THE FIRST LAUGH
Recently, someone pointed me towards an online humor carnival. I didn’t throw anything into it, but it made me think about funny moments.
And one of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen personally was such a minor slapsticky moment, it didn’t seem worth it. It was a time when my girlfriend at the time walked full into a glass door. Did you ever see a Star Trek Blooper where Shatner charges into one of those Enterprise doors, expecting the stage hands to pull them aside in time for him to lunge through, and they don’t? Shatner makes a thwock sound and bounces back five or six feet. This was exactly like that except funnier, and I fell over laughing helplessly.
Well, for some reason that girlfriend didn’t immediately drop me as an inconsiderate buffoon; several years later after getting married, graduating, getting a job and finding a real apartment, it was a good time to show how much she meant to me; it was time to find The Perfect Christmas Gift.
My wife constantly lamented her family’s inability to afford a piano as a child. As a good husband, one only has to mention something 3 or 4 hundred times before I clue into it, so I struck upon the inspired idea of giving her a piano for Christmas. A Piano!
….uuhhh, how does one go about procuring a piano?
Let’s start with the Yellow Pages! (pre-internet, kidsos, keep up here.) Ahh. A place right downtown called the Piano Gallery. Good place to start. Could I BE a bigger idiot? It was a friggin’ GALLERY. With Pianos, beautiful, gorgeous pianos of spectacular finish and epic, gorgeous tone; pianos that could make you weep. Both kinds: Grand and Baby Grand. Reconditioned, starting at eight thousand dollars. Whoops! Maybe this idea won’t be going anywhere after all. Let’s look at calendars.
Well, after puttering around a couple of mall-style stores that seemed to specialize in automated piano-like organs with automatic beats aimed at little old ladies to jazz up rhumba night at the retirement home, I resorted to the For Sale ads. (These are like an analog version of Craig’s List for you kidsos. newspapers used to have them. Ask your grandfather what a newspaper was.) Finally I found an upright for sale right in the sweet spot of my price range. Oddly enough, when I came to look at it, the address was…a waterbed store? Weirder and weirder. I went in and asked for Mark, who was apparently the manager.
He took me back to the loading dock, and I asked… “Why are you selling it ? And… why in a waterbed store?” Mark replied that he had moved to town recently, their condo did not have room, and so it had to go.
The piano was an upright made in Chicago by Camp & Company around 1914; the wood had warm golden finish that was soft and deep. There were some carved and applied wood details, that were more of a crude craftsman style; they imparted an unassuming , almost home built character. The ivory on the keys was yellowed, but smooth, evidence of its age and the thousands of fingers that had played it. As an architect, I am always sensitive to the way built items age and acquire historic patina; the instrument appealed to me on an aesthetic level.
He asked me if I wanted to play it, and I replied that it would be a gift for my wife, that I didn’t really know how to play and knew little of pianos. So he sat on the railing of the loading dock and pounded out some boogie-woogie, and a little christmas music. Although the instrument was maybe a bit out of tune, it had a lively, ebullient sound. (Later I found that through dumb luck, we had acquired an instrument that was well built with a nearly-intact soundboard and a serviceable action). It was obvious that he loved the instrument, it sounded passable to my tin ears, and I said it was a deal.
Now here’s where things get intricate, and I maybe tried to be too tricksy. I wanted to deliver it on Christmas eve, which was a Saturday this year. Mark said he would be able to work with that on two conditions: First, it would have to be in the morning, because he would have to open the store to get it; and second, that I pay him in cash, because he and his family were leaving for a Holiday trip that day. This seemed workable to me; how vainly optimistic one can be!
I arranged for a couple of friends, Mike, Rory and Jack to help me out, and spent several days congratulating myself on achieving the Perfect Gift. I was just counting chickens, friends and guinea pigs, when the eggs were alligator.
Saturday Morning, Christmas Eve. My wife got up and needed to do some last minute shopping; how perfect! I could barely keep from laughing and telling all in glee as I kissed her goodbye. My helpers were due to be here by 10 AM, so I had to get to U-Haul to get a truck. I have no compunction about mentioning the company here; you will soon see why.
The U-Haul store was a bit busy, but they had assured me they had a truck when I called. They certainly did: a nineteen foot delivery truck. NINETEEN feet. For a single piano. Of course, the advertised $19.95 rate was not available for this truck. The small truck with the $19.95 banner parked right next to this one? Not serviced; not available. Oh well, small concern, considering the cost of the gift. Gimme the keys. Took the truck home, to wait for my helpers.
10:45. By now, i started calling them. Rory? no answer. Jack? No Answer. Mike? Finally an answer! Hoarsely, “I don’t think I’m gonna be able to make it….” Rory? Still no answer. Jack calls back. Jack! He wasn’t going to be able to make it either, unless we could be sure he’d be done by 2 PM. Oh, no problem! Come on over! Okay, fine, after you’ve had some coffee. I didn’t tell you to go drinking last night.
So, Jack and I -just half of the movers I had anticipated as necessary – finally got back into the truck by about quarter after eleven, and got on the road.
Hah. Fooled you. It wasn’t that easy, of course. The truck wouldn’t start. Not a dead battery; it was a gap in the flywheel. For you non-gearheads, this meant that the starter would just spin away without turning the engine at all. I looked at Jack; he looked at me. Ummm. After fooling around for ten minutes, Jack had a brainstorm – he disengaged the gear shift, which moved the flywheel – just enough – that the starter caught and the engine started. Wooo! Here we go. Down the highway, back behind the waterbed store and back up to the loading dock, killing the truck and running in to meet Mark, who was very impatient by now.
Now go back and read that last sentence again, and see if you can catch our mistake. Let the adventure begin.
I went in and paid Mark, and while Jack and I were securing the piano, Mark closed the door and hit the road. Jack and I laughed to see the piano – just an upright – sitting in that cavernous truck, roped to the side. We could have fit a whole CAR in there and never touched the piano.
Back to the cab, ready to go. As you may have guessed, the starter was whiffing again. We tried the gearshift trick, but this time were not so lucky, it didn’t help. The truck was in a loading dock depression, so we couldn’t push it . Now Jack and I looked at each other and had little in the way of ideas. You know, keep in mind that at this time cell phones were bigger than bricks and cost thousands of dollars.
Settle in now, this is getting interesting.
Hey, there’s a phone by the gas station across the street. (station closed, of course). But who to call? I can’t call my wife, besides the awful giveaway, she’s not home. Try calling U-Haul? They’re no longer open. Isn’t there an emergency number? If I ran U-Haul, it would be plastered all over the inside of the cab. After half an hour of searching, we finally find it, in the small print of the Operations Manual. So I give it a call.
And get an operator. In Arizona. Who wonders whether it’s cold in Wisconsin. Ha-ha, yes, and we’ve got snow. And I’m standing outside in an open phone booth, trying to get help for the broken-ass truck that I rented from a Local U-hauler. Ha-ha, yes it’s not a good day for it, is it? Enough with the levity, let’s start discussing how you’re going to help me. You what? You need to call the local 24 hour service, who will get back to me? Fuck me sideways with a christmas tree, did I mention I am standing outside an open phone booth? By a highway? Oh, yes, please do try and get him to call as quickly as possible.
I run back to the truck to tell Jack that I got somebody, but now I need to wait for a return call.
And run back across the road to wait. It starts to snow.
While I’m waiting, Jack comes over to give his sister a call. It is now after 1 PM, and he’s got to get on the road somehow. After he calls, we notice a bar across the highway that appears to be open. Hey, just the thing! A nice hot drink, some brandy certainly, maybe a snack… we can call Arizona Lady back and give her the bar’s number. This works! We dodge the traffic to get across and tumble through the door, savoring the warmth and the welcoming smells of a tavern … aaaaahhhh.
“Hey, gents! Can we do something quick for ya? We’re closing down.”
Gaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh…… A quick explanation, and no, we can’t hang around even if they’re closed, whattaya, nuts? Gotta get home to the family!! So – it’s back to the phone booth. And the snow.
BYPASS ON THE BYPASS
Now, this is the place where the Universe looks down and… decides to fuck with me. I mean more. As I stand and wait for someone, somewhere to dial this phone on an icy intersection in the deepening wintery gloom, there’s little to do but watch the cars go by. Lights change, cars go one way; the lights change again and they go the other. A fair amount of last minute shopping traffic, actually. The phone is close enough to the street to be able to see drivers clearly. Once in a while, one looks over at me; maybe one out of four looks at me in puzzlement, obviously wondering what in hell is possessing me to stand there. But most of them are just driving past, much more intent on finishing their shopping and getting the hell home. And as I am watching the cars, I see one at the next light that looks an awful lot like ours. At the time, we had a last-year-model Fiero, you see, and there were not that many of them on the streets. Kind of unusual. This one matched ours. I couldn’t make out the license plate, though, and as it swept around the corner, of course I saw quite clearly: my wife. In our Fiero. Driving blithely right past me. Stranded at an abandoned gas station, with her gift stranded in a truck across the street.
The impulse to try and wave her down came, but the car was gone before any frozen limbs could be cracked into action. She was one of the drivers who paid no attention, of course. If someone had driven by with an open window at that moment, they might have been able to hear a few cracked, desperate laughs through the wind and snow.
OVER THE WIRE
After some indefinable amount of time passed, the phone rang. It was Arizona Lady.
Well, things were going great down in Arizona. She had located the service company up in Milwaukee, and left a message for their driver….
“Hold on. Left a message?”
“Your truck has left me stranded by a highway in the Wisconsin winter, and you left a message?”
“I know it may not seem terribly urgent down there in Arizona, but did it ever occur to you that I am sitting here with a defunct piece of shit truck, freezing while I’m waiting for help, and that maybe it could use a bit more effort than leaving a message?”
“Sir, I have done what I can. Why don’t you run the truck heater?”
“IF I COULD START THE TRUCK TO RUN THE HEATER, WE WOULDN’T BE HAVING THIS CONVERSATION.”
“I AM sorry sir.”
“…yea, me too. Just….do what you can, OK? It’s not Arizona up here.”
The tow truck driver would be calling me at the pay phone number after he checked his messages; he would let me know when he was ready to come and get me. Thankfully and against all expectation, the driver called me within a few minutes, and after getting the location, let me know that it would likely be about 45 minutes, because he had another job to take care of first. Busy season, ya know. I agreed; next time I would plan my breakdown emergency better and schedule ahead.
Jack’s sister showed up soon with their car packed for their own holiday trip, full of clothes, gifts, and their two large dogs. Although cramped, we all piled into the front seat grateful for the warmth; the truck cab had gotten down to air temperature by now and we were chilled. Jack, his sister and I shared passed around…. well a little bit of holiday cheer, I guess you could call it; by the time they left for their own holiday gathering, most of my despair had been blunted, for a short time at least. It was three PM, and the sky was leaden gray, although the snow had mostly stopped.
I walked across the road once again to use that cursed open phone to call home and leave a message.
“Hi, it’s me. I….well, I’m having quite a day. I will probably be home in an hour or two. Nothing’s wrong, really; I’m OK. It’s just….well, I’ll explain when I get home. Don’t worry.”
Then, I settled into the cab alone to try and stay warm and wait for the tow driver, hoping this wouldn’t be too long.
I was a little surprised when I saw the tow truck pull into the parking lot. I had forgotten that U-Haul had given me the 19 footer. The tow truck was a 6 wheel monstrosity with dual booms, as large as a semi truck cab. It was about 4:30, and it had gotten fully dark by now. I stepped out and Chris introduced himself. He asked me what was wrong with the truck, and then spent some time looking it over. After a few minutes, I asked if I could sit in the cab of the tow, because I had been out here in the cold for hours.
“Oh, sure! Go ahead! Why didn’t you run the heater?”
Chris came back and said that the truck was in pretty bad shape. No news to me, of course, but I was just thankful to be warming up. Now, he started to explain to me that he was on a 24 hour call cycle from the Milwaukee Police department, and that all weekend he would be on call to clear accident sites for them. I was concentrating on getting warm, and didn’t really register what he was saying, until something like this came out:
“…so I would have to leave you and your truck and take care of it…”
“Well, if the police call with a tow request, I’ll have to dump you and your truck and take care of their needs first. I just want to be clear about that before I start towing you.”
“Um. What’s the alternative?”
“I could try calling one of the other towing services for you, but I don’t know anybody else on call this weekend. It’s a holiday, you know.”
“I’ve been made aware. I’m gonna take the chance. Just one thing; if you get another call, can I ride with you, rather than sitting in that broken-ass truck?”
“Well…I’m not supposed to. But maybe…. OK, but just stay in the truck when we do, OK?”
“Fine. Great. Let’s go.”
So Chris turned up the heater for me, and went back to disconnect the drive shaft and get the truck hoisted. He came back into the tow cab to fill out some paperwork, and then he got back out to check the connections. And then he put the hoist back down, because guess what? Yes, he got a call from the MPD. And off we went to an accident site.
It was a pretty minor fender bender, all things considered, right outside of a gas station. I sat in the cab and watch Chris and the cops work, and looked into the convenience store to see a clerk waiting on people for gas, beer, and cigarettes. When Chris got back in, he mentioned that the car was probably drivable, but the driver was DUI, so he had to tow it to the impound lot. Now warm, I could even muster a bit of humor; “Someone who’s having a worse Christmas Eve than I am.” I said. I asked Chris if he’d mind if I stepped out to use the pay phone and call home. This time my wife was home. Now, will it be possible to not let the secret out?
“Hi. I’m still having a bit of , umm, delay . Adventure. But there’s progress and I should be home in a little while.”
“Ummm, is Tom home upstairs?”
“…yea, I think so.”
“Could you ask him if he might be around a little later? I might need some help.”
“…ohhhh-kaaaaay….what kind of help?”
“just – umm, help moving something. OK?”
Chris had gotten the car hooked up and we were off to the impound lot. Which is not the holiday destination you’d expect it to be.
It was after 7 by the time we got back to ‘my’ truck. Chris just had to hoist it at this point, though, and were on the road relatively quickly. I almost cried….no, I did cry. A little bit. After all this time, to actually be making some progress, some distance, in the direction I wanted to go….it was too much.
After about ten minutes of travel, the radio squawked. I looked up, startled, Chris looked at me and answered – another MPD call. Chris was apologetic, but duty called first and we dropped the crippled truck in a closed mall’s parking lot. It looked abandoned, sitting alone in the middle of the paving under a single light, no other vehicle around it. I worried, briefly, about someone burglarizing it. But what would they do with a piano? As we turned the corner, I wasn’t sure I cared.
THE BIG ROLL
This accident was a good deal less significant than the previous, and Chris just had to clear the street. Another tow truck was coming for the vehicle. So amazingly enough, we were back on the road toward my abandoned truck within half an hour or so. It was 8:30.
Again, Chris hoisted the U-Haul truck, and we turned out onto the highway. Chris was conciliatory at this point, and he vowed that if he received another call, he would make sure he dropped me off before answering it. I wasn’t terribly concerned at this point; I was warm.
He didn’t get another call, though, and just after 9 PM on Christmas Eve, we pulled up in front of our duplex. Turns out I didn’t need Tom from upstairs to help us move the piano. Chris was a large guy, and being sympathetic to the effort it took for me to get this far, helped me unload the piano and get it in our apartment.
My wife, of course, loved the piano and still does; it took several drinks to tell the story and still is a holiday favorite. But I always find myself thinking to what it must have looked like to my wife, keeping a watch for me to come home through our front windows. Eventually, the tow truck turned the corner, with it’s full array of running and flashing lights, and the lights of the U-Haul truck also lit up. I have no idea what this 40-plus feet of contraption looked like, coming to a stop in front of our apartment. Normally, it would be the results of some large, appalling accident. But for this one year, at least, it looked like Christmas.
Epilogue: THE STING
Chris helped me move the instrument into our apartment, and I insisted on tipping him all the cash I had left. He had performed above and beyond the call of duty. He asked whether I wanted him to drop the truck.“I never want to lay eyes on that vehicle again. If I see it out there tomorrow morning, I’ll probably set it on fire; so you could leave it at the U-Haul store, their repair lot, or push it into the lake, makes no difference to me.” He said he’d drop it at their repair lot.On the first business day after the holiday, I received a phone call from my favorite truck rental company.“Sir, we have you on record as renting a truck from us two days ago.””Uh-huh.”“Sir, we need to know where the truck is.”
Oh, let’s close the curtain on that scene; and you can just fill in the blanks for the rest of THAT conversation.
To all my imaginary digital friends, acquaintances, visitors and general pains in the asses, enjoy your own holidays, love your friends and family, and I hope someone brought you YOUR piano.