Excuse me, I’m sorry. Excuse me. Sorry, sorry, sorry. I maneuver across a crowded subway platform and step onto a slow-moving escalator. Perched in the middle, I avoid the sticky rubber handrails, and travel—head down, antennae up—until I emerge from the stuffy underground and step into the national-park spaciousness of Grand Central Station. I gaze at the terminal’s star-spattered ceiling, shuffle around a clump of camera-toting tourists, and scoot outside into the June morning.
I live in Germany with my husband and children, but I spent my early adult years in New York City, playing the piano at the Grand Hyatt on Forty-second Street. I wrote a book, a memoir about performing in the no-star bars of five-star hotels—New York City lounges cloaked in jewel-toned velveteen—where I hid behind a Steinway in a shadowy corner playing tinka, tinka, tinka, hoping no one would yell at me for being too loud, too quirky, too disruptive, too musical. I was just another blond in a black dress, one of Manhattan’s middle-tier musicians, good enough to make a decent living, but not quite good enough for anyone to notice.
America is indeed a great country—perhaps the only place in the world where a person can write a book about being ignored, and everyone pays attention. Today, as part of my accidental homecoming, I’m scheduled to appear on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.
Excuse me. I’m sorry. I keep bumping into people who know where they’re going.
Pedestrians with bulging briefcases, backpacks, and assorted plastic shopping bags weave through a tapestry of street vendors selling African beads, battery-operated barking toys, and stale pretzels with spicy mustard.
NPR tapes the show in a studio on Second Avenue, not far from Grand Central. My flight from Frankfurt arrived late last night. Between the jet lag and my frazzled nerves, I’m in a dream-like state, something comparable to an early morning one-martini buzz. No olives.
I’ve forgotten it’s impossible to walk in a straight line in this town. Once upon a time I had mastered the art of dodging, slithering, stepping-over, and occasionally tap-dancing through swarming city streets. But I’m out of practice; today’s journey feels like a spooky ride in an amusement park. Plumes of smoke; brightly painted pop-up people who might as well be screaming BOO; sprays of water; splashes of God-knows-what; grime, guts, goo; and a man who yells, for no reason I can see, bada, bada, bada—all of these things confront me as I head to the corner of Lexington and Forty-second.
After a dozen years in the tranquil German countryside, waking every morning to a mind-numbing silence broken only by songbirds and church bells, I welcome today’s audio jumble. I hear horns blaring, radios blasting Latino music, a jackhammer hammering into a thick slab of concrete, and a constant high-pitched squeal that sounds like microphone feedback.
Delivery trucks, taxicabs, gypsy cabs, fancy cars, jalopies, buses, and colorless vans with foggy windows clog the intersection. A silly-looking white limousine—the kind rumored to have a bathtub in the back seat—screeches to a halt inches from my feet. Anybody in there? Puff? Daddy?
“I’m tryin’ to cross here!” screams an agitated pregnant woman pushing a baby stroller the size of a parade float. She balances on the curb and pounds on the side of the limo. “Don’t block the box!”
The dark window slides down.
“Fuck you!” yells the driver—a woman in a tight black suit with a jaunty hat. She looks like an organ-grinder’s monkey. “I’m runnin’ a business here. Don’t mess with me, lady. I got a gun. Keep your mitts off my car.”
The light changes. WALK WALK WALK it blinks.
I wonder if DON’T WALK means you should run.
I cross the street. Most of the people heading toward me shout into cell phones and carry enormous bottles of water. They look too young, too thin, too thirsty. An old tissue blows up from the street and sticks to my right ankle. While avoiding a column of foul-smelling steam spewing from a manhole, I admire the high-heeled wobble of a woman in a pebbly pink Chanel suit. Where’s she going?
Where is everybody going?
I check my watch, pick up my pace to avoid an old man throwing grain at a gathering of pigeons, and swat away the glittering confetti-like substance swirling around my head. It looks like stardust, but I’m sure it’s not.
I wonder how I ever lived here, or why I ever left.
The reason for the traffic jam becomes clear when I reach the corner of Second and Forty-second. Traffic has been diverted from the one-block area around the NPR building and funneled to the side streets. Must be someone important in the area. Or maybe there’s a film crew on the block. As I look up, hoping to see Spider-Man dangling from a window ledge, I bump into Nina Lesowitz, the publicist for my book. I love Nina. She’s optimistic, enthusiastic, and relentless. Everything a publicist should be. And ever so much more.
“Isn’t it, like, exciting?” she says.
“What? The show? I’m pretty nervous.”
“Forget the show! Someone important is here.”
“Here? At NPR? Who?”
“Don’t know who, security won’t tell me. Maybe it’s, like, Bush!”
“Maybe it’s Mandela! Maybe it’s Springsteen.”
“I don’t think they stop traffic for a musician, Nina.”
“Maybe it’s Streisand! Oh my God, I would die! Hey, what’s on your jacket? You’re sparkling. You’re so funny!”
I’m reeling from fatigue, I’m getting a blister on my heel, and I need to forget about the mystery celebrity and focus on the task ahead. I’m concerned about being delightful on cue, especially in front of millions of listeners.
A beefy man with a clipboard checks off our names, looks at our identification, radios a message upstairs, and sends us into the lobby.
“Who’s the celebrity?” Nina shouts over her shoulder. “I hate this. I just hate not knowing!”
“Can’t say, ma’am. Sorry. Not allowed.”
We take the elevator up to the studio. Hulking security guys in dark suits surround us.
“Oh. Oh. Oh. Who’s it going to be?” Nina picks at the glitter on my jacket.
We’re introduced to the sound engineer and told that my interview will be done as a remote, with Jennifer Ludden in Washington. I’m trying to stay cool, but the idea of a remote interview throws me off balance.
“Maybe it’s, like, Cher!” says Nina.
I look over my list of talking points.
“Maybe it’s, like, the Pope!”
The engineer adjusts my headset, and we do a quick level check on my voice.
“Maybe it’s Paul and Heather!”
I notice a small coffee stain on my pants leg. At least this isn’t television.
“Or, like, Dick!”
“Dick?” I ask.
“Oh. Yeah. Dick.” My hands are sweating. And my throat is dry. “Nina, I could use a glass of water.”
“Maybe it’s, like, Madonna! Thank God I brought my camera. We gotta get photos!”
The engineer ushers Nina into the control room, and I do a meet-and-greet sound check with Jennifer in Washington. We’re set to go. My face burns. I’m suffering from a severe case of imposter syndrome.
Just as the engineer prepares to start taping, Nina jumps up from her seat and waves her arms like a wild woman.
“Stand by, Robin,” says the engineer through my headset.
Nina mouths words at me. Then she points into the lobby. I try to ignore her.
“Five, four, three, two—”
BILL CLINTON. That’s what she’s saying. I look through the thick glass wall and see his brilliant white hair behind a filing cabinet. It’s either him or Santa.
“Rolling,” says the engineer. Jennifer greets me. I respond in the media voice I’ve perfected over the past few months. Nina cranes her neck to see what’s happening with Clinton. I feel like my brain has been split in half with an ax.
I cartwheel through the interview, managing to be mildly amusing in spite of the flop sweat dripping down my back. We pause for a minute while an assistant delivers an excerpt from the book for me to read. When the door opens I hear Clinton taping his interview in the studio next to me. He speaks eloquently about tsunami relief and the crisis in the Middle East.
We start rolling again, and I talk about playing the piano for a dental implant convention at the Marriott Marquis. Tinka, tinka, tinka.
I try, really I do, not to think about the former President of the United States sitting three feet away from me. During one of the breaks I’m tempted to knock on the wall, but I don’t.
After the show we’re escorted to a lounge area and told not to touch the food. Nina immediately grabs a bagel.
“I’m starving,” she says.
“Let’s get out of here!” I say. We’re expected at the Javits Center for a book signing and cocktail party.
“Are you crazy? We’ve got to wait. I absolutely must get my photo taken with Clinton.” She pulls out her lipstick.
“Nina, they won’t let us anywhere near him. And besides, I feel kind of funny about this. Maybe we should just go.”
“Are you crazy? This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We’re, like, staying.”
We lurk outside the recording studio, having been given strict instructions to stay back once the President enters the room.
Nina starts working her way to the front of the small crowd, tugging me along behind her.
The NPR staff gathers around the President, asking him witty and intelligent questions. Clinton responds while signing copies of his book. I’ve been around lots of celebrities in my life, but I’ve never seen anyone with so much charm. The fluorescent fixtures of the office cast a greenish glow over us, but he’s a golden boy, dipped in a bucket of dawn-colored light. I glance over my shoulder, half expecting to see a special-effects technician hovering nearby.
Just then, he catches my eye, smiles, and nods.
“Can we get a photo, Mr. President?” says an NPR employee.
“Now’s our chance,” says Nina.
“Nina, we can’t. This is for the NPR employees. We can’t crash the photo op.”
Next thing I know, I’m being shoved front and center and Nina is introducing us.
“Mr. President! This is Robin Goldsby!” says Nina. “She wrote a book! Just like you.”
“How do you do, Mr. President?” I say. We shake hands. Now what? I panic, trying to think of something appropriate to say. Nice tie? Loved the bit about the tsunami? What?
Speaking too loudly and sounding very much like last year’s third runner-up in the Miss Altoona beauty pageant, I come up with this: “Thank you, Mr. President, for everything you are doing to HELP OUR WORLD.”
“My pleasure,” he says. “Where are you all from?”
“I’m from Cologne, Germany. But I’m American. This land is my land.”
Silence. Where’s Woody Guthrie when you need him?
“Cologne? Beautiful town. They have that big old cathedral there, don’t they?”
“Yes,” I say. “That’s the Dom.”
Silence. I try to think of a fascinating tidbit of information to share with him. I lower my voice and lean in his direction. “You know, the Three Wise Men are buried there.”
Silence. I have no idea if the Three Wise Men are buried there. Here’s what I know about the Three Wise Men: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That’s it. I know way more about the Three Tenors and the Three Stooges than I know about the Three Wise Men.
“How they got from Bethlehem to Cologne I can’t imagine. Make a left at the manger and head north, I guess.” I consider humming a chorus of “We Three Kings of Orient Are” but stop myself just in time.
“Wow, that’s interesting. I never knew that,” he says. “Hey Bernie, did you hear that? Those Three Wise Men are buried in that big old church in Cologne.” Bernie writes something in a small notebook. President Clinton turns back to me. “So, you wrote a book?”
“Oh. Yes. It’s called Piano Girl. About playing the piano in, you know, bars and lounges.”
“And it’s hysterical!” shouts Nina. “She’s hysterical!”
“So you’re a musician?” he says.
“Yes, Mr. President. Just like you,” I say.
“And you’re here pushing your book,” he says.
“Yes, Mr. President. Just like you.” I sound like a mynah bird. “By the way, I hear your book is really fabulous.” I haven’t heard this, but I figure it’s a good thing to say.
“Thank you! Good luck to you.”
“You, too, Mr. President.”
I give him a copy of my book. Nina takes a photo of him with me. I take a photo of Nina with him. I sense she’s about to invite him to go shoe shopping with us at Bloomingdale’s, but his entourage whisks him into the elevator.
Right before the doors close, he waves at me. And then I hear him announce to his staff: “You know, those Three Wise Men are buried in that big old Cologne Cathedral.”
There’s silence in the NPR office.
“Really?” Nina asks me. “That’s a riot!”
We exit the building fifteen minutes later. President Clinton remains outside, shaking hands, posing for pictures, exchanging presidential pleasantries with surprised pedestrians. He flashes a smile at the adoring crowd and ducks into his limousine, one without a bathtub. Just before the door slams shut, I notice he’s still carrying my book. His car zooms away with a police escort, and the traffic barricades come down. The bubble of quiet hanging over the block pops as cars begin rolling onto the empty avenue. As people return to their strollers, their cell phones, their water bottles, their pavement-pounding-purpose-pushing lives, the city’s spirit rushes in like a raging river. Bada, bada, bada. It’s almost a relief to hear the jackhammer.
Hand-in-hand, Nina and I dash across the street and hail a cab.
“Where you goin’?” asks the driver.
“To the top!” shouts Nina. “But first we’ll need to get to the Javits Center. Book Expo America.”
“Don’t know why, but traffic’s a mess today,” says the cabbie. “You gals would be better off taking the subway.”
(An excerpt from Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl)
Also available in German, translated by Dagmar Breitenbach: Walzer der Spargel Menschen
©2011 Robin Meloy Goldsby; reprinted with the permission of Bass Lion Publishing