The 17 Year Old Piano Tuning
I tuned a piano today in a warehouse down by the Chicago River near China Town. Now a home to Artisans and musicians, the building had the feel of a bygone era when Chicago was a manufacturing town. We took the freight elevator up to the third floor and walked down a long corridor to a practice studio. The young man had a rock band. His girlfriend had spray painted one of the studio walls a la Jackson Polluck. A Wurlitzer console piano stood like a challenge in the corner. He said that I had tuned the piano 17 years ago in his home. I said , dude you don’t look that old. He said he remembers me from when his dad bought it and he was just a 10 year old kid. He said that I tuned it in his home and it hadn’t been tuned since. That tuning I did 17 years ago was still sounding good and clean. NOT. And the pedal was broke. And the band played on.
A student from the University of Illinois called me. “I found a piano in the alley. A couple of keys are sticking and it needs to be tuned.” Me- (……… sigh…….Why can’t I only tune Steinway grands?) “Sure, I’ll be glad to come and try and get it playable.” So we set a date and a time. The place was a former mansion, divided into apartments. The apartment was filled with used furniture and not too tidy. My employer, Alex, was a friendly outgoing young man who was excited about having a piano. He introduced me to one of his roommates. “This is the piano tuner, Ron.” The roommate sat on a couch in the corner. She would probably be called a Goth. Her hair, her makeup, and her clothes were black, and she had assorted body piercings. Her response to the introduction was a bored and disinterested glance.
After two hours of tuning and repairing, I sat down to play something. I played “Here’s that Rainy Day”. It’s a jazz standard with a beautiful, sad, melody. I got into the song and felt a kind of sadness spreading from my heart to my fingers and floating the melody across the room. I got up to look for Alex in order to get paid and leave. No one was in the piano room so I walked into the adjoining room. The young Goth woman had moved there and was sitting in the back of the room in a bean bag chair. She looked at me with a wide eyed stare and followed my movement all across the room. Her look said “how did you do that, how did you touch my heart?” And so sadness speaks to sadness and sometimes, brings a little happiness.
It was a cool and sunny, fall day. As I got out of my car to do a piano tuning in my old neighborhood of Ravenswood, I saw the back of a man dressed in a long winter coat and a pointed stocking cap. He was over dressed. A memory stirred in my mind. I grabbed my tools and ran after him. I caught up to him and called out his name, Peter. He turned and with a big smile moved to embrace me, “Hello my “teacha”, how are you?” Kahn, renamed Peter, was a refugee from Vietnam. He had been a captain in the South Vietnamese army and when Saigon fell to the communists in 1975, he was sent to a re education camp. He was allowed to immigrate to the US in the late 1980s and I met him when he started attending an English as a second language course that I was teaching in the neighborhood church. He clung to me. “I am so happy to see you teacha.” I explained that I was on my way to a piano tuning. We walked together.
Kahn was about 50 years old when he came to the US with his wife and 3 school age children. He came with health problems from having lived in the camps. I helped him get a job cleaning at the church where I taught. He hooked his arm in mine, and we walked. I asked him how his family was. He said, “they are very well, teacha.” I asked him how many grand children he had. “I have 10 grandchildren.” I asked him if he ever went back to Vietnam for a visit. He said “no, teacha, I try to forget.” Years ago I had asked him about his experience of being a captain in the South Vietnamese army. His only response was to laugh and say, “GIs afraid of Viet Cong, GIs afraid of Viet Cong. Yes, GI’s afraid of Viet Cong, teacha.” I could never get him to call me by my name and he couldn’t wrap his mind around my being single. That’s my friend, Peter Kahn. We said goodbye and I walked up to the house where I was tuning.
I worked all day on an expensive grand piano in Evanston. The owner of the piano had an exotic bird perched on his shoulder when he greeted me. Around the middle of the day the bird started screeching Eva, Eva , Eva. This went on for about an hour. Now Eva is the name of my niece in Minnesota. So I started thinking about my niece. But she pronounces her name with a long e as in evening, whereas the bird had more of a Spanish pronunciation, like Eva Gardener. Then I thought, maybe the bird is talking in Spanish and is saying “Que Va” which means No Way. Undeterred by the birds doubtful shrieks, I finished regulating the piano and the customer was delighted with the results. And my niece was happy to hear that I was thinking about her.
On Hamlet and Little Children
I was tuning a piano at a day care center. A young male child said “What’s that old man doing?” To quote Hamlet when he spoke to Polonius, “Yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, If as a crab you could walk backwards.” But in this case it would be walk forward. You see Hamlet was younger than Polonius and to become as old as Hamlet, Polonius would have had to grow younger, or walk backward, so to speak, like a crab. So in this case with me and the dear young commentator, crawl forward as a turtle would have been a more appropriate expression than walk backward as a crab. But in any case , someone shushed him and I tuned the piano