Elvis Romero and the Cosmic White Corvette: ‘The Panda’

- November 6, 2012

A Serialized Novel and Podcast by Andrew Leo Lovato

The following is Chapter Twenty-one of a serialized novel and podcast. Start the story of Elvis Romero at the beginning, with Chapter One.

I spent the next six months of my life back in my old room at my parent’s house. This period of recuperation was a like a transformation of sorts for me. I spent a lot of time reflecting on what I had been and where I was going. We were all growing older and our tight gang began to split apart. Lyle got a job working for his uncle and he moved to California. Angie decided to go to college and she left for St. Mary’s in San Antonio. Suddenly, it was like the old days, just me and Rudy again.

I realized in my heart that I was a true native son. Not a romantic Latin lover or a brave conquistador type but I was molded by the city that I lived in. I stared in the mirror at the penetrating, dark brown eyes and the mop of thick, black hair that surrounded my face.  I felt like I was a mystery to myself even though I had always fancied that I had a gift for analyzing human nature.

As I grew stronger and began to get out more, I enjoyed sitting on a bench at the Plaza watching the parade of people from all over the planet who traveled to Santa Fe to take pictures of each other in front of brown adobe walls. They bought hundreds of fluorescent howling coyote wood carvings with scarves wrapped around their necks.

The tourists came from everywhere. Clumps of Japanese shot rolls and rolls of film and tall Texans with loud, drawling voices walked around town like they owned the place. Long-haired hippies with backpacks and dogs on rope leashes hung out looking for a place to spread their sleeping bags and crash for the night. Spending time at the Plaza was never a waste as far as I was concerned. I received more of an education downtown than I ever would have gotten at a four-year university.

The variety of people who passed through Santa Fe was astounding. On any given day I could converse with a Sikh from India or a businessman from Germany. People came from all over the world to experience the City Different and, for the most part ,they were thrilled to engage a true Santa Fe native in dialogue.

One thing that annoyed me was the assumption by some visitors that I was not capable of conducting a conversation in English. Sometimes tourists addressed me in slow, choppy mono-syllables assuming that I’d have trouble following their words. They would ask me with an almost undecipherable accent, “Yo hablo Espanole?” I particularly hated this question when it was delivered in a thick, condescending drawl. If I didn’t wish to respond, I’d stare at the speaker with a dumbfounded look, pretending not to comprehend a word they were uttering. This usually was sufficient to send the inquisitor shuffling away, as I chuckled underneath my breath.

For the most part, I found my encounters on the Plaza to be educational and rewarding. I didn’t have to go traveling to discover the world; the world came to me.

One of the most fascinating people that I came to know during this time was a white-haired, bearded artist who was known to the locals as “el Diferente.” His real name was Tommy Macione. He’d migrated to Santa Fe in 1952 from the eastern United States and he soon became well known for his impressionistic sidewalk and corner paintings. He was a fixture on the downtown streets with his flowing snow-white hair and a thick overcoat that he wore no matter what the weather. Macione painted adobe buildings, beautiful wildflowers, and brightly colored landscapes with thick, textured brush strokes.

He sold his paintings for next to nothing or traded them for food for himself and his menagerie of twenty to thirty dogs that he sheltered at any given time El Diferente had run for a variety of political offices since the early 1960s, including mayor, New Mexico senator, and governor. He eventually even tried his hand at U.S. president, running under his “Mutual Happiness Society” party platform. Even though he was never a serious threat to the established political system, this did not stop him from trying.

I was fascinated by this free-spirited “Father Time” figure and I’d sit and watch Macione paint for hours. We seldom exchanged words but we were aware of the other’s presence and an unspoken bond developed between us. We were both outcasts intent in following our own calling despite the judgments of the larger world.

I loved spending the afternoon downtown. One place I often visited was the grassy banks of the Santa Fe River. I enjoyed lying on the cool, green grass watching the water flow. It normally didn’t take long for someone to come by and strike up a conversation, especially if I had my guitar. Almost everyone played a few chords and knew a song or two that they were willing to have a go at.

Some of my favorite companions were Santa Fe’s homeless men and women. They survived with the help of a number of church-based soup kitchens. Good sleeping spots were plentiful near the river and up higher in the National Forest. During the summer months when the weather was warm and the living was easy, they were in high spirits. We laughed and sang and they told incredible tall tales and shared their cigarettes and wine bottles unselfishly.

There was no finer company in the entire world than these free beings with no egos or images to protect or need to impress anyone. They didn’t care if they laughed too loud or how it appeared to others if they decided to spontaneously dance a little jig. I didn’t feel any shame in being seen in their company or calling them my friends. Everyone else was far too uptight for my taste anyway.

One of my friends that I regularly hung out with was an Apache Indian man named Juanito. He appeared to be in his late forties or early fifties although it was hard to tell. He might have been younger but outdoor living and alcohol had taken a toll on him.

Juanito was a philosopher. He had an opinion on just about everything. However, he didn’t take himself too seriously and he always ended his commentaries with a self-effacing laugh, as if he was saying, “I don’t care if you agree with me or not, because I’m not sure if I agree with myself.”

Juanito loved to tell stories about the exotic meals he’d enjoyed over the years. He spoke enthusiastically about ways to cook up rattlesnake meat and assorted varieties of plants and insects. He observed his audience out of the corner of his eye and if he detected a slight look of horror or disgust, it sent him into hysterics causing him to shake with mirth.

Juanito had grown up in an Indian boarding school. When he turned eighteen, he left school to work on a horse ranch in Arizona. He soon became skilled at riding and by the time he was in his early twenties, he was traveling on the rodeo circuit and making good money busting broncos and bulls.

As Juanito told the story, just at the peak of his career, when he was around twenty-three (he never was quite sure about his age as birthdays had ceased to be of any great importance to him) he had a terrible spill off a fire-snorting horse in Tulsa. He ended up breaking his back and the doctors told him if he ever fell off a horse again, he might be permanently paralyzed.

This ended Juanito’s career and the disappointment sent him into a spiral of depression and drinking. Somehow he ended up in Gallup, New Mexico. He knew that if he kept up the life he was leading, he’d soon be a goner, so he hopped on a Greyhound bus not sure where he was headed. It dropped him off in Santa Fe where he’d been ever since. Although he hadn’t sworn off the booze completely, he became more moderate as he grew older.

Somehow despite all the hardship, Juanito was blessed with a remarkable sense of humor. Everything was funny to him and an afternoon in his company was a lesson in unrestrained joyfulness. In many ways, Juanito was the most enlightened being I’d ever met.

Another of my regular stops was a record and guitar shop on Water Street called The Candy Man. It was named after a song made famous by a black, blues guitarist named Mississippi John Hurt. I was intoxicated by the scent of the acoustic guitars made of fine wood that lined the walls of the store. There was a dizzying array of makes and models. Gibson and Martin steel string acoustics, Pimentel and Goya classical guitars, Fender Stratocasters and Les Paul electrics, dobros, mandolins and ukuleles. The Candy Man was like walking into a guitar player’s idea of paradise.

On the main floor were bins filled with record albums. The selection was amazing. The store specialized in hard to find albums by blues and folk musicians. Toward the back was a small, elevated area with chairs and benches where local musicians gathered to trade licks. The overall atmosphere was friendly and non-competitive. Everyone freely shared their knowledge and riffs with one another.

I spent many afternoons playing, listening, and watching. Often, even after closing hours, the jam sessions continued. The Candy Man’s owner usually did not have an inclination to put an end to the creative fire burning in his store. He was a Jewish businessman who fled New York to set up a guitar shop in Santa Fe and follow his passion for traditional music.

Another of my regular stops was the Ark Bookstore. The Ark specialized in all things metaphysical and was the heart of Santa Fe’s New Age scene. In addition to books, the Ark carried all sorts of spiritual paraphernalia such as tarot cards, amulets, prayer beads, incense, and assorted objects of worship from around the world. Walking into the store was almost like setting foot into a temple. The air was serene and timeless. I was always surprised when I stepped outside to discover how noisy and chaotic the world was.

A great way to top off the day was to visit the Outside Inn for a cup of red zinger tea and a slice of Martha’s amazing cheesecake. Martha was an East Coast refugee who had fled to discover her sanity. She didn’t mind if customers sat at tables for hours and only spent a buck on a cup of tea. I enjoyed hanging out with the locals discussing the fine points of art, philosophy, and politics. Life was very good in Santa Fe, if you knew how to live it.  

I hung out on the Plaza and watched the human spectacle unfolding before my eyes. It was better than any movie. I really didn’t have anything better to do when it came right down to it. I’d graduated from Santa Fe High School a couple of years earlier but my diploma really didn’t do much for me except to remind me of what a waste of time it had all been. I’d been through a few jobs since then but none of them had seemed to pan out.

I tried my hand at a government job with the Bureau of Land Management but nine months were all I could stomach of the lime-green walls. My job was to deliver mail to the bored, unhappy people who trudged into work every day to keep the bureaucracy running. My parents were dismayed when I decided to resign from my “career conditional” job. Career conditional meant that I could have pushed a mail cart for twenty-five years and retired with federal employee benefits. As long as I worked hard enough to get by but not hard enough to show up anyone, I was set for life.

I made my decision to jump off the government gravy train on a sun-drenched day with white billowing clouds floating across the bright, blue sky. I sat outside of the government office building which doubled as the main Post Office. A four-foot high stone wall surrounded the square complex and thick, green grass landscaped the grounds. Automatic water sprinklers labored furiously, soaking the parched blades of Kentucky blue grass that precariously struggled to survive in the high desert.

I was in a melancholy mood, contemplating about how many minutes I had left on my break before I returned to the mail cart that I pushed it from one office to another, distributing an endless stream of meaningless memos and forms that fed the bureaucratic monster that was the federal government.

I brooded about how trivial my life had become. Not so long ago, I’d been absorbed in Eastern metaphysics and composing songs. Now I felt crushed in this ugly building with the puke green walls.

And for what? A pathetic government pay check every two weeks and a chance to retire in two decades? Sucking the government tit was a living death!

I came to the spontaneous conclusion that liberation could not wait another day. I leaped down from the wall and dashed through the line of sprinklers that sent cold mists down my spine and soaked my pressed white shirt and clip-on tie.

I remembered the words of the soldier from “The Incident at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce when he was given a second chance at life after the noose broke from around his neck and he plunged into the river.

He shouted at the top of his lungs, “I’m a living man, I’m a living man!”

I walked back into the BLM Building past my curious co-workers and into the office of a crisp, humorless woman in Personnel. Standing in front of her with my hair dripping and a radiant smile, I announced:

 “I’m sorry but I can’t give a two-week notice. I can’t wait another hour to live again.”

Thus, my federal career ended.

After the initial euphoria of my spontaneous act of rebellion wore off, I felt listless and lost as I sat on my bed staring out the window. I’d quit my job and I didn’t have any new leads. Every job I’d ever tried had pretty much turned out to be a miserable experience. I was tired of mind-numbing labor. I knew that I was destined to do more than cutting weeds, stocking shelves, bagging groceries or sorting mail. But what was out there for me? The newspaper want ads were thoroughly depressing and I had stopped bothering to even look through them.

I wondered, “What do I have to offer to the world? What would other people find valuable about me that they’d be willing to pay for?”

I didn’t have any formal education past high school. I knew a little about cars but not enough to get a job as a mechanic. I wasn’t good with numbers or selling things to people. I loved to play the guitar, listen to music, and daydream. I was pretty sure that there weren’t too many jobs in Santa Fe seeking these attributes. Being a rock star seemed pretty cool but I didn’t know how to make that happen and besides, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it in time for next month’s bills.

Then it dawned on me that if I couldn’t be a rock star, I might be able to spin their records for a living. After all, who knew more about rock music than me? Santa Fe had several radio stations and I knew I would make the ultimate DJ. I’d be able to put together tracks and take people on musical journeys that would blow their minds! This was the epiphany I’d been waiting for. Finally, I knew what my true calling was.

I sprang to my feet and turned on the radio. I scanned the stations and settled on one. KVSF was an FM station that mixed an eclectic blend of album cuts and top 40 hits. I intuitively knew that this station needed me as much as I needed a job. I opened the telephone book and found the station’s street address. I pulled on a clean pair of jeans, ran a comb through my hair and jumped in the car, driving toward my future.

I turned left onto St. Francis Drive and headed down West Alameda until I saw the blinking red lights of the radio tower. I pulled into a small parking lot. There was only one other car parked there as the sun began sinking behind the mountains.

For the first time since my revelation, I began to feel a bit of apprehension. I pulled my car up beside a beat-up Toyota wagon and I knocked on a thick, wooden door. I waited for about thirty seconds and when no one appeared I began knocking louder. I stood in the gathering darkness and finally I disappointedly turned back toward my car. As I reached for my keys, the door swung open and a tall, thin man appeared. He was around thirty with thick blond hair that stuck out from his head in all directions. He was wearing wire-rimmed glasses and he had a scraggly goatee. He looked at me impassively and said,

“How can I help you?”

I extended my hand and replied,

“Hi, my name is Elvis Romero and I’m wondering if I could talk to you for a couple of minutes. I really want to get into radio and I thought maybe you could give me some advice, Bro.”

He waved signaling for me to enter the station and said,

“I’ve got to change records, come in and follow me to the control room.”

We walked through the lobby past framed record albums and posters of rock groups until we came to a little, cramped room that was the most magnificent sight that I had ever witnessed.

One small overhead light illuminated the impossibly cluttered ten-by-ten foot room. On three sides were cubby holes and shelves filled with hundreds, maybe thousands of 45’s and LP’s. They were alphabetically labeled according to artist. The front of the room was dominated by a control panel that looked like it belonged in a Star Trek episode. There were dials, blinking lights and two turntables. A microphone protruded from the middle of the panel at mouth level. The DJ sat on a black, padded stool and announced,

“The Rolling Stones with their latest hit “Brown Sugar” on your home of the hits, the big 1260 on your FM dial, KVSF!”

He flipped off the microphone and a red warning light shut off as the song went sailing over the air waves.

“Hi, my name is Andy Higgins. Sorry, I wasn’t sure I caught your name. Did you say Alvin?”

“Elvis,” I said scanning my eyes around the room.

“Good name. So you’re thinking about becoming a DJ?”

“Yeah, I got this premonition this morning that this was what I was meant to do. You know what I mean?”

Andy shook his head and took a long drag from his cigarette. The smoke filled the little room with a haze.

“Well you know, Elvis, being a DJ is not as glamorous as it seems. People think that it’s more exciting than it really is. Believe it or not, it can get pretty monotonous, spinning records six hours a night.”

I nodded in agreement but my eyes told a different story.

“I know I could do a great job, man, but I don’t know how to break in. Can you tell me how someone learns to be a DJ?”

“Just by doing what you’re doing now, man. You just hang around and watch and ask questions and after a while they give you the crappiest shift available. You pick it up. Are you willing to do that? Work graveyard 1:00 AM to 6:00 AM on weekends or Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve?”

“You know it. I’d do anything to break in.”

“I figured you would say that. I could tell from the moment I saw you that you were a DJ in the making. I’ll tell you what, if you want to pull records for me and pick up a pack of cigarettes or a burger once in a while, I’ll show you what you need to know to get started. Do we have a deal?”

“I’ll do anything you say. When do I start?”

“Why don’t you come around tomorrow and we’ll see what we can do.”

For the next couple of months, I visited Andy just about every night during his shift and ran his errands. I didn’t mind because I had the opportunity to watch him in action and I picked up on countless details that were part of a DJ’s responsibilities. It was not the kind of knowledge that was taught in school or in a textbook. It was the ancient ritual of apprenticeship in which the student could only gain from first-hand observation.

I learned how to cue records so that the music began at precisely the right moment. I witnessed the split-second timing that it took for Andy to announce the weather forecast over the instrumental opening of a song so that his last word was completed a micro-second before the singing began. I marveled at Andy’s ability to seamlessly seg records together. That is, fade out one song on the turntable as he raised the volume on the other so that it seemed like the two recordings were part of an extended piece that had been meant to be joined together.

Andy was a wizard in the control room and he effortlessly performed several complex tasks simultaneously with an air of detached indifference. At any given moment he might be downloading a news broadcast, cueing a record, sliding a cart into place for the next commercial break, tearing a story off the Associated Press newswire, checking a meter reading, and having a phone conversation with a foxy sounding female listener with a song request.

I watched and learned. Andy wasn’t much for explaining or taking on the mentor role but as he had told me, there really wasn’t much to say, you just had to pick it up by being around. Gradually, after several weeks, he gave me more hands-on responsibilities such as reading meters, cueing records, or pulling stories off the AP wire.

Then one day Andy announced that he had a couple of errands to do and he wanted me to run the station for fifteen or twenty minutes. I shot him a startled look and said;

“You mean you’re going to leave me here alone?”

He laughed and said, “Hey Elvis, you know what to do. After all this time, I’m sure you can handle things with your eyes closed. If I didn’t think you could deal with it, I wouldn’t leave you here for a second.”

I nodded nervously and in an instant Andy was out the door. As it turned out, he was right. I cued records, played commercial spots and my confidence soared as I began to make the control room my own. The only thing I couldn’t do was speak over the air as this was still Andy’s show.

As time went on, I began to fill in for Andy more and more. He felt it was his duty to take as many breaks as possible and give me valuable air time experience. I was studying hard for my FCC broadcast license. I had a study manual that was mostly technical and dealt with things that no DJ ever had to know or understand to run a radio station. When I felt ready, I made the trip up to Denver to take the test and I managed to pass by the slimmest of margins. But no matter, I finally received my license and I was qualified to be on the air.

It wasn’t long before I got my first official job at KVSF. A couple of months after I earned my license, a weekend, graveyard shift opened up. Andy informed the station manager that he knew of a young, local talent who was willing to fill the spot. He explained that I was a little wet behind the ears but I had loads of potential and more importantly, I was willing to work any shift available. And so it was that I began my radio career doing a show from midnight until 6: a.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

The first thing that I needed was a radio name to define my persona on the air. I wasn’t happy with Elvis as a air name because even though it was the one my mother had given me at birth, it seemed too obvious and made up for a radio DJ.  I thought about famous DJs and the names that they had come up with. The most famous DJ in the world was Wolfman Jack. I liked the idea of an animal of some sort being part of my on-air persona but I didn’t want anything as threatening as a Wolfman. I was searching for something mysterious and at the same time lovable that would appeal to vatos cruising around the Plaza and at the same time sound endearing to eleven and twelve-year-old girls having pajama parties.

I pondered hard and asked everyone I knew, searching for the right moniker but I couldn’t come up with anything that seemed right. Then one night as I was absent-mindedly flipping through a National Geographic at Denny’s while sharing a burger with Rudy, a face popped out of one of the pages and I knew I had it. Looking up at me with dark, mysterious eyes and yet with an irresistible charm, was a giant Chinese Panda.

 I muttered to Rudy, “It’s a Saturday night and I’ll be spinning the tunes for you until the break of dawn. You’re on 1260 KVSF with The Panda!”

It felt good as it rolled off my tongue. Rudy enthusiastically agreed. When Santa Fe was introduced to its newest radio celebrity a few nights later, the era of the Panda began.

The weekend, graveyard shift that I inherited was the slot that almost all new DJs in the history of radio had cut their teeth on. It was considered the least desirable shift because it excluded any kind of normal social life. Just as Santa Fe teens were beginning to hit their party stride on weekends, it was time for me to go to work.

However, I didn’t see things that way at all. I thought that the weekend, graveyard was the best slot that I could have wished for.  The station manager was not interested in what went on during graveyard as long as the station was on the air. It was not a time that attracted the advertisers who paid the station’s bills. The only consistent listeners were kids raising hell and they didn’t have much money to spend, so the only sponsors who bought air time were occasional fast-food joints.

This meant that the Panda had almost unlimited freedom to play just about anything he wanted to. Since my audience was mainly my peers, I knew what they wanted to hear. I played mostly progressive and underground rock music that was never heard during the daytime when listeners were mostly mainstream adults driving to work, dropping off kids at school, or working in offices.

I religiously avoided anything that even faintly resembled disco. The crowd I was appealing to never grew tired of proclaiming that “Disco Sucks!”

If I felt like playing a ten minute cut of Zappa being crazy at the Fillmore, I could. I filled my show with bands like Yes, The Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, The Who, Pink Floyd, T Rex, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin.

In a short time, the Panda had a fiercely loyal following. A side benefit of being a Santa Fe teen celebrity was the availability of local girls who were interested in meeting me. They called the station in droves just to engage in conversation and it wasn’t unusual to have three or four of them on separate lines simultaneously waiting for a few words when I had a free second. Sometimes they visited the station in hopes of being admitted to the sanctuary of the control room and having the opportunity to watch me in action. Almost overnight, I had girls pursuing me when just a few weeks before, none of them would have given this skinny, long-haired vato a second look.