#87: Lou Reed – New York (1989)

Throughout 2022 I’ll be counting down my 100 favorite albums, because why not. I’m up to number eighty-seven.

It was Primary Election Day in my beloved New York City. My job as the head of licensing at Jive Records, representing artists such as Britney Spears, A Tribe Called Quest and ★NSYNC, was just eight short city blocks from my apartment in Chelsea. My plan was to stop to vote on my walk to work and, if time allowed (meaning the bustling sidewalks of New York weren’t too crowded and there were no lines at the polling center), stop by Krispy Kreme to pick up a couple of their trademark glazed donuts. It was on the way and any willpower I may have had was no match for the smell of the freshly baked goods that wafted onto the street.

After showering I turned on the television to New York 1, our local news station, to get the weather report. They had a live feed from the World Trade Center. There was a plane flying very close to one of the Twin Towers. The camera stayed on the plane, while the reporter said that nobody knows what the plane is doing there. “Stupid pilot,” I thought. “How do you not see such a high building?”

My phone rang. It was my assistant. “I’m going to be a little late for work today. Something’s going on at the World Trade Center and my mom works in one of the towers. I want to make sure she’s alright and then I’ll come in.”

“Yeah, I’m watching this on TV. Just come in whenever. No problem. I’ll see you when you get there.”

Then the plane flew into the tower.

As I’m watching, another plane appears on the right side of my TV screen. It flies into the second building. What is happening? It seems like I just saw planes fly into buildings, but that can’t be. What is going on with me?

I turned off the TV and headed to the polls in a haze. I voted. I skipped the donuts. There were only four people at my office when I got there, just before 10 AM. One was my boss’ boss, and three were assistants, huddled around a cubicle outside my office, listening to the radio report of what was happening two miles south of where we were.

I turned on my computer and started to read my email. I heard the announcement that one of the towers was crumbling down.

I went numb. I found myself incapable of working. Just before 10:30 my boss’ boss stopped by my office. He saw me working (or so it appeared) without my radio on. “The second tower is falling. You can go home if you need to.”

I nodded. I couldn’t speak. I turned off my computer and headed toward home.

The ten minute walk home felt much longer. I couldn’t look up, as my home is in the direction where the towers are – were. The streets of Chelsea were dead silent. There were people walking on the sidewalk. Nobody said a word. Small crowds gathered in front of shops that set up television sets in the window. This didn’t feel like my New York, where I was born, and where I had lived the last 13 years, moving to Manhattan a couple of years after I graduated from college.

I got home, closed the door, threw myself on the bed, and lost it. I cried for my city. I cried for my assistant’s mother. I cried for the wives and children and father of my two step-brothers, who worked on Wall Street, just steps away from the World Trade Center. I cried for everyone who worked there, for everyone living in Manhattan, for the whole world.

Phone service for land lines, the only phone I had at that time, was spotty. For several hours I kept trying to reach my mother or sister to tell them I was okay. Eventually I reached my sister’s answering machine. My message consisted of a lot of sobbing and telling her that if she can get through to mom let her know I was fine.

My brother’s call made it through to me. He told me which train to take from Penn Station to meet him with his family at his in-laws house in Pennsylvania. My former co-worker Margaret’s call made it through. She told me which train to take from Grand Central Station to get to her home outside of New York City. I appreciated their offers, though at that moment, I didn’t want to leave the cocoon that was my apartment.

Later that afternoon my mom’s call got through to me. We both cried, relieved to hear each other’s voice. She told me my stepbrothers were fine – they hadn’t made it into the city yet by the time the attacks, as we learned these were, happened.

By 8 PM I was able to stop crying long enough to find something to eat. When I opened my apartment door, I saw the hallway was filled with smoke. A neighbor happened to be in the hall at that moment. He told me “There is a fire downstairs. The fire department is on the way.” Fine. Let all these things happen today. I’m already exhausted and emotionally spent. Tomorrow we will return to life as normal.

That didn’t happen. The next day, as I walked to work, I couldn’t help but notice there were no passenger cars on the street – just emergency vehicles, sirens blaring. Police cars, fire engines, ambulances. The National Guard was posted on every corner. The streets were closed off two blocks south of me; you were not allowed below 14th Street unless you could prove you lived there.

I thought going to work would take my mind off what was happening in my city and provide some semblance of normalcy. However, my co-workers didn’t come in. And the lights in the common areas were off. And our internet access was down. And the phones were not working. Rather than distract from what happened the prior day, it accentuated it. I lasted a half hour. As I walked home I noticed fliers appeared on the bus shelters and sides of buildings – “Have You Seen This Person? He was last seen at the World Trade Center.”

The night of September 12 I had dinner with my friend Jesse. Every restaurant in Chelsea – every restaurant that was open – was packed. People were celebrating. Not celebrating the attacks, but celebrating the city all of us love – its resilience, its sense of community, the way we look out for each other and have each other’s back, the way we stick together, our defiance. If it’s going to be “us” against “them,” they will not prevail. I imagine hearing of celebration on lower Manhattan on September 12 sounds odd, and I’m sure at that moment most of us didn’t process it the way I laid it out in those last few sentences, but I think we all realized our time on this planet is limited, so cherish your friends and family and celebrate life. I don’t know if that would happen in any other city, but it felt very New York, the city I still loved and had no intention of abandoning.

I went to work Thursday and Friday but again, I didn’t last long. By this time our neighborhood reeked of the smell of burning buildings and burning bodies. Every available wall space was plastered with notices about missing people. Our internet service was back at work. I received a few emails from my overseas contacts, none asking about their Britney Spears license requests, but rather asking how I was doing, if I’m alright. I was very moved by their concern.

The following Monday everybody was back at work. My assistant was there. His mom was fine. He explained that she was working at the World Trade Center a few years earlier when a bomb went off, so this time at the first sign of something unusual, she got out of the building and went home. We had a company-wide pizza party for lunch, and while my co-workers were alright, we did lose someone connected to us.

One of the artists we represented was Backstreet Boys. They were on a tour stop in Boston. One of their crew members, Daniel Lee, left the tour early to be with his wife, who was about to give birth any day. On September 11 Daniel boarded an American Airlines flight to New York. His daughter was born two days later. He never met her.

September 11, 2002. My alarm went off at 8:30 AM, and my first thought, the second the alarm went off, was “I’m alive.” I got out of the shower and turned on New York 1. They were talking about the events of one year prior. I can’t.

I switched to VH-1. They were talking to musicians about the events of the previous year. MTV, BET, same thing. I switched to MTV2. They were showing a music video by the rapper Ludacris. “Move bitch, get out the way, get out the way, bitch, get out the way. Move bitch.” That was so inappropriate, and just what I needed. It made me laugh.

And with a smile on my face, I left my home and walked the streets of my beloved New York City to my office. Move? Not this bitch. Ludicrous!

Just two years later I did move. To Los Angeles, to take a job as the Vice President of Licensing at Warner Music. Los Angeles has its good points. There’s the weather, and a cemetery that hosts outdoor movie screenings during the summer, and, uh, the weather. However, this essay is about New York and New York.

I love New York because of its convenience. One can find virtually anything at any time without having to go too far. I love how easy it is to make plans. “I’ll take the subway to you, meet you in front of your building, and we’ll go to Mary Ann’s Restaurant on the corner for delicious inexpensive Mexican food or if that’s too crowded we’ll walk a few blocks north to Bendix Diner for delicious inexpensive Thai food or eat at the Cuban place or the Italian place or the burger place or the Chinese place that are between those two.” I love that New York’s residents are effortlessly stylish. I love New York’s energy. I love New York’s liveliness. I love that though I lived alone, I didn’t feel lonely, as the city was my lover, always there for me and giving me what I wanted. I love New York’s diversity. I love how innovative New York’s is in the arts, particularly in my main passion – music, birthing hip hop and punk rock and Broadway. I love that New Yorkers are authentic and don’t sugarcoat their opinions.

I’m not alone in my love for New York. The city has been feted many times in song (and in film and in books). Lou Reed’s New York doesn’t lionize the city the way other music inspired by it does. Reed, an English major in college who studied creative writing and film, presents us with 14 vignettes that introduce the listener to original characters and paint vivid pictures of a New York that isn’t otherwise sung about. It’s a city where an abused Hispanic boy living in deplorable conditions is ignored by the city’s moneyed residents. Where Black citizens are killed by white policemen and vigilantes. Where politicians and religious leaders are taken to task for being hypocrites and bigots. Where the celebration of the West Village Halloween parade is tempered by the loss of so many of its usual celebrants to AIDS. Where abuse begets abuse. Where it’s too late to save the environment.

This isn’t Reed saying New York is a terrible place to live. To me, he wants this wonderful place to be better and more fair and feel wonderful to all of its denizens. Yes, New York had its share of problems when this album came out in 1989. It’s now 2022, and we’re still grappling with poverty, income disparity, the unjust killing of Black citizens, hypocritical bigoted politicians and religious leaders, and environment in need of saving, and a deadly virus. The cycle continues. The problems exist, no matter the city.

I love New York for all it offers. While that doesn’t make up for its troubles, it does create a balance. I love New York because it’s moving, it’s thought-provoking, it’s melodic, the musicianship is tight and on point, and Lou Reed’s singing combines anger and sincerity and passion and hope. Mostly I love New York because like the city’s residents, it’s authentic and doesn’t sugarcoat anything.

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