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.