Dena Pappas burst through the front door of the Fourth Street Music store in San Rafael. It was March, 1976. Her bleached blond hair, ample cleavage, and skintight red pants made me think she was a displaced whore from the Tenderloin. I was there to learn to play the tenor saxophone, and Dena was my teacher.
I learned later that she was no slouch. She had a law degree, had attended Julliard, had retired from the Marines Corp, and played in the “All Girl Rock and Roll Band” at the Condor Club in North Beach. She was also hiding her lesbianism from her traditional Greek family.
We got deep into our lessons. I got nothing but praise. Playing next to her, I’d squeeze out one sour note after another, to which she’d yell, “It’s not about perfection, Rick! Let ‘er Rip!” Her support and enthusiasm were infectious.
At our sixth lesson, she said, “Sorry to say, I can’t see you anymore. I have to stop teaching. I have MS.” I was stunned, actually fighting back tears. I returned my rented horn, and did not see her again… until February, 1995.
Doing a little research, I located her living with her partner in a modest cinderblock house in Tempe Arizona. She was bed ridden and completely paralyzed accept for her head. She could still talk. The blond hair was now black and her nails were painted a bright red.
“Why did you come?’ she asked. “Because you are a remarkable person. Your energy and enthusiasm made me feel good about learning music. You even let me play your saxophone,” I said. “Why wouldn’t I?” she retorted. “Trust me, most music teachers don’t do anything remotely like that. You are unique,” I said. I leaned down and hugged her lifeless body. That was the last I saw of Dena Pappas. She died five days later.
Her partner asked if I wanted to buy her saxophone. I said “No thanks.” A big life mistake.