Piano Piece



Neighborhood: Astoria

Piano Piece
Photo by Trevor Enright

A vintage piano stood alone on a deserted city street.

Moments earlier, the piano had been saved from oblivion by a man named Oscar, who had stepped out of his apartment just as the workers of the New York City Sanitation Department had been struggling to lift the piano into the whining maw of their garbage truck. With the woodwindy voice of a disc jockey on a jazz station, Oscar is a man easily warmed to, and so it was very little trouble for him to persuade the sanitation workers to spare the piano. “Crazy what people throw away!” he might have said. “Beautiful instrument. Can you guys help me move it inside?”

A sanitation worker said, “We’ll set it down where you want, buddy. But we can’t leave the truck.”

Then Oscar went back to his apartment to call a few friends to enlist their help in moving the piano.

All of this I learned later.

What I knew when I left my apartment, thinking of pianos, as I often do, was that I turned right and saw a piano alone on the street. I knew that it was very old, of the World War I-ish era, because of the height of its cabinet and the sculpted woodwork of its legs. I knew that it rested under a catalpa tree, in front of one of the three free-standing houses on the block, the one with the mullioned windows. I knew, after I knocked on the door of that house and spoke to the woman inside, that it had been her piano for many years but would now belong to whoever claimed it. I claimed it.

# # #

The keys were in excellent condition, pristine and pearlescent, intact and icy cold. The “action” of the keyboard – the alacrity with which the keys sprang back when pressed – was quick. The voice of the piano was sweet. “Sohmer & Co.” read the gold leaf inscription. “New York.” It was covered in dusty paw prints, having served during the night as a climbing toy for the neighborhood cats. It had been set out the night before with defeated couches, broken lamps and worn-out pressboard bookcases, for large trash pickup, the second Saturday in February.

That Saturday was finger-numbingly cold, but I did not intend to leave the piano. I phoned my neighbors, woke them up, and requested an extra layer of warm clothing and maybe some coffee. I laid my hand on its keys and promised, “I will take very good care of you.” I plinked out “Heart and Soul.” Not very original, but I meant it. I phoned Astoria Piano Movers. I knew of their existence because just the weekend before, I’d been searching Craigslist looking for a piano to buy, and had accordingly identified a piano mover who could be called at a moment’s notice. But like so many other things in my life, proper planning and protocol collapsed in the face of the romantic chance encounter. I saw this piano, and I fell in love.

“Sohmer, huh?” the mover yawned into the phone. “That’s a good piano. Monday okay?”

“No, not Monday, now, today! Sooner than now!”

“Be there in a couple hours.”

A young woman in black glasses carrying a rolled-up yoga mat returned to the piano – she’d seen it on her way to yoga class — pulled out her cellphone and tried to persuade a friend to come help her move the piano into her apartment. A man walking his dog, Chelsea – an elderly German shepherd wearing a sweater that buttoned under her belly – ambled past and stopped to listen. He recommended a piano mover named Kenny, who apparently was so well known in his field that he required no surname. An old man came by, placed his hand on the lid of the piano and began a cheerful narrative in a language of purring gargles, then surrendered to our incomprehension, oddly surprised and slightly hurt that he had not been understood. He then played a short folk melody on the keyboard, before he tipped his hat and moved along.

Everyone loves a piano, it seems. Few play, although many know someone who plays “brilliantly.” The thought of a piano in the parlor harkens in most people a cozy civility, what the Germans call gemutlichkeit. It doesn’t matter if you never actually were one of a happy clan gathered around the upright, belting out carols or show tunes. It seems like a memory you should have, like Christmas Eve before a roaring fire, or a family summer picnic at the lake house.

By the time Oscar returned to check on his prize, a dozen or more people had passed by, played, stroked and admired the instrument. Despite the cold, the scene resembled the Serengeti. Predators circled, trotted in closer, with caution: “Did you really want that piano?” “Did you really call movers?” and then dashed back to a position of safety to further strategize on their cell phones. The woman with the yoga mat was a particular lioness.

“Do you really want the piano?” she demanded, over and over.

“I do,” I said.

Oscar, however, the man who had made the “kill” in the first place, conceded his loss with good grace. “I shouldn’t have left it,” he said with a rueful smile.

“I’ve called professional piano movers,” I said again, as though I had summoned the National Guard.

“Yeah, I called some friends . . . “

“Friends can’t move it. It’s really heavy.” I pushed at the piano. “I used to be able to hip-check my Young Chang around, but this won’t even budge.”

“No, this is a really good piano,” Oscar said. “Great action.”

“Great action,” I agreed.

“I wanted it for my wife.”

I smiled. He shook his head and stepped back.

“I shouldn’t have left it,” he repeated. I smiled at the grace of his concession.

Bitch! You are thinking. Why didn’t you just let the nice man have the piano for his wife?

Well, at this point, there were too many people involved. There were the oft-heralded professional piano movers; there was the many-times-rebuffed yoga mat woman; there were my neighbors, who eventually, as requested, brought me a long woolen scarf and a thermos of coffee to keep me warm as I waited.

And there was also the pledge I had made to Mabel.

I had named the piano Mabel. She had, I decided, had retained the memory of every note she had ever sung out, not to mention the spirit of the woman who had cared for her. It had been a woman who had brought out her voice. It had been a Mabel, a no-nonsense girl who understood her place in the family and in the world at large — not the beauty, not the baby, but the reliable one who made a house a home. Daily, she tidied the parlor.

While dusting the piano, she hummed a tune, and then, in her apron, she sat at the keyboard and played scales. Although she had chores waiting, sometimes she would drift into melody: “Weep no more, my lady, oh, weep no more today.” She stood up, gave the piano one last unnecessary caress with the dust rag and then, still humming, she went into the kitchen to heat the oven and start the gravy. Gravies, roasts and perfectly-flaking baked potatoes would be her strong suit. Her practical hands would have no facility for fine pastries and there was, besides, too much real work to do to linger over trifles. Similarly, her hands would play sentimental Stephen Foster tunes, hymns, holiday carols, and Bach. No ragtime, no Rachmaninoff, nothing showy or off the beat. The piano, too, knew its place.

# # #

One of the best piano builders in the world worked six blocks from my apartment.

He was Marco DeLellis, a former concert pianist, and his workshop was called, simply, The Piano Workshop. He appeared cheerfully at my door the following Saturday and approached the piano with the reverence a wrangler shows to a wild roan in an old-time cowboy song.

“You found this on the street?” He stroked the door of the case. On contemporary uprights, the kind you’d find in a kindergarten or a Sunday school, the door of the case, which is the part that the pianist faces, and reaches from the keyboard to the top of the piano, is about the length of two hands. In older ones, the case is of greater height. A chanteuse in an old time movie will perch on the top of the piano. When she dangles her lovely legs down the length of the case, her high heels will never graze the keys because the case is that tall. A larger case produces a bigger, more resonant sound.

“Congratulations!” Marco DeLellis removed the door, exposing the wood and wires within. I skipped into the kitchen to make coffee while he began plucking at Mabel’s private parts. When I returned, mugs in hand, I was stilled by the look on Marco’s face as he pulled back from the harp and hammers. He shook his head with a grim expression I had thought specific to dentists.

Mabel was water damaged. She could not be tuned. She would need an entire new soundboard. That would cost around $5,000. If I wanted him to refurbish the outside, that would be an additional $2,000. I saw no point in having Mabel moved into Marco’s workshop for repairs to her innards and leaving her so ugly on the outside. Her dull, black paint had been chipped on one leg, revealing a warm auburn wood beneath it.

“Mahoghany,” Marco confirmed.

He read aloud the serial number on the inside of the piano, and I tapped it into a search engine: She had been built in 1936.

So if I spent $7,000 in refurbishments, how much would the piano be worth.

“Thirteen thousand dollars,” he mumbled.

“Thirty thousand?”

“Thirteen!” He was appalled that we had dragged a sordid dollar value into the conversation. “Do you want the piano because you want to sell it, or because you love it?”

“Because I love it,” I said.

Weeks later, I encountered Oscar, strolling down our block. I hailed him and pulled him aside to tell him the news. I began with, “If it’s any consolation . . .”

* * *

ELIZABETH BALES FRANK is a novelist and freelance writer whose work has appeared in commercial and literary magazines. Her website, which reviews the literature of World War II, can be found at www.somuchsomanysofew.wordpress.com. Her other website is elizafrank.com. She lives in Astoria, New York.

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