Flying Home for Funerals

On the day I fly home for my brother’s memorial service, the boarding area at Frankfurt International Airport looks the set of a Broadway musical. Not a glitzy Hugh Jackman extravaganza with feathered chorus girls and a mirrored backdrop, but a bleak, throbbing production with a malfunctioning smoke machine, no singable melody, and an obtuse plot. In today’s cast of characters are a cheerless Balkan basketball team, several homeward-bound military families, backpacked German tourists, and assorted businesspeople. We’re all wearing some version of athletic-wear or pajamas, except for the businesspeople, who sport blazers over their yoga and jogging pants. 

Our flight is headed to Detroit, where most of us will shuffle or hustle through the terminal to snag flights to other cities. I’ll be connecting to Pittsburgh, home of the Steelers, the Pirates, the Penguins, and the Rawsthornes (my family).

A beer-bellied man in the departure lounge wears cargo shorts and a t-shirt that says “sex addict.” Like so much in the modern world, travel has become an exercise in maintaining one’s dignity—maybe respectable costuming would help. My eighty-eight-year-old mother tells me that passengers once dressed elegantly for air travel. A woman wore gloves and a hat that matched her travel ensemble; a man wore a suit (hard pants!) and real shoes. I do not pine for the days of stretch-less clothing and stiletto heels, but I reject the notion of dressing for a day trip to Sea World while on an international flight.

I spy a family of redheads: two parents with six children under the age of ten traveling with an enormous amount of carry-on luggage and a pair of those creepy, hairless cats. Animal lover that I am, I should call the kitties cute and leave it at that. Not cute. The kids, with their flaming halos and Bugs Bunny logo-shirts, are cute, but they might be trouble because all kids are trouble on long-haul flights. The parents look shell-shocked. Their combined airfare is at least 10K, and that’s without the cat tariff. Where are they going and why? A vacation? A travelling family band? I think not. Moving? 

Perhaps, like me, they are flying home for a funeral. The cats whine; the kids perch on top of suitcases stacked in a neat row on the lounge floor; the parents watch over the lot of them, resigned and slightly morose—an army of depressed Weasleys. 

My brother, Curtis Rawsthorne, was also a redhead of sorts; he had strawberry blond hair and blue eyes. He died in January at age fifty-nine. It is now June. We have scheduled the memorial six months after his death because my parents needed time to process their crushing grief. Every second person in our family had suffered a bout of Covid through the winter months. Plus Pittsburgh snowstorms, at their January finest had pummeled the not-so-Golden Triangle. Back in the heart of winter, June seemed like it would be a more fitting time to celebrate his life. Curtis was, in his youth, a boy of summer. Baseball, beaches, butterflies. 

And then there were two. With the death of our brother, my sister, Randy, and I are the leftover kids. Randy lives in Panama where she volunteers as a coral restoration scuba diver. After dealing with her own international flight trauma-drama, she will meet me at the memorial venue—a lovely country club where our brother worked in the kitchen—and the two of us, travel weary and bleary-eyed, will attempt to guide my parents through the aftermath of their tragedy. I’m not sure there’s enough love to help them through this, but we, the leftovers, shall try.

I hope I’m not sitting anywhere near those redheads. I’m not enthusiastic about a romper room rebellion halfway over the Atlantic. That sounds like a lack of compassion for the parents of small children, but I’ve paid my dues flying with my own unpredictable toddlers over the years. Who can ever forget the exploding diaper incident, or the time my eighteen-month-old son morphed into Robert DeNiro (think Cape Fear) on a flight to Frankfurt? I should have been banned from all European airports after that episode.  This time around, I’ve paid a goodly sum to sit in the Premium Peasant section of the plane—the area of economy seating reserved for those too thrifty to buy a seat in business class but upscale enough to want to pretend.

I’m an American living in Cologne, Germany. I’ve been overseas since 1994.  My inner circle of friends includes a dynamic, bad-ass group of international women. We came here for work and love, to escape political madness, to absorb European culture, to raise our families with an elevated quality of life. This works out beautifully, until someone we love grows ill and dies and we’re a million miles away.

Here’s what no one told us when we moved to a distant land clutching a big bag of youthful dreams for our future: One day, members of our original tribe—our oldest friends and family members—would begin to die, and we would be brought to our aging, creaking knees by the emotional distance we must travel to get back home. 

Expat Americans don’t have a franchise on travel woes, especially when it comes to bereavement flights. But it seems worse when flying home from overseas. Maybe it’s the ocean, the time change, or the jet lag—or maybe it’s the thud in our stomachs when a surly and suspicious American immigration officer looks at our US passports (and foreign residence permits) and says, insincerely, “Welcome home, ma’am.”  

I really hate that.  

Boarding begins. The long list of priority passengers makes me crazy. First class, business class, the Olympic-sounding gold-silver-bronze medallion travelers (good thing they’re all dressed in athletic clothing), the Sea-World bound self-proclaimed sex addict, families with small children and hairless cats, US military personnel (thank you for your service) and finally, the rest of us. The airline might as well call us the Great Unwashed—we hover in the lounge as an airline official attempts to convince us to gate-check our carry-on luggage, an action required because the medallion people and the redheads strolled onboard with a thousand small suitcases and large paper sacks. 

As I skulk into the long, gray, optimistically named “skyway”—the sloped tube that leads us onto the plane—I recall the time our toddler daughter threw herself on the floor and rolled her way to the plane’s door. We were running late, and my husband suggested she hurry. Those were the best old days, when our family boarded planes to reach a sun-kissed vacation, an overdue family reunion, or an exotic job opportunity. Days of wine and roses and diapers and new life and adventure. We rolled on dirty carpets without fear.

It seems like no one died back then. We concerned ourselves with births, education, making a living, creating art, seeing the world, drinking martinis, and dining in exotic European restaurants that featured olive trees, lavender, and gnarly French chefs who put bacon in the vegan salad. Our lives seemed glamorous and vital, peppered with nonchalance, as we bumbled our way through the world’s airports and train stations with too much luggage, a stroller, and (bonus points for difficulty) a double bass trunk the size of a Subzero refrigerator. We were glamorous and vital and delightfully confused. Now, in our mid-sixties, just when we have come to our senses and figured out how to live without unnecessary drama, our parents and siblings and friends are dying. WTF. 

My brother died before my parents, a tragedy that wasn’t in my midlife playbook. My friend Raquel says that being in your sixties is like being thirty-seven weeks pregnant—there’s no going back and anything can happen at any time. Anything can happen.

In the skyway, I stay six feet away from the person in front of me—leftover Covid regulations stick to me like gray hair on a black sweater—but the maskless man behind me breathes down my neck. It’s late morning and he smells like popcorn and stale beer. Maybe I should hit the ground and roll.

I don’t recall flying anywhere with my brother. We saw much of the USA from the bug-splattered windows of a wood-paneled Plymouth station wagon. We laughed at my dad’s jokes, squabbled over who got the window seats, and ate fast food hamburgers with extra pickles. My brother, the youngest in the family, was our golden boy. During one cross-country trip in 1973, Randy and I spent six weeks with him bouncing around (no seatbelts!) on the bench seat of that Plymouth. Like the redheads in the back of today’s plane, we never questioned our destination; we went along for the ride and counted on some fun along the way.

I fantasize about an airline that caters to those of us flying home for funerals. A flight of fancy, so to speak.

“Now boarding,” says Helen Mirren, our flight attendant and grief counselor for the day. “Now boarding all passengers who have recently lost family members or close friends. Everyone else, please step aside for the red-eyed Sorry People as we carry them onto the plane.” Helen would place us in beds with fluffy cashmere blankets and give us noise reduction headphones tuned to streaming platforms that play ocean sounds or Yo-Yo Ma interpretations of Bach Cello Suites or whatever music soothes us. 

“During our flight today, we offer fresh ginger tea along with light tranquilizers. Feel free to request your international comfort food of choice. This afternoon we suggest organic mac ‘n cheese and mashed potatoes, with adjustments made for dietary restrictions and allergies. Vanilla cake with just enough frosting will be served before landing.” 

Five-star luxury for fifty-star grief. None of this would help. Death is death is death. Eventually we lose everyone we care about. Or they lose us. It’s the economy-class tariff we pay for the first-class privilege of love.

Back to reality. I have an excellent seatmate—a handsome young man named Sebastian with a growing family and a thriving business. He’s physically fit and even smells good—no small thing for those of us who have occasionally been seated next to a sweating, man-spreading passenger with a stinking sack of greasy fast-food. Sebastian and I talk just enough—I tell him about my brother and he expresses his condolences—and then we return to our books and laptops. Premium Peasant class seems to be working out just fine.

My brother, who was both knowledgeable and curious about world politics, never visited me in Europe. Our lives and interests drifted further apart as decades passed—our shared history decanted into an annual restaurant visit arranged by my parents, who enjoyed seeing their three children together sharing a meal. 

During the flight I make my way to the rear of the plane to use the facilities, an act that requires confidence, hand sanitizer, and the ability to karate-kick the flush button with one leg while balancing on the other. Three of the redhead children writhe on the floor in front of the door to the toilet cabin. Making their own fun, they’re playing some sort of lizard game with toilet paper. They roll around on their bellies while growling “gotcha!” Someone is going to have to dip those kids in a vat of disinfectant upon arrival. The two cats, whose cages balance on the seats vacated by the squirming kids, are mewing rhythmically—a C-sharp feline metronomic wail. The parents, wearing sleep masks and earplugs, are comatose, and who can blame them?

I step over the squirming kids and return to the Premium Peasant section of the plane. I have organized the memorial program for my brother, a task that’s within my skill set, although not one that I’ve ever attempted with this much oversized baggage. I go over my eulogy and song list (I’ll be playing the piano as well as speaking) and glance again at the rundown for the thirty-minute program. It makes me sad—my brother’s life condensed to a thirty-minute program of storybook memories. Just enough frosting.

Fly the friendly skies. I look out the window. The buoyant cloud fluff and cottony wisps of light give the impression of peace, but the interior of the plane is far from tranquil. We are 300 humans—or souls as the airline industry likes to call us—slingshot from one continent to another, as some of us attempt to recapture and honor the lives we’ve left behind. I feel temporarily caged by my glorious, golden freedom to choose where I live and wounded by love, patriotism, and melancholy.

Distance and death do not pair well with grief and guilt. Expat grief is unique; we’re forced to face loss with an extra dose of grit to get where we need to go as quickly as we can. When someone we love dies, we crave the permanence of our roots, the comfort of shared history.

My European friends are my greatest sources of compassion and kindness, but they’ve never heard the distinctly American crack of my brother’s baseball bat at a Pittsburgh field on a sweltering August day, or experienced the unique way my brother, sister, and I laughed, danced, and squabbled our way through a popsicle-filled, pie-throwing, pool-splashing carefree Pittsburgh childhood during a decade when such a childhood was still possible.

Death is a cruel maestro. My brother’s death means I’ve lost another piece of my personal history to the Orchestra Invisible, my not-so-secret symphony of loved ones who call to me, one of the leftover children, from the mysterious place where songs are born.

This is not my first transatlantic funeral trip, and it won’t be my last. I’m still waiting for comfort food when the flight crew tells us to prepare for landing. I hope the redhead kids, the hairless cats, and the parents—especially the parents—are securely buckled in their seats. Arrivals, like departures, can be bumpy. The redhead family is still too young to know it, but anything can happen.

***

In loving memory of Goldsby’s brother, Curtis Rawsthorne.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist and popular solo piano streaming artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People;  Rhythm: A Novel and Manhattan Road Trip.

New from Backbeat Books: Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life

King of Kings

Lovely to see so many members of the press corps here today. I know how busy you are covering Omicron, Ghislaine, and Harry and Meghan’s Christmas plans. Allow me to introduce myself: I am the great Plinka Kochovitch, award-winning director of such spectacles as Fauci: The Musical and the current Metropolitan production of the woodland animal opera Thistles and Whistles. As director of this year’s Nativity Scene on the White House Lawn I’ve faced my greatest casting challenge to date. 

We treasure your audition reels and want to assure you we took everyone’s submissions seriously. It wasn’t easy to plod through endless footage (with terrible lighting and garbled audio) of those of you interested in playing Baby Jesus, but we’re glad we did, even though most of you look ridiculous in swaddled rags. Who knew that by accepting candidates of all faiths, races, genders, and questionable values we’d receive reels from so many diverse corners of the world? Who knew? I knew, because I am the great Plinka Kochovitch and multi-culti controversial casting is my bag, swaddles be damned.

I automatically eliminated unsavory deposed dictators and convicted felons from my short list of candidates, because even though Baby Doc Duvalier and Martha Stewart might be perfect for Dancing with the Stars, I bristle at the idea of seeing them as Mary and Joseph. We will, however, be calling Martha for on set catering. It gets prettying frigging cold on the White House lawn and we hear her mulled wine recipe with essence of swaddle and finely ground reindeer antlers might be just the thing to keep our performers warm. Baby Doc is welcome to contribute to our Patreon page—we still have a few associate producer slots open. Baby, if you’re listening, have your thugs call my thugs.

I’m also sorry to say that cartoonish political figures have been struck from our final casting. In spite of rumors that Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene might be playing the lead roles of M&J, I can confidently say that the parts have been assigned to applicants with a little more gravitas. But should I eliminate all right wing extremists and guttersnipes from the hottest holy show in town? No! To show political fairness and balance in my casting, both Marge and Matt, along with Steve Bannon and the Kushners, are being considered for smaller roles as stable animals, although PETA has filed a protest, so no guarantees—we’ll need to see how they look in sheep, ass, and camel costumes.

Mitch McConnell, who auditioned for the role of Baby Jesus, has instead been assigned the part of the Innkeeper, where he’ll get to shout “No room at the inn!” as often as he desires. Casting Mitch as the Innkeeper is one of my most Plinka-inspired decisions. This is why I get the big bucks. His understudy? Joe Manchin, of course!

I know this won’t settle well with the Tiger King crowd, but I’ve decided not to cast Carole F***ing Baskin as Mary. In spite of her long, brittle hair, she looks super cute in a floral crown. She also volunteered to bring her own collection of tigers for the stable tableau. Instant wow effect! But I, the great Plinka, must listen to my instincts and protect my cast from mauling. Also, Carole is a bit long in the tooth to play a virgin, plus our catering budget does not include funding for horse meat. Those big cats, I’m told, can get very hungry.

Mary, I have decided, will be played by the inspirational, age-appropriate, and sacrifice-savvy Greta Thunberg. That’s if we can get her here on time—energy neutral boats from Sweden at this time of year tend to take awhile and there’s that pesky frostbite issue to consider. Still it’s worth a try.

Joseph will be played by Nancy Pelosi, because, frankly, I need someone responsible in this role and she’s the most adult person I know. 

The Three Wise (Wo)Men will be played by Oprah, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Angela Merkel. They will bear gifts of compassion, intelligence, and homemade Apfelkuchen. Liz Cheney will understudy all three roles.

The parts of the Shepherds (love the hooks) go to the Kardashians, because they know how to rock bulky shepherd clothing in shitty earth tones. It’s a shame to cover those hair extensions with shepherd hats but I’m thinking French braids? Note to costumer: I’m also hoping for long slits in the robes and padded ass inserts so one of them can balance a bottle of mead on her butt. The shepherds’ hooks can be used to drag Mitch off set if he gets carried away with his Innkeeper role.

We had almost as many applicants for angels as we did for Baby Jesus. The obvious choice, for me, was to delegate this fun but daunting task to Ru Paul. If anyone can work a sequined angel costume while suspended midair over a drab stable, it’s a drag queen. Note to Rue: I’m so hoping Aquaria and Kim Chi are available. Costumer: Let’s go with a rainbow theme for the angels this year. I’m so sick of the all-white look.

And now the big news! The finalists for Baby Jesus: Gaga, Malala, and Billy Porter. It’s unusual for me, the great Plinka, to be indecisive, but while stewing over this critical decision I had an epiphany that made my indecisiveness worthwhile. The role of Baby Jesus will be played by all of you. Inside the manger, placed at an appropriate angle, will be a large mirror. As you stroll past our beautifully staged nativity scene, listening to the squawks of restless stable animals and braying Mitch, shielding your eyes from the angelic rainbow strobe lights, and brushing Kardashian shepherd glitter from the shoulders of your best LL Bean parka, you’ll gaze into the mirrored manger and see—drumroll please— yourself. Jesus would have loved this, I think. You are him; you are her; you are them. King of kings. Lord of lords. Now get out there, darling, create positive change, and alter the course of humanity. No pressure. Baby steps count. Hallelujah.

Billy, Malala, and Gaga have agreed to join forces and play the Star of Wonder, shedding a brilliant, golden glow on all of you. Trust me, the great Plinka, you’ll need good lighting when you see yourself in that mirror.

Questions? 

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist and popular solo piano streaming artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel and Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. New from Backbeat Books: Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life

Air



this hopeful breath may be our last,
aghast, inhale the asphalt sky,
we breathe the ashes of our past.
 
we seek for now an outstretched fist,
persist, resist, we reason why,
this hopeful breath may be our last.
 
as concrete burns through thickened skin,
the din of silence will not lie,
we breathe the ashes of our past.
 
to suffer now and curse the pain,
the stain that spreads from dread, we cry
this hopeful breath may be our last.
 
revenge the muted dead and rage,
assuage our hate before we die,
we breathe the ashes of our past.
 
behold the blades of shredded light,
as night drops in to say goodbye,
this hopeful breath may be our last,
we breathe the ashes of our past.

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 musicians.

Married to the Bass

Excerpt from Piano Girl: A Memoir
Courtesy of Backbeat Books
©2006 Robin Meloy Goldsby

photo by Julia Goldsby

Okay, Ladies, listen up. Bass players make great husbands. There is no scientific data to support my claim. But having worked my way through the rhythm section, the technicians, and a handful of brass, reed, and string players, I’m a qualified judge.

First, consider this. A man who plays an upright bass is strong. He lugs the instrument around, carries it up steps, slides it in and out of cars, and maneuvers it through large crowds of people. If you marry a bass player you’ll be getting a physically fit husband. Okay, there is the occasional back problem. This crops up two or three times a year—usually when you want him to move your grandmother’s walnut armoire or need him to stand on a ladder and drill a hole in the ceiling. But you can cope with such minor inconveniences by calling a muscular clarinet player who is handy with a power drill. Good luck finding one. Here’s the thing: When your bass player is pain-free, he’s as strong as a bull. He has to be in order to make the gig. And he might even throw you over his shoulder and carry you over the threshold every so often, just because he can.

Next, ponder the shape of the upright bass. It’s shaped like a woman. A bass player knows about bumps and curves—he even likes them. He has dedicated his life to coaxing beautiful music out of voluptuous contours. He’ll do the same for you. Just don’t marry a stick-bass player, unless you look like Kate Moss or intend to spend the rest of your life eating lettuce.

Examine the bass player’s hands, especially when he’s playing a particularly fast passage. Now imagine what those fingers can do to you. Enough said.

A great bassist is an ensemble player, a team member who executes, with confidence, a vital role in any band with the strength of his groove, the steadiness of his rhythm, and the imaginative logic of his harmonic lines. This doesn’t just apply to the bassist’s music. It also applies to his outlook on life. A bass-player husband will be loyal, true, and interesting, and will help you emerge from life’s challenges looking and sounding better than you ever imagined. If you’re in a bad mood, don’t worry. He’ll change keys. On the other hand, if you marry a pianist, he’ll try and arrange everything and then tell you what your disposition should be. If you marry a guitarist, he’ll try to get ahead of you by analyzing your temperament in double-time. If you marry a drummer, it won’t matter what kind of mood you’re in because he’ll just forge ahead with his own thing. A bass player follows along, supports you, and makes you think that everything is okay, even when the world is crashing down around you.

There are some minor drawbacks. You need to have a house with empty corners, especially if your husband owns more than one upright bass. I know, you have that newly reupholstered Louis XV chair that would look fabulous in the corner by the window. Forget it—that’s where the bass has to go. You can come to terms with these trivial decorating disappointments by reflecting on the sculpture-like quality of the instrument. Even when it’s silent, it’s a work of art.

If you have children—and you will because bass players make great fathers—your most frequently uttered phrase will be “WATCH THE BASS!” You will learn how to interject this phrase into every conversation you have with your children. For instance: “Hello, sweetie, watch the bass, did you have a nice day at kindergarten? We’re having rice and broccoli for lunch, watch the bass, do you want milk or water to drink?”

You will be doomed to a life of station wagons, minivans, and SUVs. You might harbor a secret fantasy of zooming around town in a Mazda MX5 convertible, but this will never happen unless you go through a big messy divorce, give your bass-player husband custody of the children, and marry a violinist, which would be no fun at all. Better to accept the hatchback as an integral part of your existence and get on with it.

Any trip you make with your family and the bass will be a pageant that requires detailed organization and nerves of steel. In addition to your two children (one of whom probably wants to be a drummer—heaven help you), you will commence your journey with suitcases, bass, bass trunk, backpacks, amp, car seats, strollers, and diaper bag. Your husband, weighted down with an enormous backpack and a bass trunk the size of a Sub-Zero refrigerator, will leave you to deal with everything else. As you try to walk inconspicuously through the airport terminal, people will point and stare.

First Spectator: “They look the Slovenian Traveling Circus!”

Second Spectator: “Hey buddy, you should have played the flute!”

Things like that.

You will learn how to say ha, ha, ha, stick your nose in the air, and pretend that you are traveling with a big star, which of course he is, to you.

Your bass-player husband will know the hip chord changes to just about every song ever written in the history of music. This is a good thing. Just don’t ask him to sing the melody. He might be able to play the melody, but he won’t sing it—he’ll sing the bass line. And, if you happen to play the piano, as I do, don’t expect him to just sit there silently and appreciate what you are playing without making a few suggestions for better changes and voicings. He’ll never give up on trying to improve your playing. But that’s why you married him in the first place. He accepts what you do, but he pushes you to do it better.

If you marry the bass player, you marry the bass. Buy one, get one free. Your husband will be passionate about his music, which will grant you the freedom to be passionate about the things you do. You might not worship the bass as much as he does, but you’ll love the bass player more every day.

***

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.

 Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.

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.

Bottoms Up: Three Conversations about Aging

I’ve been thinking a lot about aging and the music business, mainly because I’m aging and I’m in the music business. A few weeks ago, I had three age-related conversations on the same day.  Meet Bob, Fred, and Jörg Achim, three of my musical heroes.

Conversation #1: Bob

“I’m so old Stephen Foster was my first duo partner.”

This is one of Bob’s lines—a joke he pulls out of his trap case whenever the topic of old age comes up. He used to tell this joke about other musicians. Now, approaching his eighty-fifth birthday, he tells it about himself.

“I’m so old my wife says I make the same sounds as the the coffee maker.”

“Did you write that joke?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I am a thief of bad gags.”

Bob is my father and he’s still playing gigs. He’s the proud owner of two drum sets (a faded greenish-blue Premier and a silver sparkle Ludwig), two new hips (also silver sparkle), a collection of ancient Zildjian cymbals, and a vast repertoire of funny stories.  Today he has received a call from a perky young woman (let’s call her Becky) who wants to book him—a year in advance—for a gig in February 2020. The gig is at a fancy-pants senior residence, the kind of venue where Bob’s band, a sophisticated mix of great music and comedy, tends to be a big hit.

“I told Becky the date will be fine,” Bob tells me. “And then she wants to know if I have video. Video? What the hell does she want video for?”

“Well,” I say, “that’s how people book bands these days.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. But no way am I making a video at my age. I told Becky, ‘look, I’m almost eighty-five; I’m really good at what I do even though I’m not exactly sure what it is. I have no video. No video!’ I asked her where she got my name and she said that the Saint Barnabus senior center told her we were the absolutely the best band in the world for the gig. And I said, ‘you still need video after that recommendation?’ ”

“And?”

“Get this: She wanted to know if it was ‘safe’ to book me that far in advance.”

“Because you’re almost eighty-five.”

“Because I’m almost eighty-five.”

“Dad, please don’t tell me you hit her with the Stephen Foster joke.”

“Of course I did. But she didn’t laugh—probably never heard of Stephen Foster—so I kept going. ‘Becky,’ I said, ‘I’m so old I don’t even buy green bananas. I’m so old my social security number is thirteen.  I’m so old John Philip Sousa was my roommate at music school.  I need 10 strokes to play a 5 stroke roll. It takes me a half hour to play “The Minute Waltz.” I’m so old I was in the house band at Ford’s Theater.  One of my students was the drummer boy in Pickett’s charge. I’m so old I’ve seen Halley’s comet three times.’ ”

“Stop!” I say.

“Funny stuff, right? But Becky didn’t laugh. Not once. Can you imagine? Event planners these days have no sense of humor. But I kept going—I said  ‘at my age everything is either dried up or it leaks . . .’  You know me. I’ve got a million old age jokes.”

“So what happened?”

“I think I wore her down. She gave me the gig. Now all I have to do is stay alive. Hey, did you know my Slingerland high-hat stand lasted longer than my hips?”

Conversation #2: Fred (and Bud)

photo by P. Marion

“Did I ever tell you about the whiskey and the beet juice? It was horrible,” says Fred (maybe not his real name), describing an evening—fifteen years ago—that started out as a good-natured whiskey tasting but turned into a woozy-doozy, tilt-a-whirl, fall-down-in-a-dead-faint night. Fred, a trombone player, and his buddy, Bud, also a trombone player, are now middle-aged. At the time of the whiskey incident, they were bandmates, sitting side by side in the same trombone section.

Fred and I huddle in a corner at a crowded post-concert reception for musicians and (way too many) friends. Because I often write goofy, true stories about musicians and gigs gone wrong, I hear many tales of youthful abandon, some of them involving alcohol. But the one about the whiskey and the beet juice grabs my attention. I’m intrigued, because I knew the story will not end well. I have always been a sucker for trombone humor and boyish folly.

Please note: Fred and Bud currently lead role-model lives as successful, working musicians. They are smart, funny, disciplined trombonists with mind-blowing talent. The following incident was a youthful misstep on a path to respectability. We’ve all been there. Sort of.

“It was Christmas time,” says Fred. “Bud and I left rehearsal and decided to do a little seasonal whiskey tasting. Just a little. Harmless. And fun. But one thing led to the next and before we knew it, we were really, really drunk. Tanked.”

“Yes,” I say. “Whiskey will do that.”

“I crashed at Bud’s house so I could walk to the gig the next morning. We were scheduled to record that day. I woke up feeling terrible, just terrible, like I was gonna die. The mother of all hangovers. And Bud convinced me to drink some freshly-pressed beet juice—he said it was the world’s best hangover remedy.”

“Beet juice? Was he crazy? So what happened? Did it help?”

“I guzzled half a liter of the damn beet juice. Bud and I arrived at the studio. I was feeling worse and worse. And the first tune the conductor called was ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ which, sadly, featured me.”

“Solo?”

“Solo.”

“Yuletide cheer.”

“All that shit.”

“Like your job isn’t hard enough without a hangover.”

“I was dying. I knew I was gonna throw up, but I felt like I had to get through the damn piece, since, you know, we were recording.”

“Did you make it?”

“I got halfway through the solo and the beet juice started coming up, but I kept playing.”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yeah. Right in the middle of the bridge—right in the faithful friends gather near to us part—it started shooting out the sides of my mouth. Looked like I was hemorrhaging or something. I was using a Humes & Berg Velvetone mute—we call it a bucket mute. It’s nice and white and fluffy on the inside. But not that day—the beet juice got all over the mute. So much for white and fluffy.”

“Did anyone notice?”

“Bud noticed. He could hardly play ’cause he was laughing his ass off. But the other musicians were all dealing with their own issues. Anyway, when the tune was over, I raced to the men’s room and hurled the beet juice all over the floor. Looked like someone had been murdered in there.”

“Bathtub scene in Scarface?”

“Worse.”

“Why have I never heard this story?” Fred and I have been friends forever.

“I forced myself to forget about it. But we’ve had a trombone sub this week. New kid on the block. Young. And the kid looked at my bucket mute and seemed confused by the weird color. I realized that—all these years later—the white and fluffy part still has beet juice stains. So I told him the story.”

“Sort of like a warning?“ I ask.

“No. Warnings won’t help. He’s young. He’ll make his own stupid mistakes. He’ll stain his own bucket.”

“Part of growing up,” I say. “Thank God those days are behind us.”

“Yeah,” says Fred. “Something like that.”

Conversation #3: Jörg Achim

“That was a masterful concert,” I say to the conductor of tonight’s program, Jörg Achim Keller. “You share such a cool history with the musicians in this band—you really know how to write for them.”

After my harrowing talk with Fred, I have shuffled my way to the other side of the cocktail party, a large glass of sparkling water in my hand, thinking about my own long-ago drunken episodes. At least I never threw up into my instrument. Jeez. Forget whiskey. Fred has absolutely ruined freshly-pressed beet juice for me.

So. Jörg Achim and I talk briefly about his connection to several of the musicians in tonight’s ensemble. “You really know your musicians. Not just musically, but personally. That kind of history is like gold,” I say.

Jörg Achim asks me about my job as a cocktail lounge musician. “How often do you play at the hotel?”

“Three days a week, sometimes more. Last year I played close to two hundred gigs.”

“That’s a lot of solo piano.”

At this point another person slides into the conversation.

“Don’t you get lonely sitting at the piano by yourself?” she says, making a sad face. Ah, the well-meaning interloper.

“No! It’s the best job in the world.” I often find myself defending my profession as a background musician. “I play an excellent Steinway, I play the music I want to hear, the audience is constantly changing, I can work on new material or play my older compositions.  I’ve been doing this for forty years. Why should I be lonely?”

“Forty years?” She looks appalled, as if I’ve told her I’ve spent forty years digging ditches or slinging hash.

“Yes. Forty years. More actually. I had my first gig when I was eighteen.” I almost say I’m so old I was the lounge pianist on the Mayflower, but I stop myself.

“That’s a long time. So, do you practice on the job?” she asks.

“No!” I say.

Jörg Achim jumps in: “Hey, there’s a lot of value to playing a background music job for that long. For one thing, the bottom comes up.”

“Say that again, please.”  I think I understand what he’s saying, but I’m not sure.

“Yeah—when you’re playing so often in front of people, your worst moments get less noticeable. The bottom comes up, so to speak. In my opinion, that’s the best way to assess someone’s playing—not by their flashes of genius, but by their worst moments. Even a complete amateur can have sparks of brilliance. But how low is their bottom? Pretty low, usually. With your line of work—decades of playing for an audience in a no-pressure situation, the bottom keeps getting higher and higher.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I like that. Bottoms up. One of the benefits of aging.”

***

Later tonight, after I’m home and trying to stitch together the tatters of the day, I wonder if Jörg Achim’s bottoms up theory might not apply to life in general. We all make mistakes as adults, but as we mature, we learn to tap-dance around actions that have made us look, sound, or feel bad in the not-so-distant past. Like whiskey and beet juice, for instance.

I’m over sixty and lead a pretty respectable life, which is saying something considering my spotty history as a Chopin-playing stripper and teen-scream horror-queen film star (whose chopped-off head ends up in a toilet). My bottom has continued to rise, ever so slightly, over the course of six decades. I’ve stopped taking on tasks that confound me or cause grief. I’ve climbed out of professional and private trenches, scraped the dirt out from underneath my Piano Girl fingernails, and kept moving forward, eyes scanning the pavement (and the piano) for patches of treachery. Sometimes I miss the extreme risk-taking of my youth, but these days I love feeling safe, cradled in contentment’s soft underbelly, venturing out now and then to explore new, unthreatening territory. My bad, artistically and personally, has gotten pretty good. Bottoms up.

Maybe we don’t need 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery—maybe we need 10,000 hours to raise the bottom. Or maybe it’s the same thing. However you look at it, you can’t get there without growing older.

I wonder what Stephen Foster or John Philip Sousa would say on this topic—I’ll have to get Bob to ask them. They often get together for a jam session. Then they go fishing.

Whiskey for everyone. Just a little.

***

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: I spent much of my summer holiday sorting through recordings and I’ve come up with 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. Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

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Limelight

Give Me the Night.

In 1982 Dale Cinski was twelve-years old and obsessed with the guitar. He idolized George Benson and tried to imitate his style by listening to and playing along with George’s records. With the help of his cousin, drummer Spider Rondinelli, Dale copped tickets to a Benson concert at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh. He wrangled his way backstage and told George how much he loved playing the Ibanez GB-10 (Benson’s signature guitar). Two years later, Dale–exhibiting an unusual amount of pluck for a teen guitarist—showed up at George’s hotel and played a song called “Being With You” from Benson’s In Your Eyes album.

“Man,” said George to Dale, “You’ve got some chops.”

Boom. George Benson became Dale Cinski’s mentor.

Uncle George is now seventy-five. Dale is forty-eight. They visit each other at George’s home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, hang out whenever George is in Pittsburgh, and stay in touch on the phone. The two of them have played a gazillion notes over the last three decades—George in stadiums and the world’s best concert halls, Dale in decidedly more modest venues.

Dale—married to my sister, Badass Randy—is a welcome addition to our family of rhythm section players. John (my husband), Randy, Dale, and I arrived in Paris on Sunday to attend George’s concert, cancelled at the last minute due to George’s gorge irritée (sore throat). Oh, the perils and responsibilities of fame. Like most musicians, if I get sick, I either soldier through the gig or call a sub and lose a few hundred bucks. No one throws a fit. When George cancels, he disappoints throngs of fans, loses tens of thousands of dollars, and causes his entire touring company to fall into panic mode. That’s a lot of pressure for one aging guitar player.

The older I get, the more I respect the tenacity required to balance prominence with virtuosity. George Benson is clearly an artist dedicated to the craft of making music, but he’s also a stalwart celebrity, keen on maintaining his judiciously-groomed notoriety.  George has been walking the celebrity tightrope for decades and, aside from the current gorge irritée, has remained ready, steady, and in the game. I can’t wait to meet him.

I truly admire musicians—famous or not—with careers that span decades. As my dad likes to point out: “It’s easy to have a hit; it’s much more difficult to have a career.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with a hit.

We make our own fun in Paris while we wait for George’s voice to return. We know we won’t get to hear a concert, but at least—thanks to Dale—we’ll get to hang out with him. Julia, my photographer daughter, joins us so she can spend more time with Randy and Dale. The five of us visit the steamy grounds of the Louvre, wander through the scorched Jardin des Tuileries, gaze at the Monet water lily panels at Musée de l’Orangerie, and spend two hundred Euros on falafel at an upscale Lebanese restaurant that caters to the rare, starving vegan stumbling through city lanes in search of sustenance. To escape the extreme heat, we book a Canal Saint-Martin river rat cruise and find ourselves—after passing through a dozen antiquated but functional locks—floating underneath city streets with shards of daylight cutting through circular overhead windows. It’s the coolest I’ve been in a month and despite the gloom, doom, and musty-dusty-rusty smell of it all, I’m happy.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Two days after the missed concert, George calls Dale and schedules a cocktail-party meet and greet for all of us. Julia opts out so she can go search for rumored Banksy paintings recently sighted on Paris streets. We jump in an Uber and arrive at the hotel where the band is staying. George’s voice has returned. He’s thrilled to see Dale again, and happy to talk to all of us about music and life; the gig he played with John and Lionel Hampton at Carnegie Hall back in the eighties; the Crawford Grill and his Pittsburgh roots; about his dear mother, a nurse, who once cared for my father in a Pittsburgh hospital; about the music business in Germany.

After a low-key, but inspirational hour with him we’re joined by a couple of George’s rhythm section players, most notably bassist Stanley Banks, who has held down the low end of Benson’s sound for decades. Stanley has recently lost over 100 pounds by eating raw vegan food, so our conversation veers back and forth between bass lines and recipes for almond milk smoothies.

 

Stanley Banks and John Goldsby

As the evening stretches out, two teenage gypsy-guitar players show up to play for George, each of them out Django-ing the other. George cheers them on, offers a few tips, and suggests alternate changes to the tune. Then George plays for the kids. What a thing—a legendary guitarist giving a master class in a Paris bar.

“This is what he does,” Dale says to me. “He helps young musicians. These kids are like me, thirty five years ago. They’re never going to forget this night.”

I turn to George and express my admiration and he says: “Hey baby, these kids are the future of music. It’s my duty to guide them.”

Go, George.

The hotel lounge is now full of fans and friends, clustered around Uncle George and hanging on every note. It’s a scene. At my request (and with Stanley’s urging), he plays his version of “People,” even though other guests in the bar—unaware there’s a superstar playing a private concert for anyone who wants to listen—complain that they can’t hear the television broadcast of the World Cup soccer match.

“The music is too loud!” says one of them.

“You’re blocking the television!” says another.

George graciously picks up the bar tab and we go to dinner with his entourage, including the Benson management team, the Gypsy-guitar brothers, a nightclub promoter, and two lovely—but slightly desperate—young women who appear to be from an escort agency. We dine at a Japanese places (close to the Avenue des Champs-Élysées) where everyone sits around a grill and a ninja chef throws meat and fish in the air before chopping it with the French version of the Ginsu knife.

After dinner, the promoter invites us to a trendy nightclub around the corner. It’s one of those velvet rope places with beautiful, thin, Europeans in fifty shades of anthracite. They slouch, lurk, and look bored, chic, and perfect. We, on the other hand, are a mixed bag of fashion do-s and don’t-s. George, our designated celebrity, looks sleek in his cobalt-blue silk jacket and gold medallion, and his team fits right in with their hip gangsta-rapper outfits (one of them has a pirate scarf on his head). As one might expect, the escort girls are decked out in short skirts and high heels. The Gypsy-guitar teenagers look good because they are sixteen, wearing black, and have faces that resemble freshly peeled eggs.  But the chic quotient goes downhill fast when it comes to the rest of us.  Randy and I, in our misguided attempt to make a Boho fashion statement, resemble Great Aunt Edna and her spinster sister Gertie, headed to a hoe-down. Dale’s shirt is floral and foppish and suits him in a Jimmy Buffet meets Sting kind of way. John, in what may be the French fashion faux-pas of the decade, is wearing a Lands End golf shirt and chinos.

Because we are with George, the buff bouncer lifts the velvet rope and lets us cross the threshold. I can’t help but notice that George’s musicians have not joined us for this part of the evening’s festivities. Maybe that’s part of being an A-list sideman. You get to eat a room-service club sandwich and go to bed at a respectable hour.

“I’m trying to channel Rihanna but it’s not working,” I say, worrying whether or not I have sake stains on my dress. “I thought tonight would be a simple bar hang, not a trip to Paris’s most exclusive nightclub.”

“This is so wrong,” says John. “Look at me. I haven’t even mastered the French tuck. I am the middle-aged dad poster guy.”

“Not true, brother,” says Dale. “At this time next week all of Paris will be wearing those Lands End golf shirts. You’ll start a trend. Bass player chic.”

“Plus,” says Randy. “You have fabulous hair.”

“Karl Lagerfeld would cringe,” I say.

“Who’s he?” says John.

With the judgmental eyes of the Paris fashion police upon us, we follow the club promoter and the escort girls through the heavy padded doors, down a padded staircase and into a padded private VIP area best described as a padded velvet womb. It’s the second time today I’ve found myself underneath Paris—once on water, this time on shaky ground.

The club throbs with techno music, the kind of stuff most musicians hate, but here we are, in the VIP section, with strapping male-waiters waving sparklers and pouring huge tumblers of champagne from magnums of Dom Perignon. I am suddenly extremely tired. I should have stayed back at the hotel with Stanley. He’s probably eating a chopped salad and watching CNN. The blaring music rattles my teeth. We have to shout in each other’s ears.

“More bass in the place!” yells John.

“I am thirty years too old and thirty pounds too heavy for this joint,” I say.

“Right!” says John. I like to think he can’t hear me. “This is the kind of place I have spent my life avoiding,” he shouts.

The escort girls start to dance for us. Enough. I join them. I might be sixty and dressed like I stepped out of a 1996 Talbot’s catalog, but I can jiggle my trunk junk with the best of them, especially after consuming a bucket of sake and three-hundred bucks worth of champagne. As my 102-year-old Piano-Girl friend Emily Remington recently said: “I might be old, but I’m not cold.” Screw the sunset and wisdom of age and the Golden Girls and dignity and all that—I’m dancing. The walls are padded and so am I. Randy gets up and joins me. We do the hoochie-koochie dance with our two Parisian escorts. Hoe-down, throw down. John makes a video and sends it to Julia, who, in a classic case of opposite world, is back at the apartment editing photos of French art while her mother is clubbing.

“WTF?” she texts back.

Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack. In spite of the thumping music, the dancing girls, the mini-fireworks, and the champagne, George—having completed his celebrity duties for the evening—takes a nap. It’s not easy being a star. Especially if all you really want to do is play the blues.

Dale looks at George and says to me: “I really love this guy. He means the world to me.”

“Does this happen all the time?” I ask Dale. “The party thing? I mean, why doesn’t George just say no to all this stuff?”

“He can’t,” Dale says. “It’s part of who he is. Every night is a scene—doesn’t matter if it’s Pittsburgh, Paradise Valley or Paris. I don’t know how he holds it together, but he does.”

Dale nudges George awake, embraces him, and says goodbye. Our booty-shake decelerates to a shuffle and we exit the club, stage left. We’ve seen three sides of George tonight: the caring, consummate artist, the educator, and the indomitable celebrity determined to stay in the public eye. I don’t envy his balancing act. Limelight is an unflattering color for most of us. But it suits Mr. Benson.

Two in the morning. I haven’t been out this late since my New York days. I’ve grown soft around the middle, and the hard-lipped edge of the clammy July night rubs me where it hurts.

We return to Cologne the next day. George, made of smoke, mirrors, and a hefty dose of artistic drive and septuagenarian grit, recovers completely and—lifted by the loyalty of his adoring fans and his passion for music—performs his next concert within a week.

*****

Dale Cinski’s music is available on all streaming platforms. Check out his tribute to George tribute here:

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; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Newest book: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s free newsletter. A new essay every month!

The Bench

Photo by Julia Goldsby

I love Paris. But just once I would like to visit when it is not hot enough to fry an oeuf on the cobblestones.

After our 2017 sun and fun-filled Parisian adventure with Robin Spielberg and Larry Kosson—also known as the sweat your ass off tour de prance—during which time we bravely climbed Montmartre and cheerfully joined drenched throngs of tourists dragging themselves through the scorched gardens of Versailles—I swore I would never again enter a land-locked European metropolis between the months of June and September. All the Aperol Spritz cocktails in the world could not convince me otherwise.

Figures that music would lure me back into the bronzed arms of the city that doesn’t sweat, it glistens. And maybe smells a little. Camembert, you might guess, doesn’t hold up well in the heat. Neither do I.

My sister, Randy, and her guitarist husband, Dale, come to Cologne, Germany, to visit us at the end of June. Built into their trip is an excursion to Paris so we can hang out with jazz-pop superstar George Benson and attend his July 1st concert on the outskirts of the city. My first thought: Paris in July? Pas encore. Uptown whining, I know. Paris is Paris. Drizzle, sizzle, it’s all good.

Background: Dale has been friends with George for decades. George Benson is one of those rare performers who has preserved his musical integrity while maintaining an unblemished celebrity status. The guy is a musical—and business—genius. I’ll risk melting in the French heat for a chance to meet him. Send in the chevre.

My husband, John, books the Thalys (high speed train) from Cologne to Paris and finds an AirBnB apartment big enough for all of us. The apartment is close to the concert venue and within walking distance of a Metro station. Randy has never been to Paris, and even though I know the city will be hotter than the gates of hell, I want to show her the things I love. Gargoyles. The Seine. Monet. Meringue as big as my head.

The day before we leave Cologne for Paris, Dale receives a phone call from George’s manager, saying that George has lost his voice during his Royal Albert Hall performance in London and must cancel the Paris concert. Doctor’s orders. In a career spanning four decades, George has only cancelled two other gigs. As a seventy-five-year-old touring musician, he gets a free pass, I suppose. But the selfish part of me wishes he could get it together to croak out a few tunes—the show must go on, and all that. I once played a Sesame Street program with a stomach virus and had to run into the wings following a rousing rendition of “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” to vomit in a bucket held by a reluctant stage manager. I couldn’t cancel—I needed the money. George probably isn’t concerned with such trivialities at this stage in his career.

What to do. We’ve already paid for the train and apartment. So off we go to the city of blinding light, our trolley bags layered with tissue-thin black dresses, straw hats, and sandals. It’s hard work to look Parisian-chic when you’re having a July-induced hot flash—especially when the entire point of the voyage is meeting a jazz legend who has called in sick.

C’est la vie.

We arrive safely and navigate the Metro—a tubular sauna—to our apartment. Our abode has no air conditioning, no fan, and no toilet paper. Otherwise, it’s quite chic and comfortable. Dale and I take naps while John and Randy investigate the neighborhood and buy toilet paper and French snacks. John also buys me flowers, pink lilies that won’t wilt in the heat. We eat potato chips and drink coffee to revive ourselves.

“Eiffel Tower, anyone?” Since the Benson concert isn’t happening, I figure a trip to the tower might be an appropriate alternative activity and an excellent way to welcome my sister to Paris. First things first.

Dinner.

“We are vegan,” I tell the waiter in French.

“Why?” he replies in English.

I’ve learned to say, “Sans lardons, s’il vous plaît.”  In France, any meal that does not include bacon seems to qualify as vegan. One takes what one can get. Close your eyes and think of tofu.

We jump back on the Metro and head to the Trocadero, my favorite viewing spot for the tower. The Eiffel Tower never fails to thrill me. Legos for adults.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro,” says the first of many African vendors who approach us during the course of the evening. They sell Eiffel Tower keychains, six for one Euro—perfect little travel-friendly souvenirs to take back to kindergarten children, half-witted neighbors, and senior citizens with fading memories of the war. Twenty bucks and you could have cocktail party favors for the next five years.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci. Non, merci. Non, merci.

 These are the first words of French Randy learns to speak. More than this she does not need.

“I wonder what George Benson is doing tonight,” says John, looking out at the swelling crowd.

“I don’t know, but I bet he’s not here,” I say.

“Why not?’ says John. “Everyone else is.”

There’s an accordion player on one side of the Trocadero; a rapper with head-spinning break-dancers on the other. In the middle lane, half-naked daredevils navigate an obstacle course on skateboards and other wheeled devices. This reminds me of a game Randy and I used to play when we were teenagers, called “Let’s Go Die.”

We join the blob of people ambling across the bridge, then shuffle past security checkpoints into the swarm of puffy-shoed holidaymakers standing under the tower.

When I gaze up, I feel tiny.

The early evening sun seems hammered in the sky. People are undressed to suit the heat. Side boob, butt cleavage, full-bikini belly-up outfits—there’s a lot of flesh on display for a city that prides itself on haute couture. No MAGA hats or other Trump-wear, so that’s a plus.

“Side boob?” says John. “Really? That’s a thing?”

“There’s also under-boob,” I say, pointing out a young woman who might as well be topless. My husband and I have reached the marital stage where we point out attractive people to each other.

“Look at that,” I say to John. “It’s Nipple Day at the Eiffel Tower.”

“Bless her heart,” he replies.

I actually enjoy seeing all the body parts hanging out with no one groping or grabbing or even staring much. Josephine Baker would approve. My side-boob days are behind me, but I would truly enjoy wearing a string of bananas around my waist.

A perspiring French gospel choir sings “Stand by Me.” Then they sing “Lean on Me.”  It’s a medley of me songs. Or moi songs.

After reaching the grassy field adjacent to the tower, we search for a place to sit and and wait for the tower lights to come on. What luck! John spots a vacant bench on the edge of the first lawn—prime seating and big enough for the four of us.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

“I will get us something to drink.” In addition to the keychain guys, there are men everywhere selling beverages of questionable origin. But I am parched in Paris and I want wine.

“One glass wine, eight Euros,” says the vendor.

He has no change, so he gives me the entire bottle of rosé swill for ten bucks. We drink a little, but it tastes like French insecticide, so I go to the next bench and offer the remainder of my bottle to a middle-aged American couple. They are from Wisconsin and on their honeymoon. I congratulate them.

“Thank you,” says the wife. “We’re here with my two teenage daughters. We’re a patchwork family now—my girls are from my first marriage. Oh look, here they are!”

Right on cue, two pissed-off teenagers stomp around the corner and fling themselves on the bench.  They are tap-tap-tapping on their devices.

“These are our girls, Brittany and Whitney. Brit and Whit. Girls! Say hello to this nice lady. She’s American!”

I’m not sure if I should salute or take a knee.

“Brittany, I love your hair braided like that,” says the husband to the younger of the two girls.

“WHAT KIND OF SNARKY COMMENT IS THAT SUPPOSED TO BE?” says Brit.

“I mean, it looks pretty. It’s nice to see your face.”

“WHAT ARE YOU, A PERV?” shouts Whit. “LEAVE US ALONE.”

“Come on, Brit and Whit,” says the mom. “Your step-dad is trying to be nice. Isn’t it a beautiful Parisian evening?”

“Perv,” mutters Brit.

“Creep,” says Whit.

Neither one of them looks up. Tap, tap, tap.

I excuse myself and scuttle back to the safety of my own bench.

“I heard that!” says John. “ Awful. Their nice mother brings them to Paris and they can’t even stop playing with their phones long enough to look up at the Eiffel Tower?”

“Maybe they don’t like the step-father,” I say.

“Maybe. But still, they’re in Paris. You’d think they’d show a little gratitude.”

“They’re from Wisconsin,” I say, as if that means anything.

It’s then that Randy points out the man on the bench on the other side of us—a street person dressed in colorful rags and eating a jar of mayonnaise with his fingers. His boots are tied to his feet and a stream of urine runs under his bench. No wonder—in a park crammed with tourists—our bench had been empty.

“Call me crazy, but I think that bum is a fake,” says Randy.

“A fake bum?” I say. “Who would fake being a bum?”

“Look at him. Cleanly shaven. And he’s really handsome.  Movie star handsome. Lenny Kravitz in a bum costume. And his clothes, even though they are bum-like, have a certain colorful, artistic flair.”

“Yeah, well it’s Paris,” says Dale. He’s still disappointed about the Benson laryngitis debacle. Dale has been carrying a book of poetry, wearing a hat that looks slightly French, and is considering smoking a Gauloise to appear more authentic.

“Maybe the bum is an actor studying for a part.”

“Well that’s some realistic sense-memory stuff with the pee and everything,” I say.

“He’s sexy. Hot,” says my sister. “Clean him up and, just saying . . .”

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

Leave it to my sister to conjure a sex fantasy about a French bum.

“Look at those cheekbones,” she says. “And I can tell he’s buff underneath that tattered coat.”

The bum disappears into some bushes, directly behind where we’re sitting.

Regardez!” says Dale. “He has a camp back there. A bum camp.”

“What, for food condiment storage? He surely isn’t using it for a toilet—he has that covered out here.”

“Maybe that’s where he shaves,” says Dale. “His skin is very smooth. You need a really good razor to get a shave that smooth.”

“We should move,” says John.

“Non, non!” my sister and I yell in unison.

“This is prime seating,” Dale says.

I’ll say. We stare straight ahead and wait for the lights. I worry about the bum eating mayonnaise in this heat and getting food poisoning. I worry about the razor. I worry that in his bum camp—a mere five feet away from us—he has a collection of beret-clad heads in a big basket.

“You know, new Banksy paintings were just discovered in Paris,” says John. “Maybe the bum is not a bum. He could be Banksy.”

Perhaps I’m suffering from heatstroke, but I think there’s merit to John’s premise. Banksy, an anonymous street artist, has become wildly famous. I’ve always thought Banksy could be a woman. But I like John’s bum theory.

Recent Banksy art, spotted in Paris.

Having the bum, or Banksy, or whoever he is rustling around in the shrubs behind us makes me anxious; I’m not in the mood to get splattered with urine, mayonnaise, or paint. Or shaving cream.

We hear swishing noises. A rat leaps out of the bushes and darts around our feet.

“Shit!” I yell, as I jump up. “La grosse souris. Le rat.”

Randy, an animal lover, says: “Look how cute he is. Hey there, buddy. So sweet! I think he’s Banksy’s pet. It’s like that Ratatouille movie.”

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

Animals are sacred to my sister. Over the years she has raised horses, dozens of rescued dogs and stray cats, and two enormous Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs named Backhoe and Moser. When she was a kid she trained a hog named Hefner, cared for a tarantula named Bogart, and coaxed Walter the pigeon back to health. Over the years she entertained numerous squirrels, baby birds, mice, and a chimpanzee. While I was learning the lyrics to every Carole King song ever written and memorizing Bach inventions, Randy was working in the Twilight exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo and making friends with the bats.

Randy currently has a collection of large snakes that she uses for therapy sessions at a juvenile detention center in Butler County. We don’t call her Badass Randy for nothing.

Randy and Dale on the bench.

“Look how beautiful the Eiffel Tower is,” says Randy. I am not sure if she’s talking to me or the rat, but she’s clearly enchanted. Stifling heat, a cancelled concert, whining girls, bad rosé, and a fake bum—nothing will get in the way of her infatuation with Paris, at least not tonight.

Meanwhile, next door in teen-scream-horror-queen central we hear Brit-Whit’s mom say: “Look at that sunset! Brit, will you take a photo of your step-dad and me in front of the tower?”

“DO I HAVE TO?” asks Brit.

“Please, honey?”

“OKAY. BUT JUST ONE. THIS IS STUPID. THIS IS A STUPID SHITHOLE CITY.”

You can call Paris a lot of things, but shithole is perhaps not one of them.

“EXACTLY,” says Whit. “THIS PARIS SHITHOLE IS FULL OF CREEPS.”

Creeps? Creeps?

I look at Dale in his French hat, Banksy slouched in his pool of pee, my husband in his sixtieth-anniversary Grammy baseball cap, my sister talking to the rat, the half-naked side-boobed people taking demi-showers in the water fountains meant for drinking, and the Senegalese vendors shuffling through the park with keychains strapped to their arms. I think maybe she has a point.

Paris—from the perspective of a self-absorbed fifteen-year-old American girl—seems full of spooky people. But so does Disneyland. Is there anything more disturbing than those over-fed Americans stuffed into that Small World ride? I think not. Or what about the Wisconsinites who attend sporting events with foam swiss-cheese sculptures strapped to their heads? And don’t even mention SeaWorld, Trump Tower, Vegas, or Graceland. It’s all unnerving. Creepy.

Brit-Whit, trapped in a phase from which they will someday escape, are suspect of everyone, especially what’s unfamiliar or foreign. Hopefully they’ll come to their senses before their patient mother throws herself in the Seine.

“I can’t stand the way these girls are treating their mother,” says John. “Randy—go say something to them.”

“I’ve got this,” says my sister, who has raised four kids of her own. “Too bad I don’t have my snakes with me.”

“Be nice,” I say to my sister. “Remember, once upon a time we were also obnoxious teenagers.”

“Yeah,” she says. “But no one brought us to Paris.”

“True,” I say. “But I did refuse to get out of the car at the Grand Canyon. And you pitched a fit over the captain on that deep sea fishing expedition in Cape Hatteras.”

“That was justified,” she says. “He was holding a machete, leering at my ass, and chopping up chum for sharks.”

Randy brushes me aside and approaches Brit-Whit. “Hi there, girls! Don’t you just love Paris? Your Taylor Swift t-shirts are just darling, although I’m more of a Béyoncé fan. Did you see the tour posters for her new show with Jay Z?”

Nothing. Tap, tap, tap.

“This is my first trip to Europe, too, and I’m almost sixty. And just think, you’re here as teenagers. Aren’t you lucky that your mom brought you along on her honeymoon? How was the wedding? Were you bridesmaids? Did you have cute dresses?”

Scowl.

“How old are you? What are your hobbies? Are you enjoying French food?” Undeterred by their silence, Randy, like a grinning bull terrier, keeps yipping questions at the girls.

“Who’s your favorite artist? Isn’t Paris dazzling? Someday, you will remember this trip as a highlight of your teenage years. Someday, you’ll be really grateful that your mom brought you here.”

“Right,” Brit mumbles. “Shithole.”

“Speak up, honey,” says her mother.

Nothing. Tap, tap, tap.

“Oh. I apologize for the girls—Brit and Whit are still getting used to their step-father and their new siblings.”

“You lucky girls!” says Randy. “A patchwork family means double love!” says Randy. “Double pleasure!”

The creep factor has now gone off the charts. I drag Randy back to our bench before she starts doing “Single Ladies” choreography or asks to take a selfie with the two of them. Later, I will wish we had gotten the photo. We could have captioned it: Thank heaven for little girls.

Banksy the bum returns to his bench with a new jar of mayo.

At last. The tower begins to blush and smolder in the dusky sky. Our accidental neighbors have now become a pesky, but central part of our George Benson-less impromptu evening. We’re not where we intended to be, but maybe we’ve landed in exactly the right place—stuck between a movie-star handsome French derelict and a dysfunctional family from Wisconsin—watching the Eiffel Tower lights effervesce like a shaken bottle of cheap champagne.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star. Sizzle, crackle, creep. That’s Paris for you, at least during the summer months. Through a twilight prism I see parts of myself in every person here—the mundane, insane, broken, outspoken, rich-bitch, poor-whore, hustling-bustling, glam-scam, defeated, conceited, mistreated, cheated, hell-raising, trailblazing, butt-gazing visitors to one of the world’s most spectacular man-made structures.

Unlike Randy, I do not identify with the rat.

I look around and wonder who else in the crowd feels as grateful as I do right now. Maybe my sister. We could probably join hands and outrun the desperation and beauty surrounding us, but instead we stay in place, bench-bound, and face the full-bodied heat of the city.

“Six Eiffel Tower, one Euro.”

Non, merci.

*****

Note: We hang out with George Benson a few days later. But that’s another story. Stay tuned.

Special thanks to my dear friends Deborah and Jon Lillian, who—against the odds—hosted a vegan cocktail party for us in Paris.

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; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Newest book: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s free newsletter. A new essay every month!

A Thousand Words

“The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.”                        Andy Warhol

Scrapbook: A lifetime of photos and memorabilia pasted into an album that will one day jostle for position on a crowded bookshelf, attract some attention at tense family reunions, collect dust, and—a generation or two down the line—land in a dumpster.

Scrapbook to scrapheap. Not very hopeful. Still, we persist with making paper shrines to memories of lost childhoods. Show me a woman who doesn’t collect the flotsam and jetsam of her children’s lives and I’ll show you a woman with ice cubes (and possibly gin) in her veins.

Thinking that someday I’d set up a craft table, sift through the fossils, and create beautiful scrapbooks, I’ve saved every child-related objet d’art and photo. Yet another project fermenting in my vault of good intentions.

I’m not particularly clever with cutting and pasting. Once, in a German Kindergarten, while attending a mother-child Bastel session with my four-year-old son, I glued my knees together while making a paper lantern shaped like an owl. My only pair of Donna Karan black tights—purchased and shipped by my sister from Pittsburgh to Germany—fell victim to a hot glue gun. At the time it seemed tragic.

Recently, on a sorting mission that felt like a Kodak-inspired archeological dig, I found a photo of my son with that lantern. Proud. Grinning. You would never guess that the two of us had struggled and bickered for hours, trying to glue the sides of the owl together. The photo tells one story, my memory tells another.

So many contemporary parents watch their children grow up on an iPhone screen. It’s one thing to snag a fabulous image—look, there’s little Wolfgang holding his judo trophy—but quite another to maintain the memory of what led to his moment of glory on the podium (Wolfgang intentionally throwing a toy Batmobile across the playground and hitting little Heidi, his fiercest competitor, on the forehead, thus knocking her out of the contest and assuring his victory). The digital image shows the kid’s triumph, the story behind it tells us where he’s headed as an adult. If a parent’s eyes are glued to the camera function of her phone, she misses the backstory. Maybe she even misses the truth.

I didn’t miss much. My kids grew up during a time when taking a picture meant using a real camera, having prints made, and sorting through stacks of candid photos where someone looks a little “off”— hillbilly-ish or clunky or creepy. I wish now I had kept those Deliverance photos. Even without filters, we’re a little too slick  in the ones that made the cut. Vanity, thy name is mama.

When Curtis and Julia (not to be confused with Wolfgang and Heidi) were first born—before the advent of cloud storage, phone cameras, and online sharing—I dutifully photographed benchmark occasions, printed the photos, selected the beauty shots, and stuck them in big handsome albums with tissue between the pages.  I considered this part of my job description. For about five years, I was a stay-at-home mom, the purveyor of healthy lunches and messy craft projects—involving glitter, clay, and yarn—for willing and unwilling children. I was the queen of potty-training and Fun Outings for toddlers. Who could ever forget the trip to the monkey park—where the apes run free!—when one macaque landed on my head to distract me while another stole my popcorn. We have photographic evidence of the day. Happily, no one contracted Hepatitis.

“I have no time for scrapbooking!” I finally shouted.  I balanced coffee-fueled days with wine-pickled nights and used any available spare time for napping or playing the piano. I fell down on the scrapbooking job, and because I was too busy living, I stopped cataloging our lives. I snapped the required photos, had the prints made, but skipped the cutting and pasting portion of the program.

Confession: I trashed the chubby-mom images, tossed the rest of the prints into an old shoebox (Prada, but still), and told myself that one day I’d get around to labeling and editing the scraps of my children’s lives.

It’s astonishing how quickly twenty years can pass. Both of our adult kids left home last year. Luckily there are no snapshots of me—the cliché lonely mom—when the kids departed for good. Melancholy doesn’t photograph well, even if you face-tune the puffy eyes and mascara-streaked cheeks. I’m okay now, just a little shell-shocked that their childhoods went by so quickly. Time might not fly, but it’s certainly capable of knocking a mature woman flat on her ass when—like a laughing macaque with a looted bag of popcorn—it whizzes past.

The shoebox had become two, then three, then a dozen shoeboxes. Eventually I replaced the stack of boxes with a huge wicker trunk. Burrowing into it after twenty years was traumatic, joyful, and full of tear-choked flashes that started behind my eyes and sprinted to my heart. In the middle of the project, I skidded to a stop, called timeout, and wrote a piece of music.

The overflowing trunk revealed artifacts that started with the birth of my children and ended with their college graduations, with side trips through my husband’s career and mine. I had always known it was important to collect the scraps of my family’s treasured moments, but I had never known why. Turns out that the candid snapshots, posed family portraits, birthday cards, scribbled notes, and muddy, watercolor canvasses have rescued me. As I sorted through two decades of this stuff, I recalled the best, most challenging years of my life. And I’ve realized that where I am, right now, is pretty wonderful.

A snapshot nudges a memory; a memory adds another straw to a vacated nest; the nest fills with words and music and pictures and love. Eventually, the empty nest becomes a full—and grateful— heart.

In most of the photos I am trying to look brave, calm, and thin; my husband, the world’s best father,  looks like he would rather be playing the bass; my children are generally squirming or skooting away from me.

I swing from one recollection to the next: the swimming lessons, bike rides, vacations, first days of every school year (always by the same tree), birthday parties, field trips, recitals, concerts, graduations, more graduations, courageous smiles at airport check-in counters. Each picture is worth at least a thousand words, most of them saying farewell.

The images slow-dance before my eyes and swirl into a fuzzy-edged collage of goodbyes: the first steps, waves, growth spurts, hormones, the toasts and diplomas and trips abroad. My slapdash anthology offers stability in an unpredictable world—a shimmering thread linking frozen images of my flawed, loving family to memories both mundane and profound.

Suggested caption for the whole damn collection: Go on now—keep moving forward. Be big and strong and laugh as much as you can. Live.

We were the Goldsbys. We still are.

Paint a picture for me,

Use the colors that I love,

Paint the seasons of my life in harmony,

A career that’s breaking through, and a villa with a view,

A Technicolor rainbow and me.

Paint a picture for me,

Add a child or maybe two,

And a hundred yellow roses I can hold,

We’re dressed in Ralph Lauren; we’re smiling now and then,

We’re rich and thin and never will grow old.

Paint a picture for me,

Add a mountain and field,

Paint the sunrise; paint a river; paint the birds,

Add a horse or maybe two, and a sky that’s painted blue,

And my picture might be worth a thousand words.

Picture perfect,

Paint it over for me,

Paint it over and over again.

I should paint it all myself,

Impressions, memories,

I’ll try to paint a life that’s long and slow,

Add a tunnel and a light, or the way day turns to night,

The beauty of not knowing where to go.

 Picture perfect,

Paint it over for me,

Paint it over and over again.

*****

“Picture Perfect”  is a lyric by Robin Meloy Goldsby; music by Jessica Gall, and Robert Matt. Performed by Jessica Gall on Herzog Records. Available on all streaming channels.

Photos courtesy of the Goldsby scrapbook. We have no idea who the photographers were. But we thank them.

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; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Newest book: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s free newsletter. A new essay every month!

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)

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