A recent Friday 3:16 p.m.: When Gary Skaggs saw the junkyard-worthy player piano being hocked by a Craigslister for $80, he immediately handed over the money without haggling over the price. His girlfriend thought he was crazy, insisting he could have offered much less for a piano that didn’t even work.
“I was just so excited. I could already see what it could become,” said Skaggs, 51, who taught himself to play piano starting at the age of 3. He since has spent the better part of his adult life supporting his music career with various blue-collar day jobs.
It took him a year to rebuild the piano piece by piece. It took another year to figure out how to mount it on a custom front-loader bike ordered from a company in New York that caters mostly to hot dog and ice cream vendors. Despite the disbelief and lighthearted verbal harassment from his girlfriend, in 2008 the piano-bike he calls St. Frankenstein was born.
Shortly after its inception, he lost his day job at a local sign-making company and started riding and playing his creation full time.
“I didn’t build it to try and make a living, but I already had it, so I put a tip jar on it,” he said.
Now four or five days a weeks he drives his white-paneled van from his live-work loft in the Dogpatch to AT&T Park, where he lowers the 320-pound contraption down ramps at the back with an automated winch system he devised. His typical journey takes him down the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building. Flat terrain is essential.
“It rides pretty good. It’s scary going down hills and impossible going up. If I could spend 10 hours a day out there, I might be able to make a decent living,” he said, admitting that after four hours he usually is completely exhausted.
Playing while riding, a skill he is constantly trying to perfect, can be torture on the hands. Skaggs reserves one or two fingers to keep the piano-bike on course while others tickle out a home-brewed ragtime concoction that seems to work well with an instrument constantly being knocked out of tune by the bumps in the road.
As Skaggs rides and plays, people he passes can’t help but look his way. It’s an activity that commands a lot of attention – a byproduct of the piano-bike he still hasn’t completely gotten used to. He said he wishes he had a stage persona to hide behind, but he doesn’t. Gary Skaggs, a shy, soft-spoken musician, is the only person he knows how to be, so instead he wears a giant comical Stetson cowboy hat as a disguise.
Shyness aside, he insists the best part of riding the piano-bike is watching people’s reactions.