The Pittsburgh Party

Take Me Home, Jimbo

The day after my second concert in South Carolina, I fly through Atlanta on my way to Pittsburgh, where I’m scheduled to perform my Piano Girl program at Chatham University, my alma mater. At this point in my tour I’m less of a Piano Girl and more of a Piano Geezer, but I’m coping.

The show must go on. Curtain up; light the lights. All that.

Pittsburgh, here I come. But first, I must navigate Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and find some dinner. Is this an airport or a theme park? About twelve billion restaurants frame the terminal-scape, most of them offering deep-fried mystery tidbits and liquid cheese. I dodge one of the many airport beep-beep cars—supersized golf carts that carry non-walking passengers (dressed for SeaWorld) and threaten to mow down pedestrians (also dressed for SeaWorld). I wonder if there’s a correlation between liquid fake cheese and increased beep-beep car traffic.

I fight for a table in a bistro with plastic chairs and settle for a sixteen-dollar glass of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay served alongside a soggy salad drizzled with diesel fuel.

Uptown problems, all of them. I am fine, just tired. I whine about wine when I run out of steam. At least my dinner comes on a plate and I don’t have to stand up to eat it. At least I’m not a refugee mother with two children stranded in airport jail waiting to be deported back to a country where chemical bombs are the weapon du jour.

Shape up, I tell myself.

I see six bloated people stuffed in a beep-beep car wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. I wonder where they’re going. Nowhere fast. Epcot, maybe.

Get me out of here.

My flight touches down in Pittsburgh on time—well done, Delta—and I successfully contact my Uber driver. Jimbo, wearing a plaid flannel shirt and a baseball cap covered with Steeler buttons shows up in a no-color Toyota. He pulls on his beard, grunts at me, and looks like he would rather be hunting. I wonder if there’s a rifle in the trunk.

Jimbo drives cautiously. I do not get carsick. Always a plus, especially for Jimbo.

Our car reaches the end of the Fort Pitt tunnel and wham! There’s the Golden Triangle. I’ve been away from Pittsburgh for almost forty years, but the dazzling, jagged skyline reminds me that this peculiar city still feels like home.

“Bootiful, ain’t it?” says Jimbo.

Mark Twain, describing Pittsburgh, once wrote: “With the moon soft and mellow, we sauntered about the mount and looked down on the lake of fire and flame. It looked like a miniature hell with the lid off.”

Twain never met Jimbo.

Hey, yinz guys. I’m back.

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Photo by Viv Lynch

Mrs. Brockett

Leslie Brockett is eighty-two—twenty-three years my senior—but one of the most youthful women I know. We met during my college years, when I worked for her husband, Pittsburgh producer Don Brockett. Leslie remains a stable force in my life. She picks me up at my hotel and whisks me to Shadyside where we have lunch at Casbah, a fancy-pants place where you sit in a tent and eat scallops.

Funny thing about my dear friend Leslie—I can be away from her for months, even years at a time, but our conversations—about politics, interior decorating, art, or food—pick right up where we left off. I last saw her in August, before the November political pratfall that placed our country in the smallish hands of a large-ish buffoon. Back then we were hopeful; now we feel doomed. We yap for hours on this topic, poking at what-ifs and why-nots and wondering if Trump supporters, some of whom appear to be decent people, are racist or stupid or both. Then we go to Talbot’s and shop the sale.

Later, we head to Mount Washington. Leslie’s splendid Chatham Village home features an antique carousel pig, some Dutch paintings of sheep, French-country furniture in sun-faded shades of butter and burgundy, and a cat named Boy. We talk into the night and cry our eyes out while streaming the film Moonlight. We say it’s the most important film of the year, especially in this fraught political climate, but agree that it will never win an Oscar. Moonlight tackles big themes by examining small, burdened lives. Too good to win? Seems to be a theme this year in the USA. Quality, in some circles, doesn’t cut it anymore.

I spend the night on Leslie’s down-filled sofa, wrapped in soft linen sheets trimmed with handmade lace. Boy stretches and rifles through my suitcase, looking for catnip toys.

Three days until the concert.

Leslie

Leslie, with her niece, Susie.

The James Laughlin Music Building

Thursday morning I head back to Chatham and read through my script. I’ve put together a new program for the hometown crowd.

Bob and Ann, my parents, arrive at noon. We drive over to the James Laughlin Music Building where we meet Professor Pauline Rovkah, the Ukrainian-born pianist who runs the small music department at Chatham. Sprightly Pauline, wearing a bright yellow dress with matching shoes, looks like a bead of sunshine dropped onto the campus tableau. My black travel clothes weigh me down as the early spring light, fluid and startling, floods the February afternoon.

We enter the building—a hallowed hall haunted by discordant melodies from my past. Pauline shows me several pianos, but the only one suitable for the concert is a 1976 Steinway “D,” the very instrument I played while attending the school almost forty years ago. Back then it was brand new. So was I.

Pauline, whose frothy enthusiasm for music swells and crests like the Black Sea on a windy day, talks a mile a minute (tempo tantrum), and Bob—never one to shy away from a conversation—provides a Pittsburghese counterpoint to her Ukrainian-American chatter by inserting his own funny stories about gigs gone awry. The two of them natter on in the corner while I reacquaint myself with the Steinway. They are either trading stories about mutual Pittsburgh Symphony friends or sharing Borscht recipes.

This piano. Hello old friend; it’s been awhile. Like, four decades. Ah, I remember. A glistening upper register and a brawny bass. Kind of boggy in the middle. So it goes. The technician will arrive tomorrow.

I play. A mixed bag of recollections rips open and spills onto the keyboard. The sacred air inside this place, once home to my early piano frustrations, pulses with the hushed energy of music students past and present.

The piano lures me back to 1976 like a hand-cranked time machine. An audio track of musical train-wreckage—anxiety attacks, fretful lessons and awkward recitals—rewinds in my mind. I studied many things at Chatham, but they had little to do with piano technique or artistic integrity. Mainly, I learned how to celebrate failure—how to take scraps of broken songs and stitch them into the patchwork of imperfect music I want to hear. It has taken me four decades and a lot of multi-continent piano-hopping in non-sensible shoes to figure this out.

Freshly painted in shades of cream and taupe, with towering windows overlooking slanted trees, the James Laughlin Music Building feels like an airy atelier haunted by the singing, taunting ghosts of my youth. I wait for Voice of Doom to mess with me, but he’s over there in the corner, buzzing around Pauline and Bob.

I focus on the keys so I don’t start sweating. Or crying. Two days till the concert.

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Pittsburgh, Pantsylvania

Randita

My sister, Randy, greets me outside her restaurant, Randita’s Organic Vegan Café, wearing her chef’s black smock. Randy has closed the place this evening so she can prepare for tomorrow’s catering event—vegan lasagna for eighty—and I am here to keep her company while she slices, dices, and stirs.

Randy’s husband, Dale, says hello and shows me his new guitar set-up in the corner of the restaurant. He runs the place with Randy during the week and performs on the weekends. Dale plays and sings “Walkin’ in Memphis” and I have one of those I remember that song moments of pure joy. Then he plays Willie Nelson’s “Valentine” and I envision weak-kneed female diners falling headfirst into plates of vegan shepherd’s pie.

No one can work wonders with fake chicken (chickun) the way my sister can. Her food tastes like a plant-based version of my childhood. Her music skills are limited—Randy’s one piano number is a march-tempo arrangement of “Eleanor Rigby”—but boy, can she cook. I’m proud of my sister. A survivor of domestic abuse, she raised four kids on her own and reinvented herself—at the age of fifty—by opening a vegan restaurant that has become a “go-to” place in a hip part of town. She found true love, married Dale the Guitar Guy, and has steered her boys to adulthood by providing a home filled with good food and love. She’s walkin’ in Memphis every single day.

Randy whips up some pea soup and we talk for hours about our kids, our parents, our shared good fortune. I wish I had her tenacity, she wishes she had my chill. If you mixed the two of us into one woman, you’d get a vegan-musician pit bull with a cranky stomach who takes a lot of naps.

One day until the concert.

Randita

Randita’s place

Roses and Daffodils

Debra McCloskey was one of my roommates at Chatham. Debra comes from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, where she was a local hero for having won the Lawrence County Junior Miss Pageant. The day she won, the Ellwood City newspaper ran a two-inch bold headline that said:

Debbie McCloskey wins Junior Miss!!!

At the bottom of the page, in fine print, was the single sentence:

Richard Nixon Resigns—story page 6

At Chatham, Deb was a political science and theater major. She had grown up in a blue-collar working-class home. Deb thought my family was rich because we had matching towels in the bathroom. I thought she was rich because she had an entire town worshiping at her feet.

My other roommate, Peggy Melozzi, was a Heinz Scholar with an English and theater double-major. She spent a semester at Oxford and was—and still is—a brilliant actor and writer. Back in 1976, I felt like the campus idiot around Peg and Deb, but their determination and ingenuity—during a time when I was obsessed with Carole King songs, spandex evening gowns, and Benson and Hedges Lights—gave me a much needed academic nudge.

Deb and Peg were frequent guests at my Hyatt piano gig. They sipped Tab and listened to me play, their shining eighteen-year-old faces beaming out at me from the smoky recesses of the lounge. They thought I was glamorous. I thought they were true intellectuals.

Today, forty years later, I’ve got them back for the afternoon.

We meet in Shadyside—back to the Casbah!—and try to make sense out of our crazy, busy lives. Deb is now a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice; Peg writes and produces corporate films. When we were nineteen we had a nightclub act called “Ladies” that we were sure would catapult us to stardom. Slight problem: Deb was the only one who could sing.

We rehearsed day and night, night and day. We thought we were great. Twenty-four hours before our first booking we scheduled a dress rehearsal. The only invited guest was a rather messy girl named Rita, a friend of Peg’s. Rita was the smartest girl in the school, and we were sure she’d be able to give us some constructive criticism. About halfway through our dress rehearsal, after we had brayed our way through a song from the musical Shenandoah called “Freedom,” Rita stood up and said—very calmly—“This is horrible.” Then she walked out.

We chose to ignore Rita, our parents, our music teachers, and our own common sense. We went on with the show.

Over the years Peggy Melozzi has said some funny things, but my absolute favorite? This, uttered with mild disgust in 1977, after realizing that our crack agent had advertised us at the Oakdale Army Support Base as snake-dancers: “I don’t know what snake-dancers do, but I’ll bet they don’t open with ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses.’ ”

At lunch today we wonder whether we should consider doing a revival tour with our sixty-year-old selves singing tunes like “The Party’s Over,” “Time to Say Goodbye,” or “Water Retention Blues.” A  comeback from careers we never had, complete with extra-large tour t-shirts (in slimming navy blue) that say Ladies: Last Chance. Instead of army support bases and Elk lodges, we could wear army support hose and perform in nursing homes, where we are still considered hot warm young things.

Instead of Danskin body suits we could wear caftans with bling. Think Zsa-Zsa.

We visit the Chatham campus and make our way to our old dorm room at Berry Hall, recently taken over by the admissions department. There’s an oversized desk where my bed used to be and a printer in the spot where Peg once slept.

“Where’s the tub?” asks Deb. “Where’s the Swamp?” Our private bathroom, plenty big enough for a mattress when we had visitors, always smelled vaguely marshy. Three freshly scrubbed young women now work in the Swamp, blissfully unaware of the debauchery that once occurred on that soggy floor. I swear I can still smell the mildewed carpet.

So much has changed here. Chatham went co-ed two years ago and young men play Frisbee on the campus green. The post office has moved; the Benedum mansion has been sold and turned into condos; the old swimming pool and bowling alley in the Andrew Mellow house are now conference rooms. The theater department is defunct, and a huge athletic center has sprung up behind the cafeteria, complete with a climbing wall. There are no female students climbing on the climbing wall. Maybe they’re in the library.

I’ve become a cliché—a middle age woman stewing over change. But in spite of the campus transformation, one key element feels the same as I stroll past the science building with these two remarkable women. I feel safe. And buoyed by their girlish love and loyalty.

It has taken me decades to appreciate the beauty of our college-girl bravery; our naive willingness to sing and dance and act like fools and just assume that the whole world would want to watch and listen. Where does that courage go when we grow up? Maybe it floats out the door one day when we’re not paying attention, and is gone forever. Or maybe it lurks outside, just around the corner, searching for a way to sneak back into our lives, through a window we’ve forgotten to close. I hope so. I still check my windows every day, and leave them open, just a crack.

We were great together. We still are.

Ladies

Ladies 4.0

The Concert

Bob picks me up early and we head to the hall, a three-minute drive up Woodland Road. I’ve been performing in Europe all these years and my parents have never seen my concert program.

“Exactly what are you going to play?” he says, glancing skeptically at my sketchy set list.

Once a dad, always a dad. He takes charge and loads in all of my merchandise. He has also schlepped an “extra” sound system in case the university system isn’t up to par.

“Students pay 40,000 a year to go to this place,” I say. “They should have a decent sound system.”

“You never know,” Bob says. “These places promise good sound and then you end up sounding like Elmer Fudd on helium. I’ve got you covered.”

Professor Pauline, in another Pittsburgh early-spring outfit—this time Easter grassy-green—latches onto Bob again. This gives me a chance to warm up, while Bob paces and worries about gypsies, tramps, and thieves. Dad is concerned about ticket sales at the door—who will collect the money, who will sell the merchandise, who will watch out for criminals and rogue audience members looking to shoplift my CDs and books.

“Dad,” I say. “In all the years I’ve been doing this no one has ever stolen anything.”

“Yeah, “he says. “But you live in Europe. Things are different over here.”

“Sometimes people leave extra money,” I say. “I even use the honor system—anyone who doesn’t have cash can pay later.”

Bob responds by raising one eyebrow. He has obviously been in the jazz business for too long. “Really?” he says.

“Really. CDs featuring tunes like “Greensleeves” and “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” are not black-market heist items. I wouldn’t worry too much about security.”

People are starting to show up and it’s still an hour until show time. We’re sold out. I finish my warm-up, exit stage left, and hole up in a smaller recital hall. In spite of the barricade I’ve constructed with a couple of music stands, the door keeps slipping open, each time revealing a pop-up person from my past.  I need to go into prison mode and stop talking. I’m usually not this sensitive before a show, but a hometown performance has a lot of unclaimed baggage attached to it.

Deb shows up in my dressing room and puts her hands on my shoulders. “I am here to help,” she says. “Anything you need, I am here for you.”

I burst into tears and thank her. “Keep everyone out,” I say.

“You got it,” says Deb. She puts on her Justice face—smiling but firm—and heads out to run interference. I calm down, guzzle a liter of water, and prepare.

Twenty minutes later Bob knocks over the music stand barricade and crashes into the room. “You ready?” he says. “Everyone is here.”

“Ready,” I say.

Crowd

Roomful of memories

I listen to my introduction, make an entrance, and take a diva bow. The hall, filled with people from diverse phases of my life, feels like an intersection of then and now. It feels like home. It occurs to me that this might be the same audience that would show up at my funeral. I’ve had the funeral sensation before but for entirely different reasons—like the time a ninety-year old woman fell asleep in the front row during the first five minutes of my show, snored loudly, then woke up and shouted: “IS SHE DONE YET?”

I announce that the Steinway is the same piano I played in 1976; back when it was brand new.

“And I paid for it,” yells Bob from the front row. I have one heckler in the audience and it’s my father. Perfect.

I read my “Ladies” story, a story about a choking priest at the Redwood Motor Inn, and a story about my short-lived career as a piano-playing stripper in one of Don Brockett’s shows. We roll along and have a lot of fun—I’ve chosen tales that feature members of today’s audience. High school friends, college classmates, and teachers; Mister Rogers Neighborhood alumnae—including Neighbor Aber, Mayor Maggie, and Speedy Delivery Mr. McFeeley; musicians and actors from far and wide; childhood friends I haven’t seen since 1980. They’re all here.

As we come to the end of my program, I read this text:

I don’t have to return home to hear the musical voices of my Pittsburgh childhood. All I have to do is sit down and play. Every time I touch the piano, my teacher, Bill Chrystal, is there, reprimanding me for a careless mistake or sloppy fingering. Sometimes, not often enough, I catch myself playing a passage the way he would have played it, clear and full of life, and it takes my breath away.

I watch reruns of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and hear Johnny Costa playing, Fred Rogers singing, and my dad backing them up with his tasteful percussive nuances and perfect time. Watching that show is a melodic time tunnel, a chance to revisit the playing and composing giants of my youth.

Fred and Johnny, along with Bill Chrystal, Don Brockett, and my father have left behind a billion notes, a dizzying number of beautiful thoughts transposed into song, and a musical tapestry woven with threads of optimism and inspiration.  I’m reminded that each supportive person in a young person’s life—college music professor, parent, or friend—carries a torch that can spark the artistic flame that lives in every child’s heart.

I try to stay composed, but I get weepy as I near the end of the passage. So many of my heroes are gone. Of all the musicians I mentioned, Dad is the last one standing. And playing. Go, Bob.

When I start back to the Steinway, my mother reaches out from the front row and hands me a Kleenex. I am almost sixty years old, and my mom still makes sure I don’t get caught in a public place with a runny nose. Amused, exhausted, and extremely grateful, I float through the last song of the set.

Take me home, Jimbo. It’s bootiful here.

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Photo by BM Ward

Coming in May: “I’ll Take Manhattan,” Part 3 of the Peripatetic, Poetic, and Chic series.

Many thanks to Bob and Ann Rawsthorne, Leslie Brockett, Pauline Rovkah, Dana DePasquale, Randy & Dale Cinski, Trey, Beau, & Cole Turnblacer, Debra Todd & Peggy Melozzi, Chatham University, Randita’s Organic Vegan Café, the old gang from Chatham Village, and all the wonderful people who showed up to celebrate music. I love you all.

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

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

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Low Country Boil

Chickens and Antiques

I arrive in Charleston, South Carolina, on a balmy February evening after a fifteen-hour travel extravaganza that has led me from Frankfurt, Germany, through Detroit, and into the cushioned arms of Low Country hospitality. I’m here to play a couple of solo piano concerts. My host, a southern gentleman who works as a church organist, concert promoter, and hotel pianist, greets me at the airport. His name is Tom Bailey. I know from emails and phone calls he is neither an ax murderer nor a Trump supporter, but still, I worry. I’m tired enough that most of my trust issues evaporate into the salty night without a second thought as Tom, a dapper guy in a gorgeous suit, grabs my suitcase. We hop in his Nissan, and away we go.

Tom and his partner Steve live in Summerville in a rambling home they share with two dogs (Loopy and Buster) and twenty chickens. The chattering chickens reside outside and pretty much never shut up, but  I could sleep through anything at this point. I have a glass of wine, tour the labyrinth of chicken-themed, antique-filled rooms, and head up to the guest suite where I fall into a four-poster bed and dream of Pat Conroy and roosters.

To avoid performing with jet lag, I’ve arrived in Charleston six days before my first concert. Other, more seasoned artists don’t fret about travel fatigue, but I’m approaching my sixtieth birthday and I function best when my head is not plopping onto the keyboard.

Tom Bailey fills my pre-concert days with cocktail parties, dinners, and “meet and greet” sessions with fans and friends. He has created a minor buzz about me, so I get star treatment. This is something new and different, but I go along with the program and soak up the love. Being a sponge is fun. I eat too much and drink too much. I have cramps in my cheeks from smiling.

Note to my liberal friends: At no time during my stay does Jeff Sessions jump out from behind a potted palmetto. South Carolina might be a red state, but the citizens of the greater Charleston area, at least the ones I meet, are a civilized mish-mash of black-white-old-young-straight-gay-jewish-christian-muslim-happy.

It seems I have once again found myself in an American Bubbleland. I’ll take it.

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Loopy and Buster

My Funny Valentine

On Valentine’s Day, Tom—who knows a million songs and plays them all with bouncy bravado—works  the Swamp Fox Room at the Francis Marion Hotel, a five-star joint in downtown Charleston. Steve and Tom have invited three pianists—Nancy, Hermeine, and Patricia— to have dinner with me. They are stunning, aging, and funny; they are also kick-ass pianists. After dinner, Tom invites them to play. I listen in amazement as Hermeine romps through a version of “Embraceable You” with a Brahms-y rolling left hand that sounds like the tide. Wow. Hermeine plays more notes in four bars than I play in an entire set. As I take my turn at the piano I feel an inkling of impostor syndrome creeping under the collar of my stretchy black travel dress.

I play tinka tinka and hope my minimalistic approach will carry me through. Hermeine, Patricia, and Nancy are Charleston’s Golden Piano Girls. I feel like I’ve known them forever. That’s the nice thing about the Musician’s Club—we’re family, even if we’re meeting for the first time. I’m in a party of seven, and five of us play the piano. Among us, we have three hundred years of stories.

How many pianists does it take to play “My Funny Valentine?” Evidently, all of us.

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Tom @ the piano.

Miss Emily

Emily Remington, as far as I know, is the world’s most senior Piano Girl. One hundred years old and still snappy! After turning down the volume on her Vladimir Ashkenazy recording (more Brahms), she greets Tom and me in her apartment. We happily sip afternoon cocktails, eat crackers and brie, and trade tales about the music business. Miss Emily, appalled by the current political situation in the USA, reminisces about the choirs she conducted in 1962, one black, one white. After Kennedy’s assassination, she fought to integrate the choirs and have them sing together for his memorial. A teenage Jessye Norman was a soloist for the performance. Tom says that Miss Emily, fearing the hatred of white supremacists, stood in front of Jessye during her solo to protect her from crowd violence.

“To think we’ve returned to such awful thinking,” she says. “It depresses me.”

I remind Miss Emily of Carrie Fisher’s brilliant comment: Take your broken heart and make it into art. “That’s what you did, Miss Emily, back in 1962,” I say. “And other artists will follow in your footsteps.”

“At least we still have that,” she says. “Music.”

We discuss musician wardrobe malfunctions—she once had a strapless dress fall down while conducting a symphony orchestra—and I lament about my failure to find a strapless bra that hoists the twins to a respectable height without cutting off my oxygen.

“Well, I have a gift for you!” she says. She stands up, and with the aid of a walker, cruises into her bedroom, where she reaches into the top drawer of her lingerie chest and pulls out a black strapless bra. “Here,” she says. “Take it. My strapless bra days are behind me.”

I like that she had that bra at the ready, as if she was willing to slip on a slinky sequined dress, grab her gig bag, and hit the boards running. One hundred years old, and still thinking like a Piano Girl.

Note to opera buffs: Jessye Norman sang to Miss Emily on her 100th birthday.

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Me, age 59. Miss Emily, age 100. She wins.

The Cape

Tom and Steve take me to a vintage clothing shop and buy me a full-length velvet cape with a red satin lining and beaded shoulders. Perhaps my nun-ish wardrobe has disappointed them, or maybe they are hoping I’ll make a Liberace entrance at my concert on Saturday.

“Tom,” I say. “I don’t think I can wear this while I play.” I yank the jeweled clasp that pinches the fat on my neck and threatens to strangle me. Death by beading.

“No, no,” he says. “You walk onstage and then drop the cape dramatically next to the piano before you sit down. Fabulous!”

Tom and Steve are fabulous. I now own the cape. I wonder if it has super powers. Sure, Liberace liked his capes, but so did James Brown and Batman. I am in good company.

Note to soul fans: James Brown, born in South Carolina, employed a “Cape Man.” Cape Man’s soul function was to run onstage when Brown was collapsing from excessive emotional exertion and too many hip thrusts. Cape Man would dramatically place the cape on Brown’s slumped and twitching shoulders, thus bestowing Brown with enough energy to go on with the show.

I am currently taking applications for my own personal Cape Man.

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With Steve & Tom. My Cape Men.

The Surprise

I am sitting with Tom in a Summerville restaurant called Oscar’s. He tells me we are meeting “some agent” for lunch. I go along with the program because at this point I’m on remote control and know that anyone Tom introduces to me will be funny, smart, and entertaining. Even an agent.

Tom tells me about his funeral gigs. Sometimes he plays three or four funerals a week, in addition to his hotel and church jobs. When I ask him if the funerals get depressing he says: “No. The organ is in a closet and I have a video feed of whoever is conducting the service. No casket viewing, no grieving people—I just go in my closet and play the gig. Sometimes I take a sandwich with me.”

This morning, while Tom was playing in his funeral closet, I called Robin Spielberg, my piano BFF, just to check in and tell her what’s going on. She would love it here! Robin lives in rural Pennsylvania and I could tell she was in a vehicle so I asked where she was going. “It’s a trip to nowhere,” she said. It’s been almost ten years since we’ve seen each other, even though we communicate daily. Busy, busy, Piano Girl lives. I miss her.

The server asks about our drink orders. Wine or no wine? With all the socializing and bar-hopping the week has turned a bit hazy around the edges, but that’s a good thing. I’m often accused of exaggeration (I like to think of it as a gift for fiction) and I’m sure no one from my real life will believe the things I’ve been experiencing in Charleston—the chickens, Miss Emily, the cape, the way Charleston teems with musicians and gigs . . . I order the wine and chat with Tom about the piano business and funerals, waiting for “some agent” to show up.

Surprise! In walks Robin Spielberg and her handsome husband, Larry, who actually is a talent agent (one of the good guys). Knock me over with a feather. How Tom and Robin managed to keep this a secret baffles me. I usually sniff out covert activity weeks before it happens. Ask my children. In the spy versus spy game, I am queen. Not this time. I have been out-played by two piano players.

We squeal, we cry, we are a surprise-party cliché. We order more wine. Spielberg is beautiful and full of life and understands so much about what I do for a living. She is here and I am over the moon happy. The first thing I do when we get back to Tom’s house is show her the cape. She agrees: It’s fabulous.

The next day we drink dill-pickle flavored Bloody Marys, eat a little lunch, then go to a dress store and buy matching southern belle evening gowns. On sale. Now I have something to wear with the cape. And the bra. And if anyone ever calls us to do a two-piano show, we’re all set.

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Spielberg & Goldsby, 4 hands sounding like 2.

The Concert

The first concert takes place at St. Theresa the Little Flower Catholic Church in Summerville. Tom runs a series there, called Third Sunday at Three.

Steinway has provided a gorgeous Model B. It sits front and center under a glorious (but gruesome) mosaic of Jesus on the cross. I’m not sure this is the appropriate place to tell stories about my life as a cocktail lounge pianist, but I’m here, hundreds of people have shown up and I figure I’ve got enough  spirituality in my music to make up for my atheist tendencies. Live and let live and all that.

My dressing room is the priest’s vestry. Forget about the cape! Robes and scarves in glorious colors hang in the priest’s closet. And look at those rosary beads. This is bling city. I’m suspicious of most organized religion, but I’ve always been a fan of Pope-wear. I’m temped to borrow the lime green cassock for my entrance but Spielberg talks me out of it. Look at us: a Jewish gal from New Jersey and a Pittsburgh atheist with German residency hanging out in the priest’s vestry of a South Carolina catholic church.

Ah, music. The great unifier.

We gaze at the special sink for holy water but we do not drink.

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The concert goes well. My hands are cold for the first chunk of music (the vestry was chilly) but I recover and warm up for the rest of the program. The audience rolls along with me, laughing when they’re supposed to. I read my story about playing an endless version of the Titanic theme at a private party in a German castle, and Tom sits in at the piano for me and provides the perfect soundtrack. People here love him, and because they love him, they accept me.

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New fans!

I sign a lot of books and CDs and head to the post-concert shindig at Tom and Steve’s home. Eighty people show up for the party. Tom has hired service staff and a pianist. The food is plentiful; the bar is well stocked. They serve a Low Country boil called Frogmore Stew, which I am happy to report does not contain frogs—just giant shrimp, potatoes, corn on the cob, and sausage. Maybe it should be called Frogless Stew. I drink a goblet of wine and pose for photos. I’m starving, but I can’t very well eat corn on the cob while I’m having my photo taken. That’s a little too Ellie Mae Clampet, even for me.

Note: Posing for a cell phone photo takes three times longer than posing for a real camera, especially when senior citizens are involved. Commonly heard phrases include:

It’s all black.

It didn’t click.

Where do I push?

It’s all fuzzy.

The Medical Emergency

I go on the veranda to have my photo taken with a guy named Chris, just as Miss Sarah, a retired volunteer librarian using a walker, struggles to get down the steps. Miss Sarah is elderly and has just had a knee replacement. Miss Sarah’s husband takes her walker and his own cane and tries to follow her down the steps. He is also carrying multiple copies of my books—way too much stuff for a nonagenarian on a staircase with an opiate-impaired wife.

I grab Chris and we get hold of Miss Sarah just before she takes a dive. I’m in front of her; Chris is behind her. We get her down the steps, but she is dizzy and nauseated and ready to toss her Frogmore cookies. I know this feeling all too well. It will pass, but her advanced age calls for something more proactive than a reassuring pat on the back. I don’t want anyone, especially sweet Miss Sarah, going down for the count on the night of my big event. Piano Girl Program Kills Popular Librarian is not a headline I care to see.

“Tom!” I yell, after running back into the house. It’s hard to find him in this French-farce maze of rooms. “Miss Sarah needs medical attention. Call an ambulance!”

“Who?”

“Miss Sarah! Miss Sarah! The librarian! On the veranda!”

I feel like I’ve been dropped into the second act of a Tennessee Williams play. I’m even developing a slight twang.

The paramedics come, a little too slowly for my taste, but hey, it’s the south. Miss Sarah is fine—she has experienced an opiate-induced blood pressure drop—and will be delivered back to her rehab facility. One of her fellow librarians asks me to sign Miss Sarah’s books before they drive away. This should be the last thing anyone is worrying about, but who am I to argue?  I love this woman. Get well soon, Miss Sarah!

I glance at the waiting paramedics and scrawl my signature as quickly as possible. I never get that photo with Chris. But I do snag some corn when the crowd thins out.

Book signing

The Ultimate Music Machine

Steinway & Sons Charleston and BMW sponsor the second event, held at a sleek and shiny BMW showroom on the outskirts of the city. David Vail, Steinway Director, delivers a Model “D” for the concert. I’m more comfortable here than I was yesterday at the church. For one thing, I don’t have Jesus hanging over my head for the comedy portion of my show. And I prefer my audience in chairs rather than pews. Tonight’s audience is close-up and a little punchy from the cocktail reception. The cars on the periphery of the stage area, in gleaming shades of powder and pewter, look pretty and powerful.

Perfect.

Miss Emily, our resident centenarian, wearing a festive zebra-print frock, perches in the second row with a glass of wine. She missed my church gig yesterday because she produces her own concert series at the senior residence where she lives. When I’m introduced, I bow at her feet in tribute. Then I wonder what kind of bra she is wearing. This woman knows her undergarments.

I glide through the show, marveling at the instrument in front of me. I can’t play a wrong note on this piano—Steinway technician John Krucke has groomed it till it sings. I could stay here forever. But I don’t because the show is over and we have dinner reservations and I’m hungry.

Before we leave I talk to audience member Charles Miller, the organist who jumped in to accompany President Obama during his unanticipated “Amazing Grace” moment at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church memorial service. I watched that ceremony live from Germany, and although I was weeping, I remember noting the amazing grace of that amazingly graceful organist. He overcame his grief, did his job, and lifted all of us to a better place—a beautiful moment in a tragic setting, buoyed by the bravery of one musician.

“You are my hero,” I say to Charles after my concert. “I’m curious. What key did Obama sing in?”

“He was between E and Eb,” says Charles. “But I pushed him down to Eb.”

Wow. No cape necessary. While I’m talking to Charles and signing books, a hugely talented fourteen-year old named Caleb sits down at the “D” and starts playing Bach. My God—this room is swollen with music. Caleb balances at the beginning of his career; Miss Emily has leaned comfortably into the end of hers. The rest of us stand somewhere in the middle, grateful benefactors of our musical pasts, protectors of what’s to come.

Is everyone in this town a musician? Seems like.

It’s time to move on. Thank you, Charleston. You have plenty of music in your fine city, but you’ve welcomed me as if you can never get enough. Your southern charm took me by surprise.

Next stop: Pittsburgh. But first, let’s eat.

Note to music fans: The former mayor of Charleston, Joseph Riley, set out to make Charleston a world-class city by focusing on the city’s vibrant cultural life. It worked. Music is everywhere and venues—both large and small—are full. The current mayor of Charleston, John Tecklenburg, is a jazz pianist.

 *****

Special thanks to Tom Bailey, Steve Jackson. Robin Spielberg, Larry Kosson, David Vail, John Krucke, David Archer, Pat Huffman, and Emily Remington. And much gratitude to Tom Bailey’s circle of friends for making me feel so welcome. Can’t wait to see you all again! 

Coming next month: The Pittsburgh Party

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

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

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

Feathers

Hope swoops into our lives—a random, fluttering presence we grab when our heavy hearts need a back-up plan. Hope tilts the navy sky and pierces dark corners with jagged spikes of radiance; it frees imaginations, builds footbridges, and boosts our bruised and broken spirits with a gentle quiver of its powerful wings.

Life’s political cacophony might pummel us into a fitful trance, but hope’s quiet birdsong awakens our deep desire to do good, to do right, to do anything at all to chase away wickedness.

The Women’s March on Washington took that quiet birdsong—an effortless melody that too many of us took for granted—and arranged it for four million voices, giving us a bold, bashing, international choral performance that inspired not only hope, but action.

Feathers8_Crowd

On Inauguration Day Melania Trump, channeling Jackie Kennedy and The Hunger Games, wore pale blue, double-faced cashmere Ralph Lauren. Kellyanne Conway, channeling Pennsatucky and Winnie the Pooh, wore Gucci. Both women sported stiletto heels. Ivanka de la Trump wore Oscar de la Renta. Hillary Clinton wore a gleaming white pantsuit and an air of dignified resignation that she might have borrowed from my closet, or yours.

The peaceful protesters the next day—women who regularly climb small mountains and outrun wolves—wore double-faced fleece from Target or Timberland. They wore warm socks and heavy Keen hiking boots or thick-soled sport shoes. They came equipped to brave the cold, march a mile or two, and kick some butt if they had to. They brought their daughters and their mothers. They wore pink pussy hats and they grabbed back.

They are my heroes.

Note to the bullies: Never, ever piss off a woman with high moral standards, a set of knitting needles, and sensible shoes. You’ll get a gazillion misshapen hats, a serious movement to protect our fundamental rights, and four million protesters. You’ll get an overdue call for change and it will sound like nothing you’ve heard before.

Feathers 14_Austin

We shout, we sing, we march. Four million of our sisters (and brothers) protesting. Think of that.

We crave hope like we crave sunlight or fresh air or clean water (all of which are at risk). To keep on keepin’ on we need to keep our dreams alive. So we tighten our laces and put one boot in front of another in the long, muddy march through a political catastrophe. Bullies line our path—pop-up purveyors of racist rhetoric, hell bent on tossing stink-bombs at anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into an American, white, heterosexual, Christian, male order.

America first, indeed. How about humanity first? How about decency first? Love first? Hope first? These work for me.

The marchers have given me hope that we are witnessing not the beginning of a new, evil world-order, but the end of an era of bare-assed hatred. We need to steel ourselves, though; bullies—especially when bloated by arrogance—never surrender without a fight. Remember junior high school? It’s like that, but with nuclear codes.

A few facts (not the alternative kind): We outnumber the bullies. We are smarter, more patient, more diplomatic. We carry hope in our clear plastic travel pouches instead of fear. The bullies’ dissonant shrieks might temporarily drown out the intricate and subtle symphony of human potential, but to me their cries sound more like the last raspy gasps of bigotry. The bullies are not going down without struggle. But they are going down, down, all the way down. They are, after all, bottom feeders.

We have wings.

Congressman John Lewis, who often speaks about the necessity of making “good trouble,” said: “It is my hope that people today will see that, in another time, in another period, when we saw the need for people to speak up, to organize, to mobilize, and to do something about injustice, we came together.”

So we march. Peaceful protest braids grace with determination and returns dignity and hope to all of us.

Kundgebung fuer Frauenrechte "Women's March" am Brandenburger Tor in Berlin nach die Investitur von Donald Trump. Copyright: Florian Boillot, 21.01.2017

Vietnamese-American My Linh Kunst marching in Berlin.

Hope’s presence, when it lands like a sparrow in our outstretched palms or on our pink-capped heads, might feel feather-light and fickle, but—think of this—a sparrow’s miniscule heart beats 460 times a minute. Fragile. Fleeting. Strong. Strong enough to get us through this storm if we rise together, speak up, shout out, and keep marching. Sneakers and boots on the ground. Step lively, ladies and gentlemen.

We stand shoulder-to-shoulder, arms to the sky, signs aloft. We sing and bang on drums. We are a loud-mouthed and luminescent beacon of humanity—a landing strip for hope’s flight of fancy.

Hope—never invisible and never mute—grows wings in improbable places. We may be stuck on the ground, but, thanks to hope, we arc toward the light and open our minds to necessary change.

Feathers, like whispered poetry or beautiful music, can drift from even the murkiest clouds.

*****

This version of “Feathers” is dedicated to the memory of my dear aunt, Jean Curtis Ewing, who died on January 27th, 2017 at the age of ninety-four. She remained hopeful until the end. Purple was her favorite color, but her life looked a lot like a rainbow.

Small sections of “Feathers” first appeared in the book Hope is the Thing with Feathers: Portraits of Human Trafficking Survivors and Change-Makers, a project sponsored by STAND UP Against Human Trafficking Symposium held in The Hague on Octover 8-9, 2016 (My-Linh Kunst, Photographer; Mary Adams, Project Director). The message of hope continues to serve us well.

The Faces of Hope Portrait Gallery:

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Christine Funke (plus one) marching in Heidelberg. Photo by Jody Tull.

 

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Pedro with his daughter marching in Manhattan.

 

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Those Munger Sisters marching in NYC.

 

feathers10_Deb

Deborah, getting ready to march in Paris with a very French P-Hat.

 

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My Dutch friends.

 

Feathers12_Mary

Mary Adams marching in Amsterdam.

 

Feathers7_Holli

Holli and Hannah marching in Washington.

 

Feathers3_Moede

The Moede Sisters marching in Hamburg.

 

Feathers2_Cozzens

Michele and Willow Cozzens marching in Washington.

 

Feathers4_Silke

Silke marching in Amsterdam. The future.

*****

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

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

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

Blue

1.Fly

Blue

You’re in Boston, Chicago, on the Jersey Shore,

I’m in Hamburg, or Paris; last week was Singapore,

And I am missing you,

The world feels blue,

Tonight—

You’re in Austin, New Orleans, Waukegan, or LA,

I’m in Mumbai, or Shanghai, Dubai, or Calais,

And I am missing you,

The world feels blue,

Tonight—

My life is full of wonder,

Magical and strange,

Crossing so many borders,

I wouldn’t change a thing . . .

Except that

You’re in Pittsburgh, Toledo, Toronto, Montreal,

I’m in Dublin, or London; I’m waiting for your call,

Cause I am missing you,

The world feels blue,

Tonight—

Travelling a golden highway,

Searching for something real,

Look at my family circle,

I almost feel,

At home . . .

Not quite.

‘Cause you’re back in

Indianapolis, Annapolis, Colorado Springs,

I’m in Auckland, Seoul or Sydney, if wishes could grow wings,

Then I would fly to you,

And share this gorgeous view,

Am I breaking away, or am I breaking through?

The world feels blue,

I’m missing home,

Tonight—

I’ll be all right,

The world is blue; I’m missing home, tonight.

(words and music by Robin Meloy Goldsby, ©2016 Bass Lion)

The Notes that Got Away

“See that Burger King? I played there once, before it was a Burger King.”

I’m in the car with my musician father and he’s pointing out places where he used to perform. “The Burger King used to be a Moose Club. Before it was a Moose Club it was a Masonic Lodge. I played there, too. And down the highway, over by the Southland Shopping Mall? That used to be the Ankara. Big night club. Six nights a week, live music, different acts all the time. I was in the house band in the sixties. Mr. Cenemie was the manager. Called him Mr. Centipede. He hated me. I’m telling you, beautiful dancers from the Philippines in that place. Made no sense since it was called the Ankara, but whatever. And up on the hill? That nursing home? I played there for about two years, when it was still a hotel. They had great shrimp cocktail.”

“Was that the place with the singer of small stature and the Desi Arnaz look-alike?” I ask.

“What? The singing dwarf? No, that place was across from the nursing home. And the dwarf worked with the stripper, not with Desi. The Desi impersonator usually worked with the ice skater, but sometimes with a ventriloquist.”

“Wait, the nightclub had an ice skating rink?”

“Back in the day they spared no expense.”

“Jesus.”

“I worked for him, too. That Catholic Church over by Wendy’s? Al Dilernia was extremely popular at that church. I used to play with his band for church events. The priest liked jazz. Al used to listen to Pirate games on his transistor radio during prayers. He once yelled ‘Goddamnit, you assholes’ during the blessing when the Cleveland Indians hit a homerun. He usually had spaghetti stains on his shirt.”

“I remember Al,” I say. “And the spaghetti sauce. He tried to kiss me on the lips once when I was, like, sixteen.”

“Which Dilernia was that? Albert or Alfred? There were two brothers, both named Al. Both great players. Both liked spaghetti. Either one would have tried to kiss you.”

“The guitar player.”

“That would be Al. I always said they should start a band with Edmond and Edward Manganelli. Al and Al and Ed and Ed.”

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Bob Rawsthorne, age 82, still playing after 65 years in the biz.

Driving anywhere in the greater Pittsburgh area with my dad, eighty-two year old drummer Bob Rawsthorne, means listening to dozens of stories pulled from over six decades of gigs in vanished venues. We can hardly cross a strip-malled intersection without him pointing at a corner and blurting out a tale that involves skullduggery, musical madness, or management idiocy.

“Ah, there’s the VFW, Post 5111,” Dad says as we drive on Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington. “I hated playing there. Rotten piano. Rotten manager—that guy actually snapped off the TV during the moon landing. We had taken a break to watch it. The damn moon landing! ‘I ain’t payin’ you guys to watch television,’ he said. I’ll never forget the bartender’s reaction. He went outside and looked up at the stars, hoping to see Neil Armstrong live. Sad. So sad.”

In just one trip to the Giant Eagle grocery store I hear about a drunken host with a mynah bird that spewed racial insults, a greedy nightclub owner with a drawer full of stolen watches, and a girl singer with balloon boobs who would always blank out when trying to remember the words to “Accentuate the Positive.” Dad’s stream-of-consciousness tales of smoky nightclubs, Burlesque palaces, concert halls, and after-hours dives would make one think the live music culture of the sixties and seventies offered a non-stop, sophisticated—and often silly—soundtrack to our unencumbered, simple lives. Maybe it did.

“I used to work there! And there, too. I think I played across the street too, but it looks different now with the Tiki-Tiki torch on the outside. Sometimes I get inside a joint I think I’ve never been in before and I see something that triggers my memory—and, bam!—I remember a gig I thought I had forgotten. Nice.”

***

My father was, and is, an accomplished musician, a big fish in Pittsburgh’s smallish pond of high-quality players. He stayed in Pittsburgh because the city’s many nightlife outlets once rewarded good musicians with plenty of work. For most of his career he stayed busy. Crazy busy.

We’ve often talked about the roller coaster lives of working musicians—the way a five-star gig on Tuesday turns into a dumpster-dive engagement on Wednesday. Here’s an actual conversation from 1986:

“Hey, Robin, guess where I’m playing this week? The White House.”

“Great, Dad. Is that the new restaurant in Bloomfield?”

“No, man.” (Jazz musicians often call their wives and daughters “man,” which manages to be slightly insulting and endearing all at once). “No, no, man. The White House. Like where President Reagan lives. I’m going with the Johnny Costa Trio from the Mister Rogers show to play for Nancy Reagan. Dig that.”

He went. The trio played “Nancy with the Laughing Face,” but the First Lady didn’t recognize it. A little jazz goes a long way—I guess Costa didn’t hammer out the melody enough. The next night Dad was back in town, playing for a drunken sing-a-long at the Swissvale Moose Club.

The day after that, he returned to the television studio. Dad held on to that Mister Rogers gig for over thirty years.

My father also had a thirteen-year steady engagement in a popular pizza and beer joint called Bimbo’s, a warehouse-sized restaurant that catered to gaggles of fun-loving folks celebrating life with oily pepperoni slices and mugs of watery swill. “Don’t eat there on an empty stomach,” he used to tell us. Dangerous food, fun music—an unbeatable combination. Dad also subbed occasionally in the percussion sections of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Opera, and Ballet orchestras, often racing from the beer hall to the concert stage and back in one evening.

Bob Rawsthorne has played a lot of notes in his life. “You know how many times I have to hit those drums to pay for a semester of college?” he used to ask me.

Now that I have my own college-age kids, I can guess it was quite a few.

Dad recounts an endless number of stories in locations that ranged from seedy to suave. Remember the time the chimpanzee in the Burlesque show slapped Red French (the pit drummer) on the forehead and left a palm-shaped welt that took days to fade? I listen and try to catalog and edit his words for my selfish, writerly purposes. But the dime store philosopher in me—the halfway serious woman who occasionally questions the meaning of a life in the arts—starts to wonder about the music itself.

Where did all the notes go? Where does the magic of any live performance go? Perhaps that’s the attraction of real, live music—that it fleets and falls exactly where it’s welcomed or needed—in a dancer’s happy feet, in the heavy heart of a jilted woman, in the romantic soul of an aging poet, in the noisy mind of a student hoping to restore order to a chaotic life.

Or maybe the notes land on the beer hall floor, and that’s that.

Talking around the music feels easier than talking about the music itself. To do that a player must talk about musical technique. Or beauty. Or love. And that gets personal. So instead, musicians like my father reminisce about nasty nightclub owners or foolish F&B managers or knackered brides who insisted on singing “Summertime” in a key that was way too high. Or a drummer with a chimp paw print on his forehead. Or the White House, man.

After four decades in the music business, I have my own stories, my own list of vanishing venues and lost gigs, my own kind-of-funny, slightly sad narratives that prove I am part of an era that seems to be slipping away. Where have all the notes gone? I played here, I played there. Does live music fill the world with light and optimism? I don’t know for sure. But I don’t think anyone would argue that we’re better off without it.

Today we’re in Cranberry Township, near Pittsburgh. As my father’s drummer-friendly SUV reaches the top of a rise and descends into the valley, we pass an Olive Garden, a Starbuck’s, a Wal-Mart, and a KFC. At the bottom of the hill is a scrappy field, the last vacant lot on a congested strip of potholed concrete. Grass grows. Wild flowers stretch their faded heads toward the blazing sky.

“There!” my father says, pointing to the empty lot. “I played there once. On that very corner.”

“Nothing there now,” I say.

“No. But there used to be,” he says. “I’m telling you, man, there used to be.”

***

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

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

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

A Broken Hallelujah

steinway_lalique

November 9th. One day after the election. I live in Germany and, because of the time difference, have stayed awake all night watching the USA empty its bulging veins into a roiling river of fear and hatred. I’m scheduled to perform my one-woman concert program tomorrow night for a large group of American women in Berlin. I arrive at Tegel Airport, an out-dated structure with low ceilings and fluorescent lighting that illuminates every crack in my tired face. Laugh lines? Not exactly. I wait for my ride. Do I stand here in the greenish glow or go outside and freeze? I opt for fresh air.

At tomorrow’s benefit concert—sponsored by Steinway & Sons and the American Women’s Club of Berlin—we’re raising money to help educate impoverished girls. When I booked this gig I thought Hillary would win. I anticipated a celebratory event, complete with champagne, high-fives, and “you go, guurl” whooping. I would play joyful music and read uplifting, funny stories. Now I’m rethinking my program. I’ve played for a handful of memorial services over the years. Perhaps I should treat this like a family funeral. Music to soothe the trampled soul.

America has elected Donald Trump—the spray-tanned hero of white-hooded men—to be its leader. Surely there’s more to worry about than my stupid concert, but for now, I need to focus on the event. The concert is sold out.

There’s no business like show business.

My-Linh Kunst, President of the American Women’s Club of Berlin and organizer of tomorrow’s shindig, picks me up at Tegel. My-Linh, a Vietnamese-American, former boat person, mother of two, photographer, and multi-lingual Wharton graduate, has been up all night sweating the returns. She also made a brave, puffy-eyed, articulate morning-after appearance as a guest American on German national television. She fumbles with the navigation system in her car and off we go.

We cruise through Berlin chatting quietly about the disaster that has befallen the USA and what a setback it is for women. Here we go again: One step forward, two steps back—a dance performed by women since the beginning of time. Swing your partner round and round. Shake your booty. Dip and disco and do-si-do. Ladies choice? You’d think with all the fox-trotting, sashaying, and shuffling we’ve been doing for, say, the last thousand years, we would at least be making progress at a slightly faster tempo.

My-Linh parks the car across the street from my host’s home, a beautiful building in the Dahlem district. I open the car door and step confidently into the autumn night, thinking my foot is firmly planted on the sidewalk next to me. It is not. My boot wedges between the car and the curb and I fall. Hard. Splat. I feel my knees bleeding, but I know I’m not seriously injured. I start to laugh. My-Linh cannot see me—I have disappeared under her car. She rushes around to my side and tries to help, but I am truly stuck, twisted in a downward dog position that leaves me—butt up, head precariously close to a manhole—unable to move or think. So I laugh. And laugh. My-Linh laughs harder than I do. Here we are, two temporarily defeated American women on a Berlin street lined with villas, stuck between a curb and a hard place, laughing our asses off about nothing and everything. We could cry, but we’ve done enough of that over the past twelve hours.

Let’s call this the November Pratfall.

I am off balance. Out of sorts. Punch drunk and suffering from hysterical paralysis. Stuck! I take deep breaths—punctuated by giggles and sobs—and slowly remove my leg from under the Volkswagen.  I reach into my purse to use the flashlight feature on my phone. The phone is crushed. Toast. My bag cushioned my fall and protected my wrists—thank you, Longchamp—but my poor phone has taken my full weight. I must be heavier than I think. I feel like I’ve gained fifteen pounds in the last fifteen hours. And it’s all in my heart.

I go to my room, lie in bed and hold my phone, hoping for signs of life. I plug it in and poke it a few times, but it won’t respond. No light, no sound—just my own reflection surrounded by a web of thick, splintered glass. Before I drop into a fitful, achy sleep, I think: This is what women do. We dance, we fall, we pick ourselves up, we start over. It’s klutz-friendly choreography that serves us well when the odds are against us. No big deal, this Trump thing—just one more trip around ye olde dance floor, looking for the exit. We’re good at this. We know the steps to every dance. Electric slide, mambo, tango, funky chicken. Bump to the left; sway to the right.

This time around our choreography has failed us. Trump has given closet bigots permission to exercise their racist, misogynist tendencies. Regardless of education, economic status, or gender, a vote for Trump was a vote for white, male, heterosexual supremacy. If you vote for a racist, you condone racism; it’s that simple. You can claim you voted for “change” until you’re orange in the face, but we know what kind of change you mean.

In the ultimate Big Baby Diaper Pants move, complete with tantrums, shit-slinging, and bobble-headed bullying, Trump has coerced the great white unwashed—teeming with resentment and threatened by women and minorities—to get down, get dirty, get groping, get great again. Decades of slow progress towards gender and racial equality seem to screech to a halt, leaving ugly orange skid marks on the potholed highway to equality.

I spend the next day working on the text for my concert. I have two options: I can go ahead and do the happy-happy Piano Girl program I’ve planned and hope to distract these good women from the scourge of the last two days, or I can tackle the tangerine elephant in the room and remind my audience that we can, we will, we shall overcome. Really? Really. I think of Hillary Clinton and her life of service. “Speak up for what’s right,” she tells us.

I read “Pretty, Pretty: Piano Girl vs. Trump,” an essay I wrote in October. It’s angry and honest and sad and just a little bit funny. I conclude the reading with a quiet solo piano arrangement of “Hallelujah,” the Leonard Cohen song. I feel better. Almost. We raise thousands of Euros for girls who need our help.

A broken hallelujah is still a hallelujah.

The next morning we hear that Leonard Cohen has died.

Call me naive; call me a bleeding heart liberal; call me an elitist. Maybe I’ve always lived in a bubble. A big, beautiful, bebopping bubble inhabited by open-minded men and women who believe in love and hope. I surround myself with artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals, strong-willed individuals of all sexual orientations and faiths who make tolerance and kindness part of their daily routines. Tonight, standing with this group of expat American women, I feel better about myself. Call me happy.

My friend Laurie Richardson, paraphrasing Walt Whitman (because Laurie is the kind of woman who does such things), takes me aside after the show and says: “We are large. We contain multitudes.”

My audience has rescued me. I have absorbed their positive energy. In spite of the Trump campaign’s shameful spew of hostility and its queasy aftershocks, these fearless women, buoyed by hope and Sauvignon Blanc, will keep working tirelessly to transform the lives of marginalized girls around the world. They will do all the good they can, as long as they can. They will do small things in a great way. They will speak up, push, and brawl with the big bad boys when necessary. They won’t give up and neither will I. We contain multitudes.

We dance, we fall, we pick ourselves up, we start over. We’re still dancing. Another Leonard Cohen song comes to mind:

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,

Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in,

Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove,

Dance me to the end of love,

Dance me to the end of love.

*****

A nod of gratitude to Leonard Cohen for all the beautiful words. Rest in peace.  Special thanks to My-Linh Kunst, Ira Philip, AWC Berlin, FAWCO Region 5, Mary Adams, and Steinway & Sons Berlin. Photo of RMG and the Lalique Steinway Model B by Karen Axelrad.

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

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

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TAPS

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Photo courtesy of The National Guard

Master Sergeant Grace Elizabeth Wilson balances her eleven-month-old daughter on one hip while she runs through a series of warm-up exercises on her bugle. Arpeggio up. Arpeggio down. Grace’s lip feels good—supple and stretched and strong—and she’s positive today’s ceremony will proceed as planned, despite the early spring chill.

Violet squirms in Grace’s arms. Arpeggio up. Arpeggio down. How many times has Grace played this exercise? Ten thousand, twenty thousand. Something like that. The sound of the horn doesn’t bother the baby—she’s used to it—but Violet is hungry and it’s past breakfast time.

“Where’s your grandma?” Grace has a red ring around her lips, one of the hazards of the bugle trade. She looks out the window just as an icicle drops from the garage roof and lands like a dagger in the snow-covered flowerbed. “She should have been here fifteen minutes ago.”

Violet, her head buried in Grace’s shoulder, responds with a kick and a muffled yell.

“Okay, okay. Applesauce it is.” Grace places her horn in the velvet-lined case sitting on the kitchen counter, sets Violet in her high chair, and grabs a jar of applesauce mixed with smashed carrots. Just as she opens it, she hears her mother’s car in the driveway. She turns to look, Violet snatches the spoon, and a glob of the golden orange goop plops onto Grace’s blue pants.

“Shit,” says Grace. The baby cries. And in walks Grandma.

“Why is it whenever I show up you’re cursin’ and the baby is bawlin’?”

“Timing.”

“Sorry I’m so late, hon,” Grace’s mother says, her Texan accent bouncing off the kitchen walls. “The traffic was terrible cuz of a big old motorcade on the way out of the city. Must be a funeral at Arlington. Tied everything up. Is that the ceremony you’re playin’? Must be someone famous.”

“Shit,” says Grace again. She runs to the sink and scrubs at her pants with a dishcloth.

“Language, Grace!” Grandma, still wearing her coat, begins feeding Violet. Violet laughs.

“Can you see the stain?” says Grace.

“No, honey. It’s just a little wet spot. You look beautiful in that uniform. Or handsome. Or something.”

“I look official, Mother. Like I have a job to do.”

“Yes, you do. Official. That’s the word. I never get tired of seein’ you in uniform. Makes me proud. Reminds me of your daddy, bless his heart.”

“Even with the applesauce stain.”

“Even with. Have you lost weight?”

“No.”

“Well. Your uniform is very slimming. I still need to lose a few pounds. I’ve given up pie and started bowling.”

“Ah. The anti-pie diet. That usually works.” Grace considers pulling her horn out of the case. She wants to continue her warm-ups, but, just as she reaches for her bugle, another car pulls into the driveway. It’s a light green sedan. A military driver, wearing a white hat and gloves, steps out of the car and waits. This is the hard part. The transition from mother to soldier. You’re in the army now.

Grace looks in the mirror. Invisible makeup, invisible emotions. Polished brass insignia, shined shoes, everything sparkling and new and crisp. There. Her hair is perfect for once, not a strand out of place and tucked neatly under her hat. She pulls on cotton gloves and kisses her mother goodbye. She kisses Violet goodbye, too, carefully avoiding the applesauce jar. They wave and smile at each other. Grace squares her shoulders, picks up her horn case, and steps into the soggy morning.

“Good morning, Sergeant.”

“Private Demarco.”

Demarco holds the door of the car for Grace. Before she slips inside she turns and looks through the kitchen window and waves again to her daughter. But Violet ignores her, choosing instead to stare at the spoon that feeds her.

“Where are we going, Demarco?” Grace asks. “Arlington?” She usually plays formal funeral services for military elites—VIPs who die of old age.

“Not today, Sergeant. Quite the opposite. We’re headed outside of Baltimore, to Woodpark Cemetery. Dicey area—close to the projects. It’s a mess there. Local government tore down some of the public housing—blew the buildings up, actually—and there’s a heap of rubble right next door to where those poor people live. Looks like a war zone.”

“The fallen soldier—did he come from the projects?”

“Yes. But the deceased is a woman. The mother of the deceased requested a female bugler. Operations is lucky you were available.”

The day thaws around them. Slush splatters the streets, trees drip, and tissue-thin layers of ice crunch under the wheels of the sedan as they cruise through Grace’s manicured neighborhood and onto the Beltway.

Grace’s stomach flips over. Playing “Taps” is part of her job, but this is the first time she’ll perform it at a young woman’s military funeral. Since she left New York City five years ago, Grace has been a ceremonial bugler for the United States Army. It’s how she makes her living. World War II veterans are dying off, and young soldiers continue to be slaughtered in Afghanistan or die long, slow deaths in the trauma units of military hospitals. Grace stays busy, busier than she was in Manhattan, where she had to do part-time office work to afford her music career.

Grace’s father had spent his entire career in the military, first in active duty in Vietnam, later as a chaplain at Fort Hood, Texas, where Grace spent most of her childhood. She started playing the trumpet at age nine and began a parallel study of the bugle a few years later. Grace loved the bugle—the way the tones resonated, the subtle bounce of a major triad, the many moods created by so few notes.

Grace’s father died five and half years ago, at age sixty. His medical records claimed liver cancer killed him, but Grace thinks complications from exposure to dioxin—Agent Orange—might have been the unspoken culprit. A hobby trombonist, he encouraged her to pursue a music career. “Leave,” he used to say. “Go to New York. Make a name for yourself. Get out of Texas.” After a four-year stint in the classical music department of the University of North Texas, she did exactly that. Her father, already weak from liver disease, stood next to the car the day she moved from Denton, Texas, to Manhattan.

“Go, Grace, go!” he said through the open window.

It took a few years, but Grace eventually picked up some substitute work, mostly in Broadway pit orchestras. The contractors liked her confidence, she could sight-read anything, and she was usually available at the last minute. She was warming up to play a silly musical called Meet the Piggies when she found out her father had died. Not quite sure what else to do, she played the show and tried not to cry. At intermission she called the contractor and asked him to find another sub for the evening performance.

Grace stood next to her mother at the graveside in Texas and wept for the man who believed in her and her music. The color guard showed up, the flag was folded, and then, much to Grace’s shock, a real soldier with a fake bugle raised the horn to his lips and pretended to play “Taps.” The sound came from the bugle, but the bugle was a toy, a boom box in the shape of a real instrument. The mournful sound of “Taps” fooled just about everyone attending the burial, but it didn’t fool Grace. It broke her heart. Her father deserved better. The next day, when she inquired about the mime with the bugle, Grace found out the practice was commonplace—the United States Army didn’t have enough buglers to cover all the military funerals.

Grace left Texas, returned to Manhattan, drank too much and ate too little, slept with a handful of married men, started a genuine affair with one of them, and then auditioned for the United States Army Field Band. When they offered her the job, it seemed like a good fit. Why not? Health insurance, a steady music gig, the chance to perform with great musicians. She could play, she could march, she could handle boot camp and a rifle, if necessary. And, with her ceremonial bugle skills, she could play at funerals, sparing other families the agony of listening to a fucking toy horn.

“Taps.” Four notes. A major melody comprised of overtones. The saddest song in a long history of sad songs. Played graveside to honor those who have served. Performing “Taps” takes control and caution and confidence and compassion. Balance is key. Too much compassion, and the player loses control. Too much control, and she loses her sense of purpose. Too much confidence, and she’ll cuff the high note or curl the edges of the middle tones. Too much caution and she’ll run away from the grave, ashamed and weeping because she doesn’t want to be part of a system that sends young men and women to shoot guns and drive tanks and face fiery deaths on frozen hills when they should be home reading books and planning careers and listening to music and taking care of small children in high chairs.

Stop. Now. She cannot think of these things. She must focus on the task ahead. Grace pulls her mouthpiece from her case and blows through it, keeping her bottom lip warm and nimble. She’s happy she has remembered to take her beta blocker this morning. She cannot perform “Taps” without it. Her knees shake, her hands sweat, and she risks fainting. Fainting soldiers are not looked upon kindly by the ceremonial division of the U.S. Army.

“This might be hard today, Demarco.”

“I’m sure it’s never easy, Sergeant.”

“Did you read the report?”

“Yes. Read it early this morning. The soldier was twenty-two. Military nurse. Mother of a toddler.”

Focus. Now. Grace continues to push air through the mouthpiece as the March wind blows pieces of white plastic over the Beltway exit ramp.

“Nothing much left of her, from what I read in the report. IED hit her vehicle. God, look at this neighborhood, Sergeant. Terrible.”

The car passes an Army recruitment sign. Be all that you can be. It looks like an invitation to glory. Maybe the government should take guns away from soldiers and teach them how to play musical instruments. There’s an idea her father would have embraced.

After boot camp, Grace moved to Washington to begin her military music career. For several years she continued to see her married friend back in Manhattan. She cut things off with him when she discovered she was pregnant, or maybe he cut things off with her. Doesn’t much matter. Grace’s mother left Texas and rented an apartment nearby. She shows up almost every day to help with Violet. Grace’s double life as a musician and mother feels purposeful. Really, she should count her blessings.

Demarco drives through more urban sprawl. Fast food, fast cars, billboards that promise more of everything. More ice cream, more bang for the buck, more and better and bigger and beautiful. God saves and Jesus loves and thin is in and toys are us. Come on, sign up, and all of this is yours, yours, yours. Army strong, no mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great, duty first, today’s Army wants to join you, but don’t inhale any chemicals. Don’t get blown away by an improvised explosive device hidden in the middle of a dirt road, placed there to rip off your legs, blast gravel under your skin, make your brain rattle around in your skull like a marble in a tin can, and destroy a future you signed away because you couldn’t find a job or afford an education at home. This we’ll defend. Duty, honor, country.

Play the horn, Grace. Don’t think. Just play.

Anxiety curdles in her throat. The sedan rounds the corner and pulls through the gate. The slushy patch of gray-green cemetery plopped in the middle of the rubble-strewn subdivision seems glaring and artificial. This is not Arlington. It is a poor person’s graveyard. Grace stares at the faint applesauce stain on her pants leg. She cannot watch a mother bury her daughter. She cannot watch a child stand at her mother’s grave. She cannot. She just cannot. But she will, because this is her job and it pays for rent and food, and even though she’s a musician she’s also a single mother and a soldier. Like always, a compassionate soldier with a stern face will drape a lonely American flag over the coffin. Family and friends will gather, shiver, and hold hands. The color guard will stand to one side, regal, respectful, reverent. A pastor will whisper words of solace that sound empty because hearts stripped of trust can never be again be full. Stoic and calm, the edges smoothed by Inderal, Grace will stand at attention when the color guard folds the flag into an impossibly small triangle and hands it to the soldier’s mother. To those attending, the ceremony will mean everything and nothing. Grace will raise her bugle and play her notes and stand up straight and hope her lip stays strong even if everything inside her collapses and caves and crashes in receding waves of sorrow for someone she doesn’t know. Her bugle will shatter the silent spring with piercing streams of silver. Four notes will hold up the sky while they echo through the cemetery, layered like too many tears on a little girl’s cheek.

The car stops next to a tented area by an open grave.

“What is her name?” Grace asks.

“Who, Sergeant?” says Demarco.

“The soldier,” says Grace.

“Sorry, I’ve forgotten. It’s in the report back on my desk. Chaplain will brief you as soon as he arrives.”

“Thank you, Demarco. Do you mind if I get my horn out and play through some warm-ups in the car?”

“Not at all.” Demarco steps outside the vehicle. “We have ten minutes, Sergeant.” He closes the door.

The family of the dead soldier will hear real music this morning: real music played to honor a real woman who served her country. Grace places her bugle to her lips. Arpeggio up. Arpeggio down. If she does this enough times, she’ll be ready.

*****

TAPS is excerpted from Manhattan Road Trip, Goldsby’s collection of short stories about working musicians. Reproduced with the permission of Bass Lion Publishing. Photo credit: The National Guard

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

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

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

All the Sad Young Men

Hands

“Why do they call it a fake book anyway? Is it for fake piano players?” says Michael the waiter. “That would be good for me.”

“You play the piano?” I say. It is five minutes to five and I’m standing in the kitchen of the Omni Park Central, eating spicy corn chips and drinking a coffee while leafing through an old fake book for ideas. My gig is a five-hour marathon, six days a week, and I need material.

“Yeah, I played a lot while I was growing up,” he says. “It was like therapy for me. Saved me from having to try out for the basketball team. I either had to learn an instrument or play a sport, my parents said.” He is carefully arranging flowers into the individual bud vases that will be placed on each table in the lobby cocktail lounge.

“Too bad there wasn’t a florist club at your high school. You would have been a hit,” I say.

“Fat chance, darling. There was only one florist in my hometown, and she was strictly a carnation-and-chiffon-butterfly kind of gal. I used to collect the butterflies whenever my mother got an arrangement. I decorated the ceiling of my bedroom with them. So tell me about this fake book thing.”

“It’s called a fake book because it gives you just the basics of the song. Just enough. Then you can fake your way through it,” I say.

“So how do they decide which songs to put into the fake book?”

“They pick songs that people want to hear. You know, popular songs, standards, that kind of thing.”

“But you never play with music in front of you.”

“Yeah, I try to avoid having music on the piano. My teacher always said it was unprofessional and most improper to play solo piano in public with music in front of me. To this day I swear a bolt of lightning will come out of the sky and strike me dead if I dare to perform with a piece of music on the stand.”

“So why lug the fake book around?”

“In case somebody waves a twenty-dollar bill at me and asks for a song I don’t know. For twenty bucks I’m willing to risk the lightning bolt. I might be professional and proper but I’m not stupid.”

“I don’t know, honey. Some of these titles look suspicious,” Michael says as he thumbs through the book. “Like this one. ‘Turkey in the Straw.’ Has anyone ever asked you for that?”

“No. But Thanksgiving is coming up. You never know.”

“Or here’s a real classic: ‘The Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech.’ Or what about ‘The Livery Stable Blues?’ Or ‘Too Fat for the Chimney’? Who plays this stuff? Oh wait, this is good—‘Born to Hand Jive.’ How are you gonna play that on the piano? Look! A whole section of marine-animal songs. Here’s ‘Flipper.’ And check this out. ‘The Theme from Sea Hunt!’ I’ll bet that’s a popular request on the cocktail piano circuit. Ha!”

“Maybe if you had a cocktail piano gig at SeaWorld?” I’m half serious.

“God I used to love that Sea Hunt show. Nobody ever looked better in a wetsuit than Lloyd Bridges. I learned to swim because of that show.”

Petra, the manager, rounds the corner. “Uh, Michael, the flowers? It’s ten past five!” He loads the thirty vases, each one containing a fragile stem of snow-white Friesia, onto a tray. On his way past the white Kawai grand, he takes a extra spray of blossoms out of his apron pocket, and places it on the piano.

The Omni Park Central is an older hotel between Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth streets on Seventh Avenue. Right before I started playing at the Omni, the lobby was gutted and redone in white marble. The furniture is white, the reception desk is white, the Kawai grand is white, and Lord knows I’m white. The management team has even asked me to wear white dresses. They’re doing their best to make some sort of theme statement with the interior decorating, but I can’t imagine what it is.

There I sit, night after night, right smack in the middle of the lobby, looking like I’ve blown in from the Alps. My piano is about twenty yards away from the revolving doors that lead to the grit and grime of the city streets. Michael calls me Heidi on Seventh.

“He’s here! He’s here! He’s here!” Flustered, Michael runs to the piano around tables and chairs, briefcases and Louis Vuitton travel bags, all the while balancing a mixed green salad and a Chardonnay on his tray. “He’s here!”

“Who’s here? Calm down, your face is all red,” I say. I continue to play “Memory” from Cats, the hit song of the decade.

“Lloyd Bridges. Do you believe it? Where’s your fake book? Get the fake book! Get it! Get it now! It’s your chance to play ‘Sea Hunt’!”

I’m caught in the frenzy. Lloyd is checking in at reception. He’s wearing a white suit—someone must have tipped him off—and he’s very tan.

“The book is in the back, Michael. Next to Hector’s station. Go get it. Fast. Before Lloyd splits. Hurry up!” Michael drops his tray on the piano and races to the kitchen.

“Here,” he says, out of breath. “Page 134. ‘Theme from Sea Hunt.’ You go for it, girl.” Michael walks to edge of the platform, strikes a spokesmodel’s pose and announces: “Mr. Lloyd Bridges, we welcome you to the Omni Park Central. Here is a song prepared by our lovely pianist especially for you.”

I play “Sea Hunt.” Not very well, but I bang it out. Mr. Bridges nods and points in my direction. He seems totally unimpressed.

What?” says Michael. “Like every piano player in the world plays that song for him? He’s lucky anybody even knows who he is. You’d think he’d at least come up here and thank us in person or send us a drink or something.”

“Maybe he didn’t recognize it. I played it pretty badly. If I had known we were going to have a Sea Hunt moment, I would have practiced.” I stand up. It’s break time.

“Honey, even I recognized it and I haven’t seen the show since 1975.” He casts a disdainful look in Mr. Bridges’ direction. Sitting at the piano, Michael looks at the fake book and takes off his glasses. He plays the first four bars of ‘Sea Hunt’ and flips backwards off the piano bench, just like Lloyd used to do off the side of the boat when he was about to go battle a shark in dangerously deep water.

***

“Table two wants to buy you a drink, honey. That fab-looking guy in the navy blazer,” says Michael.

It’s almost nine o’clock, time for my last break of the evening. I’m ready for a glass of wine. “Okay,” I say to Michael. “The usual. Do I have to sit with him?”

“Don’t know, darlin’; he says he wants to book you for a party. It wouldn’t kill you talk to him for a second. Looks like he’s got some money.”

“Michael, everyone here has money, except for us.”

“Testy tonight, Missy Robin?”

“Tired. Just tired.” I’ve been playing five hours a night, six nights a week and going to acting classes during the day. I need a vacation.

I finish the set with “Long and Winding Road” and go to table two. The man sitting there springs to his feet.

“I’m Reginald Thomas Simpson,” he says as he holds the chair for me. We exchange a few banal pleasantries, and he asks if he can book me for a party at his penthouse.

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” I say. “You can contact my agent and he’ll take care of the details.”

“Can’t I work with you personally,” he says. “Without the agent?”

“I’m sorry, Reginald, I’m under contract.” Not true, but I decided long ago to always use the agent buffer as a security system. “But do call Harlan Ellis, my agent. He’s a great guy. Thanks for the wine. Hope to see you again!” I give him Harlan’s card and return to the piano for my last set, not thinking too much about Reginald, just wanting to go home.

“You’d better get some sleep, honey,” says Michael. “You’re looking awfully pale. If you get any whiter you’re going to just fade away in this room.”

On my way out of the hotel I notice Reginald across Seventh Avenue, leaning against a building and smiling at me. I scoot down into the subway station where the train is waiting. As it pulls away, I see him again. This time he isn’t smiling.

***

“Robin, you’ve got mail. I left it on the piano.”

“Me? Mail? Okay, thanks.” I’ve taken a few days off to fly down to Florida with my boyfriend. I’m not as tan as Lloyd Bridges, but I’ve gotten a little color. The sunshine has done wonders for me. I open the letter.

Oh, God. “Michael, check this out!”

“Fan mail?”

“Not exactly.”

The letter says Robin you will die. The letters have been cut out of newspaper print and pasted on a plain white sheet of paper.

“Wow,” says Michael. “This is like a bad movie.”

“Who put this here?” I ask him. My palms are sweating.

“No clue,” he says. We look at the envelope, hoping for a clue. But it’s blank.

“You know what, honey? I think I’d better call security.”

I start my first set with “Windmills of Your Mind.” A security guard comes to the piano to pick up the letter, makes a couple of jokes about it, and leaves.

Later that evening, as Michael and I are pounding out a four-hand version of “The Ben Hur Chariot Race March,” I look up and see a street person enter the lobby from the Seventh Avenue revolving door. He lurches towards the reception desk and waves a stained rag in small circles around his head. The lobby bustles with late check-ins and frazzled business people rushing off to important places. No one looks at the homeless man—they avoid his stares and step over and around him like he’s just another hurtle on a New York obstacle course. The man shuffles in a wide arc around the cocktail lounge. Suddenly he stops, crouches down low on the white marble floor, looks directly at me, and grins. It is Reginald. The sophisticated and elegantly dressed man has vanished. He’s dressed in a torn and filthy coat and layers of dirty sweaters. He’s wearing old ragged slippers and his skin is sooty. He has foam in the corners of his mouth. But the grin is the same.

We are coming to the big finish of our “Chariot Race March.” A handful of people, Michael’s customers, are sitting close to the piano cheering us on.

“Michael, that’s him,” I say as we play the last chord. The beginning of an anxiety attack creeps under my collar. I’m sure that Reginald, with his multiple outfits and maniacal smile, is the author the death threat. Michael runs to call security, but by the time they arrive, Reginald has disappeared.

“Darling,” Michael says. “Looks like you’ve got yourself a stalker. How dramatic!”

***

I’m the house pianist at the Omni, but Michael is the real entertainment in the lobby. He tells jokes to his customers and sings songs with me accompanying him. Whenever we get a chance, we play one of the four-hand pieces we’ve rehearsed. The guests adore him. I adore him.

In Michael’s’ free time he serves meals at a Manhattan soup kitchen. He also donates his time to GMHC, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a non-profit group in Manhattan. The city has been ravaged by AIDS. We fear it will get much worse. At GMHC Michael persuades gay men to be tested for HIV.

One week he misses five days of work. I can’t reach him at home and I’m worried. Nobody at the Omni has heard from him. Finally, on the sixth day, he returns.

“What’s going on with you?” I ask.

“Meet me by the telephones on your break,” he says. There’s a private area upstairs, by a bank of public phones. I race up there after my first set.

“I’m sick,” he says. “Full-blown AIDS.” He starts to cry. The marble floor beneath me feels like it’s vibrating. One of the pay phones begins to ring.

“I thought I was in the clear. I haven’t had a partner for nine years. I didn’t even bother with an HIV test because I’ve been celibate for so long. I live like a fucking nun. Here I’ve been out counseling other men to be tested when I should have been tested myself. How stupid is that?”

I embrace him and we cry together. I can’t speak. I can barely breathe.

The pay phone keeps ringing.

He pulls himself out of my arms and squares his shoulders.

“No one here can know about this. They’ll fire me. And if I lose my health insurance I’m doomed. I’m going to fight this. I’ve already contacted the NIH and put myself on the list for experimental programs.”

         Ring, ring, ring.

Michael picks up the phone and says, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.” He slams it back down.

I sob. I want to be strong for him, but I can’t get it together.

“Honey,” he says. “It’ll be okay. Looks like we both have stalkers. We just have to wear them down.”

We return to the cocktail lounge. I play. He works the room, shuffling back and forth with kir royale and chicken satay. He sings and plays the piano with me and fills the lobby with his tragic optimism. Watching him tonight is like watching a ray of sunlight, the kind that catches you by surprise and dances around your living room on an otherwise cloudy day.

***

It’s early November and Reginald continues to make appearances in the lobby.

“What fashion statement is he making today?” Michael asks. “Dumpster or Brooks Brothers? Do you think he carries that paper bag in his Gucci briefcase, just in case he wants to change his look midday?”

Reginald T. Simpson, whatever he’s wearing, is clever enough to avoid being caught. He sneaks into the lobby, stares at me, waits for a waiter to call security, and then runs out of the hotel before they arrive. Not once in three months has any member of the security force actually seen the guy. Some nights Reginald lurks outside of the hotel, waiting for me to leave. I always know when he’s there. He hides in the shadowy recesses of the Carnegie Hall entrance, and I can feel his eyes burning through my heavy winter coat as I hurry along Seventh Avenue. I stop taking the subway home. I take cabs. One of the waiters, Michael usually, escorts me out of the hotel and waits until the taxi door closes behind me. I’m terrified that Reginald will jump into another cab and follow me. Taxi drivers don’t pick up street people, but they do pick up Caucasian businessmen wearing good suits. I breathe a sigh of relief on the nights when Reginald wears his ragged clothes.

“Not a thing we can do, Robin,” says Bill, the chief of hotel security. “We can’t touch him unless he actually attacks you on hotel property. Sorry.”

“Do you think you might post a guard in the lobby? I mean, wouldn’t that be a good place to have a guard anyway? I know you guys come through the lobby every so often, but this Reginald guy has been coming in every night for months and you’ve never even seen him.”

“You have to call us, Robin, the minute he arrives.”

“But your office is a two-minute walk away from the piano. Reginald bolts as soon as he knows he’s been spotted. It takes him five seconds to get back onto the street.”

“Look, our hands are tied. Nothing we can do but wait until he does something nasty on the property. Then we’ll nail him.”

“That’s reassuring,” I say.

“Sorry.”

Two nights later, just as I’m playing the bridge to “As Time Goes By,” Reginald appears at the piano, on my left side. He leans over me. His body is rigid and he stinks like raw onions, rotting meat, and mildew. I turn away from him and try to escape from the right. He grabs my arm and pushes me back against the wall. Then he holds up a large closed umbrella and shoves the point of it against my throat.

“I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you.” His voice is rough and strained.

The umbrella doesn’t have any fabric on it. It’s just the handle, the spokes, and the point, which is sharpened to a spike. I’m unable to move or scream for fear of being impaled. There are scores of people around me and no one is paying any attention.

         Please. Someone. Look. This. Way.

Michael spots me from across the lobby, throws his tray to the floor, and races towards the piano. Just as fast, Reginald drops his umbrella and escapes out the side door. I don’t know what to do—I’m out of breath, frozen with panic. But I feel an urgent need to finish the song I’d been playing when Reginald attacked me. I sit back down at the piano and resolve the cadence. The chord hangs for a second, then I bolt for the kitchen. I sink to the floor and sit there, shaking, until Michael packs me into my woolen coat. He escorts me into the darkness on Seventh Avenue and stuffs me into a taxi.

Two weeks later I return to the Omni in a Valium-induced daze.

“I’m leaving,” Michael says to me. “I’m going home to Wisconsin. My parents will help me with money. I need to be able to get back and forth to Washington for these treatments and tests.”

“When are you leaving?”

“Next week.”

“It will be terrible here without you.”

“Yes, darling,” he says. “It will be dreadful. Abysmal. Devastating. But I suspect you’ll all deal with it. Here, I saved something for you.” He takes me in the back, and there, next to a stack of booster seats, is the stick umbrella. He has tied little pink ribbons around each bare spoke.

“Michael,” I say. “That’s awful.”

“Well that’s the beauty of it, honey. It’s art. A little too big for your coffeetable, but I’m sure you can make it work somewhere in that gorgeous apartment of yours. Now stop sniveling and go play something pretty.”

Reginald doesn’t come into the hotel on my first night back, but I sense that he is outside, somewhere, waiting, waiting, waiting. At ten o’clock, just as I’m finishing my last set, Bill, the security chief, shows up at the piano.

“I’m sorry about what happened,” he says. “We’d like to make sure that you get into a taxi safely tonight.”

“Yeah, well, Michael’s been seeing to that for the last few months, but I think it would be a good idea for you to take over,” I say. “I’ll go and grab my coat.”

I kiss Michael goodbye and push my way through the revolving doors. Brooks Brothers Reginald, in plain view, stands just across Seventh Avenue, holding his briefcase.

“That’s him,” I whisper to the security guy.

“Where?”

“Over there. In the suit.”

“I thought he was supposed to be a street person,” he says.

“Sometimes he’s a street person. He changes his clothes. I’ve told you all of this before.” Reginald jumps off the curb and into the traffic. I panic. He bounces off a taxi cab and continues walking. Toward me.

“Shit, He’s coming. Fuck. What should I do?” From across the wide street I see the intensity in his eyes. He looks right at me and ignores the honking horns and screeching brakes. He begins to run.

“He’s gonna kill me. What should I do? Please tell me what I should fucking do.” I stand frozen, staring at Reginald running toward me. I want to move but I can’t.

“Turn around and walk into the hotel,” says the security man. “We can’t grab him unless he’s in the hotel. Listen to me! Walk real slow and go into the hotel. Let’s hope he follows you.”

“I don’t want him to fucking follow me!”

Bill pushes me toward the hotel, hard. “Trust me. Now go.”

I set one foot in front of the other and force myself to look straight ahead. I hear the hollow echoes of the voices and laughter around me and a vague thump thump thump of Reginald’s footsteps as he draws nearer and nearer. I walk, in slow motion, through the door. Now Reginald is directly behind me. There is a whirl of movement as Michael, who has been waiting inside the lobby with four security guards, grips my arms and jostles me away from the door.

“Get out of here fast, honey. You don’t wanna see what they’re gonna do to this guy,” says Michael. I turn to look just as one of the guards snatches Reginald. I manage to close my eyes just before they knock him to the ground.

***

The cognac laps against the sides of the oversized snifter. An hour or so has passed. Michael comes into the bar, his face ashen. He is breathing hard.

“Those security guards are total thugs,” he says. “What do they do when they hire these guys? Go to Rikers Island to recruit the senior class of convicts?”

There is blood on his shirt.

“Michael, are you hurt?” I ask.

“No, honey. I just got a little involved in the tussle out there. This is Reginald’s blood. He was on the floor and they were still hitting him. Kicking him, even. Someone had to get them to stop.”

“Oh, Michael.”

“Yeah, do you believe that? Me. In a fight. Someone should have sold tickets.”

“Where is Reginald now?”

“Oh, he’s upstairs being questioned and printed and photographed. All of which would have been possible without the pummeling in the lobby. I don’t think he’ll be hanging around here anymore.”

A waiter brings me another cognac. I give it to Michael and it’s gone in one gulp.

“So. I think tonight was my farewell performance,” he says. “I intended to stick out the week, but I’m too tired. Plus the Steven Seagal act tonight would be a tough one to follow.”

We’re quiet for a few minutes. Beneath the loosened collar of his shirt I notice the outline of a lesion.

“It’s not fair, Michael.”

“What do you mean it’s not fair? That I’m sick? Or are you talking about Reginald? He’s sick too, you know. None of it’s fair. But I’m lucky, honey. I have a family who loves me. I have an entire collection of Bette Davis movies. I have friends and music and flowers, and chiffon butterflies on my bedroom ceiling. I have a place to go. Not to worry.”

As we say goodbye I touch the sharp contours of his smooth face. He’s still a boy, really. He puts me in a taxi and balances on the curb as the cab pulls away, a brave young man in a black leather jacket, leaning into the cruel winter wind.

I know that I’ll never see him again.

***

Excerpt from Goldsby’s book, Piano Girl. Reprinted with the permission of Backbeat Books.

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

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

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Pretty Pretty: Piano Girl vs. Trump

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My hair is big. My dress is too tight. It’s 1986. I’m sitting at a Steinway on a Saturday night in Manhattan. The name of the cocktail lounge where I play is “Trumpet’s.” Donald J. Trump, with the sponsorship of his father, has partnered with the Hyatt Corporation to build the glass and granite behemoth currently hovering over Grand Central Station. I can’t imagine receiving a midtown Manhattan hotel as a college graduation present. I got a Peavey amp, a Shure SM57 microphone, and a gentle reminder to treat people with respect.

I straighten my spine, curve my fingers, and remember it doesn’t take talent or hard work to inherit money.

I play “Misty” or “All the Things You Are” or some random Elton John song. Who’s listening? No one. Tourists from one of the Dakotas sit in a dark velveteen corner sipping Diet Coke. I can hear them talking about the matinee performance of Arsenic and Old Lace. Tonight they’re headed to see Shirley Bassey on Broadway! I play “Goldfinger,” but they don’t notice. I see reflector stripes on their puffy white shoes.

Two other couples, most likely Connecticut commuters conducting illicit affairs, grope at each other with the desperation of teenagers trying to cop a last feel before their parents show up. They are probably headed home to monotonous marriages, mortgages, and back yards that need mowing.

Waitresses, shiny and skinny and sporting slinky black stain-repellent costumes designed to entice titans of industry, balance glasses of Chardonnay and bowls of smoked almonds on glittering silver trays. Smoked almonds make me a little queasy these days. I must have consumed about two million of them over the past year—the starving Piano Girl’s version of dinner.

I haven’t eaten at all today but I’m worried I look bloated. Maybe I have an almond allergy. No one has yet figured out how to incorporate stretch into velvet and my dress, unforgiving and stiff, pulls at my waist and puckers at my hips. My bra strap threatens to slip over my shoulder.

“Don’t take a break,” says the F&B manager, a short man with gelled hair who once told the lobby jazz trio they were not allowed to walk on any carpeted areas of the hotel. I am used to going along with his ridiculous directives, but I have been playing for an hour and I need a potty run.

“Why?” I say. “Not much happening here tonight, unless you’re waiting for the live sex show that’s about to start over at table thirteen. Those two need to get a room.”

“Mr. Trump is coming in,” says the F&B guy. “Stay at the piano and look pretty.”

I do not blink or take offense. Look pretty. Sure. I tuck in my bra strap, fluff my hair, and play. This is the eighties and this is what female employees do when Mr. Trump shows up. We primp and prepare and pray we pass the pretty-pretty test.

Mr. Trump arrives. He hovers for a minute by the bar and scopes out the room, his shifty eyes taking in all of us to make sure we are looking at him. I smile. Yes, Mr. Trump, we notice you. He ignores me. He is my employer. I need the money. I need the job. I play the piano and play the game and play along with his need to be the most important person in the room. This is part of the gig.

It occurs to me that the name of the lounge—TRUMPets—makes us seem like Donald’s version of Playboy Bunnies or Penthouse Pets. Some marketing genius came up with this. Nice.

Because it’s the eighties, I know a lot of guys who behave like Trump. He doesn’t strike me as anything special. He doesn’t really stand out at all. He’s just another obnoxious rich guy, a Professional Son with a huge ego, a Big Baby Diaper Pants who demands that I notice him and smile.

Deep down I know two things, not just about Donald, but about many of the men I work for during the eighties: If I look good they’ll hit on me; if I look plain or chubby or flat-chested or fat-assed, they’ll fire me. Screwed, either way. I grew up with feminist parents, attended a very fine women’s college, studied hard, worked my tail off, and I still have to put up with guys who judge me by the way I fill out my cocktail dress? I have become an expert in the art of flirty, diplomatic turndowns.

A few years later, long after I have left the Hyatt (I was replaced by a piano-playing waitress who was having an affair with the GM) and moved to another Manhattan hotel, I run into Trump again. I have just flown into Atlantic City on Trump’s private helicopter with Allan, my wealthy compulsive-gambler boyfriend. We dine in an upscale gourmet restaurant in one of the Trump casino-hotels. Allan, who has turned the peculiar shade of gray common to gamblers itching to get back to the blackjack table, seems uncomfortable when Donald comes to our table to greet us. Trump loves guys like Allan—they show up in his casino, and lose more money in a night than I earn in a year.

I am twenty-three years younger than Allan. Donald looks me over and gives Allan the “thumbs up” sign. We all laugh. It’s the eighties. I play the trophy bimbo-girlfriend role with style even though I know it’s not who I am. It’s shameful.

“You know, Mr. Trump, I used to work for you,” I say. “I played the piano at the Grand Hyatt.”

“And just look at you now,” he says, “Unbelievable. Really. Unbelievable. Tremendous. Wow, wow, wow.” He stares me up and down, as if working for him has catapulted me into the sparkling, sleazy world of inappropriate relationships and casino fine-dining. I have landed in the lopsided lap of luxury.

I eat my Caesar salad and hope I don’t look fat.

Really. Just look at me now. Wrong, wrong. It’s all just wrong. I know it, and yet here I am. It’s the eighties.

*****

Fast-forward a few decades. I recovered from the eighties by the skin of my laminated teeth. Some of my friends weren’t so lucky. AIDS, eating disorders, drug addiction—for many of us, it was a decade of catastrophes, even if we were smart enough to avoid shoulder pads and Spandex. Everyone claims they had fun in the eighties, but for many of us it was a nightmare cloaked in gold spangles and hype. We dealt with a lot of unethical stuff. Sometimes we even participated.

Things are different now. We have options. We have chosen natural fibers, approved of political correctness, and elected a President who has restored dignity to the office. We have the Marriage Equality Act and a First Lady fighting for the emotional and physical welfare of girls all over the world. We have honest conversations about body image and sexual harassment and holding men and women to the same standards.

We make progress in a way that is too slow for most of us but fast enough to give us hope.

And yet. Some of those eighties attitudes continue to stalk us. As we witnessed this past week with the release of the 2005 Trump trash-talk tape, guys like Donald, stuck in an imaginary locker-room, still blurt out horrible, sexist, predatory comments that degrade women and girls. I watch the young woman in the video meeting Trump. She’s wearing an eighties throw-back mini-dress and gold belt. There’s something in her eyes—a defeatist glint of “I know better” that I recognize from my past. It makes me sad.

Trump might be a model-dating billionaire, but his core is as common as fast food and bad television. He’s not special—he’s just another run of the mill guttersnipe. A creep. Freshly combed-over, Trump wants to throw us back into the clutches of the misogynist, homophobic eighties. Big Baby Diaper Pants, a newer, fake & bake spray-tanned version, stomps into the room and collects media attention the way he used to collect apprehensive stares from intimidated waitresses and piano players. Part of me thinks he doesn’t care one bit about winning the presidency—he just wants all of us to pay attention, even if he has to act like a baboon on coke to get us to notice.

Yes, Mr. Trump, we notice you.

We are not stuck in the eighties, a decade of mean-spirited, pseudo-glam nonsense. Electing Mr. Trump would set our tolerance clocks back thirty years. As much as I might enjoy inhabiting my wrinkle free, skinny-mini body, I never again want to feel controlled by men who do not treat me with respect. I didn’t like myself during the eighties, but I changed. I evolved, like so many of my friends. We trashed our tight dresses and low self-esteem. Despair might have propelled us into the nineties, but we entered the new millennium with a newfound sense of cautious optimism. It’s 2016. And we’re not going back.

Our daughters and granddaughters will profit from the progress we’ve made. They will refuse to be judged by the size of their breasts or the length of their legs.

They will know better, because we have known worse.

Pretty, pretty, no more. Shout it out. Want amplification? I’ve got a 1980 Peavey amp and a Shure microphone you can borrow. But I suspect the volume of our united voices will be loud enough.

Vote.

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

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

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Playback 2011: The Summer of Love

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I perch on my padded piano bench, inhale the mingled scents of jasmine, Jo Malone, and musty French cheese. I sip a glass of Agrapart Champagne, contemplate the months ahead of me, and marvel at my good fortune. The summer of 2011 offers more than the typical number of castle weddings. This year, we’ll be hosting a gaggle of international couples, who will tie the nuptial knot in a location that meets storybook expectations.

I’ve reached the point in my career where I’m playing for the second weddings of some of my previous clients. Creepy. But this summer—all newbies! First timers with a peeled-egg patina of loveliness, pretty children dressed for adulthood, a wash of youthful optimism in a world grown sour. I cannot think of a better way to snap out of my fifty-year-old funk than sitting behind a grand piano and playing songs to accompany the hopefulness of young love.

I have musician friends who play for weddings in barns where guests end up naked and dancing on rooftops. I know of one wedding that featured an ensemble of 100 elementary school flutists, standing in a field, playing “Moon River.” My father once played for a Fourth of July wedding that included the reenactment of Slovenian immigrants arriving in America by boat—a group of babushka-clad women (including the bride) rowed across a swimming pool in a rubber raft to simulate their ancestors’ arrival on American shores.

I do not play for these kinds of weddings. I would, but no one asks. My weddings tend to be subdued. Upscale, elegant—the kind of events where everyone eats and drinks for hours but no one suffers from bloat. My weddings are studies in silk shantung, seed pearls, and restraint. Picture an English garden in a German castle. Roses, lavender, fifty shades of ivory. Multi-lingual servers in dark suits pass trays of tasty tidbits to bejeweled guests who never seem inebriated, despite bottomless glasses of pricey swill.

For most of these events I sit in the corner of a fancy hall, a hotel lobby, or a garden and play tinka, tinka for serene, occasionally joyous guests. Let the summer of international weddings begin.

The Turkish-German Wedding

Today’s Turkish bride has requested Coltrane music. This alarms me, as I am not a jazz musician. But I shall play “My One and Only Love” and “Angel Eyes” and hope for the best. She also requested “Greensleeves.” She has hired a DJ for the Turkish-music part of the program. Something for everyone—a musical potpourri.

The ceremony takes place at city hall, home to one of the Germany’s finest Steinways. I adore this Model “D”—I’ve gotten to play it a handful of times and it’s like riding on a cloud. The local music school uses the town hall for recitals, so they keep the piano primped and primed for action.

The crowd gathers as we wait for the downbeat. How nice to see two cultures colliding in a good way. German groom, Turkish bride. Anticipation builds. The groom’s family, conservatively attired in dark suits and chalky linen dresses, hovers across the aisle from the Turkish contingent, which features older women in embroidered head scarves, younger women in jewel-toned silky dresses, and men with biceps bulging under their snug suits.

Here they come. The bride and groom march in together accompanied by a recording of a Turkish love song. The Turkish side cheers. I sit at the Steinway and wait for my cue. I love this. I think there should be more cheering at weddings.

I play “My One and Only Love” to polite applause, but alas, no cheering. I play “Greensleeves,” about as well as I can play it. I cruise through “Over the Rainbow” and Bach’s “Air on a G-String.” We finish with another rousing Turkish recording of celebration music. More cheering.

Following the ceremony, I keep playing while guests dig into a huge heart-shaped fresh strawberry pie and drink champagne. Turkish and German parents park their over-dressed and chubby infants in strollers next to the piano and the babies, like a troop of synchronized sleepers, drift into a love-themed afternoon slumber.

The Cookbook Guys and the American Bride

I love the Cookbook Guys. I have played for this persnickety and wonderful group of gentlemen for nine years. They book overnight rooms at the castle, dine at the Michelin 3-star restaurant, and then, after they’ve consumed ten courses of broiled quail’s eggs and skewered truffles, they come to the bar for cognac and whatever. I’m the “whatever” part. I play for them from midnight to two in the morning. Each year the event is quiet and classy and—even though it’s way too late—a delight for me.

This year, when I arrive at the castle at 11:30, I’m horrified to see a conga line of wedding guests (from another party) snaking through the main hall of the castle, around the very grand piano I am scheduled to play. The bride—an American woman wearing what looks like a 1975 Bob Mackie creation, leads the line. She is skunk drunk and singing “I Will Survive” at the top of her very developed lungs. June is bustin’ out all over. Chaos at the castle. Who is responsible for this madness and why is the bride wearing beaded fringe?

What will happen when my suave Cookbook Guys catch wind of this?

The cacophony comes from the back salon, where a musician is running his keyboard through a flanger. He cranks the wedding party into a squealing frenzy by performing a playback medley of German carnival songs and Gloria Gaynor disco hits. Oh my God, is that a smoke machine? And a disco ball? The piano man is just doing his job, but since I am about to do mine, I’m tempted to cut his cables.

My Cookbook Guys, slightly snooty and the type of men who do everything possible to avoid scenes with the Great Unwashed, are currently in the gourmet restaurant, blissfully unaware of the Studio 54 misfire happening in the lobby. Like every year, they expect to stroll into the bar to listen to delicate music and sip their hundred-euro brandies.

What to do.

My colleagues are the best. I grab the banquet director by the shoulders, tell him we have a looming disaster, and persuade him to wrangle the bride and her braying group of line-dancers back into the private salon. The bar manager, my hero, single handedly moves the piano (a Yamaha C5) from the lobby into the bar—a job that involves rearranging the heavy bar furniture, removing one of the French doors to the room, and taking the lid off the piano. After the big heave-ho, he flicks his wrist,  tosses some rose petals on the piano, and lights a dozen votive candles. The Cookbook Guys sashay into the bar, completely unaware that they were seconds away from walking onto the set of Nightmare on Disco Street.

I put on my calm piano-hostess face and greet my Cookbook Guys. The adrenaline has woken me up and I get through the late night gig without my head crashing onto the keys. Periodically I look over my shoulder, through the closed glass doors, and see the bouncing bride and her cohorts cavorting through the lobby in drunken clumps. But it remains quiet in the bar—just me, a very large piano, seventy-five Salvador Dali lithographs, and twenty-two Cookbook Guys.

On his break, the musician from the wedding stops by to say hello. “Wow,” he says. “It’s really quiet in here. Too bad. We’ve got a real party going on next door.”

Before I leave, I stop in the salon to say goodbye to him. He is playing “Mandy” and the bride, nearly popping out of her Cher dress, dances alone in little circles around his keyboard. She sings a different song—I don’t know what it is, but it’s not “Mandy.” Maybe it has some of the same notes.

I say goodbye to the musician. I accidentally step on the train to the bride’s dress as I am leaving. She doesn’t notice a thing.

The All Indian Wedding

The next weekend, I play for an Indian wedding reception. Wow! I’m tempted to start snapping photos from the piano, but that would be indiscreet. Management tells me these are famous Indians, but, being a total idiot about Indian culture, I don’t recognize any of the names or faces.

I can’t help but feel I am the wrong musician for this job, but the gathered crowd seems appreciative and happy. The bride’s aunt has requested “A River Flows in You.” A lovely piece, but I wish I knew an Indian folk song or two. Or perhaps I should have invested in that “Bollywood’s Greatest Hits” fake book.

I have never seen such beautiful attire—saris in bright silks—saffron, emerald, magenta!—with elaborate embroidery. Handsome Indian bodyguards loiter around the piano. They are protecting someone important. I spend much of the gig trying to guess which guest is the VIP, a fun little Piano Girl game I like to play in a crowd like this. The guards stand with their arms across their chests, without ever blinking. I love a man in uniform, even if the uniform involves a saber. I try to get them to smile, but to no avail.

Confession: I have a little crush on CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta—I so admire a man who can look sexy while discussing gastro-intestinal problems—and there’s a guy hanging out by the staircase that looks like him, except taller. My God. Everyone here looks camera ready, airbrushed, serene.

Here comes the bride. Just as she arrives, a ray of sunshine pierces the cloudy day, gleams through an oversized window, and illuminates her flawless skin. Her sari sparkles. We are blinded by the light.

The Japanese-German Wedding

The Japanese bride at tonight’s wedding looks like a human hummingbird wrapped in meters of expensive white tulle. The German groom, normal size by European standards, seems hulk-like next to his fragile wife. We’re celebrating in a Baroque castle nor far from where I live. I don’t like the pianos in this place. Call me a diva, but I can’t stand playing a K-mart piano in a venue that charges 18€ for a piece of cake. The gracious father of the groom likes my music and has insisted on renting a good instrument for the evening.

The bride’s favorite song is “Fly Me to the Moon.” I play it, but she doesn’t recognize the melody. Lost in translation, I guess. Poor thing. She has been decanted into a wedding dress with a corset so tight that it may well have cut off blood circulation to her brain. I’ve never seen a fully formed adult with such tiny features—button nose, wee hands, and feet the size of my fists. Why does a woman this small need a corset? She is ethereal, translucent, Disney-like. If it wasn’t for her puffy gown, I could slip her into the lining of my suit jacket and take her home with me.

Pocket Bride’s white dress has a mile-long train on it. Her dear mother has to tame the train every time her daughter stands. They are seated next to the piano, and one stumbling incident almost results in the three of us being smothered by Pocket Bride’s dress. Death by tulle. There are worse ways to perish.

All musicians know the importance of plotting an advance escape route for the speech-making portion of a wedding reception. Once a speech starts, you can’t sneak off the bandstand without looking arrogant, obnoxious, or downright rude. If the speech begins before you get out of Dodge, you are stuck onstage forever, forced to smile politely at endless stories about people you will never see again. Great Uncle Wolfgang’s delightful reminiscences of a 1957 hiking trip to Schweinfurt might amuse members of his own family, but to you, the hired help, these charming recitations feel like verbal torment, especially if you need a potty break.

At this particular wedding I ignore my own advice. I’m trapped onstage—between Pocket Bride’s dress and a towering arrangement of white orchids. No escape. Several translators have been hired for the evening. Each formal speech—and there are dozens of them—is slowly and painfully translated into Japanese. The Japanese speeches are translated to German. It’s like the United Nations, except without the little earpieces and notepads. One gift exchange ceremony takes about two months. My cheeks cramp and my face freezes in a smile position.

Pocket Bride’s mother gets up, successfully navigates her way past her daughter’s dress, and comes to the piano. She bows. I bow. Ah, she wants to play. She sits on the bench and plays a dirge-like piano solo that is very beautiful, very Japanese, but the most mournful piece of music ever played at a wedding. I can’t leave the bandstand so I stand to the side, nodding solemnly and pretending to understand the artistic intention of her solo. Did someone die? A grandparent? Maybe I missed something when I zoned out during the speeches.

And now, how about dessert?

Uniting two cultures through marriage isn’t easy. Everybody wins, but everybody loses, too. Compromise, the cornerstone of every marriage, plays an even greater role when two people go beyond borders in search of lasting love. Tokyo or Munich? Kimono or dirndl? Sushi or Sauerbraten? Sake or beer?

I play my last notes of the evening. For the sake of Pocket Bride, for the sake of all of us, really—I hope love will find a way.

I bow twice and say thank you three times.

Doumo arigatou. Thank you. Danke.

*****

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

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

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