Air



this hopeful breath may be our last,
aghast, inhale the asphalt sky,
we breathe the ashes of our past.
 
we seek for now an outstretched fist,
persist, resist, we reason why,
this hopeful breath may be our last.
 
as concrete burns through thickened skin,
the din of silence will not lie,
we breathe the ashes of our past.
 
to suffer now and curse the pain,
the stain that spreads from dread, we cry
this hopeful breath may be our last.
 
revenge the muted dead and rage,
assuage our hate before we die,
we breathe the ashes of our past.
 
behold the blades of shredded light,
as night drops in to say goodbye,
this hopeful breath may be our last,
we breathe the ashes of our past.

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 musicians.

We Are the Musicians

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a pianist and the author of Piano Girl (Backbeat Books). She has appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. 

We are the crooners, the head-bangers, concert stage artists, beer hall grinders, swinging jazz trios, choir accompanists, big band soldiers, guitar-strumming folksingers, hotel ambient players, Broadway pit veterans. We are the buskers, boppers, and bewildered career performers currently pivoting on the precipice of a new era. 

Professional freelance musicians face an uncertain future. Even if society returns to its fast-paced tempo, we will likely encounter closed venues, germophobic fans, and a beaten down audience with no disposable income to afford the luxury of an evening out.

Like it wasn’t already difficult enough to make a living as a musician.     

The overabundance of free content online gives the general impression that we happily share our art form because we love what we do. That’s partially correct, but it’s not the whole story. We might play to challenge ourselves, unbreak our broken hearts, or carve out a corner of harmony in a dissonant world. But we also play to pay the bills.  

Check out the richness of the artist livestream menu and you’ll see everything from desperation to generosity, often served up as a combination of both. Some of us dabble in monetizing the livestream market because we have families to feed, mortgages to pay, children to clothe and educate. Others showcase their talents in exchange for applause and recognition, or to stay on the radar of a general public that has the attention span of a fruit fly. Some of us don’t need the money (yet) or the praise but crave the human connection we make when performing for a live audience. 

It turns out that most of us have been living on the edge for a very long time, even those who seem successful. A busy touring musician, one who relies on live performances to make her living, can suffer the sting of a season’s cancellations and hang in there financially for a few months. Maybe the A-listers can hold out for a few years. Maybe. The lucky among us have tenured teaching positions or full-time orchestra contracts to cushion the blow, at least for the time being. But those of us without a regular paycheck are now scrambling for every dollar—relying on the virtual tip jar, a GoFundMe campaign, a Patreon house of cards, or the benevolence of strangers who have the resources, good taste, and compassion to understand that live music delivers a vital link to our own humanity. 

We create art, we compose soaring melodies and intricate bass lines that paint acoustic portraits of empathy, beauty, ugliness, and grace. This ability separates us from a every other form of life on the planet. Last time I checked, a troop of macaques, gregarious as they might be, were unable to perform or appreciate a Mozart string quartet, a burning version of “Cherokee,” or a choral version of the seemingly never-ending verses of a Dylan tune. 

Is music essential? Yes, no, maybe. Depends who you ask. Music has never been essential for keeping people alive, but it has always been essential for helping us feel alive.  Live music connects us in an impeccably human way. We use our 10,000 hours of practice (20,000 for the over-achievers among us) to tap into universal emotions, shout out the inequities of society, bask in our loneliness, celebrate freedom or recovery or victory, knock down walls or poke holes in plexiglass ceilings, to remember, to dream, to keep moving forward. That’s what live music does—sometimes, but not always. When it’s magical, it’s magical

We get it. Musicians are not essential like frontline medical workers, sanitation employees, or people who bravely go to work every day so that the rest of us can purchase toilet paper, cake ingredients, or a jug of vodka. The truly essential workers are the brave folks who ensure that musicians can stay home, practice, and dream of a time when we might return to the handful of venues that have weathered the Corona storm. 

So what do we do while all this weathering is going on? Any level of musician can click “Go Live” and open themselves up to a worldwide audience. We can livestream to our heart’s desire. But truth be told, our hearts aren’t much in it. At least, not yet. Now what? Pivot, some might say. Come on, we’re good at this. Musicians are experts at pivoting, sidestepping, and leaping through flaming hoops. Most of us have been fired and hired more times in year than most people are in a lifetime.

Quarantine? No problem. We’re accustomed to solitude; we actually enjoy lonely hours in a practice studio immersed in musical challenges large and small. We know about the dark hole of unemployment, the downward spiral of uncertainty, the futility of shining an aural sliver of light into a boomy, gloomy world. We’re well-equipped to fight the creeping sense of worthlessness that raises its dissonant voice every now and then.  Will we really be defeated by a virus that may have been caused by a horseshoe bat, or a butt-ugly pangolin, or a biological warfare lab? Not likely.

Right now, we’re scuffling to support our families, just like you and everyone else. We are angry, unsettled, scared, sleeping poorly, and making do with ramen noodles and day-old banana bread. But in the middle of all this, some musicians are rising—tossing online bouquets of song to the outstretched hands of you, our sequestered sisters and brothers, our treasured audience that lives on in our wildest, happiest dreams. 

I think about the Titanic band, the most famous group of anonymous musicians in the history of anonymous musicians, and how they played through their repertoire of popular songs as the ship slowly sank into icy water. Those eight courageous players, all of whom set sail on the Titanic as second-class passengers, played until the very end, providing a real-life real-death sound track that has been romanticized for decades.

Let’s name the musicians, shall we? Theodore Ronald Brailey, Roger Marie Bricoux, John Frederick Clarke, Wallace Hartley, John Law Hume, Georges Alexandre Krins, Percy Cornelius Taylor, John Wesley Woodward. They ranged in age from twenty to thirty-three years old. Why did they keep playing as the ship went down? Was it a sense of duty, the genuine desire to calm passengers being lowered into lifeboats and bring peace to those—like themselves—left stranded on deck? Or did they keep playing because they hoped the denizens of society (the ones in the lifeboats) would recognize artistry in the face of calamity? Maybe they thought that rescue—even for those in steerage class—was a possibility, that the next gig on the next ship was right on the other side of that pesky iceberg. 

Musicians have always been ridiculous optimists. We have to be.

The family of one of the Titanic musicians, months after the tragedy, received a bill from the shipping company, asking them to pay for the rental of his uniform. 

Even in the most turbulent times, even when faced with an iceberg of daunting proportions, musicians continue to believe that if we do what we do well, eventually someone will pay us. There’s not yet a clear business model as to how we’ll make a living during this mess—or even on the other side of it—but we are resourceful. The vast Internet is full of unchartered opportunity to monetize what we do and still find a connection to our audience.

Maybe we’re part of an unwelcome digital Darwinian experiment. Some of us—those too old-school, tired, or jaded to learn new technologies—will drop out, find another way to make a living, or spend the rest of our lives reminiscing about the good old days. But some of us will conquer the livestream, the interactive concert, the sponsorship scheme. Most of us will hope for redemption and muster the courage to keep playing while the ship sinks, because it’s what we do best.

Is our collective virtual tip jar half full or half empty? Do we even own a fucking tip jar? 

My last gig was March 15th, at Excelsior Hotel Ernst in Cologne, Germany where I’ve been performing for the last five years. As usual, I played solo piano music for a grateful audience of guests of all ages, most of them enjoying one last outing a few hours before the enforcement of Angela Merkel’s lockdown orders. I played music from my Magnolia album along with a few standards and closed the set with Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes.” We already seemed nostalgic for something we knew was slipping away—the chance to gather, listen to music, remember, forget, drift. My guests were strangers to me, but for the three hours we spent together that afternoon, we bonded. Maybe it was even a little magical.

I could have played the Titanic theme, but I didn’t.

When I covered the Steinway and left the hotel, part of me knew that I was likely walking away from a joyful forty-five-year career in live music, one that has grounded me, given me wings, and provided a livelihood for my family. But the survivor part of me, the Pollyanna Piano Girl who has never lost faith in the ability of music to unite hearts and minds, resorted to talking out loud to the piano. 

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll be back.”  

**
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.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Do you play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here, including her popular arrangement of the Pachelbel Canon in D.

Now Boarding

Earlier today, I attended my mother-in-law’s funeral. Right now, I’m sitting in a Louisville airport lounge waiting to board my Delta flight to Atlanta, connecting to Charleston. Bloody Mary or ginger-ale? I’ve got a concert to play in Charleston in a few days, and jet lag has slapped me silly. I feel slightly stoned (jet lag is one of the only chemical-free highs), a little lonely, and relieved that I’ve made it this far on three hours of sleep. I get foot cramps when I fly, and often wake out of a deep slumber and dance the midnight tango to make them go away. Last night was such a night.

Yesterday’s fifteen-hour flight odyssey from Germany to Kentucky culminated in an overnight stay at a Louisville hotel overlooking the viscous water flooding the banks of the Ohio River, a surprisingly nutritious (quinoa and veggies) breakfast in a restaurant called the Whiskey Corner, and a perilous Uber ride with Chuck the driver to the Southern Baptist church where my mother-in-law’s service took place. Visitation, open casket, a spray of pink flowers to match her suit jacket, an enthusiastic choir, and a compassionate crowd of well-wishers and family friends—a classic Baptist funeral befitting a preacher’s wife, with all the bells and whistles.

Due to my husband’s recent illness and subsequent inability to handle a transatlantic flight at this point in his recovery, I volunteered to show up at the church as the Designated Mourner on his behalf. It was an easy call, since I knew I would be stateside for my concerts. I’ve read about Chinese funeral rituals where strangers are hired to sit in the second pew and sob loudly, but that wasn’t my gig today. No sobbing. Instead, I played the Pachelbel Canon in D, which is evidently the only piece in my repertoire that anyone wants to hear. Vineyard weddings, formal funerals, baptism lunches, cocktail lounge birthday shindigs, formal concert halls, Buckingham Palace—I’ve performed the piece in just about every venue imaginable. I even played it outdoors on a stage in a park while my audience watched silent fireworks. My mother-in-law once referred to the Pachelbel Canon as the Taco Bell Canon. I like that. Music for the people. Soothing, reliable, familiar. Maybe that’s what Johann Pachelbel intended. I was honored to play it one more time, for her.

It was a good-sized house for the funeral of a ninety-seven-year old woman, who had, by the time she died, lost her husband and most of her church friends. She lived a charmed life, protected by her God and well taken care of by her brave husband and loyal daughters. She slipped away the way most of us would prefer to exit this world—in her sleep. At the funeral, we sang her favorite hymns, listened to glossy stories about her century of exemplary life choices, and recited some prayers, the faded words of which seemed both appropriate and sad.

Note: All songs in the Baptist hymnal are written in keys for male singers. 

The preacher invited each of us to stand and say a few words, so I did, because, as Designated Mourner, I thought my husband would want me to do so. I thanked her for raising a son who had become a loving husband, engaged father, a man who knows how to respect women. His mother might have happily played the part of the southern belle, but her accidental feminist edge occasionally revealed itself.

She first met Julia, our daughter, when Julia was thirteen months old. We had taken the long flight from Germany to Kentucky to present our precious child to her grandmother. I was distracted when we got out of the car because our four-year old son, cranky and hungry after the long trip, had just called his baby sister an asshole. He couldn’t pronounce it properly and said “sasshole,” but it was clear enough what he meant. Not exactly a good way to make a positive impression on one’s prim and proper Baptist grandmother.  

“Why,” my mom-in-law said, in her charming Louisville accent, ignoring the sasshole comment and its perpetrator. “Julia looks just like me.”

“Oh, yes, I guess she does,” I replied. “Bless your heart.”

“But look, Robin, she does have your feet.” 

She turned out to be half right. Julia, now twenty-three, looks very much like her beautiful grandmother, but she does not have my feet. 

At the funeral service I played a decent improvisation of the Canon in D on a freshly tuned Steinway with a squeaky pedal and exited stage left. I picked up my suitcase and drove in a procession with our niece and nephew to Cave Hill Cemetery. 

Our nephew helped carry the casket to the grave and I wept, not as the Designated Mourner, but as myself. I wept for her grandchildren, for my husband’s loss of his mother, for the trajectory of age and the oblivious way we march into the chasm of finality. One day you’re making French toast for your family, your kid is calling everyone a sasshole, and the future—with its endless opportunities to make good trouble—stretches out before you like an interminable game of hide and seek. The next day, it’s a spray of pink roses, a couple of hymns that no woman with a normal voice can sing, and a hundred resonating farewells. 

She was buried next to her husband, and within spitting distance of Colonel Sanders. Muhammed Ali’s grave is also close by; she’s in good Louisville company. She believed in a heaven that features angels, a healed body, and a God who will always look out for her. May she be right. May the Canon in D be heaven’s soundtrack. 

She was loved. 

The air felt cold enough to break me in two, but the defiant sun shone fiercely on the end of an era. 

**

People hover in the lounge, waiting for a chance to board the commuter jet—I’m sure it will be one of those planes with a dripping ceiling and seats with two and a half inches of legroom. Boarding begins for the privileged few. We, the great unwashed, stand patiently and listen to the over-worked gate attendant recite his endless list of elite pre-boarders—first class, business class, active military (thank you for your service), families with small children, disabled, economy premium, non-active military (thank you for your service) platinum card, gold card, silver card, bronze card, and more military (thank you for your service).

No one, and I mean no one, boards the plane in any of these categories.

“We’re pleased to announce a complimentary gate check of your cabin baggage today. Free of charge, we will gladly check your carry-on suitcase right here at the gate, and you can pick it up when you disembark in Atlanta.”

Does anyone fall for this? No. 

“All other passengers may now board the plane.” 

Finally. Like a pack of defeated, economy-class sassholes, we, the other passengers—also the only passengers—drag our weary selves onto the plane. No one thanks us for our service.

Drip, drip, drop.

I ask a flight attendant about the dripping ceiling. I’ve encountered this on other domestic flights in the USA.  I’m reassured that the drip is normal—a flaw in the air conditioning system. It’s February. In a few weeks all flights will be cancelled due to CoVid 19. We settle in, naively assuming that the perks and privileges of our peripatetic lives will go on forever, uninterrupted by disease, death, and the destruction of our planet.   

The canned music on the plane, the calming pre-flight playlist that’s usually accompanied by static and security announcements, drones on for a few moments before I realize I’m hearing the Canon in D. Not my recording, but a soulless midi-synth-string interpretation intended to soothe our nerves as we prepare for flight. They’re making an effort. I hear the sound of a fake cello and drift off to sleep, right before the plane lifts into the air.

Married to the Bass

Excerpt from Piano Girl: A Memoir
Courtesy of Backbeat Books
©2006 Robin Meloy Goldsby

photo by Julia Goldsby

Okay, Ladies, listen up. Bass players make great husbands. There is no scientific data to support my claim. But having worked my way through the rhythm section, the technicians, and a handful of brass, reed, and string players, I’m a qualified judge.

First, consider this. A man who plays an upright bass is strong. He lugs the instrument around, carries it up steps, slides it in and out of cars, and maneuvers it through large crowds of people. If you marry a bass player you’ll be getting a physically fit husband. Okay, there is the occasional back problem. This crops up two or three times a year—usually when you want him to move your grandmother’s walnut armoire or need him to stand on a ladder and drill a hole in the ceiling. But you can cope with such minor inconveniences by calling a muscular clarinet player who is handy with a power drill. Good luck finding one. Here’s the thing: When your bass player is pain-free, he’s as strong as a bull. He has to be in order to make the gig. And he might even throw you over his shoulder and carry you over the threshold every so often, just because he can.

Next, ponder the shape of the upright bass. It’s shaped like a woman. A bass player knows about bumps and curves—he even likes them. He has dedicated his life to coaxing beautiful music out of voluptuous contours. He’ll do the same for you. Just don’t marry a stick-bass player, unless you look like Kate Moss or intend to spend the rest of your life eating lettuce.

Examine the bass player’s hands, especially when he’s playing a particularly fast passage. Now imagine what those fingers can do to you. Enough said.

A great bassist is an ensemble player, a team member who executes, with confidence, a vital role in any band with the strength of his groove, the steadiness of his rhythm, and the imaginative logic of his harmonic lines. This doesn’t just apply to the bassist’s music. It also applies to his outlook on life. A bass-player husband will be loyal, true, and interesting, and will help you emerge from life’s challenges looking and sounding better than you ever imagined. If you’re in a bad mood, don’t worry. He’ll change keys. On the other hand, if you marry a pianist, he’ll try and arrange everything and then tell you what your disposition should be. If you marry a guitarist, he’ll try to get ahead of you by analyzing your temperament in double-time. If you marry a drummer, it won’t matter what kind of mood you’re in because he’ll just forge ahead with his own thing. A bass player follows along, supports you, and makes you think that everything is okay, even when the world is crashing down around you.

There are some minor drawbacks. You need to have a house with empty corners, especially if your husband owns more than one upright bass. I know, you have that newly reupholstered Louis XV chair that would look fabulous in the corner by the window. Forget it—that’s where the bass has to go. You can come to terms with these trivial decorating disappointments by reflecting on the sculpture-like quality of the instrument. Even when it’s silent, it’s a work of art.

If you have children—and you will because bass players make great fathers—your most frequently uttered phrase will be “WATCH THE BASS!” You will learn how to interject this phrase into every conversation you have with your children. For instance: “Hello, sweetie, watch the bass, did you have a nice day at kindergarten? We’re having rice and broccoli for lunch, watch the bass, do you want milk or water to drink?”

You will be doomed to a life of station wagons, minivans, and SUVs. You might harbor a secret fantasy of zooming around town in a Mazda MX5 convertible, but this will never happen unless you go through a big messy divorce, give your bass-player husband custody of the children, and marry a violinist, which would be no fun at all. Better to accept the hatchback as an integral part of your existence and get on with it.

Any trip you make with your family and the bass will be a pageant that requires detailed organization and nerves of steel. In addition to your two children (one of whom probably wants to be a drummer—heaven help you), you will commence your journey with suitcases, bass, bass trunk, backpacks, amp, car seats, strollers, and diaper bag. Your husband, weighted down with an enormous backpack and a bass trunk the size of a Sub-Zero refrigerator, will leave you to deal with everything else. As you try to walk inconspicuously through the airport terminal, people will point and stare.

First Spectator: “They look the Slovenian Traveling Circus!”

Second Spectator: “Hey buddy, you should have played the flute!”

Things like that.

You will learn how to say ha, ha, ha, stick your nose in the air, and pretend that you are traveling with a big star, which of course he is, to you.

Your bass-player husband will know the hip chord changes to just about every song ever written in the history of music. This is a good thing. Just don’t ask him to sing the melody. He might be able to play the melody, but he won’t sing it—he’ll sing the bass line. And, if you happen to play the piano, as I do, don’t expect him to just sit there silently and appreciate what you are playing without making a few suggestions for better changes and voicings. He’ll never give up on trying to improve your playing. But that’s why you married him in the first place. He accepts what you do, but he pushes you to do it better.

If you marry the bass player, you marry the bass. Buy one, get one free. Your husband will be passionate about his music, which will grant you the freedom to be passionate about the things you do. You might not worship the bass as much as he does, but you’ll love the bass player more every day.

***

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.

 Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.

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.

Sliding Into Home

Mother-son road trip. It’s mid-summer and I’m on a jam-packed Condor Airlines flight, headed to Pittsburgh (my hometown) with my twenty-six-year old son. Just when I thought my days of traveling with kids had come to a grinding halt, here I am, in Economy Premium—the poor woman’s business class—sipping champagne from a paper cup (sneaked to us by a lovely flight attendant who’s a fan of my music) and toasting the promise of a perfect holiday. 

Summer fun! Once again, we have convinced ourselves that it’s a wise idea to stuff our long bodies into a gravity-defying metal tube, breathe the spit-back air of three hundred tired passengers, and fly into the flailing arms of a country that seems more akin to the dream of home, less like the real deal. 

“Isn’t a condor a type of vulture?” says Curtis. 

“Don’t ask me,” I say. “My knowledge of vultures is limited to Tarzan movies and one ill-fated trip on a golf cart in the Bahamas; the cart got stuck on a rock and we were surrounded by vultures that turned out to be wild turkeys. But they looked like vultures. Not pretty. Thought I was gonna get my eyes pecked out.”

“Condor, the Vulture of Airlines. Imagine the marketing guy who decided to name an airline after a bird of prey.” says Curtis. “He had one job.”

“Cheers,” I say. “Look at this. Enough legroom!” Curtis is six feet, six inches tall. He needs a lot of legroom.

“It’s a miracle,” he says. “Score one for the vultures.”

Our friendly music fan/flight attendant slips some Belgian chocolate to us from Business Class. We receive extra blankets, extra pillows, extra champagne and a Condor swag bag. I’m a little concerned we might cause an uprising in Economy Premium (who’s the bitch in row six with the free truffles?), but as my dad says, “if you’ve got the cards, play ‘em.” 

*****

1994, baby Curtis, age18 months

Twenty-five years ago, I flew across the Atlantic with my son for the first time. We were moving to Germany to begin a new life. Full of nervous energy, apprehension, and an all-American spirit of adventure, I boarded the plane in Pittsburgh with an eighteen-month-old toddler, a diaper bag, and a purse that contained exactly one Chanel lipstick, a copy of Peter Rabbit, nine matchbox cars, and Scruffy the stuffed bear. In 1994 non-passengers could still walk to the gate of the airplane to wave goodbye to their loved ones. My dad—known as “Pap” to his grandchildren—sweet-talked a flight attendant into letting him accompany us onto the plane so he could spend more time with Curtis, the world’s tallest toddler, and help us get settled onboard. I always made it a point to buy a ticket for the baby—he might have been young enough to share my seat for free, but he was way too lanky and active for the lap option. 

Dad hugged us both, then said to Curtis:

“If you need anything, anything at all, remember—don’t call me!”

Curtis laughed, opened a package of crackers, and yelled, “Pap!”

“That’s right,” my dad said. “I’m your Pap.”

Curtis and I had stayed with my parents for a month while John­­—my hard-working bass-player husband—recorded a couple of albums in New York City and supervised the movers packing up our apartment. Curtis and I were scheduled to fly from Pittsburgh to JFK airport, meet John, and board the plane for Germany. 

I had flown out of JFK a hundred times but forgot that each airline had its own terminal. I assumed John would enthusiastically meet us at the gate and help me get the stroller, the baby, and the luggage to the next flight. Curtis and I disembarked, but John wasn’t there.  We didn’t have cell phones back then, so I had no way to reach him. Our bags were not checked through to Germany, so I needed to collect them and find my way to the Lufthansa terminal. 

We stood curbside for twenty minutes, waiting, waiting, waiting for John. I had been jilted before, but didn’t expect to be stood up by my husband on the very day we were moving to a foreign country.

“What should we do?” I asked Curtis, who, at the age of one was already exhibiting managerial skills. “Where’s your daddy?”

“Call Pap!” he said.

“Gotta take the bus, lady,” said the man at the info counter. “The Terminal Express—it’s the fastest way to get from here to there.”

Terminal Express. Is there any two-word combination in the English language that I dread more? With the help of a kind, muscle-bound stranger, I piled our luggage and stroller on the Terminal Express, a jalopy with peeling paint, no seats, and a snarly, stout man at the wheel. We drove around in potholed circles for fifteen minutes until we arrived at Lufthansa. 

“Hurry up, lady,” the driver shouted as I struggled to drag my belongings and the baby down the steps of the bus. “We ain’t got all day.”

“Call Pap!” Curtis shouted. Aside from throwing a cracker at the Terminal Express driver, my son was surprisingly good-natured about the way our day was proceeding. He had missed his afternoon nap and it was now early evening—the time when toddlers are most likely to exhibit honey badger traits. I was feeling a little testy, myself.

I spotted John pacing in the Lufthansa terminal, looking at his watch.

“Daddy!” yelled Curtis.

“Where have you been?” John said to me. “I’ve been waiting here for an hour.”

“We were waiting at the US Air terminal for you. We had to take the Terminal Express. With all this stuff. I thought you would meet us when we got off the first flight.”

“Yeah, but we’re flying out from this terminal Why would I meet you there?”

“I have the baby!”

“I have the bass!” 

“Call Pap!” said Curtis. 

I spied the bass—in its refrigerator-sized fiberglass case—hulking in the corner, waiting to be carted off to the plane. John had a point; the case was huge; it would not have fared well on the Terminal Express. 

Baby, bass, ready, steady, go.

“We’re checked in,” he said. “But the woman at the counter said we don’t need a seat for the baby. He’s under two and the flight is not full. We’ll have plenty of room.”

“What? You didn’t buy the seat for the baby? We always buy a seat for the baby. Plus, we’re not even paying for this flight; it’s not like it’s costing us anything.”

“Relax. Why should the employer spend more money than necessary? It’s business class—lots of room. We’ll be fine. The check-in clerk said there was an empty seat next to us.”

I did not trust this. Not one bit. The waiting area looked like we were about to fight for the last chopper out of Saigon. 

“Book!” yelled Curtis. I read the Tale of Peter Rabbit to him for the 15thtime that day. He was very suspicious of Mr. McGregor. 

We boarded, and the plane was completely full. Obviously, the Lufthansa clerk had been anxious to sell our seat to a disgruntled business-class passenger. 

Curtis, for the first time in his life, would be a lap baby, another dreaded two-word combination, right up there with terminal bus

*****

If you’re a career musician, chances are you’ve flown around the world a few times. You’ve logged miles you’ll never be allowed to use; you’ve pigged out on excessively salted food, sipped canned tomato juice, and guzzled wine even though you swore you would avoid alcohol while in the air. You’ve probably experienced lost suitcases, damaged instruments, and the stomach-drop thud of realizing you’ve left your Kindle in the seat pocket. You may well have become adept at dealing with jet lag, flooded toilet facilities, dry-air induced nosebleeds, digestive disorders, missed flights, and overly-chatty borderline-perv neighbors who fall asleep and drool on your shoulder. It’s part of the devil’s deal a musician makes when she signs up to travel the world.

These things do not, however, prepare you for flying with a toddler. 

Back to our story.

*****

In 1994, a nine-hour flight with a non-sleeping lap baby meant 540 minutes of close-quartered Romper Room. In-seat entertainment systems and noise cancelling headphones were five years in the future. Unless I wanted to crane my child’s neck so he could watch an airplane-censored version of Natural Born Killers on the Business Class shared movie screen, there was little to do than read him repeated versions of Peter Rabbit and hope that he didn’t take out the eyeball of a business class passenger by flinging Matchbox cars across the aisle. We walked a lot, possibly fifty laps of the plane.  Up, down. Up, down.

Note: The active toddler deemed adorable by other passengers at the beginning of a nine-hour journey loses his appeal about two hours in, even if he is wearing a very cute sailor hat and carrying Scruffy the bear. 

“When’s our little friend going to sleep?” asked a stressed flight attendant.

“Call Pap!” shouted Curtis.

Maybe there was hidden sugar in his crackers. Maybe there was speed in the airplane food. The kid was cranked and ready for action. 

By the time we flew over Greenland we were all starting to crack. The business class passengers had paid for a seat that promised a tranquil flying experience. Instead, they were ducking flung toys and brushing cracker crumbs off their shoulders.

“GET OFF MY PROPERTY!” shouted Mr. McGregor.

I was booted from business class and perp-walked, with my son and Scruffy the bear, to sit in a flight attendant’s jump-seat, back by the toilet. 

“I’m so sorry,” John said when he came back to check on us. “Guess we should have kept that extra seat.”

I glared at him, strapped myself in, vowed to stay calm, ordered another Bloody Mary, and cracked open the Peter Rabbit book. I was really starting to hate that frigging rabbit.

One more time, with feeling.

My dear, squirmimg child never slept that night—not one wink. The nine-hour flight lasted approximately three weeks. By the time we retrieved our bags, he was a whack-a-toddler version of Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear, running in loops and popping up everywhere I looked. At one point he jumped on the luggage belt, intent on discovering what was hidden behind the rubber fringe. Maybe he thought Mr. McGregor was back there.

We collected our bags, the bass, the baby, and Scruffy the bear—we were now in full Slovenian traveling circus mode—and wheeled ourselves into the reception area where two drivers were waiting for us.  

One of the drivers pointed at the fiberglass bass trunk and said: “What’s that supposed to be?”

We climbed into a Mercedes van and sped into Germany’s dawn. 

“Please,” I said to our driver. “Please slow down.”

“Fast!” yelled Curtis. “Go fast!”

**

Bing, bang, boom. The night that lasted three weeks transitioned seamlessly into two and a half decades that flew by in double time, triple time, tempo tantrum. And here I am with my son again, on the long-haul trip from Frankfurt to Pittsburgh—sipping champagne in a paper cup and waxing nostalgic about that first flight, the one that delivered us to a new life in a new land.

John and I have raised two children in Europe, benefitted from excellent health care, and reaped the rewards of the education system available to Germany’s residents. Curtis is now twenty-six, and his fabulous sister, Julia (who has always been very good at sleeping on planes) is twenty-three. John and I have been privileged to create rewarding careers for ourselves in a country that respects the arts. We didn’t know any of this in 1994 when we packed up our lives and leapt across the pond. We were young, ready for a change, and 100 percent sure that love would see us through. It has, and it will.

And now there’s this on the airplane: After dinner, our favorite flight attendant halts the inflight entertainment. In German she says: “Condor Airlines is pleased to welcome renowned pianist Robin Meloy Goldsby onboard today’s flight to Pittsburgh . . .” She speaks about my albums, my streaming platforms, and highlights of my career. It’s extremely flattering—this has never happened to me before—but I’m a little concerned about a passenger revolt. It’s one thing for her to give us free truffles, another to interrupt their enjoyment of Mary Poppins Returns or the entire fourth season of Friends.

What a difference a couple of decades can make. The first time I flew this route with my son we almost ended up in airport jail for disturbing the peace. This time, they’re glad we’re onboard. 

“Seriously?” Curtis says. “They’re announcing you on the plane?”

Just when we think her speech is over, the flight attendant begins again, this time in English. We slink down in our seats to avoid the judgmental stares of our fellow passengers, even though a small part of me wants to jump up and shout, “Hey! I’m the piano player!  She’s talking about me!”

Then, at the end, she says this: “Robin lives in Germany, but today, she’s headed home. To Pittsburgh.”

My heart swells. Happiness, pride, relief, confusion—I don’t know what.

We land, thank the flight attendant for her kindness, and go through immigration. I look at my strong adult son and recall the hot-mess mama drama of the day we left Pittsburgh—exactly twenty-five years ago this month—and get a little choked up.

Truth be told, I kind of miss Scruffy the bear.

“We should call Pap,” Curtis says as he pulls my heavy suitcase off the belt. “I want to let him know I’m in town.”

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.

 Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.

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.

Love You Forever

In the classic children’s book Love You Forever, Robert Munsch and illustrator Sheila McGraw manage—with a few powerful stanzas and heart-wrenching drawings—to get to the obvious, essential core of parenthood. Circle of life, cradle to grave—all that. I used to read this story to my kids at bed time. Not once did I finish the last page without bursting into tears. 

It’s September 20th, 2014. I have two big events today, neither of which I anticipate with glee. This morning, I’m driving our twenty-year-old son, who has been educated in Germany, to the Düsseldorf airport. He’s headed to California for a senior-year university exchange semester at UC Riverside. Later, after I drop him off and drive back home, I must shift gears, spackle my face, and drive two hours to play a concert in a chapel at a funeral home. Not a memorial service, but an actual concert. Who plays a concert at a funeral home? 

My husband, John the Bassist, is out of town on a tour, so, as often happens, I’m flying solo on the airport drop-off. 

It’s an hour to Düsseldorf airport, my least favorite of the sleek German transportation hubs, mainly because the shiny granite floor—so gleaming it seems to undulate under my feet—makes me dizzy and slightly nauseated. I’m at this airport often. This past summer, I made sixteen trips to drop off and fetch family members. 

With the German university system—free, quality education, no hoopla—we’ve missed out on the American “move your kid into a college dorm” rite of passage. I feel a little bad that I’m not going with our boy to help him settle into his first “student residence,” but it’s too expensive for me to fly with him, plus he has travelled alone to other education programs in Europe, South Africa, and Israel, so it’s not like he needs me to go along and organize his sock drawer.  Even though he’ll be gone for four months, he’s traveling with one suitcase and a carry-on. My son, the world’s tallest minimalist.

I feel the blues coming on. Every time he leaves, I know he is one step closer to gone for good. We park the car, get his bag checked in, and grab a chalky imitation-coffee beverage at Starbucks. 

I’m not good at goodbyes, but I hover stoically at a distance and hold it together as he ambles to the security gate. I wonder if this ever gets easier. Right before he passes through the glass door, he turns around and yells in his booming baritone man-boy voice, “Love you forever, Mom!” 

***

Whenever our son leaves home for an extended period of time, I think back to the day he was born, in December 1992. After a very long pregnancy—forty-two weeks, plus—I finally went into labor. I had stopped playing gigs at thirty-nine weeks, mainly because I had fallen on a slippery street (on my way to a piano job) and broken my arm at the elbow. I was a mess. My shoes didn’t fit, my one dress looked pretty shabby, and my husband had to give me baths to avoid getting my cast wet. So much for dignity; I had morphed into a barefoot, pregnant, one-armed Piano Girl.

On the day of the Big Event, my water broke at nine in the morning. Shortly thereafter, labor pains started. My hospital bag had been packed for weeks.

“Are you sure?” said John. “This could be another pishap.” A few weeks prior, I had sneezed while waiting in line at a liquor store (not a good look for a pregnant gal), wet my pants, and assumed the baby was on the way. Wrong. 

“Real deal,” I said. “Let’s go.” 

“Wait,” said John. “I need my snacks.” We had taken pre-natal classes and the teacher told us to make sure we packed snacks for the coach.

“Really?” I said. “I’m in labor and you’re making peanut butter sandwiches?”

“Could be a long day. Gotta keep up my strength.” 

The labor pains were kind of weak, so I sat on the couch and checked my watch while the coach packed his damn snack bag. Off to the doctor. By the time we arrived at her office, the pains had stopped. 

“This baby is never coming,” I told her.

“Oh yes, he is,” she said. “One way or another. I’ll meet you at the hospital later today.” 

We checked into NYU Medical Center and a technician hooked up an IV to administer a labor-inducing drug. Opposite world at its finest; most of the time we take drugs to avoid pain—this time we were hoping to bring it on. The orders were clear: No food, no water, no walking, no fun. The labor pains were twenty minutes apart. 

“Now, look,” said the nurse to John. “We need to measure your wife’s urine output. This is your job. You get the bedpan under her whenever she needs it and place it on the table when she is finished. Then we can measure the fluid.”

“Excuse me?” I said. “I never, ever do toilet things in front of my husband. We have a closed-door policy in the bathroom.”

“Well, get over it,” the nurse said. “He’s gonna see a lot worse than urine by the time this day is over.”

“It’s fine, Robin,” said John. He was using his calm voice, the one that indicated he wasn’t feeling very calm at all. 

“Okay, okay.” I said. The nurses must have a long list of silly tasks to keep husbands occupied. Maybe this was one of them. Urine collector. Perhaps an appropriate way to start one’s fathering career.

An hour passed. No action on the labor front in spite of the drugs. I had to tinkle. “Sorry about this,” I said to John, “but get that bedpan.”

“Bedpan. Bedpan. Where’s the bedpan?” He searched. I squirmed on the edge of the bed.

“Hurry up,” I said.

“It must be here somewhere.”

“We’re gonna have another pishap.”

“Where is it?”

“You had one job.”

“Here it is!” he said, shoving a very small kidney shaped dish under my bottom. I’d seen intermezzo sorbet bowls that were bigger.

“Really?” I said. “That’s like a tea cup. I really have to go. A lot.”

“Not to worry. I found a whole stack of these things.” 

Well. I filled up six of those little dishes, with John, like an expert plate spinner, transferring one after the other to the table. 

Nobody had mentioned the balancing of pee-pee receptacles in prenatal class. 

John counted his caddies of urine. “Look at that,” he said with pride. “Didn’t spill a drop.”

The nurse entered the room, stopped and stared at the urine buffet, and said, “What the hell is that?”

“I collected the urine,” said John, with a broad sweep of his arm. “Here are the bedpans.”

It takes a lot to make an overworked nurse in a labor and delivery-ward laugh, but laugh she did. “Those things aren’t bedpans. They are emesis basins. You know, in case someone has to spit.” 

“But where are the bed pans?” asked John. 

“Under the bed,” she said. 

It’s a good thing the coach brought snacks because we spent a solid twenty-eight hours in that room, waiting for something, anything to happen. The doctor showed up and cranked the meds—enough to cause labor pains every five minutes, but evidently not enough coax the baby out of his perfectly nice hiding place.

Every so often a nurse/opera singer (only in New York) would come into our room and sing a few bars of a Madame Butterfly aria for me. Once, she brought in a swaddled baby and said: “Look, darlin.’ At the end of all this, you’re going to get one of these beautiful creatures.”

“Can I take that one?” I said. “And bail on the rest of this delivery thing?” 

The anesthesiologist—my hero—looked like the neighborhood drug dealer, complete with tinted glasses, hipster hair, and a goatee.  I asked for an epidural about twenty hours into the siege. A few hours later, the baby’s heart rate showed signs of stress and the doctor said an emergency C-section was necessary. 

Because my pregnancy had been so easy—I had only gained twenty pounds, kept swimming and working, and, aside from the broken arm, didn’t have any health issues—I assumed I would breeze through the birth.  I hadn’t researched C-sections—I skipped over that part in the What to Expectbook—and felt completely unprepared. And a little panicked.

Once I was on the operating table and prepped, the hospital staff allowed John into the room. He had eaten all of his snacks. A curtain hung below my neck so I could remain awake for the operation and not be traumatized by witnessing the procedure. NYU Medical Center is a teaching hospital, so dozens of uniformed people milled about the room. Team A—on the rhythm section side of the curtain—featured John in ill-fitting surgical scrubs, my friend the drug dealer, and me. Team B—on the business side—included doctors, students, nurses, and probably the entire woodwind section of the New York Philharmonic. I hadn’t had an audience this big in years. 

The C-section started. Other than a little pressure, I didn’t feel much. 

“Looks like a big baby,” the first voice said.

Tug, tug, tug.

“Looks like a really big baby,” the second voice said.

Yank, yank, yank.

“My god, that’s the biggest babyI’ve ever seen!” said the third voice. 

They rushed him to the scale and cheered. Our son, at eleven pounds, two ounces, and sixty centimeters long, had set a seven-year record at the hospital. 

I love a good round of applause, but the drugs were wearing off and feeling was returning to my lower body. Not to upstage my baby’s moment in the spotlight, but I needed help. The drug dealer, one step ahead of me, put morphine in my IV and, just as John handed me our son, I threw up. 

Ah, that’s the purpose of the emesis basin.

A big baby requires medical tests to check for insulin problems, so off he went with the pediatric team. Honestly, our “infant” was so big he probably could have walked himself. John went to check on the baby unaware that the testing center was in the neo-natal area. So our son, screaming and squirming next to the delicate preemies in the ward, looked a little, uh, large.

“My god,” he said when he returned to the recovery room. “What have we done? He looks like King Kong.”

We could hear Kong yelping from the corridor. Finally, a nurse brought him to us—and that was that. He was larger than life and ornery as hell. 

Our son. 

“Love you, forever,” I said to him.

***

I drive home from Düsseldorf airport and pack my gown and merchandise for this evening’s concert at the funeral home. I’m whiny and sad and the house feels way too quiet. Who plays a concert at a funeral home? This is ridiculous. I’m upset about my son’s departure, exhausted, and would rather spend the day in bed worrying about his flight, eating crackers, and feeling sorry for myself. But no. I have to play a stupid concert at a funeral home. What was I thinking when I took this gig? 

I arrive at the venue—a handsome building in a far-away German Dorf, and, still reeling from the emotional morning at the airport, enter the place with a bad attitude. The interior sparkles with candlelight, crystal, and polished silver. Not a casket or urn in sight. The concert will take place in the chapel. A gorgeous Steinway B sits center stage on a large Persian rug.

“Thank you so much for being here,” says Priscilla, the promoter for tonight’s event. 

“Who is coming this evening?” I ask.

“About 150 people. Our families.”

“Your families?”

“Our clients. The families of people who have passed away in the last year. They’re still grieving, and this concert is a way to thank them for selecting our company to help them through this sad time in their lives.” 

Oh brother. This will be the gloomiest event in music historyI mean, my music is already on the melancholy side. Maybe they should have booked a Dixieland band or something. Or a reggae group.

“Have a snack or some wine or tea,” she says as we enter the dressing room. “There are a few press people here to take photos of you during the sound check.” 

Press people? For a funeral home concert? Seriously?

Seriously. 

The concert starts promptly at seven. The place is packed. It’s also pin-drop quiet and emotionally charged. I start the program feeling sort of numb, but within sixteen bars a palpable energy emanates from the crowd. This sounds über new-agey, but I swear something spiritual is happening. I coast through a carefully curated set of compositions requested by the funeral home—“Flying, Falling;” “When Stars Dance;” “Peaceful Harbor.”

I don’t play particularly well—it’s far from a brilliant performance—but what I play is meaningful in a way I have never experienced. I send out my music. The audience absorbs the notes and sends them back to me—rounder, fuller, grounded—with their own truths attached. I don’t know how much suffering the people in this chapel have endured. I don’t know who is grieving for whom; I just know there are 150 strangers who crave comfort, and I’m one of them. All I can do is try to connect my music with their individual needs and hope for the best.

Following the concert, I stand in the lobby and sign CDs. Who sells CDs at a funeral home? It feels like shameless marketing, but Priscilla has insisted that I do this. I talk to many of the guests—mostly people my age who have buried a parent in the last year, a few elderly folks who have lost a lifelong partner. As the crowd begins to thin and my young assistant starts to pack up the merchandise, a middle-aged couple with two teenage daughters approaches. The woman extends her hand.

“Thanks so much for playing ‘A River Flows in You,’ ” she says. “That was Henry’s favorite song.  I felt like he was right here with us.”

“Tell me about Henry,” I say.

The mother sighs.

“He was my brother,” says one of the girls, jumping to her mom’s rescue. “He was twenty-one and just finishing university. He played basketball and he wasn’t very good at it. But he liked music.”

Henry’s father, handsome and pale, stands to one side—the telltale scars of forced courage lining his once-youthful face. I’ve spent the day fighting back tears, but now I lose it. These brave parents, who surely have their own goofy childbirth story, their own tattered scrapbook of family photos, recollections of tearful goodbyes, and favorite songs, have lost their oldest son. They have chosen to remember him tonight by listening to piano music. 

Henry’s mom asks me about my own children. I tell her about putting my son on a plane to the USA that very morning.

“Oh,” she says. “It’s hard to say goodbye.”

Who plays a concert in a funeral home? I do.

“We still miss Henry every day,” says the mother, always the mother, forever the mother, as she thumbs through a stack of CDs. She stops and looks up at me. “I’ll never forget the day he was born. I will love him forever.”

***

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. 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.

Waltz of the Asparagus People

Good grief, I say to myself. Are those things real vegetables?

New York City, 1986: One evening, on a break from my cocktail-piano job at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan—a hotel that hosts Major League baseball teams, B-list celebrities, and an annual transvestite event called Night of a Thousand Queens—I notice an odd display in a glass showcase in the lobby. Inside the large window, built into a marble wall, is a handmade village of Asparagus People. Over 200 of them inhabit the village, each skinny green stalk hand-painted, shellacked, and dressed in a little outfit. 

“Yep,” says José, a muscular housekeeping guy who overhears me while sweeping the granite floor. “I helped paint the little fuckers. I never wanna see another asparagus as long as I live.”

“Insane,” I say to the bass player from the lobby trio. “Truly the work of a madman.” 

“Check it out,” he replies. “That one has a briefcase.”

“Back to work, pleeez,” says Mr. Prang, the German Food and Beverage manager who patrols the lobby. “Do not stare at zee veg-e-tables.”

“What’s hisproblem?” I ask, as Mr. Prang spins on his heels and clip-clops away from us. His cleated shoes make a lot of noise on the sparkling granite floor. No one likes Mr. Prang very much. When he’s not storming through the lobby, he stands behind a potted palm next to the crystal fountain and glares at anyone who crosses his path, almost like he’s looking for someone to fire.

On the next break the saxophone player joins us at Asparagus Village. “Whoa. What a trip. It’s like—uh—an international village. See that cat sitting on the motorcycle? He’s wearing a sombrero. Dig the brother asparagus hangin’ out the window—they painted his face black. And he’s wearin’ one of those little African hats. And that Asian asparagus chick on the lounge chair? She looks hot in that bikini. Yeow!”

Asparagus children play in the Asparagus Village sandbox, each with an expression of delight on its tiny face. In the back, asparagus policemen loom, wearing uniforms made of tiny scraps of brown fabric, with matching hats. The hats have badges.

“I told you,” says Mr. Prang. “Do not stare at zee veg-e-tables.”

I ignore Mr. Prang and spend every break peering into the village, thinking about the manual labor that must have gone into a display that’s pretty much ignored by most of the tourists lumbering through the lobby.

“Look, Steve, an Asparagus Village.”

“That’s nice, hon.” Night of a Thousand Queens might have captured the fancy of the overstuffed and bleary-eyed visitors parked in the Hyatt lounge, but Asparagus Village? Not so interesting. If you’ve come all the way to New York from Wisconsin, why spend your time checking out a hand-painted vegetable display when you can watch 1,000 guys dressed in prom gowns? 

Every spring the village—with all-new costumes and themes—graces the Hyatt hallway. One year we enjoy Cowboys and Indians; the following season we’re treated to an amusement park (including a Ferris wheel full of stoned-looking asparagus girls wearing shorts and halter tops); the next time around we marvel at an asparagus Broadway show, complete with cast, pit orchestra, crew, and a chorus line of asparagus babes in skirts with red fringe. I fall in love with the whimsy and insanity of the display. But I never bother to ask why it’s there.

Then, as is often the case in the hotel business, tragedy strikes. April arrives and Asparagus Village fails to appear in the showcase window. Several weeks later most of the hotel musicians are fired, causing me to wonder if all along there has been a strange correlation between asparagus and lounge music. I move on to the next gig and forget all about my skinny green friends. 

Bergisch Gladbach, Germany, 2009:Every April asparagus season begins in Germany, where I now work as a pianist at Schlosshotel Lerbach, a castle-hotel. The start of the season—trumpeted by the whoops of joy normally reserved for firework displays on the Rhine—marks the arrival of a two-month national frenzy. The Germans, anxious to tuck into that first bite of the stalky white “king of vegetables,” hover in the produce aisles of local markets, discussing recipes for cream of asparagus soup. Until recently it has been hard to find homegrown green asparagus here; the Germans prefer the version rendered white by denying it sunlight.

I’m caught in the madness. As guests order platters of asparagus accompanied by baby potatoes, thinly sliced ham, and an obscene amount of hollandaise sauce, I check my watch and wonder how much notice the chef needs to time my dinner with my break. This is what happens when you leave New York City and move to the German countryside. You stop smoking and drinking and start analyzing cooking times for vegetables. And if you’re smart, you make friends with the chef.

Asparagus Village at the New York Hyatt flops back into my mind. Suddenly, it all makes sense. Here I am at the piano, playing “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” for my hollandaise-guzzling guests, and I remember Mr. Prang, a guy I haven’t thought of for decades. I can hear the cleats on his shiny black shoes, accompanied by the staccato rhythm of his accented English as he barked orders at all of us. He must have been the one who supervised the painting of the Asparagus People faces, coercing the baffled New York staff to draw miniscule eyebrow hairs onto asparagus stalks the size of a pinky finger. Maybe Mr. Prang helped with the task, muttering obscenities while painstakingly dressing each asparagus person. Maybe he was frustrated by the American lack of respect for his prized vegetable and dreamed of the day when he could escape to Europe in time for the start of asparagus season. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. 

Maybe he was lonely. 

I can see him now, beckoning his army of hopeful Asparagus People, persuading them to break out of their glass cage and march, run, and finally waltz through the hotel lobby, dodging the sharp ankles and clodhopper feet of dazed tourists and drag queens, rushing for the exit, lunging toward the fresh air, determined not to get caught and squashed in the revolving doors of a different culture. 

***

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. 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.

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

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.