Broken Hearts of ’52

Josh Dean, guest writer


“I can’t even afford to buy us food,” Oscar heard as he opened his eyes from an uncomfortable sleep. His mother was bickering about her finances before he even got out of his small, old bed. He stumbled into the dining room of the musty, small 2 bedroom apartment in Harlem .

“Good morning Ma.”

“Good morning sweetie,” she replied in a broken, tired tone. “I made you some breakfast, it’s sitting on the table.”

“Thank you,” Oscar said, but in his mind he was thinking, “The same old food, tastes worse than cardboard, and barely manages to fill my tiny stomach.” Oscar was sincerely unhappy with the life that he lived. Although, he never allowed himself to act negatively towards his mother. She struggled ever since his father died of Polio, along with 3300 others (The Year).

As Oscar chewed on the bland piece of stale bread with some butter on it, he began to think about his life. He was working at a recycling center in the rough of town, barely scrounging up 10 dollars at the end of the day. The bills just kept piling up on him and his mother. She worked at a factory making less than the other factory workers because she begged for a job when they wouldn’t hire her. Oscar knew that poverty was a miserable state. His family had no car, no air conditioning, no heating, barely any kitchen appliances, and seldom enough food. Every single night of his life he had went to sleep hungry. He awoke hungry, and when he worked he was also hungry. But aside from the physical hunger of food, he hungered for something more. Something bigger, more meaningful. He wanted a good life. He dreamed about it, even when he was working it was all he every thought about. He wanted enough money to be able to survive and thrive.

Well one day Oscar was on his way to work and had been asked to look for trash in Park Forest, where white middle class lived (Kagan 33). No one ever went there because they could be taken in for “stealing,” or trespassing. He had no choice, and so he began to trod along the street towards the other side of town. It seemed like he could slowly feel the changes in the air. It felt much cleaner and thinner, the buildings surrounding him began to look more aesthetic, and the scent in the air was pure and fresh. Heck, the lawns were even filled with Flamingos (Kagan 33). He felt as if it was a dream. The way that the clouds formed fluffier, and the streets felt smoother. He wanted to be here, now. As he was searching for pieces of plastic and bottles to take back to the center, he noticed an old piano out on the street. It looked very good to just be outside. Underneath it was a sign that said, “I have no use for it anymore, feel free to take it home. Works fine, plays magically.” Oscar just stopped dead in his tracks. “What would happen if I take it,” he though. “Would people assume that I stole it?” “Should I take it to the center and see how much I can get for it?” Oscar decided that he would roll it all the way to his apartment. He just hoped that no one would steal it from him.

He left all of the various bits of trash he had managed to collect on the way, and pushed the piano up and down the rough streets of Harlem. People looked at him strange as he walked by. When he got to his apartment, he pushed with all use might to get the piano upstairs, but it wouldn’t go. He didn’t want to ask for help and get it stolen; so he hid it behind the building.

Oscar heard the “stimulating” music of the jazz artists in the streets and he recognized the connection with the piano (Oscar).

The next day, he got out of bed and went down to see the piano. He found an old cloth and cleaner the dust off the piano. He found an old stool to sit on, and he began to press the keys. Instantly, all his worries drifted away and all he knew was the keys that his fingers danced upon. Each day, he began to travel behind the apartment in order to play the piano. It began to seem larger than just practicing, it turned into therapy for Oscar. Each time he opened and closed his eyes, it was no longer about money, it was about a new chord he had managed to teach himself, or an idea for a song he wanted to create.

One day, he had been playing for a few hours and had started sweating from playing in the heat for so long. A group of some well dressed black men happened to walk around the building. One of them said, “What on Earth are you doing playing back here?”

“I’m just . . . Playing a little piano is all.”

“You ought to play in the public and let people hear you,” another said.

“I’m just learning Sir, and I don’t want to risk getting it stolen.”

“Well your going to ruin that wood letting it sit here all night.”

“I cover it when I’m done and clean it before I play.”

“Well I tell you what, why don’t you come play with us sometime. You can find us down on 6th street, you’ll hear us.”

“That sounds great Sir, thank you.”

Oscar managed to find his his way to their house the next day from the sounds of a blaring Elvis, which everyone seemed to listen to (Kagan 122). It was an old wooden shack, stained by grass. He knocked on the door and was allowed in by a skinny, old white gentleman.

“Ah, your the little boy who wants to play some piano huh?”

“Why yes Sir, I recon that’s me.”

“Come inside and sit down on that piano.” “Here’s a glass of some sweet tea for you boy.”

“Thank you Sir.”

Oscar took the glass and drank the sweet liquid. He sat down on the bench and stretched out his fingers. He admired the beautiful woodwork on a Yamaha Piano

“Now look here boy, you ever heard about Jazz?”

That was the last phrase he remembered being said. The mans fingers just took off in the most touching music he had ever heard. The bass rhythm pounded in his heart, and his ears heard every note of the melody. The man stopped playing, and introduced himself as Mr. Cat. He showed Oscar each note he played and told him to practice that.

Oscar began coming over more often and learning from Mr. Cat. They began to play duets with each other. Oscar would play the rhythm chords, and Mr. Cat would take off in some fast melody, and then showed Oscar which inversions to use.

Oscar progressed fast, and began to play fluently by himself. Mr. Cat asked Oscar if he felt comfortable enough to perform on the street that day. He explained how they have a setup near Uptown and usually make about 400 dollars a night.

A bell went off in Oscars mind, that was a lot of money to him.

“Wow, forsure.”

“Okay, I’ll see you around 7 then.”

The next day, Oscar was stuck on the fact that he was going to perform in public. He began to choose his nicest pair of clothes which he had for years. As the evening approached, he made his way towards town. He met up with his group and they began to warmup. When they played a very large crowd grew. Oscar began to get nervous. They began to play a piece, “Here in my Heart,” in which Oscar had a solo (Kagan 121). When he began to get through the first few bars, he got distracted by the cheering. After he finished, a roaring applaud welcomed him, and as he turned his head, he saw the congregation of hundreds of people adding green dollars into a big bucket. He nearly fainted at the sight.

After the performance, Oscar was handed 647 dollars. He began to cry. He never thought that he was capable of having so much money. He thanked the crowd, and his group and began to rush home. But as he was making his way through the crowd of people, a girl stopped him. Her eyes caught his and she began to speak.

“You played amazing, I’d like to get to know you.” Oscar just stared. He finally mustered up enough courage to say “Sure, see you around.”

While Oscar laid on his rough bed, he began to think that he could make money performing by himself. He occasionally saw people performing various pieces and wondered if he could make money. So day after day he made his way- exactly at 7- towards the town. He continued to dazzle and attract large audiences. People began to fill up the top of his piano with money. He went home with 300, 600, 700, and 800 dollars a day. People would always come up to him and compliment his unique style.

Oscars courage began to build, and soon he ran into the girl again. He learned her name was Keisha, she as a wealthy young black girl around the same age as him. They began to see each other after his concerts, and go eat dinner at small diners. He began to develop feelings for her and one night in particular, he said “I love you.”

To his surprise, she said “I don’t, this is getting to serious and I want out.” He was so confused. That was so sudden for him, but as she left, he began to follow her from a distance. He noticed she had a white man in the house where she stayed. She gave him a passionate kiss and he saw it all for what it was.

Well that dark night, Oscar composed his own song. It was beautiful and he played it with such emotion. The next day he made the announcement at his performance.

“I would like for you all to really listen to this original song of mine, it means a lot to me.”

And so he played, so vigorously, and emotionally. The crowd bursted in applause. A man came up to him after and offered a full ride to Purdue University. He accepted. He went home and gave half of his earnings to his mother, kept the rest for himself and went on to be the most influential 19 year old musician of 1952.

Works Cited

Kagan, Neil. The American Dream. Richmond. Time Life Inc. 1997. Print. February 29, 2016.

“Oscar Peterson.” Wikipedia. Web. February 28, 2016.

“The Year 1952.” The People History. Web. February 28, 2016.


Historical Events in 1952. Onthisday. Web. 28 March 2016.

Timeline 1952. Timelines of History. Web. 28 March 2016.