Around the Island

Midnight Musings: In perfect harmony


The professional moving men smiled as they wheeled the upright piano down the ramp of the moving truck and up my driveway. All three were still smiling and whistling as they devised a ramp to get it up the three short steps to the porch. Then the whistling stopped.

A half  hour later, their sweatshirts discarded into the bushes, they were stuck halfway in the door, trying to figure out how to turn the corner to get it up the stairs to our living room. The lead guy swore under his breath as he looked back and forth from piano to stairs, as if wishing both would magically disappear.

As I dressed for work, I could hear them talking, but thankfully not what they were saying, Every once in a while I’d hear the forlorn plinking of a couple of the high notes as they tried to decide how to fit it in our entryway. Thank God we’d hired pros and not the one guy with a pickup truck that had been our cheaper option.

I’m not sure how they did it but they got the piano in and placed it against the wall of our living room. It had no bench and it didn’t match any of the light wood in the room. If you looked closely at its shiny black surface, you could see places where the finish was damaged, as if someone had set books on it and left them there for a long time. Its largeness dominated the room.

I didn’t care. It was worth every bit of aggravation, every dollar I’d spent, all the planning and logistics to get it there. The ivory keys beckoned me to sit down and play. I was already late for work but how could I get out when there was a piano taking up the entire doorway? I sat down and played a Bach prelude I’d learned when I was 14. Running my fingers up and down the keys, I hit a chord and then an arpeggio. It sang back in perfect harmony; its bright sound captivated me. I never thought I would own such a beautiful piano. For a long time, I hadn’t owned one at all.

I developed piano lust last summer. My best friend, who I met in band in eighth grade and only get to see once a year, asked me what I planned to do when my son went away to college and our house emptied out. What was I going to do with my time?

“I really want to start playing piano again,” I told her.

“That’s so funny that you should say that,” she answered.  “Granny has a beautiful piano and she was just saying the other day that she really wanted to leave it to someone who would appreciate it.”

Granny, at 104, had no intention of dying any time soon; in fact she was leaving the next day on a 1,500-mile road trip with her nephew.

We went to her house and I admired the pretty cream-colored Baldwin in her living room. She and her sister were the only two owners; it was over 50 years old, tuned every year and in perfect condition. Pianos, like most things, were better made 50 years ago. She’d love for me to have it but she didn’t want to give it away until, well, you know.

And it was 500 miles away from Shelter Island.

I was determined to have that piano.

Weeks and then months went by. I’d found a guy to transport it in his pickup truck. The piano was still in Granny’s living room and she was going strong.

I finally gave up and put an ad in our three Times/Review papers, expecting not much of anything.

The paper came out on Thursday and by noon, I’d already had three calls. By the end of the weekend, 20 people called me — all on the North Fork.

Everyone had a piano and every one of those pianos had a story. The callers often had an emotional attachment to their piano and wanted it to go to a good home. They either owned the piano themselves and were moving or it had belonged to a family member — often deceased. They spoke of their pianos fondly, as if describing a beloved pet. My husband answered most of the calls, listening patiently to each of them.

One piano a woman’s granddaughters had polished using lemon ammonia instead of lemon oil, ruining the finish. Another woman had vowed to her sister before she died of breast cancer that she would take care of her piano. And she did, paying to move it three times until she moved to an apartment and couldn’t get it up the stairs.

She offered to sell it to me for less than half of what it was worth but needed to get it out of storage. Unfortunately, the storage company would not release it. Her lawyer got involved. Maybe she didn’t pay the bill, maybe the piano never existed, though she did email me a photo of her son, age three, playing it 25 years ago.

Another piano lived in an old farmhouse. The man’s mother had died and he was selling her house and office. As soon as we parked our car, I knew I wasn’t going to buy it. Another Baldwin, but this one had languished in that drafty old house, untouched by human hands. I lifted the top to find a medley of spider webs and rusty tuning pegs. The felt on the hammers looked like mice had taken up residence inside. Every other key didn’t work. “Make me an offer,” he said. No.

Pianos, it seems, are disposable, the moving men told me. They’re expensive to move so people often leave them behind.

Finally a woman called who owned a Yamaha she would sell me for the top amount I could afford, even though she said the piano was worth much more. It belonged to her ex and she would’ve sold it back to him but “he didn’t have a dime.”

We went to see the piano, hiding in a dark little enclosed porch. I knew this was the one I wanted. “It’s been sitting out here for five years. I didn’t have room for it in the house,” she told me. “I thought I’d learn to play, but I never did, and my daughter didn’t either. And I need to install new plumbing.”

She described the research she’d done when she decided to sell it. Every piano has a serial number that can be traced back to when — and in the case of the Yamahas — where it was made. This piano was born in Japan in the 70s, spent some time at a university in Connecticut before her ex-husband bought it for his recording studio in East Hampton. She got the piano in the divorce and moved it to Riverhead. Her plumbing bills loomed, so she’d listed it on Craig’s List for twice the price; the only person who came to look at it owned a piano business but decided because the finish wasn’t perfect, he couldn’t resell it.

Things are only worth what someone else is willing to pay for them. I handed her the cash and that neglected piano had a new home.

Less than a week later, it graced my living room, catching the sunlight. Its glossy surface reflected tiny rainbows from the crystal hanging in our window.

Every time I sit down to play my piano, it feels like coming home.