Pretty Pretty: Piano Girl vs. Trump

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This is Robin Goldsby’s essay from 2016. Watch for her new book, Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life, scheduled for publication on May 1, 2012 (Backbeat/Rowman Littlefield)

***

My hair is big. My dress is too tight. It’s 1986. I’m sitting at a Steinway on a Saturday night in Manhattan. The name of the cocktail lounge where I play is “Trumpet’s.” Donald J. Trump, with the sponsorship of his father, has partnered with the Hyatt Corporation to build the glass and granite behemoth currently hovering over Grand Central Station. I can’t imagine receiving a midtown Manhattan hotel as a college graduation present. I got a Peavey amp, a Shure SM57 microphone, and a gentle reminder to treat people with respect.

I straighten my spine, curve my fingers, and remember it doesn’t take talent or hard work to inherit money.

I play “Misty” or “All the Things You Are” or some random Elton John song. Who’s listening? No one. Tourists from one of the Dakotas sit in a dark velveteen corner sipping Diet Coke. I can hear them talking about the matinee performance of Arsenic and Old Lace. Tonight they’re headed to see Shirley Bassey on Broadway! I play “Goldfinger,” but they don’t notice. I see reflector stripes on their puffy white shoes.

Two other couples, most likely Connecticut commuters conducting illicit affairs, grope at each other with the desperation of teenagers trying to cop a last feel before their parents show up. They are probably headed home to monotonous marriages, mortgages, and back yards that need mowing.

Waitresses, shiny and skinny and sporting slinky black stain-repellent costumes designed to entice titans of industry, balance glasses of Chardonnay and bowls of smoked almonds on glittering silver trays. Smoked almonds make me a little queasy these days. I must have consumed about two million of them over the past year—the starving Piano Girl’s version of dinner.

I haven’t eaten at all today but I’m worried I look bloated. Maybe I have an almond allergy. No one has yet figured out how to incorporate stretch into velvet and my dress, unforgiving and stiff, pulls at my waist and puckers at my hips. My bra strap threatens to slip over my shoulder.

“Don’t take a break,” says the F&B manager, a short man with gelled hair who once told the lobby jazz trio they were not allowed to walk on any carpeted areas of the hotel. I am used to going along with his ridiculous directives, but I have been playing for an hour and I need a potty run.

“Why?” I say. “Not much happening here tonight, unless you’re waiting for the live sex show that’s about to start over at table thirteen. Those two need to get a room.”

“Mr. Trump is coming in,” says the F&B guy. “Stay at the piano and look pretty.”

I do not blink or take offense. Look pretty. Sure. I tuck in my bra strap, fluff my hair, and play. This is the eighties and this is what female employees do when Mr. Trump shows up. We primp and prepare and pray we pass the pretty-pretty test.

Mr. Trump arrives. He hovers for a minute by the bar and scopes out the room, his shifty eyes taking in all of us to make sure we are looking at him. I smile. Yes, Mr. Trump, we notice you. He ignores me. He is my employer. I need the money. I need the job. I play the piano and play the game and play along with his need to be the most important person in the room. This is part of the gig.

It occurs to me that the name of the lounge—TRUMPets—makes us seem like Donald’s version of Playboy Bunnies or Penthouse Pets. Some marketing genius came up with this. Nice.

Because it’s the eighties, I know a lot of guys who behave like Trump. He doesn’t strike me as anything special. He doesn’t really stand out at all. He’s just another obnoxious rich guy, a Professional Son with a huge ego, a Big Baby Diaper Pants who demands that I notice him and smile.

Deep down I know two things, not just about Donald, but about many of the men I work for during the eighties: If I look good they’ll hit on me; if I look plain or chubby or flat-chested or fat-assed, they’ll fire me. Screwed, either way. I grew up with feminist parents, attended a very fine women’s college, studied hard, worked my tail off, and I still have to put up with guys who judge me by the way I fill out my cocktail dress? I have become an expert in the art of flirty, diplomatic turndowns.

A few years later, long after I have left the Hyatt (I was replaced by a piano-playing waitress who was having an affair with the GM) and moved to another Manhattan hotel, I run into Trump again. I have just flown into Atlantic City on Trump’s private helicopter with Allan, my wealthy compulsive-gambler boyfriend. We dine in an upscale gourmet restaurant in one of the Trump casino-hotels. Allan, who has turned the peculiar shade of gray common to gamblers itching to get back to the blackjack table, seems uncomfortable when Donald comes to our table to greet us. Trump loves guys like Allan—they show up in his casino, and lose more money in a night than I earn in a year.

I am twenty-three years younger than Allan. Donald looks me over and gives Allan the “thumbs up” sign. We all laugh. It’s the eighties. I play the trophy bimbo-girlfriend role with style even though I know it’s not who I am. It’s shameful.

“You know, Mr. Trump, I used to work for you,” I say. “I played the piano at the Grand Hyatt.”

“And just look at you now,” he says, “Unbelievable. Really. Unbelievable. Tremendous. Wow, wow, wow.” He stares me up and down, as if working for him has catapulted me into the sparkling, sleazy world of inappropriate relationships and casino fine-dining. I have landed in the lopsided lap of luxury.

I eat my Caesar salad and hope I don’t look fat.

Really. Just look at me now. Wrong, wrong. It’s all just wrong. I know it, and yet here I am. It’s the eighties.

*****

Fast-forward a few decades. I recovered from the eighties by the skin of my laminated teeth. Some of my friends weren’t so lucky. AIDS, eating disorders, drug addiction—for many of us, it was a decade of catastrophes, even if we were smart enough to avoid shoulder pads and Spandex. Everyone claims they had fun in the eighties, but for many of us it was a nightmare cloaked in gold spangles and hype. We dealt with a lot of unethical stuff. Sometimes we even participated.

Things are different now. We have options. We have chosen natural fibers, approved of political correctness, and elected a President who has restored dignity to the office. We have the Marriage Equality Act and a First Lady fighting for the emotional and physical welfare of girls all over the world. We have honest conversations about body image and sexual harassment and holding men and women to the same standards.

We make progress in a way that is too slow for most of us but fast enough to give us hope.

And yet. Some of those eighties attitudes continue to stalk us. As we witnessed this past week with the release of the 2005 Trump trash-talk tape, guys like Donald, stuck in an imaginary locker-room, still blurt out horrible, sexist, predatory comments that degrade women and girls. I watch the young woman in the video meeting Trump. She’s wearing an eighties throw-back mini-dress and gold belt. There’s something in her eyes—a defeatist glint of “I know better” that I recognize from my past. It makes me sad.

Trump might be a model-dating billionaire, but his core is as common as fast food and bad television. He’s not special—he’s just another run of the mill guttersnipe. A creep. Freshly combed-over, Trump wants to throw us back into the clutches of the misogynist, homophobic eighties. Big Baby Diaper Pants, a newer, fake & bake spray-tanned version, stomps into the room and collects media attention the way he used to collect apprehensive stares from intimidated waitresses and piano players. Part of me thinks he doesn’t care one bit about winning the presidency—he just wants all of us to pay attention, even if he has to act like a baboon on coke to get us to notice.

Yes, Mr. Trump, we notice you.

We are not stuck in the eighties, a decade of mean-spirited, pseudo-glam nonsense. Electing Mr. Trump would set our tolerance clocks back thirty years. As much as I might enjoy inhabiting my wrinkle free, skinny-mini body, I never again want to feel controlled by men who do not treat me with respect. I didn’t like myself during the eighties, but I changed. I evolved, like so many of my friends. We trashed our tight dresses and low self-esteem. Despair might have propelled us into the nineties, but we entered the new millennium with a newfound sense of cautious optimism. It’s 2016. And we’re not going back.

Our daughters and granddaughters will profit from the progress we’ve made. They will refuse to be judged by the size of their breasts or the length of their legs.

They will know better, because we have known worse.

Pretty, pretty, no more. Shout it out. Want amplification? I’ve got a 1980 Peavey amp and a Shure microphone you can borrow. But I suspect the volume of our united voices will be loud enough.

Vote.

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

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

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Home for the Holidays

HandsLet’s break it down. H-O-M-E.

H could stand for happy or hideous, heartwarming or heartbreaking, heavenly or hellish. It could also stand for hopeless. Or hungry. Hungry for home.

O stands for ocean—that big salty stretch of water we cross so often. We glide over and back, shedding tears of sadness, anticipation, loneliness, or elation. Across the water we go—we can always head home again. But we don’t. Not really. Sometimes I imagine the ocean is made up entirely of expatriate tears.

M might stand for marriage, or motherhood, or menopause. If you’re like me—an American expat in Germany—you’ve lived through all three phases while uttering words like Unbefristigteaufenhaltserlaubnis, Kaiserschnitt or Wechseljahren (Green Card, C-section, menopause). Or maybe M stands for magic, which sometimes seems to be the only thing keeping us here—a happy-go-lucky chain-smoking Beamter at the Ausländeramt waves a magic wand over our heads, stamps our passports and gives us permission to stay. If only he would grant us permission to feel at home.

E could stand for enchanted—the feeling we get when we stand on the Dom Platz in Cologne and gaze at the cathedral’s silhouette against a clear blue autumn sky. It might also stand for Error, that sinking sensation we get when we realize our children have never eaten a popsicle, a Pop-tart, or a piece of candy corn.  They have never met a proper American Santa Claus. Are they missing anything? No. But we are.

Home. It’s a four-letter word jam-packed with enough emotional gunpowder to send even the most hardened expatriate running for safety. Quick! Duck and cover! Hide in the bushes (but watch out for the Brennessel). The subject of home pops up and the expert cynics among us—expat “lifers” with no hope of ever again feeling at home anywhere at all—dodge the topic with a joke, an anecdote, a shrug of our proud American shoulders. “We are foreigners no matter where we go go,” we say with a casual smile. “Even when we go home.”

What do we care? We’re sophisticated European residents now—citizens of the world! We’re following in the footsteps of expat giants like Bobby Fisher, Julia Child, and Ernest Hemingway. Like them, we’re a little drunk on our worldliness, a little melancholy about what we might be missing back at home. Pass the wine, please.

Expat Americans who have been here longer than five years don’t return to America and automatically feel at home. We’re concerned with the obvious—violence, politics, the religious right, lack of health insurance. Little things sometimes get to us even more: No sidewalks, bad grammar, tank-sized SUVs, tank-sized young people drinking tank-sized soft-drinks. On a holiday trip we find ourselves in rural Pennsylvania at a restaurant that proudly calls itself “Home of the Deep Fried Pickle.” Not as bad as deep fried butter on a stick—another local specialty—but still.

We listen to a CNN report featuring Howard Schulz, the founder of Starbucks. “Guns are not part of the Starbucks experience,” he says, trying to convince the American public he is not on the side of the National Rifle Association, even though, probably out of fear of being shot, he will continue to serve NRA members five-dollar cups of half-caf extra-froth low-fat no-fat crusty-caramel Christmas-cookie Venti latte-lite to go. We’re not sure what the American Starbucks experience is, exactly, but we’re glad guns are not part of it.

And we’re glad that we’re not part of it. And we’re grateful that we’re not sipping our cappuccinos next to a posse of rifle-toting rednecks. Or sending our children to schools that require metal detectors at the front door. With all that’s going on, how can America ever feel like home again?

We gripe about the USA. We find fault, we convince ourselves we’re the lucky ones—we got out just in time, we say.

But then it creeps up on us—the National Anthem Moment. We watch the summer Olympics on television with our children. Michael Phelps wins his eighty-fifth gold medal and ascends to the podium. The Star Spangled Banner blares and an official raises the American flag. Tears squirt from our eyes. Projectile crying. We feel patriotic about a place that’s no longer home. We are ashamed to feel so patriotic. And then we are ashamed to feel ashamed. We still love where we came from. And that makes us cry more.

We are here for a variety of reasons. We have been welcomed by assorted neighbors and work colleagues. We belong and yet we don’t. We struggle with language and cultural differences, but we muster our courage, gather our baskets, and collect experiences of a lifetime—photos and boarding passes and postcards we will glue to the fragile and transparent pages of our personal scrapbooks. We adjust. Constantly, we adjust. We take in the new, always the new—new words, new customs, new, new, new everything—until we realize we’ve crowded out the old. There is nothing to do, except add more pages.

My daughter, at the age of twelve, wrote an essay for the Clements Youth Expatriate Scholarship competition:

If home were a color, it would be blue like the ocean that stretches between where I live now and where I come from, a wide sparkling sea with patches of shallow and deep water, filled with mysteries and secrets. Or maybe home would look like the blue sky on my birthday in June. Every year in Germany I blow out the candles on my cake and imagine the same sky over my grandparents and cousins, many thousands of miles away from here. If home were really a color, it would be blue like my grandmother’s eyes, the same silvery blue she passed on to me. I sometimes close my own eyes and dream of when I’ll see her again.

If home were a song it would be a soft and warm melody, a familiar tune that always pops into my head. If the song played on the radio, I’d recognize it right away, and I’d sing along, knowing every word and note.

If home were an animal, it would be a bird, maybe an eagle soaring from one hilltop to the other, reminding me that home is a place where I’m free to be myself. Or maybe home is more like a dove, a symbol of peace. But sometimes, when I’m feeling lonely, home seems more to me like a bird without wings—maybe even a lonely penguin. Like the eagle and dove, I want to fly back and forth between places I love, but all I can do is waddle along, knowing that I can only visit everyone I love by using my imagination.

If home were something I could touch, it would be a scrap of velvet fabric with hidden thorns that I can never remove, no matter how often I try. Home sometimes seems like sandpaper. When I run my fingers over it, it feels scratchy, in a nice way. But when I do it too often, it starts to hurt.

If home were a nuisance (which it isn’t, at least not all the time), it would be the hiccoughs. No matter what I do, the idea of home keeps popping up and reminding me that there’s something different, in a good way, about the way I’m growing up.

To me, home is more than a place—it’s a feeling.

***

She won the contest.

I recently asked Julia—now seventeen—if she feels differently about the concept of home—now that she’s almost an adult.

“What makes you feel at home?” I asked.

“That’s easy,” she said. “Home is any place at all where you feel loved. And understood.”

That is this place for me. Here in this castle, when I play this piano, surrounded by friends and family, I feel understood, and occasionally loved.

Mister Rogers, in all his wisdom, used to say this: “Take a moment and think about the people who understand you—the people who have loved you into being the person you are right now.”

Some of them are here with me right now, some are far away, some might bump into me only in my dreams. All of them understand me, on one level or another. For better or worse, they have made me who I am.

We sing holiday songs, we paint pictures, we travel far, we journey wide, hoping to be understood, but trying just as hard to understand the new culture swirling around us. When we forget to listen—we’re lonely. But when we get it right—when we open our ears and eyes and hearts to the magic of our expatriate lifestyles—we’re content. Peaceful, even. We might be starving for home during the holidays, but we sit at a banquet table laden with thousands of delicacies.  When we stop trying to go back to an emotional place that’s no longer there, when we embrace the place that nourishes our souls, when we give ourselves permission to be loved and understood by those around us, a miracle happens.  Call it, if you like, a Christmas miracle. We notice that we’ve arrived. We realize, wir merken, that we are zu Hause. Home. At last.

Hallelujah.

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