Piano Movements


Bill Sullivan took the time to call and explain the procedure for repossessing the lower ground floor apartment. ”You don’t want to do this thing unless you really have too. It’ll take too long, and it’ll cost you. Believe me you want to make peace, negotiate. They have a problem too. Speak to them, work out an arrangement you can all live with. Fighting is not going to fix it.”

“It’s costing me Bill. I didn’t budget for this.”

“Let me see what I can do about that. I put a hold on the escrow account when you called. I may be able to claw something back. Let me deal with that; you deal with the domestic arrangements.”

As always he was right. I did, after all, have tenants, which was a good thing, provided they could be made to pay. Better still, if Frankie could be made to pay.

Generally, ten o’clock on a Saturday morning is a time I enjoy. Decisions regarding what time to get up, what to have for breakfast, whether to have tea or coffee, in the kitchen or the yard, or while watching the morning news . . . or whether breakfast should be taken at all, have been made. It is therefore a period of tranquillity, a period of peace with one’s self that might not be repeated for a week. Reasoning that if this is the case for me, it cannot be too far from the case for others, unless of course they are working, or still recovering from an over indulgent Friday night, in which case it could be an extremely bad time to approach others. Dismissing that risk I decided to call on Frankie’s sister.

I caught sight of the fat man closing the iron gate below the street steps as I approached the house and was about to call out when my inner alarm went off. ”Don’t call after him you fool. It’ll shake him up; it’ll make him think he is in for a fight. Keep everything cool, stay calm, approach as you would a hen laying.” He was still in the outer corridor of the lower ground floor when I entered, and would have run had I not said, “Good morning. How are you?” He seemed surprised, and was clearly about to dive indoors, so I said, “Any chance we could have a little chat?” He hesitated, cocked his head, and might have shuffled off. ”Perhaps we could come to some sort of arrangement?”

“We already got an arrangement with Frankie.” He was not about to open up.

“Perhaps if you could explain it to me . . .”

He turned toward the apartment calling, “Maria, Maria, you wanna talk to this guy?”

After an initial tirade of hostile remarks from Maria, we settled into tentative negotiations that went well; both she and Jack, Frankie’s sister’s husband, were confused as to why I should chose a busy Saturday morning to come calling. We all agreed that Frankie was at fault, and that he should pay me a fair market rent while they remained in the building. I accepted that it was even more difficult for them than it was for me, and that they did not enjoy living like this. The result was that on the understanding that I never bring anyone to the apartment without their express permission, I could enjoy access for both contractors and perspective tenants. That was a pretty good result. I was beginning to feel better about my negotiating skills.

Because the Village Voice goes onto the streets on Wednesdays people began to arrive at the house on Wednesday, and they kept on arriving. By Saturday morning, the official viewing day, the house was a riot of people looking for that perfect apartment for what was invariably the start of a new phase of their lives. I was completely overwhelmed, not to say overjoyed, by the response, but it was difficult to manage. Several people pressed money into my hand in order to go to the top of the prospective tenant list including two ladies, Rosa an African American of the middle years, and Florka a Hungarian. An unlikely couple with apparently little in common except possibly their ages, and the fact that both were large, and both very determined, they pressed extremely hard for a view of the lower ground floor apartment. Despite my protests to the effect that the existing tenants were still in residence, and that we were only tolerated there on a good will basis, they insisted on seeing the apartment three times. Unmoved by my requests for sensitivity, they walked around and around the kitchen and living room pointing out various features, both good and bad, each repeating what the other had just said. Besides being repetitious they were rude, acting as if they already owned the place, making Maria and husband Jack feel even less comfortable.

“We want to give a deposit,” said Rosa as we stood in the hallway outside the apartment.

“Yes, a deposit,” said Florka, flourishing a chequebook from her purse. ”You are going to need a deposit because we want the apartment.”

“The apartment is currently occupied,” I reminded them. ”It might be a month or more before you could move in.”

“Even so you’ll need a deposit,” said Florka.

“Yes,” said Rosa. ”You’ll need a deposit, then you can’t rent it to nobody else.”

“No, you can’t rent it to nobody else,” said Florka.

“It doesn’t work quite that way,” I protested.

“You take the deposit,” said Rosa.

“Yes, you take the deposit,” repeated Florka, who had by now written a cheque for $925 and placed it in my hand.

As they left I had the feeling that I was not entirely in control.

By Saturday afternoon I had a list of prospective tenants that covered two pages of a legal pad. With so many applicants from which to choose I became careless, and my notes were nowhere near as comprehensive as intended. Under the firm belief that initial impressions are vital, I had planned to make relevant remarks about the appearance, dress, etcetera, of suitable applicants while they were fresh in my mind, but there were so many. By the time I sat down to do some serious selecting the list was a chaotic sea of names with random remarks that meant little. I stared at it long and hard, but not one face emerged as either good or bad; not one face came bouncing off the page to say, ‘cross me off,’ or ‘take this one’. Fortunately some of the really keen contenders called me at home, which helped, and definitely gave them an edge, although I was to learn later that apparently keen people, can also be pushy people, and do not make the best tenants.

For the penthouse and the third floor apartment I selected foreign students attending the nearby university. Two of them, Mr. and Mrs. Kim, were mature students, and therefore likely to be seriously involved with their work. They were from Korea on a grant from their government, which had the added charm of guaranteeing the rent. Continuously bowing and smiling, though extremely hard to understand, they were sweet and courteous and, I think, exceptionally pleased to rent the third floor apartment. They wanted to move in right away and came rushing round to my Adams Avenue apartment that evening to give me money. With some difficulty I explained about refitting the kitchen, and repainting the whole apartment, but they were not deterred. I did not ask if they’d prefer an eighteen, or a twenty, inch stove.

Kim Sung was also from Korea, and very pretty. Though not a mature student in the university sense of the word, she was certainly a mature young woman, and like the older Kims, very courteous. Just as importantly she had wealthy parents who also agreed to underwrite the funds for the rent. It is worth noting that in Korea family names come first, so they were all Kims, but not related except by marriage. Kims, apparently, account for more than twenty percent of the Korean population.

For the second floor, my favourite space in the building, I selected Johnny Garson, an apparently civilized young man who had been keen to take the apartment immediately. He had also left two messages telling me how much he wanted it, but was out when I called to tell him it was his. I left a message, then decided to visit Larry’s for a libation to celebrate my relief at the prospect of being fully rented.

When I returned the indicator on the answering machine said there were just two messages, but when it rewound to play them back it was apparent that it had reached the end of the tape. A least one of the messages was very long. The first was from an irate Toni. He had returned to the house later that afternoon to discover that he had been usurped. He was not pleased. At the end of Toni’s tirade about the ethics of general contracting there was a polite message from Johnny Garson which began with him agreeing to take the apartment, and asking for an address to which to mail the deposit. Then there was a click, and Johnny’s voice continued, only in a very different tone. He was speaking to another person. ”There I’ve done it,” he said. ”I see my life taking a new course. I will be all right there. It has a wonderful living room where we can have our little get togethers. David and Jeremy are going to be so jealous. They will, they will. Well you know how Jeremy is.”

“Oh, yes.” The other voice was female, and laden, like a heavy smoker’s.

“The fuss he made over David seeing that sun child, what was her name?”

“Morning Star.”

“Yes, Morning Star. A sweet child, and she was happy with him and David. Really she had no problems with relations, gay or otherwise. I think he didn’t like looking at her body, she never wore clothes indoors and I swear she doesn’t own any underwear. Well I thought she was charming to look at, not my thing of course, but charming just the same. Do you think Jeremy felt threatened?”

Johnny Garson must have made the call to me while he was holding another conversation, then pressed the wrong button when he finished. He was still connected to my machine when he continued with the other person.

“He’s always feeling threatened,” said the smoky voice.

“Yes, yes he is. Did I tell you I saw a real honey today. A real honey. I was walking back from this apartment house – I’m really glad I’ve made that decision, not sure I can keep up with the rent, but it’s right for me, I know it is. Anyhow I was walking back up Jefferson toward the park when I see these two coming the other way. Both tall, and very nice looking. One dark, and butchy looking, and the other one so sweet with pale green eyes that left me for dead. Dead I tell you. You could tell they were lovers, but when I met those eyes I knew he wanted me. I can tell, I can tell. Well you can, can’t you Luzette?”

Luzette said, “Umm.”

“So we go past and he looks at me. I mean he just looks at me. It was moment Luzette, a real moment. So I let them go and crossed the street and turned back to see where they went. Would you believe they live two blocks from my new place? Isn’t that wonderful?


“So I know this is going to be right for me, even if I do have trouble with the rent. Just perfect with our sort of people right nearby. We’ll be able to have wonderful parties and make friends all the time. I just can’t wait. Oh, do hope nobody else has given him money.”

“What’s he like?”


“The owner.”

“Oh, fine. Straight, straight, straight — English straight.”

“Think that’ll be a problem?”

“No! He too civilized to interfere. A bit naive really. But no. He’ll be fine. If he gives any trouble I’ll just have to seduce him and introduce him to the other side.” They both giggled.

I stopped the tape, and called Toni. ”Yeah,” he sounded refreshingly butch.

“Your stuff is in the basement. You can pick it up tomorrow.”

“Hey, wos goin’ on here. Wossat other old guy doin’ in there.”

“He’s righting the mess you made Toni. And finishing the job, not wondering off to do another.”

“So you don’t want me to finish the work?” He had a mind like light.

“You got it.”

“Well you owe me. I did a lot of work there.”

“‘You don’t like what we do, you don’t pay us nuttin,’” I mimicked. ”Remember those words Toni? I didn’t like what you did, and I didn’t like you not being there to finish it. I owe you nuttin.”

“You gotta pay us for the paint and materials. You gotta do that Chris. Can’t not pay for what we spent Chris. Toni Two ain’t gonna like that.”

“If Toni Two wants to talk to me about it he can come to the house tomorrow morning and I’ll show him the mess you made. Meanwhile just pick up your gear and think yourself lucky I’m not charging you.” I hung up. I had enough of colourful characters for one day.

Leonora Armstrong signed a lease for the second floor apartment. I estimated that she was in her mid-thirties, middle class, moving out of a marriage, and looking for excitement. Right on all three counts, especially the latter; she was looking for a lot of excitement.

The parlour floor, which had rooms as magnificent as those in the apartment above, though with a little less light, I rented to Kate and Robin. Kate I guessed to be about 26, Robin a bit older, but not more than thirty. She was a small woman with a sharp nose but large, warm, eyes, and a greyhound’s body. She moved as a nymph, you were not aware of her moving at all, she just appeared in different places. Robin on the other hand was a production in motion, like a crinoline woman, complete with bustle, who flapped from place to place. He was good looking, and well built, but apart from his physical attributes had no male presence.

Kate’s confidence and air of, unwanted, responsibility, made it clear that she was the dominant partner. Both had new jobs in Manhattan about which they became highly animated when waxing excitedly of their new prospects. He had become a permanent member of Tiffany’s sales force where he could be with beautiful things all day, and looked forward to attractive commissions on his inevitable sales. She had taken a position with the New York Utilities Consumer Protection Board, a watchdog organization to protect customers from abuse by the utility monopolies. It was a service for which there was a growing need, and clearly a cause that would benefit from her dedicated energies.

They were not married of course, young people do not seem to bother with marriage anymore. That is not to say that there was not that starry eyed hopefulness about them that young couples have enjoyed since the beginning of time – There was; although it seemed to centre on the apartment, on the attractiveness of living under the high ceilings and walking on the inlaid hardwood floors, rather than on each other.

Kate read the lease with great care, pointing out what seemed to her contradictions in the wording of the heating and hot water arrangements. I could not see the problems myself, but made the corrections she wanted. Satisfied, she and Robin signed the document with great formality, handed me a cheque, and left to begin their moving in process.

If Leonora’s moving in day could be considered exciting, stimulating, satisfying and somewhat flattering, then it could be said that the day Robin and Kate moved in was the very antithesis. It was demanding, depressing, frustrating and really quite humiliating. The ramifications of the events that took place on Leonora’s unmade bed palled into insignificance compared to the results of the shenanigans that took place in the hallway several days later. Had I handled the latter occasion with the same flair and panache I put into the former, my life would have been much easier. As it was I can only say that I am richer for the experience.

For such a young couple they had a lot of stuff, not the least of which was a baby grand piano that became stuck on the first floor landing because it would not go through the door to their apartment. I suggested they removed the legs. Kate wanted me to open up the huge double doors that were now part of the wall. ”That would be very messy,” I pointed out. ”I’d have to take off the trim around both doors, break the sealing strip, and pull down the insulating board on the inside. That really isn’t very practical. ”With that Kate sat on the stairs and started to sob. Robin gave me a thunderous look and rushed to comfort her. My few simple words of advice had apparently, and quite suddenly, converted me from the accommodatingly benign owner, happy to adjust the wording of the lease, to an uncooperative and decidedly evil landlord for refusing to tear down a wall.

“Why won’t he let me have my piano Robin?” She sobbed into his chest. ”Why can’t I have my grandmother’s piano in our new home? Why is he being so mean to me Robin?”

“Look,” I said, “I really think it’s easier to take the legs off the. . .”

“Tell him, Robin. Tell him about my grandma’s piano. Tell him how she taught me to play even though her fingers were rigid with arthritis. Tell him how my grandma loved me, and brought me up after my mother died. Tell him Robin that he mustn’t be horrible to me. Tell him that no one must touch my piano. ”Robin patted her, and continued to treat me to the anger of his stormy stare.

A little chastened I re-examined the double doors, but it was obvious that I had been right in my original assessment. It would be extremely messy to open those doors, and quite costly to put everything back again. I turned my attention to the underside of the piano to see how the legs were secured.

“Get him away from the piano Robin,” Kate screamed.” Get him away. Don’t let that horrible man touch my grandma’s piano. Don’t let him. Don’t let him.”

Looking back I can see that I then made one of my bigger mistakes. I walked away. Knowing as I did that whatever I said, or did, at that moment was going to be regarded as hostile, I walked away to avoid confrontation. Big mistake. should have taken the opportunity to lay down the law there and then. I should have insisted they get the damned piano out of the hallway without further inconvenience to other people, and without damage to my property. As it was I merely postponed the inevitable and the piano remained in the hallway for another ten days. In the process I also revealed the soft underbelly of this landlord’s nature – an error I was to regret many times over the next six months.

Maria was the first to complain, although it was only a tentative, “How long is that silly piano gonna be in the hall. I can hardly get past to pick up my mail,” but it served to nudge me along, and made me press my case with Robin.

“I just don’t know what to say,” he said.” I really am quite distressed myself. We can’t just leave Kate’s piano on the landing. We just can’t.”

I agreed with him, and said so, but really I saw it as their problem and not mine.” We can’t mess about with her piano, we just can’t,” He reiterated.” And frankly I think it quite mean of you, it is, quite mean of you, not to let her move it in. It’s not a lot to ask, not a lot at all. It seems simple enough to open up the double doors, really quite simple.” Again I explained that it was not a simple matter to open the doors; that extensive decorating would have to follow once the trim was removed, but he refused to see it.

Robin and I had these exchanges again before I finally threw down the gauntlet.” Okay,” I said in frustration late Thursday evening when my stomach was calling and ill humour at the latest missive from Sarah was pushing me rapidly toward Larry’s hostelry.

”Okay, you have my permission to do whatever you need to do, but you have to move that piano this weekend. I still think you should remove the legs from the piano and stop this silly nonsense with Kate. Do it when she isn’t there for Chrissake. But do it. Get the damn piano out of the way.”

“What if we have to take off the doors,” he said.

“Whatever it takes, do it. Get it done. But you make good any damage. You have to replace any trim, repaint where you marked it. Make good any damage.”

The next morning I found Kate, Robin, and his new friend Charles, all standing around the piano with a middle aged man in blue bib coveralls and a brown trilby hat. ”This is Christopher,” Kate said to the man. ”He is the landlord.” She made my role sound sinister, and I noted that my presence was merely being announced; I was not introduced.

The man looked up and grunted something. ”Hi,” I said cheerfully. ”I’m Christopher Conroy,” and stuck out my hand.

“Hi,” he returned, but failed to introduce himself, and ignored my hand, instead he concentrated on the piano, stooping to look under it. Eventually he crawled under it and emerged from the other side. Then he walked back around the piano and to the doorway of the parlour apartment looking left and right and down. Finally he looked up and said to Robin, “I don’t see your problem. Just take off the legs, it’ll go through fine.”

Kate’s reaction was instant, her shoulders hunched, eyes wild, tears already forming. ”Get him out of here. Robin, get that horrible man away from my grandmother’s piano. Now, Robin, right now, get that man away.” With that she flung herself away into the interior of apartment in a flurry of arms and hair. Robin stood contrite and rather soppy. Charles was trying to be invisible. I was enormously pleased.

“I suppose you had better go Barry,” said Robin eventually. ”I’ll speak to her. It’ll be alright. Sorry about the fuss, but you know.” I am not sure Barry did know, he appeared annoyed, but he did not say anything. He shrugged, looked at me as if to acknowledge my presence for the first time, nodded, and turned to leave. I stared long and hard at Robin. He got the message. ”No, don’t go Barry,” he called. ”We’ll do it, we’ll do it. ”I left them to do it; whatever it was.

Piecing together the bits of information later it seems that Barry, after much wheedling and whining from Robin, was persuaded to remove the double doors. He set about the ridiculous task with much bad grace, and was noisy and petulant about the whole thing. His clattering up and down the stairs, slamming tools and doors around carelessly was heard in the basement apartment putting Maria in very bad humour. In itself that was not necessarily a bad thing, the less comfortable Maria felt in the house, the sooner she would move out. Unfortunately Rosa and Florka decided to make an unannounced visit and proceeded to strut about Maria’s apartment in such a manner as to set her thoroughly on edge. As with all disasters it required just a few coincidences to bring the inevitable to fruition.

On the floor above, the double doors were opened; Barry held the narrow end of the piano, Robin and Charles each had an end by the keyboard when Barry became entangled in the tools he had left on the floor. They paused, struggling with the weight, while he attempted to step over the offending tools. All would have been well, despite the excessive load on Charles, had Florka not decided, without so much as a by-your-leave, to inspect the interior of Maria’s refrigerator. That did it for Maria. She reached out and slammed the fridge door shut, catching Florka’s fingers in the process. Florka screamed, “You crazy Italian bitch.”

Maria said, “Get out of my apartment you fat Hungarian sow.”

Rosa said, “Papist cow.”

Maria screamed, “Get out, get out, get out,” and reached for the broom.

As one Rosa and Florka puffed up their feathers, thrust their bosoms forward, and charged out before the maddened eyes of the raving Maria. They did not head straight out into the street because, I suspect, they were seeking retribution for their humiliation; they were looking for me. They charged headlong up the interior stairs just in time to catch Robin going red in the face. I suspect they barely saw him, or the piano, so determined were they on the goal. Even if they had, he and the piano would have been an irrelevance to the indignity they were suffering.

On first visual contact Robin said, “Oh God.” In less than a second he toppled under the glancing blow of Rosa’s powerful shoulder as she swept along the landing causing him to drop his end of the piano onto Florka’s passing foot. She screamed in real pain. Charles screamed in horror of losing his grip. Barry said, “Fuck,” and the piano fell sideways onto one leg which snapped from its mounting leaving the piano to roll over onto the stair rails.

That might have been the full extent of the damage had Jack, steaming after the indignant Hungarian women, not reached for the banister as he hit the top stair. His considerable weight combined with that of the piano was too much for the aging rail. It creaked long and slow and gradually folded inward and downward in sickening inevitability. Kate emerged just in time to see the final outcome.

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