=== 1906 ===
She came toward me out of the dust and ash. The acrid air and smoke from the small fires still burning encircled us. She held her apron over her mouth and nose. Russian Hill smoldered behind her. Standing in the rubble, her hand shielding her eyes, she fixed her gaze on me.
I sat tilted at an odd angle, untouched by the surrounding maelstrom. Then a hot coal fell from the sky. It hissed on one of my keys, eating through the ivory. I barely noticed the sting. Her intense blue eyes never left me. She clambered over the bricks, the debris tearing at her dress. I thought, Go back. It’s not safe here.
A small aftershock shook the unstable remains of the houses. She paid no notice to the creaking structures and falling facades. She knelt beside me, brushing the burning coal from my keyboard. Her astonishing blue eyes saw only me. The young woman placed rough, red raw hands on my keys, letting them rest there exhausted, waiting for something.
Her hands marked her. A laundress from one of the mansions up the hill. Slender fingers quivered, and then the connection to the music surged through her body. Fingers, strong from endless days of wringing bed linens, brought life to me.
Mozart’s Sonatina No 5 in F Major rose out of the horror. Lost souls wandering about looking for loved ones and looters alike stopped to listen. No one moved and the music wafted downward over San Francisco. An angel knelt beside me amidst hell on earth, lifting the hearts of the destitute and desperate.
Tears streamed down an old man’s face, his battered hat clenched to his chest. A woman with her child clung to a total stranger. The pathos and beauty of the moment shattered when a uniformed police officer shouted at the bystanders to move on. “Looters will be shot,” he yelled. She fled; the magic left.
Time passed. Wheelbarrows came and went, carrying human remains and acres of rubble. Dust and ash fell day and night, coating me in a grey shroud. Most of my mansion fell during the earthquake. Splinters of the wonderful wood-paneled parlor, where I’d greeted visitors, lay around me.
Homes below me blew apart in a botched explosion of over three hundred sticks of dynamite. Well-meaning men, inexperienced with explosives, attempted to halt the path of the fire. Its fury roared through the city in the aftermath of the earthquake. The percussion from the blast flattened many unstable structures.
One wall of my home still stood and offered shelter for the bodies of my owners. They lay covered in a Persian rug. A cart carried them off to a makeshift morgue. I heard the workers say 80 percent of the city lay in ruins.
On what felt like the brink of the end of days, I sensed the weight of two men against my side trying to right me and lift me out of my tomb.
“Is it worth anything?”
“Hardly likely. No piano could withstand the percussion from the explosions. Its insides are probably a tangled mess. Look at the burned key.”
“What about the ivory?”
“It might be worth stripping off.”
The two men struggled with my weight and made little headway. “It’s like trying to shove a musk ox. We need help on this one.” I bristled at the comparison.
“It’s gotta weigh seven hundred pounds. It’ll take four men to move it, maybe three if we strip it here.”
They headed on down the hill, still discussing my dismemberment. “The wood must be of some value.”
“Yes, it’s quarter-sawn oak.”
“We need to take the brass off the pedals. It’ll bring a pretty penny…”
Their voices trailed away. I sat through the night, waiting for the end.
In gleaming gold, my name board says I am a Meister. Skilled artisans from Germany working in the Rothschild factory in Ohio took nine months to complete me. In 1901, I rode on a train to the famous Rothschild Department Store in Chicago. Then in 1903, a wealthy San Francisco family purchased me. After a long journey by train, a horse-drawn cart brought me home to my Russian Hill mansion.
My life, standing in the parlor, never played, a piece of furniture topped with fresh flowers every day, now felt like a dream. My owner called me a parlor utensil. I thought, This is where I meet my demise after six years of an idle life. I haven’t lived.
Then, in the dark, firm hands found me. Three young men, brothers, lifted, dragged, and pushed me along the rutted path. A dangling sign said Hyde Street. The jostling caused extreme tension on my strings. I felt like I might fly apart at any moment.
“Sis’ll be happy.”
“Are you sure this is the one?”
“Yes, it was right where she said it was.”
“I’ll have a hernia. We can’t push this buffalo all the way to the Mission District.” Again, comparing me to a hairy behemoth…
“It must be three miles?” Sweat glistened on the heaviest of the three brothers and his chest heaved. Their struggle told me they loved their sister. They weren’t about to give up. Someone wanted me.
“Wait here.” The younger brother sprinted off down the hill, jumping debris with the skill of a mountain goat.
Minutes turned into an hour. He returned, leading a swayback nag of a horse. It wore a straw hat with holes cut out for its ears. I jostled along on a low wagon, my strings protesting with mournful sounds.
They pushed me through a storefront not damaged by the earthquake and collapsed beside me on the floor. Miss Mozart Sonatina in F Major ran her hands over me. “You did it, you did it!” She caressed my keys. She spoke to me. “You’re going to change my life.” She jumped up and down, planting kisses and hugging her brothers. “I couldn’t live another minute washing other people’s dirty laundry. You’ve saved me.” I thought, They saved me too.
“Sis, it’s damaged. Look at that. The key’s burned.”
Her blue eyes flashed. “Silly, it’s a very low B key and unless I am reincarnated as Beethoven, I won’t be needing it.”
“Sis, I’m so happy Grandma taught you to play. Yes, she came from money and married a cobbler. Her family disowned her. When they sold her piano to pay bills, I cried for days.”
Miss Mozart in F Major became a piano teacher in the Mission District, earning forty cents an hour. Her brothers worked long hours helping to rebuild the city. They lived in the two rooms at the back of the storefront. It felt tedious listening to the scales day in and day out. I endured little feet kicking and scuffing my lower front. In the evening Mozart’s Sonatina floated from the little storefront, and I felt joy.
=== 1918 ===
Years passed and Miss Mozart married and moved to San Jose. I moved to the back of the storefront and the three brothers started a butcher shop named “Three Brothers.” The business flourished. I did not, but I loved the brothers and the hustle and bustle of the shop.
People in the city started to fall ill. About 3,500 succumbed to influenza in San Francisco, and two of the brothers joined them. I mourned. The youngest brother went to live with his sister in San Jose, telling his clientele he decided to join the Army.
The storefront stood empty for months and the bank foreclosed. Then an Irishman purchased the building, bringing down the “Three Brothers” sign and replacing it with a new one, “Patrick’s Pump House.” The pub served locals, sailors, and a few hookers looking for the sailors.
Bands came and Patrick wheeled me out of the shadows to accompany the motley crew of musicians plying their trade in San Francisco’s many pubs. I needed tuning. I’d taken on a tinny sound, an abrasive tonal characteristic revered in the honky-tonks across America. If a piano didn’t have that sound, tiny tacks pressed into the hammers created it. Being out of tune served me well during my time with Patrick.
Insult upon insult, a small grey mouse took up residence at the base of my soundboard. Families bred there for several generations until Finian, the cat, sauntered into the pub. He meowed loudly, announcing his entrance. Soon he owned the place. He often slept on my keys or leapt to my top, a king surveying his domain.
A few battle scars showed near my pedals from the scuffing of the heavy boots worn by the piano player, Seamus. An Oakland dockworker by day, he let me know he meant business. Heavy-footed and heavy-handed made for a ruckus on Friday nights. He often threw a few punches from his piano bench during a brawl, not dropping a note.
The War wound down and Seamus wound up. He banged out the tunes, shaking the patrons and me to the core. He especially liked, “Over There” and “The Army’s Full of Irish.” The patrons sang along, lifting their glasses and sloshing beer on the floor. Tears rolled down Seamus’ face when he belted out, “Break the News to Mother.” The pub stayed silent on that one.
When World War I ended, San Francisco held a street party to end all parties. The pub emptied, and I saw heads bobbing on the street as the parades went by. I heard the cars honking, and the sounds of their strings of tin cans trailing into the night. The party lasted for two days.
On the second night, sitting alone in the pub, the barman asleep in the back, a couple in their early thirties and a younger man in uniform entered the pub.
“What a party! Are you sure this is the place, Sis?” The younger man’s eyes scanned the room. “It looks so different.”
“Yes,” the woman said. “Remember, we lived in the back. Later you stuffed sausages in that little room.” She pointed to the back of the bar. A cockeyed sign hung on the door, “Paddy’s Place.” Now it contained an old desk and piles of paper. She put her arm around the younger man. “You’d all still be here if the sickness hadn’t come.”
The woman gasped, and her hand flew to her chest. “Oh, my heart—the piano.” My angel walked toward me and almost collapsed on my grubby piano bench. She touched the burn mark. She paused, and then Mozart’s Sonatina in F Major rose in the stale air of the pub. Finian, lying on my top, stretched and accompanied my angel in a raspy purr.
The tall man put his hand on her shoulder. “It needs tuning. God, it’s filthy. You shouldn’t be near it in your condition. Who knows what hands touched those keys?” A yellow candle sat in a hardened pool of bee’s wax at the edge of my keyboard. “Look, a candle must have tipped and burned the key.”
She looked up at her husband. “No, not a candle.”
“Come on, Sis, we’ve got to go.” Her fingers lingered for a moment. She looked at my sorry state. A knob missing from one end of the cover caused a tear to fall. It landed on middle C. She closed the lid. I thought, She came back. Then the door slammed shut.
=== 1920 ===
The Roaring Twenties approached, and with them came Prohibition. Patrick, not to be thwarted, opened a billiard parlor in the storefront and moved the bar downstairs to a dank basement with no windows. They dragged me down rickety basement stairs. Someone lost their grip and I slid down the last few steps. I came close to crushing the barkeep.
“Hey, that walrus could have killed me.” I am large, but the comparisons hurt.
=== 1933 ===
I stayed in the basement fifteen years until Prohibition ended, picking up a bit of wood rot inside on my lower front board. Ropes and a pulley hoisted me up rotting stairs. I defied gravity. The rope slipped on my side more than once resulting in a burn. I didn’t care. The light brought hope.
Patrick’s accountant looked up from the books.
“Lordy, look at that old whale of a ‘thump box.’ You need to update.” I thought, The insults keep coming; now I’m compared to large aquatic creatures. I felt appalled by the insensitivity.
“You should get something more streamlined. Look at that burn. Someone left a cigar on the keys. Patrick, if you’re going to make a go of it, you need to stay up with the times.”
“Don’t worry. Our Rosie’ll give it glitz. It just needs a gallon of linseed oil and some good old-fashioned elbow grease.”
Soon, a new piano player showed up. He swaggered up to Patrick behind the bar. “Unless this elephant is tuned, I ain’t taken the gig.” I thought, Enough of the insults. I’m an upright grand, large and powerful, not a pachyderm.
I experienced my first tuning in thirty-three years. New felts gave me an as-good-as-new sound. No more tinny twang. Later in the evening, two barmen hoisted a sultry goddess in a shimmering red sequin dress to my top above the player. She sat there, legs crossed.
“Hey, guys don’t leave me up here, I’m get’n a nosebleed.”
“Well, sweetheart, it’s tall. I’ll give you that. It might not be a grand.
“I’d give anything to stretch out on a grand.”
“Rosie, it’s a concert grand upright, the strings are the same size as a grand. It’ll give you what you need.” The piano player tipped his straw hat to Rosie and placed it on his head at a jaunty angle.
Patrick winked at Rosie. He liked the plucky, plump songstress. “Rosie, you can lie across the top to give ’em a thrill. But don’t let them beer-swilling swine get a gander up that dress,”
The piano player, somewhat vain, placed a red rose on my keys to hide the burned ivory. Rosie batted her eyes at her new accompanist. I contemplated the not-so-subtle signs. I thought, She’s making a play for this guy. I didn’t stay in the basement speakeasy for fifteen years and not pick up on sexual innuendos. Could he not figure out a red rose might be Rosie’s calling card? Maybe he’s not too bright.
He saw Rosie looking at the flower. “I won’t be need’n that key—ever.” Rosie tilted her head, and I knew his comment stymied her. They spun in different orbits.
Rosie’s first song on opening night, “Stormy Weather,” caught the attention of the patrons, not to mention her sparkling figure-hugging dress. She knew how to draw out a song and hook her audience. She lay on her side on top of me, feeling my throbbing strings through the length of her body. When she crooned her last song of the night, “I Like a Guy What Takes His Time,” the bar denizens hooted, hollered, and stamped their feet.
“I think I’m in love with this upright grand.” Rosie’s throaty voice floated down to the piano player. The bar boys lifted her from my top.
“The vibration up there gave me a thrill. If ya know what I mean?”
Rosie sat on the bench next to the piano player. She ran her fingers over my keys, dropping her hand to the player’s knee.
“You can tickle my ivories anytime.” I blushed like cherry wood.
The piano player, slow on the uptake, got the message and slid over next to Rosie, thighs touching. Patrick saw the interaction and shook his head. I thought, A tryst between a piano player and the diva never ends well for the bar. Opening night, a resounding success, left me longing for Miss Mozart in F Major’s lilting Sonatina.
My re-emergence into the light brought clarity. The time I spent in the bowels of the pub kept me from bearing witness to the downtrodden masses of humanity above on Market Street. Bread lines wound around city blocks. Women and children shivered in the dampness and cold that characterized San Francisco.
Desperate men loitered on street corners, scanning newspapers for any type of work. I saw them now, and with clarity I understood why Rosie’s songs down in the basement grew sadder over the years. Patrick’s clientele’s shoulders slumped, and they drank more. Rosie crooned, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Her songs became bluesier and heads hung lower. The Great Depression came and went, and Patrick’s Pump House barely survived foreclosure.
Patrick received a call from a woman in San Jose asking to purchase me. Patrick refused. Stunned anyone would want me, he somehow felt attached. Rosie married the pub’s latest piano player. In a hail of rice, the pub bid them adieu, and they headed for a small farm in Salinas.
Patrick’s struggle to keep the pub above water during the Depression took the wind out of his sails. A year passed. Late one afternoon, he sat counting the previous night’s take. One of the barkeeps came through the door, late for his shift. He leaned on me, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary.
“Hey, Paddy, I just saw our Rosie going into the Music Box on O’Farrell, dripping silver glitter under a beaver coat.” Everyone knew Patrick still held a torch for Rosie.
“You’re late,” Patrick said, never looking up from the receipts. I saw the glimmer of a smile on Patrick’s lips. He hummed to himself, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree…”
=== 1935 ===
Patrick sold the pub. He didn’t take me with him. The city purchased the building and turned it into a food distribution center serving poor and low-income families. I moved once again to a storeroom at the back, feeling abandoned and used up. Finian, at twenty-plus years, hung around to keep me company. He no longer leapt to my top. He moved slower. Mice still held him in high regard.
I felt a lightening of mood in the customers who came into the center. I became a shelf for crates of cantaloupe. The food center manager signed a contract with Alcatraz, the newly appointed Federal Penitentiary. At closing time, a prison employee came in to set up an order for one hundred pounds of potatoes. A cantaloupe bounced from my top to my keys, interrupting Finian’s nap and startling customers.
The prison employee heard my keys protest the errant fruit. He stared at me. “Can I buy that old thing off ya?” He pointed at me.
The owner, with a pencil behind his ear, came around the counter, almost colliding with a customer. “If you can get it out of here today, you can have it. We got a big load of tomatoes coming in tomorrow from Fresno. That beast’s taking up space.”
=== 1938 ===
Faster than the plink of a key; I bobbed up and down on a barge heading to Alcatraz. Unbeknownst to me, Al Capone, a famous gangster, keen musician, and inmate, facilitated the procurement of musical instruments for a music room at the prison, mostly through bribery.
The guards talked about the music-writing gangster. “You should hear him on the mandola.” In stark contradiction to the persona of this scary and violent man, he wrote a beautiful love song, “Madonna Mia.” The melody floated out over the water, and on a still night, San Francisco listened. In later years, I learned the song, posthumously published in 2009, captivated gangster genre fans.
The dichotomy of the man the populace called “Scarface,” enthralled America. Capone gave back to his community from his great wealth. A stone-cold killer, he engaged in brutal murders, bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, and of course, tax evasion. A guard patted my top. “You’re part of the band now, the ‘Rock Islanders.’ God help you if you’re out of tune.”
Once in the music room, Al pointed to my burn mark. “Looks like some son-of-a-bitch took a blowtorch to your keys. Hope ya didn’t squeal.” He chuckled. “I can’t stomach squealers.” The piano-playing inmate grimaced at the thought of being on the wrong side of Al.
“Al, it ain’t me what’s play’n poorly. This crate of strings is out of tune, big time.”
Al growled. “Get a tuner.”
The next night, someone snuck into the music room and cut my piano wire attached to my lower B key. A few days later, a prisoner in Capon’s cellblock lay on his bunk garrotted, bleeding out from a severed carotid artery. Piano wire, easy to conceal, silent and deadly, means business. I’ve heard it can cut a man in two.
I remembered Miss Mozart in F Major’s words to her brothers regarding my burned key. “It’s a very low B key and unless I am reincarnated as Beethoven, I won’t be needing it.” I thought, Only someone who wrote music would know that… Whoever sliced through my wire didn’t go for an easier wire to clip. The thief reached far into my side to get to the lower B string. I lived to play “Madonna Mia” another day, slightly out of tune.
I felt a foreboding sense of death on The Rock. A piano tuner summoned to the prison shook his head and gave the warden bad news. “This piano needs a lot of work. It’s work that can only be done back in my shop.” When the warden heard the cost, I ended up sitting on the dock covered in a canvas.
After a few weeks, rust settled in on my top hinges from the salt sea air. Sea gulls roosted on me at night. I could hear another piano in the music room. It sounded like a Schaaf, from Chicago, like Al and me. They didn’t wait long to move in my replacement.
I felt low-keyed, depressed. Hands dragged me over the cement; my casters scraped on the rough concrete in protest. The waves crashed on the rocks and I shuddered. My fate awaited me in the dark depths. Then a few jolts, a bump, and I felt myself bobbing. I’m on a barge, snatched from death’s door—no watery grave for me.
Hands and a solid shoulder pushed me up a ramp onto a truck. I ended up in a shop close to Patrick’s old stomping ground. The smell of linseed oil, overpowering and soothing, encircled me. Two men in heavy black aprons stood looking at me. “You know this is a grand piano, just upright is all. It’s got double repeating action.” He waited for his partner’s response.
“Really?” His partner ran his fingers over my keys. “Hey, some of the keys stick. It’s sucked up too much moisture over on The Rock.”
“It’s ours for free. The warden just wanted it gone. His exact words, ‘Take it or it’ll be sleeping with the fishes.’ He meant it.” I shuddered.
His partner choked. “…But it’s got great bones, right?”
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Look at that wood, quarter-sawn oak.” He ran his hands over my front. “Just needs to lose years of grime ’s all.”
They opened my top. They looked down into my cabinet and I felt their breath. They removed my back and then my sides. A discombobulated feeling came over me. I felt exposed.
“It needs new felts and strings. Somewhere along the way, the strings came under a lot of stress. Hey, look at this. One string’s missing way over here on the low B key.”
“That’s odd. It’s hardly ever used.”
“Hot Diggity Dog! The soundboard’s still good. That’ll save us some dough.”
“Can we sell it? I’m not puttin’ in a lot of work into this relic if it don’t bring a profit.”
“We’ll make money. A piano like this one’s in high demand, solid workmanship.”
=== 1941 ===
In a few months, I felt new, resuscitated by piano restorers extraordinaire. Yet, I sat in their window for two years, waiting. Then on December 7, a newspaper boy stuck his head in the shop’s door. “Did you hear? The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.” WWI, the war to end all wars—didn’t. America, ready to fight again, declared war on Japan the next day. My chances of belonging to someone faded.
I heard the air raid sirens sound in San Francisco. Frantic people with frayed nerves believed bombs headed their way. My piano restorers boarded up their shop and joined the line of young men enlisting. I sat cloistered with several others of my kind, not knowing if falling bombs might blow us to smithereens.
=== 1945 ===
Almost four years to the day, the screech of nails being pulled from wood startled me out of hibernation. Once again, light filtered through the storefront window. I’d spent six years standing in the shop, two waiting for a buyer and four boarded up.
Only one of my restorers returned to the shop. The lone restorer brought in a new partner. He told him his previous partner of ten years lay buried in France, bayonetted during the liberation of Lorraine. I felt sad. Together, their skilled hands worked to give me a second chance at life. I mourned.
The new partner, a real go-getter, arrived for work in a navy-blue sharkskin suit, looking dapper. “Man, you’ve got way too much inventory here. I’ll find homes for these hammers and strings. He slapped the backside of a baby grand. I’m hitting up the hotels first thing tomorrow.”
He walked into the shop around noon and pointed at me. “Dust this one off. It’s going to the new Tonga Room at the Fairmont.” He waved a check for three hundred dollars under his new partner’s nose.
“All that dampness won’t be good for him. He’s already experienced what too much moisture can do to internals.”
“You should see it, man. The Tonga Room’s a faux Polynesian Paradise. It’s a 1945 happening. The indoor thunderstorm wows the audience every time.”
I ended up a tad seasick on a float in the middle of the hotel’s swimming pool, a floating island. The bandleader sported a straw fedora and a Hawaiian shirt. He played me with a confidence that said more about his personality than his ability. He crooned the songs of the time. The band showed up twice a week, often winging it. The members held second jobs. They played the Top 40 hits, and a lot of Sinatra, “Cheek to Cheek,” and my favorite, “Try a Little Tenderness.”
I often moved off the island for the repairs needed to keep us afloat. Then one day passed into another and I didn’t move back to the island. I thought, Why am I in the storage room? I heard the band talking about a new piano. Carpenters charged with keeping us afloat enlarged the island, enabling an appealing white baby grand to upstage me. She slid onto the island behind my back. They shunted me off to a warehouse somewhere in the Mission District. I languished, again in hibernation.
=== 1956 ===
One morning, someone yanked my tarp off, slapped my side, and sent me off on loan from the Fairmont to a new Italian caffè serving up espresso in North Beach. In the vibration of a string, I landed in the middle of the Beat Generation. The caffè served caffeine to the creative minds of the time. I heard names like Kerouac and Ginsburg frequented the caffè. I took a back seat to the poets and writers.
Everything Italian brought Al back into my thoughts and my close brush with an untimely end. My gig lasted three weeks, longer than my brief stay at Alcatraz, and two of those were on the dock. I headed back to my home at the warehouse where I slept through the last of the ’50s. Music changed, and bands no longer wanted pianos when an electronic keyboard sufficed.
I moved a few times to different warehouses when conglomerates bought them out or they went bankrupt. My tags designating me Fairmont property faded then fell off somewhere in the middle of one of the warehouse moves. I belonged to no one.
=== 1964 ===
A transistor radio plunked down on my top. It blared day and night. A boy I listened to at the Italian caffè years earlier let me know what I’d already guessed. His nasal voice came to me through that, dropped-one-too-many-times, old transistor radio, “The Times They are a-Changin.”
=== 1968 ===
Two of the young warehousemen headed off to another war in Vietnam. Through the sixties, bands formed right and left. The Grateful Dead brought psychedelic music to San Francisco. Jefferson Airplane defined the sound, and shot it across the ocean to Europe out of San Francisco. Santana hit the scene a few years later, melding rock, jazz, blues and Afro-Cuban rhythms. I felt out of sorts, out of step, and out of tune with the new music.
Hope glimmered, I learned room still existed for pianos. After all, Chuck Berry kept the piano alive with raucous playing, never sitting down on his piano bench through two decades of music. The young warehousemen, my only contact with the outside world, kept me up-to-date. I missed the Summer of Love.
The seventies rolled along and a boom box replaced the transistor radio. It thumped from my top and caused my strings to tremble. The song by Scott Joplin, “The Entertainer” vibrated the air around me. I longed to take part in the resurgence. I heard hope thumping from that boom box.
=== 1986 ===
Twelve years warehoused. Then a new warehouseman, who moonlighted playing guitar in a band called The Foxy Pox, snuck his band members into the warehouse for jam sessions. My tarp came off and for several hours a few times a week, I joined the motley group. The piano player, gifted, introduced me to new wave music. There wasn’t much call for a piano in that genre. One of the guys liked soft rock and I joined in.
“Hey, I heard there’s a party on Baker’s Beach.”
“Over on the northwest side of San Francisco, close to the Presidio. Something about Summer Solstice.”
“Do you think we could haul this piano box to the beach?”
“Geez, I don’t know. It weighs a ton. I could get fired.”
In the end, they borrowed me for the event on Baker’s Beach. They loaded me on a warehouse truck also borrowed in the loosest sense of the word.
Hands, too many to count, carried me onto the beach. Sitting on the cool sand lulled by the salt sea air, under the breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge, I felt caught up in the exuberance of youth. For a moment, my years under the tarps felt like a dim memory.
Sand found its way into my innards; pianos didn’t belong on beaches. The crowd wore costumes and radical self-expression reigned. Various musicians came and went throughout the night. “Hotel California” rose from the beach up into the night sky.
Later in the evening, the crowd burned a man made of sticks, giving me a glimpse of something cataclysmic and primal. At the same time, an oozing boundless joy spread out over the beach. A few hundred people danced on the sand. The warehouseman, turned werewolf in mangy attire, high on more than life, wanted to leave me on the beach.
However, leaving no trace felt important to the group; back I went in the warehouse truck. Sand trickled out of me onto the floor. The guitar playing warehouseman gave me a hit-and-miss clean-up, not wanting to get into trouble.
Under a tarp once again, years passed. Little did I know at the time I’d been part of the fledgling beginnings of Burning Man. I felt proud. Soon, the music played at Burning Man took a sharp turn to the electronic, becoming a genre specific to Burning Man called Playa Tech. No Pianos may apply. The guitarist warehouseman went back to college, and my life returned to quiet resignation.
I often think about Burning Man, To some it may seem odd that I ended up on Baker’s Beach. As the celebration evolved and moved to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, young artists built unbelievably enormous sculptures much larger than me.
=== 1996 ===
In the late nineties, always on the alert for news of Burning Man, I heard a brawny piano mover took eighty-eight parts of burned and damaged pianos to the Nevada Desert. They say he could smack a piano and move it a foot.
He built a cathedral of pianos totalling ten tons. I thought, I’m fortunate Mr. Slaphappy never moved me, but what a grand tribute and ending for my less fortunate brethren.
=== 2010 ===
One day, workers lifted my tarp and shoved me to the far end of the warehouse. I stood amongst other flotsam and jetsam, lost bits of furniture from here and there. A sandwich board went out on the street in front of my latest warehouse, advertising an auction of unclaimed goods. A price tag hung on the only existing knob of my keyboard cover: one hundred dollars, as is.
When all else leaves us, I believe our hearing remains. I stood there hearing Mozart’s Sonatina in F Major wafting downward from Russian Hill. Someone said San Franciscans still hear the ghostly sounds of Capone’s mandola floating out over the water. Al’s long buried. I thought, My time under these tarps marks my slow progression to internment.
People passed by me throughout the day, never looking in my direction. Then an older man with silver hair stood in front of me. He touched my keys and murmured, “You poor old thing. If you could talk, what stories you would tell.” A man in coveralls strode over. “If you want this piano, I can let it go for fifty bucks.”
The older man shook his head. “Pianos are a dime a dozen. This beautiful old treasure is destined for the landfill. Is that sand on the pedals?”
“Hell, just take it.”
The older man thought for less than a second. “I’ll take it. My son’s got a truck.”
So, I left the golden city and headed to Berkeley. Four men carried me up the front stairs of a beautiful old Victorian home to a large oak paneled entryway. The housekeeper polished me and vacuumed the dust and sand from my innards. No one played the piano in the home.
I stood there, saved, for within the old man beat the heart of a rescuer. Plants and photographs found their way to my top. A vintage piece of music sat on my music shelf. I thought, I’m over one hundred years old. Dear God, I’m an antique.
Over the years, the older man’s son came often to visit his aging parents. He discussed the purchase of a warehouse and wanted to turn it into an artist’s enclave. His plans included ideas to present live entertainment, a bar with wine and beer, and a kitchen to serve small meals.
His parents shelled out for the down payment. On the day the warehouse became his, he bounded up the front stairs to the cut-glass doors, waving the deed. “I’m on cloud nine,” he shouted to his parents.
The older man laughed at his son’s exuberance. “What will you call this exciting place?”
His mother smiled at her son. “That’s it—Cloud 9.”
“Super name, Mom. You nailed it. Dad, do you think you’d give me this old piano to bring a bit of ambiance to the place?”
“Of course, sure thing, it’s just biding its time here.”
I’d spent a good portion of my life warehoused. This felt different. Artists came and displayed their paintings. The atmosphere oozed youth’s enthusiasm and creativity in vivid colors spilling over traditional margins. A bit of the counterculture of the sixties seeped in too. It was Berkeley. I sat in the middle of it all.
=== 2016 ===
One young artist sat down on my bench. He touched my burned key, and I sensed the sadness he felt over the scar. The boy played short lines of music, never finishing. No song sheets clung to my music shelf. I knew he wasn’t reading the notes. Recognizing the snippets he played, Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin, I thought, My God, he plays by ear. I don’t think he knew what he played, just the beauty of music he’d heard somewhere in bits and pieces.
I loved my new digs and my young man who played by ear. I responded to his light touch, unlike the force many players felt they needed to apply to my keys. Seamus stands out, the worst of the ivory thumpers. Somehow, I felt love through this young man’s touch.
One evening he appeared in the doorway, not alone. He held a young woman’s hand. Her eyes a vivid blue, and her skin pale almost translucent, left a lasting impression. I felt caught up in their conversation.
“I’m so glad we left the Ghost Ship. Electronic is not my favorite.” I thought, Nor mine. He put his arm around her waist.
“It’s a firetrap. The guy who runs it is sketchy.”
They plopped down on pillows along the wall. She told him she studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
“Rich parents? A trust fund kid?” My young man can be sarcastic. It caused her pause, and she gave him a sideways glance. I thought, You’re going to lose this girl.
She stepped right up to the plate, faced the music. She met his words with her own strength of conviction.
“No, not really. They sacrificed to send me there. I am studying piano. Where are you going in life?”
Touché. She met his grey-green eyes with her startling blue ones. He liked her direct way of being, and so did I.
“I don’t have a plan for my life yet. I play it by ear. My parents call me a starving artist. I paint large installations; sometimes I collaborate with other artists. Sometimes, I sell my paintings on Telegraph.
“Wow, I’d love to see your paintings. Tell me all about them. What medium? What kind of art? What are your innermost thoughts when you paint?”
He laughed. “You’re full of questions.”
I could tell my young man liked this girl. I fell in love when she walked into Cloud 9.
“It’s Post Visionary. I use acrylic. Other mediums too, sometimes mixed. I think of music when I paint.” He took her hand. “Maybe now, if I hear you play, I’ll think of you.”
“Is that a line you give all the trust fund girls?” Her blue eyes sparkled. He took her hand and pulled her up off the pillows. They stood in front of two vast canvases. Two painters, a man and a woman, hovered over a scarred landscape on each canvas. The two painters each held a brush dripping vibrant colors splashing out over the gray industrial ugliness.
“Oh my God, is this yours?”
“Yes, it’s a collaboration. I have a few others here. There’s others hanging at the Womb in Oakland on 47th.”
“You’re so talented.” Her blue eyes flashed up at him. I knew what he thought because I thought it too. He stared a bit too long and she lowered her gaze. I thought, The color of her eyes, an extraordinary shade of blue, shows up in his paintings hanging in the warehouse—azure. He’s falling in love. A pain akin to loss lived in me. I knew someone once a long time ago with those same astonishing eyes.
He took her hand, and they walked around looking at his other paintings, and those by other artists, stealing shy glances at each other.
“They make fish tacos here around midnight.” My young man loves to eat.
“You didn’t tell me this place had a piano?”
“The tacos are the best. Oh that, it’s not much to look at. It’s pretty beat up. The sound’s okay. Maybe you only play on shiny Steinways?” She gave him a gentle punch on the shoulder.
“My great grandmother played. She gave piano lessons to survive and help feed the family.”
“Times were tough back then.” He put his arm around her waist.
Midnight approached, and tacos made their debut. He headed for the food set out on the bar. The owner took the stage to make an announcement. “The Ghost Ship warehouse is on fire and people are trapped inside. We’re closing down early tonight.” Cloud 9 emptied.
The next day the warehouse buzzed with what the world now knew: thirty-six creative young people confirmed dead in Oakland’s deadliest fire ever and the highest death toll in California since the fires after the 1906 earthquake.
The young owner of Cloud 9 talked to a small group of artists. “Nothing will ever be the same, we won’t survive this tragedy.” He meant the underground world of warehouses where struggling artists came together to create art and music. The owner knew some people at the Ghost Ship and it weighed on his heart.
My young man sat on my bench, picking out a few lines of music he’d heard somewhere, depressed.
“She just disappeared when everyone charged the door after the announcement about the fire,” he lamented to another artist.
“She left me holding two tacos. I don’t even know her last name. How could I be so stupid?” Yes, I thought, Youth is stupid in those first days of heady romance.
“Yah man, you should always get a phone number.”
“I went to the Conservatory and hung around outside. I never saw her.”
“Sorry man, bummer.”
=== 2017 ===
A month later, she walked into Cloud 9. She stood in front of my young man’s double canvas painting. He arrived a few minutes later, leaning on the doorframe. She turned. “You don’t sign your work. I’d hoped to get your last name.”
They sat on pillows and talked about the fire. The names of the dead became public, and he knew four. She remembered one, a girl from her high school days. He looked into her blue eyes, welling with tears.
“Come on.” He pulled her out of their nest on the floor, bringing her to me. “Play something.”
She sat down on the bench. She shivered. “I have this strange feeling. I’ve been here before.” She stared at my burn scar. “I’ve touched these keys.”
“Déjà vu,” my boy whispered. “Play your favorite piece.”
I felt it too, déjà vu. The young man leaned on my side, watching the blue-eyed vision before me place gentle hands on my keys. Mozart’s Sonatina No 5 in F Major filled the warehouse.
Zoë Sutton Harris, now retired, spent the last two years writing short stories and a coming-of-age memoir.
Zoë graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a master’s degree in social work.
She spent her formative years growing up in the small village of Ketepec on the Saint John River in New Brunswick Canada. Zoë has lived in California for forty-three years with sojourns to The Bahamas for four years and to Kazakhstan for eight years. She now lives in Northern California outside of San Francisco with her husband and rescued mutt, Lucy. Zoë has two adult children.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “A Sonatina in F Major”:
From the author: “The piano actually exists. My son pulled it out of an old warehouse in Berkeley, California. I immediately wanted him to take it to the dump. Fed up with looking at it, I decided to remove some of the dirt and grime. I spent four hours working on the piano. A black burn stands out on the low B key.
“I undertook a bit of research and found out the piano was built around 1900. I started to wonder, where have you been, what have you seen, and my story materialized. My son is an artist and the young couple at the end of the story are loosely based on my son and his girlfriend.”
A story written from the perspective of a piano intrigued us, and after reading it, we knew that we had to publish it. Of course, it helped that my wife and I had recently visited San Francisco and were familiar with some of the history portrayed in it.
We’re also pleased to say that this is author Zoë Sutton Harris’s first published story, and we’re glad she sent it to us.