FERNANDO ROMERO IS GRAVELY ILL
A last letter from a friend, fan, and life-long admirer
I called a dear old friend today, perhaps for the last time.
Before Fernando Romero came to the phone, his wife and longtime boss, Denise, had warned me that he was weak, that an invasive bacterial infection was wasting him away, that his already-weak immune system was failing.
At the tender age of 70, Fernando was dying.
He lay in a hospital bed installed in the dining room of his home in San Diego, where the hospice workers come and go, near where Denise sleeps on the couch so she can attend to his every need.
It’s the room where Fernando had told so many stories, had entertained so many friends, had consumed so many shots of his beloved tequila, and encouraged others to drink with him.
And know those friends had become well-wishers. How do you say goodbye to a man whose reputation for kindness and selflessness, cross-border blue collar soulfulness, has become larger than life?
You go, and you try stay half as strong as he is; that’s what you do.
I didn’t know what to expect.
But then I heard his voice, that low, throaty croon that amazingly has kept so much of the boy, the playfulness, in its timber, the voice that I have heard for more than 30 years now, that has given me so much advice, the one that always asks about me, never concentrating on him.
“Glionnnnnnaaaaaaaaa,” he said in that sing-song way of his. “How are you doing, my man?”
It was just so Fernando. Not a spec of self-pity. The man lying the hospital bed wants to know how you are doing.
Actually, it’s presumptuous to say that Fernando is my friend. He’s everybody’s friend. Forget Raymond; Everybody Loves Fernando. They know him as a musician, a drummer whose beat once moved the dives in backstreet Tijuana. They know his as the journalist, who covered Mexico and the border for the old San Diego Tribune and who, later, wrote about Latino issues for the Los Angeles Times.
They know him as a proud father to his son Dennis, a fellow journalist who has his Dad’s same reverence for a good story, and as the grandfather of two, a girl and a boy.
And among all of those things, they know him as a doting husband whose stubbornness and forgetfulness has at times exasperated his wife, Denise, while at the same time she has marveled at his humanity, his wit, and his love for her. Because Denise is Fernando’s Queen.
From his voice on the telephone, you couldn’t tell Fernando was ill. He laughed, just like always. And like any journalist, writer and observer of life, he described, and savored, his surroundings.
The bed. The dining room.
And the sunlight.
“Glionna,” he said. “The light. It’s coming through the window. And it’s delicious.”
Fernando has lived many lives: He grew up in Tijuana, the son of a radio personality. But childhood was not easy on Fernando.
A few years ago, he wrote a memoir of those days, called “The Colors of Eden,” in which he described “a 10-year-old boy’s odyssey from his broken home in Tijuana, to an aunt’s brutal beatings in Mexico City, to a trek of discovery of 1950s Mexico unknown to him — one of heroic people and merciless thugs, of loving women and broken dreams, of pain, longings and loneliness.”
I remember reading the book for the first time. Fernando’s descriptions of the food and the light and the characters were like words in Technicolor, full of flavor and texture. When he wrote about food, he made you hungry. When he wrote about people, depending on their character, he made you want to meet them, or kill them.
Here’s how it starts:
“Aunt Dolores lives in the dark corners of my mind — she and the nearly three hundred people who lived crammed in forty-five apartments in a grimy three-story cloistered building, one of many such enclosed tenements sprinkled throughout Mexico City. Every so often, their faces jump at me, deep-brown Aztec, cafécon-leche mestizo, lucky white. I can hear the noises they made every workday at dawn — the blasting radios, the flushing of communal toilets, the ranting, the coughing, the crying babies. And I can smell the aromas of breakfast wafting from every kitchen in the place: frying chorizo and eggs, refried beans, chilaquiles, Mexican chocolate, café de la olla, and panecito caliente, the warm rolls of life. With walls so thin, nothing was a secret in our little world of metiches, of busybodies. The bustle would suddenly drop to a buzz when our collective ears detected trouble in our midst. El chisme was on. Another item for the gossip mill was being played out. “Vieja, I’m telling you, esta cabrona is pregnant. Or why is she getting so fat? Alicia, come, let us see that swelling in your stomach!” “Mamá! Tell that drunken old fart to leave me alone. I can’t wait to get away from this pig sty so that I won’t have to listen to that fat, ugly husband of yours anymore.” It was el pan nuestro de cada dia — our daily bread.”
In Tijuana, as a young man, Fernando played the drums. I can still see him now, later in life, showing his style with quick blasts of energy, biting his lower lip in concentration, or mouthing the quick movement of the sticks, “bam, bam, badda, bam, bam!”
The musicians called him “Skizo,” short for exquisite, and they said it in reverential terms, a player whose music soared, and who never missed a gig.
Back then, Fernando got lucky. He met a woman named Denise Jean Seffens. Immediately, she liked his laugh and his boyishness and felt a need to take care of him, which she has essentially done for the last half century.
He immigrated to the U.S. in 1971 and graduated from San Diego State University. Denise had already given birth to Dennis. Now Denise had two boys to care for.
He worked, he played drums, he became a newspaper writer with a rich sense of style, writing decisive stories that won awards — all in his second language.
That fact alone floors me.
Along the way, Fernando gained weight. It was a fact that become part of his persona, the loving, larger-than-life man who could take over a room. He downplayed his weight, often using himself as a foil.
Once, he did a story for the Tribune about a sports stadium outside Tijuana where the spectator seats were in danger of collapsing. The owners fixed the problem and invited Fernando back down.
As he told the story, with a wink, they had him sit in each seat.
“See Fernando?” they said. “This seat can take a lot of weight.”
Fernando laughed at that.
But there were times when he got tired of the attention. Once, a tenor sax player ran into Fernando at a gig and observed: “Hey man, you’ve gained some weight!”
Fernando didn’t respond, but what he wanted to say, he told me later, was, “Don’t you think I look in the mirror every morning!”
But there was no bitterness, no self-pity.
Fernando wore his weight like he did everything else — with a sense of cool.
Like a lot of people, I’ve often felt lucky to have Fernando as a friend. He made me feel special. He took care of me when I drank too much tequila one night, even after I got sick on his shoes.
And here, at the end of his book, is how he described his sense of pride at what he had achieved in life:
“On a sunny May morning, I crossed the border at the San Ysidro Point of Entry — the main crossing between Tijuana and San Diego. The sun was up, and I walked endlessly, happy. Denise and I ended up renting a little house not too far away from where her parents lived. I went to work right away drumming for a group that worked downtown San Diego. I had not stopped drinking, but with time, I ended up drinking only a few glasses of wine a week. After several years of playing drums with a dozen or so San Diego groups — and working between gigs washing cars or dishes at restaurants or working for a moving van company — I looked at our future and saw very little happening. Music was not going to make our dreams of a home and a nice life come through. Denise and I decided I needed to go back to school. I went one year to adult school, where I got my GED. I took college classes for the next six years and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in journalism at 35. It felt strange for someone like me — who had begged for food and coins in the streets of Tijuana — to be a newspaper writer, a someone. After working with some of the best newspapers in the west coast, the Los Angeles Times among them, I became a freelancer and wrote this book. My mom and dad are gone now and I’ll never be able to fill the gap they left in my heart, but Denise and Dennis have given me enough joy and love I can truly say I’m a complete man, a happy man. Denise is my Rock of Gibraltar. Our son, who now has a nice family of his own, is a successful journalist in Los Angeles. I believe in what Ponciano said. I have lived with good and bad in my life, but predominantly there have been people who have made my colors bright. I thank them.”
Above everything else, on top of the reasons to love Fernando, was his innocence.
These are just my memories — if you know Fernando, you undoubtedly have your own. But here are a few of my favorites:
When Fernando was a new immigrant, just learning English, he used to frequent a local fast food joint with a pal. The fry cook was grouchy and demanded to know what the pair wanted to order.
Panicked, afraid of using their English, they looked over at the menu and ordered a “ToGo.” They were looking at the take-out menu.
With boyish glee, he has told the story about the day, many years ago, when he and Denise decided to try cocaine. A musician friend gave him the name and address of a guy who could sell him some.
One afternoon, Fernando knocked on the guy’s door and introduced himself. The guy was rough-looking, a member of some biker gang, and he was suspicious.
But he went and got a baggie and handed it over.
And then, Fernando reached into his pocket and pulled out — not cash — but his checkbook.
“To whom do I write the check,” he asked.
The other day, Denise posted to Facebook a video of her Man.
He was lying in his hospital bed, and two musicians were serenading him.
That’s how much people love this man: they wanted him to hear some of the jazz that he himself had played over the years.
The music, he said, made him cry.
And I weep as I type this, because I am writing my own farewell song to a man I long ago came to love and respect.
So, my good buddy, my dear, dear old friend, we don’t want you go, not yet.
Don’t leave us.
But maybe God is looking for a good drummer.
And Heaven is a place where they play a crazy beat.