1996 - 1998
Thank God For Ravioli
“Life is a combination of magic and pasta." ~ Federico Fellini
In September of 1996, I had been performing at a small Italian cafe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for almost a year. Singing and playing guitar three nights a week, I had my own group of regulars and was in charge of auditioning and hiring musicians to fill the rest of the weeknights.
Cafe Romana was located on Burro Alley, a long narrow alley that connects Palace Avenue and San Francisco Street one block from the famous Santa Fe Plaza. On the opposite side of the alley was the tall, solid wall of the historic Lensic Theatre. The cafe had excellent food and wine and a comfortable European ambience.
Twelve tables filled the dining room, which had been created by knocking out the wall between two shops, leaving a few feet of supporting wall on each side of the opening. The cash register and server area were at the back of the first room; the kitchen was at the back of the second. Both rooms had a door facing the alley with windows on either side. The entrance door was in the first room, between two very tall bay windows fitted with built-in benches. At dusk the table was moved out of the bay to the left of the door to accommodate the evening’s musicians and their gear.
A small cafe in the middle of an alley isn’t the easiest place to attract passersby, so a speaker was set out on the sidewalk to broadcast whatever act was playing that evening. Curious pedestrians would move toward the music wafting down the alley, then the enticing aromas of garlic and fresh bread would pull them the rest of the way into the cafe. A poster in the window advertised live music all week, and business was good.
One afternoon I was auditioning a folk duo. I had them playing through my amp and speakers, so it was a good opportunity for me to walk through the restaurant and hear if there were any loud or dead spots in my setup. There was a good lunch crowd and I wandered between the tables discretely, focused on the music and watching the diners to see if they were enjoying the duo. Most of the patrons were couples and families; eating, laughing, talking. The fact that they were talking comfortably, and not having to shout over the music, was good. That they smiled at the duo at the end of a song now and then, or clapped lightly, was good too.
A dark haired man in his late forties was eating alone at a window table in the second room. Pale and a bit wan looking, he kept his gaze downward, concentrating on his plate of ravioli. The only thing separating him from the musicians was a few feet of supporting wall, and he didn’t seem disturbed by the volume, so in that moment my subconscious made note of him. Returning to the front room, I told the duo they were hired, then I left to run some errands.
Three nights later, I was in the middle of a song when the door opened. I tilted my head from my microphone and looked up at the newcomer. My subconscious quickly retrieved the file and waved it at me: Sound check. Window table. Ravioli. My conscious mind acknowledged it with, “There’s that guy.”
So many moments from those early days have blurred with time, but my first thought upon seeing the man who would become the love of my life has remained crystal clear, if uninspired: “There’s that guy.”
His eyes scanned the dining room, then he headed for the only available chair, at a table for six in the second room.
After twenty years of performing in bars and restaurants, I was adept at playing and singing while maintaining visual and audio surveillance. I’ve always found people endlessly fascinating, and House Musician is the perfect cover for covert people-watching. You’re hamming it up in the spotlight and no one suspects that your attention is actually lurking in the shadows.
As I played from my usual repertoire, I watched Karen, the beautiful blonde waitress, go over to “that guy” to take his order. She said something. He said something. She said something else. He frowned and said something back. She hesitated, unsure, then walked over to the register counter across the room from me and talked to Rene, the exotically handsome assistant manager. Rene went and said something quietly to the guy, whereupon he, looking resigned, got up from the table and walked over to the counter across the room from me. He just stood there, watching and listening.
My on-again, off-again boyfriend and bandmate, Tim, was sitting at a table near me with two friends. He rarely came to hear me play, but we had broken up the week before and now he was trying to win me back. Eating and talking, he was completely unaware of the small drama that had just played out halfway across the room.
I am, at best, a mediocre guitar player. When I was a kid I learned how to play chords from a “Mel Bay Guitar Chords” book and worked out some strumming and picking styles on my own. I played just well enough to accompany myself in solo gigs and to provide rhythm guitar in bands.
Also, being a full-time working musician for most of my life, I couldn’t afford to buy sheet music every time I wanted to learn a new song. Instead, I would pop a cassette tape into my boom box, turn on the radio, and go about my day. When a song I was waiting for came on, I’d make a mad dash for the RECORD button then sit there to the end. Stopping and starting the tape, I’d write down the lyrics, then I’d play it over and over again, figuring out the chords as best I could and writing them above the words.
I did fine with the major, minor, flat, and seventh chord variations, but if the songwriter had used an alternate tuning, or thrown in an extended or altered chord with a demented pinky, I fudged it, knowing the average club listener wasn’t likely to notice. That technique had served me well for over twenty years and, in all that time, to the best of my knowledge, the writer of the song never once rolled in to witness me completely mangling their carefully crafted chords.
And so, unaware that singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg was standing directly across the room from me, I launched blithely into “Leader Of The Band,” his loving homage to his father. It was a crowd favorite and I played it every night and, like many people, I thought of my own father while singing it.
As the last chord faded to applause, he headed for the door. Stopping at my amp, he said, “You’re really good.” I smiled and said, “Thank you.” “That’s a good song,” he said, baiting me. Still feeling a little sentimental, which that song does to you, I nodded and agreed, “That’s a great song.” He smiled, stuck his hand out, and said, “I’m Dan Fogelberg.”
When I was a kid, I got out of bed one night while my parents were taking a bath together to sneak candy from the kitchen freezer. Grandma had brought a one pound box of See’s chocolates from Santa Barbara on her last visit, and its siren song proved irresistible to a girl with a mouth full of sweet tooths. I popped two candies in my mouth, put the box back, and hurried back toward my room, where I would melt and nibble them at my leisure. Just as I was passing the bathroom door though, it opened. Mom came out, warm and relaxed in her fuzzy robe. Concerned at my flushed cheeks and the pained look on my face, she asked if I was feeling okay and felt my forehead. I couldn’t answer; the frozen orbs were like two large marbles in my mouth and guilt and shame flooded my brain, rendering it useless.
That’s exactly how I felt now, as I watched my hand reach up, of its own accord, to take Dan’s. Mortified, I stammered, “I’m…so sorry.” He laughed and, releasing my hand, began fumbling around in his jacket and jeans for his wallet so he could put some money in the large ceramic jar marked TIPS FOR MUSIC on the top of my amp. We chatted very briefly about...what? I have no idea; my brain had blown a fuse.
Finally, to save him from his own awkward fumbling, I made a “don’t worry about it” wave and motioned to the little plastic gum ball dispenser next to my tip jar, saying, “That’s okay, have a piece of gum.” He stopped searching, smiled, said good night, and walked out the door.
When he was down the alley and out of sight I leaned away from my mic, toward Tim and friends, and said quietly, “That was Dan Fogelberg.”
They looked toward the door, shocked. “What?! The guy that just left?”
I think some of us would have recognized him with the beard, maybe, and a little more weight, but he was coming off of a grueling split with his wife and the pain and stress had taken their toll.
When Rene found out that the guy he had ejected from the table for six was Dan Fogelberg, he was mortified. Putting his hand to his cheek he gasped, “I threw Dan Fogelberg out of the restaurant!” But that was the rule: seating in the cafe was limited, so if you wanted to sit and listen, you had to order food.
When Karen went to take Dan’s order, he said he just wanted a glass of wine. She explained the house rule, saying that if it was a two-top she could overlook the rule but since he was at a table for six, she couldn’t. When he tried to negotiate she had gone to Rene. As I replayed everything, my mind added things up logically, if erroneously:
Didn’t order dinner.
+ Thin and haggard.
+ Couldn’t find money for a tip.
= A once famous musician, fallen on hard times.
I didn’t know; I’d never owned one of his albums, never been to one of his concerts, for all I knew he had stopped recording and touring years ago and was flat broke.
Now I know that the reason he didn’t order dinner was because he had eaten elsewhere. He was used to being recognized and getting any table he wanted, so he tried talking Karen and Rene into letting him stay where he was; he never expected to meet so much resistance . He was thin because of stress and sorrow. He couldn’t find his wallet because he was naturally shy, and looking at me while we talked had him flustered.
Later on he told me that, as he stood there at the counter, he’d seen a golden light around me that made him feel at peace. He hadn’t minded the mangled chords; it was the first time he’d ever seen an aura (which might have been the setting sun shining through my hair from the window behind me, but who was I to argue?)
Both of our cupids had done an outstanding job. Dan had set out for lunch, intent on finding Italian food. He asked someone where he could go for some good ravioli. “Cafe Romana,” came the immediately reply.
Concentrating on his lunch, and lost in his thoughts, he didn’t see me walking around the room, listening to the auditioning musicians, but as he was leaving the restaurant he turned left, and the photo of me on the poster in the front window had stopped him in his tracks. For once, I’d spent the money for a professional headshot, and the overhead lighting and dark backdrop made my long blonde hair shine, creating spider webs of light on the shoulders of the black turtleneck dress I was wearing.
“Who’s this?” he thought, then, “She’s probably married.” But he had come to Santa Fe from his ranch in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado with the express intention of looking for a lady, so he leaned in to see what nights I was performing.
The end of his marriage had been sudden and unexpected. He’d been relaxing after a summer tour at the old captain’s cottage he owned on Eggemoggin Reach in Maine. His wife was supposed to join him there for his birthday, but a “friend” of hers called to tell him that after he’d left their Colorado home she had packed up her things and moved out.
He immediately flew back to try to work things out. He agreed to talk to a therapist friend of hers, and implored her to come with him for couple’s counseling, but she finally made it clear that, for reasons of her own, she had no intention of getting back together with him.
He felt hurt and betrayed, but once he realized the marriage was truly over, the hurt morphed into anger, which was easier for him to cope with. He started divorce proceedings, sent her all of her belongings, and called a rental agency in Santa Fe, requesting a casita within walking distance of the Plaza.
We both left Cafe Romana that night unaware that our first chapter had just been written, and we would recount the story again and again whenever someone asked, “How did you two meet?”
Maybe fate is like a freight train, barreling down a predetermined track, or maybe it’s like a downy feather loosed from a wing in flight. If it’s a train, I’m humbled at the generosity of the universe. If it’s a feather, I’m grateful to the capricious gusts that pushed Dan my way. Because if he’d had a craving for tamales or sushi, or if the stranger had suggested a different restaurant, or if he had walked out the door and turned right, away from the poster in the window, we might have missed each other entirely.
In the years that followed we would be talking, or laughing, or making love, and he would stop, look at me intently, and say, “Thank God for ravioli.”