1. The Cello
Have you had an experience where you walked through a door and your life, literally, changed forever? For two of the people in this story, that’s what happened. For one, it was an unexpected part-time job. For the other, making home in a very unfamiliar neighborhood.
Featuring: Mike, Matthew Linaman, David Clarke, and Jean-Michel Fonteneau.
Additional content referenced in this episode:
Briana Breen: Hi, I’m Briana Breen. You’re listening to Lucky: Stories of unexpected events, adventures, and experiences. Today’s Episode–The Cello.
Mike: I’m Mike. I’m retired I’m 77 years old. I live on Castro Street in San Francisco. When my wife and I bought this house–I had no idea what the Castro was like. I looked out the window one day and I saw just sheer chaos, all the way across the street all the way up to Market Street. And it was the Halloween celebration on Castro. I had absolutely no idea what neighborhood I’d moved into. And it was it was a hoot. It was a total hoot.
Mike: I just uh hadn’t hung out with a lot of gay people and now I was sort of a blockbuster. And what’s come to pass is about 85-90 percent of my friends now are gay. Cause I live in the middle of one. I live one block from the geographic hub of gayness in the western hemisphere. And it’s a very cool neighborhood. I love it.
Mike: A lot of the merchants here aren’t making a killing. Realizing that and seeing that there are things that are needed . . . I notice for example at the coffee shop I’m going to now that the wall getting scuffed up. I’ve got a woodshop in my basement and I made up a chair rail. I don’t know, a 20 foot long strip of wood and went in and bolted it to the wall so that the chairs would scrape against that. Some of the benches outside were falling apart so I was always bringing over my tools and tightening up the the stuff or replacing broken boards. You know proprietors don’t have a lot of money to buy new stuff. So it was easy for me to just do it.
Matthew Linaman: My name is Matt Linaman and I’m a cellist. I discovered cello in my public school music program. I must have been 11 or 12 I think I actually started on violin in orchestra and then the first day I heard this kid trying to tune the cello with the teacher. It was like tunnel vision going right to the cello. I just loved the sound. So I went home that day and told my mom I wanted to get a cello.
Matthew Linaman: So when I was 14 my father got diagnosed with cancer. It was really advanced stage cancer by the time they caught it. And he didn’t have that long to live. So in that time I think I really used the cello as a way to sort of cope. As soon as my dad died. I sort of fused with the cello as sort of almost it felt like my soul trajectory.
Matthew Linaman: So I had just graduated from the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco. I graduated still totally in the fantasy of what my career would look like. It was a really inspiring vision for myself but not quite grounded in reality. My objective right after I got out of school was to get a studio of students. I had one private student who was this little 4 year old. I had no idea how to teach a four year old and the mom knew and little kid knew and I was just learning and experimenting. I decided to get a part time job while I was looking for more students . . . So I was sitting in a cafe in the Castro. And I look up to take a sip of my coffee and I see a flyer for the cafe that says that they’re hiring. So I immediately think this is a sign. So I decided to turn in an application right away . . . .
Matthew Linaman: I’m working at the coffee shop. And there were a lot of regulars that came in. So, over time, we sort of got to know what their orders were. A regular that came in everyday, twice a day, was Mike.
Mike: 6:30 in the morning 4:30 in the afternoon.
Matthew Linaman: I could usually start getting his coffee brewed as I was guessing he was walking down the block.
Mike: They just they see me coming and they just pour me a cup of coffee.
Matthew Linaman: He always got a black coffee of our choosing. No milk no sugar.
Mike: I have my own cup there . . .I’m not a coffee con-noisseur. If it’s brown and warm I’ll drink it.
Matthew Linaman: He was a favorite at the cafe. We all adored him. Another regular was David. He gets the amnesia roast. Medium sweet with cream.
David Clarke: Matthew’s just such a spirit that just talking with him makes you feel good. So it would always put a smile on my face to see how he was doing. And to see him behind counter.
Matthew Linaman: It was late June. I had just gotten off my shift at the coffee shop to get his phone call. I answer it and it’s my teacher. Jean-Michel.
Jean-Michel Fonteneau: I said, Matt, I found your cello.
Matthew Linaman: He had like total certainty. He had been encouraging me for a few years that I needed to upgrade my cello. So he told me about it and I said OK well how much is it. He was like . . .
Jean-Michel Fonteneau: For now just ignore the prices and just go and try it and see if you like it.
Matthew Linaman: So I said how much is this cello. How much money are we really talking.
Jean-Michel Fonteneau: The cello was priced at $125,000.
Matthew Linaman: He said that’s you know that’s what they’re going for these days. So I go oh OK. Alright well thank you for the call and I’ll check it out. Take care. And in my head I’m thinking–Thank you but that’s crazy. I’m just counting my tips from the coffee shop right now and I’m thrilled to have 23 bucks in my pocket.
Jean-Michel Fonteneau: I am Jean-Michel Fonteneau. Matt came to study with me when he was in high school. After that year he stayed four more years in college. So I’d like to go to violin shops. I visited Ifshan that morning in El Cerrito. He had two beautiful early 19th century French cellos. And I can’t resist in this situation so I tried the instruments for a good two hours. One of them was definitely the best of the two. And I immediately thought of Matt. I had this gut feeling that that must be the instrument. And of course the logical person in me was thinking well this is really expensive. So but at least I’ll mention that to him and he’d come and see. And we’ll start from there.
Matthew Linaman: There’s no possibility of me buying $100,000 cello. But it just so happened that I had to go into the shop that it was that it was out to get my current cello repaired. I was there so I was like well I might as we’ll try it. They set me up in a separate room and just in the middle is a chair and this beautiful cello. And then they had set out like three or four bows for me to try as well. Which I also didn’t realize at the time but the bows themselves were worth 25 to 30 thousand dollars. The sound was so beautiful. And something like I had never heard before. But I knew the price tag. And so I put it away and I went home.
Matthew Linaman: And I had to go pick up my cello the next week. So I went back to the shop and I was like well can I just try it again. I immediately felt a connection to the sound and just the way the cello felt while I was playing it. That day they were like oh you should just take it home just take it home and try it out for a week. So I ended up going home with two cellos that day; which is crazy that they just like I like take this $100000 thing. Like, I had taken BART to go to Berkeley. So I’m walking with two cellos on BART. So I was hitting the little turnstile. And then I had like a nightmare that night, of course, that like someone’s going to break into my house and I couldn’t sleep.
Matthew Linaman: So I got to keep it for a week. And at that time I wasn’t even really thinking that I could buy the cello. It was just a total pipe dream. So I was just having fun with it playing hours a day. And I think that’s basically when I fell in love with the cello.
Matthew Linaman: So at the end of the week the trial was up and I had to take it back to the shop . . . Basically I decided that I can either let it go and say well it’s just impossible or I can try . . . I had no clue how to go about achieving this goal. I didn’t even really know where to start. So I just created this online crowdsourced campaign. It was a 60 day. No I think it was a 30 day campaign. Which is crazy I thought I would raise $100,000 in 30 days. I didn’t raise the $100,000 but I did raise almost $10,000. It was sort of a stark realization like oh shit like I have a hundred and fifteen thousand dollars more to raise . . .. I spent a lot of time overwhelmed–you know, just like lying on my bed like freaking freaking out. I spent a lot of time freaking out.
Matthew Linaman: I had some faith that I could make it work somehow. But the fear often over-rided that. I was often just battling like the fear and the uncertainty of how I was going to go about doing it. And if I could do it. And if I was worthy enough to actually own a cello like this. Am I actually a good enough cellists to deserve this? . . . Because there was so much pain, and so much soul-stretching with this cello, I think it wouldn’t really let me give up.
Matthew Linaman: After one of my shifts I put up a poster for this fundraising concert. People were like–oh that’s such a nice poster. And then they’d sort of realize that it was me. People had no idea that I was a cellist. I was just working at this coffee shop. It was interesting b/c so many times had I gone into a cafe, with a suit on, carrying my cello, heading to some performance or something. And the barista would say something like- that’s really cool, I used to play cello, or I play cello, or I play violin. And I would sort of be like–oh, that’s really great, wow, like–keep it up. Best of luck. Now I was that barista. Seeing people come in with a cello–I’d be saying, “Oh, I play cello too” and I’d get the same response back.
Matthew Linaman: Two of the regulars in particular showed a lot of interest in the concert. And one of them was David who as soon as I put the poster up was was incredibly excited and he said oh my gosh I do real estate now but I actually am a trained pianist. The concert was literally I think the next day so he said Send me the information and I’ll be there. It was really my dream to be performing this cello as a soloist in a big hall and get to hear the cello fill the space. And share my music with people on this cello. David comes to the concert and was really excited about my project about fundraising and what I was working on and he told me that he just wanted to help me find ways that I could do it.
David Clarke: He was trying to raise an enormous amount of money. And I thought–this is going to be daunting for him. As a pianist I know if I walk into a concert hall to play with an orchestra, they’ll make sure that I have my choice of the finest nine-foot concert grand at my disposal. Not for a string player. A string player has to walk in with it–carrying it on its back. It’s quite a commitment beyond just making music of knowing that you’re going to have to make this investment in order to be able to do what you need to do. I hadn’t at that time formulated a plan but I had come to a conclusion that I wanted to find someway I could help. I said, “Hey, you know, I’m interested in what you’re doing. And was wondering if we might sit down when you’re not working and we can talk about how we might take it to the next level.”
Matthew Linaman: So David and I started working together creating some marketing things and planning our own joint recital and rehearsing, and after one of our rehearsals. David went to this dinner. And it just so happened that Mike was also part of the group. David’s all lit up and he starts talking about the project that he’s working on with me.
Matthew Linaman: The next day it was 6:30 a.m. and Mike came in while I’m making his coffee and he says to me, “When you get to the point in your fundraising where you might need a loan and I can be of assistance.” And I was stunned. One of the biggest challenges I had been having was if I can’t raise a hundred and twenty five thousand dollars–how am I going to get a loan. I was like 21 I think working at a minimum wage coffee shop job. No bank was going to give me a 100k loan. So there was one of my biggest obstacles and then this person just walks in that I had only really known through making his coffee and having the on and off conversation and basically offered to offered a huge solution to my problem. It was Incredibly generous.
Mike: He seemed like a very sincere and honest person who was struggling to get a start. There was a time in my life where I was struggling to get a start. It doesn’t hurt at all to help someone in need–when you see the need. So I just do it. It’s really easy to do. I got to this neighborhood in ‘87 and it was just sort of the height of the AIDS epidemic and it was a very sad neighborhood. I mean you know memorial services were going on all the time and there were people who were destitute and in need of help. I would just pay for things that people needed, like, buy glasses or a new dental crown or whatever. And what was neat about that was that instead of giving five percent of my income and wondering what the hell happened to it–hoping somebody somewhere to some system benefited from it. This was direct. I would just write a check to some dentist or to some opthamologist or what have you. And it was done. There was no overhead no administrative costs. It was just done. And I knew that my money accomplished something.
Matthew Linaman: So even with this offer from Mike to basically solve my problem, there was still one more thing that happened. Which was that the shop selling the cello decided to take the cello back to France to have it looked at by some experts. It had been attributed to this famous cello maker, Georges Chanot, but this cello doesn’t have a label. They said, “It looks like his cellos. It’s probably his cello. It looks pretty French. And it’s pretty old.” I was worried. I was like–it’s going to be authenticated and say yes it is a Georges Chanot cello and then the price is going to double if not triple. Or it’s going to come back and say no, it’s not a Georges Chanot, and then we’re not sure what’s going to happen. So it was gone for two months and during those two months I was worried that if they really did authenticate it to who they think made it, I Would have to just let the cello go.
Matthew Linaman: It had been 8 or 9 months that I’d been trying to buy this cello. And I was standing on the sidewalk. I’d just gotten off from a shift. And I finally get a call from the shop. The cello’s back And the owner has this very sad tone. “Well, you know, we weren’t able to authenticate that it’s a Chanot.” And so they lowered the price by $50,000. From $125,000 to $75,000. That’s when I knew, yeah, I could do it. I have $20,000. I can sell my cello and get this loan from Mike. My problem has been solved. And at that moment the shop owner, who told me this news in pretty somber tone, said, “So we can understand if you’re not interested anymore.” And I literally started jumping up and down. But on the phone I had to, you know, I was like “Let me think about it; I’ll let you know.” But I knew at that moment it was a done deal.
Matthew Linaman: Every time I take out my cello I feel this connection to its journey, and to its history, and to all of the hands that have miraculously brought it into my life and let it be part of my life, and let me be part of the cello’s journey. And I think about where it was made in France in 1830. I think about all the cellists that played it. The journeys that these people have gone through with the cello. I think about the wars it’s been through. All the things people probably had to do to protect it to keep it safe and in such great condition. And that this cello has been witness to all of this. So now that I’m part of this cello’s journey for a period of time, I’m going to play as much music as I can on it. And when my time is over, it’ll go on to the next cellist and play more music and take other people on wild, amazing journeys with it.
Mike: I don’t think Matthew was at the coffee shop more than six months and he was gone. The monthly check shows up in the mailbox and I go, “Oh, there’s Matthew again, right.” (laughs) Everytime I see him he’s he seems happy and I hope that continues. I hope he becomes YoYo Mah’s successor. I just hope he finds in life what he what he wants And that’d be a good thing.
Briana Breen: Thanks for listening to Lucky. You can learn more about Matthew and his music by visiting luckypodcast.org. We’ll be back in two weeks with our next episode. This season we’re featuring stories told by San Francisco Bay Area residents. But we won’t just be sticking close to home. We’re going behind the walls at San Quentin State Prison, to the site of a tragic plane crash in the midwest, and into the arena of professional international basketball. We’re excited to introduce you to some of the fascinating people we’ve met.
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Music in this episode was performed by Matthew Linaman, David Clarke, and is also from Blue Dot Sessions. Production thanks to Elyssa Dudley and Tony Gannon. Extra special thanks to David Clarke, Mike, Jean-Michel Fonteneau, and Bryan and Kristin Posner.
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