Emma

I’ve been thinking a lot about Emma González and the circumstances that plunged her into the bright, white spotlight reserved for America’s budding leaders, shooting stars, and civic heroes. I applaud her valor and admire her authenticity, but I mourn for the childhood she forfeited—the self-consumed teenage years snatched from her by shameful gun laws and a mentally-ill boy with access to a bullet-spraying machine.

When I was Emma’s age I stayed busy writing bad poetry and playing the piano. My most valued possessions included a mini-skirt, a maxi-coat, and a perfect black turtleneck (remember the dickie?). My hair was shiny and long. I obsessed over shoes. I poured baby oil and iodine on my alabaster skin and baked myself, summer after summer, in an attempt to look like the mahogany Coppertone girl, the one with the puppy yanking down her swimsuit. I wrote ooh baby, baby song lyrics about sunsets and a boy named Mark. I was deadly serious about my hobbies and passions and truly believed—like most teenagers—that the world’s eyes were judging me.

Emma González no longer has time to fret about tan lines, wardrobe issues, or the way the sun bounces on the horizon. Maybe she never did. On the day of the Margory Stoneman Douglas shooting, Emma was in the auditorium with dozens of other students when the fire alarm sounded. For two hours, she hid in the auditorium with classmates and friends—until police told students to vacate the building. Emma—faster than you can shout “we call BS—became an American activist and advocate for gun control, co-founding the advocacy group #NeverAgainMSD.

What happened to her childhood? Poof. Gone with the rhythmic, deadly clatter of a weapon designed for a killing field.

*****

It’s a myth that all kids love high school and enjoy an easy-breezy few years cheering for football teams, trying to get high, and attending proms.  In my early years of high school, I got bullied by the kind of mean girls who populate every generation: hard-edged, resting-bitch-faced, hormone-imbalanced strutters who stomp around the high school cafeteria like a Clearasil mafia. A gang of angry girls once dragged me down the steps by my hair because I lived in the wrong neighborhood. At least they weren’t packing heat. I’m sure, with access to a semi-automatic weapon, one of them might have considered shooting me—they hated me that much. Teenagers torture themselves in different ways. Part of me thought I deserved their disdain.

Whenever the shrill, adolescent voice of insecurity yelled my name, I took refuge at the piano. Composing a new piece of music and figuring out how to play it made me feel in control, confident, and capable. Not capable enough to stare down the NRA, like Emma, but skilled enough to brush off the strutters and regain a sense of purpose.

Emma is a creative writer. She also finds joy in astronomy. Before the shooting, her head might have been in the stars, but—because of her education—she knew how to confront a blank page, take the teen tornado blustering through her brain, and create an orderly, emotionally relevant statement. Catapulted to grief counselor and motivational speaker for a nation of despairing and determined young people, Emma used her writing skills to pull through the tragedy.

Emma is a hero. So are her teachers and parents for giving her the lessons, tools, and artistic freedom to cope.

The shooter had an AR-15, but, in the aftermath of killing, Emma showed up armed with her own artistic arsenal, one that has allowed her to challenge the previous generation’s apathy, the NRA, and the politicians bought and sold by the gun lobby. The MSD High School teenagers astound me. Facing a future smeared by horrific images blistered onto their developing brains, they refuse to give up, give in, or tolerate the sickening chaos that has become the new norm in our government. They have chosen their issue—reasonable limitations on the availability of semi-automatic death weapons to children. They’re facing the need for change by running toward the issue, head on. Run, kids, run.

It’s a different kind of race when unexpected hurdles include bleeding bodies of friends.

I guess the prom will have to wait.

*****

Teenagers like Emma—or your kids or mine—are generally known for rumpled bedrooms, disheveled backpacks, and illogical thinking. In a classic Opposite World scenario, our kids now make more sense than many adults. Our youth are not just marching and taking selfies; they’re collecting names and voting records of politicians controlled by the NRA, mobilizing young people to make a difference at the polls in November, and presenting calm, clearheaded arguments for gun control in high-pressure public forums and at nationally-televised press conferences. Virtuosic grace under pressure. Grief meets bravery meets action.

According to another activist—Congressman John Lewis—the MSD kids are making “good trouble.”

Chaos rules the capitol, whereas ordered, logical thinking guides the actions of MSD High School students—the ones who are still alive. Never underestimate the fortitude of a passionate, teenage survivor carrying the weight of her brothers and sisters on her narrow shoulders.

*****

Some thoughts about chaos and order: A pianist almost always begins with chaos. Before tackling a sonata, fugue, or showstopper from the Great American Songbook, before playing a bebop melody or creating a new-age cushion of sonic comfort, a pianist faces a mess of notes either on the page or in her head—some call them fly shit. The notes swim before her eyes and tease her ears, daring her to embrace mayhem and create beauty.

In an artist’s world, it’s critical to balance the mind’s creative bedlam with logical, systematic, strategic thinking. When starting a project, a composer, painter, poet, or journalist must tango with the disarray of her own imagination. Her over-taxed brain hosts flights of fancy and darkest desolation, joy and hysteria and anguish and confusion. Before she spills her emotional guts onto the blank screen, canvas, or music manuscript paper, she must calm her tormentors, restore order to her subconscious desires, and beat back the distractions and necessary interruptions of real life.

Emma González, at the age of eighteen, has the artist’s required skill set.

Is it too much to ask the same of our government?

The paucity of stability and civility in the United States—brought on by the muddled rants and hateful bombasts of our current president—distresses me. Regardless of political affiliation, most people agree that kindness and respect make progress possible. To move forward, encourage positive change, and save the planet for our children and grandchildren—we must value the kind of creative chaos that is followed by ordered, rational thinking.

Emma has that together. She might be our Malala, rising above ruins and illuminating the path.

I encourage the men and women running our country to take the chaos and necessary distractions cluttering their minds, study a page from the Emma playbook, organize their thoughts, and listen to themselves and each other.

Fact: Kids, in record numbers, are being shot on streets and in schools.  Responsible gun laws could stop many of these tragedies. Instead, our congress turns away. Our commander in chief stays occupied hurling big bags of flaming vitriol at anyone who doesn’t tow the fraying line. Forget—if you can—the firings, porn stars and playmates, or destructive policies; the president’s inability to act in an orderly and civilized manner has perpetuated an avalanche of rudeness, a hurricane of racism,  a wildfire of vulgarity, and a storm(y) front of discontent that seeps, like creeping damp, under our hip, upturned collars.

The shooting continues.

Right now, the government has a chance to heed the words and actions of the #NeverAgainMSD movement founded by Emma and her team of fellow students. Our congress has the opportunity to get one thing right: Stop selling weapons of mass destruction to teens.

I am behind you, Emma González. I wish my generation had been out in front of the gun issue so you could have savored a few more years of poetry, love beads, and hours spent gazing at the darkening sky. But now that you’ve been shoved centerstage, I encourage you to follow the artist’s way. Keep your head in the stars, but make sure you find your way back home to deliver your message. Six minutes of silence? We hear you. We need you. You are who we want to be when we grow up.

#Enough.

*****

Portrait of Emma by Steve Musgrove, graphic artist

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Newest book: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

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The Accidental Insult

“Every number you play is better than the next one.”

“Your music is so perfect; I can hardly hear it!”

“You’ve never sounded better.”

Thank you. Wait. What?

My definition of an Accidental Insult: a comment that causes the recipient to say thank you and cringe at the same time. Most of the musicians I know have developed thick skins underneath their little black dresses and tuxedos. Like it’s not hard enough to smile and remember 3,000 tunes while playing for a chiropractor convention—we must also suffer the slings and arrows, the digs and dings, of well-meaning, slightly-idiotic customers.

I once played a job at the Manhattan Marriott where members of my audience—attendees at a dental implant convention—had sets of dentures sitting on the cocktail tables next to their pina coladas. One of the good doctors said: “You’re so good at this piano thing. I can’t hear a single note.” Nothing like fending off insults when you’re surrounded by chattering teeth and wedges of pineapple.

I know, I know. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” In general, I agree with Eleanor. Sometimes, though, these accidental insults are so brain-twisting that by the time I figure out the slur, the flinger of the barbed words has already left the lounge.  Consider this slap in the face from a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend who once left his MENSA card on my piano: “What a fabulous job you have. So early in life and you have already ascended to your level of incompetence.”

Others are less subtle. A stout woman with water balloon breasts, green eye shadow, and hair the size of Holland said this to me a month ago: “You have such a great sense of style. We have exactly the same taste. I love the way you dress.” Sadly, she wore no bra, a metallic-fringed sweater, leopard print pants, and a saucer hat with a stuffed pig strapped to the top of it. She leaned on the Steinway to tell me we could be twins. Miss Chantay sashayed away and left a trail of glitter in her wake.

Or the classic: “I love how you play. Have you ever thought of doing this professionally?” I hear this type of AI often—usually as I am sitting down to play the third set of my fifteenth job of the week.

To me this is like asking the technician administering your colonoscopy if he has ever considered charging for his services. Wow, Dr. Hosen. You’re really talented with that nozzle. In fact you’re good enough to turn your hobby into a real job.

Note: It takes much longer to master an instrument than it does to get a medical degree.

Just last week, an aging rocker with smeared tattoos and saggy-assed pleather pants said: “You’re really a good piano player. What do you do for a living?”

“This. I do this,” I said.

“Wait. You mean someone actually pays you?”

It’s not like I’m playing the piano in my own home. I am sitting in a five-star hotel wearing a black cocktail dress and bling at three in the afternoon, greeting each guest with a subtle smile and a sophisticated arpeggio. Maybe I look like a volunteer—a plush pianist version of the Walmart greeter.

The word professional crops up often in an Accidental Insult. Recently a lovely man told me this: “I heard Martha Argerich play last month at the Philharmonie, but I like your music better even though she was way more professional.” Perhaps he meant her performance was more structured than my relaxed tinka-tinka style of soothing background piano. She was probably playing some turbo-tempo shoot-me-now Prokofiev or something, and—as we all know—you have to be professional to handle that.

In the eighties, my husband was called to sub for another bassist at a midtown concert in Manhattan. The introduction went like this: “Please give a warm round of applause for the wonderful bassist, John Goldsby. Such a professional! He’s always the guy we call when the real bassist can’t make it.”

The accidental insult is not limited to performances. Consider this: A woman I know (who claimed to be a friend) once looked at a published photo of me and said: “You look great in this photo because you’re so far away from the camera.”

Or this: “Your album cover is so pretty. It doesn’t even look like you.”

And another: “You’re so lucky you’re not famous. No one in the whole world knows who you are.”

And this, courtesy of pianist Daryl Sherman: “Hey lady,” said a confused little boy, looking at Daryl’s touched-up photo on the album cover and then back at Daryl. “This is a nice photo of you. What did you do for the picture, wash your face?”

The late Dorothy Donnegan, a renowned jazz pianist who had chops of steel and flying fingers, used to come and listen to me in Manhattan. She said: “You play with an economy of notes. Of course, you have to.” Dorothy wore really big red satin underpants—bloomers actually. Don’t ask me how I know this, but I do. I could tell you the story but the jazz police might arrest me.

*****

My dad, who has spent the last sixty years playing music for a living, is no stranger to the Accidental Insult. He doesn’t take the AI lightly. When I was a kid we spent a summer at Conneaut Lake where he had a gig playing in a nice restaurant and bar. He spent a lot of time fishing during the day and grew a beard while we were there. When we returned to Pittsburgh, a woman at our church, Mrs. Rudolph, cornered him in the vestibule after the service.

Mrs. Rudolph: “Welcome back Bob. You look nice and tan, but I hate that beard.”

Bob: “Thank you, Mrs. Rudolph. I like that red dress you have on, but I think you’re too fat. Since we’re sharing opinions, that is mine.”

Go Bob. I’m not that brave.

And speaking of Bob—we still haven’t recovered from the Great Accidental Insult of 2007. Miss Judy Murphy, a senior citizen who boasted a home full of fake Chippendale furniture and a manicured front garden, lived in my Chatham Village neighborhood in Pittsburgh. She was perfectly nice to my family, but, back in the seventies, spent a lot of time on “pet patrol,” prowling around our “pet-free” community looking for evidence of people hiding illegal cats in their homes. My mother swore to Miss Murphy that Stripey, the silver tabby who liked to snooze on the sill of our bay window, was a marble statue. Miss Murphy may have been a little dense.

I digress. Decades after all of us had moved out of Chatham Village, Miss Murphy called my musician father to congratulate him on the publication of my first book, Piano Girl. By this time Miss Murphy was probably 125 years old.

“Bob,” she warbled. “I just loved Robin’s book. She is so talented. You know, Bob, you used to have talent, too, but you gave it up for your family.

Bam! Even Dad was gobsmacked by that.

I honestly believe that most people have good hearts; they want to say something nice but it comes out lopsided and loopy. Maybe I’m too sensitive. Or maybe I’m not sensitive enough.

A few years back my husband played a high-profile benefit concert to raise money for a women’s group in Afghanistan. A noble cause, the event was hosted by German literary star Roger Willemsen. At the end of the concert, in front of thousands of enthusiastic audience members,  Roger graciously acknowledged my husband’s participation:  “Let’s hear it for John Goldsby. What a fucking bass player.”

*****

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

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The Girl Who Curtsied Twice

Photo by Julia Goldsby

London, November 23rd, 2017. The prince is giving a ball. My daughter Julia and I are headed to Buckingham Palace, where I’ll be playing dinner music tonight for HRH, the Prince of Wales, and 250 of his guests as they celebrate the 20th Anniversary of In Kind Direct, an organization that encourages corporate giving for social good.

Julia and I are wearing our very best sound-check/meet-the-tech-team outfits, and have our voluminous ball gowns, golden snakeskin sandals, extra bling, and hair-cranking products crammed in a small trolley bag. This suitcase has seen a lot of swag in its years on the Piano Girl circuit, but tonight takes the royal cake.

Members of my family share a long and celebrated history of playing for royalty and heads of state. We are not exactly court jesters, but we come close. My Buckingham event is one more gig on a long list of fancy-pants musical soirees. My dad calls us “grinders”—career musicians grinding out one gig at a time, most of them in humble places, some of them in decidedly uptown venues. Over the decades my father, husband, and I have played for Lyndon Johnson, Nancy Reagan, George H.W. Bush (come back, all is forgiven), Haitian Dictator Baby Doc Duvalier, the Queen of Sweden, the President of Brazil, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Vice President Al Gore,  Donald Trump (before he became a very stable genius), the President of Finland, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the King and Princess of Oman, members of the Thai Royal Family, various US Ambassadors, and (my favorite) Crown Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia.

Note: Sniffer dogs do not like bass cases.

This evening the plummy Baglioni Hotel has provided us with a Maserati limousine driven by a Brit-suave guy named Abdul. Traffic slows us down for a minute, but Abdul seems wise to every short cut in London. We swerve around pedestrians and zoom toward the palace over narrow, Harry Potter-ish lanes. The “backwards” traffic direction in the UK makes me woozy—every time Abdul turns right I’m sure we’re going to have a head-on smash-up with a double decker bus.

I’m playing at the palace tonight because Robin Boles, Director of In Kind Direct, heard my performance at an event in Germany for sister organization, Innatura (Juliane Kronen, director). Robin Boles, also born and raised in Pittsburgh (never underestimate a woman who knows the exact location of Kaufmann’s clock), liked my music and invited me to perform at the palace.

Both In Kind Direct and Innatura focus on reducing waste by encouraging corporations to donate surplus goods to charities who can use them. A noble cause, on many levels. Tonight’s guest list includes generous sponsors of In Kind Direct. Me? I play the piano for a living and, when I have time, volunteer my musical services to non-profit organizations creating positive change. I don’t have piles of cash to contribute to worthy causes, but I have music.

When Robin Boles booked me at Buckingham—it took eighteen months of careful planning—I asked if I could bring Julia as my “assistant.” Julia is an aspiring photographer and filmmaker. Sadly, she had to leave her camera back at the hotel tonight—only the “royal photographer” has permission to document palace events.

“Mom, exactly what am I supposed to do without a camera?” asks Julia. “How should I assist?”

“Pretend to help me. Carry the suitcase and look official. Fix my hair. Make sure I drink enough water and that my bra strap isn’t hanging out. Check that I don’t have toilet paper stuck to my shoe, lipstick on my teeth, or the back of my skirt tucked in my knickers. You know, the basics.”

Mother’s assistant: every daughter’s worst nightmare. But at least she’ll get to see the palace.

“Do you think Prince Harry will be there?” she asks.

Abdul has instructions to deliver us to the palace service entrance. Figures. Even though I’m in a car fit for a king and have a 3000-dollar silk-taffeta Ralph Lauren ball skirt in my suitcase (purchased on sale for 29.99, I kid you not)—I have to use the back door.

What?” says Julia. “We have go in the peasant door?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I’m a musician. Peasant.”

“You know what that makes me? Peasant assistant.”

We bid farewell to Abdul and greet a heavily armed guard who checks our names on a list.

“Good evening to you, ladies! Lovely, lovely night, isn’t it? I suppose you’re here for the gala!” It can’t be easy to conduct civilized chitchat while holding a machine gun, but this guy has it down. Very polite, these Londoners.

“Indeed, we are,” says Julia, using her official Madonna in London voice. “This is Ms. Robin Goldsby, peasa . . . I mean, pianist. And I am her ASSISTANT.”

“Very well, then. I’ll need to see your passports, ladies, if you please. “

We fork over our documents. Background checks had been run several weeks ago, so the guards only have to cross check our IDs with the info on their computers. We also have our photos taken for palace ID badges. My picture is, of course, awful. Really, you’d think they’d have better lighting. A portrait of the queen hangs over the guard’s desk—a nice touch. Several police officers are suiting up in bullet-proof vests as other guards search our bags.

“Thank you for your service!” I shout, because I can’t think of anything better to say and I feel a need to babble. A security guard plunders my suitcase and I’m anxious about him yanking my taffeta ball skirt (also known as the circus tent) out of its carefully coiled position. That skirt has a life of its own.

I’m nervous. Not about playing the palace piano, but about getting through security. A big part of me—the Western Pennsylvania girl that suffers from occasional bouts of imposter syndrome—thinks I don’t belong here. I’ve lead a stylish life, but I am, after all, a woman of modest origins. With the assistance of a piano, a great music teacher, and a lot of grit, I’ve made my way from Pittsburgh to the Palace. Banksville to Buckingham. Kennywood to Kensington. Mount Washington to Mountbatten. Right now I am about as far as I can get from the Golden Triangle.

“Mom, shall I carry your purse?” says my assistant. “I believe the event manager is ready to escort us to the sound check.”

“Really?” I say. “We’re going in?”

“We’re going in.”

Before the Gala, Outside the Gate . . . .Photos by Julia Goldsby

*****

We follow a handsome event planner up a long set of stairs. This guy has star power—he’s wearing a James Bond tuxedo, patent evening slippers, and a royal blue silk pocket-square with matching socks. We pass a sparkling, state of the art, enormous kitchen—with scores of workers preparing for the festivities. I keep expecting to see Mrs. Patmore and Daisy, but the palace appears to be staffed by upscale, posh-looking, multi-culti Oxford grads.

Behind the scenes at Buckingham! The palace is huge. No wonder Her Majesty takes her pocketbook with her everywhere she goes—a woman wouldn’t want to get lost in this place without taxi fare. We walk forever, up and down, around and around.  Eventually, our escort opens a discreet door and—bam—we’ve arrived.

Julia grabs my hand. “Holy cow, Mom,” she says. “Look at this.”

We coast into the gallery, a panoramic, portrait-filled corridor with mile-high ceilings, plush brocade sofas, and enormous, polished chandeliers. I assumed Buckingham would have that shabby chic, trampled-by-tourists, slightly musty vibe I know from most European castles, but this place, ancient and modern all at once, is spit-shined to the max. I feel like we’re walking into the muscular arms of someone else’s history. I guess we are.

*****

You and the Knight and the Music . . .

The ballroom, the venue for this evening’s gala dinner, is the location used for vestures. Knighthood! I’ve been dropped into a real-deal fairytale. Thick red and amber light softens the kaleidoscopic effect of the crystal chandeliers. History meets opulence meets Disney.

“Well,” says Julia. “I guess I was wrong. Maybe you should have brought that tiara.”

We meet the stage manager and the sound technician and head to the stage and the grand piano. Julia walks around the ballroom and listens as I play a couple of pieces. The freshly-tuned piano sounds warm and bright; the three microphones inside the instrument will ensure proper amplification, even when people are talking during dinner. Or chatting, as one does in the palace.

Julia joins me onstage.

“Mom, look!”  Behind the stage is a throne.

“Is that a real throne?” I ask.

“Mom, it’s Buckingham Palace. You think they have fake thrones?”

“Yes, it’s real! Pretty cool, right?” the stage manager says. She breaks down the schedule for me: “A porter will take you to a palace bedroom so you can change into your fancy dress. He’ll return to fetch you and Julia at 8:30. We want you seated at the piano at 8:40. The guests will come through at 8:50. That’s when you start playing. At 9:10, after the guests are seated, HRH will make a short speech from his table. Stay at the piano and resume playing when he finishes. Three courses will be served and the meal will be finished at 10:15.”

“Wow,” I say. “That’s really efficient.”

“Yes,” she says. “We’re very good at this.”

I want to take this woman home with me and have her run my life.

“Let me continue,” she says, glancing at her watch. “After dessert, we will give you a cue to stop playing. There will be an announcement acknowledging you. Stand, take a bow, walk down the center stage steps—facing the audience—and exit to the left.  You will be escorted back to your dressing room. Sound good?”

“Wait!” says Julia. “Those steps are steep and Mom will be wearing a rather, uh, puffy long skirt and heels. I don’t want her to have a Jennifer Lawrence moment and take a tumble right in front of HRH.”

Julia Goldsby, professional assistant.

“Good thinking!” says the stage manager.  “I will escort your mum down the stairs.”

“Is there a place for Julia to sit during my performance?” I ask.

Julia points to the throne. “Over there would be good.”

The stage manager laughs. “You can sit in the tech booth. Other end of the ball room.”

“Great!” says Julia. “The tech booth! I’ll be with my people.”

Our porter escorts us down another long corridor and up an endless spiral staircase. We arrive at our suite and collapse on a couple of overstuffed chairs.

“Look at this!” Julia says. Royal catering has provided a large assortment of pre-event snacks and beverages. Julia turns on the television and Her Majesty pops up on the screen, next to a little text that says: “Welcome to our royal home.”

Julia, who now has her stockinged feet up on the coffee table, grabs the remote, flips the channels, and lands on a UK Strongman competition.

“Well,” she says. “It doesn’t get any better than this. I’m in Buckingham Palace, I’ve got a bottle of wine, a block of cheese, a greeting from Queen Elizabeth, and a TV show featuring a muscle man who can pull a car with his teeth.”

“Jul,” I say. “Maybe we should unpack and hang up the dresses. They might be wrinkled.”

“Go ahead,” she says, waving me away. “Just toss my dress on the bed. Man, this cheese is delicious. So cool they have real television in the palace. And wifi!”

“We only have thirty minutes. Maybe we should think about make-up?”

“You look fine. Don’t worry so much. Hey mom, they even sent gluten-free sandwiches for you. With hummus! I think I’ll have one.”

“Julia! Check this out!” I am looking out the window down into the courtyard as the guests arrive in their shiny cars. “Wow, these people are really decked out. Look!”

“Just a minute. Some guy from Reykjavik is picking up a truck with one arm.”

“Julia!”

“Okay, sorry. Not sorry. These guys are amazing.”

“Focus, Julia, focus. We’ve got to get ready.”

She flips off the TV, brushes the crumbs from her lap and puts on her gown. “Do you think Her Majesty watches the Strongman show?”

“I hope so.”


Photo by Julia Goldsby
*****

Our porter picks us up at exactly 8:30. I’m not about to walk the three miles back to the ball room in heels so I hand them to Julia and go barefoot. I think “Barefoot in the Palace” would be a great song title. The word “palace” has some interesting rhymes: chalice, malice, Dallas . . .

“Pay attention, Mom! Hold up that skirt!” Jul shouts as we start down the spiral staircase. “No accidents, please.”

We reach the ballroom. I put on my shoes, head to the stage, sit on the piano bench and, with Julia’s help, drape my skirt—big enough to qualify for its own zip code—to the side so that the fabric pools on the floor.

“See you later, Mom! Have fun. You need anything?”

“No, thanks.”

“Good!” Julia heads back to the tech booth. The last minute flurry of crew activity is enough to make me nervous, but basically, I’m pretty chilled.  I love this. My personal assistant might be somewhat inexperienced, but, even though I’m playing what amounts to a dinner-music gig, I have a porter, a stage manager, a lighting technician, a piano technician, and a sound-design team.

The stage manager approaches. “Five minutes before we start,” she says. “I suggest you take this time for yourself and absorb the beauty and history of this room. You don’t work in a place like this every day.”

The house lights dim and the stage lights come on. It’s completely quiet. I look over my shoulder at the throne and down at my age-speckled hands. I will turn sixty in three days. When I was a kid, my sister used to drive me around Chatham Village on her tricycle. I balanced on the back while she pedaled. I pretended I was the queen and waved at my subjects, the oak trees. A striped lounge chair on our front porch was my throne. Like a lot of little girls of my generation, I thought I could get to Buckingham Palace by wearing the right fairy dress or marrying a prince. But the secret entry to the palace was right on the other side of our porch screen door—an old green piano that I played whenever I wanted to feel less like a princess, and more like myself.

Music, it turns out, can be a golden ticket to just about anywhere. You just have to keep showing up and doing what you love. It took me fifty years of coaxing reluctant sounds out of unforgiving keys, but for one shining hour, I am here. The candlelight in the ballroom reminds me of a star-splattered sky on a cloudless night.

The guests arrive. I start to play. I hope I don’t make the royal mistake.

Photo by Paul Burns

*****

Musicians know that a gig is a gig is a gig. We play the way we play. The only thing that changes, really, is context. Like always,  I fall into my piano zone. Even though I’m playing solo, I’m not alone—the Orchestra Invisible has shown up and everyone I love is here. They’re squeezed in next to me on the narrow, royal piano bench, jostling for position as I play through my set list.

Before I know it, the hour is up and the stage manager signals me to stop. I stand, soak up the applause, take my diva bow, and extend my hand to the stage manager so I can wobble down the steps without taking a header.

Whoa.

I walk through the door as the next performer, Australian baritone Daniel Koek, prepares to go on. I recognize the laser-focus in his eyes—he’s pumped up and so tense he’s ready to snap. Not me. I feel like I’ve just stepped out of a warm bath.

Julia meets me in the corridor and hugs me. “You sounded great!”

“Excuse me, Mrs. Goldsby,” says an official looking man in one of those Downton Abbey butler-valet suits. “Lovely music.”

“Thank you,” I say.

“His Royal Highness would like to meet you.”

I am tempted to say get out of town and slap him on the shoulder, but instead I say: “Really?”

“Indeed. Please wait here for further instructions.”

“Uh-oh,” says Julia. “What do you do when you meet the Prince? Are there rules?”

The stage manager tracks down a protocol expert for us. He says: “Curtsy. Call him ‘Your Royal Highness’ the first time, then switch to ‘Sir.’ Wait for him to extend his hand before you extend yours. That’s it. Wait here. Someone will come for you.”

We hear Daniel singing “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables. Wow. What a voice! The song seems an appropriate backstage soundtrack as we watch waiters and sommeliers and technicians and dozens of other groomed palace workers buzz from one station to another. I love this.

“Did you hear the Prince’s speech about waste reduction?” Julia says. “He’s really doing something positive for the planet. It’s such a simple concept. Take what you have and use it. If you can’t use it, donate it to someone who can. No waste.”

It’s time for the House of Windsor meet and greet. The royal photographer hovers. My legs are stiff from all the sitting and I’m slightly worried about executing a proper curtsy, but my circus tent skirt will disguise my lack of technique. When HRH shows up, I forgo the “sweep and dip” and opt for a simple hillbilly squat. My Pittsburgh roots have revealed themselves.

HRH and I have a three-minute private conversation about music and sustainability—two subjects that, oddly enough, go hand in hand. I present Julia to him. My cheese-eating, wine-swilling, strongman-watching gal from two hours ago morphs into a picture of elegance as she gracefully nods and curtsies to our host. This child of mine, I think. A strongwoman, a princess. Both.

“Mom,” Julia says, after HRH has departed. “I was so nervous I curtsied twice.”

“You curtsied twice?”

“Yes. I don’t think he saw the first curtsy, so I did it again. I must have looked like a crazy person.”

“Did he notice the second curtsy?”

“Oh yeah, he noticed. That time I got it right.”

Photo by Paul Burns

We change clothes, freshen up, wrestle the skirt back into the trolley bag, take a few swigs of wine, and slip some royal crackers into our peasant pockets. Our porter takes us back through the labyrinth of rooms and corridors, past the security gate, and just like that, we’re on the street—two exhausted women in black stretch pants—looking for a taxi. I can’t help noticing that the way out of the palace is much quicker than the way in.

The hulky silhouette of Buckingham looms behind us.

“The golden coach has officially turned back into a pumpkin,” says Julia.

“Fine with me,” I say. “I like pumpkins.”

“Me, too,” she says. “Let’s go home.”

*****

Note from Robin: Please visit In Kind Direct  to learn more about how they assist our underserved sisters and brothers in the UK and around the world. Do you work for a company with surplus goods? You can help.

Juliane Kronen and Robin Boles are two of my personal heroes. Thanks to both of them for the gig of a lifetime!

*****

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!

 

Home and Away

A November sky, dazzling and crisp, frames the silhouette of the Dom, the Gothic cathedral towering over the Excelsior Hotel Ernst in Cologne, Germany, where I play the piano. I am scheduled to perform today for Afternoon Tea. The lobby—an oasis of old-money sophistication—offers a plush shelter for upscale Cologne residents, travelers from distant lands, confident business people, and ladies who lunch.

Home. Away. A little bit of quiet in a noisy world.

I sit at the Steinway, a beautifully restored 1939 Model A. The hotel’s Wintergarten area at this time of day usually hums along at a pleasant, lazy afternoon tempo, but it’s unusually serene right now, a secret sanctuary in a fast-paced city. I play “Home & Away,” the title track of my new album. I coast along with the music, and glide through the autumn afternoon, going nowhere and everywhere all at once. Our guests feel at home here. So do I.

Opalescent shafts of afternoon sun slant through the lobby; the golden walls glow with effortless elegance.

I think about home, about the places I’ve lived and the people I’ve loved. I often compose music about water—the rivers and streams running through my life, and that big salty stretch of Atlantic I’ve crossed so often. Sometimes I imagine the ocean is made up entirely of a voyager’s fragile tears.

“What makes you feel at home?” I ask my daughter, Julia.

“That’s easy,” she says. “Home is any place at all where you feel loved. And understood.”

That is this place for me. When I play this piano, surrounded by guests, friends and colleagues, I feel understood, and—occasionally—loved.

American television legend Mister Rogers, in all his wisdom, used to say this: “Take a moment and think about the people who understand you—the people who have loved you into being the person you are right now.”

Some of them are here with me. Some are far away; some might bump into me only in my dreams. For better or worse, they have made me who I am. My music comes from their love.

When I embrace the places that nourish my soul, when I give myself permission to be loved and understood by those around me, a miracle happens. I may be sitting at a 1939 Steinway in a grand European luxury hotel, but I’ve arrived at a place that warms my heart. I might be away. But here, I’m home.

Zu Hause. Home. At last.

*****

Home & Away   (Deutsch)

Der Novemberhimmel, strahlend hell und frisch, umrahmt die Silhouette des Kölner Doms, der gotischen Kathedrale, die hoch über dem Excelsior Hotel Ernst emporragt. Hier ist mein Arbeitsplatz, hier sitze ich am Flügel.

Heute spiele ich zum Afternoon Tea. Die Lobby – eine Oase der Perfektion alten Geldadels – ist ein vornehmer Rückzugsort für Kölner mit gehobenen Ansprüchen, Reisende aus fernen Ländern, selbstbewusste Geschäftsleute und „ladies who lunch“ – elegante Damen, die sich die Zeit beim Mittagessen vertreiben.

Ein Zuhause. Außerhalb meines Zuhauses. Ein wenig Ruhe in einer lauten Welt.

Ich sitze an einem wunderbar restaurierten Steinway-Flügel, Modell A, Baujahr 1939. Normalerweise summt der Wintergarten des Hotels um diese Tageszeit vor angenehm gemächlicher Geschäftigkeit, aber an diesem Nachmittag ist es ungewöhnlich ruhig – der Raum wirkt wie ein geheimer Zufluchtsort inmitten einer schnelllebigen Stadt. Ich spiele „Home & Away”, das Stück, das den Titel meines neuen Albums trägt. Ich lasse mich mit der Musik treiben und gleite durch den Herbstnachmittag, bewege mich nirgendwohin und überall zugleich. Unsere Gäste fühlen sich hier heimisch. Mir geht es ebenso.

Sanft schillernd fallen die Strahlen der Nachmittagssonne in die Lobby; die goldenen Wände erglühen mit spielerisch leichter Eleganz.

Ich denke an zu Hause, an die Orte, an denen ich gelebt habe, und die Menschen, die ich geliebt habe. Ich komponiere gern Musik über Wasser – die Flüsse und Bäche, die durch mein Leben fließen und diesen weiten, salzigen Atlantik, den ich schon so oft überquert habe. Manchmal stelle ich mir vor, der Ozean bestehe nur aus den Tränen einer Reisenden.

„Was gibt dir das Gefühl, zu Hause zu sein?”, frage ich meine Tochter Julia.

„Das ist einfach”, antwortet sie. „Mein Zuhause ist jeder Ort, an dem ich mich geliebt fühle. Und verstanden.”

Für mich ist das die Lobby im Excelsior Hotel Ernst. Wenn ich auf diesem Flügel spiele, umgeben von Gästen, Freunden und Kollegen, fühle ich mich verstanden – und manchmal sogar geliebt.

Von Fred Rogers, der 2003 verstorbenen amerikanischen Fernsehlegende, stammt der weise Ausspruch: „Halt einen Moment inne und denk an die Menschen, die dich verstehen – die, die dich mit ihrer Liebe zu der Person gemacht habe, die du jetzt bist.”

Manche dieser Menschen sind bei mir. Andere sind weit weg, und manchen begegne ich nur in meinen Träumen. Sie haben mich zu der gemacht, die ich bin, mit allen guten und schlechten Seiten. Meine Musik entsteht aus ihrer Liebe.

Wenn ich die Plätze umarme, die meine Seele nähren, wenn ich mir selbst erlaube, von den Menschen, die mich umgeben, geliebt und verstanden zu werden, dann geschieht ein Wunder. Vielleicht sitze ich gerade in einem prächtigen europäischen Luxushotel an einem Steinway-Flügel, Baujahr 1939 und bin an einem Ort angekommen, der mein Herz erwärmt. Manchmal bin ich unterwegs. Aber hier, hier bin ich zu Hause.

Zu Hause. Home. Endlich.

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Home and AwayGoldsby’s newest solo piano album, available November 26th, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!

Song for My Daughter

Life can be one long love song, a musical scrapbook of your greatest hits, a jumble of waltzes and nocturnes, hip-hop moments, and two-part inventions that weave melodies in your head with harmonies in your heart.

Life can also be one long dirge, a monotone drone without shape or nuance, a thin and reedy voice drifting over swampy waters and the five-o’clock shadow of parched fields, sad and sorry and soul-less.

You’re twenty-one years old. I would go for Option A.

Here’s the thing. You’re the composer. You’re also the conductor, the Maestra. At this point in your life, with teachers and parents and colleagues and friends telling you what to do and where to go, you probably don’t feel like you’re in charge of anything. But you are. You get to choose your life song. You, as a strong young woman living with the comforts of the modern world, can pluck the best notes, the finest sounds, from your musical garden. You can string notes together any way you like. They can be cliché and smooth—a daisy chain of simplicity—or rough and raging, as thorny and complicated as the world around you. The notes, when linked together, will lead you somewhere or nowhere, far away or back home, to the hardened soil of foreign lands or the soft chairs of familiar rooms. All of these places will be safe, because you own them; they will be part of your soundscape.

Like generations of women before you, you will encounter swollen, oily men with grabby hands and bloated egos. You will walk into seemingly harmless situations—petal-strewn pastures that turn into minefields capable of shredding your confidence and obliterating your self-esteem. When you’re not treated well, speak up. Do not play the shame blame game. Shout out the name of the offender and move on. Let punctuated shrieks of anger and survival be part of your life’s soundtrack.

Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Expect respect in every aspect of your life. You are not a princess. You are a queen. Off with the metaphorical head of anyone who flunks the human dignity test.

Move on. Can I say that often enough? No.

I promise you this: Good guys do roam the earth—you will meet them and they will acknowledge and appreciate your wisdom and strength. Accept no less.

You will succeed; you will fail. You will laugh and cry. You will fall in and out of love. You will stumble in the haze of romance, dance on the toes of an unsuspecting partner, and shield your tired eyes from loss and  loneliness. You will study and work and then study some more. You will have babies or not. You will learn to say yes; you will learn to say no. You will speak up and sit down, stand tall and stop short. You will figure out what you want; you’ll decide what you need. You will learn to say goodbye.

When you are old, say, fifty or so, you will shout, “This is my song!” Some will sing along. Some will plead indifference. Others will think you’re crazy. At this point in your life, and you can trust me on this, you won’t care. You’ll be proud to have a song worth singing.

Is there anyplace better than where you are, right now? You’re ready to pick up the conductor’s baton, poised to deliver the downbeat, prepared to guide your orchestra through a musical score full of highs and lows, crescendos and diminuendos, full stops, repeat signs, and codas. Anything might happen.

Go for it, Maestra. Find your song. Be fierce.

Photo of Julia Goldsby by Annike Elisabeth Luise.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!

Magic to Do

St. Louis: 1980

Danny Herman and I move from Pittsburgh to New York City around the same time and struggle to get work as performers. In January of 1980 we’re offered jobs in the national tour of Don Brockett’s Big Bad Burlesque. We jump at the opportunity. Danny jumps higher than I do—he’s a dancer and an acrobat. I’m a pianist and occasional actress. After an intense rehearsal period we move to St. Louis and spend a few glorious months living at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel, where we perform eight shows a week in a sparkling little theater deep in the hotel’s dank underbelly. We are up to our necks in sequins and Spandex and smell like sweat, hairspray, and eyelash glue.

The theater manager has a pet monkey that sits on his shoulder.

Danny is nineteen. I am twenty-three. We are big babies in adult-sized Danskins.

Before our first show each night we dine in an employee cafeteria that features hotdogs and a man with respiratory problems who shuffles around the seating area, chain smokes, and coughs on our food. I’m sure he has been employed by the monkey manager to keep performers from eating too much of the free grub.

“Excuse me, Miss,” Danny says to the stout, grunting, hair-netted woman perched behind the steam table, overseeing an unidentifiable mess in a pot. “Could you please tell me what vegetable you’re serving today?”

“That be squash.”

Over the course of eight weeks we request a lot of squash, mainly because we enjoy hearing the hairnet lady, whose name is Winnie, utter that sentence. In Winnie’s world, any vegetable or fruit is squash. Even the applesauce. Danny finds out Winnie owns an apricot poodle. He also discovers she once worked as a nude toe dancer with Jimmy Durante.

How you go from nude toe dancing to squash service is beyond me.  No business like show business.

We purchase a bottle of Kahlúa and learn to drink after-show White Russians while watching Ernest Angley heal people on television. We hold our hands on the screen while Reverend Angley screams, “Evil spirits come out!”

“Heal me!” I yell. “Make me a dancer!”

“Make me a singer!” Danny said. “Get me out of St. Louis!”

Then we fall back on the bed and laugh. Danny’s hotel room has heating issues. “Robin,” he says one morning, his lips turning powdery blue. “My shampoo is all f-f-f-froze. That’s not n-n-n-normal, right?”

The Kahlúa does not freeze.

I usually play the piano, but in this show I’m playing comedy roles. Because I’m required to participate in dance numbers, Danny, our choreographer, teaches me how to fake it. Swing your arms and smile. I trip over my silver shoes when challenged with anything more ambitious than a single pirouette, but I keep trying. Falling comes naturally to me these days, the result of overly-enthusiastic fake tapping, faulty backstage lighting, and a lazy stage crew that neglects to move large pieces of furniture from key entrance points. I’m black and blue all over. The side of my right thigh is the color of an eggplant.

That be squash.

During our run at the Chase Park Plaza, we get roped into performing on a telethon, hosted by “Let’s Make a Deal’s” Monty Hall. No one tells us who benefits from this telethon, but we don’t care because we’re excited to be on television. When go on at two in the morning—a broadcast hour that caters to perverts and insomniacs—I wear a flowered bikini and play a medley of “Glow Little Glow Worm” and “Poor Butterfly” on the piccolo while the corps de ballet performs behind me. I think we’re hilarious, but no one in the studio audience laughs. Danny, sporting a stars and stripes chorus boy outfit, is scheduled to tap dance to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Five minutes before he goes on, he notices there are no floor mikes onstage—a serious problem for a tap dancer on live television. He wants to alert someone but the the floor manager is smoking and flirting with one of our chorus girls.

“Danny,” I say, tapping him on the shoulder with my piccolo. “This is serious. Your ass is on the line. Do something. Talk to Monty.”

“I can’t talk to Monty Hall about floor mikes,” Danny says. “He’s a big star.”

“Your ass is on the line! Not his.”

Danny takes a deep breath, marches right up to Monty Hall and says, “Mr. Hall, sir, I really love your show and everything, but we have a very big problem. I gotta go out there and tap dance in five minutes and there are no floor mikes. It’s gonna sound like a silent movie.”

“Don’t worry about it, kid.”

“But Mr. Hall, sir, tap dancing without sound is kind of stupid. Do you think you could—”

“Kid, leave me the fuck alone. These tech people are professionals. They’ll give you what you need. Get out of my way.”

“But my ass is on the line—”

“Out of my way, kid!”

Imagine that. Bullied by a snarling game show host. I know, Monty is a volunteer like the rest of us, but he shouldn’t berate a kid in a sailor suit. I stand there in my flowered bikini and watch poor Danny on a television monitor—his feet, looking like flag-covered flippers—flapping away with no sound. Is there anything sadder in the history of show business than a teenager—in a stretch satin patriotic costume—silently tap dancing to “Yankee Doodle Dandy?” I think not. But who am I to judge? I have big hair, false eyelashes, and a piccolo tucked in my bra.

“That Monty Hall is a two-bit nitwit,” mutters Danny as he exits stage right and tosses his straw hat on the floor.

When our part of the show concludes I spend several hours avoiding Byron Allen, the twenty-year old moon-faced star of a cheesy TV show called Real People. Maybe Byron likes the piccolo, maybe he likes bruised thighs, maybe he just likes blonds, but he chases me all over that damn hotel, knocking on the door of every cast member in an attempt to find me. Danny, still wearing stars and stripes, hides me in his shower with the frozen shampoo. At least I have legwarmers; it’s cold in the tub.

When we aren’t drinking Kahlúa or grappling with B-list celebrities, Danny gives me dance lessons. In return, I help him with his singing, pounding out songs on the piano in an effort to find the perfect audition piece for him once we return to New York. We settle on a song from the musical Pippin, called “Magic to Do.” We won’t be in St. Louis forever. We might be having a lot of fun, but we believe that our squash days are limited, that soon we will take Broadway by storm, that there’s more to life than Monty Hall, Ernest Angley, and frozen toiletries.

***

Manhattan: Six Months Later

I’ve spent the day doing “promotional modeling” at Macy’s for a perfume called Mystere. I wear a black Ann Klein evening gown and a black mask and carry a black basket of black Mystere perfume samples. My job is to sneak up on women shopping in Macy’s and slip a sample of Mystere into their handbags, an activity likely to get me arrested, shot, or worse. But I need the fifteen dollars an hour, so I stalk the sales floors, a masked grim reaper in a couture dress, with Pigpen clouds of Patchouli dust wafting around me. In an attempt to avoid alarming unsuspecting shoppers scoping out the sales racks, I lurk in remote areas of the store. Most of the time I hang out in the ladies’ room lounge, where I dump my perfume samples in the trash and cover them with paper towels.

The mask is a real drag. I’m tired. I spent the weekend playing the piano for truckers and flight crews at at the Newark Airport Holiday Inn.

Later in my shift I wander over to the bank of pay phones to check my answering service, an activity that always lifts my spirits. I’m hoping to hear from Danny. He has gone to a Broadway open-call audition today for A Chorus Line and I’m anxious to find out what happened.

“Danny called,” said the answering service guy. “He made it through the dance cuts and he has to sing at 3 PM. Shubert Theater. 225 West Forty-fourth Street. He says:  ‘please be there to play.’ ”

Oh my God. A “cattle call” audition is a nerve jangling, ego shattering, potentially life-altering process invented by the red-tailed demons of the Great White Way. Danny must have plowed his way through 500 dancers and survived a bunch of dance cuts to make it this far. It is 2:30, but I am only ten blocks away. I make up an excuse about feeling faint, peel off my mask and black gown, throw on my real clothes, jump in a taxi I can’t afford, and haul my ass to Shubert stage door.

An official-looking clipboard guy stops me. I hate clipboards. Nothing good ever comes from a clipboard.

“I’m here to play the piano for Danny Herman!”

“Who’s Danny Herman?” says the clipboard guy.

“He’s one of the dancers auditioning today.”

Right. Sweetheart, this is a chorus-boy cattle call. No one brings their own accompanist to  a cattle call. We have an accompanist in there. And what’s that smell?”

“Perfume. It’s called Mystere. Macy’s. Look. I’m here for Danny Herman,” I say. “And he’s not no one. He is my friend and I’m here to play for him. He needs me. I gotta get in there.”

“You got a union card?”

“No. Yes. Not yet. Sort of. Do you count AGVA? I’m from Pittsburgh.”

“Christ. Yeah, Danny is on the list. But you’re not. Where’s your music, anyway?”

“In my head. I’ve been working with Danny for months on this. He only knows one song. He’s an acrobat and flips around alot while he sings. You know, like side aerials and stuff. He’s special. Please. Please. Let me in!”

“How do I know you’re not a dancer trying to crash the audition? You look like a dancer.”

“Not a dancer! I’m a piano player. No sane person would ever pretend to be a piano player. And do you really think I’m gonna try and dance in these boots? Please.”

“Ack. Okay. Go ahead. But if anyone asks, I never saw you.”

I enter stage left and squint into the gap between me and the dancers in the wings on the other side. I spot Danny and wave. He beckons me to his side, but I’m not sure how to get there without walking through the interrogation spotlight shining center stage and making a spectacle of myself. I decide to cross by sneaking between the mirrored backdrop and the upstage brick wall—the back wall of the theater. No one will see me. A pesky strip of yellow police tape blocks the passageway, but I crawl under it, get to my feet and scoot sideways through the narrow space—about twelve inches—between the mirrors and the wall. I pause, lean against the wall and tiptoe so I won’t make noise. It’s hot back here. And it’s really far from one side of the stage to the other.

As I creep along, I hear the voice of Tom Porter, a famous Broadway Stage Manager, booming over the sound system: “Under no circumstance should anyone go anywhere near the upstage mirrors. This is a newly installed mirror system and extremely expensive. One of those panels costs six months of a Broadway salary. Stay away.”

Ah. That’s the reason for the police tape. No turning back. At the halfway point I see Danny, waiting for me with his hands over his eyes. I do not swing my arms and smile. I’m sure, given my history, he’s concerned about me falling, but I’ve got this. No spinning.

I reach the other side. Danny pulls me out from under the police tape, and I take a deep breath.

“Jesus, Robin. I really thought you were gonna crash through two-hundred thousand dollars of Mylar. I was prepared to say I didn’t know you. Wow. You smell good.”

“Mystere. I came from the perfume gig. I think I got fired. Okay. Look. Let’s focus. You have to sing. When are you on?”

“I’m number eight. They’re on number six now.”

Danny, who has spent ninety percent of his life perfecting his dance and acrobatic technique, isn’t much of a singer. And I’m not much of an accompanist. Playing the piano in a hotel lounge has not exactly qualified me for this. But here we are, ready to walk onstage at the Shubert. We are two squeaky-faced Pittsburgh kids on a Broadway mission, fueled by naivety, hunger, and a genuine belief that we belong on this stage.

To distract from our musical inadequacies we’ve come up with an arrangement of “Magic to Do” that features Extreme Acrobatics. At least once every four bars, Danny flips. Not run of the mill flips, but Flying Zucchini flips that take your breath away and make you wonder if he has bionic knees. No one will pay much attention to the music.

 Our Broadway strategy: Get the job by flipping.

“You warmed up?”

“As much as I can be.”

“You know the drill. Announce yourself and the song and count it off. You can do this.”

“Next!” says the Stage Manager. “Number eight!”

“Here we go,” said Danny. “It’s my ass on the line.”

“Indeed it is,” I say. “Your ass on the line.”

We both seem kind of small in that big space—Tiny Dancer with Thumbelina on piano.  The stage looks like one giant trapdoor, ready to swallow us whole if we dare to place a misguided foot on its sacred floorboards. A crappy upright piano stands center stage facing away from the house, looking forlorn in the cavernous theater. I say hello to the Assistant Musical Director, then sit on the bench with my back to the audience. As I wait for Danny to announce his song, a strong case of imposter syndrome creates sweat circles in the pits of my very best synthetic blouse. It’s Danny’s audition, but why does it feel like mine?

“What are you singing for us today?” says an amplified voice from the house.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Danny Herman. I’m from Pittsburgh and I am very, very happy to be at the Shubert Theater today auditioning for A Chorus Line, one of my all time favorite musicals.”

As opposed to what? Brigadoon? What is he doing? He must be scared to sing. He’s stalling. That’s it. He’s stalling.

“You know, I love the musical Pippin. And this particular song, called “Magic to Do” seems like a really good choice for today’s audition . . . ”

He’s babbling. Why is no one stopping him? He sounds like the emcee at a Swissvale Moose Club talent show.

“Today I brought my good friend from Pittsburgh with me, Miss Robin Meloy, a wonderful pianist I have known for a very long time. Well not that long, but many months. Robin put together a very nice arrangement for me of “Magic to Do.” A funny thought occurred to me on the way to the theater today. . .”

I can’t stand it a moment longer. I spin around and whisper, “Danny!” He looks at me and I give him the stank eye, the death ray, the start singing now evil stare. I learned this look from my piano teacher. It’s very effective.

“Five, six, seven, eight!” he shouts.

CHORD.

Flip, flip, flip.

Chord, chord, chord.

Danny’s imperfect vocal melody slices through my flawed, raucous accompaniment. He flies through the air with the greatest of ease, defying gravity, an upside-down teenage man-boy chasing a Broadway dream one aerial at a time. He finishes the song to a smattering of applause and warm-hearted laughter.

I am in Danny’s Fifty-second Street apartment eating pizza when the phone rings. He has the job. To celebrate we go roller-skating at the Roxy, where we hold hands and skate round and round under a giant disco ball. We are dizzy with gypsy love. I do not fall, not even once.

Danny ships out and learns the show with a Bus and Truck company in Boston. Three months later Michael Bennett pulls him out of the line and sends him to Broadway.

I sit in the audience on his opening night and cry. Nineteen. Danny is only nineteen. I understand his Pittsburgh roots, his emotional and physical sacrifices, and the hardships he has endured to get here. I’m only four years older than he is, but I’ve been in the business long enough to know that only rarely do the show biz gods bestow a great gig on a deserving artist. I tuck Danny’s moment away in a place I can reach when my own spotlight grows dim. Someday my turn will come, but until it does, this gorgeous memory will pull me through.

I wear white gloves so Danny can spot me in the audience. During the curtain call I jump to my feet and cheer for him, for me, for the winding, bumpy road stretched out before us. Anything is possible.

Danny Herman, 2017

*****

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!

Note: Danny stayed with A Chorus Line until 1986. He currently works as a director, choreographer, and teacher. After many years of living in Austin, Danny, who still has much magic to do, has returned to Pittsburgh where he plans to open The Steel Circle, a non-profit arena theater that will function as a home for aspiring young performers who sing, dance, act, and flip. The employee cafeteria will not feature squash.

Holding On, Letting Go

The first time I went to IKEA I was thirty-five and about ten months pregnant. I had my arm in a cast, the result of a slapstick tumble I had taken a few weeks earlier on a rain-slicked street in Astoria, Queens. I had been on my way to a piano gig at the Manhattan Grand Hyatt and was wearing a black chiffon Zsa-Zsa caftan and a parka. My belly was so huge I couldn’t see my feet, let alone the slippery wooden ramp propped on the curb. Down I went. A chorus of Greek women, concerned about the baby, surrounded me and called an ambulance. One of the Emergency Medical Technicians made a joke about needing a crane to get me onto the gurney.

The baby was fine; the arm, cracked at the elbow; the ego, deflated.

What better time for a little shopping?

“Enough of this indignity,” said my Swedish-American friend Lesley as she looked at my cast. “Über-pregnant and maimed? This is pathetic. You are two weeks past your due date and need to have this baby pronto. A trip to IKEA is in order. Swedish meatballs are known to induce labor. They are magical.”

Lesley, who was smart, helpful, and funny in an Albert Brooks kind of way, had given birth six months earlier. She was anxious for me to join the New Mother Club.

Let me say this and get it over with: I didn’t like being pregnant. A ham-fisted, steel booted trampoline artist had invaded my previously lithe body and the ruckus drove me crazy.

My feet swelled every time I ate.

“Why bother with shoes?” said Lesley. “You could just wear the shoeboxes.”

I had tried everything to get labor started: hot baths, a tiny glass of Merlot (Lesley’s idea), awkward aerobic ambles around the block. Sex. Even swimming. My crawl stroke had become an actual crawl.

A few days after breaking my arm, I was waiting in line at the liquor store—not a good look for a pregnant woman, I know, but I was buying a bottle of champagne for a friend’s birthday—when my water broke. We grabbed our pre-packed suitcase and raced to the hospital, only to be told the imagined amniotic fluid was urine—a bladder mishap. Or pishap. The doctor sent us home to wait it out.

“Ah,” said Lesley. “The third-trimester Walk of Shame.”

Sure, I thought. I’ll try IKEA meatballs. Why not?

“What if I go into labor in IKEA?” I asked Lesley.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “They have everything at IKEA. They probably even have the IKEA birthing room. Look, you’ve already peed your pants in a liquor store. What have you got to lose?”

We drove to IKEA. I ate the damn meatballs (Köttbullar, $3.99). At that point I would have eaten a snake testicle (Rattelbals, $ 301.29) if they offered one and I thought it would speed things along.

Köttbullar aside, I loved IKEA. The whimsical Scandinavian names of household articles large and small—named after towns and people—were a linguist’s fantasy. To entertain myself I wandered through the store, inventing my own names for merchandise. In the children’s department I spotted a plastic bib (Sloppgard, $1.00), a set of tiny wooden blocks (Chöke, $2.99), and an adorable crib that would later convert to a real bed (Nytemäre, $49.99).

I was so intrigued by the living-room department I forgot about my pregnancy. I shuffled my swollen feet past affordable sofas (Näpp, $169.00) and practical coffee tables (Crapholdor, $29,99), mentally decorating rooms I didn’t own, marveling at fabric combinations, and occasionally lifting my plastered broken arm, pointing to a display, and saying things like, “Look. They even make colorful soup ladles.” (Glop, $1.39.)

Big-haired Long Island mothers pushed parade-float strollers through aisles of baby items—Bratsy, Dipewop, Spitlik—and I wondered if I would ever have my own bundle of glädje, or if I was destined to forever roam the IKEA showroom floor like a pregnant zombie, staring longingly at childproof flatware (Stabsma, $2.99) and searching for my former self (Svvelte, out of stock).

I bought numerous Slopskid towels and a Ristsprane bookcase for the baby’s room.

When I arrived home my patient husband wedged me into the bathtub and washed my hair, carefully avoiding the cast on my arm. He dried my back with the Slopskid, then, using the special IKEA Allen wrench, assembled the Ristsprane—the first of dozens of IKEA storage units he would build over the next few decades.

“I don’t think the baby will need a bookcase, like, right away,” he said. “This might be a bit optimistic.”

“We can store other stuff on it,” I said. “Why do they call this screwdriver thing an Allen wrench? Was it named after someone named Allen? Woody?

“Maybe Steve,” he said as he twisted the screws into place, stopping periodically to stretch his cramped hands.

I watched him, grateful beyond belief to be married to a jazz bassist willing to risk his livelihood by building a bookcase for an infant. I waddled across the room, plopped my blimpish body on the tiny sofa, and sobbed.

The final throes of pregnancy test even the strongest women.

“This is God’s way of making you ready for labor,” said a snarky friend. She was at my apartment, sporting a super slim pencil skirt and crop top, and balancing a chilled martini in one perfectly manicured hand, an unlit cigarette in the other. A year ago I had looked like her. Now I looked like four of her. I wanted to karate chop her chiseled midsection with my cast, but I feared causing another pishap. I had already peed in public once this month; a second round seemed distasteful.

“I think it’s God’s way of making me want to shoot myself,” I said. “But thanks for the support.”

“You know,” she said, glancing with obvious disdain at my IKEA bookcase. “I adore IKEA. They make such cute cardboard containers for accessories (Sluttbox, set of 3, $2.99). Maybe you could use them for baby jewelry or something.”

“It’s a boy,” I said.

“It’s New York,” she snapped. “Try to have an open mind.”

“Be careful,” said my sister, Randy. “You could have a very fast labor and delivery. My friend in Butler had her baby in the car, right in her pants.”

“Must have been some big pants,” my husband said.

“I feel like this will never be over,” I said.

“Well,” said my sister. “No one stays pregnant forever.”

***

A child was born. It took almost thirty hours of labor, a Philippine nurse who liked to perform selections from Madame Butterfly under her breath, a lot of medication provided by MY HERO—an anesthesiologist who resembled the neighborhood crack dealer, and, when it became apparent the baby was not anxious to vacate a perfectly comfortable piece of NYC real estate, a C-section.

After a lot of hoopla, I was allowed to hold our son. In a heartbeat I forgot the swollen feet, the broken arm, the sore back and aching legs. I looked at him and turned into a joyful, maternal cliché.

Lesley brought me homemade soup in an IKEA container (Likuidgladje, $1.69) and wine in an IKEA sippy cup (Drönk, $1.20). She admitted she made up the IKEA meatball story.

“Well,” she said. “We had to do something to get you to the other side. Welcome to motherhood.”

***

2017

IKEA, for better or worse, has been a big part of my motherhood story. We’ve been living in Germany for twenty-three years, and have taken frequent trips to IKEA to purchase the material things that keep a household running smoothly and inexpensively.

It recently occurred to me that I’ve never purchased anything in an upscale “real” furniture store. Our modest home is decorated (quite nicely) with a mix of New York City dumpster-dive finds, antiques of negligible value from family and friends, “gotta leave town fast” spit backs from departing American expat families, dining chairs from a castle where I used to perform, and paintings from the Washington Square Art Show. Even my grand piano, cigarette-scarred and elegant, was purchased, second hand, from a jazz guy in Pittsburgh.

The rest, the stuff that glues together the ragtag pieces of our lives, comes from IKEA. The store has never disappointed me, even when I’ve been particularly susceptible to disappointment. If I’m having a bad day I stroll through the IKEA showroom, fantasize about loft beds (Krässh, €129.99) and pick up a lawn chair (Gartenswäag, €19.99), a night lamp (Elderblynd, €24,55), or a toilet brush (Covfefe, €6.39).

I have an IKEA Family Card and I always, always stop for the complimentary hot beverage (Söpewasser, free).

Our adult children have recently left home to start their own lives and careers. This year, to help them with their new apartments, we have made a record number of trips to IKEA, buying mattresses (Bäkkpadd, €119.00), dressers (Jammkräp, €54.99), curtains (Pervstopp €14.99) and dishes (Ramenscoop, set of 4, €4.00). The kids each have their own starter sets of Ristsprane bookcases, lovingly assembled for them by their devoted father, who might as well keep an Allen wrench in his back pocket, just in case.

Little by little, they’ve sorted through their belongings here at home, taking what they need, dissembling their childhoods one trip to the dump at a time, until finally, one day, the shelves are empty. I enter my son’s room. It’s lonely in here, like he was never here at all. Even the smell of him is gone. My daughter’s room—now my office—seems blank without her paints and posters and piles of sweatshirts.

I guess I thought my kids would always be around—arguing, laughing, slowing us down, challenging our “fly by the seat of our pants” parenting instincts, collecting rocks, throwing rocks, watching Seinfeld DVDs, playing the “Axel F” theme on my piano, and refusing to eat eggplant.

The original IKEA Ristsprane shelf—where I once stacked cloth diapers with an arm in a cast—looks forlorn. Over the decades this shelf has held Lego cabins, school reports, Batman action figures, Harry Potter volumes in two languages, a stuffed dog named Ruby, an NBA autographed photo of Steve Nash, a replica of a Chinese Terracotta Warrior, handcrafted heart-shaped figurines, and books about Steve Jobs and Eleanor Roosevelt.

I think back eighteen years, to when our daughter was a toddler. While I was in a decorator stupor, distracted by an area rug in an unusual shade of taupe, she disappeared into the IKEA Marketplace. I raced around the showroom searching for her, sick with worry. After the longest ten minutes of my life, I found her in the lighting department with a lampshade on her head.

“Look, Mommy,” she said. “A party hat!”

Pregnancy ends with the birth of a child. Childhood ends with the birth of an adult. Motherhood never ends, but it sure seems different these days. I miss my kids. It’s a new phase for me—fraught with opportunities for redecorating, renovation, and reinventing myself. It’s a little lonely, but also a little exciting. Maybe I’ll head back to IKEA and buy myself a Sluttbox. Maybe not.

Music helps.

Sometimes your shelves are full; sometimes they’re empty. Sometimes—like when you’re pregnant—time moves too slowly, but more often it rushes by faster than the twist of a Woody Allen wrench.

I gather up a dusty IKEA basket (Weepmum, €1.19) and remember the things it once stored.

***

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

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In case you’re wondering, the German word for Allen wrench is Innensechskantschlüssel.

The Hostess is on Fire

Piano_Keys

I change clothes in the wellness area of the five-star hotel where I currently perform—trading my basic-black stretchy sweat-pants for a basic-black stretchy evening-gown, and my Nikes for a pair of golden sandals that have been accompanying me on piano gigs for several decades. They are as uncomfortable now as they were the day I bought them, but the bling at my toes reminds me, in a good way, of years I’ll never recapture and songs I’ve long forgotten. Besides, I’ll spend most of the evening sitting on a padded piano bench. If I need to make a fast get-away, I can always kick off the sandals and run.

But why would I run? Playing background piano music at an upscale private party offers me a chance to cross into the Piano Girl Zone, a tranquil place where the secure borders between who I am and what I do vanish. I don’t always gain entrance to the Piano Girl Zone—technical challenges and Voice of Doom often mess with my head—but I try. On evenings when I remain outside the PGZ, watching the clock and feeling unappreciated, time creeps backwards as I play choruses of songs that never seem to end.

How is it still 8:10? It was 8:10 twenty minutes ago.

I hope to get into the PGZ tonight. I am playing for a group of Americans traveling through Germany. Because they’re connected to the television and radio business, they know about my NPR radio shows and my family links to PBS. About sixty guests will enjoy a four course fancy dinner while I provide pleasant dinner music. Nice.

I check the Steinway situated in the far corner of the dining room, standing next to a wrought iron, tree shaped candelabra. Each branch of the tree holds a small votive candle. The effect is stunning—twinkling candlelight in the high-ceilinged, dusky dining room, throwing dancing shards of silver light on the polished ebony piano. Wow. This is really pretty. I count my blessings, flex my aching toes, and wait for the guests to arrive.

Because I’ve been doing this for forty years, I know exactly how this evening will unfold. The guests will greet me, applaud politely, have some wine, start chatting, and completely ignore me for the rest of the evening. With the help of the human din and the flickering candlelight I will enter the PGZ and float through four hours of doing something I love. I will note each food course as it is served, wonder if I’ll get something to eat before I faint at the keyboard, and time my music to accompany the flow of the dinner. Right after the main course (medallions of something with asparagus) and directly before dessert (a study in mango), things will wind down. At the end of the evening a few well-meaning, lubricated guests will compliment my music and I will be grateful that someone was listening. My back will protest but I will play another set for a handful of people lingering over espresso and pralines.

This is how it always goes.

Until it doesn’t.

The hostess of the party, a vivacious, curvy woman named Pat Allen, with a lush, Colorado-ish head of hair, sweeps into the dining room ahead of her guests. She runs a company called Premiere Tours, and specializes in planning luxury travel for American companies seeking to reward loyal clients with European elegance. The Excelsior Hotel Ernst is a good match for her high standards.

“Robin!” she says, balancing a glass of champagne in one hand and a handbag in the other. “I am so happy to meet you! I am a huge fan of Marian McPartland and Mister Rogers and can’t believe you knew them! We can’t wait to hear you play.”

American enthusiasm.  How I miss it.

Pat is a fast-talker, but she’s hoarse after shuffling her tour group through various European cities. She sounds a little like Demi Moore on speed. Still, I’m delighted to talk to one of my tribe—there’s something about a straight-ahead American accent that warms my heart.

“Thank you for inviting me to play,” I say. “It’s an honor.”

“I’m sorry about my voice,” she croaks. “I have been wrangling this bunch for a few days and I have the worst case of laryngitis. I love that your father was on Mister Rogers for all those years. How cool is that?”

Pat’s voice is so far gone that I can only hear every other word. She really needs to stop talking and rest her voice, but she won’t take a break.

“Yes,” I say. “Who knows what will happen to all those PBS and NPR shows now that Trump has threatened to cut the entire NEA budget.”

“Oh don’t get me started on Trump,” she says.

This particular group of American tourists hails from Louisiana, which leads me to believe they could be Trump supporters. But I am unsure where Pat sits on the spiked political fence. Because of her allegiance to public television and radio, and her exuberance for all things European, I’m guessing she’s batting for my team, but who knows? I am here to play the piano, not give speeches about racism, sexism, and fascism. In fact, I should avoid mentioning any of the “isms” and just sit down at the damn piano and play “Skylark” or something. But Voiceless Pat wants to talk.

She offers me a glass of champagne. Do I say no? Of course not. Never, ever turn down free champagne. As I sip, she says: “Trump, Trump, Trump. It’s all anyone can talk about. All the Europeans want to know how we could have elected him. Not my fault, I tell them.”

As Voiceless Pat grows more agitated with the Trump topic—and who can blame her, really—she steps back toward the candle tree.

Whoosh! The tips of her big hair catch one of the flickering votive candles, and, as quickly as you can say Covfefe, her hair goes up in flames.

Pat does not feel the heat—she has a lot of hair padding her scalp—and unaware that she’s on the verge of igniting the entire dining room, continues to rattle on about Trump, Trump, Trump. But with her grating voice it sounds more like Ump, Ump, Ump. The flames shoot from her skull. She looks like something out of a Harry Potter film. I might be slow in most of life’s crucial moments, but I am quick in emergency situations, so without missing a beat, I slap her, several times, on the back of her burning head.

“WHY ARE YOU HITTING ME?” Which sounds like: “YY R U ITTIG EEE?”

Voiceless Pat looks puzzled. Possibly she’s stunned that her pianist for the evening—who has yet to play a single note—is accosting her right in the middle of a European luxury hotel.

“You’re on fire!” I shout. Then I hit her some more.

She tries to say something, but her voice is completely gone, and it sounds like: “H——p—–f.”

Finally she smells the burned hair and realizes what has happened.

“Let’s blame this on Trump,” I say. Her guests, slack-jawed with disbelief and slightly horrified by the sight of their tour guide and party hostess torching herself while the amuse bouche is served, breathe a collective sigh of relief when Pat begins to laugh.

“I always knew I was hot,” she rasps. Either this woman has a really great sense of humor or she is the world’s best hostess—determined to make sure her guests have a good time even if she has to visit a burn unit before they dig into their foie gras terrine.

“Not bad enough I lost my voice,” she shouts, as best she can. “I have to lose my hair, too.”

She turns back to me. “How bad is it?” she squeaks.

“Not bad at all,” I say. “Here. Sit down on my piano bench. I have a brush in my handbag. I’ll patch up your hairdo, pronto.”

I brush a few charred chunks from the back of her head. She has a lot of hair. I can hardly see the damage. Lucky for her. If this had happened to me I’d look like Yul Brynner.

So much for the Piano Girl Zone. I am not sure of the protocol for a situation like this. I’ve seen some weird stuff over the years—a guest who peed in her chair, a dog who howled along to Phantom of the Opera tunes, a man with no arms who sat in on my gig and played the piano with his toes—but in my many decades of playing solo piano jobs I’ve never had to slap the hostess to extinguish flames shooting from her head. Hostess Flambé is new to me.

Perhaps I’m stuck in the middle of a Tom Waits song. The carpet needs a haircut. The hostess is on fire. The piano has been drinking. Not me.

I accept a second glass of champagne and begin my first set. I glance at my watch.

Ah. 8:10. I should have known.

***

 

Thanks to Pat Allen at Premiere Tours. A woman after my own heart—when life throws slapstick at you, go with it. Even if there are flames involved.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!

I’ll Take Manhattan

Taxi

My taxi from JFK into Manhattan sits in traffic outside the Queens Midtown Tunnel. Every few minutes we creep forward a few feet. A pale blue sky frames vibrant billboards that advertise luxury condos and cosmetic dentistry.

Concrete, steel, cranes. The only humans I see are stuffed, like me, in cars—their tiny heads bowed to check text messages. Maybe they are praying.

I lower the window and a warm February breeze, greasy and choked with exhaust fumes, teases me with the promise of something better on the other side of the river. Lunch?

If we moved any slower we’d be going backwards.

New York City doesn’t play nice with musicians. It never has. When I moved here in 1980, at the age of twenty-one, I knew the city’s reputation for eating its young. Still, I showed up and managed to claw out a successful career for myself. It wasn’t easy, but I didn’t care. Manhattan, a strutting, strung-out, skulking bad-boy in a distressed leather jacket, hypnotized me. Now and then I snapped to my senses and considered leaving, but the bad boy, aware of my displeasure, would toss a half-full swag bag in my direction and convince me to stay put. The stench of ambition wafted up Madison Avenue and lulled me into a state of contented numbness. I probably stayed longer than I should have.

I played the piano in hotels that offered live music as a swank perk for their five-star guests. Hotel musicians like me—the ones who caught the swag bag lob—had decent health insurance, a pension plan, and enough money to cover rent, an occasional new pair of glitzy shoes, and countless diner breakfasts. Note: Over the course of fifteen years I may well have consumed two thousand plates of poached eggs on toast. Coffee, regular.

Those years were terrible and wonderful and dramatic. And fun.

I left in 1994 at the age of thirty-six. I flew away, victorious, with a been-there, done-that attitude that carried me to Europe with a bassist husband and toddler son. I felt strong and lucky. I had survived an eating disorder, too much Valium, serial dating, and aching loneliness. I had also fallen in love, polished my music skills, and learned how to say no with confidence.

Countless people—some of them beautiful, some of them crazy, criminal, or worse—had passed my piano over the course of fifteen years. I played. They listened. They ignored me. I played some more. Back then, music floated through the lobbies, restaurants, and cocktail lounges of upscale Manhattan hotels. The piano soothed, entertained, and reminded guests who were paying too much for a Manhattan hotel room that a nice song can mean more than a double shot of Ketel One Citron and a bowl of salty nuts.

I’m returning to the city this afternoon on the heels of a small East Coast concert tour. I won’t be playing in NYC, but hope to visit friends, infuse my drowsy spirit with the city’s energy, and hear some music. Two decades after I started a calmer, more creatively productive life in a foreign country, I want to see what I left behind.

This tunnel is taking forever. What was that movie back in the eighties? C.H.U.D. Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. Why do I remember such things?

At last. We come up for air.

Gramercy Park. I did a couple of shows at the Players Club in 1984. Nice place.

I could live here again, I think. No I couldn’t. Yes I could. See. This is how the bad boy gets you—he makes you drive through a stinky, gloomy tunnel thinking you’re a C.H.U.D, then waves a couple of brownstones and a Ginkgo tree in your face and tempts you back into his tattooed arms.

***

My husband, John, will arrive later this afternoon. Our good friends Norman and Ellen, the kind of hip, warm-hearted, smart people you’d expect to meet in the world’s most sophisticated city, will host us for the next three days. Their Fifth Avenue, window-lined apartment (with guest suite!) has offered a welcome refuge to many of their artist friends over the years.

John shows up,  as fresh as one can be after a nine-hour flight from Berlin. In the last five days he has been in Maastricht, Bielska Zadymka (Poland), Berlin, and now, Manhattan. I have been in Charleston and Pittsburgh. He wins.

John and I haven’t seen each other for three weeks and we’ve got a lot to talk about. The last time we were in New York together without kids was twenty-five years ago. We walk a couple of blocks to the Knickerbocker for dinner, a place where John used to play duo gigs with some of the greatest pianists in the world. The place is packed—but there’s no music. The grand piano sits in the corner covered with mid-priced bottles of liquor. I can hardly see the top of the instrument. A baby stroller the size of a Hummer is parked where the piano bench should be.

The food is great, the wine is fine, but where’s the music? Oh, right. It’s back in Bielska Zadymka. Or Charleston.

The next day we visit the new Whitney, and walk the entire length of the Highline. We meet a street poet named Mary, who improvises a poem for me on the word of my choice. I choose “John” and she goes to town:

When he’s gone,

There is no dawn,

That’s the way you feel,

About your John.

FullSizeRender-6

I love the 34th Street grunge-themed Greek diner where we have lunch. It reminds me of a place on Eighth Avenue where a street person once blew his nose right into my friend’s plate, then, when he recoiled in disgust, grabbed his BLT and ran out the door.

I’m not sure why I’m nostalgic about health department violations and street poets.

We walk and walk and walk. Later we meet Norman and Ellen for dinner at Joe Allen, where—much to Norm’s delight—one can still order warm fudge cake with coffee ice cream.

Norman and Ellen head home. John and I begin our evening tour of places where we used to play. We stroll through the pedestrian park that used to be Times Square. It feels familiar, but slightly off—like a cheesy waltz version of a piece meant to be played in bashing, odd-meter time.

Where are the cars? Why does it look like Las Vegas?

Times_Square_Donald_E_Curtis

Photo by Donald E. Curtis

We enter the circular band of elevators at the Marriott Marquis, and run around trying to find an available lift to take us to the eighth-floor lobby. I played here for seven years, starting in the mid-eighties. Eventually Marriott management replaced me with an awful-sounding player piano and a tuxedo-clad crash test dummy.

The dummy and the piano have vanished. I walk to the middle of the Atrium Lounge, stand right where the piano used to be, and look up. I remember the waitresses in their casino-inspired, organ grinder’s monkey costumes, the greeter who had a dwarf phobia, the breakfast buffet on top of the piano, the ladies’ room attendant who sold me evening gowns from her “shop” in the handicapped toilet stall, the stalkers, the moguls, the hookers, the stars.

But mostly I remember music. Seven years of solo piano—that’s a lot of notes. The current silence fills the lobby with despair. It seems hollow and pointless here—like a hospital cafeteria trying too hard to be cheerful.

Onward. We wait for an elevator, but give up and take the stairs.

***

Next stop, the Algonquin, Dorothy Parker’s former residence and home of the famous Round Table. The Algonquin, renowned for its literary history, also hosted New York’s finest cabaret stars. I spent many serene evenings in the Oak Room, listening to John accompany Susannah McCorkle. The Oak Room was Manhattan at its best. You could order a martini, listen to some Gershwin, and slip into your most divine self.

We ask the concierge about music.

“No music,” he says. “Sorry.”

“No music?” John and I respond in unison, a Greek chorus of disbelief.

“Sorry.”

“But this is the Algonquin,” I say.

“New management,” he says. “The Marriotts took over a couple of years ago. Sorry.”

Those damn Marriotts.

“So the Oak Room is dark?” John asks.

“Yeah,” says the concierge, who seems to be doubling as a doorman. “Sorry. Now it’s a conference room. Go see for yourselves.”

We peek inside and gasp. Florescent lighting, a fake wood conference table, folding walls, a beamer. They might as well call it the Plastic Room.

“And the Round Table?” I ask. “Please tell me it’s still here.”

“Yeah,” he says, “but they closed the library bar. Now it’s in the breakfast room.”

“Like Dorothy Parker ever ate breakfast,” I say.

“I used to play back in the Oak Room,” John says to the concierge. “With Susannah McCorkle.”

“God rest her soul,” he says. “I loved her. That ‘Waters of March’ recording is still my favorite.”

“I played that with her a bunch of times,” John says.

A moment of silence for Susannah, for Dorothy, for the confused cabaret and literary ghosts roaming the hotel lobby. Part of the lyric to Jobim’s “Waters of March” runs through my mind.

A stick, a stone,

The end of the road,

The rest of a stump,

A lonesome road.

A sliver of glass,

A life, the sun,

A knife, a death,

The end of the run.

 

“Hey,” says the concierge. “We still have the Alqonquin cat.”

“That’s something,” I say. “At least there’s that. There’s the cat.” I sound like Mary the poet.

Onward.

***

We head to the Grand Hyatt, where John and I played for years. He worked with a jazz trio in the lobby; I played in the velvet and leather cave known as Trumpets. Back then the hotel was owned by Professional Son and future U.S. President, Donald Trump.

John and I met at this hotel. The Hyatt Corporation had a catchy slogan in the nineties. “Welcome to the Hyatt. Catch the wave.” John and I caught the wave. Twenty-six years have passed. That was a big wave.

We’re not expecting any music when we walk through the glass doors—we knew the Hyatt music policy had ended years ago.

Whoa. If the Marriott looks like a hospital cafeteria, this place looks like a mausoleum. This hotel was never a Mecca of good taste, but now it’s sterile and a little creepy.

Where’s the Crystal Fountain? Where are the crazy lobby people who hid behind fake ficus trees and muttered absurdities at the musicians? Where are the dancers and brawlers and hulking security guards who occasionally belted out Frank Sinatra tunes during the trio’s last set?

Gone.

It’s sleek and sterile and corporate in here, a polished-stone shrine to mediocrity. We walk down the empty corridor to Trumpets, a bar I used to poke fun at for its eighties upscale lounge-lizard vibe. Smoky and slightly sleazy—it was, after all, named after the Donald—Trumpet’s once featured music six nights a week, five to midnight. I spent years at the Trumpet’s piano, finding my musical voice and fending off guys who sent me vague musical requests along with their room numbers.

“Oh, no,” I say when we reach the entrance to the former cocktail lounge. Another sleek, silent, and stupid conference room. It looks like a sheetrock shoebox.  Remembering that this is where I fell in love with John, I try to conjure a little romantic nostalgia for the Hyatt—but I come up empty. Sad!

I never really liked Trumpet’s, but this nondescript space is depressing. No fun. I’d much prefer to see a musician, coaxing pretty music out of the Steinway and plotting an exit strategy. Who am I kidding? Just for a second I’d like to catch a glimpse of my former self, the younger, skinnier, goofier model, tossing bouquets of notes to a half-grateful crowd.

Onward.

***

Next stop: The Waldorf Astoria, home to one of the last hotel piano gigs in Manhattan. Tonight, the Waldorf, recently purchased by a Chinese insurance company called Anbang, will close its doors for a three-year renovation that will turn the hotel into a condo residence for rich and famous globetrotters.

My pal Emilee Floor has been playing at the Waldorf for the last nine years. John and I, along with several of my good friends—Harlan Ellis, Greg Thymius, Carole and Emilio Delgado— will be there to send her off in style. A few of the Waldorf’s musicians, past and present, also show up. Daryl Sherman and Debbie Andrews, both of whom worked with me back in the eighties and nineties, wander into the lounge, looking a little wistful. Piano Girls forever, I guess. We may all be twenty years older and a few pounds heavier but we still have closets full of evening gowns, fleeting fingers, and too many songs left to play.

Emilee plays the 1907 Cole Porter Steinway, a gorgeous, blond mahogany instrument that needs a serious, expensive overhaul. It hurts to play this piano, which some of us call the Tendonitis Steinway. The Hilton Corporation, who manages the property, likes to brag about the piano’s pedigree, but they have never seen fit to invest in its restoration. It’s plopped in the corner of the lounge, facing exactly the wrong direction. Emilee, a singing-playing wonder in a purple sequined cocktail dress, does her best to capture the mood of the room.

John and I listen and watch as a sloppy and irritated woman in a too-tight business suit staggers to the piano and begins harassing Emilee. Smiling, Emilee chats between phrases and does that thing that great hotel players know how to do. It’s like watching a munitions expert disarm a bomb. The woman chills out and wobbles back to her Bacardi and Coke.

Emilee conquers the evening with her free-spirited, uplifting vocals and lissome piano arrangements. Her music paints the lounge with light, but the night hangs heavy. We have visited four hotels, three of them without music, one of them about to close its heavy brass doors.

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Emilee Floor at the Cole Porter Steinway

What will happen to the Cole Porter Steinway? I fear the Hiltons, or the Chinese Anbangs, or whoever is running the place will shove it, unceremoniously, into a storage locker meant for cans of lard and bed linens. In three years, following the hotel renovation, they’ll have housekeeping dust it off. An overworked, deadline-crazed, junior interior-designer with no clue about music history will say, “Oh, that’s cute!” and place the piano, un-restored and out of tune, in a nook of the lobby surrounded by velvet ropes. There will be a meaningful plaque. The piano, silent and stuck without a player in a cone of corporate silence, will become a museum piece. Occasionally, an underpaid Food and Beverage Trainee will use the closed piano as a surface to hold bottles of sparkling wine or a large vase of calla lilies.

I don’t think Mr. Porter, who would have adored Emilee Floor, had this in mind when he bequeathed the piano to the hotel.

“Get that piano in shape,” a modern-day Porter might have trilled. “You spent forty thousand to reupholster those ugly-ass sofas in the ladies’ lounge, the least you can do is fix the damn piano. And hire some musicians to play it. What good is a silent hotel lobby? Get the wine off the Steinway and put it on a table where it belongs. And for God’s sake, lose the lilies. It’s not a funeral.”

Live music has always been a glossy thing. Slippery, almost. It flows into the night like a delicate river and rolls forward into an ocean of collective memory. The loss of music in Manhattan’s hotels might seem inconsequential, but it’s not. The retreat of song marks one more indignity in an era clouded by corporate folly, desensitization, and greed. The river is running dry.

Take note: By discontinuing their music policies, Manhattan hotels have officially insulted their guests—a subtle slap in the face of expense account clients and international tourists hoping for a little New York City enchantment.

You take away music; you take away magic. That simple.

Enough.

Onward.

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Those Delgados

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Our Harlan Ellis

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Broadway musician Greg Thymius

***

Over the next few days, we see a Broadway play, attend an Emanuel Ax rehearsal at Carnegie Hall, go to lunch with our niece, hang out with Betsy Hirsch at the new (and very corporate-looking) Steinway Hall, visit some Village jazz clubs. Yes, New York remains jam-packed with fanciful things to do and see. But I’ve come to realize that—had I stayed here—my career as a hotel musician would have fizzled and died.  I would have found something else to do, because that’s the way it is when you live and work in New York City. You keep on keepin’ on, even when you’re tired and feeling like a C.H.U.D.

l love it here; I hate it here. We leave town on a Wednesday and get stuck in traffic, this time on the Manhattan side of the tunnel. It’s hard enough to get into the city, but I have to fight my own demons every time I dare to leave. I look at my handsome husband and think about our adult kids back in Europe, our home, our lush careers. Fifteen years in New York City almost cracked me, but it pushed me to the other side of who I’m supposed to be.

It’s the first of March. We travel under the East River and start our long trip home. Here it comes again, the Jobim song.

It’s the wind blowing free,

It’s the end of the slope,

It’s a beam, it’s a void,

It’s a hunch, it’s a hope.

And the river bank talks

Of the waters of March,

It’s the end of the strain,

The joy in your heart.

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Photo by Nestor Ferraro

***

“Waters of March” by Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Many thanks to Norman & Ellen Roth, Carole & Emilio Delgado, Emilee Floor, Greg Thymius, Harlan Ellis, Betsy Hirsch, and Vivian Chiu. We packed a lot into three days.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

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Silver

Silver

It takes Oliver Rosen exactly eight and a half minutes to cross the Queensboro Bridge from Long Island City to Manhattan’s East Side. That’s on a good day, when he’s not hung over and doesn’t stop to stare at the jagged skyline. He crosses this bridge six days a week on his way to the Neil Simon Theatre on Fifty-second Street, where he plays flute in the orchestra of a Broadway musical called Meet the Piggies.

Oliver likes to stop in the middle of the bridge and look down at the silvery East River. Today, he jangles the change in his pocket and lets his mind wander. He drops a dime over the side of the bridge and watches it fall. Silver. He remembers icicles and scratched bike fenders; the smoky-silver fur of his favorite cat, Annie; his Aunt Stella’s stiff and puffy hair, shot through with streaks of pewter and pepper; the dented pale silver Plymouth station wagon his father drove for the last two decades of his life; the shiny stainless-steel refrigerator, now in his ex-wife’s kitchen; his daughter’s charm bracelet with sterling trinkets that dangle from her thickening wrist; the Manhattan horizon on a cloudy winter evening, when the city lights buff the tarnished edges of an ordinary sky and turn it into a king’s heaven.

Ten years. Ten years of playing for those fucking pigs. Not that he has anything against pigs. But Oliver Rosen, boy wonder of the Rochester Youth Symphony Orchestra, graduate of the Juilliard School, and prize-winning student of the esteemed Hank Goldberg, had expected more from his career than a ten-year run playing soaring flute lines for a bunch of pigs. Now, approaching his fortieth birthday, he is known in music circles as Pig Guy. He is divorced, living a thousand miles away from his daughter, and trapped in an orchestra pit playing for Broadway’s most beloved musical, whose highlights include an emotional Strauss-inspired waltz titled “This Little Piggy,” and an extravaganza—featuring sixteen pigs and twenty dancers—called “Pork Pie Hoe Down.” For Oliver, playing the show means two hours and eleven minutes of nonstop mind-numbing chromatic runs and trills eight times a week. Audience members tell him the pigs perform amazing tricks while he is playing.

The pedestrian path of the bridge—flecked with bits of fool’s silver—looks endless and open and free, as if Oliver could stroll right into the amalgam of Manhattan’s gaping mouth. But when he stands still, as he does today, the birds and cars and clouds and people and barges and buses and trucks and things that go-go-go make him dizzy with their collective sense of purpose.

Against all odds, Meet the Piggies had opened a few months after 9/11, just as other Broadway shows were closing due to dismal ticket sales. The threat of additional disaster kept tourists home—if terrorists could destroy the Twin Towers, what would stop them from blowing up a theater or two? Some shows stayed open, but panicked Broadway producers feared the worst—empty theaters and lost revenue. The producers of Meet the Piggies, “a delightful musical romp with an unstoppable porcine hero,” went on with the show, determined to protect their investment by encouraging theater lovers to take advantage of discounted tickets. Most of the orchestra members, happy to have jobs, stayed with the show, but the original flutist hired for the gig, convinced that terrorists were targeting the Great White Way, fled to Montana. The musical contractor, desperate to find a virtuoso flutist willing to accompany dancing pigs, called Oliver after getting a recommendation from Hank Goldberg.

“Oliver Rosen is your guy,” said the professor. “He’s an odd sort. Persnickety. He wears a fur vest and these weird green fingerless gloves. And that hair? White guy with an Afro? Please. Or maybe he’s not white, don’t know. Don’t care. Good player. Kind of a misfit, but he plays the heck out of anything you put in front of him. He’s a scanner. He can read fly shit. And I’ve heard he’s still unemployed, which doesn’t surprise me, given his personality. If you can get past the ick factor, you’ll have a great player in your pit.”

The contractor hired Oliver, grateful to find a last-minute replacement who could nail the difficult score. So what if he wore a fur vest?

“The lead pig in the show—her name is Peggy P—speaks through the sound of the flute,” the contractor told Oliver. “Your flute will be the voice of the pig. It’s a tough couple of hours for you, since Peggy P is always onstage, and, basically, she never shuts up.”

Oliver never imagined that a musical about a pig family, especially one that premiered so soon after America’s greatest tragedy, would rescue Broadway, and, in a way, rescue him. Like most freelance musicians in town he was out of work and had been scrambling for gigs that didn’t exist. His wife, frustrated by her temp work in a dental clinic, threatened to take their daughter and leave for Florida—which she did anyway, a few years later—but at least Meet the Piggies had bought Oliver a few years with his family.

Today is Wednesday. Matinee day. Two shows. Four hours and twenty minutes of pig music. It’s lonely in the pit—Oliver’s only companion is the conductor, a stout guy named Brownie. The rest of the orchestra is on the eighth floor of the theater building, connected to what’s happening onstage through a video feed. Oliver keeps one eye on the video, one eye on Brownie, and tries to stay awake and in the zone. He’s not sure how much longer he can stand it. The odor of overripe bananas wafts through the pit every time Brownie raises his baton. But maybe it’s not Brownie. Maybe it’s the pigs.

Oliver stops again and looks at the river. The water heaves downstream, but it’s dull and rigid, reflecting nothing—neither mystery nor magic surges beneath its thick skin. Oliver wonders what would happen if he opened his backpack, assembled his flute, and catapulted it, spear-like, into the river. Maybe it would bounce or float, but more likely it would slice through the pockmarked façade of the murky water and vanish. Another contribution to Manhattan’s moat. No ripples left behind. Gone. Poof. Just like that. Easy. Covered up. Vanished.

He had tried to get other work. Up until five years ago he auditioned for every advertised symphony and opera orchestra job he could find. He was willing to leave New York City. Oliver had come close to landing the second flute position with the Cleveland Orchestra, but lost to a Korean flutist who kicked his ass in the final round of auditions. Two years ago he had a shot at a tour with the rock star Baby. It paid ten grand a week plus expenses. In the end, Baby hired a Spanish flutist who doubled as a flamenco artist. At one point Oliver tried to put together a flute quartet, but the gigs he booked paid barely enough to cover his expenses. He couldn’t afford to quit the Broadway gig; he couldn’t afford to send in a sub. He gave up on finding another music job and stuck with the dancing pigs. His wife and daughter gave up and moved to Orlando, where nothing is silver and everything is pastel. Once a month Oliver sends them money. Once a week he calls. Once a minute he misses them.

While he was still married, he had a brief affair with a substitute trumpet player named Grace. That could have turned into something, but she took a job with the Army Field Band and left town. Maybe later this week he could call her. Track her down. Tell her he got a divorce.

Oliver is the only original member of the orchestra and cast still performing with Meet the Piggies. Other musicians shift to other shows when they get bored, but Oliver, whose saxophone and clarinet skills are abysmal, stays, because no other Broadway show needs a solo flutist. He has seen chorus girls replaced by younger and leaner Broadway hopefuls. He has watched stagehands leave for better-paying jobs. Even the pigs retire after two years. Maybe they go to Florida.

The orchestra pit is covered with a transparent net that keeps the animals from sliding off the raked stage and into Oliver’s lap. It happened once, back in 2008. The pig squealed, the audience howled, Brownie grunted and continued waving his arms. Oliver Rosen didn’t miss a note. He continued playing while a frazzled stagehand soothed the poor pig, attached a leash to her jewel-studded collar, and led her through the bowels of the theater and back to the wings. When she reappeared in the downstage spotlight, glistening and serene in her silver tutu, the audience cheered.

Oliver looks down at the East River one last time, adjusts his backpack, puts on his headset, and listens to the opening phrases of James Galway playing the Allegro Maestoso movement of the Mozart Flute Concerto in G. The music sounds like polished silver—brilliant and old. He has other, newer versions of this music, but he keeps returning to this one.

Oliver Rosen makes it to the other side of the bridge and keeps walking. He’ll arrive at the theater in fifteen minutes if he keeps up his pace.

One more time. He can play this show one more time.

***

Illustration by Julia Goldsby.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

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