The Bear

Minuet

In 1966 I play the Bach Minuet in G at my first piano recital at the Joseph Horne Company in downtown Pittsburgh. I have practiced efficiently, memorized the music, and prepared for the recital by performing in front of other students.

I am nine years old.

The Minuet in G has two “A” sections and two “B” sections—the form is AABB. I plow through the first half of the piece perfectly, gaining more confidence with every note I toss behind me. Puffed up and full of pride, I finish the first half and launch into the second section. The first note of the second section is a B natural.

Clam! With great conviction I play an A sharp, the quintessential wrong note. And I don’t skim the key lightly, I hammer it. Bang! The hundred delicate, perfect notes I have played until this point fizzle and die. All that counts now is the wrong note.  Knees tremble, palms sweat, face burns. The piano recital fight or flight response kicks in—there’s a hungry bear chasing me through deep, crusty snow. I sense the audience cringing. I see my father in the front row raise one eyebrow. My teacher claps his hand to his forehead.

I’m in survival mode now, relying on muscle memory to propel me through the rest of the piece. In my mind I flee, climb a tree, and dangle upside-down from a low-hanging limb. I hang on for dear life. The bear licks his chops, growls, and snaps at my hands.

Overly dramatic? I think not. Any music student who has experienced a cortisol-induced hysterical brain-freeze while attempting to play a complicated passage will tell you the bear analogy is spot-on. 

Back to my nine-year old self: I know I must finish the piece. The B section repeats. With a kid’s logic I think that if I play it correctly the second time, the audience will know that I played it incorrectly the first time. I have an idea. I will intentionally play the wrong note again and listeners will never know I screwed up the first time.

I repeat the B section and hit that same really wrong note on purpose. Ha, I think. I’ve fooled everyone.

The bear, obviously bored with my refusal to slip from the tree into his slobbering maw, ambles away, checking occasionally to make sure I haven’t dropped to the ground. I don’t know this yet, but he’ll be back. Next time I won’t be so lucky.

***

Rondo

At a certain point in a teenage musician’s life, the bear wins more often than not. No one tells you this in music school, but learning to make a mistake, ignore it, and move on to the next moment can eventually mean the difference between having a career or not.

Failure—just as much as success—determines who we become as artists. We start out as idealistic musical messengers carrying copious notes of sadness and wonder and love. At some point—to get where we want to go— we must make mistakes. We must learn, as C.S Lewis wrote, to “fail forward.”

At age fifteen, I became paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake while playing a piano concert. Paralyzed! Acting, singing, writing—those things seemed effortless, but playing the piano? Despite my best intentions, once the bear showed up, the party was over. I have a theory that playing a musical instrument well in a solo concert performance situation is the most difficult task in the world. Head in the game, eye-hand coordination, memory, detail, nuance—it’s almost too much for one kid to think about. As a teenager, when we believe we’re being judged for every skin blemish, fashion choice, or wrong note, it’s damn near impossible.

Benyamin Nuss, a brilliant young classical pianist living in Germany and currently touring the world with his Final Fantasy program of computer-game music arranged for solo piano, has been gracing concert stages for twenty of his thirty years, playing extremely difficult classical repertoire with the emotional poise and technical wizardry of a seasoned musician twice his age. Benny is the kind of performer who never seems to have a bad day, never makes a mistake, never ever lets the bear chase him. I ask Benny if he can remember ever making a big mistake while performing. He laughs.

“There have been so many,” he says. “But the first one that comes to mind happened when I was sixteen. I had my first girlfriend and we had only been together for a couple of weeks. For the first time there was something in my life other than music. I was playing Beethoven’s Seventh Piano Sonata in D Major. The fourth movement is a Rondo with a figure that always repeats three notes. I was coming to the end, after the last repeat of this motive. I got stuck and stopped. Jumped some bars back because nothing better came to mind. Played the motive again. The same thing happened. Then I jumped back again. And again. And failed again. And again. Finally I just stopped. Didn’t know what else to do.”

The bear was nipping at Benny’s heels. Or the heels of his hands.

“Beethoven ditched you at the finish line?” I say.

“Yeah. Or I ditched myself.”

“What did you do?”

“I gave up. I stood, took a pathetic bow, and said, sorry.”

“Oh no.”

“Here’s the thing: I could have improvised my way out of that Rondo, but it never occurred to me that I could mess with Beethoven just to save myself. Really—I could have made something up and no one, other than my teacher, my parents, and maybe a couple of classical music experts would have known.” 

“I bet if that happened to you now, you’d own it. Beethoven meets Nuss. Improvise through a memory lapse? Is that what you learned from that mistake?”

“Yeah. That. And to never think about my girlfriend when I should be focusing on the music.” 

Here’s my favorite part of Benny’s story: On that same night, after suffering what he considered a monumental defeat, Benny took some deep breaths in the wings, returned to the stage, took another bow, sat down, and whipped through his encore—Prokofiev’s Toccata, twice as fast and furious as the piece he had just flubbed.

Boy versus bear. Boy wins.

***

Sonatine

Back to me and a chance meeting with the bear in 1978.

I’ve been working as a cocktail pianist to make money while attending college. I like the work—I sit in the corner, play the piano, and no one pays much attention to me. During the day I go to classes, take piano lessons, and practice for classical music recitals.

I’m scheduled to play Maurice Ravel’s Piano Sonatine for the spring music department recital at the Chatham College chapel. I know the material. I love the material. I’ve practiced it until the piece is playing me, instead of the other way around. I’m confident and secure with my interpretation of the composer’s intention, and I’m looking forward to the night’s performance.

I’m nineteen years old and wearing a frilly black dress and strappy heels. I walk onstage, sit at the Steinway concert grand, and adjust the height of the bench. There are about seventy-five people in attendance, a small crowd for such a big space.

Something is wrong with me. I feel, I don’t know, hollow. My hands are tingling. I take a deep breath, and begin playing the first movement of the Sonatine.

That’s when it hits me. About sixteen bars into Mr. Ravel’s elegantly written composition, my heart starts pounding. Boom. Boom. Boom. It’s the fucking bear. My hands sweat and shake, and I’m moving in slow motion, except for my right knee, which has developed a high-speed twitch.

“You can do this, you can do this,” I say to myself five or six times.

Another voice, a new, strange one coming from inside my head, starts poking at my self-confidence. Don’t tell me the bear has a voice. A talking bear? Just what I need.

“Who are you?” I think.

The Voice of Doom, he replies in a loud, whiny voice. I look around. No one else can hear the Voice of Doom. Just me.

Get . . . Out . . . Of . . . Here, I think, trying hard to concentrate on the notes.

Nope, he says. I’m not goin’. You’re a fake, and it’s about time you realized it. Fake, fake, fake! You’re gonna massacre this piece big time and all these people will hear you do it. You’re nothing but a big faking faker. Fake, fake, fake, fake, fake. 

He’s yelling at me from inside my brain, somewhere between my ears and the top of my skull, and he keeps getting louder and louder.

I try to argue back but I can’t get a word in edgewise.

This is awful.

I can’t locate the notes. Or if I find them I play them so slowly that I have no idea where I am in the piece. Everything I’ve learned is gone—out the window like bubbles blown through a ring on a windy day.

I steal a glance at the audience. Grandma Curtis and Grandma Rawsthorne are in the second row with Aunt Jean and Uncle Bill. They’re all smiles and don’t seem to notice anything wrong. That’s good. My parents are in the row behind them, but I look away before I can catch their reaction to my train wreck. Oh no. There’s Bill Chrystal, my teacher, with a pained expression on his normally placid face, hovering on the side of the chapel, looking like he’s ready to dash out the fire exit if things get any worse.

I’m freezing and my hands shake. I’m having a full-blown anxiety attack.

Oh. Wait. Now I get it. I’m onstage alone and the audience is paying attention. I’ve gotten used to the chatter and the laughter of the cocktail lounge. Where are the clinking glasses and the waiters barking orders at the bartender? Where is the whir of the blender, where are the cheerful hellos and goodbyes and how are yous? Where is all the noise? And how come these people are listening? What do they expect to hear?

No, no, no, no, no! Don’t just sit there! Talk! Smoke a cigarette! Have an argument with your neighbor. Dispute the check with your overworked waitress, because you did, after all, only have two gin and tonics and you’re being charged for three. Order another round of Strawberry Margaritas or some of those tasty chicken fingers. Do something, anything, but please please please don’t listen to me. It is enough for me to listen to myself. Really, it’s enough.

Well, there you have it, says Voice of Doom. Another concert career comes to a screeching halt.

The next day I decide to audition to be a showgirl in the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Maybe I’ll be good enough for the circus. Much easier than playing the piano.

Girl versus bear. Bear wins.

 ***

Coda

I never did join the circus, but I abandoned my concert pianist plans and returned to my cocktail lounge gig, which, in a way, shared certain circus elements with the Big Top. Clowns, for instance. Scantily-clad women. Salty snacks.

In my late twenties, long after my raging, adolescent hormones should have settled, I still felt the judgmental eyes of the world upon me. At home, practicing, I connected with my artistic side. In public I worried about being loved, or at the very least, liked. My neediness fueled the bear’s desire to eat me alive. His hunger grew in direct proportion to my thirst for acceptance in a competitive world. So, anxiety. So, dread. So, fear of fear.

I put up with myself for a very long time.

Finally, somewhere around my forty-fifth birthday, the bear skulked away and never came back. I could tell you I donned my I AM FIERCE t-shirt and scared the bejesus out of the bear, but that’s not what happened. It was more like this: Real life—kids, aging parents, death of friends, love, illness, making a living, paying the bills—reminded me that I have nothing to prove to anyone. I am not a competitor with a finish line; I am pianist. I play the way I play because I love music that reflects life. My mistakes are part of that process. Making them in public is part of the gig. Why be afraid?

Most musicians don’t like to talk about their failures—who does?—but I think it’s a good idea to let young musicians know that learning to outrun the bear is an essential part of their development. Perhaps not as important as good technique and discipline, but right up there with self-esteem and a disposition for risk-taking.

A readiness to fail often and fail well is a good indicator of future accomplishment. If at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again. If I had given up the piano after that first ill-fated Bach Minuet in G, I might have avoided future scraps with the bear, but I would have surely missed out on the joy of sharing my musical stories with anyone willing to listen.

Social media magic: Right when I was writing this last paragraph, a YouTube clip of composer Maria Schneider popped up on my screen. Maria talks about writing for David Bowie and her many concerns about screwing up an expensive, risky assignment. Bowie says this: “The great thing about music is if the plane goes down, everyone walks away.”

Everyone walks away—how I wish I could have heard this as a young adult. It’s not life or death; it’s music. It means everything in the moment, but nothing in the long run. All jokes aside, no one has ever gotten hurt by a wrong note, a lapsed memory, or awkward phrasing. Why not take a chance on making something beautiful?

On my current gig at an old, gold-dusted hotel in Cologne, Germany, I play a 1939 Steinway Model A. The keys of the instrument, contoured by the accumulated blunders of decades of players before me, feel smooth to my fingers when I sit down to play. My musical flaws add another layer of humanity to a piano that has witnessed eighty years of gaffes, all of them, thankfully, forgotten and forgiven by the fleet and reckless tempo of life. Toccata, double time.

I consider my career a fortuitous success built on a shaky foundation of multiple screw-ups and some sort of warped, magical thinking that has propelled me—clinging to the security blanket of my mistakes—into the brawny arms of opportunity. Opportunity, it turns out, sometimes wears a bear costume. I’ve outsmarted the bear by hugging him, feeding him marshmallows, and teaching him how to dance. Off we go—we’re a clumsy twosome, but I’ve trained him to follow my lead. 

*****

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

Many thanks to Benyamin Nuss for sharing his story. Check out his newest album, Fantasy Worlds, here. I was at the launch concert—an astonishing performance by a brilliant artist. This piece, “Those Who Fight,” seems an appropriate video to accompany this essay.

Watch the Maria Schneider interview here, courtesy of NEA Jazz Masters and NPR.

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist. Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen.

Personal note from RMG: Here’s a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.

Play Something You Know

“Did you leave anything at home?” Dad says as he heaves the first of my five suitcases into the big green taxi. “Or did you bring it all with you?”

 The distance from Pittsburgh to Nantucket is 633 miles. It is the summer of 1976—the bicentennial summer. I’ve just arrived on Nantucket Island with an ancient Schwinn bicycle, two frazzled parents, a lot of music banging around in my head, and a vast amount of self confidence. Having just completed my freshman year of college, I’m looking forward to the beach, an army of Ivy League boys, and a waitressing job at a little Italian place called “Vincent’s Italian Family Restaurant.” I’m going to be a real woman and a superb waitress—sexy and sophisticated—conquering the world, one meatball at a time. On my days off I’ll frolic on the beaches of Nantucket wearing a white bikini and no sunscreen. I’ll gain my independence, make some money, have a string of boyfriends, and get a tan. This is my plan.

I own fourteen bathing suits, some blue jeans, a couple of black turtlenecks, and a dozen pairs of shoes. Not much else. But when you’re eighteen and going away from home for the first time what else do you need? Most of the suitcases contain books. I’ve never been able to go anywhere without them. When I ran away from home at the age of eight, I packed eleven Nancy Drew books in my pink-and-orange paisley vinyl suitcase and stomped out the front door, making sure to let it slam behind me. I didn’t have any food or clothing. Just the books. I didn’t get very far. My valise was too full. 

 This time around the suitcases are much heavier.

It has taken us thirteen hours to drive from Pittsburgh to Cape Cod, then another few hours on the ferry over to Nantucket. It’s the fifteenth of May. The sky is gray and the wind blows little circles of fallen magnolia blossoms around my feet. The taxi driver watches as my father loads each suitcase into the back of the wood-paneled station wagon. My dad moves in slow motion. The bike won’t fit.

 “Bob,” says my mother. “You just go ahead with the bike and meet us there. Robin and I will accompany the bags to the rooming house. I’m sure the nice driver will give you the directions.”

“Yep, up the road a piece, then make a left at the rotary, first fork, second right, till you hit the cobblestones,” says the driver. “That’ll be Main. Yep. You want Union, third turn on the right after you make that second left.”

My father, who through the years has earned the nickname “Mr. Maps” for his inability to give simple directions, whips out his brand-new carefully folded street map of downtown Nantucket and squints at it, hard. 

“Got it, Dad?,” I say. I am so full of impatience I feel like I am going to just blow up, right there on Straight Wharf.

“Got it,” he says. “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Just wait a minute. Look here. What if I go left here at the corner and then cut over to Main, taking the left fork before I get to the right on Union?”

“Well,” says the driver. “You could do that. Yep. You could do that. Cobblestones might be a little rough on that bike though. Yep.”

“Maybe I‘ll do that,” says Dad. “Or what about taking this route, here? Over Orange, down Main, hit the rotary go right.” He jabs at the map. “That’s it, that’s the ticket. Or . . . ”

“Could we please please pleasego?” I say. I am anxious to see where I will be living. But my Dad is holding on to the last few moments of my childhood. He is stalling.

“Bob, step on it,” says my mother, coming to the rescue. “Let’s get this show on the road.” My mother has been saying “let’s get this show on the road” to my Dad at least twice a day for as long as I’ve been alive.

What show? What road?The rooming house is a fine establishment run by the ever-vigilant Mrs. Dunham, who likes to think she is New England’s number-one deterrent to teenage sex. There are six girls living in several bedrooms on the second floor. Most of the girls, myself included, will spend the summer inventing clever ways to sneak boyfriends upstairs so we can screw our brains out while Mrs. Dunham is off chasing after her own teenage sons who are sneaking into other boardinghouses elsewhere on the island. Posted in bold letters by the front door is a sign that reads NO BOYS PERMITTED ABOVE THE THIRD STEP. My father thinks this is an excellent thing. He arrives thirty minutes after us, a bit rattled after riding my old Schwinn over two hundred yards of Nantucket cobblestone. Years later, If I close my eyes, I’ll still be able to see him bouncing along, all six feet of him on a skipper-blue bike built for a twelve-year old girl, with those ridiculous fringy things attached to the handlebars flying out behind him, delivering his little girl’s bike to the place where she won’t be needing it anymore.

“Those cobblestones are brutal,” he says. “My head is still vibrating.”

My parents depart on the early boat the next morning. They get the show on the road, and sneak out of town before I’ve crawled out of bed. This is a good thing, because my mom and I can avoid the Crying Ritual. Here’s how the Crying Ritual goes. She cries, then I cry, then we cry together. Then we talk about how silly we are for crying, and cry some more. Big babies, that’s what we are. It’s exhausting.

***

I’ve got enough money to pay my rent for a week, plus enough extra to buy my waitress uniform. The uniform, which I purchase at a store on Main Street, appropriately called Butt-ner’s, is a white polyester shift with a zipper up the front, possibly the only garment ever designed with the specific intent of making an attractive teenage girl look like Eleanor Roosevelt. 

I start working at Vincent’s Italian Family Restaurant that week. They give me a red-and-white-checked apron to wear over my frumpy frock. Someone tells me I have to wear a hair net, which is humiliating since I have about a yard of hair. The hair net is horrid—it’s like having my head caught in a giant spider web. And it slips down over my eyes at the most inopportune times, causing me to swat at my head like a crazy person. But here I am: uniformed, accessorized, hair net in place, and ready to go. I even have a HI MY NAME IS ROBIN badge.

***

I am a disaster. We aren’t just talking about spilled red wine and dropped plates of lasagna. There are, I’m ashamed to say, several incidents involving blood. I’m a far cry from the sexy and sophisticated waitress I want to be. I’m a gawky and uncoordinated teenager wearing a hair net and sensible shoes, fumbling plates and making a mess. And the worse part is, I know it. I finally understand why my mother has refused to allow me in her kitchen all these years.

This is my first excursion away from home. I’ve got enough money, a place to live, and a job. But I’m all twisted up inside. I’m the opposite of lonely, meeting too many people and making too many new friends. There are too many choices, too many options, too many boys. My life is chaotic. I’m tasting the murky waters of independence without a filter system in place.

I miss my piano. I don’t expect to miss it, but I do. I miss the routine of practicing. I need something to hold onto. Structure. I hate my job. I hate my uniform. And I really hate the friggin’ hair net. It might give structure to my hair, but not my life. I need a hair net for the soul. So I decide to try to find a piano to practice during the day, when I’m not maiming innocent diners and children in highchairs with flying carafes of Chianti. 

Right on Main Street in downtown Nantucket is a famous old restaurant and bar called the Club Car. Jens, a hulking blond Swedish waiter I’ve met in the alley behind Vincent’s Italian Family Restaurant, a man who is obsessed with putting his hand up my frumpy frock and breaking Mrs. Dunham’s third-step rule, suggests the Club Car would be a good place to practice. I show up there one morning at nine and ask to speak to the manager, and I’m introduced to a very kind but lecherous older gentleman named Lino Tambellino. He agrees to let me practice at the Club Car every morning from nine to eleven. 

“So, let me get this straight. You wanna play here in the mornin’ for nobody?”

“Well, yes, Mr. Tambellino.

“Call me Lino, sweetheart.”What a name, Lino Tambellino. He could join the My Name Is a Poem Club. I’m always on the lookout for new members.

“Okay, Lino. I just need someplace to practice. I’m studying music in college, well music and theater both, actually, and I need to practice the piano over the summer.”

“You wanna eat here, too?”

 “No, Mr., uh, Lino, I just want to practice in the morning.”

 “You gotta eat sweetheart.”

 “Thank you, but that’s not necessary.”

“What are you crazy? RICARDO! Get the babe somethin’ to eat! What do you want, a steak?” Lino obviously has a warped sense of time. I guess when you live in a cocktail lounge it’s easy to become a nocturnal creature, confusing breakfast with supper, and dawn with dusk.

“Lino, it’s pretty early for me. Maybe a bagel or something, if you insist. But then I’d like to practice, if that’s okay.”

 “Ricardo, we need bagels! And coffee. And juice. You want bacon? We got bacon. Go practice. Ricardo! We need some fuckin’ bacon over here! Sweetheart, Ricardo will let you know when the food is ready.” 

Ricardo, I can tell, is going to be duking it out with the Swede on the third step of Mrs. Dunham’s Home for New England Virgins. He is short and swarthy with a full head of dark brown curls and big brown eyes. I’ll bet he’s at least thirty. A professional waiter. Wow! I haven’t been on the island for a week and I’m becoming an American clearinghouse for serious waiters from European countries. Where are all those Ivy League boys I’ve heard about? I want Harvard, Yale, and Brown, but I’m getting Stockholm, Fuerteventura, and Sarajevo. It’s early in the summer. Maybe the Ivy League guys are still in school. Ricardo winks at me.

I go to the piano. It’s an old upright grand, ornately carved ebony with lots of water stains and cigarette burns. But it’s almost in tune and it has character. Oh, it feels so good to play. So, so good. I make up a song and play for about five minutes when Ricardo comes to announce the arrival of the breakfast. Drat. Reluctantly, I follow him to Lino’s table. Ricardo winks again. 

Stop that. Don’t wink. Just don’t. Wiggle your eyebrows if you must, but don’t wink at me—it gives me the heebie-jeebies.

“Tell you what, sweetheart,” Lino says in a low voice. I feel like I’m in a scene from The Godfather and Lino is about to whisper his plan to put a horse head in Ricardo’s bed or something. I lean closer. “How’s about you play here five nights a week?”

 I am shocked. “For people, you mean?”

 “Yeah, sweetheart, for people. I never heard of no piano player playin’ for nobody. You sound nice. The people, my people, they’ll like it. Eat your bacon. You want some shrimp salad? How about a lobster?”

“Oh, no thank you. I mean, no thank you to the food, I’m fine really.” I’m flustered. “But thank you for the job offer. Wow. I’m very flattered. But there’s a problem. I’ve got my waitressing job at Vincent’s Italian Family Restaurant. And I work at night.”

“So quit, sweetheart. I’ll give you fifty bucks a night to play here. That’s 250 clams a week. You ain’t gonna make that schleppin’ no minestrone at Vincent’s. Can you start next week?”

***

I manage to get around the corner from the restaurant before I start jumping up and down and making whooping noises. This is like winning the lottery! I have a job, a real job, in show business! 

No more hair net.

I run to Vincent’s, resign, give my uniform to another trainee, toss the hair net in the dumpster in the alley, and race to the pay phone to call my parents with the news that their eighteen-year-old daughter is now a professional bar pianist.

My dad, Bob Rawsthorne, is a professional drummer and vibes player in the greater Pittsburgh area. He knows the score, and I think he’ll be excited for me.

“Robin, get hold of yourself,” my Dad shouts into the phone. “You only know twelve songs and eleven of them are Bach. What are you going to play!?

Dad ships a crate of fake books—volumes of popular songs in easy-to-read arrangements—to me. My mother scrounges around and finds some passable evening gowns for me to wear and throws them in with the music. The crate is like the cocktail-piano version of the Popeil Pocket Fisherman. Dad has tucked in a note:

Bob’s Excellent Rules for Success on a GIG:

1. Don’t drink on the job.

2. Don’t let the management push you around.

3. Always carry a roll of duct tape and an extension cord with you because with those two items you can solve virtually any problem.[

Sure enough, there’s a roll of duct tape and an extension cord in the crate. Dad has also shipped a small sound system, since, heaven help us, I’ll be singing. In spite of my father’s doubts and warnings, I’m completely confident that I’ll be successful. I’ve got a couple of old prom gowns and lots of undiscovered music in me, just waiting to be played. Nothing can go wrong.

***

After calling my parents, I race back to the Club Car to start practicing.

 “Thank you again, Lino. I promise you I’ll try my best.”

 “You’re welcome sweetheart. I got a nice stuffed pork chop on the lunch menu. You like pork chops?”

***

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

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist. Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms.

Personal note from RMG: Here’s a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.

Yeah, Man

“What key is this in?” Bob Rawsthorne, mallets hovering over his vibes, asked Johnny Costa, musical director of Mister Rogers Neighborhood as they prepared to record improvised music with complicated changes, live on tape. Playing with Costa was harrowing, inspirational, and full of surprises. Bob, my father, called the band the Kamikaze Trio. He and bassist Carl McVicker never knew what Costa would do next—he had a habit of switching keys at the last minute, causing low-level panic for his experienced sidemen. In the shoe-string budget world of public television, the trio was usually not offered more than one chance to get it right. Sink or swim. 

Photo by James Kezman

“What key, what key?”

“Only God knows, Bobby,” Costa said before launching into one of his Ravel-influenced cushions of sound. “Only God knows the key.” God, that day, decided on D flat. Dad and Carl hung on for life, finished the take, and silently congratulated each other with a subtle “yeah, man” nod. Costa kissed his own hands a dozen times, raised them to the sky, and accepted praise from heaven. 

Costa knew when he was on point.

“How about that, Bobby? How about that?”

Yeah, man. Beautiful, man. Yeah.

Next time you’re at a jazz concert, check out the way musicians acknowledge each other when a solo section finishes. “Yeah, man,” one of them will often say. Perhaps it’s a whisper, sometimes it’s a bark, or maybe it’s an implied “yeah, man” bop-bop-bop of the head. It’s endearing in any form.

The jazz world is often viewed as macho, cut-throat or, at best, way more competitive than one would hope. But many of the musicians I love are firmly in the “yeah, man” camp—playing their asses off while supporting and confirming the artistic skill and technical prowess of their colleagues. 

Sometimes the “yeah, man” comes at the end of a so-so concert, a diplomatic way of recognizing group effort even if the performance wasn’t up to par. “Yeah, man” might well mean we’re all in this together. Or onward.

Onward works for me. 

Drummer Adam Nussbaum tells a jazz urban-legend story about a musician who flew into New York City and hired a killer rhythm section for his recording. Following the session, some version of “yeah, man” took place, and the musician, for whom English (or jazz-speak) was not a primary language, said: “I am suck.” 

When the trio—a Greek chorus of tact—said, “no man, no man, you killed, you sounded great,” the guest musician replied: “You full of asshole.”

I heard this story decades ago, and still say I am suck when I have a bad day. I’m inclined to dissect a less than stellar performance by engaging in a painstaking analysis of the nebulous reasons for why a particular piece didn’t go as well as planned. The jazz guys don’t do this, as far as I can tell.  Safety in numbers. They say “yeah, man” to each other and move on to the next thing. 

But here’s my challenge—as a soloist I’m missing the “yeah, man.” I finish an improvised solo and there’s no eye to catch, no nod to receive, no “yeah, man” to nourish my ego. Instead, I hear my old nemesis, Voice of Doom—playing kickball with my vulnerability—saying I am suck.

I’ve had moments of musical satisfaction and—dare I say it?—bliss, but not once have I kissed my fingers and raised them to the sky. Rarely have I stood to take a bow and heard the subtle “yeah, man” praise of a fellow troubadour.

My husband, musician and jazz educator John Goldsby, recently interviewed bassist Larry Grenadier for a Bass Magazine feature article. Larry, a brilliant player with a gazillion recordings as a sideman and a bandleader, had just launched his first solo bass recording, The Gleaners, on ECM. Solo, as in solo. Nuthin’ but bass. 

John: “How was it being in the studio alone—with only the engineer and producer present, but with no other musicians around?”

Larry: “To be in the studio alone is a trip. I had never really done that, except for maybe overdubbing something. You’re waiting for something to react to, but it never comes. You have to get comfortable with that.”

John: “You’re waiting for the yeah, man, after the track!”

Larry: “Yeah, man. You’ve got to say it yourself!”

Welcome to my world, Mr. Grenadier.

I love working alone—but that hasn’t always been the case. I started out as a soloist because it was a good way to make money. It still is. If a venue only has enough bread to pay one person, well, then, it might as well be me. But there were many times I could have used some company. Back in 1976, an hour of solo piano felt like three months. I swore the clock moved backwards. I would play six choruses of a Carole King tune, stretch out the vamp, triple the bridge, look at my watch and see that only forty-five seconds had passed. 

Truthfully, I bored myself. I longed for other musicians with whom I could share twenty-minute breaks and forty-minute sets. All the musical responsibility of the gig sat firmly on my glitter-dusted Windsong-scented shoulders. When I screwed up, I had no one on the bandstand to cover for me. When I sounded good, I had no one to say “yeah, man.” I never felt lonely—it’s difficult to be wistful and sad in a bar packed with drunken yachtsmen and a handful of Kate Smith and Cher impersonators—but man, did I ever feel alone.

During the early part of my Piano Girl career I was a big baby bouncing on a booby-rigged piano bench, honestly believing that each droopy-assed breast-gawking gin-guzzling customer I encountered was paying studious attention to the nuances of my youthful, earnest music. I smiled like a half-witted cheerleader during the gig, but I beat myself up a lot at home, obsessing over mistakes I had made, sloppy playing, lapses in memory. Thunderous applause from a gaggle of lounge lizards can only get a gal so far. Here’s a secret: Applause doesn’t mean much to an artist with high, or even medium-high standards. All the standing ovations in the world won’t make up for an I am suck kind of night.

I had the I am suck thing going on for years. And then one day—poof—I didn’t. I attribute Voice of Doom’s vanishing act to the birth of my children, the death of a friend, and the sudden realization that art might reflect life and love, but it’s no substitute for the real deal. Not wanting to waste another minute on self-imposed negativity, I loosened the claw grip I had on the back of my neck and kicked Voice of Doom in the ass. I focused on family and let my music grow from a place of maternal joy. I cherished my time with my kids, but felt enormous gratitude for my hours alone at the piano. I stopped comparing myself to everyone else and found my voice, my style. I turned into a composer, a songwriter, a musician satisfied with making my own fun. Yeah, man.

Robin Spielberg, my dear friend and fellow traveler on the solo piano circuit, says this: “I feel like I live a double life. If you were to ask anyone about my personality, they would tell you I’m an extrovert. I enjoy parties, events, being with friends. However, I have chosen a field that requires that I work alone. I accept the alone-ness of my work, and now crave it. I like practicing in an empty house, with only my thoughts and the ticking of the clock. It’s typical to fret over what others think of my music, but I’m reminded of good advice I once received: What others think of my music is none of my business.”

I’m astonished by how lessons learned in music apply to real life. I’ve learned to say “yeah, man” to myself in many situations when there’s no one around to say it for me. Consider motherhood, for example: It might take a village to raise a child, but any mom will tell you—most of the time we’re flying solo. My kids left home two years ago. I cried my eyes out when they departed, worried about words I had forgotten to say, ways in which I could have been a better mother, lessons that slipped by me when time’s tidal wave crashed onto the shores of our busy lives. But damn, in spite of numerous mistakes and flawed reasoning, I launched each of them with admirable values, a strong sense of self, and the ability to do their own laundry. Yeah, man.

In contrast, a solo piano career seems easy. Step onstage and play. It’s that complicated and that simple. 

Spielberg says this: “One of these days I will have a t-shirt made. On the front it will say I AM NOT SUCK. The back? It will say ‘ATTA GIRL.”

Yeah, man. Beautiful, man. Yeah.

***

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

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist. Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms.

Personal note from RMG: Here’s a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.

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The Fast Lane

Here I am, a blond American woman in a short skirt racing down a busy stretch of the German Autobahnat 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 connectionimproved 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 couldtake 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 Fahrschuleinstructor—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 FahrschuleMafia to me. Only the teacher can deem the student capable of taking the actual test, and the test itself must be taken in the Fahrschulecar. 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 Fahrschuleteachers 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-Sofortmaßnahmeclass—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 Fahrschulecar, 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 Schweinsteigerbegins 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 NOT 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 Autobahnspirit 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.

Bottoms Up: Three Conversations about Aging

I’ve been thinking a lot about aging and the music business, mainly because I’m aging and I’m in the music business. A few weeks ago, I had three age-related conversations on the same day.  Meet Bob, Fred, and Jörg Achim, three of my musical heroes.

Conversation #1: Bob

“I’m so old Stephen Foster was my first duo partner.”

This is one of Bob’s lines—a joke he pulls out of his trap case whenever the topic of old age comes up. He used to tell this joke about other musicians. Now, approaching his eighty-fifth birthday, he tells it about himself.

“I’m so old my wife says I make the same sounds as the the coffee maker.”

“Did you write that joke?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I am a thief of bad gags.”

Bob is my father and he’s still playing gigs. He’s the proud owner of two drum sets (a faded greenish-blue Premier and a silver sparkle Ludwig), two new hips (also silver sparkle), a collection of ancient Zildjian cymbals, and a vast repertoire of funny stories.  Today he has received a call from a perky young woman (let’s call her Becky) who wants to book him—a year in advance—for a gig in February 2020. The gig is at a fancy-pants senior residence, the kind of venue where Bob’s band, a sophisticated mix of great music and comedy, tends to be a big hit.

“I told Becky the date will be fine,” Bob tells me. “And then she wants to know if I have video. Video? What the hell does she want video for?”

“Well,” I say, “that’s how people book bands these days.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. But no way am I making a video at my age. I told Becky, ‘look, I’m almost eighty-five; I’m really good at what I do even though I’m not exactly sure what it is. I have no video. No video!’ I asked her where she got my name and she said that the Saint Barnabus senior center told her we were the absolutely the best band in the world for the gig. And I said, ‘you still need video after that recommendation?’ ”

“And?”

“Get this: She wanted to know if it was ‘safe’ to book me that far in advance.”

“Because you’re almost eighty-five.”

“Because I’m almost eighty-five.”

“Dad, please don’t tell me you hit her with the Stephen Foster joke.”

“Of course I did. But she didn’t laugh—probably never heard of Stephen Foster—so I kept going. ‘Becky,’ I said, ‘I’m so old I don’t even buy green bananas. I’m so old my social security number is thirteen.  I’m so old John Philip Sousa was my roommate at music school.  I need 10 strokes to play a 5 stroke roll. It takes me a half hour to play “The Minute Waltz.” I’m so old I was in the house band at Ford’s Theater.  One of my students was the drummer boy in Pickett’s charge. I’m so old I’ve seen Halley’s comet three times.’ ”

“Stop!” I say.

“Funny stuff, right? But Becky didn’t laugh. Not once. Can you imagine? Event planners these days have no sense of humor. But I kept going—I said  ‘at my age everything is either dried up or it leaks . . .’  You know me. I’ve got a million old age jokes.”

“So what happened?”

“I think I wore her down. She gave me the gig. Now all I have to do is stay alive. Hey, did you know my Slingerland high-hat stand lasted longer than my hips?”

Conversation #2: Fred (and Bud)

photo by P. Marion

“Did I ever tell you about the whiskey and the beet juice? It was horrible,” says Fred (maybe not his real name), describing an evening—fifteen years ago—that started out as a good-natured whiskey tasting but turned into a woozy-doozy, tilt-a-whirl, fall-down-in-a-dead-faint night. Fred, a trombone player, and his buddy, Bud, also a trombone player, are now middle-aged. At the time of the whiskey incident, they were bandmates, sitting side by side in the same trombone section.

Fred and I huddle in a corner at a crowded post-concert reception for musicians and (way too many) friends. Because I often write goofy, true stories about musicians and gigs gone wrong, I hear many tales of youthful abandon, some of them involving alcohol. But the one about the whiskey and the beet juice grabs my attention. I’m intrigued, because I knew the story will not end well. I have always been a sucker for trombone humor and boyish folly.

Please note: Fred and Bud currently lead role-model lives as successful, working musicians. They are smart, funny, disciplined trombonists with mind-blowing talent. The following incident was a youthful misstep on a path to respectability. We’ve all been there. Sort of.

“It was Christmas time,” says Fred. “Bud and I left rehearsal and decided to do a little seasonal whiskey tasting. Just a little. Harmless. And fun. But one thing led to the next and before we knew it, we were really, really drunk. Tanked.”

“Yes,” I say. “Whiskey will do that.”

“I crashed at Bud’s house so I could walk to the gig the next morning. We were scheduled to record that day. I woke up feeling terrible, just terrible, like I was gonna die. The mother of all hangovers. And Bud convinced me to drink some freshly-pressed beet juice—he said it was the world’s best hangover remedy.”

“Beet juice? Was he crazy? So what happened? Did it help?”

“I guzzled half a liter of the damn beet juice. Bud and I arrived at the studio. I was feeling worse and worse. And the first tune the conductor called was ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ which, sadly, featured me.”

“Solo?”

“Solo.”

“Yuletide cheer.”

“All that shit.”

“Like your job isn’t hard enough without a hangover.”

“I was dying. I knew I was gonna throw up, but I felt like I had to get through the damn piece, since, you know, we were recording.”

“Did you make it?”

“I got halfway through the solo and the beet juice started coming up, but I kept playing.”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yeah. Right in the middle of the bridge—right in the faithful friends gather near to us part—it started shooting out the sides of my mouth. Looked like I was hemorrhaging or something. I was using a Humes & Berg Velvetone mute—we call it a bucket mute. It’s nice and white and fluffy on the inside. But not that day—the beet juice got all over the mute. So much for white and fluffy.”

“Did anyone notice?”

“Bud noticed. He could hardly play ’cause he was laughing his ass off. But the other musicians were all dealing with their own issues. Anyway, when the tune was over, I raced to the men’s room and hurled the beet juice all over the floor. Looked like someone had been murdered in there.”

“Bathtub scene in Scarface?”

“Worse.”

“Why have I never heard this story?” Fred and I have been friends forever.

“I forced myself to forget about it. But we’ve had a trombone sub this week. New kid on the block. Young. And the kid looked at my bucket mute and seemed confused by the weird color. I realized that—all these years later—the white and fluffy part still has beet juice stains. So I told him the story.”

“Sort of like a warning?“ I ask.

“No. Warnings won’t help. He’s young. He’ll make his own stupid mistakes. He’ll stain his own bucket.”

“Part of growing up,” I say. “Thank God those days are behind us.”

“Yeah,” says Fred. “Something like that.”

Conversation #3: Jörg Achim

“That was a masterful concert,” I say to the conductor of tonight’s program, Jörg Achim Keller. “You share such a cool history with the musicians in this band—you really know how to write for them.”

After my harrowing talk with Fred, I have shuffled my way to the other side of the cocktail party, a large glass of sparkling water in my hand, thinking about my own long-ago drunken episodes. At least I never threw up into my instrument. Jeez. Forget whiskey. Fred has absolutely ruined freshly-pressed beet juice for me.

So. Jörg Achim and I talk briefly about his connection to several of the musicians in tonight’s ensemble. “You really know your musicians. Not just musically, but personally. That kind of history is like gold,” I say.

Jörg Achim asks me about my job as a cocktail lounge musician. “How often do you play at the hotel?”

“Three days a week, sometimes more. Last year I played close to two hundred gigs.”

“That’s a lot of solo piano.”

At this point another person slides into the conversation.

“Don’t you get lonely sitting at the piano by yourself?” she says, making a sad face. Ah, the well-meaning interloper.

“No! It’s the best job in the world.” I often find myself defending my profession as a background musician. “I play an excellent Steinway, I play the music I want to hear, the audience is constantly changing, I can work on new material or play my older compositions.  I’ve been doing this for forty years. Why should I be lonely?”

“Forty years?” She looks appalled, as if I’ve told her I’ve spent forty years digging ditches or slinging hash.

“Yes. Forty years. More actually. I had my first gig when I was eighteen.” I almost say I’m so old I was the lounge pianist on the Mayflower, but I stop myself.

“That’s a long time. So, do you practice on the job?” she asks.

“No!” I say.

Jörg Achim jumps in: “Hey, there’s a lot of value to playing a background music job for that long. For one thing, the bottom comes up.”

“Say that again, please.”  I think I understand what he’s saying, but I’m not sure.

“Yeah—when you’re playing so often in front of people, your worst moments get less noticeable. The bottom comes up, so to speak. In my opinion, that’s the best way to assess someone’s playing—not by their flashes of genius, but by their worst moments. Even a complete amateur can have sparks of brilliance. But how low is their bottom? Pretty low, usually. With your line of work—decades of playing for an audience in a no-pressure situation, the bottom keeps getting higher and higher.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I like that. Bottoms up. One of the benefits of aging.”

***

Later tonight, after I’m home and trying to stitch together the tatters of the day, I wonder if Jörg Achim’s bottoms up theory might not apply to life in general. We all make mistakes as adults, but as we mature, we learn to tap-dance around actions that have made us look, sound, or feel bad in the not-so-distant past. Like whiskey and beet juice, for instance.

I’m over sixty and lead a pretty respectable life, which is saying something considering my spotty history as a Chopin-playing stripper and teen-scream horror-queen film star (whose chopped-off head ends up in a toilet). My bottom has continued to rise, ever so slightly, over the course of six decades. I’ve stopped taking on tasks that confound me or cause grief. I’ve climbed out of professional and private trenches, scraped the dirt out from underneath my Piano Girl fingernails, and kept moving forward, eyes scanning the pavement (and the piano) for patches of treachery. Sometimes I miss the extreme risk-taking of my youth, but these days I love feeling safe, cradled in contentment’s soft underbelly, venturing out now and then to explore new, unthreatening territory. My bad, artistically and personally, has gotten pretty good. Bottoms up.

Maybe we don’t need 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery—maybe we need 10,000 hours to raise the bottom. Or maybe it’s the same thing. However you look at it, you can’t get there without growing older.

I wonder what Stephen Foster or John Philip Sousa would say on this topic—I’ll have to get Bob to ask them. They often get together for a jam session. Then they go fishing.

Whiskey for everyone. Just a little.

***

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

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist. Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms.

Personal note from RMG: I spent much of my summer holiday sorting through recordings and I’ve come up with a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

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

 

My Celebrity Endorsements

Photo by Andreas Biesenbach

Halfway through the 2018 Christmas season, while running a Google search on my name (I only do this once a month, I swear), I stumbled upon my original composition, “First Snow,” included on a Spotify playlist put together by Kourtney Kardashian (or her people). For me, a sixty-one-year old solo pianist with no people and a decidedly non-trending repertoire of soothing music, this came as a bit of a yule shock. Hark. Jingle. Ho. A Kardashian Kristmas. For a moment I considered changing my name to Kobin Koldsby.

Kourtney & Kobin, ready for the holidays.

Worlds collide, thanks to the quirks of social media. Finding myself on the playlist of an Insta-princess like Kourtney did wonders for my ego. How did this happen?  I have neither the whittled waist nor the plump cheeks (all four of them) boasted by Ms. Kardashian. I am plenty old enough to be her mother. Her Kristmas photo featured her in an itsy-bitsy teensy-weensy silver leatherette bikini. My Christmas photo showed me wearing enough red velvet to cloak the wings of the Shubert Theatre. But, okay. She also featured Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby (let’s call them Krank and King) on her Kristmas playlist and they are hardly curvy of butt or young of years. In fact, they are dead, which makes me a spring chicken in comparison.

Wait. Maybe Kourtney was listening to the music instead of looking at the musician. Works for me. A new concept: music for listening. Our world has become so fixated on the visual that we often forget we have ears.

The Kardashian incident got me thinking about the many celebrities who have tap-danced through my life. I’ve played the piano in a lot of upscale joints over the last forty years, many of them populated by the world’s movers and shakers, has-beens, and shooting stars. Hotel musicians, you might have guessed,  have curb-side seats at the promi-parade. Star-spotting is a minor fringe benefit of the job, along with free drinks and unlimited pretzel nubs. We take what we can get.

Note: Celebrities come in all shapes in sizes, but most of them are thin.

Here’s where I start the heavy name dropping. Forgive me, but this is fun. My initial brush with on-the-job fame occurred during one of my first gigs at the Pittsburgh Hyatt. Jonathan Winters (not thin) and Art Garfunkel (thin) were at the bar, an unlikely pair, but there they were. They offered me a drink. I was underage—eighteen—and requested an orange juice. Mr. Winters sauntered to the piano carrying a large vodka with a splash of orange and laughed when I choked and sputtered my thanks. I played and sang “Fever” for him, a song that no self-respecting teenager should have in her repertoire.

At that same bar, I met Henry Mancini and pounded out one of his famous songs, “Charade,” in 5/4. He introduced himself as Hank and was very pleasant even though I had mangled his tune. He did not buy vodka for me.

The Pittsburgh Hyatt also hosted visiting National Hockey League players in town for Pittsburgh Penquins matches. I am sure they were talented skaters, but a handful of them were hard-drinking, loud-mouthed, and prone to the occasional in-my-face sexist comment. Back in 1978, if a famous athlete sasquatched his way to the piano, grinned at me, and said something like “nice tits,” I smiled nervously and thanked him, because I didn’t know what else to do. I wore tube tops and halter tops and evening gowns with low necklines and lower backs. In fact, I was sort of a Kourtney Kardashian for the seventies. When I see her posts I recognize some of my old outfits, although I never had the guts (or the six pack) to wear a leather bikini. I wonder if Kourtney ever took piano lessons. Maybe. Anyway, I was skeptical about hockey players until I moved to Manhattan and met Wayne Gretzky, who hung out at a swanky hotel where I played. A true gentleman.

Since we’re on the topic of athletes, let me mention that baseball star Jerry Royce was an honorable guy. And handsome. He liked my version of “So Far Away,” probably because he was on the road so often. New York Yankee’s manager Billy Martin was not so refined. He treated me with respect, but he often got into alcohol-fueled fistfights at the Grand Hyatt bar. One time he punched George Steinbrenner in the nose during my most sensitive Cole Porter medley. The brawl made the papers, but no one mentioned that my music had added cinematic flair to the slugfest.

There’s oh such a hungry yearnin’ burnin’ inside of me  . . .  Bam! Thwack! Boff!

When I lived in New York City, the rich and famous became recurring, familiar characters in my struggling artist’s story. It’s hard to live paycheck to paycheck when surrounded by pomp, privilege, and prosperity. Playing the piano in a posh Manhattan hotel constantly reminded me—that even though I was the focal point of the cocktail lounge—I remained on the outside looking in, a wallflower at the celebrity ball, a little drunk on the mingled scents of arrogance and smoked almonds.

Trumpet’s in the Hyatt at Grand Central—a smoke-filled lair of debauchery owned, back then, by our current US president—provided a hideaway for prominent people who wanted to smoke cigars and avoid the paparazzi. In contrast, the Marriott Marquis at Times Square served as a playground for celebrities hoping to be seen. Look at me, look at me, look at me now. I met Rosemary Clooney there. She seemed grateful that I knew she was a legendary singer and not the lady from the toilet paper commercial. Anthony Newley was a frequent guest, generous with drinks and praise, and inspirational for a songwriter like me. Neil Diamond seemed a little uppity and very concerned with his hair.

My all-time favorite Marriott glam guest was Tina Louise, Ginger from Gilligan’s Island. Talk about thin. She was the Kourtney Kardashian of the sixties—and from the looks of her in 1986, she wasn’t about to relinquish her crown. I don’t know what Ms. Louise is up to these days, but I bet she’s still wearing her Ginger wig and that mink coat. That’s gotta be a wig, right?

I played at the Marriott for seven years and had a theory that eventually everyone in the world would drift through that atrium lobby. Tumbleweed clumps of humanity—not just celebrities, but also crazy people and old boyfriends—fluffed past the Yamaha grand. I’m grateful no one took a shot at me; I was a sitting Piano Girl duck in that vast lounge, surrounded by dying Ficus trees, last-gasp celebs, and balconies that would have been perfect perches for snipers.

Living in New York City eventually immunized me against celebrity crushes. I often spotted Christopher Reeve on 57thStreet. Every single time I would think: Wow, that guy looks like Superman, oh wait, he is SupermanAny New Yorker will tell you that Robin Williams sightings were once common. I would see these guys, register their greatness, and keep moving. No eye contact, no weird vibes, just a potholed concrete playing field upon which we lightly treaded.

After moving to Europe, I spent fourteen years playing at a German castle—an exclusive hotel property that attracted a discerning clientele. Over the years, Bono, Robbie Williams, Daniel Barenboim, and heads of state from numerous first-world countries stayed with us or dined in the Michelin three-star restaurant. Lionel Richie was a frequent, cheerful guest. Hello? Is it me you’re looking for? Evidently not.

During the World Cup championship, the entire Brazilian soccer team lived in the castle, hung out next to the piano, and applauded politely while I self-consciously plowed through my limited list of Jobim tunes. Then they lost a crucial match and went home without saying goodbye. Heidi Klum and Seal, who showed up every now and then, once stopped by the piano so Seal could sing “Greensleeves” to his daughter, the baby seal. He was wearing a white suit, a good wardrobe choice if you have skin the color of polished ebony. He was the most dashing, dazzling man I’d ever seen. And he could sing.

Celebrity hat trick: One night I played at the castle for Queen Silvia of Sweden, a German Olympic swimmer named Franziska van Almsick, and Nick Nolte, who entered the bar with his own pre-made cocktail in a sippy cup. He looked sinister and handsome in his black trench coat and aviator shades, and he grumbled a few words of encouragement in my direction. I was grateful for his attention since neither the queen nor the swimmer had registered my presence. During this same period, an Omani princess was residing at the castle in a group of suites the royal family had rented for several months. She listened to me from her private indoor balcony and sent notes and requests via her security chief. Before the princess returned to her heart-shaped palace in the middle of the desert, she gave me a chunk of gold the size of my thumb. And now she sends me a Christmas card every year. I have yet to receive a Christmas card from Mr. Nolte or any other Hollywood celebrity, but I remain optimistic.

I do not kid myself; I know, and have always known, that I’m in the service industry.

My recent foray to Buckingham Palace to play for Prince Charles is well documented, as is my NPR All Things Considered appearance opposite Bill Clinton, and my five-minute concert performance for Angela Merkel (she smiled at me once and was wearing a lavender blazer). I’ve whipped these stories into frothy musical tales that work nicely at dinner parties when there’s a conversation lull.

I still play for VIPs and pop-up legends as they traverse my musical sphere and do whatever it is that famous people do. But times have changed. The presence of a pianist in a five-star hotel lobby seems shocking these days, even to those accustomed to daily pampering. A skilled musician playing a grand piano in a fancy-pants lodge, wrapping the room in a warm mantle of ambient joy, was once a widely-accepted practice, an expected perk of five-star accommodation. Now we’re a rarity—petite, long-fingered dinosaurs gracefully fighting extinction.

But there’s hope. Music may have taken a heavy hit in the live-performance category, but it’s more available than ever in the streaming world. And that’s how I’ve found myself on the playlists of lovers, dreamers, and stars. This sounds like a rejected lyric from “The Rainbow Connection.” It’s not.

My old friend Tobin Bell, the generous, talented star of the Jigsaw psycho-drama horror film series, often tweets about my music to his gazillion followers. As a result, I have a cult following of Saw fans, most of whom are under twenty-five. Having a teenage audience might not keep me young, but it’s given me some street cred with my kids.

Another note: My music is featured regularly on conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck’s playlists. I can’t help but wonder why a self-proclaimed “angry man”—whose latest book is called Addicted to Rage—would include my placid arrangement of “Feed the Birds” on his list of favorite tracks. Maybe he needs to balance all that wrath. I’m happy to help. Maybe he’ll fall asleep and stop ranting.

Forget the celebs for a minute: I regularly receive mail from non-famous listeners who have used my music for childbirth, funerals, hospital stays, and weddings. A twenty-two-year old university student reported that my music helped her get through a grueling final semester. My super-smart lawyer friend, Peter, has played my albums to help him stay calm and prepare for his own classical piano recitals. An elderly woman named Margie claimed my music improved her bowling scores. I just received a letter from a man who has been listening while rebuilding his life after the recent fires in California ravaged his home.  These endorsements are of the highest order, and I treasure each one of them.

Then there are the deathbed testimonies.

“Exactly what track was Mr. Eggrich-Bimmelstein listening to when he passed away?” my husband once asked (with one raised eyebrow). I had told him about the death of one of my elderly fans—a ninety-six-year old gentlemen who crossed over while listening to one specific tune of mine, on repeat for his final forty-eight hours.

See, that’s the thing—when faced with an important transition in life, most of us choose to listen, not look. Mr. Eggrich-Bimmelstein wasn’t staring at Instagram photos of bikini-clad sex kittens when he slipped away—he was listening to a piece of music that helped him keep moving forward. In this case, it was one of my tunes. But it could have just as easily been Bach or the Beatles (or Krank or King).

And so we circle back to Kourtney. Her photos make me uneasy, or envious—or a little of both—but I admire her audacity, her willingness to celebrate her sexuality, the irony in her face-tuned “casual” photos, her desire to stand apart from the roaring, boring crowd. If Instagram had existed when I was her age, I might have done the same thing; I was thin enough and I would have looked great with that Valencia filter. Instead, I played the piano—my launchpad into adult life. It helped me figure out who I wanted to be. It still does. Ms. Kardashian, using a different platform, has embarked on a similar voyage of self-discovery, one that involves hashtags and lash extensions. Good for her.

How does my low-key music fit in with Kourtney’s razzle-dazzle hip-hopping ab-pumping leatherette lifestyle? A desire for simplicity, perhaps. A higher bowling score? Or maybe, like the rest of us, she needs some downtime and a way to move forward. All that posing can be exhausting.

*****

Featured photos by @kourtneykardash, Julia Goldsby, and James Kezman.

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

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channel.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. Or you can always show up and listen in person! Check out the SCHEDULE page to find out where and when.

Personal note from RMG: I spent much of my summer holiday sorting through recordings and I’ve come up with a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

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

 

Wake Up Santa: Three Variations on a Holiday Theme

Variation #1: Drunk Santa

Nothing says “Christmas” quite like a snoring Santa refusing to wake up for the holidays.

In 1972 I win the coveted role of the South Hills Village talking Christmas tree in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I call myself Tanya Baum and speak with a Hogan’s Heroes German accent. The kids are a little scared of me, but I crack myself up, which I discover is the main point to just about any job. I make twenty-five bucks for crawling inside the tree suit and yelling seasonal greetings at kids for a couple of hours. My Tanya is a little nasty. She has a slight prison matron edge to her, softened by her coat of fake blue spruce and tinsel. I turn her lights on and off with hand controls and I can see out of the suit by looking through the angel on the top of Tanya’s head.

I get the gig because my dad is the bandleader of a jazz-comedy group called The Steel City Stompers, a popular trio in Pittsburgh with Dad on drums, Ray Defade on saxophone, and pianist Bookie Brown. All three of them sing. For years, Dad has run the McDonald’s sponsored “Wake Up Santa” breakfast at South Hills Village—a shopping mall that features fast food French fries, soft pretzels, and Florsheim shoes. “Wake Up Santa” has become popular after several failed attempts at having Daredevil Santa skydive into the mall parking lot, an annual disaster that once culminated in Santa crash-landing in a tree next to a gas station two miles down the road, where he was rescued by a crane, untangled from his parachute, and transported to the hospital by ambulance. Daredevil Santa wasn’t very good at judging wind currents. Or maybe it was Rudolph’s fault—when all else fails, blame the damn reindeer. The shopping mall officials have decided it’s safer to place Santa in a comfy bed onstage inside the mall, with Dad’s band, Tanya Baum, and hundreds of Egg McMuffin-stuffed screaming children yelling for him to wake up.

Poor Santa. Being a talking tree is humiliating enough, but let’s face it, you have to be pretty desperate to take a Santa gig, especially one where you’re forced to lie in bed for hours while being tortured by little kids. Santa is played by a stout guy named Tony, who—during the rest of the year—works as a manager of the shopping mall Baskin & Robbins ice cream shop. A few years into the Santa gig Tony starts hitting the booze, and who can blame him? As a matter of fact, so does Bookie, the pianist in Dad’s band. Bookie, who will one day join that elite group of juiced-up stride piano players in the sky, has a really LOUD voice. We call him the Acoustic Miracle, because his voice penetrates any crowd without amplification. With a deep and guttural timbre, he growls his way through songs, announcements, and the occasional prayer. Dad has to turn Bookie’s microphone volume down to minus-two when Bookie is drinking, because you can never be sure what he might blurt or bray across the room. Even Bookie’s whisper has legs.

At one of our annual “Wake Up Santa” events, after we jump on Santa’s bed, play a trumpet in his ear, slap him in the face with a wet wash rag (a child’s suggestion), smack him in the stomach with a pillow (another child’s suggestion—the kids never, ever suggest anything gentle), and tickle his feet with reindeer antlers, Bookie raises his hand—and his voice—and says he has an idea.

“Yes, Grandpa Bookie?” asks Dad with some trepidation. “What’s your idea?”

Bookie, it seems, has been imbibing with Santa at the local derelict bar down the road. Pre-breakfast holiday cheer. Who needs eggnog when you can have Maker’s Mark, straight up?

“SANTA, YOU ASSHOLE!” slurs Bookie, in a stentorian tone. “If you don’t wake up, we’re gonna have to use a gun.”

Keep in mind, dear reader, this is 1972. A different time.

Dad, sharp-witted but slightly hard of hearing from years of slamming the drums, puts down his microphone, looks right into my angel-head eyes, raises one eyebrow and says: “Did Bookie just say what I think he said? Did he just call Santa an asshole?”

Jawohl!” says my Tanya Baum, because I pride myself on staying in character. Dad, Ray, and I are horrified, even though most of the parents and kids in the audience are laughing. Nervous laughter, but laughter nonetheless.

“Jesus Christ,” mutters Dad. “Okay kids, never mind Grandpa Bookie—now it’s time for ‘Deck the Halls.’ Bookie, get back to the piano! NOW! Stick out your tongue on the fa-la-la part. And look, kids! Grandpa Bookie is gonna wear the elf hat. Maybe that will wake up Santa.”

This is the last year we play for the “Wake Up Santa Breakfast.” Not because Grandpa Bookie called Santa an asshole and threatened to use a gun, but because my father, at one point in the show, made fun of McDonald’s food and insulted the scary, big-lipped floppy-footed Ronald McDonald clown, played by a local bartender named Jerry Error.

***

Tanya Baum was the sanest part of that show. Forty-five years later I will wonder if Santa is still at the mall—sleeping off an early morning bourbon buzz, oblivious to the innocent, but violent threats of little kids, and the earsplitting rants of bored and tipsy piano players. The jesting, jabs, and slapstick brutality seemed slightly amusing in 1972, in the naive days of The Three Stooges and Tom and Jerry. In 2018 these shenanigans will cease to be funny, especially if Santa, the pianist, or an outraged, unhinged parent—or child for that matter—might actually be packing heat.

I’m sure the live music is gone, even if Ronald McDonald is still stomping around. Maybe the mall has gone back to the skydiving Santa theme, just to keep things edgy. Or maybe Santa now sits in a throne and kids come to perch on his lap while nymphs (or are they elves?) in red velveteen mini-skirts and thigh-high white boots dance to Mariah Carey Christmas songs blaring from speakers covered in plastic holly. Or maybe they blast Santa out of cannon—I’ve read about places doing that. That’s one way to wake up Santa, even if he’s drunk.

***

Variation #2: Fairy Santa

2001: My daughter, Julia, attends a Montessori kindergarten in Germany, where children routinely spend three years playing outdoors on a freezing playground, counting golden beads, and doing multiple craft projects involving yarn. Every Christmas the parents at the kindergarten perform a holiday play for the kids—a civilized, kinder-friendly policy that takes pressure off the youngsters and places it squarely on the sloped shoulders of the parents (moms). Appalled by the lack of suitable holiday plays for kids—most of the material in circulation is scary, religious, or both—I decide to write a musical. Come on, Germany—let’s have some holiday fun! Good tidings and cheer.

I need to attract other parents (moms) to take part in the musical, so my cast of characters includes a bunch of whacky fairies, since fairies are cute, entertaining, and provide multiple costume opportunities for those of us longing to relive our prom queen days. I also have access to an adorable rabbit costume with floppy ears, so I add a giant bunny to the cast, along with a narrator dressed as a tree. We have several disabled kids at the kindergarten, so I put the head fairy in a wheelchair, because why not?  Fairies and a rabbit—not very “Christmas-y,” but fine with me. Enough of that manger stuff.

I need a plot. Remembering my days with Drunk Santa at the Pittsburgh shopping mall, I decide a snoring, sleeping fairy might be a good starting point. I name her Fatigue. Here’s the dope: Fatigue’s fairy sisters—Faxana, Flip, Faloona, and (my favorite) Farteena—spend thirty minutes trying to wake her so they can all fly home together for the winter holidays. They tickle her, yell, use magic wands that don’t work, and try to shock her awake with the smell of a dead fish. Nothing works. Finally, a giant, orphaned rabbit, named Hobo, joins them and wakes up Fatigue with a kiss on the nose. They sing a song and invite Hobo home with them for the holidays. The end.

Art of the Steal: Hobo and the Forest Fairies is a fancy-dress bourbon-free version of “Wake Up Santa.”

Note: I will have few moments in my career as rewarding as observing the face of a physically-disabled little girl watching our clever fairy scoot around in her wheelchair.

The show itself has wheels. Over the course of several years, it will be produced as a radio play by Germany’s largest radio/television conglomerate, released as an audio CD, then, in an event that will take a few years off my life, staged as an annual holiday musical at a German castle. What starts out as a slap-dash shoe-string budget musical for a bunch of really cute kids turns into a small fairy empire.

The live, professional production of the show debuts in 2009 at Schlosshotel Lerbach. To keep costs down and maintain control over my script, I cast myself as Flip the Fairy, a Barbie-blond with good intentions and a brain the size of a cranberry. I wear a prom gown, lavender rubber boots, and a huge wig that makes me look more like a country-western has-been than a fairy. Julia, who has grown into a relaxed, well-adjusted teenager—in spite of her wand-toting mother—plays Fatigue, the snoring, sleeping fairy. My biggest concern during the five-year run of the musical is that she will literally fall asleep onstage.

All bets are off when the audience consists of pre-school kids. Our musical director (the tree) must put on his tree suit in front of the kids, because they freak out if a mighty oak enters the room and starts singing a sensitive ballad. My shrill, slightly sharp, Beverly Sills version of “Silent Night” and the cartwheeling giant rabbit cause more than one child to burst into tears. But the kids love the magic wands—one of the wands is a Star Wars laser sword—and they flip over the huge rubber fish and stuffed alligator. And they particularly love Fatigue, who is already asleep onstage, snoring away, when the kids enter the theater. Some of the kids poke at her and wonder out loud if she might be dead.

We have hecklers and worse. One time a kid in the audience gives me the finger and bites me on the knee during our rendition of the “Stank Fish Tango.” Another time a little girl–who has eaten too many of the free butter cookies—exits stage left and throws-up directly in our entrance/exit path. Sometimes the kids hoot and holler; sometimes they remain eerily silent.

The show, of course, is in German. Wach auf! means wake up. But my American accent makes wach auf sound like fuck off, not a phrase one wants to hear in a children’s musical.

Faxanna, Flip, Flop, Faloona, and Farteena. After each performance our motley crew of fairies stands in the castle hall and greets our guests, most them the same age that Julia was when I wrote the play for her kindergarten. Our run, which lasts long enough to get my daughter through high school, ends in 2014 when the castle closes. Good timing—my sixtieth birthday is looming, and I’m bit long in the tooth for a fairy costume. I enjoy tulle as much as the next gal, but the Dolly Parton wig is itchy and does nothing to help my hot flashes. Also, I have my career and reputation to consider. I don’t really want to be known as Robin Goldsby, Menopausal Fairy.

I look back on that show as both harrowing and full of joy—an American holiday tradition that I swiped and re-invented for myself and my daughter because I didn’t much like the existing models. Festivus for the rest of us.

I cry when I get rid of the costumes. I have seven sets of feather wings and nowhere to fly, so out they go, along with the lavender rain boots. I save the rubber fish, because you never know.

Farteena,” a German mother tells me, two years after our last performance. “She was my favorite fairy. I think of her so often. What a beautiful name.”

***

Variation #3: Emergency Santa

“Robin,” says Mr. B, the F&B manager of the 5-star hotel where I play the piano. “We have a problem. Santa is stuck in the snow.”

It’s December, 2017. I am huddled in my parked car, waiting for the train to arrive and whisk me off to Excelsior Hotel Ernst. I’m scheduled to play tea-time piano for a group of civilized adults. In another area of the hotel, thirty excited kids and their parents are arriving for a children’s tea with Santa. But Santa, bless his heart, is stuck in the snow.

“How is that even possible?” I yell. “He’s Santa.  He can’t get stuck in the snow.”

“I don’t know,” says Mr. B. “But he’s stuck. Can’t get his car out to get to the train.”

I happen to know that the actor playing Santa, a corpulent celebrity named Manfred, lives in my neighborhood. I am not stuck in the snow, so how can he be stuck in the snow? I don’t want to get Santa in trouble, so I say nothing. Besides, maybe he really is stuck—I live in the valley and he lives high on the hill, two apparently different ecosystems. Sometimes it’s downright tropical in the valley when the hill people are scraping ice off their windshields.

“Do you have any ideas?” asks Mr. B. “We have all these kids coming and they are going to be very disappointed if Santa doesn’t show up. We certainly can’t tell them Santa is stuck in the snow.”

Here we go again.

“Who has the Santa suit?” I ask.

“We have it here at the hotel.”

“Good. I know what to do. Move the piano into the ballroom and find an employee to play Santa.”

“No one wants to play Santa,” he says. “They are shy. Plus they are all too skinny.”

“Get Patrick the waiter,” I say. “He has acting training.”

“But he is the skinniest of all of them.”

“Doesn’t matter. We can stuff him. We also need a bed or a large chair. Someplace onstage where he can sleep.”

Obviously, my entire life revolves around one plot.

On the train ride into town—about thirty minutes—I outline the program. My husband sends me music to some German children’s Christmas songs, all of which have three chords and four hundred verses. I stop at the Christmas market and pick up a couple of elf hats, race into the hotel, and assemble the skeptical banquet team for a panicked talk-through. I tell them that Emergency Santa (Patrick) will be asleep on his giant chair and that we, with the help of the kids, will spend thirty minutes singing and trying to wake him up in time for Christmas.

Ten minutes till show time. I can hear the kids buzzing and jostling for position on the other side of the door.

Movie-star handsome Patrick, my Emercency Santa, might be slightly hungover from the night before, but he’s more than willing to help. Plucked from obscurity to step in for Stuck Santa, Patrick, in his skinny black jeans, looks like he stepped out of a Prada advertisement. Or at least he does until he puts on the red suit. The banquet director stuffs numerous pillows into his jacket and adjusts his fluffy white beard.

“You can do this Patrick,” I say, switching to a firm director voice. “We are going to sing the Santa song, and then you stagger by the window and yawn, like you can hardly manage to carry that big ass sack of toys. This is no time for subtlety. You are exhausted. Wiped out. Can barely keep your damn eyes open. Enter the room, stumble over to the Santa throne and fall asleep. Snore into the microphone as loudly as you can. We will spend the next thirty minutes trying to wake you up. It might get rough—kids can be brutal—but stay asleep no matter what. Until the kiss. Then you wake up.”

Patrick tries to sip coffee through his Santa beard and stares at me like I have reindeer poo on my head.

“You sure this is going to work? I mean, have you done this before?” he asks.

I place my hands on his shoulders, look into his twinkling eyes, and say: “Trust me, Patrick. I’ve been in the “Wake Up Santa” business for forty-five years. It never fails. Wach auf, Santa!

“Ha!” says Patrick. “With your accent it sounds like fuck off, Santa.”

“Exactly,” I say. “Go with it.”

The kids enter the room. I put on my elf hat and play the piano. They sing along and eat cookies. I play the Santa song and Patrick, the world’s skinniest Santa, wobbles, teeters, and lurches past the window.

“Oh no,” I say to the kids. “Santa looks very tired. I wonder what could be wrong.”

Right on cue, the ballroom door creaks open and Patrick, going for gold with his portrayal of a drained and weary Santa, moans and crawls—crawls!—to the stage, dragging his overloaded bundle of toys behind him.

Best Emergency Santa ever.

Wach auf!

Along with a couple of banquet waiters, I drag Santa into his chair. He snores like a drunken elf. We do everything we can think of to wake him. We sing. We yell. We tempt him with over-priced macarons and tap on his head with pine cones from the expensive centerpieces. We get parents to do the reindeer dance. Volunteers from the audience don the elf hat and jostle Santa, to no avail. Finally, after we reach the thirty-minute mark—the longest half hour of my life—I suggest a kiss and a sweet little boy puts on the hat. Smooch! Santa wakes up. The children cheer.  This might be a decidedly upscale group of privileged European children, but really, at this moment they seem identical to their Pittsburgh shopping mall and Montessori kindergarten colleagues.

Kids are kids. Fun is fun.

Ho-ho-ho. Original Santa might have gotten stuck in the snow, but Emergency Santa, one pillow shy of a proper jelly-belly silhouette, has saved the day. After the show, Patrick returns to his glass-polishing post in the kitchen, I return to my piano in the posh lounge, and the kids, high on chocolate and sugared tea, head into the winter wonderland, clutching swag bags of candy and small toys.

On his way out, the little boy who kissed Santa asks my permission to keep his cheap, felt elf-hat.

“Of course,” I say. “It’s yours—the holiday chapeau! You saved Christmas for all of us.”

“Look,” he says, pointing outside. “It’s snowing! Santa is going to have a great trip around the globe this year. He loves snow!”

“Yes,” I say. “Let’s hope he doesn’t get stuck.”

“No worries,” said the boy. “Santa always shows up, even when he’s really tired.”

***

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

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channel.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. Or you can always show up and listen in person! Check out the SCHEDULE page to find out where and when.

Personal note from RMG: I spent much of my summer holiday sorting through recordings and I’ve come up with a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

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

The Piano Zone

“People will forget what you said; people will forget what you did; but people will never forget the way you make them feel.” Maya Angelou.

Today, during my steady tea-time job playing the piano at Excelsior Hotel Ernst, I lean into my first set of background music just as our guests are settling in. I play the opening cadence to a quiet piece called “The Village” and absorb the mood of the room.

To my left—a table of six German women of a certain age: blown-out hair, manicured hands, cashmere frocks in soft shades of navy, burgundy, beige. Tasteful jewelry.

On my right—six Emirati gentlemen from London: perfect Oxford English accents, manicured reverse-fade haircuts and trim beards, bespoke suits with embroidered vests. Velvet slippers. Brit-chic, Dubai dash.

In the middle–a recently-engaged middle-aged gay couple: suave and happy and in love. Not glamorous, but perfect. Fluffy sweater vests.

In the back—a clump of four American businessmen: casual Friday jeans and blazers. They hover around one laptop. Holy Grail.

Far-left corner—two PhD candidates from Ghana: gleaming ebony skin, white and pink button-down shirts. Bio-chemists.

Far-right corner—one Korean woman: translucent complexion, skinny black pants, hoop earrings. Tap-tap-taps her phone. Sips a latte, ignores the cookies.

My music means different things to different people, but on this particular day it spills into the room as intended. I quickly enter my piano zone—the intersection of music and humanity—where all seems right with the world, even when it’s not.

***

Maybe you listen to my music at home. Perhaps you’re old school and still buy and play CDs in the car, or you’re a streamer, grabbing music from Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon.

Alexa! Siri! Play Robin Goldsby! 

Here’s something you should know: Two hundred times a year, I play live for global travelers, business people, and ladies (and gentlemen) who lunch. My cache of experience has resulted in recorded music intended to soothe the edges of your tumultuous, noisy life with a lilting waltz, an original ballad, or a mellow arrangement of one of your favorite melodies.

My piano style seems simple. Fragile, even. But effortlessness comes at a price. Unlike many of today’s “internet musicians,” I’ve spent decades playing music for a real audience with real feelings and real-time responses. Because I am constantly connecting to listeners, face to face and heart to heart, I know a thing or two about how to create atmosphere. My recordings are a result of this expertise.

I write this not as a self-rewarding pat on the back, but as a public service announcement for career musicians who continue to perform live in the world’s hotels, lounges, and piano rooms—those of us producing gentle music in a noisy world. We are a rare, but noble breed.

Now, more than ever, we’re needed. Recorded music plays an important role in all of our lives, but live music offers something more. Because it relies on the synergy of audience and musician, it results in compassion on both sides.

I love my job. My unexpected trajectory as a recording artist started out as a side hustle and has transitioned into a semi-lucrative extension of my happy career. Icing on a layered cake.

Contemporary musicians dream of internet fame, YouTube clicks, and Instagram followers—a wobbly kind of success determined by algorithms and social media feedback. In theory, musicians can attract  large audiences without ever meeting a single real person. More power to them. I do not underestimate the considerable appeal of working at home in pajamas.

My generation of musicians has had its own set of goals and challenges. When we were starting out, our efforts usually led to tenuous, pressure-cooker live performance situations—for judgmental juries, squirming recital audiences, apathetic crowds. We worked overtime to conquer our instruments, master technical challenges, and chase away Voice of Doom tirades. Then we hustled onstage and played for the people. They loved us, they hated us, they challenged us.

Some of us learned to burn through “Cherokee” in all twelve keys, while others focused on grandstanding the end of every concert with a flawless, flaming interpretation of “Rhapsody in Blue.” We competed and compared our budding selves to standards set by Ghosts of Musicians Past. Some of us strived for stardom and achieved it. A handful of my musical colleagues—those with big “voices” and the energy and drive to compete—prospered. Most of us ended up chasing stardust, clutching at effervescing, vanishing trails left by legends and heroes.

Regardless of the musical paths we followed, we experienced success and failure in real time in front of live audiences. A privilege. Also—for those of us prone to pre-concert anxiety attacks—a pain in the ass.

I’ve never thrived on bigger, faster, louder, better. Early in my career, my choice of smallness felt like giving up. Until one day, it felt more like giving. My voice might be tiny, but—it turns out—it’s as joyful as the powerful voices of my razzle-dazzle larger-than-life colleagues. Joy comes in many shapes and sizes. There’s enough of it for all of us. Especially when it comes to live music. I am proof positive that a life as the maker of quiet music—in places where people least expect it—can be a source of unexpected pleasure, not just for the musician herself, but for those who choose to listen.

Pianist Robin Spielberg tells workshop students that musicians preparing for concerts should stop worrying about “performing” and focus more on sharing. Really, that’s what live music is all about. Sharing, connecting. This might sound like spiritual mumbo-jumbo. I assure you, it’s not. Connecting with an audience means everything.

I’ve played ambient music in roadside dives, glitzy five-star Manhattan hotels, third world countries, coastal resorts, and on the European castle circuit. A musician who plays live must read the room, assess the mood, and create an atmospheric cushion of sound with her musical choices. Live music catches the day’s chaos and distills it to a warm elixir for the weary; it streaks a dingy canvas with pastel tones, and weaves a shimmering, aural thread of artistic finery through an otherwise bleak tapestry. The right music adds color and light and depth to a cheerless, one-dimensional world.

Any accomplished musician will tell you—the gig gods do not always look favorably in our direction. Sometimes the braless Pig Lady shows up, the happy-go-lucky shit-faced Dutch bowling team crashes (or trashes) the room, or the perfectly-coiffed parents of screaming twins park the parade-float stroller next to the Steinway and go off to a far corner to sip martinis and eat salted cashews (who can blame them?). The melodies we toss into the room are occasionally drowned out by drunken, doltish behavior, or the maddening din of the blender, the yapper, the dropped tray of champagne glasses. That’s okay—if we’re in the zone, the music bounces back to us.

As Mister Rogers pointed out to me at the beginning of my career: There’s always someone listening.

And as the very wise Ms. Spielberg said: Sometimes the only one listening might be you. But that counts.

So we keep playing. We listen to ourselves. As documented in my first book, Piano Girl, I’ve dealt with my fair share of unruly guests: the choking priest; the gentleman who mistook the inside of the grand piano for a coat-check; the marauding gang of bagpipers droning their way through the middle of my sensitive Michel LeGrand medley; a matched set of interpretive dancers in silver catsuits who gyrated to my music for three hours; a periodontist—complete with a set of chattering teeth—determined to bray “Love Me Tender” through my entire set.

You might laugh. I do.

But today is different; today is all I have. I look at my multi-culti, upscale, sophisticated guests from all corners of the planet. They sip tea and champagne and listen. Uniquely beautiful as individuals, they are more so as a group. I wonder who is the oldest, the youngest, who will die first or live the longest. I wonder who among them might be hiding secrets or illness or shame. I wonder who had to fight the hardest to make it into this room. Oh wait—that might be me.

The music connects us in some small, but decent, way.

***

The German women, the Africans, and the Emeratis—all of them are celebrating birthdays. I play Happy Birthday, anticipating a train wreck when we get to the name part of the song.

Happy Birthday, dear Gisela,

Happy Birthday, dear Xavier,

Happy Birthday, dear Mohammed . . .

The result sounds a little like Happy Birthday, dear  Exgiselamohamahdala.

They applaud, laugh, lean back, close their eyes, and listen some more. The lone Korean woman smiles and puts down her phone. The Americans close the laptop. Score one for the humans.

I stay in the moment, reach into my quiver of songs, and pull back gently on the bow. Time is on my side; tranquility always returns to the space my music occupies. That’s the best, most miraculous part of playing live—witnessing the effect music has on my audience, and in turn, what they give back to me. When I’m in the piano zone, each melody, like a vote for kindness or a prayer for peace, carries a fleeting missive of calm to the neighborhood.  Any song can be a simple act of grace in a violent, broken world. Call it revenge; call it love. It’s the least, and the most, I can do.

***

Urban Piano Photography by James Kezman. Location: Excelsior Hotel Ernst, Cologne, Germany. Check out Kezman’s Tree of Life photo and blog post about Squirrel Hill here.

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

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channel.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. Or you can always show up and listen in person! Check out the SCHEDULE page to find out where and when.

Personal note from RMG: I spent much of my summer holiday sorting through recordings and I’ve come up with a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

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

Limelight

Give Me the Night.

In 1982 Dale Cinski was twelve-years old and obsessed with the guitar. He idolized George Benson and tried to imitate his style by listening to and playing along with George’s records. With the help of his cousin, drummer Spider Rondinelli, Dale copped tickets to a Benson concert at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh. He wrangled his way backstage and told George how much he loved playing the Ibanez GB-10 (Benson’s signature guitar). Two years later, Dale–exhibiting an unusual amount of pluck for a teen guitarist—showed up at George’s hotel and played a song called “Being With You” from Benson’s In Your Eyes album.

“Man,” said George to Dale, “You’ve got some chops.”

Boom. George Benson became Dale Cinski’s mentor.

Uncle George is now seventy-five. Dale is forty-eight. They visit each other at George’s home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, hang out whenever George is in Pittsburgh, and stay in touch on the phone. The two of them have played a gazillion notes over the last three decades—George in stadiums and the world’s best concert halls, Dale in decidedly more modest venues.

Dale—married to my sister, Badass Randy—is a welcome addition to our family of rhythm section players. John (my husband), Randy, Dale, and I arrived in Paris on Sunday to attend George’s concert, cancelled at the last minute due to George’s gorge irritée (sore throat). Oh, the perils and responsibilities of fame. Like most musicians, if I get sick, I either soldier through the gig or call a sub and lose a few hundred bucks. No one throws a fit. When George cancels, he disappoints throngs of fans, loses tens of thousands of dollars, and causes his entire touring company to fall into panic mode. That’s a lot of pressure for one aging guitar player.

The older I get, the more I respect the tenacity required to balance prominence with virtuosity. George Benson is clearly an artist dedicated to the craft of making music, but he’s also a stalwart celebrity, keen on maintaining his judiciously-groomed notoriety.  George has been walking the celebrity tightrope for decades and, aside from the current gorge irritée, has remained ready, steady, and in the game. I can’t wait to meet him.

I truly admire musicians—famous or not—with careers that span decades. As my dad likes to point out: “It’s easy to have a hit; it’s much more difficult to have a career.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with a hit.

We make our own fun in Paris while we wait for George’s voice to return. We know we won’t get to hear a concert, but at least—thanks to Dale—we’ll get to hang out with him. Julia, my photographer daughter, joins us so she can spend more time with Randy and Dale. The five of us visit the steamy grounds of the Louvre, wander through the scorched Jardin des Tuileries, gaze at the Monet water lily panels at Musée de l’Orangerie, and spend two hundred Euros on falafel at an upscale Lebanese restaurant that caters to the rare, starving vegan stumbling through city lanes in search of sustenance. To escape the extreme heat, we book a Canal Saint-Martin river rat cruise and find ourselves—after passing through a dozen antiquated but functional locks—floating underneath city streets with shards of daylight cutting through circular overhead windows. It’s the coolest I’ve been in a month and despite the gloom, doom, and musty-dusty-rusty smell of it all, I’m happy.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Two days after the missed concert, George calls Dale and schedules a cocktail-party meet and greet for all of us. Julia opts out so she can go search for rumored Banksy paintings recently sighted on Paris streets. We jump in an Uber and arrive at the hotel where the band is staying. George’s voice has returned. He’s thrilled to see Dale again, and happy to talk to all of us about music and life; the gig he played with John and Lionel Hampton at Carnegie Hall back in the eighties; the Crawford Grill and his Pittsburgh roots; about his dear mother, a nurse, who once cared for my father in a Pittsburgh hospital; about the music business in Germany.

After a low-key, but inspirational hour with him we’re joined by a couple of George’s rhythm section players, most notably bassist Stanley Banks, who has held down the low end of Benson’s sound for decades. Stanley has recently lost over 100 pounds by eating raw vegan food, so our conversation veers back and forth between bass lines and recipes for almond milk smoothies.

 

Stanley Banks and John Goldsby

As the evening stretches out, two teenage gypsy-guitar players show up to play for George, each of them out Django-ing the other. George cheers them on, offers a few tips, and suggests alternate changes to the tune. Then George plays for the kids. What a thing—a legendary guitarist giving a master class in a Paris bar.

“This is what he does,” Dale says to me. “He helps young musicians. These kids are like me, thirty five years ago. They’re never going to forget this night.”

I turn to George and express my admiration and he says: “Hey baby, these kids are the future of music. It’s my duty to guide them.”

Go, George.

The hotel lounge is now full of fans and friends, clustered around Uncle George and hanging on every note. It’s a scene. At my request (and with Stanley’s urging), he plays his version of “People,” even though other guests in the bar—unaware there’s a superstar playing a private concert for anyone who wants to listen—complain that they can’t hear the television broadcast of the World Cup soccer match.

“The music is too loud!” says one of them.

“You’re blocking the television!” says another.

George graciously picks up the bar tab and we go to dinner with his entourage, including the Benson management team, the Gypsy-guitar brothers, a nightclub promoter, and two lovely—but slightly desperate—young women who appear to be from an escort agency. We dine at a Japanese places (close to the Avenue des Champs-Élysées) where everyone sits around a grill and a ninja chef throws meat and fish in the air before chopping it with the French version of the Ginsu knife.

After dinner, the promoter invites us to a trendy nightclub around the corner. It’s one of those velvet rope places with beautiful, thin, Europeans in fifty shades of anthracite. They slouch, lurk, and look bored, chic, and perfect. We, on the other hand, are a mixed bag of fashion do-s and don’t-s. George, our designated celebrity, looks sleek in his cobalt-blue silk jacket and gold medallion, and his team fits right in with their hip gangsta-rapper outfits (one of them has a pirate scarf on his head). As one might expect, the escort girls are decked out in short skirts and high heels. The Gypsy-guitar teenagers look good because they are sixteen, wearing black, and have faces that resemble freshly peeled eggs.  But the chic quotient goes downhill fast when it comes to the rest of us.  Randy and I, in our misguided attempt to make a Boho fashion statement, resemble Great Aunt Edna and her spinster sister Gertie, headed to a hoe-down. Dale’s shirt is floral and foppish and suits him in a Jimmy Buffet meets Sting kind of way. John, in what may be the French fashion faux-pas of the decade, is wearing a Lands End golf shirt and chinos.

Because we are with George, the buff bouncer lifts the velvet rope and lets us cross the threshold. I can’t help but notice that George’s musicians have not joined us for this part of the evening’s festivities. Maybe that’s part of being an A-list sideman. You get to eat a room-service club sandwich and go to bed at a respectable hour.

“I’m trying to channel Rihanna but it’s not working,” I say, worrying whether or not I have sake stains on my dress. “I thought tonight would be a simple bar hang, not a trip to Paris’s most exclusive nightclub.”

“This is so wrong,” says John. “Look at me. I haven’t even mastered the French tuck. I am the middle-aged dad poster guy.”

“Not true, brother,” says Dale. “At this time next week all of Paris will be wearing those Lands End golf shirts. You’ll start a trend. Bass player chic.”

“Plus,” says Randy. “You have fabulous hair.”

“Karl Lagerfeld would cringe,” I say.

“Who’s he?” says John.

With the judgmental eyes of the Paris fashion police upon us, we follow the club promoter and the escort girls through the heavy padded doors, down a padded staircase and into a padded private VIP area best described as a padded velvet womb. It’s the second time today I’ve found myself underneath Paris—once on water, this time on shaky ground.

The club throbs with techno music, the kind of stuff most musicians hate, but here we are, in the VIP section, with strapping male-waiters waving sparklers and pouring huge tumblers of champagne from magnums of Dom Perignon. I am suddenly extremely tired. I should have stayed back at the hotel with Stanley. He’s probably eating a chopped salad and watching CNN. The blaring music rattles my teeth. We have to shout in each other’s ears.

“More bass in the place!” yells John.

“I am thirty years too old and thirty pounds too heavy for this joint,” I say.

“Right!” says John. I like to think he can’t hear me. “This is the kind of place I have spent my life avoiding,” he shouts.

The escort girls start to dance for us. Enough. I join them. I might be sixty and dressed like I stepped out of a 1996 Talbot’s catalog, but I can jiggle my trunk junk with the best of them, especially after consuming a bucket of sake and three-hundred bucks worth of champagne. As my 102-year-old Piano-Girl friend Emily Remington recently said: “I might be old, but I’m not cold.” Screw the sunset and wisdom of age and the Golden Girls and dignity and all that—I’m dancing. The walls are padded and so am I. Randy gets up and joins me. We do the hoochie-koochie dance with our two Parisian escorts. Hoe-down, throw down. John makes a video and sends it to Julia, who, in a classic case of opposite world, is back at the apartment editing photos of French art while her mother is clubbing.

“WTF?” she texts back.

Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack. In spite of the thumping music, the dancing girls, the mini-fireworks, and the champagne, George—having completed his celebrity duties for the evening—takes a nap. It’s not easy being a star. Especially if all you really want to do is play the blues.

Dale looks at George and says to me: “I really love this guy. He means the world to me.”

“Does this happen all the time?” I ask Dale. “The party thing? I mean, why doesn’t George just say no to all this stuff?”

“He can’t,” Dale says. “It’s part of who he is. Every night is a scene—doesn’t matter if it’s Pittsburgh, Paradise Valley or Paris. I don’t know how he holds it together, but he does.”

Dale nudges George awake, embraces him, and says goodbye. Our booty-shake decelerates to a shuffle and we exit the club, stage left. We’ve seen three sides of George tonight: the caring, consummate artist, the educator, and the indomitable celebrity determined to stay in the public eye. I don’t envy his balancing act. Limelight is an unflattering color for most of us. But it suits Mr. Benson.

Two in the morning. I haven’t been out this late since my New York days. I’ve grown soft around the middle, and the hard-lipped edge of the clammy July night rubs me where it hurts.

We return to Cologne the next day. George, made of smoke, mirrors, and a hefty dose of artistic drive and septuagenarian grit, recovers completely and—lifted by the loyalty of his adoring fans and his passion for music—performs his next concert within a week.

*****

Dale Cinski’s music is available on all streaming platforms. Check out his tribute to George tribute here:

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.  

Newest book: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

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

The Bench

Photo by Julia Goldsby

I love Paris. But just once I would like to visit when it is not hot enough to fry an oeuf on the cobblestones.

After our 2017 sun and fun-filled Parisian adventure with Robin Spielberg and Larry Kosson—also known as the sweat your ass off tour de prance—during which time we bravely climbed Montmartre and cheerfully joined drenched throngs of tourists dragging themselves through the scorched gardens of Versailles—I swore I would never again enter a land-locked European metropolis between the months of June and September. All the Aperol Spritz cocktails in the world could not convince me otherwise.

Figures that music would lure me back into the bronzed arms of the city that doesn’t sweat, it glistens. And maybe smells a little. Camembert, you might guess, doesn’t hold up well in the heat. Neither do I.

My sister, Randy, and her guitarist husband, Dale, come to Cologne, Germany, to visit us at the end of June. Built into their trip is an excursion to Paris so we can hang out with jazz-pop superstar George Benson and attend his July 1st concert on the outskirts of the city. My first thought: Paris in July? Pas encore. Uptown whining, I know. Paris is Paris. Drizzle, sizzle, it’s all good.

Background: Dale has been friends with George for decades. George Benson is one of those rare performers who has preserved his musical integrity while maintaining an unblemished celebrity status. The guy is a musical—and business—genius. I’ll risk melting in the French heat for a chance to meet him. Send in the chevre.

My husband, John, books the Thalys (high speed train) from Cologne to Paris and finds an AirBnB apartment big enough for all of us. The apartment is close to the concert venue and within walking distance of a Metro station. Randy has never been to Paris, and even though I know the city will be hotter than the gates of hell, I want to show her the things I love. Gargoyles. The Seine. Monet. Meringue as big as my head.

The day before we leave Cologne for Paris, Dale receives a phone call from George’s manager, saying that George has lost his voice during his Royal Albert Hall performance in London and must cancel the Paris concert. Doctor’s orders. In a career spanning four decades, George has only cancelled two other gigs. As a seventy-five-year-old touring musician, he gets a free pass, I suppose. But the selfish part of me wishes he could get it together to croak out a few tunes—the show must go on, and all that. I once played a Sesame Street program with a stomach virus and had to run into the wings following a rousing rendition of “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” to vomit in a bucket held by a reluctant stage manager. I couldn’t cancel—I needed the money. George probably isn’t concerned with such trivialities at this stage in his career.

What to do. We’ve already paid for the train and apartment. So off we go to the city of blinding light, our trolley bags layered with tissue-thin black dresses, straw hats, and sandals. It’s hard work to look Parisian-chic when you’re having a July-induced hot flash—especially when the entire point of the voyage is meeting a jazz legend who has called in sick.

C’est la vie.

We arrive safely and navigate the Metro—a tubular sauna—to our apartment. Our abode has no air conditioning, no fan, and no toilet paper. Otherwise, it’s quite chic and comfortable. Dale and I take naps while John and Randy investigate the neighborhood and buy toilet paper and French snacks. John also buys me flowers, pink lilies that won’t wilt in the heat. We eat potato chips and drink coffee to revive ourselves.

“Eiffel Tower, anyone?” Since the Benson concert isn’t happening, I figure a trip to the tower might be an appropriate alternative activity and an excellent way to welcome my sister to Paris. First things first.

Dinner.

“We are vegan,” I tell the waiter in French.

“Why?” he replies in English.

I’ve learned to say, “Sans lardons, s’il vous plaît.”  In France, any meal that does not include bacon seems to qualify as vegan. One takes what one can get. Close your eyes and think of tofu.

We jump back on the Metro and head to the Trocadero, my favorite viewing spot for the tower. The Eiffel Tower never fails to thrill me. Legos for adults.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro,” says the first of many African vendors who approach us during the course of the evening. They sell Eiffel Tower keychains, six for one Euro—perfect little travel-friendly souvenirs to take back to kindergarten children, half-witted neighbors, and senior citizens with fading memories of the war. Twenty bucks and you could have cocktail party favors for the next five years.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci. Non, merci. Non, merci.

 These are the first words of French Randy learns to speak. More than this she does not need.

“I wonder what George Benson is doing tonight,” says John, looking out at the swelling crowd.

“I don’t know, but I bet he’s not here,” I say.

“Why not?’ says John. “Everyone else is.”

There’s an accordion player on one side of the Trocadero; a rapper with head-spinning break-dancers on the other. In the middle lane, half-naked daredevils navigate an obstacle course on skateboards and other wheeled devices. This reminds me of a game Randy and I used to play when we were teenagers, called “Let’s Go Die.”

We join the blob of people ambling across the bridge, then shuffle past security checkpoints into the swarm of puffy-shoed holidaymakers standing under the tower.

When I gaze up, I feel tiny.

The early evening sun seems hammered in the sky. People are undressed to suit the heat. Side boob, butt cleavage, full-bikini belly-up outfits—there’s a lot of flesh on display for a city that prides itself on haute couture. No MAGA hats or other Trump-wear, so that’s a plus.

“Side boob?” says John. “Really? That’s a thing?”

“There’s also under-boob,” I say, pointing out a young woman who might as well be topless. My husband and I have reached the marital stage where we point out attractive people to each other.

“Look at that,” I say to John. “It’s Nipple Day at the Eiffel Tower.”

“Bless her heart,” he replies.

I actually enjoy seeing all the body parts hanging out with no one groping or grabbing or even staring much. Josephine Baker would approve. My side-boob days are behind me, but I would truly enjoy wearing a string of bananas around my waist.

A perspiring French gospel choir sings “Stand by Me.” Then they sing “Lean on Me.”  It’s a medley of me songs. Or moi songs.

After reaching the grassy field adjacent to the tower, we search for a place to sit and and wait for the tower lights to come on. What luck! John spots a vacant bench on the edge of the first lawn—prime seating and big enough for the four of us.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

“I will get us something to drink.” In addition to the keychain guys, there are men everywhere selling beverages of questionable origin. But I am parched in Paris and I want wine.

“One glass wine, eight Euros,” says the vendor.

He has no change, so he gives me the entire bottle of rosé swill for ten bucks. We drink a little, but it tastes like French insecticide, so I go to the next bench and offer the remainder of my bottle to a middle-aged American couple. They are from Wisconsin and on their honeymoon. I congratulate them.

“Thank you,” says the wife. “We’re here with my two teenage daughters. We’re a patchwork family now—my girls are from my first marriage. Oh look, here they are!”

Right on cue, two pissed-off teenagers stomp around the corner and fling themselves on the bench.  They are tap-tap-tapping on their devices.

“These are our girls, Brittany and Whitney. Brit and Whit. Girls! Say hello to this nice lady. She’s American!”

I’m not sure if I should salute or take a knee.

“Brittany, I love your hair braided like that,” says the husband to the younger of the two girls.

“WHAT KIND OF SNARKY COMMENT IS THAT SUPPOSED TO BE?” says Brit.

“I mean, it looks pretty. It’s nice to see your face.”

“WHAT ARE YOU, A PERV?” shouts Whit. “LEAVE US ALONE.”

“Come on, Brit and Whit,” says the mom. “Your step-dad is trying to be nice. Isn’t it a beautiful Parisian evening?”

“Perv,” mutters Brit.

“Creep,” says Whit.

Neither one of them looks up. Tap, tap, tap.

I excuse myself and scuttle back to the safety of my own bench.

“I heard that!” says John. “ Awful. Their nice mother brings them to Paris and they can’t even stop playing with their phones long enough to look up at the Eiffel Tower?”

“Maybe they don’t like the step-father,” I say.

“Maybe. But still, they’re in Paris. You’d think they’d show a little gratitude.”

“They’re from Wisconsin,” I say, as if that means anything.

It’s then that Randy points out the man on the bench on the other side of us—a street person dressed in colorful rags and eating a jar of mayonnaise with his fingers. His boots are tied to his feet and a stream of urine runs under his bench. No wonder—in a park crammed with tourists—our bench had been empty.

“Call me crazy, but I think that bum is a fake,” says Randy.

“A fake bum?” I say. “Who would fake being a bum?”

“Look at him. Cleanly shaven. And he’s really handsome.  Movie star handsome. Lenny Kravitz in a bum costume. And his clothes, even though they are bum-like, have a certain colorful, artistic flair.”

“Yeah, well it’s Paris,” says Dale. He’s still disappointed about the Benson laryngitis debacle. Dale has been carrying a book of poetry, wearing a hat that looks slightly French, and is considering smoking a Gauloise to appear more authentic.

“Maybe the bum is an actor studying for a part.”

“Well that’s some realistic sense-memory stuff with the pee and everything,” I say.

“He’s sexy. Hot,” says my sister. “Clean him up and, just saying . . .”

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

Leave it to my sister to conjure a sex fantasy about a French bum.

“Look at those cheekbones,” she says. “And I can tell he’s buff underneath that tattered coat.”

The bum disappears into some bushes, directly behind where we’re sitting.

Regardez!” says Dale. “He has a camp back there. A bum camp.”

“What, for food condiment storage? He surely isn’t using it for a toilet—he has that covered out here.”

“Maybe that’s where he shaves,” says Dale. “His skin is very smooth. You need a really good razor to get a shave that smooth.”

“We should move,” says John.

“Non, non!” my sister and I yell in unison.

“This is prime seating,” Dale says.

I’ll say. We stare straight ahead and wait for the lights. I worry about the bum eating mayonnaise in this heat and getting food poisoning. I worry about the razor. I worry that in his bum camp—a mere five feet away from us—he has a collection of beret-clad heads in a big basket.

“You know, new Banksy paintings were just discovered in Paris,” says John. “Maybe the bum is not a bum. He could be Banksy.”

Perhaps I’m suffering from heatstroke, but I think there’s merit to John’s premise. Banksy, an anonymous street artist, has become wildly famous. I’ve always thought Banksy could be a woman. But I like John’s bum theory.

Recent Banksy art, spotted in Paris.

Having the bum, or Banksy, or whoever he is rustling around in the shrubs behind us makes me anxious; I’m not in the mood to get splattered with urine, mayonnaise, or paint. Or shaving cream.

We hear swishing noises. A rat leaps out of the bushes and darts around our feet.

“Shit!” I yell, as I jump up. “La grosse souris. Le rat.”

Randy, an animal lover, says: “Look how cute he is. Hey there, buddy. So sweet! I think he’s Banksy’s pet. It’s like that Ratatouille movie.”

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

Animals are sacred to my sister. Over the years she has raised horses, dozens of rescued dogs and stray cats, and two enormous Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs named Backhoe and Moser. When she was a kid she trained a hog named Hefner, cared for a tarantula named Bogart, and coaxed Walter the pigeon back to health. Over the years she entertained numerous squirrels, baby birds, mice, and a chimpanzee. While I was learning the lyrics to every Carole King song ever written and memorizing Bach inventions, Randy was working in the Twilight exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo and making friends with the bats.

Randy currently has a collection of large snakes that she uses for therapy sessions at a juvenile detention center in Butler County. We don’t call her Badass Randy for nothing.

Randy and Dale on the bench.

“Look how beautiful the Eiffel Tower is,” says Randy. I am not sure if she’s talking to me or the rat, but she’s clearly enchanted. Stifling heat, a cancelled concert, whining girls, bad rosé, and a fake bum—nothing will get in the way of her infatuation with Paris, at least not tonight.

Meanwhile, next door in teen-scream-horror-queen central we hear Brit-Whit’s mom say: “Look at that sunset! Brit, will you take a photo of your step-dad and me in front of the tower?”

“DO I HAVE TO?” asks Brit.

“Please, honey?”

“OKAY. BUT JUST ONE. THIS IS STUPID. THIS IS A STUPID SHITHOLE CITY.”

You can call Paris a lot of things, but shithole is perhaps not one of them.

“EXACTLY,” says Whit. “THIS PARIS SHITHOLE IS FULL OF CREEPS.”

Creeps? Creeps?

I look at Dale in his French hat, Banksy slouched in his pool of pee, my husband in his sixtieth-anniversary Grammy baseball cap, my sister talking to the rat, the half-naked side-boobed people taking demi-showers in the water fountains meant for drinking, and the Senegalese vendors shuffling through the park with keychains strapped to their arms. I think maybe she has a point.

Paris—from the perspective of a self-absorbed fifteen-year-old American girl—seems full of spooky people. But so does Disneyland. Is there anything more disturbing than those over-fed Americans stuffed into that Small World ride? I think not. Or what about the Wisconsinites who attend sporting events with foam swiss-cheese sculptures strapped to their heads? And don’t even mention SeaWorld, Trump Tower, Vegas, or Graceland. It’s all unnerving. Creepy.

Brit-Whit, trapped in a phase from which they will someday escape, are suspect of everyone, especially what’s unfamiliar or foreign. Hopefully they’ll come to their senses before their patient mother throws herself in the Seine.

“I can’t stand the way these girls are treating their mother,” says John. “Randy—go say something to them.”

“I’ve got this,” says my sister, who has raised four kids of her own. “Too bad I don’t have my snakes with me.”

“Be nice,” I say to my sister. “Remember, once upon a time we were also obnoxious teenagers.”

“Yeah,” she says. “But no one brought us to Paris.”

“True,” I say. “But I did refuse to get out of the car at the Grand Canyon. And you pitched a fit over the captain on that deep sea fishing expedition in Cape Hatteras.”

“That was justified,” she says. “He was holding a machete, leering at my ass, and chopping up chum for sharks.”

Randy brushes me aside and approaches Brit-Whit. “Hi there, girls! Don’t you just love Paris? Your Taylor Swift t-shirts are just darling, although I’m more of a Béyoncé fan. Did you see the tour posters for her new show with Jay Z?”

Nothing. Tap, tap, tap.

“This is my first trip to Europe, too, and I’m almost sixty. And just think, you’re here as teenagers. Aren’t you lucky that your mom brought you along on her honeymoon? How was the wedding? Were you bridesmaids? Did you have cute dresses?”

Scowl.

“How old are you? What are your hobbies? Are you enjoying French food?” Undeterred by their silence, Randy, like a grinning bull terrier, keeps yipping questions at the girls.

“Who’s your favorite artist? Isn’t Paris dazzling? Someday, you will remember this trip as a highlight of your teenage years. Someday, you’ll be really grateful that your mom brought you here.”

“Right,” Brit mumbles. “Shithole.”

“Speak up, honey,” says her mother.

Nothing. Tap, tap, tap.

“Oh. I apologize for the girls—Brit and Whit are still getting used to their step-father and their new siblings.”

“You lucky girls!” says Randy. “A patchwork family means double love!” says Randy. “Double pleasure!”

The creep factor has now gone off the charts. I drag Randy back to our bench before she starts doing “Single Ladies” choreography or asks to take a selfie with the two of them. Later, I will wish we had gotten the photo. We could have captioned it: Thank heaven for little girls.

Banksy the bum returns to his bench with a new jar of mayo.

At last. The tower begins to blush and smolder in the dusky sky. Our accidental neighbors have now become a pesky, but central part of our George Benson-less impromptu evening. We’re not where we intended to be, but maybe we’ve landed in exactly the right place—stuck between a movie-star handsome French derelict and a dysfunctional family from Wisconsin—watching the Eiffel Tower lights effervesce like a shaken bottle of cheap champagne.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star. Sizzle, crackle, creep. That’s Paris for you, at least during the summer months. Through a twilight prism I see parts of myself in every person here—the mundane, insane, broken, outspoken, rich-bitch, poor-whore, hustling-bustling, glam-scam, defeated, conceited, mistreated, cheated, hell-raising, trailblazing, butt-gazing visitors to one of the world’s most spectacular man-made structures.

Unlike Randy, I do not identify with the rat.

I look around and wonder who else in the crowd feels as grateful as I do right now. Maybe my sister. We could probably join hands and outrun the desperation and beauty surrounding us, but instead we stay in place, bench-bound, and face the full-bodied heat of the city.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

*****

Note: We hang out with George Benson a few days later. But that’s another story. Stay tuned.

Special thanks to my dear friends Deborah and Jon Lillian, who—against the odds—hosted a vegan cocktail party for us in Paris.

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.  

Newest book: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

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