Trapped in the Booth:
My Merengue Meltdown
How a well-intentioned Jewish DJ ruined his first Dominican Christmas
Disclaimer: This is a semi-fictionalized version of my all-too-real experiences working as a DJ in New York City. Many of the names of venues, organizations or people mentioned herein have been changed or, in some instances, totally pulled out of my ass, so stop even trying to guess, cool? Cool.
For most Americans, Christmas has a singular look to it. It’s road-tripping back to Utica, donning traditional Beyonce “7/11” sweaters and drinking some eggs with grandma. For DJs, however, Christmas is a whole different breed of reindeer.
Indeed we nightlifers treat Christmas like we would any other birthday: A festive way to dress up overpriced Svedka. After all, Jesus deserves born day bottles served with sparklers.
I’ve DJ’ed every Christmas Eve for the past 5 years. This is really NBD cuz I’m a Jew. In fact, DJing on Christmas Eve is probably the most engaged with Christmas I’ve ever been. My Christmas Eve DJ gigs have ranged from the mundane (playing deep house carol remixes in a gaudy hotel lobby) to the impossibly chic (a legendary couture designer’s private holiday party) and everything in between.
The most memorable, though, took place in a stately Upper East Side townhouse belonging to my friend Lucy’s preposterously wealthy parents. It was here, mixing LMFAO with merengue in an oak-panelled ballroom, that my semitic DJ mind comprehended the true meaning of Christmas.
Lucy was a high school buddy of mine and had a rather singular family background. Her father—a short, stocky multi-millionaire hedge-funder and a fellow Jew—hunted for a hobby. A hunting jew is essentially like a speckled unicorn: something I’d previously only met on a batshit acid trip. Although Lucy and I had been friends for a decade, I’d met him perhaps four times.
Lucy’s mother and I were much better acquainted. A first-gen Dominican perhaps 15 years her husband’s junior, she was quite stunning: All long, flowing black hair, rich olive skin and perfectly perky fake breasts that were stationary when she walked. She was a Real Housewife of East 74th Street, pristinely kept and daffily endearing. She’d gone from riding donkeys to school in the DR to a life of Kardashian-ian opulence.
She was also enamored with my DJ career—interested in what clubs I was playing in and which celebrities I’d run-in with. She’d often playfully suggest she’d visit me at a gig one day or even hire me for something. When she signed me up to spin at the family Christmas Eve dinner last year, however, Lucy was trepidatious about the arrangement.
“I can’t believe she’s actually having you play Black Eyed Peas songs while we eat a roast goose,” she texted me. She had a point, but I was also DJing a vegan fashion show earlier that week so this felt relatively standard in relief.
“Don’t worry,” I assured her, “We’ll just drink eggnog and have fun!”
“You don’t know my family,” Lucy challenged. “They’re crazy when they drink. My mom and her sisters really don’t get along. Especially Tia Paloma. They’re prone to inter-hermana violence.”
“Oh whatever,” I diminished. “I deal with drunk people all the time. It’ll be great.”
On Christmas Eve Day, I arrived rosy-cheeked at the townhouse—an international embassy before Lucy’s family of four moved in—resplendent in my finest red velour blazer and dripping in sweat from lugging my turntables uptown on the 6 train.
As I crossed the marble foyer, everything was abustle. Tuxedo-clad caterers with silver trays scurried about and assorted family members primped for dinner. A Christmas tree that would give the Nutcracker FOMO shot up through the center of the room.
“Hi Honey! Feliz Navidad!” I heard Lucy’s mom’s signature thick accent echo across the vast expanse. I looked up to find her standing at the base of the grand staircase in a sleeveless black dress, her artificial breasts aglow in the artificial light of the tree.
“Hi!” I responded, “Thank you so much for having me.”
“Thank you so much for coming, baby!” she squawked back. She traipsed over for a squeeze, pressing her hard bosoms against me in a way that felt welcoming but also possibly bruised my ribcage. “We are ready to PARTAY!” she exclaimed, rocking me back and forth playfully in her embrace.
“Great!” I responded. “Is Lucy’s dad here?” “Oh no, he’s away in Canada with his hunting club. Christmas Tradition,” She explained. “Anyway, all the better!”
“This is actually the first Christmas Eve dinner I’ve ever experienced,” I said, “so I’m excited.”
“Great baby! I can’t wait to cut loose and show all my moves!” She said with a shimmy of her trainor-svelte hips. “You gotta play that LOL song later. You know, ‘The Party Rockers!?’ I have a special plan,” she muttered slyly.
“Oh you mean ‘Party Rock Anthem,’” I asked, “by LMFAO?” “That’s the one!” she squealed back delightedly.
“Now honey,” Lucy’s mom began, her Louboutins clinking across the marble floor as I heaved my heavy equipment behind her to the family’s private elevator, “I like all the radio songs, just like the kids. All the Z100 songs. But NO merengue. Believe me, no one wants merengue besides my sisters and between you and me,” she leaned in to whisper with a tipsy smirk, “they’re all miserable and loca. Especially mi hermana, Paloma, the big one. Stay away from Paloma.”
“Got it,” I said. “No prob!”
“Seriously,” she reiterated, pausing to highlight her point, “No merengue, no Paloma.”
“Seriously, I get it. No worries at all.” I confirmed. Frankly, I was delighted because I knew exactly zero merengue songs.
An hour later, dinner commenced. Waiters sashayed in and out of the baroque ballroom, serving tias and tios, cousins and abeluas from silver trays piled high with yams, pasta salad, roast pork and a strange plate of jagged claws. “Cooked chicken feet, a Dominican delicacy,” Lucy texted me from across the room. “Christmas Eve Dinner is just a less kosher Rosh Hashanah!” I texted back.
I kicked off my set with an inauspicious RJD2 instrumental. Suddenly, a rather imposing Tia in an ill-fitting white pant-suit barrelled towards my DJ table, her tall glass of rum dwarfed by her bulbous manicured hand.
“Hola,” she commanded sternly, glaring at me intently across her luscious fake eyelashes. “I am Paloma.” I began to sweat. “Hi, nice to meet..!” but before I could get the words out, she interjected. “You will be playing merengue very soon, sî?” I knew instantly that Tia Paloma was the boss of me. Our unbroken eye contact was at once glorious and heart-stoppingly terrifying.
“Yes, of course! I love merengue,” spewed nervously from my mouth. “Bueno,” she commanded, before returning to the table. I connected to wifi and stealthy downloaded two songs from Merengue Navidad Y Año Nuevo on iTunes, knowing somehow that I had no choice.
As dinner progressed, liquor continued to flow like the Yuna River. It turns out Lucy wasn’t exaggerating—her family was a pretty rowdy crew.
The jovial roar from earlier was crescendoing into shouting matches, speedy spats in Spanish, hands flying and people pointing cooked chicken feet at other people.
Lucy’s mom approached the booth, mint-adorned cocktail in hand. “I’m ready for the ‘Party Rockers’ now,” she asserted, miming conductor arms at me with a super-sloshed grin.
“Ok!” I said, cueing it up and scratching it in.
“Play some merengue!” an anonymous Tia heckled from across the room.
Lucy’s mother twirled back around, her demeanor shifting instantly. “Don’t let any of these putas convince you to put on any merengue,” she intoned, gesturing wildly in the the direction of her sisters. “I did not bring Louie here for another merengue fiesta! Right, Louie?! “Right!” I squeaked back, my voice cracking. “Louie is a DJ muy famoso!” she informed the crowd.
“I’m not really, but thank y…” But Lucy’s mom wasn’t listening. Almost as if she’d timed it that way, the chorus of “Party Rock Anthem” dropped in and she commenced with a fairly aggressive, albeit slightly off-kilter, solo version of the “Party Rock” dance. She bounced around the perimeter of the ballroom in her stilettos, twerking her way past 100-year-old stained glass windows.
“See,” she shrieked, shaking her hair back, “this is much more fun!”
I bopped my head and smiled, as is my DJ-ly duty. I followed up with Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything Tonight.” “Wooh, Louie, yes!” Lucy’s mom chanted from across the room. Meanwhile, Paloma shot me a death stare from her seat, gnawing viscously at a bite of pork.
“Hi,” a voice startled me to my right. “I am Sofia.” Another Tia. I turned and smiled. “Mis hermanas and I are really wanting some Merengue music as soon as possible. Rapido,” she commanded. “Of course,” I responded. “Now?” Sofia asked in a way that felt not at all like a question. “Let me see what I can do,” I countered.
I turned desperately back to my left to get Lucy’s mom’s attention, hoping I might convince to her to allow just one merengue song and thus spare my very life. But she was now so completely enraptured in the magic of Pitbull that no amount of “Dales!” could summon her.
As I tacked back to my right I, in a single instant, learned exactly how Orlando Bloom felt halfway through the movie Troy. Standing inches from my person stood a literal phalanx of Tias, perhaps 6 in all, with Paloma at the head. I gasped audibly.
“You have merengue in there, no?” Paloma said tapping the screen of my computer with her long, painted fingernail, causing it to quiver every so slightly.
“Yes! Yes of course” I said, glancing nervously back to my left. Lucy’s mom had now Party Rocked her way completely out of the room. No help there. Oy.
“Well!?” challenged Tia Sofia as I turned back to the Auntie army, quivering in my penny loafers. “Totally!” I spat out, hand shaking. “Let’s do it!” I wiped my brow and scratched in one of the two merengue songs I’d downloaded.
“Swing En Navidad” came pouring out of the sound system. It dawned on me that this was my first time really hearing merengue. It’s pretty vivacious stuff, kinda like dancehall hopped up on drum and bass.
Instantly the Tia’s sprung to life — yelps of “eh!” bounced off the vaulted ceiling and they grabbed one another’s hands, assertively shifting their hips. As dancing fill the room, I quickly realized this was some pretty cool shit. I mixed in the second merengue song. Then I mixed back to the first. No one seemed to mind a lick that I was playing the same two tunes over and over, back and forth.
I was also nervously keeping watch for Lucy’s mom, who appeared to have vanished into thin air. Maybe she had to pee? Maybe she was puking? Maybe she was busy teaching herself the “Harlem Shake” for later?
As the dancing grew more feverish, I actually started to pick up the moves myself. Did I look like Shakira? In my mind, I looked like very much like Shakira. Even Lucy joined in. Shoes screeched across the floor. Tias swung left and right. I bounced over to iTunes to pick a few more selections from Merengue Navidad Y Año Nuevo.
The dancers began to clap wildly in reverie. I smiled because I am DJ Christmas Ham. “I want to be Dominican!” I mouthed at Lucy, approximating the hip moves as best a Jew can. Paloma shot me a big smile from across the floor. “OMG we’re amigas now, this rules,” I thought to myself.
Just as my new Tia fans and my Jew brain were simultaneously reaching peak Navidad Nirvana….
*CRASH* The sound of metal hitting the marble floor was followed by a cacophony of gasps. “Ay Dios Mio!” I heard myself whisper.
I looked up to see the Tias standing stunned, red pan juices dripping all over their feet, their mouths agape. The silver tray of chicken feet that had just been hurled across the room lay scattered around their feet.
“What did I say about merengue! NO MERENGUE AT MY PARTY,” came spewing from Lucy’s moms mouth, tears streaming down her face. “This is not why I brought DJ Luis here!,” she yelped pointing at me as “Swing En Navidad” continued to blare. I stopped the turntable.
“What did I say, Luis!,” she continued, “You need to go. GO!” I turned bright red and thought I might also start crying.
‘Mom!” Lucy screamed in disbelief. “Mom, come with me, you’re drunk. What are you doing!?” Lucy said as she grabbed her mom and rushed her out of the room, “What’d I tell you, Lou!”
I had really shit the manger. I wondered momentarily if Andy Cohen was going to pop up from behind the bar and yell, “Watch What Happens Live, tonight!”
“I think we’re done here,” Tia Sofia proclaimed. Tia Paloma walked over wiping herself down with a cloth napkin, casually snatched the rest of her drink off my table and shot it back.
“Family, huh?” I offered nervously, hoping we were still friends. She grimaced at me and let out a forceful “Ha,” before grabbing her purse, tugging her blazer into place and strutting her large frame haughtily out of the ballroom. Christmas was over. Jesus was dead.
For the rest of the year, I’ve steered clear of visiting Lucy at her parent’s house. The one time I went over, about 6 months ago, I entered the marble foyer and saw her mother standing on the stairs just as I had on Christmas Eve. This time there was no joyous greeting, no breast to chest embrace. Just a simple “Hello Louis,” before she slipped into her office.
I never did figure out what her beef… er… chicken feet was with merengue, though. I guess Jews aren’t meant to understand Christmas, afterall. The one thing I do know for sure is that this year’s Christmas Eve, for me, will be a festive night off.
Illustrations by Andrew Krahnke
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