Piano, Privilege, and Being Put in My Place

By Michelle Gonzales

Once the husband and I realized that our son was serious about piano, wasn’t going to give it up after two weeks like he did tot-soccer, we got him one for free. It turns out that privileged folks in the Bay Area give them away to make space in their houses, and other privileged folks pay $200 to have them moved by a piano moving company. That’s right we paid $200 to move a free piano.

vintage-piano-jill-battagliaI’ve always admired those stories where some little kid walks up to a piano and starts playing a song by ear, or that one about the child who composed her first song at the age of five. No matter that it was probably a pretty shitty song, I’ve always admired those stories. While many will tell me that he got a late start, my son began playing the piano when he was only seven. He’s thirteen now, but it only occurred to me recently that these stories are about privilege. You don’t just walk up to a piano and start playing a song by ear, or composing on the piano at the age of five unless you own one, unless you grew up listening to music, classical or jazz, and not watching reruns of Bonanza on a twelve inch black and white TV.

Once the husband and I realized that our son was serious about piano, wasn’t going to give it up after two weeks like he did tot-soccer, we got him one for free. It turns out that privileged folks in the Bay Area give them away to make space in their houses, and other privileged folks pay $200 to have them moved by a piano moving company. That’s right we paid $200 to move a free piano. Moving a piano seems an almost impossible task, but I learned that that all you need is a handmade, twelve-by-twelve inch wooden dolly with a piece of shag carpet nailed to the top. After rolling it out of the van, the movers put the piano on this wooden dolly, and wheeled it up to our house. The two men, neither of whom was particularly muscular, lifted the piano up the three steps to my house, managed it around the bend at the doorway, and up the last step. The large, dark wood, upright piano with its yellow keys like old chipped teeth fit in just right with our scuffed, deco style dining room table.

Since I grew up in a small town on welfare in a house that looked more like a shack, with its tin roof and make-shift rooms, I never thought I’d own, or even live in house with a dining room and hard wood floors, a house with space for a piano, and I never imagined I’d own a piano, not even a hand-me-down, though I loved the idea of having a child who played one. Growing up Chicana in a hick town, piano seemed unattainable. They cost a lot of money and you couldn’t learn to play piano at school like you could the clarinet or trumpet. I played the flute; borrowed one from the school until my mom could afford to rent-to-own. When I got my flute, I decorated the case with unicorn stickers and carried it to school everyday by the slender leather handle, feeling fancy, and glad that I hadn’t decided to play trombone.

As an adult, I’ve had many wild piano playing fantasies, me playing the theme to Bizet’s “Carmen” in a red dress. I even tried learning to play alongside my son, but I don’t remember wanting to learn when I was young. I know now it’s because piano was not an option. I suppose that my appreciation for piano, reading, and writing, the finer things in life, can be attributed to my sister’s dad, David. David was one of those crazy geniuses, a man who literally suffered from schizophrenia, a man who played every piano he saw. He wrote poetry too. For some reason, my mom’s friend James Garcia had a piano in his doublewide trailer. Before all the adults drank too much beer and smoked too much pot; before someone got mad and yelled at someone else, David would play the piano, a different song each time. I’d sit on the couch nearby and watch in awe as his fingers glided over the keys to a song he had locked somewhere in his memory. Watching him play, I came to understand that David had grown up differently than we had, a psychologist for a father, new clothes, his own room, and lessons, but he never talked about any of that because none of it made him happy.

And now, in spite of my background, I’m the privileged one. My son has his own room, a drawer full of skinny jeans, guitars, an amp, a piano, and lessons. It’s a strange thing to admit, a bit disorienting after internalizing shame about being Mexican and collecting welfare, after sharing a room with my brother, and having only one pair of warm tights in winter, but I’d be a fool not to admit it and a fraud. Still, I weird out sometimes, thinking about how different my son’s childhood is from mine, from his father’s dirt floors in Mexico, how we can afford instruments, private lessons, and jazz concerts, the means to support his dream. And because suffering is cool, and having privilege is not, I feel bad sometimes, decadent, for being proud of my son who plays jazz piano instead of punk rock like I did, for owning a home in the Bay Area, and being married, for having all kinds of stability that I never knew growing up. Then sometimes because I’m Mexican, people say things like, “good for you,” when they learn about my success, like I’m a child, and that’s weird too.

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