Under the hood with Puccini, on Pietro

There are numerous definitions to the word “Bohemian” or, in Italian, “La Boheme.” A Bohemian might be someone from the Czech region of Bohemia or a gypsy, or the term could be applied to the Czech language. Here, we’ll use still another definition to wit: “A person with artistic or literary interests who disregards conventional standards of behavior.”

A couple of Sundays ago, the old Hippie (aka wife Stephanie) and I stopped at the Rio Mall still dressed in formal Sunday meeting attire. I left Rio kicking myself — here’s why.

I had often had the good fortune of finding unusual music tapes and CDs at the Rio Mall (even Frankie Yankovic and his Yanks featuring “Just Another Polka”). I looked on the rack and there, like magic, was what I was looking for, The Four Great Tenors including Luciano Pavorotti’s signature aria, Nessun Dorma. I quickly made my purchase. I was so happy to have found this CD that I told the woman behind the counter to keep the change — about 6 cents. I stood waiting by the door for the Old Hippie.

When I spotted her in the long line at the cash register, I called to her in my enthusiasm that I had found Nessun Dorma. Instantly I realized how pretentious this must have seemed to those present — a guy in a suit exclaiming over an aria that has pretty much become pop culture.

No one needs to apologize for liking opera — not even in Hampshire County, but such a public display needs an explanation. You’ll see that the origins of my fondness for opera, especially the works of Maestro Pavarotti, are anything but snobbish.

Coming out of winter each year, I begin to do my Saturday truck maintenance outside the shop with NPR playing on the radio and the bay door of the shop open. Until recently the Saturday lineup of shows included a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. I thus began associating Saturday opera with the arrival of warmer weather, longer days and increased outdoor activity. It gets even better.

Pietro Street in Morgantown is so steep that, if measured aerially it would probably be about 4 feet long. The street hosts a quarter mile shambles of quietly crumbling flapper-era houses, their roofs at every imaginable angle. Porches, where there are any, usually face the downhill side toward Decker’s Creek. Above is the pedestrian walkway of the Walnut Street Bridge. The bridge also hosts homeless encampments in the wooded area around its huge concrete foundation columns.

Shadows of the people walking above are projected by the sunlight beyond, though somewhat diffused on the ancient stucco of the houses. The population is partly West Virginia University students, artists and perhaps a smattering of more eccentric faculty. It’s a rather Bohemian atmosphere, not a single MBA candidate to be found. Frat boys don’t last long.

You can teach, train and give instructions, but you can’t impart “the touch.” So it goes with antique trucks. Daughter Jessica and her husband, Gabe, western of 7 1/2 Pietro St., Morgantown, found themselves between vehicles. We arranged to lend them our 1979 Ford F-150 pickup truck.

The hills of Morgantown are to automatic transmissions what the North Atlantic is to shipbuilding — the ultimate test. I detailed the technique to my son-in-law by which one might extend the life of the truck’s transmission in this terrain. Still, in a month’s time, the truck’s aging automatic transmission gave out and the truck waited at the bottom of Pietro Street for whatever would come next.

The area where the truck was thus reposed was a litter-strewn roadside at the foot of the hill, not far from Decker’s Creek. A chain link fence stood nearby guarding a power substation. An underground sewer junction occupied a manhole not far away, and its occasional fragrant releases mingled with the signatures of local cats. The road surface was of fine-packed, greasy limestone gravel. It would soon become greasier. This was to be the place where I would replace the ailing automatic transmission with a standard unit. This would also be the venue for my ultimate (so far) opera experience — hardly La Scala or the “Met.”

Surgery on the truck was to begin that Saturday. The Old Hippie and I arrived the afternoon before in her tool-laden Subaru. After supper, we all went out to 123 Pleasant St. for a few beers. Jessica introduced me to the young female bartender who also happened to be her neighbor on Pietro Street. Somewhere in the conversation I mentioned that I enjoyed listening to opera while working on old trucks on Saturdays. I’m not sure but I still suspect that this conversation may have launched a conspiracy.

The following day was a model of early spring, warm after the initial frost, clear and sunny with plenty of people out and about with moods to match the weather. As I worked on the old truck, a small audience would occasionally assemble on the walkway, briefly engage me in conversation about the old truck then disperse to soon be replaced by another little crowd.

Removing a heavy, greasy automatic transmission soon has one covered in automatic transmission fluid to which all manner of grit adheres. Still, I was happy to be working there and being part of that scene — like a pushcart vendor or corner baker. To add even more beauty to this already glorious day, opera music started pouring down from Pietro Street on the hillside above. The volume was quite sufficient and the music enchanting (I would learn later that, indeed it was our bartender from the evening before who was responsible for this most pleasurable serenade. The old Hippie walked down from the house bringing lunch and beer. We unloaded the tools from the Subaru, and she proceeded to drive our hosts around town catching up on errands. I continued to enjoy a pleasant and productive day.

I’m not very knowledgeable about opera and was even less so then. I didn’t get a chance to ask the woman which opera she had played. In the months to come, I kept listening for a particular aria that I had found especially memorable that day. Months became years until one night when we were watching a movie at home that happened to include this piece of music. “That’s it,” I exclaimed and fast-forwarded to the music credits. Nose inches from the screen, I stopped the movie, backed up, went forward and so forth until I finally made out the tiny fuzzy letters: “Nessun Dorma” from the opera Turandot by Giacomo Puccini, sung by Luciano Pavarotti.

As mentioned I finally found this music at the Rio Mall. Now that I’ve had some time to listen and study these works, it seems that I may have been mistaken (listening to Pavarotti makes the cat go nearly comatose — try it). The aria that I remembered may not have been Nessun Dorma but “Chi Galida Manina” from the opera Le Boheme also by Puccini. Anyway, I recall hearing mention of Le Boheme’s main character, Mimi, in the opera. I guess she could have played Turandot, too.

As the title implies, Le Boheme is a story told in a Bohemian setting. On Pietro Street, with its artists, homeless waifs and opera loving mechanic/writers nothing could be more fitting.

I didn’t get finished that day. Before I could schedule another visit to Morgantown, the Morgantown police who apparently considered the truck to be abandoned tagged it for removal. P.J.’s, on Jersey Mountain Road near Romney, came to the rescue and towed the truck home, promptly and at reasonable cost.

If you’re around Hampshire County often, then you’ve probably seen the truck moving about the community. It’s exclusively the Old Hippie’s now, and though it sports lots of surface rust and lichen, she won’t let me paint it. One would not normally assume that this old truck has its own opera history — a rolling “La Boheme.”


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