A Fish Out of Agua

First: note well — an urgent call to action follows this review. If you like what you read here, please follow the requested steps!

Michele Carlo is a Spanish onion — red on the outside, and composed of many layers. (Oh my God, she’s gonna kill me for that!) When I first knew her in the Surf Reality heyday she was strictly Carmen Mofongo, spiritual grand-daughter of Carmen Miranda, and distant cousin perhaps of Carmelita Tropicana, complete with outlandish hats custom designed for her by her then-hubby. I booked her in that guise many a time back in the day.

Then suddenly one day — a new layer. She shifted gears majorly a few years ago, and started presenting evenings of curated story telling called “It Came from New York”. In contrast to the cartoony, stereotype take-off Carmen Mofungo, Michele allowed herself to project herself as herself, in three dimensions, telling true-life tales that were often funny, sometimes poignant, and always  vivid, taking us to the Bronx of her youth like Melville takes us to the South Seas, or John Updike to WASP suburbia.

And now she’s taken a bunch of those narratives and woven them into a book, FISH OUT OF AGUA: My life on neither side of the (subway) tracks, from Citadel Press. But she’s done more than string together a bunch of eloquent, entertaining anecdotes, as pleasing as that would be. Instead, she sticks to the theme announced by the book’s title like a creative lifeline, making the sum of her related adventures add up. A bespeckled, persimmon-haired and artistic Puerto Rican with a taste for Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, New Wave and Heavy Metal, Carlo was simultaneously blessed and cursed with several levels of alienation. To fellow Puerto Ricans, she was an outsider because of her Irish-looking attributes. When she gets lost at the Puerto Rican Day parade, the organizers yell into the P.A.: “Will the family who brought the little redheaded white girl please come to the bandstand to pick her up?” She depicts her life as a string of such moments, causing her plenty of pain (but usually providing stories that can be funny from a distance in retrospect).

I say she has been blessed as well as cursed because, to be such an outcast, to be continually forced to try to make yourself understood across endless gulfs, while it may suck on a daily basis, has to be very good for the artistic muscles. As a consequence, Michele has gotten to be very good with language. She speaks white, she speaks black, she speaks red, she speaks hoodlum, she speaks Christian, she speaks artist, etc etc. This makes her book very universal and very accessible.

Also, she writes with an unflinching, devastating honesty. Many may claim to be doing that, but my alarm bells tend to go off when the artist paints herself as a victim — seems like partial, skewed truth at best. Michele has far more wisdom than that. It is the wisdom of that Wise Fool Curly Howard, whose frequent defense was: “I’m a victim of circumstance!” Plenty of people made her life a hell, but she’s always big enough to step into their shoes and see that those people had problems of their own. Life is a chain of people knocking each other over like dominoes. So she’s the red domino. What’s that make her–special? Well, yeah, she clearly was and is — endowed with brains, talent and a heart, when all of those things are in short in supply, whether you’re in a tough school in the Bronx or a Manhattan ad agency.

Her journey is an amazing one, from the Bronx childhood where she hung out with kids with names like Nikki Boom-Boom and Janey the Waste…to her time at the School for Visual Arts (where one of her teacher’s was Mad Magazine’s Harvey Kurtzman!)…to the beginnings of her performing career at Surf Reality (very cool to see the performance comedy scene of the ’90s immortalized in a book. Let’s have more–much more of that!) And the stories are amazing. The boy who gives her her first kiss is gunned down in the streets a week later. She gets into a horrible car accident on the way to her father’s funeral and delivers the eulogy with her face sewn shut. Her kid brother accidentally destroys a $10,000 copy of Playboy he found in their father’s closet. And on and on.

Now, then: the call to action. If you feel disposed to buy this book given all that I’ve told you, a very good time to do it would be between 11am and 12pm today. That’s right, between 11am and 12pm today. On Amazon.com. Sorry for all that pressure,but through some technical detail no one understands, if Michel sells a certain number at that hour, it will improve the book’s ranking and boost sales.

The book is officially released August 1 (Sunday), but that won’t prevent you from being able to order it today. Also, there are a couple of book/ signing events:

FREE drinks & snacks; including Michele’s world-famous Triple X Coquito
Powerhouse Arena, 37 Main Street, DUMBO, Brooklyn


Hosted by H.R. Britton, with FREE drinks & snacks; including, again, Michele’s world-famous Triple X Coquito
Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard Street, off Delancey Street


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