Livin' La Vida Loca

4 min read

My crew was younger than me. So as they dragged me around the streets of Old San Juan, through the bars and shops, I gamely followed their exuberant lead. Don’t get me wrong; I have plenty of energy. It’s just that they had more. Plus they had those youthful high spirits where everything was super exciting! 

I enjoyed watching these “kids” have fun after a full day of work. And now they were pulling me into a new place – a karaoke bar. I am not going to sing karaoke. “No problem.”, Marcela shrugged, she would sing. 

 The Karaoke Bar in Old San Juan

So we grabbed a table, ordered some drinks and Marcela went through the bar’s songbook, looking for the perfect number for her Puerto Rico debut.  

I took in the crowd. No tourists here – all locals, and from the way they laughed and bantered between tables, probably regulars. We were the only gringos here. Except… two of my crew grew up in Germany. And even though Marcela is from Colorado, her mom is Colombian. So… I guess I was the only gringo here.

The crowd was drinking, lots of beer and rum. They looked us over, probably assuming we were some hapless tourists who had stumbled into the wrong place. In my opinion, they were spot on.

A woman was singing up on the little karaoke stage. 

 A Woman was singing a love ballad. 

It was a love ballad but nobody was really paying attention. Instead, they talked, laughed loudly and enjoyed their rum of which there was plenty.  

But of course there was. The biggest rum distillery in the world was a short drive away. That’s why we were here, at the behest of our client, Don Bacardi Spirits, to film their time-honored rum making process.

The venerable rum distillery was founded seven generations back in Havana. But after the Cuban revolution, the Bacardi enterprise was seized and the family fled to Bermuda, Mexico, and here in Puerto Rico, to rebuild their business.

 The Cathedral of Rum is the largest distillery in the world. 

The Cathedral of Rum

That’s what they called the giant facility here. We had spent the day following sugar cane on its party trail through the distillation process and into an immense warehouse filled with oak barrels. This is where the demon rum spent its lazy days, aging to the perfect pitch.  

This vast area didn’t just smell of spirits, it reeked. It was as though the oxygen had been chased away by a storm front of rum. We were breathing 150 proof alcohol and the fumes were marinating our lungs. You could taste and feel it collecting on your skin. The buzz was unmistakable.

One of the supervisors was very concerned about our presence – in particular the presence of our equipment. He said there was so much alcohol in the air, an errant spark from our gear might set off an explosion.

Ok, now do you believe me? So we quickly turned off our wireless mics and anything else that we suddenly deemed could be sparkable. 

 There were hundreds of barrels of rum. 

Then we cautiously shot the infinite rows of aged oak barrels and gently padded our way out, careful not to blow up The Cathedral.

Back At The Karaoke Bar

We sipped our drinks. The room had a head start on us. They were getting louder, drowning out the poor girl singing on stage. I felt bad for her. It was like she was singing into a wind tunnel.

“You sure you want to do this?”, I questioned Marcela. She seemed completely unfazed.

“Sure, why not”, I think she answered. Though I couldn’t be sure over the noise of the crowd. I knew she was confident, I had seen her sing before. She had a clear, strong voice. Still, this was a slightly uncontrolled situation and we were just guests here.

Actually… we really weren’t guests at all. We were probably taking up seats that belonged to some regulars. I guess that’s why none of the people leaning against the wall returned my smile.

I turned back to Marcela, “What are you gonna sing?”                        

She answered but all I could make out through the noise was something like, “LillLa La Coconn”. What was that, French?

A moment later the guy running the Karaoke thing motioned to Marcela and she bounced from her chair up to the stage. The guys and I clapped and whistled for her. But our enthusiastic support barely scaled the wall of sound here. I felt bad for her – this crowd wasn’t here for music. Or young girls singing their hearts out.

She just had to get through the next few minutes and then I would take everyone out for a nice meal…

“Lill La La Coconn” Begins

With horns. It sounds familiar over the din. The horns repeat the phrase – now I got it. Oh, god – it’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca”! The Ricky Martin hit. The Puerto Rican star’s hit song, that little Marcela is now going to sing to a drunken home crowd! I silently wish her Buena Suerte.  I’m ready to jump up and help her off the stage if she needs a quick exit.

But Marcela…. She grabs the mike, fixes her eyes on the locals and cuts through their chatter:

“She’s into superstitions black cats and voodoo dolls….”

And then she leaps off the stage! Wha?!

 Marcela leapt from the stage.

“I feel a premonition that girl’s gonna make me fall…”

She dances for a frantic musical beat, ignoring everyone. The crowd pauses with their drinks.  

Then, stomping her foot, she leans in close to a patron – some tough looking guy - just inches from his face.

“She’s into new sensations new kicks in the candle light.”

The guy’s jaw goes slack. Marcela laughs and moves on to a couple at the next table.

She improvises, “Hi! Where you folks from?”  

I had forgotten what a performer she was.  Then I remembered that evening at the hofbräuhaus in Frankfurt….

The All-American Review

We had just arrived from Africa – staying in Frankfurt for a day or so. Our German clients had brought us to a traditional restaurant and we all sat at a long, long table. Somehow the meal evolved into a sort of talent show, to the delight, amazement and perhaps alarm of our hosts. And to the other quietly dining denizens of Frankfurt.   

 Beer Hall in Frankfurt - we sat at a long table and drank

We were a happy crowd of Americans, some Germans and a few other nationalities as well. What with the beer, the brat and the wursts, multiple conversations had broken out, up and down the table. Often in restaurants large groups can get quite noisy. We were that noisy group.  We had beer. We had schnapps. We had schnitzel.

Suddenly at the far end, my producing partner pushes back from the table and announces he’s going to re-enact key testimony from the O.J. trial. He had been a reporter there at the time and wanted to clear up any lingering doubts about how things went down.

Using one of our hosts as his victim, uh subject, he proceeds to re-enact the re-enactment at the trial of the suspected murders. To the astonishment of some and entertainment of others, he pantomimes everything - the victims, the shoe, the knife… in exacting detail, just as more platters of sliced meat are brought in and laid before us. 

 He reenacted the O.J. trial in the beer hall

It’s a bravura verbatim performance. If there were indeed, any lingering doubts about the case and how it all unfolded, they’re now settled. There’s more beer. There’s jokes. And then Marcela is up and she’s singing some smoky torch song as if she’s just flown in from Vegas instead of Africa. 

The girl has pipes and a rambunctious style as she headlines the talent show, hopping on a chair, just killing it in the hofbrauhaus. Killing it loudly. With her song.    

 Marcela drinking at the beer hall

And Then She Steps It Higher

“She’ll make you take your clothes off and go dancing in the rain…”

Marcela belts out to the Karaoke crowd in the San Juan bar, as she steps from her chair onto someone’s table. The couple there quickly snatch their drinks away from her perilous dancing feet.

“She'll make you live her crazy life but she'll take away your pain
like a bullet to your brain. Come On!...”

Incredibly, she steps onto the next table and the people there leap back. But they are loving this crazy girl. And so is the rest of the crowd.

“Upside, inside out she's livin la vida loca…”

Marcela drops to the floor and lands in a patron’s lap. She stares into his eyes:

“She'll push and pull you down, livin la vida loca…”

She jumps up, launching headfirst into a new group, who flinch away and then laugh. Me and my crew are on our feet, cheering her on.  Marcela confronts two women, divulging to one and then turning to the other: 

“Her lips are devil red… and her skin's the color mocha…”

She pivots, runs her free hand along some guy’s face, then warns him:

“She will wear you out livin la vida loca.

COME ON!”

 Marcela gets the bar crowd crazy

This last she addresses to the entire room with a big wave. They raise their arms and shout back.  

She flies back onto the stage where it all began:

“Livin la vida loca, Come on! 
She's livin la vida locaaaaaaa.” 

 Marcela wows the karaoke crowd in the San Juan bar

The crowd detonates. Now all the noise is for her. Marcela takes a demure little bow, happy with her performance. She gives spirit fingers to her fans.

We welcome her back with a group hug. She’s happy. I think it’s a good time to move on, while they love her. Always leave them wanting more…

San Juan Nights

The four of us tumble into the street with that unmistakable feeling that anything is possible. For me, that can only mean one thing: dinner.

I suggest we go to a nice restaurant. But these kids are too stoked for waiter service.

“Let’s go dancing!”, Marcela shouts. The guys love this idea. I get the mental image of my asopao soup with shrimp sailing away into the night.

There’s a disco they want to hit. Disco? I haven’t been to a disco since the Carter administration. I haven’t danced since my wedding… and maybe a few bar mitzvahs since.  

They’re off. And I follow like a reluctant big brother. Who am I kidding – like a reluctant Dad. 

Can You Dance The Hoover?

The disco is an assault of light, music, bodies and water elements. I appreciate the water elements as I once had one installed in my pool.  

Marcela is up and dancing. Somehow, she has found someone who is as intense and frantic as she – a tiny Asian woman who’s got to be burning hundreds of calories a minute. Marcela matches her moves and ferocity. It’s a dance off! 

The guys start dancing and I reluctantly jump in. But it’s been so long, I feel like I’m wearing platform shoes and an Elvis shirt. Where are my disco pants?  

My cameraman laughs and shares his secret. 

“Just pick an appliance and imitate it!”. He then does a chattering move like a rotating lawn sprinkler. It looks good. He follows with push/pull moves like he’s vacuuming.  

Ok, I can do this. I try to imitate a blender but that makes no sense. Then I impersonate a toaster oven but I just humiliate myself.

I dig deep: C’mon Jon, it’s a big world and anything’s possible. Step outside your mind.

Inspiration strikes. Hey, I’m a middle-aged property owner with a decent sized lot. What does that mean? Lawn mower!

So I start doing the lawn mower – a funky lawn mower… with soul. Now I’m doin’ the one hand mower. Now I’m getting that patch in the corner I missed. Yeah, doin’ ‘The Snapper’.

 Into my new moves at the San Juan Disco

The guys love my new move. Nearby Marcela, from her furious dance-off, takes notice and imitates my mower.

We’re all into it. We’re mowing. We’re cuttin’ grass. We’re trimming hedges!

I’m dancing and doing lawn maintenance with a crowd half my age – just living this crazy life.

 Marcela and the crew in Puerto Rico