Here’s the thing about white elephants.
You never really know where they come from.
And, then you have to figure out how to make them go away.
* * * * *
I think it was the trip to Pittsburgh with my new friend, Nathan. He’d just taken the job with Steinway, and there was a big benefit happening, and did I want to accompany him to see some pianos on sale?
A rather anomalous professional collaborative pianist, I’d spent the past twenty-odd years enduring the repeated tunings of my Young Chang condo upright, with its beefy bass and hardy action. That puppy had trained me well but, never built for as much as I’d asked of it over the years, the poor thing was tired.
And, I was restless. There’d been concert grands in my life, several in fact. I never told my little piano about them, but too much of a better thing can change a relationship and the Severance Hall Steinway had given me a taste in ’07 during the COYO concerto competition that was unforgettable. No longer the spring chick, perhaps I was finally ready to move uptown.
We had a nice time looking around the old, Victorian mansion housing the event. I thought of my humble little farmhouse back home in the center of what used to be a safe, comfortable small city in Northwestern PA. Here were all these people, ready to attend a benefit in support of what turned out to be my throat surgeon of record, a man I’d revered for saving my voice back in ’98 and whom I never expected ever to see again. And, here were all these pianos, like pedigreed stallions, waiting for the highest bidder to take them home.
The salesman in charge of the benefit was classical. Nathan introduced us and, when I asked about the surgeon, the salesman disclosed that they were partnering as hosts for the benefit. Within minutes, there was Dr. Rosen himself – on the premises, practicing his opening remarks. Even though I’d been the largest benign vocal polyp in the history of the UPMC Voice Center, he had long since forgotten my name but was eager to invite both Nathan and myself to the big party the next evening.
After all, there were pianos for sale. Steinways.
Nathan and I entered the showrooms. I sat down at a Boston Model M and, instantly, the accelerated action spoke to me. I coveted this piano. The price was hefty, yet reasonable. But, what about the outsized logo, with its kitschy font, all painted on in gold, big enough to be visible at fifteen feet? Something wasn’t right about this not so little detail.
Turned out the Bostons, Nathan said, contained all Steinway parts but weren’t built in the same factory. Or, something like that. They’d been created for those who could not afford the real thing. So, this explained the kitschy font. Too bad about all that.
We walked upstairs, to the mezzanine overlooking the big hall where the entertainment was to take place. Several more expensive Model Ls, various exotic finishes, and then, looking toward the stage, I saw it: Seven feet of glistening creme. This was a John Lennon Limited Edition, the salesman said, complete with signature, custom graphic on the titleboard and imposed signature by the famous Beatle. Even on sale at a significant 78K, this series was ticketed at a hundred grand.
My Young Chang had always been off white. I’d paid a modest $2400 back in the early 90’s, even then a good chunk of change for an upright. But, as most artists will attest, the central piece usually ends up being what everything else in the environment modifies to accommodate; and, true to form, I had decorated around this piano, in the cool, bright tones of the Pacific Coast.
Here, now, was the upscale version of my own familiar taste. In spite of Nathan’s, and the head salesman’s efforts to the contrary (“You want to convey your image as a professional; a white piano doesn’t do that for you”), I became fixated on the John Lennon Limited Edition. What did I care about image, after all? At my age? Everybody who mattered knew my playing, and those who didn’t weren’t going to be forming any opinion soon. Besides, a white piano would reflect the north light streaming in the windows. I was a pianist, but with the elevated tastes of a decorator. Smell me.
We left the party, talking all the way home about Steinway pianos. Nathan had been hired as institutional sales rep, in charge of marketing to colleges and universities. He’d brought me to the water, but it was up to me to take the drink.
Arriving home, I went online to find an affordable, white Steinway Model M. Sure enough, there was, apparently, just one, in all the world, in a showroom down south. I made contact. Their young man was quick to return my query with all the details. He was eager to sell this instrument; being white, there wasn’t a big call for such a piano, and he’d had it for awhile and wanted to give its position on the showroom floor to a different model. But, he said, it was a new Steinway, never been sold.
I was game. Could I put a hold on this piano? He agreed – for as much as I’d paid for the Young Chang. This should have been my first warning but, getting carried away was one of the joys of my oblivious life, and why stop now?
My elder brother and his family lived within a couple hours of this showroom. Close to Christmas, I was invited to spend New Year’s with them in Louisville. The brainstorm was in full gear; would my niece, a talented musician in her own right, agree to spend a day a bit further south, and go check out this piano?
When she said yes, I was overjoyed.
But, she ate her words a lot sooner than I would.
We spent the entire day in that showroom, mostly listening to the older gentleman who turned out to be my contact’s father-in-law. A southern patriarch, he was the icon of his own imagination. And, did he ever have stories to support all that, not the least of which the one about Andre Watts. And, as soon as I saw the Steinway Model M the color of heavy creme, he knew he had me.
I played this piano. The upper end was delicate and sweet. I loved it. The action, as expected, even and responsive. The mid-range seemed dull. It was the rug beneath, said the gentleman. Hardwood floors would bring all that out. I tested the bass. Bright enough, not as big as my Young Chang, and wasn’t this a Steinway? And, then, the first octave G; what was up with that jump? It’s called voicing, and this piano needed a little surgery.
The gentleman had a girl. She’d voiced Andre Watts’ piano for his Cleveland concert. He’d make a call. My niece and I could go to lunch, and then she’d be there.
By the time we left that showroom we’d been in it almost five hours, and my debit card had not worked in their system for the downpayment. Red flag, Number two. The salesmen were both on edge, as we headed out with a promise to return first thing the next day with a cashier’s check. God was watching me in disbelief, but all I could see was the elephant.
Back in our hotel room, I contacted my senior colleague at home who had experience building organs. He asked me for the serial number. When I gave it to him, the response was mildly astonishing; according to his research, at the Steinway & Sons website no less, the piano had been built in 2005.
This piano was ten years old.
And, the salesman had taken my $2500 down for a new Steinway.
What followed this disclosure would take another whole chapter, in fact maybe even a whole new blog which, by that time, would render all potential readers dehydrated tubers wondering how they ever got sucked into this load of stagnant waste, so I will condense: after admitting that the piano had been custom ordered by a celebrity musician who didn’t play the piano, said celebrity having reneged on his order when a competing piano brand offered him a similar instrument in exchange for endorsements, and being stuck with the rejected Steinway, and then promising to have his girl voice the piano for me to even out the jumps and bring up the mids, and promising to personally deliver the piano at no extra charge, and promising to order the performance bench, and being willing to wait until what would be a frigid winter was finally over, he took my cashier’s check for half the agreed upon price.
And, that price?
Having dealt him down from his original asking by 20K, and being convinced by the Table he showed me that this piano would appreciate in value as soon as it hit my music room floor, I settled on $57,9. Yes; this would represent a life savings in cash. But, I was investing, I told myself; and, what other “instruments” of the financial industry could do me better? Better to put my money where my fingers’ was.
I waited out the long, frigid, aforementioned winter. We set a delivery date. And, in the meantime, finally engaged my pre-frontal cortex.
How could a ten year old instrument qualify as new? And, how reliable was that Table of appreciating values? What about barometric and temperature changes over the years? And, those “occasional” visits the piano had made through the Tour of Southern Homes? How reliable was the intonation, anyway? My brother had mentioned that the dealer in Louisville said there’d been a history of cracking in those polyester finishes. So, what about the durability of that finish?
I started asking these questions. And, then I asked about cracks and scratches. The patriarch told me there were no new scratches, just the two I had seen.
What scratches had I seen? Nobody had shown me any! I’d found an irregularity in the finish, but not what he would then send me by way of photos. One, on the leg, the other on the lid. Oh, but he had a detail guy who did such beautiful work you could not tell a thing. And, he sent me photos of the repair. Blurry, at first, but apparently clear? These, coming a full day before the delivery date.
What would this less than pristine condition do to my investment value?
Maybe I was just sick of myself. Or, maybe the photos convinced me. Or, maybe I just needed to see it all for myself. I agreed to receive the piano on delivery, even though the seller said he’d be arriving at 8 am.
I didn’t realize, until the night before, that what he meant was: they’d be driving the previous day, to arrive by evening, stay in a hotel, and get up the next morning to show up at my door. I was astounded. Leaving a Steinway in a truck all night?? The temperatures had dropped to the high thirties. So, the piano would need to be tuned before I could even play it?
This morning, I was in the shower when I heard the pounding on my door. The time was 7:45 am. Now, anybody knows that every precious minute prior to a solid 9:30, I am still asleep. Nobody arrives EARLY at my front door before 10 am. This was the final red flag, waving high, and smelling like all kinda hooch.
The piano was slowly and meticulously brought into my house. As soon as the legs were set, I sat to play.
Instantly, I knew.
The mid range was still dull. And, the first bass G still jumped as badly as it did in the showroom. I played some Chopin. Why was the sound so muffled? Pads, he said. The piano needs to meet the floor, yet. Still selling, that guy, even up to the eleventh minute. Pads were pulled out, casters set. I launched Boccherini, full throttle. But, I knew.
The detail man had matched the hue, alright, but his brushwork on the spot where the lid opened was smudgy and noticeable. Oh; and, the performance bench was white. Snow white. Putting it with a creme colored piano made the whole scene look makeshift.
See, I’d wanted to have my own Steinway tech advisor on hand at delivery. But, the gentleman patriarch had balked, saying he didn’t take kindly to somebody judging his instrument without having seen it first. We’d volleyed until I could no longer blink my eyes. Now, I needed somebody, anybody who’d ever played piano, to sit at this thing and tell me whether I should put my life savings up against what I could no longer deny to be a resistant soundboard.
The dealer pulled out his best deck of cards. The laminated reptile skin ones, with the inlaid rubies. He said he’d go to breakfast, while I tried to locate my third party. I called five people; everybody was in end of year juries, or twenty minutes south. Time began to warp, like when the ER injected me with Compazine for a migraine.
I stared at the cashier’s check for the balance of payment. And, then, the phone finally rang. Bob, the piano tuner, took less than thirty seconds: Unquestionably. I’d never see that money again. Stop. Don’t. Go back, and start over.
With an eternity of relief, I hung up the phone. Preparing a gratuity of $200, I would offer this to the dealer – for his time, and the hauling fuel, and thank him for everything he’d said that was true, and wish him well.
His mask fell. His countenance reminded me of the psychotic eHarmony fiasco a few years back, the one who went ape shit over the color of a shirt. The man who could tell stories for four hours straight turned dark, like evil, and was silent. And, while they were packing up the piano, I set about to create a document of agreement for him to sign to insure that I got my half payment back.
When I presented this document to him I asked, in tones that were intended to acknowledge how much he likely needed his greedy money, just how many days he’d require to produce my check as refund. And, he was ready. All the years of wheeling, dealing, maybe even stealing, all culminating in a moment like this one. He had learned how to do many things, but he’d never learned to play the piano, and now it was his job to lift a bloated, two ton white elephant and carry it home to the South with his bare hands. And, he knew how to do that, too.
Seamlessly phrasing his response, without so much as a breath, he said: ” When I calculate the costs and fees, of the fuel, the hotel, the meals, and the crew’s hourly rate, less the 200 you gave me, I’ll send you a check.” And, he walked out. Got in his deluxe mobile cruiser, and drove away.
But, not after I called him desperate, and he called himself “just a salesman who doesn’t know anything” and I rang out: “But, you won’t be getting my life savings!”
That’s right. He would not sign the agreement.
And, right now, I have no proof that he will return my $28, 950 – in whole, or even in part.
Yes. He left with the white elephant, still holding my money. And, all I have are neighborhood witnesses that any of this even happened. Who knows? Maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up, and be living on another planet. Eight foot blue people, perhaps, with vertical pupils and two fingers, who can play the piano better than you.
But, there had better not be any more elephants. Not while I’m in the room.
(or online salesmen)
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo
4/28/15 Every word, exactly as it happened. Rights to the author, as evidence. Thanks.