by Robert Grand
I set up a reunion of people from my old Bronx neighborhood. It was in 1988, and took place at the Nevele Hotel in Ellenville, NY. There was a Grand Piano in our function room, sitting alone, off in a corner gathering dust. My friend Sonny looked over at the piano, then at me.
“You used to play. Come on, sit down and play something.”
Three or four others who were standing around chimed in, also urging me to play.
“Sorry guys, put another tape on. ‘Used to play’ is right. I haven’t been able to play in years.”
It wasn’t false modesty. Four or five times in the past twenty-five years I’ve begun taking piano lessons again. But each time I’ve quit, discouraged because my fingers couldn’t keep up with the music anymore.
I once had three pianos in my home. I still have a decent electronic keyboard. Once in a while I sit down and diddle, hoping, I guess, that some day I’ll be able to pick up where I left off all those years ago; but in my heart I know it’s time for me to face facts. I never played in Carnegie Hall. I never will.
I Never Played In Carnegie Hall
When I was ten, Aunt Esther took me to Carnegie Hall to hear the then popular pianist, Jan August. That was the day I decided to become a concert pianist.
There wasn’t any room for a piano in the family budget, so for a while I kept my mouth shut.
Then I read a biography of George Gershwin. I thought I was reading about myself. He’d grown up in a New York apartment overlooking a noisy street. Me, too. He was the younger of two brothers. Me, too. He was from a Jewish family. Me, too. He had a funny-shaped nose. Me, too. Okay, so he was from Brooklyn and I was from the Bronx, but hadn’t my parents lived in Brooklyn before I was born? Gershwin died less than fourteen months before I was born. There was no question about it. I was the reincarnation of George Gershwin.
One of the photographs in the book showed him as a twelve-year-old seated at his piano bench while his friends were playing outside on the street. He was sacrificing stickball, marbles and skelly for his music. These were sacrifices I would be willing to make if I had a piano.
I decided to talk to my parents. But first I wanted to enlist Aunt Esther’s moral support. She was the most devoted music lover in the world. She went to concerts, Broadway musicals and musical films, and brought them back to the Bronx with her. She hummed to us and to herself. She hummed incessantly; in the house, on the streets, in New York’s subways, at work and while relaxing. No one ever knew what she was humming. Aunt Esther couldn’t carry a tune. But she never let that stop her. She continued to hum away, and took great pleasure in doing so.
Aunt Esther sat in on my conversation with Mom and Dad. As it turned out, I didn’t need her support. My folks’ enthusiasm surprised me.
“No one in the family ever had any musical talent,” my mother said. “Maybe you’ll be the first.”
My father told me not to worry about the money. “We’ll find a way.”
“But you have to promise to stay with it for at least three years,” my mother said.
Henrietta taught piano in her apartment on the top floor on the other side of my building. She was in her late forties, tall and slim, with a thin, elongated face. Her long black hair was curled into ringlets and amply flecked with gray. She wore wire rim glasses and had rings on every finger except her thumbs.
Her husband Georgie was chubby and about three inches shorter than her. He was a soft-spoken man with a Greek accent; a charming, friendly fellow who laughed readily and seemed to get the most out of life. Everyone I knew liked him.
Henrietta said she’d be delighted to tutor me. She charged two dollars an hour, and could fit me in on Tuesday afternoons at four o’clock. She volunteered to go to 149th Street with us the following Saturday to help pick out a used piano.
The days passed too slowly, but when Saturday morning finally came I was more excited than I’d ever been. At ten o’clock Aunt Esther, Henrietta, my mother and I got on the southbound Concourse bus. We transferred at 149th Street for the bus to Third Avenue. The trip took about forty-five minutes. I was bouncing up and down the aisle. Mom kept asking me to sit down and be still.
149th Street was the major shopping hub of the south Bronx. There were giant department stores like Hearn’s and Alexander’s, and large old discount warehouses that had the best bargains in the city. The streets were crowded with browsers and shoppers and pickpockets. Sidewalk hawkers displayed their wares on pushcarts. Traffic moved at a snail’s pace. Irritated drivers leaned on their horns to vent their frustration.
The Third Avenue El loomed over the scene, casting its giant latticework shadow. Hordes of people jostled each other as they scrambled up and down the staircase between the street and the elevated platform. The roar of the trains thundering into the station drowned out everything else, even the mayhem on 149th Street.
In the midst of this hubbub was Horowitz’s Piano and Organ Exchange, an ancient four-story building jammed with bulky instruments. On the first three levels were pianos. The fourth level had one section filled with pianos while another, occupying about half the floor, was crowded with organs. A precariously narrow wooden staircase with a rickety railing led from one floor to the next. On each level the walls were lined with uprights and spinets. In the center of each floor were grand pianos and baby grands which one had to weave through in order to walk around the floor. There were pianos as far as the eye could see, every one of them neatly polished and gleaming.
Each of us had a different agenda when it came to choosing the piano that would sit in the living room. Aunt Esther wanted one she could hum to. Mom wanted one that would match the décor of the living room, sort of early anarchy. Henrietta was concerned with the practical aspects of sound and durability. I wanted a piano that would allow me to play and compose music like George Gershwin.
Mom saw what she wanted in a corner of the second floor, a dark mahogany Baldwin upright. Henrietta put it to the test. She sat down on the matching bench and started to play. She played popular tunes and sonatinas. She tested all the keys and the three pedals at the base of the piano. A small crowd gathered to listen. I felt proud that she was going to be my piano teacher.
When she’d finished playing, the crowd dispersed. Henrietta looked up at my mother. “This is a fine piano. The sound is excellent, and it’s sturdy. It will last for years.”
A salesman accompanied us to the cashier’s office, where Mom paid and made delivery arrangements. The piano was $125. Delivery was $25 extra. It would be delivered the following Saturday morning.
The next week was one of glorious anticipation. I told everyone about the piano. Most of the kids said “so what.” The adults, especially my relatives, at least feigned interest. But nothing could dull my excitement and enthusiasm, and the whole family eagerly awaited the arrival of my piano.
At seven-thirty on Saturday morning we began to move the furniture out of and around the living room. The piano was going to be placed against the wall the breakfront had occupied. We moved the breakfront, a family heirloom, to a less prestigious position in the room. At eleven o’clock Horowitz’s truck pulled up in front of my building. Three men got out and came up to our apartment. The supervisor, a short, swarthy, powerfully built middle-aged man, looked around the living room and clucked his disapproval. “This is going to be a tough one,” he said.
He left one of the men in our apartment to remove a living room window, sash and all, from its frame, while he and the other man went back down to the street.
By now the neighborhood was awake. A crowd of thirty or forty people had assembled across the street. They watched the deliverymen throw blankets over the piano and tie ropes around it. The two men came back up to my apartment and set up a hoisting mechanism near the open window frame, letting its ropes drop to the street. They attached the ropes to others which had been tied around the piano. One of the men went back down to the street to steady the piano when it began its journey upward. The other two remained in the living room to work the hoist, later to be joined by the third.
The crowd across the street had doubled. The piano began its slow ascent. My family was on the fire escape outside the other living room window. We watched the blanketed hulk as it was slowly winched toward our apartment, two floors above street level. The hoist creaked and squealed; the piano seemed to move but inches at a time until, finally, it was dangling directly in front of the open window frame. The three workers were sweating profusely. The muscles in their arms and backs stretched and bulged visibly as they labored to maneuver the piano through the window frame and into the living room. The people across the street, who had until then been gesturing, pointing, and murmuring comments to one another, heaved a collective sigh of relief and then applauded. Within minutes they had all departed.
The deliverymen, following instructions from their new supervisor, my mother, placed the piano against the wall, replaced the window, and left the apartment. After my family finished rearranging the living room, it hit me. I have a piano! I sat down, lifted back the keyboard cover, and began to play. What I played sounded like Aunt Esther’s humming, but I didn’t let that stop me. I had a piano!
The following Tuesday I had my first lesson. In the weeks that followed I practiced at least two hours a day. For the first month I didn’t play with my friends. Not once. Henrietta said I was making great progress.
When school let out for the summer, I practiced while my friends played outside. The sounds of their merriment came through the open windows, and I longed to be with them. But I had promised my parents three years. So I kept practicing. Every day it became more of a chore. Practice stopped being fun that first summer, but I was determined to keep my promise.
A few months into the third year, something unpredictable happened. Henrietta, by then nearing fifty, became pregnant. It was a difficult pregnancy. She was unable to teach for the last four months. It gave me the excuse I needed to break away and be with my friends. Practices became few and far between.
Henrietta gave birth to a son, Nicky. Two months later she began to teach again. I halfheartedly continued lessons and practicing for a month or so, then stopped, three years to the day after I’d begun. I’d kept my promise. And that was enough.
Besides, I was George Gershwin. I felt it in my bones. In my previous lifetime I had worked my butt off and died young. In my present lifetime I would have fun and live to a ripe old age.
Bob Grand loved living in the Bronx from 1938-67. He visits often. He’s happy that a new generation is enjoying his old streets and feels the love.
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