This weekend should be fun. My friend Celino is coming to Boston to play a concert. He’s a classical guitarist and part of the Romero family, the “First Family of the Guitar.” Click this link to watch Celino perform La Paloma. His grandfather Celedonio began the quartet back in the 1950s, and now Celino, his dad Celin, uncle Pepe, and cousin Lito continue the tradition.
The concert will be a lot of fun, but what I’m really looking forward to is being able to hang out with Celino for awhile. He’s one of these people that has absolutely no time, but when you talk to him or spend time with him he always makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the world. That is a rare quality.
How Celino and I met and became friends is kind of an interesting story.
The Romeros were scheduled to open the LPO’s 2001-02 season on September 13, 2001. They were to fly in Tuesday evening, rehearse Wednesday, and perform concerts on Thursday and Saturday. In between, there was a lot of media interest in them, even more than the usual hype surrounding the opening of the season, because a quartet of classical guitarists, particularly Spanish classical guitarists, is a rather unusual combination with a symphony orchestra. In addition, New Orleans has a lot of Spanish media who took a great deal of interest in them. So, I had interviews and appearances set up for them pretty much anytime they wouldn’t be in rehearsal.
Well, we all know what happened on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. There was no way the quartet was going to fly out of Miami to New Orleans on that day. In fact, with cell phone signals jammed up all over the country, we couldn’t get in touch with them, and their agents were in New York City, so forget that.
After the initial shock had worn off of us in the office, about Noon that day the realities of what this might possibly mean for the opening of the orchestra season began to sink in. Obviously, the quartet was not going to be able to fly to New Orleans. Should we even open the season at all? What do we do if our guest artists can’t make it? Do we change the repertoire, or cancel the concerts altogether?
To make an even longer story short, I canceled all of their media appearances except for one Saturday morning radio appearance, knowing that if they did make it, they’d be too busy to focus on anything except the concert. We debated back and forth for the rest of the afternoon and continued Wednesday morning and decided to go ahead and cancel. Most other events in the city were being canceled, and we had no word from our guest artists, so we really had no choice. Maestro had declared that it was too late to change the repertoire, so as much as we would have liked to help calm people with beautiful music, it looked like we had to cancel. As I was sitting down at my computer, ready to issue a press release about the cancellation, an email popped into my inbox from the wife of one of the quartet members indicating that they had rented a car and were driving 16 hours from Miami to New Orleans. That changed the whole situation. We couldn’t very well cancel the concerts with the four of them driving all the way from Miami.
They arrived late Wednesday and made it in time for morning rehearsal on Thursday. I met them after rehearsal Thursday and asked them if they would do the radio interview on Saturday. One of the older gentlemen said “yes, absolutely, perhaps the four of us, but at least two of us will do it.” It was kind of funny to watch, the four of them were absolutely at each other’s throats about something, I figured it was four family members who had been cooped up in a car for 16 hours straight, and all they did was bitch at each other until Maestro stepped on stage and tapped his baton. Then they all shut up, straightened up, and were ready to rehearse. After rehearsal, as soon as Maestro walked off the stage, they were at each other again. Consummate professionals, I must say.
So we got through the Thursday night concert and Friday, still with 24-hour news coverage, and most other events around the city being canceled. We were completely, SRO sold out for both concerts by people looking for a few hours of distraction, and the Romeros did not disappoint. They absolutely blew the doors off the place!
Saturday morning arrived. I went to the hotel to pick up the quartet to find the two younger quartet members, Celino and his cousin Lito. I found out that Lito was 34 at the time and Celino was my age, 32. Turns out the older guys didn’t want to do the interview and the sent the two younger guys to do it. Lito sat in the front seat and barely spoke. Celino sat in the back on his cell phone the entire drive to the radio station. We got to the station for the 11am interview and it was a complete disaster. The host of the show had done absolutely no preparation; I don’t think she even read the press materials I had sent her on the quartet or the orchestra. She had no questions prepared, she just sat there and smiled and nodded as Celino basically took over the interview and talked. I was mortified. Finally, after about 20 minutes we just sat there for about 10 seconds of dead air and Celino said something like, “well, thanks for having us. We’ll be going now.” He had to actually end the interview live on the air for this woman. Needless to say, I never booked another artist on that show!
The second we left the studio, Celino got back on his cell phone and talked the entire way back to the hotel. The only thing Lito said was to ask if I would stop at Starbucks so they could get coffee. I was convinced these guys thought I was a total idiot for setting up such a screwed up interview. So they got their coffee and I dropped them back at their hotel.
That evening before the concert I went to their dressing room to thank them again for doing the interview and to see if there was anything they needed. All four gentlemen were in much better spirits than they had been for the previous few days. When I walked out to go back to the lobby Celino and Lito came running after me. They were tired and didn’t have the energy to deal with a bunch of people who had traveled to New Orleans to see the concert. (Yes, apparently classical guitarists have groupies, too!). They asked me what they could do. I told them to stay in their dressing room after their performance because it was intermission and I would come get them after the second half of the concert started, and I would have a taxi waiting at the stage exit for them.
Nobody listens to me.
They decided to try to sneak out during intermission. I was standing outside the theater talking to my boss. I was facing the theater and didn’t see them walk out. All of a sudden my boss started clapping and shouting “Bravo!” turning everyone’s attention toward the four men. Next thing you know they’re mobbed.
The two older men actually got into one of the groupie’s cars and took off, leaving Lito and Celino standing there in the mob. Celino finally made his way over to me and asked if my car was there. I said sure and helped them get away from the adoring crowd. In the years working at the orchestra I’d gotten rather good at being able to separate these artists from their fans while putting the onus on me rather than them. So I explained to the crowd that the guys had an important appearance to make on behalf of the orchestra and I needed to get them there.
As I drove them back to their hotel they started asking me what was fun to do in New Orleans and I was telling them about the French Quarter and different places to go. Celino said that they were going to dinner with some of the folks and then asked what I was doing. I replied that I had nothing else to do that night; I didn’t have to go back to the concert because my boss knew I had to deal with them, so we made plans to meet at Louisiana Pizza Kitchen in the Quarter where they were supposed to meet Celino’s dad, their uncles, and the groupies. So I dropped them off, drove home, changed clothes, and headed back downtown.
When I got to the Pizza Kitchen, it was quite a sight. The two older guys were sitting at one end of a row of about 10 tables they had pushed together, smoking cigars looking like they were holding court, reveling in the attention of a bunch of ladies and more than a few gentlemen who are their biggest fans. I went up and greeted the older guys and sat with them for a minute and then made my way down to the opposite end where Celino and Lito were sitting with a late-30ish guy from Oklahoma who came down to New Orleans with his 10 year old son just to see these guys in concert.
We ordered dinner and talked for awhile, then the Oklahoma guy with the 10 year old son got on the topic of 9/11. He went on and on about pansy-ass Clinton and how he was so thankful that George W. was president during all of this. I just politely nodded and looked downward because I really didn’t want to get into it with this ignoramus. Now, I wasn’t the biggest Clinton fan around, but the way this guy was talking, Clinton would have immediately surrendered the country to the Taliban on September 11 and by September 15, when we were sitting there having dinner, we would all have been wearing turbans and swearing our allegiance to Allah. Please! Guys like that give conservatives a bad name. I noticed that Lito and Celino also had short answers and heads down while listening to this guy. It was almost embarrassing that a person this ignorant exists on this earth, and downright frightening that he is procreating.
We got through the dinner and the group decided to head to Café du Monde for coffee and beignets. For those of you unfamiliar with New Orleans, beignets are these fried plain doughnuts that, by municipal law, you are required to drown in powdered sugar and scarf down at the rate of 4 a minute.
As we walked toward Café du Monde it was about 11:30pm, and Celino came up to me and said that they wanted to hit the Quarter. When we got there, the older guys didn’t want us to take off, so there was a bit of a disagreement, but in the end the three of us headed toward Bourbon Street.
They wanted to go to Pat O’Brien’s for hurricanes, so we went up St. Peter Street with me in the lead. I walked into Pat O’s and straight to the patio bar where I ordered three hurricanes. All of a sudden, there’s Celino at my side saying “make that two.” I said, “what, you’re not drinking tonight?” And he replied, “no, Lito went home.” I was like, “WTF? He was just behind us.”
We got our hurricanes and started talking. Lito had some personal problems he was dealing with at the time (one was actually the source of much of the bickering that had gone on earlier in the week), and wanted to just go back to the hotel or who knows where and be by himself. So for the rest of the night it was just Celino and me.
We just clicked. It was one of those situations where you just totally feel comfortable with somebody even though you know very little about them. Through the course of the night we discovered that we have similar senses of humor, similar world views, and we’d been thrown together by circumstances that brought out the best in both of us.
We partied up and down Bourbon Street that night; I can’t remember ever before or since having so much fun on Bourbon Street. We saw some of my friends at the BBC (Bourbon street Blues Company) many of whom had gone to one of the concerts and were very happy to meet Celino. He was very gracious and I think he liked hanging out with them but after awhile I noticed him slinking back by himself again so I went up to him and suggested we leave.
He didn’t want to go home quite yet and he wanted another hurricane so we stopped by Pat O’s and got two more. Then we just went walking through the Quarter and did what has got to be the most New Orleansesque of anything one can do--we sat on some random stranger’s stoop and just talked. And talked and talked. I should clarify that I did most of the listening and he did most of the talking. He just unloaded everything he had been keeping inside of him all week.
They were stuck in Miami during 9/11. That day, he got a call from his wife that the family dog was dying and needed a $2,000 procedure to save her life. He and his wife had a 4 year old son who was devoted to the dog and they didn’t want to just let the dog die. So Celino’s poor wife was dealing with all this plus she was 7 months pregnant at the time. They went back and forth, should they spend the money or not? Finally on Thursday, his wife’s parents came up with $1,000 so C and his wife paid the other $1,000 and the dog went in for the procedure.
Right before I picked the guys up for their interview that morning, Celino got a call from his wife that the dog went through the procedure and actually died anyway. So that’s what the conversation on the way to the radio station was all about. Then, on the way back from the radio station that morning, he was back on the phone with his 4 year old son explaining to him why his beloved dog was not coming back.
That was the most heart-wrenching thing that happened among many others. We talked for hours. By the time I got home it was almost 5 in the morning. Celino and his family left that day (Sunday) and we’ve e-mailed and called back and forth ever since.
The next time I saw Celino was in Houston the following June. He was playing a solo for a University of Houston festival. He brought his family with him and I got to meet them after the concert. His wife is very sweet, as are his two boys. His wife actually wanted to go out with us but they hadn’t been able to get a sitter. She told me that she was surprised when she met me. I asked why, and she said that all she knew of how Celino and I met was that we spent the whole night in the French Quarter. She was picturing me as some frat-type party boy!
The last time I saw Celino was spring of 2007 in Boston. He had left the quartet in Europe while he came to play a solo with the Pensacola Symphony and had an 8-hour layover at Logan on the way back. So I picked him up and Bill and I took him out drinking and to the North End for Italian food. That was lots of fun. We were hoping he could stay a few days after the concert this weekend, but he has to hop a plane for Spain Sunday morning for another concert, so we’ll only have Saturday night. But he’s already warned me not to plan on getting too much sleep tomorrow night. So, I guess I’d better go rest up. Look for the concert (and party night) review to shortly follow.