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I never met Lou Reed, though I saw him play a few times, once with his band at Radio City, once with John Cale and Sterling Morrison (!) in an impromptu reunion at a Cale show at a small space downtown, around the time of Songs for Drella. And he and Laurie Anderson were all over the city on warm summer nights and cool autumn days. I remember them in Grange Hall, one night. I remember, another time, walking by a couple deep in thoughtful conversation in an alcove in Soho, and abruptly realizing it was them. Years ago, Cecilia and I heard him read poetry on New Years Day at St Marks Church on the Lower East Side, which has a very cool 24-hour poetry reading that happens every year. The city is diminished by his absence.
That said, I know two stories about Lou Reed. They didn’t happen to me, but they both happened to people I know. Here they are:
Many years ago, my great friend Phil was a booker on the Dr. Ruth Show, and as such, was tasked with the job of finding people of public stature willing to come on cable television and discuss sex with a very short, very smart, very grandmotherly older woman. Not the easiest charge, but he was remarkably skilled at it.
One afternoon Phil is flipping through the racks at a not particularly upscale men’s clothing store, long gone now, on the Upper West Side. And he hears a voice, and looks up, and there is Lou Reed, two racks away, shopping. And usually Phil is fearless, but this is Lou Reed, the man who outhipped Andy Warhol, the man who made the world safe for transvestites, the man whose sexuality had been a thriving public theater of carnality even as it managed never to eclipse the music he made. And Phil wanted to talk to him. Phil wanted to say something memorable and of import. So he walked up to him, and then, confounded by the reality that whatever he said about the man’s foundational cultural achievements would be the same thing every other fanboy had ever said, my friend Phil said this:
“Mr. Reed—would you like to be on the Dr. Ruth Show?”
And Lou Reed looked at him, and curled his lip, and said, in his dry, guttural voice:
“Not in a dream.”
That’s one story. The other is this:
My great friend Rick is waiting for a down elevator on the third floor of a tall office tower in midtown. And it arrives and dings, and he gets on without looking, and it shoots up to the upper stratosphere of that particular chunk of real estate, way up high where the expensive law offices are. And the elevator opens, and in walks Lou Reed, with a little lawyer guy in a suit. And the door closes, and Lou is obviously furious and wounded and, even silent, barely able to contain the volume of emotion he’s feeling. And the entire ride down, my friend is extremely aware that something is not right with Lou Reed, that something is, in fact, seriously and terribly wrong. And finally the elevator slows as it approaches the lobby, and Lou Reed turns to the lawyer person, and says:
“Does that mean she can take my house?”
I’ve now forgotten which year I acquired a cow’s horn and decided I needed to turn it into a unicorn horn for Halloween. Obviously, it was a year in which my glasses frames were especially grim. I spent a futile weekend trying to figure out a way of affixing the horn to my head, and then my mother Grayson had the bright idea of taking it to the Dark Shadows prop department and having them solve the dilemma. They put on padding, drilled holes into the sides of the horn, and bolted on a velcro strap. Though I absolutely adored the final result, and wanted to wear it everywhere, as the photo plainly illustrates I did not look like a unicorn. I looked like a grade school kid with glasses and a horn bolted onto his head. But in my mind….
My parents, Grayson and Sam, came to New York to recreate themselves, as millions have before and after, and in that giddy rush of love and freedom they discovered food.
Serous food. Food they’d not had in the mid-century culinary wastelands of Philadelphia and Ohio.
Food like snails.
At that time in America, French cuisine was making the first breach against the hegemony of pot roast. Perhaps it was a postwar thing—a generation of American men had fought their way through Europe and came back deep in thought about what they’d seen and helped protect. (My father, who was DDay + 2 and walked from Normandy Beach to Munich, describes French villages offering calvados to the entering American troops—it was all they had left; the Germans had taken all the wine.) After a lengthy gestation, these shifts in American taste would manifest in the runaway success of Julia Child’s two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961. And my parents were swept along in the rising tide.
I grew up eating snails—escargot, in the argot. And I loved them. Bathed in butter and garlic and parsley—hell, you could serve drier lint in that sauce, with a crisp white wine, tell people it’s seaweed or corn fungus, and most everyone would larrup through it. My steak-and-scotch used-car-dealer maternal grandfather (about whom more elsewhere in this blog) would mock me when I ordered snails in restaurants; I would experience the sharp wedge of internal recrimination at his casual pointed contempt, and then the snails would arrive, bubbling hot in their shells in their metal serving dish, served with an elegant tong utensil with no possible use outside of snail consumption, and I would know I was right and he was wrong. These were delicious. And my mother, across the table, ever evolving in her own complicated dance of enmity and need with her father, would take in my enjoyment versus her father’s incuriosity and smile with something approaching pride.
Until I, perpetually fighting overweight, would reach for that second piece of bread to soak up the remains of the butter. Then the balance would shift and I’d get the stern glance.
In New York at that moment, 9th avenue was the foodie mecca. Chic east side matrons might buy their imported canned products at Maison Glass or Copenhagen, but the truly intrepid would find the real deal for less at the much more earthy butchers and provisioners on 9th. And one day my parents learned that their favorite such store had brought in crates of live edible snails from France.
This was new: every snail we’d ever eaten had come from a can. The recommended recipe was simple: soak the snails in a mixture of brandy and heavy cream overnight. The snails suck up the cream, the brandy kills them, and when you cook them, the cream and brandy transmute into texture and flavor.
Sounded hard to resist. Dad went to 9th avenue, used the excuse to pick up a couple of bottles of serious expensive brandy, got the cream and returned home with the snails in a rustic wooden crate, leaking straw. They set it on the counter and turned their attention to a more pedestrian dinner; no doubt steak Dianne, steak in a shallot/butter/cognac sauce; we made it a lot, and if they had purchased an expensive brandy to cook with, I can see them trying their standard recipe with a new twist. My parents being my parents, wine was served.
And then, once the dishes from that had been washed and put away, they turned their attention to the snails. They poured themselves an after-dinner brandy, consulted the recipe, opened the crate and began the process of picking the snails out of the straw, rinsing them in the sink and putting them in a ceramic bowl. And it was at this moment that the fact that these were living creatures, each individual, each yearning, intent on survival, trying to thrive, began to weigh heavily on my mother, whose empathy toward all things trapped and cornered, whether gastropod or human, was an unwavering burning flame. But more brandy and the thought of the final triumphant snail feast rallied her past the self-doubt, much as the sheer goodness of the metal dish of snails in butter had allowed me to metabolize my grandfather’s contempt.
So: the snails were ready, in the bowl. They added the brandy. They added the heavy cream. And with one last snifter of brandy, they toddled off to bed.
But they forgot to cover the bowl.
And when they woke up the next morning, bleary with a sharp brandy hangover, they stumbled into the kitchen…
To find the walls covered in trails of brandy-cream slime, and at the end of each, a drunken, cream-soaked, dying snail.
And so they spent the morning with a ladder and stepstool plucking down snails and scrubbing brandy-cream trails off the walls.
And then, finally, when the entire ordeal was over, they went back to bed.