ONLY IN SANTA FE
WHAT DOES BRAHMS HAVE IN COMMON WITH CHUBBY CHECKER?
The thought of spending the summer just a few feet away from the principal cellist for the Santa Fe Opera wasn’t exactly music to my ears.
The opera had rented him a casita on the property where I live, and prior to his arrival I had nightmares of meeting in the driveway and having nothing to say to each other.
What did we have in common? He’d be talking Brahms. I’d be talking Chubby Checker. He’d be talking Handel. I’d be talking Hendrix.
What if he’d ask me a question about opera? After all, I was arts editor for this newspaper for about 15 years. I’m expected to know something about classical music.
All the “what ifs” in the world melted away when I first laid eyes on Bryan Epperson, the principal cellist for the Canadian Opera Company, a faculty member of the Glenn Gould Professional School of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, a founding member of the Cambridge Chamber Music Society and the string trio Triskelion.
Even his hands are insured for something like three million.
His whole being exuded a large appetite for life. His hair stuck out in 12 directions. He looked like a mad man. His eyes danced with a passion about life. His neatly trimmed beard and mustache embraced a mischievous smile.
He was beguiling. He introduced me to a new wine. I showed him the fine points of tequila. He showed me his 248-year-old cello. I showed him my concertina with the wooden button that Gerry Carthy made for me when the original one fell off. He played Mozart. I played “Danny Boy.”
He had just come from a week’s horse trek in Wyoming. Jazz was drifting out of the car radio. I was in love. I ran in to email my mother. He said he was married. I decided to email anyway. Soon he was drinking tequila, and I was sipping wine.
That was the summer of ’99, when I learned more about opera in two months than I had in 25 years of listening to the Texaco’s Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts.
Bryan Epperson returned this summer. I am no less smitten. He and his wife, Charlotte, a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Company, have become part of our family.
I can’t imagine summer without Bryan. In the late afternoons, I sit out in the driveway between our two houses and listen to him practice.
After he returns from a night at the opera, he likes to sit beneath the portal and smoke a cigar while listening to the coyotes.
Bryan loves Santa Fe. He said he dreams about it when he’s back in Toronto, especially on those endless winter nights.
He is a good student. He’s learned about Gran Gold margaritas at Maria’s; impossibly magnificent sunsets; and summer mornings so beautiful you have to blink your eyes to make sure it’s real.
On Monday nights he has volunteered to take the trashcan down to the road. He hefts it aloft, carrying it with those hands that are insured for more money than most of us will ever see in our lives.
Last Sunday, I introduced him to a time-honored Santa Fe tradition. I took him to Jackalope.
Each summer, both the Chamber Music Festival and The Santa Fe Opera enrich our lives, and you don’t have to know the difference between Handel and Hendrix to find the right notes.
CHUEY BREAKS THE MOLD
A couple of years ago no one would have thought Father’s Day would mean something to Jesus “Chuey” Gonzales, least of all him.
The men in Chuey’s family led lives colored by alcohol and violence. His father was a drunk and walked out when Chuey was a baby; his uncles made decisions with their fists.
Father’s Day was the last thing on his mind in 1995 at the New Mexico Boys School in Springer, where at 18 he was doing time for armed robbery.
Meanwhile, in Santa Fe, his girlfriend was strung out on crack cocaine and about to give birth to their baby. Within four years, Chuey would have two children by two different mothers
Today, at 23, Chuey has spent a good chunk of his life behind bars, and considering his life’s history, he might have stayed there. But he got a chance to change his life. He was given an opportunity to show what kind of stuff he was really made of. Oddly enough, it was fatherhood that provided the wakeup call.
About five months ago, a social worker he had met while in Springer called and told him about the New Mexico Young Fathers Project.
That phone call gave Chuey a chance to rewrite the next chapter of his life by getting involved in a program that helped him learn male nurturing and the role of fathers in the lives of their children. It turned his life around.
Chuey’s story is one of struggle. The struggle to get sober and off drugs. The struggle to get free of a gang. The struggle to take control of his life. The struggle to understand what it means to be a father and a husband.
It’s been a real uphill battle, and it hasn’t been easy. In fact, Chuey's life has been anything but easy. Most of the males in his family have a history of violence, drinking and jail. They were his role models.
Before he was 20, he knew what it was like to be on the run. Staying power was never one his habits. When he'd had it with life at Springer, he walked.
“I just got tired of being locked up,” Chuey said simply.
After a few months of drinking and partying, he found himself back in Springer, which was where he was when he found out he was a father.
“She was born when I was in there,” Chuey said of his daughter, Santana. “Her mom was doing crack. She was with another guy. My mother brought (Santana) to see me when she was just a few weeks old.”
Within the year, Chuey was back on the streets and released to the Reintegration Center, a halfway program for juvenile offenders in Albuquerque.
“I had started working,” he said. “But then my daughter got real sick and began having seizures. She ended up in the hospital in Albuquerque. Social Services got involved and ended up releasing my little girl back to her mother.”
Chuey speaks quietly. When he mentions his daughter, his eyes grow intense with concern. It doesn’t take long to see that he has a real affinity for children.
“After the hospital, her mother took her back to Santa Fe and then they disappeared. No one could find them. I ran from the center. I had to find them, and I did. My little girl wasn't being cared for. She wasn't even wearing diapers when I found her. I took her with me, back to my mother's house. Less than a month later, my baby's mother showed up with the cops.”
Chuey was sent back in the halfway program in Albuquerque. After he was paroled in 1998, the first thing he did was get drunk.
“I just had all this stuff coming at me,” he said. “I couldn't handle it. The responsibility of being alone; of being a father. I lost the chance to get my little girl back.”
Somewhere along the way, Chuey got tired of running. Maybe it was the war veterans he met while doing community service. Maybe it was meeting the woman he eventually married.
“I got into this relationship, and my girlfriend got pregnant. I said to myself, `Oh, not again.’ That's when we got into parenting classes at La Familia,” he said.
He attended classes with his girlfriend, who had a son from a prior relationship. It was here that Chuey learned about discipline without violence.
“That was a big one,” he said. “It was hard for me not to be violent. My step-dad was violent. My uncles were violent. I didn’t meet my own father until I was 12, when my mother dropped me off at his house because I was always in trouble. On my 13th birthday, my father came home drunk and told me to get out. I thought all of life was like this. Drinking. Violence.”
Some of these memories fueled his desire to take parenting classes.
“I told myself this can't be happening any more. My dad wasn't there for me. This has to stop somewhere. I have to be there for my children.”
At this point in his life, Chuey was living beneath a camper-shell. In the mornings, he'd catch a bus to the Community College where he was taking classes. His girlfriend and her son were living with her grandparents. After a few months, so was Chuey.
When their son Luis was born, Chuey and his girlfriend were married.
He found himself the father of two, but with few tools to handle life's problems. He began sliding back into old ways, dealing with his problems through the neck of a bottle.
That's when the phone rang. It was Cissy Ludlow, a counselor with Catholic Social Services, who was calling to tell him about a new program, the New Mexico Young Fathers Project.
The project is basically funded by the New Mexico Department of Health and Human Services. Its goal is to work with young fathers, helping them learn about nurturing and how to be a cogent member of the parenting team.
The program gave Chuey a survival tool. It taught him there was more to life than just himself.
“I thought to myself, before you walk away, just think of what you went through and what it would do to your child if you walked away,” he said.
Today, Chuey is mentoring other young fathers, helping them find the elusive answers about what it means to be a parent and how to do things as a family.
“It’s precious to have a family, he said. “Growing up, it was all I ever wanted. I'm grateful. It’s a gift from God.”