Our $10 Upright Was Our Steinway
Lemme tell you about the Sosnoff family's most precious possession during the Great Depression. It was a scratched-up, black, upright, no-name piano.
We hung around it and sang in unison, my mother sight-reading borrowed sheet music: "South of the Border Down Mexico Way," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and "You Smile and the Angels Sing."
The poor helped each other during the Depression. It was an underground economy, unknown and unmentioned by economists. Our piano was deadly flat on bass notes and sharp on treble keys, but so what?
When school let out late June, my parents gave up our apartment. The family summered in a tar-papered shack at Croton-on- Hudson. We overlooked Indian Point Park, then a sandy beach the color and consistency of brown sugar.
I'm talking late thirties, early forties. Nuclear power generation wasn't even a concept then. We owned so few cumbersome possessions that the New York Central Railroad allowed us to board with all our clothes and baseball bats. My mother lugged on board her 30-pound Underwood typewriter.
But, what to do with our piano? Well...I and my two older brothers, Gene and George, were in charge of moving this beloved monster down to a neighbor's apartment on the ground floor, its home for the summer. The poor took care of each other during the Depression, a seldom remarked insight. The corner candy store took our phone messages. Phones were beyond our means until 1946.
Over the years, the three brothers evolved into a handy mover team of non-Steinway instruments. There was actually a moving van enterprise then named "The Four Brothers." We'd upend this object, tip it back and shove a dolly underneath to receive our baby. Amid fulsome cursing and much sweat equity, maybe an hour finished the job.
In early September, the return trip for our piano, up three flights, took several hours. Very dangerous if the dolly slipped out. Somehow, we managed not to self-destruct. It was unthinkable to turn our piano loose, like a mangy dog, never to be seen again.
When I was nine, my father walked me over to a second-story music school on 125th Street, three blocks south of his tailor shop. There, Pop bought me my choice of a nickel-plated alto saxophone, priced at $35. Pop paid for my sax a buck a week and bargained for weekly music lessons at 25 cents the half hour.
Above the music school, on the third floor, a tap dance studio's class rapped out its rhythms, all of us striving upward in our dismal economic setting.
Around this time, New York's greatest mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, somehow scrounged the money to create four special high schools, including the Bronx High School of Science and the High School of Music and Art, which I attended, mid-forties. If it weren’t for M&A, I woulda graduated a young punk into a hood. There was no such concept as a teenager then.
Music, the theater, all the arts were a must-do in our family. My elder brother, Gene, took me to the old Metropolitan Opera House where standing-room admission was one buck. You could sit in the third balcony of Broadway’s theaters for $1.10. “Life with Father” played along with Ethel Merman belting out “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” in Annie Get Your Gun.
Decades later, Steinway Industries accepted a private equity bid of $438 million, over one times sales. Steinways now retail new anywhere from $57,000 to $142,000. Avenge income of buyers tops $300,000.
In my late teens, I made sideman in a name dance band with a five-man sax section. I had traded in my nickel-plated sax for a sweet-toned Selmer. The parent, acquired Steinway in 1995. I didn't blink at the $200 price tag for a Selmer. I needed a Selmer to survive in the Jazz world.
What in the world do pianos and saxophones signify for financial markets? Actually, plenty. Objects and services that enrich emotional life hold primacy just so long as quality remains impeccably high. Steinways hand-crafted a hundred years ago adumbrate wonderful tonality, soft to the touch, still highly competitive with new models.
When I scan my portfolio, daily, each position must spell viability. I'm disinterested in commodity plays unless they're giving 'em away when bordering on insolvency, what we had early 2020. I long for properties with great cancer drugs, electric pickup trucks, e-commerce and cloud computing capacity. Apple and Microsoft are major holdings.
Despite the Great Depression, the young held onto their dreams.