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Benjamin Treuhaft Floats Pianos to Cuba

A big international operation is going on on East Seventh Street. Benjamin Treuhaft is in his apartment staring at a globe with lots of pale blue oceans and pink continents and going over the plans for his next brigade to move 50 pianos into Cuba. "Any day now, our Western contingent will be driving a semi truck, an 18-wheeler, full of at least one, maybe two 40-foot containers of pianos and moving them across the country to the Harlem River Yard, where they will be taken over the border and into Canada. As we speak, 15 pianos—well, there is also a harpsichord—are waiting in Oakland in a warehouse. The truck will pick up four more pianos in Des Moines, seven in Cedar Rapids. Next stop, Champaign, Illinois—there's a guy with a piano farm there. Then New York, we got about seven pianos here, and last

Montreal, where the pianos will be loaded onto a Maltese-built freighter and shipped down to Havana, traveling at 15 knots an hour for five days and five nights without stopping."

Treuhaft, 52, is a little depressed because he had wanted the pianos, accompanied by a troop of piano tuners, to go on a flotilla of 43 boats out of Key West, but "the Cuban government thinks it would be too dangerous, as pirates would be afoot. Anti-Castro Cubans from Miami might get wind of the operation and try to scotch it. The Cubans are smarter than me. But that's because they've been guarding against this longer than I have."

On the other hand, Treuhaft's background may give him some instinct. His parents were among the past century's more famous activists, as well as former Communists—the irreverent late writer Jessica Mitford and Oakland civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft.

The 50 pianos are scheduled to sail on January 18. This is Treuhaft's fifth Send a Piana to Havana international brigade. Pianos weigh 500 to 1000 pounds, some as heavy as a polar bear, but Treuhaft, an earthy-looking piano tuner with a bit of a stomach and a bandana on his head, is determined to get them into music schools in Cuba. His mission started, he says, on the night in 1993 when he was on his first visit to Havana with a freedom-to-travel group organized by Global Exchange in San Francisco—a protest against the U.S. travel ban that prohibits American citizens from visiting Cuba except for educational or humanitarian purposes. He was having a Mojito rum drink at the Tropicoco Resort and heard a hotel pianist try to tinkle out "Strangers in the Night" and he realized how horrible the piano was. Ivories were missing, among other things. Then he found out how awful all the pianos in Cuba, the most musical of islands, were—ravaged by the salty air and the comegen, the deadly tropical termite that "likes to mate inside piano wood from cold climates like Germany." From that moment on, Treuhaft vowed he would improve the piano situation, and formed his not-for-profit group.

Speaking from a living room full of open suitcases and a lamp that "fell over and blew up," he explains, "For many years they haven't been able to get good pianos in Cuba." Pianist Ruben Gonzalez, recently featured in the documentary Buena Vista Social Club, lost his piano to termites. "There has not been a lot of money to repair or buy new pianos. Music is a big part of the Cuban education. Students have had to train on pianos without bass strings or working pedals. Russian pianos—received in trade for sugar and cigars—were not very good to begin with. The old American pianos are completely rotted out."

Treuhaft has inspired tuners from the States and abroad to go at their own expense to teach the Cubans tuning tips. "The tuners now are mostly very old," he says. "As in England, most of the tuners are blind. They figure blind people can hear better."

This trip, Send a Piana will set up its first permanent piano rebuilding shop in Havana. Treuhaft has his Send a Piana chemists working on a termite-fighting formula. "I think it's going to be paper soaked with extract of chili pepper," he says. "I don't know. It could be a spray."

In 1996, Treuhaft says he was threatened with a $10,000 fine from the U.S. Treasury Department "for donating thousands of dollars of piano supplies to Cuba's National Museum of Music and tuning Cuban pianos for one dollar." They charged that he was trading with the enemy, a violation of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba that President John F. Kennedy signed in 1962, as the story goes, only moments after he purchased 1200 Cuban cigars for himself. The Embargo prohibits virtually all commercial transactions with Cuba.

"After a year and a half of negotiation, my lawyer said they would settle for $3500. I said they should pay me, 'cause I'm the one who did all the work. They never called back."

Treuhaft is not very happy in general with U.S.-Cuba policy for "denying Cubans medicine and food in the dim hope that they will revolt against Fidel Castro, which they haven't done in 40 years and have no sign of doing today." He has been issued a Commerce Department license allowing the export of the donated pianos to Cuba; he says one of the license's conditions is that the pianos are "not to be used for reexport or for the purposes of torture."

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.

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.'

"Finally Steinway called me two years later. There was an opening in the concert department. I went to all the concert halls in New York and tuned morning and night. I went to Horowitz and tuned his piano. Elton John. Whoever was famous stopped by Steinway to rent a piano. Tuning was quick, easy money. So piano tuning solved my whole problem. It solved every problem I had. I've never had a problem since, well, until I had one about true love."

A Steinway grand piano has tens of thousands of parts. Each part is subject to change, depending on shifts in lighting, air conditioning, climate, movement. A grand piano can go out of tune at a moment's notice. It is a massive situation to control, like trying to keep the universe in order in the midst of earthquakes, volcanoes, and hurricanes. When asked if the situation can make a tuner go mad, Treuhaft says, "You're romanticizing it. The maelstrom happens when you're not there. When you get there, the piano's out of tune, you whap it into tune and leave after an hour or so. A piano is really a simple mechanism. Every note has a hammer, a whippen, a key, and a damper and a string, and then there's the huge case. So it's not all that complicated. I just have to fix it. I don't have to build the sucker."

There are a few thousand tuners in the United States. (They earn around $65 to $125 per job in New York.) Those interviewed agree that they are fiercely independent personalities who do not survive well in a conventional work situation and have had a wide range of former professions. Tuner Paul Larudee says he was once head of a scientific team in Saudi Arabia for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration but then he started tuning pianos and it made him feel "refreshed and better." Stephen Marcy, Steinway's national service manager, says he was a sewer cleaner until he came under the influence of the famous Franz Mohr—he tuned Horowitz's piano, among others—at church in Long Island.

As for Treuhaft, when interrogated for the tenth time about why he suddenly took on a political cause in 1993 when he swears he remained distant all of his life from politics and the activist activities of his parents, he says, "It just happened." Asked if it was because he fell in love with a woman in Cuba or something—the twice married Treuhaft is always falling in love—and maybe he wanted to turn back ships or rather make them advance out of passion, he says, "No, in fact, the woman I'm in love with is Olga who used to sell poppyseed cake at Moishe's Bakery. She's Hungarian. She doesn't even like Cuba."

More likely it had something to do with his mother. Treuhaft began Send a Piana a few years before she died. It was "her favorite charity," he says. "She passed out leaflets until the very end."

Note: The black bag with the piano-tuning tools has yet to turn up.


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