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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Good News Only: Mister Rogers for Adults

Heart

What would Mister Rogers say?

I watch the news at six o’clock. Terror, death, chaos, stupidity, racism, extremism, more terror. I hardly recognize the world. I certainly do not recognize my home country. America seems to be swallowing itself whole. It’s depressing. But still, we stay tuned, gorging on enormous bites of hate speech, punch drunk and nauseated by reports of blood and guts and grit and gore, hanging onto the prophesies of ego-bloated politicians and chest-thumping pundits.

Americans—according to the gleeful “experts” who clap their hands like trained seals when called upon to analyze what’s happening to our nation—live in a state of doom and gloom. According to some of them, we are zooming to hell in a hand-basket, tightly woven and carefully crafted by those of us who refuse to follow a hate-driven doctrine. The news pimps pump out riveting stories designed to scare the bejesus out of anyone who watches for more than ten minutes.

Fear is the new sugar-high. Evidently, it sells advertising. It certainly sucks us in. Have a snack; watch the parade of flag-waving fright merchants. Chips, anyone?

I shudder and turn off the television. I play the piano or sit on my balcony and drink a glass of wine. I worry about my kids (in a good way), I wonder what I’ll wear to next week’s party, I plan dinner, I go for a walk. I write. I call my friends. My life feels full and happy. Until I return to the news.

Here’s my question: Should I be afraid because I’m not afraid?

Mister Rogers might remind me to look for the helpers. He once said to his young audience: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ “

So I do. I look to our Helper in Chief.

President Obama recently said: “Donald Trump wants everyone to live in fear. . . This vision of violence and chaos everywhere doesn’t really jibe with the experiences of most people.” Later he said: “The longer that we allow the political rhetoric of late to continue, and the longer that we tacitly accept it, we create a permission structure that allows the animosity in one corner of our politics to infect our broader society, and animosity breeds animosity.”

And fear breeds fear.

It’s bad enough that the Republican presidential nominee uses fear tactics to get under our skin, but I am equally appalled by the news media’s insistence on jack-jack-jack hammering those sound bites at us until we’re deaf and numb and unable to appreciate the good deeds happening around us. What if we’re missing a perfect opportunity to stop our nation’s supposed downward spiral?  What if we’re encouraging  more mud-slinging by tuning in and paying attention?

I understand the importance of awareness and the critical role the press plays in delivering bad news. Horrifying events occur every day and we need to know about them. But at the same time I feel disconnected. I have a small circle of close friends, and a very wide circle of acquaintances. Most of them are hardworking, loving, dedicated, and committed to making the world a kinder, more tolerant place. I hang out with musicians and writers, most of whom devote their lives to making meaningful artistic statements that others might enjoy. When I turn on the news do I hear their stories?

No.

Where is the good news? 

What if love breeds love?

Here is my proposal: Let’s encourage someone—an Internet mogul, a good-hearted philanthropist, a humanitarian with financial backing—to start a media outlet called Good News Only. Fred Rogers had it right all those years ago. Children watching gentle programming will respond by being gentle. Gentleness breeds gentleness. If Mister Rogers could provide this kind of programming for children, why can’t someone, anyone, do it for adults?

Good News Only programming would be inspirational (without excess gush or drama), quiet, and pulsing with lyrical stories about compassionate people doing thoughtful things. I don’t mean we  should bury our throbbing heads in sand and ignore hatred. We need to know what’s going on. Good News Only would offer a respite, a television neighborhood we could visit when the bad stuff overwhelms us. Mister Rogers for Adults. Maybe we can’t argue with stupid people, but we can certainly choose to nudge them aside (gently) and pay attention to those worthy of our praise.

Good News Only could feature everyday stories about everyday heroes, like some of the people I know:

  • Tracie M serves home-cooked dinners to families of seriously ill children.
  • Isha S attends the Eleanor Roosevelt Girls Leadership Workshop.
  • Valerie K volunteers at a cat shelter and plays with cats while they wait to be adopted.
  • Randy C delivers vegan food (via a high-tech truck) to summer festivals and gives people a chance to eat something healthy.
  • Gail R shares free bread with people in need.
  • Trey T studies environmental sustainability and law.
  • A dozen adult-beginner pianists show up in Milan, Italy and find the courage to perform for each other.
  • Julia G and Kathy L produce a modern-day feminist film.
  • Maryam K teaches language classes to poor children in Columbia.
  • Kathy N prepares to work at an orphanage in Nepal.
  • Leslie B continues her work raising money for Performing Arts students.
  • Richard and Trisha J provide a loving home for animals in need.

You get the idea. Let’s focus on the wonderful people in our lives and the investments they make in our shared humanity. Let’s stop rewarding hatred by making it a twenty-four hour media spectacle. Let’s listen to another one of the “helpers,” First Lady Michelle Obama: “When they go low; we go high.”

Love breeds love. Gentleness breeds gentleness. And hope? We’ve got that covered. It’s in our nature. We are neither fragile nor fearful. Let’s remind ourselves of that.

Good New Only. I wonder if Ted Turner is interested. Probably not. But Mister Rogers would be all over this.

Peace, out.

*****

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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Remember Me: A Gentleman, a Steinway, and a Couple of Stubborn Ghosts

Hands

Photo courtesy of Julia Goldsby

It’s June, 2007. I am headed to Steinway Hall.

Manhattan, with its counterpoint of horn blasts, sirens, grumbles, whispers, and roars, performs a deafening sonata. I feel energized. I feel defeated. I feel inspired. I wonder how I ever lived here, or why I ever left. To celebrate the publication of my book, Piano Girl, Henry Steinway and Betsy Hirsch have invited me to present a solo piano concert and reading tonight in the famed Rotunda. I open the heavy door of 109 West Fifty-Seventh Street and step from the bashing, flashing, pulse of the city into an embroidered oasis of tranquility. The high-domed ceiling, hand-painted by Paul Arndt in 1925, seems to scrape the sky. Reach high, it says to me. Reach high, and you’ll touch something worth remembering.

Betsy hugs me. “Ready for tonight?” she says. We walk down a portrait-lined corridor to a practice room, so I can prepare for the main event. Irene Wlodarski, a fiery redhead who looks like she could have been a Rockette in a former life, jumps from her desk to greet me. I feel at home.

*****

Some buildings are haunted in a good way. Steinway Hall has always been such a place—a luxurious monument to the skilled artisans and musicians who have dedicated their lives to the complex mechanics of simple beauty. It’s not simple to build a piano; it’s also not simple to play one.

I met Henry Steinway last month, when I was in town to tape NPR’s Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. As Betsy escorted me back to Henry’s office, I felt my face burn and my hands tingle, the early warning signs of imposter syndrome wrinkling my newly pressed black suit. Back in the eighties, when I was working as a cocktail pianist in Manhattan hotels, I had been too intimidated to step into Steinway Hall. It seemed like a place where “real” pianists hung out—an elite club for the chosen few, a secret den with a painted ceiling that was home to the world’s best pianos and artists.

Betsy introduced me to Henry, a perfect gentleman with an affectionate handshake and a huge smile, and then left us alone to chat for thirty minutes. Henry quickly put me at ease. How I loved listening to him talk about making pianos! He maintained a deep respect for those on both sides of the piano business—the makers of pianos and the makers of music. Artists might receive standing ovations, but Henry made sure his craftspeople heard their own share of applause.

Henry had read Piano Girl, so we had a long talk about the hotel music business, the art of playing quality music when it seems like no one is listening, the joy of playing a great piano, even in a cocktail lounge full of chattering tourists and business people. “Music is so very personal,” Henry said to me. “Every skilled pianist has something unique to say—it’s up to us to give them the means to say it.”

We talked about craft and skill and talent. We talked about imagination and the critical role it plays in all aspects of the piano business. We talked about writing books. Henry told me he wanted me to meet his brother-in-law, the great author William Zinsser, a hero of mine, whom he would invite to my concert the following month.

P5160001

Henry Steinway

Henry Steinway, William Zinsser, Marian McPartland—I felt as if a golden triumvirate of nonagenarians had been appointed to guide my career. I discovered Steinway Hall was also entering its ninth decade. Perhaps ninety would be my new lucky number. I floated out of the hall that day after playing a dozen pianos, each one with a special historical pedigree, sensing that I had been dropped into a fantasyland of wood and wisdom, pins and hammers and perfect sound, all brought to life by an aging gentleman with an ageless vision, holding court in a regal office that seemed more like a home than a work place.

*****

“Here,” Betsy says, on the eve of my performance. “You can warm up here. It’s Henry’s special room.” The piano technician tweaks a few last notes and then, after wishing me luck with my concert, leaves with Betsy. This is hardly a practice room; it’s a small recital hall with a perfect Steinway B, a warm-hearted piano that makes an audience listen. It’s a piano with no wrong notes, a piano that takes a decent player and makes her music sing. I love it here. I love the carpets, the oil paintings, the smell of the wood, the mantle of hope that drapes over me as I sit down to practice. There’s a buzz in the air that’s comforting and energizing all at once. Ghosts of Concerts Past? Maybe.

While warming up for the main event, I allow my mind to wander. My nerves jangle. I take some deep breaths. Decades of musicians have played in the Rotunda. Decades of edgy pre-performance tension, decades of genuine passion, decades of bravery. In an attempt to muster some courage for myself, I try to summon the Ghosts of Concerts Past. I tell myself the acoustic underpinnings of disappeared music—pirouetting silently down the staircase in double time or triple time—will carry me through the night. But musical ghosts don’t exist. Or if they do, the minute I sit down to play the Steinway D in the Rotunda, they’ll flutter away and leave me to fend for myself. No help from the Ghosts. Henry was right: Music is personal—that’s the glorious (and scary) thing about it.

I leave the practice room and stand on the balcony overlooking the concert space, peering down through the prisms of the enormous crystal chandelier onto the coiffed and stylish heads of the guests below. It is time. One hand firmly on the railing, I descend the long curved staircase, greet my audience, greet the piano, and begin. I say what I need to say, and I do it through the mechanics of this marvelous instrument, in this magical place. I am now part of a Steinway Hall Rotunda tradition that all of us think will last forever.

THE Piano Girl

June, 2007, Steinway hall Rotunda. Photo courtesy of Carole Delgado.

Years later, when I learn that Steinway Hall has been sold, I’m overcome with sadness, a grief deepened by the recent loss of Henry. If walls could sigh, if corridors could cry, if chandeliers could sing forgotten compositions and repeat familiar refrains, what would they say to us? Move on. Music doesn’t live in buildings, even the ones with fancy oil paintings and domed ceilings. Music is human. It lives in the craftspeople charged with making these pianos; it lives in the hearts and souls of the musicians who play them. I imagine the Ghosts of Concerts Past on moving day, teary eyed and a little belligerent about leaving, but eager to catch up to the parade of vehicles departing from West Fifty-seventh Street.

Remember me, they’ll shout. And then, dancing in time to piano music only ghosts can hear, they’ll follow the vans and trucks to Steinway Hall’s newest home. There, a little disgruntled and perhaps missing the swank of the hand-painted ceiling, they’ll do what ghosts do best—they’ll stop yammering, join the audience and listen to the music they helped create, hoping to hear a little of themselves. Music past and music present—all of it very personal, all of it worth remembering.

*****

Note from Robin: A special shout-out to Betsy Hirsch, twenty-one year Steinway veteran, wrangler of piano ghosts, and fabulous songwriter. Her new song, “Something’s Gotta Give” is a proactive and appropriate response to the Orlando tragedy. Good for you, Bets.

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.  

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

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Hold the Zucchini

Grill

Dear Fabian and Becky,

Thanks so much for inviting us to dinner at your apartment next Saturday. Steve and I are truly looking forward to your “June Moon” menu. A clever theme—you know how I adore a good clean rhyme! How kind of you to ask if we have any food allergies or dietary restrictions. Not every host bothers to inquire, and, after several recent trips to the emergency room (following meals at the homes of former friends)—we welcome your concern. You may have heard that South-North Airlines refused to let us fly last week simply because we complained about pretzel dust in the air. The incident was humiliating for poor, asthmatic Steve, who did not for one second enjoy being hog-tied and carried off the plane by security thugs. The sound of his wheezing still haunts me.

Potato chips are fine, as are GMO-free, organic Doritos (but not the Nacho Ranch flavor). We’ll discuss dip later.

Like most folks in our culinary circle, Steve and I follow a gluten-free, peanut-free, dairy-free, half-pescatarian, low-sodium, no sugar, vegan diet, except that Steve occasionally eats onion bagels and medium rare roast beef. I enjoy a donut now and then (rainbow sprinkles, please), but for the most part, I avoid all grains. I’m allergic to anything bland or boring, so  forget about rice, unless it’s the rare purple type found in the part of the Maldives that is not yet underwater. Purple rice (served on ivory china) dances off the plate when combined with root vegetables. No carrots, though—Steve hyperventilates and has “bodily fluid” issues when exposed to anything orange. Orange is the new death, at least for Steve. I’ve been told he is not alone.

A word about plate design: I like my rice choreographed. No overlapping, please, and make sure the grains are all facing the same direction, west to east, if possible. Poorly arranged food can trigger rage, depression, and the gag reflex. Why take the risk?

Hold the zucchini. Or any type of squash for that matter. I’m not technically allergic to squash, but it gives me the creeps. And speaking of creepy, I can’t abide dried fruit, wasabi nuts, or anything in the “pudding” category. I’m not a picky eater, but I have my limits.

Most vegans refuse to eat fish, but, outliers that we are, we’ll occasionally dine on eel or steelhead trout, as long as it’s cooked in a wood-burning stove at precisely 483 degrees, Fahrenheit. Don’t try to get by with charcoal—that sneaky Sally Sutherland served us charcoal-baked eel last May and I ended up with spontaneous conjunctivitis, hair loss, and an infected gall bladder. All of this happened before dessert—a mousse of chestnuts and air that made Steve’s head blow up to the size of a pumpkin. That was quite a night. Steve and I, side by side in the ambulance, clinging to life, cursing Sally Sutherland, and swearing we would never again eat eel. Sad. Sally ruined eel for us for at least nine months. The lawsuit should bring us some comfort.

Note: Pumpkin—orange!—is also a no-go.

Really, is there a person alive who can tolerate chestnuts? I think not.

Crispy Duck is okay for Steve (another vegan exception!). I refuse to eat the “cute animals”—duck, lamb, or rabbit. But I will gladly slurp down that yummy Hoisin sauce, as long as it is MSG free. In 2013 I suffered from MSG-induced leg paralysis. The restaurant, Ho Ho Fu on the Upper East Side (now out of business), blamed my inability to stand on the two bottles of Riesling I consumed with the meal, but paid experts later testified in court that my hoisin-induced MSG levels were “off the charts.”

Steve likes Diet Dr. Pepper and I prefer to drink Mr. Tom’s Bloody Mary mix with Absolut vodka, once the wine has run out.

You might be thinking we’re complicated, but we’re not! Just last week Bruce and Gladys served a divine Sunday brunch. Except for Steve’s projectile vomiting (caused by a hidden piece of yam in what was supposed to be an orange-free dining experience) we very much enjoyed the selection of gluten-free, vegan delicacies alongside the roast beef, eel, and rainbow-sprinkle donuts on the bountiful buffet. Too bad Steve’s overly-enthusiastic spewing caused the other guests to flee earlier than planned—they seemed like nice people, especially the Bolivian taxidermist (we can gossip about him when I see you—tightest pants ever). Anyway, I suspect Steve ruined Gladys’s beautiful Swedish table linens, but she has only herself to blame. Everyone knows Steve suffers from yam intolerance.

Egg whites are fine, but quail eggs only.

Please, whatever you do, NO BREAD BASKET ON THE TABLE. This is very important. Steve has psychotic episodes when he senses an overabundance of carbs. A few months ago at Chez Norman (Michelin two-stars, so they should have known better) Steve attacked the basket, dug out the inside of a baguette and rolled the dough into tiny balls. This would not have been so bad, but he stuffed the bread balls up his nose and almost died of carb asphixiation. I rode next to him in the ambulance. Steve sneezed (what a mess that was), we veered into an Uber car, and I dislocated my shoulder.

When you see the cast on my arm on Saturday, please don’t mention the carb incident—Steve still feels guilty.

You’re probably aware I only have one eye—Lisalotte Lux threw a fork at me several months ago after I complained about her pesto. I told her about my pine nut intolerance, but she said she forgot. Forgot? Those hives felt like hamsters crawling up my butt. I refused to suffer silently, so I spoke up. Lisalotte got pissed and threw the fork. End of story. End of eye. Lisalotte has a few years remaining in her jail sentence, plenty of time to reconsider her pesto recipe.

Please note: because I’m half-blind, I prefer my meal to be visually balanced. Diligence can be a matter of life or death for me, and I can’t very well patrol my plate if I can’t see it. Candlelight? No, thank you.

French onion dip is fine. So are grilled raspberries, truffle enchilladas, and deep-fried baby asparagus (only the white kind, not the green!).

Steve will tell you he can eat pork rinds, but don’t listen to him.

Looking forward to Saturday! Let me know if we can bring dessert. My shoulder is still healing, but I can manage carrying a donut or two.

Hugs and kisses!!!

Kiki (and Steve)

*****

Note from Robin: A special shout-out to Drori Mondlak, Karolina Strassmayer, and John Goldsby for their culinary inspiration.

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.  

Brand 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!

The (Euro) Vision

As the US television audience gets ready to watch Eurovision 2016, Robin Meloy Goldsby revisits the 2010 competition to prepare American viewers for a highly entertaining evening.”With a bigger audience than the Super Bowl, Eurovision is the only television event where a tenor can attract a larger crowd than a quarterback. It’s music as sport, even though music has little to do with the outcome.” 

I liked the Greek Guys. If you were one of the 125 million people who tuned in to the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest, broadcast live from Oslo, Norway, you know what I’m talking about. The Greek Guys wore tight white jumpsuits and dangerous-looking black leather boots, and stomped all over the stage yelling “Opa!” while life-threatening flames shot up behind them. Bring on the octopus! Break a plate! The song itself was nothing more than an odd-meter Greek hootenanny with machine-gun electronic percussion, and the lead singer was more of a lead shouter, but in the hot-blooded macho entertainment category, the Greek Guys hit a home run.

Acres of crushed velvet! Singers with figure skaters! Strippers and cellists and cleavage and lace! With a bigger audience than the Super Bowl, Eurovision is the only television event where a tenor can attract a larger crowd than a quarterback. It’s music as sport, even though music has little to do with the outcome. Most Americans don’t know about Eurovision. The program depends on a break-free show—there are no commercials—while most American television depends on advertising. Sitting down to watch Eurovision is like jumping onto a three-hour roller-coaster ride, complete with loop-de-loops and breathtaking curves on the bumpy track. It’s a nonstop one-night event broadcast to countries that belong to the European Broadcasting Union, which, to the confusion of first-time viewers, includes places like Israel, Turkey, Russia, and Georgia.

“Moldova is the one to watch,” said my pal Sharon Reamer, a geophysicist and a longtime Eurovision fan and expert. “They always get most everyone in the entire country onstage, including someone’s great-grandmother wearing a babushka and a hand-embroidered costume.” In a surprise twist, this year’s Moldova entry didn’t include a grandmother, but instead featured a hip-thrusting alto saxophone player in a blue sparkle Elvis jumpsuit, assisted by a Moldovan Lady Gaga clone and a man who resembled a pipe cleaner but sounded just like Tom Jones.

Dry ice! Half-naked dancers! Backup singers in orange Afro wigs!

Armenia’s song, “Apricot Stone,” took up the grandmother slack by plopping an eighty-year-old woman in the middle of an Armenian historical drama. A man wearing burlap knickers back-flipped over the grandmother. Not that anyone noticed. All eyes were on lead singer Eva Rivas’s cleavage. Most male viewers, I’m sure, were wondering just where she was hiding that apricot stone. When I suggested it might be tangled in her hair extensions, my teenage son, who was watching with me, called me a poor sport and said I didn’t grasp the message in her song.

I was drawn to Romania and their presentation of “Playing with Fire.” In addition to their creative use of latex and a Las Vegas–inspired Plexiglas double keyboard, Paula Seling and Ovi actually knew how to sing. Paula Seling looked nasty, in a good way. Ovi did his best to keep up with her, but he could have used few macho lessons from the Greek Guys. Or maybe he just needed a last name. Ovi Love, Ovi Ivo, or maybe Ovi da Rainbow.

Spain’s entry, Daniel Diges singing “Algo Pequeñito,” had a Fellini-meets-Cirque du Soleil vibe. The acrobatic clowns in Daniel’s chorus line bordered on creepy with their chalky faces and waxy lips, but I liked Daniel’s appearance a lot, especially his hair; he looked like Malcolm Gladwell in a severe windstorm, always a clever guise for anyone hoping to pull focus from a dozen dancing Bozo look-alikes.

Denmark turned in a performance right out of the eighties, a decade I particularly enjoyed the first time around. The two performers, Chanée and N’evergreen, couldn’t decide if they wanted to pay tribute to Abba or the Police, so, in a move that impressed me with its inclusiveness, they did both, while wearing Captain and Tennille military jackets.

Every year one country or another adds a stripper to its Eurovision presentation, hoping to garner extra points for showing extra body parts. This time around, Turkey—in a clever nod to heavy-metal music—featured a stripping female robot, a ploy that might have worked in their favor if the robot’s head had not gotten snagged on her breastplate early in the song. Georgia’s Sopho Nizharadze belted out a high G while standing on her head, so she didn’t need to strip. England’s bump-and-grind action came from a Hugh Grant look-alike who bounced around the stage while performing something best described as Disco Duck does Donna Summer. He never took his clothes off, but he should have.

I loved them all.

Eurovision

Iceland showcased a woman with a voice so brassy it might have caused that volcanic eruption, Ireland presented a promising singer having a bad hair day, and Azerbaijan made a big splash with a Celine Dion–influenced “Drip Drop” song. France’s entry? It was more like France’s exit. Monsieur Matador’s derrière was music for my eyes.

The show’s viewers, armed with cell phones and copious amounts of sparkling wine, ouzo, and beer, help determine the winner every year. They gather in nightclubs, corner bars, gay bars, at public viewing screens in town centers, and in living rooms—like mine—with their families. They aren’t permitted to vote for their own country’s entry. In the past, Eurovision has been accused of being a contest for favored nations. Germany, not high on the popularity list, often finished close to the bottom. But a new system requires each country to provide a small jury of music-industry professionals to contribute fifty percent of the vote. That’s made it easier for less popular nations to compete and win.

My very favorite performer was Belgian Tom Dice, who stood alone onstage with his guitar and sang a song about a man standing alone onstage with his guitar. I actually phoned the number and voted for him, because I’m a sucker for singer-songwriters. Then again, I’m fifty-three and still believe that music should be played by real musicians.

Germany’s performer, the Lolita-inspired Lena, looked really cute in her Brit-suave black shift but danced like she was in need of a trip to the nearest Australian loo—her fake English accent had the unfortunate effect of making her sound like a shepherd from somewhere north of Melbourne. But Lena brought down the house. After all the votes were tallied, she won, which proves once and for all that you don’t need a stripping robot if you’re wearing the perfect little black dress. Lena was cool, and so was her song. Aside from one reference in the lyric to blue underwear, there was nothing too embarrassing about her performance.

Budding talent-show producers take note: Eurovision maintains its party vibe because it refuses to follow the Star Search formula. There are no critiques or mean-spirited comments from a jury of over-gelled celebrity has-beens, and the international voting remains secret, right up until the very end. No one leaves the stage humiliated. We don’t see anyone go home in tears. At times, Eurovision seems like one of those kindergarten competitions where everyone gets a prize just for trying. And maybe that’s the way it should be.

By the end of the 2010 Eurovision show, I had decided that all of the performances, even the ones using the most spandex, were about something bigger than the song, the singer, or the country. As the jury tabulated votes, the Norwegian producers of this year’s show broadcast a live dancing segment. Tens of thousands of amateur dancers from all corners of Europe, who had learned a simple routine, waved their arms and kicked their legs in time to a silly techno anthem meant to unite us all. It worked. We witnessed a funky collage of real people making their own fun, and for a few glorious minutes in television land, we celebrated together. Most of us will never enter a talent show of this magnitude, but all of us—regardless of where we live—can laugh and sing along. Meanwhile, each of the Eurovision performers, including the plain young man with the unadorned voice and simple guitar accompaniment, has gathered the courage to stand up in front of 125 million viewers and say, “Hey, this is who I am. This is where I come from. Hope you like it. But if not, that’s okay.”

Opa!

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.  

Brand 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!

Still Life with Grape and Hotdog

Hands

“Good news. We have a songwriting assignment. A chance to make some money,” Joe says. He stands next to my piano, a two-day-old turkey leg in his hand, waving it at me like a conductor’s baton. As usual, Joe raided my refrigerator the moment he arrived at my Astoria apartment, looking for spit-backs and doggie bags—the detritus of a skinny single girl’s sad culinary life.

We had planned to work today on a new song—”Eight Miles Home”—for the play Joe is writing about Thomas Jefferson. Joe rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet. He’s hyped up, even though exhaustion cloaks his pale blue eyes. Like me, he maintains a patchwork schedule of gigs, bouncing from the Actor’s Studio to the television studio to the Madison Avenue restaurant where he serves gourmet morsels to swanky East Side guests.

“One of the customers at the restaurant last night—a regular named Judith—knows we write songs together. She’s financing a tree project in Israel— one of those forest in the desert things— and she wants a theme song.”

“A theme song. About trees in the desert? Cool.”

“That’s the good news. The bad news is that we have to tie it into world peace and brotherhood.”

“Jesus.”

“Exactly. She wants ‘We are the World.’ But about trees.”

It is 1986. I am twenty-eight years old. The sloping lines traversing Joe’s sun-faded face tell me he has at least fifteen years on me. I repeatedly ask him how old he is. He refuses to answer.

We met each other three years ago, when we were hired as actors for an industrial training film for a television network, but we really got to know each other when we began writing songs for Joe’s Thomas Jefferson project. We’re both divorced and scuffling to finance our New York City lifestyles. In addition to his burgeoning career as an actor/writer/waiter, Joe is supporting a teenage son and trying to scrape together enough money to buy his downtown studio apartment. I play the piano in several midtown hotels (midday at the Marriott, cocktail hour at the Sheraton, late nights at the Hyatt), and grab as much acting work as I can. I date inappropriate men, buy shoes that are too expensive for my piano girl budget, and, like so many of my wannabe uptown friends, spend too much time in a hair salon, having my hair painted various shades of gold.

Deep down, I’m really a songwriter. Joe brings me back to the truest part of myself, the part that can start with silence and create, for better or worse, a piece of music. When Joe shows up at my apartment, I know where I’m supposed to be—somewhere in the middle of the second chorus, looking for a bridge. I glance up from the piano and listen to his James Taylor-inspired voice sing the lyric we have crafted and feel dizzy with love, maybe for him, maybe for me, maybe for art. We do not have a romance, but this must count for something.

It takes four or five songwriting sessions, a plate of cold gnocchi, three slices of stale pizza, a few bottles of wine (for me) and half a chicken, but eventually Joe and I come up with a song for the tree project. It’s called “If We Believe.” We record and submit the demo to Judith. We get the gig, along with a hefty (for us) paycheck. In return, we are expected to show up at a synagogue in Princeton, New Jersey, to present the song to the congregation at a special ceremony.

*****

Several months later, we rent a dark red Toyota and drive to Princeton. Joe will sing, I will play the piano and sing along on the chorus. We practice in the car, puffed up by the prospect of getting paid to do something we love. I’m teetering on the edge of thirty and Joe has clearly crossed the middle-age super highway, but we feel like two kids on a road trip, unbreakable, singing a song that will open doors and hearts and pay for a few months of turkey dinners and blond highlights.

We enter the synagogue. Judith, a large woman wearing small glasses, greets us. I ask about the piano.

“There’s no piano,” she says. “This is an Orthodox synagogue with restrictions on musical instruments. Sorry. I didn’t know. I’m not a member here. You’ll have to sing aca-aca-aca . . .?”

Acapella?” Joe and I say. Our voices, so strong and confident in the Toyota, now sound squeaky and thin.

“Yeah, that,” says Janet. “It will be wonderful. I think the governor is coming. Here, put this on. She hands Joe a yarmulke. “Now go sit down. Here’s a program. You’re on at the end of the service.”

We slide into a pew. “You got a bobby pin or anything?” Joe says. “This thing won’t stay put.” I dig in my purse, find a paper clip crusted with hair spray and face powder, and use it to clip the yarmulke to a strand of Joe’s thin blond hair. Thomas Jefferson would be proud.

“There.” I say.

“Uh-oh,” he says, as he reads the program.

“What?” I look around. People stream into the synagogue and take their seats. It’s a somber crowd.

“Jesus,” he says.

What?”

“This is a Holocaust memorial service. We are singing to honor the dead and pay tribute to the survivors.”

“Joe, we can’t sing a song about trees and world peace at a Holocaust remembrance service. What is Judith thinking?”

“I guess she wants a good venue to launch her project? She believes in our song.”

“Yeah, but she doesn’t have to get up there and sing it on the saddest day of the year. What am I supposed to do? I’m not even a real singer.” I wonder if it’s too late to bow out. Or sneak out. This service is too meaningful to be marred by a piddling pop song about seeds and branches and strangers far from home. I feel wildly incompetent, out of place, and panicked. “Joe,” I say. “What are we going to do?”

Joe puts his weathered hands on either side of my hot face. “Rob,” he says. “Be strong. Trust yourself.”

The service proceeds. The elderly survivors of the Holocaust stand. We pray for them. The Rabbi asks the family members of those who perished to also stand. We pray again. Hundreds of people are now on their feet, wounded and sad, but still, somehow, hopeful. It is the most emotional thing I’ve ever experienced.

Joe leans over and whispers in my ear. “Time for a little music. We’re up next.”

Tears clog my throat, in that familiar place where songs are born.

“I can’t.” I say.

Joe grabs my hand. “This isn’t about you.”

It’s not about me. Why haven’t I ever thought of that? A composer serves the project; a performer serves the song. It’s not about me. And just like that, my fear fizzles. I can do this.

The Rabbi introduces us and asks the congregation to remain standing during our song.

Joe looks at me, nods, then white-knuckles the lectern and begins to sing in a voice so luminous that I forget to feel like an imposter. I sing with him on the chorus. The audience joins us and our combined voices seem stronger than all the evil in the world. A fleeting musical illusion, but still, I believe.

We finish the song and I look at Joe. His yarmulke has slipped over one eyebrow and there are beads of sweat on his cheeks. Or perhaps they’re tears. My heart fills with joy, with relief, with respect. I love this man, in a way I can’t explain. Or maybe I just love our song.

*****

After the service we meet Judith and her husband, Alex, in the parking lot. They offer to take us to dinner, but it’s a Monday night and their favorite fancy restaurants are closed. The only thing open in the area is an IHOP, which hardly seems fitting after what we’ve just experienced. Joe, as always, is starving—but Alex, Judith, and I veto the blueberry pancakes and opt to head back to Judith’s home, where she will prepare a light meal.

Alex and Judith, speed demons, drive matching Jaguar convertibles. Joe and I pile into our Toyota and drive as fast as we can to keep up with them. Judith directs us to park outside the gate, on the side of a large circular driveway. She summons us over an intercom and the gate swings open.

In addition to matching cars, Judith and Alex have matching villas.

‘We love each other,” she says as she meets us in the foyer. “But we really don’t like living together.” Every surface of her living room is stacked with huge piles of notebooks, magazines, periodicals, newspapers. I’ve never seen so much paper in one place. No wonder she wants to plant a forest.

“I don’t cook much,” Judith says. “But I have some wine and a package of frozen hotdogs.”

“Wine sounds great,” I shout.

“Hotdogs for me,” says Joe. Judith retreats to the kitchen. Alex, a tiny man, has disappeared. Perhaps he’s hiding behind one of the towers of New Yorker magazines. Joe moves a wobbly stack of folders and sits down next to me.

“I’ll just put these hotdogs in the microwave,” Judith yells from the kitchen.

“Don’t eat the hotdogs,” I whisper to Joe. “They may have been in that freezer since 1972.”

“Rob. We should be polite. If she’s taking the trouble to make hotdogs, we should eat the hotdogs.”

“No way,” I say. I sip a glass of sweet wine. Judith brings Joe a fancy white plate with a gold rim and one hotdog on it.”

“Thanks, Judith,”he says. “That looks delicious. You have any ketchup?”

I kick him under the table and a pile of paperbacks tumbles to the ground.

“I don’t think so,” says Judith, discovering a large plate of half-rotten grapes underneath a periodic journal. “But, here. Have some grapes.”

“No, thanks,” I say. Joe adds a few grapes to his hotdog plate and cocks his head to study his plate. Still Life with Grape and Hotdog: Princeton, New Jersey.

We talk for a few minutes. Judith thanks us for our song; we thank her for her hospitality.

“What an honor to be part of this special evening.”

“Better go quickly,” she says. “In three minutes the guard dogs will be out. The gate will open automatically for you.”

“Guard dogs?” I look behind me and see four Dobermans racing down the driveway. They’re practically nipping at our boots as the gate closes behind us. We can hear them snarling on the other side of the fence.

“That was close.”

“I don’t feel so great,” says Joe.

“I told you. Poison hotdogs,” I say. “I’ll drive.”

“Wait, wait!” Judith shouts from the other side of the gate, her voice muffled by the barking Dobermans. “Take the grapes, so you have a snack for the ride home.”

“Thank you,” we say.

“I’ll just leave the bag here on my side of the fence. You can reach through and fetch it. Bye!”

“Let’s go, Joe,” I say. “The Dobermans are freaking me out.”

“What about the grapes?” he says.

“Leave them. No way I’m going to reach under that fence. Those dogs will rip my arm off. And I have to play at the Marriott tomorrow.”

“Yeah, but they’re free grapes. ”

“They’re yesterday’s grapes, Joe.” But he doesn’t hear me. He grabs a stick from the side of the road, and, with the Dobermans growling and snapping at it, manages to pull the bag under the fence.

We drive home, the rotten grapes on the seat between us. We don’t say much, and we’re certainly not singing.

*****

Years pass. We do not become the next Goffin and King, Lennon and McCartney, or the Bergmans.  As so often happens in show business, the slow-moving blob of real life overtakes art. Joe gets a lot of film work, falls in love with a beautiful young dancer named Elizabeth, and marries her. He changes his name, changes his image, moves to the West Coast, and becomes a movie star. I meet the love of my life—a jazz bassist named John—marry him, and have a baby. We decide to move to Europe.

In 1994 I see Joe one last time, right before my husband and I leave New York. He looks rested and happy. And tan. We discuss projects we’ll never work on and songs we’ll never write. He eats a salad. A salad!

“I can’t remember the key of the tree song,” he says.

“D major. You always sound good in D major. It’s a hopeful key. Bright.”

It’s time to go our separate ways. Joe has been more than a friend, less than a romance. We have forged an artistic partnership based on naivety, courage, old food, and the misguided-but-beautiful belief that a handful of well-crafted songs will connect us forever. Love songs, in a way.

He hugs me goodbye. I will play our music for decades to come. People might move on, but a song? Our songs are forever—aural snapshots of an innocent time; small globes of musical light that roll through my memory and trigger flashes of happiness.

“Be strong,” he says to me before we go our separate ways on Seventh Avenue. “Trust yourself.”

“It’s not about me!” I say, repeating the words that got me through the Princeton gig. “I promise to remember that. It’s not about me.”

“It never was,” Joe says. “It was always about the song.”

***

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.  

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

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Rouge Noir

“Rouge Noir” is a short story from Goldsby’s new collection: Manhattan Road Trip

Courtesy of Bass Lion Publishing

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Rouge Noir

Alarm rings. B-flat. Fingers tingle; they always tingle on concert days. Wish I could start my morning with meditation. Been awake for an hour, worrying, fretting, betting something horrible will happen in the next twelve hours. Twelve hours. Got to get through half a day before I walk onstage this evening. So much easier if I could hop out of bed, into the shower, and onto the piano bench. Performance isn’t hard—waiting kills me. Playing the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 in D minor this evening with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Performed the Rach 3 at least thirty times over the last decade. Still kicks my butt. Like running a marathon in thirty-five minutes.

Sheets tangle between my legs, my hair tangles between my fingers, my stomach tangles in knots. Slightly nauseated. Hope I’m not pregnant again. Hope I don’t have stomach cancer. Hope I didn’t eat bad shrimp last night at Fred’s Fish Factory. Why did I let that chirpy concert promoter talk me into eating crustaceans in a landlocked town? What’s her name? Right. Madison. I’m an idiot when I’m hungry. I’ll eat anything. Hope the zipper closes on my gown tonight. Should fast today—no, last time I tried that I fainted two hours before my New York Phil concert. Ended up drinking a vanilla milkshake to revive. Stomach bloated from the lactose. Rachmaninoff and bloat. Bad combo.

I hope the hair guy shows up. I hate big concert halls with balconies. People sitting above see my roots; high-rent folks in orchestra seats see my double chin. I’m screwed in two ticket-price tiers.

Wish they would just close their eyes and listen.

I really need to play the damn piano; always makes me feel better to play, at least in real life. Crawled into bed last night out of sorts and full of doom. Finally conked out, had a nightmare someone splattered the Steinway keyboard with olive oil. I’ve had this nightmare on the eve of every concert performance for fifteen years. Always the same—fingers slip and slide, and my performance, no matter what I do, veers from controlled elegance to sadistic slapstick. The audience laughs. I stand to leave the stage, humiliated and broken. I notice oil stains on my red evening gown. Guy in the front row of my dream looks exactly like Mr. Dominick, my childhood piano teacher. He wears a houndstooth jacket with mustard-colored suede elbow patches. “See?” he snarls. “I told you. You’re no good. And not only that, you’re fat.” Then I wake up.

Enough.

I am Samantha Lockney. Used to be the toast of the classical piano world, girl with the platinum fingers, sweetheart of music critics everywhere, except in parts of Ohio, where, for some odd reason, they’ve always hated my emotional interpretations of Baroque music. They also hated me in Duluth and Phoenix. Fine with that. I am. Don’t know anyone in Ohio, or Duluth, or Phoenix, except for my agent’s mother. Met her once, when I played the A minor Brahms with the Cleveland Orchestra. My hands aren’t really big enough for Brahms, so I had to stretch like crazy. That was back when I had big banging balls and I still tried to play pieces that didn’t suit me. Before the agency and Classical International Records started promoting me as a glamour girl. Back when I didn’t have to worry about sucking in my stomach and wearing false eyelashes. Now, when I should be exhaling and leaning into the best years of my career, I face dwindling audiences, dismal record sales, and a substantial slab of flab around my middle. Not so noticeable when I’m upright, but I can’t perform the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor if I’m not sitting down.

I hate sounding like a whining, weight-obsessed, middle-aged woman, but . . . If I’m not at the piano, I’m standing in front of a mirror freaking about how I look at the piano. Twenty years ago, on my agent’s advice, I poured myself into a silver slip dress and jiggled onstage at Carnegie Hall. I actually believed, silver dress and all, the audience understood and admired my music. Wasn’t the music they dug, it was the package. That’s what the record company called me—a package. Yeah, I was talented. Yeah, I mastered Rach 3 when very few women even considered playing it. Yeah, I was the new kid on the scene. But I really got noticed for being classical piano’s “It Girl.” Or was it “Tit Girl”? Now the “It” part is gone; tits are sagging; career is tanking. I’m scared. I need to keep working. I need guidance. My own stupid fault. Other concert pianists have survived middle age without losing momentum—but they built careers on solid music, not on how they looked in a silver dress.

Classical International didn’t pick up the option for my next recording, so now I’m a free agent.Therapist says anger gets me nowhere. Agent says anger gets me nowhere. Accountant says anger gets me nowhere. I pay a staff of professionals thousands of dollars a month to piss me off and tell me I’m getting nowhere. This morning, nowhere features a junior suite with two red velveteen chairs, king-sized bed, pink marble bathroom, and too many mirrors. The suite is a little smaller than my usual offerings—okay, a lot smaller—but the birdish Madison, a zipper-thin twenty-something, told me the pop singer Baby checked in yesterday and her handlers insisted on the Governor’s Suite, the one originally reserved for me. I’m at the William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. Didn’t make a scene about the suite. I was tempted. It feels, I don’t know, a little insulting to be jostled out of position by a chlorine-blond named Baby. We’re both from Pittsburgh. Read somewhere she went to my elementary school, twenty years after I was there.

Saw pictures of Baby in Vanity Fair last month. She was wearing a latex mermaid costume. Even with flippers and fishtail, she’s a looker. I remember how that used to feel. Seas parted, doors opened, men with coffee breath and thinning hair stared at my breasts and told me I was extremely talented. Got the best tables and widest smiles, and potbellied photographers told me I wasn’t just extremely talented, I was lovely. Funny thing, I believed every word. Every single word. Fans surrounded me like fruit flies on a ripe peach.

Why bother with nail polish on my toes? It chips. Chanel Rouge Noir. Love this color. Scrape a few blackish-red flakes onto the flocked carpet. They disappear into the weave. Wonder what else is buried in there.

Ashamed to admit this, but I expected a warm reception since I’m a hometown girl. Thought the concert would sell out, that today would be filled with press appointments. But Madison, whose diplomacy skills lack finesse, told me critics and journalists had no interest. “It’s, like, so hard these days to find anyone willing to write about classical music, unless it’s, like, some hot new artist. You know, like, the younger ones. I thought, like, since you’re older, I might call Walter Wipton.”

“Walter Wipton? Is he still on staff at the Pittsburgh paper? My God, that guy has been writing the same shitty review of every young female concert pianist for the last forty years. Is he coming tonight?”

“No,” said Madison, checking her phone. “Let’s see. He says he already reviewed your performance of the Rachmaninoff.”

“That was ten years, ago,” I said. “That guy is a sexist idiot. I quote: ‘Samantha Lockney might play like a man but she definitely looks like a woman. Sensual and sexy, her body moved with the music and brought to mind moments of passion and release.’ Basically, Madison, he compared me to an orgasm. Doesn’t get more sexist than that, does it?”

“Wow, you still remember that?” she said. “You’re, like, a feminist?” I didn’t know how to answer without shaking her. So I said nothing.

“Well, you know, Baby’s in town,” said Madison, her voice excited and growing squeakier by the second. “It’s supposed to be a secret, but every reporter in Pittsburgh knows she’s here. They’re all, like, camped out in the lobby. Evidently she’s here to attend a funeral.”

Fucking Baby. She shows up for a funeral and it’s a major press event. I arrive to play the most difficult piano concerto ever written and no one cares.

I pull the covers over my head and try to push away the morning.

Phone rings just as the waiter arrives with my breakfast. Phone tone is an A-natural. Doorbell to the suite is a G-sharp. I’m caught in the crossfire of a half-tone war. God, that’s awful. Grab the phone and my robe at the same time.

“Mommy?” It’s my daughter, Caroline. Her voice sounds raspy. Make a note to ask Gary if her asthma has been bothering her again. Latrobe isn’t far away—should try and get out there to see her. Maybe Gary will bring her to the concert tonight—I already sent tickets. Have to remember to pick up a present—hate to meet her empty-handed. Caroline chatters on about getting ready for school. I look in the mirror and try to iron the lines out of my face with the palm of my hand. Doorbell rings again, followed by loud knocking.

“Yes, sweetie. Yes, sweetie. I miss you, too. Just a minute, okay? Breakfast is here.” Fluff my hair and open the door.

Snarky kid with a pierced nose smirks and says, “Room service.” These hotel workers get younger every week. His nametag says “Jefferson.” Of course. Jefferson. Is every person under the age of twenty-five named after a damn president? Jefferson—wearing a white military jacket with golden buttons and scarlet epaulets and a pair of gravity-defying black pants— slouches into the room without even trying to sneak a peek under my robe. Pull up your pants, I want to shout. Little Lord Fauntleroy from the waist up, original gangster from the waist down. Way too skinny for me, anyway. Not tempted.

I don’t look bad for my age. I don’t. I remind myself of this at least three times an hour. Been playing really well the last few years—playing better than ever, actually—but all the newspapers and magazines want to write about—if they write about me at all—is my puffy face or how much weight I’ve gained. They say I’ve “matured in stature.” They write about whether I should have a face-lift. Or speculate whether I’m losing my hair. If I’m a good mother or a bad mother. If my third marriage will work out. If I’m a lesbian. Downward spiral. Falling face.

To the Jeffersons of the world I am invisible. Rach 3 is too long, too demanding, just too much of everything for a YouTuber like Jefferson. He’ll watch a cell phone video of Baby hailing a cab, but an aging formerly-hot classical pianist? Forget it. To music critics—the know-it-alls who fell in love with me when I was waif-like and perky-boobed—I’m one sonata away from menopause. I glance in the mirror as Jefferson rolls the tray table into my suite. Ragged. Chunky. I look my age. And you know what? Just don’t care. Really. I don’t care.

Enough.

“Where do you want it?” Jefferson says.

“Funny you should ask.” I use my flirty voice. Jefferson ignores me.

Shit. I remember my ten-year-old daughter is still on the phone, hanging on every word. “Well now, Jefferson, over there. Next to the window.” I grab the phone from the nightstand. “Caroline, honey, I’ll call you right back, okay?” Already hung up. Guess she has gone to school.

Jefferson, disgusted, places breakfast—a pot of Earl Grey, a bowl of bran flakes, a glass of vivid green juice that will taste like liquid tree—on a window-side table overlooking a broad Pittsburgh avenue. Grant Street? So long since I’ve been in town. Hardly remember the names of the streets. Jefferson unfurls a single linen napkin, places it next to the tree juice and says, “Will there be anything else?”

“Here.” I hand him ten dollars.

“Wow. Thanks,” he says.

“You’re welcome. Would you perhaps like tickets to my concert this evening? It’s not sold out and I have some—”

“What? You a singer or something?”

“No. I’m a concert pianist. I’m performing with the Pittsburgh Symphony this evening.”

“Oh. Yeah. I heard of them. But I got plans. I’m not supposed to tell anyone—this is top secret—but I guess you’re cool. Baby is in town. I hear she might stop by the Rooster Shack tonight and sit in for a set. At least, that’s what my bartender buddy at the Rooster Shack told me.”

“Right. Well, then. The Rooster Shack. Imagine that.”

“Enjoy your breakfast.” Jefferson walks backwards, dragging the empty food cart. He doesn’t even glance at me as he backs out of the room.

***

I eat all of my breakfast. Stroll downstairs, pick up a newspaper. Baby buzz circulates around the reception desk, though she’s nowhere to be seen. A grand piano sits right in the middle of the lobby—maybe later I’ll challenge Baby to a duel.

Head back to my room. Think about tonight’s performance. This damn concerto. Rach 3. I play it really well, but it’s never easy. Only a handful of pianists can do it justice. I’m one of them. Pretty much the only thing anyone wants to hear me play these days. It’s exhausting keeping up with it. Kicks my ass every time, even after all these years.

Took me eleven months to master Rach 3. A “normal” concerto—I can cover that in a month. I remember first looking at the score; it was written for an octopus. No break for the pianist, not even in the second movement. Fell in love with it at eighteen and decided if I never accomplished anything else in my life, I would tame this beast. I did. Now when I play it I become my own orchestra. Two orchestras onstage; the one with eighty-three musicians, and the one behind the Steinway—me. I’m an army, an unbeatable force, a solo musician with the weight of the world balanced on ten fingers. I’ve sacrificed a lot for Rachmaninoff over the years—childhood, a normal education, several marriages, my daughter, friends—but it’s worth it. When I’m playing this concerto, the muscle of the music strong-arms real life. I win. I’m free. I’m home. I’m an unconquerable goddess. I am alive.

Wish I had ordered pancakes or a cheese omelet or something substantial for breakfast. Need real food—potatoes and bread and bacon. If I had a piano in my fucking junior suite I could distract myself with practicing, but the days of the promoter providing a Steinway in my hotel room are over. I look in one of the dozens of mirrors lining the walls. There is a hair growing out of my forehead. My forehead! Jesus Christ, how long has that been there? Oh my God, it’s white and it’s an inch long. I take a moment and Google cosmetic surgeons in Manhattan. Hair removal, liposuction, Botox, face-lift, fillers—maybe I need a complete rehaul. Might even need an ass lift. No I don’t. Yes I do. Not like an ass lift will make me more of an artist. How long would I have to take off from sitting on a piano bench to recover from butt-lift surgery? Forget it. I’m not kowtowing to contemporary beauty standards. Harness my physical well-being to an industry norm? I am what I am, and all that. I pluck the hair.

But maybe if I looked better, if I recaptured my youthful fizz, I would book more gigs. I need to work. I paid off my Manhattan apartment years ago, but I’m so far in debt I’ll need to play 150 concerts a year until I’m ninety just to make a dent in what I owe. This is my first gig in a month. I’m not destitute, but I need to pay my staff of anger experts, two ex-husbands, and child support. Maybe there’s a direct correlation between weight gain and concert loss. Maybe I’m just too old for this. Not old. Not young. Maybe I’m too fat.

Stop it right now. Just stop it.

I know. Go for a walk. Outside. Fresh air. Breathe. Still have three hours before hair guy shows up. I’ll go practice for an hour at the hall. Buy a new dress. Shop for Caroline. What size is she these days? Put on sunglasses and head for Macy’s.

***

Nobody recognizes me in the store, even with sunglasses. Relieved and pissed all at once. I try three separate times to give comp tickets to sales people, but no one seems interested—they act like I’m trying to give them discount coupons for fabric softener. Try on an Oscar de la Renta bright-pink beaded evening gown that costs $2,000. I look like a spangled hippo in a mother-of-the-bride dress, plus the beads chafe my upper arms. Thirty-five minutes of Rach 3 in that thing and my triceps would look like raw meat. Try on a subtle Calvin Klein black sheath dress and I resemble a stout nun settling in for an evening of biblical Scrabble. Try on strappy high-heeled sandals with bits of feathers at the toe. Am I getting cankles? No. Ankles still slim. No ankle lift for me.

How cute! Who ever thought to add feathers to shoes? Could be my new signature style. If Katia Labèque can make a concert pianist fashion statement with red-soled Louboutins, then why not me? Feathers at my feet. Wings on my heels. Fly like an eagle. Buy the shoes. Hope these aren’t eagle feathers. Four hundred dollars. Shouldn’t, but I do.

I look at a crystal bracelet. Forget that. Pick up a topaz ring for Caroline. Adorable. Topaz is her birthstone, I think. Got to do something about my nails. Looks like I’ve been digging up potatoes bare-handed.

Scoot down to the cosmetic department and pick up three new lipsticks, a $20 bottle of a nail polish called Cream Cake for my fingers, another bottle of Rouge Noir for my toes, and firming cream guaranteed to restructure a sagging jaw line. Has horse cartilage in it. Or shark fin. Or some awful thing, but Vogue says it works.

Hungry. What I eat now is critical. Too much and my stomach will blow up and I’ll look five months pregnant onstage and even the feather sandals won’t distract from that. If I don’t eat enough I’ll be shaky, top-heavy, and likely to tip over. Do men think about this shit? No. I’ll bet Martha Argerich doesn’t either. Should have built my career the way she did.

I find a little Japanese place and order a tempura California roll. Hold the cream cheese. Avocado is good, right? Right. Would kill for some wine, but that’s a no-go. I order another California roll. No soy sauce—last thing I need is water retention. There. Full, but not. Perfect.

Over to the hall to see if I can play in these feather sandals. I have my doubts. Piano pedals swallow shoes and long skirts. Test run required. A policeman waves at me. Nice—hey there, big guy. I wave back, but he’s not waving at me—he’s directing traffic. Pittsburgh pigeon poops on my pink pashmina. I do the best I can to remove the goop with an old Starbucks napkin stuffed in my pocket.

Hands feel cold.

Should have had the wine.

***

What was I thinking? I’m onstage, running through warm-ups before the technician arrives to tweak the Steinway. Feather sandals are a disaster, heels skid on the wooden floor, I lose control of the pedal. Fuck the feathers. I’m a pianist, not a stripper. I kick them off and keep playing. Stupid idea to buy these stupid shoes. Focus. I should return them, but I’m out of time. Shit. Focus. Was I supposed to call Caroline at lunchtime? I’ll try later. Help. Stop and clear my head. Play through the cadenza in the first movement again.

And again. Again. There. My hands move so fast I can’t see or feel them anymore—a blur of sinew and flesh. Part of me, but not. I float above myself, in a trance, listening. Got it now. Stand, stretch, collect my Macy’s loot and grab a cab back to the hotel. Time to have hair teased and tussled, face spackled. Salon promised to send someone at four. Could use a piece of cake. Pace back and forth in the suite and wait for hair guy. Think about the Rach. Pace. Stop thinking. Therapist tells me to think of nothing before a performance. Thinking about not thinking. Nothing helps. Keep hearing repetitive patterns in the third movement. Doorbell rings. Scares me. I’m always jittery a few hours before. It’s the stylist, a short guy named Doug. He smells like grapefruit.

“Come in, Doug. May I offer you a soothing cup of tea?” ***

Five minutes before eight. Orchestra waits onstage. I wait in the wings. Stretch. Good. Shoulders nice and loose. Hands warm. Neck slightly stiff. Normal. I can see the audience from a gap in the backstage wall. I try not to look. Lots of empty seats. Caroline sits in the third row, with her grandparents and Gary. I’ll play the Rach for her tonight. Play it so she’ll remember me. The music. Me. The music. Me. The music. Don’t think. Don’t even think about thinking. The music. Me. Breathe. Believe.

The stage manager taps my shoulder. Walk onstage. Walk. Sit. Maestro raises his baton. The music. Me. Believe. Breathe.

Begin.

**

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.  

Coming on April 6th, 2016: 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!

The Finish Line

FinishLine3

During my NYC years I used to watch, each autumn, as marathon runners of every sort dashed, shuffled, and sauntered across the Queensboro Bridge. Blind runners, wheelchair runners, amputees, world champions with chiselled faces and gangly arms, cancer survivors, friends of cancer victims, men and women hauling children in wagons. The participants in the New York City Marathon seemed like visitors from a distant planet— homo-nautilus super-humans with muscled thighs, dressed in neon tights and puffy shoes. The very idea that anyone could muster enough discipline to run twenty-six miles in a few hours inspired me. Someday, I would think, someday I will do that, too.

I’m a lousy runner. I’m also a bit top heavy. The last time I tried to jog I tripped over one rock and landed—chest-first—on more rocks. I broke a rib and sprained my thumb. Had it not been for the mercy of a kind woman—a real runner with the ability to avoid rocks—I might still be lying there with squashed breasts, eating gravel and wondering why I couldn’t breathe. Good thing I was wearing two bras.

For much of my adult life, the marathon dream nagged me. I longed for a long-term project, a race I could run without tripping, a finish line I might cross with my dignity (and rib cage) intact. About twelve years ago I discovered writing. Not journals or song lyrics or blog posts—I had already done all that—but books. I thought I had it in me to write one. The idea seemed exciting, challenging, and the kind of goal-oriented project I craved. I might not be able to run a marathon, but maybe I could write one. And that’s how my writing career started—with a scalding desire to accomplish a long-term goal. If nothing else, I wanted to prove I could cross a finish line. Then I would collapse in a heap on the other side, feel a sense of accomplishment, and get back to my life.

Most musicians cross little finish lines every time they play a set, a song, a phrase. I was used to that—writing a new tune, practicing it, performing it,  getting bored, and moving on to the next thing. Writing a book seemed more like the musical equivalent of composing and performing a concerto—a complete work that would force me to make sense of the fragmented ideas banging around in my brain and organize them into a literary score. I wanted to orchestrate my thoughts with words.

But where to start? It’s hard to cross a finish line if you don’t know where the race begins.

*****

Want to hear a couple of funny stories? Grab a beer, a bowl of stale almonds, and hang out with the local band on a break between sets. My dad, a versatile Pittsburgh drummer who played in symphony orchestras, jazz clubs, and burlesque theaters, kept our family entertained with stories about drunks, divas, and exotic dancers with names like Irma the Body. As a child, I listened to his pitch-perfect tales of life as a musician, and dreamed that someday I’d have my own stories to tell. To earn that privilege, I had to master the piano, go on the road, memorize thousands of songs, and navigate an obstacle course full of artistic booby-traps.

The idea for Piano Girl: A Memoir, came to me after thirty years of solo piano gigs in smoky cocktail lounges, roadside dives, plush Manhattan hotels, and European castles. This was a book I could write, a race I could run. From the other side of a grand (or not-so-grand) piano, I had played three decades worth of background music, entertaining myself by observing the human comedies, tragedies, and mundane miracles drifting past the Steinway. I was ready to start writing my stories. The characters and plots had waltzed into my cocktail lounge life and dared me to whisk them into a readable froth.

With a dose of cautious optimism, I sent my Piano Girl proposal to Richard Johnston, then the senior editor at Backbeat Books, a small house specializing in music books. Richard, who shared my love of the absurd, convinced his team that my stories deserved publication. When Backbeat surprised me with a contract, an advance, and a six-month deadline to complete my manuscript, I committed to a full-time work schedule. During that time, I learned to love writing as much as I love music. I also learned that writing a book really is a marathon—a long, daunting, and glorious haul to an illusive finish line that often feels like a brick wall instead of a flimsy piece of plastic tape.

Upon publication, Piano Girl received a Publishers Weekly starred review, an endorsement from BookSense, and landed feature interviews for me on All Things Considered, The Leonard Lopate Show, and NPR’s Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. My publisher assured me I had won the National Public Radio sweepstakes. Henry Steinway sponsored a Piano Girl reading and concert at Steinway Hall, attended by the esteemed William Zinsser, whose wonderful book On Writing Well had been my desktop bible while writing Piano Girl. His hopeful smile in the audience that night cast a magic spell over the entire evening.

Backbeat organized a book launch cocktail party at the Waldorf Astoria. NPR taped the event, which was attended by friends, industry professionals, and booksellers from all over the country. I wore an over-the-top red evening gown, played “Night and Day” on Cole Porter’s piano (I still have the tendonitis to prove it), and read from my book. Sipping champagne, I checked out the stylish crowd flitting around the Art Deco Waldorf lobby, stunned that my childhood fantasy of having people listen to my musical stories had evolved into a book that people seemed to like. The glow of the Waldorf limelight faded quickly, but I can still feel its warmth.

In a way, sitting at the piano that night, I felt like I had crossed my finish line. The excitement and jet lag had kept me awake for three days, and I truly wanted to collapse into my well-deserved heap, but I couldn’t—I had to play the gig. My weary fingers found the opening chords to Misty just as I noticed a man in a banana costume strutting across the Waldorf lobby. Wow, I thought—I can use that in a new story.

That’s when the truth hit me like a ton of books: for a writer the finish line is a mirage. A thought becomes a word becomes a sentence becomes a phrase and a graph and a story and a book. You believe you’ve crossed to the other side, and you’re ready to accept your trophy, your medal, your gift certificate for a free massage. Then you see a man dressed as a banana, forget the race you’ve just won, and start the next project. You even look forward to it.

The wonderful author, Jane Smiley, said: “I believe that you either love the work or the rewards. Life is a lot easier if you love the work.”

The Piano Girl media hoopla stoked my ego, but I soon realized those temporary highlights couldn’t compete with the thrill of writing—the bliss that comes with finding the lore of a story or discovering the musical threads connecting the chapters of my life.

As a lyricist, I have been trained in the craft of setting words to music. As an author, I’ve learned to work from the opposite direction, by stringing words together and finding their musical flow. Whenever I get it just right (not as often as I might hope), I experience a whoosh of elation. My personal triumphs come from stumbling upon a perfect word, tapping out the rhythm of my sentences, and, on a good day, arranging the weird themes of my life into beautiful or ugly melodies that make sense.

Since that fateful Piano Girl launch, I have written four books. Waltz of the Asparagus People is a sequel to Piano Girl; Rhythm: A Novel tells the story of a young female drummer. My new book, Manhattan Road Trip, is a compact collection of short stories about musicians. The official publishing date is April 6th, 2016.

I hope you’ll read Manhattan Road Trip. You know those people who stand on the sidelines and hand out energy bars and water to runners as they approach the end of the marathon? That’s you—pushing me over the finish line and giving me the confidence to start another race.

“Watch out for the rocks!” you might shout.

I’m beyond grateful.

**

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.  

Coming on April 6th, 2016: 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!

Bad-Ass Randy and the Beauty Queens

Chatham Village, 1966. I am eight years old and have recently watched the Miss America pageant—live from Atlantic City!—on television with Grandma Curtis. Grandma, a real shark when it comes to picking winners, says: “Miss California has the best figure, but she blew it in the talent competition. You can’t win with baton twirling if you don’t have flames. I’m voting for Miss Michigan—look at her in that white spangled evening gown. Elegant! Brains, beauty, and poise! Never underestimate the importance of poise. And her vocal interpretation of ‘June is Bustin Out All Over’ is divine.”

Grandma Curtis is almost right. Miss Michigan doesn’t win the title, but she gets as far as first runner-up. I am intrigued by the concept of first runner-up. Almost good enough to win, but not quite. All of the work, none of the glory.

Some months later, my sister, Randy, and I decide to stage our own spectacle—the first annual Miss Chatham Village beauty pageant. Chatham Village, an idyllic wooded enclave right smack in the middle of Pittsburgh, features colonial brick town-homes surrounding lush green courtyards. Randy and I live in the upper court of the oldest part of Chatham Village, a perfect place for a long runway and a makeshift stage.

We gather a gaggle of our Village girlfriends, including the Marys—Mary Beth Wilson and Mary Helen Joyce; Alyce Amery, Kitty Engstrom, Lisa Hetrick, and the Loughney sisters, Casey and Lisa; the Clifford girls, Sharon and Sandra. Together we plot and plan the program and send crayola invitations to our parents, who usually spend their summer evenings sitting on front porches sipping drinks and grilling steaks. The Village could be the Pittsburgh setting for a John Cheever story: Wonderbread-ish, WASP-y, and two gin and tonics away from tennis-white perfect.

Problem: We need a judge for our pageant. We decide the last thing we want is a parental jury, or, worse yet, a panel of boys. What to do? Randy, seven years old and already a take-charge kind of gal, volunteers for the gig.

“I hate beauty,” she says. “And I hate swimsuits and evening gowns. And my only talent is chasing my brother with a baseball bat. I might as well be the judge.”

We agree. Randy will be the moderator and the jury—Bert Parks and the panel of experts rolled into one cocky little girl.

I think I’m a shoe-in because Randy and I share a bedroom and, on holidays, wear matching outfits with patriotic themes.

Rob_Ran_Curt

What’s this? All of the sudden, all of the pageant contestants are really nice to Randy. She gets extra cookies from our friends, extra rides on the backs of bicycles, extra turns on the Tarzan swing. I am too naive to understand the concept of a bribe, and the special treatment seems fair to me—after all, Randy has sacrificed her own chances of being Miss Chatham Village by volunteering to run the contest. I’m proud of my generous sister for stepping out of the spotlight so that the rest of us might shine.

It is worth noting that my sister was born with coal black eyes and orange fuzz on her head. It is also worth noting that I have seen her bite a worm in half and that her favorite game is called “Let’s Go Die.”

Bad_Ass_Randy

The day of the pageant arrives. Our parents collect in the courtyard and sit in assorted lawn chairs. Cocktails in hand, they chatter as Randy, barefoot, but wearing one of my dad’s bow ties, takes the stage to welcome the audience. She uses a stick wrapped in aluminum foil as a microphone.

“Please join us for the Pledge of Allegiance,” my sister says. This is not typical feature of beauty pageants, but I think it adds a nice touch. The adults rise, cocktails in one hand, heart in the other.

Randy begins introducing the contestants.

“Hailing from the lower court, Alyce Amery excels at math and reading. Her hobbies include coloring and going to the library.” Alice takes a long walk down the runway, wearing a frilly pink dress and flip-flops.

“From 610 Pennridge Road, Mary Beth Wilson attends St. Mary of the Mount school. She is a member of Stunt Club and—lucky for us!—enjoys singing. Unlike my father, Mary Beth’s father works during the day.” Mary Beth beams.

It goes on and on like this, with Randy introducing each of the girls competing for the title.

Then she gets to me, last on the list: “Here is Robin, better known as my sister.” That’s it? That’s all she says? I march down the runway, remembering what Grandma Curtis said about poise.

Because the pageant takes place fifty feet from our house, we use our living room for quick changes into swimsuit and talent costumes. The screen door squeaks and slams as we run back and forth. Meanwhile, Randy, hardly breaking a sweat, babbles on and on about each of us.

“And now, here is Mary Beth Wilson again, performing her version of Down in the Valley.” From the sidelines, I see three-quarters of the audience blanch—Mary Beth has an impossibly high voice, one that can make your head explode if you’re not prepared. I watch, as the assembled parents simultaneously lift their cocktail glasses and take a solid swig. But—surprise—Mary Beth has planned a special arrangement of “Down in the Valley”—one that includes cartwheels—twenty-four cartwheels—we count them. When she reaches the end, she modulates to an even higher key—down in the valley, the valley so low—raises her grass-stained hands, and sings the final verse. Wow.

“Thank you, Mary Beth!” says my sister. “A true highlight.”

“Next up, my sister, Robin, performing a medley of the two songs she knows.” I smile and stand in the middle of the courtyard with my flute. Poise. I play “When Sunny Gets Blue”—a tune I found in my dad’s fake-book—then segue into a vocal performance of “This Land is Your Land” which I can sing while twirling the flute. My range isn’t as impressive as Mary Beth’s, and there are no flames shooting out of my flute tailpiece, but I get by.

Some of the other girls perform splits and back-bends. One of them plays the violin. Alyce Amery recites poetry. Mary Helen does an interpretive dance with scarves.

We are fearless. We believe in our beauty, our talent, our intelligence, our poise.

We change into Sunday school dresses—our version of evening gowns—for the final round of the pageant. For music to accompany our final walk down the runway, we hum “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

The tension builds. Randy has decided in advance to eliminate the runners-up. No finalists. She will select the winner and that will be that.

We hold hands and glance nervously at each other, just like the real Miss America contestants. Who will win? I will win. I know I will win, but when I look at the other girls, I see the same spark of determination in their eyes and begin to doubt myself. Maybe the flute twirling wasn’t such a great idea. We can’t all win. This isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.

Randy asks for a drum roll. The parents in the audience put down their drinks and pound their thighs.

“And the winner is . . . ”

Drum roll . . .

Randy glances at the paper crown, bouquet of dandelions, and the crepe paper Miss Chatham Village sash she has stashed on a table next to her.

“And the winner is . . . ”

Drum roll . . .

“Me!”

Randy crowns herself. I stand with the other girls onstage, our mouths hanging open in disbelief, as Randy adjusts the crown, pulls the sash over her head, grabs the bouquet, and sashays—with tremendous poise—down the runway, pausing to wave at our parents and the imaginary press corps lining both sides of the aisle.

Halfway between rage and devastation, we begin to howl. Our parents sit there laughing, which does not make things better, not one bit.

“No fair!” we shout. “No fair!”

“Fair!” says Randy. “You made me the judge and I picked me.”

“You didn’t wear a swimsuit or an evening gown. You didn’t even have a talent presentation.”

“Yep,” says Randy. “I was just myself. And I won.”

“You can’t do that!” Mary Beth says.

“Yes I can. You know why? Because I’m the judge. I decide. You want to win, you have to be the judge! Any nitwit knows that.” Randy, my worm-eating devil sister, spins around and takes another turn on the catwalk. Our parents stand and cheer. The other girls and I—feeling very much like the Chatham Village idiots—stomp out of the courtyard and go to my house to change clothes. Losers! We are worse than Miss Michigan—we’re not even runners-up. One by one, we slam the screen door in protest. I look out and see Randy, still wearing her crown, signing autographs for the adults. I suppose this time next week she’ll be riding on a float in a parade on Grant Street.

*****

You want to win, you have to be the judge.

Randy had a point. It will take me decades to figure out that my little sister, age seven, was wise beyond her years—smart enough to be the judge instead of the contestant; rebellious enough to make the rules instead of following them; quick enough to crown herself instead of waiting for someone else to do it for her; cunning enough to win the top prize without stuffing herself into a swimsuit or Sunday school dress. You want the tiara? Make it yourself.

And what about Grandma’s favorite quality— poise?  Randy comes by that naturally, I’d say. No one can strut a runway like my sister.

Horse

*****

Randy Rawsthorne Cinski is now the owner of Randita’s, an organic vegan café located in Pittsburgh. She makes great food and tells good stories. And if you’re lucky, she might even be wearing her crown.

Thanks to Aunt Pinky Rawsthorne for the photos!

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.  

Coming on April 6th, 2016: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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