Hands Down

My optometrist, a sage old character named Dr. Ultrecht, tells me that my contact lenses are starving my eyes of oxygen, and crowding my capillaries. This is little surprise, really, as I have a tendency to wear them for weeks at a time. And so I’m wearing my six-year-old wire-framed glasses.

In the rare instance that I wear my glasses, I am reminded of my grandfather, who I never met. Grandpa Bolster died in his sleep of heart failure when my mother was in her early twenties. I didn’t come along for a few years.

I visited my grandparents grave in Waterloo, Iowa, last week. I make a point of it every time I go home. I take flowers (always fresh cut roses, which are frowned upon by the cemetery), lay them at the base of the headstone, place my right hand on the cool granite and thank him for all that I’ve been provided.

In his absence, I have constructed an imaginary Grandfather, one warm and patient, kind and supportive, and proud. In his absence, I have sought surrogates. Mister Rogers is certainly one. Carlo Greco is another.

I met Carlo at his guitar repair shop in 48th Street. My Martin acoustic was suffering from a breakdown, its fragile rosewood neck separating from its hollow wooden body. Carlo, jewelers glasses perched on his gray temples, looked down and groaned with empathy. “I can fix this,” he said.

Carlo was the General Foreman of the Guild Guitar Company from 1959 until 1977. His primary charge during the tenure was to fly to the distant forests of the world and select woods for Guild’s guitars. He has hand built guitars for John Denver, Jerry Garcia, and Dire Strait’s Mark Knopfler.

Carlo’s guitar repair shop has stood on 48th Street for generations. It is a narrow, dusty room two flights up from the crowded street. Guitars and mandolins hang delicately from hooks along the wall. His handmade mandolins hang in fluorescent lit glass cases. “You play mandolin?” he asks in a thick accent while reaching under the counter. He places a richly detailed, mother of pearl inlayed instrument on the felt-padded counter. “I make this one.”

“How does one make a mandolin?” I ask naively.

“I carve by hand, Benny.”

Carlo carves his mandolins from a solid piece of wood. By hand. And Carlo calls me Benny.

48th Street is crowded with music shops: Manny’s, Sam Ash, Rudy’s. But the decades old, Ma ‘n Pop shops, like most of American culture, are suffering under pressure from the mighty high volume, low price conglomerates. Like Guitar Center.

Guitar Center, “The Nation’s Largest Musical Instrument Retailer,” opened it 100th store in Little Rock, AK, in 2002. They have a website with an “Investor Relations” section that lists IPO details, stock charts, analyst coverage, and copy such as “Guitar Center plunged into the new millennium with the forward-moving momentum of the previous decade and a vision of vast expansion.” Guitar Center sells thousands of $200 Japanese Fenders and Peavey amps.

Carlo has a hand-painted sign hanging above a nondescript store a few hundred feet off of the busiest, most-advertisment strewn avenue in the world. Carlo shakes your hand firmly, looks you in the eye, and calls you “Benny.” Carlo touches everything that passes through his shop with his own two hands. When I tell him how rare and wonderful he and his shop is, he averts his gaze, and says quietly under his breath, “Ooooh, thank you Benny. Thank you.”

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