Fired in 2013 after 27 years playing piano for customers at the Tacoma Mall Nordstrom, Juan Perez began to worry.
“I thought that was the end of my career playing piano,” he said a few weeks ago at his home in University Place.
He did not worry long, and his career has blossomed as never before.
Two days after telling a News Tribune reporter that it was his dream to play at Tacoma’s upscale El Gaucho steakhouse, El Gaucho called. A week later, the Space Needle called. Perez has been playing at both venues, and at several others, ever since.
He has been playing piano ever since, and even since, the cancer returned.
It’s called synovial sarcoma. It’s rare, touching maybe two people in a million.
Perez has said he would willingly surrender to the will of God, but he will not go quietly where this cancer would lead him.
And now he doesn’t know what to do with all that money.
Nordstrom had decided it would “refresh the experience,” according to a company spokeswoman in 2013. Stores, said Tara Darrow, were “moving to recorded music. It’s more modern.” The Baldwin baby grand that Perez and other pianists played would not be a part of “the evolving experience in the stores.”
On that last Sunday in the store, Perez ended with “Piano Man” and “How Great Thou Art.”
And “Unforgettable” was the first song he played following a five-surgeon, 10-hour surgery last July to remove a tumor tangled near his heart.
A round of radiation followed surgery, and Perez has continued playing at El Gaucho, and at the Space Needle, Bellevue Square, the Bellevue Hyatt Regency, the Tacoma Yacht Club, Tacoma Golf & Country Club, the Old Cannery in Sumner and the Weatherly Inn and Narrows Glen retirement homes in Tacoma.
Recently, the management and co-workers at El Gaucho decided to help Perez with medical bills and other expenses. Management would donate half the house receipts one Sunday night, and the servers and other staff would offer all their tips.
Total raised: $31,000.
A co-worker established an online funding request.
Total raised: Nearly $12,000 at the time this story was written.
“He’s great. There’s been so much support,” said Joe Vego, El Gaucho general manager.
“He’s an inspiring guy,” Vego said. “He’s great at picking music that people can connect with. He always finds a way to convey that emotion.”
On that recent Sunday evening, he said, the restaurant was “standing room only. His whole family was there. The first thing Juan said was, ‘I have to go to work.’ It wasn’t about him enjoying the event — it was about him being an entertainer for others. Not himself, but for others. He’ll always be family here. Always, beyond his piano playing.”
“I was shocked,” Perez said. “I did not ask for help. I did not know what to say. There were so many people.”
Again he played “How Great Thou Art,” along with “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
“All of a sudden, people started clapping,” he said.
“It was very overwhelming,” said Susan Perez, Juan’s wife.
“I really don’t know what to do with the money,” said Juan.
“We’re OK. My children have good jobs,” he said.
That’s 10 children, seven sons, three daughters, all graduates of Bellarmine Preparatory School. Add 11 grandchildren, with one on the way.
Earlier this month, weeks after he finished that one-month course of radiation therapy, Perez turned 67.
“They cannot do surgery again,” he said. “I don’t know what to plan. I cannot plan for the future. I would like to do something. You don’t know what to expect. I don’t know what we’re doing, celebrating my life. I’m confused.”
The family, Susan said, regularly meets for potluck taco night and pizza night get-togethers.
“They want to make time for memories,” she said. “They want him to slow down.”
“My life is in God’s hands,” Perez said. “I know God has a purpose for me. My doctor doesn’t believe that I’ll live long. This is not an ordinary cancer. I keep asking him, ‘What do you think? How long will I live?’ He cannot tell me.
“I believe that there is still a mission for me. I believe that I will live at least two more years. I want to use this talent that God gave me, until he calls me.”
Perez intends to use the money he has been given to benefit the higher mission, whatever it might be.
“I already thought about buying maybe 50 blankets for the homeless and other families,” Perez said. “I called the Rescue Mission. I called other churches. What I would like to do is help high school kids, to keep young kids out of trouble. If we can start one new project for the community, I will be happy to spend this money.”
Until then, the mission is the music.
“Playing the piano is like therapy to me,” Perez said. “I forget that I am sick. When I play, I give my heart to the music. I offer it to God. Before I play, I practice for one hour at home. I ask the Lord what songs to play. I feel I’m trying to give a little hope if people are having are having a bad time. I think that is my duty, to entertain people. It is my duty to God and my employer.
“El Gaucho, the Space Needle, they trusted me,” he said. “I give my whole best — that I can take care of the customers. My duty to God is to entertain, not to get the money. I want everybody to be happy with the music.”
But for one son who is deployed with the U.S. Navy, the Perez family will gather together for the holiday.
“I want to pass along to my children the joy I felt when I was young, especially around Christmas,” Perez said.
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535