A boyhood shipwreck fantasy comes alive when a piano repairman converts his pickup truck into a Manhattan dry-dock.
Piano Repairman, Boat hobbyist
As Told To
I was in the Village a few years ago, down near the old chess shops on Thompson Street, walking through narrow streets and slipping through crowds in front of the cafes and comedy clubs and smoke shops off Macdougal when I looked up and spotted The Ugly Beast.
The pickup truck was scarred, scratched, with chipped up maroon paint, a heinous ensemble. In the back, adhered to the cab, was a scaffold rising up, with the strangest adornments: lifejackets. Resting across the cars were oars. And parked on top of the makeshift steel structure, resting at peace like a bird in its nest, was a row boat.
Aha. A dry dock facility—in thousand-dollar-a-square foot Manhattan—on the back of a pickup truck. I left my number under the windshield wiper, inquiring about the invention.
Two months later, I received a call from Vinny Longo.
“I was born near Pier 40, and I always wondered why people who lived in Manhattan didn’t spend more time on the water,” he said.
Vinny was not a seaman and didn’t work on boats. He hauled pianos, getting them repaired. He also had a side business hauling scrap, but between gigs, he used his rowboat to explore lost islands. He even launched it into the Atlantic Ocean, he said. It was all so convenient.
“Manhattan is an island,” he said. “We’re surrounded by water.”
He was raised in the Village, when Italian families were moving out and college kids moving in. As a young boy, while everyone was fighting to cling to rent controlled apartments in tenements, he yearned for escape.
“When I was a kid, I thought it would be a great idea to be like Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels and get shipwrecked somewhere,” he said. “But you need a boat to get out there. So I would think about how to build a boat, and draw up all of these ideas.”
“Not too long ago, a friend of mine found an old boat and thought I might like it. I live in the city, and had to find a place to store it, so I built this rack on the back of my truck. I keep it there. When I park my truck, I park my boat too. I call it the boatmobile.”
“The structure itself is simple. Just steel beams. Then I created this pulley system to get the boat on the rack in case I don’t have anyone to help me. It’s easy now. I do it myself.”
I asked Vinny if he worried about his boat getting stolen.
“If they steal it, what are they going to do with it? If they steal it, they’ll scrap it. It’s aluminum, it’s worth about thirty cents a pound. And if they do steal it, I’ll miss it like hell.”
“The reason why Robinson Crusoe and other shipwrecked stories are stuck with me right now is that learning how to survive in a strange place is exciting. You have reflective time by yourself.”
“In the shipwrecked stories, the characters always find a beautiful thing in an unlikely place. I always look for that, whether it’s on the street or in the middle of nowhere. And I usually find it.”
“I’ve been all around. I fell asleep once and drifted out into the Atlantic. I’ve explored all the islands around the city. I turn the boat over. It’s so beat up people must think it’s garbage. And then I row to shore, pack it up and just drive home.”
“Tonight some people would say it’s cold and chilly. I just say it’s a beautiful night. That’s where the boats take me.”
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