Limelight

Give Me the Night.

In 1982 Dale Cinski was twelve-years old and obsessed with the guitar. He idolized George Benson and tried to imitate his style by listening to and playing along with George’s records. With the help of his cousin, drummer Spider Rondinelli, Dale copped tickets to a Benson concert at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh. He wrangled his way backstage and told George how much he loved playing the Ibanez GB-10 (Benson’s signature guitar). Two years later, Dale–exhibiting an unusual amount of pluck for a teen guitarist—showed up at George’s hotel and played a song called “Being With You” from Benson’s In Your Eyes album.

“Man,” said George to Dale, “You’ve got some chops.”

Boom. George Benson became Dale Cinski’s mentor.

Uncle George is now seventy-five. Dale is forty-eight. They visit each other at George’s home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, hang out whenever George is in Pittsburgh, and stay in touch on the phone. The two of them have played a gazillion notes over the last three decades—George in stadiums and the world’s best concert halls, Dale in decidedly more modest venues.

Dale—married to my sister, Badass Randy—is a welcome addition to our family of rhythm section players. John (my husband), Randy, Dale, and I arrived in Paris on Sunday to attend George’s concert, cancelled at the last minute due to George’s gorge irritée (sore throat). Oh, the perils and responsibilities of fame. Like most musicians, if I get sick, I either soldier through the gig or call a sub and lose a few hundred bucks. No one throws a fit. When George cancels, he disappoints throngs of fans, loses tens of thousands of dollars, and causes his entire touring company to fall into panic mode. That’s a lot of pressure for one aging guitar player.

The older I get, the more I respect the tenacity required to balance prominence with virtuosity. George Benson is clearly an artist dedicated to the craft of making music, but he’s also a stalwart celebrity, keen on maintaining his judiciously-groomed notoriety.  George has been walking the celebrity tightrope for decades and, aside from the current gorge irritée, has remained ready, steady, and in the game. I can’t wait to meet him.

I truly admire musicians—famous or not—with careers that span decades. As my dad likes to point out: “It’s easy to have a hit; it’s much more difficult to have a career.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with a hit.

We make our own fun in Paris while we wait for George’s voice to return. We know we won’t get to hear a concert, but at least—thanks to Dale—we’ll get to hang out with him. Julia, my photographer daughter, joins us so she can spend more time with Randy and Dale. The five of us visit the steamy grounds of the Louvre, wander through the scorched Jardin des Tuileries, gaze at the Monet water lily panels at Musée de l’Orangerie, and spend two hundred Euros on falafel at an upscale Lebanese restaurant that caters to the rare, starving vegan stumbling through city lanes in search of sustenance. To escape the extreme heat, we book a Canal Saint-Martin river rat cruise and find ourselves—after passing through a dozen antiquated but functional locks—floating underneath city streets with shards of daylight cutting through circular overhead windows. It’s the coolest I’ve been in a month and despite the gloom, doom, and musty-dusty-rusty smell of it all, I’m happy.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Two days after the missed concert, George calls Dale and schedules a cocktail-party meet and greet for all of us. Julia opts out so she can go search for rumored Banksy paintings recently sighted on Paris streets. We jump in an Uber and arrive at the hotel where the band is staying. George’s voice has returned. He’s thrilled to see Dale again, and happy to talk to all of us about music and life; the gig he played with John and Lionel Hampton at Carnegie Hall back in the eighties; the Crawford Grill and his Pittsburgh roots; about his dear mother, a nurse, who once cared for my father in a Pittsburgh hospital; about the music business in Germany.

After a low-key, but inspirational hour with him we’re joined by a couple of George’s rhythm section players, most notably bassist Stanley Banks, who has held down the low end of Benson’s sound for decades. Stanley has recently lost over 100 pounds by eating raw vegan food, so our conversation veers back and forth between bass lines and recipes for almond milk smoothies.

 

Stanley Banks and John Goldsby

As the evening stretches out, two teenage gypsy-guitar players show up to play for George, each of them out Django-ing the other. George cheers them on, offers a few tips, and suggests alternate changes to the tune. Then George plays for the kids. What a thing—a legendary guitarist giving a master class in a Paris bar.

“This is what he does,” Dale says to me. “He helps young musicians. These kids are like me, thirty five years ago. They’re never going to forget this night.”

I turn to George and express my admiration and he says: “Hey baby, these kids are the future of music. It’s my duty to guide them.”

Go, George.

The hotel lounge is now full of fans and friends, clustered around Uncle George and hanging on every note. It’s a scene. At my request (and with Stanley’s urging), he plays his version of “People,” even though other guests in the bar—unaware there’s a superstar playing a private concert for anyone who wants to listen—complain that they can’t hear the television broadcast of the World Cup soccer match.

“The music is too loud!” says one of them.

“You’re blocking the television!” says another.

George graciously picks up the bar tab and we go to dinner with his entourage, including the Benson management team, the Gypsy-guitar brothers, a nightclub promoter, and two lovely—but slightly desperate—young women who appear to be from an escort agency. We dine at a Japanese places (close to the Avenue des Champs-Élysées) where everyone sits around a grill and a ninja chef throws meat and fish in the air before chopping it with the French version of the Ginsu knife.

After dinner, the promoter invites us to a trendy nightclub around the corner. It’s one of those velvet rope places with beautiful, thin, Europeans in fifty shades of anthracite. They slouch, lurk, and look bored, chic, and perfect. We, on the other hand, are a mixed bag of fashion do-s and don’t-s. George, our designated celebrity, looks sleek in his cobalt-blue silk jacket and gold medallion, and his team fits right in with their hip gangsta-rapper outfits (one of them has a pirate scarf on his head). As one might expect, the escort girls are decked out in short skirts and high heels. The Gypsy-guitar teenagers look good because they are sixteen, wearing black, and have faces that resemble freshly peeled eggs.  But the chic quotient goes downhill fast when it comes to the rest of us.  Randy and I, in our misguided attempt to make a Boho fashion statement, resemble Great Aunt Edna and her spinster sister Gertie, headed to a hoe-down. Dale’s shirt is floral and foppish and suits him in a Jimmy Buffet meets Sting kind of way. John, in what may be the French fashion faux-pas of the decade, is wearing a Lands End golf shirt and chinos.

Because we are with George, the buff bouncer lifts the velvet rope and lets us cross the threshold. I can’t help but notice that George’s musicians have not joined us for this part of the evening’s festivities. Maybe that’s part of being an A-list sideman. You get to eat a room-service club sandwich and go to bed at a respectable hour.

“I’m trying to channel Rihanna but it’s not working,” I say, worrying whether or not I have sake stains on my dress. “I thought tonight would be a simple bar hang, not a trip to Paris’s most exclusive nightclub.”

“This is so wrong,” says John. “Look at me. I haven’t even mastered the French tuck. I am the middle-aged dad poster guy.”

“Not true, brother,” says Dale. “At this time next week all of Paris will be wearing those Lands End golf shirts. You’ll start a trend. Bass player chic.”

“Plus,” says Randy. “You have fabulous hair.”

“Karl Lagerfeld would cringe,” I say.

“Who’s he?” says John.

With the judgmental eyes of the Paris fashion police upon us, we follow the club promoter and the escort girls through the heavy padded doors, down a padded staircase and into a padded private VIP area best described as a padded velvet womb. It’s the second time today I’ve found myself underneath Paris—once on water, this time on shaky ground.

The club throbs with techno music, the kind of stuff most musicians hate, but here we are, in the VIP section, with strapping male-waiters waving sparklers and pouring huge tumblers of champagne from magnums of Dom Perignon. I am suddenly extremely tired. I should have stayed back at the hotel with Stanley. He’s probably eating a chopped salad and watching CNN. The blaring music rattles my teeth. We have to shout in each other’s ears.

“More bass in the place!” yells John.

“I am thirty years too old and thirty pounds too heavy for this joint,” I say.

“Right!” says John. I like to think he can’t hear me. “This is the kind of place I have spent my life avoiding,” he shouts.

The escort girls start to dance for us. Enough. I join them. I might be sixty and dressed like I stepped out of a 1996 Talbot’s catalog, but I can jiggle my trunk junk with the best of them, especially after consuming a bucket of sake and three-hundred bucks worth of champagne. As my 102-year-old Piano-Girl friend Emily Remington recently said: “I might be old, but I’m not cold.” Screw the sunset and wisdom of age and the Golden Girls and dignity and all that—I’m dancing. The walls are padded and so am I. Randy gets up and joins me. We do the hoochie-koochie dance with our two Parisian escorts. Hoe-down, throw down. John makes a video and sends it to Julia, who, in a classic case of opposite world, is back at the apartment editing photos of French art while her mother is clubbing.

“WTF?” she texts back.

Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack. In spite of the thumping music, the dancing girls, the mini-fireworks, and the champagne, George—having completed his celebrity duties for the evening—takes a nap. It’s not easy being a star. Especially if all you really want to do is play the blues.

Dale looks at George and says to me: “I really love this guy. He means the world to me.”

“Does this happen all the time?” I ask Dale. “The party thing? I mean, why doesn’t George just say no to all this stuff?”

“He can’t,” Dale says. “It’s part of who he is. Every night is a scene—doesn’t matter if it’s Pittsburgh, Paradise Valley or Paris. I don’t know how he holds it together, but he does.”

Dale nudges George awake, embraces him, and says goodbye. Our booty-shake decelerates to a shuffle and we exit the club, stage left. We’ve seen three sides of George tonight: the caring, consummate artist, the educator, and the indomitable celebrity determined to stay in the public eye. I don’t envy his balancing act. Limelight is an unflattering color for most of us. But it suits Mr. Benson.

Two in the morning. I haven’t been out this late since my New York days. I’ve grown soft around the middle, and the hard-lipped edge of the clammy July night rubs me where it hurts.

We return to Cologne the next day. George, made of smoke, mirrors, and a hefty dose of artistic drive and septuagenarian grit, recovers completely and—lifted by the loyalty of his adoring fans and his passion for music—performs his next concert within a week.

*****

Dale Cinski’s music is available on all streaming platforms. Check out his tribute to George tribute here:

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.

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

The Bench

Photo by Julia Goldsby

I love Paris. But just once I would like to visit when it is not hot enough to fry an oeuf on the cobblestones.

After our 2017 sun and fun-filled Parisian adventure with Robin Spielberg and Larry Kosson—also known as the sweat your ass off tour de prance—during which time we bravely climbed Montmartre and cheerfully joined drenched throngs of tourists dragging themselves through the scorched gardens of Versailles—I swore I would never again enter a land-locked European metropolis between the months of June and September. All the Aperol Spritz cocktails in the world could not convince me otherwise.

Figures that music would lure me back into the bronzed arms of the city that doesn’t sweat, it glistens. And maybe smells a little. Camembert, you might guess, doesn’t hold up well in the heat. Neither do I.

My sister, Randy, and her guitarist husband, Dale, come to Cologne, Germany, to visit us at the end of June. Built into their trip is an excursion to Paris so we can hang out with jazz-pop superstar George Benson and attend his July 1st concert on the outskirts of the city. My first thought: Paris in July? Pas encore. Uptown whining, I know. Paris is Paris. Drizzle, sizzle, it’s all good.

Background: Dale has been friends with George for decades. George Benson is one of those rare performers who has preserved his musical integrity while maintaining an unblemished celebrity status. The guy is a musical—and business—genius. I’ll risk melting in the French heat for a chance to meet him. Send in the chevre.

My husband, John, books the Thalys (high speed train) from Cologne to Paris and finds an AirBnB apartment big enough for all of us. The apartment is close to the concert venue and within walking distance of a Metro station. Randy has never been to Paris, and even though I know the city will be hotter than the gates of hell, I want to show her the things I love. Gargoyles. The Seine. Monet. Meringue as big as my head.

The day before we leave Cologne for Paris, Dale receives a phone call from George’s manager, saying that George has lost his voice during his Royal Albert Hall performance in London and must cancel the Paris concert. Doctor’s orders. In a career spanning four decades, George has only cancelled two other gigs. As a seventy-five-year-old touring musician, he gets a free pass, I suppose. But the selfish part of me wishes he could get it together to croak out a few tunes—the show must go on, and all that. I once played a Sesame Street program with a stomach virus and had to run into the wings following a rousing rendition of “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” to vomit in a bucket held by a reluctant stage manager. I couldn’t cancel—I needed the money. George probably isn’t concerned with such trivialities at this stage in his career.

What to do. We’ve already paid for the train and apartment. So off we go to the city of blinding light, our trolley bags layered with tissue-thin black dresses, straw hats, and sandals. It’s hard work to look Parisian-chic when you’re having a July-induced hot flash—especially when the entire point of the voyage is meeting a jazz legend who has called in sick.

C’est la vie.

We arrive safely and navigate the Metro—a tubular sauna—to our apartment. Our abode has no air conditioning, no fan, and no toilet paper. Otherwise, it’s quite chic and comfortable. Dale and I take naps while John and Randy investigate the neighborhood and buy toilet paper and French snacks. John also buys me flowers, pink lilies that won’t wilt in the heat. We eat potato chips and drink coffee to revive ourselves.

“Eiffel Tower, anyone?” Since the Benson concert isn’t happening, I figure a trip to the tower might be an appropriate alternative activity and an excellent way to welcome my sister to Paris. First things first.

Dinner.

“We are vegan,” I tell the waiter in French.

“Why?” he replies in English.

I’ve learned to say, “Sans lardons, s’il vous plaît.”  In France, any meal that does not include bacon seems to qualify as vegan. One takes what one can get. Close your eyes and think of tofu.

We jump back on the Metro and head to the Trocadero, my favorite viewing spot for the tower. The Eiffel Tower never fails to thrill me. Legos for adults.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro,” says the first of many African vendors who approach us during the course of the evening. They sell Eiffel Tower keychains, six for one Euro—perfect little travel-friendly souvenirs to take back to kindergarten children, half-witted neighbors, and senior citizens with fading memories of the war. Twenty bucks and you could have cocktail party favors for the next five years.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci. Non, merci. Non, merci.

 These are the first words of French Randy learns to speak. More than this she does not need.

“I wonder what George Benson is doing tonight,” says John, looking out at the swelling crowd.

“I don’t know, but I bet he’s not here,” I say.

“Why not?’ says John. “Everyone else is.”

There’s an accordion player on one side of the Trocadero; a rapper with head-spinning break-dancers on the other. In the middle lane, half-naked daredevils navigate an obstacle course on skateboards and other wheeled devices. This reminds me of a game Randy and I used to play when we were teenagers, called “Let’s Go Die.”

We join the blob of people ambling across the bridge, then shuffle past security checkpoints into the swarm of puffy-shoed holidaymakers standing under the tower.

When I gaze up, I feel tiny.

The early evening sun seems hammered in the sky. People are undressed to suit the heat. Side boob, butt cleavage, full-bikini belly-up outfits—there’s a lot of flesh on display for a city that prides itself on haute couture. No MAGA hats or other Trump-wear, so that’s a plus.

“Side boob?” says John. “Really? That’s a thing?”

“There’s also under-boob,” I say, pointing out a young woman who might as well be topless. My husband and I have reached the marital stage where we point out attractive people to each other.

“Look at that,” I say to John. “It’s Nipple Day at the Eiffel Tower.”

“Bless her heart,” he replies.

I actually enjoy seeing all the body parts hanging out with no one groping or grabbing or even staring much. Josephine Baker would approve. My side-boob days are behind me, but I would truly enjoy wearing a string of bananas around my waist.

A perspiring French gospel choir sings “Stand by Me.” Then they sing “Lean on Me.”  It’s a medley of me songs. Or moi songs.

After reaching the grassy field adjacent to the tower, we search for a place to sit and and wait for the tower lights to come on. What luck! John spots a vacant bench on the edge of the first lawn—prime seating and big enough for the four of us.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

“I will get us something to drink.” In addition to the keychain guys, there are men everywhere selling beverages of questionable origin. But I am parched in Paris and I want wine.

“One glass wine, eight Euros,” says the vendor.

He has no change, so he gives me the entire bottle of rosé swill for ten bucks. We drink a little, but it tastes like French insecticide, so I go to the next bench and offer the remainder of my bottle to a middle-aged American couple. They are from Wisconsin and on their honeymoon. I congratulate them.

“Thank you,” says the wife. “We’re here with my two teenage daughters. We’re a patchwork family now—my girls are from my first marriage. Oh look, here they are!”

Right on cue, two pissed-off teenagers stomp around the corner and fling themselves on the bench.  They are tap-tap-tapping on their devices.

“These are our girls, Brittany and Whitney. Brit and Whit. Girls! Say hello to this nice lady. She’s American!”

I’m not sure if I should salute or take a knee.

“Brittany, I love your hair braided like that,” says the husband to the younger of the two girls.

“WHAT KIND OF SNARKY COMMENT IS THAT SUPPOSED TO BE?” says Brit.

“I mean, it looks pretty. It’s nice to see your face.”

“WHAT ARE YOU, A PERV?” shouts Whit. “LEAVE US ALONE.”

“Come on, Brit and Whit,” says the mom. “Your step-dad is trying to be nice. Isn’t it a beautiful Parisian evening?”

“Perv,” mutters Brit.

“Creep,” says Whit.

Neither one of them looks up. Tap, tap, tap.

I excuse myself and scuttle back to the safety of my own bench.

“I heard that!” says John. “ Awful. Their nice mother brings them to Paris and they can’t even stop playing with their phones long enough to look up at the Eiffel Tower?”

“Maybe they don’t like the step-father,” I say.

“Maybe. But still, they’re in Paris. You’d think they’d show a little gratitude.”

“They’re from Wisconsin,” I say, as if that means anything.

It’s then that Randy points out the man on the bench on the other side of us—a street person dressed in colorful rags and eating a jar of mayonnaise with his fingers. His boots are tied to his feet and a stream of urine runs under his bench. No wonder—in a park crammed with tourists—our bench had been empty.

“Call me crazy, but I think that bum is a fake,” says Randy.

“A fake bum?” I say. “Who would fake being a bum?”

“Look at him. Cleanly shaven. And he’s really handsome.  Movie star handsome. Lenny Kravitz in a bum costume. And his clothes, even though they are bum-like, have a certain colorful, artistic flair.”

“Yeah, well it’s Paris,” says Dale. He’s still disappointed about the Benson laryngitis debacle. Dale has been carrying a book of poetry, wearing a hat that looks slightly French, and is considering smoking a Gauloise to appear more authentic.

“Maybe the bum is an actor studying for a part.”

“Well that’s some realistic sense-memory stuff with the pee and everything,” I say.

“He’s sexy. Hot,” says my sister. “Clean him up and, just saying . . .”

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

Leave it to my sister to conjure a sex fantasy about a French bum.

“Look at those cheekbones,” she says. “And I can tell he’s buff underneath that tattered coat.”

The bum disappears into some bushes, directly behind where we’re sitting.

Regardez!” says Dale. “He has a camp back there. A bum camp.”

“What, for food condiment storage? He surely isn’t using it for a toilet—he has that covered out here.”

“Maybe that’s where he shaves,” says Dale. “His skin is very smooth. You need a really good razor to get a shave that smooth.”

“We should move,” says John.

“Non, non!” my sister and I yell in unison.

“This is prime seating,” Dale says.

I’ll say. We stare straight ahead and wait for the lights. I worry about the bum eating mayonnaise in this heat and getting food poisoning. I worry about the razor. I worry that in his bum camp—a mere five feet away from us—he has a collection of beret-clad heads in a big basket.

“You know, new Banksy paintings were just discovered in Paris,” says John. “Maybe the bum is not a bum. He could be Banksy.”

Perhaps I’m suffering from heatstroke, but I think there’s merit to John’s premise. Banksy, an anonymous street artist, has become wildly famous. I’ve always thought Banksy could be a woman. But I like John’s bum theory.

Recent Banksy art, spotted in Paris.

Having the bum, or Banksy, or whoever he is rustling around in the shrubs behind us makes me anxious; I’m not in the mood to get splattered with urine, mayonnaise, or paint. Or shaving cream.

We hear swishing noises. A rat leaps out of the bushes and darts around our feet.

“Shit!” I yell, as I jump up. “La grosse souris. Le rat.”

Randy, an animal lover, says: “Look how cute he is. Hey there, buddy. So sweet! I think he’s Banksy’s pet. It’s like that Ratatouille movie.”

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

Animals are sacred to my sister. Over the years she has raised horses, dozens of rescued dogs and stray cats, and two enormous Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs named Backhoe and Moser. When she was a kid she trained a hog named Hefner, cared for a tarantula named Bogart, and coaxed Walter the pigeon back to health. Over the years she entertained numerous squirrels, baby birds, mice, and a chimpanzee. While I was learning the lyrics to every Carole King song ever written and memorizing Bach inventions, Randy was working in the Twilight exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo and making friends with the bats.

Randy currently has a collection of large snakes that she uses for therapy sessions at a juvenile detention center in Butler County. We don’t call her Badass Randy for nothing.

Randy and Dale on the bench.

“Look how beautiful the Eiffel Tower is,” says Randy. I am not sure if she’s talking to me or the rat, but she’s clearly enchanted. Stifling heat, a cancelled concert, whining girls, bad rosé, and a fake bum—nothing will get in the way of her infatuation with Paris, at least not tonight.

Meanwhile, next door in teen-scream-horror-queen central we hear Brit-Whit’s mom say: “Look at that sunset! Brit, will you take a photo of your step-dad and me in front of the tower?”

“DO I HAVE TO?” asks Brit.

“Please, honey?”

“OKAY. BUT JUST ONE. THIS IS STUPID. THIS IS A STUPID SHITHOLE CITY.”

You can call Paris a lot of things, but shithole is perhaps not one of them.

“EXACTLY,” says Whit. “THIS PARIS SHITHOLE IS FULL OF CREEPS.”

Creeps? Creeps?

I look at Dale in his French hat, Banksy slouched in his pool of pee, my husband in his sixtieth-anniversary Grammy baseball cap, my sister talking to the rat, the half-naked side-boobed people taking demi-showers in the water fountains meant for drinking, and the Senegalese vendors shuffling through the park with keychains strapped to their arms. I think maybe she has a point.

Paris—from the perspective of a self-absorbed fifteen-year-old American girl—seems full of spooky people. But so does Disneyland. Is there anything more disturbing than those over-fed Americans stuffed into that Small World ride? I think not. Or what about the Wisconsinites who attend sporting events with foam swiss-cheese sculptures strapped to their heads? And don’t even mention SeaWorld, Trump Tower, Vegas, or Graceland. It’s all unnerving. Creepy.

Brit-Whit, trapped in a phase from which they will someday escape, are suspect of everyone, especially what’s unfamiliar or foreign. Hopefully they’ll come to their senses before their patient mother throws herself in the Seine.

“I can’t stand the way these girls are treating their mother,” says John. “Randy—go say something to them.”

“I’ve got this,” says my sister, who has raised four kids of her own. “Too bad I don’t have my snakes with me.”

“Be nice,” I say to my sister. “Remember, once upon a time we were also obnoxious teenagers.”

“Yeah,” she says. “But no one brought us to Paris.”

“True,” I say. “But I did refuse to get out of the car at the Grand Canyon. And you pitched a fit over the captain on that deep sea fishing expedition in Cape Hatteras.”

“That was justified,” she says. “He was holding a machete, leering at my ass, and chopping up chum for sharks.”

Randy brushes me aside and approaches Brit-Whit. “Hi there, girls! Don’t you just love Paris? Your Taylor Swift t-shirts are just darling, although I’m more of a Béyoncé fan. Did you see the tour posters for her new show with Jay Z?”

Nothing. Tap, tap, tap.

“This is my first trip to Europe, too, and I’m almost sixty. And just think, you’re here as teenagers. Aren’t you lucky that your mom brought you along on her honeymoon? How was the wedding? Were you bridesmaids? Did you have cute dresses?”

Scowl.

“How old are you? What are your hobbies? Are you enjoying French food?” Undeterred by their silence, Randy, like a grinning bull terrier, keeps yipping questions at the girls.

“Who’s your favorite artist? Isn’t Paris dazzling? Someday, you will remember this trip as a highlight of your teenage years. Someday, you’ll be really grateful that your mom brought you here.”

“Right,” Brit mumbles. “Shithole.”

“Speak up, honey,” says her mother.

Nothing. Tap, tap, tap.

“Oh. I apologize for the girls—Brit and Whit are still getting used to their step-father and their new siblings.”

“You lucky girls!” says Randy. “A patchwork family means double love!” says Randy. “Double pleasure!”

The creep factor has now gone off the charts. I drag Randy back to our bench before she starts doing “Single Ladies” choreography or asks to take a selfie with the two of them. Later, I will wish we had gotten the photo. We could have captioned it: Thank heaven for little girls.

Banksy the bum returns to his bench with a new jar of mayo.

At last. The tower begins to blush and smolder in the dusky sky. Our accidental neighbors have now become a pesky, but central part of our George Benson-less impromptu evening. We’re not where we intended to be, but maybe we’ve landed in exactly the right place—stuck between a movie-star handsome French derelict and a dysfunctional family from Wisconsin—watching the Eiffel Tower lights effervesce like a shaken bottle of cheap champagne.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star. Sizzle, crackle, creep. That’s Paris for you, at least during the summer months. Through a twilight prism I see parts of myself in every person here—the mundane, insane, broken, outspoken, rich-bitch, poor-whore, hustling-bustling, glam-scam, defeated, conceited, mistreated, cheated, hell-raising, trailblazing, butt-gazing visitors to one of the world’s most spectacular man-made structures.

Unlike Randy, I do not identify with the rat.

I look around and wonder who else in the crowd feels as grateful as I do right now. Maybe my sister. We could probably join hands and outrun the desperation and beauty surrounding us, but instead we stay in place, bench-bound, and face the full-bodied heat of the city.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

*****

Note: We hang out with George Benson a few days later. But that’s another story. Stay tuned.

Special thanks to my dear friends Deborah and Jon Lillian, who—against the odds—hosted a vegan cocktail party for us in Paris.

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.

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

A Thousand Words

“The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.”                        Andy Warhol

Scrapbook: A lifetime of photos and memorabilia pasted into an album that will one day jostle for position on a crowded bookshelf, attract some attention at tense family reunions, collect dust, and—a generation or two down the line—land in a dumpster.

Scrapbook to scrapheap. Not very hopeful. Still, we persist with making paper shrines to memories of lost childhoods. Show me a woman who doesn’t collect the flotsam and jetsam of her children’s lives and I’ll show you a woman with ice cubes (and possibly gin) in her veins.

Thinking that someday I’d set up a craft table, sift through the fossils, and create beautiful scrapbooks, I’ve saved every child-related objet d’art and photo. Yet another project fermenting in my vault of good intentions.

I’m not particularly clever with cutting and pasting. Once, in a German Kindergarten, while attending a mother-child Bastel session with my four-year-old son, I glued my knees together while making a paper lantern shaped like an owl. My only pair of Donna Karan black tights—purchased and shipped by my sister from Pittsburgh to Germany—fell victim to a hot glue gun. At the time it seemed tragic.

Recently, on a sorting mission that felt like a Kodak-inspired archeological dig, I found a photo of my son with that lantern. Proud. Grinning. You would never guess that the two of us had struggled and bickered for hours, trying to glue the sides of the owl together. The photo tells one story, my memory tells another.

So many contemporary parents watch their children grow up on an iPhone screen. It’s one thing to snag a fabulous image—look, there’s little Wolfgang holding his judo trophy—but quite another to maintain the memory of what led to his moment of glory on the podium (Wolfgang intentionally throwing a toy Batmobile across the playground and hitting little Heidi, his fiercest competitor, on the forehead, thus knocking her out of the contest and assuring his victory). The digital image shows the kid’s triumph, the story behind it tells us where he’s headed as an adult. If a parent’s eyes are glued to the camera function of her phone, she misses the backstory. Maybe she even misses the truth.

I didn’t miss much. My kids grew up during a time when taking a picture meant using a real camera, having prints made, and sorting through stacks of candid photos where someone looks a little “off”— hillbilly-ish or clunky or creepy. I wish now I had kept those Deliverance photos. Even without filters, we’re a little too slick  in the ones that made the cut. Vanity, thy name is mama.

When Curtis and Julia (not to be confused with Wolfgang and Heidi) were first born—before the advent of cloud storage, phone cameras, and online sharing—I dutifully photographed benchmark occasions, printed the photos, selected the beauty shots, and stuck them in big handsome albums with tissue between the pages.  I considered this part of my job description. For about five years, I was a stay-at-home mom, the purveyor of healthy lunches and messy craft projects—involving glitter, clay, and yarn—for willing and unwilling children. I was the queen of potty-training and Fun Outings for toddlers. Who could ever forget the trip to the monkey park—where the apes run free!—when one macaque landed on my head to distract me while another stole my popcorn. We have photographic evidence of the day. Happily, no one contracted Hepatitis.

“I have no time for scrapbooking!” I finally shouted.  I balanced coffee-fueled days with wine-pickled nights and used any available spare time for napping or playing the piano. I fell down on the scrapbooking job, and because I was too busy living, I stopped cataloging our lives. I snapped the required photos, had the prints made, but skipped the cutting and pasting portion of the program.

Confession: I trashed the chubby-mom images, tossed the rest of the prints into an old shoebox (Prada, but still), and told myself that one day I’d get around to labeling and editing the scraps of my children’s lives.

It’s astonishing how quickly twenty years can pass. Both of our adult kids left home last year. Luckily there are no snapshots of me—the cliché lonely mom—when the kids departed for good. Melancholy doesn’t photograph well, even if you face-tune the puffy eyes and mascara-streaked cheeks. I’m okay now, just a little shell-shocked that their childhoods went by so quickly. Time might not fly, but it’s certainly capable of knocking a mature woman flat on her ass when—like a laughing macaque with a looted bag of popcorn—it whizzes past.

The shoebox had become two, then three, then a dozen shoeboxes. Eventually I replaced the stack of boxes with a huge wicker trunk. Burrowing into it after twenty years was traumatic, joyful, and full of tear-choked flashes that started behind my eyes and sprinted to my heart. In the middle of the project, I skidded to a stop, called timeout, and wrote a piece of music.

The overflowing trunk revealed artifacts that started with the birth of my children and ended with their college graduations, with side trips through my husband’s career and mine. I had always known it was important to collect the scraps of my family’s treasured moments, but I had never known why. Turns out that the candid snapshots, posed family portraits, birthday cards, scribbled notes, and muddy, watercolor canvasses have rescued me. As I sorted through two decades of this stuff, I recalled the best, most challenging years of my life. And I’ve realized that where I am, right now, is pretty wonderful.

A snapshot nudges a memory; a memory adds another straw to a vacated nest; the nest fills with words and music and pictures and love. Eventually, the empty nest becomes a full—and grateful— heart.

In most of the photos I am trying to look brave, calm, and thin; my husband, the world’s best father,  looks like he would rather be playing the bass; my children are generally squirming or skooting away from me.

I swing from one recollection to the next: the swimming lessons, bike rides, vacations, first days of every school year (always by the same tree), birthday parties, field trips, recitals, concerts, graduations, more graduations, courageous smiles at airport check-in counters. Each picture is worth at least a thousand words, most of them saying farewell.

The images slow-dance before my eyes and swirl into a fuzzy-edged collage of goodbyes: the first steps, waves, growth spurts, hormones, the toasts and diplomas and trips abroad. My slapdash anthology offers stability in an unpredictable world—a shimmering thread linking frozen images of my flawed, loving family to memories both mundane and profound.

Suggested caption for the whole damn collection: Go on now—keep moving forward. Be big and strong and laugh as much as you can. Live.

We were the Goldsbys. We still are.

Paint a picture for me,

Use the colors that I love,

Paint the seasons of my life in harmony,

A career that’s breaking through, and a villa with a view,

A Technicolor rainbow and me.

Paint a picture for me,

Add a child or maybe two,

And a hundred yellow roses I can hold,

We’re dressed in Ralph Lauren; we’re smiling now and then,

We’re rich and thin and never will grow old.

Paint a picture for me,

Add a mountain and field,

Paint the sunrise; paint a river; paint the birds,

Add a horse or maybe two, and a sky that’s painted blue,

And my picture might be worth a thousand words.

Picture perfect,

Paint it over for me,

Paint it over and over again.

I should paint it all myself,

Impressions, memories,

I’ll try to paint a life that’s long and slow,

Add a tunnel and a light, or the way day turns to night,

The beauty of not knowing where to go.

 Picture perfect,

Paint it over for me,

Paint it over and over again.

*****

“Picture Perfect”  is a lyric by Robin Meloy Goldsby; music by Jessica Gall, and Robert Matt. Performed by Jessica Gall on Herzog Records. Available on all streaming channels.

Photos courtesy of the Goldsby scrapbook. We have no idea who the photographers were. But we thank them.

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.

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

Astoria

“New York, indeed, resembles a magic cauldron. Those who are cast into it are born again.”

Charles Whibley, American Sketches

*****

Step lively now. Back in the eighties, during my busiest years as a Manhattan Piano Girl, I had a subway routine. Late at night I took cabs, but when I played during the daytime I would finish my last set, grab my coat, fight for an elevator, join the throbbing crowd of Times Square movers, shakers, and sidewalk dwellers, scurry down into the Forty-ninth Street station, slide onto the RR train, scuffle for a seat, and heave a sigh of relief when I got one. I had a sushi habit during the eighties. Hoping for a wasabi rush, I would eat takeout tekkamaki while cruising past subterranean stops for Carnegie Hall and Bloomingdales.

The RR train—often called the “Rock and Roll to Astoria”—slithered beneath the plush, posh, privileged pads of the East Side, screeched under the East River, and burst forth onto a sepia-toned mural of outer borough-ness. Queens. I made my bridge and tunnel trip thousands of times in the fifteen years I lived in New York, and never tired of the view from Queensboro Plaza, the way the serrated Manhattan skyline taunted the humble Queens horizon. The two parts of my life—where I worked and where I lived—remained separated by a yawning moat of fast-moving, murky water.

At the end of each voyage, I would step off the RR in my low-key Astoria neighborhood, relieved to be a few short blocks from my affordable two-bedroom apartment. It took five minutes to walk home from the train stop. Health code regulations aside, Thirtieth Avenue boasted dozens of entertainment and food frenzy options—a veritable grab bag of multi-culti delights.

I always liked Tony’s Souvlaki, a Greek restaurant that featured an outdoor one-armed mannequin wearing a chef’s hat and checkered trousers. The dummy waved a skewer of plastic meat with his plastic arm and had a sign around its neck that said, “Come on in!” Tony’s Souvlaki hosted a legendary family of flying raccoons living in the restaurant ceiling. When I got lucky, I’d squint into the hanging philodendron and spot the glowing eyes of one of them scoping out my feta cheese and olive platter. I’m still not sure they were raccoons. They might have been airborne rats.

Across the street from Tony’s was a Greek nightclub that served hallucinogenic ouzo. I went there once with my husband and a group of friends. We drank the famed ouzo (my friend Peter, who is Greek, tried to order an ouzo Collins) and listened to a Greek Elvis impersonator singing “Love Me Tender” in 7/4. Or maybe it was 13/4. Then everyone threw plates. More than that I do not recall.

Astoria pulsed with the odd-meter rhythm of its Greek population, but the depth of its multi-cultural community also contributed random swipes of vibrancy to its funky, we’re-all-in-this-together vibe. I can trace my family roots back to Plymouth Rock—I’ve always claimed my ancestors were the lounge act on the Mayflower—but in Astoria I was as foreign as everyone else, a stranger in a strange land, trying to make ends meet while adjusting to life in a city renowned for eating its young. Come on in!

***

Happy Happy Variety, run by a Chinese family, sold take out Chinese food, an assortment of knee-socks, and flowers. One year, on Mother’s Day, I stopped on my way home from my Manhattan brunch gig and bought a big bunch of peonies. I have always loved peonies. They look like flowers crossed with clouds.

“Happy Happy Mutha Day,” said Mrs. Chang. “You mutha?”

“No!” I said. “I just like peonies.”

“No matta. You get penis for Happy Happy Mutha Day.”

Peonies? You mean peonies!”

“Yeah, yeah. Penis. You like penis! Penis good.”

In addition to buying penis, I ordered a lot of sesame noodles from Happy Happy. One time the  Happy Happy delivery boy got mugged right outside our apartment door, but still managed to ring the bell and deliver our food. Sadly, this was the exact night my husband’s parents were visiting. We tipped the bleeding, bedraggled delivery boy—he refused to let us call the police—and sent him off on his mangled bicycle. Then we spent most of the evening trying to assure my in-laws that the mugging was not a nightly occurrence.

“It’s safe in Astoria!” we proclaimed.

The house next door might have been a crack den, but that’s another topic.

Mrs. Chang eventually turned her empire over to her son, Young Chang, who wasn’t as bright or enterprising as his mother. But boy, could he fold laundry. He even pressed my socks—purchased at Happy Happy Variety before it became Happy Happy Laundry.  They got me coming and going. Turned out the Happy Happy people were pretty smart-smart.

It took us a month to figure out what Young Chang said when we dropped off our laundry. It sounded like haffa cuffa cappy. My husband finally got it—Young Chang was inviting us to have a cup of coffee. So we did.

***

I spent a lot of time eating on trains—grazing on New York City delicacies as I pink-panthered back and forth to Manhattan. It never occurred to me to cook, and I had so many piano jobs that it made sense to eat while commuting. Rosie, a Polish woman who worked at a coffee shop right under the elevated train platform in Astoria, made my egg and cheese sandwiches every afternoon before I headed into work. Across the street from Rosie’s place was the Keystone Diner, a twenty-four-hour mecca of mediocre cuisine where I could order any of the three million items on the menu at any time of day or night. I imagined their kitchen stretching under the river—all the way to Manhattan—staffed by culinary masters capable of whipping up Greek diner versions of Cordon Bleu, Belgian waffles, or  truffle-stuffed trout at 7 AM.

I discovered if I ordered two baked potatoes to go from the Keystone, I could stash them in my coat pockets and keep my hands warm on the windy train platform. Once I arrived at my destination, I would hang out in the swank ladies’ room and eat my pocket-warmers. Popille’s Pocket Potatoes.  I thought this was genius. I even carried little packets of salt in my purse—along with golden sandals, an extension cord, and duct tape.

Also on my block in Astoria was an Indian grocery run by a soft-spoken, elegant man named Sanjay. I liked to buy a delicious Indian desert called a gulob, a word I sometimes got mixed up with gonad, understandable if you’ve ever seen a golub (or a gonad). Sanjay also sold frozen Indian TV dinners and made fresh samosa, spicy enough to blow off your golubs. He was my hero.

***

On my corner was a funeral home, run by the LaBrutto family. The LaBrutto brothers—really nice guys—were also in the chiropractor business. Funeral home and chiropractor office—the combination caused me some unease. And having the sound of the word brute in the name of a company dedicated to orthopedic adjustments and burial services seemed like bad marketing, at best.

Your crack ‘em, we stack ‘em.

You squeeze ‘em, we freeze ‘em.

You stab ‘em, we slab ‘em.

Like that.

My Astoria neighborhood was a classic cradle to grave community—within one block I had a hospital, a school,  a nursing home, and the LaBrutto brothers—ready to align my spine and help me select a casket.

Plus all those gonads and raccoons.

***

My fabulous landlords, the handsome Burburan family—originally from Croatia—cushioned me through a rocky phase of my life, best described as my “serial dating” years. Eventually, they sold the house to the Politos, first generation Italian-Americans. The Polito family operated a hugely successful office-cleaning company and had amassed a small fortune with hard work and very little English. Charming, a little confused by my lifestyle, and always cheerful, they didn’t mind the sound of my piano at all hours of the day and night or my cat, Lucky, who occasionally escaped into their part of the house.

“She’s a nice-a puppy,” Mr. Polito would say, patting the cat on her head.

The Politos grew tomatoes in pots on the concrete driveway. Every year, in the pounding August heat, the entire family would sit in a circle of lawn chairs and puree fresh tomatoes—with an ancient, hand-cranked, tomato squashing machine—to ready them for sauce. The view from my upstairs bedroom window looked like the chainsaw bathtub scene from Scarface. The sauce was excellent.

***

Around the corner from my apartment was the Korean nail salon, called Fancy Finger. I loved Fancy Finger. I would walk in the door, a little bell would ring, and Mrs. Kim, the proprietor, hunched over another client, would yell from behind her surgical mask, “WELCOME FANCY FINGA. PICK COLOR.”

I had always chosen pale beige for my working woman hands, and rouge-noir lacquer for my toes. This worked nicely until the final month of my pregnancy. Mrs. Kim refused to paint my toenails a dark color.

“Too much depressing,” she said. “Baby pop out, first thing see devil color. He go back in. No come out. Big scary for baby.”

I argued, but she insisted on candy-pink for my toes. Big scary for me.

“Nicey color. It say, welcome to world, baby.”

Happy Happy Mutha Day.

***

One afternoon, on my way to a manicure appointment, I dropped off my son at the home of his daycare provider, a Puerto Rican woman named Lisa, who lived two doors down, on the other side of the (supposed) crack house.  Lisa had laundered my son’s baby blanket and handed it to me at the door. Rather than return home with the blanket and risk being late for Mrs. Kim, I carried it with me and hustled around the corner to Fancy Finger. Just as I passed the LaBrutto chiropractor office, a large Ryder rental truck raced onto the avenue, swerved onto the curb, and almost hit me.  The truck squealed to a halt, right across the street from Astoria General Hospital.

I stood there, freaked out and muttering obscenities. The driver—a Jamaican man—leapt out of the truck screaming about his wife. I couldn’t understand him, but his hysteria indicated he needed help. He flung open the double back doors of the truck, and there, rolling around like a pea in a barrel, was his wife, moaning, crying, and about to give birth.

I didn’t know nothing ‘bout birthin’ babies, but my own baby was six months old and I knew a lot about the panic of childbirth, especially, I imagined, if one was flopping around, panty-less and unharnessed, in an empty truck meant to transport dining tables and bookcases.

I stayed calm and told the husband, who was useless, shouting, and flailing his arms in that alpha-male chop-chop motion, to run to the hospital and get help. I climbed into the truck and got the woman on her back. I shoved my son’s baby blanket—white with colorful airplane embroidery—under her bottom. I tried to soothe her, but her moans had become screams and I could see, when she opened her legs, that the baby was coming. Blood. Lots of blood. Not good.

All I wanted was a manicure, and there I was,  an unwilling star in a pilot episode of Call the Midwife.

I glanced up the street and spotted a couple of parked ambulances. Their drivers were probably sitting in the Keystone Diner eating mile-high coconut pie. Frustrating. We were right in front of a damn hospital that boasted dozens of trained medical specialists, we had at least four paramedics within a block’s range, and this poor woman was about to push her infant into the trembling hands of a piano player. Big scary for baby.

Finally, the husband came running back to the truck, followed by two workers and a gurney. One of the ambulances, likely summoned by the hospital, turned on its siren and drove the hundred yards to the truck.

We could have done without that siren.

“She’s having a baby!” I yelled. “NOW!”

“We’ve got this, ma’am,” said one of the paramedics as he helped me out of the truck and hopped inside. He evaluated the situation and said, in one of those calm med-tech voices: “Breech. And we’re doing this right here.”

I stepped away to give them some space and to help keep the rubberneckers to a minimum.

“Privacy, please!”

The baby boy—Astoria’s newest resident—entered the world ass first. The crowd cheered, and I burst into tears.  A paramedic wrapped him in my son’s blanket and rushed him into the hospital.

The mother, her eyes squeezed shut against the glare of the Queens sky, chanted: “We are safe. We are safe. We are safe.” The paramedics lifted her onto the gurney and rolled her across the street. The sliding glass doors opened and she disappeared.

I never did get my nails done.

***

Astoria, Queens was affordable for immigrants, salt of the earth workers, and glossy-faced artists. We worked hard and protected each other. The neighborhood’s residents—from all corners of the world—taught me a lot about fierceness, tolerance, and inner strength. The thick skin I acquired served a purpose. Bootcamp for adulthood.

I left New York City for Germany in 1994. Over the course of fifteen years in Astoria, I had composed several albums of music, made some money, and catapulted myself from chubby-cheeked naivety to pencil-skirted semi-sophistication. I fell in and out of love, occasionally settled for less than I deserved, and figured out how to get more of what I wanted. I ran the gamut of adult feelings—anguish, hunger, ambition, disappointment, elation, loss. It made sense to leave, but it wasn’t easy; Astoria had both grounded me and given me wings.

The RR train became the N train; the Politos sold the house for a small fortune; the flying raccoons relocated. The Jamaican-American baby boy is now twenty-five-years old. From what I’ve heard, the community gleams with the spit shine of gentrification and has become more than a little white-breadish. But I’ve also heard Astoria still celebrates diversity and bows to its ouzo roots. The hospital, school, nursing facility, and funeral home remain in place, waiting for the next round of dreamers, doers, and drifters to move in, move out, move on.

Talk to me about immigration and I will tell you it makes a neighborhood sing. I was there. I know.

Rock and roll to Astoria. Pick color. Haffa cuffa cappy. Love me tender. Come on in. Welcome to world, baby. We are safe. Happy, happy. Me.

***

***

Queensboro Bridge photo by Ric Burger.

Greek restaurant photo by Phillippe Vieux.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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 to 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.

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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!

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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!

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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.