December 2, 2007

Pianos Don't Play Themselves

  In 1943 or so, my parents bought a beautiful upright piano in Memphis. My mother played Chopin and rag, and I started taking piano lessons at the age of three, and six years later I refused to practice, so the piano sat silent. I painted a picture of it, with the bench waiting for someone to sit on it. Sometimes we used the bench to hold a tray of objects collected quickly from around the house so the family could play "Memory". Thirty seconds to look at all the objects, then the cloth went back over them, and you'd write down what you remembered.
  My parents sold that piano while I was away at college, and bought a Steinway baby grand at a house sale. They asked how much it was, and the man said $150. My father, standing a few steps behind my mother, saw that she had one finger pointed down from her hands clasped behind her -- she loved to signal with eyebrows, lips and fingers -- so he said "I'll give you a hundred," and the deal was done. The piano was moved into our living room, which was bigger than the old one, and now it was my brother who played the piano. There's a photograph of my brother and me sitting on the bench playing something together. Forever.
  In the 60s, my brother rented a piano from a small company in Manhattan. They delivered it, two skinny guys who knew how, and set it down in his living room, which looked out over the George Washington Bridge. You could look inside the piano and see where some of the strings had crinkles of tinfoil wrapped around them, then look outside and see crinkles of lights on the Bridge. My brother enjoyed playing the piano with the foil-wrapped strings, but he finally took them off. Turns out, the person who rented the piano before my brother was Bob Dylan, and he'd put that foil on to give the piano a funky trashy sound.
  My boyfriend Paul and I used to find things on the street and take them home. I found him a table saw once on 75th Street. In 1969, he found a piano, and I went to watch him and two friends carry a piano up two flights of Forest Park steep steps. Paul was small and wiry, Darwin was tall and thin, Chris was tall and hefty, and I stood at the bottom watching. They didn't know what they were doing so they laughed, and the old upright jiggled and tinkled, and finally they got it inside the apartment. Paul taught himself to play, and to repair and tune. I think there was some leftover soul in that piano and The Goldberg Variations sounded wonderful on it.
  In 1991, I bought a house in Baltimore built in 1871. In 1995 an antique dealer in Charlottesville showed me the 1870s square piano he'd bought at a field auction in Crumpton, MD. I bought it for $100-- if I'd take it away the next day. A few guys unscrewed the fat shapely piano legs, and slid the piano into my truck to rest on carpeted pads. The legs rode with me in the cab. When I drove up in front of my house, my neighbors Tom and Edward were having a get-together, and so Tom and Edward and Steve and Will and I carried the piano into my living room, and Will and I screwed the fat legs back on while the other three held the piano up, and there it stood against my living room wall. Home at last?  In a cold rowhouse parlor? 
  In 1995, my brother hired movers to take the Steinway my parents had bought in the 1950s in Toledo from their home in Charlottesville to his mountain house in North Carolina. The mover said it was automatically insured for $2000, but my brother paid extra to have it insured for $4000, and they hauled that baby down highway 29 to Hillsville to Mouth of Wilson to Creston and wound through the mountain roads and hauled it up the mile-long gravel drive, and carried it into his vaulted stone living room. The driver hit center C -- maybe that's something they always do -- and left.  It sounds like a concert hall piano now.