GOODBYE, NIKE

We sold Nike today, after twenty years.  Not the stock, but the grand piano, purchased impulsively twenty years ago, with the winnings of a stock investment.  We probably should have kept the stock.  Live and learn.

We were confident that, with three young children, at least one would be a spectacular musician or, at least, a continuing musician.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Each of them trudged through an obligatory year or two of lessons and each failed so spectacularly that we were not a bit reluctant to let them quit.  Just to be sure, the eldest and youngest also failed at the oboe, and the middle one failed at the flute, though she did attain a level of semi-competence that inspired us to purchase another expensive instrument for her.  Several months after that acquisition, she quit that, too.  At least a flute fits inconspicuously in a closet.

The piano served as an imposing and enormous piece of furniture in our living room – too pretty in its rich walnut suit to serve as a shelf, and too large to see around.  In the early years, I was an occasional tinkler at the keyboard.  I dusted off memory cells first developed when I was eight and was gratified to still play several pieces from that era by memory.  Yet, I was not able to commit any NEW pieces to memory.   I peck laboriously through simplified versions of famous melodies from sheet music.

Why did we decide to sell the piano?  While I derive occasional satisfaction from my playing, the piano more often serves as a reminder of our family’s futility.  My particular problem is an inability to practice.  I know that I am not alone in that problem; for me, it is not a lack of desire to play well.  My problem is that, by the time I practice a piece enough to perform it with a not-embarrassing level of mediocrity, I am too sick of the piece to perform it at all.  Meanwhile, we continue to expend several hundred dollars each year on tuning.  As the piano increasingly represents frustration, it is increasingly neglected.

Our first marketing effort took place several years ago via Craigslist.  Nearly a dozen people responded over a period of a month or two, and several were serious enough to come see and play it.  Each one enjoyed the sound and the appearance, but they rejected it as too large and/or too expensive.  Finally, one young man appeared infatuated.  He came three times.  He played as though he already owned it.  He described the space it would occupy.  He said he would buy it.  He did not even bargain on the price and he scheduled its pick-up.  Just one formality, he said, before the mover arrived; he was an accomplished musician, and he felt the piano should be checked by a “technician.”  This, he told me, is a professional several steps above a mere tuner on the qualification ladder.  He assured me that it was like having a master mechanic check a used car.  Since the piano had been professionally maintained throughout its life, there was no basis for concern.

Wrong again.  The “technician” arrived with the attitude and charm of a hit-man.  He did not shake hands.  He did not establish eye contact.  He brushed past me at the door and regarded the piano behind me like a food inspector discovering a nest of cockroaches.

“Wow,” he said, indicating the location of the piano.  “Has it always been there?”

“Yes,” I replied, unsure of what he was intimating.  There was no other logical place in the house for a grand piano than the living room.

“You have a vent there,” he said, indicating the air conditioning and heating vent that was on the floor adjacent to the piano.  Such vents, of course, were located throughout the house.

“And that window,” he grumbled, indicating a window ten feet from the keyboard.

“Is there a problem?” I asked.

He rolled his eyes.  He shook his head.  I thought he might not respond.  Finally, he summarized his disgust, still without having touched a key:  “You got heat, you got cold, and you got sunshine.”

I made a motion that he correctly interpreted to mean that I did not understand why these unavoidable household accoutrements presented a problem.  Most people, after all, do not have houses without heat, cooling or windows.

“You can’t have an instrument in such conditions.”

I did not respond, and tried to picture Carnegie Hall without heat or air conditioning.  He finally approached the piano and opened up the top.

“Oh!” he groaned.  “You got a real problem here.”

“What?” I asked.

“The whole sound board is cracked.  It can’t be fixed.  Oh, it’s in terrible shape.”

“How can that be?” I asked.  “It was tuned a week ago and the tuner said it was in great shape.  It sounds beautiful.”

“Yeah, right,” he scoffed.   “I’m not even going to waste more time.  Look at that mess!”  He pointed to a line along the main block attached to the strings inside.  I stared hard where he pointed.  It looked to me like normal grain in the wood.

“That’s a problem?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” he said.  “It’s all about to pull apart.  I’m afraid I have to kill this deal.”

He turned towards the front door without even striking a key.

“I’ll call my tuner,” I said.  “Can he speak with you about this?”

“Won’t do any good,” said the technician.  He scurried out past me.

I was stunned.  How was this possible?  I immediately called my tuner and described what had happened.

“I’ll come out tomorrow,” he said, “but I think I know what’s going on.”

“What?” I asked.

“This is not uncommon,” he said.  “Some technicians have a different agenda.”

“Piano technicians have agendas?” I asked.

“You’d be amazed,” he said.

Meanwhile, an e-mail arrived from my buyer advising that he would not be purchasing the piano.   I was stunned.  I wrote back:  “I’m willing to pay to have another technician come and provide a second opinion.”

The buyer responded:  “I’ve decided to buy a piano that my technician is selling.  Thanks anyway.”

The “agenda” was clear.

Our tuner arrived the next day and agreed that the alleged “crack” was merely grain in the wood.  Though he is only twenty-five-years-old he looked at me with pity, like I was a child who had just learned there is, indeed, evil in the world.

The Craigslist trail turned cold and, after several months without interested buyers, we considered consigning the piano to a wholesaler.  Their representative came to the house and fawned over the instrument.

“This will sell instantly,” he declared.  He felt he could sell the piano at so high a price with his marketing muscle that, even after paying his commission, we would clear more money than if we sold it ourselves.  He even said:  “They don’t make them like this anymore.”  I knew it was trite when he said it, but it had enough truth in it to convince me.  As a Baldwin, our piano is one of the last to have been made in America before the entire industry decamped for China.  In 2001, Baldwin declared bankruptcy.

Six months after the wholesaler transported our piano to a warehouse two hours away, I was contemplating the meaning of the word “instantly.”  I was able to see our piano on his website, so I knew it still existed, but seeing it looking forlorn along with hundreds of others made me doubt both its unique quality and his marketing acumen.  He urged us to lower the price, twice.  Finally, when he called to suggest a third price reduction, to a level significantly below where we had it on our own, we opted instead to retrieve the piano.  We put sale plans on hold.

After two more years of its benignly dominating our living room, our tuner suggested that a client of his might be interested in the piano.  That evening, I heard from a man who asked me to send a picture of Nike from my phone.  After a trying technological tutorial, I managed to comply with his request.    He called immediately upon receipt to say that the instrument was “beautiful” but would never fit in his apartment.  “But my daughter’s instructor might be interested,” he said.  “Would you mind if I forwarded her the picture?”

“That would be great,” I said, though I really did not feel anything would come of it.  For years, every lead ended with “it’s too big,” or “it’s too expensive,” or “it’s too brown.”  I pictured moving into a nursing home at 100 lugging a grand piano behind me.

Yet, within a week, I heard from a woman named Hiromi Yamanashi.  She was the instructor that the man had mentioned, and she told me that her childhood piano was a Baldwin grand.  She had left it in Japan when she came to this country but was anxious to replace it.  She scheduled a visit for the next day.  I called our tuner with the good news.

“Oh,” he said, when I told him about Hiromi.  “She will never buy it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“First of all, it’s brown, and Asians only want black pianos.”

“What?” I said, appalled by his stereotyping.

“It’s just a fact.  Black pianos look better with their hair.  Second,” he continued, “Asians do not buy twenty-year-old pianos.  They only like new ones.  Piano companies in Asia do not even sell parts since no one there ever repairs a piano.”

I was wondering how it was that my piano tuner was explaining the ways of the world to me — again.  How could the world of pianos be corrupt and immoral?  This was not a used car that I was trying to sell.  It was an embodiment of beauty and culture.  In any event, my enthusiasm for Hiromi’s visit was diminished.

Hiromi arrived exactly when she promised.  She was a tiny woman, seemingly thin enough to be blown over by a breeze.  However, despite her stature, Hiromi projected an imposing, no-nonsense style; she strode from the door to the piano with purpose, barely pausing to say “hello.”  She sat down and played with powerful beauty and confidence that had rarely been heard in our house.  In fact, such competence had NEVER been heard in our house except from the stereo system. I enjoyed the sound washing over me like a wave and wished one of my children were playing.

Unfortunately, after several minutes of impressive beauty, she paused over a key in the lower register that was slightly discordant to my untrained ear.  Apparently, it was vastly discordant to her highly trained ear.  Over and over she hit the key, louder and louder.  It was like fate knocking catastrophically in my ears.  Each hammer blow made the sale of the piano more remote.

After a moment, Hiromi stood up and indicated she would be leaving.  “I will have to shop around some more,” she said.  “Thank you for showing me the piano.”

“I could get that key fixed,” I said.

“Not important,” she said.  My hopes died completely.  I remembered what the tuner said about Asians and the repair of pianos.

I was stunned a month later to receive an e-mail from Hiromi asking if the piano was still available.  I replied that it was, and she asked if she could check it again.  When she arrived the second time, she was accompanied by a quiet young man.  He sat beside me to listen to her impromptu concert.  After thirty wonderful minutes she turned to us, and said:  “I’ll buy it.”

“Really?” I said, shocked.

“Yes,” she said.  “We are getting married next month, and this is our wedding gift from my parents.”

I was delighted with this turn of events.  At least four things were wonderful:  the piano was finally sold; the piano was sold to someone who would play it beautifully; the piano was purchased for a joyous occasion; and, though not as important in the cosmic sense, I was going to be able to tell my tuner that his cynical stereotyping was wrong.  My faith in humanity was, at least, partially restored!

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