Magic to Do

St. Louis: 1980

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

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

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

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

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

“That be squash.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kahlúa does not freeze.

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

That be squash.

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

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

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

“Your ass is on the line! Not his.”

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

“Don’t worry about it, kid.”

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

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

“But my ass is on the line—”

“Out of my way, kid!”

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

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

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

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

***

Manhattan: Six Months Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You got a union card?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Our Broadway strategy: Get the job by flipping.

“You warmed up?”

“As much as I can be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Five, six, seven, eight!” he shouts.

CHORD.

Flip, flip, flip.

Chord, chord, chord.

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

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

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

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

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

Danny Herman, 2017

*****

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

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

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

Holding On, Letting Go

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

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

What better time for a little shopping?

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

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

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

My feet swelled every time I ate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final throes of pregnancy test even the strongest women.

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

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

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

“It’s a boy,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music helps.

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

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

***

***

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

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

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

The Hostess is on Fire

Piano_Keys

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is how it always goes.

Until it doesn’t.

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

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

American enthusiasm.  How I miss it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah. 8:10. I should have known.

***

 

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

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

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

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

I’ll Take Manhattan

Taxi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At last. We come up for air.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

When he’s gone,

There is no dawn,

That’s the way you feel,

About your John.

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

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

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

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

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

Times_Square_Donald_E_Curtis

Photo by Donald E. Curtis

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

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

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

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

***

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

We ask the concierge about music.

“No music,” he says. “Sorry.”

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

“Sorry.”

“But this is the Algonquin,” I say.

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

Those damn Marriotts.

“So the Oak Room is dark?” John asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A stick, a stone,

The end of the road,

The rest of a stump,

A lonesome road.

A sliver of glass,

A life, the sun,

A knife, a death,

The end of the run.

 

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

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

Onward.

***

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

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

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

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

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

Gone.

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

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

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

Onward.

***

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

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

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

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

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

Em2

Emilee Floor at the Cole Porter Steinway

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough.

Onward.

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Those Delgados

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Our Harlan Ellis

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Broadway musician Greg Thymius

***

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

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

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

It’s the wind blowing free,

It’s the end of the slope,

It’s a beam, it’s a void,

It’s a hunch, it’s a hope.

And the river bank talks

Of the waters of March,

It’s the end of the strain,

The joy in your heart.

Bride_Nestor_Ferraro

Photo by Nestor Ferraro

***

“Waters of March” by Antonio Carlos Jobim.

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

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

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

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

Silver

Silver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Illustration by Julia Goldsby.

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

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

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The Pittsburgh Party

Take Me Home, Jimbo

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

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

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

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

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

Shape up, I tell myself.

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

Get me out of here.

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

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

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

“Bootiful, ain’t it?” says Jimbo.

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

Twain never met Jimbo.

Hey, yinz guys. I’m back.

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Photo by Viv Lynch

Mrs. Brockett

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

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

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

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

Three days until the concert.

Leslie

Leslie, with her niece, Susie.

The James Laughlin Music Building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pittsburgh, Pantsylvania

Randita

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

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

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

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

One day until the concert.

Randita

Randita’s place

Roses and Daffodils

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

Debbie McCloskey wins Junior Miss!!!

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

Richard Nixon Resigns—story page 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were great together. We still are.

Ladies

Ladies 4.0

The Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready,” I say.

Crowd

Roomful of memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by BM Ward

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

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

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

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

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

Low Country Boil

Chickens and Antiques

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Loopy and Buster

My Funny Valentine

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

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

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

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Tom @ the piano.

Miss Emily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With Steve & Tom. My Cape Men.

The Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spielberg & Goldsby, 4 hands sounding like 2.

The Concert

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

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

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

Ah, music. The great unifier.

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

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

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New fans!

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

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

It’s all black.

It didn’t click.

Where do I push?

It’s all fuzzy.

The Medical Emergency

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

Book signing

The Ultimate Music Machine

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

Perfect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is everyone in this town a musician? Seems like.

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

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

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

 *****

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

Coming next month: The Pittsburgh Party

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

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

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

Feathers

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

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

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

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

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

They are my heroes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have wings.

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

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

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

Vietnamese-American My Linh Kunst marching in Berlin.

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

The Faces of Hope Portrait Gallery:

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

 

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Pedro with his daughter marching in Manhattan.

 

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Those Munger Sisters marching in NYC.

 

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

 

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My Dutch friends.

 

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Mary Adams marching in Amsterdam.

 

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Holli and Hannah marching in Washington.

 

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The Moede Sisters marching in Hamburg.

 

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Michele and Willow Cozzens marching in Washington.

 

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Silke marching in Amsterdam. The future.

*****

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

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

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

Blue

1.Fly

Blue

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

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

And I am missing you,

The world feels blue,

Tonight—

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

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

And I am missing you,

The world feels blue,

Tonight—

My life is full of wonder,

Magical and strange,

Crossing so many borders,

I wouldn’t change a thing . . .

Except that

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

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

Cause I am missing you,

The world feels blue,

Tonight—

Travelling a golden highway,

Searching for something real,

Look at my family circle,

I almost feel,

At home . . .

Not quite.

‘Cause you’re back in

Indianapolis, Annapolis, Colorado Springs,

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

Then I would fly to you,

And share this gorgeous view,

Am I breaking away, or am I breaking through?

The world feels blue,

I’m missing home,

Tonight—

I’ll be all right,

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

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

The Notes that Got Away

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

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

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

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

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

“Back in the day they spared no expense.”

“Jesus.”

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

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

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

“The guitar player.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing there now,” I say.

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

***

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

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

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