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Benjamin Treuhaft Floats Pianos to Cuba

After five brigades, Treuhaft has become quite a hero on the island. A video documentary of one of his visits shows him and his troop of tuners with small tools diving inside pianos at a music school on the former grounds of the country club where Nixon played golf with Batista. There is a scene of Treuhaft breezing into the Havana airport, greeted by fans wearing crocodile, rabbit, and elephant costumes for the occasion. Later he is seen moving through the city with its peeling pink, blue, and yellow walls, happily pedaling his three-wheeler and then walking along the boardwalk dressed as a cardboard piano.

Treuhaft came to the attention of the Voice a few months ago when a sign appeared on a tree near Kiev on Seventh Street reading: "Missing. Black bag. Reward $50 for its return. No questions asked. Fuck the police." There was a phone number. He explained that someone had swiped the bag with his piano-tuning tools when he ran into the laundry near his apartment on Seventh Street. When asked if he had come out of the '60s, regarding the "fuck the police" part of the sign, he said, Yes, and not only that but his parents were super-activists.

Treuhaft lives in his sister's building. "I'm about a year late with the rent, but she doesn't believe in rent 'cause she's a Marxist. She's a nurse, runs pain management at Bellevue. It's the same building I stayed in when I lived in New York in '68 for a few months while I got my act together. Then I moved to my own place on Pitt Street. It was great. We used to sneak into the Pitt Street pool late at night and get laid." Soon after, he moved to the Berkeley area. Two years ago, he came back to New York.

In the key of life: Benjamin Treuhaft, founder of the Send a Piana to Havana International Brigade
photo: Michael Sofronski
In the key of life: Benjamin Treuhaft, founder of the Send a Piana to Havana International Brigade

While Treuhaft polishes up some Steinway ivories with auto compound and rummages inside a cigar box full of old key clamps in his tiny Underwater Piano Shop on the Lower East Side, he explains that the shop is called Underwater "because when I was a hippie in the '60s, we were going to make underwater pianos and communicate with dolphins." He takes a puff of his Cuban Cohiba cigar (as Winston Churchill reportedly said about himself, Treuhaft "always has Cuba on his lips") and says he moved East in February 1998 because "I wanted to go live on another planet. I was fed up with tuning the pianos of wealthy baby boomers in the Berkeley area."

A month after he moved here, he ended up in jail for 20 hours. "Everybody was depressed in there. It was horrible. One guy was in jail for stealing a used magazine from Starbucks." Treuhaft was charged with criminal mischief, a felony. He had sawed off and painted over street signs near the Cuban Mission to the UN at 38th and Lexington that Giuliani put up in 1996 to rename the intersection the Brothers to the Rescue Corner, commemorating four Cuban-Americans whose planes were shot down in international waters off Cuba. "They were raft-spotter planes, anti-Castro," Treuhaft says.

Treuhaft only became involved in the politics of Cuba in recent years. Why did he decide to devote the greater part of his adult life to perfecting pianos instead of governments like his parents? "I have a feeling my parents would have liked me to be a big leader, but I would have had to study Marx and be a Communist, and I'm not gifted at that kind of thing. You have to be a good student." When he began his piano tuning, his father remembers him saying, "I thought I would do something neither of you are good at."

All Treuhaft says he remembers about his childhood—Phillip Toynbee is all over his family photo album—in a black neighborhood in northwest Oakland is that "it was a spaced out existence. My parents were very, very busy, always going to meetings. We moved like four times. I could be as independent as I wanted as long as I got good grades. But I was always in trouble. I'd flunked out of St. John's, the Great Books school in Annapolis, then the other St. John's in Santa Fe. They wanted you to read a hundred books. I couldn't read one. I was like wandering around Berkeley in '68, the summer of love. I was terrible, mooching off my friends, smoking pot, trying to think of ways to make money. I walked by a piano store and did a double take. I thought this would get me out of all the trouble I was in.

"Victor Charles, the premier piano man in San Francisco, suggested I go East where they have piano factories. I hitchhiked to New York and went to Steinway. They burst out laughing at some hippie who wanted to work for them. I went to Zuckerman Harpsichord on Christopher Street. He was shipping harpsichords around the world. Harpsichords were big in the '60s. They had this tinkly sound that sounded hip. After about six months, I realized the harpsichord was not exactly what I had in mind. They're so prissy and pissy. The harpsichord racket doesn't lead anywhere. Most harpsichordists tune their own instruments. Then I worked at a big piano factory in Indiana, a town called French Lick. When I told my mother, she said, 'Don't talk dirty to me.'

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