September Song

HandsEvery September the urge strikes me like a ton of books. I want new binders, new pencils, and a new outfit with matching shoes.

In the seventh grade, I leaped over the puberty moat and landed in Miss Padjune’s class at Prospect Junior High. Nothing so dramatic about that, but I was the only kid from Chatham Village attending a Pittsburgh public junior high school. Chatham Village, a stylish and manicured neighborhood encircled by a much larger, run-down community, had gained a reputation for being a place where rich kids lived. So not true. I mean, my dad was a jazz drummer, not exactly a profession conducive to luxury automobiles and fancy vacations. We did have matching towels and decent haircuts, and we ate dinner together most nights before Dad went out to play a gig (or two). Rent in Chatham Village was cheap. Technically, my family struggled just like everyone else’s family, but we somehow managed to look upscale while counting our pennies.

Kids from outside the Village perceived us as snobby, stuck-up, conceited—words I would hear often while slogging through my teen years. I played tennis (free courts), I played the piano, my parents encouraged me to do well academically. Prospect Junior High School in the early seventies offered a safe haven for pot smokers and jocks. They didn’t send a welcome wagon for kids like me. It was common knowledge that the Village offered its residents a semi-annual Gin and Tonic Tennis Tournament, a private day camp that taught kids how to weave baskets and do modern dance, and an annual Fourth of July parade that featured my family marching through a courtyard while wearing three-cornered hats and playing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”

If you were a kid from Chatham Village entering Prospect Junior High in 1970, you were destined for the losing side of the popularity contest; destined to end up in Mr. Ging’s office with your mother and a sneering badass girl named Kathy who kept threatening to rip your hair out; destined to be laughed at because you were good at synchronized swimming and liked to play Bach inventions.

We weren’t rich, we were barely hitting middle class, but we were masters of disguise, living stylish lives on shoestring budgets—an attribute that would come in handy in my adult years.

I didn’t know any of this on my first day of seventh grade. I thought all twelve-year old girls showed up for class in a plaid kilt with matching forest-green tights and suede loafers with tassels. Talbot’s Jr, the “kick me now” back to school outfit. Who wears green suede loafers to junior high school? Village girls, that’s who. My little friends from the Village had tottered off to private schools, Catholic schools, schools where plaited hair and knee socks were acceptable. There I stood, friendless in a room full of hipper, cooler kids. I was terrified. Miss Padjune put all of us in a circle and asked us to introduce ourselves. Nervous, but still convinced my outfit was killing, I proudly said, “Robin Rawsthorne.”

Everyone laughed. That’s when I first thought the shoes might have been a bad idea.

I turned to face the boy standing next to me in the circle. He seemed neither stoned nor particularly buff. He was tall and skinny, just like me. “I am Roy Reeves,” he said.

And then, for some mysterious reason, he threw up all over my new shoes. Roy Reeves had the heaves.

Maybe he was terrified, too.

If there is anything worse than going through the first day of junior high wearing green suede loafers, it’s wearing green suede loafers covered in vomit. I scrubbed and scrubbed in the girls’ restroom, but Roy Reeves had left his mark on those tassels and nothing, nothing would remove the stain. Or the stench.

I learned a big lesson that day: It’s better to be subtle when entering a new environment. Save the fashion statement and the look at me now attitude for later on, once you have your feet (and your tassels) wet. Sneak in. Stay in the back row.

And if anyone looks like they might barf, run.

Good advice for musicians, actually. I’m starting a new piano job this month. I love that it’s happening in September, when all of my back to school instincts kick-box into high gear. I tend to keep hotel jobs for long periods of time. The last one, at Schloss Lerbach, lasted fourteen years—a lifetime for a freelance musician. It seemed like one of those gigs that would go forever. But the castle closed. Just like that. Poof! If a pianist plays in a castle and there’s no one there to hear? Never mind. Chapter closed.

I began talking to the fine people at the Excelsior Hotel Ernst a few weeks after Lerbach shut the castle doors. It quickly became clear that the Excelsior—one of those grand European hotels you see in artsy films about eccentric travelers—was a good match for the music I play. Hotel management asked me to select a Steinway for them. I found a 1940 Model “A” with a unique history, the story of which I’ll reveal as soon as I collect enough facts to spin them into fiction.

I’ll be performing every weekend to accompany a very proper British Afternoon Tea. Yes, I’ll be an American pianist playing for a British Tea in a German hotel—a multi-culti mishmash that I’m hoping will work for everyone involved. The hotel is warm, inviting, and snooty enough to make each guest feel stylish. Blues and golds and fine, fine china. Warm scones. Art that looks old and important. Macaroons that arrive daily from Paris. Staff—some of them there for decades—groomed in the art of soothing jittery nerves and inferiority complexes. A place where epaulettes and clotted cream rule the day. I’ve discovered over the years that elegance encourages good manners. A proper tea is civilized, sort of like a set of matching towels or a good haircut.

Nine months have passed since I last worked a steady hotel gig. I’ve played some nice concerts and a few weddings, but, this time, leaping over the back to school moat involves more than a wardrobe choice. I play without notes in front of me—a combination of memory and improvisation—and recalling what I know can be challenging. I remember how to play the pieces; I just don’t remember that I know them. Lists. I am making lists. I am making lists about the lists.

I’ve also embarked on a physical fitness program destined to keep me strong for each of my three-hour piano marathons. Gym, swim, play, wine, sleep—the back to school agenda for older pianists.

I confess to having a new outfit. With matching shoes. No green, lots of black. Perfect for the bruise-colored German palette. I’ll blend in. I’m still thinking about tassels. Should I, or shouldn’t I? I can’t say the word tassel without thinking of poor little Roy Reeves. Maybe I’ll pass.

I shall show up on my first day of work, try to avoid anyone who looks queasy, and joyously embrace the chance to start over. I’m fifty-seven—what a blessing to begin again, at my age.

I’ve purchased a new binder, in case I need to take notes. First entry: Lucky me.

***

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

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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What to Wear

“What to Wear” is an excerpt from Goldsby’s book, Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl. {Bass Lion Publishing}

 

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Photo by Andreas Biesenbach

A middle-aged American woman playing the piano at a castle in Germany has legitimate wardrobe concerns. Most cocktail dresses and evening gowns are designed for chichi events that involve nothing more strenuous than posing in a corner with a tilted head, a shy-sly Princess Di smile, and a fluted champagne glass. They are cut of silk and velvet, feature beaded panels, and often include ruching that slips, slides, and snags if the wearer dares to inhale, laugh, or eat a meatball.

It might look easy, but playing the piano for hours at a time involves an athletic prowess more often associated with trapeze artists and archers. We swing and sway, we remain statue-still while we focus our minds and bodies, we stretch, and we leap without a net when necessary. Imagine one of the Flying Zucchinis performing in high heels and a full-length evening gown with a fishtail skirt and a jewel-encrusted top that chafes her underarms. Treacherous. Or what if William Tell had been forced to shoot that apple from his son’s head while an annoying puffed sleeve with seed-pearl embroidery slipped from one shoulder? Poor little Walter would have wound up with an arrow in his thigh. Or worse.

It might be a niche market, but really, someone should come up with a line of gowns for performing female musicians. Something with a little pizzazz, a little Lycra, and a lot of draping.

“Well,” says my friend Amy. “Except for the pizzazz part, that would be a burqa.” She plays the guitar and has her own wardrobe issues.

I pause for a moment and think about a cocktail pianist wearing a burqa.

“A burqa with bling,” I say.

“Perfect,” she says.

My Wardrobe: A Brief History

Nantucket

Back in the seventies I loved to dress like Barbie. When I was eighteen I wore tube tops and Dolly Buster halters combined with see-through chiffon skirts so short they had matching panties. They were called Sizzlers. Bad enough to go to school like this, but I was showing up for cocktail piano gigs in these getups. Because I was eighteen and on a budget, I also wore secondhand prom dresses to work—not the prim and proper Little Bo Peep gowns popular with the nice Catholic girls, but hooker-hottie designs intended to make a perfectly healthy teenage pianist look like one of Gangsta Fatboy’s groupies ready to take on the band.

I favored one dress—an electric-blue sateen-spandex thing—that was cut down to here and up to there. It threatened to expose my left breast every time I reached for the bass notes. Did this bother me? No. I learned to play while yanking at the bodice of the dress, wondering why five or six drunken sailors crowded around the piano and stuffed money in my tip jar every time I pounded out “I Feel the Earth Move.” I lunged for the keys and actually believed I had a loyal group of seafaring, gin-guzzling, Carole King–loving fans. But now I know it was the blue dress. They yelled for more. I kept going. In a weird way, that dress taught me how to play. So I suppose it was good for something.

I wore frosted lip gloss and a drugstore fragrance called Wind Song by Prince Matchabelli because my high-school boyfriend saved his money and gave me a bottle for graduation. I decided it would be my signature scent. Forever.

Everything is forever when you’re eighteen.

New York City: The Early Years

In the eighties I dashed from one Manhattan location to another, covering lunches, cocktail hours, and late-night piano shifts in hotels that catered to tourists wearing swollen white tennis shoes with lightning bolts on the sides. When I got to know a high-class call girl named Jennifer who worked the hotel bar sporting a stretchy blue dress similar to mine, I dropped the Happy Ho look and entered a new era of Piano Girl fashion—a makeover inspired by my newfound ability to buy dresses made by companies other than JCPenney.

I developed a fondness for Betsey Johnson, Calvin Klein, and Isaac Mizrahi. I hardly ever paid retail for these beautiful things—I bought them from a member of the Marriott Marquis housekeeping staff who set up shop in a hotel ladies’ room in the toilet stall for the handicapped. She sold her hot-off-the-truck garments by hanging them on rails inside the stall. I shopped at Stall for the Handicapped on my breaks. Maria was a stellar saleswoman, and it was hard to beat the prices.

I remember a bright yellow silk coat I bought from her. It fell to the floor in fragile layers and made me feel like a butterfly when I flitted across the cavernous Marriott lobby. But at the piano the fabric tangled around my elbows and twisted around my knees. I looked like a crumpled piece of birthday-party gift wrap with a head and hands.

Although I hadn’t yet succumbed to support hose or underpants with stretchy tummy panels, I did begin to wear a well-constructed bra. Strap ’em down. During this phase I began searching for the perfect strapless bra, a mission that continues to this day. Structural engineers know how to hold up multiple floors of a building with one set of well-placed suspension cables, so you’d think they could design a comfortable strapless bra for a pianist. But structural engineers don’t have to sit at a Steinway playing arpeggios while wearing an armpit-exposing camisole in a delicate shade of taupe. I doubt that many of them even know what taupe is, which is okay because they have more important tasks.

The thing is, no one forced me to dress this way. It was a choice. I loved dressing up, I loved shopping, I loved leaping out of taxis in my jeans and sneakers and running to the ladies’ room with my gig bag strapped over my shoulder. I never carried music or set lists or sound equipment. Instead, I brought along a collapsible evening gown in a festive color—raspberry! mango!—and a tissue-thin scarf I could throw over my shoulders when the meat-locker air conditioner kicked on in the middle of my second set. I also carried two pairs of high heels, knowing that my pedal foot would start to ache a few hours into the gig and I would want to change shoes. One pair of golden sandals, purchased on sale at Bergdorf Goodman in 1984, has been with me for twenty-five years. They still hurt. They’re still in my gig bag. They are the only things from that part of my life that fit, so I cling to them, thinking they’ll march me back to my twenties if I ever need to return. They are the Piano Girl version of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, twin metallic talismans that remind me of home.

The accessory pocket of my gig bag held glittery barrettes, rhinestone clips, and sparkly pins and necklaces from Grandma Curtis, all of them offering a pain- and risk-free way to smarten an outfit while reminding me of her. Before she died she had packed all of her costume jewelry in a white cardboard box. “These things are for Robin,” her note said. “She’s the only one crazy enough to wear them.” After she was gone I would play her favorite song—“Theme from Love Story”—and feel the weight of her fake-topaz bracelet circling my wrist. Shalimar was my fragrance. Spicy, flashy, a little too expensive, but very grown-up. Grandma Curtis would have loved it.

New York City: The Final Years

For several years my closet resembled a black hole. I became a reverse negative of myself—blonder hair, darker clothes, skinnier body. I was nobody’s trophy wife, but away from the piano I looked the part—half artiste, half social X-ray. I entered my minimalist stage, favoring gowns that didn’t deviate from the color palette of, say, a bruise.

New York City was full of paper-thin women in black crepe dresses. I wanted to be one of them and blend into the gallery-going museum-hopping chic-but-trendy kir-sipping crowd—but, with a grand piano in front of me, I never quite fit in. I hid behind my hair and accessorized my outfits with items from Grandma’s cardboard box. I discovered her clip earrings with dark stones—polished hunks of jet and deep-blue faux sapphire that suited my wardrobe and my mood.

I wore Chanel No. 5 because it smelled the way I felt. There, but not really. I didn’t believe in forever anymore. I tossed the scarves. They were driving me crazy, the way they kept slipping off and falling into fabric puddles at my feet.

I learned to despise hyphenated fashion terms like peep-toe, demi-cup, semi-gloss, push-up, and sling-back when I discovered that all of these things not only looked tacky-tacky, they hurt-hurt. I rearranged my closet, getting rid of anything with ruffles, sequins, bright colors, or feathers. I wanted plain and simple. I wanted people to stop looking and start listening. I wanted loose and light and noncommittal, preferably in a medium-weight silk shantung, with sleeves. I wanted to disappear into a midnight-blue piano mist.

Then I fell in love, an event that called for a new look. I bought an Anna Sui bridal minidress that I could also wear to piano jobs, minus the giant veil. Color returned to my wardrobe. I stopped disappearing and decided it was okay to be both seen and heard.

Forever made a comeback.

Golden_shoes

Photo by Andrew W. Renner

Bergisch Gladbach, Germany

Long before I began playing at Schlosshotel Lerbach, I spotted a ball skirt in the window of the Cologne Laura Ashley store. I dragged my family into the store so I could touch the skirt. Pale pink roses were embroidered on the rich crème silk, and three underlayers of silk and tulle gave the garment a gentle poof. It was the perfect skirt for, say, a lunch date in eighteenth-century Versailles. Not exactly optimal for a day trip to the Cologne Zoo, which was the extent of my social life in the late nineties. I had taken four years off from piano gigs in upscale hotels, opting instead for babies and writing at home. Rewarding, but lonely. My glamorous wardrobe, a size too small and several years out of style, sat in the back of my closet. I claimed not to miss the dress-up routine, but I couldn’t explain the sadness I felt whenever I caught sight of all those pretty things, gossamer souvenirs of a past I was happy to have escaped.

In an act of kindness I shall never forget, my husband waited for the end-of-season sale, sneaked back to Laura Ashley, and bought that skirt for me. Two weeks later, the Schlosshotel Lerbach director invited me to play at the castle. It was almost as if he knew I had the right outfit. I wore the skirt, and the maître d’, a lovely man named Monsieur Thomann, tossed pink rose petals on the piano. I’ve been there ever since. I still have the Laura Ashley skirt, along with a large collection of formal dresses purchased on sale over the last decade. They are beautiful things, but decidedly uncomfortable.

My pianist friend Robin Spielberg told me that a grand-piano pedal once ate her ball gown. I never really believed her until it happened to me. The bottom half of a full-length gown can easily become prey to a piano’s pedal system. One moment you’re fine, the next thing you know—schwoop!—you’re being sucked into the piano. And the more you pedal, the further in you go. The only choice is to rip the skirt out of the pedal, accept the damage, and soldier on with the music.

The older I get, the more I consider how nice it would be to get away from all of this twisting, pinching, and gapping and wear, say, a bathrobe to work. Or at least a ball gown cut like a bathrobe. I remember one pianist in New York City—let’s call her Sandy—who got in trouble for wearing a Statue of Liberty outfit, complete with headpiece. It was hard to make a bad wardrobe choice in mid-1980s Manhattan, but Sandy’s caftan and spiked crown caused a minor uproar with the Marriott management. The other Piano Girls and I laughed at the time. What was she thinking?

Now I wonder if Sandy was on to something. I play at a castle. I could, if I wanted to, wear a tiara, preferably something tasteful with very large emeralds. It would draw attention away from my body, which I could then drape in a velvet cape or an ermine-trimmed robe. I’d wear relaxed-fit pants under the cape, along with an expensive support bra capable of sequestering the twins during those bass-note lunges. So far, my fear of looking like Queen Elizabeth has stopped me from following through on this idea. Even Grandma Curtis, lover of all things sparkling and bright, drew the line at wearing tiaras. Plus my teenage daughter would never talk to me again if I started wearing a crown to work.

Fact: I now spend more money on undergarments than I spend on dresses. Ball gowns, with their nipped waists and tight bodices, require major foundation help. Do not get me started on Spanx, those flesh-colored medieval instruments of torture meant to smooth out the mature figure. Other women swear by them. They make me feel like a stuffed sausage—a very mature stuffed sausage—and that’s not a great thing when I’m trying to make music. “If you look good you feel good” does not apply to a fifty-year-old woman who plays the piano for a living. If I feel good, I am probably wearing my Ultimate Pajamas, a sweat suit, or a potato sack. Nobody feels good sitting at the piano in a skintight satin dress with a boned corset—unless, of course, she is eighteen, oblivious to pain, and wearing Wind Song eau de toilette.

Which leaves me with my present-day wardrobe dilemma. Shall I chuck the fancy gear and start dressing like a man? A reliable tuxedo would be a welcome relief after so many years of death by evening gown. I can feel it coming on, another wardrobe makeover—this one, finally, focused on comfort.

Grandma Curtis will continue to provide her glitter-girl accessories. But I shall wear lovely suits in lightweight wool, with loose-fitting pants and non-clinging jackets. I’ll select silken blouses in jewel tones and lingerie that’s soft and non-constricting.

And the Bergdorf Goodman golden sandals? They will stay in my gig bag, polished and ready to go, just in case I have another change of heart. They’d even look good with a burqa.

***

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

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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

Up, Up, and Away

I flew for the first time in 1973, the year I turned sixteen. I was headed to New York City to visit Aunt Pinky. The trip, a birthday present from my parents, came on the kitten heels of an unfortunate incident involving a bottle of vodka mixed with Hawaiian Punch, a football player named Mark, and a front closing bra that didn’t close on time. Hung-over, I had green skin and the kind of spiraling nausea that leaves one woozy for days. Grounded? Not me. My parents drove me to the airport and delivered me to the gate of the Allegheny Airlines terminal. I’m guessing Mom and Dad assumed the swoop-dee-doo motion of the flight would be punishment enough. Even when sober, I’ve always suffered from motion sickness.

A chain smoking middle-age businessman (quite possibly a perv, but no one thought of this in 1973) assured my parents he would look after me. He sat next to me and blew smoke in my ear while clutching my arm and whispering: “All those teeny tiny houses and teeny tiny people down there, drinking their little martinis and making love while we fly over them and contemplate life. Makes you wonder what the hell we’re doing up here. Makes you believe in God. Let’s pray.”

I wasn’t wondering about anything. And forget about praying. My main goal during my first flight was to avoid throwing up all over my new black turtleneck sweater.

Things have changed a lot in the last forty years. As I grow older I’m choosing to stay grounded whenever possible. Still, memories linger—bumpy journeys over oceans, majestic mountains, and amber waves of grain; OJ Simpson inspired dashes through crowded terminals (with diaper bag and stroller); joyous arrivals and tearful departures (or is it the other way around?); moments of anticipation while waiting for my Rimowa at the baggage claim black hole. My most memorable episodes feature my kids. Come fly with me as I take a trip down Memory Tarmac.

 

Head in the Clouds

“Wow, says John. “Nothing like the smell of two hundred passengers opening their peanuts at the same time.” Baby C shares my seat. He is ten months old and a lap-full. We are flying from LaGuardia to Pittsburgh to hand him over to my dear sister, who has graciously agreed to babysit while we fly to Germany to check out a job in Cologne.

I used to fly First Class or Business Class (free upgrades!) but that changed once I had a baby. One look at a gate-checked stroller or a diaper bag, and, well, back of the bus for Junior and me.

“Man,” says John. “Those peanuts really smell awful.”

My eyes cross as the odor hits me. I feel an icky, warm liquid spreading over my thighs.

“That’s not peanuts,” I say to John. “That’s your son.”

Here’s what they don’t tell you in mommy school: Babies are prone to Exploding Diaper Syndrome when flying. Something about the pressure change in the cabin causes a sonic poo detonation so drastic that, unless you are equipped with a complete change of clothing for your infant, a hazmat suit for yourself, and a hose, you are screwed.

I have none of these items with me. I don’t even have a diaper bag. I’m traveling with one extra diaper for C. My sister has a baby boy the same age as C and has instructed me to travel light, since she has a well-stocked baby station.

Passengers stare at me and wrinkle their noses, some of them disguising disdain with vaguely sympathetic nods and snarky smiles. Due to turbulence the seatbelt sign remains on. I strip off C’s clothes on the aisle floor—it’s like wrestling with an oiled baby seal—but the flustered flight attendant sees what’s happening and escorts us to the restroom.

I scrub and rinse and scrub some more. I end up depositing his Baby Gap overalls, onesie, and pullover in the trashcan. Even his socks are filthy, so I ditch them, too. What else can I do? If I don’t get rid of the offending garments before reentering the cabin I’ll cause an international incident.

We land and I carry him, wearing only a diaper, to my sister.

What?” she says. “Don’t they have baby clothes in New York?”

“Don’t ask.” She looks at my splattered wool pants, the soiled cashmere blazer I had purchased for my European adventure.

“Oh,” she says. “Exploding Diaper Syndrome?”

“Is that what they call it?”

“Even the socks?”

“Even the socks.”

“Welcome to motherhood.” She wraps baby C in her wool shawl, covers him with a fleece blanket, tucks him into her double stroller next to his cousin, and rolls away.

8.Airplane.Head in Clouds

Photo by Menina E. Nuvens

Fly Me to the Moon

Off we go to Germany. We’re moving!  Little C and I will fly from Pittsburgh and meet John at JFK. Once there, we’ll board a flight to Cologne, where we’ll make a permanent home for our family. Movers have already packed and shipped my piano and most of our furniture and art.

It’s 1994 so airline officials allow my father to board the plane with C and me, just to help out with all of our stuff and make sure we’re settled into our seats.

It’s an emotional goodbye, and my heart hurts when he bends down to kiss his grandson goodbye. “Remember,” he says to C. “Remember, if you need anything, anything at all, whatever you do, don’t call me!” It’s an old joke that always makes C laugh. He might not understand the words, but he gets that his grandfather is funny, and that’s enough for him.

We arrive at JFK. John is not there waiting for us. I have forgotten that each airline at JFK has its own building. I wait for John for an hour. Where the hell is he? I’m a woman traveling alone with a toddler and a truckload of stuff. The least he could do is meet me at the gate. We don’t have cell phones so I can’t call him. Should I travel to him or will he meet me here? We are playing airport chicken, hoping the other party shows up first. Finally I take my chances and board the aptly named Terminal Bus. When we arrive at Lufthansa I spot John in the distance, pacing and looking at his watch. He has two large suitcases of his own, a couple of carry-ons, and a bass in a traveling case the size of a refrigerator. I might have the baby, but he has the bass. He wins.

The rep at the Lufthansa counter, who looks at us like we’re the Slovenian Traveling Circus, talks John out of buying an extra seat for C. She says the flight is empty and we shouldn’t waste the money. Under the age of two, C still qualifies to be a lap baby. Huge mistake. The flight is packed. Packed! Who knew Germany was so popular? We spend nine hours on board with a feisty toddler (lap baby, my ass) who has decided to channel Robert Deniro’s performance in Cape Fear. He doesn’t sleep, not one wink, and when we arrive in Germany he gets away from me and tries to crawl through the fringe on the baggage conveyor belt. I am so tired I almost let him do it.

 

3.Airplane

 

My Beautiful Balloon

We live in Germany but, determined to celebrate an American Christmas, we have flown back to the USA for the annual family gift bonanza, several visits to a food trough, and an amniocentesis because I am pregnant with our second child.

The results come back a few hours after John has started his trip back to Germany. I am staying in Pennsylvania for another few weeks with C, who has just turned three.

The doctor calls to tell me we’re expecting a girl. Thinking John will want to hear the news before boarding a plane in Boston, I have him paged at the airport. The gate officer calls him to the phone.

“It’s a girl!” I say

“It’s a girl!” John repeats.

“It’s a girl!” yells a Greek chorus of smartly uniformed American Airlines well wishers, anxious to congratulate my dashing husband on the birth of his daughter, unaware that she won’t be born for another six months.

Being a smart guy, and sensing an upgrade in the stars, John smiles, says a modest “thank you,” and never mentions he had been responding to a test result, not the actual birth.

“We’re upgrading you to Business Class,” says one of the workers. “Congratulations, Mr. Goldsby!” He boards, orders a scotch on the rocks, and flies the friendly skies.

Two weeks later I also fly through Boston—with little C—on our way back to Germany. Swollen with pregnancy and sad to be leaving friends and family, I look in my purse and realize I’m traveling with twelve Matchbox cars and one MAC Viva Glam lipstick. C and I sit in the back of the plane. I read Cars and Trucks and Things That Go to him until I’m hoarse—this is before in-seat entertainment systems become standard gear on all overseas flights—and wonder why proud dad gets to sit up front with his beverage of choice, but pregnant mom and hyper-toddler have to hang out in the bleacher seats with juice boxes.

Obviously word is out about Exploding Diaper Syndrome.

7.Airplane.Clouds

My Girl

Unlike her brother, baby J is a dream passenger—the poster child for international infant travel. The sound of an airplane engine works like Valium on her. Virgin Atlantic provides a baby cot that folds down from the bulkhead. She is thirteen months old and quite long for her age, but doesn’t mind being stuffed into the cot. She falls asleep before we leave Frankfurt, wakes up once to eat, and stays asleep for the rest of the flight. Angel baby. A mile-high Moses jammed in a basket that’s too small.

Her brother sits behind us with John. He has a toy Batmobile with him that shoots inch-long plastic flames. He behaves himself until the screen drops down and the in-flight movie—a disaster film called Volcano—begins. Volcano is not suited for four-year olds, but what can we do—we are inches away from the screen. Our son has refused to close his eyes for even one minute of the marathon flight, and short of blindfolding him there’s no reasonable way to keep him from watching the doomed actors running from the rumbling mountain. When the volcano erupts—boom!—C can’t contain himself and, in a John Waters-inspired moment, shoots his plastic flames into the lap of a fragile young man seated across the aisle. The man shrieks. I can hardly blame him—the poor guy has been sitting there engrossed in an adventure film about molten lava and something that looks like a sizzling ember flies right onto his crotch. We don’t confiscate the Batmobile, but we do pocket the flame attachments. Years later, I will find one of them tucked in the lining of my jacket.

2.Airplane

In the Hudson

Our two kids, C and J, are flying alone to the USA. The airline requires a chaperone. Fine, but C, age 15, towers over most adults, and J, an athletic young lady, is not exactly a shrimp. The Air France attendant assigned to accompany my two sweet American children looks aghast when she sees our studio-wrestler sized youngsters. C, in his original gangsta phase, refuses to wear the “Unaccompanied Minor” blaze-orange ID tag around his neck (who can blame him?) and stomps off with the attendant. Julia scurries behind them. I feel bad for the chaperone—she’ll have to drag them a gazillion miles through Aéroport de Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle to put them on the flight to Pittsburgh. Really, these people don’t make enough money.

All goes well, until the return journey.

As most mothers will testify, it’s impossible to sleep when your kids are in the air. At three in the morning, I drag myself out of bed to check their progress on my computer flight tracker. A note tells me their flight from Pittsburgh to Paris has been “diverted.” To New York City. This is one week after Captain Sully Sullenberger has made an heroic emergency landing in the Hudson River. I wake up my husband.

What’s wrong?” he asks.

“They’re in the Hudson,” I say. “Flight diverted. Diverted! Diverted!”

“Who is in the Hudson?

“Our kids. Maybe. There was an emergency landing. Their flight has been diverted. That’s a bad word, diverted. They’re somewhere in New York. Alone.”

“Well,” says John. “Nothing we can do about it until the morning.”

Then he goes back to sleep.

C and J arrive safely the next day, eighteen hours late. I expect to see two shaken and exhausted kids dragging themselves into our welcoming arms. Instead, they bound through the sliding doors, chocolate-pumped, Sprite-fueled, and larger than life. Have they grown? Probably.

“Broken rudder,” says C. “It was so cool—we flew around in circles for a long time so the captain could get the right angle for the landing. Then, after we landed, they left us on the airplane all by ourselves for a long time until they figured out what to do with us. Home alone in New York!”

“Yeah,” says J. “It was really cool.”

“Wait,” I say. “Where’s your chaperone?” We have paid almost three hundred dollars for a service that supposedly protects them against kidnapping by hooded gunmen and other hideous fates. The fee also guarantees supervision from one end of the journey to the other, yet here they are, all by themselves, decked out in baseball caps and sunglasses, and chirping about their über cool emergency landing.

“We ditched the chaperone in Paris. There was some lady in a suit waiting for us but we walked right past her. You know, Mom, we don’t exactly look like little kids. We look like real passengers.”

They have survived a broken rudder, an emergency landing, made it halfway around the world, and collected their bags without me hovering and shouting instructions.

I spend the next week feeling jet-lagged, and I didn’t even fly anywhere.

1.Fly

Photo of New York City by Curtis Goldsby

Sunflowers: Remembering MH17

I can’t stop thinking about the sunflowers—beautiful stalks of yellow and brown, their heads tilted toward the pasty Ukrainian sky, looking for light, any light at all. Instead they have been showered with the worst kind of darkness. Innocent bodies—babies and old people and scientists and nuns, dark skinned and light skinned, alone and in groups, intact and in pieces—blasted out of the summer day, flung from the clouds, and dumped randomly into a field of gold.

On July 17th, 2014, my 18 year-old daughter boards a flight from Frankfurt to Shanghai, starting a year of travel as a FAWCO Youth Ambassador, visiting various countries to do volunteer work and promote social awareness to other teenagers. I hold it together at the airport when she leaves, indulging in just a moment of sadness, which I swallow along with a few selfish tears. It’s a mother’s right to cry when her children leave home. Just a little.

I watch carefully as J, clutching her American passport and her Chinese visa, rounds the bend after passing through immigration. I hope for one more wave, a thrown kiss, a wistful smile, but she never looks back. That’s my girl. Seasoned traveler, frequent flyer, world citizen.

She is 18, I tell myself. She is ready for this. She’ll be fine, fine, fine. My husband and I make the 90-minute trip back to Cologne, driving on an endless stretch of Autobahn lined with rolling green hills, cookie-cutter castles, high-speed train tracks, and the occasional IKEA. Puffy clouds, sapphire sky—the world seems hopeful, a friendly planet ready to welcome a teenage girl jetting away on her journey of self-discovery. My nest might be empty, but my heart is full.

We hear the news about MH17, courtesy of a New York Times email alert, shortly after arriving home. After a few calculations, we realize that J’s airplane would have been traveling through the same corridor as MH17 at about the same time. I perch on the sofa, my eyes glued to CNN, listening to media disaster music, while talking heads and “aviation experts” take turns guessing why the plane had crashed. It quickly becomes clear it has been shot down. J’s East China Air flight, it turns out—thank goodness for computer flight-tracking sites—made a fast left turn and headed north at the time of the incident, cruising over Finland to get to China, flying far away from that particular geographical pocket of bloated and power hungry men with rocket launchers.

I know my daughter is safe. Still, thinking of mothers who put their children on MH17 that afternoon, I find it difficult to breathe for the rest of the day. It is summer holiday in Europe. Children leave home, they go on vacations, they take gap years, they volunteer, they explore. We encourage them to go because we want to believe it’s safe out there. And they trust us. They trust us.

Today I watch CNN again as Dutch soldiers, many of them teenagers themselves, carry caskets from airplane to hearse, one by one, in a carefully choreographed ballet of grief. Their military precision suggests a semblance of order in a chaotic world, their meticulousness seems almost exaggerated after the bedlam of the last few days. The King and Queen of Holland, sitting in stiff chairs on the tarmac, pay tribute to the dead, along with dignitaries from the home countries of other victims. The commentator is quick to point out that no one knows which body is in which casket—the remains have yet to be identified—and which passengers, days after the tragedy, might still be lying in a field of Ukrainian sunflowers.

We send our children out into the world. We fret and sweat and worry that they won’t come back. It’s not safe anywhere, we think. They could be shot in an American movie theater or gun-downed in a school massacre. They might be swept away by an Indonesian Tsunami or crushed by a weakened roof in a Baltic snowstorm. They might be maimed by attack dogs or fall in with a bad crowd. I tell myself to calm down—assorted bad guys lurk on every corner, from downtown Pittsburgh to downtown Torez. It’s just as dangerous to keep our kids at home, isn’t it?

“Be careful,” I say. “Be careful out there.” Every mother I know says the same thing to her children when they leave home—for an hour, for a year, forever.

The Dutch soldiers are still loading caskets into big black cars. I imagine the mothers of the children lost on MH17, out of camera range, numb with grief, wondering which of the hundreds of caskets belongs to them. Right now there is no way of knowing, no way to claim their precious and decomposed bodies, no way to turn back time, no way to say goodbye.

The children, I think. The children. They shot our children out of the sky.

6.Airplane.Sunflowers

Fly Away Home

I can’t remember the last time all four of us flew together. I blame busy school schedules, limited budgets, rising ticket prices. I fly for business six or seven times a year, my husband flies often for work—he was in the USA last week, Ireland right now, Poland in August. The kids fly without worry, just like I did at their age. Between the two of them they have circled the world a couple of times in the last year. Hop on, hop off. Avoid the nachos in Atlanta, order the vegan meal in advance, arrange for the airport pick-up service in Dubai, do anything you can to get the emergency exit row seat.

Wear layers. You never know when you’ll be cold or hot.

I worry. Who doesn’t? Seems like there’s an airplane tragedy every month. I try to look the other way, but I can’t. I recall the words of my first flight companion, the man with the sour cigarette breath and the pesky hands: “Makes you wonder what the hell we’re doing up here.”

Maybe we’re tempting fate. Maybe we’re addicted to new adventure. Ancient cities, sun-soaked beaches, spacious skies, or lands with other charms call out to us. We respond by stalking Expedia, finding the cheapest fare, and jumping on a plane.

Maybe we hate to fly, but we need to make a living, so off we go, collecting worthless frequent flyer miles and foreign coins.

Maybe we’re just trying to get back to the people we love.

Do I miss epic transcontinental flights with manic toddlers on my lap? Do I miss exploding diapers and Matchbox cars and bad in-flight movies about volcanoes? Maybe a little. Maybe not so much. But here’s what I do miss about flying with my kids: I miss the thrill of the plane lifting its heavy feet from the tarmac, the sensation that any destination is within our reach, the absolute certainty that we’ll get there together, a flock of Goldsbys defying gravity and heading home.

***

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

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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

Across the Water

Here’s a song I wrote many years ago with Peter Fessler. I’ve spent a couple of decades flying back and forth from the USA to Europe. It’s never easy, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

5.Airplane.Bird

Across the Water

Lyric: Robin Meloy Goldsby

Music: Peter Fessler

Across the water you stare,

You’ve saved enough for the fare,

Waiting your turn, you dare yourself to leave,

Across the water you’ll sail,

You can always come home again.

Across the water you gaze,

Into a tunnel of haze,

Standing on shore, and trying not to cry,

Across the water you’ll sail,

You can always come home again.

Sailing away,

Sailing away . . .

Across the water you row,

Into the sunrise you go,

Picking up speed, the wake grows ever strong,

Across the water you sail,

But you’ll never come home again.

Sailing away,

Sailing away . . .

Beach Song

9.Morocco

Morocco: Photo by Julia Goldsby

I love the ocean. The most musical of earth’s components, its pulse—rhythmic yet unpredictable—floods my soul with hope, quenches my desire for a wider perspective, and washes away the grit and grime of a landlocked life. In my fifty-seven years, I’ve spent time on beaches all over the world, not because I’m a Birkin-toting, stiletto-heeled jet setter with beach side chateaux in Malibu and St. Tropez, but because I’m the daughter of a musician, I’m married to a musician, and I’m a musician myself. Music, for most of my life, has provided me with prepaid tickets to the destinations of my dreams. Coastal concerts, harbor happenings, beach bashes, seaside shindigs—we’ve played for them all. Short of being the world’s oldest Baywatch lifeguard, I can’t think of any better way to finance my addiction to salt water and sand. Here are a few of my waterlogged memories.

 1966: Miami Beach

My father plays drums in a Dixieland band for a Teamster convention in Florida. He takes us along for a two week vacation. I eat frogs’ legs at an outdoor luau at the Americana Hotel, with a picture of Jimmy Hoffa projected (eight stories high!) on a wall of the hotel. My dad’s band wears red and white striped shirts and straw hats. I like the tuba player.

“Who is this Jimmy Hoffa?” I ask my dad.

“He’s the boss,” says my dad. “He’s the reason we’re here.”

I become a big Jimmy Hoffa fan. After all, he got me to Miami. Frogs’ legs, it turns out, really do taste like chicken.

During the day I hang out on the beach with my brother and sister. Because we spend so much time underwater, my mother dresses us in matching neon tank suits so she can see our pert behinds on the surface of the bright blue sea. After two days of this, even my eyeballs are sunburned, and I have to go to dinner in the fancy hotel wearing eye patches. Fearful of looking like a pirate, I place my mother’s big black sunglasses over the patches—a Jackie Kennedy meets Bluebeard look that I’m sure will pass for Miami Beach-chic. I am temporarily blind and cannot enjoy the 4th of July fireworks that night. It doesn’t matter. All I care about is getting back into the water the next day. My sister and I play a game at water’s edge. We hold hands as the waves break over us, determined to cling to each other no matter what. We roll back and forth, as sand scrapes our private parts and salt stings our eyes. We laugh and hold on tight. A lifeguard yells at us for pretending we are drowning. We’re perfecting our synchronized swimming skills. Some might call it synchronized drowning. We’re having fun.

My father catches a fish while we’re flipping over each other in the water and throws it at us. It tangles in my hair. I develop Fear of Fish and will spend the next few decades terrified of underwater critters.

1.Beach

1969: Conneaut Lake

My father books a summer job in a resort area a few hours away from home. We spend three months in a lakeside cottage next to Conneaut Lake, a dark blue body of water in Western Pennsylvania. Not an ocean, but it might as well be. I live on a sand-covered pier, swimming back and forth to a raft anchored twenty meters away. Too many speedboats churn the water and rock the raft. My sister and I smear ourselves with baby-oil and iodine so we can tan faster. By August, I resemble a rotisserie chicken with strong triceps. My hair turns silver. I hope that Davy Gallagher, the bronze lifeguard who looks like Ivy League Tarzan, will notice me. He does not. But a boy named Timmy Catcher catches me. We dance around each other and play splash games in the lake. Despite rumors of snapping turtles I learn to water ski and get pretty good at it, except for one instance when my hair gets caught in a tow rope and I almost drown.

I worry about those snapping turtles.

In the evenings, I brush pier sand out of my hair and string tiny love beads into necklaces that no one will ever wear. Timmy Catcher kisses me. Just once.

 1976-1983: Nantucket Island

I arrive on Nantucket Island with a dozen suitcases, packed mostly with books and bikinis. I plan to be a waitress, but, two weeks before Memorial Day I land a job playing the piano in a bar. What a thing! I can spend the summer on a New England beach and get paid to play the piano. During the day, I bask in the sun on beaches called Madaket or Dionis or Nobadeer. As far as I’m concerned, any beach named by Indians is the real deal. At night I put on a glittery tube top and a long skirt and play Carole King songs. I’m wave-tossed, sun-kissed, and boy crazy. A swain named Joe steals my heart and teaches me how to surf fish. I am the only female member of the Kamikaze Water Ski Club, a Nantucket Yacht Club sub-group founded by the stoned teenage children of various Titans of Industry. I worry about sharks and other fish with large teeth. This motivates me to avoid falling when I’m water skiing. I perfect a one-ski beach landing after I spot a sand shark swimming too close to shore.

My favorite bikini is white.

I will return to Nantucket every summer for many years. The romance with Joe fades, but my love affair with the island hangs tight. The rhythm of the waves seems like an external heartbeat, nature’s metronome, an urgent throb that counterpoints human instinct.

By the end of my first summer, the subtle pulse of the waves syncs with my own rhythm. I am hooked. The sand shark never gets me.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Sligo, Ireland: Photo by Julia Goldsby

1983: Haiti

I travel now and then to Haiti where I play the piano for upscale visitors to a fancy-pants hotel—I’m the featured entertainment in a Third World cocktail lounge. Baby Doc is still in office and the atmosphere feels tense, the resort air smug and sticky. When I’m lucky, I get a lift to Ibo Beach. The  road to Ibo is lined with potholes, rocks, scrambling chickens, and artists attempting to sell colorful paintings for a dollar or two. It makes me sad.

After an hour-long dusty ride in an old Cadillac, I take an African Queen boat to Ibo Island—a slice of sun-drenched wonder in a ravaged country, a place where I can stare at the sea and imagine I live in a fair world.

A jellyfish stings me and a Haitian woman treats the sting with vinegar and shaving cream. It burns, but not for long.

I eat too many mangoes.

Muscat, Oman Photo by Julia Goldsby

Muscat, Oman
Photo by Julia Goldsby

1984: Cat Cay, The Bahamas

I fly from my Third World gig to a private island populated by rich Republicans and wild turkeys. Between piano sessions at Bloody Mary brunches and Happy Happy Happy Hour whiskey tastings, I walk pristine beaches, stare at sparkling water and try to figure out who I am. I belong on a beach, but maybe not this one.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Photo by Julia Goldsby

1991: Princeville, Kauai

After being fired from my seven-year piano engagement at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan (and replaced by a tuxedo-clad mannequin at a player piano), I fly to Hawaii with my husband, John. Kauai seems a little distant, but my sister has offered us a place to stay. I cash in my American Airlines frequent flyer miles (all those trips to Haiti) so we can fly for free.

The Kauai beaches, manicured but still rough around the edges, remind me of everything I’ve been missing. My husband and I slide down a steep hillside to visit Secret Beach, where huge boulders interrupt long stretches of white sand. We do secret things on Secret Beach. Then we almost kill ourselves climbing back up the hill.

I attempt to overcome my fear of snorkeling when I watch small children and old people frolic in shallow water, chattering about the colorful varmints swimming among us. I hate knowing there are living things in the water with me, but it’s time to overcome Fear of Fish and get with the program. I don a mask and flippers and force myself to enjoy the lovely residents of the sea as they glide past me.

I hate this. I do. Oh look. Electric blue, bright yellow, there’s one with stripes. Isn’t this fun? What if I see a stingray? Or a shark? Or, God forbid, an eel?

Something that looks like Karl Lagerfeld with gills drifts under my right hand.

Very nice. God, I hate this. Look there—a group of tiny orange fish with spikes. Are they following me? Do they bite? Are there Piranha in Hawaii?

While my rigid body tries to enjoy the underwater fin fashion show, a huge dog—I will find out later it’s a Great Dane named Junior—jumps into the surf and begins swimming towards me. When Junior swims into my line of vision, I panic, lose all sense of reason, and imagine I am being attacked by a Kauai Monster Dog Fish. I take one look at his large choppers and churning paws, and I’m sure I’m about to die one of those long, slow, Jaws kind of deaths, where my body flies into the air, the ocean’s froth turns bright red from carnage, and everybody screams and vomits. I forget how to swim and try to run out of the water on my flippers. Junior continues to have fun.

My husband and sister laugh for hours. I swear I will never snorkel again.

My sister makes a bra out of coconut shells and does a dance we call the “Big Butt Hula.”

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Tel Aviv: Photo by Ruben Bauer

1993: Montauk

John plays for an upscale summer party in Montauk, Long Island. We use his salary to finance a few days in a seedy hotel on the beach and hang out with our nine-month old baby, Curtis. Perched on a blanket, we encourage him to play in the sand. He hates sand. He throws it and cries and stays on the blanket. The only thing that soothes him is his father’s baritone version of “Blue Skies,” accompanied by me doing a stupid dance. We have buckets and shovels, but he’s not interested in toys. None of this sandcastle stuff for him. In an effort to get away from the beach, he learns to walk. One step, then two. Not running towards the water, but away from it. Clearly he does not take after my side of the family. Or maybe he already has Fear of Fish.

Montauk, Long Island

Montauk, Long Island

*****

We move to Europe in 1994. Our kids each learn to swim at an early age and, in spite of our son’s dislike of sand, we take occasional seaside holidays whenever we can afford it, or whenever someone pays us to go. We scald our feet traversing the dunes of Grand Canaria, and teach the kids how to body surf in the freezing North Sea on the Belgian coast. We encourage them not to stare at topless sunbathers on the Cote D’Azur, and to wear sturdy swim shoes when navigating the rocky shores of Cornwall. Carrying on with the Goldsby-Rawsthorne-Meloy tradition of “singing for our supper,” the kids have visited some of the world’s most impressive beaches while taking part in educational trips, volunteer opportunities, or music exchange groups. They’ve walked on beaches I’ve never seen, beaches that belong in their memories, not mine.

Slathered in sunscreen and decades past my best bikini years, I remember sitting on the sand and watching my kids when they were little, holding hands and leaping through the surf into deeper and deeper water. I remember the game I once played with my sister. Never let go, no matter what.

Respect the water, dive under the waves, and when you’re older, wiser, and more tired than you want to be, remember there’s magic at the beach. Fall in love a few times. Get a suntan. Feel the salt in your eyes. Encounter a Dog Fish. You might avoid the frogs’ legs buffet, but by all means, do secret things on a stretch of sand where the roar of the water is louder than your own voice.

“Get to the beach,” I tell them. “As often as you can.”

IMG_20150427_122634

Mykonos: Photo by Stacey Papaioannou and Julia Goldsby

*****

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

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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

Curves

7.Shape_Moon

Crescent shapes please me: a sliver of moon, a warm croissant, a freshly manicured fingertip. I enjoy a raised eyebrow, a half smile, a bunch of bananas, the soft spot on the top of my foot where the shoe stops and my skin begins—toe cleavage, I think the fashionistas call it.

A good circle brings me joy: a perfect white plate that holds my not-so-perfect dinner; the silver-blue irises of my daughter’s eyes; a symmetrical pancake I’ve cooked myself; a bagel, unadorned. I love my wedding ring—three circles of gold braided together—one for you, one for me, one for us; I cheer for the circle of life, the family circle, the vicious circle (as long as the tail being chased isn’t mine). I marvel at the musician’s circle of fifths, run circles around myself, come full circle, and circle my wagons when I feel threatened. I circle back to start over and circle forward to find my way back. Loops define my life.

2.Shape_Trees

I should mention here that I like to eat pie, my favorite toy as a child was a Spirograph, and that I’ve been known to bribe travelers to bring Pittsburgh’s Eat n’ Park smiley face cookies to me on trips to Europe.

Spheres also deserve attention: beach balls and crystal balls, globes—the old fashioned kind that spin, blueberries, clear glass marbles, iridescent bubbles, an Italian peach, a home-grown tomato in August, emerald-green beads, a hand-painted Christmas bauble splattered with glitter. Snowmen. Pearls. A falling star.

Crescent, round, spherical. Curves dictate my triumphs and failures. Nothing against the straight line—the zipper is truly an efficient invention—but give me a meandering stream, a velvet bow, a cliché rainbow, and I’m hooked. A smudged or muted plot line that takes a subtle twist is one I’ll follow with joy. I want a slope (not the slippery kind), a long and winding road (less-travelled or not), a twisting path leading to an arched tunnel, a feathery cloud muting the harsh noon light. Give me the curl of a breaking wave, the soft curve of my son’s broad shoulders when he returns home, the drape of a girl’s hair when it sweeps across her forehead, a baby’s clenched fist, the bowed tail of an orange tabby cat, the bent bough of the cherry tree hanging over my skylight.

Shapes show up in sound, too. A guitar, an acoustic bass, a grand piano, a cello—curved instruments that make round sounds when played with grace. I listen to Ravel or Debussy and I hear life coiling around itself. I fall into the spiral harmonic underpinnings of Maria Schneider’s music and travel through an aural serpentine, an oval labyrinth of enchantment. The music I love most makes me feel like I’m inside a Slinky on a steep and narrow staircase, somersaulting over myself, getting where I need to go, but taking a scenic route that includes flips, back-bends, and an occasional coin-shaped bruise.

A career can take on a rounded shape. As a young artist I tried to travel efficiently from Point A to Point B. I craved logic in my life, but life kept throwing me, yes, curveballs. Confused, I curled into myself and rolled away from the pitch. I ran a good race, but usually, when approaching the finish line, I tripped over my Jimmy Choos and ended up with scraped knees and a brush-burned heart. I ignored my beautiful toe cleavage and, in my haste,  snubbed more than a few perfectly round, splash-worthy puddles. It took a decade or so, but I realized the logical way to live—the straight-line way—would forever elude me. I discovered I could have a fulfilling career as long as I took my time, bypassed  clogged intersections, and took a roundabout, more scenic route—one including suspension bridges, tree swings, and Ferris wheels.

Sometimes the Ferris wheel gets stuck, but at least while I’m waiting for the repair gal to show up, I can lean back and take in the view.

5.Shape. Ferris_Wheel

I’m a slow traveler, but moving in ever-widening circles gives me time to heed the curvy things I missed the first time around: braided wreaths made of naked vines, for instance, or slightly scary shadows on windy days. I cherish a landscaped line of tulips snaking towards a lake, the nape of a girl’s neck, the swell of a woman’s breast where it meets her rib cage, an eight-year old’s handmade Valentine, the scalloped lace on my grandmother’s piano shawl.

My body plays along with the shape of things. Less angular than I used to be, curvy and yielding, I listen to music that bends in the middle, observe the soft colors of an early summer twilight, taste grains of salt in the silvery-blue ocean air. The world is round and so am I. In the plush shelter of a domed canopy I’ve built for myself, I rest. Visions of my rangy youth run circles around me.

***

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

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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

The View from Here

View_Bride

It’s a Saturday night in June. I pull into the Schlosshotel Lerbach parking lot, ready to play my regular weekend piano job. Because of the World Cup football frenzy, I expect to find a half-empty castle. But since it’s the height of wedding season and there’s no stopping a determined summer bride, the hotel is buzzing with well-heeled guests all trying to have a good time, even if many of them would rather be home watching tonight’s match.

I’m not much of a sports fan, but—never one to miss an opportunity to look at grown men in Brazilian Boy Scout uniforms—I’ve been digging the various team outfits. The players look adorable in their multicolored tricots and matching knee socks, and the German coaches, in their lavender silk knit sweaters and perfectly tailored navy blazers, look as if they might be getting ready to play a jazz duo gig at a chichi supper club owned by Calvin Klein. Who’s their stylist? Sign me up.

I’ll be playing in the main hall tonight. With five minutes to go until my start time, I throw my purse into the back room, change my shoes, adjust the height of the piano bench, grab a glass of water, and head out to the rose garden to see what’s going on.

The bride has hired a solo saxophonist to play for her two-hour predinner cocktail party on the terrace. As much as I like the saxophone, I’m not sure that 120 minutes of solo sax is such a great idea. But I admire the bride’s resolve to present something a little different. I know the saxophonist, a spunky jazz musician named Thorsten, who’s blowing like crazy even though it’s boiling hot outside. Thorsten spots me in the doorway and salutes while continuing to play the sax with one hand. Cool guy. It’s a wedding gig, so no one is listening to him. Well, really, only about fifty percent of the guests are not listening to him. The other fifty percent have sneaked into the bar to watch the soccer game. Ghana is playing Uruguay tonight. This is a match that makes me wish all countries would adopt the American custom of marching bands at halftime. Imagine a Ghanaian marching band or a drill team from Uruguay. Swinging.

In the banquet room a DJ is setting up to play after-dinner dance music—probably a mix of Gloria Gaynor, Village People, and Donna Summer. I’ll be long gone by then, but my coworkers, the hardest-working bunch of young adults in Nordrhein-Westfalen, will be pouring and serving champagne until daybreak.

Time to start playing. I sit down at the grand piano in the lobby and begin my set with Mancini’s “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet.” I try to block out the saxophone sound leaking from the garden. Not bad. I’ll be fine if I play loudly and don’t take too many dramatic pauses.

Boom!

Oh no. The DJ in the dining room is conducting a last-minute sound check, and Celine Dion’s voice blasts through the lobby and bounces off the walls. The DJ cranks it up. My God. Does he think this is a football stadium in Cape Town?

I believe your speakers are working, I want to shout. I wait for Celine to stop braying, but she keeps singing about how her heart is going on and on and on. I ask our intrepid banquet manager, Herr Ries, to put an end to the sound check before Ms. Dion can modulate to an even higher key and my brain explodes. I don’t know what Herr Ries does to the DJ—maybe he conks him on the head with an ice bucket—but the music stops abruptly. I continue with “Romeo and Juliet.”

The wedding guests float in and out of the lobby. I check out the blushing bride, the little boys in their starched white shirts, and the fresh-as-spring young ladies in their sorbet-colored evening gowns. One dress, a golden-vanilla strapless creation, makes me wonder if I should revamp my Piano Girl wardrobe, but to wear this dress I would need to lose fifteen pounds, have breast reduction surgery and a tummy tuck, and give up playing the piano. Better to stick with the German football coach wardrobe. It’s more my style these days.

I play Bach’s Air on a G-String. Bad title, but, really, it’s a lovely piece of music.

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The service staff, smiling and carrying enormous trays of crystal glasses, glides through the lobby, bypassing clumps of guests and dodging the children who dash back and forth in a chocolate-induced race to the front door, where they will be given more chocolate before they streak back to the other side.

I play some music from The Wonderful World of Amelie. A sturdy woman in a lace mother-of-the-bride dress smiles at me. I wonder if she actually is the mother of the bride, or just a look-alike.

On top of the piano is a silver urn holding a cluster of eleven dark pink orchids. I know it’s eleven, because I count them. God, I love this place—beautiful colors, beautiful clothes, beautiful people. The large window over the staircase diffuses the light and directs it to the lobby, where it hangs in a soft golden stupor. The guests around me dash through the beams, unaware that, for a few moments this evening, they’ve been airbrushed by the setting sun.

Two men, on their way into the bar to check on Ghana’s progress, stop a waitress and ask if they can exchange their champagne for beer.

Four preteen boys discover the antique kicker table in the corner of the lobby. It’s a low-tech toy with little hand-operated soccer men. Four players can play at once, two on each side. It’s hardly an attraction for a five-star hotel, but this table, made of burled wood and featuring hand-painted players, is more of a hip World Cup art statement than a recreational device.

Klak, klak, klak, klak, klak.

The boys have gathered around the table, and the sound of the little wooden men kicking the ball echoes through the lobby, along with the shouts and cheers of the kids. They’re cute for about three and a half minutes, at which point the noise reaches an almost unbearable level. Where are their parents?

Klak, klak, klak, klak, klak.

I’m playing “Moon River.”

“TOR!!!!” one of the boys shouts.

I can hear Thorsten playing a blues in a key that clashes with my song.

Klak, klak, klak, klak, klak.

The DJ cranks up Celine again. Her heart is still going on.

“TOR!!!!” the boys yell again.

Monsieur Thomann, the maître d’ of the gourmet restaurant on one side of the lobby, peeks through the French doors. He smiles at the boys. Monsieur, the poster child for graciousness, always keeps his temper in check when he’s around the guests. He’s particularly kind to children.

Bonsoir!” he says to the boys.

“TOR!!!” they scream.

Mon Dieu,” says Monsieur.

Klak, klak, klak, klak, klak.

I give up. I do not blame the boys. They are eleven. In two years they’ll be sullen and subdued and doing everything they can to look like gangsters. Let them have their fun. I go to the bar, sip a glass of very nice champagne, watch Ghana score a goal, and thank my lucky stars that I have a job. It’s usually so peaceful in this place. One night of extreme noise never hurt anyone, least of all a musician.

***

Fifteen minutes later I slip behind the grand piano to begin my second set. The lobby is blissfully quiet. I can see from the piano bench that most of our guests have been seated in their respective dining rooms. Thorsten has finished playing his two-hour saxophone extravaganza, Ghana has won the match and the television has been turned off, the DJ is eating an expensive dinner until it’s time for the Titans of Industry disco contest to begin, and the kicker boys have gone to the lake to feed the swans. Monsieur assures me that the kicker ball has mysteriously disappeared for the remainder of the evening.

I play through a selection of original music, songs I like to break out when there’s no one listening except me. They are pretty songs from my younger years, with girly-girl names like “Twilight” and “Peaceful Harbor.” I close my eyes and play and play and play. I pretend like I’m somewhere else. It’s what I know how to do.

Zoom, zoom.

I look up and see a vehicle the size of the Popemobile rumbling through the lobby. Maybe it is the Popemobile; this castle is known for celebrity sightings. Oh no. It’s an extremely large electric wheelchair driven by a very assertive-looking middle-aged man. Like most good hotels in Germany, Lerbach accommodates disabled guests, but this is no regular wheelchair—it’s huge. The man, who is quite tall, is standing in the vehicle, making it less of a chair and more of a slanted bed with wheels, straps, and a motor. His feet are about at my eye level; the rest of him towers over everything else in the lobby.

I’m playing a piece of mine called “Lerbach Nocturne.” I try not to stare at Wheelchair Guy, but I guess if he’s riding around in a Popemobile he’s used to people gawking at him. A couple of stares from a curious pianist surely won’t send him off the deep end. I’m usually good at being discreet, so I avert my eyes and continue playing. But I can’t stop looking. I’m stunned by the size of this contraption. Several concerned adults chase after him, but they have trouble keeping up.

Yikes! He almost took out one of the banquet waiters on that last turn.

Zoom, zoom.

I decide that when he passes the piano I will greet him cheerfully, the same way I greet all of our other guests, even though most of our other guests are not riding through the lobby in wheelchairs the size of Hummers. Some of them own Hummers, but they usually keep them in the parking lot next to the smaller cars.

Did he just run over that woman’s foot?

Zoom.

Monsieur, who will be seating Wheelchair Guy and his family in the restaurant, stops in his tracks when he sees the size of the vehicle. He smiles, welcomes the guests, then spins on his heels to begin rearranging the restaurant furniture. It’s a challenge: a party of four that needs space for sixteen, arriving right in the middle of a sold-out Saturday night.

“Did they call in advance?” I ask one of my coworkers as she passes by the piano.

“Yes,” she says. “But they said they were bringing a wheelchair, not a tractor with a hydraulic lift system. The poor guy has to eat standing up. He can’t bend. At all.”

“Oh no,” I say. Words fail me. Now the size of the vehicle makes sense.

I’m still playing “Lerbach Nocturne.”

“We would like to have drinks on the terrace,” says a member of Wheelchair Guy’s party. “So we can enjoy the view.”

“I would suggest you have cocktails here in the lobby,” says one of the managers. “There’s indeed a beautiful view of the park from the bar terrace, but there are steps onto the terrace, so you won’t be able to get outside from this direction.”

Unless you have a crane, I think. It makes me sad. What a thing—a view that remains invisible because of a few steps. Just as Monsieur turns to talk to the other members of the party, Wheelchair Guy, with what I perceive as a look of defiance—he’s so high up I can’t see him all that well—steps on the gas and speeds into the bar.

“Good evening,” I say as he flies past the piano.

Behind me, I hear a tray of glasses crash to the floor. Then I hear another voice—maybe the bartender’s—patiently explain that this part of terrace is not wheelchair accessible. There’s no room for a three-point turn in the bar, so Wheelchair Guy, pissed off, backs up at about eighty miles an hour.

Zoom.

It’s as if he’s being shot out of a cannon backwards. The Popemobile whips into the lobby and crashes into the grand piano so hard that it lurches sideways and pins me to the wall.

Mon Dieu!” says Monsieur.

“Help,” I say. The piano is jammed against my upper thigh (thank goodness for fat). My upper arms and elbows are flush against the wall, and my wrists and hands are flapping like little birds in the air over the keys.

I reach down with the tips of my fingers and play the final chords, because, well, I have to end the song. The piano is wobbling and Wheelchair Guy doesn’t realize that his Popemobile fender is hooked onto the underside of the piano lid. He jams his shift stick to forward, then reverse, then forward, then reverse. The piano rocks back and forth, and I am certain it is going to crash to the ground, taking me, Wheelchair Guy, Monsieur, and six waiters with it.

“Straight ahead, drive straight ahead, s’il vous plait,” says Monsieur to Wheelchair Guy in a firm but pleasant voice. “Straight ahead! Straight ahead!”

“Robin, don’t move,” says one of the managers. Like I have a choice.

Zoom. Reverse. Zoom. Reverse.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Straight ahead!” says Monsieur. “S’il vous plait!

Wheelchair Guy looks down at me. I look up at him. Neither one of us much likes what we see.

Finally, like a desperate mother lifting a Volkswagen off the legs of a trapped child, Monsieur lifts the piano enough to unhinge the Popemobile. It races forward and nearly collides with the tea cart. For a moment I think I’ve escaped having my legs crushed by a grand piano only to be hit with the world’s largest samovar, which is, of course, full of boiling water. But Wheelchair Guy misses the tea cart. Instead, he zigzags to the entrance of the restaurant, followed by the newly appointed Popemobile Task Force, a group of employees designated to prevent more castle damage. A lot can go wrong in a gourmet restaurant, especially when a disgruntled disabled man with a Hells Angels mentality starts zooming around during the soup course.

I am still pinned to the wall. A member of Wheelchair Guy’s entourage, a lovely young woman in a perfect black dress, returns to the piano.

“Has the piano been harmed?” she asks, avoiding my eyes.

“I don’t know,” I squeak. “I’ll have to unpin myself before I can check out the damage.” I wonder why she doesn’t ask me if I’m injured. But she hangs out with Wheelchair Guy. Maybe a pianist with a bruised thigh isn’t such a big deal.

I heave the piano forward enough to slide out from behind, and limp around to the other side. Amazingly, only a small chunk of wood is missing. The legs are stable. I’ve always claimed this Yamaha Conservatory Grand is a warhorse; now I know it’s true. I wonder if the Popemobile has a dent, a ding, or at least a couple of good battle scars.

A bridesmaid approaches the piano. “Can you tell me where the ladies’ room is?” she asks.

“Downstairs,” I say.

“Oh! Are you the piano lady? Can you play the theme from Titanic for me?”

“Actually, I’ve finished playing for this evening,” I say. I rub my leg. It hurts.

“But you can’t stop! I just got here.”

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll be glad to play Titanic for you.” I sit back down at the piano, start the piece, and she leaves to go to the ladies’ room.

That’s enough music for me tonight. I leave the castle through the bar exit, step onto the terrace, and take in the lush June evening. The trees droop in the weighty heat, but the roses seem plump and content. I walk down a stone staircase to the little lake, where a determined black swan paddles to the other side. Determined. We’re all so determined—to have fun, to win the game, to make music, to look good, to get where we want to go.

In the distance I can hear the thump, thump, thump of the DJ’s stadium-sized bass speakers. I wonder if the wedding guests are already gearing up for the Electric Slide or the YMCA dance. I wonder if they’re celebrating in Ghana. I wonder if Wheelchair Guy is enjoying his gourmet meal, and if the other guests in the dining room are succeeding in their efforts to not stare at him. I wonder if those little boys are now at the front desk, begging the manager to give them another ball. I wonder if Wheelchair Guy ever kicked a soccer ball or played a piano or ate a dinner while sitting in a normal chair. I wonder if he ever danced, or paddled across a pond, or held a glass of champagne.

I skip a stone over the dark green pond and watch each ripple dissolve into the next. When the surface becomes calm again, I look down and see my watery reflection.

Then, because I can, I walk away.

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“Sally the Duck,” by Julia Goldsby

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

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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I Am Not Tom Wolfe: Celebrating Ten Years of Piano Girl

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New York City, 2005, Piano Girl launch!

Rewind: 2005, Book Expo America, New York City

I am not Tom Wolfe, although I do own a white suit. But today I am wearing a pink dress, purchased this morning during a panicked twenty minute shopping spree at Anthropolgie. What does an author wear, anyway? I’ve got the Piano Girl wardrobe covered, but I can’t very well sport a black evening gown at eleven in the morning. Tom Wolfe stands next to me, and he’s wearing the suit. He looks just as he appears on his book jackets—eccentric, a little arrogant, foppish. I’m bonding with him, even though he has cast nary an eye in my direction. His agent, his publisher, and two or three other well-dressed minions hover nearby. Perhaps one of them keeps the suit clean.

I don’t have an entourage or a minion with me, but I do have lovely Nina by my side. Nina is the PR director for Backbeat Books, my publisher.

We’re guests at Book Expo America, held at the Javits Center in New York City, a convention hall with bad florescent lighting, rock-hard floors, and acres of space for publishers to hawk the newest additions to their catalogs. Because Piano Girl has been awarded a Publishers Weekly Starred Review, I’ve been invited to take part in the traditional Autograph Circle, a name that brings to mind large gatherings of businessmen playing African hand drums. I’m not far off—there’s a lot of chest thumping going on here today. The Autograph Circle, as far as I can tell, offers an efficient way for publishers to create buzz. It also gives conference attendees a chance to score free books from their favorite authors. I’m flattered to be in the small group of authors selected for this event, but a little concerned about the set-up. As a debut author, I’m hardly anyone’s favorite anything.

Writers sit behind podiums next to stacks of their books. A long empty aisle stretches out in front of each author. When the bell rings—ping!— a gate opens and loyal fans swoop down each aisle. One at a time, they meet the favored author, and collect the coveted book, along with the author’s signature. A fine system, assuming one has loyal fans.

“Nina, no one knows me. This is my first book. It’s about playing the piano in hotel bars. The people who like me are currently circling the Marriott Marquis bar, slurping down pina coladas, knocking back martinis, and eating pretzel nubs. Who will be in my line? No one!”

“Don’t be silly,” Nina says. “There’s a lot of buzz about your book. I know about buzz. And besides, that pink dress is, like, perfect. You might want to check your lipstick, though. It’s getting cakey. But really, I love the dress.”

“No match for the white suit,” I say.

“I know,” she says. “Isn’t Tom just dreamy?”

We’ve got Piano Girl books piled high on a table. I can’t imagine who will want them. Maybe the people I wrote about? Tempest Storm, the Gay Baron, Hans the International Tenor, Grandpa Bookie Brown, Roy Boy? They’re busy, dead, or too drunk to care. Tom Wolfe has sold millions of books. I’ve yet to sell my first copy. And what’s all this nonsense about buzz, buzz, buzz? As far as I can tell, the only buzz we’ve created occurred yesterday afternoon, when Backbeat hired a bartender to stand in front of the Piano Girl display and serve happy hour Blue Hawaiian cocktails to anyone willing to talk to me. People lined up for the blue drinks, not for the book, but, hey, buzz is buzz.

Today, for the Autograph Circle, we’re missing the cocktails. No bartender, no buzz, no crowd. At least not in my line.

The bell rings—ping!—and the gates open. Fans flood into Tom Wolfe’s aisle—a mad dash down the lane to the man in the ice cream suit. For a second I think a riot might break out as fans jostle and shove to get to the front of Tom’s line.

“Nina,” I say. “There is no one in my line. No one. I told you this was a bad idea. We need the bartender.”

“We could only afford the bartender for one day. And we’re giving away free books. Isn’t that enough?”

“Evidently not.”

“Look, don’t panic. Sit there and smile,” Nina says. “I‘ll think of something.”

Nina “Buzz” Lesowitz always thinks of something; she’s beyond resourceful. But today, I’m doubtful. Hundreds of people propel themselves—human scud missiles—towards various authors. But my lane looks like Death Valley at the Javits Center, a parched canyon of solitude.

Wait! A solitary figure ambles down the aisle toward my desk. Waddles, actually. Is she limping?

“Look!” says Nina. “A fan! See? You have a fan!”

The aisle stretches a good fifty yards. I have to squint to see my fan. The woman draws closer. I’d recognize that walk anywhere.

“Nina, that’s no fan.”

“Of course it is,” says Nina.

“No it’s not,” I say. “That’s Sue.”

“Sue who?”

Sue, that’s who. She’s in Piano Girl. The college student with rigatoni stains on her sweatshirt? The philosophy major? I didn’t write very nice things about her.”

“Who cares,” says Nina. “Sue is in your line. We love Sue! Sue is our best friend. Sue is your fan.”

“Nina, she might be here to kill me. Look, she’s got that Kathy Bates Misery gleam in her eyes. She might have a baseball bat in her NPR tote bag.”

Misery was a great film.”

“Nina! What should I do?” Sue is gaining ground and she might be packing heat. I look like a stuffed author—a fan-less target, a literary bullseye. Maybe if I remain very still, Sue will think I’m either a memoir-writing taxidermy specimen or made of wax. Maybe she’ll walk away.

“Stay here and talk to our friend Sue while I recruit some more fans.”

“Nina! Wait!” I’m scared to stay here by myself. And I don’t think it’s possible to recruit fans. Either they’re fans or they’re not, right? But Nina has fled into the crowd, poaching fans from other authors and bribing them to step over to my aisle. Take a walk on the wild side. What’s she promising them? Drinks? Cash? Sexual favors? I almost don’t care. A few of my new fans begin to trickle towards me. But first I must deal with Sue.

“Welcome, Sue! Wow, what a delight to see you.”

“Hello, Robin.”

“So! Sue! It has been, how long?”

“Twenty-six and a half years. Loved Piano Girl. I got an advance copy,” she says. Her eyes shift back and forth. I wonder what she has in that tote bag. I envision a chain saw or an ice pick. Maybe a bloodied sledgehammer.

“Oh. Really? Thank you. Love your sweater.”

“Will you sign this for me?”

“Sure. So what brings you to Book Expo America?”

“I’m a publisher,” she says. “Science books.”

“Wow. Science books.” Yesterday’s rigatoni-stained college student is today’s purveyor of chemistry textbooks. There’s a lesson to be learned here, but I don’t know what it is. I wonder what kind of drinks they’re distributing upstairs at the science booth.

“Next!” yells Nina, who has returned from her fan foraging. She practically pushes Sue out of the way. Having coerced a dozen Tom Wolfe fans into my line, she sets about trying to make me look busy and successful.

“Nice to see you, Sue!” I say. Sue turns around and clumps down the exit aisle. I feel like I’m in Walmart. Clean-up, aisle four!

“Step right up,” says Nina, somehow managing to combine California élan with circus-barker barking. “Meet Robin Goldsby.”

“Hello!” I say—perhaps a tad too enthusiastically—to the next man in line. Would you like the book personalized, or with just a signature?” Nina told me most of the fans prefer a simple signature, so they can give the book away later or sell it online.

“Don’t care,” says the man. “I’m your friend Robin Spielberg’s second cousin by marriage. She told me if I didn’t show up in your line she would never talk to me again. I really wanted Tom Wolfe’s book, but I’ll settle for yours.”

“Well. Glad to be of service. I’ll be sure to tell Ms. Spielberg you stopped by. Thank you!”

“Next!” yells Nina.

It’s Harlan Ellis, my New York City music agent.

“Nina said you needed fans, ” he says. “I was trying to get the Wolfe book and she yanked me over here. Just pretend I’m a fan and sign the damn book. I’ll hang out until the line fills up.” I have lots of reasons to adore Harlan. This is just another one.

“Next!”

After Harlan leaves, I meet and greet a good fifty people, most of them disappointed spit-backs from Tom Wolfe’s line. Tom’s new book is called I Am Charlotte Simmons. My book should be called I Am Not.

“Next!”

I sign; I smile at strangers and hand each one of them a copy of Piano Girl. I don’t know whether to be happy or sad as I watch tiny pieces of my musical story escaping, one note at a time, into a crowded and noisy world. Happy seems like a good choice.

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Ten years and three books later . . . .

2015, Cologne, Germany

Ten years have passed since that crazy day. My friend Carole says if I keep writing Piano Girl stories I can call myself Piano Geezer. My literary adventure—combined with my career as a pianist—rewards me every day with new challenges, new obstacles, new ideas. Anyone in the business will tell you—working musicians have a million stories, little gems that, with a bit of polish, make for great cocktail party chatter—vaguely amusing anecdotes that cause people to giggle or guffaw or shout out, “You really should write a book.”

So I did. For better or worse I selected a handful of my finest and most idiotic moments and whipped them into a readable froth.

The publication of Piano Girl changed my life in delightful and unexpected ways. Concerts, interviews, a small but loyal group of actual fans (!)—all the things you might associate with a book that has received some critical acclaim. But that’s not why I wrote it. I wrote it because I love musicians. We lead noble lives, worthy of stories. We keep going because we have something to say. In a fragile world, musicians remain, in so many ways, unbreakable. Good for us.

If you’re thinking about writing your own book, I say go for it. Put on your bathrobe and some black socks and hole up in your office for a year. Avoid vodka if possible (it’s not). Take the risk. You never know what might happen once you release your book into the wild. You might feel intimidated. You might feel free. You might get to sit next to a United States President or play for a German Chancellor. You might get invited to the United Nations or to Paris or Rome or Oslo. You might receive letters from wonderful people and more than a few from prisoners and favor-seekers. Maybe you’ll pick up a stalker or two. You might meet a few of your idols or be reconnected with people you never wanted to see again. You might reinvent yourself, midlife, by realizing through writing, that you’ve grown up. Your mother might be proud of you; your children might be a little embarrassed (or is it the other way around?). You might do readings for full houses or empty ones, agonize over royalty payments, teach a few writing workshops, question your own judgment, work with your very own Nina, worry about what to wear to the launch party.

But forget all that. Here’s what counts: You might find you own a voice that people want to hear. A voice that you want to hear. Look! People are listening. At last. You have a few fans. Music lives in your words. Go on, buy the white suit.

**

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

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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Life from the Other Side of the Steinway

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Piano Girl in action: Photo by Christian Reckord

It’s not always a Steinway. Sometimes it’s an ugly-looking, beautiful-sounding white Bösendorfer concert grand or a Yamaha conservatory grand with a high-gloss mirrored surface, so polished that I can see the mood of the evening staring back at me. Sometimes the instrument I play barely qualifies as a piano. Sometimes it’s an Army-surplus spinet made by a firm that is a subsidiary of a toy company. Sometimes it’s a beat-up upright piano with four broken strings—and when I press a key I can hear several distinct tones fluttering together and laughing at me with their out-of-tuneness. Sometimes it really is the perfect Steinway Model B, a seven-foot grand with a sound warm enough to make me stay at the piano forever, just listening. I play. I make music. I am the tall blond woman in the strapless cocktail dress, and I sit in the corner and play the piano.

I didn’t set out to be a cocktail pianist. But here I am, wearing something black, a little eyeliner, a little lipstick, high heels. I’m not Shirley Horn, or Diana Krall, or Marian McPartland, or Bobby Short in a blond wig. Not even close. But I work all the time and I’m pretty good at what I do.

There are many terms for my profession. I am called a cocktail pianist, a bar pianist, a hotel pianist, and a lounge pianist. I perform background music that enhances a dinner, a lunch, a chilled prosecco; or atmosphere music meant to embellish a business meeting, a wedding, an illicit affair—without getting in the way. I play music that is comforting, gentle enough to pacify, melodic enough to nudge my audience into the folds of their own memories.

I’ve spent many years underestimating the validity of my job. I’m not really a bar pianist, I tell myself, because I want to be more than that. I’m a student. I’m an actor. I’m a writer. I’m a composer. I’m a single woman living in New York City standing on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I’m a citizen of the world. I’m happy. I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’m all of these things, true, true, true. But I’m able to be all of these things because playing the piano in a hotel continues to pay the bills. Now, with the wisdom of a maturity that was bound to catch up with me, I realize that being a cocktail pianist is a lovely way to make a living. It started out as a way to earn money for college. It ended up being my profession for thirty years and counting.

I play medleys of great songs and obnoxious songs and make them all sound, well, nice. Plus I’ve been questionably blessed with the ability to be polite, to smile, and to remember the first names of the customers who stray into the joints where I’m playing. These days, some of the joints are castles in Europe. I’ve traveled a long way from the Nantucket Club Car and the Redwood Motor Inn on Banksville Road in Pittsburgh where I had my first steady gigs as a teenager, but basically the scene is the same. Fancier clothes, slightly better piano, same ratio of lunatics to normal people. I play.

Sometimes I’m treated like visiting royalty from a mysterious land, flown to the job in a private jet, showered with roses, fine wine, and compliments from people whose pashmina socks cost more than my entire wardrobe. Sometimes I feel like a frazzled waitress with eighty-eight keys strapped around my neck, taking orders from drunken shoe salesmen who would prefer to see me go-go dance in a green fringed bikini on top of the piano rather than make any sense out of the instrument in front of me.

Every job presents the chance to be a musical fly on the wall—providing a piano score for life as it’s served, straight-up with a side of olives, to the droves of people who pass through the world’s bars and restaurants. Over the years I’ve been appalled, attacked, blown away by kindness, cajoled into fits of giggles, and moved to tears by the tiny dramas that unfold before my eyes and ears. I cry. I laugh. Laughter is a kind of music—the best kind. I’ve always wanted to write the score for a film. But maybe this is better. I’m writing and playing music for life, as it happens. It’s like recording live on tape, without the tape.

One day I’m eighteen years old, sitting down to play my first job. Startled, I wake up on a bright spring morning and realize that I’m forty-six, and that my entire adult life can be documented by a series of forty-minute sets and twenty-minute breaks. I fret about missed opportunities—how I’ve spent the peak years of my life behind an instrument that fights back more often than it complies with my wishes—and the way real time slips away from me like runaway triplets at a children’s piano recital.

I have moments of artistic satisfaction. Many of them. On a typical night—in between requests and idle chit-chat with guests from, say, Helsinki, or Bogata, or Hackensack—I play the music that I want to play, the way I want to play it. I feel peaceful, exhilarated, and sure that I’ve chosen the right profession. It’s almost a magical feeling, and I allow it to sweep me away. Then some drunk-on-his-ass sales rep from a surgical supply company sends me a cocktail napkin with a request for “Memory” from Cats, a twenty-dollar bill, and—as an afterthought—his room number. I check out the man who has sent the note. He is sprawled on the burgundy velvet banquette, smoking a cigar and drinking a brandy. He looks like a cross between a sloth and a walrus. I play the song, keep the money, and make sure a taxi is waiting for me at quitting time.

I go home, slightly amused, a little disgusted. But I come back the next day to play again. In fact, I look forward to it. The smells of cigarette smoke, grilled steak, and too much Chanel No. 5 waft in my direction like a big cloud of fairy dust blown in from a distant yet familiar planet. I sit at the piano. The customers briefly acknowledge my presence, then resume talking. It’s time for my first set. I place my hands on the instrument, not quite sure what to play. I never know what the first song will be until exactly this moment. In front of me is a maze of ebony and ivory, but I don’t see the keys anymore. I see the faces of 30 years of guests, friends, bartenders, and waiters morphing into an impressionistic canvas of something remarkable.

So I play a song to remember.

Steinway Gallerie, Oslo, Norway

Steinway Gallerie, Oslo, Norway, photo by Julia Goldsby.

Piano Girl excerpt courtesy of Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard. Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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An American in Paris

Place_des_VosgesWhenever I visit Paris, I want to be a tourist. I want to fall in love. I want to be enchanted. I want magic and romance and art and a big crusty baguette. I crave the silvery slanted light that seeps over the horizon in late morning and clings to the edges of the city until sunset. If I’m not actually in the Eiffel Tower I want to be staring at it from a distance, watching, in the early evening, as it sparkles like the world’s largest bottle of champagne.

I know Parisian food can be overpriced, French fashion can be overrated, and snootiness often underscores daily life. I know the political situation in France leaves much to be desired; racism and the nationalistic tendencies of some citizens pull on the frayed sleeves of others. I know these things, but still I cannot look away from the golden patina of the city itself. The city glows. I walk through Paris in my somber black clothes, like I’m trying to absorb a bit of the city’s smoldering blush. If only.

I’ve been to Paris seven times. Here are some jumbled notes from those visits :

1977: Pittsburgh to Paris

My college roommate, Debra, and I attend Chatham College for women, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We have been in London on a study trip for the last six weeks and feel a strong desire to visit Paris. Who knows when we’ll be this close again? Between the two of us we have twenty four dollars. Off we go. Allez!

In Paris, we stay in a hotel with a bidet in the room and a toilet down the hall. We think the bidet is a place to wash our undies (that’s one way of looking at it). So we dutifully rinse our panties and socks in the bidet every night, impressed by French plumbing. Madame, a stout woman with a severe face and a demi-beard, serves chocolate croissants for breakfast. I drink hot milk from a bowl and pretend I’m sophisticated. I feel far away from Pittsburgh.

We go sightseeing. We can’t afford admission to any of the museums, so we stay outside, shivering in the Jardin des Tuileries, and eating chocolate crêpes made with Nestlé Quik. We stare at the Eiffel Tower. We walk a thousand kilometers because the Metro scares us. Hiking through Paris can be a pleasure, but Deb insists on wearing red cowboy boots with five-inch stiletto heels. She bought them in London and hobbles through Paris looking like a Monroeville Mall hooker out for une aventure française. We say “ooh-la-la” and sing Jacques Brel songs until a smarmy man wearing tight pants and several earrings tries to grab Deb’s ass. In a rare act of physical revenge—I’ve always been a wimp—I punch the little guy in the nose and we run away, no easy thing in those cowboy boots. For many decades, Debra will claim I saved her life. Merci beaucoup.

Debra almost gets arrested when we pay tribute at the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomph and she inadvertently tramples on the tomb. Teetering on those red boots while attempting to take a snapshot of moi, she has backed up and stepped right onto the poor soldier’s grave, the spikes of her heels firmly planted over the commemorative plaque. A Gendarme in a spiffy blue suit—don’t we just love their hats?— screams, “Attention!” at her, along with other French invectives we don’t understand. I suspect he’s saying, “Get the fuck off the grave you idiot,” but who knows? When Deb attempts to flee, her stilettos catch between two cobblestones. Stuck! Eventually she frees herself and we exit the Arc stage left, our heads bowed in shame. A flame burns next to the tomb. We’re lucky she doesn’t catch on fire.

That night we pool our remaining funds and visit the Folies Bergère. We are seated in the last row—quite a climb with those red boots—right next to two American soldiers from the South Side of Pittsburgh, our hometown. “Wait till yinz guys see the babes,” they say, in perfect Pittsburghese. “Foxy!” I’m discovering that people from Pittsburgh lurk everywhere, even in block Y of a topless Parisian cabaret. Slack-jawed, we gawk at the naked dancers as they hang, upside down, from the bejeweled ceiling. We don’t have this kind of thing in Pittsburgh; certainly not on the South Side. Deb decides we need to add feathers to our college girl wardrobe when we get back home, something I’m sure will be a big hit at our feminist school. We eat several more Nestlé Quik chocolate crêpes and head back to London the next day.

ParisBoots

2003: Circus, Circus

We live outside of Cologne, Germany, skipping distance from Paris on the Thalys, a high speed train that whisks us through Belgium and into Paris in four and a half hours. Our daughter, Julia, is six; our son, Curtis, is nine. Short on cash, but desperate to get away for a weekend, we’ve booked a seedy hotel room above a Chinese restaurant next to the Gare Saint-Lazare. As transplanted New Yorkers, we should know better than to stay next to a train station, but we’ve booked late, we’re strapped for cash, and it’s Easter vacation, so we’re lucky to find anything at all.

We eat baguette sandwiches at the Tuileries, engage in a spirited conversation with a French pharmacist when one of the kids gets sick, walk up Montmartre to Sacre Coeur, listen to a cellist playing Mozart next to the cathedral steps, check out the gargoyles at Notre Dame, and spend many hours looking for an affordable restaurant for a family of four. We dodge pickpockets and dance between the raindrops. It drizzles almost constantly. I love Paris in the springtime, when it—oh, never mind.

Julia and I attend a free fashion show at Galeries Lafayette, presented under a stained glass dome on the top floor of the store. She laughs through the entire program, amused by the flashy ready-to-wear costumes, and charmed by haughty models who every now and then break character and smile at her. During the finale, when the models glide over the catwalk sporting bridal gowns that resemble spun sugar, Julia says, “Mommy, this is just like the circus.”

Galeries_Lafayette_Paris

The Galeries Lafayette stained glass ceiling.

 

We visit a small park for children that features an amusement park, a dusty playground, and a petting zoo. While waiting in line for croissants, we meet a Chinese American family from Los Angeles. The kids ride together on a dangerous looking roller coaster that threatens to derail at every turn. John and I drink coffee and chat with the parents. They are staying in the Hilton, close to the Eiffel Tower. I think about the firetrap where we’re lodging and vow never to return to Paris until we can afford a decent place to stay. They leave the park in a taxi; we walk to the Metro. We promise to stay in touch, but we won’t.

We take the kids for a boat ride on the Seine. Look at those bridges! Julia pretends to pilot the boat. Curtis pretends he is traveling without parents.

We eat chocolate crêpes made with Nestlé Quik.

Notre-Mom & Julia

Julia with Notre Mom

 

2005: Room with a View

Girls’ Weekend! Julia and I stay in a charming little hotel on Montmartre; a step up from our 2003 train station rat-hole. We have to walk up a steep hill to get to our digs, but it’s worth the climb. From our room, if we lean out the window and swivel our heads just the right way, we can see the Eiffel Tower. We drop our bags and head right over there, stopping for mousse au chocolat on the way. We climb to the second level of the tower and stay for two hours, watching the sun poke through storm clouds, spotlighting various landmarks. From our steely perch we plan the next two days; where we’ll go, what we’ll see. I’m determined my daughter will love Paris, that she’ll speak a little French some day, that she’ll soak up Parisian art and beauty and claim it as her own.

We visit the Louvre and Musée D’Orsay. We go to the Rodin garden and tour Notre Dame. Julia is nine years old and takes in the architecture and culture like a seasoned pro. She plans all of our trips on the Metro, circling stops on a paper map with a pink magic marker. After a day of non-stop tourist activity, she sleeps soundly in our little hotel room.

I discover we can go to Disneyland Paris on the train—for the bargain price of ninety euros, including train ticket and admission for both of us to the park. I’m not keen on confusing Paris with Disneyland, but our girl is nine years old and if not now, when? I don’t tell her where we’re going. We get off the train, she sees the pink castle, and doesn’t stop laughing the entire day. Mickey Mouse, it turns out, exudes even more charm when he speaks French. Goofy is another story, but you can’t have everything. We avoid the souvenir stands, eat lunch in the Pirates of the Caribbean restaurant—Jul is a little scared of the pirate waiter, who wears an eye patch—and watch French Tinkerbell descend from the Magic Kingdom castle. Is it my imagination, or is Tinkerbell wearing red lipstick? We take the train back to Paris, all the while singing “It’s a Small World” in French (Le monde est petit, après tout).

In a quaint restaurant in Montmartre Julia orders the children’s hot dog special, served with a kid-friendly combination of Roquefort cheese and sauteed onions. My American daughter scrapes off the goop, shrugs her shoulders, and says, “C’est la vie.”

2007: Marais, Meurice, Monet

Julia and I arrive in the Marais to meet up with our dear American friends, Carole and Emilio, who have rented a lovely little apartment in Paris’s most charming district. We stay in a hotel across the street.

All of us are on a tight budget, we go for long walks and boast about our ability to visit Paris without spending a fortune. The weather, for once, plays along, and we walk for hours. We ride on a Ferris wheel, people watch, and drink chilled white wine in the Tuileries. Julia needs a restroom, so we stroll into the Meurice Hotel. Carole, Julia, and I go to the ladies’ room, or the Queen’s Potty, as Jul calls it. We spend a bit of time in there, lounging and lolling about in velvet chairs, splashing cool water on our faces, repairing our lipstick and powdering our shiny faces. When we emerge from the Queen’s Potty, Emilio, who occasionally thinks of himself as Thurston Howell III, has snagged us a table in the bar.

“Emilio,” says Carole. “We can’t do this. It’s really expensive here.”

“Ah, come on, you only live once,” he says. Emilio is wearing an ivory linen blazer. He looks like he was born in this hotel.

I stay out of the fray—I’m too impressed by the hand painted ceiling and the jazz duo serenading us as we take our seats.

“You’ll be sorry,” says Carole.

The appropriately grumpy waiter takes our order. After consulting a menu (one without prices), Carole and I go all-in and request champagne with crushed rose petals. Not to be outdone, Emilio orders a mint julep, which seems a little odd for Paris, but he’s paying, so mint julep it is. Julia orders a 7-Up.

“We do not have the 7-Up,” says the sneering waiter. “What we have is like the 7-Up, but it is not the 7-Up.”

He brings a tray of olives.

“Do you like olives?” Carole asks Julia.

“Not really,” says Julia, who is still recovering from the 2005 Roquefort cheese incident.

“Well you better learn, because we have to eat everything they give us. At these prices we’ll have to skip dinner.”

Mademoiselle eats about thirty olives. The bill comes—130 euros for four drinks. And that’s with fake 7-Up.

The next day we take a bus to Giverny and visit the Monet gardens. We see Claude’s water lilies—the ones he planted and painted, the Japanese bridge he built and recreated on canvas, the cathedral at Rouen. I feel like I’m standing right in the middle of a Monet painting. It moves me to tears.

JuliaGiverny

Julia, standing on Monet’s Japanese Bridge in Giverny.

 

2009: Fusion Gypsy-Jazz Guitar, Toile du Jouy, and Bronchitis

I am finally in a five-star Parisian hotel with my husband, John. He will perform tomorrow night with Biréli Lagrène and the WDR Big Band. Sadly, John has a bad case of bronchitis and can do nothing but stay in the hotel room and try to get better before this evening’s sound-check and performance. So much for our romantic weekend.

What to do. I hate to leave John suffering and hacking away alone in our suite, but I don’t get to Paris very often, I’m here for the first time since 1977 without kids, and I don’t particularly want to waste a day in a dark room watching CNN weather reports or French game shows. Nor does John want me to hang around. He wants to sleep. So I head to the fabric markets and stare longingly at bolts of toile de jouy, decorating, in my mind, the Parisian flat I’ll never own. I buy nothing, but I entertain myself for hours by running my fingers over the cloth. I consider heading over to the Meurice for the crushed rose-petal champagne cocktail, but show restraint and drink Sauvignon Blanc with my lunch. I walk. The wind chills me, but I go for a boat ride—the ultimate tourist activity. Strangely, I enjoy being alone in the City of Love. I should do this more often.

I arrive back at the hotel just in time for the concert. Birelli, the genius guitarist, sounds great; so does John. A little bronchitis can’t stop a good jazz musician. The next day John and I arrange a trip a deux to the pharmacy, where we snag a grab bag of specialty medications with instructions we don’t understand. We eat extremely spicy Indian food, which John can’t taste, but I assure him it’s delicious even though my head is on fire. We travel back home on the train. We’ve booked our tickets separately, so he sits in first class with the band. I ride in coach, fall asleep, and dream about bridges and fabric.

Paris_Bridge

2010: Les Garçons

I travel with two sixteen year old boys to Paris—my son, Curtis, and his South African friend, Chris. We sit in different parts of the train and stay in separate hotel rooms, but, since I’m the gal with the money, we meet for meals. I spy on them at various tourist attractions, and, with the help of a cell phone and Chris’s bright red scarf, I spot them in the Eiffel Tower, high up on the second level, as I sit in an outdoor bar on the bank of the Seine. I wave to the boys and one of them waves the scarf. There’s something beautiful about this, but I’m not sure what it is. The Eiffel Tower reminds me of a teenage boy—tall and strong, but delicate somehow. Fragile, robust, stretching up, up, and away.

Eifel

2015: Free the Girls

As often as I’ve been in Paris, I’ve never performed here. Until now. I’ve been invited to present my Piano Girl concert program for the AAWE, an American women’s organization, at Reid Hall, part of the Columbia University Global Center in the Montparnasse district. My concert will benefit “Free the Girls,” a program that rehabilitates  victims of human trafficking and prostitution.

Julia has come along with me. She has recently spent some time here alone, but this is our first Paris trip together since the 7-Up episode at the Meurice. The Thalys trip now takes only three hours from Cologne—the railroad officials have upgraded that pesky Belgian stretch—and we arrive at our hosts’ apartment in no time at all.

Deborah and John, Americans who have lived in Paris for over fifteen years, reside in a huge old Parisian apartment in the 17th Arrondissement. It’s one of those big places with a tiny elevator, high ceilings, velvet sofas, and a gazillion books. French shabby chic. I could move in and not change a thing.

Our friend Sallie lives in the Marais. She takes Julia and me to lunch at her favorite bistro. Julia’s hot-dog days are long behind her—she has been a vegetarian for eight years, so we eat braised vegetables, salad, and a pear and almond cake for dessert. Sallie takes us on a tour of the Marais, starting at the Place des Vosges. The sun shines and we see pale green buds on the trees. The Marais has become a tourist attraction in recent years, but Sallie knows her way around. She shows us secret pathways leading into hidden gardens, down winding streets, and past historic half-timber homes.

On this trip I try, as I always do, to speak a little French. I give up. There’s always next time.

Rounding the corner in the Marais, eight military policemen, in full riot gear and carrying machine guns, march past us, patrolling the neighborhood. Their presence is a result of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent siege at a Jewish supermarket. Later that evening, Deborah shows me photos of soldiers at her synagogue, in the days following the attacks.

“The soldiers are still patrolling,” she says, as she rolls her homemade chocolate truffles, one by one, in powdered sugar.

I have grown up here, without meaning to. Every time I return, I’m a little further along on my trek through adulthood. I’ve gotten lost in back streets, struggled with the language, and learned to negotiate Paris both with and without money. I’ve traveled here with a red-booted friend, with curious children, nonchalant teenagers, and a handsome (but coughing) husband; as a teenager, as a mom, as a wife, as an artist. I’ve watched parades and concerts and street performers and now, soldiers. I’ve been cold and wet and exhausted and hungry in Paris; anxious and sad; startled and astounded, amused and elated. Never once have I been bored.

Paris remains a place of beauty. Man-made beauty, with extremely good lighting. Really, the city is a wonder.

I play my concert. We raise money for “Free the Girls.” Julia sings. I play some more and tell a few stories. Applause. We take a bow. The audience’s warm embrace scrapes the chill off the early spring day. After so many decades of getting to know the City of Light, maybe now it knows me, just a little. Time for a chocolate crêpe.

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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.

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Photos provided by Carole Delgado and Julia Goldsby