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News and Features
11.25.09

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The Piano Mover

The unlikely grace of Santa Cruz piano mover Ricky Maurice Howard.

By Traci Hukill


CONSIDERING the nature of the work, Ricky Maurice Howard spends a surprising amount of time on each job standing stock still, staring intently into space. Maybe his bear-size hands move a little this way and that as he maps out his next move, but other than that he seems utterly immersed in thought. Silence from such a massively built man makes an impression, and one tends not to disturb him.

A lot can go wrong with pianos. A typical upright weighs about 500 pounds. When they slip the bonds of control, things happen fast, usually with the worst kind of witness: an anxious owner. A dropped piano issues a musical yelp of outrage or a loud bass blurt of disapproval. It's just not good.

Howard moves the dolly, a fancy lunar rover-looking model from a specialty company in New Jersey, into position just beneath the edge of the open end of his van, parked on an incline. Bending down, he gently grasps the two edges of the Baldwin and slowly lifts. The piano begins an imperceptible slide and he leans into it, countering its mass with his own. Slowly, balletically, he eases it onto the dolly.

Howard moved his first piano in 1978 for a company in his hometown of Watsonville. He was still in high school. Strangely, the 6-foot-1-inch Howard was in the role of assistant, moving the dolly and helping stabilize the pianos, while the proprietor, a smaller man, literally did the heavy lifting. When the man let on that he was thinking about selling the business, Howard made him an offer he couldn't refuse: a restored 1937 Cadillac that the man had admired just a few weeks before, and which Howard had purchased through the trade of a vintage pinball machine. Before he knew it, he was the owner of Howard's Piano Moving.

Through all these years, he's remained sound of back and limb, except for soreness on one or two occasions when he overdid it. "I was taking on more than I should have," he says in a surprisingly soft, musical voice. He sometimes works with an assistant. The first time he moved this piano, up a narrow flight of stairs to a downtown Santa Cruz apartment, a young, sallow Tim Lincecum look-alike was along. When Howard lifted the piano to pivot it, the kid slipped the dolly beneath. Up the stairs the piano sailed, slowly dancing, lifted on wings of might.


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