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A Piano at the Airport by Joe Mills

Joe Mills / String Figures

Dear Wayne County Airport Authority,

Recently I had connecting flights through the Detroit Metro airport, and I had a couple of hours to kill. I spent much of this time trying not to buy a pastry, and I was impressed by the number of opportunities that you gave me to do so. I also was thrilled by the light rail. I took a photo of the shuttle and texted it to my family: “Look!  A train INSIDE the airport!” A world-travelling Hoosier is still a Hoosier. But, I actually am writing to you about the white Yamaha piano in Terminal A.

When I saw it from far away, an attractive white baby grand, I was delighted. What a cool thing for an airport to have. What a great amenity to offer bored, stressed, travellers. It could a catalyst for spontaneous community, an opportunity for unscripted moments of joy and interaction. Whatever a stranger decided to play, whether Beethoven, the Beatles, or Beyoncé, it would be a nice change from the repetitive headlines blared by CNN, FOX, and ESPN on screens everywhere.

I gravitated towards the piano although I had no intention of playing it myself. I’m well aware that my rudimentary skills would bring no one pleasure, and, now in middle-age, I have almost no “look-at-me” tendencies.

As I approached, I heard music even though there was no one sitting at the bench. Closer still and I could see the keys moving. I realized this was a modern player piano, digitized without mechanical rolls, so it could keep going as long as it was plugged in. It was playing “hit tunes” but in a Muzak style, things like “Light My Fire” as if done by the ghost of Liberace, the type of renditions that at first seem inoffensive but that eventually, like a slow working acid, corrode all you hold dear. No wonder the nearby chairs were empty.

I have nothing against player pianos. My family had a beautiful old one that we loved. We would put in the rolls of “Chatanooga Choo Choo” and “Edelweiss” and sing along. These are some of my favorite holiday memories.

But this one had no people around it. Rather than soothing, I found it creepy, especially when viewed from a particular angle where I could see both the piano and the light rail. I couldn’t shake the memory of Blaine the Mono, a demented automated train in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.

Finally I was next to the Yamaha, and I saw it had a sign: “PLEASE DO NOT SIT, TOUCH, OR PLAY…” Now, I wasn’t creeped out; I was annoyed. The capital letters were obnoxious, worse was the ellipsis with its suggestion that there was a list of additional activities that they wanted to forbid. Mostly, however, I was offended by the placing of a musical instrument in public and then commanding people not to come anywhere near it.

Pianos are magnets. They call out to be touched because they exist to be touched and to turn touch into sound. The sign was perverse. What did “they” think would happen? A Jingle Bells that would get out of hand? There is a great scene in The Beatles’ film Hard Days Night where the band plays around in a pasture and then gets chased away by an irritated landowner. At the end, George says, “Sorry we hurt your field, mister.”

I considered looking around for a food outlet, getting a buttery croissant or greasy order of fries, and then coming back and deliberately leaning against the piano’s surfaces. Childish I know. Then I saw an actual child, fascinated by the instrument, toddle up, navigate the “stay-away” rope, and reach for the keyboard. A horrified parent sprinted forward and levitated the boy away, who, with the amazing flexibility of the young pivoted instantly from delight to outrage and began to scream. What lesson about music had he just learned? Look, but don’t touch? The white piano isn’t for the likes of you? Know Your Place!? What would he remember about his time in the Detroit airport? The piano might have calmed or amused the child for a while; now everyone within hearing range was tense, thinking, “Please God, don’t have them be on my flight.”

Luckily the parent didn’t take the baby down the nearby stairs in an attempt to pacify him. These lead to a tunnel that connects the concourses and it includes a long piece of installation “light” art. I had to navigate this tunnel twice. The first time wasn’t bad as the lights simply flickered and blinked. The second time was far more difficult. The entire tunnel went dark for a moment, then started flashing. It was similar to the boat ride in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the one that turns into a pseudo acid trip with flashed images including a snake crawling across a face and a chicken getting its head chopped off. After a fifteen hour flight, I had a difficult time handling the Light Tunnel. I thought, “I can get through this. Just breathe and keep walking. Breathe and keep walking.”

So, WCCC, although I appreciate the attempt to offer your patrons art, even to immerse them in it, I’m not sure that annoyed, creeped-out, angry and border-line panic are the reactions that you intend. Although, I grant you, I might be wrong since time did go by faster thanks to these encounters and they made me even more relieved when my flights started boarding and I could get out of there.

Sincerely,

A Traveler


Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition), and most recently Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

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