This is a true story of five people and a baby grand. None of the names has been changed nor the weights exaggerated.
Alan Boyd gave his wife, Flavil, a Knabe baby grand piano on their 13th wedding anniversary in 1956. Flavil Boyd switched to the guitar, the Knabe gathered dust. Twenty-six years passed. Wanting a smaller apartment, the couple resolved to put the Knabe up for sale. Nothing monopolizes a room like a 500-pound piano, except a 600-pound piano.
The Knabe was snapped up by a schoolteacher named Roberta Thompson. As she seldom lifts anything heavier than kitty litter for her cat Beelzebub, she called Potter Movers, Piano Moving Specialists, where rule Number One is: Don't Drop the Piano.
The job began just after 10 on a chilly Thursday morning. Piano moving conditions were optimum: Good footing, plenty of sunlight. The probability of Potter Movers losing control of a baby grand was less than a good cook losing control of an omelet.
Potter Movers incarnate are Roger Potter and Frank Maynard, two men of physiques to reckon with. Owner Roger Potter, who has a beard and a 24-foot truck with his name on it, is a body builder who sometimes lifts up the ends of Volkswagens for fun, and likes to hoist weights at a health club after a long day of moving pianos. Lest he be stereotyped, he's also a member of the Virginia bar, which makes him one of the few lawyers in the world to put himself through law school by moving pianos.
His partner Frank Maynard is even stronger, a former football star at Eastern High School and Howard University with forearms as thick as legs-of-lamb. He smiles shyly for a 24-year-old who can squat press 700 pounds. "I'm a body builder," says Potter. "Frankie's a power-lifter. Power-lifters aren't pretty, but they're super strong. Frankie is one of the strongest men in Washington. He's finished 2nd and 3rd in power-lifting championships."
Though they could have as easily ripped the door off its hinges, the two strongmen waited until they were buzzed in to enter the terra-cotta building on Connecticut Avenue NW. They crossed the mirror-and-marble lobby, wheeling a cart of padding, straps, canvas and plastic sheets and the piano board into the elevator up to apartment 52, where Flavil Boyd met them.
She was dressed smartly in a brown coat, scarf, silver earrings and a red hat. Her Persian rugs had been rolled up. Workmen were remodeling her five-bedroom apartment. She and her husband, who served as the nation's first secretary of transportation and now is president of Amtrak, were moving to a smaller place after four years. The piano stood in the foyer, next to the wall.
Potter and Maynard set to work, wrapping the piano in their tarpaulins, rolling it up onto a padded board called the piano board, and dismantling its legs and the lyre that holds the three pedals. In the hall, Flavil Boyd reminisced.
"I never got to the point where I could play for others without it being painful for them," she laughed. "The piano just got crowded out of my life."
Her husband had surprised her with the piano in 1956 as a way of thanking his wife for helping him through law school. His favorite piece was "The Third Man Theme." When the family moved to Washington, Chicago and back to Washington, the piano went with them. But she mostly played the guitar, and it made her guilty to see the Knabe go unused and further out of tune.
"It's not easy to part with. I'm sentimental," Flavil Boyd said. "If my husband were dead that would be one thing, but for heaven's sake, things aren't important, people are. I have the man who gave it to me. What could be more important than that?"
Potter and Maynard trundled the Knabe into the hall. The piano lay on its side, lashed with belts to the piano board and a dolly. Swaddled in three layers of padding, it somehow resembled a stuffed buffalo.
"My baby!" she said, as the elevator door slid across. "Now I know what it's like when they put the casket in the grave."
The elevator sank to the basement. Potter and Maynard eased the piano toward a door propped open with a rock. Confronted by nine steps, Maynard hunched over at the top of the flight, and Potter grabbed the piano board at the bottom. Unceremoniously they hoisted the load and trotted up the steps as if they were carrying a tub of whipped cream.
They guided the piano to the ramp and Maynard set his shoulder (just like the times he hit blocking dummies playing nose guard at Howard). Up he charged, and the piano was in the truck.
They lashed the Knabe to the side of the van with ratchet straps, and set off for Duke Street in Alexandria, where Roberta Thompson was waiting nervously.
Maynard thumbed through a cache of muscle magazines under the truck seat. His boss played the seemingly dangerous game of ribbing his assistant. Pointing to the picture of two baboons he has taped to his dashboard, Potter said, "The top one's Frankie." Maynard smiled embarrassedly.
Potter recalled his worst day in the piano-moving business, the Day He Dropped The Piano. "The cable broke when I was winching a nine-foot grand up a staircase," he said lightheartedly. "I got it all the way to the top and then it snapped. The piano sailed down the stairs, flipped over on its lid." Potter was quick to add, "it was all right though, and I paid for the lid."
The truck swung in behind an apartment complex off Duke Street. Potter and Maynard moved the piano onto the truck's rear lift. On the ground the pair pushed the Knabe across the parking lot, bucked it over a curb and through a door where Thompson was waiting by the elevators.
Thompson is 32 and teaches music at Beech Tree Elementary School in Fairfax, where she has worked for seven years. She gives piano lessons, sings in a choir and gives recitals at Christ Lutheran Church.
"Almost everything I do is centered around music," she said. "I know I'll never get to Lincoln Center, but I just want to be as good as I can."
Things have been better for Thompson in the last four years because she's learned how to play pieces she thought her hands were too small to handle. But the pegs were slipping on her old piano, and the wood was drying out. It was in a bad way and would cost less to replace it than rebuild. So she combed the market, looking at several models before her piano tuner put her in touch with Flavil Boyd. Boyd wanted $3,800 for her walnut-cased Knabe, which would cost around $8,000 new today, and which her husband bought new for $1,600 26 years ago.
Thompson played it for 45 minutes in the Boyd apartment, arranged a bank loan and called Flavil Boyd back. The piano was sold.
Now Maynard and Potter were emerging from the elevator. They rolled the Knabe into her living room past the teak desk and hanging plants, and onto the white shag rug, pulling back the pads and the plastic. They bolted on the legs, and set the piano against the wall.
There it was: Roberta Thompson's new piano and a $90 check for Potter Movers, Piano Moving Specialists.
Flavil Boyd said she was "delighted a dear schoolteacher has my piano. It's going to live." Roberta Thompson said she planned to throw a piano party once she had the Knabe tuned, and she planned to invite the Boyds.
In the meantime she seated herself on the bench, opened Mendelssohn's "Variations Serieuses, Op. 54," and began to play solemn, stately chords.
Above the drone of the passing traffic, the piano sounded grand.