Saturday, September 02, 2006


I went to an antique store yesterday. They had an old electric organ in the back. I mean really old -- the kind with pedals on the bottom for volume. The guy was anxious to sell it to me -- he said he'd let it go for $150. It was the kind you just turn on and play, and you can pull knobs out for different effects.

He had another one in the back -- it didn't work, but it was much more elaborate. Foot pedals to make it go, instead of an electric cord. Thick, cumbersome woodwork with scrolls and bars. Keys yellowed like teeth. The store proprietor didn't have to tell me that the broken organ is much more valuable than the working one. I could tell by looking that a little restoration would put its value somewhere in the thousands.

Just seeing the organs took me back a ways. My grandfather loved pipe organs. He even bought one from a theater back when theaters still had pipe organs, and added a room on to his home to house it. When we visited he'd let me turn it on and play it. A real pipe organ, with those huge pipes, the kind you only see now in churches sometimes.

I would go in the room where the pipes were and just look up at them, wonderingly. You had to go through this elaborate process to start the pipe organ up. You had to turn on a switch by the stairs outside the pipe organ room to get it started, for one. All that air, rustling and huffing like an asthmatic beast. You could hear it pumping and winding up, flooding your lungs with a sense of expectation.

My grandfather's pipe organ had wooden keys on its floor, black and brown, so you could play with your feet while you played with your hands. I was playing on it long before my legs were long enough to reach the floor keys. Even once I got tall enough (and it took a while) I never really mastered the art of playing with all four limbs. Far too difficult, for me, to think that three-dimensionally.

The antique store owner, he invited me to sit down at the working organ and play something. "It's how we sold the last one," he said. I sat down at the spindle-legged bench (its feet scraping awkwardly on the cold tile floor as I pushed it back to accomodate me) and played "In the Mood," by Glenn Miller.

So much is familiar about the pausing in an old organ's voice -- that split second of hesitation between notes, as if checking its paces carefully; as if it's an elderly dog, trying to run like a pup again. So much is familiar about the white round knobs printed in elegant calligraphy in words I used to know by heart: "Vox Humana." "Octave Coupler." "Treble."

I couldn't play more than one song. It made me feel too sad and fond, all at the same time. I don't like looking backward. But there I was, in an antique shop. Somehow, it seemed I'd invited the past to come in, sit down and play an old song with me, yes, please, just one more time.