There has been many a time when I have sang for my supper. At a neighborhood BBQ or friend’s dinner party or… ‘in between gigs’ when I have busked on trains and railway stations, in airport lounges, on street corners and in numerous restaurants and bars… the guitar case open to the generosity of patrons, passer’s by and or a fellow traveler or two willing to throw in a few coins to say ‘thanks for the music’.
It is a common thread of the minstrel’s conversation to share the best and worst stories of our touring days. I could write a book about my own travels but for now let me share one of the better tails I have heard to date.
Thomas is more a friend of a friend, our paths only crossing the once, but it was during one of these muso’s get together’s that I heard him tell this remarkable honeymoon story. It took place over thirty years ago but it sure was a honeymoon with a difference.
Thomas and his young wife Angie had planned to hitchhike their way through Italy for 3 months. Neither had come from what we would call money and had convinced friends and family to give them cash rather than wedding gifts… all of which amounted to two return tickets from NY to Rome, and a very modest amount of $650 for food and lodgings.
They would stay in the cheapest of Pensione’s and live on a diet of bread, coffee, pizza, pasta and house wine… but they were in love and expected to have the time of their lives, which they did; their journey made even the richer when Thomas had his wallet stolen by a pick-pocket in Napoli.
Thomas and Angie had caught the early morning train to Napoli from Salerno. It was to be a day trip, a rare occasion to spend a bit more than their daily budget, to purchase a few trinkets and leather goods from the Gypsy markets for friends and family back home. They had just boarded the train for the return trip to Salerno when Thomas felt the tug on his jacket. The train was packed and at first he thought it was just someone bumping into him. But out of habit he checked his coat pocket. His wallet was missing. He turned around as the suspected thief ran out of the train. Instinctively,Thomas gave chase.
Angie, worn out from a day’s walking in the Mediterranean sun had nabbed a seat on the train. It wasn’t until she arrived in Salerno that she realized Thomas wasn’t on the train with her. Slightly worried at first, Angie would surmise that Thomas had been ushered off the train by a guard (they had both experienced this before with overcrowded trains in Italy) and so was sure that he’d catch the next one. She exited the station and walked down the hill towards their rented room; her plan, to have a lazy afternoon nap before sunset and, their planned walk along the beach for a slice of pizza and glass of Chianti.
It was dark when Angie woke. The clock on the bed side table ticking towards 9pm… and no Thomas beside her. Now she was worried.
Thomas had chased the thief up the stairs of the station and wasted an hour scouring the market crowd. There were twenty or more teenage boys who looked just like the young thief. It could have been any one of them.
He then spent another hour at the Polizia Locale, trying to explain (without reward) the theft to the desk sergeant who ‘speak’a no Inglizh’. Thomas would fill out a bunch of forms and then wait another hour to see a Judge who did ‘speaka some Inglizh’ enough at least to explain that this was a common crime against tourists, that he should ‘forgid-aboud-id’ and return to Salerno, wiser for the experience.
When Thomas walked down the steps of the Polozia Locale he was frustrated, he was tired and he was angry, more at himself than anything else. How could he have been so careless? All their cash was gone and he’d have to cancel their emergency only American Express card too. What were they going to live on? What was he going to tell Angie? He just hoped the passports were still in her hand bag and that she had made it back to their hotel.
It was getting dark and Thomas needed to find here ASAP. He didn’t want to risk hopping on the train without a ticket. He’d heard that the Carabinieri loved throwing tourists into the cells for a night or two and didn’t want to make it any easier for them.
He would have to make his way down to the coast road and hope he could hitch a ride with someone who understood enough English to realize that he was heading south to Salerno.
Drawn by the aroma of the Pizzeria Thomas wandered across the street and peered through the window at all the happy couples and families eating their pasta and their pizza and sipping their rosa vino. Boy was he hungry all of a sudden.
The owner of the Pizzeria, a jovial middle aged man, his apron stained with blobs of tomato sauce and red wine, came out to greet the new customer. He waved Thomas in, pointed to a table and gave him a menu. Thomas thanked the man with his best Italian hand gesture and waved a no, no… but the manager would not take no for an answer and tried to get Thomas to sit. Thomas held up his hands for the man to stop… and then he opened his empty pockets to say, “See… I have no money”.
“Ah!” said the rotund manager, before shouting an order to someone in the kitchen. The manager pushed Thomas down into his chair as the manager’s wife, a speckle-gray haired lady even more jovial than her husband… rushed over with the a slice of pizza and glass of wine. When Thomas protested the manager put one hand on his heart and waved the other around the room… and said “Miei Amici… !”
Thomas understood enough of the gesture and grabbed the man’s hand to say thank you… but was waved away. “Mangia, Mangia… Eat, Eat.”
Thomas duly obliged and before he had finished the slice of pizza another was put on his plate.
It was when he was sipping his wine that he noticed the guitar hanging on the wall above him. He stood on the chair, pulled the old nylon string down and started to tune it. The first song that came to mind was “You Got a Friend” and as he sang the line “when you’re down and troubled and you need a helping hand” his eyes welled up with tears and he had to take a moment before he could continue.
When he finished that song the room exploded in applause and another glass of wine was placed on his table. And so it was that Thomas sang another song and another and another. The manager took a seat near Thomas, glass of wine in hand, his countenance beaming with pleasure as if it were Thomas who had given him the greatest of gifts. A hat was soon being passed around, the manager himself throwing in a wad of notes.
After his 3rd glass of wine and, when his repertoire had run dry, Thomas pointed to the place on his wrist a watch might have been to say “it’s late and I must get going”. This instigated a loud groan and then another hearty round of applause. Several patrons gave him a standing ovation. Thomas stood up and bowed which in turn initiated an even louder cheer and soon everyone, young and old was rushing over to shake his hand, kiss him on the cheek, pat him on the back or tell him how much his performance had meant to them. Or that’s what Thomas thought they were saying, for he understood not a word of it.
When he tried to put the guitar back up on the wall, the manager cried out a loud “NO… NO… è tuo, è tuo.”… Which Thomas understood by the hand gestures of everyone in the room to mean… “It’s yours…. The guitar is yours.”
Thomas was overwhelmed and not knowing what else to do he sang a teary version of:
When the moon hits your eye
Like a big pizza pie, that’s amore
When the world seems to shine
Like you’ve had too much wine, that’s amore…
This got the loudest of cheers and it was the new wave of hugs and kisses that saved him from having to sing anymore… which was somewhat of a relief, as these 4 lines from the old Dean Martin classic were the only ones he knew.
Thomas would eventually make his way out of the restaurant… after another glass of wine, several Grappa’s, a double espresso and many more hearty hugs and kisses from the proprietor, his wife and the patrons.
He walked towards the station feeling like the richest man alive. He had been rescued by a bunch of strangers who had given him a meal, their love, a guitar… and an envelop full of cash… plenty enough for a train ticket to Salerno and, according to Angie’s daily budget, at least a week of travel expenses.
It’s one of those stories that sounds too good to be true.
It’s one of those stories that Angie didn’t believe at the first hearing; her husband stumbling in the hotel room at midnight reeking of pizza and wine… strumming an old guitar and singing It’s Amore.
But it would be the gift of the guitar that helped Thomas earn back the money that was stolen. For night after night, as they made their way back towards Rome, it was in Pizzeria’s, Restaurants and Pensione’s, that Thomas sang for their supper… while Angie passed the hat.
If you have a better honey moon story than that, I’d love to hear it.