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May 2015 Issue [Memoir]

In Search of a Stolen Fiddle

From the pawnshops of Portland to the con men of Craigslist

The fiddle came from a recluse. In 1988, Brian Skarstad, a violin maker in Pleasantville, New York, received a tip from a friend in New Orleans. A woman in the French Quarter had died in her apartment, and when police arrived, they found furs, jewelry, and somewhere around two hundred fiddles. Skarstad was a well-respected restorer of violins; he had sold instruments to musicians who had played with the New York Philharmonic. He flew to New Orleans even though his friend there was, in his words, “kind of a madman.” Skarstad recalls seeing violins stacked in moving boxes when he arrived at the woman’s apartment. The executor of the estate had invited Sotheby’s down. Skarstad offered $12,000 on the spot for all the instruments, sight unseen. The executor told Sotheby’s to stay in New York.

Violin © Serge Picard/Agence VU

Violin © Serge Picard/Agence VU

Most of the instruments in the “mother lode,” as Skarstad now calls it, were mediocre fiddles in rough shape. The identifying labels, which luthiers stick to the inside of their instruments, had been ripped out. Skarstad assumed that the reclusive collector had asked family members in Europe to buy the violins and remove the labels, so that U.S. customs officers wouldn’t know their value. But there were some finds among the piles of beaten German factory fiddles: Skarstad discovered a Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume that he sold for about $50,000, as well as a few good Czech violins from the mid to late nineteenth century.

When I was in high school, and playing a lot of classical music, my parents bought me one of the Czech fiddles. It was reddish brown, with a two-piece maple back and a fine-grained spruce top. The back and sides bore a deep flame pattern. The sound was rich and thick on the low end, smooth and forgiving up high. Skarstad estimated the instrument to date from the 1860s or ’70s. It felt heavier to me than other violins, its weight comfortable and familiar.

I visited Skarstad’s shop often. Sometimes I asked for adjustments — once I requested a lower nut and bridge, so I could play chords more easily, and another time I asked for fine-tuners, which fiddlers use and classical violinists don’t. Mostly, though, I brought the instrument in with cracks needing repair, the results of travel and my inability to keep the fiddle at a constant humidity. I’d smile and make up an excuse. Skarstad would smile back fondly. We both knew it was too fine for me.

Victims of violin theft often resort to predictable laments: “It’s like having my arm amputated, it was so much a part of me.” (Seattle Symphony violinist Maybeth Pressley, after her instrument was stolen in 1972.) “Losing it was like losing my voice, my soul.” (Violinist Tom Chiu, in 2007, after falling asleep on a subway and waking up fiddleless.) “The violin is an extension of ourselves, and to take it away is like losing a kidney.” (Jennifer Koh, on hearing about the theft of a $6 million Stradivarius in Milwaukee last year.) Like clichés, these surgical analogies are based in truth. To lose an instrument is to lose an essential piece of one’s identity. It brings its own solitary form of grief.

Last May I traveled to Portland, Oregon, to play a show with a singer I admire at a Mexican restaurant that had no sound system. We had to wait for the Trail Blazers game to end before playing. They lost. It was pretty forgettable, as far as send-offs for vital appendages go.

Two nights after our gig I went to dinner with some friends. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve left the violin unattended in public. As a friend parked his car I grabbed the fiddle, then reconsidered. It’s always awkward to bring an instrument into a restaurant with no intention of playing, and now it seemed unnecessary. Tattooed young men and women drifted around the streets, and the sun was shining over the city. It had been a wild spring. Shaken loose by the sudden death of a close friend, I had recently decided to quit my job and move to Wyoming to write full-time. The world felt newly open. I put the violin in the back of my friend’s Ford, along with my laptop and a few bags, pulled a cover over all the stuff, went to eat, and forgot about it. When we returned to the car, the light was on and the cover pulled back. Someone had smashed in the right rear window. Everything was gone. I felt ungrounded and nauseated. I walked away a few times, wanting to leave the scene behind, only to be retrieved by my friends, who told me the police were coming. When a night-shift officer named John Myers arrived, our conversation was brief:

Was anything of value taken?

Yes. A violin.

What kind?

A Czech violin.

What kind of case?

Black canvas, with the Leonard Gardner novel Fat City in the outer pocket.

How much was it worth?

Seven thousand dollars.

How old was it?

One hundred and fifty years, give or take.

The police in Portland recovered just 19 of the 338 instruments that were reported stolen there in the past year. Elsewhere, a few higher-profile cases have been solved: the stolen Stradivarius in Milwaukee, for example, was eventually found in an attic. But instruments worth $700 or $7,000 don’t receive the same attention. Some musicians have started affixing GPS devices to their gear. Most violinists and fiddlers don’t go in for that, though, being staid, Luddite, or a little of both. The identifying features of my fiddle were limited to the Gardner novel in its case, the reddish chin rest, and an imitation label bearing the name of Joannes Gagliano, an Italian maker, which Skarstad had stuck inside the body: a Luddite’s GPS.

A few victimized musicians have attempted to take matters into their own hands. The guitar tech for Radiohead, who goes by Plank, ran a blog called StringsReunited, on which he posted notices about stolen instruments. In Santa Barbara, California, a marketing executive and part-time musician named Chris Stone runs a similar operation. Eight years ago, one of his prized instruments was stolen in Seattle. “The police basically said, ‘It’s up to you if you want to get your guitar back,’ ” he told me. He started a website, Screaming Stone, which posts instrument-theft alerts on social media and online musician forums. Screaming Stone has recovered at least $500,000 worth of gear since it launched. Stone runs it for free. “My recovery rate is only seven percent,” he told me. “Better than the cops, but not great. I figure it’ll get me one spot closer to heaven, if there is one.”

Following the theft of my fiddle, I alerted Stone, along with every instrument store in the Portland area. On the advice of friends who have had instruments stolen, I made a flyer offering a no-questions-asked $600 reward — enough to attract a petty thief, but not enough to raise suspicions about the violin’s worth. The notice went up on Craigslist and Facebook, as well as on telephone poles in Southeast Portland. I spent hours on Craigslist and eBay, and struck up a one-sided correspondence with Officer Myers, who had made the mistake of giving me his cell phone number. I called, and called, and texted, and called, and then, when I didn’t hear back, I asked my brother-in-law, a lawyer, to call. Around midnight, my phone rang. It was Myers, promising to expedite the police report and begging me to call off the lawyers. “Have you checked Craigslist?” he asked. Something Stone told me came to mind. “The police have better things to do,” he’d said.

After a couple of weeks of digging on Craigslist and eBay, I considered moving on. The violin was insured; I could now afford to get a new one; maybe it was time to stop clinging. That’s when Larry called.

I was helping a friend move a bookcase at the time. “Somebody missing a fiddle?” yelled a hoarse voice. I dropped the bookcase. The man on the other end of the line, one Larry Norton from Alton, Missouri, claimed to have bought my fiddle and laptop for $300 from two kids in Portland. He’d seen my ad on Craigslist and wanted to do a good deed. I cringed — $300 for my arm, my voice, my kidney. Larry had a proposal: If I’d wire him money to an Albertsons in Alton for the shipping, he’d send the violin to my office. The secret code for our transaction would be iced tea.

We spent about forty minutes on the phone. He asked most of the questions, claiming that he wanted to be sure he would be sending the violin to its rightful owner. Only when I asked to see a photo of the violin did the conversation turn sour.

“You know what, buddy, I don’t like the sound of your voice,” Larry said. “You calling me a thief?”

“No,” I said. “It’s a no-questions-asked reward.”

“Here I am, doing a good thing. I bought this property and my wife told me I had to return it, because people care about their violins. And now you’re accusing me? What kind of thief calls?” he railed. “I’m gonna get my money! The way you’re talking, this thing might be really valuable! I read about that Stratocaster in Milwaukee. I’m going to get my money, buddy!”

Larry hung up, I called back, he hung up, and I called back. The conversation turned profane, then abusive. This time I hung up. Still, a part of me believed that Larry might have the violin, or at least know the thieves. After a few fruitless calls to the Alton police department, I searched for Larry’s cell phone number online. A forum I found suggested that the number belonged to a con man who, using a variety of names, had attempted a similar ruse with other people who’d posted rewards on the Internet. I once again harassed Officer Myers, and then, after receiving no response, called the main number for the East Precinct. Their response brought to mind a timeless quote from The Big Lebowski — They got us working in shifts — but eventually I spoke to a detective on the city’s pawnshop beat. He’d issued an alert on stolen violins, and told me that any Portland-area pawnshop that bought a fiddle would have to wait thirty days before putting it up for sale. He suggested I wait a month, then travel to Portland. “Pose as a buyer, not someone looking for stolen property,” he said. “Don’t call, that’ll raise suspicions. Just show up. Call us if you see it.”

Silver Lining Jewelry & Loan is big. It occupies the corner of a block in a tony neighborhood in Portland and is the only pawnshop in the city with multiple wings: one for jewelry and one for instruments. The central part of the store contains the firearm desk and a display that includes three-foot-high statues of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in Blues Brothers attire. When I walked in I saw three violins in the window, Chinese and Romanian things with price tags in the $100 range. I made for the instrument wing, where I found two thickset guys trying out mid-range guitars and complaining about their dead strings. There were no other violins.

Two pawnbrokers, Jim and Rich, sat behind the counter where the buying and selling happened. I got in line behind a thin man in a cutoff T-shirt stenciled with a Confederate flag and a bad ass choppers graphic. He dropped a trash bag full of DVDs at the counter and went to check out the handguns. I approached Jim. “Have you had any violins other than the three in the window recently?” I asked.

“Are you missing one?” he asked, with a weary expression.

“Well —” I said.

“They won’t bring it here. That’s how they get caught. The best thing that could happen to you would be for them to take it to a licensed pawnshop. We thumbprint everyone. The cops tell you to come here, but it won’t be here. Check the instrument stores, the little buy-and-sell secondhand stores.”

Four instrument stores yielded few leads beyond a general consensus that I should look to the pawnshops, or maybe to Vancouver, Washington, just north of the state line, where regulations were more lax. The cops told me to go to the pawnshops; the pawnshops told me to go to the music stores; the music stores told me to leave the state. I headed east, taking the bus way out on SE Division Street, past the scene of the crime and the Hung Far Low Chinese restaurant, on SE 82nd Avenue. Here Portland’s civic pleasantries came to a halt, its coffee shops, Tibetan stores, and brewpubs yielding to strip clubs, rehab centers, discount-cigarette stores, billboards advertising hepatitis shots, and a pawnshop for every occasion.

All That Glitters, on SE 122nd Avenue and Division, specialized in jewelry — rings, necklaces, bracelets. No violins. Nearby, I saw a church with a sign out front: god is madly in love with you regardless. A1 Hawk, several doors east and not far from the Pitiful Princess Gentlemen’s Club, was full of hunting bows, rifles, and power tools. There were a few fiddles, but they were, in the words of the recalcitrant guy behind the desk, “kind of messed up.”

Money Market was a bit farther east and south, on SE 136th Avenue and Powell, a half-mile walk past a highwayside trailer park and the Family Recovery Support center, and adjacent to a strip joint called the Pallas Club. Men listed forward and aft in the street. Guns were the specialty at Money Market. A man covered in denim pored over the multitudes of assault rifles, shotguns, and handguns up front; in the back were a few instruments, including three violins — none of them mine — and a beautiful old Gibson Dove guitar going for $3,299. A store clerk, an Asian man who looked to be in his thirties, with flecks of gray in his hair, told me without meeting my eyes that all instruments were 25 percent off.

I asked to take photos of the Gibson. The clerk handed it over and said, “Sure,” then hustled out of the frame.

“How long will that sale be going on?” I asked.

“For a while.”

A tired bluegrass joke goes like this:

What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin?

You can spill beer on a fiddle.

There’s more to it than that, though. Classical violinists are lead musicians who play big, glinting notes. Fiddlers need to be able to do that, but they also play chords, rhythm, and, sometimes, nothing. Learning the fiddle requires unlearning classical technique, then figuring out the basics of chord theory. A fiddle serves as a rhythm and a lead instrument. It’s a new language, and speaking it requires a good teacher.

Mine wore Hawaiian shirts, baggy shorts, and a prominent mustache. He didn’t actually play the fiddle. Ray Murphy was a graphic designer from New Jersey who moonlighted as an Irish-mandolin player. He competed in contests in the New York area and ran a weekly session on Mondays at O’Donoghue’s, a bar in my hometown of Nyack, New York. This was not an illustrious gathering. The crowd consisted mainly of older men playing Dylan and the Kingston Trio. One regular went by Crazy Pete, another was Big Pat. One of the guys called the session “homos’ night” — a commentary on the gender distribution, I think. But every other song, Ray would cut in with a fast reel or hornpipe, his Gibson mandolin ringing out from the bar’s smoke-filled corner, the sound propulsive and urgent. The first time I heard it, back in high school, I thought it sounded like something that came from deep in the woods. I started to bring my violin with me to the sessions. I barely played at first, and when I did it didn’t go well. The violin didn’t fit. That thing had a huge sound, and played in the classical style — arms tight, elbows out — it was stiff, a soloist’s instrument. Crazy Pete and Big Pat were not impressed, but Ray encouraged me, giving me the names of tunes to learn: “Old Joe Clark,” “Soldier’s Joy,” “Elzic’s Farewell.”

He told me to loosen up: “It’s a fiddle. You can’t play it like a violin.” He told me to sit out every so often: “Don’t play just to play. Leave space.” When the session’s other fiddler, an old man named Frank, complained about my bad rhythm, Ray cut him off: “It’s fine. It’s a good lick.”

I asked Ray what else I should do.

“Play along with records,” he’d say.

Slowly I improved, and Ray started bringing me with him to gigs. We played first at a pool party in New Jersey, and then at a few bars. He’d always nod afterward. “You’re sounding good. Keep at it. Play to records.”

One summer session at O’Donoghue’s went until nearly four in the morning. A number of good players showed up, and we played a tune called “Growling Old Man, Grumbling Old Woman” for what felt like an hour straight, the music rising and falling, driving and laughing. Afterward, between cigarettes, Ray mumbled, “Should have brought my tape recorder.” I’d made it to the place in the woods.

On another night, I was home from college on a break, and a snowstorm shut down the roads in Nyack. All the traffic lights were off. I put on a coat and walked to O’Donoghue’s. Two people were there: the bartender and Ray. We played a few tunes — “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” “Elzic’s,” maybe “Soldier’s Joy” — then Ray drove off, twisting slowly through the snowdrifts.

Pawnshops prey on desperation and blind optimism: Today things are bad; tomorrow they will get better. Until then, hold my ring. The nature of my quest required a certain naïveté, too. By six in the evening I’d visited twelve shops. They were beginning to blur together in a haze of firearms and old Life magazines. Once I left Money Market, I took a bus west on Powell, back toward the city center. Then I saw a sign: jc’s money talk. I hopped off the bus and walked back to the store. The owner was a short, muscular man named Jeff Hiatt. His wife, Cindy (the “C” of “JC’s”), was out of town. Jeff wore cargo shorts, sneakers, and a tank top decorated with a fading island scene: sand, sun, palm tree. I saw one ukulele on the wall.

“Have you had any violins in the last month?” I asked.

“No violins,” he said in a rapid staccato. “Ukuleles sell. Violins don’t. I get six violins a year. Maybe.

A young man with dyed blond hair came in to sell a watch. He was sweating profusely. “I can’t sell that,” Jeff said. “The batteries die. People don’t buy watches.”

The young man thanked Jeff and left, sweat pouring off his brow.

“Fucking depressing!” Jeff yelled. “That guy doesn’t have five dollars to his name, never mind ten.” The neighborhood, he said, was going to seed. “I grew up here. I’m going on fifty-nine years. If I could retire, Jeff would be gone. I got to get another duck in a row. Another duck or two. If I do, Jeff is gone.” He said that things had gotten worse in the past six or seven years — a time frame that matches up with Portland’s rapid gentrification. “We’ve got these homeless people down here panhandling,” he said. “Crazy. I was out on the street and I found a half-pack of smokes. I gave it to a homeless guy. Said, ‘Hey guy, here you go.’ Gave it to him. Now he comes by every day and asks: ‘You got smokes?’ I say, ‘No, I don’t smoke.’ He says, ‘Okay, well, if you get one, even if it’s a three-quarter length, lemme know.’ It’s sad. I don’t blame ’em. They got no money. This area sucks.”

He attributed the neighborhood’s slide not to Portland’s gentrification but to the September 11 attacks. “Nine-one-one changed things,” he said. “People hold their money now. Don’t blame ’em. I’m holding my money. I’m the fourth-longest consecutive-running pawnshop in metro Portland,” he said. “Nineteen years and I haven’t lost my license. The feds set up all these shops. They tried to set me up: ‘What are you looking for?’ I said, ‘What do you mean, what am I looking for? I’m not looking for nothing.’ If I think something’s stolen I won’t buy it. I don’t bite.”

“How can you tell if something is stolen?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t buy from that guy” — he gestured to the street, where the young man with the watch had come from. “I’d buy from you. He’s looking for a buzz, maybe. I don’t get nobody high. I don’t bite. I’ve given people money when they tried to sell me stolen stuff. I don’t bite.”

I walked over to the fly-fishing gear. “I like fishing,” he said. “Used to fly-fish but now I got rheumatoid arthritis in my shoulders and knees. The fishing around here sucks as far as trout goes. I get tired quick. Fly-fishing hurts.”

“What sells well?”

“Construction used to be good before nine-one-one. Tools. Guy brings in a great tool now, I say, ‘That’s a great tool, dude, but I got four of ’em.’ Tools don’t sell now. Gold will always be good.” He walked past me and flipped the sign on the door from open to closed. “If gold don’t sell I melt it. I melted the prettiest necklace you ever seen. Nobody in the neighborhood could afford it. Pathetic. I gotta double my money. I have a melter who melts it down. If I can double my money, it’s gone. I got bills like everybody. I don’t bite, though. You got guys knowingly buying twenty chainsaws brand-new in the box. That’s a no-brainer.”

I decided to tell Jeff that I wasn’t actually a buyer, that I was in fact looking for my stolen fiddle. Where, I asked, did he think I should look?

“I would not want to point fingers,” he said. “Don’t want to point fingers. One thing about this business, no one in this business talks.” He told me to look at the pawnshop chains. “If they bought one they’d be able to get rid of it. Thieves in this area, they don’t come here. If they do, it’s bikes. We’re bikey. What they do is strip ’em, get ’em out of state, repaint ’em. What’s the fiddle worth?”

“Sentimental value,” I said.

“Yeah, they might dump it for twenty or thirty bucks,” he said. “They might. I wouldn’t point fingers. They broke into my truck, took my nice jean jacket. I would have given it to them! It was three hundred dollars for the glass. Wasn’t worth it. Like I said, I don’t point fingers. With the economy of the neighborhood people are stealing. They gotta feed their families.”

His phone rang, and he answered as he walked outside. He started to bring in bikes one by one, walking them over a welcome mat that croaked like a frog each time he stepped on it.

“Yeah, we got bikes,” Jeff said into the phone, walking in an old cruiser.


“You missing one?”


“They’re good at cables now. They got those cable cutters, cut cables like butter.”


“I think they’re using vans now. Cut the cables, take ’em, move ’em in vans. Next thing you know a van pulls up, they put ’em in the van, it’s gone. They got mine.”

Ribbit. Jeff hung up. I bought a fly-fishing reel for $20, a Pflueger, and Jeff approved. “Pflueger’s good,” he said. “Been in business a long time.” I asked whether he thought I should look beyond the city limits. He shook his head. “I don’t want to point fingers. One thing about this business, people don’t talk a lot. Okay. Bye, guy. It might be there. It’ll be on the floor if it’s in the shop.”

Brian Skarstad grimaced once when he saw my fiddle. I’d brought the violin in with a snapped neck. This was in 2002. I was in the circus at the time.

In college, following my apprenticeship with Ray, I joined a bluegrass band. A one-ring show out of northern Vermont called Circus Smirkus recruited us to write music and choreograph for its Wild West show. It was a good deal: two performances a day in parks and fields around New England, crowds between 200 and 800, $300 or so a week, free meals, cowboy hats. There was no rent to pay, either. For a dollar the circus sold us a thirty-six-foot 1987 Blue Bird International school bus. We replaced the seats with couches and turned it into a traveling dorm room, with flames over the wheel wells, plastic cattle horns on the hood, and, on the dash, a chalkboard tally of the things we’d hit: birds, porches, trees, a mailbox.

We were in York, Maine, or North Conway, New Hampshire, or maybe Sandwich, Massachusetts, when our banjo player, catastrophically drunk and playing a solo line to support a clown act, stepped on my fiddle’s neck and snapped it. It sounded like bones crunching.

After college, I moved to Montana with the rebuilt fiddle. There I found another teacher, whom I’ll call Joe. A charismatic and talented former rodeo rider, Joe fronted a bluegrass band that needed a fiddle. He liked my tone but not my rhythm. Fiddle players in bluegrass bands normally play a chop — a muted downstroke — on the second and fourth beats of each measure, like a snare drum. I didn’t do this, preferring to noodle behind the band.

Joe would take me driving, mostly to bars, and while we traveled he’d crank up Jimmy Martin and the Stanley Brothers. “That’s fiddle-banjo bluegrass,” he’d say, steering with one hand and strumming downward with the other in a mock guitar stroke. “Listen to the two and the four. Hear that pocket?” At the end of each visit to a bar he’d order a “Kokanee with wings.” The bartender would give him the beer with the cap still on. In the car, Joe would turn the Stanley Brothers up and toss the cap out the window: “I’m a rounder, Abe.”

Once we played with a banjo player who wouldn’t lay back. He insisted on soloing through the whole song, drowning out the other instruments’ notes. “Fucking guy doesn’t know how to play in a band,” Joe said. “I play with Abe, and when Abe’s not soloing, he’s chopping on the two and the four!” This wasn’t true, but the point was conveyed — Joe’s version of kid gloves. “Stay in the pocket,” he’d say. My rhythm improved.

Joe could drink our bar tab by himself, but he encouraged us to join in. Once, in the middle of a show, a dreadlocked college student in Birkenstocks started dancing recklessly. He hit a microphone stand, which hit Joe in the mouth. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Joe said, as if slowing a horse. “Stop the band.” He kicked the kid out the back door and then turned to the band: “Ready, boys? One, two, three . . .” We started again, following him into the pocket. Joe showed up swaying at another gig, with a bloody T-shirt wrapped around his hand, this time having actually beaten someone up. Still, he kept perfect rhythm. Our band broke up when Joe didn’t make it to a gig at the end of the summer. He’d been arrested for violating probation. Soon after, I moved back East. I haven’t seen him since.

There was a time, in New York, when I thought I might play professionally. This was unlikely, I realize now. My tone was too rough, my skills and rhythm inadequate. Still, being otherwise unemployed, I gave it a try. I got a few wedding gigs in Westchester County and Long Island and sat in with a few bands — a group fronted by the novelist Rick Moody, an up-and-coming folk-rock outfit called Langhorne Slim, a terrific songwriter named Adam McBride-Smith. It didn’t take long to figure out that playing fiddle in New York is not like playing in Montana. It’s as competitive as any New York business, only significantly less remunerative. Adam fell in love and moved to Paris. Langhorne Slim did well, playing David Letterman and touring the country. I wasn’t invited; by that point I’d found a job in publishing. Music became a social outlet, a form of catharsis, and an occasional bar tab.

After I moved to New Mexico, to work for Outside, I played less and less. But there were still moments. Friends asked me to play at their weddings. The Czech fiddle could handle that. One summer I was invited to play on a side stage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. A few years ago Adam moved back to the States. He was recording an album and invited me to play on it, along with members of Langhorne Slim and the Avett Brothers. The album didn’t sell, but it’s good. I listen to it often now, while sitting in my back yard in Wyoming, taking a break from writing or weeding the garden.

The last meaningful performance with my fiddle came last year, in New York, at the memorial service of the friend who died before I moved to Wyoming. It was a cold, clear day, and I remember almost everything about that afternoon, but I can’t recall the names of the songs we played. Those notes are gone.

Treasure hunters are constantly buoying themselves with fake leads — a new discovery in the historical record, a Google Earth image of a piece of metal that might have belonged to Amelia Earhart’s plane, any small, shining reason to believe. But when you’re looking for a stolen violin in a pawnshop, there’s no such thing as a false alarm. You’d know your arm if you saw it.

Each shop brought more disappointment and a heavier sense of loss. On Jeff’s recommendation I went to the chain stores, and while I found an impressive array of swords and crossbows, along with a pair of Darryl Strawberry batting gloves, there was no Czech fiddle.

I left town. Vancouver, Washington, just north of Portland and the Columbia River, has a thriving pawnshop industry, including one store, Briz Loan & Guitar, that’s known for having a good selection of instruments. There, I thought, just across the water, in another state, I’d find my fiddle. I’ve always been somewhat superstitious, and before the trip I spent a long time imagining the find — walking into some dive and seeing my violin on the wall, among the beaten old guitars and electronic drum sets.

There was nothing. Four stuffed mountain goats, one dead lynx with an oddly flattened head, and six Romanian fiddles. I could keep going north, toward Olympia, and Seattle, and maybe the other Vancouver — there are more than 400 pawnshops within a 300-mile radius of Portland. Instead, I turned around. The pawnshop detective had given me a list of thirty-one stores within Portland’s city limits, and by now I’d checked the inventory at all but one.

H&B Jewelry and Loan has a shop on NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, in a busy part of town. They were having a bike sale, and the store shared little of the loneliness and desperation of the other places I’d been to. When I walked inside, I expected nothing and found nothing, beyond three happy employees discussing summer-vacation plans — Crater Lake, the Cascades. On the wall was a beautiful Martin guitar.

“Is that on hold?” I asked.

“No,” said a friendly woman behind the counter. “We just like the way it sounds. We hope it stays here. You can play it. Just don’t buy it!” She laughed along with her colleagues. A man in a blue sweatsuit walked in. “How are you doing?” she asked.

“Not so good,” he said. He took off a ring and pawned it.

Instruments bring joy. I’ve recently been thinking back on the good gigs — friends’ weddings, the circus ring, all-night jams, bonfires, and family sing-alongs. At one wedding, on the shore of Flathead Lake in Montana, the mother of the bride attempted an ambitious dance move, slid across the floor, and took out half the band. “Band’s done!” Joe yelled. “Pack it up, boys!”

Instruments can also be a salve. Joe’s out of jail and sober now. We’ve fallen out of touch, but he occasionally sends me text messages out of the blue — a photo of a bar sign reading hippies use back door, or a note: “I miss what we did every day.”

Last summer I went to O’Donoghue’s on a Monday night. I hadn’t been back there in five years. The session was still going, but it sounded thin. Ray was gone. The bartender told me that he committed suicide a few years ago. I packed up my fiddle after one tune. On my way home I thought about the night in the snowstorm, when only Ray had showed up at the jam, his head rocking back and forth as he cross-picked his old Gibson with the snow falling outside.

I’m playing four fiddles now — strength in numbers, or something like that. Two are hand-me-downs. The others came through a strange coincidence. On my last morning in Portland, I decided to check Craigslist again. My fiddle wasn’t there, but I saw an interesting-looking German instrument listed for $500. The post said that its sound called to mind Tommy Jarrell, a great old-time fiddler. I wrote to the seller, a bow maker named Jacob Mitas, and he responded immediately, saying that we had a mutual friend: the one who passed away that spring. Mitas and my friend used to live together. I knew then that I would be leaving Oregon with a violin.

This one was made in a factory in Germany in the 1950s. It isn’t rich or warm. The timbre has some gravel to it, and individual notes don’t ring out. The fiddle seems most alive when playing rolling tunes in a group — stuff like “Elzic’s Farewell,” “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” “Growling Old Man, Grumbling Old Woman.” You couldn’t play a concerto on it if you tried. Later, I added another fiddle I got through Mitas: a ringing cannon of an instrument made by an esteemed Oregon maker.

Still, in the afternoons, while playing in my back yard, I wonder where the Czech violin is. It could be on the floor of a pawnshop in one of the Vancouvers. More likely it’s in a dumpster or a ditch. But let’s pretend, as I often do, that some kid has it. Maybe he’s a decent player, not good enough for a conservatory but a little bored with Bach and Brahms. Maybe he wants to figure out something a little more fun. I hope he learns to drop his elbow, lie back, and sit a few tunes out. I hope he chops on the two and the four, and stays there, in the pocket. I hope he finds a good teacher, and that he follows only some of that teacher’s leads. I hope he spills a little beer on the fiddle, and that he plays along to records. And I hope he never leaves it in the car.

is a contributing editor of Outside magazine. He lives in Laramie, Wyoming.

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June 2018

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