Olives, Almonds, and Sauvignon Blanc: The Musician’s Guide to Losing (and Finding) Those Last Five Pounds

Considering I’ve spent most of my adult life playing the piano in a cocktail lounge, it’s amazing I’m not (yet) an obese alcoholic with salt stains on my fingers and a pickled liver. I have stared down more bowls of smoked almonds and wasabi nuts than most people do in a lifetime.  If I had the cash equivalent of every drink purchased for me by the lounge lizards and dapper dandies drifting through the world’s cocktail caves and five-star hotels, I’d be able to retire right now. A glass of the good champagne served at the hotel where I currently work costs forty-five dollars. Over the last twelve years I may have sipped the champagne equivalent of a brand new BMW.

Champagne

I’m not complaining.  I think too much about diet and nutrition. If you want to know anything at all about any diet ever invented in the history of food, just ask me. I could be practicing the piano, composing music, or working on another book, but no, I’m busy boning up on the virtues of yam chips, and wondering if pomegranate juice would be a nice mixer for vodka.

I’m addicted to diet stories. Makeover! Is any word in the style lexicon more full of promise? Give me a good makeover article and you’ve got me in the palm of your chubby little hand. At the doctor’s office I will pick up a glossy magazine, skirt over intelligent political commentaries about subjects I care about, and go right for the three-page spread telling me how Becky from Buffalo lost twenty pounds in twenty days by eating ham loaf and asparagus (Becky is now working in the shoe department at Target and loves her new “thinner” life).

I am not now, nor have I ever been fat. But, even at my skinniest—I looked like a zipper—I was still trying to lose those “stubborn last five pounds,” a phrase you’ll read a thousand times if you’ve got your nose in a diet book. They are indeed stubborn, those last five pounds, especially if they’re located in the fantasy part of your brain.

Over five decades I’ve lost and gained those same five pounds about four times a year. No matter where in the world I go, they hunt me down, stalkers on the prowl, never far away. I lose them; they find me again—rightfully so, since they belong to me. I try to give them away, but just like my old evening gowns and sparkling gig shoes from 1985—no one seems to want them.

Road trips, evil catering, unidentifiable bar food, vending machine Twix bars, buffalo wings, airplane pretzels, stale ham sandwiches, chocolate donuts, and, yes, those community bowls of goldfish crackers—as a musician I’ve survived most of these things. For better or worse, here are some of my favorite diet phases, many of them career-related.  Some diets were intentional; some were accidental. Most of them didn’t work. Proceed with caution. Or you can just skip to the end and save yourself some trouble.

1973: Eighteen Eggs in Thirty Minutes

I am sixteen years old and spend a lot of time playing the piano. My sister, Randy, is fifteen and likes to dance. Tonight we perch at the kitchen table, forks at the ready. Grandma Curtis, a youthful seventy-five, happily slings hash for the two of us. I promise to play “The Theme from Love Story” for her after dinner. Maybe Randy will do some interpretive dancing. Grandma hovers over a large skillet, scrambling eggs.

Randy and I have discovered a diet book on our mother’s bookcase called Martinis and Whipped Cream. We know nothing about martinis, but we do like whipped cream. We also think we need to be skinny, since we both spend a lot of time onstage. Tonight’s Martinis and Whipped Cream diet dinner features scrambled eggs cooked in butter, as many of them as we can eat. We’ve just arrived home from swim team practice and—after 120 laps of breaststroke—we’re famished. Between the two of us we consume eighteen eggs in thirty minutes.

Grandma keeps saying things like: “Girls these days sure can chow down. Do you think the chlorine in the pool is making you extra hungry?  Do you want a nice salad and a piece of bread with those eggs?”

“NO!” we scream in unison, a synchronized, carb-deprived, desperate diet-duo, lifting our utensils in unison.

At least the eggs are affordable. Tomorrow night’s dinner calls for unlimited pork chops.  Both of us are constipated for two weeks, but we each manage to lose ten pounds. We look svelte in our South Hills High School tank suits, even though we are weak and dazed. I watch my sister attempt to swim the 200 Meter Butterfly and by the end of the race only her thumbs are breaking the water’s surface.

“Never again,” we say. We go off the diet, eat a piece of toast, and regain all the weight we’ve lost.  We start winning our swim events again. And we swear off whipped cream forever. Martinis, well, that’s another story.

Shopping List:

Two dozen eggs, plus an extra dozen, just in case

One grandmother who doesn’t ask questions

1976: The Nantucket Diet

Ah, the Bicentennial Year. Two hundred years of American independence and what better way to celebrate? I leave my parents’ home (roast chicken dinners and chipped ham sandwiches for lunch) and head to the land of lobster, quahog chowder, and curly fries from The Brotherhood of Thieves. But this is not what I am eating on Nantucket. Lobster is too expensive and I’m trying to save money for college. I play the piano at a bar that caters to rich yachtsmen, salty first mates, and the occasional gay guy. While waiting for my tube top to slip down in the middle of my snappy Carole King medley, the sailors buy me drinks made with scotch and amaretto and Kahlua. For solid food, I rely on bluefish. I hate bluefish, but this is what my boyfriend reels in every day from the shores of Madaket and ‘Sconset and this is what we eat. I wrap it in aluminum foil and we cook it outside on the hibachi. I try not to choke on the bones.

Once in awhile, a sun-baked friend of mine named Peg—the manager of the Sweet Shop on Main Street—uses her key and flashlight for midnight raids on the ice cream counter. She takes me with her. A former Coppertone swimsuit model, Peg refuses to eat anything but vanilla ice cream with strawberry sauce. I can’t think of anything more glamorous than being a Coppertone model, so I do the same. It helps me forget about the bluefish bones and the sailors.

I do not lose weight or gain weight on this diet. The balance of alcohol, fish, and ice cream must be the key to good health and glowing skin. I forget that I am eighteen, sand-blasted, surf-struck, and love-stupid. I could eat (or not eat) anything and still look good. But I am too young to appreciate this.

 Shopping List:

Bluefish (see if you can find someone to gut them for you)

Cheap vanilla ice cream

Smucker’s Strawberry Preserves

Scotch

Coppertone SPF O

1979: The St. Louis Blues Diet

I live at the Chase Park Plaza for six weeks while performing in the hotel’s small theater on the ground floor. Our hotel rooms are luxurious, but we eat our meals in the  doom-and-gloom employee cafeteria, where several coughing, sneezing, mucous-spewing adults have been hired to serve our food. Hot dogs are the favored main course, served alongside unidentifiable vegetables.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” I say to the soup monger in the white hat, just as she wipes her nose on her sleeve. “What is the vegetable today?”

“That be squash,” she grunts. “It always be squash. Squash, squash, squash. Do you want some goddamn squash? If not, GET OUT OF THE GODDAMN SQUASH LINE!” Steam rises around her head and she looks at me, one yellowish eye askew, like she might stab me with her squash scooper.

Every vegetable is squash. Every hot dog is a vessel for typhoid, or worse.  Every meal is a trauma.

If one of us makes it to the table with an actual tray of food, the Head Hobbit—a man named Hank—sits down with us and purposefully coughs with his mouth uncovered, spraying us with God knows what. We duck under our napkins.

Hack, hack, hack.

Once Hank blows his nose on the table. We flee, convinced hotel management has hired Hank to prevent us from eating their free food. It’s hard to lose weight in a five star hotel, but our cast—grossed out and fearing for our lives—collectively drops about sixty pounds. Ken, our cross-dressing male lead (who stays in the hotel’s Joan Crawford Suite) begins ordering meat loaf dinners from room service. We follow suit, hoping that the  staff in the “real” kitchen practices better hygiene. We spend all our wages on fifteen dollar Ruben sandwiches and Welsh Rarebit. We lose our money and regain the weight. Plus some. Ah, the circle of life.

Shopping List:

Hot dogs (the older the better)

Squash (beaten to death)

Dirty person to cough on your food

 

 1980: The Stripper Diet

“The ships on her hips made my heart skip a beat . . .”

There’s nothing like taking your clothes off nightly in front of 1500 people to make those “last stubborn five pounds” seem like they’re super-glued to your hips. I am acting and dancing in a squeaky clean, but scantily costumed, show called Peaches and Bananas. Coached by both Tempest Storm and Ann Corio, I’m the featured stripper in the program. I play classical piano and stand up to disrobe while singing “Hard Hearted Hannah.” I also play a chorus on the flute. Note to the aspiring performer: If wearing a bikini, it can be challenging to suck in your stomach while playing a wind instrument. Better to stick with the guitar—full belly coverage, and no huffing and puffing.

For six months I strip at a dinner theater outside of Boston. Fast food not only pads my butt, but saves my butt late at night when I can’t find or afford anything decent to eat. Because I’m dancing in eight shows a week, I’m in good shape, in spite of these last five pounds. Along with the rest of the cast—assorted actors, dancers, and ancient Burlesque comedians from New York, I’m sleeping eight to a room in a sleazy motel located next to Radio Shack, sharing bath towels and leftover Chinese shrimp-fried rice with chorus girls and tap-dancing young men. It’s winter, and to keep the old rice “fresh,” we stash it in a box on the windowsill. We breakfast daily on Dunkin’ Donuts glazed crullers and coffee with four packs of sugar and non-dairy creamer. We drink cheap wine between shows. Sometimes we splurge on vodka and add sugar and non-dairy creamer (stolen from DD) to create a Bailey’s Irish Cream effect. It’s not very effective.

The show moves to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and bruises begin to appear on my limbs. If I press on my skin, a blue fleck develops within an hour.  My arms look like road maps of places I never intended to visit. I can’t afford a doctor so I go to a Woonsocket pharmacist. He tells me I have a vitamin C deficiency. Unless the pickles on a Whopper count, I haven’t eaten a fresh vegetable or piece of fruit in months. In another few weeks I’ll  have Rhode Island’s first reported case of modern-day scurvy.

I swear off crullers and fried rice, which is easy because Peaches and Bananas closes—who wants to see a bruised piano-playing stripper, anyway? I move back to New York City where I can buy a mango for a pittance and a bag of spinach for even less. To pay the bills between show-biz gigs, I take a job as an exercise instructor at an Elaine Powers Figure Salon. But that’s another story.

 Shopping List:

A bag of Dunkin’ Donuts crullers (the kind with icing)

Cold shrimp-fried rice (as much MSG as possible)

Sugar packets and non-dairy creamer (as many as you can stuff in your pockets)

Coffee and really cheap vodka

1986: The Unhappy Piano Girl Diet

I am playing two or three gigs a day in Manhattan. A serial dater with no real hope of ever finding Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong, or even Mr. Single, I go on a lot of dinner dates but never really eat much dinner. When I’m working—pretty much all the time—I live on white wine, smoked almonds, and Valium. At my low point (in more ways than one) I weigh 105 pounds, about twenty pounds less than normal for my 5’8″ inch frame.

No. I am not anorexic. I just forget to eat.

I finally have enough money to buy decent food—no more crullers!—but I don’t care about eating. I’ve lost those stubborn five pounds but I’m too miserable to enjoy their departure. T-t-t-timing.

Sometimes after work I go to a fancy sushi place and force myself to order a nice meal. This works out well until the Japanese chef—a guy whose name sounds like Homo (even though I’m sure it’s not) starts sending out “special treats” along with my dinner. One treat features something that looks like crocodile testicles. He might be interested in me in a romantic way but I don’t think I can date a man named Homo who serves me eel brains and doesn’t speak English. I stop visiting his restaurant when he starts showing up at my piano with roses.

I find a sushi-to-go joint and cart the tuna rolls home with me, where I watch Oprah re-runs about losing weight.

This diet is very effective but not much fun.

 Shopping List:

Why bother?

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1990: Shaken, Stirred, Whatever

This is where the martinis come in, along with a good man. I have one, now. He plays the bass. We drink; we laugh; we love. Best diet. Ever.  Occasionally we eat dinner.

Shopping List:

Absolut Vodka

Olives

Nice lingerie

 

1992: The “Having My Baby” Diet

I’m pregnant and happy but not gaining much weight. I’ve been a vegetarian for a year and I’m determined to stick with it. I’m repulsed by red meat, I’m not allowed to eat sushi, and the chicken/salmonella thing freaks me out. That leaves pork (the other white meat), but I’m not interested—Wilbur and all that.

Between piano gigs I eat egg salad sandwiches on onion bagels and consume buckets of soba noodle soup. I can’t seem to get enough orange juice—I drink it by the gallon. I give up smoked almonds and white wine. Finally, in my seventh month, people notice I’m pregnant.  In fact, it looks as if a jazz quintet has taken up residence under my black chiffon Piano Girl tent dress.

One of my husband’s musician friends expresses concern that I’m not gaining enough weight. He becomes almost hostile when John tells him I’m a vegetarian. I don’t really understand it, but some people get weird when you tell them you don’t eat meat.

I gain twenty pounds. Our son is born, weighing over eleven pounds and setting a six-year record at NYU Medical Center, where one of the overworked nurses refers to him as King Kong.

“Well,” says John. “Good thing you didn’t eat the steak.”

 Shopping List:

Egg salad from Zabar’s

Onion bagels (also from Zabar’s—see if you can get a volume discount)

Soba noodles (with mystery broth that could possibly be vegetarian, but don’t ask questions)

Orange juice (buy stock in Tropicana)

1994: The Nothing but Cheese Diet

I move to Germany and find myself in the land of cheese. I’m still a vegetarian, so the cheese solution seems obvious. The cheese in Europe is nothing like what we have in America—the stuff here actually tastes good. I find myself buying huge chunks of Parmesan and eating shards of it for dinner, along with salad and crusty French baguette. There’s a place down the road from me that makes its own goat milk cheese with an herbed crust. I can’t stop.

I should mention that European chocolate also plays a supporting role in this nutritional phase of my life. Those last five pounds not only find me again, they bring along some of their friends and have a party. I score a job playing the piano at a German castle, home of a Michelin-starred restaurant. The bar snacks are heavenly. The wine is divine. I am doomed.

Shopping List:

Cheese (but only if you’re on this side of the Atlantic)

An occasional grape

2008: The Wagon # 36 Diet

After a decade and a half of my cheese, wine, and coffee diet, I develop stomach problems. One incident, involving two hours on a grimy floor next to a toilet bowl in a long distance train from Berlin to Cologne, my roiling stomach feeling every rumble, grumble, and swerve the train makes, almost kills me. For 120 minutes, I shiver in the tiny restroom, staring at a sign that tells me I am in Wagon #36.

Then there’s the Barfing Fairy Event, which occurs during the run of a children’s musical I wrote. I’m wearing wings, a tulle skirt, a Dolly Parton wig, and rubber boots. It’s not possible to look cute while tossing one’s cookies, but I come close.

Another harrowing heaving episode takes place while I’m playing Music for Lovers at a Valentine’s Day dinner at a German castle.  I start the evening in good shape, but ten minutes into my second set (right in the middle of “All the Things You Are,” which absolutely no one recognizes) I find myself racing through the restaurant—dodging goo-goo eyed couples sitting at tables strewn with rose petals—desperately trying to reach the ladies’ room. I make it, but barely. I quit early and stagger into the parking lot. Somehow I survive the drive home. My beautiful red chiffon dress does not fare as well.

What’s that line in The Devil Wears Prada? “I’m one stomach flu away from my perfect dress size.”  I am one stomach flu away from being dead. I honestly believe I’m suffering from multiple episodes of the Noro virus and there’s nothing I can do about it. At least the five pounds are gone. But I am constantly nauseated and fearful of the next siege.

Enough. I visit a doctor. She tells me an inconvenient truth: I haven’t had twenty-four cases of stomach flu in the last nine months.  It turns out the things I’ve been eating and drinking have trashed my tummy. If I want to feel better, if I want to get my head out of the toilet, I have to makeover my diet. Makeover!—my favorite word. But this makeover sounds more like serving a life sentence in Food Prison. No meat, no problem—but no cheese, no eggs, no coffee, no wine, no sugar? No fun.  Evidently  I have to do this if I want to stay out of Wagon #36.

I embark on a vegan diet and regain my health.  I feel so much better so quickly that it’s surprisingly simple to stick with the program. But I wouldn’t have gotten this far if I hadn’t gotten sick first.

Shopping List:

Costumes appropriate for dramatic dashes to the toilet (avoid long scarves and shawls)

Acid producing foods  (pretty much anything you enjoy)

A high-speed train on a bumpy track

As much coffee as you can consume, topped off with a wine chaser.

Rubber boots

2013: The Silver Lining Cookbook

I stick to my vegan plan. Maybe it’s because I feel great, maybe it’s my refusal to ever again bow down to the porcelain queen, maybe it’s my fear of ending up on a train to nowhere with an upset stomach. For whatever reason, I’m still on the program. Honestly, it doesn’t really feel like a diet anymore, which may be the whole point.

I learn how to cook the kind of food that keeps me healthy. I’m not weak or dazed; I don’t have bruises; I’m never nauseated. My weight remains stable, which I find slightly disconcerting, as if I’ve been robbed of one of modern life’s most amusing themes. My friends talk about their latest diet adventures and I want to jump into the conversation, but there’s nothing exciting to report about brown rice and broccoli.

I have friends who fast, friends who drink tree juice, and friends who think bread comes from the devil’s bakery. I have friends who go on the Paleo program, forgetting that cavemen not only ate meat, they also went out and walked for weeks trying to find an animal for dinner. I know people who have gone on raw food diets, people who swear by kale, and people who drink shakes that taste like raspberry Kaopectate. I have thin friends who think they’re fat, and fat friends who think they’re thin. It’s a crazy world.

Frankly, I feel a little left out. I’ve been living on vegetables, whole grains, and tofu for so long that I forget what it’s like to tackle a new diet program, the thrill (!) that comes with the promise of a complete body makeover in fourteen days. Food for thought: women who diet all the time are the ones most likely to be overweight. It took me decades to figure this out.

My accomplice in the Great Egg Diet, my sister, Randy, wouldn’t touch an egg these days if I held a squash scooper to her head. She owns and runs a restaurant called Randita’s Organic Vegan Cafe, a name that simultaneously intrigues people and scares the seitan out of them. She believes in tasty, organic, non-GMO food, humane treatment of animals, and a plant-based diet for a healthy lifestyle. Who can argue with that? Go, Randy. Her husband, Dale, plays the guitar at Randita’s on weekends. Live music, healthy food, not a processed smoked almond or martini in sight. Maybe I’ll get a gig there someday.

My husband follows a vegan diet. My daughter is a vegetarian. My son (King Kong) is a lanky young man who, given a choice, would go for the cruller and the shrimp-fried rice every time. Yes, I cook meat for him. I serve cheese and yogurt to my daughter. Sometimes my husband and I feel like short-order cooks, but we do our best to keep everyone happy.

I don’t believe in being militant about food. Basically, if I’m halfway sober and in my right mind, I’ve always eaten what I need, when I need it. Sometimes I need a martini, a cruller, or a block of cheese. Sometimes I don’t.

Right now, I need to be healthy.

As for those last five pounds—they’re not up for discussion anymore. I feel great; I’m a normal weight, and, at this point in my happy life, there’s nothing left to lose or gain.

Shopping List:

Vegetables

Fruits

Whole grains

Organic soy products

Wine, every once in awhile (just because)

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm, and Waltz of the Asparagus People.

Don’t Eat Pie: The Only Diet Tip You’ll Ever Need

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!”

“Louder, louder!”

“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.”

“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.

**

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm, and Waltz of the Asparagus People

Pie Photo