For over a year I was an apprentice to Connell York, 84-year old piano tuner. During our colorful journey on the piano-finding trail, a folksy narrative emerged that informs as it entertains.
Scenes preview: 84-year old, piana’ tuna,’ Connell York holds a ten-dollar bill he retrieved in a deep-sea diving expedition under a grand piano. He took me along for the dip.
The Steinway L, 1927, I stumbled upon at Peninsula Piano Brokers in Palo Alto, was upstaged by a giraffe piano, but still managed to seduce a Berkeley realtor who eventually purchased it.
The question was to overhaul, or not to overhaul. Read on…
Note the Giraffe piano, pictured below, that’s featured at Piano World.com http://www.pianoworld.com/gallery/piano_pictures3.htm
Me, York, and Our Great Piano Adventure!
I heard 4 thumps on my door well past 10 p.m. At such an ungodly hour, it had to be York or an intruder.
He was standing at the entrance way with a bag of oranges and a Coke bottle full of Amarillos. With an indomitable smile, and impish charm he ambled through my door.“These are the last a’ the oranges,” he said.
I heard the same thing the last time he was here. How could I forget? He’d stood in the doorway holding a sostenuto pedal rod in his left hand. (Middle pedal apparatus) and a bag of citrus in the other. But these were no rival to the rat’s nest he’d brought me one afternoon. It was carefully wrapped in plastic and retrieved from a church piano.
“Hey, my wife’s off in Oklahoma on business; somethin’ to do with taxes and her family’s property so she won’t be back for a couple a’ weeks,” he said. It was obvious that 84-year old York liked hanging around my piano studio to talk shop. We enjoyed an innocent friendship, based on a common interest. That’s all it was, and would ever be.
I led York into my office that bordered my piano room to show him several computer downloaded pics from my recent trip to the Bay area. He was riveted to the image of a Steinway L grand, 1927, that I’d helped select for a Berkeley client. It was located at Peninsula Piano, a store sequestered in a shopping area off Main Street in Palo Alto. I remember seeing my first Giraffe piano there, being quite startled by such an oddity that usurped the space properly reserved for an elegant vintage Steinway like the model “L” I’d discovered in an inconspicuous, back room area of the establishment.
Despite its lack of feature status, the consigned instrument had a magnificent tone and was impeccably regulated. Immersed in its resonant bass and shimmering treble, I couldn’t stop playing it.
My rendition of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata soared through a space dominated by a row of brand new Mason Hamlins that bore no resemblance to those I knew in the 70′s back in New York. My teacher, Lillian Freundlich put her 40′s era Mason Hamlin grand center stage in her living room while her Steinway “A” was placed off to the side, relegated as a second piano for duet playing. That’s how much respect she had for Steinway’s competitor.
I had quickly learned after a bit of research, that the L model 1927 had been voiced and regulated by Ernie Martinez, a Technician Associate living in San Jose. Yet, no other information had been provided, leaving the interested buyer, a Berkeley realtor, riddled with concerns.
She’d wanted a registered technician to give her reassurance about the value of the instrument in its present condition.
Her doubts about buying an older, vintage piano, were fed by principles at Faust- Harrison, a premier rebuilding company based in New York whose priority was to fetch pianos for restoration, and charge handsomely for its work.
The information-hungry buyer had contacted the company by phone and obtained an earful of reasons why overhauling a Steinway as she had described, was the best and only way to guarantee its longevity.
Horace Greeley, a revered technician of long-standing, but not tied to Faust- Harrison, or any other commercial establishment, had kindly agreed, upon my request, to perform an on-site inspection of the Steinway piano at Peninsula. Since he worked at nearby Stanford University maintaining its pianos, the stop-over was convenient and without a problem.
His sunny personality shined through our first telephone conversation and he revealed a determination to review the Steinway in finite detail.
Not a day after Greeley had inspected the grand at Peninsula, he’d dashed off a lengthy email to the interested buyer, which he copied to me.
“I think I can assure you that everything is original parts and construction. (Strings included) While clearly used, the instrument has, overall, been very well cared for. If it lived in San Jose for a number of years (which its condition suggests), it was probably maintained by a technician named Peterson, whose first name I presently do not remember. He was the long-time technician for San Jose State and enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for quality work.”
Greeley’s message was carefully thought out.
“As nearly as I can determine, the action is original, right down to the key bushings. Now this is not a bad thing, but it means that the parts are now pushing 80 years so. How soon work would need to be done would be largely a question of your use of the instrument. As it stands, with reasonable maintenance and a not-too-huge work load, it may well last a number of years as i is. That said, if you or your children are learning the Grieg Concerto,etc, you will need (at least) action work done much sooner.”
The Grieg was one of those war horse concertos that gave a piano quite a workout. If the buyer or her children would be practicing bravura repertoire, then the vintage grand might need regulation and other work in the not too distant future.
Still, questions always popped up that related to the relative merits of rebuilding a fine piano such as this which resonated off the roof, and was very touch responsive. Why not enjoy it, postponing surgery for a later time.
After receiving Greeley’s assessment, the interested buyer felt more confident about acquiring the piano, and purchased it in a glowingly raw state. Once the prized instrument sat safely in her sprawling living room, she tabled any further thoughts of investing money in it.
York was staring at the image of the Steinway L, which appeared larger than life on my computer screen.
“Mighty nice piana,” he said. “Reminds me of the 7 foot Kawai that’s owned by this old Italian fella, ‘Aguardando,’ a retired college professor.”
“So is this guy, selling the piano or what?” I asked.
“Well, it’s very possible ’cause he’s gettin’ up in years and has no real family that wants it.”
“Hey isn’t that the man you mentioned who keeps a wad of money stashed inside his piano?” I inquired.
“You bet! That’s him alright! But don’t you be tellin’ anybody ’bout it, ‘cause we can’t blow my cover. Say, I been meanin’ to take you over there to see the Kawai, and I want ya to look at the Weber grand that had a slew of moths in it. You sure won’t recognize it now.”
“I bet you cleaned it up, good,” I said confidently, borrowing York’s grammar. It was starting to become my natural vernacular.
“Oh, yeah, I dun put cloves all over the action and such. Now a lady I tuned fer didn’t brush off her piana keys properly after she poured the cloves on ‘em, so I gets a call from her at midnight sayin’ she’d seen some funny red-colored stuff in the dark. Well, I told her to put the lights on, get a paint brush and swoosh the powder around.”
York had repeatedly offered to moth and rat-proof my piano, but I firmly declined. If he had made such moves on my Steinway, he knew we could no longer be friends, let alone, informal business partners.
“Well, we gotta set up a good time to go look at the Weber and Kawai pianas,” he insisted. “But remember, when I show ya the Kawai, we’s gotta set it straight just how we’s gonna do it. Hey I might as well show ya while we’re here.”
He led me over to my Steinway grand in the living room, and we both went down under it as a dress rehearsal for the big event. Quickly, he pointed to a narrow crack where the Italian fellow had hidden his money and made a quick jab into the space that he would tap for a peek. Tightly squeezed together, we gazed at a hypothetical place that would conceal the wad of dough if all went well. York had obsessed over it, telling me that every time he tuned “that piana, the money had better still be there when he left.”
Now he was saying that he would tell Aguardando about a sticky problem under the piano– something to do with a “squeaky pedal.” It would be our excuse to go beneath the instrument to investigate it.
“Now you’ll go down there first and then I’ll join ya’ after,” he said. “We’ll tinker around with that there lyre and try to figure out what’s goin’ on.”
“So maybe I should bring a flashlight with me on my voyage,” I said, “so I can look more closely at the underbelly. Or better yet, I can take along an instant camera.”
“Hey, don’t worry yerself about it. All ya need is a pair a good eyes and yer in business!”
We slowly extricated ourselves from our tight-fitting quarters. York emerged spry and fit as a fiddle. Getting beneath pianos had obviously kept him young and active.
“Hey, don’t forget that I’ll be pickin’ ya up on Wednesday at one,” he said.
Picking me up? Did I hear him right?
The Wednesday afternoon adventure
I was teaching Walter Porter, an 83-year old African American beginning student, when we were interrupted by several knocks at the door. By the tribal rhythm of the pulsations I knew it could be only one person. But why on earth was York here 90 minutes early? He was supposed to come by at 1:00 p.m. so we could to check out the Kawai and Weber grands together.
I didn’t want to leave Walter at that moment to answer the door. He was in a fingering crisis on page 34 of his “Gypsy Band” melody from Faber Adult Accelerated Lesson book I, and he needed my help to navigate through some tricky measures.
York had already nudged open the unlocked door, and stood only yards away, minus his bag of oranges. His once fertile tree had finally become barren so he substituted a bag of walnuts and a Coca Cola bottle full of multi-colored roses. What would I do with the walnuts? I had a backed-up supply in my fridge that would take months to eat. It reminded me of his next-to-last drop-off of oranges that spoiled so rapidly that I was hit with a blast of green rot aroma that sent me scampering for oxygen. Had the whole situation been publicly exposed, it might have ignited a Board of Health investigation!
York did a double-take when he saw Walter seated at the piano.
“Geeze, I’m sorry I interrupted yer lesson, my man!”
He gave Walter a big warm hug and slap on the back.
“Hey, don’t forget, ya need to tune your Baldwin every six months, now.”
The old man had met Walter when he serviced his 1927 vintage upright upon my recommendation, and I’d become acquainted with Mr. Porter when he approached me during my performance at a San Joaquin Clay and Glass Artists Anniversary Exhibition. We had struck up a spontaneous conversation sprinkled with jazz and classical music talk. It quickly led to my becoming his piano teacher.
York apologized again for his premature arrival.
“Hey, I didn’t mean to be here this early, but you didn’t answer yer phone, and I thought you wasn’t home and maybe you fergot about today. Remember, we gotta hit the road by one o’clock!”
I quickly whisked York out the door and restored a necessary calm to my piano sanctuary. By this time, Walter had successfully re-focused his attention on his music and was making good progress. He had ironed out the kinks of his “Gypsy Band” selection that had a set of right hand chords running through it. The challenge was to flesh out a melody in the uppermost voice while playing the triads.
At this point in his studies, Walter was learning about the “tie” in music— a curved line that connects the same notes and should be held for the length of both. It was a challenge for a beginning adult student to assimilate new notational symbols and craft musical phrases from a deeply spiritual place.
A nice friendship had evolved with Walter in the course of time, that made me relish our interspersed conversations before, during, and after his lessons. A very intense individual with a probing mind, he was in stark contrast to York who possessed a more earthy and folksy character
For at least 25 years Walt had been employed as a Bee reporter covering the local news as well as real estate, and had honed his writing skills in the armed forces public relations division. Stationed in Italy for a time during World War II, he grew to love its people and culture. One more than one occasion, he had e-mailed me snatches of his nostalgic writings.
Walter would choke up at times during our conversations, especially when reminiscing about an event that had poignancy for him.
The week before he could barely get his words out as he rekindled the memory of a jazz group he’d heard.
“A black man, white man, Hispanic, and Asian were playing together and improvising —they had created a collective work of art without bigotry or racial prejudice impeding them.” He was fighting back tears.
I had likewise welled up with emotion when I was talking about the Divan East-Western orchestra formed by Daniel Barenboim, maestro, pianist, philosopher and emissary of world peace. Through his singular efforts he had brought Palestinians and Arabs together under his baton to cultivate the healing art of music.
Walter was riveted to our dialogs, and steadily contributed interesting accounts of his own life.
He had grown up in Baltimore and went to a segregated school where he insisted that “serious learning took place.”
“You never answered your teachers back in those years, because if you did, all the neighbors would know about it the same day. If you got a spanking for insolence at school, word of it spread, like wild fire, throughout the whole neighborhood. Your friends, clergy, local people were all informed, so you didn’t dare repeat your bad behavior, at least for some time.”
Today, Walter and I chose to pick up our jazz conversation from the prior week. I started the ball rolling.
“Hey you know what, Mr. Porter, I’m always fascinated by jazz musicians who are schooled differently from classical performers. They’re usually born knowing the jazz vernacular and they continue to improve their skills by jamming with other fine musicians.”
“And many, like Ray Charles, never even learned to read music,” Walter replied.
“Just the other day I heard a disk with Ella Fitzgerald and Satchmo, and she’s artfully phrasing and he’s scatting and alternating with trumpet interludes. It blew my mind, and sounded so unrehearsed. Seems like putting down notes on a page would kill the spontaneity,” I said.
“I think you’re right,” Walter answered. “Have you ever heard Diane Krall play?”
“Well, I’m somewhat familiar with her artistry but I really prefer Billy Taylor who is classically trained and plays more intensely. He draws a deeper, more definitive sound from the piano.”
Walter Porter, an erudite fellow compared to York spent a good number of years studying the string bass and had also been a member of the City College orchestra and Philharmonic. In his spare time he’d studied the trombone and dabbled in jazz.
“Hey I’m a fan of Thelonius Monk,” I said, “but the problem I have with his music is it can be too intellectual and abstract. Somehow, as he develops a theme, the melody is often lost.”
Walt nodded his head in agreement.
“But I really need to keep up with new developments on the jazz scene,” I continued, “particularly scoping out the works of young black musicians.” I stopped myself for a moment and wondered if my racial reference was correct. Maybe I should have said “African-American” musicians?
What was the proper parlance? I wondered. I look directly at Walter. “Is the adjective “black” or African-American?”
At that very moment, we were rudely interrupted by several hard blows to the door.
York had pushed it open again with his aggressive knocking.
“Hey, here I am ready to take off,” he shouted.
York gazed over at Walter. “Hey, my man, I wonder if ya know Dr. Williams, the colored physician here in town that just lost his wife?”
I burst out laughing at the timing and irony of his comment. I was shocked that York had reverted back to an archaic adjective describing dark-skinned people. What else would I have expected? An anachronistic character with ideas that were definitely time-warped, he probably couldn’t change even if sufficiently programmed.
I was uproariously laughing at York’s unintended faux pas that was turning him beet red.
“Well, I’ll leave you two alone,” Mr. Porter interjected uncomfortably, as he turned toward the half-opened door to make his exit. I could tell he wanted to distance himself from the whole situation.
I followed him to the door.
“Hey I’m really sorry about what happened today with all the interruptions. Please accept my apologies,” I said.
York was ready and eager to take off on our planned adventure but he paused to explain his awkward visit earlier in the morning.
“I wanted to take you to brunch at McDonald’s which is all I kin afford. So bein’ as you was teachin’ I went over there myself. Now you shoulda been with me,” he insisted. “When I came through the door, there was 7 executives standin’ near the trash can askin’ people questions. When I walked up to the line, they wanted to know how long I’d been comin’ to the place to git fast food, and I told ‘em it had been over 25 years. And guess what. They’ dun gave me a free lunch including a Coke and a cheeseburger— so if you’d been over there with me, you’d gotten somethin’ to eat fer free! It reminded me of the time that York brought me a partially eaten McChicken sandwich from the same establishment that I had to discard.
I thought York prided himself in wanting to buy a lady like me, lunch, but I guess the freebee was just too great a temptation.
We were soon briskly headed over to his brown Chevy pick-up that was parked in front of my house and filled with reams of piano parts: hammers, keys, strings tangled together, whippens, fronts and tails of ivories, nuts, bolts, nails of all sizes. He told me he’d stripped thousands of grands, uprights, spinets and consoles, and salvaged most of their parts.
“I kin repair any piano, any time, anywhere ’cause I got the know how and have the parts I need right here!” He exclaimed.
I was looking at the array of hardware in his truck and I noticed a canister-type vacuum cleaner with the name “Filter Queen” on it. York claimed that he used it to suction out dust and debris from the hard-to-reach areas under the strings. Such dirt was a challenge to access with a garden variety hand vac.
“Hey, what happened with the Black and Decker dust buster you brought to my place a few months ago,” I asked.
“Oh, it just up and died on me one day, so I went back to usin’ my old vacuum machine and it really does the job!”
He reminded me that the suction hose should never touch the strings or hammers. ‘Ya gotta be real careful when cleanin’ the insides of a piana, or ya can ruin a lot a’ parts!”
I knew personally about pianos being assaulted. In 1989, a local technician who specialized in voicing ragtime-sounding pianos, did some unauthorized things to my Steinway M that transformed it into an unwelcome stranger in my own home. He “polished the whippens and filed the knuckles” without my authorization. That’s what it said on the invoice he left me. From the whole ordeal I nearly had a nervous breakdown!
For a full year I had tried to recruit tuners from all over the state to restore my piano. But it just never happened because the vast majority of the out-of-town techs had no inclination to do long distance repair work. So it became crystal clear over time that what I was experiencing was shared universally by owners of fine pianos housed in small communities and perhaps it was my destiny to expose the flawed landscape of piano servicing and repair in various parts of the country.
My nightmarish ordeal was described in detail within an article I wrote for the Piano Quarterly, titled “How Could this Happen to My Piano?!” (Summer, 1989). The published piece not only drew response from around the nation, but it captured the attention of Steinway & Sons factory personnel who dispatched help immediately. Within weeks, they flew Vladimir Horowitz’s personal technician, Franz Mohr to my home.
Such an event should have attracted a news team with cameras. Who would imagine that Horowitz’s beloved tuner would find himself flying to the Central Valley to assist a local damsel in distress?
Unquestionably, Mohr could not perform overnight miracles. The piano was so far gone, that nothing short of a complete overhaul would have resuscitated it. While the famous technician delivered an ace tuning and some good voicing, the piano ultimately had to be shipped off to Modesto, California where it landed in the capable hands of Dale Erwin who miraculously resurrected it for $3500!
York was looking at the clock in his pick-up. “Hey I’m worried that we won’t make it on time for our second appointment. We have to be at Ralph Aguardando’s place at 2:30 p.m.”
We were zipping right along to our first stop where we’d check out a Weber, 1929 grand piano that York had worked on. This was the instrument I had originally located in the Bee classifieds, and had called York about for a quick assessment. The seller had agreed to pay him his $30 fee to appraise the instrument. After his initial inspection York had declared that it was “fulla moths and needed an overhaul cause the critters had eaten through some a’ the felts.”
Within weeks of this announcement, the owner had obtained a buyer who was subsequently put it touch with York to do the repair work. He had also planned to reshape 88 hammers for better contact with the strings, and would replace some balance rail key punchings. “That’s where the moths had their banquet,” York said. He had shown me tiny scrapings from the punching felt that collected along the railing and he insisted this was “filet mignon” for moths.
I had originally taken a liking to the walnut-encased Weber when I first played it. The piano had a lot going for it even if it wasn’t a spring chicken. I liked its mid and upper range but the bass sounded tired and tubby. The feel was even throughout its keyboard so I couldn’t understand what moth-proofing the piano would accomplish. The notion of reshaping the hammers also didn’t make sense since the tone was very lovely except for the bass and very high treble. Perhaps the two highest octaves could use a brightening.
Unless York had a magic wand that would transform the bass into a resonating register, I couldn’t understand how filing down the hammers would improve anything about the piano in this range or any other. Basically the instrument had some life ahead of it if regularly tuned and kept away from radiators, drafts, and direct sunlight. It was because its pedigree was firmly established and well known.
The Weber Company had quite a good reputation decades before it was taken over by the Young Chang manufacturer in Korea. Originally established in 1852, it became part of the Aeolian group. AEOLIAN-AMERICAN DIVISION OF AEOLIAN CORP. Piano lines controlled and manufactured by this Division included distinguished names such as Chickering & Sons, Wm. Knabe & Co., Mason & Hamlin and Weber. The manufacturing facilities at East Rochester consisted of over 250,000 sq. ft. of space situated on over eight acres of land that were devoted exclusively to the manufacture of pianos since 1906. Aeolian was one of America ‘s largest producers of grand pianos and enjoyed an unquestioned reputation throughout the world.” (from the Bluebook of Pianos.com–footnote)
I had a memorable association to a Weber piano that was housed by my neighbor in northwest Fresno. She owned a Steinway grand and a Weber upright that were both priceless instruments. The vertical had a filigreed rack and lovely engravings. Its sound was magnificently resonant. The sad part of the story was that no one played either of the two musical treasures, so they sat lifeless for decades.
The Weber grand, 1929 that York had moth-proofed, etc. didn’t approach the upright’s tonal dimension but it was still worth passage to a caring owner. And the recent buyer was conscientious enough to engage a technician to do some work on it.
When York arrived on the scene upon the seller’s recommendation, he had also promised to address some of the water stains in the cabinet and wanted to show me all that he had accomplished. It was definitely an ego thing with him. He wanted to convince me that he was the top dog technician in the whole state.
No doubt he had probably vacuumed the insides of the Weber with his Filter Queen, and then emptied a bottle or two of cloves into it. He said he would do all the work, including refinishing the exterior for $500!
The buyer who selected this piano despite its problems agreed to leave the key for York so he could have me tag along with him and review his work. Naturally, I was more than curious about the miracles York claimed he had performed on the stately, old piano.
As soon as we emerged from the pick-up truck, York led me to the back of a condo where a key was supposed to have been left on a shelf for him, but he couldn’t readily find it. Just then a Chihuahua squeezed through a doggie door and barked furiously. I feared the animal might imminently attack us since I’d heard that dogs of this breed had a vicious bite.
York ignored the tiny animal, though he was increasingly anxious about not locating the key to open the back slider.
Frenetically, we tipped tables and pulled out drawers in the garage area to no avail. As York was ready to throw up his hands and give up, he bumped into a tall steel shelf and out dropped the key! How relieved he was!!
“Well, let’s go right in and see the piana,” he said, enthusiastically. I followed him into a dark and dreary living room area, sprinkled with a sparse array of lamps. A framed photo showed a young woman holding a small child. Her accountancy license was beside it on the kitchen counter.
The Weber grand piano was definitely not the featured attraction of the room. At less than five feet, the instrument appeared rather diminutive but looked as inviting as when I first encountered it a few months back.
To determine if any positive changes had been made in the bass since York worked on it, I darted over to test its tone. After playing through a series of repeated chromatic scales, I heard absolutely no difference from the first time I had reviewed the instrument. I did notice, however, that the insides were immaculately clean and that the moth larvae residue had disappeared from the cast iron plate. But the piano’s character was unaltered.
The bass was still without resonance or improvement and the uppermost treble was not shimmering or further developed. York would have had to apply lacquer to the hammer felts to improve the brightness or he could have ironed them to obtain a similar result. For certain, the water stains that were ingrained into the wood were still there, though York had polished the overall exterior giving the cabinet a nicer sheen.
York peered at his watch and announced that we really needed to move right along to keep our next appointment. But as expected, we were suddenly delayed because of a second key-finding crisis. York had quickly closed the piano lid and scribbled a note for the owner that he had arrived at a certain time and departed at another. He was very conscientious about letting his clients know that he’d met his obligations to their piano in a timely manner. He insisted that his grand-pappy had instilled good habits in him, by giving little York a flogging or two when it was needed.
We were set back in time again because York had misplaced the owner’s key while he was dashing off a note to her. It caused the old man to go into a tail spin. ”Hey, where did I put that bugger?” he said. He checked his shirt and pants pocket without success. The he frenetically opened a few drawers in the kitchen. “Gosh, darn, where did I put the key?” After about 15 minutes, I spotted it on the top of a cabinet that sat beside the piano. Quickly, York retrieved it and led me out the back way. He then locked up the slider as the tiny dog barked at the top of its lungs.
We eased into the pick-up, humming along the road before we experienced a further time delay. It was almost three o’clock and I hadn’t eaten breakfast, so I needed to grab a bite. York was obsessed about being punctual, so he called Mr. Aguardando, the Kawai owner and told him we’d be about 45 minutes late.
Meanwhile I stopped off at CVS to purchase an instant camera because I wanted to take some photos of York and the Kawai grand.
Feeling completely rejuvenated after a quick snack, I was eager to launch my search beneath the big Kawai.
The old man tuner pulled his pick-up into a long, narrow driveway and parked it right in front of the garage door. He seemed to enjoy a self-imposed ownership of the place from having tuned Mr. Aguardando’s piano for more than ten years.
Aguardando greeted York with a warm handshake and then turned towards me as if awaiting a formal introduction.”Oh, this is Shirley Kirsten, concert pianist and piana teacher,” York announced proudly,” and she’s here to watch me tune yer piano, if ya don’t mind.” The Kawai owner had Mediterranean good looks and a charming demeanor. I noticed that he had some lovely original paintings on the walls along with a few surreal engravings. But he wasn’t too gregarious as he promptly excused himself and retired to a back room to “work on his computer.” It looked like York’s staged plans were subject to a production change.
To obtain a glimpse of Aguardando’s money hidden under the piano seemed like a rather bizarre and senseless adventure. How many piano tuners, I wondered, wasted their time foraging under pianos looking for stashes of money?
York was up to the task. He had already opened his toolbox, and set up his machine tuner, a pricey Yamaha Stroboscope.
At his advanced age, he no longer tuned by ear. Instead he calibrated individual frequencies of 88 tones by computer which remained a controversial pursuit.
Personally I didn’t believe in the accuracy of machine tuning. The fine technicians I had encountered on the East Coast strictly tuned by ear. Same held for Terry Barrett who regularly maintained my pianos. Even the Steinway factory in Astoria had frowned upon machine tuning and would never recommend it.
On occasion York and I battled over this issue, but I backed off eventually, because I realized that the old man needed the crutch machine to tune pianos because of his age-related hearing loss.
An imposing 7 foot 4’’ Kawai 1981 grand stood before me that excited my curiosity aside from it being the repository of a buried treasure. I had to get my hands on it, before York set up his stroboscope.
“Sure, go give it a whirl, and tell me what ya thinks.”
In no time I was playing an undistinguished, brittle-sounding instrument without any significant sustain. Sound pebbles would be the best description of its tonal output. For certain I would never want to own a piano like this and I could not recommend it to anyone, not even my worst enemy.
York had one thing in mind. He wanted me to get down under that piano while Aguardando was out of sight. I’d make the subterranean trip to the piano’s underbelly without being noticed.
I was on my way down without the “squeaky pedal” excuse, and while beneath the piano, I aimed my instant camera at what looked like soft, floppy disks that could also have been bank books, sandwiched into a crack near a wood cross bar. It was so dark under there that I wasn’t sure my photos would come out clearly even with the flash on.
I managed to slither out of the confined space and surface without much to brag about. At that point. York took over the Intelligence operation and dove under the piano like a deep-sea diver. He hadn’t been submerged for very long when he rose to the surface with two fist fulls of cash that he held up in the air as if he had received an Olympic Gold Medal for the undertaking!
“Oh my! Mr.York, you definitely have earned the prize!” I shouted. The old man then bolted back down under the grand and returned the money to it sacred hiding place.
I suddenly felt creeping exhaustion from the whole day’s events eclipsed by this undercover operation. Slowly, I drifted toward a plush, inviting sofa, plopped myself down and fell asleep.
When I awoke, I heard York’s whiny voice. “Hey it’s time to git up, I’m nearly finished.”
Dazed and disoriented, I didn’t know where I was– uncertain about the day of the week. But my memory was jogged, when Aguardando appeared to pay York.
The two oldsters seemed to enjoy a cordial long-term relationship that sprang from a mutual friend’s referral. York’s kinship with the Italian endowed a special gift. He had carved his own name into the last key of the Kawai piano. If you pushed down the one in front of it, you’d clearly see “York” ingrained in perpetuity.
It wasn’t long before we were back on the road, heading over to my place.
Before we parted for the evening, I asked York to pose for a few photos.
In the first snapshot, he was holding up 8-inch tweezers that he’d used to extricate 3 newborn mice from a Dinuba upright. In the others, he was standing beside his vehicle that displayed the nuts, bolts, key tops, wires, hammers, that he had collected over decades. Right in the center of all the rubble, sat his noble lady, Filter Queen vacuum cleaner!
As the sun descended over the horizon, York grew anxious. If he stayed out too late, his wife would surely smell a rat.
She checked on him from time to time, so he needed to be safely home before nightfall.
York headed briskly for his pick-up truck.
I watched his vehicle whiz away, leaving a cloud of dust behind.