“Why do they call it a fake book anyway? Is it for fake piano players?” says Michael the waiter. “That would be good for me.”
“You play the piano?” I say. It is five minutes to five and I’m standing in the kitchen of the Omni Park Central, eating spicy corn chips and drinking a coffee while leafing through an old fake book for ideas. My gig is a five-hour marathon, six days a week, and I need material.
“Yeah, I played a lot while I was growing up,” he says. “It was like therapy for me. Saved me from having to try out for the basketball team. I either had to learn an instrument or play a sport, my parents said.” He is carefully arranging flowers into the individual bud vases that will be placed on each table in the lobby cocktail lounge.
“Too bad there wasn’t a florist club at your high school. You would have been a hit,” I say.
“Fat chance, darling. There was only one florist in my hometown, and she was strictly a carnation-and-chiffon-butterfly kind of gal. I used to collect the butterflies whenever my mother got an arrangement. I decorated the ceiling of my bedroom with them. So tell me about this fake book thing.”
“It’s called a fake book because it gives you just the basics of the song. Just enough. Then you can fake your way through it,” I say.
“So how do they decide which songs to put into the fake book?”
“They pick songs that people want to hear. You know, popular songs, standards, that kind of thing.”
“But you never play with music in front of you.”
“Yeah, I try to avoid having music on the piano. My teacher always said it was unprofessional and most improper to play solo piano in public with music in front of me. To this day I swear a bolt of lightning will come out of the sky and strike me dead if I dare to perform with a piece of music on the stand.”
“So why lug the fake book around?”
“In case somebody waves a twenty-dollar bill at me and asks for a song I don’t know. For twenty bucks I’m willing to risk the lightning bolt. I might be professional and proper but I’m not stupid.”
“I don’t know, honey. Some of these titles look suspicious,” Michael says as he thumbs through the book. “Like this one. ‘Turkey in the Straw.’ Has anyone ever asked you for that?”
“No. But Thanksgiving is coming up. You never know.”
“Or here’s a real classic: ‘The Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech.’ Or what about ‘The Livery Stable Blues?’ Or ‘Too Fat for the Chimney’? Who plays this stuff? Oh wait, this is good—‘Born to Hand Jive.’ How are you gonna play that on the piano? Look! A whole section of marine-animal songs. Here’s ‘Flipper.’ And check this out. ‘The Theme from Sea Hunt!’ I’ll bet that’s a popular request on the cocktail piano circuit. Ha!”
“Maybe if you had a cocktail piano gig at SeaWorld?” I’m half serious.
“God I used to love that Sea Hunt show. Nobody ever looked better in a wetsuit than Lloyd Bridges. I learned to swim because of that show.”
Petra, the manager, rounds the corner. “Uh, Michael, the flowers? It’s ten past five!” He loads the thirty vases, each one containing a fragile stem of snow-white Friesia, onto a tray. On his way past the white Kawai grand, he takes a extra spray of blossoms out of his apron pocket, and places it on the piano.
The Omni Park Central is an older hotel between Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth streets on Seventh Avenue. Right before I started playing at the Omni, the lobby was gutted and redone in white marble. The furniture is white, the reception desk is white, the Kawai grand is white, and Lord knows I’m white. The management team has even asked me to wear white dresses. They’re doing their best to make some sort of theme statement with the interior decorating, but I can’t imagine what it is.
There I sit, night after night, right smack in the middle of the lobby, looking like I’ve blown in from the Alps. My piano is about twenty yards away from the revolving doors that lead to the grit and grime of the city streets. Michael calls me Heidi on Seventh.
“He’s here! He’s here! He’s here!” Flustered, Michael runs to the piano around tables and chairs, briefcases and Louis Vuitton travel bags, all the while balancing a mixed green salad and a Chardonnay on his tray. “He’s here!”
“Who’s here? Calm down, your face is all red,” I say. I continue to play “Memory” from Cats, the hit song of the decade.
“Lloyd Bridges. Do you believe it? Where’s your fake book? Get the fake book! Get it! Get it now! It’s your chance to play ‘Sea Hunt’!”
I’m caught in the frenzy. Lloyd is checking in at reception. He’s wearing a white suit—someone must have tipped him off—and he’s very tan.
“The book is in the back, Michael. Next to Hector’s station. Go get it. Fast. Before Lloyd splits. Hurry up!” Michael drops his tray on the piano and races to the kitchen.
“Here,” he says, out of breath. “Page 134. ‘Theme from Sea Hunt.’ You go for it, girl.” Michael walks to edge of the platform, strikes a spokesmodel’s pose and announces: “Mr. Lloyd Bridges, we welcome you to the Omni Park Central. Here is a song prepared by our lovely pianist especially for you.”
I play “Sea Hunt.” Not very well, but I bang it out. Mr. Bridges nods and points in my direction. He seems totally unimpressed.
“What?” says Michael. “Like every piano player in the world plays that song for him? He’s lucky anybody even knows who he is. You’d think he’d at least come up here and thank us in person or send us a drink or something.”
“Maybe he didn’t recognize it. I played it pretty badly. If I had known we were going to have a Sea Hunt moment, I would have practiced.” I stand up. It’s break time.
“Honey, even I recognized it and I haven’t seen the show since 1975.” He casts a disdainful look in Mr. Bridges’ direction. Sitting at the piano, Michael looks at the fake book and takes off his glasses. He plays the first four bars of ‘Sea Hunt’ and flips backwards off the piano bench, just like Lloyd used to do off the side of the boat when he was about to go battle a shark in dangerously deep water.
“Table two wants to buy you a drink, honey. That fab-looking guy in the navy blazer,” says Michael.
It’s almost nine o’clock, time for my last break of the evening. I’m ready for a glass of wine. “Okay,” I say to Michael. “The usual. Do I have to sit with him?”
“Don’t know, darlin’; he says he wants to book you for a party. It wouldn’t kill you talk to him for a second. Looks like he’s got some money.”
“Michael, everyone here has money, except for us.”
“Testy tonight, Missy Robin?”
“Tired. Just tired.” I’ve been playing five hours a night, six nights a week and going to acting classes during the day. I need a vacation.
I finish the set with “Long and Winding Road” and go to table two. The man sitting there springs to his feet.
“I’m Reginald Thomas Simpson,” he says as he holds the chair for me. We exchange a few banal pleasantries, and he asks if he can book me for a party at his penthouse.
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” I say. “You can contact my agent and he’ll take care of the details.”
“Can’t I work with you personally,” he says. “Without the agent?”
“I’m sorry, Reginald, I’m under contract.” Not true, but I decided long ago to always use the agent buffer as a security system. “But do call Harlan Ellis, my agent. He’s a great guy. Thanks for the wine. Hope to see you again!” I give him Harlan’s card and return to the piano for my last set, not thinking too much about Reginald, just wanting to go home.
“You’d better get some sleep, honey,” says Michael. “You’re looking awfully pale. If you get any whiter you’re going to just fade away in this room.”
On my way out of the hotel I notice Reginald across Seventh Avenue, leaning against a building and smiling at me. I scoot down into the subway station where the train is waiting. As it pulls away, I see him again. This time he isn’t smiling.
“Robin, you’ve got mail. I left it on the piano.”
“Me? Mail? Okay, thanks.” I’ve taken a few days off to fly down to Florida with my boyfriend. I’m not as tan as Lloyd Bridges, but I’ve gotten a little color. The sunshine has done wonders for me. I open the letter.
Oh, God. “Michael, check this out!”
The letter says Robin you will die. The letters have been cut out of newspaper print and pasted on a plain white sheet of paper.
“Wow,” says Michael. “This is like a bad movie.”
“Who put this here?” I ask him. My palms are sweating.
“No clue,” he says. We look at the envelope, hoping for a clue. But it’s blank.
“You know what, honey? I think I’d better call security.”
I start my first set with “Windmills of Your Mind.” A security guard comes to the piano to pick up the letter, makes a couple of jokes about it, and leaves.
Later that evening, as Michael and I are pounding out a four-hand version of “The Ben Hur Chariot Race March,” I look up and see a street person enter the lobby from the Seventh Avenue revolving door. He lurches towards the reception desk and waves a stained rag in small circles around his head. The lobby bustles with late check-ins and frazzled business people rushing off to important places. No one looks at the homeless man—they avoid his stares and step over and around him like he’s just another hurtle on a New York obstacle course. The man shuffles in a wide arc around the cocktail lounge. Suddenly he stops, crouches down low on the white marble floor, looks directly at me, and grins. It is Reginald. The sophisticated and elegantly dressed man has vanished. He’s dressed in a torn and filthy coat and layers of dirty sweaters. He’s wearing old ragged slippers and his skin is sooty. He has foam in the corners of his mouth. But the grin is the same.
We are coming to the big finish of our “Chariot Race March.” A handful of people, Michael’s customers, are sitting close to the piano cheering us on.
“Michael, that’s him,” I say as we play the last chord. The beginning of an anxiety attack creeps under my collar. I’m sure that Reginald, with his multiple outfits and maniacal smile, is the author the death threat. Michael runs to call security, but by the time they arrive, Reginald has disappeared.
“Darling,” Michael says. “Looks like you’ve got yourself a stalker. How dramatic!”
I’m the house pianist at the Omni, but Michael is the real entertainment in the lobby. He tells jokes to his customers and sings songs with me accompanying him. Whenever we get a chance, we play one of the four-hand pieces we’ve rehearsed. The guests adore him. I adore him.
In Michael’s’ free time he serves meals at a Manhattan soup kitchen. He also donates his time to GMHC, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a non-profit group in Manhattan. The city has been ravaged by AIDS. We fear it will get much worse. At GMHC Michael persuades gay men to be tested for HIV.
One week he misses five days of work. I can’t reach him at home and I’m worried. Nobody at the Omni has heard from him. Finally, on the sixth day, he returns.
“What’s going on with you?” I ask.
“Meet me by the telephones on your break,” he says. There’s a private area upstairs, by a bank of public phones. I race up there after my first set.
“I’m sick,” he says. “Full-blown AIDS.” He starts to cry. The marble floor beneath me feels like it’s vibrating. One of the pay phones begins to ring.
“I thought I was in the clear. I haven’t had a partner for nine years. I didn’t even bother with an HIV test because I’ve been celibate for so long. I live like a fucking nun. Here I’ve been out counseling other men to be tested when I should have been tested myself. How stupid is that?”
I embrace him and we cry together. I can’t speak. I can barely breathe.
The pay phone keeps ringing.
He pulls himself out of my arms and squares his shoulders.
“No one here can know about this. They’ll fire me. And if I lose my health insurance I’m doomed. I’m going to fight this. I’ve already contacted the NIH and put myself on the list for experimental programs.”
Ring, ring, ring.
Michael picks up the phone and says, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.” He slams it back down.
I sob. I want to be strong for him, but I can’t get it together.
“Honey,” he says. “It’ll be okay. Looks like we both have stalkers. We just have to wear them down.”
We return to the cocktail lounge. I play. He works the room, shuffling back and forth with kir royale and chicken satay. He sings and plays the piano with me and fills the lobby with his tragic optimism. Watching him tonight is like watching a ray of sunlight, the kind that catches you by surprise and dances around your living room on an otherwise cloudy day.
It’s early November and Reginald continues to make appearances in the lobby.
“What fashion statement is he making today?” Michael asks. “Dumpster or Brooks Brothers? Do you think he carries that paper bag in his Gucci briefcase, just in case he wants to change his look midday?”
Reginald T. Simpson, whatever he’s wearing, is clever enough to avoid being caught. He sneaks into the lobby, stares at me, waits for a waiter to call security, and then runs out of the hotel before they arrive. Not once in three months has any member of the security force actually seen the guy. Some nights Reginald lurks outside of the hotel, waiting for me to leave. I always know when he’s there. He hides in the shadowy recesses of the Carnegie Hall entrance, and I can feel his eyes burning through my heavy winter coat as I hurry along Seventh Avenue. I stop taking the subway home. I take cabs. One of the waiters, Michael usually, escorts me out of the hotel and waits until the taxi door closes behind me. I’m terrified that Reginald will jump into another cab and follow me. Taxi drivers don’t pick up street people, but they do pick up Caucasian businessmen wearing good suits. I breathe a sigh of relief on the nights when Reginald wears his ragged clothes.
“Not a thing we can do, Robin,” says Bill, the chief of hotel security. “We can’t touch him unless he actually attacks you on hotel property. Sorry.”
“Do you think you might post a guard in the lobby? I mean, wouldn’t that be a good place to have a guard anyway? I know you guys come through the lobby every so often, but this Reginald guy has been coming in every night for months and you’ve never even seen him.”
“You have to call us, Robin, the minute he arrives.”
“But your office is a two-minute walk away from the piano. Reginald bolts as soon as he knows he’s been spotted. It takes him five seconds to get back onto the street.”
“Look, our hands are tied. Nothing we can do but wait until he does something nasty on the property. Then we’ll nail him.”
“That’s reassuring,” I say.
Two nights later, just as I’m playing the bridge to “As Time Goes By,” Reginald appears at the piano, on my left side. He leans over me. His body is rigid and he stinks like raw onions, rotting meat, and mildew. I turn away from him and try to escape from the right. He grabs my arm and pushes me back against the wall. Then he holds up a large closed umbrella and shoves the point of it against my throat.
“I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you.” His voice is rough and strained.
The umbrella doesn’t have any fabric on it. It’s just the handle, the spokes, and the point, which is sharpened to a spike. I’m unable to move or scream for fear of being impaled. There are scores of people around me and no one is paying any attention.
Please. Someone. Look. This. Way.
Michael spots me from across the lobby, throws his tray to the floor, and races towards the piano. Just as fast, Reginald drops his umbrella and escapes out the side door. I don’t know what to do—I’m out of breath, frozen with panic. But I feel an urgent need to finish the song I’d been playing when Reginald attacked me. I sit back down at the piano and resolve the cadence. The chord hangs for a second, then I bolt for the kitchen. I sink to the floor and sit there, shaking, until Michael packs me into my woolen coat. He escorts me into the darkness on Seventh Avenue and stuffs me into a taxi.
Two weeks later I return to the Omni in a Valium-induced daze.
“I’m leaving,” Michael says to me. “I’m going home to Wisconsin. My parents will help me with money. I need to be able to get back and forth to Washington for these treatments and tests.”
“When are you leaving?”
“It will be terrible here without you.”
“Yes, darling,” he says. “It will be dreadful. Abysmal. Devastating. But I suspect you’ll all deal with it. Here, I saved something for you.” He takes me in the back, and there, next to a stack of booster seats, is the stick umbrella. He has tied little pink ribbons around each bare spoke.
“Michael,” I say. “That’s awful.”
“Well that’s the beauty of it, honey. It’s art. A little too big for your coffeetable, but I’m sure you can make it work somewhere in that gorgeous apartment of yours. Now stop sniveling and go play something pretty.”
Reginald doesn’t come into the hotel on my first night back, but I sense that he is outside, somewhere, waiting, waiting, waiting. At ten o’clock, just as I’m finishing my last set, Bill, the security chief, shows up at the piano.
“I’m sorry about what happened,” he says. “We’d like to make sure that you get into a taxi safely tonight.”
“Yeah, well, Michael’s been seeing to that for the last few months, but I think it would be a good idea for you to take over,” I say. “I’ll go and grab my coat.”
I kiss Michael goodbye and push my way through the revolving doors. Brooks Brothers Reginald, in plain view, stands just across Seventh Avenue, holding his briefcase.
“That’s him,” I whisper to the security guy.
“Over there. In the suit.”
“I thought he was supposed to be a street person,” he says.
“Sometimes he’s a street person. He changes his clothes. I’ve told you all of this before.” Reginald jumps off the curb and into the traffic. I panic. He bounces off a taxi cab and continues walking. Toward me.
“Shit, He’s coming. Fuck. What should I do?” From across the wide street I see the intensity in his eyes. He looks right at me and ignores the honking horns and screeching brakes. He begins to run.
“He’s gonna kill me. What should I do? Please tell me what I should fucking do.” I stand frozen, staring at Reginald running toward me. I want to move but I can’t.
“Turn around and walk into the hotel,” says the security man. “We can’t grab him unless he’s in the hotel. Listen to me! Walk real slow and go into the hotel. Let’s hope he follows you.”
“I don’t want him to fucking follow me!”
Bill pushes me toward the hotel, hard. “Trust me. Now go.”
I set one foot in front of the other and force myself to look straight ahead. I hear the hollow echoes of the voices and laughter around me and a vague thump thump thump of Reginald’s footsteps as he draws nearer and nearer. I walk, in slow motion, through the door. Now Reginald is directly behind me. There is a whirl of movement as Michael, who has been waiting inside the lobby with four security guards, grips my arms and jostles me away from the door.
“Get out of here fast, honey. You don’t wanna see what they’re gonna do to this guy,” says Michael. I turn to look just as one of the guards snatches Reginald. I manage to close my eyes just before they knock him to the ground.
The cognac laps against the sides of the oversized snifter. An hour or so has passed. Michael comes into the bar, his face ashen. He is breathing hard.
“Those security guards are total thugs,” he says. “What do they do when they hire these guys? Go to Rikers Island to recruit the senior class of convicts?”
There is blood on his shirt.
“Michael, are you hurt?” I ask.
“No, honey. I just got a little involved in the tussle out there. This is Reginald’s blood. He was on the floor and they were still hitting him. Kicking him, even. Someone had to get them to stop.”
“Yeah, do you believe that? Me. In a fight. Someone should have sold tickets.”
“Where is Reginald now?”
“Oh, he’s upstairs being questioned and printed and photographed. All of which would have been possible without the pummeling in the lobby. I don’t think he’ll be hanging around here anymore.”
A waiter brings me another cognac. I give it to Michael and it’s gone in one gulp.
“So. I think tonight was my farewell performance,” he says. “I intended to stick out the week, but I’m too tired. Plus the Steven Seagal act tonight would be a tough one to follow.”
We’re quiet for a few minutes. Beneath the loosened collar of his shirt I notice the outline of a lesion.
“It’s not fair, Michael.”
“What do you mean it’s not fair? That I’m sick? Or are you talking about Reginald? He’s sick too, you know. None of it’s fair. But I’m lucky, honey. I have a family who loves me. I have an entire collection of Bette Davis movies. I have friends and music and flowers, and chiffon butterflies on my bedroom ceiling. I have a place to go. Not to worry.”
As we say goodbye I touch the sharp contours of his smooth face. He’s still a boy, really. He puts me in a taxi and balances on the curb as the cab pulls away, a brave young man in a black leather jacket, leaning into the cruel winter wind.
I know that I’ll never see him again.
Excerpt from Goldsby’s book, Piano Girl. Reprinted with the permission of Backbeat Books.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.
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