2.18 The Lighthouse: The Piano Man

The usual route to work takes me through The Lighthouse Shopping Centre and Condominium Complex. The subway connects to The Lighthouse and is located in a newly gentrified downtown neighbourhood. There is every store you can imagine, library, condo building, restaurant, movie theatre, bar, gym and food court. There is no need to go outside – everything is accessible through an interconnected series of tunnels. The Lighthouse Series showcases the various inhabitants, employees and idiosyncratic characters I have met by spending way too much time in this complex. The Piano Man was grocery shopping at The Lighthouse one day. As he walked through the shopping mall, groceries in hand, he came across a grand piano sitting on the second floor. The piano was hidden with a veneer casing, the keys covered and locked. What a shame, he thought, a piano needs to be played.

Home was across the street in an old apartment. The building did not match the other, more gentrified structures that sprung up along the sidewalk. Formally, this neighbourhood was dilapidated, forgotten, until it was deemed the latest real estate hot spot. The Piano Man moved into the area years ago when politicians and police turned a blind eye to the crime infested streets. The rent was cheap, but he would have to move soon. His landlord was taking advantage of the hype. However, this hype did not translate into a higher quality of maintenance. The building was falling apart.

The Piano Man approached the front door but didn't need a key. The lock was broken long ago and any security it provided lost. He walked up the crooked stairs - no elevator, no handrail - to his apartment on the third floor. The deadbolt was stubborn but eventually turned. He stepped into the one room apartment.

Literally, one room. The living area and kitchen had no clear distinctions and what looked like closet doors was his bed. When he did sleep, he opened the doors and pulled the bed from its resting place, lowered it, turning his living room into his bedroom. The old beat up piano took up most of the room. He used the piano bench to sit at the kitchen table. The piano belonged to his grandmother.

Raised by his grandmother, she introduced music into The Piano Man's life. Scarcely were they home without music playing. No matter how little money they had, no matter what possessions they had to sell in order to eat, the piano was untouchable. When they sold the radio, and then the record player, his grandmother made sure her fingers grazed the ivory keys on a daily basis. The piano was all she had left when she died, it was her legacy to him.

After putting the groceries away, The Piano Man sat outside his window on the fire escape watching the street below. People scurried through the intersection, stoplights changed from red to green, a long line snaked around the movie theatre for the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

He played Chopin. Quietly. He didn't want to disturb the neighbours. It was controlled playing. He was worried that if he gave himself over to the music, as he sometimes did, the sound would get louder. The louder he got, the more they complained. He wished he could lose himself in the music, the way he used to. But these thoughts grew less and less frequent with each passing day. He was contented with the solitude of the piano keys.

The Piano Man didn’t sleep. If he does, only two or three hours. He wakes up groggy, confused and always with the same thought, I shouldn't have bothered. This was one of those mornings. He stepped into the washroom, if you could call it a washroom. Pulled the chain attached to the bare light bulb. It flickered on. Maybe his face looked different in the harsh light. Perhaps the shadows played with reality. He always looked so terrible in this mirror. The mirror that was cracked on the right hand side bottom corner. It looked like someone pinched the bridge of his nose, pressed his forehead up into a permanent furrowed brow. He always looked concerned. Worried. Eyebrows angled up, gently connected by light, blonde-like hairs. His skin paled as he grew older. At 48 years old, The Piano Man earned every wrinkle and scar.

While he washed his face, when the water splashed into his tired eyes, he remembered the piano lesson. Checked his watch - he was going to be late. The Piano Man dressed and grabbed his beat up leather satchel. Took the stairs two at a time, across the street into The Lighthouse, walked fast down the moving sidewalk to the subway, passed the other people elbowing, fighting each other for a bit of space during rush hour. The Piano Man pushed into a busy subway car.

He was going to be late, it was his fault, but he always regarded this as some kind of sign, symbol or signal. Designated his lateness as some type of representation of his life thus far. For almost 15 years, he taught private piano lessons at the Music Education Institute. 5 subway stops from his apartment with an average of 2 minutes at each stop plus a contingency factor of 3 minutes per equals 25 minutes. He could still make it. His brow furrowed further, he worried about these small things, these very small, so very small, situations that really, in the end, when we made our calculations, added up disappointments, subtracted moments of happiness, multiplied feelings of anger and divided all this by our own individual responsibilities revolving around integrity, pride, self-worth, etc., always do end up being exactly that: Small.

So very small.

For example, being late for a piano lesson. Yes, sure, at that particular moment, The Piano Man worried. But really, he was never late - not once in 15 years. Never. He could not be fired over this. In the end, it doesn't matter because if the past was any indication that the future could be foretold, the one thing the universe could rely on was The Piano Man wouldn't be late. He wondered, Do other people worry about these so very small things?

The Piano Man walked past the reception area. The administrative assistant didn't look up from her computer. This was his way: He often slipped in and out of rooms. Sometimes people were surprised that he was there. He could remain so still, hardly breathe, that people forgot he was in the room with them. Always looking for a way out, he assessed every room for its escape route. How best he could slip out if he felt he wasn't wanted. Many times, he felt invisible, unwanted. He disappeared and most times, nobody noticed.

The elevator opened on to the fifth floor of the school, several chairs were occupied by indifferent young kids and their over-achieving parents. He checked in with the school's manager - only one lesson today, the rest of his day was free. The Piano Man liked to settle in to the practice room before the student entered. The rooms were all the same - one window, one chair for the parent if they wanted to be present for the lesson, one chair for the teacher and a piano against the wall. The Piano Man placed his sheet music for the lesson on the instrument's ledge. He sat down, closed his eyes and released a long sigh. He was always worried about being late, but more than this, he was worried what other people would think about him if he was late. He worried about what they thought of him as a teacher. Why he was a teacher and not a performer? Was there another goal in his life that was unattainable? A disappointment he could not get over? Potential not reached? Was he fulfilled?

Of course, these thoughts were not on the surface but buried deep down, unattainable. They were there, informing - in some indirect way - every moment of his life. But no one ever asked him these questions, he just ruminated silently at the answers. And furthermore, his students, his student's parents, the school's manager, the administrator, well, pretty much anyone that came in contact with The Piano Man conjured these questions, but only momentarily, and the curiosity they felt evaporated fleetingly as soon as he left their presence. The Piano Man didn't make much of an impression.

A tiny hand tapped on the door. The 8-year-old student entered, nodded to The Piano Man and sat down in front of the instrument. They seldom spoke except for little fixes here and there to the student's technique. The boy came to an especially difficult section. He repeated the section a few times, his frustration increased with each try. He slammed his hands on the keyboard, emitting the painful noise of notes that shouldn’t be played together. The Piano Man winced.

“I can’t do it,” the boy said.

“Yes, you can,” The Piano Man weakly encouraged.

“You don’t understand,” the boy said.

He looked at The Piano Man with eyes that asked for help. It wasn’t that he couldn’t play the notes properly. On the contrary, he was a bright student and had ability. There was something else, another part of the boy’s life manifesting through his fingers.

I can’t help you, The Piano Man thought. I can barely take care of myself.

They stared at each other, not knowing what to do. The boy sighed, another disappointing adult.

At the end of the hour-long lesson, the student left the same way he arrived. The Piano Man sat again for a moment - as he does after every lesson - with his eyes closed wondering if he had any impact.

On his way out, the administrator handed him a message chit without even looking at him. He called the number from a pay phone in the hallway. The voice on the other end was none other than Germaine Stout IV, CEO of The Lighthouse Shopping Centre and Condominium Complex. The Piano Man moonlighted as a piano tuner and Stout wanted to make use of his skills.

The Piano Man stopped by The Lighthouse on his way home. He found the office of Stout but was informed he was out on his rounds. The Piano Man told Stout's assistant he would wait by the piano on the second floor.

The Piano Man pulled out the bench of the grand piano. The keyboard was still locked shut. He waited. Germaine Stout IV was a man who believed a shopping centre should be an experience and not just a place to buy things. He made rounds of the shopping centre, making note of trends, talking to people, always trying to make the experience more enjoyable. Stout approached The Piano Man, introduced himself and shook his hand. He wanted The Piano Man to tune the piano. Stout wasn't sure what he was going to do with it, not sure why he had it moved here, but he believed in the universe taking care of such curiosities.

Stout unlocked the case over the keys and together they pulled the cover off. Reflections could be seen in the polished surface. They lifted the top, placed the stand in place and The Piano Man went to work. Stout stayed, watched, listened to him tune every key on the board.

"Whenever I'm finished tuning," The Piano Man said, "I usually play a piece to show the owner how the sound has improved."

Stout smiled, nodded, stepped back against the wall.

The Piano Man sat in front of the instrument. His face reflected back up at him. He paused, placed his hands on the appropriate keys. The music was a selection from the opera Tristan und Isolde by Wagner.

Piano tuning paid less than teaching. But unlike his controlled playing in his apartment, whenever he finished tuning, he felt he was entitled to lose himself, play to his potential. The people who paid him to tune their pianos allowed him this indulgence, some actually appreciated it. With every note he fell deeper into the music, his fingers moving by themselves, guided by the spiritual magic that music occupies in a performer. This alone was the reason he tuned pianos. To have a place where there was no objection to him displaying passion.

The Piano Man didn't notice the small crowd gathering around him. Germaine Stout IV noticed. An old woman who lived in the condo building stepped out of the crowd, placed her hand on the edge of the piano. She nodded her head to the music, closed her eyes and added her operatic voice to the piano piece. They played together, complemented each other. The Piano Man's trance was momentarily broken but he didn't miss a note. After this moment, he was brought deeper into his trance.

At the end, the small crowd had turned into a larger one. People stayed, asked The Piano Man questions, wanted to talk with him. After the crowd thinned, Stout came forward and asked The Piano Man if he would be interested in playing every week, that this must have been the reason why they brought the piano here. The Piano Man was overwhelmed, did not look for a quick way to exit, felt he was wanted. And it was a good feeling.

The Piano Man can be heard every Thursday on the second floor of The Lighthouse from 3:00 pm - 5:00 pm.