The pilot, the banjo, the cook and the Italian meal

(or my introduction to the ball-bearing Mastertone and Italian food)

Shortly after I starting hanging out at Washington Square in 1955, a tall stranger showed up carrying an old banjo case. He said he had bought the banjo, in the case, at a pawn-shop in Chicago for $65. He said he couldn't play much, but would love to hear the banjo being played. When he opened the case there was a 1925 RB-3 Gibson in mint condition. He took it out, and we all took turns playing it. It was a great banjo. He said his name was Hugh and he was working in New Jersey. Every few weeks he'd show up with the banjo and we'd all take our turns with it.

It must have been about 1957, that the playing stopped for the day and the suggestion was made to go find a place to eat. The search was led by Dave Van Ronk. Hugh packed the banjo and off we went. I was 16 years old and following all the older guys. There were about 20 of us, and we snaked our way through the Village to an Italian restaurant on (I think) Sullivan Street near Houston. Dave went in, came out and said they had a table for 20. So in we went.

The table at the restaurant was outside, in the back, behind the kitchen. The back of the building, down a few steps from the kitchen, was surrounded by apartment buildings on the left and back, and a tall fence on the right. The space was covered by a corrugated steel roof, and the table was along the width of the restaurant building.

The walk through the kitchen was a shock to me. I had always assumed that chefs wore white hats and the kitchens were spotless. Had I seen enough Italian movies it would not have been a shock. These chefs were large Italian men in their undershirts, all yelling in each other in Italian. The place was far from spotless. I thought it did not bode well in the sanitation department.

We all assembled and took our seats. Van Ronk sat halfway alongside the long end of the table and immediately took on the role of Christ at the last supper. I do not recall who else was there other than Bob Yellin and Hugh. I was seated in the place of Judas-- at the end.

The tablecloth was stained. The silverware did not look clean. And then the menu arrived. It was in Italian. I had no idea of what anything was. I made out that one dish was spaghetti with meatballs.
Well, my mom made that. It sounded safe. Everyone was drinking wine and having a fine time, and I just sat, wishing I could be somewhere else.

I had never had Italian food, although my mother made spaghetti using her own unusual process:
First, the long strands of spaghetti were broken into four-inch lengths so they could fit in the small pot of boiling water she always used.

Second, it was never stirred, so it all cooked into a single mass.

Third, it was drained and Heinz condensed tomato soup was poured over to give it a reddish-color. Of course, that which was not eaten was fried up the next day.

In all my memories of my mother's cooking I do not remember any black pepper ever being used. The only seasoning in the house was salt and sugar. There was not even a pepper shaker on the dining table. I never had tasted marjoram, cumin, or oregano. And certainly never any ground dried pepper flakes.

Then the food arrived. I had never seen anything like it. It was the largest bowl of spaghetti I'd ever seen with two huge two-inch diameter meatballs-- not the small hard rocks my mom cooked. I tried it. It was spicier than anything I'd ever tasted. I was certain that in the cook's carelessness he had put cleaning fluid into the sauce-- "Lestoil" instead of cooking oil. I couldn't deal with it. I sat and picked at it. Time was a blur, and we eventually found ourselves outside saying good-night.
I went home and waited for the results of such dietary indiscretion.

Certainly I was going to double over in the middle of the night and have an emergency run to the hospital.

It never happened. And I realized, in retrospect, that I sort of liked the food. A month later a few of us went to another Italian restaurant, and I quite enjoyed it. I was no longer a food virgin.

And Hugh? One day he said that his company was sending him back to Chicago. He gave his address to a few of us and asked us to keep in touch. I think only Bob Yellin and I did.

It turned out he was a pilot for Delta airlines.

In 1962 I got a phone call from Hugh. He was scheduled for a flight from Chicago to New York and then back the next day. Could I meet him at the airport? So my girlfriend and I went to the airport, met him at about 9:30 that evening and went back to her place in Brooklyn, where we played music till about 2 am, at which time I drove him to his hotel in NYC.

About a month later he called and said that his banjo needed work.

He'll send it over with one of his pilot friends. I went to the airport, picked it up, and put on a new head and set it up. I had it for six months and loved it. It was the main reason I bought the Granada ball-bearing I now play.

Hugh picked it up when he began a series of weekly runs to NYC. He was flying Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, New York. Then a one night layover, and the Atlanta, and Chicago on the return. We met regularly to play until the wee hours of the morning.

And then he got another schedule and I stopped seeing him.

I renewed my acquaintance with him when I went out to Chicago to cut the "Jessie's Jig" album with Steve Goodman. I stayed at his lovely house in Evanston-- right on the lake. His garage was taken up with an old Staggerwing Beech he was restoring.

He rented the top floor of the house (previously servant's quarters) to students from Northwestern University.

On one of my visits, he insisted I go out to dinner with one of the girls who was renting a room. I did. After a great meal and much conversation, she said, "You're pretty nice! What are you doing hanging around with a conservative reactionary like Hugh?" How could I explain? We had a lot of history together...

Hugh died, age 52, of a heart attack while loading a Christmas tree into his car. I have no idea what happened to his banjo. I'm still in touch with his ex-wife who lives in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

May 2005