Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The piano

Georgia, thin and black as coal, worked for the S. family in Old Westbury. She wore a uniform and had her own apartment on the top floor of the house above the kitchen. The family, with more money than sense, owned a white Baldwin grand piano that none of them could play. It sat there gleaming and silent in their over-decorated living room. The children were taking lessons but neither of them practiced.

I did yard work there one summer before college -- sealing the blacktop driveway, clipping the hedge, separating the household garbage into 1-, 3-, and 5-year compost piles, cleaning the pool, mowing, weeding, and re-setting a flagstone walkway. Twice a week I'd drive the two kids to summer school. Robert and Allyson were very serious and talkative, six and eight, a boy and a girl, sharing the same short dark hair and big brown eyes. They were curious about the geography of Long Island, the work of glaciers in forming the North Shore near their house, then the flat sandiness of the rest of it. Once they went on an excursion to hunt fossils and arrowheads. "We found the Indian stones. To paint faces with."

I wanted to play the piano but I wasn't allowed on the carpet or near the upholstery in my dirty work clothes. When the family went out, I would come into the house and stand at the far end of the tiled kitchen at the entrance to the living room and ask Georgia to play. She knew a fair number of hymns and spirituals. I've Got Peace Like a River. Oh Mary Don't You Weep Don't You Mourn. The first verse of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. And a chilling version of I Am A Poor Wayfaring Stranger. She plunked out the basic chords, often flatting the fifth or seventh for a bluesy effect. Her tempos were always slow and she sang with her eyes closed in a deep voice, almost a baritone.

After three or four songs, she would close the piano and say, "Enough of that. Time to get back to work." If it was the middle of the afternoon, she would join me in the kitchen and make a pitcher of sweet tea. We'd stand at the counter and drink it up. I told her about Mrs. Treadwell, who was the first one to show me how to play the organ and she told me about her son, Marvin. He'd been arrested in Hicksville for stabbing a man in a fight over a car and was serving time upstate. She went to see him once every two weeks. "He's almost done -- another eighteen months and he'll be out. I'll be more worried about him when he's outside than I am now."

Earlier that summer, George Wallace had been shot in Maryland. Georgia would mention it from time to time. "I'm a Christian woman. I never liked the man but I don't believe that shooting was justified. It doesn't make me happy to see him crippled. Marvin feels different. He thinks Wallace should've been killed."

Georgia never talked about her employers. "It wouldn't be proper. They take good care of me." But she became very formal when they were around, and never let her guard down. Only when we were alone would she play the piano. "They spend all that money and it just sits there. It's all for show. I learned it early on -- people only care whether you've got money. They don't care how you get it. You could be a streetwalker and no one would criticize you if you made a lot of money." Maybe she was right. I hadn't lived long enough to agree or disagree. Even then, though, I realized that it cost her dearly to appear stoical in the face of her servitude.

The kids liked her. Unlike Mrs. S., who was lax, and Mr. S., who was rarely around, Georgia imposed discipline and took the time to teach them that there was a right way to do things. Robert especially liked to hang around her when she was busying herself in the kitchen. "That little one is going to be a baker," she'd say. "He loves making batter. He watches everything I do."

That summer, I'd go home in the evening and play the piano for hours and hours, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and banging on the keys like I was Pinetop Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis. I burned a couple of holes in the rug and lost the desire for school. There was no value in it as long as I could pretend to be somebody else.

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