Shortly after the senior citizen center incident, that very same grandmother (I had 4) gave me my first guitar. I was at her house one day and there was a guitar sitting on the porch. That was not at all unusual. There were always different items and objects of all types wherever that lady went. Like I said before, she was a flea market monster. She’d go to a flea market with a load of stuff, set up a table, sell it all, and come home with all different stuff! just as much, usually. Like some Arabian huckster wheelin & dealin in the tchotchkes of her fellow wigged merchants. Knick knacks really doesn’t do it justice. she had trinkets and hummels and shit, but she also had antiques and marionettes, old tin wind up toys. Really, I could go on all day about this woman’s collecting habits and it wouldn’t give you any true sense of the density of treasures in her house at any given time. All items in constant rotation to what end, I’ll never know.
There’s a sense of history I’d like to try to describe. I don’t know if I’ll be able. I was 2 or 3 when I first met this woman, sometime in 1976. At that time, My mom and I lived in an apartment in far northeast Philadelphia. The building we lived in was probably built sometime in the early 60’s and so were the homes of our friends and family members. When my mom first started seeing my step dad, we went to his house and met his mother and nephew, Georgie, who he lived with. It was like stepping back in time. They lived in Kensington, which was a much older neighborhood, in a house that was built in 1910. Although they had only lived in the place for about 5 or 6 years, it felt more like 50. So many layers to take in. For instance, the entire living room was covered in brown corduroy. Like, I think Georgie had gotten all of this fabric and covered the walls with it. Then over top of all that, were dozens of family photos. It was a huge family. My dad was the youngest of 6. Then, there were these staggering window treatments. Again, I think they were all sewn by Georgie from crazy op-art textiles in the mustard, avocado, and rust palette of the day. Modern leather furniture, a barber chair, comfortable couches and much more filled the spacious living room with massive plant filled display window in the front that you could climb into and walk around in. There was a piano. There was track lighting, the first I’d ever seen, attached to the 12 foot ceilings. Georgie installed it so that it would be more theatrical when he and his friends rehearsed their drag show for a living room packed with senior citizens. They sang and danced and acted out The Wiz, and Caberet and A Chorus Line! Crazy Shit. That was just the first room. All subsequent rooms had a similar feeling. These were old style people, with older ways. Had my mom not met this guy, we would probably moved to the ‘burbs, to even newer houses and more disposable lifestyles, but as it was, we were able to catch this archaic wave and experience something that was well on it’s way to disappearing.
By the time I began high school, a little more than 10 years had gone by and Sarah no longer lived in that amazing house on Frankford ave. She got married to a fossil named John and moved into his house. It wasn’t quite the same, but she still inhabited the space with pack rat abandon. all kinds of stuff, everywhere, all the time. Lucky me. I showed up one day, just after I started 9th grade. It was just a few blocks from my new school to her house, so I think I’d gotten into the habit of dropping in on her from time to time. On the porch was a guitar case. I walked in and popped it open. Inside was an acoustic guitar with 2 or 3 old nylon strings on it. I took it out and started messin around. Then I put it away and went into the dining room and hung out with her for a while. I don’t quite remember the exchange, but at some point she said that if I wanted the guitar, It was mine. So very generous.
I took it home and knew that the first thing I’d have to do would be to get some strings. I knew exactly where to go. Just a few months earlier we moved to a new house in Frankford and now I lived right around the corner from a music store, Cintioli’s! It was only a few blocks away. I’d gone in a few times before, but it was the kind of place that didn’t want you around if you weren’t there to buy something. It was narrow and crowded with gear, and they didn’t want a bunch of kids hangin around, so they’d ask you what you wanted, then if you said “nothin” or “just lookin”, they’d tell you to beat it. This was perfect. I now had a reason to be there. I’d go in and spend as long as I wanted looking at the rows of guitars hanging from the ceiling, stacks of amps, microphones, speakers, all of it cool and mysterious. I walked over. I think I might have brought a friend with me because then, he’d get to hang around in the store too. I think I probably brought Brian. It was crazy. Within walking distance of my home in broad daylight was this whole other Rock and Roll world. All the dudes that worked there had either long, beautiful hair or award winning mullets. Except for the older guys, who I’d later find out were named Roger and Bennie. Bennie was much older and was in fact the owner. Bennie Cintioli. He was a player and builder and repairer of accordions. He and his family had opened the store god knows when to sell their accordions. I guess when rock took over, they transitioned to selling mostly guitars, and guitar stuff. I’m sure there were drums there as well, but not a whole lot.
Eventually, after we wandered around the place for a while, somebody took notice and asked me why I was there. What did I want. I said I needed guitar strings. The dude gestured to an entire wall covered in packages of strings. “What kind?! acoustic? electric? what size?!” he asked loudly, obviously annoyed. “Uh, um just regular, probably” is what I likely said. “Regular, huh? heh heh. What kind of guitar is it?” Immediately dude lightened up and became helpful. It was as if he was required to break my balls somewhat just to get things going. I told him it was an acoustic guitar and that I’d like metal strings and not nylon ones. I said I had no idea what gauge they should be. He sold me a pack of Martins with a 12 gauge high E string. It was a very rewarding transaction. The first of hundreds that would take place at that counter; learning experiences, every single one.
I went home and took the old strings off the guitar and tossed them out. I cleaned off the instrument. It was kind of cruddy and looked like it hadn’t been washed off in a long time. It was also clear to me that cleaning it would be 100 times easier without the strings on. Then I opened the new package of strings I had just bought. They were so bright and shiny and crisp. It was really exciting. I went very slowly. I didn’t want to screw anything up. I didn’t want to have to go buy another set of strings and tell the heads at the guitar store that I had fucked up this base level task. I put each string through the hole in the bridge and led it up through the tuning rod, then slowly turned the key to tighten the string. I wondered how tight it was supposed to be. I just stopped tightening when it seemed right. It probably took me about an hour and a half to put all 6 strings on and I really enjoyed the whole process. Then I wondered, “what do I do now?”