#337: The Cigar Box Ukulele

June 23rd, 2014

Night. Red Line nausea. No cabs. Streetlight walk down Fullerton. Mist. Drunken college students.

A voice behind me in the dark.

“Hey, do you have the time?”

He was young, slim, white with a big flop of brown hair. He walked a bike with his left hand. Under his right arm was tucked a wooden box with a small fret sticking out of it. I told him the time, then ventured a question.

“Is that a cigar box guitar?”

“Cigar box ukulele,” he said. “I just made it, made it today.”

Prompted by interested facial expressions and noncommittal hmms, he continued.

“It was my first one. Took me four days. I’ve never done woodworking before. I’m taking it to my brother’s then I’m going to ride back,” he said.

The box was actually a cigar box, brand name Undercrown with a burnished logo that looked like a heraldic eagle. $4 from a cigar shop, he said.

We walked along the darkened street as he told me all the bits and pieces that went into turning the box for smokes into a musical instrument. He walked me through adding the fret, stringing the strings, tuning it. As we walked down the street, for no reason apparent to either of us, the musician told me everything.

“And then I cut the, what’s that shape?” he said, pointing at the hole in the box to let the sound out. His mind went blank on the shape. Mine did too.

“Trapezoid!” I eventually yipped.

“Yeah!” he said. “I cut the trapezoid in.”

We continued down the sidewalk. His friends had already started him to make them cigar box ukes, he said.

“I play ukulele and I just wanted a junky one I could play around with, but I had so much fun with this, I think I might keep this and my other one might be my junky one,” he said. “The whole thing cost $27, which is a lot cheaper than the $90 you would pay for a soprano. It sounds pretty funky right now, but hopefully when the strings stretch out, I’ll really be able to jam on it.”

We parted west of the library, going our separate ways.

Somewhere in this city, a man is playing a box of cigars.

Maybe it sounds junky. Maybe the strings never stretched the way they should and maybe the Undercrown uke is more novelty than precision, but this man here did a very silly thing. He took a silly box with residue tobacco and burnished eagles and stretched, bent, cut and molded it. He built frets and cut trapezoids until he was holding a musical instrument in his hands.

He took something silly and built a machine for making art.

I understand why he wanted to tell a stranger.

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You are currently reading #337: The Cigar Box Ukulele by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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