Archives for January 2013

Don’t Eat Pie: The Only Diet Tip You’ll Ever Need

Piano Girl Robin Meloy Goldsby recalls her brief stint as an exercise instructor and diet coach in Flushing, Queens, New York.

January, 1981: “Ladies! Listen up! It’s ‘Team Time with Deanna!’ Grab your buddy and head to the center of the floor where we’ll meet and greet, dance and prance, and burn away that winter blubber.”

Deanna is a thirty-five year old exercise instructor and seasoned resident of Queens. I am a twenty-three year-old out-of-work actor/pianist and a newish New Yorker. I wear a slightly see-through white leotard, a purple polyester sash around my waist, and a very large badge that says, “Elaine Powers Figure Salon TRAINEE.” It is not my finest moment, but I’m grateful to be employed. I’ve graduated from Chatham College, a gentle but high-minded women’s school in Pittsburgh, with a BA in Theater Arts. I know a lot about Shakespearean comedies and Greek tragedies, but hardly anything about how to get work as a performing artist in New York City.

This is the third job I’ve had since receiving my diploma. When I moved here eighteen months ago, I landed a fancy-sounding gig as a promotional model at Bergdorf Goodman, where a skinny fashion director wearing a  narrow black suit stuffed me into a voluminous Anne Klein evening dress and forced me to spray shoppers with expensive perfume. My most recent round of employment has been a role as a piano-playing stripper in the national touring company of an old-fashioned Burlesque show called Peaches and Bananas. Not a bad job, really. I’ve gotten my Equity card, learned to peel off a corset while playing Chopin, how to cope with weathered Burlesque comedians (hint: never ever steal a laugh from an eighty-year-old Top Banana), how to crank my hair  to skyscraper heights, glue on false eyelashes without blinding myself, and how to save money by sleeping eight actors in a Days Inn motel room meant for two (hint: never ever room with the Top Banana—he’ll use all the towels). I’ve also figured out how to survive on stale Dunkin’ Donuts crullers and cold shrimp-fried rice. Dancing  (ass-shaking disguised as choreography) and road rat meals (leftover  half-eaten Whoppers for breakfast) have left me enviably lanky but one step away from a full-fledged Scurvy diagnosis. I touch my arm and it bruises. For over a year I’ve been counting pennies and looking forward to the day when I can afford food that doesn’t come in a white cardboard carton or a greasy paper bag.

Now, a little uncertain about my next shaky steps in city jam-packed with out-of-work actors skidding in their own greasepaint, I’ve signed up to work part time as an instructor at an Elaine Powers Figure Salon. I haven’t found an Elaine Powers salon with job openings in Manhattan—those places are already staffed by Bob Fosse rejects, soap opera spit-backs, and runway models who are an inch or two short of the 5’9″ minimum. So I’ve nailed down a position as an instructor at the Flushing, Queens salon, in the shadow of Shea Stadium. In Flushing the accents and waistlines are thicker. Hair and coat colors dazzle. It’s a place where, refreshingly, avenues swarm with civilians who want nothing—nothing!—to do with show business. The # 7 Express train from Grand Central gets me there in no time at all.

During “Team Time with Deanna” I sit on an Elaine Powers weight bench and take notes. I’ll be expected to conduct my very own “Team Time with Robin” in the next few days, and there’s an Elaine Powers protocol I’ll need to follow.

Cats have claws! Dogs have fleas! All I’ve got are chubby knees!

I’m not dumb! I’m so wise! Pump away these flabby thighs!

Move those arms! Move those feet! How I hate this cellulite!

Pec-tor-als! Stretch and reach! We’ll look foxy on the beach.

Remember, it’s 1981. “Foxy” is one of our favorite words. While Deanna and her students recite these rhymes, Donna Summer blares from the Elaine Powers sound system. “She Works Hard for the Money” is the track of choice. The music and the rhymes don’t sync and I feel like I’m caught in a John Cage nightmare. Deanna, single mother of four sons, resembles an Italian female version of Barney Rubble. She is tiny and rock solid—no chubby knees on her. Deanna is a dynamo—during my shift I watch her conduct Team Time every hour on the hour. No matter how much she jumps around, her big Sue Ellen Ewing hair stays in place.

After Deanna’s third session I head back to the front desk—a platform that oversees all the weight machines, vibrating belts, and treadmills. The vibrating belts intrigue me. The clients strap a belt around their problem zones and the belts shake-shake-shake the fat. Wow.

“Do those things work?” I ask Deanna.

“Nah,” she says, evading my eyes. “They make your thighs itch, and that’s about it.”

“Oh,” I say. “Who needs that? Itchy thighs. Blah.”

“Right. So. You gotta handle on Team Time, now?”

“Yes. I do.”

“Good. Okay, write this next thing down in your notebook. It’s one of our most critical functions, as, like, Elaine Powers role models and instructors.”

“Okay.” I sit with my pen poised and ready to write. I’m good at taking notes. Deanna picks up the microphone. “You turn it on like this,” she whispers to me, and shows me a little on and off switch. “Write that down. Turn on the microphone.”

“Okay. Turn on the microphone.”

“Ladies, listen up! It’s time for your ‘Diet Tip of the Day.'” The gyrating women step down from their weight machines, treadmills, and vibrating belts. They swivel to face Deanna. She is their weight-loss queen of Queens, their calorie-counting pocket-Pope, their great white hope for slimmer thighs and sleeker silhouettes.

“Are you ready?” she shouts.

“Yeah!” they reply.

“I can’t hear you!” she yells.

“Yeah!” they scream.

“What do we wanna do?”

“Lose weight! Lose weight!”

“Louder, louder!”

“Lose weight! Lose weight!”

“Okay, ladies, here we go. Your ‘Diet Tip of the Day’—drum roll, please!” The ladies beat on the purple padded benches of the weight machines.

“Your ‘Diet Tip of the Day’ is . . . DON’T EAT PIE!”

A startled silence fills the salon. Then the ladies break into applause. After a few moments, they return to their workouts.

“That’s it?” I say to Deanna. “Don’t eat pie is your diet tip for the day?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Good, right?”

“But that’s ridiculous,” I say. “Everyone knows not to eat pie if they’re trying to lose weight. These poor women are paying $11.99 a month—”

“$9.99 a month for the two year program, $7.99 a month for the five year plan and a one time fee of $499.99 for a lifetime membership.”

“Right. What a deal. But shouldn’t you give them something more than a poem about chubby knees and a diet tip that tells them not to eat pie?”

Deanna glares at me and I’m really glad she doesn’t have one of those Barney Rubble clubs. “Sometimes,” she growls, “you just have to hit them over the head with this stuff. It’s not, like, rocket science. Obvious is good.”

“Obvious is good,” I write in my notebook, which, thirty years later, I will dig out of an old carton so I can write this story.

**

Cathy, a platinum L’Oreal-blond with an inch of black roots, dangling earrings, water-balloon boobs, narrow teenage-boy hips, and lavender tights paces on the magenta carpet of the violet-walled Elaine Powers back office. Purple, purple everywhere. Working in this place is like living inside a grape. Cathy (who could be a man—I’m not sure) is our manager, a job that involves chain smoking and convincing middle-aged female citizens of Flushing that they, too, could look like her if they stopped eating pie and forked over $11.99 a month for the next year.

Cathy has called me into her office to discuss “security” issues at the salon. Deanna accompanies me. We all light up cigarettes. It’s 1981. We smoke. No guilt.

“So,” says Cathy to Deanna. “Did you show Robin the panic button?”

“The panic button?” I say. “The panic button?”

“You didn’t tell her?” says Cathy to Deanna.

“I couldn’t,” says Deanna. “It’s too upsetting.”

What?” I say.

“Deanna,” says Cathy. “If you’re going be an Elaine Powers Assistant Manager some day, you gotta get a grip on these things. Now tell her.”

I wonder if the panic button has something to do with pie. I haven’t thought about pie for a couple of years, but now I can’t stop conjuring visions of my mom’s pumpkin, lemon meringue, pecan, and peach pies. Flaky crusts, whipped cream, the works. I take a drag from my Benson and Hedges cigarette, a luxury I can’t afford.  I scrimp on meals, but I buy these cigarettes because I like the way the package looks. Classy.

“Terrible,” says Deanna. ” It’s terrible. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it. It was all over the newspapers. It was even on TV.”

“It really caused our membership to drop,” says Cathy.

What?” I say.

“Go ahead,” says Cathy, lighting another cigarette. “Spill.”

“Well,” says Deanna. “It happened in Texas. Five years ago. And people say New York City is dangerous.”

What?” I say.

“Okay, like, two goons wearing masks busted into one of our Houston salons. They had guns, which later turned out to be toy water pistols, but how could anyone know? Anyway, they made all the ladies strip down to their underwear.”

“At least they kept their underwear,” says Cathy.

“Yeah, thank God for small favors,” says Deanna. “Although most of those underpants weren’t exactly small.”

“Go on,” says Cathy.

“I can’t,” says Deanna. “You tell.”

Cathy rolls her eyes and blows a long trail of smoke across the room. “They crowded all of the ladies into a small storage room, more of a closet, really, and then they selected the most, uh, voluptuous women and forced them back out onto the floor.”

They picked the fattest ones,” says Deanna.

“Deanna, that’s not the way an Elaine Powers instructor talks. Show some respect.”

“Sorry,” she says, “but it’s true. I don’t know why we can’t say the word fat around here. It’s stupid. Fat is fat. F-A-T. So go ahead with the story.”

“Right. The masked men took these stout ladies—”

Stout? Like that’s better than saying fat? Excuse me, but if I ever gain, like, a hundred pounds, call me fat but don’t call me stout. Even statuesque sounds better than stout.”

“Fine. But stout is an approved Elaine Powers word. Anyway, they took the stout ladies and forced them onto the vibrating belt machines, with the belts around their butts. Then they turned on the machines.”

“Oh, no,” I say.

“You can just imagine how that looked,” says Deanna. “All that naked flab, covered by those giant underpants, of course, but still, wiggling and jiggling. I mean, even a skinny girl on those machines looks like used Jello.”

“Deanna! That’s enough. You wanna tell the end of the story?”

“No way, José,” says Deanna. “That’s the worst part.”

I am ready to resign on my very first day of employment. “Please don’t tell me those poor women were raped.”

“No,” says Cathy. “But the two men, they, uh, watched the stout ladies on the belts. And they did Unspeakable Things while they were watching. You know, the shaking butts turned them on, I guess.”

“That’s horrible,” I say.

“And the goons kept their masks on,” says Deanna. “Oh my God. I can’t even think about this. It makes me sick. Sick. Just skip the next part. Robin can use her imagination.”

“Yeah, I think I can figure it out. No one was raped?” I ask.

“No.”

“No one was hurt?”

“No. Upset, of course, but not harmed in any physical way. Sadly, most of them never returned to the salon again. They were traumatized.”

“Did they ever catch the guys?”

“No. They’re still out there. And that’s why we have a panic button. If any man comes into the salon for any reason, one of us has to stand by the panic button and be prepared to hit it. Because we don’t want a VBI here in Flushing.”

“A VBI?” I say.

“Vibrating Belt Incident,” says Deanna, flicking the ash of her cigarette into a lilac ashtray.

**

The following week when I’m alone and closing the salon—Cathy has given me a key because she claims I’m management material—I step onto one of the vibrating belt machines and hook the belt around my butt. I turn on the machine. In the mirror—there are mirrors everywhere in this place—I catch a glimpse of myself as I shake, waggle, and roll. Look at that. Turns out I have a lot of fat on my skinny frame.  There’s a stout girl lurking inside me, and I see her, right there in my jiggling reflection. Traumatic, indeed, and there’s not even anyone watching. That’s it. No more pie for me. I lock up and go home.

**

A miracle! Four months into my Elaine Powers siege a music agent calls and offers me a gig at the Newark Airport Holiday Inn, where I’ll play the piano five nights a week for turnpike lounge lizards, red-eyed truck drivers, and world-weary flight crews—the worker bees of the transportation industry. I accept the offer. For a few weeks I do both jobs, conducting Team Time during the day, and playing the piano at the Newark Airport Holiday Inn at night. I love my job in Newark—I’ve got a beat-up out-of-tune piano in a smoky bar and my very own hotel room with a bright orange chenille bedspread—no Top Bananas, bed sharing, or begging for towels. I have a decent paycheck and free meals (featuring egg dishes with melted cheese) in a real restaurant with white tablecloths, and a chance to sunbathe next to a pool with a thin film of jet fuel floating on the water’s surface.  From my pool perch I watch as jets take off and land, a hundred times a day—sky ships carrying eager passengers to anywhere but here. Sometimes I fall asleep outside with planes disappearing into the clouds over my head. I dream big fat dreams.

Finally, I resign from Elaine Powers. I’m sad about saying goodbye to Cathy and Deanna, but happy I’ve escaped without a VBI. I am sick of the color purple. During my final Team Time I blast Donna Summer’s cassette on the boom box.  I work hard for my money, chase away those chubby knees, and wish my clients well.

“You know what?” I say to the ladies. “A little bit of fat is okay. Be fit. Be foxy. Be healthy. Be happy. Listen to music. Dance. Don’t worry so much about the pie.”

Cathy smiles at me. Deanna scowls. I exit. Obvious is good.

**

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm, and Waltz of the Asparagus People

Pie Photo
 

 

Concerts in the Castle, Schlosshotel Lerbach, Spring 2013

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the Artistic Director for the Schlosshotel Lerbach “Concerts in the Castle” series. She has been an “artist in residence” at Lerbach since 2001, playing the piano for hotel and fine-dining guests every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Once a month, Ms. Goldsby, along with Schlosshotel Lerbach Director Christian Siegling, present a concert in the hotel’s beautiful Magnolia Salon. World-class artists in a gorgeous 5-star setting—a perfect combination! Check out the roster for the upcoming Spring 2013 season.


A Titanium Foot and a Long-Stemmed Rose: Lessons in the Art of Gratitude

Robin Meloy Goldsby encounters Eleanor Roosevelt, gets a new foot, and sings a rousing chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”
The ball drops. Champagne flows. Regrets (I’ve had a few) are counted, and triumphs noted. Glasses clink, lips meet, smiles stretch the faces of children and drunks and musicians. We ring in the new, send in the clowns, bring on the dancers, bend the rules, launch the rockets, and catapult from one year to the next.

Mr. G. (my dear husband) says that end of year retrospectives—The Best of  the Best of 2012!—make him want to cry. The sad moments are sad, the happy ones are also sad, because they’re not really all that happy. I get what he’s saying. If you examine the highlights and lowlights of a year they turn into a reality show version of what actually counts. What counts isn’t what happens in a year. What counts is what you learn.

I learned a lot in 2012, lessons I wish I had learned a little sooner. Here are three that come to mind:

1. In June of 2012 watched my nineteen-year old son receive his German Abitur (an academic high school diploma that makes my American high school degree seem like a summer camp certificate). I sat with my husband, my parents (who were in town for the festivities), and my daughter. I listened to the music—featuring a faculty choir that sang a heart-wrenching version of “Shenandoah”—and smiled as two decades of parenthood flashed through my memory—a flickering diorama of music lessons, math and physics homework, Harry Potter marathons, fights (in two languages!) about computer games, philosophical discussions (of which he was capable at age five), flights back and forth to the USA, and drives—a million of them—to the school from which he was now graduating. After his name had been called, he received his diploma and a long-stemmed red rose, did a hip-hop victory-walk down a runway, found me in the audience, and bent over and handed me the rose. I never knew I was capable of projectile crying until that moment.

“Nineteen years of raising Curtis and you get a rose,” said Mr. G. “Well done. You deserve that.”

Lesson learned: a little bit of gratitude from your adult-child means way more than the thunderous applause of strangers. Way more.

2. After a three-month siege following foot surgery (a brand new titanium joint that will forever protect my right foot from the perils of pedaling a grand piano while wearing high heels), I found out what it’s like to be confined to a small bedroom, lose my ability to drive, and have my daily exercise limited to crutch-assisted trips to the bathroom. Thinking I would enjoy lolling about in bed and eating cinnamon toast prepared for me by my doting husband, I discovered that watching endless hours of PBS documentaries on Netflix—a fine activity when one has options to do other things—has certain disadvantages, most of which involve ibuprofen-induced nightmares about Bill Moyers. I was thrilled when my surgeon (a skilled craftsman with the personality of a desk) told me I had graduated to a Frankenstein boot and could begin moving around a bit. The Frankenstein boot had a three-inch platform on it and threw my weight back onto my heel. It also threw my back out. I could walk very slowly, but I looked like Quasimodo.  I couldn’t go to work. Even though the boot was black, Quasimodo in a black lace dress has never been a good look for a cocktail pianist. Not that I could play—the fingers were fine, but operating a sustain pedal with the left foot is best left to contortionists.

Still, at least I was moving. At least I didn’t have to go up and down four flights of steps on my butt. At least I could undress myself and take a shower without having my daughter monitoring me to make sure I didn’t slip and take a dive while conditioning my hair. Things were looking up.

That’s when the stomach virus hit me. It was one of those “pass the bucket” bugs—the kind that normally lasts twenty-four hours—but, because I was still recovering, it slapped me in the gut and flung me back to bed for another two weeks. And that’s when I began to feel like an old person. Enough. I hobbled to the dining room table and declared 2012 my Year of Health (an announcement that caused members of my family to laugh uncontrollably for about ten minutes). I put myself on a take-no-prisoners nutrition program, removed myself from negative influences,  bailed on a couple of “friendships” that were draining my energy, and eliminated stressful work situations that weren’t either artistically satisfying or financially clever.  I snapped back, stronger than ever.  Okay, maybe not stronger, but smarter.

Lesson learned: Feeling old is a drag. Be good to yourself, keep moving, and take care of your feet.

3.  In July of 2012, Julia G., age sixteen, took off on her long-awaited Summer Adventure, all of it paid for by an expatriate essay competition she had won in 2009 (when she was twelve) and a scholarship she received to attend the Eleanor Roosevelt Girls’ Leadership Worldwide Academy in Hyde Park, New York. (Note to parents of teenage girls: Check out this program—it’s wonderful!)

Julia had an ambitious plan. Before arriving at her dormitory at Vassar, Julia would spend a week in Louisville for a music workshop at the Jamey Aebersold School of Jazz at the University of Louisville. In between the Jazz Guys and Eleanor Roosevelt, Julia would hang out with her grandmother in Kentucky and her maternal grandparents in Western Pennsylvania. Following her graduation from Eleanor’s she would head to Manhattan to visit friends before heading back to Pennsylvania for more time with her grandparents. She’d fly back in Germany in time to start the eleventh grade. I was exhausted just looking at her itinerary.

My job, as chief travel coordinator for Julia G’s Summer Adventure was to put her on a flight at Düsseldorf Airport, then beg and bribe various family members and friends to transport her from one American location to another—a complicated operation that involved arranging planes, trains, and caravans; vegan picnics, sandwiches in the back seats of moving vehicles, meals in shopping mall food courts, tea at the Plaza and cocktails at the Waldorf; plush guest rooms, a Vassar dormitory without air-conditioning, and an inflatable mattress on the floor of a stylish Manhattan living room.

Her grandparents, her aunts, her uncles—all of them pitched in, spending hours behind the wheel to get her where she needed to go, on time and in style. Aunt Gail transported her from Louisville to Reynoldsburg, Ohio; Aunt Randita drove her from Ohio to Pittsburgh. My parents got her from Western Pennsylvania to Vassar. Our friends Carole and Emilio Delgado rented a car and drove from Manhattan to Hyde Park to attend her Eleanor Roosevelt graduation as ersatz parents (Carole, a big ER fan, was exactly the right person for this job, mainly because she had the perfect outfit). Carole and Emilio hosted Julia in Manhattan for a week she will never ever forget. My dear friend and fellow Piano Girl Robin Spielberg took the train from Baltimore, and hid behind a potted palm next to the “Eloise” portrait at the Plaza with her daughter Valerie, just so they could jump out and surprise Julia. She hadn’t seen them for five years. You can just imagine the fun they had at the tea party.

I’m astonished by what Julia learned this summer. Eleanor Roosevelt’s team of enthusiastic counselors, in between trips to the United Nations and sessions about the value of volunteering, taught Julia to “act like a lady and speak up.” Jamey Aebersold’s music workshop taught her about jazz theory and performance, and that “anyone can improvise,” especially a sixteen year old girl. But mainly, what Julia learned this summer is this: If she makes the effort to show up and do her part, she’ll have an eager support team waiting to transport her from one destination to another. If it takes a village, she has one of global proportions. If it takes a chariot, she has a golden coach with a band of willing drivers. If it takes love, she’s holding the winning ticket in the friends and family lottery.

Lesson learned: The kindness of strangers means a lot in this world, but when you want to get your daughter from a Starbuck’s in Düsseldorf to Peacock Alley in Manhattan (via Atlanta, Kentucky, Ohio, Poughkeepsie, and Pennsylvania)—and back again— you call the people on your A-List. Friends and family make one heck of a hauling squad—even if they’re an ocean away.

The New Year’s Eve glitter has clumped on the dance floor and the corpses of spent fireworks still litter the town square. Resolutions (not my own) own the month of January. I’m writing new music, launching my kids into adulthood, taking very good care of myself, and watching to see what 2013 will teach me.  Slow down, hold on, let go, be grateful. That’s what I know for now, but these are last year’s lessons. I’m hoping 2013 will be the Year of Continuing Education.

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl and Waltz of the Asparagus People.

Julia G, rowing in Central Park. Photo by Carole Delgado.

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