A Broken Hallelujah

steinway_lalique

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

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

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

There’s no business like show business.

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

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

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

Let’s call this the November Pratfall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A broken hallelujah is still a hallelujah.

The next morning we hear that Leonard Cohen has died.

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

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

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

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

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,

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

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

Dance me to the end of love,

Dance me to the end of love.

*****

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

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

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

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TAPS

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Photo courtesy of The National Guard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Timing.”

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

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

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

“Can you see the stain?” says Grace.

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

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

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

“Even with the applesauce stain.”

“Even with. Have you lost weight?”

“No.”

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

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

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

“Good morning, Sergeant.”

“Private Demarco.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This might be hard today, Demarco.”

“I’m sure it’s never easy, Sergeant.”

“Did you read the report?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is her name?” Grace asks.

“Who, Sergeant?” says Demarco.

“The soldier,” says Grace.

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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All the Sad Young Men

Hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So why lug the fake book around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Testy tonight, Missy Robin?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Oh, God. “Michael, check this out!”

“Fan mail?”

“Not exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“What’s going on with you?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

The pay phone keeps ringing.

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

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

         Ring, ring, ring.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s reassuring,” I say.

“Sorry.”

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

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

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

         Please. Someone. Look. This. Way.

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

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

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

“When are you leaving?”

“Next week.”

“It will be terrible here without you.”

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

“Michael,” I say. “That’s awful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where?”

“Over there. In the suit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

There is blood on his shirt.

“Michael, are you hurt?” I ask.

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

“Oh, Michael.”

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

“Where is Reginald now?”

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

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

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

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

“It’s not fair, Michael.”

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

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

I know that I’ll never see him again.

***

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

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

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

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Pretty Pretty: Piano Girl vs. Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, Mr. Trump, we notice you.

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

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

They will know better, because we have known worse.

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

Vote.

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

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

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Playback 2011: The Summer of Love

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

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

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

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

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

The Turkish-German Wedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cookbook Guys and the American Bride

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

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

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

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

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

What to do.

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

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

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

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

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

The All Indian Wedding

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

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

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

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

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

The Japanese-German Wedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, how about dessert?

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

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

I bow twice and say thank you three times.

Doumo arigatou. Thank you. Danke.

*****

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

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

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

Good News Only: Mister Rogers for Adults

Heart

What would Mister Rogers say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And fear breeds fear.

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

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

No.

Where is the good news? 

What if love breeds love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, out.

*****

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

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

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

Hands

Photo courtesy of Julia Goldsby

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

P5160001

Henry Steinway

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

*****

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

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

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

THE Piano Girl

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

Hold the Zucchini

Grill

Dear Fabian and Becky,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egg whites are fine, but quail eggs only.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugs and kisses!!!

Kiki (and Steve)

*****

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

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

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

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

The (Euro) Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved them all.

Eurovision

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opa!

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

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

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Still Life with Grape and Hotdog

Hands

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus.”

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There.” I say.

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

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

“Jesus,” he says.

What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t.” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

“Wine sounds great,” I shout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was close.”

“I don’t feel so great,” says Joe.

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

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

“Thank you,” we say.

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

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

“What about the grapes?” he says.

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

“Yeah, but they’re free grapes. ”

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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