deal,” I say. We all shake on it. In this world, that shake is as solid as a contract.
“OK, so when we doing this?” he asks. “Sunday of Labor Day weekend,” I say.
“OK,” Romo says. “We got a lot to do till then, but I think that’s it for tonight. Go cut your deal and then we’ll plan out the actual job and cover all the bases.”
“OK,” I say. “I promise you I’ll have the deal cut by Tuesday this coming week. Wednesday at the latest.”
“OK, we get together the next day. In the meantime, I gotta split, my brothers. These girls are for you,” he says as he grabs his phone and Dawn. “Enjoy.” He gives a wink and a smile before leaving.
Come out on Thursday, July 24th to Word Up Books (2113 Amsterdam Ave) to meet the author for the latest installment of the Led Black Book Club.