In his younger days, Colombian pianist Oscar García toured several continents playing Latin American music with popular bands. The experience was memorable. He stayed at luxury hotels, dined on exotic cuisine and rubbed elbows with star singers like Celia Cruz, Johnny Ventura and Willie Chirino.
Yet the gig García has enjoyed the most is the one he now has every morning playing the piano at a public dining hall for senior citizens in Sweetwater, known in Spanish as a comedor.
For nearly two decades, he has arrived at the Claude & Mildred Pepper Senior Activities Center at 8 a.m. Monday through Friday to bring musical joy to dozens of seniors who go to the center to socialize and play bingo, dominos and pool and enjoy a free lunch.
In Sweetwater, where many residents struggle to make a living, close to 17 percent of the population is over 65. About 500 benefit from social projects like the senior center, where English and citizenship classes are also offered.
García, who is in his 60s, arrives early to tune the piano and organ. Then he prepares the repertoire for the day and begins playing easy-listening songs to welcome the early arrivals at the center at 10600 SW Fourth St.
A recent morning, between lines of La Vie en Rose, García told the story of how he became the pianist for the senior center and how the seniors became his favorite audience.
I feel blessed by God for this opportunity, he said. These old people really enjoy what I do. It lights up their days.
It all started 18 years ago, when, tired of more than 20 years on the road on tours with the band Los Melódicos, García decided to settle in South Florida. He moved in with relatives in Sweetwater, where every morning he would walk his little nieces to the senior centers lawn.
One day I looked inside the hall and they were all just there talking, he said. And I said, the solitude of old age...
García walked in and asked if he could play a dilapidated piano he saw pushed aside to a corner.
It needed tuning but I played it anyway and they loved it, he recalled. They applauded and asked me to come back the next day.
The pianist spoke to the centers director and asked permission to bring his own organ.
More than a decade ago a city mayor offered to pay him a small stipend. Garcia, who lives in Homestead with one of his sons and his family, supplements that income playing the organ at churches and Jewish nursing homes.
With time, the audience turned more demanding and started to make requests of songs of their youth, especially Cuban boleros.
They lived the best era of music in Cuba, García said. So they have excellent taste and Ive had to study and learn songs to please them.
The most requested song: Guantanamera.
But there has been sadness. In his years at the senior center, he has made but also lost many friends. Some of them simply didnt show up one morning. Others have grown too old to get around.
Those are the saddest days, García said. I remember an old lady that I loved very much suddenly died of a heart attack while requesting a song.
When there is a death in the group, García says he stops playing for a couple of days. I do it to pay respect to a person who had fun with us and is no longer there, he said.
The man who enjoys the friendships of older people and lights up their days, however, admits that hes afraid of old age.
García is haunted by the fact that his father was sad and lonely as he neared death in Medellín, Colombia.
In part thats what motivates me to get up early every day and come to the center, he said. I know that when they go home, many go back to that solitude and I want them to at least go back happy.