I first met Roberto in Minnesota when he came to visit along with my three male cousins from Mexico City. They were wealthy, powerful and superbly educated aristocrats. My uncle once thought of running for President until he was told the unfortunate truth that the Mexican people would never vote for a leader with a gringo wife. My cousins all spoke three languages and had read Proust and Joyce by the time they were fifteen.
My cousins were all around twenty when they stopped by. They brought Roberto with them because he was a big, lovable guy who liked to party. On top of that, he was already married and had a mistress set up in an apartment. For Mexicans of their class at that time, this meant that he was already a man.
My cousins were engrossed in advanced studies of one kind or another that would eventually lead to great careers in their chosen fields but Roberto was a former violin prodigy who had stopped practicing and dropped out of college.
At dinner, he told us that we all (by which he meant Western Civilization) had been corrupted by the Protestant Work Ethic "especially Catholics" and had lost our ability to savor life. Roberto told us that he intended to personally correct this imbalance by living always in the moment. He still played the violin but only to express himself, "not to win some stupid competition or other."
My father, a construction contractor who had taken an immediate liking to Roberto, was very upset by his philosophy.
"But what are you going to do?" he asked. "How are you going to live?"
"I'll inherit," Roberto said with a smile.
"But what if you run through your inheritance?"
"Then, I'll inherit again," Roberto said, laughing this time. "I'm worth millions."
He said this in such a good natured and friendly way that all my father could do was throw back his hands in a gesture of exasperation and laugh along with him.
A few years later, I witnessed almost the same conversation during a meal in Mexico City. This time a woman who'd grown up with Roberto tried lecturing him in a sisterly manner.
"Roberto," she said, "you have to do something with your life - you have to have a career."
"Why?" he asked laughing.
"If nothing else," she told him, "you have to learn how to invest your money."
"Enrique (his brother) will take care of that for me," Roberto said saluting her with his martini, "he's into boredom."
When you drive cab in San Francisco you soon cease to be surprised by coincidence. I once picked up a woman at the airport who'd grown up across the street from me on Goodrich Ave in St. Paul. Another time, the daughter of one my Mexican cousins flagged me down. I'd never met her before but she recognized me from a photo.
So I wasn't completely blown away when I found Roberto standing in front of me at the dispatcher's window at City Cab. It made instant sense. I've never given my father much credit but he was right about Roberto and I guess (since he'd asked me the same questions and I standing in the same cab line) me.
It turned out that Enrique had indeed taken care of Roberto's money and invested it very wisely after stealing it. To Roberto's credit, he didn't look too upset when he told me the story.
"I wouldn't trade places with my brother for all his money and mine," he said. "He also took my wife. That bitch is my revenge."
Then, he broke out laughing with his good natured, booming voice.
Roberto had very little Spanish blood in him and he had the big head, huge shoulders and hands of his Yaqui indian ancestors. He looked more natural driving a cab than he ever had riding in the back of a limo. He'd developed a nice beer-belly to go along with his new profession. He still lived in the moment.
We went back to his apartment in the Mission, a block away from the projects. It was a small in-law with a seven foot ceiling that he shared with two Argentinian drivers. Apparently none of the them knew what to do without a maid because it was the filthiest place I've seen. We sat smoking joints among the litter and refuse, listening to his collection of rare violin performances by masters like Heifetz and Kreisler - the only remaining vestige of his inheritance.
We'd listened to similar recordings twenty years earlier in the book-lined study of his mansion high on a hill overlooking Mexico City. He'd been sipping cognac with his marijuana then. Now he had a whisky shot with a beer chaser. The enraptured expression on his face as he lost himself in the music was still the same.
We didn't get together after that. I don't really do drugs and I vowed never to re-enter his hovel. But, I did seen him from time to time. He was always quitting drugs or taking up the violin again. Once he was trying out for a local chamber orchestra.
The last time I saw Roberto, he'd just been fired because of a DUI.
"I needed that. It woke me up," he said. "No mas. No mas boracho. No mas la marijuana."
Then, he went home and spend the next six days drinking himself to death.