A Cuban-American Chronicles Life Between Cultures Oscar Hijuelos has written eight novels exploring the Cuban-American experience. In 1990, he became the first Hispanic writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His latest work, a memoir called Thoughts Without Cigarettes, describes growing up Cuban in New York's Morningside Heights neighborhood.
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A Cuban-American Chronicles Life Between Cultures

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A Cuban-American Chronicles Life Between Cultures

A Cuban-American Chronicles Life Between Cultures

A Cuban-American Chronicles Life Between Cultures

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Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir by Oscar Hijuelos
Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir
By Oscar Hijuelos
Hardcover, 384 pages
Gotham
List Price: $27.50

Read An Excerpt

Like Jacob Marley confronting the ghost of Christmas past, writer Oscar Hijuelos sees things on 118th Street and Amsterdam Avenue that are no longer there. It's a "haunted feeling," he says, gazing down the New York City street where he was raised.

Hijuelos has written eight novels exploring the Cuban-American experience. His latest work, a memoir called Thoughts Without Cigarettes, describes his early life in New York, where he was born in 1951.

Here, in his childhood neighborhood of Morningside Heights, Hijuelos can still remember the soulful Sicilian shoemaker in a green smock in the window of his repair shop; the row of tenement houses across the street where he used to play; his father, home from work, leaning against a basement rail, smoking cigarettes; the old "Freegent's" Pharmacy on the corner.

"There used to be a soda fountain just inside the window," Hijeulos recalls, "and candy counters, and a big telephone booth — you know the old kind, with doors you'd open up." Hijuelos' parents, who immigrated to the U.S. in the late '40s, didn't have a telephone until 1965. They'd come to the Freegent's phone booth to make and receive calls to the relatives still in Cuba.

Hijuelos stops in front of his childhood home, building No. 419. "This is where I was raised," he says. He points to a front window, once the family's living room. "As a kid, I spent so much time standing at that window ... I was sick as a child, so my mother wouldn't let me out all that much, so I sort of saw this life [on the street] exploding. I mean, it was such a lively block that it was very hard to feel lonesome. But somehow I could."

When Hijuelos was just 4 years old, he contracted nephritis, a kidney disease, during a summer trip to Cuba. He had to spend a year in a convalescent hospital in Greenwich, Conn., miles from his family.

"My mother always said I went in speaking Spanish, and came out speaking English," he recalls. "I think that could be said about my psychic inner state as well. I was sort of plucked out of the whole world I knew and turned into something else. And I don't think I ever outgrew that, because I always felt shell-shocked growing up."

Hijuelos incorporated his alienation into his fiction, writing stories about lives lived between cultures. His most celebrated novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, is about two brothers, Nestor and Cesar Castillo — musicians who leave Cuba with the dream of making it big in New York. The novel was adapted by Hollywood, with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas in the lead roles. The novel earned Oscar Hijuelos the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990, making him the first Latino ever to receive that award.

"It was so exciting," says Cuban-born author Christina Garcia. "I mean, if I had been a gymnast, I would have done back flips ... it really felt then that it had blown open the possibilities for all of us. [For] all of us who were writing."

Oscar Hijuelos is the author of eight novels, including The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love for which he became the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He currently lives in New York City. Dario Acosta/ hide caption

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Dario Acosta/

Oscar Hijuelos is the author of eight novels, including The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love for which he became the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He currently lives in New York City.

Dario Acosta/

Garcia is the author of five novels, including Dreaming in Cuban and The Lady Matador's Hotel. Garcia was born in Havana, but like Oscar Hijuelos, she was raised in New York. "I remember meeting Oscar," she says, "It was in '92 or '93, and I started speaking to him in Spanish and he answered me in English. I completely [understood] how you are one foot in the culture, and the rest of you out of it. Even the sense of being a fraud, because you're in the culture but you're more of an observer than a participant."

As a child, Hijuelos did plenty of observing from his apartment window. He eventually found a refuge in reading. His building was literally in the shadow of Columbia University across Amsterdam Avenue. He says his mother would find crates of books on the street.

"Since we had a bookcase, she wanted to fill the bookcase with books," Hijuelos remembers. "So she'd take these books from the street, [and] put them in our shelves. So I grew up, for example, reading things like about agriculture in the Midwest in the 1950s. Half a volume of Oliver Twist, I remember — the cover was still nice, but half of it was missing."

Standing in 90-degree heat on a street corner in his childhood neighborhood, Hijuelos reads a passage from Thoughts Without Cigarettes. It's about when he was 20 years old, asking himself "who am I?"

And why is it that I always swear, as I begin to look behind me or turn a corner, that, in a moment, I will come upon all that I do not have — a world, perhaps Cuban, perhaps familial, that for so many reasons seems to have been taken from me?

As for the title of his memoir? Hijuelos says he smokes when he gets anxious.

Excerpt: 'Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir'

Thoughts Without Cigarettes by Oscar Hijuelos
Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir
By Oscar Hijuelos
Hardcover, 384 pages
Gotham
List Price: $27.50

Chapter 1: When I Was Still Cuban

Pretend it's sometime in 1955 or 1956 and that you are hanging over the roof's edge of my building, as I often did as a teenager, looking down at the street some six stories below. You would have seen, on certain mornings, my mother, Magdalena, formerly of Holguin, Cuba, and now a resident of the "United Stays," pacing back and forth fitfully before our stoop, waiting for a car. She would have been eye-catching, even lovely, with her striking dark features and pretty face, her expression, however, somewhat gaunt. Muttering to herself, she would have had the jitters, not only from her inherently highstrung nature but also because she'd probably spent the night sitting up with my pop worrying about their youngest son — me.

As green and white transit buses came forlornly chugging up the hill along Amsterdam from 125th Street, she would have stood there, perhaps with my older brother, Jose, by her side, watching the avenue for a car to turn onto the street, all the while dreading what the day might hold for her. Sometimes it would have rained or it would have been brutally cold. Sometimes it would be sunny, or snow would be falling so daintily everywhere around her. She might call out to a friend to come down from one of the buildings nearby, say my godmother, Carmen, mi madrina, a red-haired cubana, with her flamenco dancer's face and intense dark eyes. Coming down in a bathrobe and slippers to reassure her, she'd tell my mother not to worry so much, it wasn't good for her after all — the kid would be fine. "Ojala," my mother, her stomach in knots, would answer, though always shaking her head.

A car would finally pull over to the curb. The driver, a friend of my father's, or someone he had paid, would take her either to 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, where she might catch a train, or directly up to Greenwich, Connecticut, where I, her five-year-old son, lay languishing in a hospital. Through the Bronx and over to the highway north to Connecticut they would go and, coming to that placid town, the kind of place she'd never have visited otherwise, enter a different world. In the spring, she'd ride along the loveliest of shadow-dappled streets, the sunlight shimmering through the leafy boughs of elm and oak trees overhead, as if they were passing through a corridor like one of the roads out of Havana; and in the winter, snow, in plump drifts and brilliant, would have been everywhere, so Christmas-y and postcard-pretty. After following her directions, which she would have recited carefully to the driver from a piece of paper — torn out of a composition notebook page or from a brown grocery bag — they would have found the hospital along King Street, off in its own meadow and reached by a winding flagstone driveway, the Byram Woods looming as a lovely view just nearby.

Each time she'd have to bring someone along to help her out with the nurses and staff. My mother had to. For what English she knew, even after some thirteen years in this country, consisted of only a few phrases and words, and even those were pronounced with her strong Cuban accent and the trepidations of a woman who, until then, had rarely ventured out from the insular immigrant's bubble of our household. It's possible that one of the Zabalas sisters, three schoolteacherly cubanas living over on 111th Street, who all spoke good English, accompanied her. Or perhaps my brother or my godfather, Horacio, a bank teller, went along. Still, even with that help, just to navigate the hospital's bureaucracy must have been a misery for her — and not only because she had to depend on someone to translate her exchanges with the ward personnel but because of her fears about what she might be told. In those days, the disease I suffered from, nephritis, or nee-free-tees, as she'd pronounce it, which is now easily treatable with a broad spectrum of drugs, was then often fatal to children. That thought alone must have kept her awake on many nights, and particularly so during the first six months of my stay, when, as a safeguard against my catching other infections, I wasn't allowed to see anyone at all.

As an aside, I will tell you that for years I didn't even know the hospital's name: A kind of chronic disinformation has always been a part of my family's life, and if I have only recently learned that institution's name, it's because, in tandem with this writing, I happened to mention to my brother how strange it was that, for all the times I had asked my mother about just where I had stayed, she never seemed able to come up with a name except to say, "fue alla en Connecticut."

He knew it, however, and it makes sense that this riddle, which would plague me for decades, would have a far less mysterious solution than I could have ever imagined: for that place turned out to be called, quite simply, the St. Luke's Convalescent Hospital.

A cousin, circa 1928, of its New York City namesake, where I had been taken first, the St. Luke's Convalescent Hospital consisted of a red-brick three-story structure with a white portico entranceway, and two adjacent, somewhat lower wings at either side. In the quaintness of its architecture, it suggested, from a distance, perhaps a plantation manor house. (This I know less from memory than from a postcard I recently saw of the place.) Somewhere inside the ward in which I stayed, with its locked doors and high windows, its smells of both medicine and Lysol, and its hums of pumping dialysis machines that gave off breathing sounds from down the hall, one found the visitors' room, whose main feature was a glass partition that had a speaking grille. A nurse would bring me in from the ward, where a dozen other beds both emptied and filled with children monthly, and there behind that visitors' room partition, eyes blinking, I would sit, while my mother, the nice-looking lady on the other side, no doubt tried to make friendly conversation with the five-year-old boy, her son, the delicate-looking little blond with the bloated limbs, who, as the months passed, seemed to remember her less and less.

Of course, she was my mother, I knew that — she kept telling me so — "Soy tu mama!" But she also seemed a stranger, and all the more so whenever she started to speak Spanish, a language which, as time went by, sounded both familiar and oddly strange to me. I surely understood what she was saying (I always would); her words seemed to have something to do with our apartment on West 118th Street, con tu papa y tu hermano, and, yes, Cuba, that beautiful wonderland, so far away, of love and magic, which I had visited not so long before. Facing me, she'd raise the pitch of her voice, arch her eyebrows as if I would hear her better. She'd wipe a smear of lipstick onto a Kleenex from her black purse, muttering under her breath.

I remember nodding at her words; I remember understanding my mother when she said, "Mira aqui!" ("Look what I have!") as she reached into her bag for a little ten-cent toy; and "Sabes que eres mi hijo?" ("Do you know that you're my son?") and things like "Pero, por que estas tan callado?" ("Why are you so quiet?") and "Y que te pasa?" ("What's wrong with you?")

What happened to be wrong with me came down to the fact that I never answered my mother in the language she most wanted to hear, el espanol. I just couldn't remember the words, and this must have truly perplexed her, for I've been told that, before I went into the hospital, I spoke Spanish as cheerfully and capaciously as any four-year old Cuban boy. I certainly didn't know much English before then.

Maybe I'd picked up some from the neighbors in our building or from my brother, Jose, who, seven years older than I, attended the local Catholic grammar school and, like any kid, hung out on the streets; but, in our household, Spanish, as far as I can remember, was the rule.

Excerpted from Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir by Oscar Hijuelos. Copyright 2011 by Oscar Hijuelos. Reprinted by permission of Gotham Books.

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