Friday, August 29, 2014

The river, the bike path, the nation, and the dead piano on the beach – an essay about a bad omen

Found on the bank of the East River, in lower Manhattan, at low tide.
The East River isn’t really a river. It’s a natural salt water canal between Long Island and the Island of Manhattan, fed by tidal movements from both its north and south ends. The river sometimes flows north to south, sometimes south to north, and, oddly, sometimes in both directions at once, with the direction of shore currents contradicting currents in the center of the river.

There’s a bicycle path along some of that River in New York. It starts a few blocks away from my home and ends near Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan. It’s not much of a ride for serious cyclists – a bit short of ten miles to the end and back  – but that’s enough during the summer, when days are long and warm, for an old man fogey me to burn off some tension at the end of the work day and get my heart re-started before dinner.

When the tide recedes, the river reveals a few feet of sandy beach in lower Manhattan, along with whatever jetsam the tide has dragged in, or passers-by have thrown in. About six weeks ago I noticed something that out of the ordinary. Sometimes it’s plainly there. Other times, when the tide is very high, it vanishes for a while under the water.

Yeah, that’s it in the picture. A dead piano. Its legs are gone. Some of its keys are gone. Much of its sounding board is gone. Its strings are gone. I’m sure barnacles and sea worms are gnawing at its wooden belly. But part of the sounding board, and just about all of its pins, and its case minus the lid are still there. Even so, the only sound coming from the piano is the shushing of waves picking their way among the remaining pieces.

I don’t know how the dead piano got there, unless somebody dropped it off the Brooklyn Bridge, which is nearly overhead. Or unless someone threw it off a boat at high tide. Nor do I know what music the piano once played. Did it accompany a symphony orchestra? Did little girls in linen dresses sit in a parlor a century ago, practicing playing scales on it? Did a dilettante pick out popular tunes of the day on it? Was it a talented jazz musician’s piano? Did it accompany a violinist or a vocalist? Was it used, once upon a time, to play ragtime tunes in a whorehouse?

What’s with the usual color of the paint on its case? Why were its legs amputated, like a diabetic’s near the end of his life?  And most of all, why would some vandal  want to take a valuable instrument, a thing beautiful to the eye and capable of delighting the ear, and toss it in a river as if it were a Styrofoam cup or a worn out tire?

Forgive me now while I leap aboard a metaphor. I admit, it’s a complex and perhaps gravely shaky metaphor. It could crash and kill the essay. All the same, I’ll try to ride it. 

We – you, and I, and also greedy business owners, and judges, and lobbyists, and politicians, and public affairs strategists, and inert or brain dead voters, and lazy administrators and terrified employees and civil servants – we are allowing the United States to become a dead piano. 
We had a functioning, prosperous democracy here for a couple of centuries. It had its ups and downs,. It had grave faults. It often played discordant notes. But was also capable of great societal harmony, and  over time its performances were slowly but increasingly in tune with human decency and the pursuit of happiness. 

At home, each generation would do better economically than its predecessors. Each was a generation of pioneers – not only in terms of exploring territory, but in terms of exploring knowledge. Life expectancies were extended. “Impossible” marvels were achieved, from building bridges with foundations in the deep and swiftly-moving rivers of Manhattan, to putting people on the moon. The nation’s educational level rose. Colleges and universities sprouted across the nation. College, for a while, became not an impossible dream but a commonplace achievement for the many. A simple working family, possibly for the first time in history, could live comfortably, eat well, own its own home, and possess a few of the luxuries of life. The nation invented new art forms, from the Broadway musical to the cinema. And I’m only scratching at the surface of American achievement.

True, in  some matters of social justice, most notably racial justice, we lagged seriously. Nevertheless, we eliminated, slavery. We eliminated, at least for a while, Jim Crow laws like those that imposed a poll tax on voters and that segregated accommodations and schools. 

For a while.

And then the vandals began to mass against us. For some reason, they didn’t like the music of a high-achieving Democratic republic. They began changing the tune. 

Prosperity? The vandals decided that the wrong people had it. The most prosperous people could never get enough of wealth – so our nation, in defiance of logic and justice and simple decency, began to give it all to them.

Science? Medicine? The arts? Even critical infrastructure? They cost money. We put a lid on them.

The vandals are on the march. They control the Supreme Court. They completely control one house of Congress and have rendered the second house inharmonious and nearly dysfunctional. The vandals infest our state capitals. Their mission is not to create but to destroy. Destroy health care. Destroy public education. Destroy justice. Destroy social equity. Destroy the environment. Destroy even the smooth functioning of government. 

The vandals, the barbarians, the thugs are sawing off the legs of the piano with their power saws. And once the legs are off off, they want to throw the legless body off  the boat or the bridge. And far too many of us either accept this passively, or cheer them on.

How much longer before America itself becomes another dead piano on the beach?                       

Perhaps, if I’m lucky, I won’t live to see it. Things like the condition of America make me glad to be an old man.

Cross-posted at The New York Crank


Yastreblyansky said...

Beautiful. The picture too. And very cranky.

The New York Crank said...

Apologies. This thing contains more than a couple of editing errors – not that most editors worth their salt would let me get away with the central metaphor at all, but that's another story.

Most of the edits refer to my putting down two descriptors "old man" and "fogey" for example, and then failing to decide on one and take the other out. "Practicing" and "playing" scales is another example.

If I could get into Steve's blog and fix this stuff once I've posted it, I would. But I can't. So I'm stuck with it. Unfortunately, so are you.

Hey, iet's Labor Day weekend, so fuhgedabouddid. Let's all stop sweating this stuff and go to the beach. (But not the East River beach. You really don't want to try swimming there.)

Yours crankily,
The New York Crannk

The New York Crank said...

Thanks, Yastrebylansky.

Crankily (etc)

BKT said...

I think the metaphor works (though prefacing it with the discovery of the actual discarded piano and the photo was essential).

Well said, Crank. Enjoy your Labor Day.

Never Ben Better said...

Well done. I too am glad I'm too old to live through the Ragnarok I see coming.

Victor said...

I'm 56, and sick of this country, too.
The majority of us have lost the Class War.
The .00001% rule.
The game is rigged.
We're all fucked.

I say break out the slow tumbrel's, and rusty and dull guillotines - because some people just don't deserve a quick and merciful death.

Aunt Snow said...

Why were its legs amputated, like a diabetic’s near the end of his life?

You remove a grand piano's legs when you move it - they come off easily, a couple of bolts each leg. In the 1980s I was responsible for moving a white 9' grand around the country for a year with a theatrical show.

It was probably lost in transit some how.

Great essay. BTW.

Belvoir said...

i really enjoyed this, very thoughtful. Thanks, Crank!

Ken Filmer said...

Enjoyable essay, thanks. I am not surprised, though, to see a discarded piano. Pianos take up space, a rare commodity in NYC, especially if there are no piano players sharing the space. Over the years I have seen many ads offering to give pianos away free to anyone who will come get them. Many of those are old and dilapidated, but there are occasional gems to be had. Which does nothing to diminish your metaphor.