Harvey Chronicles: The Garage Apartment
If you are familiar with garage apartments, especially those from decades ago, you know that available space is at a premium. Depending on the size, often they consist of only a stairwell, kitchenette, bath, and one larger room for any other use. The other uses can include bedroom, living room, dining room, office, and whatever else, and often several or all of these uses share the same physical space. This is the story of one such dwelling, but with a twist.
While shop foreman at a large Los Angeles piano dealership, I would sometimes be required to leave the shop and make a house call, instead of the regular outside tuner. These calls were invariably “special case” events that went beyond tuning, and required either more technical prowess, or more finesse in dealing with an owner or performer.
This time, the call involved a new Mason-Hamlin concert grand. At 9’4″ in length, it is not only one of the largest pianos made in the United States, but one of the heaviest. Properly regulated and voiced, there is no lack of power to acoustically reach the back row of concert halls.
This was the piano I was about to service, but at the time I had only been told the owner’s name and address, and the brand/model of piano — not the piano’s environment.
Once on the right street, I began looking at house numbers. Then I heard a piano being played! Slowly continuing to drive forward, the sound became progressively louder. I gave up looking for house numbers and used the undeniable characteristic sound of the Mason-Hamlin as a homing method.
There, three houses away from where I first heard the piano, at the far reaches of a driveway, and behind the main house was a free-standing, single-car garage apartment. The garage door was open, but the garage was empty. Yet, the sound was exactly as if the piano was in the garage.
I exited my service vehicle, grabbed my service kit, approached the door and rang the bell. Nothing. I knocked on the door. No response. Finally I checked the door, found it unlocked, and climbed the narrow stairs. At the top landing, I shouted. (Since this was California, shouting was appropriate. Had it been in the South, I would have “hollered”.)
“Oh, hi!”, said the now startled young man who immediately stopped playing. “Ive been expecting you. Come on in.”
As I made my way through the tiny kitchenette to the “piano room”, and knowing about the piano I was about to service, I could only wonder what contortions the piano movers must have gone through while trying to navigate the same path I was now taking — only they had an additional half-ton of expensive piano in tow.
Once there, I was momentarily unable to concentrate on the task at hand, still overwhelmed by the entire scene. Needless to say, the piano dominated the room. Strike that. For all practical purposes, the piano was the room. At least now I realized why there was no need to bother with house numbers.
[Technical details: It’s true that there is a different sound from a closed piano versus one with the top open. This is due to the player’s proximity to the strings, and the subtleties and nuances they create, as opposed to the lack of those characteristics by the top being closed. However, the raw power comes from underneath on a grand piano. Given the opportunity, prop open the lid of a grand and stick your head as far towards the middle of the strings as possible. Let someone else play a short selection. Loud, but tolerable. Now, stop the player (if you can), crawl underneath, with your head approximately in the middle of the soundboard, and have the player begin again. Chances are you won’t be there long, but the experience will be a lasting one!]
During my approach to his home, all that sound energy was being directed to the floor. Since the floor was, in effect, the same as the ceiling for the garage, the floor/ceiling, in fact the entire garage was acting as a “directional sound reinforcement chamber” (don’t bother – I made up that expression) that funneled the sound up the driveway, between two adjacent homes (thus extending the tunnel/funnel), until the sound finally poured out into the street and eventually dissipated several houses away.
So far, there had been three “overwhelmings”, and I had yet to touch the piano. At the moment, I was so involved with “seeing” all this transfer of energy in my mind, I didn’t come back to reality until the owner (intentionally) cleared his throat to get my attention.
Instead of responding with anything remotely intelligent, my mouth opened and I heard the words “Uh, where do you sleep?” fall out. So much for finesse!
He pointed underneath the piano. I had already seen what could have been blankets or other bedding material, but concluded that those were there to help quieten the beast that was both physically and acoustically too large for the room. Not surprisingly, that power hadn’t helped the plaster on the walls and ceiling either!
The man began to explain that his dream was to own – specifically – a Mason & Hamlin concert grand, and preferably sooner than later in life. He was currently single and employed, but decided that he could either have a larger place to live and other niceties, or, he could live a more austere lifestyle and have his dream come true sooner. He chose the simpler lifestyle, and what I thought were sound baffles or insulation was actually a sleeping “pallet”. Yes. He slept under the piano, and didn’t complain! His “dream” was within touching distance whether awake or … in bed.
Except for the part about it being his regular routine, I can understand sleeping under a grand. More than once, although not tired or sleepy, I have crawled under a grand to adjust or repair something. This means no pillow, and only carpet (if any) separating me from a hardwood, tiled, or concrete floor. Next thing I knew, I would awaken from a catnap. I’ve heard of “power napping”, but those are intentional. Conversely, passing out under a piano is somehow magical!
Epilogue: With all these memories, I have absolutely no recollection of the work performed on the Mason & Hamlin that day.