That would be Ed Vega, or–as he embraced his full Puerto Rican name as an author late in life–Edgardo Vega Yunqué. I found out two weeks ago that he died late last August, and I’m still having a hard time getting him out of my thoughts.
Ed was a Puerto Rican-American writer from New York (his adopted hometown), and would probably tell you himself without hesitation that he was an Important Author. And so he was, and hopefully will be remembered as such outside the academic and New York literary circles where he was well known during his life.
He published several books over the last 20 years–novels and short story collections, among other things–and had finally achieved some commercial and critical success with his last three books. There are excellent obituaries about Ed here and here, so I’ll let those fill in the details of his death, and I’ll move on to his life, how I knew him, and my friendship with him.
We met, oddly enough, 15 years ago in the wee young days of AOL, in a specialized chat room for writers. It was an interesting place in those early internet days, and we were an insular group of 50 or so regulars, with some serious (and seriously successful) writers among us. I was a grad student in English lit at the time, and was immediately intrigued by the irascible Yunq, as he was known there.
We began to correspond regularly, and over the years spoke often by phone. After I finished grad school and moved to Washington D.C., I finally made a trip up to New York to visit Ed at the Clemente Soto Velez cultural center he founded and was running at the time on the lower east side. It remains one of the most important events in my life, for reasons too many to count. The primary memories that stay with me are of sitting in his (very illegal, as it wasn’t zoned for residencial use) loft apartment in the cultural center, listening to jazz from his beloved WBGO echoing around the cavernous place; catching several performances by different theatre groups at the cultural center; visiting the bodegas and neighborhood hangouts of his on the lower east side; eating a 3 AM dinner at the Odessa on Avenue A; and just soaking up all the energy that was Ed, and that, by extension, was the CSV center. Ed was my mentor as a writer, and in many ways, as a thinker.
Ed was not an easy mentor, or an easy friend, to have. As I scoured the internet for more information on his death, and read in more than one remembrance that “Ed was a difficult man,” I couldn’t help laughing through steady tears. Ed could be incredibly harsh, capable of lashing out viciously if he felt you’d slighted him or (worse) betrayed him, and could hold a grudge for years. We had one falling out several years ago over something incredibly pointless and minor, and he refused to speak to me for almost four years. Then one day, there was an email from Ed, checking in to see how I was doing as if nothing had ever happened. And on we went with our friendship just as before.
He alienated so many people in his life, including his own family, but I know from my many conversations with him that it pained him greatly–even if his sizable ego would never, ever allow him to admit this to those people. I was greatly relieved to know that he reconciled somewhat with one of his daughters in his later years, even if the reconciliation remained somewhat strife-filled. But as harsh as he could be, I can’t imagine a different Ed, and I’m not sure I’d have wished for one, because he could also be magnanimous and generous, especially to those of us who write.
Ed was alive, and vital, and very angry. He was deeply in love with his adopted country, and also profoundly pissed off at it. He loved sports, loved jazz even more, and was fascinated with the Irish in general, and women in particular. All of that, all of Ed’s passions, were reflected wonderfully in his writing. He was as gifted as he was angry and passionate, and, oh, did he ever know it. He was an immensely proud man, sometimes arrogant, but always sure that it was justified given his particular talent.
I will never forget his joy and relief after he met his last agent, Tom Colchie, related to me in a breathless, excited phone call. Colchie “got” Ed, as much as any of us could have, recognized his talent, showed him the respect that others hadn’t, and worked hard to get Ed published again. Ed’s “big book,” or “the jazz novel,” as he variously called the Bill Bailey novel, was finally picked up for publication after languishing for over 10 years, and Ed’s desire to write was renewed. He began sending me early drafts of the books that would become Blood Fugues and Omaha Bigelow–a book that was, in some ways, Ed’s response to the 9/11 attacks and our culpability and response to them–and was seemingly unstoppable.
And that’s why I’m still having such a hard time imagining him gone. I’m angry at myself for not calling him sooner, before he died, for one last conversation, to hear him rant about an editor, or this person or that who’d wronged him, or talk with great enthusiasm about what he was writing currently. For reasons I still don’t understand, Ed accepted me as a writer, as an intellectual, and as a friend. That’s not a commentary on my self-image (which is quite fine), just a recognition that Ed was a tough person with very high standards. I was privileged to know him, and more privileged to have been mentored by him.
If you don’t know his work, I strongly urge you to read any of his books, but especially the three published in the last five years. He hated being pigeon-holed as an “ethnic” writer–hated it with such gusto that it cost him one publishing contract (the first try with Bill Bailey in the early 90s)–but also wanted readers to understand the Puerto Rican-American identity in all its complexity. He wanted to be seen as an important author, and with Bill Bailey, accomplished that. He may, indeed, have written the great American novel. He was political, but not politically correct. If anything, he was post-PC. He was poetic and profane, obscene and musical, bitingly satirical and sometimes deeply romantic. And I miss him very much.