Christmas 1989. Anchorage. Home from school for the holidays. Hired to play amongst the escalators at Nordstrom along with my friends Marjie, Stephen, and Paul, all of whom were also home or visiting from Northwestern. We were a tight bunch. The gig came and went, the harried shoppers either indifferent or pre-occupied with their task.
Hey, let’s wander around the mall and do some shopping ourselves. Okay, but I don’t want to lug my instrument around. A relatively warm night, perhaps in the 40’s. Perhaps one reason why…
We left the instruments in the car.
Besides, Paul had a double bass. And I was carrying a double case, with two violins in it. I had come with Paul & Marjie in his parents’ Subaru wagon. So we deposited the instruments in the car. Facing West on Fifth Avenue. Under a streetlamp. 8:15-ish. A busy street. We anticipated a 30 minute excursion. Stephen had driven himself and opted out.
Paul, Marjie and I wandered the mall for a while. It was starting to close, so things were winding down. I’m sure one of us purchased something of some sort. Students don’t have a lot of cash, though. How no one on the street managed to witness the events going on outside is a complete mystery.
In the car, pelletized safety glass radiated from where it had once formed the rear window on the driver’s side. Next to the sidewalk.
A simple smash & grab. Though surely they had opened the rear hatch to remove Paul’s bass. The fiddles were easy to carry off, but the bass? What were these people thinking? How do you hide that?
One violin I already owned. The instrument that had carried me through high school and into college. A warm, though slightly anemic Strad knock-off of unknown ancestry. The other violin I was hoping to own. It belonged to my teacher back in Chicago. A very interesting fiddle dubiously masquerading as a Gagliano from the 1790’s. The time period was right, but that’s about all it had in common with a true Gagliano. [UPDATE February 2010: I was wrong about the time period. It’s more likely from the latter half of the 19th Century. A recent appraisal by Jim Warren corroborates this, along with the supposition that it’s of Bohemian or Southern German origin, perhaps made in the shops of Mittenwald.]
I was in love with this instrument. I stood there on the street and thought about the moment earlier that fall when I’d first seen it and played it. This fiddle made me want to practice, which is no small feat.
The next morning, a terrified, guilty phone call to Mr. Kartman confirmed my fears. It was not insured. Wouldn’t have been covered anyway since it was stolen from a vehicle. The leather-trimmed double case was also his. I was dead.
Mr. Kartman had acquired this instrument at an auction, where he found it in pieces. Good wood, he thought. He had it rebuilt. Along with the clearly inaccurate label, a crack on the belly near the soundpost kept its monetary worth in check. But I liked to imagine that the flawless repair (Kenneth Stein Violins, Evanston, Illinois) had only improved the sound. A slightly elongated body and imperfect detail work belied the otherwise excellent construction. Caramel varnish bore the years proudly. How many violinists had played this instrument and who were they? I was dead.
My parents, from whom I felt varying levels of fury and empathy, informed me that they’d been planning to purchase it as my Christmas gift. I was dead.
The police were efficient, thorough, and genuinely interested in the case, and it fell to detectives in the motor theft division who were clearly eager for something unusual to occupy their day. They took all the information we could throw at them. And they told us to sit tight, be patient, and avoid spooking the thieves by advertising the theft.
We all agreed to ignore the detectives. The next morning, flyers appeared in downtown Anchorage describing the situation, the instruments, and their cases. The flyers offered a reward. We notified the violin and music shops. We notified all our friends. And later that day, the phone rang.
Marjie’s violin was safe and sound. A woman brought it forward claiming she’d received it as payment for her , uh, “services” the night before. Now she wanted the reward money. She got it, but unfortunately didn’t provide much more information about the bass or my fiddles.
Time was precious. We had to return to school in a week. And we feared the instruments might leave the state. We also hoped the thieves were just opportunistic and largely ignorant of what they had pilfered.
There were 23 pawn shops listed in the telephone book at that time. We called every single one, told our story, and listened. We visited several, told our story, and read their faces. They took our numbers and said they didn’t deal in stolen merchandise.
Days passed. We were desperate but hopeful. When my father left the room, my mom and I would start plotting. The two of us had located a convincing advertisement and placed the call one late evening. On a table next to a bed somewhere in the Lower 48, a phone rang. I was a little suspicious: the psychic hadn’t sensed our imminent communication and remained awake. She was groggy, and asked that we call back in the morning. No. I unloaded the whole story onto her. She grudgingly admitted that we were “close” to finding the fiddles, but things remained “cloudy.” Mom starting digging into her purse for a credit card.
“What are you doing?!” came the voice from the bottom of the stairs. Children must be genetically programmed to react in terror at their father’s voice. My dad is one of the most gentle, non-violent men I’ve ever known. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he possesses a great store of potential wrath.
As quickly and quietly as possible, I said goodbye and hung up. Without paying. A certain karmic guilt stuck to me for years until I visited another psychic… another story.
My mom tried to convince my dad that it couldn’t hurt to consult a psychic. My dad wasn’t convinced. He trotted out several pieces of damning scientific evidence against the existence of unseen, and therefore undocumented forces. None of this mattered to me, since the psychic had told me exactly what I wanted to hear: that we were close.
The phone rang. Now, a telephone—especially the uncastrated variety with percussive bells intact—rings differently when you’re waiting for a particular call. The walk to the receiver becomes laden with anticipation and/or dread depending on whether you hear a chorus of trumpets or the whipping scythe of doom. Within the echoing vastness between each ring, you wrestle with the fates, vow to change your ways, plead for or even demand a certain outcome. You feel simultaneously all-powerful (this is meant to be!) and all-vulnerable (I’m a schmuck who doesn’t deserve to win). What you do not feel is all-knowing.
We raced to police headquarters. The detectives were very proud, and with good reason. There, sitting on a desk, was the violin case. It seemed to open itself for me—are you sure you want to see what’s inside? What if it’s damaged or destroyed? What if they used it as an ashtray? What if it’s empty or one of the fiddles is missing?
They never told us which pawn shop it was. They were perhaps afraid we’d retaliate in some way. A customer had seen someone selling the fiddles to the owner and had called the police. They paid a visit and threatened to close it down unless the owner was forthcoming. He had taken the fiddles home, since he apparently planned to “keep them and learn how to play.”
Remarkably, the only thing amiss was an over-tightened bow. The fiddles were perfect. Pretty much in tune, even. The detectives looked at me expectantly. I don’t remember what I played for them, only that it felt really, really, really good to have the instruments in my hands again.
Paul had actually been borrowing a bass from his former teacher. He had to leave Anchorage and return to school with the bass still missing. I’ve always been amazed that the largest instrument would be the most difficult to track down. Paul’s mother finally located it about three months later in, of all places, a pawn shop north of Anchorage. To expedite matters, I think she paid $50 to buy it back. Its neck had broken off, probably when the thieves yanked it out of the car, but it was repairable and otherwise in fine shape.
I eventually sold my “student” instrument a few years later and like to believe that it helped another violinist to get into a school somewhere. I’ve been playing on my poor-man’s Gagliano for over 13 years now and I never get tired of it. I’ve also used the same bow for all that time, though I keep trying to locate a better one. A bow is just as personal and unique as the instrument itself.
My fiddle goes just about everywhere with me. When I leave it at home I worry about it. When I fly, I gear up to defend it against being thrown in with the checked luggage. And when I drive somewhere, I never leave it in the car.