Joe Rojo

Joe Rojo exists as a cavalier and aloof Spaniard playing haunting piano music, tormenting his listeners with the promise of a relationship that can never truly exist.

Joe Rojo

Jack Hillmer ,  House for Fred and Eve Ludekens, Belvedere, California [18] , ca. 1950

Jack HillmerHouse for Fred and Eve Ludekens, Belvedere, California [18], ca. 1950

This is a story that is neither interesting, nor particularly funny, but rather long. It is the story of Joe Rojo. It’s an oral story, but since there’s likely no chance I’ll ever meet Joe Rojo, and there's little chance that there will be any further additions to the story, I'm setting it down in writing.

The story begins at a Seattle’s Best Coffee (SBC) in the Greenlake neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. I work there intermittently during my junior year of college.

Directly across from the store is the actual Green Lake, an engineered lake used in the summer for every outdoor activity you can pack into a sunny day. Our neighbor building to the north is a fish and chips place, which shortly after I started working at SBC, put up a large sign that read: “Under SAME management,” as if to say, don’t believe the rumors, we haven’t gone anywhere.

I’m working one evening and in walks this old bag lady. She has taped and crooked glasses on. She’s maybe in her fifties. She’s clothed in layers: dress, sweater, jacket, jacket. She sits down at a table facing out the window and stays there for around an hour. This is nothing unusual, as strange and impermanent people wander in and out of our cafe without saying a word. Eventually she comes to the counter.

She asks me, “Excuse me, have you seen Joe Rojo?”

I marvel to myself at what a wonderful name she has created for this imaginary man. I reply, no, I haven’t seen Joe Rojo, to which she adds details: he’s tall, olive skinned, handsome, and a wonderful musician. I tell her I haven’t seen anyone like that in our store. She asks me if I can tell him she waited for him, and will try back again tomorrow. I assure her that yes, I will definitely relay that message to him.

A few days pass. I think of this woman and this Joe Rojo for the days in between. What a terrific name! How we create strange stories to tell ourselves! How did she come up with such a person, as she clearly doesn’t have access to talented musicians on an everyday basis. How sad that she's created this imaginary person and spends hours waiting for him at a cafe.

Now a few days later the same scene replays itself. She comes in, sits down for a while, approaches me and asks if I’ve seen Joe Rojo. I say no, but I’d be happy to tell him that you were here waiting if he stops by. I feel bad for her as she leaves. Who knows what brought her here to this point? Maybe I feel a little angry at Joe Rojo, too, for leading her on, even if he isn't real. I imagine him a tall flamenco dancing Spaniard, supercilious and haughty, answering coldly to the woman, “Si, I shall meet you at Seattle’s Best Coffee.”

It's the weekend and I hop on a bus to go downtown from my University of Washington apartment. I have no real plan, I just want to walk around the city. One stop in, I encounter Gigi, my friend who is engaged to my other friend, who, inconveniently, is also named Joe. Don’t let that confuse you. I wave her over and she invites me, as I have nothing really to do, to shop for wedding dresses with her. (Later that summer, I will arrive late to their wedding wearing light colored lime green socks, and that is when I will remember that Joe is color blind, as he wonders aloud to me why I’m wearing flesh colored socks to a wedding).

I will be no real help to her in her search for a dress, and now, older, I realize that all of us that age really had no idea how to do anything, let alone find where to buy a wedding dress.

I tell her the Joe Rojo story on our way downtown. The story is long, and takes the whole 15 minute bus ride. I feel bad that I’ve added too many details to the story, a habit of mine. We go to Nordstrom: back then, they used to have piano players in the lobby. Maybe they still do. This time there is a piano but the player is missing. I tell Gigi, “let’s look at the business card at the piano, these piano players always have funny names; the one in Bellevue is called Mr. Manly” (I forget his first name after all these years, but it’s true, that was why I wanted to check). She humors me. I pick up the card and show her.

It is Joe Rojo’s card.

She thinks I’ve made up the whole thing as some long and drawn out boring practical joke. But I haven’t, and it makes me feel strange to know that he really does exist, and is not really a figment of a strange woman’s imagination.

For whatever reason, most likely youth, I do not wait to see him. I continue to look at dresses with Gigi. I never see him. 

* * *

Christian Marclay,  Video Quartet,  2002

Christian Marclay, Video Quartet, 2002

I tell this story for years. Too many times, probably. Each time I wonder why this story sticks with me. Why I feel like I need to add more details than necessary, why I can’t say, “I once had a strange lady ask if I knew a guy named Joe Rojo; I didn’t, but then I saw his card at Nordstrom. Isn’t that a funny name, and isn’t that a coincidence?” But there’s something there, and I have to work at it, like when you’ve burnt the roof of your mouth and you can’t stop worrying it with your tongue. Maybe it’s because he exists when I never expected him to. Maybe that his name is so intriguing. Maybe I, too, was perilously close to wandering around, waiting to find Joe Rojo at cafes, the only clues I have to go on given to me by a sad strange bag lady and a business card at Nordstrom. But chances are he’s just an old white guy that’s making it however he can, picking up side hustles at Nordstrom between gigs.

* * *

Now around 10 years pass. I’m telling this story to my wife’s friend who's engaged to be married. I'm again taking too long to tell the story, but she is interested on a level I’m not used to. At the end of the story she says, “Joe Rojo 's a family friend, a phenomenal piano player, and we’re planning to have him play at our wedding.”

I don’t really know how to feel. Should I be happy that I will finally meet him, or is the mystery more exciting than the reality? What do I say to him when I finally meet him? Do I berate him for leading that old bag lady on? Do I just tell him that a lady is waiting for him at Seattle's Best Coffee? Do I tell him the story I've been telling for 10 years? I will find out at their wedding.

We’re at the wedding, but there is no Joe Rojo. They decided not to have him play. He was on vacation, or it wasn’t hip enough to have a piano player, or he cost too much. But he’s not there, and that’s now the second closest I’ve ever been to meeting him. My wife’s friendship with the fiance, through the normalcy of life, grows distant. We move to San Francisco. It is now weird and impractical to ask her if she can introduce me to Joe Rojo.

When I tell this story now, my friends look him up on facebook, or google, or linkedin. I told it to my students once, and they found him in about 2 minutes. He concretely exists and has apparently put out albums. I will not look at a picture of him though, listen to his music, or go stalk him on Facebook.

I have decided. I will never meet him.

He exists as a cavalier and aloof Spaniard playing haunting piano music, tormenting his listeners with the promise of a relationship that can never truly exist.