I used to play the accordion. Some people find that funny.
On our frequent walks along NYC’s Broadway, my boyfriend—pretending to shield me from painful, childhood memories—would cover my eyes when we passed an accordion-playing street musician. “Don’t look!” he’d plead. “Please, don’t look!” Even now, at martini-happy family gatherings, one of my brothers will suddenly yell across the room, “Hey, Sis, remember when you used to play the accordion?” Ha-ha-ha!!
I was ten years old. I didn’t want to play the accordion—I wanted to play an instrument, and the music appreciation program at my Catholic elementary school offered a free loan of just two: the accordion and the electric guitar. Girls did not play the electric guitar. In fact, many of the school’s parents regarded the electric guitar, along with long hair, headbands, and bell bottoms, as just another symbol of a dangerous and growing youth rebellion.
Safer, apparently, for a skirt-clad, adolescent girl to sit, legs spread, trapped under the heavy bellows of the accordion.
Money was scarce in my home, and it would take more than pleas and promises to persuade my parent to pay for the luxury of accordion lessons. They would need to be convinced that I was serious about playing. Opportunity arrived in the slight form of my friend Annie, a beginning accordion player who taught me to play a simple song that I could use to prove my commitment. I wasn’t Lawrence Welk. But it worked.
The accordion is not easy to learn. There is a piano-type keyboard on the right side, and anywhere from 12 to 120 small, black bass keys. Your right hand plays the keyboard; your left, the bass keys. Unless you are freakishly long necked, you cannot see the left-side bass keys and must navigate your way among them using only a few, indented buttons for guidance. The bellows are in the center and must be continuously pushed and pulled while you play. It is a bulky, unwieldy instrument.
I’ve heard it said that, sure, it’s not easy to play the accordion, but it’s easier than playing the piano. But you don’t have to wear the piano.
Annie and I took lessons on Fridays after school, in the top-floor studio of a building in the dreary downtown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, about a mile from the working-class neighborhood where we both lived. With our parents tending to jobs and their other children, we were left on our own to figure out how to get ourselves and our accordions to and from lessons. Our first accordions were scaled-down versions of the full-sized instrument. But in their stiff, boxy cases they were still heavy.
I was not a big kid. But Annie was a mere wisp of a girl. We were huge, however, on problem-solving. And we decided that it was better for one of us to be in sheer agony for a few minutes at a time than for both of us to be miserable during the entire trip. And, therefore, better that we should take turns carrying both accordions rather than for each to carry her own for an entire mile. And, so that the agony should last only long as necessary, the carrier should run, not walk, for as long as possible before handing off both accordions to the other.
We didn’t actually run. It was more of a hunched-back, hobbled jog— think pint-sized Quasimodos struggling with too much luggage.
The trip took about an hour. Or maybe it only felt that way. The return was always shorter, since we knew that Bridgeport was not the kind of city where it was wise for two, young girls—with or without their accordions—to be walking on their own after dark. And so, in the dimming light of each Friday evening, we would hoist our accordions and run—past factories and junk yards and over a bridge spanning the dirty Housatonic river—hobble-jog, hobble jog, hobble-jog, faster and faster… arriving, eventually, safely back home.
Jan Bartelli lives in a very small town in upstate New York, and for many years lived in a very big city in downstate New York. She is an attorney, a former published journalist, and the persistent writer of creative nonfiction.
See more of Jan's work in 8.2