There once was a small restaurant called Bright Food Shop at the corner of 21st street and 8th Avenue. On and off, during a 10-year stretch from 1994 through 2004 I worked there as a waiter. The former diner, conceived and cheffed by the couple Stuart Tarabour and Dona Abramson, featured a bold menu that was always evolving, but held true to a fusion of fresh Asian and southwestern ingredients.
Bright Food Shop was also one of those unscripted New York City places, where the room, the staff even the furniture lacked any sense of pretension. The combination created an understated sense of city sophistication. It's probably a big reason why Bright Food Shop drew so many 'cool' downtown regulars and a number of celebrities.
Among the more famous: Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, who almost always showed up together. And, while Lou Reed sometimes 'seemed' grouchy, and was known to sometimes sort of snarl, he was never nasty or belittling to us. Ultimately too, Laurie Anderson's smile and kind demeanor brushed over his tough exterior.
While I knew Lou Reed's music growing up in Alabama, it wasn't until I lived in New York that I realized that the song "Walk on the Wild Side" was downtown scripture. This land of tall buildings, subways, honking horns and residents so driven, so engaged by the world around them, also was home to another kingdom downtown, where freaks were royalty, a place where conventional thinking often got shredded on cold city streets, forgotten to time and disdain.
I think it was that figurative middle finger to the idea of traditional social norms that initially fascinated, then sold me on the concept of New York City. Living in the setting of many Lou Reed songs, I started to fully appreciate that the artist was a living example of the city's willingness to experiment, and reinvent, he embodied the spirit of Gotham.
By 2004, my friend Josh Wood, the promoter and event producer was putting together a celebrity filled event at the now-closed Chelsea mega-club Crobar raising money for the nonprofit group Freedom to Marry. Among the performers: Erasure, Alan Cumming and as it turns out, Lou Reed.
I'd ask Josh Wood if I could volunteer at the event, and he'd said yes. Turns out though, he wanted me to be Lou Reed's sort-of handler.
Remembering his sometimes less-than-warm demeanor, I was worried, since there was no indication that Laurie Anderson would be coming along as well.
I was a bit nervous, but I figured I could pull it off. Besides that, maybe he'd remember me from Bright Food Shop.
Reed showed up with who I am pretty sure was his publicist. He didn't say anything to me. I escorted them to an area in the upstairs part of the club. Once seated, I ask if he'd like something to drink. I asked how he was. Awkward silence ensued.
Reed then whispered something in the publicist's ear. Instantly, she asked me to get him some water.
I got the water; no acknowledgement whatsoever for the effort. By then, my nerves were shattered, thinking maybe I'm over-doting on Lou Reed or perhaps he doesn't like me..
Finally the show was on, and there were a couple of other performances, but soon enough it was Lou Reed's turn on stage. I walked down the stairs with him and the publicist. We stood on the side and watched him make his way up to the microphone.
The crowd went wild for Reed. I think, in part, the enthusiasm had to do with his mere presence at an event those of us there felt was about nothing less than being accepted as full and equal members of society. Despite the fact, so many considered same-sex marriage, immoral or unconventional, Lou Reed was in essence showing his support for us.
And then, something magic happened.
Instead of piped music, lip syncing or any other synthetic bells and whistles performers often resort to, Lou Reed performed a spoken word version of "Walk on the Wild Side."
"Everybody had to pay and pay, a hustle here, and hustle there, New York City's the place where they said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side, I said hey Joe, take a walk on the wild side."
Once done, Reed said a few words to the crowd then made his way off stage. He didn't stick around for the after party or anything, instead, he and his publicist wanted to go ahead and leave, so I walked them both to the exit in the back of the club. It was time for me to say goodbye to them, so I figured that he'd just go, and that would be that.
Then we stopped, and Reed put his arms around me, and he hugged me and he said, "Thank you."