southern hospitality

Over the past couple of weeks, a very simple act has renewed my faith in the great Southern way of life, and it involves making a new friend. It all started two weeks ago when my wife decided to sell her childhood piano. It was the piano her mother bought for her when she was a little girl just beginning to take piano lessons, but there was really nothing else special about it. It was made by a defunct American company called Currier, and they were certainly not known for making top-of-the-line models. Their products were along the cheaper end of the spectrum, and don’t have good re-sale values today. The Currier Company eventually stopped making pianos altogether in 1981, and an old Currier piano today is what musicians typically refer to as a “PSO,” or a “piano shaped object.” In other words, it probably has more monetary value as furniture rather than as a musical instrument.

However, when my wife made the decision to sell it, she gushed to me how important it had been to her and how much she wanted it to end up with the right owner. I was thinking that we’d simply be lucky as hell to find ANYBODY that would be willing to pay money for it. The piano played perfectly fine – all the strings were intact, all the keys worked, all the hammers functioned properly, and the pedals even worked. The finish on the piano was also incredibly great and well-preserved, but I still wasn’t very optimistic. We placed a small ad in our local paper, and waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally, I received a phone call from a lady nearby who wanted to know if the piano was still for sale, and that she’d like to send her daughter over to see it one afternoon when she got off from work. Although she was a Yankee, I decided to be hospitable about it. I told her that it was definitely still available, and the next day I started getting text messages from her daughter about the piano. We set up a date and time for her to come see it, but then she wanted me to describe the piano’s condition via text messaging. I hate sending texts anyway, and it would have taken me forever to peck out a worthy description of the piano, so I didn’t reply to that request. Instead, I just decided to call the number at the other end of the text messages and actually speak to this person, but she wouldn’t answer my calls. Maybe she was in a situation where she could text but couldn’t talk, or maybe she was even incapable of speech altogether, but it still bothered me that I couldn’t have a conversation with her. Then, when the appointed day arrived for her to see the piano, she texted me that her mother was ill and she wouldn’t be able to make it. I replied with a text asking her to get back with me when she was ready to reschedule, and that was it.

The very next day, I received an actual phone call from a charming retired man who was interested in the piano for his grandson, and as soon as he told me his name, I knew immediately who he was. I grew up a musician, and I played in the jazz band in high school and college before becoming a music teacher and band director myself, and this man was one of the nearby high school band directors from back in the day when I was just starting out. He and my late high school band director were friends, and I’d heard his name many times before, but had never met him. We chatted for at least 20 minutes about the piano, why my wife was selling it, what I do for a living, and what he was doing now in his retirement, and we agreed to meet him the next day to show him the piano. After three torturous days in text message hell over this piano, it sure felt good to actually speak to a real person.

The real magic started the moment he knocked on our door the next day. After we exchanged the usual pleasantries and we were all introduced to each other, the real fun began. We basically spent the next half hour checking out each other’s pedigrees. He asked me if I knew such-and-such band director, and I asked him if he knew so-and-so musician. Rinse and repeat. We danced around and around each other like that until we were both finally satisfied that we knew an awful lot of the same people, and that was the whole point. He didn’t want to buy a used piano from somebody that he couldn’t trust, and my wife didn’t want her cherished piano to end up somewhere that it might be abused and forgotten. And from our little pedigree check, we all found out everything we needed to know.

Even though he had never met me or even heard of me before, by learning who my friends and teachers were, he “knew” me. He knew somebody like me would never sell a crappy piano to somebody like him, or the word would spread and my reputation would be ruined. A lot of the musicians I knew and worked with were not good people – they were untrustworthy and abusive. But he and I didn’t mention any of those names. All the people we talked about were the good ones, and we confirmed that we were at that moment each talking to another one of the good ones. By the time we got around to talking about the actual piano, it was as good as sold. He asked my wife to play two scales on it, and then he pulled out his wallet. Done deal.

To me, this is a uniquely Southern thing. I’ve lived in other places, and I’ve certainly met a lot of non-Southerners in my life, but this is a phenomenon that only seems to be important to Southerners. Even when we meet each other casually, we still ask about each other’s mamas and daddies, and who’s married or divorced or expecting babies. Who we know is a very large part of who we are. When I was younger, I didn’t believe it no matter how many times my parents told me. But now that I’m older, I see the wisdom. It’s not about being snobbish, not by any stretch. It’s about reaching to the heart of that real thing that movies and TV shows like to make so much fun about – the word of a Southern gentleman. It really does exist, and we really do know how to check it. Of course we get burned sometimes, because people have a unique way of turning bad on you when you least expect it. But by far, the vast majority of the time, it works. Yankees won’t ever understand it or approve of it, but it really works.

Tom Daniel

Tom Daniel holds a Ph.D in Music Education from Auburn University. He is a husband, father of four cats and a dog, and a college band director who lives back in the woods of Alabama with a cotton field right outside his bedroom window. His grandfather once told him he was "Scotch-Irish," and Tom has been trying to live up to those lofty Southern standards ever since.

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