Wiping Down The Piano

Where I work, I wipe down the piano before the show. It's part of my job as the sound tech. One musician joked, "jazz has to be played on a shiny piano" and I laughed. It's a nice, black shiny piano. Some people might feel like it's a chore, or feel like a butler and shirk from the job, but for me it's almost a spiritual exercise.

You see, even though I am at a swanky jazz club, a "carpet joint" if you will, it wasn't so long ago that I worked at another, much more run down club in the city, let's call it a dive bar mixed with a pirate ship. I won't say which club it is, but it is of note that the club has a history with the Chicago blues scene. I had always known this club as a basic bar for songwriters and bands to cut their teeth. I had played there several times and was asked to come in as a sound engineer. I wasn't crazy about the pay, but a job is a job. 

When my friend who got me the job walked in with me to show me the ropes, there was a comedy show going on. We had to cross the stage in order to get to the sound board area, and the comedian immediatley latched onto us and made us part of their joke, "I can tell there's a lot of duuuude stuff going on over here"- but we persevered. It was going to be that kind of gig. "That kind of gig" soon took on new meaning.

Not only was I running sound, but I would sometimes have to go get ice for the bar. No big deal. Except that the ice was in the basement, the dark, cold, weird basement. It had dozens of cheap liquor bottles all lined up on tables, a small cold room for lemons, limes, and cases of beer, and the long tubes that went up to feed the taps at the bar. It was kind of interesting to see the "underbelly" of how a bar worked, literally. I didn't mind getting the ice, and soon this developed into me helping at the bar a little here and there. I certainly didn't have a knack for it, but I was (and sometimes this is the only pre-requisite for a job) a warm body.

The owner of the club took a liking to the possibilty of a girl bartender, with a lot of musician friends, to tend bar, and bring the masses (from a business standpoint). The owner didn't really know that putting an introvert who had never tended bar before behind the bar might not be the 'best' idea (from any standpoint) but the fates rarely heed such warnings, and quite the opposite, have a sense of humor when such ironies present themselves.

After turning down the concept of helping behind the bar in a genuine bartender role about 6 or 7 times, my curiousity got the better of me. I would run sound (which was plugging in a few mics) and then get people drinks. What could go wrong?

This is where a funny moment could be inserted, but it was more a unique form of akwardness. There were a few busy nights (and one party event where there were so many people that some women asked me if they could come behind the bar and help as it was clear the owner had left me with an impossible task) but mostly, crickets. On nights when there was no band it was a ghost ship. 

Once a man came in, and asked, "Where is everybody?" He had come from out of town, and remembering the bar when it was in its hey-day, a rocking blues joint with performers in the legendary status, he had made a special trip to get there. Only to find it empty, and me behind the bar. The lights glowed (we lit candles and placed them around the bar), but it was less like a bar and kind of like an odd, almost haunted but charming old house, and I was its keeper, for a little while. It depressed me when people would have this reaction, of this fantastic bar it used to be, and how it was now silent.

I started looking at the piano. 

It was on the stage, which was a wood platform 6 inches off the ground, if that. The wood of the stage was old, and dirty. The piano was worse. Left as wreckage to be a place for people to set guitar picks, bottles, and riff raff, it was really at this point a piece of furniture rather than a musical instrument. At the open mics, someone would bang on it a bit, and it worked fine, but I felt its distance.

Now, boredom had begun to set in. There are only so many ways to put away the glasses, and so many times to look out the window onto the empty street, or so many ways to fiddle with the music player in the old, dusty analog sound board, or to imagine what it was like if a band or people were there.

Boredom could have been a reason I did this, but I feel it was something more. 

I started thinking, is this the very piano that those old bluesmen played? Is this the piano that they played on, when this place was poppin' with people and dancing and night life and smiles and laughter? Did the hands of famous musicians touch these very keys? It seemed sad that this piano, which had so much life in it in a previous lifetime, should be here now, on the stage, covered in dust. When I say covered in dust, that makes it sound like a feather duster could bring this puppy back to life. No, this needed intervention. 

When I was at the bar with my hands clasped, elbows on the rail, looking out at the door wondering if anyone would come in, the piano was in my line of vision. 

Soon, I was at the mop closet getting out the broom, which hit me on the head like a 3 Stooges episode. This place was like a booby trap.

I managed to get the cleaning supplies I needed from the closet which looked like no human had entered it and returned alive.

I set to work. First, I swept the stage. I was as thorough as possible. Sometimes, you can clean wood just by getting all the dirt off. I swept under the piano and around the edges as much as I could get to. I dug the bristles into the wood when I could and worked swiftly, but quietly and steadily, for you see, I was in no hurry.

After sweeping, I poured cleaner into a big bucket of hot water. I used a rag and wiped down the floor of the stage, board by board. This building was from the late 1800s or early 1900s, I heard that it used to be a 'parking garage' for horses, when there were horse and carriages. The wood stage was probably built much later, but it still felt like cleaning an old barn. Maybe because it was an old barn! It is neat to think how buildings and their purposes can change over time, and to imagine what life was like then. 

Finally, I turned toward the silent piano. I set the wet rag on the top and wiped, willing to see if there was wood underneath. I started on the top and moved to the legs and the bench. On the legs the dirt and dust was so thick I felt like I was cleaning the feet of an elephant. I bent down and traced the woodwork with the rag, getting into as many decades of dust as I could. I worked slowly, but not quite savoring each move of the rag. I worked with purpose. The goal wasn't my enjoyment of this leisurely cleaning break (which was giving me something to do) but to honor the piano. I kept on and stepped back to survey my work. It was looking good. No trash was on it. It was as clean as it could be. The smell of cleaning solution, and fresh wood filled the air. 

I put the mop and bucket back, and unceremoniously went back to my post at the bar. Another long night was on the way. I looked out into the inky night beyond the giant window panes. Reflections of candle light and neon returned as my companions. Sigh.

Someone walked through the door. Oh great, a customer. 

If it wasn't enough to be bored, the job itself made me cringe worse. Part of me dreaded this new opportunity for small talk, and asking what drink they wanted, and wondering if I knew how to make it. An old fashioned has orange bitters in it, I think, but I remember I had to ask someone how to make it. It was a little silly, really, I almost felt like an actor growing stale with my part. I may have been smiling, but inside, I was stifled. 

"Can I play the piano?" the man asked. He was upbeat, and kind of stood up straighter when he said it, as if reporting for duty. 

I said, "Yes." I just cleaned it. I don't know if I said that, or just thought it. I know what I didn't say, but was thinking: some drunk a-hole wants to play the piano, whatever, welcome more randomness...then my head cocked a little as he bagan playing. 

I breathed in deeply and turned toward the piano, now making the most beautiful music I had ever heard. (The phrase "I shit you not" was invented for this part of the story). It was like a combination of classical music and something more spiritual, it was overflowing with beauty, cascading with depth, invigorating the ears and senses, pleasing to the heart and lungs. I stood, in awe. 

Who are you? I wondered? What are you playing? What is happening? (That was my mind).

"What--what kind of music is that?" is what I asked outloud. (This is what my mouth said).

"It's classical spiritual," he said. He spoke clearly, almost a little snobby, and he seemed very composed. Despite having the demeanor as if he was at a high class dinner party, he had walked into a bar, unannounced, alone. He seemed very comfortable and friendly, yet in a stiff way, as he was not looking for attention. He was being affable, but only talking with me because I had asked. His only intention was to play the piano. 

He proceeded to play more, and my mind wandered. I imagined if he played every night at the bar that the old days would return, but better, people would come from far and wide to hear him play. Why, the owner should call him and ask him to play. People would fill the bar once more, people of all kinds. I gave him the owner's contact information, and intended to play matchmaker with him, a pianist, possibly needing a gig, and this bar, desperately in need of life, music and a returning heartbeat.

I told him I worked at a jazz school and he could check it out. Without being rude, he explained that the music he played wasn't secular. It was classical music combined with religious music, and I got the sense it was like modern day hymns, or modern day symphonies. He was studying it, and clearly adept at it. He didn't seem apologetic about not wanting to take my advice, and he took the club's contact information, and I even had some sense he might call. Why would a pianist that good not want to play for people? Something surely drew him out, into the world, that night.

He played a bit more and eventually left, disappearing into the night as quickly as he came. Even when he was gone, something felt different.

The music had filled the bar with majestic, unexpected beauty. It wasn't the kind of music you would hear in a night club, ever. It was for a symphony center, a church with tall ceilings. Yet that night, it reverberated in what was essentially an old barn, with a high loft where the second floor used to be -- perhaps where they used to store the hay. Instead of a polished organ, it was played on an upright piano that had seen better days. Yet the piano had never been cared for like it had that day, nor more attention put toward its wooden well-being. Even a fancy organ in a church somewhere wasn't tended to as well as I had cleaned that piano. And now, perhaps, this was the most beautiful music to ever ring through it, or this building.

As I left that night, after closing the bar, and counting the money, and turning out the lights, and blowing out the candles, I looked at the piano one more time.

While the man that came in to play the piano likely already knew it was there - perhaps he had been in the bar before. What made him come that night, at that moment, and with that music ready to play? Did the piano call to him? How did the planets align, so to speak? Did he come despite of me cleaning the old piano...or because of it?

In life, as in a this story, clean the piano. Wipe it with all your might. You never know what your efforts will bring. 

I mean, what are the chances, really?




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