When I Meet Leonard Cohen

I have never actually been a fan of Leonard Cohen's music (I know some of you want to burn me at the stake right now) but I've always found him charming, intriguing and sexy for an old guy. Years ago, I moved to Montreal on a whim where I hoped to find work and love but all I found was loneliness and a smoker's cough. 

It was in the haze of cigarette smoke and isolation that I also rediscovered my creativity. I found comfort in writing (that's when I started my first blog which has since been forgotten) and fell in love with Montreal as if it were a man I would one day sleep with. There was this little cafe on St. Denis (or was is St. Laurent) where I would go to drink cheap coffee and write my litte heart out. It was across the street from Leonard Cohen's house and rumor had it that he frequented this coffee shop.

I began to daydream about what it would be like to meet him and this story came pouring out of me. Reading it now, so many years later, it is flawed and imperfect but still carries something real for me. I'm not a writer or a storyteller, words are not my forte but this story reminds me of a time when I felt no boundaries to my creativity, I didn't care who saw it or read it. I felt brave, I felt unstoppable. 

It took years to regain that creative traction which I am still straining to grasp onto but I am content to know that I have not given up.

When I meet Leonard Cohen (August 23, 2010)

When I meet Leonard Cohen I’ll tell him about the night my friend showed me his house, right here in Montreal, in the Plateau no less! I will also tell him that I don’t actually know his music or any of his creative endeavors very well but that I do know he is a legend and probably, rightfully so. I don’t think he will be offended. In fact, he will probably find it endearing and laugh in a deep, breathy way. The waitress will come over just as he stops to ask me a question. We will both order coffee, nothing else. He tells me he drinks it black but with a lot of sugar. It’s his way of keeping his dark, sad heart a little bit sweeter.

As he dumps two heaping spoons of white sugar into his small cup of coffee he tells me that he started doing that when he was young, on tour in the states or maybe it was Belgium. He met a young woman there. She was the girlfriend of his hired bass player. Short hair that curled in the sweetest way, like a bowl of Chinese noodles and really long toes. She had been watching him at sound check with a curiosity that he had never seen. He knew it wasn’t lusty or perverse, just a sincere interest in him, the man on stage. He takes a sip of his overly sweetened coffee with a smile that was meant for her, the girl from the past. He is lost in his memories. This memory. I feel honoured that he is sharing it with me.

The waitress refills our coffees without asking. Leonard Cohen doesn’t stop her nor does he recalibrate the mix. I wonder if it’s the act of adding the sugar to his coffee for the fleeting memory it invokes every time he does it or has he grown to like it just that way. Because he hasn’t adjusted the coffee/sugar ratio, I think it’s the former.

He goes on to recollect that night in Belgium, or maybe it was Paris. The sound check was taking too long and it was hot. He could feel her eyes resting heavily on his, even when he wasn’t looking at her. She would get up to get a drink from behind the bar, water, only water. He watched her play with the straw, holding it right at the top, stirring the ice, slowly, obviously thinking about something else. Maybe she was thinking about him. Daydreaming about taking him to her small apartment just around the corner. About how she would have to explain or justify the mess like all women do when they take you home and he would just smile at her, take her hands and kiss her softly on her lips. Or maybe she was bored and wanted to go to the park with her sister and her mom but felt obliged to be close to her boyfriend. Leonard Cohen tells me that he remembers having these very thoughts as he stood under the lights during sound check in Paris. Belgium? Whatever. 

I find myself watching him intently while he digs deep into his Rolodex of memories so that he can finish telling me this story. I wonder where it is coming from or why he wants to share it with me. I am watching his face move, twitch, flutter. His skin hangs just around his mouth but it’s a large mouth that has changed the hearts and minds of so many whenever it opened up to let out the music, poetry or prose. I can tell in the way he is so keen on recounting the details of this story that he is a literary legend for a reason. I feel sad and regretful right in that moment because I never took interest in him before now. At least if I owned one of his albums.

The girl was tall, not overly thin but definitely not overweight, just as a woman should be, he tells me. He couldn’t stop staring at her legs. The shorts she wore were short, denim, torn all over and a belt that likely belonged to her dad or her boyfriend the bassist. And the white t-shirt was kind of see through, just enough to see that she wasn’t wearing a bra and that her breasts were small, a perfect mouthful. He laughs when he says that because we both know that is only something an old man would say about a young, firm-skinned woman. And then he grabs his bottom lip and says, ‘and her socks. Those fucking yellow socks.’ He couldn’t figure out the socks. Why she wore them that day in the heat of the city. He never asked her about them but he often wondered why. He goes on.

Sound check finally came to an end and everyone was cranky. The sun was long gone, the band was tired and had places to be but he had only an empty hotel room to go back to. He moved slowly so that he could watch to see what the girl would do. Her boyfriend came over to her, kissed her cheek and murmured something in response to her pulling away from the kiss. He knew it wasn’t right but he smiled on the inside. He wanted to talk to her. He had questions for her like why she wore yellow socks in the summertime and why she stayed. His movement was slow enough that it was just him, his new briefcase, which he got from an old girlfriend for his last birthday because she thought it would help keep him organized, and the girl left in the bar. She walked right up to him and asked him if he wanted to go have a cup of coffee. He says he remembers letting out a squeak because he was so excited. We both laugh because he used the word squeak and had imagined him making that sound. It seemed impossible for Leonard Cohen to squeak.

The coffee they drank that night was much stronger than the shit we were drinking now, recalls the legend. She led him through small, tree-lined streets where the homes were connected, dark and dim. He says he’s pretty sure it was Paris but maybe it was somewhere in Spain. She giggled the whole time, looking at him and smiling. He had no idea where they were going but knew he wanted to follow. Soon they were holding hands and laughing. He remembers laughing a lot that night. He also remembers that it didn’t feel like it was about sex. He knew she wasn’t there to seduce him. He said it felt really nice. He used the word nice.  Finally they came to a small, late night coffee shop filled with a haze of smoke and old men who, if they were in Canada, would have already been sleeping for hours. He’s sure it was in Paris. She bought him a coffee and ordered herself and decaffeinated tea. She seemed to know everyone in there as she spoke in a language he remembers wanting to learn after that night. French? Spanish? They walked out with their late night drinks and found themselves on a bench, on a hill, overlooking that great city. He can’t fucking remember what city they were in. He apologizes for swearing. 

There is no conversation at first and he forgets about his coffee. He is nervous but knows he has no reason to be. The girl is not looking at the lights that decorate the night sky; she is looking, steadily at her cup of tea. She begins to speak and there were tears. She tells him that she is pregnant and doesn’t want to be. That she doesn’t even love her boyfriend and knows that he sleeps with other women. They started dating when she was only fifteen. She’s never been with anyone else and now that she is pregnant with his baby, she will never know the touch of another man. He insists that they get married and raise the child together. She tells him that she comes from a traditional Catholic family who would disown her if she left him or had an abortion or decided to raise the baby alone. She was trapped. She is sobbing now and apologizes for telling him this because he is just a stranger. He tells her that there is no need to be sorry for being honest and that he knows more than anyone that sometimes it’s easier to be honest with strangers than with the people you love the most.

My coffee is cold now. I haven’t touched it since the second pour. I want Leonard Cohen to keep talking because I feel like this story is a gift. I don’t want him to stop and I want the waitress to come by with a fresh pot of coffee so that we have a reason to keep sitting there. So that he finishes his story. I sense that he feels he is rambling about something that he thinks I have no interest in. I want to beg him to keep going, to tell me what happened. He looks up and around the diner. He is looking for the waitress too. She appears, as if out of thin air, with steaming hot coffee. A third pour. More sugar for Leonard Cohen. 

He goes back to the bench, to the sobbing girl with ugly yellow socks that doesn’t want to be pregnant. Once the tears slow down and she gathers her thoughts, she tells him that the reason she stayed at the bar and watched him so intently was because she was caught in a daydream about the life that she wished belonged to her. That she knew his music and would listen to it over and over again in her small apartment pretending that his words were meant for her. That he was her lover and when he came into town, once or twice a year, he would stay with her, in her bed and they would explore each other’s bodies and share their favourite secrets. She stops and the tears are inching their way over her cheeks again. He feels sad for her but doesn’t want to tell her this because he thinks it will make them both cry.

They sit for what feels like hours. The sun is starting to warm up to the night sky. The colours are vibrant but depressed. They know that their time is coming to an end. He remembers his coffee. It’s cold but he wants it now more than ever. She looks over at him and lets out a timid laugh and pulls out a handful of sugar packs. She tells him that now that she is pregnant coffee is out of the question, not good for the baby. Coffee had been her drink of choice since she was sixteen. Black with too much sugar. She believed it made her dreams sweeter. He offered up his cup to let her add the sugar. She let each pack spill at the same pace, slow and tilted, like a baker pouring flour out of a five-kilo bag. Giving it a swirl to make sure the flavours were good and married, he took a swig. It was sweeter than he expected, much like the girl in the ugly yellow socks. He smiled, and she told him that from now on, he had to drink his coffee black with too much sugar, for her and the life she couldhave had.

I felt my mouth smiling. I watched him take his last sip of cold, sweet coffee. I didn’t know what to say except, ‘thank-you.’ He was quiet, still thinking about the girl. I can see that he is ready to leave. I ask him if he knows what she had. ‘No. I never saw her again and I never did ask her about those fucking socks but I still like my coffee sweet.’

When I meet Leonard Cohen, I will read him this story.

[all images were found on the internet. I take no credit for any of them]

Leonard Cohen recently turned 80 and was quoted as saying that when he turned 80 he would start smoking again. For some reason, that is what I love most about him. I think I too will start smoking again at 80 because why not?