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Hi there, LTW friends! It FOREVER, but here is the Buckingham Palace story. If you'd like to view the corresponding photos, please visit my website.
The Girl Who Curtsied Twice
London, November 23rd, 2017. The prince is giving a ball. My daughter Julia and I are headed to Buckingham Palace, where I’ll be playing dinner music tonight for HRH, the Prince of Wales, and 250 of his guests as they celebrate the 20th Anniversary of In Kind Direct, an organization that encourages corporate giving for social good.
Julia and I are wearing our very best sound-check/meet-the-tech-team outfits, and have our voluminous ball gowns, golden snakeskin sandals, extra bling, and hair-cranking products crammed in a small trolley bag. This suitcase has seen a lot of swag in its years on the Piano Girl circuit, but tonight takes the royal cake.
Members of my family share a long and celebrated history of playing for royalty and heads of state. We are not exactly court jesters, but we come close. My Buckingham event is one more gig on a long list of fancy-pants musical soirees. My dad calls us “grinders”—career musicians grinding out one gig at a time, most of them in humble places, some of them in decidedly uptown venues. Over the decades my father, husband, and I have played for Lyndon Johnson, Nancy Reagan, George H.W. Bush (come back, all is forgiven), Haitian Dictator Baby Doc Duvalier, the Queen of Sweden, the President of Brazil, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Vice President Al Gore, Donald Trump (before he became a very stable genius), the President of Finland, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the King and Princess of Oman, members of the Thai Royal Family, various US Ambassadors, and (my favorite) Crown Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia.
Note: Sniffer dogs do not like bass cases.
This evening the plummy Baglioni Hotel has provided us with a Maserati limousine driven by a Brit-suave guy named Abdul. Traffic slows us down for a minute, but Abdul seems wise to every short cut in London. We swerve around pedestrians and zoom toward the palace over narrow, Harry Potter-ish lanes. The “backwards” traffic direction in the UK makes me woozy—every time Abdul turns right I’m sure we’re going to have a head-on smash-up with a double decker bus.
I’m playing at the palace tonight because Robin Boles, Director of In Kind Direct, heard my performance at an event in Germany for sister organization, Innatura (Juliane Kronen, director). Robin Boles, also born and raised in Pittsburgh (never underestimate a woman who knows the exact location of Kaufmann’s clock), liked my music and invited me to perform at the palace.
Both In Kind Direct and Innatura focus on reducing waste by encouraging corporations to donate surplus goods to charities who can use them. A noble cause, on many levels. Tonight’s guest list includes generous sponsors of In Kind Direct. Me? I play the piano for a living and, when I have time, volunteer my musical services to non-profit organizations creating positive change. I don’t have piles of cash to contribute to worthy causes, but I have music.
When Robin Boles booked me at Buckingham—it took eighteen months of careful planning—I asked if I could bring Julia as my “assistant.” Julia is an aspiring photographer and filmmaker. Sadly, she had to leave her camera back at the hotel tonight—only the “royal photographer” has permission to document palace events.
“Mom, exactly what am I supposed to do without a camera?” asks Julia. “How should I assist?”
“Pretend to help me. Carry the suitcase and look official. Fix my hair. Make sure I drink enough water and that my bra strap isn’t hanging out. Check that I don’t have toilet paper stuck to my shoe, lipstick on my teeth, or the back of my skirt tucked in my knickers. You know, the basics.”
Mother’s assistant: every daughter’s worst nightmare. But at least she’ll get to see the palace.
“Do you think Prince Harry will be there?” she asks.
Abdul has instructions to deliver us to the palace service entrance. Figures. Even though I’m in a car fit for a king and have a 3000-dollar silk-taffeta Ralph Lauren ball skirt in my suitcase (purchased on sale for 29.99, I kid you not)—I have to use the back door.
“What?” says Julia. “We have go in the peasant door?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m a musician. Peasant.”
“You know what that makes me? Peasant assistant.”
We bid farewell to Abdul and greet a heavily armed guard who checks our names on a list.
“Good evening to you, ladies! Lovely, lovely night, isn’t it? I suppose you’re here for the gala!” It can’t be easy to conduct civilized chitchat while holding a machine gun, but this guy has it down. Very polite, these Londoners.
“Indeed, we are,” says Julia, using her official Madonna in London voice. “This is Ms. Robin Goldsby, peasa . . . I mean, pianist. And I am her ASSISTANT.”
“Very well, then. I’ll need to see your passports, ladies, if you please. “
We fork over our documents. Background checks had been run several weeks ago, so the guards only have to cross check our IDs with the info on their computers. We also have our photos taken for palace ID badges. My picture is, of course, awful. Really, you’d think they’d have better lighting. A portrait of the queen hangs over the guard’s desk—a nice touch. Several police officers are suiting up in bullet-proof vests as other guards search our bags.
“Thank you for your service!” I shout, because I can’t think of anything better to say and I feel a need to babble. A security guard plunders my suitcase and I’m anxious about him yanking my taffeta ball skirt (also known as the circus tent) out of its carefully coiled position. That skirt has a life of its own.
I’m nervous. Not about playing the palace piano, but about getting through security. A big part of me—the Western Pennsylvania girl that suffers from occasional bouts of imposter syndrome—thinks I don’t belong here. I’ve lead a stylish life, but I am, after all, a woman of modest origins. With the assistance of a piano, a great music teacher, and a lot of grit, I’ve made my way from Pittsburgh to the Palace. Banksville to Buckingham. Kennywood to Kensington. Mount Washington to Mountbatten. Right now I am about as far as I can get from the Golden Triangle.
“Mom, shall I carry your purse?” says my assistant. “I believe the event manager is ready to escort us to the sound check.”
“Really?” I say. “We’re going in?”
“We’re going in.”
We follow a handsome event planner up a long set of stairs. This guy has star power—he’s wearing a James Bond tuxedo, patent evening slippers, and a royal blue silk pocket-square with matching socks. We pass a sparkling, state of the art, enormous kitchen—with scores of workers preparing for the festivities. I keep expecting to see Mrs. Patmore and Daisy, but the palace appears to be staffed by upscale, posh-looking, multi-culti Oxford grads.
Behind the scenes at Buckingham! The palace is huge. No wonder Her Majesty takes her pocketbook with her everywhere she goes—a woman wouldn’t want to get lost in this place without taxi fare. We walk forever, up and down, around and around. Eventually, our escort opens a discreet door and—bam—we’ve arrived.
Julia grabs my hand. “Holy cow, Mom,” she says. “Look at this.”
We coast into the gallery, a panoramic, portrait-filled corridor with mile-high ceilings, plush brocade sofas, and enormous, polished chandeliers. I assumed Buckingham would have that shabby chic, trampled-by-tourists, slightly musty vibe I know from most European castles, but this place, ancient and modern all at once, is spit-shined to the max. I feel like we’re walking into the muscular arms of someone else’s history. I guess we are.
***** You and the Knight and the Music . . .
The ballroom, the venue for this evening’s gala dinner, is the location used for vestures. Knighthood! I’ve been dropped into a real-deal fairytale. Thick red and amber light softens the kaleidoscopic effect of the crystal chandeliers. History meets opulence meets Disney.
“Well,” says Julia. “I guess I was wrong. Maybe you should have brought that tiara.”
We meet the stage manager and the sound technician and head to the stage and the grand piano. Julia walks around the ballroom and listens as I play a couple of pieces. The freshly-tuned piano sounds warm and bright; the three microphones inside the instrument will ensure proper amplification, even when people are talking during dinner. Or chatting, as one does in the palace.
Julia joins me onstage.
“Mom, look!” Behind the stage is a throne.
“Is that a real throne?” I ask.
“Mom, it’s Buckingham Palace. You think they have fake thrones?”
“Yes, it’s real! Pretty cool, right?” the stage manager says. She breaks down the schedule for me: “A porter will take you to a palace bedroom so you can change into your fancy dress. He’ll return to fetch you and Julia at 8:30. We want you seated at the piano at 8:40. The guests will come through at 8:50. That’s when you start playing. At 9:10, after the guests are seated, HRH will make a short speech from his table. Stay at the piano and resume playing when he finishes. Three courses will be served and the meal will be finished at 10:15.”
“Wow,” I say. “That’s really efficient.”
“Yes,” she says. “We’re very good at this.”
I want to take this woman home with me and have her run my life.
“Let me continue,” she says, glancing at her watch. “After dessert, we will give you a cue to stop playing. There will be an announcement acknowledging you. Stand, take a bow, walk down the center stage steps—facing the audience—and exit to the left. You will be escorted back to your dressing room. Sound good?”
“Wait!” says Julia. “Those steps are steep and Mom will be wearing a rather, uh, puffy long skirt and heels. I don’t want her to have a Jennifer Lawrence moment and take a tumble right in front of HRH.”
Julia Goldsby, professional assistant.
“Good thinking!” says the stage manager. “I will escort your mum down the stairs.”
“Is there a place for Julia to sit during my performance?” I ask.
Julia points to the throne. “Over there would be good.”
The stage manager laughs. “You can sit in the tech booth. Other end of the ball room.”
“Great!” says Julia. “The tech booth! I’ll be with my people.”
Our porter escorts us down another long corridor and up an endless spiral staircase. We arrive at our suite and collapse on a couple of overstuffed chairs.
“Look at this!” Julia says. Royal catering has provided a large assortment of pre-event snacks and beverages. Julia turns on the television and Her Majesty pops up on the screen, next to a little text that says: “Welcome to our royal home.”
Julia, who now has her stockinged feet up on the coffee table, grabs the remote, flips the channels, and lands on a UK Strongman competition.
“Well,” she says. “It doesn’t get any better than this. I’m in Buckingham Palace, I’ve got a bottle of wine, a block of cheese, a greeting from Queen Elizabeth, and a TV show featuring a muscle man who can pull a car with his teeth.”
“Jul,” I say. “Maybe we should unpack and hang up the dresses. They might be wrinkled.”
“Go ahead,” she says, waving me away. “Just toss my dress on the bed. Man, this cheese is delicious. So cool they have real television in the palace. And wifi!”
“We only have thirty minutes. Maybe we should think about make-up?”
“You look fine. Don’t worry so much. Hey mom, they even sent gluten-free sandwiches for you. With hummus! I think I’ll have one.”
“Julia! Check this out!” I am looking out the window down into the courtyard as the guests arrive in their shiny cars. “Wow, these people are really decked out. Look!”
“Just a minute. Some guy from Reykjavik is picking up a truck with one arm.”
“Okay, sorry. Not sorry. These guys are amazing.”
“Focus, Julia, focus. We’ve got to get ready.”
She flips off the TV, brushes the crumbs from her lap and puts on her gown. “Do you think Her Majesty watches the Strongman show?”
“I hope so.”
***** Our porter picks us up at exactly 8:30. I’m not about to walk the three miles back to the ball room in heels so I hand them to Julia and go barefoot. I think “Barefoot in the Palace” would be a great song title. The word “palace” has some interesting rhymes: chalice, malice, Dallas . . .
“Pay attention, Mom! Hold up that skirt!” Jul shouts as we start down the spiral staircase. “No accidents, please.” We reach the ballroom. I put on my shoes, head to the stage, sit on the piano bench and, with Julia’s help, drape my skirt—big enough to qualify for its own zip code—to the side so that the fabric pools on the floor.
“See you later, Mom! Have fun. You need anything?”
“Good!” Julia heads back to the tech booth. The last minute flurry of crew activity is enough to make me nervous, but basically, I’m pretty chilled. I love this. My personal assistant might be somewhat inexperienced, but, even though I’m playing what amounts to a dinner-music gig, I have a porter, a stage manager, a lighting technician, a piano technician, and a sound-design team.
The stage manager approaches. “Five minutes before we start,” she says. “I suggest you take this time for yourself and absorb the beauty and history of this room. You don’t work in a place like this every day.”
The house lights dim and the stage lights come on. It’s completely quiet. I look over my shoulder at the throne and down at my age-speckled hands. I will turn sixty in three days. When I was a kid, my sister used to drive me around Chatham Village on her tricycle. I balanced on the back while she pedaled. I pretended I was the queen and waved at my subjects, the oak trees. A striped lounge chair on our front porch was my throne. Like a lot of little girls of my generation, I thought I could get to Buckingham Palace by wearing the right fairy dress or marrying a prince. But the secret entry to the palace was right on the other side of our porch screen door—an old green piano that I played whenever I wanted to feel less like a princess, and more like myself.
Music, it turns out, can be a golden ticket to just about anywhere. You just have to keep showing up and doing what you love. It took me fifty years of coaxing reluctant sounds out of unforgiving keys, but for one shining hour, I am here. The candlelight in the ballroom reminds me of a star-splattered sky on a cloudless night.
The guests arrive. I start to play. I hope I don’t make the royal mistake.
Musicians know that a gig is a gig is a gig. We play the way we play. The only thing that changes, really, is context. Like always, I fall into my piano zone. Even though I’m playing solo, I’m not alone—the Orchestra Invisible has shown up and everyone I love is here. They’re squeezed in next to me on the narrow, royal piano bench, jostling for position as I play through my set list.
Before I know it, the hour is up and the stage manager signals me to stop. I stand, soak up the applause, take my diva bow, and extend my hand to the stage manager so I can wobble down the steps without taking a header.
I walk through the door as the next performer, Australian baritone Daniel Koek, prepares to go on. I recognize the laser-focus in his eyes—he’s pumped up and so tense he’s ready to snap. Not me. I feel like I’ve just stepped out of a warm bath.
Julia meets me in the corridor and hugs me. “You sounded great!”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Goldsby,” says an official looking man in one of those Downton Abbey butler-valet suits. “Lovely music.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“His Royal Highness would like to meet you.”
I am tempted to say get out of town and slap him on the shoulder, but instead I say: “Really?”
“Indeed. Please wait here for further instructions.”
“Uh-oh,” says Julia. “What do you do when you meet the Prince? Are there rules?”
The stage manager tracks down a protocol expert for us. He says: “Curtsy. Call him ‘Your Royal Highness’ the first time, then switch to ‘Sir.’ Wait for him to extend his hand before you extend yours. That’s it. Wait here. Someone will come for you.”
We hear Daniel singing “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables. Wow. What a voice! The song seems an appropriate backstage soundtrack as we watch waiters and sommeliers and technicians and dozens of other groomed palace workers buzz from one station to another. I love this.
“Did you hear the Prince’s speech about waste reduction?” Julia says. “He’s really doing something positive for the planet. It’s such a simple concept. Take what you have and use it. If you can’t use it, donate it to someone who can. No waste.” It’s time for the House of Windsor meet and greet. The royal photographer hovers. My legs are stiff from all the sitting and I’m slightly worried about executing a proper curtsy, but my circus tent skirt will disguise my lack of technique. When HRH shows up, I forgo the “sweep and dip” and opt for a simple hillbilly squat. My Pittsburgh roots have revealed themselves.
HRH and I have a three-minute private conversation about music and sustainability—two subjects that, oddly enough, go hand in hand. I present Julia to him. My cheese-eating, wine-swilling, strongman-watching gal from two hours ago morphs into a picture of elegance as she gracefully nods and curtsies to our host. This child of mine, I think. A strongwoman, a princess. Both.
“Mom,” Julia says, after HRH has departed. “I was so nervous I curtsied twice.”
“You curtsied twice?”
“Yes. I don’t think he saw the first curtsy, so I did it again. I must have looked like a crazy person.”
“Did he notice the second curtsy?”
“Oh yeah, he noticed. That time I got it right.”
****** We change clothes, freshen up, wrestle the skirt back into the trolley bag, take a few swigs of wine, and slip some royal crackers into our peasant pockets. Our porter takes us back through the labyrinth of rooms and corridors, past the security gate, and just like that, we’re on the street—two exhausted women in black stretch pants—looking for a taxi. I can’t help noticing that the way out of the palace is much quicker than the way in.
The hulky silhouette of Buckingham looms behind us.
“The golden coach has officially turned back into a pumpkin,” says Julia.
“Fine with me,” I say. “I like pumpkins.”
“Me, too,” she says. “Let’s go home.”
Robin Meloy Goldsby www.goldsby.de Author of PIANO GIRL: A Memoir RHYTHM: A Novel RMG is a Steinway Artist
There was that piano event where I spilled champagne on the first lady of Estonia, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't count. And anyway, she wasn't particularly pleased, so maybe we should just let that one go quietly away.
I am away from the Palace, back in the trenches, and fending off accidental insults. Here's my latest essay:
The Accidental Insult
“Every number you play is better than the next one.”
“Your music is so perfect; I can hardly hear it!”
“You’ve never sounded better.”
Thank you. Wait. What? M y definition of an Accidental Insult: a comment that causes the recipient to say thank you and cringe at the same time. Most of the musicians I know have developed thick skins underneath their little black dresses and tuxedos. Like it’s not hard enough to smile and remember 3,000 tunes while playing for a chiropractor convention—we must also suffer the slings and arrows, the digs and dings, of well-meaning, slightly-idiotic customers.
I once played a job at the Manhattan Marriott where members of my audience—attendees at a dental implant convention—had sets of dentures sitting on the cocktail tables next to their pina coladas. One of the good doctors said: “You’re so good at this piano thing. I can’t hear a single note.” Nothing like fending off insults when you’re surrounded by chattering teeth and wedges of pineapple.
I know, I know. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” In general, I agree with Eleanor. Sometimes, though, these accidental insults are so brain-twisting that by the time I figure out the slur, the flinger of the barbed words has already left the lounge. Consider this slap in the face from a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend who once left his MENSA card on my piano: “What a fabulous job you have. So early in life and you have already ascended to your level of incompetence.”
Others are less subtle. A stout woman with water balloon breasts, green eye shadow, and hair the size of Holland said this to me a month ago: “You have such a great sense of style. We have exactly the same taste. I love the way you dress.” Sadly, she wore no bra, a metallic-fringed sweater, leopard print pants, and a saucer hat with a stuffed pig strapped to the top of it. She leaned on the Steinway to tell me we could be twins. Miss Chantay sashayed away and left a trail of glitter in her wake.
Or the classic: “I love how you play. Have you ever thought of doing this professionally?” I hear this type of AI often—usually as I am sitting down to play the third set of my fifteenth job of the week.
To me this is like asking the technician administering your colonoscopy if he has ever considered charging for his services. Wow, Dr. Hosen. You’re really talented with that nozzle. In fact you’re good enough to turn your hobby into a real job.
Note: It takes much longer to master an instrument than it does to get a medical degree.
Just last week, an aging rocker with smeared tattoos and saggy-assed pleather pants said: “You’re really a good piano player. What do you do for a living?”
“This. I do this,” I said.
“Wait. You mean someone actually pays you?”
It’s not like I’m playing the piano in my own home. I am sitting in a five-star hotel wearing a black cocktail dress and bling at three in the afternoon, greeting each guest with a subtle smile and a sophisticated arpeggio. Maybe I look like a volunteer—a plush pianist version of the Walmart greeter.
The word professional crops up often in an Accidental Insult. Recently a lovely man told me this: “I heard Martha Argerich play last month at the Philharmonie, but I like your music better even though she was way more professional.” Perhaps he meant her performance was more structured than my relaxed tinka-tinka style of soothing background piano. She was probably playing some turbo-tempo shoot-me-now Prokofiev or something, and—as we all know—you have to be professional to handle that.
In the eighties, my husband was called to sub for another bassist at a midtown concert in Manhattan. The introduction went like this: “Please give a warm round of applause for the wonderful bassist, John Goldsby. Such a professional! He’s always the guy we call when the real bassist can’t make it.”
The accidental insult is not limited to performances. Consider this: A woman I know (who claimed to be a friend) once looked at a published photo of me and said: “You look great in this photo because you’re so far away from the camera.”
Or this: “Your album cover is so pretty. It doesn’t even look like you.”
And another: “You’re so lucky you’re not famous. No one in the whole world knows who you are.”
And this, courtesy of pianist Daryl Sherman: “Hey lady,” said a confused little boy, looking at Daryl’s touched-up photo on the album cover and then back at Daryl. “This is a nice photo of you. What did you do for the picture, wash your face?”
The late Dorothy Donnegan, a renowned jazz pianist who had chops of steel and flying fingers, used to come and listen to me in Manhattan. She said: “You play with an economy of notes. Of course, you have to.” Dorothy wore really big red satin underpants—bloomers actually. Don’t ask me how I know this, but I do. I could tell you the story but the jazz police might arrest me.
My dad, who has spent the last sixty years playing music for a living, is no stranger to the Accidental Insult. He doesn’t take the AI lightly. When I was a kid we spent a summer at Conneaut Lake where he had a gig playing in a nice restaurant and bar. He spent a lot of time fishing during the day and grew a beard while we were there. When we returned to Pittsburgh, a woman at our church, Mrs. Rudolph, cornered him in the vestibule after the service.
Mrs. Rudolph: “Welcome back Bob. You look nice and tan, but I hate that beard.”
Bob: “Thank you, Mrs. Rudolph. I like that red dress you have on, but I think you’re too fat. Since we’re sharing opinions, that is mine.”
Go Bob. I’m not that brave.
And speaking of Bob—we still haven’t recovered from the Great Accidental Insult of 2007. Miss Judy Murphy, a senior citizen who boasted a home full of fake Chippendale furniture and a manicured front garden, lived in my Chatham Village neighborhood in Pittsburgh. She was perfectly nice to my family, but, back in the seventies, spent a lot of time on “pet patrol,” prowling around our “pet-free” community looking for evidence of people hiding illegal cats in their homes. My mother swore to Miss Murphy that Stripey, the silver tabby who liked to snooze on the sill of our bay window, was a marble statue. Miss Murphy may have been a little dense.
I digress. Decades after all of us had moved out of Chatham Village, Miss Murphy called my musician father to congratulate him on the publication of my first book, Piano Girl. By this time Miss Murphy was probably 125 years old.
“Bob,” she warbled. “I just loved Robin’s book. She is so talented. You know, Bob, you used to have talent, too, but you gave it up for your family.”
Bam! Even Dad was gobsmacked by that.
I honestly believe that most people have good hearts; they want to say something nice but it comes out lopsided and loopy. Maybe I’m too sensitive. Or maybe I’m not sensitive enough.
A few years back my husband played a high-profile benefit concert to raise money for a women’s group in Afghanistan. A noble cause, the event was hosted by German literary star Roger Willemsen. At the end of the concert, in front of thousands of enthusiastic audience members, Roger graciously acknowledged my husband’s participation: “Let’s hear it for John Goldsby. What a f***ing bass player.”
Robin Meloy Goldsby www.goldsby.de Author of PIANO GIRL: A Memoir RHYTHM: A Novel RMG is a Steinway Artist
There are many things that you really do not want people to say to you. I went to tune for a show once, and was greeted by, "Boy, are we glad to see you!"* I knew I was in trouble then.
Lately though, I have come to fear another. Last year I had to take over the management of the city's band. The woman who had been running it for many years had her cancer come back, and her son told me last January that if she survived (she did not, sadly), she would not be able to do anything for at least a year. So I emailed the music director and the personnel manager and told them that I would have to take over. The music director sent his regrets, finishing with, "By the way, will you have our 1099s ready by the end of the month so I can get my taxes done?" Believe it or not, I actually appreciated that, even though it was a hint of the magnitude of what I was taking on. At least I knew I had to do it.
No, what I have learned to hate is the phrase, "You are doing a great job!" It recalls something someone said about the mother of a couple of friends (twins) from high school and college, "She believed if you do not want to do something, do it badly!" When someone tells me I am doing a great job, I know it will be saddled on me unless I work very hard to get someone else to do it. (Or alternatively, just give it up entirely, which in the case of the band, means giving up a 107 year tradition at a really nice venue.)
*In case anyone wonders why they were glad to see me, the piano, a Yamaha DC7 apparently had shifted in the truck on the way to the venue. Yamahas have a metal mounting for the pedal lyre, and that got bent. The damper pedal linkage was knocked out of whack, and would not work. The player mechanism just made it worse, because there are three or four plugs that need to be disconnected to get the action out. I did manage to get the pedal to work, but there was a noise that I could not eliminate. It was a shame, because it was the nicest sounding C7 I had ever come across.
Last edited by BDB; 02/24/1804:42 AM. Reason: Added footnote
BDB, I can confess to no surprise at hearing that your appearance is very welcome--- in fact, a relief. I automatically assume a posture of trust and confidence, on hearing that you are present, even if it's only in a paragraph.
There are plenty of persons whose appearance is dreaded. We need name no names (it would take so long)... but I could start the list with the names (if I knew them) of the persons who broke the piano; the nicest-sounding C7 you have ever come across. That is a serious infraction, in my book.
There is such a tiny little slice of the whole cheese that can be gathered from those who write things here. Sometimes it's a mini-memoir, sometimes it's just the flavor of the writer's personality as some subject is treated. The way they speak of something they value. The way they describe how they fit in, in the world of their associates.
I am glad that you were able to help the piano, and able to help the event continue. I have noticed that these things, which require an application of sensitive responsibility, sometimes give back quite a bit more of your personal substance, than they take out. Anyway, I have been telling myself this, as my own yearly event (which requires quite a bit of setting up) has coincided with a surgical procedure on my knee, and a recovery period which has been just plain demanding.
I am not especially good at asking for help, but I have noticed that people respond as if I had asked, though I haven't. We're just across the Bay from each other, but it does seem far; it has never occurred to me that I might be able to offer you something to help the world keep spinning, frictionlessly. But who knows; maybe you will consider it. It is not that hazardous. My current "big thing in the world" is that I'm responsible for radio communications at an annual event at a state park across the bay from you. I keep a crew of 50 volunteers happy, and the park staff satisfied--- sometimes even purring--- and the attendees hardly aware that there is anything of the sort going on, unless they find themselves in difficulties. Then, as if it happened every day, assistance would happen along. You have heard the story of the lady, the hillside, the panties, the unfortunate fall, the firetruck and the ambulance stuffed with handsome, young, male rescuers. In the end, she was so dazzled by the rescue that she forgot about the broken arm and the poison oak.
All I can say for Robin, is that I am so happy that there is still some energy left for Let's Talk Weddings. And there is somthing else: what a brilliant idea, to name her daughter, whose name she will speak a million times and hear a million times more, a name that means precious gems. Who put the jewels in Julia? Not an add-on--- this feature is built-in.
And, yes, I loved the rest of the story. So much more true than anything I have heard the press concoct. You heard it here!
Today, a full day of band business: A trip with my No. 2 to Rohnert Park to hear and hire a new music director, who is running a Band and Orchestra Festival, all high school ensembles. We got there just in time to hear a group from Berkeley led by one of our musicians. I told her to look into a scholarship that is given by a club I joined. It offers an award to pay for private lessons for a worthy and needy student. One of my neighbors, who teaches at one of the neediest schools in Oakland, won last year. There was a string orchestra from Santa Rosa that played a very good piece by one of their students. I have developed a preference for local, amateur, and student performances for just such things: A top-rate professional performance is not likely to be better than you expect, and it will never top the delight you will get from hearing something much better than you expected from one of these local performances.
It turns out that I knew one of the stage crew from concerts in San Francisco that I used to do. It was nice to see him.
A slight sour note was some of the high school students sitting behind us and playing with the theater seats on our row. They got up to get ready to perform before the intermission, but otherwise, I would have told them that it is not a good idea to do that, because if they have to pay to repair seats, that takes away from the number of concerts that they can host. But more to the point, you never know whether you may be upsetting someone who is a major donor or employer, as we were!
Coming home from that, a phone call from my wife had me dealing with Parks and Recreation to get the dates and conditions of the venue correct. I stopped off at their office downtown, but the woman I had to deal with was actually someplace else, near the bandstand. But I talked to her on the phone, and I think we are okay, but will not have the good restrooms one concert. Oh, well, I will bring paper towels, toilet paper, and maybe some water, just in case that week!
Another message on the phone when I got home: a mediator for the upcoming union negotiations, letting me know of his availability. As if I had the slightest interest in stiffing the musicians! But it is a delicate balancing act between giving them what I would like to get for them and getting the donations and volunteers to enable it to continue.
On no no no no no, Simon--- waiting until you retire is too long, besides, you might be busier than you think in retirement. No, you would do best to write now. If you happen to be interrupted for interviews, you will wear a look on your face, that of a brain which was just now working.
What is there to worry about? No one you know reads PW. Fewer and fewer read, every day; literacy is cratering. Besides, if you're not using an alias already, just keep the same name and tell people it IS an alias.
And don't leave out the juicy details--- you are not reading out the minutes for approval by a local garden club, Girl Scout troop, or any innocent people. Just ask them to leave the room..
So, welcome to PW, SJ. It's an auspicious day: "Bartolomeo Cristofori May 4, 1655 to January 27, 1731 was an Italian maker of musical instruments, generally regarded as the inventor of the piano.
A flash back to my early years on the Piano Girl circuit and my NYC neighborhood. Feeling a little nostalgic these days. Love to all of you. And Simon Jordan—don't wait. Write it down now. We'll be here to read every word. Clef—big hugs from Germany. Happy reading—I hope the PW police don't get me.
“New York, indeed, resembles a magic cauldron. Those who are cast into it are born again.” Charles Whibley, American Sketches
***** Step lively now. Back in the eighties, during my busiest years as a Manhattan Piano Girl, I had a subway routine. Late at night I took cabs, but when I played during the daytime I would finish my last set, grab my coat, fight for an elevator, join the throbbing crowd of Times Square movers, shakers, and sidewalk dwellers, scurry down into the Forty-ninth Street station, slide onto the RR train, scuffle for a seat, and heave a sigh of relief when I got one. I had a sushi habit during the eighties. Hoping for a wasabi rush, I would eat takeout tekkamaki while cruising past subterranean stops for Carnegie Hall and Bloomingdales.
The RR train—often called the “Rock and Roll to Astoria”—slithered beneath the plush, posh, privileged pads of the East Side, screeched under the East River, and burst forth onto a sepia-toned mural of outer borough-ness. Queens. I made my bridge and tunnel trip thousands of times in the fifteen years I lived in New York, and never tired of the view from Queensboro Plaza, the way the serrated Manhattan skyline taunted the humble Queens horizon. The two parts of my life—where I worked and where I lived—remained separated by a yawning moat of fast-moving, murky water.
At the end of each voyage, I would step off the RR in my low-key Astoria neighborhood, relieved to be a few short blocks from my affordable two-bedroom apartment. It took five minutes to walk home from the train stop. Health code regulations aside, Thirtieth Avenue boasted dozens of entertainment and food frenzy options—a veritable grab bag of multi-culti delights.
I always liked Tony’s Souvlaki, a Greek restaurant that featured an outdoor one-armed mannequin wearing a chef’s hat and checkered trousers. The dummy waved a skewer of plastic meat with his plastic arm and had a sign around its neck that said, “Come on in!” Tony’s Souvlaki hosted a legendary family of flying raccoons living in the restaurant ceiling. When I got lucky, I’d squint into the hanging philodendron and spot the glowing eyes of one of them scoping out my feta cheese and olive platter. I’m still not sure they were raccoons. They might have been airborne rats.
Across the street from Tony’s was a Greek nightclub that served hallucinogenic ouzo. I went there once with my husband and a group of friends. We drank the famed ouzo (my friend Peter, who is Greek, tried to order an ouzo Collins) and listened to a Greek Elvis impersonator singing “Love Me Tender” in 7/4. Or maybe it was 13/4. Then everyone threw plates. More than that I do not recall.
Astoria pulsed with the odd-meter rhythm of its Greek population, but the depth of its multi-cultural community also contributed random swipes of vibrancy to its funky, we’re-all-in-this-together vibe. I can trace my family roots back to Plymouth Rock—I’ve always claimed my ancestors were the lounge act on the Mayflower—but in Astoria I was as foreign as everyone else, a stranger in a strange land, trying to make ends meet while adjusting to life in a city renowned for eating its young. Come on in!
Happy Happy Variety, run by a Chinese family, sold take out Chinese food, an assortment of knee-socks, and flowers. One year, on Mother’s Day, I stopped on my way home from my Manhattan brunch gig and bought a big bunch of peonies. I have always loved peonies. They look like flowers crossed with clouds.
“Happy Happy Mutha Day,” said Mrs. Chang. “You mutha?”
“No!” I said. “I just like peonies.”
“No matta. You get penis for Happy Happy Mutha Day.”
“Peonies? You mean peonies!”
“Yeah, yeah. Penis. You like penis! Penis good.”
In addition to buying penis, I ordered a lot of sesame noodles from Happy Happy. One time the Happy Happy delivery boy got mugged right outside our apartment door, but still managed to ring the bell and deliver our food. Sadly, this was the exact night my husband’s parents were visiting. We tipped the bleeding, bedraggled delivery boy—he refused to let us call the police—and sent him off on his mangled bicycle. Then we spent most of the evening trying to assure my in-laws that the mugging was not a nightly occurrence.
“It’s safe in Astoria!” we proclaimed.
The house next door might have been a crack den, but that’s another topic.
Mrs. Chang eventually turned her empire over to her son, Young Chang, who wasn’t as bright or enterprising as his mother. But boy, could he fold laundry. He even pressed my socks—purchased at Happy Happy Variety before it became Happy Happy Laundry. They got me coming and going. Turned out the Happy Happy people were pretty smart-smart. It took us a month to figure out what Young Chang said when we dropped off our laundry. It sounded like haffa cuffa cappy. My husband finally got it—Young Chang was inviting us to have a cup of coffee. So we did.
I spent a lot of time eating on trains—grazing on New York City delicacies as I pink-panthered back and forth to Manhattan. It never occurred to me to cook, and I had so many piano jobs that it made sense to eat while commuting. Rosie, a Polish woman who worked at a coffee shop right under the elevated train platform in Astoria, made my egg and cheese sandwiches every afternoon before I headed into work. Across the street from Rosie’s place was the Keystone Diner, a twenty-four-hour mecca of mediocre cuisine where I could order any of the three million items on the menu at any time of day or night. I imagined their kitchen stretching under the river—all the way to Manhattan—staffed by culinary masters capable of whipping up Greek diner versions of Cordon Bleu, Belgian waffles, or truffle-stuffed trout at 7 AM.
I discovered if I ordered two baked potatoes to go from the Keystone, I could stash them in my coat pockets and keep my hands warm on the windy train platform. Once I arrived at my destination, I would hang out in the swank ladies’ room and eat my pocket-warmers. Popille’s Pocket Potatoes. I thought this was genius. I even carried little packets of salt in my purse—along with golden sandals, an extension cord, and duct tape.
Also on my block in Astoria was an Indian grocery run by a soft-spoken, elegant man named Sanjay. I liked to buy a delicious Indian desert called a gulob, a word I sometimes got mixed up with gonad, understandable if you’ve ever seen a golub (or a gonad). Sanjay also sold frozen Indian TV dinners and made fresh samosa, spicy enough to blow off your golubs. He was my hero.
On my corner was a funeral home, run by the LaBrutto family. The LaBrutto brothers—really nice guys—were also in the chiropractor business. Funeral home and chiropractor office—the combination caused me some unease. And having the sound of the word brute in the name of a company dedicated to orthopedic adjustments and burial services seemed like bad marketing, at best.
Your crack ‘em, we stack ‘em.
You squeeze ‘em, we freeze ‘em.
You stab ‘em, we slab ‘em.
My Astoria neighborhood was a classic cradle to grave community—within one block I had a hospital, a school, a nursing home, and the LaBrutto brothers—ready to align my spine and help me select a casket. Plus all those gonads and raccoons.
My fabulous landlords, the handsome Burburan family—originally from Croatia—cushioned me through a rocky phase of my life, best described as my “serial dating” years. Eventually, they sold the house to the Politos, first generation Italian-Americans. The Polito family operated a hugely successful office-cleaning company and had amassed a small fortune with hard work and very little English. Charming, a little confused by my lifestyle, and always cheerful, they didn’t mind the sound of my piano at all hours of the day and night or my cat, Lucky, who occasionally escaped into their part of the house.
“She’s a nice-a puppy,” Mr. Polito would say, patting the cat on her head.
The Politos grew tomatoes in pots on the concrete driveway. Every year, in the pounding August heat, the entire family would sit in a circle of lawn chairs and puree fresh tomatoes—with an ancient, hand-cranked, tomato squashing machine—to ready them for sauce. The view from my upstairs bedroom window looked like the chainsaw bathtub scene from Scarface. The sauce was excellent.
Around the corner from my apartment was the Korean nail salon, called Fancy Finger. I loved Fancy Finger. I would walk in the door, a little bell would ring, and Mrs. Kim, the proprietor, hunched over another client, would yell from behind her surgical mask, “WELCOME FANCY FINGA. PICK COLOR.” I had always chosen pale beige for my working woman hands, and rouge-noir lacquer for my toes. This worked nicely until the final month of my pregnancy. Mrs. Kim refused to paint my toenails a dark color.
“Too much depressing,” she said. “Baby pop out, first thing see devil color. He go back in. No come out. Big scary for baby.”
I argued, but she insisted on candy-pink for my toes. Big scary for me.
“Nicey color. It say, welcome to world, baby.”
Happy Happy Mutha Day.
One afternoon, on my way to a manicure appointment, I dropped off my son at the home of his daycare provider, a Puerto Rican woman named Lisa, who lived two doors down, on the other side of the (supposed) crack house. Lisa had laundered my son’s baby blanket and handed it to me at the door. Rather than return home with the blanket and risk being late for Mrs. Kim, I carried it with me and hustled around the corner to Fancy Finger. Just as I passed the LaBrutto chiropractor office, a large Ryder rental truck raced onto the avenue, swerved onto the curb, and almost hit me. The truck squealed to a halt, right across the street from Astoria General Hospital.
I stood there, freaked out and muttering obscenities. The driver—a Jamaican man—leapt out of the truck screaming about his wife. I couldn’t understand him, but his hysteria indicated he needed help. He flung open the double back doors of the truck, and there, rolling around like a pea in a barrel, was his wife, moaning, crying, and about to give birth.
I didn’t know nothing ‘bout birthin’ babies, but my own baby was six months old and I knew a lot about the panic of childbirth, especially, I imagined, if one was flopping around, panty-less and unharnessed, in an empty truck meant to transport dining tables and bookcases.
I stayed calm and told the husband, who was useless, shouting, and flailing his arms in that alpha-male chop-chop motion, to run to the hospital and get help. I climbed into the truck and got the woman on her back. I shoved my son’s baby blanket—white with colorful airplane embroidery—under her bottom. I tried to soothe her, but her moans had become screams and I could see, when she opened her legs, that the baby was coming. Blood. Lots of blood. Not good.
All I wanted was a manicure, and there I was, an unwilling star in a pilot episode of Call the Midwife.
I glanced up the street and spotted a couple of parked ambulances. Their drivers were probably sitting in the Keystone Diner eating mile-high coconut pie. Frustrating. We were right in front of a damn hospital that boasted dozens of trained medical specialists, we had at least four paramedics within a block’s range, and this poor woman was about to push her infant into the trembling hands of a piano player. Big scary for baby.
Finally, the husband came running back to the truck, followed by two workers and a gurney. One of the ambulances, likely summoned by the hospital, turned on its siren and drove the hundred yards to the truck.
We could have done without that siren. “She’s having a baby!” I yelled. “NOW!”
“We’ve got this, ma’am,” said one of the paramedics as he helped me out of the truck and hopped inside. He evaluated the situation and said, in one of those calm med-tech voices: “Breech. And we’re doing this right here.” I stepped away to give them some space and to help keep the rubberneckers to a minimum.
The baby boy—Astoria’s newest resident—entered the world ass first. The crowd cheered, and I burst into tears. A paramedic wrapped him in my son’s blanket and rushed him into the hospital.
The mother, her eyes squeezed shut against the glare of the Queens sky, chanted: “We are safe. We are safe. We are safe.” The paramedics lifted her onto the gurney and rolled her across the street. The sliding glass doors opened and she disappeared.
I never did get my nails done.
Astoria, Queens was affordable for immigrants, salt of the earth workers, and glossy-faced artists. We worked hard and protected each other. The neighborhood’s residents—from all corners of the world—taught me a lot about fierceness, tolerance, and inner strength. The thick skin I acquired served a purpose. Bootcamp for adulthood.
I left New York City for Germany in 1994. Over the course of fifteen years in Astoria, I had composed several albums of music, made some money, and catapulted myself from chubby-cheeked naivety to pencil-skirted semi-sophistication. I fell in and out of love, occasionally settled for less than I deserved, and figured out how to get more of what I wanted. I ran the gamut of adult feelings—anguish, hunger, ambition, disappointment, elation, loss. It made sense to leave, but it wasn’t easy; Astoria had both grounded me and given me wings.
The RR train became the N train; the Politos sold the house for a small fortune; the flying raccoons relocated. The Jamaican-American baby boy is now twenty-five-years old. From what I’ve heard, the community gleams with the spit shine of gentrification and has become more than a little white-breadish. But I’ve also heard Astoria still celebrates diversity and bows to its ouzo roots. The hospital, school, nursing facility, and funeral home remain in place, waiting for the next round of dreamers, doers, and drifters to move in, move out, move on.
Talk to me about immigration and I will tell you it makes a neighborhood sing. I was there. I know.
Rock and roll to Astoria. Pick color. Haffa cuffa cappy. Love me tender. Come on in. Welcome to world, baby. We are safe.
Happy, happy. Me.
Robin Meloy Goldsby www.goldsby.de Author of PIANO GIRL: A Memoir RHYTHM: A Novel RMG is a Steinway Artist
Thank you pwl! Writing that piece brought back so many wonderful memories. I was inspired by jazz pianist BILLY TEST, who was here in Cologne, Germany, playing concerts with my husband.and the WDR Big Band. Billy is only 29, and lives about a block from our old apartment in Astoria. We got to talking about the neighborhood, and this essay was born!
Robin Meloy Goldsby www.goldsby.de Author of PIANO GIRL: A Memoir RHYTHM: A Novel RMG is a Steinway Artist
Thought I'd check in, finally. It's been a long time. I have read the thread from time to time, but have been gigging much less than before and have thus had fewer "current events" to report.
Despite not gigging as much, I may actually have increased my musical activity. I've been spending an inordinate amount of time here:
... my home studio nook. I'm having a great time fleshing out whatever melody or chord change pops into my head, and especially dabbling on other instruments. I have been promising myself I'd learn to play bass guitar "someday" for at least 35 years. I finally bought one back in February. But I have also developed a fascination for almost anything that can be "hit", as you can see in the photo. I'm not quite retired yet, but I'm pretending as much as possible.
Kathy and I played a wedding a couple of weeks ago (09/08/18).
The groom is the son of friends of ours. The venue is the oldest church in Parsonsfield (original church 1780, this version 1832) , we have been involved in the restoration of the church and this was the first official use since the renovations began a couple of years ago.
The only instrument in the church is an antique pump organ that leaks air and wheezes. I opted to bring my digital keyboard (Yamaha P-80) instead. Actually sound good thanks to the acoustics of the building.
Kathy created a wedding arrangement of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah using a couple of versions she found on the web (including one created by a father for his daughter) and added her own customized wording. She and a good friend of the groom sang it during the service, I managed to capture it and would like to share it with you here...