Piano Girl Robin Meloy Goldsby recalls her brief stint as an exercise instructor and diet coach in Flushing, Queens, New York.
January, 1981: “Ladies! Listen up! It’s ‘Team Time with Deanna!’ Grab your buddy and head to the center of the floor where we’ll meet and greet, dance and prance, and burn away that winter blubber.”
Deanna is a thirty-five year old exercise instructor and seasoned resident of Queens. I am a twenty-three year-old out-of-work actor/pianist and a newish New Yorker. I wear a slightly see-through white leotard, a purple polyester sash around my waist, and a very large badge that says, “Elaine Powers Figure Salon TRAINEE.” It is not my finest moment, but I’m grateful to be employed. I’ve graduated from Chatham College, a gentle but high-minded women’s school in Pittsburgh, with a BA in Theater Arts. I know a lot about Shakespearean comedies and Greek tragedies, but hardly anything about how to get work as a performing artist in New York City.
This is the third job I’ve had since receiving my diploma. When I moved here eighteen months ago, I landed a fancy-sounding gig as a promotional model at Bergdorf Goodman, where a skinny fashion director wearing a narrow black suit stuffed me into a voluminous Anne Klein evening dress and forced me to spray shoppers with expensive perfume. My most recent round of employment has been a role as a piano-playing stripper in the national touring company of an old-fashioned Burlesque show called Peaches and Bananas. Not a bad job, really. I’ve gotten my Equity card, learned to peel off a corset while playing Chopin, how to cope with weathered Burlesque comedians (hint: never ever steal a laugh from an eighty-year-old Top Banana), how to crank my hair to skyscraper heights, glue on false eyelashes without blinding myself, and how to save money by sleeping eight actors in a Days Inn motel room meant for two (hint: never ever room with the Top Banana—he’ll use all the towels). I’ve also figured out how to survive on stale Dunkin’ Donuts crullers and cold shrimp-fried rice. Dancing (ass-shaking disguised as choreography) and road rat meals (leftover half-eaten Whoppers for breakfast) have left me enviably lanky but one step away from a full-fledged Scurvy diagnosis. I touch my arm and it bruises. For over a year I’ve been counting pennies and looking forward to the day when I can afford food that doesn’t come in a white cardboard carton or a greasy paper bag.
Now, a little uncertain about my next shaky steps in city jam-packed with out-of-work actors skidding in their own greasepaint, I’ve signed up to work part time as an instructor at an Elaine Powers Figure Salon. I haven’t found an Elaine Powers salon with job openings in Manhattan—those places are already staffed by Bob Fosse rejects, soap opera spit-backs, and runway models who are an inch or two short of the 5’9″ minimum. So I’ve nailed down a position as an instructor at the Flushing, Queens salon, in the shadow of Shea Stadium. In Flushing the accents and waistlines are thicker. Hair and coat colors dazzle. It’s a place where, refreshingly, avenues swarm with civilians who want nothing—nothing!—to do with show business. The # 7 Express train from Grand Central gets me there in no time at all.
During “Team Time with Deanna” I sit on an Elaine Powers weight bench and take notes. I’ll be expected to conduct my very own “Team Time with Robin” in the next few days, and there’s an Elaine Powers protocol I’ll need to follow.
Cats have claws! Dogs have fleas! All I’ve got are chubby knees!
I’m not dumb! I’m so wise! Pump away these flabby thighs!
Move those arms! Move those feet! How I hate this cellulite!
Pec-tor-als! Stretch and reach! We’ll look foxy on the beach.
Remember, it’s 1981. “Foxy” is one of our favorite words. While Deanna and her students recite these rhymes, Donna Summer blares from the Elaine Powers sound system. “She Works Hard for the Money” is the track of choice. The music and the rhymes don’t sync and I feel like I’m caught in a John Cage nightmare. Deanna, single mother of four sons, resembles an Italian female version of Barney Rubble. She is tiny and rock solid—no chubby knees on her. Deanna is a dynamo—during my shift I watch her conduct Team Time every hour on the hour. No matter how much she jumps around, her big Sue Ellen Ewing hair stays in place.
After Deanna’s third session I head back to the front desk—a platform that oversees all the weight machines, vibrating belts, and treadmills. The vibrating belts intrigue me. The clients strap a belt around their problem zones and the belts shake-shake-shake the fat. Wow.
“Do those things work?” I ask Deanna.
“Nah,” she says, evading my eyes. “They make your thighs itch, and that’s about it.”
“Oh,” I say. “Who needs that? Itchy thighs. Blah.”
“Right. So. You gotta handle on Team Time, now?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Good. Okay, write this next thing down in your notebook. It’s one of our most critical functions, as, like, Elaine Powers role models and instructors.”
“Okay.” I sit with my pen poised and ready to write. I’m good at taking notes. Deanna picks up the microphone. “You turn it on like this,” she whispers to me, and shows me a little on and off switch. “Write that down. Turn on the microphone.”
“Okay. Turn on the microphone.”
“Ladies, listen up! It’s time for your ‘Diet Tip of the Day.'” The gyrating women step down from their weight machines, treadmills, and vibrating belts. They swivel to face Deanna. She is their weight-loss queen of Queens, their calorie-counting pocket-Pope, their great white hope for slimmer thighs and sleeker silhouettes.
“Are you ready?” she shouts.
“Yeah!” they reply.
“I can’t hear you!” she yells.
“Yeah!” they scream.
“What do we wanna do?”
“Lose weight! Lose weight!”
“Lose weight! Lose weight!”
“Okay, ladies, here we go. Your ‘Diet Tip of the Day’—drum roll, please!” The ladies beat on the purple padded benches of the weight machines.
“Your ‘Diet Tip of the Day’ is . . . DON’T EAT PIE!”
A startled silence fills the salon. Then the ladies break into applause. After a few moments, they return to their workouts.
“That’s it?” I say to Deanna. “Don’t eat pie is your diet tip for the day?”
“Yeah,” she says. “Good, right?”
“But that’s ridiculous,” I say. “Everyone knows not to eat pie if they’re trying to lose weight. These poor women are paying $11.99 a month—”
“$9.99 a month for the two year program, $7.99 a month for the five year plan and a one time fee of $499.99 for a lifetime membership.”
“Right. What a deal. But shouldn’t you give them something more than a poem about chubby knees and a diet tip that tells them not to eat pie?”
Deanna glares at me and I’m really glad she doesn’t have one of those Barney Rubble clubs. “Sometimes,” she growls, “you just have to hit them over the head with this stuff. It’s not, like, rocket science. Obvious is good.”
“Obvious is good,” I write in my notebook, which, thirty years later, I will dig out of an old carton so I can write this story.
Cathy, a platinum L’Oreal-blond with an inch of black roots, dangling earrings, water-balloon boobs, narrow teenage-boy hips, and lavender tights paces on the magenta carpet of the violet-walled Elaine Powers back office. Purple, purple everywhere. Working in this place is like living inside a grape. Cathy (who could be a man—I’m not sure) is our manager, a job that involves chain smoking and convincing middle-aged female citizens of Flushing that they, too, could look like her if they stopped eating pie and forked over $11.99 a month for the next year.
Cathy has called me into her office to discuss “security” issues at the salon. Deanna accompanies me. We all light up cigarettes. It’s 1981. We smoke. No guilt.
“So,” says Cathy to Deanna. “Did you show Robin the panic button?”
“The panic button?” I say. “The panic button?”
“You didn’t tell her?” says Cathy to Deanna.
“I couldn’t,” says Deanna. “It’s too upsetting.”
“What?” I say.
“Deanna,” says Cathy. “If you’re going be an Elaine Powers Assistant Manager some day, you gotta get a grip on these things. Now tell her.”
I wonder if the panic button has something to do with pie. I haven’t thought about pie for a couple of years, but now I can’t stop conjuring visions of my mom’s pumpkin, lemon meringue, pecan, and peach pies. Flaky crusts, whipped cream, the works. I take a drag from my Benson and Hedges cigarette, a luxury I can’t afford. I scrimp on meals, but I buy these cigarettes because I like the way the package looks. Classy.
“Terrible,” says Deanna. ” It’s terrible. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it. It was all over the newspapers. It was even on TV.”
“It really caused our membership to drop,” says Cathy.
“What?” I say.
“Go ahead,” says Cathy, lighting another cigarette. “Spill.”
“Well,” says Deanna. “It happened in Texas. Five years ago. And people say New York City is dangerous.”
“What?” I say.
“Okay, like, two goons wearing masks busted into one of our Houston salons. They had guns, which later turned out to be toy water pistols, but how could anyone know? Anyway, they made all the ladies strip down to their underwear.”
“At least they kept their underwear,” says Cathy.
“Yeah, thank God for small favors,” says Deanna. “Although most of those underpants weren’t exactly small.”
“Go on,” says Cathy.
“I can’t,” says Deanna. “You tell.”
Cathy rolls her eyes and blows a long trail of smoke across the room. “They crowded all of the ladies into a small storage room, more of a closet, really, and then they selected the most, uh, voluptuous women and forced them back out onto the floor.”
“They picked the fattest ones,” says Deanna.
“Deanna, that’s not the way an Elaine Powers instructor talks. Show some respect.”
“Sorry,” she says, “but it’s true. I don’t know why we can’t say the word fat around here. It’s stupid. Fat is fat. F-A-T. So go ahead with the story.”
“Right. The masked men took these stout ladies—”
“Stout? Like that’s better than saying fat? Excuse me, but if I ever gain, like, a hundred pounds, call me fat but don’t call me stout. Even statuesque sounds better than stout.”
“Fine. But stout is an approved Elaine Powers word. Anyway, they took the stout ladies and forced them onto the vibrating belt machines, with the belts around their butts. Then they turned on the machines.”
“Oh, no,” I say.
“You can just imagine how that looked,” says Deanna. “All that naked flab, covered by those giant underpants, of course, but still, wiggling and jiggling. I mean, even a skinny girl on those machines looks like used Jello.”
“Deanna! That’s enough. You wanna tell the end of the story?”
“No way, José,” says Deanna. “That’s the worst part.”
I am ready to resign on my very first day of employment. “Please don’t tell me those poor women were raped.”
“No,” says Cathy. “But the two men, they, uh, watched the stout ladies on the belts. And they did Unspeakable Things while they were watching. You know, the shaking butts turned them on, I guess.”
“That’s horrible,” I say.
“And the goons kept their masks on,” says Deanna. “Oh my God. I can’t even think about this. It makes me sick. Sick. Just skip the next part. Robin can use her imagination.”
“Yeah, I think I can figure it out. No one was raped?” I ask.
“No one was hurt?”
“No. Upset, of course, but not harmed in any physical way. Sadly, most of them never returned to the salon again. They were traumatized.”
“Did they ever catch the guys?”
“No. They’re still out there. And that’s why we have a panic button. If any man comes into the salon for any reason, one of us has to stand by the panic button and be prepared to hit it. Because we don’t want a VBI here in Flushing.”
“A VBI?” I say.
“Vibrating Belt Incident,” says Deanna, flicking the ash of her cigarette into a lilac ashtray.
The following week when I’m alone and closing the salon—Cathy has given me a key because she claims I’m management material—I step onto one of the vibrating belt machines and hook the belt around my butt. I turn on the machine. In the mirror—there are mirrors everywhere in this place—I catch a glimpse of myself as I shake, waggle, and roll. Look at that. Turns out I have a lot of fat on my skinny frame. There’s a stout girl lurking inside me, and I see her, right there in my jiggling reflection. Traumatic, indeed, and there’s not even anyone watching. That’s it. No more pie for me. I lock up and go home.
A miracle! Four months into my Elaine Powers siege a music agent calls and offers me a gig at the Newark Airport Holiday Inn, where I’ll play the piano five nights a week for turnpike lounge lizards, red-eyed truck drivers, and world-weary flight crews—the worker bees of the transportation industry. I accept the offer. For a few weeks I do both jobs, conducting Team Time during the day, and playing the piano at the Newark Airport Holiday Inn at night. I love my job in Newark—I’ve got a beat-up out-of-tune piano in a smoky bar and my very own hotel room with a bright orange chenille bedspread—no Top Bananas, bed sharing, or begging for towels. I have a decent paycheck and free meals (featuring egg dishes with melted cheese) in a real restaurant with white tablecloths, and a chance to sunbathe next to a pool with a thin film of jet fuel floating on the water’s surface. From my pool perch I watch as jets take off and land, a hundred times a day—sky ships carrying eager passengers to anywhere but here. Sometimes I fall asleep outside with planes disappearing into the clouds over my head. I dream big fat dreams.
Finally, I resign from Elaine Powers. I’m sad about saying goodbye to Cathy and Deanna, but happy I’ve escaped without a VBI. I am sick of the color purple. During my final Team Time I blast Donna Summer’s cassette on the boom box. I work hard for my money, chase away those chubby knees, and wish my clients well.
“You know what?” I say to the ladies. “A little bit of fat is okay. Be fit. Be foxy. Be healthy. Be happy. Listen to music. Dance. Don’t worry so much about the pie.”
Cathy smiles at me. Deanna scowls. I exit. Obvious is good.