PART I

1996 - 1998

Arrivederci Romana

Business was booming at Cafe Romana but, behind the scenes, a series of bad decisions were about to affect the lives of everyone connected to her. Early in 1996, Marco, the cafe owner, decided to open a second restaurant. At the same time, Dan was in Colorado, unaware that his marriage was heading for the rocks.
     Marco was a charismatic, likable guy, and he had no problem finding investors for his new venture;  they only had to look at the success of Cafe Romana for proof of what an astute businessman he was. The Aloha Bar & Grill was going to occupy a newly vacated space in the Plaza Mercado, just around the corner from Cafe Romana. By coincidence, I’d been performing on the rooftop patio of the previous restaurant when Marco had first approached me about coming to work for him at Cafe Romana. 

      The new restaurant would have a full bar and Marco asked me to oversee the nightly entertainment there, as I did for Cafe Romana. Tim and I were still performing in the band, but the stage area in the Aloha was going to be too small for four musicians and drums, so we asked our friend Sandy to form an acoustic trio with us. A mellow guy with a wife and kids, Sandy had long hair he wore in a ponytail and a great vocal range. 

      I pitched the trio idea to Marco and he loved it. He offered us great money so we began rehearsing. We worked up songs like The Beatle’s “Because,” Journey’s “Lights,” and CSN’s “Suite Judy Blue Eyes.” Our voices blended perfectly, and I couldn’t wait to share these tight three-part harmonies with an audience.

      Renovations were well underway when rumors began circulating that Marco was having an affair with the aloof blonde he’d hired as general manager at the new restaurant. We all hoped it wasn’t true; he and his pretty wife had a new baby girl he doted on. He hadn’t been himself lately, though. Normally upbeat and talkative, recently Marco had been hyperactive and jittery. For a while we put it down to lack of sleep because of the new baby and the pressures of running two businesses, but before long there was another rumor: Marco was using cocaine. These rumors weren’t spread as malicious gossip, they were shared in the hushed, worried tones of family. We all liked Marco and his wife, and everyone had held their baby. 

      It was around this time that Dan started coming into Cafe Romana once a week. 

      The restaurant was close to completion when Marco called an employees’ meeting at Cafe Romana. He gave an inspiring “final push” presentation and an offer: for a “minimal buy-in,” any of us could become partners with him in the Aloha. I wasn’t interested, but the prestige of being a restaurant owner and the lure of financial security sparkled in the eyes of people who were renting small apartments and walking to work to save money on gas.

      I felt a little guilty about saying no, but I wasn’t willing to risk my small cash reserves. I’d spent enough years in the music business to recognize an element of the likable hustler in Marco, and the fact that he’d run out of money and was rumored to be doing coke were both red flags. Some of the others had worked for him for years, though, and believed in him completely, so they found a way to pull the money together.

      Tim, Sandy and I had put together some amazing sets and we’d just started discussing names for our trio when the Aloha general manager informed me that Marco had put her in charge of entertainment. She said she was going with the standard classical guitarist so she wouldn’t be hiring us. My prior agreement with Marco meant nothing; she wasn’t even interested in hearing us. 

      I was hurt that Marco hadn’t told me himself, but I also got the feeling, from the way he was avoiding me, that he was embarrassed. Now I had to tell Tim and Sandy that, after all our hard work, there was no job waiting for us. Tim had a steady solo gig and a home graphic design business, but Sandy had been holding off searching for a day job based on the promised steady work and big paychecks. He hit the streets looking for a job, and our wonderful trio disbanded before we ever performed for a single person.

      Marco had done a good job at the Aloha: the tropical fabrics and carpet, polished honey-colored wood, and tall ferns made for a beautiful and unique New Mexico venue. Early hype and good advertising resulted in a successful Grand Opening at the end of August. 

      Eight weeks later, Dan asked me out on a date. Business at the Aloha must have tapered off because every table at Cafe Romana had a small flyer offering a twenty percent discount there. When I told Dan yes, he picked up the flyer and wrote his name and phone number on it. I added the date of the concert at the bottom.

      Less than a year later, the Aloha Oyster Bar & Grill closed its doors. Marco and his wife left town in the dead of night, owing thousands of dollars to friends, employees, and fellow merchants. Caught up in the financial maelstrom, Cafe Romana went down with her captain. 

      I was lucky; I still had my day job. Many of the other employees had to scramble to find a way to pay their rent, having received little from their Aloha investment. Naturally, everyone felt hurt, betrayed and angry. I was also sad: for Marco, a likable dreamer who had lost his way, and for the sweet cafe that had been a second home to her employees and a haven for her customers. 

      After Dan died, his friend Todd wrote, “I remember him saying when you two first started dating that women had chased after him his entire life, but you were the only one he actually chose.” So I will always remember Cafe Romana as a desert Avalon, emerging from the mist just long enough for Dan to find me, then disappearing again.

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Posted June 6th. 2020 Copyright ©Jean Fogelberg 2020

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