Wake Up Santa: Three Variations on a Holiday Theme

Variation #1: Drunk Santa

Nothing says “Christmas” quite like a snoring Santa refusing to wake up for the holidays.

In 1972 I win the coveted role of the South Hills Village talking Christmas tree in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I call myself Tanya Baum and speak with a Hogan’s Heroes German accent. The kids are a little scared of me, but I crack myself up, which I discover is the main point to just about any job. I make twenty-five bucks for crawling inside the tree suit and yelling seasonal greetings at kids for a couple of hours. My Tanya is a little nasty. She has a slight prison matron edge to her, softened by her coat of fake blue spruce and tinsel. I turn her lights on and off with hand controls and I can see out of the suit by looking through the angel on the top of Tanya’s head.

I get the gig because my dad is the bandleader of a jazz-comedy group called The Steel City Stompers, a popular trio in Pittsburgh with Dad on drums, Ray Defade on saxophone, and pianist Bookie Brown. All three of them sing. For years, Dad has run the McDonald’s sponsored “Wake Up Santa” breakfast at South Hills Village—a shopping mall that features fast food French fries, soft pretzels, and Florsheim shoes. “Wake Up Santa” has become popular after several failed attempts at having Daredevil Santa skydive into the mall parking lot, an annual disaster that once culminated in Santa crash-landing in a tree next to a gas station two miles down the road, where he was rescued by a crane, untangled from his parachute, and transported to the hospital by ambulance. Daredevil Santa wasn’t very good at judging wind currents. Or maybe it was Rudolph’s fault—when all else fails, blame the damn reindeer. The shopping mall officials have decided it’s safer to place Santa in a comfy bed onstage inside the mall, with Dad’s band, Tanya Baum, and hundreds of Egg McMuffin-stuffed screaming children yelling for him to wake up.

Poor Santa. Being a talking tree is humiliating enough, but let’s face it, you have to be pretty desperate to take a Santa gig, especially one where you’re forced to lie in bed for hours while being tortured by little kids. Santa is played by a stout guy named Tony, who—during the rest of the year—works as a manager of the shopping mall Baskin & Robbins ice cream shop. A few years into the Santa gig Tony starts hitting the booze, and who can blame him? As a matter of fact, so does Bookie, the pianist in Dad’s band. Bookie, who will one day join that elite group of juiced-up stride piano players in the sky, has a really LOUD voice. We call him the Acoustic Miracle, because his voice penetrates any crowd without amplification. With a deep and guttural timbre, he growls his way through songs, announcements, and the occasional prayer. Dad has to turn Bookie’s microphone volume down to minus-two when Bookie is drinking, because you can never be sure what he might blurt or bray across the room. Even Bookie’s whisper has legs.

At one of our annual “Wake Up Santa” events, after we jump on Santa’s bed, play a trumpet in his ear, slap him in the face with a wet wash rag (a child’s suggestion), smack him in the stomach with a pillow (another child’s suggestion—the kids never, ever suggest anything gentle), and tickle his feet with reindeer antlers, Bookie raises his hand—and his voice—and says he has an idea.

“Yes, Grandpa Bookie?” asks Dad with some trepidation. “What’s your idea?”

Bookie, it seems, has been imbibing with Santa at the local derelict bar down the road. Pre-breakfast holiday cheer. Who needs eggnog when you can have Maker’s Mark, straight up?

“SANTA, YOU ASSHOLE!” slurs Bookie, in a stentorian tone. “If you don’t wake up, we’re gonna have to use a gun.”

Keep in mind, dear reader, this is 1972. A different time.

Dad, sharp-witted but slightly hard of hearing from years of slamming the drums, puts down his microphone, looks right into my angel-head eyes, raises one eyebrow and says: “Did Bookie just say what I think he said? Did he just call Santa an asshole?”

Jawohl!” says my Tanya Baum, because I pride myself on staying in character. Dad, Ray, and I are horrified, even though most of the parents and kids in the audience are laughing. Nervous laughter, but laughter nonetheless.

“Jesus Christ,” mutters Dad. “Okay kids, never mind Grandpa Bookie—now it’s time for ‘Deck the Halls.’ Bookie, get back to the piano! NOW! Stick out your tongue on the fa-la-la part. And look, kids! Grandpa Bookie is gonna wear the elf hat. Maybe that will wake up Santa.”

This is the last year we play for the “Wake Up Santa Breakfast.” Not because Grandpa Bookie called Santa an asshole and threatened to use a gun, but because my father, at one point in the show, made fun of McDonald’s food and insulted the scary, big-lipped floppy-footed Ronald McDonald clown, played by a local bartender named Jerry Error.

***

Tanya Baum was the sanest part of that show. Forty-five years later I will wonder if Santa is still at the mall—sleeping off an early morning bourbon buzz, oblivious to the innocent, but violent threats of little kids, and the earsplitting rants of bored and tipsy piano players. The jesting, jabs, and slapstick brutality seemed slightly amusing in 1972, in the naive days of The Three Stooges and Tom and Jerry. In 2018 these shenanigans will cease to be funny, especially if Santa, the pianist, or an outraged, unhinged parent—or child for that matter—might actually be packing heat.

I’m sure the live music is gone, even if Ronald McDonald is still stomping around. Maybe the mall has gone back to the skydiving Santa theme, just to keep things edgy. Or maybe Santa now sits in a throne and kids come to perch on his lap while nymphs (or are they elves?) in red velveteen mini-skirts and thigh-high white boots dance to Mariah Carey Christmas songs blaring from speakers covered in plastic holly. Or maybe they blast Santa out of cannon—I’ve read about places doing that. That’s one way to wake up Santa, even if he’s drunk.

***

Variation #2: Fairy Santa

2001: My daughter, Julia, attends a Montessori kindergarten in Germany, where children routinely spend three years playing outdoors on a freezing playground, counting golden beads, and doing multiple craft projects involving yarn. Every Christmas the parents at the kindergarten perform a holiday play for the kids—a civilized, kinder-friendly policy that takes pressure off the youngsters and places it squarely on the sloped shoulders of the parents (moms). Appalled by the lack of suitable holiday plays for kids—most of the material in circulation is scary, religious, or both—I decide to write a musical. Come on, Germany—let’s have some holiday fun! Good tidings and cheer.

I need to attract other parents (moms) to take part in the musical, so my cast of characters includes a bunch of whacky fairies, since fairies are cute, entertaining, and provide multiple costume opportunities for those of us longing to relive our prom queen days. I also have access to an adorable rabbit costume with floppy ears, so I add a giant bunny to the cast, along with a narrator dressed as a tree. We have several disabled kids at the kindergarten, so I put the head fairy in a wheelchair, because why not?  Fairies and a rabbit—not very “Christmas-y,” but fine with me. Enough of that manger stuff.

I need a plot. Remembering my days with Drunk Santa at the Pittsburgh shopping mall, I decide a snoring, sleeping fairy might be a good starting point. I name her Fatigue. Here’s the dope: Fatigue’s fairy sisters—Faxana, Flip, Faloona, and (my favorite) Farteena—spend thirty minutes trying to wake her so they can all fly home together for the winter holidays. They tickle her, yell, use magic wands that don’t work, and try to shock her awake with the smell of a dead fish. Nothing works. Finally, a giant, orphaned rabbit, named Hobo, joins them and wakes up Fatigue with a kiss on the nose. They sing a song and invite Hobo home with them for the holidays. The end.

Art of the Steal: Hobo and the Forest Fairies is a fancy-dress bourbon-free version of “Wake Up Santa.”

Note: I will have few moments in my career as rewarding as observing the face of a physically-disabled little girl watching our clever fairy scoot around in her wheelchair.

The show itself has wheels. Over the course of several years, it will be produced as a radio play by Germany’s largest radio/television conglomerate, released as an audio CD, then, in an event that will take a few years off my life, staged as an annual holiday musical at a German castle. What starts out as a slap-dash shoe-string budget musical for a bunch of really cute kids turns into a small fairy empire.

The live, professional production of the show debuts in 2009 at Schlosshotel Lerbach. To keep costs down and maintain control over my script, I cast myself as Flip the Fairy, a Barbie-blond with good intentions and a brain the size of a cranberry. I wear a prom gown, lavender rubber boots, and a huge wig that makes me look more like a country-western has-been than a fairy. Julia, who has grown into a relaxed, well-adjusted teenager—in spite of her wand-toting mother—plays Fatigue, the snoring, sleeping fairy. My biggest concern during the five-year run of the musical is that she will literally fall asleep onstage.

All bets are off when the audience consists of pre-school kids. Our musical director (the tree) must put on his tree suit in front of the kids, because they freak out if a mighty oak enters the room and starts singing a sensitive ballad. My shrill, slightly sharp, Beverly Sills version of “Silent Night” and the cartwheeling giant rabbit cause more than one child to burst into tears. But the kids love the magic wands—one of the wands is a Star Wars laser sword—and they flip over the huge rubber fish and stuffed alligator. And they particularly love Fatigue, who is already asleep onstage, snoring away, when the kids enter the theater. Some of the kids poke at her and wonder out loud if she might be dead.

We have hecklers and worse. One time a kid in the audience gives me the finger and bites me on the knee during our rendition of the “Stank Fish Tango.” Another time a little girl–who has eaten too many of the free butter cookies—exits stage left and throws-up directly in our entrance/exit path. Sometimes the kids hoot and holler; sometimes they remain eerily silent.

The show, of course, is in German. Wach auf! means wake up. But my American accent makes wach auf sound like fuck off, not a phrase one wants to hear in a children’s musical.

Faxanna, Flip, Flop, Faloona, and Farteena. After each performance our motley crew of fairies stands in the castle hall and greets our guests, most them the same age that Julia was when I wrote the play for her kindergarten. Our run, which lasts long enough to get my daughter through high school, ends in 2014 when the castle closes. Good timing—my sixtieth birthday is looming, and I’m bit long in the tooth for a fairy costume. I enjoy tulle as much as the next gal, but the Dolly Parton wig is itchy and does nothing to help my hot flashes. Also, I have my career and reputation to consider. I don’t really want to be known as Robin Goldsby, Menopausal Fairy.

I look back on that show as both harrowing and full of joy—an American holiday tradition that I swiped and re-invented for myself and my daughter because I didn’t much like the existing models. Festivus for the rest of us.

I cry when I get rid of the costumes. I have seven sets of feather wings and nowhere to fly, so out they go, along with the lavender rain boots. I save the rubber fish, because you never know.

Farteena,” a German mother tells me, two years after our last performance. “She was my favorite fairy. I think of her so often. What a beautiful name.”

***

Variation #3: Emergency Santa

“Robin,” says Mr. B, the F&B manager of the 5-star hotel where I play the piano. “We have a problem. Santa is stuck in the snow.”

It’s December, 2017. I am huddled in my parked car, waiting for the train to arrive and whisk me off to Excelsior Hotel Ernst. I’m scheduled to play tea-time piano for a group of civilized adults. In another area of the hotel, thirty excited kids and their parents are arriving for a children’s tea with Santa. But Santa, bless his heart, is stuck in the snow.

“How is that even possible?” I yell. “He’s Santa.  He can’t get stuck in the snow.”

“I don’t know,” says Mr. B. “But he’s stuck. Can’t get his car out to get to the train.”

I happen to know that the actor playing Santa, a corpulent celebrity named Manfred, lives in my neighborhood. I am not stuck in the snow, so how can he be stuck in the snow? I don’t want to get Santa in trouble, so I say nothing. Besides, maybe he really is stuck—I live in the valley and he lives high on the hill, two apparently different ecosystems. Sometimes it’s downright tropical in the valley when the hill people are scraping ice off their windshields.

“Do you have any ideas?” asks Mr. B. “We have all these kids coming and they are going to be very disappointed if Santa doesn’t show up. We certainly can’t tell them Santa is stuck in the snow.”

Here we go again.

“Who has the Santa suit?” I ask.

“We have it here at the hotel.”

“Good. I know what to do. Move the piano into the ballroom and find an employee to play Santa.”

“No one wants to play Santa,” he says. “They are shy. Plus they are all too skinny.”

“Get Patrick the waiter,” I say. “He has acting training.”

“But he is the skinniest of all of them.”

“Doesn’t matter. We can stuff him. We also need a bed or a large chair. Someplace onstage where he can sleep.”

Obviously, my entire life revolves around one plot.

On the train ride into town—about thirty minutes—I outline the program. My husband sends me music to some German children’s Christmas songs, all of which have three chords and four hundred verses. I stop at the Christmas market and pick up a couple of elf hats, race into the hotel, and assemble the skeptical banquet team for a panicked talk-through. I tell them that Emergency Santa (Patrick) will be asleep on his giant chair and that we, with the help of the kids, will spend thirty minutes singing and trying to wake him up in time for Christmas.

Ten minutes till show time. I can hear the kids buzzing and jostling for position on the other side of the door.

Movie-star handsome Patrick, my Emercency Santa, might be slightly hungover from the night before, but he’s more than willing to help. Plucked from obscurity to step in for Stuck Santa, Patrick, in his skinny black jeans, looks like he stepped out of a Prada advertisement. Or at least he does until he puts on the red suit. The banquet director stuffs numerous pillows into his jacket and adjusts his fluffy white beard.

“You can do this Patrick,” I say, switching to a firm director voice. “We are going to sing the Santa song, and then you stagger by the window and yawn, like you can hardly manage to carry that big ass sack of toys. This is no time for subtlety. You are exhausted. Wiped out. Can barely keep your damn eyes open. Enter the room, stumble over to the Santa throne and fall asleep. Snore into the microphone as loudly as you can. We will spend the next thirty minutes trying to wake you up. It might get rough—kids can be brutal—but stay asleep no matter what. Until the kiss. Then you wake up.”

Patrick tries to sip coffee through his Santa beard and stares at me like I have reindeer poo on my head.

“You sure this is going to work? I mean, have you done this before?” he asks.

I place my hands on his shoulders, look into his twinkling eyes, and say: “Trust me, Patrick. I’ve been in the “Wake Up Santa” business for forty-five years. It never fails. Wach auf, Santa!

“Ha!” says Patrick. “With your accent it sounds like fuck off, Santa.”

“Exactly,” I say. “Go with it.”

The kids enter the room. I put on my elf hat and play the piano. They sing along and eat cookies. I play the Santa song and Patrick, the world’s skinniest Santa, wobbles, teeters, and lurches past the window.

“Oh no,” I say to the kids. “Santa looks very tired. I wonder what could be wrong.”

Right on cue, the ballroom door creaks open and Patrick, going for gold with his portrayal of a drained and weary Santa, moans and crawls—crawls!—to the stage, dragging his overloaded bundle of toys behind him.

Best Emergency Santa ever.

Wach auf!

Along with a couple of banquet waiters, I drag Santa into his chair. He snores like a drunken elf. We do everything we can think of to wake him. We sing. We yell. We tempt him with over-priced macarons and tap on his head with pine cones from the expensive centerpieces. We get parents to do the reindeer dance. Volunteers from the audience don the elf hat and jostle Santa, to no avail. Finally, after we reach the thirty-minute mark—the longest half hour of my life—I suggest a kiss and a sweet little boy puts on the hat. Smooch! Santa wakes up. The children cheer.  This might be a decidedly upscale group of privileged European children, but really, at this moment they seem identical to their Pittsburgh shopping mall and Montessori kindergarten colleagues.

Kids are kids. Fun is fun.

Ho-ho-ho. Original Santa might have gotten stuck in the snow, but Emergency Santa, one pillow shy of a proper jelly-belly silhouette, has saved the day. After the show, Patrick returns to his glass-polishing post in the kitchen, I return to my piano in the posh lounge, and the kids, high on chocolate and sugared tea, head into the winter wonderland, clutching swag bags of candy and small toys.

On his way out, the little boy who kissed Santa asks my permission to keep his cheap, felt elf-hat.

“Of course,” I say. “It’s yours—the holiday chapeau! You saved Christmas for all of us.”

“Look,” he says, pointing outside. “It’s snowing! Santa is going to have a great trip around the globe this year. He loves snow!”

“Yes,” I say. “Let’s hope he doesn’t get stuck.”

“No worries,” said the boy. “Santa always shows up, even when he’s really tired.”

***

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;  Rhythm: A Novel.  New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) 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 channel.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. Or you can always show up and listen in person! Check out the SCHEDULE page to find out where and when.

Personal note from RMG: I spent much of my summer holiday sorting through recordings and I’ve come up with a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

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

The Piano Zone

“People will forget what you said; people will forget what you did; but people will never forget the way you make them feel.” Maya Angelou.

Today, during my steady tea-time job playing the piano at Excelsior Hotel Ernst, I lean into my first set of background music just as our guests are settling in. I play the opening cadence to a quiet piece called “The Village” and absorb the mood of the room.

To my left—a table of six German women of a certain age: blown-out hair, manicured hands, cashmere frocks in soft shades of navy, burgundy, beige. Tasteful jewelry.

On my right—six Emirati gentlemen from London: perfect Oxford English accents, manicured reverse-fade haircuts and trim beards, bespoke suits with embroidered vests. Velvet slippers. Brit-chic, Dubai dash.

In the middle–a recently-engaged middle-aged gay couple: suave and happy and in love. Not glamorous, but perfect. Fluffy sweater vests.

In the back—a clump of four American businessmen: casual Friday jeans and blazers. They hover around one laptop. Holy Grail.

Far-left corner—two PhD candidates from Ghana: gleaming ebony skin, white and pink button-down shirts. Bio-chemists.

Far-right corner—one Korean woman: translucent complexion, skinny black pants, hoop earrings. Tap-tap-taps her phone. Sips a latte, ignores the cookies.

My music means different things to different people, but on this particular day it spills into the room as intended. I quickly enter my piano zone—the intersection of music and humanity—where all seems right with the world, even when it’s not.

***

Maybe you listen to my music at home. Perhaps you’re old school and still buy and play CDs in the car, or you’re a streamer, grabbing music from Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon.

Alexa! Siri! Play Robin Goldsby! 

Here’s something you should know: Two hundred times a year, I play live for global travelers, business people, and ladies (and gentlemen) who lunch. My cache of experience has resulted in recorded music intended to soothe the edges of your tumultuous, noisy life with a lilting waltz, an original ballad, or a mellow arrangement of one of your favorite melodies.

My piano style seems simple. Fragile, even. But effortlessness comes at a price. Unlike many of today’s “internet musicians,” I’ve spent decades playing music for a real audience with real feelings and real-time responses. Because I am constantly connecting to listeners, face to face and heart to heart, I know a thing or two about how to create atmosphere. My recordings are a result of this expertise.

I write this not as a self-rewarding pat on the back, but as a public service announcement for career musicians who continue to perform live in the world’s hotels, lounges, and piano rooms—those of us producing gentle music in a noisy world. We are a rare, but noble breed.

Now, more than ever, we’re needed. Recorded music plays an important role in all of our lives, but live music offers something more. Because it relies on the synergy of audience and musician, it results in compassion on both sides.

I love my job. My unexpected trajectory as a recording artist started out as a side hustle and has transitioned into a semi-lucrative extension of my happy career. Icing on a layered cake.

Contemporary musicians dream of internet fame, YouTube clicks, and Instagram followers—a wobbly kind of success determined by algorithms and social media feedback. In theory, musicians can attract  large audiences without ever meeting a single real person. More power to them. I do not underestimate the considerable appeal of working at home in pajamas.

My generation of musicians has had its own set of goals and challenges. When we were starting out, our efforts usually led to tenuous, pressure-cooker live performance situations—for judgmental juries, squirming recital audiences, apathetic crowds. We worked overtime to conquer our instruments, master technical challenges, and chase away Voice of Doom tirades. Then we hustled onstage and played for the people. They loved us, they hated us, they challenged us.

Some of us learned to burn through “Cherokee” in all twelve keys, while others focused on grandstanding the end of every concert with a flawless, flaming interpretation of “Rhapsody in Blue.” We competed and compared our budding selves to standards set by Ghosts of Musicians Past. Some of us strived for stardom and achieved it. A handful of my musical colleagues—those with big “voices” and the energy and drive to compete—prospered. Most of us ended up chasing stardust, clutching at effervescing, vanishing trails left by legends and heroes.

Regardless of the musical paths we followed, we experienced success and failure in real time in front of live audiences. A privilege. Also—for those of us prone to pre-concert anxiety attacks—a pain in the ass.

I’ve never thrived on bigger, faster, louder, better. Early in my career, my choice of smallness felt like giving up. Until one day, it felt more like giving. My voice might be tiny, but—it turns out—it’s as joyful as the powerful voices of my razzle-dazzle larger-than-life colleagues. Joy comes in many shapes and sizes. There’s enough of it for all of us. Especially when it comes to live music. I am proof positive that a life as the maker of quiet music—in places where people least expect it—can be a source of unexpected pleasure, not just for the musician herself, but for those who choose to listen.

Pianist Robin Spielberg tells workshop students that musicians preparing for concerts should stop worrying about “performing” and focus more on sharing. Really, that’s what live music is all about. Sharing, connecting. This might sound like spiritual mumbo-jumbo. I assure you, it’s not. Connecting with an audience means everything.

I’ve played ambient music in roadside dives, glitzy five-star Manhattan hotels, third world countries, coastal resorts, and on the European castle circuit. A musician who plays live must read the room, assess the mood, and create an atmospheric cushion of sound with her musical choices. Live music catches the day’s chaos and distills it to a warm elixir for the weary; it streaks a dingy canvas with pastel tones, and weaves a shimmering, aural thread of artistic finery through an otherwise bleak tapestry. The right music adds color and light and depth to a cheerless, one-dimensional world.

Any accomplished musician will tell you—the gig gods do not always look favorably in our direction. Sometimes the braless Pig Lady shows up, the happy-go-lucky shit-faced Dutch bowling team crashes (or trashes) the room, or the perfectly-coiffed parents of screaming twins park the parade-float stroller next to the Steinway and go off to a far corner to sip martinis and eat salted cashews (who can blame them?). The melodies we toss into the room are occasionally drowned out by drunken, doltish behavior, or the maddening din of the blender, the yapper, the dropped tray of champagne glasses. That’s okay—if we’re in the zone, the music bounces back to us.

As Mister Rogers pointed out to me at the beginning of my career: There’s always someone listening.

And as the very wise Ms. Spielberg said: Sometimes the only one listening might be you. But that counts.

So we keep playing. We listen to ourselves. As documented in my first book, Piano Girl, I’ve dealt with my fair share of unruly guests: the choking priest; the gentleman who mistook the inside of the grand piano for a coat-check; the marauding gang of bagpipers droning their way through the middle of my sensitive Michel LeGrand medley; a matched set of interpretive dancers in silver catsuits who gyrated to my music for three hours; a periodontist—complete with a set of chattering teeth—determined to bray “Love Me Tender” through my entire set.

You might laugh. I do.

But today is different; today is all I have. I look at my multi-culti, upscale, sophisticated guests from all corners of the planet. They sip tea and champagne and listen. Uniquely beautiful as individuals, they are more so as a group. I wonder who is the oldest, the youngest, who will die first or live the longest. I wonder who among them might be hiding secrets or illness or shame. I wonder who had to fight the hardest to make it into this room. Oh wait—that might be me.

The music connects us in some small, but decent, way.

***

The German women, the Africans, and the Emeratis—all of them are celebrating birthdays. I play Happy Birthday, anticipating a train wreck when we get to the name part of the song.

Happy Birthday, dear Gisela,

Happy Birthday, dear Xavier,

Happy Birthday, dear Mohammed . . .

The result sounds a little like Happy Birthday, dear  Exgiselamohamahdala.

They applaud, laugh, lean back, close their eyes, and listen some more. The lone Korean woman smiles and puts down her phone. The Americans close the laptop. Score one for the humans.

I stay in the moment, reach into my quiver of songs, and pull back gently on the bow. Time is on my side; tranquility always returns to the space my music occupies. That’s the best, most miraculous part of playing live—witnessing the effect music has on my audience, and in turn, what they give back to me. When I’m in the piano zone, each melody, like a vote for kindness or a prayer for peace, carries a fleeting missive of calm to the neighborhood.  Any song can be a simple act of grace in a violent, broken world. Call it revenge; call it love. It’s the least, and the most, I can do.

***

Urban Piano Photography by James Kezman. Location: Excelsior Hotel Ernst, Cologne, Germany. Check out Kezman’s Tree of Life photo and blog post about Squirrel Hill 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;  Rhythm: A Novel.  New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) 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 channel.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. Or you can always show up and listen in person! Check out the SCHEDULE page to find out where and when.

Personal note from RMG: I spent much of my summer holiday sorting through recordings and I’ve come up with a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

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

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.

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