I never finished a short story titled Valium Would Have Helped That Fast, a line stolen from one of Lou Reed’s most notable songs, “Walk on the Wild Side.” It was supposed to be a screenplay about a family that has to leave their home on the East Coast and drive to the West Coast with another family. But it’s actually just two mothers – long-time best friends – and their children in one car, a silver Toyota Previa that likes to overheat at high altitudes. One mother has a single child, the other has four. It involves not just the usual friction of a travelogue melodrama, but also the mothers’ back story – owning a leather handbag company together and operating out of Thailand in the early 1980s. How did they find themselves now at the Trump Casino in Gary, Indiana 20 years later? Since I was about fourteen when I began writing it, chances are it was actually about an even younger girl, who has to leave behind everything she knows, but is nonetheless captivated by what there is to see in the world beyond her horizons; a classic coming-of-age tale augmented by an American crossroads adventure saturated by adolescent egomania. You know, sometimes you have to admit your own true story is painfully unoriginal.
I’ll never be too sure what I wrote down, as it’s lost now. All I remember was that I was dead set on that title. It’s probably been almost a decade since I even thought about it, really. It only returned to memory when I found out that Lou Reed had passed away. Three days after the news, I was playing a tribute show to Reed on my radio program when another DJ became somewhat taken aback by how noticeably upset I was and asked me why I was so moved. Half of my set list that night was Lou Reed, and with each song, I just sort of sighed.
I’ve read what others have had to say about it and I’m no different. I told the concerned DJ it was because I didn’t realize how much Reed’s work influenced and shaped me. I am not a musician – I am just a writer who pored over his lyrics as a young teenager. I could not fully grasp a concept as foreboding as drug addiction when I was fourteen, but each of his songs was visually compelling to me. His poetic sketches of lewd scenarios and vivid, poignant characters made an impression on my angst-ridden mind. Each song was a story, with prose so heart-wrenchingly soulful and seminal that my own writing could never be the same. I have strived for both the same introspection and outward observance that Lou Reed exemplified. It didn’t hurt that it was rock n’ roll at its most raw to boot. I would put tracks of his along with Elvis Costello, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie on mix CDs for friends, and they would roll their eyes.
Over the years I have unfortunately come to learn more about things like drug addiction, suicide, sexual promiscuity, and abuse in all its painful forms, though I’m no expert and sincerely never hope to be. I am, however, certainly familiar with depression and a feeling of embittered existential hopelessness and grace. Reed didn’t write only about such tribulations, but one must admit these were palpable themes. The reason I found his work particularly intriguing was because unlike so much of the MTV-driven music that surrounded my teenage years in the mid-2000s, his kind of partying and experience wasn’t exactly glorified. When you hear “Heroin” it’s not like you really want to be there alongside Reed – this music was a little too brutally honest at times. I found neither poetry nor musical boldness in the music that permeated the contemporary airwaves, but rather blatant, trite narcissism and vapid consumerism uniquely designed, manufactured and delivered to the masses.
To further illustrate, at my high school senior prom the last song of the night to be played was Usher’s “Love in this Club,” a tune so overplayed and unabashedly vacuous I left the dance floor and stood heaving over the tacky toilet in the bathroom of the Venus di Milo restaurant in Swansea, Massachusetts. Somewhere on the dance floor, my date was dancing with my best friend and Usher reverberated off of the fake marble with the transcendent words: On the couch, on the table, on the bar, on the floor / You can meet me in the bathroom, you know I’m trained to go. I went and looked in the mirror, and didn’t quite recognize myself in my Grecian blue dress and hairsprayed up-do. At seventeen, was I really the home-wrecker, slut, juvenile delinquent, spoiled brat, troubled middle child, Jewish white girl that others saw me as? I would, of course, have to admit that most teenagers are self-conscious, if not fully deluded in how they believe others to perceive them, but it’s different when you have actually been called those things repeatedly. And how many days had it been since my mom was in the hospital for her chronic illness or months since I’d last seen my father? Did I forget to pack a lunch for my brother and sister? Did I get into college? Why was our car repossessed and why did we have to move again? Why did I let that coke dealer touch me? What should I say when I take the stand? And why can’t I remember the capital of Iraq?
Sometimes I wonder who am I / who made the trees – who made the sky / who made the storms – who made heartbreak / I wonder how much life I can take.
Later that same night, I ended up at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Providence for a prom after-party. Finally, climbing the social strata of my inner-city public school had paid off, and I was going to the ritziest gathering with all the supposed popular kids, right? All I can remember was that the shower tub was filled with ice and cheep beer cans, bottles of whiskey were on the coffee table and we smoked blunts on a king-sized bed in the master bedroom. Then, people began to crash the party and there was talk about maybe going to a strip club or other, better parties elsewhere. I think my date left without me. I stared hopelessly at the boy I actually liked, now slumped over in an inebriated heap on one of the couches. I sat on the ledge, looked out the window, and could smell the roasted almonds wafting upward all those stories from a vendor below. But at that hour the streets were now empty, the buses had stopped running, the city was silent, and so was I. My best friend and I slept cramped awkwardly on the hotel floor beside one another and woke up at first light, if we’d even slept at all. We silently walked to Kennedy Plaza and took a bus back to the east side where we lived. We’d taken off our high heels and parted on the corner of her street. Each of us walked barefoot the rest of the way alone, still in our gowns. Going home with my best friend that day was sort of a manifestation of all my frustrations and apprehensions; we had been so close, yet were totally divergent now. I still wonder, like the lines from “Candy Says” – What do you think I’d see if I could walk away from me?
We went away to college that autumn, and Reed continued to influence my writing even then. My freshman year I wrote a paper for a film history course. It was the first essay of the semester and the assignment wasn’t comparative or analytic, but rather a personal reflection of a favorite film and our experience in watching it. I wrote about American Beauty and how I identified strongly with a few of the characters. Reading it now, I’m fairly embarrassed by it, but in providing context it remains true that, “I was your typical fifteen-year-old girl – if you consider average moving approximately once a year since age eleven, changing schools more than five times in that time, having a knack for collecting rocks, and listening to Lou Reed.” This line in particular caught my professor’s eye and he addressed me in an email: “When you come to class, please introduce yourself to me – I want to put a face to the great paper.” Quickly, this professor became somewhat of a mentor to me, and I would often visit his office, where he had a Velvet Underground banana magnet posted on his mini-fridge.
Of course, Lou Reed has been there for every heartbreak, too. Rather than it being Sunday morning, I found out he was gone at exactly 1:59 PM. When I read the text from my brother, I felt my body flinch. I can’t fully remember now where I was when I read it. I know I was in my car, parked somewhere and I just laid my head on the steering wheel. That Sunday was supposed to be my day off, but a coworker desperately called out and needed me to cover. Technically I’d already quit that awful job at this frozen yogurt shop. I had put in my two weeks’ notice after a year and a half of scrubbing hardened yogurt off floors and wistfully staring at the bar across the street. In such a small town as this, every place and every face was recognizable. It’s hard to explain, but maybe you know you’ve been somewhere too long when you go out for a pack of smokes and end up running into the one person in at least a 50-mile radius you did not want to see. Maybe it really is time to leave when the man on the street that is assuredly insane lingers as he walks past to address you as “froyo” and asks what your deal is. To that, I wish I could have replied “I’m waiting for my man,” but he was long gone.
I figured one more night shift wouldn’t change that feeling. Thankfully, I got to work with my brother, so that night we played all of our Lou Reed favorites over the sound system – stereo all the way up – and he told me about how one day he was going to get the lyrics “you’re going to reap just what you sow” from “Perfect Day” as a tattoo. I was locking up the store for what I knew was the last time, and I took a look around and felt a sense of complacency. I went to the bathroom mirror and, after taking off my uniform, felt truly satisfied knowing this was the last time I had to do so – this was my last shot. I walked around to the back to lock up, catching one last glimpse of that dark bar. I couldn’t remember the last time I went there. Oh, and I guess I just don’t know.