Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spotlight On a Job

As many of you may know, I have held many jobs over the years. In putting together the memories and details for the family to have long after I'm gone, many stories are told. This is one of them. 


Everything I know about a piano I learned from moving them. Well, except how to play. I learned that when I was a kid. I took piano lessons from a guy with really bad breath named Harry Slocum. He chain smoked, too. I’d go to a one hour lesson once a week. I learned how to play a song called Canadian Sunset. I played Autumn Leaves in an arpeggio style. My Mother loved to hear me play. Other than that, I can do a few things, but I am not at all any kind of accomplished pianist.
Now moving them is another thing all together. I went to work for a furniture moving company in suburban Chicago in September of 1967, right after the summer after high school graduation. Yep, 45 years ago. I was a laborer and worked loading and unloading trucks with people’s furniture. Some folks had pianos and if they did, we moved them.
Uprights, spinets, consoles and grands of every size. I mean, did you know that there are butterfly grands, baby grands, parlor grands and concert grands? And don’t forget the square grand piano. All of them are heavy. Moving them took some knowledge of how to use the specialized moving equipment made for that one purpose, moving a piano.
This is no technical journal though. It’s a few memories about some of the unique piano moves I’ve been on. I worked for a few moving companies a long time ago besides the one I started at when I was 18. I also had three piano moving businesses of my own. One in Chicago, one in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, MN and one in rural Minnesota in Pine and Kenebec counties.
The hardest pianos to move are the uprights. They are big and very heavy. Usually, people who own them and called a moving company moved them from a third floor apartment to another third floor apartment. In fact, most folks who didn’t have stairs to negotiate moved themselves. It was the gravity that puzzled them, and a turn in the stairway was doubly confusing. This is where we excelled.
As a business, the calls came to move the old uprights out of the basement. So many of these fine pianos were relegated to the cellar and pounded on by the children. They gathered dust and dirt and warped in the moist humid conditions. Like people, they got older, sedentary, and gained weight. When it was in the way, people would call the movers and want the hulk out of the basement. They didn’t care where we delivered it. They wanted the movers to get rid of it.
At the old Jackson Storage and Van Company in Chicago, there was a warehouse on a large parcel of land way out in the sticks. Behind this warehouse was a yard, or a field actually, and we’d put the old pianos there. On the other hand, there were people who cherished the thought of having a fine musical instrument in the house and when they moved, they simply had to hire someone to make sure the job got done correctly.
One of the businesses I had was moving pianos for a man that took them as donations. He fixed them up, refinished them and rebuilt the intricate mechanisms and sold them. I did all the moving in and out of that shop in Minneapolis. Since it was a non profit venture and the proceeds of the piano sales went to charitable organizations, this guy wanted me and my helper to work for hardly any pay.
I did a few for free, and many for a reduced rate, but It was a small business doing a hard job that required equipment, a truck and a couple of boneheads with muscles. The guy who helped me the most when I was hauling pianos for The Rose of Sharon Piano Shop was a fellow named Randy. Randy lived in the apartment building next door to where I lived. He worked as an auto mechanic and still does, last time I heard, down in Phoenix.
Randy had a thick black beard. I did too. We unofficially called our company The Smith Brothers Movers, like the cough drop guys. Earlier, in Chicago, another friend and coworker had a side business moonlighting as furniture movers. We called our business Acme Movers. Our slogan was Call Acme, half normal rates. It should have been half normal guys will come to your house and move your crap.
Anyway, back to the pianos. I had a regular day job and so did Randy. We’d get calls and schedule the piano moving in the evening and on Saturdays. After dinner, we’d get in the pickup truck with the protective pads and equipment and head out. It was a usual occurrence to go into someones basement, move an upright piano into the truck and drop it off at The Rose of Sharon Piano Shop and put a twenty dollar bill in each of our pockets and some gas in the 1968 Chevy C20. There might have been some beer involved and for sure a joint or two.
My brother helped me on many occasions too. This one time we were asked to move a small grand piano from somewhere in southern Minnesota to a cabin up north. It was a lot of miles. We loaded it on a small utility trailer and pulled it with my 1967 black Chevy Blazer. 
We were within a mile of this cabin and the damn wheel fell off the trailer due to a failed wheel bearing. I managed to get the rig pulled over to the side of the road, but since we were delivering to a cabin out in the middle of nowhere, we had to be resourceful as to how to finish the job. We ended up putting the cabinet of the piano cross ways on the tailgate of that old Blazer and the legs, bench and lair in the back seat. My brother used a thick manila bull rope and wrapped it around his hands and wrists. He held the piano case against the back of the truck. He put his feet out against the interior of the cargo area as bracing as we drove to that cabin. He looked like a cowboy riding a team of horses. We laugh hard when we recall the event.
When we pulled up and the woman that hired us saw her pride and joy on that tailgate her jaw dropped a mile. We explained what had happened and set up the baby grand in her living room. All was fine and we got paid. But we were pretty close to having to buy her a new piano. If it had dropped off the trailer or the tailgate, it would have been smashed to smithereens.
I know what smithereens looks like when it comes to pianos. One time on a job, we were moving some folks and they had to vacate a third story apartment. They didn’t want this piano, but they had to move it out. We saw a fire escape down the hall and gave that thing a tumble, end over end, to the alley. It crashed and made a great sound like the end of a Schubert concert, key of C. To be honest, I don’t remember what we did with the twisted broken splintered pieces of wood. At least we didn’t have to carry the piano down three flights of stairs.
My own good fortune happened in 1970. I had just returned from military service and got my old job back, moving furniture. I was put on a move job helping an over-the-road driver load for a long distance move. The people wanted to get rid of a lot of furniture and did so. But they still had this baby grand piano that no one would buy. Time was running out. It was moving day.
It ended up with me buying the piano for $80.00. Not the $3000. it was probably worth, but eighty bucks. The driver loaded it at the end and dropped it off at my apartment on his way out of town.  He helped me move it in and set it up. Now, I had a grand piano, a chair, a large oak desk and a rug in the living room. When Mrs. Spadoman met me, that’s where I was living. She actually thought I could play the piano. Maybe that’s what lured her in.
I moved furniture and pianos in particular on and off for many years. I could go on and on and tell piano moving stories, or moving stories in general. Every day different people, a different place, in various forms of disarray. Some people were slobs, some meticulous neat freaks. Some had a lot of stuff, some had but a few worldly possessions.
But it was the piano that caught the attention of the mover. In the assessment of what was to be moved as we walked through the house or apartment, if there was a piano, we discussed where it would go in the load and how we’d move it, through which door, or down what hallway.
I had become so proficient at it, that one time I wagered another coworker that I could move a piano up two flights of stairs by myself. He took the bet and the pre-move discussion assembled a few onlookers at the bottom of the stairway. I was young, strong and stupid.
I laid down one of those padded blankets that movers use and picked up one end of that piano. I lifted the piano up on its end and dragged the blanket across the floor, sliding the piano to the edge of the stairs. From there I placed the edge of the piano on stair number one and pushed it over. When the other edge was on a pad on a stair higher up, I tumbled the piano, end over end. Now, the top edge of the side of the piano was on the top step, on a padded surface. I did this over and over and got up both flights of stairs. No nicks or scratches. When I did the last flip it was onto a four wheel moving dolly. I rolled the piano down the hallway and into the customer’s apartment.
The other guy was flabbergasted and didn’t have enough money to pay the bet. I collected eventually, but it was worth the money if he hadn’t paid me to remind him of my superior skills and strength day in and day out. If he could only see me now as I limp from my sore hips and watch me grimace as I hoist my nine month old Grand daughter up in my arms, disregarding the ache in my shoulders and back, not to mention the heart matters.
Moving pianos makes those ice road truckers look like candy asses. After all, all they do is sit down and drive. My youngest daughter is moving at the end of the month. I’ll go down and be in the audience. Her sister and Mom will help her do the moving. They are a bunch of tough gals.
If you’ve gotten to the end of this tale, I applaud you. Not much to write about. After all, it was just a job, and most all of you have moved something some time or another. This conversation should have been done in a bar with a half dozen people sitting around swilling their favorite alcoholic beverage. Arms waving, voice crescendo up and down for drama and effect, laughs and remarks along with a few patronizing flexes of my drooping biceps.
In any event, have a great weekend. Thanks for coming to the Round Circle.



rebecca said...

good morning round circle!
you have mesmerized me with your memories once again! damn, you can spin a great story and apparently "twirl" a piano upstairs single handed. love the candy asses description and your tough gals!
this story is a round circle in so many real life ways.
thanks for ending with the tender vision of you holding your grand daughter. you have a lifetime of great moves in life, your most stunning accomplishment, your capacity to love.
so honored to be in your circle.

Dimple said...

Well, Joe, that is a good tale. I love good tales, and I loved your description of moving the piano upstairs by yourself.
Personally, I am intimidated by the need to move large/awkward/heavy objects. I would hire you, if I didn't have a husband and brothers-in-law!


Jeannie said...

Well, I loved your piano moving stories. I play badly. But I played an old upright grand in the back of a moving pickup truck driving on a frozen lake. There. Ice road and piano moving together! It was the piano from our cottage when an old guy we all loved had agreed to take it - probably to give to the Indian reserve community centre or something when we built the cottage into the house - to make room for the little apartment sized piano from the house in the city. That same piano is in my living room - an old friend's family was in the piano moving/tuning business and I paid him to go get it - he spent the day at the lake with his kid and brother - reminiscing the good old days.

I suppose it would have been before your time as a mover, but my grandfather sent a grand piano down to my Aunt's in Mt. Prospect - they had to take out a wall to the basement to get it in (and she didn't even know it was coming - they showed up at her door with it). The wall was rebuilt afterward. The piano is still in her basement. At least I got to see it.

SkippyMom said...

Great stories Spado, especially your brother holding onto the rope/piano for God & country and you flipping that piano down the stairs. I would've happily paid money to see that but suspect I would've never bet against you doing it. :)

Hope you are having a relaxing Sunday. It's nice to see you. :)

GYamato said...

Amazing piano stories; amazing life.
Thanks for sharing, Spadoman.