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Deer in Headlines II: Piano Man


“It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday. The regular crowd shuffles in.” Those are the first lines of Billy Joel’s, “Piano Man,” a song that always transports me back to my college days. To help pay for school, I was the pianist at a small Italian restaurant. Even in the 80s, it was old-fashioned, with one large room outlined by raised booths along the walls and a few floor tables in the middle. The decor was, what’s the word, beige. Yep, a lot of beige. Or was it brown? It’s tough to be sure because the lighting was pretty low.

Every Friday and Saturday evening, for about three hours, I performed all instrumentals on a small, studio upright. I was like a live Muzak machine without the lyrics. I. Did. Not. Sing. Period. No one would have wanted to hear that. You might as well go outside and toss an alley cat into an upright trash can for that cacophony.

I had a repertoire of about 250 pieces, mostly pop and oldies, but I tossed in the occasional classical number just to show off. A quiet tinkling of “Fur Elise” goes particularly well with linguini, and the leg of lamb begged delivery of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze.” I can’t read music, so everything was by ear. I memorized each song pretty much the first time it fell from my ear to my hands. Regulars would often bring a tape of some song they wanted me to play, and I’d learn it before their next visit.

Once in a while, I’d break out the occasional show tune. On slower nights, I’d rearrange some old TV show theme song into a long, drawn-out ballad. You should hear my dramatic rendition of “Gilligan’s Island” at half speed with Liberace-esque flourishes. People would ask if it was some rare piece by Rubinstein or Mozart. I’d reply, “Oh, no. It’s an original by Schwartz (Sherwood, that is – go look it up).

Playing in a restaurant isn’t all tickling the ivories and clever combinations of sets. It’s more about the people. Unlike a “piano bar” or dueling pianos show, restaurant performances are more atmosphere than anything else. Still, although I got paid for my hours on the bench, my livelihood really depended on tips.

Depending on the traffic, my available talent that evening, and the generosity of the customers, I could have a forty-dollar or four-hundred-dollar night. The latter required some people skills. I was unable to respond with more than a smile or nod when someone tipped me while I was playing. So, I’d take a break at my first opportunity and walk over to their table to thank them.

Here’s a secret about restaurant or bar piano players. We are always watching you. No, I didn’t care what you ordered. I never gave a thought to how stingy you were about tipping the waitstaff after spending a ridiculous amount on too many bottles of cheap wine. Nor did it matter to me that your date’s dress was so short your wife would certainly have disapproved.

No, I was studying my audience’s reaction. It was gratifying when people clearly enjoyed my work and that it added to their evening experience. If a table was paying particular attention to one kind of music, I’d adjust my set list accordingly. More often than not, a request or early tip came from one of those parties, generally the lady of the table. I think the guys were embarrassed to come up to me. I have no idea why.

During my three years there, I also learned a great deal about human behavior. Restaurants only provide a two-dimensional view of human interaction, but it’s alive with celebrations, sadness, gluttony, and togetherness.

I was very young then, so I also learned a lot about myself, particularly that I was more introverted than I’d ever realized. I’d like to think my music always improved someone’s day, and that it still does. I hope so.

If a street or restaurant musician ever makes your day just a little brighter, please take time to tell them so and drop a few bucks in their jar. You’ll make their day, and yours too.

Gery Deer is a Greene County resident and columnist. He can be reached at www.gldcommunications.com.