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 fogey like 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 was 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. The only sound coming from the piano these days 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 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 unusual 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 New York, 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 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. 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 No More Mister Nice Blog


bad Jim said...

A wonderful essay. I just wanted to let you know that the legs come off a piano pretty easily; they'd be impossible to move otherwise. A few months ago I saw it done, and it was surprisingly low-tech.

The keyboard and hammers are also fairly easily removed as a unit for service off-site. It's as though after two hundred years they were designed for easy maintenance.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Crank !

Excellent metaphor...
But I sadly think that, the more ancient our country history is, the more pitiful its pianos wrecks.
Poor "Great" Britain, poor France...

Comrade Misfit said...

When I was a child, I remember hearing sold folks sigh and say "oh, to be young again."

It's a sentiment my mother has never uttered. Nor I.

Patricia said...

All because of a busted up piano. That's quite an essay. I hate to say I enjoyed it, but it was playing my tune. I'm not old yet, I hope I live to see this turn around. There will be an American Spring complete with an anthem. An amazing essay Crank, but, it ain't over till the fat lady sings!