A few years ago I started looking for a piano in New York City. Many friends offered their keyboards but I’m sorry I wanted a real piano. It didn’t have to be pretty and it didn’t have to be tuned, but I wanted a real piano.
At the time I was working a few days a week in a building in upper Manhattan where I noticed a grand piano that sat in an often-empty room on the first floor. And I asked the woman at the front desk if I could play it and she said no. She did not hesitate when she said no. She did not say she would check and get back to me. She just said no.
I was slightly off-put by her firm rejection, but I accepted it. Of course, there could be plenty of reasons to not let random people play the piano in that first floor room. Let one person play, then other people might think that they can play. And who knows maybe I’m really bad at the piano. Maybe I’ll just play chopsticks all day and everyone who is trying so hard to do their work will get distracted and annoyed. So okay, no piano.
I see pianos all of the time. I see them where I used to not see them. In crowded restaurants and apartment building lobbies. No one is ever playing them. We are all hurrying to get to the next thing. And me too.
But, a few weeks ago I dropped off bread for a food pantry in Greenpoint. When I got there, the man who was working in the garden outside told me to just take the bread right inside and leave it on the table. And when I went inside I found: empty church pews and a grand piano.
I dropped off the bread and I ran back outside to the man and I asked, can I play the piano? Sure, he shrugged, went back to gardening. Inside I pulled back the bench and sat down, left my helmet on because this had to be fast because I had left the bike unlocked on the sidewalk.
I played one song. The piano was very out of tune but I didn’t mind. I played another. I shouldn’t be playing another; I thought of my bike unlocked outside. I told myself that as soon as I made a mistake I would stop playing, call it a day. I played Chopin more quickly than normal. While I played I thought about the bike outside. The man in the garden. Who must be able to hear me because the window is open.
I waited for a wrong note, for some slip of the mind that would make my fingers freeze in midair, that would give me an excuse to get up and check on my bike. But it was perfect, all the way to the end. And when it was finished I sat for hardly a second, amazed at this piano, myself, Chopin, the helmet still on my head.
I hurried back outside, saw my bike still there and was glad. I looked over at the man in the garden and was smiling, surprised, and I think he was amazed too.