The Fast Lane: Passing the German Driver’s Test

The Fast Lane

DSC00148.JPGHere I am, a blond American woman in a short skirt racing down a busy stretch of the German Autobahn at 150 kilometers an hour. I’m too busy driving to calculate the conversion, but I must be approaching 100 miles per hour. I negotiate a curve, my knuckles grip the steering wheel. I pick up speed and feel the G-force—or whatever it’s called—push me back into my seat.

Überholen,” says the elderly man sitting in the passenger seat. “Pass the car in front of you.”

“No, thank you,” I say. “I’m going fast enough.”

Überholen!” he says.

“No! Please. Bitte.” There are four of us in the sedan. I glance in the rearview mirror and see a smug-looking German official strapped into the seat next to my shocked and silent husband.

“You must do this,” says the man next to me. “You will do it!”

With my heart racing faster than my speeding car, I overtake the silver Mercedes in the center lane.

“Now, was that so difficult?” he whispers. “I can see you are ready for the next challenge.”

 ***

This is not a scene from The Bourne Identity. This is the German Driver’s Test—a complicated fifty-minute obstacle course that involves driving at high speeds on the Autobahn, parallel parking in a space the size of a paper towel, and manipulating a car through narrow European streets at rush hour while dodging grocery-laden pedestrians, bicyclists who insist on riding in the middle of the road, and small yipping dogs who should be on leashes but aren’t.

Before moving to Germany, John and I were told that obtaining a driver’s license here would be a simple matter of exchanging one license for another. It turns out that the rules—and there are a lot of rules—changed shortly before our arrival. Only citizens of European Union countries (and an odd smattering of American states like Wisconsin and Iowa) qualify for a license trade; those of us with New York State licenses must muddle through the system. This means numerous visits to modern offices with stern-looking administrators wearing designer eyeglasses in abstract shapes, an eight-hour Unfall-sofortmaßnahme (first aid) class, a tricky theoretical exam, and a fifty-minute hell ride with an official yelling commands in German, a language that, in spite of our twice-weekly lessons with Frau Ernst, continues to baffle us.

My dad taught me how to drive when I was sixteen years old. He owned a big old Chevy station wagon that cruised through Pittsburgh like it ruled the town. It almost drove itself.

“Here’s the main thing,” my dad used to say. “Speed. Think about speed. Whatever you do, don’t drive too fast. And remember that every single car you encounter could have the likes of Mr. Phillips behind the wheel.”

Mr. Phillips was the half-blind dry cleaner whose shop was on Mt. Washington, not far from our home. Dad warned us to dive into the bushes whenever we saw his car approaching. “Phillips!” we would yell, leaping over shrubbery as he careened down Virginia Avenue, going way too fast and threatening to take out anyone not wearing a blaze orange vest and hat. Dad always said Phillips had a prescription windshield, but I think that was a joke.

Like every teenager in the city of Pittsburgh, I got my license by driving slowly around a parking lot with a chubby and very nice Pennsylvania State Trooper named Officer Mike, who offered me a rainbow-sprinkled donut after I completed the exam. The written test took only ten minutes and involved multiple-choice questions about what to do when you come to a stop sign and what the yellow light in the middle of a traffic signal means. Between my father’s gentle instruction and Officer Mike’s good nature, I snagged my license, ate my donut, and became—over the course of the next few years—a pretty good driver. I even learned how to make minor repairs to the car I was driving—impressing boys in the neighborhood with my ability to start my car’s finicky engine by holding down something called the butterfly valve with a Popsicle stick.

My accidents were few and minor. When I was eighteen and driving a Plymouth Valiant I had a fender-bender with a Ford Pinto driven by an eighty-two-year-old man. Shaken, I went to his car and saw him slumped over the steering wheel. I honestly thought I had killed him, but he was just resting. When I was nineteen I drove under a bus when my brakes failed while driving down McCardle Roadway, a long hill that leads from Mt. Washington into the city of Pittsburgh. A policeman pulled me out of the car. My father came to rescue me, assuring me that crashing into the bus hadn’t been my fault.

“There’s a difference between driving too fast and driving without brakes,” he said.

When I moved to New York City at the age of twenty-one, I traded my Pennsylvania license for a New York State license but gave up my car, choosing to take taxis rather than participate in the alternate-side-of-the-street-parking drill that took place every morning at the crack of dawn. Sleep-deprived, hungover, and pissed-off car owners would race from their apartment buildings at 7:55 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to move their vehicles—if they could remember where they parked them the night before—to the opposite side of the street. This highly volatile early morning bumper-car action cleared the curbs for street cleaners, who hardly ever showed up. So I became the taxi queen of Manhattan. In my peak years I spent upwards of $400 a month on cabs, a bargain compared to what some of my friends and neighbors were paying for the privilege of owning a car in the city.

With the exception of a couple of car rentals, I didn’t drive for fifteen years. Instead I relied on my stable of cabdrivers, car services, boyfriends with cars, and—when I was dating a compulsive gambler with Atlantic City connections—the occasional Lincoln Town Car or stretch limousine with a driver in a uniform and a chilled bottle of good champagne at the ready.

I still wonder how I survived the taxicabs. Every night for over a decade I would step into the city’s nocturnal traffic, raise my arm, and hope my taxi luck would hold for one more day. I had deaf drivers, drivers who claimed to speak three languages perfectly—but not English—and drivers who didn’t know the location of Central Park. Some cabbies watched Spanish soap operas on little dashboard televisions while speeding up Madison Avenue; others flew down Fifth while counting their money and conducting heated radio discussions about Haitian politics. These rides always had soundtracks with booming bass lines—salsa or merengue, hip-hop or opera or bluegrass or jazz. Sometimes the music played in my head long after the ride was over.

“Hey! You’re going too fast!” said my dad to a cabbie once. Dad had come to New York City to visit me and was hanging onto the plastic strap dangling from the ceiling of the taxi. “Slow down!”

Bada, bada, bada,” said the cabbie. He turned up the radio—was it Greek music?—and picked up speed.

On one bleary night in 1988, after a rehearsal for a musical that no one would ever see, I had a couple of vodka martinis with my friends. Sufficiently calm and happy, we stepped out of the bar onto the sidewalk along Eighth Avenue just as a cloudburst hit. A springtime Manhattan monsoon. We huddled on the sidewalk and cursed the sideways rain. The Broadway theaters had just let out, and there was taxi mayhem on Eighth. Trucks sprayed God knows what over the curb, and pedestrians dashed from one side of the street to the other with soggy newspapers covering their heads. It would have been a miracle to find a cab in that weather.

“What to do, what to do,” said Andy.

“Another drink?” said Kenny.

“Allow me,” I said. “I have good taxi karma.” I stepped onto the avenue, raised my taxi arm with the right amount of flair, and out of nowhere, a Yellow Cab screeched to a halt. Kenny, Andy, and I decided to share the cab, since the likelihood of finding another one in the storm was slim. We slid inside, all three of us hunched in the back, our wet jeans sticking to the vinyl seat. I sat in the middle.

“Where you go?” said Jim the driver (possibly not his real name, but that’s what his ID said). Back then I always liked to call drivers by their first names, I felt the human connection improved my chances of arriving at my destination in one piece. This was a lesson my mother taught me. Always make the human connection.

“Good evening, Jim,” I said. “We’ll be stopping first at Thirty-fourth and Twelfth and then heading over to the Upper East Side.”

Jim sighed and pulled into traffic just as a large dark sedan sped past on the left and cut us off.

“Hey, you big motherfuck!” yelled Jim. He hit the accelerator, blasted his horn, and the chase was on. Andy and Kenny grabbed their plastic ceiling straps. I covered my eyes. Our car was going way too fast, threatening to hydroplane, and the three of us whipped back and forth and smashed against each other every time the cab swerved left or right. Finally, the brakes squealed and we came to a halt. The black sedan was next to us, wedged between the cab and a row of parked cars. The sedan’s windows were tinted, and I couldn’t see the driver.

“Big motherfuck,” yelled Jim through the closed door of his cab. “Big, big motherfuck!’

Kenny and Andy slid to the floor of the cab.

“Get down,” they yelled at me.

“Excuse me, Jim,” I said. You really should just KEEP DRIVING. You never know. The man in that car might have a gun. New York City can be very dangerous.”

Kenny stuck his head up from the floor. “Right!” he said. “Listen to her. She’s right. That guy might have a gun.”

“I got gun, too,” said Jim. “I am professional killer in my country.” And with that, Jim reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a pistol.

“Jesus Christ,” yelled Kenny, pulling me back to the floor with him.

Jim got out of the car and slammed the door behind him.

“What do we do now?” I said.

“So much for your taxi karma,” said Andy. “No wonder there was no one riding in this guy’s cab. He’s a trained assassin.”

“What kind of trained assassin is named Jim, for God’s sake?” said Kenny. “Is he a trained assassin from, like, Wales?”

“He doesn’t sound Welsh,” said Andy.

“Is he shooting?” I asked.

“I don’t know, I don’t hear any shots,” said Kenny.

“That’s because he’s an assassin,” said Andy. “He’s probably using a silencer.”

We couldn’t see what was going on, but we heard a lot of shouting. Then Jim got back in the car, looked over the seat, and said, “What you do there on floor? No sex in my cab!”

“No, no, no sex!” I said, crawling back onto the seat. “Listen, Jim, we’ve decided we’re hungry, so, uh, maybe we can just get out here, because—look—there’s an all-night diner right across the street!”

“Oh yes,” said Kenny, “they have the most divine meatloaf.”

I meant to look at Jim’s last name and ID number so we could file a report, but all I wanted to do was get away from him. I threw some bills on the front seat. We leaped out of the cab and ran across the street holding hands. We sat in the diner and thought about calling the police. Instead we had another drink and ate meatloaf. The rain eventually stopped. We found separate cabs and headed home.

Those days, thankfully, are over. Now I’m out of practice, I’m living in the land of expert drivers, and I need get back in the driver’s seat. From what I’ve heard the German Driver’s Test is difficult. Officer Mike will probably not be waiting for me with a donut at the exam site.

I’m a little concerned about the stick-shift thing.

Like many American women, I’ve only driven cars with automatic transmissions. Okay, my mother can drive a stick shift and could probably drive an eighteen-wheeler, a train, or a stagecoach—just ask her—but she doesn’t count, since she learned to drive before the automatic transmission became popular. Just about every man I’ve known has tried to convince me that driving an automatic isn’t really driving—that the feel of the road can only be experienced with a stick shift. In most cases these are the same guys who enjoy spectator sports like boxing and American Gladiator, take vitamin pills with beer, and swear that with a little practice I’ll be able to throw a baseball really far without dislocating my shoulder.

“Don’t be such a girl,” one of them—the compulsive gambler—told me. “It’s easy. Here. You can practice on my car.”

“Fine,” I said, and took the wheel of his BMW convertible just outside of the Carnegie Deli. I drove a couple of blocks, then stalled out at the intersection of Fifty-seventh Street and Sixth Avenue, not only blocking the box, but creating one of those classic dumb-blond spectacles. Two screaming UPS men and a red-faced bus driver entered the fray, and, by the time I lurched my way out of the intersection, I had a bigger audience than most Off Broadway theaters on matinee day.

In Germany I’ve got little choice about the stick shift. Almost all cars here have standard transmissions. My American license—valid for a year after moving—is about to expire. I’ve been practicing basic driving skills on a used Citroën with a leaking roof and an automatic transmission. I could take the test with an automatic car, but then my license will forever limit me to an automatic—not such a good thing in Europe. John, who doesn’t know about the Manhattan BMW incident, convinces me that I am 100 percent capable of learning to drive a stick shift.

“It’s easy,” says John. “Just a matter of timing the clutch release.”

“It’s easy,” says my mother on the telephone. “Don’t be a wimp.”

“It’s easy,” says my dad. “But whatever you do, don’t drive too fast. And remember Phillips. There’s someone like him in every country.”

We buy a new car—a Volkswagen Passat station wagon—with a manual transmission. I prepare to join the ranks of stick-shift drivers.

Everyone applying for a license in Germany, regardless of age or previous driving experience, is required to attend an accredited Fahrschule (driver’s school). These guys charge about thirty euros an hour for a lesson. A trainee isn’t permitted to practice driving with anyone else but the Fahrschule instructor—none of this business of driving around the Walmart parking lot with your mother clutching the dashboard and slamming her foot into an imaginary brake. A student can practice only with the teacher, in the teacher’s car.

Seems like a Fahrschule Mafia to me. Only the teacher can deem the student capable of taking the actual test, and the test itself must be taken in the Fahrschule car. A less-than-ethical instructor can clock a lot of extra hours by convincing vulnerable students they’re not “ready.” To get a license, an average student driver will typically spend upwards of 1,200 euros on training and test fees.

We don’t want to get ripped off, so I ask my nineteen-year-old babysitter, who has recently passed the test, to recommend a teacher. She suggests a school in the neighborhood with a good reputation, run by an elderly man with Coke-bottle glasses, a froth of white hair, and a truckload of patience. He is a Phillips look-alike. We call him Magoo.

He’s a nice guy, but I don’t think Herr Magoo can actually see what he’s doing. Maybe a semi-blind driving instructor isn’t the greatest idea, but we sign up, mainly because Magoo seems fair, treats us with respect, and agrees to allow John—a skilled New York City stick-shift driver—to take the test with just one lesson. He thinks I might be ready after five or six hours of stick-shift training.

The cars used by Fahrschule teachers have double gas, brake, and clutch controls, allowing the instructor to override the trainee’s bad judgment. The cars also have large signs that say Fahrschule, turning the vehicle into a target for experienced drivers having a bad day.

I jerk-jerk-jerk my way around town while other drivers tailgate me, blink their lights, and honk their horns.

“Don’t mind them, my dear. You’re doing fine. Just keep the pace and stay calm.” Magoo is the sweetest guy, even though he keeps calling me Frau Neu. “You take your time, Frau Neu,” he says.

“Herr Magoo,” I say. “I’m not Frau Neu. I’m Frau Goldsby.”

“Yes,” he says, “but you look like Frau Neu. Please forgive me.”

Like a bat or a toddler’s mother, Magoo seems to have built-in radar for dangerous situations. His dancing feet hover over his own clutch and brake pedals, taking action in dangerous situations. Gentleman that he is, he creates the illusion that I’m in control, and I start to think of myself as a pretty smooth driver, maybe even one of the boys, maybe even ready for baseball throwing and Manhattan intersections. Until we get to the hills. On our fourth lesson Magoo forces me away from the flat roads of the valley and up into the mountains, a novice stick-shift driver’s worst nightmare.

Dozens of times the clutch slips, the car stalls and rolls backwards. Once I almost slide into a red Porsche while attempting to cross railroad tracks. While the words to “Teen Angel” run through my head, Magoo and his happy feet save the day. My Magoo is so brave; he never even gasps or utters an obscenity. Only once, in six lessons, does he lose his cool. We’re exiting the Autobahn, and I stop where I should be yielding.

“My God, Frau Neu, you’re going to kill us both.”

I burst into tears. Magoo doesn’t notice.

After my sixth lesson he proclaims me ready for the road test. First I must have my vision checked, attend the daylong Unfall-Sofortmaßnahme class—which includes resuscitating a rubber dummy named Manni—and pass the driver’s theory test. Nervous about the German technical language, we pay extra for an English study guide and another fee to take the test in English. John fails the theory test the first time, because—in true guy fashion—he refuses to study the manual he has paid for. The manual, it turns out, is daunting, and the English, obviously translated by a non-native speaker, is counterintuitive. There are over 900 questions in the manual, many of them with photos and diagrams designed to baffle those of us suffering from hysterical comprehension disorder. But if I want the license I have to pass the test. So I hit the books and learn to answer questions like these:

• What is the maximum speed you are allowed to drive a truck with a permissible total mass of 3.0 tons on roads with one marked lane for each direction outside built-up areas?

• How must a load be marked in darkness or bad visibility when it extends laterally more than 40 cm beyond the side-lights of the vehicle?

• Your vehicle loses oil. How much drinking water can be polluted by a single drop of oil?

The day of the theory test, John goes with me so he can have a second try. This costs another 100 euros. I’m unsure of myself and sit next to him so I can copy, but the authorities give us separate tests. We both pass, which is a good thing since we’re running out of money.

Now we’re qualified to take the all-important road test. I’m dreading this. Magoo, having received the results of our written exams and permission to schedule back-to-back tests for husband and wife, arranges the date and time for our two-hour brush with divorce. Our slot is at eight on a Monday morning, not exactly a convenient time for a jazz musician and the mother of a two-year-old.

I’m still quite concerned about the stick shift. On the appointed day I wear a short skirt; if I strip the gears of the Fahrschule car, perhaps this will distract the officer in charge.

“Go ahead, wear the skirt,” says John. He’s a little miffed that I passed the theory test the first time and he didn’t. “You need all the help you can get.”

My stomach rumbles. John volunteers to go first. He sits in the front with Magoo; I sit in the back with Officer Schweinsteiger, our designated government driving official, a pleasant guy in a gray shirt who smells like the two packs of cigarettes he smoked the day before.

As John pulls into the morning traffic, Officer Schweinsteiger shouts orders in German, all of which John obeys. But halfway through the test—in between commands—Officer Schweinsteiger starts gossiping with Magoo. It becomes difficult—novices in German that we are—to distinguish the all-important Driver’s Test command from the chitchat. Is he talking about FC Köln, last night’s Westernhagen concert, or telling John to stop at the next corner? Hard to tell.

After fifty minutes of John’s perfect driving, including fifteen minutes on the Autobahn, it’s time to head back to home base. But something odd happens. With a twinkle in his eye, Officer Schweinsteiger begins yelling, “LEFT TURN! LEFT TURN! LEFT TURN!”

Don’t fall for it, I think, because I can see the smirk on Schweinsteiger’s face and, even though he may be an officer of the law, I know he’s up to no good. I can also see the Do No Enter sign.

John turns left and drives the wrong way down a one-way street.

It’s a trick, but there’s nothing I can do. Also, there are cars headed in our direction, and I’m worried we’re going to crash. I cover my eyes.

We do not crash. When we drive back into the parking lot, Officer Schweinsteiger grins and tells John he has failed the test. He tells him he needs more practice, that he doesn’t swivel his head enough when merging on the Autobahn, and that he shouldn’t drive the wrong way on one-way streets. John starts to defend himself, but really, it’s difficult to argue that last point.

Now it’s my turn. I think it’s a silly waste of everyone’s time. John is the best driver I know and he has failed. I am currently the worst driver I know, so what are my chances of passing? I’m upset for John and concerned for myself, and I just want to go home, play with my son, and drink a dozen cups of strong coffee. I feel stupid for being such a lousy driver. And I feel stupid for feeling so stupid.

There’s a moment of petrol-scented silence as all four of us sit in the car, waiting for me to turn on the engine.

“Frau Neu?” says Magoo.

“It’s Goldsby,” I say.

“Sorry. Frau Goldsby, it’s time for your test. Are you ready?”

“Yes,” I say. “Let’s do it.”

Magoo pats my hand, signaling, in a Magoo kind of way, that everything will be okay. I pull out of the lot and the car stalls a handful of times. Onward. I drive two blocks with the emergency brake on and come close to a head-on collision with a garbage truck on a hill. All the while, I’m swiveling my head, looking out for Phillips, and making sure I don’t go over the speed limit. Good.

Now it’s time for the Autobahn. I merge and get us into the slow lane without an incident. I’m doing this. I am. I catch John’s eye in the rearview mirror, hoping for a nod of compassion or pride or something. But he’s busy trying to figure out how to stuff Schweinsteiger’s head into the ashtray.

I cruise along in the slow lane until Magoo tells me to pass the car in front of me. I panic and say no. He uses his pedal to floor it. The speedometer reaches 140, and, because I have no choice, I clutch the steering wheel and pass the other drivers. I glance at John, who has snapped to attention. He doesn’t know that Magoo has overridden my controls, and he thinks, as does Officer Schweinsteiger, that I’ve gotten into the fast lane all by myself.

Whatever you do, I hear my father saying, don’t drive too fast.

But maybe this speed is just right. Officer Schweinsteiger grunts, which must be an encouraging sign.

John looks horrified, as if his nice slowpoke wife has been possessed by an evil Autobahn spirit and is now part of a miniskirted Formula 1 team.

Go, go, go. All on my own I keep up the speed and coast past the other cars in the slow lane. Magoo, Schweinsteiger, and John are my reluctant cheerleaders, coaxing me toward the exit with a conspiratorial silence.

It’s easy, I say to myself. Before I know it, I’ve reached the Ausfahrt.

I pass the test. Whether this is due to my outfit, my expertise in head swiveling, or Officer Schweinsteiger’s gratitude that I avoided a Massenunfall—massive pile-up—I have no idea. I don’t say this out loud—divorce is not on this morning’s agenda—but I like to think I’ve passed because I’ve managed to avoid driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Maybe I should suggest we go home and watch a boxing match or toss some baseballs around.

A week later John takes the road test again and passes. This costs another 200 euros and most likely saves our marriage. Guys don’t like to be told they’re lousy drivers. For that matter, neither do women, but we’re used to it. By the way, if a student driver fails the test three times, he’s required by law to seek the help of a German psychologist, one of the all-time great incentives for passing any kind of test.

I’m now the proud owner of a German Driver’s License. It’s candy-pink and the size of a passport and looks like a certificate of merit I once received in the seventh grade for swimming twenty-five laps of the Prospect Junior High School pool. Two years will pass before I’m comfortable driving a stick shift, during which time I’ll remain convinced that the automatic transmission is one of world’s finest inventions.

Sometimes, if you want to get where you have to go, you need to learn a few new tricks. Will I ever be one of the boys? Don’t think so. Am I grateful to all the men who have contributed to my driver’s education? Yes. Let’s hear it for the boys. It took my dad, Phillips, Officer Mike, several hundred thrill rides piloted by an international squad of part-time taxi drivers—including a professional killer—a gambling man with a charming smile and a stalled BMW, a patient husband, Magoo, and Officer Schweinsteiger, but now I’m on my own, and I’m cruising.

Not too fast, not too slow. Just right. Next time I’m in Manhattan, I’m thinking about heading for Fifty-seventh and Sixth.

 ***

“The Fast Lane” is an excerpt from Goldsby’s book Waltz of the Asparagus People. Permission to use granted by Bass Lion Publishing. ©2011 Robin Meloy Goldsby

 

Last Train to Clarksville

Train_TunnelRobin Meloy Goldsby, stripped of her middle-age invisibility cloak by an unshaven train engineer, tries to find her way back home.

I stand on the train platform and wait for the 5:54 to Overath. Rays of late summer sun cast crooked shadows on the determined faces of commuters. We’re at the main train station in Cologne, Germany, and all of us are trying our best to get home. Students in jeans, musicians with guitar and trombone cases, office workers in Esprit mix and match suits, and senior-citizen shoppers lugging cloth bags of discounted groceries—we crowd around information boards, benches, and vending machines. We are Germany’s middle-class—daytime travelers waiting to be whisked from the city to another place. A robust man with a rosy face sells Bratwurst and Brötchen to those who have skipped lunch or are thinking about skipping dinner. I have been eating all day, but still, my stomach growls at the smell of the grilled pork. I don’t eat meat—so I ask for a plain piece of bread. It is crusty, white and carb-laden.

I met my friends Christina and Christina for coffee today. They are willowy blonds, both of them twenty years younger than I am. Christina One has a new baby; Christina Two has a new career; I have an odd feeling that I am morphing into their Great Aunt Edna—a nutty and slightly eccentric older woman, reasonably well-preserved, but, like the September sun poking through the smudged glass ceiling of the train station, maybe trying a little too hard to keep on shining. I love my circle of young friends—I have about six good pals who are in their thirties—but they are just so, well, young. They still have menstrual cramps and waistlines and instant-recall memories. Some of them even have mothers my age.  Not one of them, as far as I know, actually has a Great Aunt Edna.

I rip off a piece of bread and glance at the automated board overhead. Good. My train is coming. The S25 to Overath—right on time. How I love rail transportation in Europe. Moving more slowly than usual, the long red train creeps into the station. I chew my Brötchen as the lead car, the one housing the engineer, edges past me. The engineer, let’s call him Axel, leans out the window. Axel is hot. Axel knows he’s hot. Axel is literally hot, too—sweaty and dirty and just a tad unshaven, and he smiles in my direction. Whoa. Smile is not the correct word. He leers in my direction. Shouldn’t he be watching the track? I turn around to see where he’s looking—must be a college girl in short-shorts, or a super-model wannabe, or an Eastern European pole-dancer in thigh-high boots—but I stand in a cluster of forlorn looking teenage boys and men in dark suits. The brakes of the train squeal. I turn back around and face Axel. He grins at me again, runs his eyes up and down my body, and does a funny thing with his tongue. He points and me and nods. Oh! I don’t know what to do. As a happily married fifty-five year old woman, I’m out of practice with nasty-nasty flirting.

I’m so flustered that I salute Axel with my half-eaten Brötchen, a gesture that immediately makes me a strong candidate for Desperate Woman of the Year. Saluting with a Brötchen? The heat rises in my face as I step onto the train.

I sink into my seat. What in the world was that? I guess I don’t look so bad today. Quick, what am I wearing? White linen pants, tennis shoes, and a black t-shirt. There are breadcrumbs on the t-shirt, but still, it must be a pretty hip outfit. Axel is like, what? Twenty-eight? I wonder what would happen if I went up to his cockpit (is that what they call the engine car of a train?) and knocked on the door. Not to jump on him or anything, just to ask him personally why the hell he glad-eyed me. I’ve spent over a decade being ignored by guys like Axel, and I’m curious why today, of all days, I’m a target.

My fantasy conversation goes like this:

“Was it the linen pants?” I say. “Or the Brötchen crumbs?”

“I love mature women,” he replies. “And you, with those adorable little Ecco sneakers in just the right shade of taupe? You, baby, turn me on.”

“Oh, thank you, Axel,” I say, feeling a little shy, but not the least bit tempted by him.

“You’re so youthful, so full of vitality,” Axel says. “Your face isn’t falling down at all. You’re hot.”

“Me? I’m hot?”

“You. You’re hot.”

Never mind that Axel would be speaking German—guys who look like Axel don’t speak English—his words would be poetic and warm. He would be polite in a sleazy way. He would never once mention the term MILF. He would smell like grease and engine dirt and Mennen Speed Stick deodorant, even though it’s not available in Europe. He would run his fingers through his filthy hair, bat his sleepy (and slightly bloodshot) eyes at me and say: “You, little lady, do something to me, and it ain’t just the shoes. Come on up here and sit next to me; I’ll let you drive the train.”

I go on and on like this, eyes closed, deep in a menopausal Thomas the Tank Engine fantasy. Funny isn’t it, how one lascivious look from a train engineer could set me off this way. I have gone from Great Aunt Edna to Sydney Leathers in a mere ten minutes. The words to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” flash through my brain. Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah . . .  ah, a mid-September reverie. I wonder if I should wave to him when I get off the train. Or leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Just before I get to the Dinah won’t you blow part of the song (an ill-advised lyric if there ever was one), I open my eyes to see how close I am to home.

“Holweide. Next stop Holweide,” says the computerized voice over the PA system.

Holweide?” I say to no one in particular, but everyone hears my panic. “Where is this train going?”

“Holweide!” several people answer in unison, a Greek Chorus with a smidgen of Schadenfreude.

I am on the wrong goddamn train. That goddamn dirtball Axel, or whoever the hell he is, tricked me. He did that tongue thing, I turned into a wobbly-kneed idiot, and I got on the wrong goddamn train. He probably has a scorecard on his sooty engineer’s desk, where he keeps track of how many pathetic middle-aged women he can confuse. I feel like charging into his cockpit and kicking him in the caboose.

I’m fuming. While waiting for the train to reach Holweide, I have another fantasy conversation with Axel:

“What’s the matter with you?” I ask. “Do you think this is funny?”

“Not my fault you fell for it,” he says. “Works every time. You MILFS get all steamed up and just step right into my clutches.”

“I didn’t step into your clutches. I stepped onto the wrong train.”

“Gotta double-check the board, lady.”

“I didn’t double-check the board, Axel, because you were drooling at me from your cockpit window and I was distracted. Shame on you. And I am not a MILF. I am a well-adjusted and happily married mother of two grown children. I don’t need looks from guys like you to feel good about myself.”

“Could’ve fooled me. And it’s not a cockpit, you know.”

“Whatever.”

***

I get off the train at Holweide, humiliated, tired, and wishing I hadn’t thrown away the rest of my Brötchen. Axel leans out the window, doing his engineer thing, and pulls away from the platform without giving me a second glance. Maybe he never even gave me a first glance. I wonder if I’ve imagined the entire episode. I am now sure that my face really is falling down and that these shoes are not very cute at all.

It’s not like I haven’t dealt with a leering man before. It’s just that it hasn’t happened in ages. I’m out of shape, so to speak. I used to sit at my piano and laugh at guys who acted like Axel. Buffoons! But now, a dozen years after donning my middle-age invisibility cloak and my Great Aunt Edna shield of elegance and eccentricity, I’ve been reduced to blushing and performing the Brötchen salute. And if that’s not punishment enough, I’m in some God forsaken place called Holweide with nothing to do except wait for the train in the opposite direction to get me back to where I started.

Life. One step forward, two steps back. Just once, I’d like to go sideways.

***

“John,” I say to my husband. “I am in Holweide.”

“What?” he says. “Hole what?” The phone connection is dicey.

“Holweide!”

“What are you doing there?”

“I got on the wrong train.”

“How in the world did you do that?” he says.

“Long story. I’ll tell you later.” I’m not sure if I’ll confess or not. John—handsome, intelligent, and  the polar opposite of bad boy Axel—is the love of my life. It seems pretty stupid to tell him I got on the wrong train because a hunky pervert with dirty hair and a long tongue cast his roving eye in my direction. We hang up and I sit and wait an hour for the next train.

I decide I must be the victim of the German version of “Candid Camera,” an awful show called “Verstehen Sie Spass?”—the English translation of which is “Do You Understand Fun?”

The answer is no. I do not understand Spass, at least not the German kind.

Out of boredom I fall into a Zen-like state that’s one stifled yawn short of unconscious. I wish I had another Brötchen. Why oh why am I always so hungry? A man with a shaved head sits down next to me. He wears a ribbed sleeveless undershirt—we used to call them muscle shirts back in the day: now they’re called wife beaters. Tattoos cover the man’s burly arms. Sadly, one of his arms stops at the elbow. Little fingers stick out of the elbow joint. The little fingers are also tattooed.  I try not to stare, but I’m fascinated. There are skulls on each of the little fingers, and right above the stump is a heart with an inscription that reads: Forever Christina.

Three Christinas in one day. Really, it’s almost too much.

With his other (full-length) arm the man removes a packet of American Mac ‘n Cheese casserole mix from his jeans pocket. Grasping the packet with his teeny tiny tattooed elbow fingers, he begins to study the instructions. There are little American flags on the package, and a photo of a delicious looking bowl of Mac ‘n Cheese on the cover. I have nothing with me to read, so I’m grateful to look over his elbow and read along with him.

This is what happens to women who end up in Holweide. It seems a fitting punishment for my gullibility.

Finally the train arrives. I nod a silent goodbye to the muscle man (he is still memorizing the Mac ‘n Cheese packet), take the train back to the main station, and begin waiting again. Twenty minutes later, the train to my village arrives. The engineer drives right past me, the breaks do not squeal, and the doors open efficiently. There are no seats available—the car is packed with boisterous young people, returning home from Games.com, a trade show that features the latest ways to waste time and have fun shooting virtual bad guys. I have wasted a lot of time today myself, but I didn’t have any fun and I certainly didn’t shoot anyone, although at specific points in today’s voyage I might have been tempted. My feet hurt, my back aches, and I just want to sit on my living-room sofa and eat a bowl of Mac ‘n Cheese.  But I don’t eat cheese anymore, so it would be Mac ‘n Mac.

“Excuse me, Madame,” says a teenage girl in a tight black mini-skirt—exactly the kind of thing I would have worn at her age. She radiates confidence and youthful energy. “Would you like to sit down?” She jumps up and fluffs her hair. “I’ve been sitting all day, and you look like you could use a seat.”

“Thank you,” I say, in my best Great Aunt Edna voice. “Thank you.”

I sit back and settle in. I’m exhausted. In the course of two hours I have lost and regained three decades. I have traveled back and traveled forth, on the rails and in my mind. Now, thank goodness, I’m traveling home.

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl; Rhythm; and Waltz of the Asparagus People.

Music of Goodbye

IMG_7423It’s August 1st. Exactly nineteen years ago today I got on an airplane with my husband and toddler son and moved from New York City to Germany. I love my life here, but I miss New York. Or maybe I don’t—maybe I just miss the idea of it. I’m glad I left. I’m sad I left. I swing both ways.

Happy Anniversary to us. Moving to Europe was the biggest—and maybe the best—decision of my life.

Here something I’ve figured out: When you’re happy, you’re home, even if you’re not.

Let’s celebrate with a look back at 1994 and an excerpt from my book, Piano Girl: A Memoir .

***

Music of Goodbye

 “I can’t believe you’re leaving New York,” says Robin Spielberg. “It doesn’t seem real.”

We stand, holding hands, by the turnstiles leading to the N train at Fifty-seventh Street.

My family will be moving to Europe next week. Robin and I have just recorded my first solo piano CD, Somewhere in Time. She pitched the idea to a small record company in New England, and they hired her to produce the recording. I’ve never pursued a recording career, so I’m blown away by the very idea of the project. Hard as I try, I can’t imagine that anyone will buy one of my CDs in a record store unless they want to recreate that hotel-cocktail-lounge environment in the privacy of their own homes. Why not throw in a package of salted nuts, an overworked waitress, and a crowd of noisy chiropractors. But Robin Spielberg has more faith in my music than I do.

After a pleasantly intense six hours at Nola Recording Studios in Midtown Manhattan, we’ve got the makings of a nice CD. Ten years of rehearsing in Manhattan hotel lobbies gave me time to prepare.

***

The timing of the record contract is ironic. After a decade of playing in Manhattan piano bars, my time in New York City has come to a close. John has accepted the jazz bass chair with the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) Big Band, a jazz group sponsored by a large public television and radio conglomerate in Europe. I’d like to say that we’ve struggled with the decision for months and that we’ve lost sleep wondering whether we should leave New York. But we haven’t. We’re ready for a change. Both of us are working round the clock, our son spends way too much time with the babysitter, and the cost of private schooling in New York City looms like a five-headed monster. The job in Germany will mean a better education for our son, a chance for him to be bilingual, a great salary and benefits for my husband, and time for us to be a family. More than anything, we want time together, a luxury that too few American families these days can afford.

We’ve hired a very serious German teacher named Brunhilde, given notice on our apartment and various jobs, and called the German moving men. In five days they will pack all of our belongings, large and small, into organized boxes, stack them in a container, and ship them across the water to our new home.

 ***

I’ve never been good at farewells. Saying goodbye to my friends isn’t easy. I know that the promises we make to stay in touch, as well-intended as they may be, will be eaten alive by distance and time. In the end I’ll be left with an overstuffed photo album, scraps of conversations that cling to my memory, and the echoes of songs that remind me of a place I once loved. I know how much kindness I’ll be leaving behind. All I can do is trust that, no matter what, the memory of these friendships will sustain, nurture, and guide me. It won’t be enough, but that’s the price I’ll have to pay for moving on.

Robin and I embrace one last time before going to our separate subway platforms. She gave me a blue crystal globe at the recording session this morning, and I feel the weight of it in my pocket as I wave to her on the opposite side of the station. This phase of my life—the New York phase—is coming to an end. Trains roar and squeal in the station, but in my mind I hear Robin’s laughter, her words of encouragement, her gentle reminders that my music has a place in the world. She has been my cheerleader, my sounding board, my fellow musician, my friend. I’ll never replace her. I start to cry. A train pulls up to the platform between us. When it departs, she is gone.

 ***

The last hotel piano job I play in New York City is right where I started—in the Grand Hyatt. It’s a warm June afternoon, a perfect New York day. The lobby swarms with tourists eager to eat and drink and get outside to experience the city I’m preparing to leave. It’s an odd feeling, playing my last job in Manhattan. I want something meaningful to happen, but it doesn’t. I’m disappointed but not surprised. Last jobs in the lounge-music field are just like first jobs. The interesting part is what happens in between.

Today at the Hyatt, I play all of my favorite songs and end my last set with Carole King’s “Far Away.” Some of the regular Lobby People pass the piano, but not one of them even bothers to say hello. The sunlight filters through the skylights and reflects off the shiny surfaces in the marble lobby. I notice the mottled patterns of shadow and light on my hands. I long for fresh air. It seems a perfect time to leave.

***

“Hey you, Piano Girl!” yells Virginia the street lady as I pass by her corner. I’ve just been to the babysitter to retrieve my son, and we’re going for a last walk around the neighborhood.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” she shouts.

It’s almost 100 degrees today, but Virginia is wearing a heavy winter coat. I try to ignore her, like always, and hurry past with my head down. Curtis waves at her. He waves at everyone.

“You think you’re going somewhere better, but you’re not, you know. Anywhere you end up is good enough for the likes of you.”

 Well, that’s sort of a compliment. Or maybe not. Virginia confuses me. How does she even know I’m leaving the city?

“You’re not the mother of that baby,” she says. That stops me dead in my tracks.

“That baby belongs to everyone else. Not you.”

  Oh, brother.

“Goodbye Virginia,” I say. “Good luck to you.”

“But you’re not going anywhere. Not really. Your spindly legs won’t carry you far. You’ve ascended to your level of incompetence. The rest is futile. Everyone leaves. No one stays. Not even babies. Not even music. Time moves past you before you have a chance to grab on and go for a ride.”

I push the stroller up the avenue and hope she’s not right.

***

We call two cabs on the morning of our departure: a van for John and the bass in its big white fiberglass flight case, and a station wagon for Curtis and me, all of our suitcases, and the baby paraphernalia necessary to travel anywhere with a toddler. As John and the drivers load the cars, I walk around the apartment one last time, with Curtis in my arms. He is eighteen months old.

“Here’s where you took your first steps,” I say. “And here’s where you said your first word. Hot. Your first word was ‘hot.’”

“Hop,” he says.

“Here’s where you liked to sit and swing while Daddy played the bass. And here’s where Mommy’s piano once stood.”

“Panno,” says Curtis. “Mommy panno.”

“Yes,” I say. “Mommy’s piano. Where Mommy hung out and wrote songs about someday meeting a man like your daddy and having a baby boy like you.”

“Mommy music.”

“This is your first home, Curtis, the place where I dreamed about you before you were even you.” I whisper. “Your first home. I hope you’ll always remember it.”

“’Member,” he says. “Curty ’member.”

I take him downstairs and strap him in into his car seat. It’s sweltering outside. John peers into the open window of our cab.

“You okay?” he asks. He knows I’m not.

“Yeah,” I say. “I’m okay. Let’s get this show on the road.”

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl: A Memoir, published in 2005. Since then she has written two other books, a kids’ musical, and has recorded five solo piano CDs. Robin has lived in Germany since 1994, with her husband John and their two kids, Julia and Curtis.

 

 

 

The Magnolia Sessions: One More Project

Robin Meloy Goldsby checks in with an off-the-record account of her newest album, Magnolia.
 
Goldsby's new CD, Magnolia, features the composition "Mirage," a mother-son collaboration.

Goldsby’s new CD, Magnolia, features the composition “Mirage,” a mother-son collaboration.

“Hey, Momma, I want to write a song for you,” says Curtis, my nineteen-year old son.

“For me?”

“Yeah, for you. You know—for your new recording. I’ll compose it. You play it.”

Curtis is eating ramen noodles—the consumption of which seems to be a rite of passage for most boys his age—while constantly checking his phone for text messages, Facebook alerts, Four Square check-ins from his pals at the university, and emails from his boss at the language center where he teaches English. It seems impossible that with all his ramen-slurping, techno-toy-fidgeting, learning-teaching multi-tasking he could find time to compose a piano piece. But I’m not about to turn down the chance to work with my adult child on one more project. We see each other far too little these days. We clog dance in widening circles around each other and prepare for the day he moves out. It could be tomorrow, next year, or next decade. The uncertainty makes us both a little cranky.

“Look, Curtis, I’m recording in January. It’s already November. If you want to compose something for me I’ll be happy to consider it, but it has to be finished soon so I can get it into my fingers before the first studio date. And no hip-hop. Hip-hop solo piano won’t work for me.”

“Okay, Momma,” he says, rinsing out his ramen bowl and heading down into the music room. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s see what happens. Oh, by the way, if I compose this and you record it, I get money, right?”

“Yes. But it will take a long time before GEMA and BMI royalties kick in.”

“How long?” he asks. “I need to buy some new shoes.”

“A year,” I say. “Maybe longer.”

“Really?” he says.

“Yep. Welcome to the music business. You want new shoes, you really have to plan ahead.”

Two days after his initial trip to the basement music room, Curtis emerges, flushed and nimble-fingered, ready to perform his piece for me. “Are you ready?” he says.

“Sure,” I say.

“It’s in F minor.”

“Okay,” I say. “I like F minor. F minor is good.”

He sits at my 1961 Baldwin grand—a gift from my grandfather—and rips into the composition. I’m right in the middle of hacking onions for lentil soup but I stop mid-chop, because, frankly, what he’s playing is beautiful—influenced by his father’s music but leaning unabashedly in my direction. It’s the best gift he has ever given me. Because of the speed, and because his hands are so much larger than mine, I know it won’t be easy to learn. But now I’m on a mission. One more project.

“What’s it called?” I ask.

“I like the name ‘Mirage,'” he says. “You know, when you think you see something, but it’s not really there.”

“Perfect.”

“What’s up Momma?” he says. “Are you crying?”

“No, no, no. Just the onions.”

“Okay.”

“Okay,” I say, wiping my hands on a dishcloth. “Show me how it goes.”

And he does.

 * * *

I prepare like crazy for my recording sessions—even with five solo piano albums under my skirt I’m not the type of musician who can mosey into a studio and wait for magic to happen without doing my homework. My creative process has never included dewdrops, angel voices, spiritual transformations or sparkling moments of enlightenment. Where, oh where, are those lovely muses in flowing white robes—the ones with lilting accents and fluttering wings who might drop into my consciousness and gently guide me through my projects? I have never met these fantasy ladies, but I hear they’re out there somewhere, probably perusing the flowing robe department at Bergdorf Goodman. If you run into one of them, send her my way.

My recording journey has to be carefully plotted and mapped out, which makes it less like magic and more like work. It’s a process I’ve learned to respect, the same way I respect other things I adore—fierce and foamy waves in an unsettled sea, a bowl of fiery chili peppers, a frosted bottle of really good vodka. I proceed with caution. I practice and pound the music to a pulp, hating it a little before I start to love it. And love it, I do. When the melodies and rhythmic patterns are so ingrained that nothing trips me up—I fluff the stuff back to life, head to the studio and hope for the best. Sometimes, when I’m calm, I scatter my musical thoughts like stardust onto the keys. Sometimes it’s more like sawdust. No big deal—I brush away the detritus and start over again. Unlike real life, the “take over” option is always available. This comforts me. I enter a mental Piano Zone, a warm place that’s quiet and a little bit gilded.

Almost two decades ago, I recorded Somewhere in Time, my first album. It was 1994 and my dear friend Robin Spielberg had brokered a record deal for me with a fledgling record label called Evergreen Music. I didn’t think I was up to the task, but she yanked me into Nola Recording Studios (in the Steinway building on Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan) and sat me down at Erroll Garner’s Steinway B. I had been playing in Manhattan piano lounges for eleven years, so I knew I was ready, but still, my knees knocked together, my hands sweat, my heart felt like a metronome turned up to tempo tantrum. I wanted to sound perfect, a concept that now makes me laugh. Back then, at age thirty-five, it wasn’t so funny. Perfect was perfect and that was that.

We recorded about twenty tracks that day. In six hours. Spielberg wore the producer’s hat; she had the lights in the studio turned down low, tea candles on a nearby table, the temperature in the room set at just the right level. I felt like I was in a velvet-lined cocktail lounge, minus the bowls of smoked almonds and tables of chattering orthopedic shoe salesmen. She talked to me between takes—in a way that only a best friend can—and convinced me to play just for her. We soldiered through and got the damn recording in the can. No magic, just trust and a lot of hard work. I kept waiting for the ladies in the flowing robes, but they didn’t show up and we didn’t need them. Spielberg and I toasted each other with Diet Coke and Fig Newtons. Then she bought me an egg salad sandwich, we cried, I moved to Germany, and my music career was punted like a football to the other side of the Atlantic. I arrived in Europe just in time to catch it and run.

My dad always said to me: “The key to sounding good is to know when you don’t.” I like that. Stay focused, stay real, and remember my limitations.  And forget about sounding perfect. Since that day in 1994, I’ve learned to treasure every imperfect minute in the studio. No more anxiety attacks. No more second-guessing or losing sleep. I still have moments of indecision and confusion—all artists do—but I don’t let them slap me down. Or if they do, I slap them back. Many voices crowd into my mental control room during recording sessions—some of them judgmental, some of them kind and supportive, others philosophical or whimsical or whacky. I hear my parents, my best friends, my piano teacher (“curve those fingers!”), my kids (“what’s for dinner?”). In between bouts of intense playing and concentrated listening I hear the roar, the cheers, the boos and hisses, of my personal crowd. If you were beamed into the studio during one of these sessions, you might think I look lonely—there’s something melancholy about a middle-aged woman sitting at a very large piano in a darkened room—but honestly, there’s an invisible party going on in here. Have a drink. Pull up a chair. Tell me what you think. Everyone else does.

* * *

On the day I’m scheduled to record Curtis’s “Mirage” for my Magnolia album, Curtis and I arrive at Topaz Studios in Cologne, Germany. I’ve asked Curtis to sit in the producer’s chair for this session. As any mother will tell you, our children—one way or another—produce our lives from the moment they’re born, so today shouldn’t be any different. He folds his lanky body into a chair in the control room and we wait for Hans Giese, the piano technician, to finish his work. Reinhard Kobialka, the sound technician, chats easily with Curtis about how he has miked the piano and how the recording will proceed.

When Hans finishes tweaking the last few notes I head into the main room and sit at the Steinway. I feel happy here. I’ve been recording on this instrument for so many years—my hands feel like they’ve arrived home. The keys are warm, a regimented welcoming committee smartly dressed in black and white. I play a few scales, a few arpeggios, a few chord progressions. Then, after Reinhard checks the levels of his many microphones, I start to record Curtis’s piece.

I’m here at the piano, Curtis is in the control room, and a thick wall of glass separates us. I close my eyes to play, but my eyelids won’t block the slideshow in my mind. As I move through the piece I see all nineteen years of him, from babbling baby boy, to sullen eight-year-old with skinned knees, to sultry hip-hop teenager, to now. A feeling of calm drops over me and I have the sensation that everything in my life—my children, my marriage, my music—all of it is turning out okay.

Magnolia is just one more project, but right now it seems essential to push the notes out of my fingers and into the world. To get it all down for later. When I’m a wobbly—but hopefully hip—old lady in a lavender lace dress I’ll look back at my audio scrapbooks and be reminded of the things that counted enough to make me run to the piano and play. My records are, in a way, public musical diaries—finger paintings of small moments I want to remember. My albums aren’t really “released” into the world—they break out and escape the boundaries of my control, gallop into the distance, and leave me empty-handed but with plenty of freedom to move on. I guess they’re a little like children.

The music I’m playing is fast but it can’t sound hectic. “Mirage” needs to flow like brook water on a spring day; like amber lava on a steep volcanic mountain; like magnolia petals in a sudden breeze. The song should sound like a nineteen-year-old’s idea of the future—unexpected, forward moving, optimistic. As Curtis has said, the piece should sound like we’re seeing something that isn’t really there.

I finish playing and glance at my son in the control room. He smiles, nods, and says quietly into my headphones: “Let’s try it again, Momma. One more time.”

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. Magnolia is her fifth solo piano recording. Her other albums, Somewhere in Time, Twilight, Songs from the Castle, and Waltz of the Asparagus People are available worldwide. Along with songwriting partner Peter Fessler, Goldsby recently performed for Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. As a solo artist she has played on concert stages in Vienna, New York City (Steinway Hall), Marrakesh, Dublin, Hamburg, Berlin, Stockholm, and Vilnius. Goldsby has also been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. Robin is the author of Piano Girl : A Memoir; Rhythm: A Novel; and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl.

 

Music for Naked People

Piano Girl Robin Meloy Goldsby revisits the neighborhood sauna. This time around, they’re playing her song.

An unidentified model and Sauna Guy.

An unidentified model and Sauna Guy.


It’s ten minutes to noon at Mediterana, a pastel-colored award-winning sauna and wellness spa located in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany, about twenty minutes from my front door. Mediterana, with its spacious gardens and multiple thermal pools, saunas, and steam baths, hosts up to 1000 guests a day. For me—a middle-aged health-obsessed woman—having this place so close to home is like having Disneyland in my backyard. Spending a day here offers the bargain-basement equivalent of a mini-vacation to the south of France, a Spanish island, or a Moroccan beach. For thirty-eight euros (about fifty dollars), I can show up at nine in the morning, sweat, soak, soap, and sleep the day away, and emerge in the evening feeling like I’ve peeled off a couple of years. Amazing what a little exfoliating can do.

Today I’m meeting Andrea, my friend and the resident director of the Mediterana. Her expert  team of employees has put together a sauna ceremony called “Piano del Sol,” which features solo piano music from two of my recordings. “Piano del Sol,” a twelve-minute sauna odyssey with music piped through an expensive sound system, takes place five times a day. We will attend the noon ceremony, and, along with thirty other naked people, listen to my piano music and perspire. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’ve been known to sweat while listening to myself, but usually it’s while I’m playing and wearing a black evening gown. I feel naked enough when performing, actually being naked seems like one naked too many.

Right now, I’ve covered myself with a plain white bathrobe and a pair of flip-flops. I pace on a lavender-lined path while waiting for Andrea to show up. Guests of all shapes and sizes—don’t get me started on that theme—carefully hang their fairy-cloth designer robes on wrought-iron hooks attached to Moroccan-tiled walls. One by one, naked as the day they were born, they open the door to the Candle Sauna and meander into the heat.

Andrea, the busiest gal in the sauna biz, careens around the corner at one minute to noon. She is wearing a pink bathrobe—not her normal workday uniform, but an appropriate costume for onsite inspections of the dozens of ceremonies and aromatherapy sessions offered at Mediterana.

“Woo,” she says, glancing at the clock on the wall. “Just made it. Busy day!” It’s not easy to look professional and stylish in a fluffy pink bathrobe, but she manages to exude an air of complete confidence. I am fascinated by her job. I can’t imagine working for a multi-million dollar business where all of my clients were buck-naked.

“You ready?” she says, shedding her robe and revealing a plaid cotton wrap around her mid section, discreetly covering all of her private parts.

“Hey!” I say. “What’s that? You get to wear a towel in there?”

“Yeah. I’m the boss.”

“Oh great,” I say. “But what about me? The featured piano player?”

She laughs. I laugh. I take off my robe. I’m at ease in the naked sauna these days, but only when I can be anonymous. Because they’ll be playing my music, and because there’s a framed poster with my photo hanging next to the sauna door, I feel a little, uh, exposed.

“Wait a minute,” I say. “The sauna guy conducting the ceremony isn’t going to introduce me or anything is he? I mean, he’ll just turn on the music and conduct the ceremony and no one will know I’m here, right?”

“Hmmm. I’m not sure,” Andrea says.

“Okay,” I say. “But if I have to stand up and take a bow I’m going to die. I draw the line at naked bowing. As Ellie Mae Clampet would say, ‘It just ain’t dignified.’ ”

“Who’s Ellie Mae Clampet?” she asks. I guess The Beverly Hillbillies never made it to Germany.

“Never mind,” I say. “Let’s go.”

**

It seems fitting that my piano career has taken this rather unconventional turn. I’ve performed live in fancy-pants concert halls, castle cocktail lounges, embassies, third world countries, and roadside dives. My recordings have been used occasionally in television and film productions, but they also have been played in hospitals and schools, funeral homes and birthing rooms, hotel restaurants and furniture store cafeterias. As far as I know no one is playing my music in elevators, at least not yet. I like to think—and hope—the songs I compose and perform are relaxing without being mind-numbing, meditative without being boring. I live with two sophisticated teenage pop-music-experts and a jazz-bassist husband whose nickname is the Chord Doctor. The three of them keep me from falling into a New Age tedium pit. I admit to having tendencies in this direction, so I’m lucky my kids and the Chord Doctor patrol my practice sessions like an in-house harmony task force, making sure I don’t write anything that sounds like whale song or subliminal chimes.

Everyone in this house has a few suggestions about how to make my music hipper. In a nice way, they let me know when I’m too boring, too lackluster, too monotonous.

John: “Maybe you could add a b9 to that F#7 chord.”

Curtis: “That bridge needs some kind of groove. Try this. And play it faster.”

Julia: “Have you heard the new Ludovico Einaudi soundtrack? You should go in that direction.”

When I’m smart and feeling open-minded, I listen to their tips.  When I’m stubborn I don’t. It’s composition by committee. I end up with a kind of Meno-Mom-Meets-Meldau fusion that, in the best-case scenario, chills people out while they shop, heal, sleep, or think. I write music, record it, and release it into the world. Who knows where it will end up or how it will be used? I like to think that what I record belongs to me—and during the creative process, even with the input of my in-house advisory team, it does. But once it’s out there? All bets are off. It could end up anywhere at all. Anywhere.

Not long ago, on a storybook-perfect Christmas morning at Schlosshotel Lerbach, a castle guest—dressed to the hilt in mink and velvet—charged into the lobby and zig-zagged through the crowd to the piano.

“Merry Christmas, Frau Schnitzler-Herkenrath,” I said.

“Merry Christmas,” she replied. Then, right there in the midst of all the German Christmas cheer—we’re talking gingerbread, mulled wine, candles, and real chestnuts roasting on a real open fire—she burst into tears. I abruptly stopped playing my joyous version of “Hark the Herald,” stood up, and hugged her.

“Whatever is wrong, Frau Schnitzler-Herkenrath?” I asked.

“My father died last week,” she said.

I had known her father. He was a sweet old man with a winning smile. Detlev—that was his name—had a chronic dripping nose. I would dodge the drips while he stood over me at the piano and showed me American business cards he had collected in the early thirties, before the war. He kept the cards in his wallet, held together with an old rubber band. In halting English, he would read the addresses to me and ask if I knew any of the men. I always suspected there was something more to the story, but our conversations never progressed to the point where I felt comfortable asking.

“I am so sorry, Frau Schnitzler-Herkenrath. You must be very sad.”

“He was a day short of his ninety-seventh birthday. When he took his last breath he was listening to your music.”

I paused for a moment. “Really?” I said, halfway hoping this wasn’t true.

“Really,” she said.

I sighed. I knew she meant this as the highest compliment, but still. I gave her one more hug, perhaps a tad less sincere than the first embrace. Frau Schnitzler-Herkenrath composed herself, dried her tears, and went off to eat the Christmas goose.

I stayed at the piano. I got a little weepy and nostalgic, thinking about old Detlev, with his stack of antique business cards and drip-drip-dripping nose. The last thing I wanted to do was play “Jingle Bells.” My husband, on a break from his jazz gig in the castle Brasserie, came to meet me in the lobby. He noticed my blotchy face and smeared mascara.

“What’s wrong?” he said. “It’s Christmas! Joy to the world! Deck the halls!”

“Detlev Schnitzler-Herkenrath died last week while listening to my Songs from the Castle CD.”

Really?” he said.

“Really,” I said.

Silence.

“Huh,” said John. “I wonder which track did him in.”

**

Back to the sauna.

Maybe my melodies will help the naked folks relax and unwind. Maybe the songs will help cleanse away the effects of too much stress, too much gin, too little sleep. Maybe they’ll like what I play, maybe they won’t. I just hope they won’t die while they’re listening. I really hope they don’t dance. If there’s anything worse than naked bowing, it’s naked dancing. I don’t know. Hope this, hope that. There’s a lot of hope in this essay. But maybe that’s what making music is all about.

We enter the sauna. About thirty very toasty Germans sit or recline on tiered wooden benches. They look pretty relaxed. They look hot. I mean that in the traditional sense. Hot, as in warm.

A3_2

I clutch my towel to my chest. The towel is a critical accessory in the German sauna. Skin is not allowed to touch any part of the wood. To comply with this very strict rule, you need a very long sauna towel, or you need two bath towels capable of stretching the length of your body. Getting your feet, your butt, your head and your arms all lined up on the towel can seem like a round of naked Twister.

Not that anyone is looking, but I doubt I’ll be recognized in here. In the photo hanging outside I’m cloaked in black velvet, spackled with M.A.C. Studio Fix, and photo-shopped. In here I’m stripped bare, clean-faced, and well worn. I look around carefully. Nope. No one cares. I wrestle with my towel and get all of my body parts situated on a lower bench. Better to stay on the bottom—reaching the higher benches involves stepping over other people, which I refuse to do without underpants. Plus, it gets really hot up there.

Andrea lounges on one of the top benches, but she is a sauna pro and can take the heat. I eye her wrap. Because everyone else is naked, the wrap gives her an air of authority. I never thought I would covet an orange plaid cloth (with fringe!) that looks like a North African dishtowel—but I would give anything to be covered up right now.

At the stroke of noon, Sauna Guy enters the room and closes the door behind him. Like most of the employees at Mediterana, Sauna Guy is pony-tailed, buff, tan, and looks like he never breaks a sweat. He carries a huge wooden bucket of ice. He adds a few drops of aromatherapy essential oil to the ice and places it in a large Moroccan metal bowl—suspended from a pendulum in the center of the wooden ceiling. He sets the pendulum swinging back and forth over the sauna rocks. The ice drips onto the hot stones and sizzles.

We have only been in here for forty-five seconds and it already feels like it’s 1000 degrees.

What better time for a little music!

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Piano de Sol sauna ceremony. The ceremony will take approximately 12 minutes and will be divided into two parts, featuring two solo piano recordings composed by American musician Robin Goldsby.”

Sauna Guy seems a little nervous, but I’m sure it’s because Andrea, his boss, is in the audience. By the way, Sauna Guy is also wearing one of those plaid dishrags. He has it wrapped around his waist like a loin cloth. It’s a look.

“We’ll be enjoying lavender, lemongrass, and eucalyptus essential oils during the ceremony. You’ll have the chance to leave the sauna between songs. Otherwise, please remain seated. And please remain silent.”

This is new for me—I like the idea of a guard in a loin cloth who forces people to listen, sit still, and not talk.

The music starts. The ice pendulum drips. The rocks sizzle. Sauna Guy parades around the room, majestically waving a large flag. This circulates the scented hot air, wafting it into our faces and melting away the stress of the day. I can’t decide if this experience is ridiculous or wonderful. Maybe a little of both. Once again—this happens to me about twice a week here in Germany—I feel as if I’ve been kick-dropped into the middle of a Mel Brooks film.

My neighbors on the lower bench take deep cleansing breaths. Inhale. Exhale. The first song, “Flying, Falling,” comes to an end.  Sauna Guy opens the door for a moment, but no one leaves. I’m sweating like a Schwein and would like to flee but I can’t run out on my own recorded performance, so I stay put. My second song, “Magnolia,” starts. Because I recorded the damn thing, I know that it will play for exactly four minutes and fifteen seconds. Inhale. Exhale. I float into the music and listen, halfway expecting to hear careless phrasing, places where I should have listened to the Chord Doctor, or slipshod technique. But it all sounds okay to me—not great or glorious, but somehow perfect for this particular moment. At one point, I even forget I’m listening to myself.

No one dies. No one dances. Everyone sweats, but that’s to be expected. I do not have to take a naked bow—the applause at the conclusion of the ceremony is not for me, but for Sauna Guy, who has expertly guided us through our twelve-minute easy-bake musical ritual. I collect my towel and file out of the sauna with the other naked guests. I’m hungry for cool air. I’m relaxed and naked and one of the crowd. I’m—dare I say it?—hopeful.

**

The Mediterana Wellness Field.

The Mediterana Wellness Field.

Bonus Naked Story! (Something extra from the Goldsby Archives)

In 1994, when I first moved to Germany, I wrote a long story about my first visit to the naked sauna, called “Naked.” I learned a valuable lesson from the publication of this piece, mainly that success in literature often involves including the word “naked” in the title. David Sedaris found this out with the 1997 publication of his hysterically funny book, Naked. My pal Robin Spielberg is publishing her first book, a memoir called Naked on the Bench: My Adventures in Pianoland. Watch for it this fall. With a title like that, she can’t go wrong. 

Anyway, I’ve been getting mileage out of this naked sauna thing for a long time.  In case you’ve never read the first piece, here it is. Various forms of this essay have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1995), Expatriate Living (2005), and, most recently, in my book: Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl (2011). Happy reading!

Naked

Excerpted  from Goldsby’s book,  Waltz of the Asparagus People (Bass Lion Publishing)

I’ve always been a big fan of the sauna. A good sauna can relax you, clear your head, and make your skin look great. And all of this for a mere fifteen minutes of sweating. Not a bad deal, when you think of it. I would love to go to a sauna right now, but I’m tangled in a web of German red tape and boxed in by stacks of moving cartons crowding our new apartment. I’m busy trying to unpack music books, learn how to pronounce unbefristige-Aufenthaltserlaubnis (the German version of a green card), and teach my son how to say danke to the cheese lady at the local market. A neighbor, sensing my need for a time out, tells me that the very pretty Sülztal Family Sauna is right up the hill from our home. I’m ready.

In Germany saunas are for naked people only. Bathing suits are verboten. Fine. But I’m an American woman. I’m fond of Lycra tank suits in dark colors, preferably with invisible lace-covered support panels. These days I worry that my six-pack looks more like a one-pack. A naked debut in public should be left to those on the prettier side of middle age.

Or?

One of the great things about moving to a foreign country is getting a chance to discover just how brainwashed we are by our own customs and traditions. The Germans pick wild mushrooms from the forest and eat raw pork for supper with no worry of falling into a trichinosis-induced coma. A lot of Americans—who would never ever touch a wild mushroom, let alone eat a piece of pig meat that hasn’t been cooked in a blast furnace—eat peanut butter and bacon sandwiches and deep-fried Twinkies served on sticks. After just a few months in this country, I can see the German catalog of odd customs is just as wacky as its American counterpart. The trick, I suppose, is to figure out which American habits to toss and which German habits to adopt. Maybe the sauna would be a good place to start.

I’ve always worn a damp bathing suit in the sauna, because that’s what we do in America. Never once, as I stepped into the tiny sauna at my New York City health club, did it occur to me that wearing a sticky garment in a sweatbox might not be a great idea. Maybe naked would be better. It would certainly be more comfortable. With this in mind I set off for the sauna. My husband stays home with our young son, who yells on my way out the door, “Get NAKEY, Mommy.”

I enter the Sülztal Family Sauna—an oasis of tranquility tucked into a corner of meadow next to the Autobahn. I pay my fee for a day pass, tuck my hang-ups in the locker with my underpants, put on a bathrobe, and step through the heavy wooden door into an airy room filled with fountains, pools, and sunlight streaming through generous windows. There are men everywhere. Old men. Young men. Naked men. Water, water everywhere and not a gal in sight. I thought this was supposed to be a family place. The last time I saw this many naked men was at the Continental Baths, a gay men’s health club in Manhattan that offered cabaret entertainment (Bette Midler! Peter Allen!) on the weekends. But most of those guys wore towels around their chiseled waistlines. The guys I’m looking at now, thick-bellied and heavy-balled, are not wearing towels. They stroll aimlessly, the way men do when visiting the home improvement center on a Saturday afternoon.

I try not to stare, really I do, but I’ve got a front-row seat at the Penis Parade, and it’s a spectacle I’ve never seen before. These guys have other remarkable features, I’m sure, but all I see are penises. Fat ones, skinny ones, dangling and dazzling, the long and the short of it. Who knew there were so many varieties? And look! That penis marching toward the waterfall? It’s wearing a little hat.

Flip, flop, flip, flop. The sound of the naked men’s pool shoes flapping on the tile floor slaps me back to reality.

Brauchen Sie Hilfe?” says a middle-aged man with a friendly penis. I mean smile. I have no idea what he’s saying. In addition to my lack of German-language skills, I am also suffering from hysterical deafness.

I put on my very best face, the one I once wore when asking for assistance at the Chanel counter at Saks Fifth Avenue, cinch the belt on my bathrobe, look him in the penis, I mean eye, and say, “I am lost. Where is the door? You know. Door. Go outside.” I am speaking in a very loud American Indian voice, the one I use when I think I’m talking to non-English speakers. I sound like Tonto.

“You are standing right next to it,” he says, in perfect English. “Here, allow me.” He is a gentleman with no pants on. He opens the door and I step through.

Olive trees and eucalyptus line the curved paths that wind through the landscaped garden. If it weren’t for the naked men and the crisp November air, I’d feel as if I had entered a Provençale fantasyland. Or Oz.

Germans love fresh air, even when they’re naked and the temperature is cold enough to stun a polar bear. I walk through the garden, shivering. I sneeze. This is ridiculous. I’m at a place that specializes in heat, and I’m out here freezing my ass off.

Hey, look at that guy there. The one with the blond penis, I mean hair. Well, that too. He looks like Sting.

I follow Sting because he looks like he knows where he’s going. He jumps into a pool, and I continue on the circular path until I’m back at the entrance to the main building. I spot the steam room and peer through the glass door. Two women. No men. This I can handle.

I look over my shoulder to make sure no one is staring, remove my bathrobe, yank open the door, and enter the steam room. The two naked ladies acknowledge me with a hearty “Guten Morgen.” In Germany, when you enter a bakery, the waiting room of the doctor’s office, or a sauna full of buck-naked people, you are required by some mysterious code to shout out a greeting. Then you sit down and completely ignore everybody until it is time to leave, at which point you walk to the door and shout out a spirited goodbye. This custom can be particularly daunting for a foreigner. Especially a naked foreigner.

Guten Morgen!” I yell back at them. Silence. I sit. I wait. The steam hisses and covers us in a translucent fog. The mist airbrushes my stomach wrinkles and the voices in my head are quiet. It’s peaceful in here, a rain forest without the forest. Okay, maybe it’s a tad too warm. Just a tad, but I’m coping.

The two other women stand and stretch. Before leaving, they turn on a hose and spray off the bench for the next guests. What a nice country, I think.

Auf Wiedersehen,” they shout.

Auf Wiedersehen,” I respond. I’m one of the crowd now. No one would ever guess I’m American. I’m just another naked Frau out for a steam.

It feels so luxurious, so decadent, being in this huge steam room all by myself. But warm. Very warm. Some might say hot. Boiling hot. Jesus Christ. Time to get out of here. I teeter toward the exit. Just as I reach the door, two barrel-chested men barge into the steam room.

Guten Morgen!” they shout.

Guten Morgen!” I say. Now what? If I remain standing I’m fully exposed.

I sit down. I cross my arms and my legs, hiding my private parts by turning myself into a human pretzel. I’m sweating like a Schwein. If I don’t get out of here soon I’ll faint. Shit, shit, shit. Worse than having these two guys see me naked in a steam bath would be to wake up in a German Krankenwagon with nothing on. Or what if I die from the heat and end up in the Nakey Morgue with a coroner making snide comments about my lack of muscle tone?

Enough.

Just as I’m about to flee, I remember that I’m obliged to spray off the goddamn bench. I grab the hose and turn on the faucet. The hose flies out of my hands and sprays one of the men in the face with cold water. He yells. The hose—which has a life of its own—writhes on the mosaic tiles like a snake in an Indiana Jones movie. I hit the floor and crawl around—buck-naked—wrestling with the hose as it jerks up and down.

So much for dignity.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck sorry sorry sorry. I slide back toward the faucet. As I turn off the water I hear the men muttering something about foreigners. There goes the neighborhood, I imagine them saying.

I do not spray off my seat, and I do not shout a cheerful “auf Wiedersehen” as I drag myself out the door. I lean against the cool tiles of the shower area, gulping at the fresh air. For just a second, I forget that I’m naked. I notice my skin is as soft as a baby’s behind. A middle-aged baby, but I’ll take it.

**

I learn to love my neighborhood sauna. I experience one minor setback when I turn on the automatic “back massager” in the outdoor cold-water swimming pool. It unleashes a powerful stream of water that catapults me like a nude Scud missile to the other side of the pool, right in front of the folks having lunch on the terrace. By the way, when the weather is warm, many of the diners are also naked. I haven’t yet mustered up the courage for nakey dining. Somehow drinking a cup of hot coffee while topless doesn’t seem like the wisest choice.

My husband now enjoys the sauna as much as I do. He has become an expert in the Sauna Step-over Technique, a tricky procedure that involves lifting one’s leg and stepping over other naked people. Some folks recline in the sauna, and the step-over is the only way to get to the higher benches. Without the benefit of a bathing suit, or, at the very least, underpants, this can be difficult to master while maintaining a sense of decorum. Years will pass before I’m brave enough to attempt a step-over—I learn to look for a person with closed eyes, step lively, and try not to cough.

A decade after my first sauna experience I visit the brand-new Mediterana Sauna in Bergisch Gladbach, thirty minutes from my front door. Recently the Mediterana was voted one of the best spas in Europe. A day trip to this place seems like a mini-vacation. I’m particularly fond of the Himalaya Sauna, a golden-rose underground cave lined with 100 tons of healing salt crystal. The aromatic Candle Sauna offers a romantic view of the lake that borders the Mediterana property. The Rose Temple sauna smells like an English garden in mid-June. Heaven. It is the opposite of New York City.

During the regularly scheduled Mediterana Aufguss sessions, the sauna boy—muscular, shining with sweat, and wearing a plaid loincloth—comes into the sauna, drizzles a magic potion over the sauna rocks, and swings a towel over his head to circulate the aroma. There’s a Greek God vibe to the routine, and some of these guys put on quite a show. Very quickly I learn to lean back so I don’t get hit in the face with a wet towel.

Our kids, before they reach their adolescent years, will occasionally accompany us to the local sauna. Every so often I’ll catch a glimpse of them wandering around naked with all the other naked people, and I’m stunned by their innocence and lack of modesty. They seem so European. Still, with two American parents, I don’t imagine they’ll be picking wild mushrooms or ordering the pork carpaccio at the local Kneipe any time soon.

I’m at home in the German sauna now, even though, deep down inside, I still feel slightly embarrassed—and very American—when I enter the land of the unclothed. I’ve stopped staring at penises, chasing hoses, and flinging myself across swimming pools. I don’t know why the naked sauna was such a big deal for me in the first place. No one stares, no one cares, because naked, we all look pretty much the same—vulnerable, fragile, and flawed. Every so often I run into one of the gorgeous people, a Sting look-alike or a supermodel or a champion figure skater. We avoid eye contact and sit together and sweat. German or American, we all carry the weight of our nakedness, light as a feather, heavy as the past. Maybe it’s a burden worth sharing.

“Get nakey, Mommy!”

Yes. Why not?

**

 Robin Goldsby’s new CD, Magnolia, is now available for pre-order from Amazon and iTunes (Release date May 7th). Goldsby is the author of three books: Piano Girl: A Memoir; Rhythm: A Novel; and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl. Goldsby lives outside of Cologne, Germany, with her husband, jazz bassist John Goldsby, and their two kids. Most of the time Robin is fully clothed.

 

Sing! Finding the Backbeat and Holding On Tight


Robin Meloy Goldsby has a few things to say about singers, and, this time around, they’re all good.

John and I enter the Burgerhaus Forum in Overath, Germany. Tonight Julia is singing with the Paul Klee High School Choir, a feisty group of kids between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, who meet once a week in the evenings to learn new songs, study new harmonies, and tackle new challenges. That’s what they tell themselves, anyway. Mainly, for the last two years, they’ve been having a hell of a lot of fun with music. They call themselves The Singin’ Pauls.

The concert is scheduled to begin at 7:00 PM. We’re fifteen minutes early and the hall is already full—around 500 enthusiastic fans have shown up to listen to the choir. I look around and see a smattering of parents and grandparents, but I’m most impressed by the huge number of schoolmates crowding into the venue. Kids cheering for their musical friends! In Germany we don’t have school-sponsored athletic competitions. But we have this, and I’m grateful. We root for musicians instead of the athletes. It’s a little like having the halftime show without the football game. No linebackers, no pom-poms, no referees. Just music.

No seats!  It’s fifteen minutes until show time and the joint is packed. What to do. We may have lived in the German countryside for almost nineteen years, but we’ve maintained a few of our hard-won Manhattan skills. John and I can find a cab, a parking place, or an empty seat in just about any situation. We have good “available space” karma—a talent that comes from squeezing into crowded Times Square subway trains during rush hour.

“Look! There. Front row, left side. Two seats. Go.” We advance towards the seats and snag them just in time.

“I don’t know,” says John as he sets up his video equipment. “Julia might not be so thrilled to see us in the first row. Especially since I have the camera.”

What?” I say. “The only other choice is the very last row. We’re American parents. We’re supposed to be pushy, remember?  We’re staying in the front.”

At this point I spot Curtis, Julia’s brother, right behind us, with a couple of his friends. He’s proud of his sister.

Anticipation bounces around the hall. John finishes setting up his Zoom camera and we’re ready to go. The house lights dim. Forty kids march onstage and take their places. All shapes and sizes: Goths and good girls, hippies and Emos, German, Turkish, French, Iranian, Palestinian, and, yes, American. They face the audience. I can’t decide if they look old or young.  Julia stays out front—she has a solo in the first song. She messes with the microphone cable, then turns around. That’s when she sees us in the front row—John with his camera, and me, bursting into tears.  Where these tears come from I have no idea. I could blame it on my mother (she’s a champion weeper and I seem to have inherited this trait from her), or menopause, or the whole circle of life thing, which sets me off pretty often these days, but really there’s no excuse. It’s a high school choir concert for heaven’s sake—a medium sized group of big kids trying to stay cool. That’s it. Their sweet, expectant faces are killing me. This is not casual crying with ladylike tears; these are big shoulder-shaking sobs.

Julia laughs when she sees us. Then she rolls her eyes, just a little. There are 500 people here, she’s preparing to sing a solo, her dad, with his goofy grin, is aiming a camera at her, her mother is having a change-of-life breakdown, and she’s completely calm. She looks like she’s hanging out in a playground with friends. Which, in a way, is exactly what she’s doing.

The audience cheers for the choir before they’re even sung a note. Frau Hövel, the Maestra, raises her baton. Herr Müller, the co-director of the choir and the accompanist, strikes the first notes on the piano. Forty voices join together and the room fills with music. Imperfect, but somehow just right.

**

Della Henderson Rawsthorne, my paternal grandmother, was an accomplished singer—a contralto—and the musical director at the Haven Heights Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The church paid her a decent salary to show up once a week for rehearsals, to select the music for the Sunday services, and to conduct the church choir. For much of my childhood, I spent Sundays and religious holidays watching her in the choir loft, holding together an aging but enthusiastic throng of warblers, brayers, and chirps, all of them heaven and hell bent on making it through the week’s hymns without a misfire, a croak, or one Hallelujah too many. Grandma, her deep and powerful voice booming through the sanctuary, covered up a multitude of musical sins with her own musical valor. Daring and inventive, she led her singers through an inspired repertoire of Methodist music—”Up from the Grave He Arose!” was my favorite—assigning solos to both the strong and the weak, pumping her arm in time to the organ music, plucking notes like daffodils out of her weedy garden of singers.

I admired Grandma’s skill and her bravery, but the choir itself? High comedy. I might have been nine years old, but I knew funny when I saw it. Whenever Orville Rudolph—a robust tenor who always sang about a quarter-step sharp—stood up for a solo, my brother, sister, and I would bite our cheeks and turn purple in our attempts to avoid laughing out loud. The “fall on your knees” part of “Oh, Holy Night” rivaled anything we had ever seen or heard on The Ed Sullivan Show.  We learned to double over in the wooden pew and pretend to tie our shoelaces during the solo sections, our mother clutching her hymnal and glaring at us, our shoulders shaking with silent guffaws. Mom also thought Orville was pretty funny, but at the advanced age of thirty-two, she knew a thing or two about gracious restraint. My Dad just raised his eyebrows when Orville hit the high notes, which made us laugh even harder.

I feel kind of bad about it now—really, who were we to giggle at anyone’s honest attempt to praise the Lord, or anything else, through music?  I hope Orville made it to his own version of choir heaven. I hope he has gotten to sing lots of solos.  I also hope, for my grandmother’s sake, that they’ve installed auto-tune in God’s control room.

**

RMG, back in 2007, with the kids in the Paul Klee Gymnasium International Choir.

RMG, back in 2007, with the kids in the Paul Klee Gymnasium International Choir.

For five years, I was the volunteer choir director of the Paul Klee High School International Choir in Overath, Germany. I slid into the job when my kids were in Junior High and I realized there weren’t enough music teachers to cover the fifth, sixth, and seventh grade choir. What, no choir? I had little choral experience myself, but I played the piano, I had written a bunch of kids’ songs, and I honestly thought, how hard could it be?

Well.

Every Wednesday for five years I met with thirty kids, most of them eleven, twelve, or thirteen years old. My own kids were in the mix. We spoke and sang in English, mainly because I didn’t want anyone, especially a twelve year German, laughing at my Colonel Klink accent.

Not that I’m complaining, but thirty twelve-year-old kids can make a lot of noise. There was a set of drums next to the entrance to the choir room. Here is a fact: It is impossible for a sixth-grade boy to walk past a set of drums without bashing the ride cymbal. Twice. Nothing, not even bribes with chocolate, will stop a boy from doing this.

Each Wednesday, before leaving the house for our five o’clock rehearsal, I took two Tylenol and a hot bath. Preventive medicine. I developed a thick skin, thicker eardrums, and newfound respect for teachers. I worked two hours a week with these kids; I couldn’t imagine the constitutions of the brave men and women who showed up Monday through Friday, eight hours at a shot.

“Whatever they’re paying these teachers,” I said to John, “It’s not nearly enough.”

“You have a job,” John said. “Why are you doing this?”

I really didn’t have an acceptable answer.

“I have two simple goals,” I told John, dodging the question. “First, I want to teach them to clap on two and four.” German kids are programmed to clap on one and three, which has the undesired effect of turning everything, even the funkiest piece of music ever written, into a Wagnerian march. “Second,” I said, “I want them to sing and say the “th” sound properly. If I can do that, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something.”

Getting “two and four” wasn’t so easy—it took months of backbeat practice—but eventually they nailed it. They started to swing, just a little. The “th” fell into place a bit faster. The “th” sound doesn’t exist in the German language, and, most of the time, it ends up sounding like a “z.” I wrote a tongue twister for them to practice: Thelma the thick-headed thief had three hundred and thirty-three thousand, three hundred and thirty-three threatening thoughts.

Zelma transformed into Thelma, we found the backbeat, and we were groovin’.

They sang at many concerts, and I watched in complete amazement as these kids—shy, insecure, and standing on the slippery slope of puberty—learned to take pride in their teamwork. What they lacked in musical ability they made up for in eagerness.  One of the “real” music teachers at the school tried to convince me to hold auditions each year—for the sake of quality control—but I refused. Anyone who wanted to sing was welcome.

“This isn’t about music,” I told him. “It’s about fun. Singing makes for happy kids. It’s almost impossible to sing with a group and be grumpy at the same time. These kids need to have fun. School is serious enough.” I’m sure I sounded a little too American for the system, but, as a volunteer, I got to set the rules.

My choir kids never got much beyond two-part harmony, but they were loud, smiling, and full of joy. We had choreography, a healthy amount of “two” and “four” clapping, and a series of soloists with back-up singers. During the final year we started to look like a sixth-grade Las Vegas act. Instead of sequins and feathers we wore red t-shirts. Curtis would play congas or drums, John, when he was available, would show up and play the bass. Eventually, Julia took over at the piano. Aside from the chocolate, the kids hardly needed me for anything at all. They had found each other. Music was their navigation system.

We practiced, we performed, we had a ball. As a teacher, I was pretty relaxed. I had one firm rule. No one was allowed to laugh at anyone else. Our choir room was a safe place, the sacred ground of artistic expression, a space where the kids could be bigger versions of themselves. No laughing, unless we were all doing it together. Orville Rudolph, after all those years, had come back to haunt me.

Five years, a hundred headaches, and twenty concerts later, I reluctantly stepped down. The music faculty had added several new teachers to the staff, my own kids had moved on to the middle and upper classes at the school, and, well, it was time. There’s not a high school kid alive who wants her mother hanging out in the school music room. We made a big splash at our last school concert, then kept meeting for the rest of the semester, just to sing and finish the term with style. For the final session, I invited parents and friends for a farewell musical soirée. I thought it would be a good excuse to eat brownies and a nice way to say auf Wiedersehen. We prepared some tunes from High School Musical, a few of my originals, “The Girl from Ipanema” in Portuguese (with the help of a Brazilian choir mom), “Kansas City,” “Seasons of Love,” and, because the kids requested it, “My Heart Will Go On,” also known as the dreaded Titanic theme.

Five minutes before we were scheduled to start our presentation, Janina, a very pretty and extremely bashful girl who had been with me for two years, came to my side.

“Robin,” she whispered. “I am ready.”

“Ready for what?” I said. I had discovered over the years that a kid this age assumes the entire world knows what she’s thinking.

“My solo. I am ready to sing a solo.”

If Janina had told me she had booked a round trip ticket to Reno I would not have been more surprised.

“Really? That’s great! Just great! Which song do you want to sing?”

“Titanic,” she said. “The second verse. I practiced it.”

“You’ve got it Janina,” I said. “Kids, stay out of Janina’s way on the second verse. She’s going to sing it solo. Solo!”

They cheered for her.

The concert was a huge success. We sang and danced and stomped. We got to the last tune of the set, the Titanic theme, and I announced that Janina would be the soloist. I saw her mother’s jaw drop. We started the song. When it came time for the second verse, Janina stepped forward, with three girls holding her up on each side. Her voice was Helium-high and tiny, but I swear it was the loudest and proudest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.

**

Four years later, here I am, not at the piano, but in the front row, happy to be a normal parent enjoying the show. Tonight’s concert will offer us a little Cold Play, a Beatles tune—”Penny Lane,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” an instrumental version of “My Funny Valentine,” “Stand By Me,” “Circle of Life,” “Skyfall,” and a few hip songs I’ve never heard and will probably never hear again.

Julia and the choir start the evening with a tune called “Happy Ending.” The Mama Rose in me wants to shout, “Sing out, Louise!” but the close proximity of the male members of my family keeps me in check. I get control of my sobbing about halfway through the song. I look around.  Many of my sixth grade choir kids are now singing with this senior group. They’re young adults now, most of them capable of walking past a drum set without hitting the ride cymbal, all of them stretched out and dressed up and ready for anything.  A year or two short of graduation, these kids face a complicated world, but for now, while they’re singing, there’s reason to celebrate.

The audience claps along—finding the backbeat!—and I sit back and watch time roll by like too many sixteenth-notes, my husband beside me, my grown son in the row behind me, my daughter center stage, Grandma Rawsthorne somewhere in the room. Now I know why I’m crying. When this evening is over, where will the flawed and glorious music go? Poof. I hate when good things disappear. I want right now to last forever.

I hope these kids will hold onto their songs. I hope they’ll keep singing for themselves and each other.

Look. There, in the second row onstage. It’s Janina, just as pretty, but no longer shy. She’s singing her heart out.

**

To see John’s front row video of the choir:

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm: A Novel, and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl.

 

 

 

 

Runway: Tempest Storm, High Heels, and the Adventures of an Aging Model

Robin Meloy Goldsby takes a (cat)walk down memory lane.

Powder pink pumpsavailable from Füsskleider in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany.

Powder pink pumps available from Füsskleider in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany.

Like most odd situations in my life, this one starts with a pair of shoes. Cruising around on Facebook one morning when I’m supposed to be writing, I’m distracted by a fabulous pair of pumps, way too high-heeled and (I assume) way too expensive. Pale powder pink—austere but hopeful—the color of a newborn’s cheek, with a small platform, a little bow on the vamp, thick high heels, and an ankle strap. They would be perfect shoes for a dress I don’t yet own. I haven’t been booked to play for a Parisian garden party, nor have I have been invited for summer tea in Vienna, but if either of these things were to happen, I would be flawlessly dressed if I owned these shoes. I decide to track them down.

I see the shoes on the fan page of a store called “Fusskleider,” a pricey but gorgeous boutique located in Bergisch Gladbach. This swanky neighborhood isn’t far from Schlosshotel Lerbach, where I play the piano every weekend.

I send a message to Dörthe, the store’s owner (and the wife of a jazz pianist I know). She tells me the price. I consider buying them, but I remember we’re paying college tuition for our son, saving for our daughter’s education, and have several record and book projects to fund in the near future. 2012 was my Year of Health. 2013 is our Year of Investment. Investment in pale pink platform shoes doesn’t count. With a heavy heart I tell Dörthe that the shoes are a little out of my budget.

“Well, she says. “We sell more than just shoes. Jeans! Beautiful dresses! Handbags! I’m presenting a fashion show in a few weeks. Want to model? I’ll pay you with the shoes.”

I am no stranger to the barter arrangement. Several times I’ve exchanged my music or writing skills for wine or beauty spa treatments. But shoes? This sounds like a perfect deal.

Then I come to my senses.

“Are you crazy, Dörthe?” I ask. “I am fifty-five years old, not even close to being a size Extra-Extra Small, I am, in fact—gasp—a Medium. I’ve avoided Botox, I have wrinkles, and last time I checked, I have all my original parts.”

“Perfect,” she says.  “Except for the Botox part, you’re like most of my customers.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to hire my daughter instead? She is sixteen, 5’10,” and, you know, model material.”

“If I put a sixteen year old on the runway my customers will not be happy. A sixteen year old looks good in anything. But you, now, that’s another story. If they see you looking good, they’ll figure there’s hope for them.”

I think this is a compliment, but I’m not sure. Just the other day someone told me I looked good in a photograph because the camera was so far away from me. Little things like this creep up in my life all the time. Little stabs disguised as compliments. I’ve gotten used to being over fifty and invisible—I’ve even grown to enjoy it—,but that doesn’t mean I have to wear a burlap sack and hide in the bushes, does it?

There is the issue of my Titanium foot. At this time last year I was recovering from joint replacement surgery on my right foot. I had to go up and down the stairs on my behind. I had to wear a Frankenstein boot for six weeks. How can I possibly model for a store that showcases tight jeans and high-heeled shoes? Then I remember Heather McCartney and her appearance on Dancing with the Stars. I figure if she can win a dancing contest with a fake leg, then I can be a runway shoe-model with a fake toe.

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll do it.”

**

I’m not thrilled about removing my invisibility cloak, but I’m not at all nervous about the show. This will not be my first time on the catwalk, although I am several decades out of practice. I modeled in my younger, thinner years in Pittsburgh, where I did informal shows for the Joseph Horne Company, and passed out samples of cologne and perfume while wearing designer dresses at Saks Fifth Avenue. I even walked in a runway show for Donna Karan, when she was starting out as a designer for Anne Klein. The show was at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall, and the clothes were works of art. Donna had it together, even back then. She was nice to me. I was nineteen at the time, and her kindness meant a lot to me.

Then, disaster struck. The events manager at Saks discovered I was willing to wear costumes, that I had no problem at all dressing up as Mrs. Santa Claus, Cupid, or the Easter Bunny. I became the Saks “costume model,” which sounded good, paid better than the standard modeling jobs, but kind of crushed my fantasies of working in high fashion. All the models wanted to wear Dior and YSL, but I was the only  one willing to sport a cupid costume. On Valentine’s Day I pranced through Saks in a red leotard and wings, shooting rubber arrows at unsuspecting customers. What can I say? It was 1977.

The next time Ms. Karan was in town, on Easter, I had to walk the runway in a rabbit suit. Carnegie Hall, in a rabbit suit. There aren’t many models who can boast of such an achievement. But I was eighteen years old, making a living, hopping and hoping that my career in fashion might help pay the bills while I worked on my acting skills. Occasionally the Saks fashion director would take pity on me, scoop a designer dress out of her designer trunk, and toss it at me like a designer bone. But most of the time the fine ladies of the fashion office costumed me in some type of designer synthetic fur with matching ears. I wanted Chanel, I got Peter Rabbit.

When I moved to New York, I hooked up with a modeling agency that booked a lot of B-level runway shows in the outer boroughs, on tacky cruise ships, in Long Island country clubs. Contrary to Pittsburgh, it seemed that every young woman in Manhattan towered over me. They were taller, thinner, had better bone structure, and carried beautiful portfolios of amazing photos taken in exotic places. There I was, the girl from the Golden Triangle, trying to be glamorous, trying to be something, anything, trying to pay my rent.  I knew I didn’t have the looks for print modeling, but thought I might have some runway success. But in New York, there was way too much competition. Even snagging the lesser shows involved hand-to-hand combat. I couldn’t even get a Cupid gig.

Better, I thought, to stick to the piano. There were tens of thousands of aspiring models in NYC, but only a handful of female pianists. Who knew? I like to tell people I quit the modeling business, but it would be more honest to say that it quit me. I escaped from the world of fashion and planted my skinny behind on a piano bench, a decision I’ve never regretted. Now, the only time I wear a designer dress is when it’s black, loose, and easy to accessorize. There’s a surprising assortment of choices if you’re willing to be invisible.

With my runway gig as an elder model here in Germany, I’m making a comeback from a career I never had. I’m thirty years too late and twenty pounds too heavy. I don’t know if the shoes are worth the catwalk down memory lane. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that Heather McCartney get ahead of me.

**

I tell my family.

“You? A model? On the catwalk?” say my two kids in unison, a teenage chorus of horror and disbelief. At least they’re not laughing.

“Sure,” says John, coming to my defense. “Your mom is a good walker. Just watch her walk.”

I pull in my stomach, toss my hair, and do a couple of loops around the dining room table, simultaneously sashaying and serving scoops of lentil salad. No one seems very impressed, by either the walking or the salad.

“You know,” I say to the kids, “I trained with one of the best walkers in the world. Tempest Storm!”

“Here we go,” says Curtis, rolling his eyes. “There’s a story coming, I can feel it.”

“Tempest Storm?” asks Julia. “What a name! Was she a model? Was she a Weather Girl?”

“Was she a runway trainer? Like Jorge?” says my son, who is a big fan of Jorge Alexis Gonzalez Madrigal Varona Vila, the Germany’s Next Top Model runway coach with the world’s longest name. Jorge (pronounced Hor-hay), a tall skinny Cuban guy who wears towering high heels covered in sequins, speaks broken German and shouts things like schtrut your schtuff Chica, Chica! at the girls as they schtruggle and schtumble on their platform shoes. It is impossible to not like Jorge.

“Well,” I say. “Tempest Storm was neither a model nor a runway coach. She was different from Jorge. She was, uh, a stripper.”

Silence.

This is not going well.

“A stripper? You took walking lessons from a stripper? Was she also a pole dancer? Mom, modeling in public is weird enough, but if you say you’re going to take your clothes off and pole dance I’ll have to go to school with a bag over my head.”

“No, Julia, no pole dancing. I don’t have the upper body strength. Anyway, many years ago—okay, like thirty years ago—I was hired as an actress to play the part of a stripper in an old fashioned Burlesque show. Tempest Storm was an aging, but very famous, real-life stripper. She was also in the show, and she gave me walking lessons.”

“Like Jorge!” says Curtis. “Chica, chica!”

“A little,” I say. “A little like Jorge. But Tempest had a tad more, shall we say, experience.”

***

Our girl, Tempest Storm, photo by Brian Smith. Tempest just celebrated her 84th birthday.

Our girl, Tempest Storm, photo by Brian Smith. Tempest just celebrated her 84th birthday.

I still remember Tempest standing behind me during a rehearsal at the Folly Theater in Kansas City, Missouri, her hands on my hips, whispering toe-heel, toe-heel in my ear as we coasted in sync—a tag team stripper machine gliding like twin Dorothy Hamills across an iceless stage floor. The spotlight threw blue light on us. Tempest was wrapped in a white satin robe with marabou trim, I was wearing rehearsal sweat pants, a Chatham College t-shirt and high heels. She was fifty-three, I was twenty-three. She had a curtain of red hair trailing over her graceful shoulders, breasts that defied gravity—I could feel them poking into my back—and the sexiest walk I have ever seen. I coveted that walk.

Tempest and I slithered to stage right and slid stage left—the key, she said to me, was to create a flow to my movement, to never let the audience sense my feet were hitting the floor. I should float above the stage, she said, my arms hovering like wings, my pelvis guiding each liquid step to a seamless soft-landing on the scarred hardwood floor.

I stood backstage every night and watched her. She was the opposite of invisible. She was a star, a floating star. I practiced and practiced and never got it right.

“Don’t worry, darling,” she said to me when I expressed my frustration. “You just need another thirty years of practice. I could teach you how to crawl, too, but that’s a lot harder.”

***

“Now’s my chance,” I tell the kids. “I’m going to channel Tempest Storm on the runway.”

“Forget Tempest, Mom,” says Curtis. “Go with Jorge.”

I show up on the day of the show and relax when I see that the clothes I’ll be modeling are hip and figure-friendly. Except for the jeans.  When did it happen that blue jeans, once the comfort pants of choice for leisure time and outdoor activities, became modern day persecution devices? The jeans assigned to me feature spaghetti legs and a zipper that’s about an inch high. Really. These jeans are so low my butt crack is showing. I look like a plumber, or an extra on the Prison Break set.

“I think you need a smaller size,” says Steffi, the dresser for the show.

“NOOOOO!” I say. “These are, uh, perfect. I can’t sit down in them, but they are perfect for, you know, walking.” The jeans are paired with very high green shoes. The shoes are fantastico. I am also wearing a loose orange cotton cardigan. Lucky for me, it disguises the muffin top created by the “waistband” of the jeans. Meanwhile, my actual waist is so far north of the waistband I feel like I’m wearing pants that are in a different postal code.

A festive scarf—bright orange, grassy green!—ties everything together. It’s almost time for the fashion show to start.

Excitement! There’s news. Heidi Klum’s mother is in the audience. I’ve played the piano a handful of times for the Klum family. I like them, mainly because they like music. But the idea of having to model in front of a supermodel’s mom strikes me as bizarre. All of the sudden I feel kind of vulnerable without my piano. I feel sort of, well, visible.

I text Curtis to tell him that Heidi’s mom is at the show.

“Ask her if she knows Jorge,” he writes back.

The other models, Andrea and Anke, are also “real” looking models, but they’re a little less real looking than I am, mainly because they are a good fifteen years younger. Maybe that’s what happens to women as we age. We become more real. The thought comforts me.

These jeans are killing me. I feel like I’m being eviscerated by the crotch seam. Death by denim. But I am double-Spanxed and determined to stay positive.

The things a girl will do for a pair of shoes.

The store is small, the runway is more of a gangplank than an actual catwalk, but many of Bergisch Gladbach’s most elegant ladies have shown up for a glass of champagne, a cupcake on a stick, a strawberry dipped in chocolate, and a chance to see the spring collection.

Here we go.

I fling my scarf over my shoulder—don’t we just love a fun accessory—and plop onto the runway on my green high heels.  The music blares. My titanium foot is holding up, my ankles aren’t wobbling, and I’ve got enough oxygen to suck in the muffin-top for the three minutes that I’m in the spotlight. So far, so good.

“Robin is wearing jeans by So and So of Italy,” says Dörthe. “The ‘boyfriend-jean look’ continues this spring—loose, relaxed, and comfortable.”

I’m glad they didn’t give me the tight jeans. God. These pants might well have been used as a medieval torture device.

Chaos reigns in the dressing room. Three models, one dresser, heaps of clothes on racks, in piles, on tables. It looks like my daughter’s bedroom, times three. Shoes and straw handbags  (800 Euro!) sit on every surface. Somehow Steffi holds it together but she counts on us to stay organized.

Once I peel off the jeans, I’m in heaven. Now I get to wear silky tunics with ankle boots, stretchy dresses with leather jackets, full skirts and linen tops, and oh, oh, oh, the shoes!

I’m in a footwear-induced twilight coma—wondering which pair of these shoes I should select for myself—when I step onto the runway in a taupe silk shift with a soft leather jacket. Gorgeous.  I smooth down the dress and realize I’ve put it on inside-out. Not good. What to do.

“Look—it’s reversible!” I say. No one seems to mind, the champagne is flowing, and to tell you the truth, the dress looks pretty good no matter how you wear it.

I also have a misstep with a shoe that’s not properly buckled. I’m wearing the powder pink pumps with the ankle strap—the shoes that seduced me into this situation in the first place. Once I reach center stage I realize my foot is flopping around in the shoe. I can’t walk properly so I have to slide and shuffle to make my way. Too bad I never mastered crawling with Tempest Storm. It would come in handy right about now.

Chica, chica!

We are scheduled for two shows. On the break in between, I take myself out to lunch. It’s probably not very model-like to have a pig-dog lunch in the middle of a show day, but I am starving. Besides I know I’ll have to put those jeans on again in a few hours and I’ll need the energy to get them over my hips. So I order a salad and a giant baked potato. There.

I sit in the chi-chi restaurant by myself, watching the beautiful women out for a Saturday latte or espresso. There are so many of them here in the land of Heidi Klum, each one thinner, taller, and more picture-book lovely than the next.

The smaller the town, the tighter the pants. The higher the heel, the younger the girl.

They enter the restaurant and look around, waiting to be noticed. I wonder, if like me, they will need three decades to figure out that it’s way more fun to be heard than it is to be seen. I doubt Tempest, Heidi, Heather, or Jorge  would agree with me, but that’s okay.

I dig into my potato, take out my notebook and start writing, grateful, once again, to be invisible.

Next show at 2:00.

**

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm, and Waltz of the Asparagus People.

 

 

 

 

 

You Were Special: A Tribute to Mister Rogers

John Costa, Fred Rogers, Bob Rawsthorne, Carl McVicker

John Costa, Fred Rogers, Bob Rawsthorne, Carl McVicker

 

Robin Meloy Goldsby remembers a family friend.

On February 27th, 2003, America lost one of its national heroes. For more than three decades Fred Rogers, of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, had taught parents and children about joy and sadness, life and death, being different and fitting in. “You are special,”  he told us, without a tad of irony or skepticism. “It’s you I like.”

Because my father, percussionist Bob Rawsthorne,  played on the Mister Rogers program (Fred never called it a “show,” it was always a “program”) for thirty-five years, I had the honor of knowing both Fred and his spirited wife, Joanne. Along with pianist Johnny Costa and bassist Carl McVicker, Dad logged hundreds of hours at the studio, playing vibes and drums for Fred and his family of puppets and Neighborhood regulars (Neighbor Aber, Handyman Negri, Chef Brockett, and Mister McFeeley among them). The Neighborhood, a popular hang-out for famous people like Tony Bennett, Wynton Marsalis, and Yo-Yo Ma, was also populated by real men who drove bulldozers, real women who worked in graham cracker factories, and real nine year-old boys in very real wheelchairs. Fred’s true gift was the ability to make everyone of these people feel loved, respected, and unique.

In Fred’s universe, we were all special.

People often ask what Fred was “really” like off camera, hoping, I guess, to hear that he was too good to be true. He wasn’t. The television Mister Rogers mirrored the real-life Mister Rogers. Talk to any of the artists, administrators, and technicians who worked for him over the years—Fred was Fred. I got to visit with him once or twice a year—sometimes at the studio, sometimes at the annual picnic he hosted for his employees’ families, sometimes at his “Crooked House” on Nantucket Island. He always remembered the tiniest details of our previous conversations. His genuine curiosity about my world made me feel, for lack of a better word, safe.  Fred possessed a whacky sense of humor and a true love for all things whimsical. Most of us lose our childlike sense of wonder as we grow up—he clung to his innocence  and treasured it until the end, sort of like his well-worn cardigan sweater. He found an inner quality that worked for him and he stuck with it. Lucky for us.

“You make people feel good with your music,” Fred said to me once, words of gold for someone like me, who makes a living playing cocktail piano.  “What a wonderful feeling that must be for you. Isn’t the piano a marvelous thing?” Fred understood, perhaps better than anyone, that playing made me happy, even if no one in particular seemed to be listening. Fred played the piano to express his own feelings. He understood that music, along with its challenges and frustrations, can bring comfort to those of us who play.

Even though I live in Germany, I don’t have to travel far to hear Fred’s voice. I play a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood DVD and fall into a melodic time tunnel. Fred  left behind a billion notes, a dizzying number of beautiful thoughts transposed into song, and a musical tapestry woven with the fragile threads of optimism and inspiration.  Listening to Mister Rogers Neighborhood reminds me that each supportive person in a young person’s life—teacher, parent, or TV star—has the potential to  spark the artistic flame that lives in every child’s heart.

I am still waiting for someone, anyone on television, to fill his sneakers. Come back, Fred. We miss you. It has been ten long years. All of us, more than ever, need to feel special again.

**

From the Goldsby Archives—a piece I wrote in 2007 for Steinway Magazine, about Fred, his wife Joanne, and the piano they both loved.

A BARRELFUL OF SONGS

On a sparkling July morning—a beautiful day in the neighborhood—three broad-shouldered men gently boost a concert grand piano from a fourth-floor apartment window onto a towering platform. Swaddled in thick blankets, the Steinway D waits for the next part of its voyage to begin. The workers cautiously slide the piano onto a set of pipes that extend from the scaffolding while a crane operator attaches the thick rope coiled around the instrument to a large metal hook. After much double-checking, the crane springs to life, lifting the Steinway into a beam of sunlight. The piano seems to hover over the street, pausing for just a moment, and then—with grace, dignity, and an almost human air of self-determination—it swoops to the earth below.

Joanne Rogers, a seventy-nine-year old concert pianist who has spent much of her adult life playing this piano, stands in the imposing space once occupied by the instrument and takes a deep breath. She hurries down to the front of the building and watches as the movers load the piano into a truck. The time has come to say goodbye.

“I thought at one point, this is crazy, why am I doing this?” says Joanne from her home, six weeks after the piano’s departure. “I guess maybe we have those feelings about every big thing we do in life. We want to back out at the last second.”

Joanne’s honest words would have made her husband proud. She was married to television legend Fred Rogers—of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—for 50 years. She and Fred celebrated their golden wedding anniversary at the White House in 2002; on the day Fred was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A year later, her husband was gone.

Almost five years after his death, Joanne decided to donate Fred’s Steinway D to the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the town where Fred was born and raised. In a way, the piano is going home. But first, it will travel to the Steinway Restoration Center in New York City, where master technician Chris Arena will supervise a total restoration of the piano’s interior and exterior. The work will be completed in time for the spring 2008 opening of the Center.

“The idea to donate the piano to the Center suddenly came to me,” says Joanne, who followed through on her promise in spite of last-minute jitters. “It was a very practical decision, and yet I got very excited at the same time. It makes me so happy to think that the piano will be there.”

Two years before Fred died, Archabbot Douglas R. Nowicki, of Saint Vincent Archabbey, began planning the Center with Fred. According to a statement compiled by its Board of Advisors, “the mission of the Fred Rogers Center is to advance the fields of early learning and children’s media by acting as a catalyst for communication, collaboration, and creative change.” These are fancy words to describe a man whose remarkable career was launched by the purest of musical beginnings.
Fred’s beautiful journey began with a piano.

“When he was a child,” says Joanne, “he would go to the piano to express all of his feelings: mad, glad, and sad all came right out through his fingers.”

In the early 1940’s, in a scene out of every piano student’s wildest fantasies, Fred’s parents took him to Mellor’s Music Store in downtown Pittsburgh. Fred, thirteen at the time and blessed by a supportive and enthusiastic family of means, was given his choice of instruments. He selected the Steinway D. The piano, manufactured in 1920, had been played for two decades by concert artists passing through the city. Shortly after taking possession of the instrument, Fred developed a strong interest in songwriting.

When I ask Joanne if her husband cited any mentors, she says, without missing a beat, “Why yes! Jack Lawrence!” Mr. Lawrence, now 95 years old, penned an astonishing number of popular songs that became standards, including “Beyond the Sea,” “Tenderly,” and “All or Nothing at All.”

In his book The World According to Mister Rogers, Fred writes about his meeting with Mr. Lawrence: “I took him four or five songs that I had written and I thought he’d introduce me to Tin Pan Alley and it would be the beginning of my career,” writes Rogers. “After I played him my songs, he said, ‘you have very nice songs. Come back when you have a barrelful.’”

Taking Lawrence’s words to heart, teenage Fred Rogers devoted himself to the art and craft of songwriting. Sitting at his piano, he began shaping many of the ideas that would later become Mister Rogers classics. “The more I wrote the better the songs became, and the more those songs expressed what was real within me.”

“Fred was a very disciplined writer,” says Joanne, who met him while she was studying classical piano performance at Rollins College in Florida. “He had a composition teacher there who taught him the necessity of having a time every day specifically for writing. You go and you just do it. You sit there until you can.”

Joanne’s practice schedule and Fred’s devotion to his writing meant that the Rogers family needed instruments everywhere they went. Joanne enjoyed practicing one of the big pianos at home in Pittsburgh, but Fred accomplished some of his best work on Nantucket Island, where the Rogers family owns a lopsided beachfront cottage called The Crooked House.

“His piano there, a tiny thing, was from a company called Grand,” says Joanne. “So the piano was referred to as his grand piano. You know, the music was in his head, he didn’t need a big fabulous piano to compose, he always had a sense of what the piece would sound like.”

In their Pittsburgh home, next to Fred’s Steinway D, Joanne also kept a Bechstein C. For the last thirty years Joanne, a former student of Ernst von Dohnanyi, has performed two-piano concerts and recitals with Jeannine Morrison. She and Jeannine frequently practiced side by side on the grand pianos in the Rogers living room.

“Fred’s Steinway was the piano I loved to play the most when I had a lot of practicing to do to get ready for a concert. It had a firmer touch than the Bechstein. Fred and I played both pianos, but when Fred was working he liked to play his Steinway. He would almost purr when he played that piano.”

Millions of children who have listened to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood over the years have been enchanted by the lush sounds of the program’s Steinway B. This piano, signed by John Steinway and played by Johnny Costa, holds the honor of being heard by more children than any other piano in television history. The raffish Johnny Costa—Fred’s musical director for thirty years—peppered Mister Rogers’ easy-going neighborhood with fiery dashes of swinging jazz, performed live for every program.

“Sophistication was built into Fred’s compositions, but Johnny always knew how to find the right chords to enhance that,” says Joanne. There were lovely surprises in Fred’s collaborations with Costa—childlike melodies that seemed to dance through a maze of mature harmonic underpinnings. Those elements, mingled with the poetry of Fred’s lyrics and the thrill of Costa’s playing, created a magical partnership. When Costa died in 1996, pianist and arranger Michael Moricz stepped in as musical director, taking over Costa’s duties and gracing the neighborhood with his own creative brilliance and musical charm.

Fred always insisted on a stellar jazz trio for the program—including bassist Carl McVicker and percussionist Bob Rawsthorne—and he taped memorable segments with giants like André Watts, Van Cliburn, and Yo-Yo Ma. By avoiding obvious commercial choices, he hit on a simple truth: that children, when given the opportunity to hear excellent music, will listen. “Fred provided children with music they ought to be hearing,” says Joanne. “He always knew he was giving them the best.”

Fred never lost faith in the power of musical expression. Recalling her husband’s final weeks, Joanne says: “When he returned from the hospital, he walked straight to the piano and sat down. That’s what he wanted to do. And he would go every day to the piano, and play. He did this until he was completely bedridden. I think he was improvising—his way of composing—until the end.”

According to Father Paul Taylor, the Vice President of Institutional Advancement at Saint Vincent College, the restored Steinway will be given a place of honor in the atrium at the Fred Rogers Center—a fitting tribute to a human being whose passage from young man to television legend began with a piano, a soaring imagination, and the desire to give shape to his feelings through song.

When the piano is played—by hands large and small—Joanne Rogers hopes visitors to the Center will remember that Fred’s music has carried millions of children to the proud heights of self-recognition. One heartfelt song, that’s all it takes to make a person feel good. In his lifetime, Fred Rogers wrote a whole barrelful of them.

**

For more information on the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, please visit: www.fredrogerscenter.org

For information regarding Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Fred Rogers, please visit Family Communications: www.fci.org

Pianist and composer Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm, and Waltz of the Asparagus People. Robin Goldsby is a Steinway Artist.

Varmint on the Roof

weaselAs if a career in music isn’t perilous enough, Piano Girl Robin Goldsby and her bassist husband take on a few critters roaming the German countryside. 

Thwack. Or is it thwump? Skittle, scratch, scrape, thwop. It’s a quarter to three and there’s no one in the place except you and me—thonk—and Dumbo? Has a baby elephant crash-landed on the roof? Thwunk. Bosh. Maybe it’s Batman. Sasquatch? A lost WWII paratrooper? Lord of the Dance? At this time of the night anything is possible.

I wonder if I should awaken John, my sleeping prince of a husband. He wears earplugs and misses most pre-dawn rumblings. ‘Round midnight he’s in slumber-land, oblivious to things that rattle the rafters in the wee small hours of the morning.  I could wake him, but I know if I do, he’ll go into Rodent Red Alert, a state from which he will not emerge until the intruder is caught and removed from the premises. Not anxious to encourage a late-night hunting expedition, I ignore the critter clog-dancing over my head. I retire to the sofa downstairs, leaving my sleep-diva man tucked in and dreaming of suspicious jazz chords. What he can’t hear won’t hurt him. I put a pillow over my head and hope whatever it is goes away—a time-tested technique for chasing away the heebie-jeebies.

**

My husband’s mission to rid the world of household pests began in 1964, when little John, age six, rescued his family home from an invasion of exotic creatures. Snug in his Louisville bed—this was before he started playing screaming loud rock and roll bass guitar and wearing earplugs to go to sleep—he heard varmints—scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch—eating away the walls, munching on the very foundation of his youth.

“Mother and Daddy,” he said with a charming little-boy Louisville accent. “There’s something alive in the walls. And it’s eating our house.” Mother and Daddy, who couldn’t hear what little John heard, brushed off his warning, until, at last, little John threw such a big fit that they had to call either a exorcist or an exterminator. They opted for the exterminator. The verdict? Carpenter ants—tiny insects capable of taking down an entire homestead. Little John was vindicated. He saved the house and reaped the rewards of a grateful family.

Several decades after the carpenter ant episode, I met and married John. We got to know each other while playing at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, next to Grand Central Station in Manhattan. He logged seven hours a night with a jazz trio in a marble lobby filled with fountains, potted palms, and uncomfortable chairs; I played a Steinway five evenings a week in Trumpet’s (named after The Donald), a cocktail cave that looked like a leather-lined womb. We dealt with a lot of pests on the job, but most of them worked for the Food and Beverage department. That’s another story.

We lived in a small apartment in New York City. Most of our pals had hideous pest problems.  Mice. Rats. Roaches. Oh, the war stories we heard. My friend Patti told me about an army of cockroaches that carried an entire plate of rat poison back to their cock-hideouts—only to reappear the next morning, ready for more, more, more.  A girl I knew named Nina had a rat the size of a dog drop on her head when the acoustic tile ceiling in her bathroom collapsed on her just after she had gotten out of the shower. It’s hard for me to imagine anything worse—naked and attacked by a rat-dog. But our apartment was surprisingly clear of roaches and rodents. Aside from hearing the carpenter ant story about a hundred times, I had no idea how John might react to a household pest of his own. Then we moved to Germany.

Some people might say were asking for it. We built a small home on a piece of wooded property in a village thirty kilometers outside of Cologne.  We moved in with our two kids, overjoyed at having a place of our own. We marveled at the deer, even though they ate our decorative bushes for breakfast. The kids caught frogs in the garden and made goo-goo eyes at the hedgehogs.  Oh, the birds, the bees, the flora, the fauna, the wild boars—one morning we spotted eight (eight!) of them walking down the slope next to our house. The adult boars were bigger than any member of my family, which is saying something. They weren’t needy, they were nicely choreographed, and they didn’t whine. Fine. Just passing through, like a well-disciplined chorus line exiting stage left.

This, in contrast to the mouse in the sugar bowl. I spotted him one morning, flopping around on a white-sugar high, nose deep in the bowl, ass up in the air, tail shaking, re-enacting the cocaine scene from Scarface.  I screamed (I am strong, I am invincible, but I am, after all, an American blond). John rushed to my side. Rodent Red Alert! John’s eyes glazed over and he began plotting a trip to the local hardware store to buy traps.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Julia is not going to like this.” Our daughter has always been an animal lover. She has been known to hold funeral ceremonies for drowned wasps. Killing a mouse would have been like offing a close friend.

“We have to be firm about this,” John said to me. “Do you know how dangerous mice are? They can take over. They’ll even take bites out of small children while they’re sleeping.”

I didn’t argue, especially when he tried to convince me the mouse might be a rat.

That night at dinner, John, using The Voice— not the cool jazz cat voice, but the booming dad voice—told the family about setting the traps and how we had to band together to kill the evil and diseased rodent. Julia’s eyes filled with tears. “Dad,” she said. “How could you?”

Never underestimate the power of an eight-year-old girl’s protest. Julia printed out über-cute photos of country mice, wrote slogans like stop the madness and please don’t murder us in red crayon on them, and taped the posters to walls all over the house.

John went to Plan B, the live trap.

“We’ll get that little rat,” he said.

“It’s a mouse,” I said.

“It could be a small rat. You never know.”

The live trap involved peanut butter and a weighted cake pan suspended on a Popsicle stick. I heard the pan slam in the middle of the night. John slept through it, of course; he was wearing earplugs. I stayed awake with the pillow over my head, certain I could hear the mouse choking on peanut butter while he dragged the pan—like a suit of armor—all over the kitchen. The next morning, a look of triumph on his rested face, John drove to the other side of the valley, where he released not one, but two mice (they were not rats). We were saved. Victory for the bass player.

**

For the last week I’ve been hearing it.  Every evening, long after we’ve fallen asleep, there’s a resounding thump on the roof, followed by a flurry of commotion.  The critter must be leaping from one of the old trees near the house. But the closest branch would require Evel Knievel skills to cover the distance. I can’t figure it out. On the sly, I ask Julia if she has heard anything.

“Yeah,” she says. “Whatever it is, it sure sounds big and fat. But don’t tell Dad. You know how he gets. The last thing we need around here is another safari.” A couple of times a year since that first mouse episode, we’ve had visitors. Rodent Red Alert has become commonplace. But whatever is thumping on the roof is in a different category. We don’t need a trap for this thing; we need a counter-terrorism unit.

I can’t sleep. I keep thinking of my New York friend Nina and that rat-dog crashing through the ceiling and landing on her head. Finally, I have no choice. I tell John. He removes his earplugs, stays up, listens to the racket, and proclaims a full-scale emergency. He confers with his good friend, Hans, a Dutch drummer with pest issues of his own. John and Hans, experts in jazz and critters, determine our roof dweller is a Marder, an American martin, which is a member of the dreaded weasel family.

Just what we need—a German weasel. We hear from neighbors that this particular weasel has been chewing on brake cables of parked cars down the street. He has also massacred and eaten the pet bunnies living next door to us. Julia’s friend, Maryam, is still heartbroken. She didn’t even have a carcass to bury. Julia nicely arranged a small memorial service.

“No more Mr. Nice Guy,” says John, using The Voice. “This is a dangerous situation. That weasel gets under the shingles and into the walls of the house, we’re in big trouble.” With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Protected Species. In this part of Germany, we have to be nice to the weasels. The weasel is our friend.

We buy an expensive device called a “Weasel-Schreck” which claims to make a constant high-pitched squeal—unappealing to members of the weasel family.

Doesn’t work. Perhaps the weasel is also wearing earplugs.

Following Hans’s advice, John buys an expensive live trap that looks big enough to catch one of the neighborhood toddlers. I spy John setting the trap with a cheese-topped cracker and an olive. Looks like a weasel cocktail party.

Doesn’t work. The crackers and olives are gone, but the trap remains empty. I suggest a pitcher of martinis.

We drink the martinis ourselves, call the Baum Meister, and spend hundreds of euros having him trim back branches close to the house.

Doesn’t work. The thumps at night grow louder as the weasel leaps from even greater distances. It seems we have a member of the Flying Wallendas living on our roof.

We consult with a home improvement center Pest Expert. He tells us there’s no legal way to get rid of a German weasel. Then he takes us aside, lowers his voice, and tells us to wait for a full moon, drink some Schnaps. “Go out on the roof with a shotgun,” he whispers. “Sit there until he shows up. Then blow the weasel to smithereens when he’s not looking.”

This won’t work for obvious reasons. In contrast to so many of our fellow Americans, we don’t own a gun. We don’t like Schnaps, we’re afraid of heights, and we’re skeptical about spending a winter night—even with moonlight—perched on a steep and slippery roof with a lethal weapon. And we have no intention of being deported for shooting a weasel, which is not only illegal, it’s just not nice. Remember, the weasel is our friend.

Meanwhile, John should be preparing for his new trio recording, aptly titled The Innkeeper’s Gun. I’m supposed to be writing a book, called Waltz of the Asparagus People. Instead we are on weasel watch. For over a month, the weasel on the roof dominates our conversations. We’re obsessed with the weasel. In addition to Ritz crackers and cheese, the weasel also likes to eat wiring, plastic tubes, and insulation. I have a nightmare that he breaks into the house, eats my iMac, all of my groceries, and kidnaps the children.

Then, one night, it all stops. The weasel is gone. No more thumps or thwacks at three in the morning. I don’t think the weasel is finished with us, but he has evidently gotten bored with Project Goldsby and moved on to the next thing. I can’t say I miss him, but, as an artist, I sort of know how he feels.

**

Three months later, early spring:

“Robin, we have a situation,” says John. I’ve learned to dread these words.

“What?” I ask. “What?”

“There’s something frozen in the rain barrel. And it looks like a human head.”

What? How is that even possible?” There was a lid on that barrel—we’ve always kept it tied down with cables and weighted with bricks. A small hole in the lid allowed rainwater from the roof of the garden shed to drip into the barrel—a perfect system for collecting water for the garden, not necessarily an ideal place to store heads. “Nothing could have gotten in there,” I say, trying not to panic.

“Someone opened it and put the head—or something that looks like a head—in there. The lid was off. Here, look. I took a photo—”

“Nooooo!” I scream. The last thing I want to see is a photo of a frozen human head in my rain barrel. I swat John’s camera away from me before the image burns itself onto my brain. “Just tell me what it looks like.”

“Well,” he says. “It has gray hair and pointy teeth and bloodshot beady eyes.”

“That could be anyone,” I say. “Or—”

“You know what?” John says, as he studies the photo. “It could be an animal. Maybe some poor critter chewed through the cables, knocked the bricks on the ground, dislodged the lid, and dove into the water barrel. He drowned and then the water froze. What an awful way to die.”

Silence.

“The weasel?” I say.

“The weasel,” he says. “Brick-throwing. Cable chewing. Death-defying leaps. Think about it. This situation has the weasel’s name all over it.”

“What are you going to do?” I ask.

“Don’t know,” says John. “He’s frozen solid in there right now—I’d have to use an axe to get him out. Looks like one of those exhibits at the Museum of Natural History. Look at the photo—”

“Nooooo! You’re sure it’s the weasel and not a human head? I mean, maybe we should call the police or something.”

“Nope,” John says as he continues to look at the photo. “Not a human head. It’s a frozen dead weasel. We just have to wait for the weather to warm up so I can hack him out. But don’t tell Julia. She’ll want to have a weasel burial. And, sorry, but I just don’t feel like singing ‘Amazing Grace’ for a weasel.”

John sends the photo to Hans.

**

I think about the weasel a lot. He was nasty—killing those bunnies, making little girls cry, destroying brake cables on cars, and keeping entire families awake at night. But, you know, he was acting in character, just being a weasel and performing weasel-ish deeds. He was likely living here before we moved in, hanging out with the mice, the frogs, and the wild boars. We might have served a nice cheese, olive, and cable buffet, but we didn’t exactly drag out the welcome wagon for him. I feel a little sad about his gruesome demise. I still haven’t seen the photo.

So we go on: Man (and reluctant woman) versus Nature. A couple of musicians, trying to create something meaningful out of the mess of the day—raising kids, cooking dinners, practicing, writing, setting live traps, practicing some more, listening for noise in the walls and thumps on the roof, and trying to get some sleep.

I hope the wild boars come back up the hill some day.

**

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl and Waltz of the Asparagus People.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Eat Pie: The Only Diet Tip You’ll Ever Need

Piano Girl Robin Meloy Goldsby recalls her brief stint as an exercise instructor and diet coach in Flushing, Queens, New York.

January, 1981: “Ladies! Listen up! It’s ‘Team Time with Deanna!’ Grab your buddy and head to the center of the floor where we’ll meet and greet, dance and prance, and burn away that winter blubber.”

Deanna is a thirty-five year old exercise instructor and seasoned resident of Queens. I am a twenty-three year-old out-of-work actor/pianist and a newish New Yorker. I wear a slightly see-through white leotard, a purple polyester sash around my waist, and a very large badge that says, “Elaine Powers Figure Salon TRAINEE.” It is not my finest moment, but I’m grateful to be employed. I’ve graduated from Chatham College, a gentle but high-minded women’s school in Pittsburgh, with a BA in Theater Arts. I know a lot about Shakespearean comedies and Greek tragedies, but hardly anything about how to get work as a performing artist in New York City.

This is the third job I’ve had since receiving my diploma. When I moved here eighteen months ago, I landed a fancy-sounding gig as a promotional model at Bergdorf Goodman, where a skinny fashion director wearing a  narrow black suit stuffed me into a voluminous Anne Klein evening dress and forced me to spray shoppers with expensive perfume. My most recent round of employment has been a role as a piano-playing stripper in the national touring company of an old-fashioned Burlesque show called Peaches and Bananas. Not a bad job, really. I’ve gotten my Equity card, learned to peel off a corset while playing Chopin, how to cope with weathered Burlesque comedians (hint: never ever steal a laugh from an eighty-year-old Top Banana), how to crank my hair  to skyscraper heights, glue on false eyelashes without blinding myself, and how to save money by sleeping eight actors in a Days Inn motel room meant for two (hint: never ever room with the Top Banana—he’ll use all the towels). I’ve also figured out how to survive on stale Dunkin’ Donuts crullers and cold shrimp-fried rice. Dancing  (ass-shaking disguised as choreography) and road rat meals (leftover  half-eaten Whoppers for breakfast) have left me enviably lanky but one step away from a full-fledged Scurvy diagnosis. I touch my arm and it bruises. For over a year I’ve been counting pennies and looking forward to the day when I can afford food that doesn’t come in a white cardboard carton or a greasy paper bag.

Now, a little uncertain about my next shaky steps in city jam-packed with out-of-work actors skidding in their own greasepaint, I’ve signed up to work part time as an instructor at an Elaine Powers Figure Salon. I haven’t found an Elaine Powers salon with job openings in Manhattan—those places are already staffed by Bob Fosse rejects, soap opera spit-backs, and runway models who are an inch or two short of the 5’9″ minimum. So I’ve nailed down a position as an instructor at the Flushing, Queens salon, in the shadow of Shea Stadium. In Flushing the accents and waistlines are thicker. Hair and coat colors dazzle. It’s a place where, refreshingly, avenues swarm with civilians who want nothing—nothing!—to do with show business. The # 7 Express train from Grand Central gets me there in no time at all.

During “Team Time with Deanna” I sit on an Elaine Powers weight bench and take notes. I’ll be expected to conduct my very own “Team Time with Robin” in the next few days, and there’s an Elaine Powers protocol I’ll need to follow.

Cats have claws! Dogs have fleas! All I’ve got are chubby knees!

I’m not dumb! I’m so wise! Pump away these flabby thighs!

Move those arms! Move those feet! How I hate this cellulite!

Pec-tor-als! Stretch and reach! We’ll look foxy on the beach.

Remember, it’s 1981. “Foxy” is one of our favorite words. While Deanna and her students recite these rhymes, Donna Summer blares from the Elaine Powers sound system. “She Works Hard for the Money” is the track of choice. The music and the rhymes don’t sync and I feel like I’m caught in a John Cage nightmare. Deanna, single mother of four sons, resembles an Italian female version of Barney Rubble. She is tiny and rock solid—no chubby knees on her. Deanna is a dynamo—during my shift I watch her conduct Team Time every hour on the hour. No matter how much she jumps around, her big Sue Ellen Ewing hair stays in place.

After Deanna’s third session I head back to the front desk—a platform that oversees all the weight machines, vibrating belts, and treadmills. The vibrating belts intrigue me. The clients strap a belt around their problem zones and the belts shake-shake-shake the fat. Wow.

“Do those things work?” I ask Deanna.

“Nah,” she says, evading my eyes. “They make your thighs itch, and that’s about it.”

“Oh,” I say. “Who needs that? Itchy thighs. Blah.”

“Right. So. You gotta handle on Team Time, now?”

“Yes. I do.”

“Good. Okay, write this next thing down in your notebook. It’s one of our most critical functions, as, like, Elaine Powers role models and instructors.”

“Okay.” I sit with my pen poised and ready to write. I’m good at taking notes. Deanna picks up the microphone. “You turn it on like this,” she whispers to me, and shows me a little on and off switch. “Write that down. Turn on the microphone.”

“Okay. Turn on the microphone.”

“Ladies, listen up! It’s time for your ‘Diet Tip of the Day.'” The gyrating women step down from their weight machines, treadmills, and vibrating belts. They swivel to face Deanna. She is their weight-loss queen of Queens, their calorie-counting pocket-Pope, their great white hope for slimmer thighs and sleeker silhouettes.

“Are you ready?” she shouts.

“Yeah!” they reply.

“I can’t hear you!” she yells.

“Yeah!” they scream.

“What do we wanna do?”

“Lose weight! Lose weight!”

“Louder, louder!”

“Lose weight! Lose weight!”

“Okay, ladies, here we go. Your ‘Diet Tip of the Day’—drum roll, please!” The ladies beat on the purple padded benches of the weight machines.

“Your ‘Diet Tip of the Day’ is . . . DON’T EAT PIE!”

A startled silence fills the salon. Then the ladies break into applause. After a few moments, they return to their workouts.

“That’s it?” I say to Deanna. “Don’t eat pie is your diet tip for the day?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Good, right?”

“But that’s ridiculous,” I say. “Everyone knows not to eat pie if they’re trying to lose weight. These poor women are paying $11.99 a month—”

“$9.99 a month for the two year program, $7.99 a month for the five year plan and a one time fee of $499.99 for a lifetime membership.”

“Right. What a deal. But shouldn’t you give them something more than a poem about chubby knees and a diet tip that tells them not to eat pie?”

Deanna glares at me and I’m really glad she doesn’t have one of those Barney Rubble clubs. “Sometimes,” she growls, “you just have to hit them over the head with this stuff. It’s not, like, rocket science. Obvious is good.”

“Obvious is good,” I write in my notebook, which, thirty years later, I will dig out of an old carton so I can write this story.

**

Cathy, a platinum L’Oreal-blond with an inch of black roots, dangling earrings, water-balloon boobs, narrow teenage-boy hips, and lavender tights paces on the magenta carpet of the violet-walled Elaine Powers back office. Purple, purple everywhere. Working in this place is like living inside a grape. Cathy (who could be a man—I’m not sure) is our manager, a job that involves chain smoking and convincing middle-aged female citizens of Flushing that they, too, could look like her if they stopped eating pie and forked over $11.99 a month for the next year.

Cathy has called me into her office to discuss “security” issues at the salon. Deanna accompanies me. We all light up cigarettes. It’s 1981. We smoke. No guilt.

“So,” says Cathy to Deanna. “Did you show Robin the panic button?”

“The panic button?” I say. “The panic button?”

“You didn’t tell her?” says Cathy to Deanna.

“I couldn’t,” says Deanna. “It’s too upsetting.”

What?” I say.

“Deanna,” says Cathy. “If you’re going be an Elaine Powers Assistant Manager some day, you gotta get a grip on these things. Now tell her.”

I wonder if the panic button has something to do with pie. I haven’t thought about pie for a couple of years, but now I can’t stop conjuring visions of my mom’s pumpkin, lemon meringue, pecan, and peach pies. Flaky crusts, whipped cream, the works. I take a drag from my Benson and Hedges cigarette, a luxury I can’t afford.  I scrimp on meals, but I buy these cigarettes because I like the way the package looks. Classy.

“Terrible,” says Deanna. ” It’s terrible. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it. It was all over the newspapers. It was even on TV.”

“It really caused our membership to drop,” says Cathy.

What?” I say.

“Go ahead,” says Cathy, lighting another cigarette. “Spill.”

“Well,” says Deanna. “It happened in Texas. Five years ago. And people say New York City is dangerous.”

What?” I say.

“Okay, like, two goons wearing masks busted into one of our Houston salons. They had guns, which later turned out to be toy water pistols, but how could anyone know? Anyway, they made all the ladies strip down to their underwear.”

“At least they kept their underwear,” says Cathy.

“Yeah, thank God for small favors,” says Deanna. “Although most of those underpants weren’t exactly small.”

“Go on,” says Cathy.

“I can’t,” says Deanna. “You tell.”

Cathy rolls her eyes and blows a long trail of smoke across the room. “They crowded all of the ladies into a small storage room, more of a closet, really, and then they selected the most, uh, voluptuous women and forced them back out onto the floor.”

They picked the fattest ones,” says Deanna.

“Deanna, that’s not the way an Elaine Powers instructor talks. Show some respect.”

“Sorry,” she says, “but it’s true. I don’t know why we can’t say the word fat around here. It’s stupid. Fat is fat. F-A-T. So go ahead with the story.”

“Right. The masked men took these stout ladies—”

Stout? Like that’s better than saying fat? Excuse me, but if I ever gain, like, a hundred pounds, call me fat but don’t call me stout. Even statuesque sounds better than stout.”

“Fine. But stout is an approved Elaine Powers word. Anyway, they took the stout ladies and forced them onto the vibrating belt machines, with the belts around their butts. Then they turned on the machines.”

“Oh, no,” I say.

“You can just imagine how that looked,” says Deanna. “All that naked flab, covered by those giant underpants, of course, but still, wiggling and jiggling. I mean, even a skinny girl on those machines looks like used Jello.”

“Deanna! That’s enough. You wanna tell the end of the story?”

“No way, José,” says Deanna. “That’s the worst part.”

I am ready to resign on my very first day of employment. “Please don’t tell me those poor women were raped.”

“No,” says Cathy. “But the two men, they, uh, watched the stout ladies on the belts. And they did Unspeakable Things while they were watching. You know, the shaking butts turned them on, I guess.”

“That’s horrible,” I say.

“And the goons kept their masks on,” says Deanna. “Oh my God. I can’t even think about this. It makes me sick. Sick. Just skip the next part. Robin can use her imagination.”

“Yeah, I think I can figure it out. No one was raped?” I ask.

“No.”

“No one was hurt?”

“No. Upset, of course, but not harmed in any physical way. Sadly, most of them never returned to the salon again. They were traumatized.”

“Did they ever catch the guys?”

“No. They’re still out there. And that’s why we have a panic button. If any man comes into the salon for any reason, one of us has to stand by the panic button and be prepared to hit it. Because we don’t want a VBI here in Flushing.”

“A VBI?” I say.

“Vibrating Belt Incident,” says Deanna, flicking the ash of her cigarette into a lilac ashtray.

**

The following week when I’m alone and closing the salon—Cathy has given me a key because she claims I’m management material—I step onto one of the vibrating belt machines and hook the belt around my butt. I turn on the machine. In the mirror—there are mirrors everywhere in this place—I catch a glimpse of myself as I shake, waggle, and roll. Look at that. Turns out I have a lot of fat on my skinny frame.  There’s a stout girl lurking inside me, and I see her, right there in my jiggling reflection. Traumatic, indeed, and there’s not even anyone watching. That’s it. No more pie for me. I lock up and go home.

**

A miracle! Four months into my Elaine Powers siege a music agent calls and offers me a gig at the Newark Airport Holiday Inn, where I’ll play the piano five nights a week for turnpike lounge lizards, red-eyed truck drivers, and world-weary flight crews—the worker bees of the transportation industry. I accept the offer. For a few weeks I do both jobs, conducting Team Time during the day, and playing the piano at the Newark Airport Holiday Inn at night. I love my job in Newark—I’ve got a beat-up out-of-tune piano in a smoky bar and my very own hotel room with a bright orange chenille bedspread—no Top Bananas, bed sharing, or begging for towels. I have a decent paycheck and free meals (featuring egg dishes with melted cheese) in a real restaurant with white tablecloths, and a chance to sunbathe next to a pool with a thin film of jet fuel floating on the water’s surface.  From my pool perch I watch as jets take off and land, a hundred times a day—sky ships carrying eager passengers to anywhere but here. Sometimes I fall asleep outside with planes disappearing into the clouds over my head. I dream big fat dreams.

Finally, I resign from Elaine Powers. I’m sad about saying goodbye to Cathy and Deanna, but happy I’ve escaped without a VBI. I am sick of the color purple. During my final Team Time I blast Donna Summer’s cassette on the boom box.  I work hard for my money, chase away those chubby knees, and wish my clients well.

“You know what?” I say to the ladies. “A little bit of fat is okay. Be fit. Be foxy. Be healthy. Be happy. Listen to music. Dance. Don’t worry so much about the pie.”

Cathy smiles at me. Deanna scowls. I exit. Obvious is good.

**

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm, and Waltz of the Asparagus People

Pie Photo