Driving my 7-year-old daughter home from her gymnastics class tonight, we’re listening to the radio.  Bruno Mars’ “Gorilla” comes on, and I use the confused irritation she expressed the last time we heard this ode to intoxicated sex (“Why is he singing about gorillas?!”) as excuse to turn the station.  I’ve discovered recently that I’m not very good as a sociologist in explaining the facts of life to my daughter and her younger brother — not because I want to protect my already sheltered kids from adult realities, but because I lack a finer sense of knowing when not to go down there when a topic offers no tidy conclusion without threatening more childhood anxieties and sleepless nights.

I turn the dial to WDST.  “Hey, this is a great song,” I say as I turn up the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider.”

“Dad, don’t go that way,” my daughter directs me from the back seat.

“Okay.  Sometimes when it’s dark, it’s good not to drive down that windy forest road.  I don’t want a deer to dart out of nowhere.  Going this way, you can see much further ahead,” I explain, offering an unsolicited driving tip eight years too early.

We’re about four minutes from home when Lou Reed’s “Dirty Boulevard” comes on.  Uh oh, I think, I’m going to get emotional.  I keep quiet, listening to those simple three guitar chords frame Lou’s story of Pedro living out of the Wilshire Hotel:

He looks out a window without glass
And the walls are made of cardboard, newspapers on his feet
And his father beats him ’cause he’s too tired to beg

I begin to realize that these lyrics may be even harder to explain to my daughter than Bruno Mars’ body full of liquor, but I’m too focused on Lou’s story of Pedro ending up on the dirty boulevard, too busy trying not tearing up, to do anything but keep listening.

Outside it’s a bright night
There’s an opera at Lincoln Center
Movie stars arrive by limousine
The klieg lights shoot up over the skyline of Manhattan
But the lights are out on the mean streets

“Dad, what traffic is he talking about?”

Inaudibly choking up: “He’s talking about the traffic in Manhattan.  This song is about how New York City can be a really hard place,” I note, entering the realm of About To Say Too Much.  “It’s not as nice for everyone as it is for Grandma and Grandpa.”

“It’s not?”

“No, honey.  This is a story about an immigrant boy who lives with his nine brothers and sisters.  They have it really hard, and he has to beg instead of going to school.  Do you know what beg means?”


“It means you have to ask people to give you money.  Or he has to sell flowers to make a living.”

“What’s an immigrant?”

“It’s someone who comes from another country, maybe because they’re really poor and this is the only place they can make a living.  It’s really hard for him, and he just wants to fly, fly away.”

Fly, fly away

Song over, the DJ comes on, announcing in a serious tone that Lou Reed passed away last night at the age of 71.

“He died at 71?  Isn’t that too early to die?”

“Well, it’s an old age.  Mom’s dad died at that age, didn’t he?”

“Mom’s dad died at 71.”

“Yeah.  Lou had a hard life, but it all ended up okay.  He ended up being a great artist.  He changed music.”

As our car pulls into the garage, she has to ask: “How did he die?”

“Oh, honey…”  Sniff.  “I’ll tell you some other time.  I love you.”