Pretty Pretty: Piano Girl vs. Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, Mr. Trump, we notice you.

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

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

They will know better, because we have known worse.

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

Vote.

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

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

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  • David Wilson

    Hey Rob! I was surprised to hear your replies about the several posts that I put on my fb page a few weeks ago? Great to hear your input – but what is your strategy for the election? Who’s the least damaging? Who do you choose? It seems like it’s: who is your vote going to? I did hear about two very promising independents from the Midwest. Please reply via the secure fb messenger DAAAAAAAAAAVE?!!! Wilson

  • shirley hanley

    Robin your piece hit me right in the proverbial solar plexus. I was a dancer on the Las Vegas Strip from 1962 thur 1969 and personally experienced everything you covered in this piece with many Trump-like characters. One was a big deal at the hotel where I was seeking employment as a dancer. He was the producer of the show in the main showroom. I had to go to his bungalow for a private interview and when the interview was over and I was told I was hired I thanked him and stood up to leave…he grabbed me and planted a big, disgustingly wet kiss on my mouth. I was shocked but of course didn’t show it because he had the power to take away what had just been given. I like you felt bad inside about myself for not protesting. I did manage to get out the door without losing more of my soul. I never slept with any of these bastards to further my career as a dancer but saw it happening all around me. It was Vegas baby!
    We’ve come a long way since then but not far enough…there are still too many “Donald Trumps” in the world who abuse power and degrade others, especially women.

  • dartist1162

    Well written and that was true of the 80’s and 90’s as well It’s been long time coming in how women have to step up within there own inner self to have respect for themselves above money because money can’t buy a woman with self respect and honor of who she is. In mind-body-& in her soul. I have learned this threw the 70’s-80’s90’s and now being 70yrs. old now. Having self worth & confidence in who you are & stand up for what is right. Also, know no one rich man can buy you if their jerks like Trump. We hopefully learn things threw time!:) For all the “Sincere” people out their be proud of who you are & stand up for you believe is right.

  • AntonyM

    excellent, excellent, excellent. Thank you.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thank for reading, AntonyM. Hello from Germany . . .

  • Tom Lewis

    Excellent article Robin. Also enjoyed visiting your website! As a musician of the 70’s through today and having worked with many female singers/musicians I know of what you speak! Because we love music so many can and do try to take advantage. To all – VOTE!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Hi Tom—ah, a fellow traveler. Thanks for reading. Keep swinging— RMG

  • seattlec2

    Wonderful writing, thank you for this.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Hey seattlec2, Thanks for reading and commenting! Best, RMG

  • ytuque

    “I grew up with feminist parents, attended a very fine women’s college, studied hard, worked my tail off, and I still have to put up with guys who judge me by the way I fill out my cocktail dress?”

    A cautionary tale for young women who decide to go to a women’s university and study any major ending in “studies”.

  • John Mooter

    Very interesting and provocative piece of writing.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thank you, John! Regards from Cologne, Germany, where I have a great boss who treats all of his employees with respect. Thanks for writing. Robin

  • Warren Senders

    What superb writing, and what a powerful message. Thank you.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Warren! RMG

  • Scott Soltermann

    Robin, I was at the Grand Hyatt in Nov. 1987. I too am a pianist. I played a Friday night at the Atrium Club in NYC while staying at the Hyatt! I feel your message needs to address all women, and all pianists. We go through a lot of shifting for others to be compliant. Great article, and I want to share with my Nordstrom pianists, as I played there for over 10 years. Thank you for sharing. I prefer Steinway but am not endorsed.
    ~Scott Soltermann

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Scott! We were probably there at the same time. I returned to the Hyatt in the early nineties and married the bassist from the lobby trio. Please share with your Nordstrom friends and anyone else you can think of.

      You are right, all musicians have to put up with a lack of respect. The recent political scene has reminded me of the particular ick factor from the eighties.

      Thanks for writing. Sign up for my newsletter. I write a monthly essay, usually about music related stuff. It is free. Stay in touch!

  • This is a wonderful piece. I was there in the eighties with you, with one foot in the past and one foot in a better time, although it sometimes felt like only a pinky toe. I majored in engineering because I saw it as a way to have financial independence and it worked out that way. Even when I was in two marriages I would eventually leave, staying at home with my children, I always had that engineering license to serve as an escape hatch if I needed it. And I did need it. But still…it was the eighties. When I did environmental audits of manufacturing facilities, there were degrading pictures of women in various states of undress on the walls. When I interviewed for a job that I was eminently qualified to do, the interviewer asked me if there were any other female chemical engineering grad students who looked like me but weren’t married. (And no, I didn’t get the job, and I was too rooted in that time to even consider that I might protest the illegal comment or the girly pictures on the walls. Who wanted to be labeled shrill or troublesome? Or to even remind the men around her that they were in the company of a woman?) We’ve come a long way and, no, we’re not going back.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Mary Anna! Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Please stay in touch and keep moving forward. RMG

  • Carol Wright

    nice piece, well written and evocative of the era. I never did try to fit into this tight dress woman’s world. What the heck was I doing? Volunteering around Werner Erhard on the est Physics Conference Team…and things of that calibre. Not all of us were primping for men. The self improvement movement, environmental movement, new age movement. Interesting to step back into time… I was not in HER World… interesting to think back and see what I WAS doing..there was another world to belong to… And there still is.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thank you so much, Carol, for your thoughtful words. The performing artist world of eighties Manhattan was obviously very different from your world. I wish I had had your strength of character or that my chosen profession had been more in line with what I expected for myself. At that time, and in that profession, I didn’t feel like I had many options. Now I know better, partly due to maturity, partly due to changes in the way society treats women in the arts. Thank you for setting an example for women and girls—we need to hear more stories like yours. Warm regards from Cologne, Germany. RMG

  • Cynthia Brultz Zimmerman

    At least she had a job and got paid well. And got to ride on Trump’s private helicopter? Really?? and she is complaining… Sorry if I don’t seem very sympathetic.

    • Carol Wright

      I think you missed the point. try again

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Not complaining. Taking responsibility—there’s a difference. Thanks for reading, Cynthia.

  • Holli Ross

    Always insightful, entertaining and perilously truthful as only you can do! Thanks for sharing a slice of the 80’s all to deja vu-ing at me now! Keep writing it down now that we need not be Ladies of the Holy Spandex!
    Much Love, Holli

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Holli! So nice to hear from you. You get it. You were there. We survived. Sending love!

  • Melissa Volker

    Love this more than I can say. And how did I not connect Trumpets with Trump all that time I was there? Clearly I did not care — which I know I made abundantly clear. 😉 But ick…I was a Trumpet. *shiver*

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Yep. We were Accidental Trumpettes. Thanks for reading. I think we need a t shirt or something. Survivors.

  • janice friedman

    I love the way you write Robin. I forgot the place we played was called Trumpets! But, I do remember the place and the time. Hugs to you fellow piano girl. I can’t fit into my little velvet dress anymore unfortunately….or fortunately.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Janice! So nice to hear from you. And I’m glad we survived the eighties and that we’re both still working. Yeah.

  • Ann Cotter

    Kudos to you on this article! I have lived a lot of what you describe in terms of accepting the diminished status quo for women. Yes, women have come a long way in expecting, having and demanding self-respect.
    And yes, I have voted from abroad for an imperfect (as we all are) woman U. S. President who I believe will work with extraordinary zeal for the betterment of all.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Ann! And good for you for voting from abroad. We are 8 million strong and can make a difference!

  • A hopeful take on an ugly topic and man. I have already sent in my absentee ballot.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Julia voted in her first presidential election this year. How amazing that she could vote for a female candidate. Love that!

      • It really is so cool for her and for all of us to be a part of this historic moment!

        • Robin Meloy Goldsby

          Yes, indeed! And hopefully this post is making people think about how much this counts.