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The Piano


Harry Buschman

We called it a 'middle class' tenement. It was a term we used to distinguish the fine line of difference between ourselves and the poor unfortunates living in 'lower class' tenements. If you lived in a middle class tenement you and your family were racially segregated but ethnically mixed. Therefore, we were an ethnic stew made up of similarly colored ingredients. People in 'middle class' tenements had one thing in common, they all felt superior to their neighbors in the same building.

If a family had the misfortune to live in a 'lower class' tenement they didn't feel superior to anything and their landlord collected his rent with two body-guards standing behind him.

There were no 'upper class' tenements.

Our tenement was a five story building with a cellar. The word "basement" was not a part of the vocabulary. Each floor housed a family with roots in a different part of Europe. The tenement was the spawning ground of the children of the twentieth century, it was the melting pot they boiled and bubbled in. The roots of the homeland survived only in the memory of the old folks. The roots of the families in our 'middle' class tenement were as diverse as an Irish grass widow on the top floor, my family, comprised of Germans and English on the fourth, a large Jewish family from Poland on the third, and so on down the line to the Savino's on the first floor, whose three sons went to work in the uniforms of the sanitation, police and fire departments.

As you climbed the cracked linoleum stairs, the smells from the kitchens would clash and reveal incompatible tastes in cooking, from oregano blending to onions, and then garlic. The heated voices you heard from the floor below you and the ceiling above you were in languages you couldn't understand, but from the tone of them you knew they had problems just like yours. The elders in these families were resigned to living where they were -- they would never make a commitment to citizenship. They would always be foreigners in a foreign land.

We got along with very little. We would have been shocked to see the frills and extravagances that most people consider necessities today. None of us had electric light -- none of us had central heating -- none of us had a telephone, a television set or a radio. They were the stuff of dreams.

But strangely, many of us had a piano. In modern America today few families can boast of owning a piano, but they were common in the twenties. You could have your very own piano for the cost of moving it. No one bought a piano at a piano store. Like the kitchen sink, they were left behind when tenants moved away. Moving companies would ask you if you had a piano and their prices would double if you wanted to take it with you. It was a very large and heavy piece of furniture and difficult to winch out of the window and down to the street. Today you leave your refrigerator and your wall to wall carpeting, but in the twenties you left your piano.

Few families knew what to do with the pianos they had. Few people could play one, and almost no one could play one well. There were eighty eight keys to play with only ten fingers, and the fingers of men were blunt and broken from manual labor. Those of women were wrinkled, cracked and dry from the scrub pail. The piano was not 'native' to most of us -- it was international, and the tunes of the homeland didn't sound the way they should. Balalaikas, banjos and concertinas sounded better to ethnic ears, and fit the ethnic conception of a national musical heritage far better than the piano.

Our personal piano was a jet black Kranich & Bach upright. A poor man's piano. It was there to greet us when we moved in and became ours by default. It sounded more like a toy xylophone when you punched its crooked yellow keys; some of them refused to respond at all. Its black finish was interwoven with a fine network of surface cracks as though it had been through fire and flood in rapid succession. Nevertheless. my mother was overjoyed, she had taken piano lessons when she was little and she couldn't wait to have it overhauled. She promised us she would play it every day -- as soon as the moving in chores were done. It was an empty promise, caring for us was a full time job and almost more than she could handle. But while she waited for the floor to dry or the bread to rise, she would often sit at it and do her chords in all seven keys.

Her tempos were slow and majestic, regardless of the music -- tentative and  uneven -- like the stuttering steps the bride takes on her walk down the aisle. She slowed Handel's "Largo" down to a crawl. "The Dark Town Strutter's Ball" and Chopin's "Minute Waltz" were hurdles she waded into grimly with tight lips and clamped jaws. When she played in the evening we were trapped and mesmerized by her stubborn water torture rhythm. With all due respect, I must say that my dislike for piano music today stems from the remembrance of my mother dragging out Chopin's "Minute Waltz" to an hour. I have heard many great pianists since then. From Rachmaninoff, to Horowitz, from Harold Bauer to Emil Gilels. None of them have been able to erase the mental picture of my mother with her head bobbing up and down from the music to the keys in a frantic effort to include every note, regardless of tempo -- marching music for turtles and snails.

I slept in the parlor on a fold-out sofa with that Kranich & Bach by my side. The dim light of the kerosene stove would reveal it as a mythical dragon exposing a lower jaw of frighteningly wicked yellow teeth. In the middle of the night during changes of humidity and temperature the tortured strings would relax or tighten and release discordant gong-like sounds, as though a family of tone-deaf goblins lived inside.

All our bedrooms were occupied by adults, parlors were rarely used, (a good  reason for not calling them 'living rooms'). They faced the street and the lady of the house shouted her orders down to the ice man and the vegetable vendor four stories below, but during family reunions, holidays, and funeral get togethers, the parlor was the entertainment center for aunts and cigar smoking uncles from near and far. Mother would sit down to play her piano on such occasions and those that could would stand up to sing the old songs with her -- each of them in his or her most comfortable key. The piano kept us more or less in tune if not on time, until we grew weary of her implacable rhythm and found conversation more rewarding. Sensing the loss of her audience, she would begin to sing in a voice a full octave above her normal speaking range and loud enough to to make normal conversation impossible.

I learned from experience that when this occurred, the party was on the wane and the parlor would soon be mine to sleep in. Few people, kith or kin, could stand my mother's singing, and compounded by her plodding tempos they would soon get their hats and coats and go. The piano and I could call it a day. My mother, frustrated again, would reluctantly close the lid over the keys, and my father with a few deft strokes would magically convert the davenport into my bed. Later, in the darkness I would look over at the old black Kranich & Bach standing quietly against the wall and marvel at its ability to be an instrument of wonder in the hands of gifted people, but to others like my mother, it could empty a parlor in fifteen minutes.

It was a living thing. It had a soul that resonated with the slam of a door, a shout from an angry neighbor, the summer thunder and the bells of St. Theresa's. Certain of its strings would respond in a sustained and dissonant chord that would linger long after the original sound had died away. A sepulchral accompaniment to the music of life. It played for me all night long. It played as well or better by itself than it did for my mother.

We left the piano behind when we moved. It would be nice to think that its new owners could make it play as it was meant to be played. It only played for me in the dead of night. In the daylight hours it served as a place to stand our faded family snapshots and the bell jar with my dead Grandfather's watch inside. It accomplished all these things with never a murmur of complaint, but when my mother sat down to play it complained bitterly.

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