Unloading the Piano Weighing Me Down and Not Earning Its Keep

by Sari Botton

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 making rational decisions.

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 apartment. 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 the instrument that had been in my family for three generations; the one I’d learned on (make that “learned”), and, mercifully for my neighbors, played infrequently.

This lightning bolt struck me in the 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 $700/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 old worn-out furnishings, feel new again.

There was a good deal of buzz about feng shui at the time. I was skeptical of its promise of better living through the very 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 an assignment to write about it, which would likely mean a free preliminary consultation, or a paycheck big enough to cover one.

Enter Carol, the sixtyish CFSP — Certified Feng Shui Practitioner — from the Upper East Side, dressed as if this were a lunch appointment at La Grenouille, and who clearly wasn’t used to visiting clients in run down tenements without elevators. 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 on hooks affixed to lumpy plaster walls, too many threadbare flea market-y decorative appointments; 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,” she said, echoing the guy from Apartment Therapy, whom I’d interviewed for the article the day before — who in turn was echoing a palm reader who’d told me a few years back, “You hold onto things for too long.”

“Things things,” I asked, “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.

“If you’re having a really hard time letting something go,” she allowed, “put it aside in an I’ll Decide Later box.”

But how do you put a piano in an I’ll Decide Later box?

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 charities, packs of photographs, notebooks and other miscellanea.

“Do you play?” she asked.

“Sort of…?”

“How often?”

“Not often enough,” I admitted, my eyes cast down.

Wait — what? I thought after the words left my lips. According to whom? To whom was I apologizing? Who in the world, in their right mind, cared whether or not I 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 the lessons?

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 really want to and was afraid to admit it — from studying music to donating to The Red Cross to finally putting my photos into albums to writing a book… My sentimentality was bound up with guilt.

I had to get that thing out of there. But was I ready to part with it for good? That seemed sudden and drastic. I wasn’t sure. So 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. I deliberately made it expensive for myself to retrieve it; I had a strong inkling it would in fact be good feng shui to clear the thing out of my space, that energy would flow better throughout my life without that clunky, imposing obstacle, but that sentimentality might get the better of me once again if it were too easily returned.

In a short amount of time, there were 10 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 the stairs. But once they were gone, it felt good, for the first time since I’d moved to the city after college, to reclaim the strip of precious Manhattan square-footage the piano had occupied.

Months passed and I didn’t miss it. 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 energy was flowing where it hadn’t been. Soon, I’d meet my husband, and we’d play music together, too.

That would happen a couple of months later, after I took my space clearing initiative a step further and said goodbye to the piano for good. The Juilliard student called one day to let me know he’d accepted a job with an orchestra in the Midwest. “You can come get the piano now,” he said. But after trying out piano-less living for a little over a year, I knew I didn’t want it anymore.

Back it went on Craigslist, this time for sale. The Juilliard student let me show it out of his apartment one weekend. It wasn’t long before I had a taker, a young guy who played in some kind of 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 friend, sentimentality, and I burst into tears. The Juilliard student grabbed a tissue for me.

“It’s okay,” the young buyer said consolingly, and then tentatively, “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 — you don’t really want or need, and which long ago stopped warranting the valuable space they hogged.
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 apartment.

Sari Botton is a writer who lives in Kingston, NY. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY (http://goodbyetonycbook.com) , and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY (http://neversaygoodbyenycbook.com). She tweets at@saribotton.

Photo: Alex

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