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.

Bottoms Up: Three Conversations about Aging

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

Conversation #1: Bob

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

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

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

“Did you write that joke?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

“And?”

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

“Because you’re almost eighty-five.”

“Because I’m almost eighty-five.”

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

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

“Stop!” I say.

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

“So what happened?”

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

Conversation #2: Fred (and Bud)

photo by P. Marion

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I say. “Whiskey will do that.”

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

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

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

“Solo?”

“Solo.”

“Yuletide cheer.”

“All that shit.”

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

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

“Did you make it?”

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

“Oh, no.”

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

“Did anyone notice?”

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

“Bathtub scene in Scarface?”

“Worse.”

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

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

“Sort of like a warning?“ I ask.

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

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

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

Conversation #3: Jörg Achim

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a lot of solo piano.”

At this point another person slides into the conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” I say.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Whiskey for everyone. Just a little.

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel.  New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip.

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

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

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Limelight

Give Me the Night.

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

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

Boom. George Benson became Dale Cinski’s mentor.

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

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

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

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

Not that there’s anything wrong with a hit.

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

Photo by Julia Goldsby

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

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

 

Stanley Banks and John Goldsby

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

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

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

Go, George.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Karl Lagerfeld would cringe,” I say.

“Who’s he?” says John.

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

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

“More bass in the place!” yells John.

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

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

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

“WTF?” she texts back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

The Bench

Photo by Julia Goldsby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C’est la vie.

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

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

Dinner.

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

“Why?” he replies in English.

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

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

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

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I gaze up, I feel tiny.

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

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

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

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

“Bless her heart,” he replies.

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

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

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

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perv,” mutters Brit.

“Creep,” says Whit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We should move,” says John.

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

“This is prime seating,” Dale says.

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

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

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

Recent Banksy art, spotted in Paris.

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

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

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

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

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

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

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

Randy and Dale on the bench.

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

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

“DO I HAVE TO?” asks Brit.

“Please, honey?”

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

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

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

Creeps? Creeps?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing. Tap, tap, tap.

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

Scowl.

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

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

“Right,” Brit mumbles. “Shithole.”

“Speak up, honey,” says her mother.

Nothing. Tap, tap, tap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlike Randy, I do not identify with the rat.

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

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Thousand Words

“The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.”                        Andy Warhol

Scrapbook: A lifetime of photos and memorabilia pasted into an album that will one day jostle for position on a crowded bookshelf, attract some attention at tense family reunions, collect dust, and—a generation or two down the line—land in a dumpster.

Scrapbook to scrapheap. Not very hopeful. Still, we persist with making paper shrines to memories of lost childhoods. Show me a woman who doesn’t collect the flotsam and jetsam of her children’s lives and I’ll show you a woman with ice cubes (and possibly gin) in her veins.

Thinking that someday I’d set up a craft table, sift through the fossils, and create beautiful scrapbooks, I’ve saved every child-related objet d’art and photo. Yet another project fermenting in my vault of good intentions.

I’m not particularly clever with cutting and pasting. Once, in a German Kindergarten, while attending a mother-child Bastel session with my four-year-old son, I glued my knees together while making a paper lantern shaped like an owl. My only pair of Donna Karan black tights—purchased and shipped by my sister from Pittsburgh to Germany—fell victim to a hot glue gun. At the time it seemed tragic.

Recently, on a sorting mission that felt like a Kodak-inspired archeological dig, I found a photo of my son with that lantern. Proud. Grinning. You would never guess that the two of us had struggled and bickered for hours, trying to glue the sides of the owl together. The photo tells one story, my memory tells another.

So many contemporary parents watch their children grow up on an iPhone screen. It’s one thing to snag a fabulous image—look, there’s little Wolfgang holding his judo trophy—but quite another to maintain the memory of what led to his moment of glory on the podium (Wolfgang intentionally throwing a toy Batmobile across the playground and hitting little Heidi, his fiercest competitor, on the forehead, thus knocking her out of the contest and assuring his victory). The digital image shows the kid’s triumph, the story behind it tells us where he’s headed as an adult. If a parent’s eyes are glued to the camera function of her phone, she misses the backstory. Maybe she even misses the truth.

I didn’t miss much. My kids grew up during a time when taking a picture meant using a real camera, having prints made, and sorting through stacks of candid photos where someone looks a little “off”— hillbilly-ish or clunky or creepy. I wish now I had kept those Deliverance photos. Even without filters, we’re a little too slick  in the ones that made the cut. Vanity, thy name is mama.

When Curtis and Julia (not to be confused with Wolfgang and Heidi) were first born—before the advent of cloud storage, phone cameras, and online sharing—I dutifully photographed benchmark occasions, printed the photos, selected the beauty shots, and stuck them in big handsome albums with tissue between the pages.  I considered this part of my job description. For about five years, I was a stay-at-home mom, the purveyor of healthy lunches and messy craft projects—involving glitter, clay, and yarn—for willing and unwilling children. I was the queen of potty-training and Fun Outings for toddlers. Who could ever forget the trip to the monkey park—where the apes run free!—when one macaque landed on my head to distract me while another stole my popcorn. We have photographic evidence of the day. Happily, no one contracted Hepatitis.

“I have no time for scrapbooking!” I finally shouted.  I balanced coffee-fueled days with wine-pickled nights and used any available spare time for napping or playing the piano. I fell down on the scrapbooking job, and because I was too busy living, I stopped cataloging our lives. I snapped the required photos, had the prints made, but skipped the cutting and pasting portion of the program.

Confession: I trashed the chubby-mom images, tossed the rest of the prints into an old shoebox (Prada, but still), and told myself that one day I’d get around to labeling and editing the scraps of my children’s lives.

It’s astonishing how quickly twenty years can pass. Both of our adult kids left home last year. Luckily there are no snapshots of me—the cliché lonely mom—when the kids departed for good. Melancholy doesn’t photograph well, even if you face-tune the puffy eyes and mascara-streaked cheeks. I’m okay now, just a little shell-shocked that their childhoods went by so quickly. Time might not fly, but it’s certainly capable of knocking a mature woman flat on her ass when—like a laughing macaque with a looted bag of popcorn—it whizzes past.

The shoebox had become two, then three, then a dozen shoeboxes. Eventually I replaced the stack of boxes with a huge wicker trunk. Burrowing into it after twenty years was traumatic, joyful, and full of tear-choked flashes that started behind my eyes and sprinted to my heart. In the middle of the project, I skidded to a stop, called timeout, and wrote a piece of music.

The overflowing trunk revealed artifacts that started with the birth of my children and ended with their college graduations, with side trips through my husband’s career and mine. I had always known it was important to collect the scraps of my family’s treasured moments, but I had never known why. Turns out that the candid snapshots, posed family portraits, birthday cards, scribbled notes, and muddy, watercolor canvasses have rescued me. As I sorted through two decades of this stuff, I recalled the best, most challenging years of my life. And I’ve realized that where I am, right now, is pretty wonderful.

A snapshot nudges a memory; a memory adds another straw to a vacated nest; the nest fills with words and music and pictures and love. Eventually, the empty nest becomes a full—and grateful— heart.

In most of the photos I am trying to look brave, calm, and thin; my husband, the world’s best father,  looks like he would rather be playing the bass; my children are generally squirming or skooting away from me.

I swing from one recollection to the next: the swimming lessons, bike rides, vacations, first days of every school year (always by the same tree), birthday parties, field trips, recitals, concerts, graduations, more graduations, courageous smiles at airport check-in counters. Each picture is worth at least a thousand words, most of them saying farewell.

The images slow-dance before my eyes and swirl into a fuzzy-edged collage of goodbyes: the first steps, waves, growth spurts, hormones, the toasts and diplomas and trips abroad. My slapdash anthology offers stability in an unpredictable world—a shimmering thread linking frozen images of my flawed, loving family to memories both mundane and profound.

Suggested caption for the whole damn collection: Go on now—keep moving forward. Be big and strong and laugh as much as you can. Live.

We were the Goldsbys. We still are.

Paint a picture for me,

Use the colors that I love,

Paint the seasons of my life in harmony,

A career that’s breaking through, and a villa with a view,

A Technicolor rainbow and me.

Paint a picture for me,

Add a child or maybe two,

And a hundred yellow roses I can hold,

We’re dressed in Ralph Lauren; we’re smiling now and then,

We’re rich and thin and never will grow old.

Paint a picture for me,

Add a mountain and field,

Paint the sunrise; paint a river; paint the birds,

Add a horse or maybe two, and a sky that’s painted blue,

And my picture might be worth a thousand words.

Picture perfect,

Paint it over for me,

Paint it over and over again.

I should paint it all myself,

Impressions, memories,

I’ll try to paint a life that’s long and slow,

Add a tunnel and a light, or the way day turns to night,

The beauty of not knowing where to go.

 Picture perfect,

Paint it over for me,

Paint it over and over again.

*****

“Picture Perfect”  is a lyric by Robin Meloy Goldsby; music by Jessica Gall, and Robert Matt. Performed by Jessica Gall on Herzog Records. Available on all streaming channels.

Photos courtesy of the Goldsby scrapbook. We have no idea who the photographers were. But we thank them.

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

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

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

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

Emma

I’ve been thinking a lot about Emma González and the circumstances that plunged her into the bright, white spotlight reserved for America’s budding leaders, shooting stars, and civic heroes. I applaud her valor and admire her authenticity, but I mourn for the childhood she forfeited—the self-consumed teenage years snatched from her by shameful gun laws and a mentally-ill boy with access to a bullet-spraying machine.

When I was Emma’s age I stayed busy writing bad poetry and playing the piano. My most valued possessions included a mini-skirt, a maxi-coat, and a perfect black turtleneck (remember the dickie?). My hair was shiny and long. I obsessed over shoes. I poured baby oil and iodine on my alabaster skin and baked myself, summer after summer, in an attempt to look like the mahogany Coppertone girl, the one with the puppy yanking down her swimsuit. I wrote ooh baby, baby song lyrics about sunsets and a boy named Mark. I was deadly serious about my hobbies and passions and truly believed—like most teenagers—that the world’s eyes were judging me.

Emma González no longer has time to fret about tan lines, wardrobe issues, or the way the sun bounces on the horizon. Maybe she never did. On the day of the Margory Stoneman Douglas shooting, Emma was in the auditorium with dozens of other students when the fire alarm sounded. For two hours, she hid in the auditorium with classmates and friends—until police told students to vacate the building. Emma—faster than you can shout “we call BS—became an American activist and advocate for gun control, co-founding the advocacy group #NeverAgainMSD.

What happened to her childhood? Poof. Gone with the rhythmic, deadly clatter of a weapon designed for a killing field.

*****

It’s a myth that all kids love high school and enjoy an easy-breezy few years cheering for football teams, trying to get high, and attending proms.  In my early years of high school, I got bullied by the kind of mean girls who populate every generation: hard-edged, resting-bitch-faced, hormone-imbalanced strutters who stomp around the high school cafeteria like a Clearasil mafia. A gang of angry girls once dragged me down the steps by my hair because I lived in the wrong neighborhood. At least they weren’t packing heat. I’m sure, with access to a semi-automatic weapon, one of them might have considered shooting me—they hated me that much. Teenagers torture themselves in different ways. Part of me thought I deserved their disdain.

Whenever the shrill, adolescent voice of insecurity yelled my name, I took refuge at the piano. Composing a new piece of music and figuring out how to play it made me feel in control, confident, and capable. Not capable enough to stare down the NRA, like Emma, but skilled enough to brush off the strutters and regain a sense of purpose.

Emma is a creative writer. She also finds joy in astronomy. Before the shooting, her head might have been in the stars, but—because of her education—she knew how to confront a blank page, take the teen tornado blustering through her brain, and create an orderly, emotionally relevant statement. Catapulted to grief counselor and motivational speaker for a nation of despairing and determined young people, Emma used her writing skills to pull through the tragedy.

Emma is a hero. So are her teachers and parents for giving her the lessons, tools, and artistic freedom to cope.

The shooter had an AR-15, but, in the aftermath of killing, Emma showed up armed with her own artistic arsenal, one that has allowed her to challenge the previous generation’s apathy, the NRA, and the politicians bought and sold by the gun lobby. The MSD High School teenagers astound me. Facing a future smeared by horrific images blistered onto their developing brains, they refuse to give up, give in, or tolerate the sickening chaos that has become the new norm in our government. They have chosen their issue—reasonable limitations on the availability of semi-automatic death weapons to children. They’re facing the need for change by running toward the issue, head on. Run, kids, run.

It’s a different kind of race when unexpected hurdles include bleeding bodies of friends.

I guess the prom will have to wait.

*****

Teenagers like Emma—or your kids or mine—are generally known for rumpled bedrooms, disheveled backpacks, and illogical thinking. In a classic Opposite World scenario, our kids now make more sense than many adults. Our youth are not just marching and taking selfies; they’re collecting names and voting records of politicians controlled by the NRA, mobilizing young people to make a difference at the polls in November, and presenting calm, clearheaded arguments for gun control in high-pressure public forums and at nationally-televised press conferences. Virtuosic grace under pressure. Grief meets bravery meets action.

According to another activist—Congressman John Lewis—the MSD kids are making “good trouble.”

Chaos rules the capitol, whereas ordered, logical thinking guides the actions of MSD High School students—the ones who are still alive. Never underestimate the fortitude of a passionate, teenage survivor carrying the weight of her brothers and sisters on her narrow shoulders.

*****

Some thoughts about chaos and order: A pianist almost always begins with chaos. Before tackling a sonata, fugue, or showstopper from the Great American Songbook, before playing a bebop melody or creating a new-age cushion of sonic comfort, a pianist faces a mess of notes either on the page or in her head—some call them fly shit. The notes swim before her eyes and tease her ears, daring her to embrace mayhem and create beauty.

In an artist’s world, it’s critical to balance the mind’s creative bedlam with logical, systematic, strategic thinking. When starting a project, a composer, painter, poet, or journalist must tango with the disarray of her own imagination. Her over-taxed brain hosts flights of fancy and darkest desolation, joy and hysteria and anguish and confusion. Before she spills her emotional guts onto the blank screen, canvas, or music manuscript paper, she must calm her tormentors, restore order to her subconscious desires, and beat back the distractions and necessary interruptions of real life.

Emma González, at the age of eighteen, has the artist’s required skill set.

Is it too much to ask the same of our government?

The paucity of stability and civility in the United States—brought on by the muddled rants and hateful bombasts of our current president—distresses me. Regardless of political affiliation, most people agree that kindness and respect make progress possible. To move forward, encourage positive change, and save the planet for our children and grandchildren—we must value the kind of creative chaos that is followed by ordered, rational thinking.

Emma has that together. She might be our Malala, rising above ruins and illuminating the path.

I encourage the men and women running our country to take the chaos and necessary distractions cluttering their minds, study a page from the Emma playbook, organize their thoughts, and listen to themselves and each other.

Fact: Kids, in record numbers, are being shot on streets and in schools.  Responsible gun laws could stop many of these tragedies. Instead, our congress turns away. Our commander in chief stays occupied hurling big bags of flaming vitriol at anyone who doesn’t tow the fraying line. Forget—if you can—the firings, porn stars and playmates, or destructive policies; the president’s inability to act in an orderly and civilized manner has perpetuated an avalanche of rudeness, a hurricane of racism,  a wildfire of vulgarity, and a storm(y) front of discontent that seeps, like creeping damp, under our hip, upturned collars.

The shooting continues.

Right now, the government has a chance to heed the words and actions of the #NeverAgainMSD movement founded by Emma and her team of fellow students. Our congress has the opportunity to get one thing right: Stop selling weapons of mass destruction to teens.

I am behind you, Emma González. I wish my generation had been out in front of the gun issue so you could have savored a few more years of poetry, love beads, and hours spent gazing at the darkening sky. But now that you’ve been shoved centerstage, I encourage you to follow the artist’s way. Keep your head in the stars, but make sure you find your way back home to deliver your message. Six minutes of silence? We hear you. We need you. You are who we want to be when we grow up.

#Enough.

*****

Portrait of Emma by Steve Musgrove, graphic artist

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

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

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

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