“When I had nothing else, I had my mother and the piano. And you know what? They were all I needed.” – Alicia Keys

My love affair with the piano began on my family’s old upright that stood in the same place in the living room for 27 years.
Nobody ever touched it but my mother, and she could only play two songs, “Missouri Waltz” and “St. Louis Woman.”

At some point it called to me, and I started picking out Christmas tunes.

Then there was the old stand up piano on the second floor of the YMCA on Loughborough Avenue. They had dances and games on Tuesday night. I was bad at games and couldn’t dance, so I wandered upstairs and found it.

I listened to the music from below, and I memorized it. That simple.

And so my travels with the 88 keys continued, finding pianos, like road signs, wherever I went. Each spoke to me, “Sit down, Baby Jerry, and play something.”

Each piano connected with some place, some one.

There was the girl in Louisiana whose mother invited me to their home for Thanksgiving, and let me play her piano. I played “Missouri Waltz.”

When I was in high school, I had an after-school Christmas job at Famous Barr Department Store.

One day a grand piano appeared in the main lobby. No one ever played it. It was just there, it seems, like rented help — just holding a group of poinsettias.

It was white like a movie piano, polished to a shine with real ivory keys.

One very busy evening I could no longer resist. I stopped working and sat down and ran my fingers over the keys. I touched one or two and then an entire chord. Pretty soon I was playing jazzed-up Christmas carols, and small crowds started listening.

I was no Bobby Short, and I only knew a few good chords. But gradually I got better and I just know that I had found something I loved and that loved me back.

In summer stock, there was a coffee shop/bar downstairs from the theater, with a piano. They hired me to play for an hour or two after curtain. I got five bucks and free pie.

When working the night shift at the front desk at the Waldorf Astoria, I discovered, on my break, the famous Starlight Room on the roof.
Darkened for the night, I found the button that lit up the stars on the ceiling, and sat at the white Steinway. It felt like I had died and gone to piano heaven.

I wasn’t bad at improvising at that time, so I ran through a couple of period pieces of Cole Porter, Gershwin and Gus Kahn.

I sat there in the dark, with the only light coming from the elevator alcove. I ran my fingers over the keys and played Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye.”

Then I saw him, the man in a tux who suddenly appeared from nowhere. He was leaning on the door, smoking.

“That was Cole’s piano, you know.”

His voice had a smile. I didn’t think I was in trouble.

“He played that same tune on those keys.”

I knew Cole lived up here in the Waldorf Towers at the end of life. It gave me a shiver to learn that my fingers and Cole’s touched the same ivories.

I ran my fingers over the keys, and when I looked back, the smoking man was gone.

He must have been a guest from a party downstairs. Or a ghost.

So here it is almost New Year’s Eve and guess what I got for Christmas? My family, all five of them, bought me a piano — not a piano like Cole’s.

It’s a Yamaha keyboard set into a piano body. It’s gorgeous.

It speaks to me, “Sit down, Baby Jerry, and play something.”

New Year’s Eve, I’ll sit here with my constant date and play Cole’s “Every time We Say Goodbye.”

It’s the start of a glorious New Year; God, I think, has finally delivered us from political and viral evil, or at least given us time to play “Every Time We Say Goodbye” one more time before we do.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer. 


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