Unloading the Piano that was Weighing Me Down and Not Earning its Keep
On my 58th birthday—and Goodbye to All That's 10th—I'm sharing a New York story.
Readers, today I turn 58, which in my mind is currently called FIFTY FUCKING EIGHT. To those of you older than me this will not seem like a big number. To those younger than me it might. As I’ve written before, we’re all the oldest we’ve ever been, so every new number feels significant to us—and maybe a little scary. I’m not so much scared by this number as I am by the one that’s coming two years from now. (On my birthday, my gift to you: 10% off annual subscriptions to Oldster Magazine.)
This October also marks ten years since Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NY, my bestselling anthology, was originally published. (I say “originally” because in 2021 the book was reissued with seven new essays by: Leslie Jamison, U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón, Emily Raboteau, Carolita Johnson, Rosie Schaap, Danielle A. Jackson, and Lisa Ko.) I was going to run an October-long NYC theme on Oldster to celebrate this milestone, but it turns out I’m too burnt out to pull it together. Instead, this October through next, I’m going to feature some NYC-themed pieces here and there—some of them mine, but more of them from other authors.
Below is the first New York story of mine that I’ll share. It’s actually not from Goodbye to All That, but rather from my memoir, And You May Find Yourself…
Some good news related to my memoir: last week I learned that one of the essays from it—about getting tattooed later in life—which was reprinted in LitHub, has received notable mention in The Best American Essays 2023, edited by Vivan Gornick.
It’s a first for me as a writer; many essays I’ve edited have earned this distinction, including “Burning it Down” by Joy Castro this year. And one piece by Matthew Salesses that I commissioned from a tweet and edited for Longreads was reprinted in full in the 2020 edition, edited by André Aciman. It’s always a thrill to have any part in an essay that receives this kind of recognition, but it hits differently when it’s my own writing. The news arrived right on time, a perfect 58th birthday gift.
Okay, with no further ado, today’s essay…
Unloading the Piano that Was Weighing Me Down and Not Earning Its Keep
When you live in New York City, even the smallest objects in your apartment need to justify what scarce, high-priced real estate they occupy.
Every last jacket, book, serving bowl—every single possession must continually earn its keep. The meter is always running. Haven’t used or worn it in a year? Out. Want new shoes? First evict an older pair. Signed up for Soul Cycle? Time to unload the exercise bike. No room for redundancy here, nor sentimentality for that matter.
Sentimentality, though, is no insignificant hurdle. It’s an insidious force to be reckoned with, tripping up mechanisms in the brain otherwise reliable when it comes to rational decision-making.
This explains why I was living in small apartments in New York City for a dozen years before I put it together that a five-by-four-foot 400-pound object—one I’d paid various movers a small fortune to drag up and down creaky flights of stairs from one cramped dwelling to the next—was cluttering my 350-square-foot space. Also, my life.
I’m referring specifically to my upright piano, which became progressively more banged up each time it was manhandled by man-with-van types, who were less expensive to hire than professional piano movers. This was an instrument that had been in my family for multiple generations; the one I’d learned on (make that “learned”), and, mercifully for my neighbors, played infrequently.
This lightning bolt struck me in the late summer of 2002. I was approaching 37 and going through the second break-up in as many years. After the last ex-boyfriend packed his stuff, I felt desperate for a fresh start in a new place. But as a perpetually broke freelance writer, I couldn’t afford to ditch the $722/month rent-stabilized East Village walk-up I’d called home for nearly 10 years. I also couldn’t afford to replace too many of my belongings. I’d have to find some cheap alternative for making my old place, filled with my worn-out furnishings, feel new again.
At the time, there was a lot of buzz about space-clearing, and the Chinese art of Feng Shui. I was skeptical of its promise of better living through the particular arrangement of apartment contents to encourage positive energy flow. But I was willing to give it a try. Most consultants charged high fees: $500 or more. So I did what I always have when I’ve wanted to sample something beyond my financial reach: I got a newspaper assignment to write about it, which would likely mean a free preliminary consultation, or a paycheck substantial enough to cover one.
I was living in small apartments in New York City for a dozen years before I put it together that a five-by-four-foot 400-pound object was cluttering my space. Also, my life.
Enter Carol, the 70-something Certified Apartment Organizer from the Upper East Side who boasted an additional certificate in Feng Shui. Carol was dressed in a Chanel tweed skirt suit, as if this were a lunch appointment at La Grenouille, and clearly wasn’t used to visiting clients in run down, elevatorless tenements in the East Village. I felt guilty for making her climb the three flights to my apartment.
When she arrived, winded, she looked around and seemed utterly bewildered by the size and condition of the place—crooked, lopsided window sills and floors; peeling paint; too many books, too many layers of coats piled onto hooks affixed to lumpy plaster walls, too many threadbare decorative appointments from flea markets; not to mention a desk and chair I’d found on the street (read: in the garbage).
“Before I could even begin to tell you how to rearrange the place, you’d have to do some serious space clearing and get rid of a lot,” Carol said. She echoed Maxwell, the guy from Apartment Therapy, whom I’d interviewed for the article the day before. He, in turn, echoed a palm reader who’d told me a few years back, “You hold onto things for too long.”
“Things things?” I’d asked the palm reader. “Or, like, emotional baggage?”
“All of the above.”
Carol instructed me to toss anything I didn’t regularly use. “But what if it has sentimental value?” I begged.
“Take a picture of it. Then out it goes.”
She saw a look of anguish cross my face and took a deep breath.
“Listen, if you’re having a really hard time letting something go,” she allowed, “put it aside in an I’ll Decide Later box.”
How do you put a piano in an I’ll Decide Later box? It seemed like a Zen koan.
Carol eyed the mahogany console. Out of tune and collecting dust, it had long ago become a catch-all surface for bills, greeting cards, free address labels from charitable organizations, packs of photographs, notebooks and other miscellanea.
“Do you play?” she asked.
“Not often enough,” I admitted sheepishly, my eyes cast down.
Hmmm, I wondered, after the words left my lips. According to whom? To whom was I apologizing? Who in the world, in their right mind, cared whether I, a terrible pianist, played the piano more often? Certainly not the people living just beyond my paper-thin walls. I searched my mind. Was it Mr. Frank, my teacher until I quit, abruptly, at 12? My parents, who’d hounded me to practice more often as a kid? My dead grandparents, who’d paid for my lessons?
A palm reader had told me a few years back, “You hold onto things for too long.”
“Things things?” I’d asked. “Or, like, emotional baggage?”
“All of the above,” she replied.
Talk about emotional baggage! I was staring at four hundred pounds of it, tapping its toe and judging me from across the room—a hulking noodge constantly reminding me of everything I ever thought I should do but either never got around to, or didn’t truly want to. Everything from practicing musical instruments, to learning shorthand as a journalist, to calling back that nice but boring guy someone set me up with, to settling down and having kids. My sentimentality for the piano was inextricably bound up with unjustified guilt, and it weighed heavily on me.
Suddenly I had a strong urge to get that monstrous thing out of my apartment. But was I ready to part with it for good? That seemed rash, and drastic. I wasn’t sure.
I got creative and devised my own I’ll Decide Later box: I offered the piano for rent on Craigslist for just the cost of moving it, one way, to the renter’s apartment. After a year, I’d have to pay to move it back. I deliberately made it expensive to retrieve it; I had a strong inkling it would be good, on many levels, to clear the thing out of my space—that energy would flow better throughout my life without that clunky, imposing obstacle—but I was concerned sentimentality might get the better of me once again if the piano were too easily returned.
Shortly after I posted the ad, there were ten interested parties. I went with the Juilliard student living in South Slope.
I felt a twinge of sadness as his burly movers lugged the piano down three flights of stairs. But once they were gone, I was able to breathe more easily. It felt good, for the first time since I’d moved to the city after college, to reclaim the tiny strip of precious Manhattan square-footage the piano had occupied.
“Listen, if you’re having a really hard time letting something go,” Carol allowed, “put it aside in an I’ll Decide Later box.” How do you put a piano in an I’ll Decide Later box? It seemed like a Zen koan.
Months passed and I didn’t miss the piano. I bought a guitar, took a few lessons from a friend, and suddenly I was doing something I didn’t even know I could do, or wanted to: writing songs. Not terribly good ones, but I took it as a sign that some kind of creative energy was now flowing where it hadn’t been. Soon, I’d meet my husband, and we’d play music together, too, sometimes recording the songs I wrote.
That would happen a couple of months after I took my space-clearing initiative a step further and said goodbye to the piano for good.
When the year was up, the Juilliard student called to let me know he’d accepted a job with an orchestra in the Midwest. “You can come get your piano now,” he said. But after trying out pianoless living for a year, I knew in my heart I didn’t want it anymore.
Back it went on Craigslist, this time for sale. The Juilliard student kindly let me show the piano out of his apartment one weekend. It wasn’t long before I had a taker, a young guy who played in some kind of retro honky-tonk band.
I felt nothing as I watched him write out the check for $350. But a second later, when he handed it to me, I was caught off guard by the return of my old friends, sentimentality and guilt, and I burst into tears. The Juilliard student grabbed a tissue for me.
“It’s okay,” the young buyer said consolingly. “You know, I don’t have to take it.”
“No, no,” I insisted, sniffling. “You do. You really do.”
It was one thing to be sentimental. It was another to clog up your life with things—big things—that you don’t really want or need, and which long ago stopped warranting the valuable space they hogged, internally and externally.
I watched as the piano was hauled into yet another moving van. Then I wiped my tears, pulled myself together, and caught the subway back to my ever-so-slightly more spacious shoe box of an apartment.
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