Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Out and About in the East Village

In this weekly feature, East Village-based photographer James Maher provides us with a quick snapshot of someone who lives and/or works in the East Village.

By James Maher

Name: Ben Treuhaft (and Zsofi)
Occupation: Piano Tuner
Location: 7th Street between 2nd and 3rd Ave.
Time: 12:15 on Saturday, Dec. 17

I’ve lived in the neighborhood since 1998. I’m from Oakland. I’m a piano tuner and I had my piano shop in Berkeley for about 25 years. And then I got sick to death of the Bay Area. I was 50 years old and 50 years was enough, so I rented a Ryder truck and drove my whole piano shop out this way.

When I arrived I didn’t have any customers, although I was the big fish in Berkeley. My background was with the Steinway Concert Department and I had no trouble getting a gigantic clientele over there. I worked with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music even though I didn’t wear shoes until I was 35 years old. I was barefoot. I was a hippie, you know. Everybody put their shoes back on but I didn’t. I just went around with no shoes on because I figured it was so much more comfortable. It became almost a religion with me. I would go to the Conservatory of Music and I would pat around with no shoes. Then, I figured when I was 35 years old that I could make a little bit more money if I put shoes on. So I sold out and wore shoes after that.

I also started an idea called Send a Piana to Havana. I named it after Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army. It was an enema for Clinton’s blocked up Cuba policy. It was great for awhile. We got famous. We were all over the news. We were famous in Cuba too and everybody loved us.

Then everybody got bored with us. We started a piano tuning school there that was accredited. I was getting these big huge piano tuners to come in and do these annual brigades in Cuba. And it turns out that the Cuban authorities were pissed off rather than enjoying it because they stopped helping us. We now think that they think that we were corrupt, which is really weird. We’re finding this out now. We don’t know the end of the story yet. We still get thanked all around the world in concert.

Let me tell you the best thing about moving out here. When I got here, even though I didn’t have any customers, the few I had were jaw-droppingly better than the ones I had in Berkeley. The people are much more interesting here than my cohorts in the Bay Area. It took me four years before I got any clientele, and then it blossomed from there. I have a little piano shop on the Lower East Side, on Essex and Rivington. It’s a little rat hole. I’m going to keep it even though we’re moving to Edinburgh [this week], to Scotland. We’re having a garage sale now of our furniture and seven pianos.

My wife is a scientist and she got a job at The University of Edinburgh. We’re moving there for a few years at least. She moved to the neighborhood the year before I did. She was from Hungary. I'm Hungarian also, and in 1999, I was in Moishe’s around the corner and my wife-to-be was working there ... I said, “Hey listen, I like you Olga ... come and work in my piano shop.” And she said okay and we worked together until she said, “You know, my dream is to be a biologist.” I told her to pursue that and six years later she’s written nature articles, she’s like a big Ph.D., and she’s got post-doc offers in Japan and Scotland. She’s amazing.

Paul’s "Da Burger Joint" — that is one of my favorite places in the world. Also, I like McSorley's but it’s only good in the afternoon. And one last favorite thing, Colin Huggins — the Crazy Piano Guy. He plays under the arch in Washington Square Park and he’s one of my absolute favorite customers. You tune the piano outside with everybody around and it’s so nice and when I’m done he lets me sit under the piano and lie there for awhile and listen to the music. He’s a very good pianist. Under the piano, under a grand piano, is the best place to listen to music. That’s my other favorite place in New York, under his piano.

James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.


xootrman said...

Very interesting guy. I've spoken to him a couple of times myself. It's hard not to but I discovered much more, thanks to James.

Hey19 said...

We had this great jazz pianist live w us for a few months when I was growing up. He would play the piano for like 8hrs a day, and our dog would just lay under our piano all day and listen. So I guess she agrees that that is the best place to listen.

Anonymous said...

this is by far my favorite one yet! so inspiring! please keep them coming.

esquared™ said...

"so I rented a Ryder truck and drove my whole piano shop out this way". The East Village Dream.

Nowadays, people rent a Ryder or U-haul truck and drive their whole suburban life and neighborhood out this way.

I'm telling you Mr. Maher, you need to publish a book. And/or have an exhibit of this series.

+ 5♪s: ♪ for Zsofi; ♪ for Olga;
♪ for Ben; ♪ for James; ♪ for this series.

-- still having too much eggnog

Anonymous said...

Cool profile! I just saw these two on my block this morning getting off their bike.

bride of 7th said...

this weekly feature is a treasure! bon voyage ben and zsofi. hope to see you back here soon.

Marty Wombacher said...

Wow, what an interesting guy, love his stories and that's a great photo! It's always a highlight of the week to read these!

Anonymous said...

I worked with Ben sending pianos to Cuba one summer. He's an incredible guys. Bit of a mad-scientist type. He was all over the place, but always pulled things together in the end. Thanks for interviewing him. He'll be missed in the neighborhood.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

I love that he wore no shoes for 35 years and he's inspired me to lay under a grand piano the next time I hear one in action. So sad to be losing an interesting neighbor!

glamma said...

That last line literally brought tears to my eyes.
Please do a book!
Just wonderful.

BabyDave said...

It's really sweet that (as I read it) he met his future wife when she was working at Moishe's.
Also, must try the piano-listening deal before the Steinway showroom closes.

Uncle Waltie said...

Great story, EVG. There are still at least 2 hippies left in the East Village. But I always wore shoes.

Anonymous said...

Can this guy interview one of the santacon santas next year?

Ken from Ken's Kitchen said...

Under the piano, under a grand piano, is the best place to listen to music.

Ha -- another great one in a great series!

onemorefoldedsunset said...

I loved reading this. Ben works with a friend of mine, the pianist Beth Levin - some team!

Charles Darden said...

I have known Ben since the Berkeley days. I was a friend of his mother Jessica Mitford. I moved to the East Village many years before he arrived. I am a pianist/conductor and I jumped for joy when I saw Ben on the street in the village one day. He has tuned all of my pianos. He IS one of the best tuners in the world. Edinburgh will find this out especially during the Festival time. When I visited Cuba several years ago, his name was mentioned all over and they are so thankful to have had him send pianos there. Edinburgh is about to get a bolt of lightening and a great guy. Don't be fooled Ben is one of the best piano technicians in the world. He did leave a pastrami sandwich in my grand piano after a tuning my grand piano. I guess he was in a hurry to get to the next job. So I ate the sandwich. May God bless Ben and his wonderful family. He should have no problem in Great Britain. After all, he aunt is the Duchess of Devonshire.