Thursday, August 19, 2004

Turning Points

I moved to New York nine years ago. I have lived in seven different apartments, had four roommates, one husband, a dog and a cat. I have worked in two non-performing arts related fields. I have sung roles large and small in 7 operas – and have done Carmen and The Magic Flute twice. I and my cat currently live in a small two bedroom apartment on the upper west side with a young roommate and her two cats. I have nice furniture. The place is cramped, but pretty. I have a collection of books, a computer, and an organic grocery store nearby. I have good friends. I like my life.

Last April, my parents and I laid my Grandmother to rest alongside Grandpa at the Holy Name Cemetery in Jersey City on a perfect sunny spring day. The flowers were perfect and bees buzzed around, reminders of life and growth and newness. Mom and I looked a long time at the headstone, engraved with Grandpa’s name but not yet Grandma’s, feeling... well, bereaved. We stood there, with our arms around each other. Grandma had finally left Mom and me alone. We cried.

We headed back to the apartment in Jersey City, which she and Grandpa had moved into when Mom was just 14 years old. All my grandparents' things were still in it; my parents had been paying the rent for years. We looked around at all the furnishings, the photos, the dishes, the knick-knacks, the 44 years of papers. The art deco bedroom furniture. The priceless china plates from Great-Grandma. Grandpa’s piano.

“What the hell are we gonna do with all this?” I asked. Mom sighed. “Donate it,” she said, “unless you want it.” We looked at Grandpa’s piano, covered with framed photos of us, and a thin layer of dust.

My Grandpa’s piano is from about the 1940’s, possibly older. It is of a make I cannot recall – “Werther Brothers” or “Warren and Company” or “Wally and the Wallflowers” for all I know. Not a name like Steinway or anything easily recognizable. And it’s small. It’s a “spinet,” which I think just means small piano. 2 feet deep by almost 5 feet long, maybe 4 feet high. One of the strings snapped years ago, and several of the hammers don’t snap back into place after being deployed for their string-striking, note-playing purpose… they just sort of sigh and hang about ½ of the way back to their home position. It hasn’t been tuned in well over ten years. Possibly 19 years.


When I was about three years old, my grandpa was playing piano, and I grasped the edge of the piano bench to look up at his hands. To me, everything seemed big – his hands, stretching to reach all the keys in a chord, the way he towered over me, the way my feet dangled off the edge of his piano bench, the way I couldn’t see the top of the piano unless he lifted me up. At some point he stopped playing, picked me up around the middle and sat me on his lap. “Wanna play?” he said. I just grinned up at him, not sure what to say. I knew I couldn’t make the sounds he did… maybe he meant play a game? He took my right hand and folded all the fingers into my palm except my index finger. “Start with this one,” he said. “Your pointer.” He pointed down at a key, then jabbed at it. Ding, it said. “You try,” said Grandpa. I pointed at the same key, then pressed it with my finger. Ding! Grandpa smiled. “Good job!” he said.

The he took my other hand, folded it like the first one, and held my two index fingers in his hand. He pressed down on a series of keys, one after the other, using my fingers. “May had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb…” It was fun. I just sat and smiled and let him use me to play a simple nursery rhyme. “See?” Grandpa said. “It’s easy.”

Then he put my hands down into my lap, and began to play.

First just a few notes, then a few at the same time. Then chords. He didn’t say a word, and neither did I. It was a slow, rolling melody. I didn’t know the song, but I watched his wrinkly fingers making music, and stayed quiet.

Eventually somebody called us from the kitchen. “Ops, another country heard from,” grandpa said. “WHAAAT?” he bellowed into the other room. Grandma’s cackly voice hollered something back. I was lowered to the ground, and I tottered out of the living room, following Grandpa into the kitchen.

****************************End Memory****************************

Yeah, likely 19 years since it was tuned. Grandpa died on July 4th, 1985. I was 14.

I’ve always known Grandpa’s piano was mine. He left it to me. Everything in that house was willed to Mom and I, but the piano is mine. Over the years, when we would visit the apartment for some reason or another, I have sat at that piano, just feeling the bench under me, touching the warm, dark polished wood, lifting the keyboard cover and lightly feeling the keys. Since I cannot play, I have never tried to plunk out a tune on those keys. Not since Grandpa died when I was thirteen years old. Daddy has played it a number of times… but I just look, and feel. Grandpa’s spirit was musical, and I feel it in that instrument. He moved that piano up flights of stairs into this apartment. I knew I would eventually move it into my own place… as soon as I had a place of my own.

Of course, at the time, my parents and I couldn’t get ourselves organized enough to deal with emptying the apartment. We made tentative plans to try again over the summer. They flew home, I went back to work. Life moved on.

My grandpa’s piano was on my mind. At one point I asked a pianist friend of mine to help me with getting an estimate to move it from Jersey City to my little Upper West Side apartment. I’ve got an elevator, but Grandma doesn’t, and there are a lot of stairs. Happily, my Piano Man got a me great estimate. I can afford to move it no problem, and tune it afterwards, maybe even get that brokenstring fixed and the sound board looked at.

My apartment is small. Ok, all New York apartments are small. I can find a spot for my piano. But there is a bigger problem. I don’t own my apartment, and it’s not rent-controlled. I barely scrape by for a living. I might have to move when my lease was up and my landlord raises the rent. Even if I could re-sign the lease… who knows if I could stay a third year? That piano certainly wouldn’t be getting a permanent home… not if it moved in with me.

I looked at my life. I am legally separated from my husband. Last April, when Grandma died, I was working at job I hated. Recently my position was eliminated, which is a relief to me, but let’s face it: I’m unemployed, and living on severance, which is going to run out in four months. I have no job prospects as yet. I will be filing for divorce in November. I may have to move in February. I do not know what I want to be when I grow up. I do not know where I will be living six months from now. I do not know if I will even still be in New York. I have no savings, and plenty of debt. I have no car. If I have to leave this apartment I will likely have to sell or donate all my furniture.

This is not a safe place for an antique piano, never mind a priceless family heirloom.

I looked at my life. I have a degree in acting with a minor in writing, and have never made any money doing either. I had to beg for the meager salary I have. I have a resume full of jobs – not a career track – and all my experience on my resume was in doing jobs that I didn’t like, which I had taken for the money. I am currently unemployed due to "corporate Restructuring" - which is fine, since I hated what I was doing, and can now take the time to look for work that I won't despise - but I have no “industry experience” doing any of the kind of work which I'm interested in. I am, professionally, in a very difficult place. I must start over again, like a college graduate from a General Studies program, hoping someone will take a chance on my talent and unique collection of skills, and pay me a mid-career level salary as well.

My marriage lasted about three years. I paid my attorney almost $1000 for the Seperation Agreement so that after one year I can get a no-fault divorce. (It's a New York thing, it's how the law works here.) In November I’ll shell out God knows how much more for the divorce papers and filing.

I am a single frustrated artist who can’t make enough money to keep up with rents, despite years of prostituting myself to Corporate America. I own no home, no car, and now I have no job. And I have a piano to adopt.

Last Thursday evening, I sat at the kitchen table in Grandma's apartment with my parents and cousins, trying to find some options for me. My parents flat-out refuse to take it to Illinois with them. "We'll just have to move it out again!" It is abundantly clear from discussions with my cousins that any relative who might be willing to keep the piano in their home for me would never give it back when I ask for it. I had to take it now, or lose it.

This, I thought to myself, is the price of an unsettled life. I am a failure, I thought to myself. I’m 32 years old. I am alone, and in debt. I should have a home. I should have a family. I shouldn’t be divorced and transient. I am a disgrace.

I have disappointed everyone who believed in me.

On Sunday, I walked into the back bedroom of the apartment, where Grandma and Grandpa slept, sat down on the bed, and cried. I cried for myself, for not showing my grandparents that they were right about me. I cried for my abandoned career. I cried for the cold ashes of my marriage. I held my abdomen and cried for the great-grandchild I have yet to bear, that they will never see. I cried for the trip to Italy that Mom and Grandma and I talked about but never took. I cried for all the hopes and dreams that my grandparents had for me, dreams that I realized were also mine. Dreams that for some reason I believed should have all been realized by the time I reached my 30’s. I cried for my wasted 20-something years, spent dallying in various jobs and moving from apartment to apartment, boyfriend to boyfriend, living the high life, spending outrageous amounts of money on transient things. Eventually the shame gave way to simple sadness, and I just cried for seeing my life in this way, bereft of my grandparents, of that unique type of overpowering love, that nobody will love me the way they did. I mourned my losses - all of them.

At some point my father wandered into the room where I was crying and placed his hand on my head, just standing there like that for a few minutes. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “It’s not supposed to be like this…” I said. Daddy had no answer for me. After a few more seconds he withdrew his hand and left me alone again.

I didn’t sit too much longer. At some point I wiped my eyes, which surprisingly weren’t red or puffy, and went into the living room where Mom and Dad were fussing with moving boxes. I picked up a large amethyst crystal with two small tubes sticking out the side, some knick-knack from God knows where. “Isn’t this a lamp?” I asked Mom. “No, it’s a geode,” she said. I persisted. “But look - there are holes in the side. I think those are connectors for a lamp apparatus.” “I don’t know,” she sighed, “maybe it is. Put it somewhere.” “I’ll keep it,” I said.

I looked at the piano. The piano did not look back at me. It sat there, shiny, old, damaged. My parents ignored me. I fingered the amethyst crystal, knowing there was a light bulb somewhere inside it.

The next day, the Daughters of my landlord resolved this problem for me. They do not want to rent out my Grandma's apartment - they want their Dad to use it as a bedroom. Their parents are in their 80's, and their Mother is very ill. This old couple is not related to us, but the families are so close, we are, in the real sense of the word, family. I call them Aunt Mary and Uncle Rocky, and they still call me Little Girl. Their daughters are cool, hip ladies about 10 or 15 years older than me, and we enjoy spending time together.

I found myself explaining my dilemma regarding my piano, and they told me that I should leave it there as long as I need, until I am settled. The burden is lifted. But a charge has been laid.

No more surviving. It's time to live. With or without New York, which has been a playground, boot camp, and the biggest educational institution anywhere. If I can't afford to live here, I'll move. If I can, I'll stay. But wherever I live next... I'm staying for awhile.

I have reached a turning point in my life. I believe that from now on I will live my life very differently. I will not prostitute myself again. I can't afford to. The price I have paid emotionally and spiritually far outweighs the financial rewards. Yes, my twenties were fun. I am not really, deep down underneath, ashamed of how I have lived my life. Frankly, I'm proud. I enjoyed my twenties to the hilt. Sure, I was irresponsible many times - but I will have fantastic memories all my life, and I had many experiences which have shaped me into the person I am now. I get disgusted with myself, angry with myself, and embarrased over and over, but underneath it all, I believe I am a a worthwhile person. Worthy of my grandparents pride.

I have already changed mah evil ways in many areas. I am not a disappointment because of what I didn't do - I am a fuller person because of what I did do. And I did a hell of a lot. A friend of mine told me just last week that I sure am full of surprises, she never knows what I'll tell her I'm doing next. She's right. Life is like that.

This story should be decided by next February 15th, when my current lease ends. At at that point, either I'll have a new job, or not. Either I'll have to move, or I won't. And if I do have to move, where? Will I even stay in New York?

Well, at least I know how much it will cost to move my piano.

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