An excerpt of this piece originally appeared in the digital publication PleaseKillMe.com on October 22nd, 2020:
(C) Copyright 2020 by Austin Brookner. All Rights Reserved.
“Yo, Austin. You’re one talented mutherfucker.”
With these words I was immediately disarmed and it was as though I was seeing my long lost brother and we had known each other our entire lives.
I was so full of adrenaline the night before I did not sleep a wink. I rose early that Sunday morning from a couch in Brooklyn and took the train into Manhattan to Bleecker Street and from there walked to Hudson Street and then all the way down Hudson to the corner of Hudson and Leonard. It was a long walk but I had left early enough and allowed plenty of time so as to arrive on time.
The streets were familiar. As a young boy, before my family moved thirty miles west across the Hudson River, I had gone to school nearby on the west side of Manhattan. In kindergarten at that school I had two girlfriends and married them both. A polygamist at the age of six. As I continued to walk the cranes and scaffolding became less and less, and the buildings enveloped a quiet comforting solitude.
As I walked further and further down Hudson I walked away from my life and away from that feeling I could never quite describe but was always there throughout high school, college, and post-graduate Brooklyn – that something was awry. There was something about the whole deal that was wrong.
I knew I was walking into something that had nothing to do with that world. I was walking into what would erase that which had been heaved upon me from a young boy to a young man, that I never believed in, but did not quite know precisely why.
I knew it from the moment I put his book Hellfire in my hands. His books were gifts that I’d hold on to my whole life. After that I read In The Hand Of Dante and in this I heard a voice speak directly to me unlike any other voice I had heard before. I read In The Hand Of Dante soon before I would come upon his lyrics posted on the internet for “I’m In Love With Your Knees” with the invitation: lyrics in search of song. I read those lyrics and felt them to be scary, forbidden words that held within them the crack of thunder, the weight of truth, and the lack of guilt or apology.
I held onto the email I received after sending the tape:
From: Nick Tosches
Date: Sunday, August 17, 2008 10:19 am
Subject: "Im in Love with Your Knees"
Thanks and congratulations. After numerous attempts by others, you
have managed to bring forth the rhythm and melody for which "I'm in
Love with your Knees" has long been waiting.
I like both versions, but am partial to the first, with piano and
drums. The vocal on the guitar version is clearer, and I think that
if you could mix the clarity of that vocal with the piano-and-drums
version, we'd be almost home.
The little changes you made to the lyrics are really good, and they
should stay. If you feel that the classical Greek phrase (Hesiod's
words for "limb-loosening Eros") should be left out, it's all right
by me. If, however, you want to learn how to pronounce it, I can let
We live not too far from one another. I'll look forward to hearing
from you, and to our carrying this into the light of day and dark of night.
P.S.: If you print up any more copies of this CD, please add the
following copyright line:
Lyrics copyright (c) 2008 by Nick Tosches, Inc. (You should then also
add a similar copyright line for your music.)
P.P.S.: This is my private e-mail address. Please don't share it with
And that was how I found myself walking to his apartment that Sunday morning. On the couch when Nick and I first met as if knowing he said, “I don’t know where you stole this from…” and while I never admitted it to him, I did kinda steal the song “I’m In Love With Your Knees.” I stole the riff from something I had heard on a television commercial, and the song structure and chord changes from Tom Waits’s “Tango ‘Til They’re Sore.” But I masked it and changed it enough to make it new. Nick had the ability to look through you and you felt that he could see and know everything; there was no need to hide or lie because he seemed to know it all anyway.
Nick was talking about a lawyer friend of his that was trying to see if he could legally marry a woman’s knees. Later on he said the next time I came to visit him that his entire library room full of books would become a room dedicated to his socks. I laughed. He told me he was serious. He was both the most out there cat there was and also as rock solid as they come; saw things with crystal clear clarity and gave you the most sound advice that would truly save you from the fire.
I was nervous the first time we met but Nick was good at filling an awkward empty silence. He had enough stories to fill the empty space for many lifetimes over. He told me about when he was at Johnny Cash’s house for his wife’s – June Carter’s – birthday party and didn’t want to be rude but didn’t want to eat the cake on account of his diabetes. Johnny Cash said to Nick: “I got diabetes too. It’s the woman’s birthday – eat the damn cake.”
After calling me “a talented mutherfucker” his next words to me on that Sunday morning was an offer of “heroin, morphine, absinthe, coffee, tea, pot, whiskey, wine…” I went for absinthe, coffee, and pot. He laid a grand Ziploc bag of weed on me.
After hanging in his apartment for a little while we went for a stroll down Hudson Street to the Reade Street Pub. Everybody who walked by seemed to know him and would continue some conversation they seemed to have going from the time before. Everybody had a smile on their face when they saw him.
Sometimes we’d have a crack at the word jumble puzzles from a paper that was lying around the pub. Our gauge of how hung-over we were was how long it took us to figure out the words. Nick of course got all of them within a moments glance. The hardest ones I don’t think I could ever get, drunk or sober.
In the beginning were the days of Guinness, coffee from the Korean deli across Reade street, Parliament lights for outside and unfiltered Camels for indoors. Later it became Lagunitas, then off beer completely and onto Vodka sodas. Then port and a cigar, Marlboro 27s for outside and brown unfiltered American spirits for inside, and vodka’s sodas at Puffy’s Tavern after the afternoon port and cigar if we were in the mood, then Benedictine as a late late nightcap. And of course a constant merry go ‘round at every opportunity of Grady’s Cold Brew with milk.
Nick’s pal Bob Pomeroy was responsible for the Grady’s Cold Brew addiction. As Bob said to me: “You know, I turned him on to that stuff, but it was funny how it happened. I met him on the bench one summer day, and he was drinking some ‘cold brew’ swill from Morgan's Market across the street (Reade Street). I tried to tell him about this much better stuff, Grady's, with chicory in it that made it smooth and rich. ‘No, I don't like chicory,’ he dismissed it. Ok, fine, never mind, I thought. But he'd keep bringing it up later. ‘So, that Grady's stuff... Is it a lot of chicory?’ ‘I don't know, Nick. It's fuckin good is all I know. Just try it.’ ‘No, no, it's probably no good.’ That happened a few times, then the next time he brought it up he'd finally tried it. ‘Whudja think?’ ‘Man,’ he said. ‘That's the best stuff I've found in probably five years!’ Soon afterward, while visiting his place, I looked in his fridge and there had to be a dozen bottles of the stuff in there! Ha ha, all or nothing, I guess.”
One of the first things Nick said to me on the bench outside Reade Street was: “Stay humble; it only gets harder.” The reason behind this is that you keep trying to go deeper. Hanging with Nick had the same effect as reading his books for me. He put things in their proper perspective and made the world and it’s bullshit not matter while at the same time centered me in the right place within it.
The second time we hung out Nick remarked, “Austin, each time we see each other is even better than the last.” For the second go around my nervous energy had been lifted, and we were simply two pals hanging as conspirators (a word he taught me literally meant “to share breathe”).
We were scheming to make a proper studio record out of the tape I sent him for “I’m In Love With Your Knees.” I had sent him two versions. We listened in silence to them both. We settled on the version with just guitar, which was also the first version I recorded. As Nick said, sometimes the first one has that spontaneity that makes it stand out.
Nick had wanted a cello for the proper studio record. We couldn’t find one so settled on two violinists: my gal pal whose bed I had slept in the night before the recording session, and a friend of his. Nick pulled my friend out of the booth she was in on the grounds that she was fucking up his friend and that “I was just trying to get my finger in her ass,” which couldn’t have been closer to the truth. His musical direction to me was to, “Sound more like a rapist!”
To me the real version of the song remains the tape I made initially with my band mate, also named Nick, in the basement of the friend of a friend for no money whatsoever. But Nick was happy with the studio version so that was all that mattered. The record found an eccentric fan base that included a sale or two in British Columbia, one sale in the state of Washington, and one in New Zealand. Obviously there were a slew of promoters that were itching to put us on a tour of the northwest region of the globe but they could not meet our requirements of a personal jet and 12 cases of 40 year-old Tawny Port.
Nick had to leave the recording studio early in Long Island where we were making a proper CD version of I’m In Love With Your Knees to shoot an Anthony Bourdain show. I drove from the studio to Sophie’s Bar in the east village to meet Nick and hand him the master copy. Nick was several Guinesses in. I had some catching up to do. We were celebrating wrapping the record. He said: “Most people just talk about doing shit; we actually did it.”
We went to several other joints where he knew people to have them play the record in the bar. When the car came to pick us up to go home it was one of three instances where he fell on my watch. I was holding him in one hand, waving to the car in the other, when Nick went sidewise onto the curb. I feel that him falling only three times in twelve or thirteen years on my watch is not too bad, actually pretty darn good. But each time I felt terrible. I called him the next day to see how he was and his reply was, “I got this pain in my chest. I don’t know, I think I broke rib.”
He fell straight down once. Again I was holding him with one arm around his waist as we headed to Cocotte, the Basque restaurant on Thompson Street. We loved the Txipirones on their menu which Nick assessed were not Txipirones at all but were in fact cuttlefish, and also their shrimp risotto. We also loved to drink their Pacheron with the meal. When he fell it just so happened by coincidence that there was a paramedic truck on the corner of Spring and Thompson. Nick was adamant about not stepping foot in that shit box until he realized we were simply trying to get them to clean up his cut. Within minutes he had all the paramedics laughing and saying, “I love this guy.”
He was talking shit about me to them, saying how I let him fall down and calling me a mutherfucker. I was laughing too and also felt horrible. He was wearing the most gorgeous cashmere winter overcoat I’d ever seen in my life. And now it had bloodstains on it. I was sickened to think the coat had been ruined. When we went to Raul’s for drinks afterwards Nick remarked, “I kinda like the bloodstains. Makes it look cool, look tough. Adds character.”
The other time he fell was years prior to the spill on Thompson Street at the Brandy Library. They didn’t have a seat at the bar for us, or perhaps they didn’t have the port he wanted, so we left. I turn and see Nick gradually go sidewise to the floor. Maybe I have an evil streak but the sight of someone falling in that manner has a natural physical comedic quality that made me involuntarily smile as well as rush to help him up. It was then that Nick said, “You with your shit-eating grin. Here I am falling and my best friend is laughing at me.”
I had never heard him call me his best friend. I guess it made sense. There was never anybody else around. It was always just the two of us. Yet somehow I figured there must be someone else, more his contemporary, more accomplished than me. It filled me with pride.
I wondered sometimes why he would waste his time and intelligence on me, a guy in my early twenties who knew very little. And Nick never lowered himself down to anyone’s level. He forced you to rise to his. Otherwise you’d get nothing. It was okay if you didn’t know something, just be honest, willing to have an open non-scheming heart, and all was cool. He wanted you to open up and say what was really inside and you knew it was in safe hands. He was no yenta. Even small things that I wouldn’t care if he repeated, he was sensitive and gentlemanly enough to say he didn’t repeat a certain anecdote I told him because he didn’t know how to do so without keeping my name out of it. You could absolutely confide in him.
Sometimes when we were out people (mostly woman who were juiced up, but not always) would ask if we were father and son. Sometimes Nick would reply: “He’s my friend. Ever have one of those?” We would often say, “Love you” as a parting salutation, give each other a kiss on the cheek, but we never really expressed what one another meant to the other. It did not need to be spoken. We just weren’t those kind of people.
I lost girlfriends because I chose to hang with him rather than visit them. I lost out on opportunities to go home with girls from the bar because I’d rather stay and drink with him than go home with them. Now that I’m not so young and handsome and such opportunities do not come to me so frequently I have some regret, but not really. In his company there was no one else and nowhere else I would’ve rather been.
One girl I met at the bar across from Nick’s apartment had left her email address and it landed on Nick’s desk. After staying up all night drinking and listening to Jerry Lee Lewis’s Live At The Star Club followed by Dr. John’s In A Sentimental Mood and then Randy Newman records, it was dawn and the air was just right. Nick dictated and I transcribed email after email to the girl who left her email address on the desk. Twenty seconds passed after sending the email and Nick would say, “I’ve got another one.”
We became safety patrolmen. Considered with the safety of those around us. I had badges laminated, officially making us members of the safety patrol. I was crying in laughter as I typed those safety patrol emails. Every one dictated by Nick himself. None by me. I give to you, in all it’s glory, the safety patrol emails:
Date: Mon, 08 Dec 2008 07:29:50 -0500
From: Nick Tosches
Subject: are you safe?
We have suddenly become overwhelmed with the sensation that none of the people we really care about are safe. Are you safe? Please respond immediately, otherwise we won't be able to sleep.
Wishing you safety,
Nick and Austin
Date: Mon, 08 Dec 2008 07:31:41 -0500
From: Nick Tosches
Subject: we're serious
Did not hear back yet. Now we are really worried. Please just answer yes or no. Are you safe?
Safety to all,
Nick and Austin
Date: Mon, 08 Dec 2008 07:36:42 -0500
From: Nick Tosches
We are safe. How bout you?
Have you stopped to think how many people worry about your safety daily? If you did, perhaps you would let them know you were safe. We are starting to feel unsafe from worry.
Safety patrolem, e.c.
Captain Nick and Captain Austin
P.S. If you don't consider us, consider your pupils.
Date: Mon, 08 Dec 2008 07:40:27 -0500
From: Nick Tosches
Subject: safety is a full-time job
Sorry if we appear to be over concerned, but safety is a full-time job and since we've been tapped on the shoulder, we need to make sure everybody is safe; as in: are you safe?
Yours in safety,
Captain Nick and Captain Austin
P.S: E.C. is safety lingo for East Coast. Someday we hope to make national division. But for now all we ask for is your safety and your pride in us. In that order.
Date: Mon, 08 Dec 2008 07:49:40 -0500
From: Nick Tosches
Subject: Our safety is your safety
We have been asked by our superiors to please check on the actual safety of those under our dominion. You may take this as a joke, but believe us, our superiors do not. We are responsible for your safety. And if you or your assignee does not respond, our superiors themselves will become worried for your safety and this will be bad news for everybody. They are monitoring us to see who can ensure the most safety. The team that ensures the most safety wins a free banana, plus an invitation to be put up to have an American flag on our lapels. Please do not think our superiors are f-ing around with anybody here. Safety is not only vital, but as you can see from what we have written, a matter of great importance to our national security.
Sincerely yours in safety,
Captain Nick and Captain Austin
P.S. Still bucking for the national division. Won't you be one proud gal!
Date: Mon, 08 Dec 2008 07:57:56 -0500
From: Nick Tosches
Subject: Final Safety Notice
We regret to inform you that, due to your lack of interest in your own safety, you are no longer under our "safe watch." Should you desire safety in the future please dial 411.
This does not mean that we do not have a deep personal interest in your safety, but we do have our careers as rising safety-men to care for. And if you don't give a darn about your own safety we can find many who do.
Please do not respond to this email, as you are no longer safe.
At least we're safe,
Cols. Nick and Austin, e.c. and three counties in Missouri (thumbs up for us, we made sure three people were safe today, not counting you of course. gold star for us)
Date: Mon, 08 Dec 2008 08:03:21 -0500
From: Nick Tosches
Subject: my own safety
I am writing this while Nick is in the bathroom. He is making me write these letters. Don't get me wrong. We both believe in safety. But I think Nick has gone a little overboard with this safety racket. He is trying to change careers too late in life. By the way, I am the only Colonel. He is not a Colonel. But we and our superiors (some of whom are not in the bathroom) do remain duly concerned about the safety of all those on our particular lists.
I hear the bathroom door. Must go. Am safe. How about you?
East Coast and the entirety of the Louisana Purchase General Austin Thomas
P.S. Am deeply depressed. The safety of others can be harrowsy.
Date: Mon, 08 Dec 2008 08:17:41 -0500
From: Nick Tosches
Subject: your safety
My superiors have alerted me to the fact that Austin has been fucking with my computer while I have been in the bathroom. I just want you to know that I am as concerned with your safety in or out of the bathroom and, by the way, Austin is not really a General yet. If we cannot prove to our superiors that you are safe within the next 12 minutes (08:18), all heck will break loose for us. Since you obviously do not care for your own safety we do not expect you to care for ours, so we just mention this in passing.
Please respond safely,
Field Marshall Nick
P.S. We checked, and your train to Princeton did not crash. Everyone else on the train has responded to us. Our officers in Allentown have advised us that three people have not been responding. Are you one of them? We hope not. We really don't feel like having to come to Allentown to see if you are safe. Can you hence forth? Take care of your own safety. After all, there are a lot of people out there for whom we're equally concerned. We did not take on these jobs for a lark. You might call it a directional seat change in our lives. Non-respondence breaks the hearts of our superiors. And our superiors' superiors have no hearts. If you are alive, we are charging only $2.95 for our safety cookies. Most of this money will go towards safety. Surely you will be most eager to take part in our drive. If we do not hear from you by the above mentioned military time, $2.95 will be deducted from your account. Enjoy the cookies. Bear in mind, cookies are to be consumed safely.
Date: Mon, 08 Dec 2008 08:22:28 -0500
From: Nick Tosches
Subject: please disregard all previous emails
Now that you have fucked our futures in the safety racket, do you got any pupils for us? We can teach all sorts of shit plus have a lot of extra cookies. Please remember the need (us) during the holiday season.
To heck with safety,
Yours in cabinetry Nick and Austin
Date: Mon, 08 Dec 2008 08:41:37 -0500
From: Nick Tosches
We have been advised by our former employees, Nick and Austin, that you are not safe. Upon receiving this, please dive directly under your bed and stay there until you are safe. Should you need to reach us before we reach you, do whatever you think best. But remain under the bed.
Safety surrounds you,
Date: Mon, 08 Dec 2008 08:48:54 -0500
From: Nick Tosches
I got your email address from Pete. Do you like to go on dates? I myself have very little free time for dating, but Mom says devoting myself entirely to safety may not be a healthy thing. If you do not have any interest in dating, do you know a gurl who do? I can tell by your lack of response you are a really nice chick. Most people respond nasty and they are not even chicks.
Here's hoping Mom is right,
P.S. We have some real wackos around the office. These two guys, for instance, they just went to the bathroom together and they never came out. And there's no window or nothing. What a wacky world when you work working for the safety commission. What kind of flowers do you like in case we go on a date? Please respond immediately or I will assume you're unsafe and I will have to tell Mom.
Date: Mon, 08 Dec 2008 08:57:33 -0500
From: Nick Tosches
Heard you have been messing with some guy named Joe. I did not give you that engagement ring for nothing. No, it wasn't a pop top. It was the mccoy. True intentions included. By the way, Joe's mother is really bad news. We have been called back to the office to be specifically in charge of safety within five hundred miles of Buck's County. (This includes the sea.) I guess there's a little show off in all of us. How come you don't respond? Are you dead? If you are, I send my sympathy. If not, how can you not understand that the urgency of safety demands urgent response from all concerned. If your last name is not Schmigelski, seven men have wasted all this time being concerned about the safety of someone not named Schmigelski. So, Ms. Potential Non-Schmigelski, your safety is now in your own hands. If you should run into Ms. Schmigleski, tell her she is covered good.
My dearest one,
While the girl to whom the safety patrol emails were sent never responded, I did see her again shortly thereafter, and she appeared by all accounts to be in good spirits, and moreover, safe. The bender continued and we noticed people were staying clear of us. He remarked to me: “It might be there’s something in us that is scaring them away, rather than the other way around.”
For a stretch the bar on Watts Street was open only for Nick and his company in the afternoons. The porter Rudy opened the bar for us. We nicknamed the joint Chez Rudy. We’d meet up in the afternoon and have a cigar and some port and have the place all to ourselves. We’d make sure to leave before the joint opened and people entered. We’d usually laugh at the Holland Tunnel traffic on the way out - as Nick coined it “the symphony of stress.”
Rarely did we ever go beyond Chambers Street to Watts Street, and Church to Greenwich. For twelve years my life was at 90 Hudson Street, Apt. 5A and was walking in step with Nick from there first to the bench outside the Reade Street Pub and then to the bar on Watts Street and back or to whatever errands Nick was doing. We did everything together. Sat in silence together for an hour and then began to both speak at the same time interrupting each other, to which Nick quipped we were becoming the same person. Found every which way to screw up how when and where we were to coordinate going to the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings. On the occasions we did venture to different activities it brought out lightness in Nick.
There was the day I drove us up to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and we hit the Italian markets. He pointed out the good Sicilian capers and gave me some recipes to use them for. We went to the MET and were the only people at a linen exhibit. He brought a notebook with him and took notes and asked questions in the office. After the MET we hit up Lobel’s and he suggested the prepared Cornish hen. Once we went to a Central Park bird exhibit and walked all the way back downtown. As we walked down Sullivan Street he pointed out where Eddie “The Blonde” DeFalco had an after hours joint and sometimes requested homemade lasagna be brought directly to him from the kitchen. And how Sullivan Street was known as the street of silence.
He took me with him to his shirt makers in midtown and afterwards we ate tripe, spaghetti and escarole for lunch at Patsy’s. We went shopping together at Whole Foods where we learned they add color to the salmon to make them look more like salmon. In these trips I also learned that by government regulations free range hens get a minimum of 2 square feet per birdand have limited access to the outdoors. Cage-free birds get a minimum of 1.2 square foot per bird and may rarely, if ever, see the sunlight, whereas pasture-raised girls get a minimum of 108 square feet each. I also learned that whole milk is only 5 percent fat, and to have fat free or even two percent fat requires chemicals to remove the fat that make them far worse for your health. As he put it, there’s never been a fat free cow. What really makes one fat is grain, starch, soy, and sugar. Fat is flavor. Also never to cook with olive oil on high heat, only on very low heat, as it emits carcinogenic gases when it evaporates, but instead to use sunflower oil, safflower oil, grapeseed oil, pumpkin oil, or coconut oil when cooking with high heat. And that the only olive oil to use is unfiltered or first cold pressed.
We stayed up late drinking one night and I slept on his couch and then he took me in the morning to his tailor where he was having a Vicuna suit made. Also took me with him to his shoemaker, always introducing me to all these places – the shirt maker, the tailor, and the shoemaker - as a future client of theirs. Knowing I didn’t have the resources to afford such items myself, he showed me the same manners that others had shown him when he was a young man. People had given him the name of where to get suits made without asking if he could afford it. He remembered such consideration and passed it along to me.
He truly didn’t give a fuck in the way that can’t be faked. Combined with the quality that people born in Newark tend to have which is to say exactly what’s on their mind and you have the beautiful blend of Nick. Funny anecdote -Nick had a book signed by the writer Phillip Roth, also born in Newark, and he asked Roth if he ever went back to Newark. Roth’s response was, “What’s there to go back to?” When Nick got home he opened the book and saw it was inscribed Dear Frankie. He called up his friend Frankie and asked him if he wanted a signed Phillip Roth book.
Nick would light up a cigarette in a taxi. When the cab driver raised a stink he’d say: “Oh now you talk! Don’t say a fucking word the whole time!” And then proceed to call the cabbie a slur of nasty names. One time a woman at the bar asked him what he did for a living and he told her that he was a speechwriter for the president of the republic of Czechoslovakia (one of the two countries in the world that are a republic; Dominica being the other one). When the woman asked if Nick spoke Czech he casually and with a stone straight face said, "No. I write them in English and they have someone who translates them into Czech for me."
I told him about an awkward date I had and he said the last date he was on he amused himself by telling the woman he wanted to have her baby. When she replied, “You mean you want me to have your baby?”he said, “No. I want to feel your baby inside of me.” He passed along the dating advice that his father gave to him: whatever she costs you, you cost you more.
In researching new mattresses he found that horsehair was the best mattress stuffing. Although he didn’t get a horsehair mattress he said that he would tell people he got a lion’s hair mattress instead which was even better than horsehair – a fabrication meant for his own amusement. He would say that you might as well speak to liars with lies.
There was the summer when we started boxing every Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:30 in the morning at Trinity Boxing Club. The owner of the club, Martin Snow, would stand outside and throw footballs to strangers to find out if they were real New Yorkers. "Real New Yorkers," Martin would say, "catch the ball when it's thrown to them. If they are not real New Yorkers, they let it drop to the ground." Nick showed me how to properly wrap and did it for me the first time. After hitting the bags we’d go to the diner across the street for eggs over easy placed onto rye bread with sides of sausage.
Most of our time was spent on his couch or the bench or the barstool either talking or saying nothing, as was our wish, so doing a different activity such as boxing was fun. We only made eight records in twelve years or so – not exactly prolific. But I’m amazed we accomplished that much considering how adept and perfectly content we were at doing nothing but shooting the breeze.
We would sit on the bench at Duane Park near his apartment, drink coffee and smoke cigarettes, and when friends would come to visit him from out of town and ask him if he wanted to do something Nick would say, “To me, this is doing something.” In one of our conversations on his couch I made an observation to him that human beings have the tendency to always do something rather than do nothing. I began to continue to give specifics and examples of what I meant and he stopped me from going further, saying: “Austin, what you just said is perfect. Leave it there.”
When we were hitting the boxing club that one summer Nick had said he had never felt better physically. When he called me and purposefully asked me to meet him at the bar I had a funny feeling. It was always, ‘I’m gonna be there around 12:30 if you wanna meet up,’ or something casual. Never was there an explicit request until that one time.
When we met at the bar this was one of the occasions where he did speak about our relationship. He said it surprised him that a person more than thirty-five years his junior is the one person he feels he can confide in and wants to tell first about the serious deal that was going on with him. He told me he feels a mentor mentee relationship towards me, a fatherly figure, things that were always between us but never stated.
Come to think of it he never asked me my age and I never asked his. We didn’t even know each other’s birthdates until a few years ago. Nick might have been the only person with the distinction of having two birthdays according to Wikipedia. He said that every day is a birthday for a wise person. He did call me last year on the phone to wish me a happy birthday. I said, “Thanks Nick, but my birthday is next week,”to which he replied, “That figures.”That was the best, coolest birthday wish I ever got. The year before he showed me a picture of him at six years old on his birthday blowing out the candles with his father and his Uncle Jack. Nick remarked that even at that age he had the horns (referring to his hair).
The second time he spoke along these lines of our relationship was what turned out to be the last day we spent together. The previous day was not a good one. I did not know how to handle the situation and said something stupid, trying to make light of the grave circumstance by avoiding it. Understandably, he did not take kindly to it.
Nick would quote the Charles Olson line in his books: He who controls rhythm / controls. No matter what Nick always controlled the rhythm. It was innate. And it could unnerve one for fear of saying a wrong word. He was as sensitive to what was said as the language of his books was to the emotions of their context. But even on the few occasions such as that one when I said something that irritated him and he got upset, I can never say we had a fight. It would be forgotten the next day if not in the next breath.
Another minor example of this was when we were pretty corned up one night and he asked what I was having for dinner. I said that I didn’t know. He responded, “I do. My pork roast!” Nick was the best cook. He would say the only two things he could concentrate on were writing and cooking. I’d learn from his relatives later on that his mother, Murial, was also a great chef who learned to cook from books. In the kitchen I could see Nick swaying, and asked if I could help. “No!” he replied, “You’re my guest, just sit down and relax.” Next I hear the sound of glass breaking. He dropped a pan on the ground. “Okay, you wanna help – clean this up!” Never did get to taste his pork roast. But I tasted plenty of his cooking and plenty of fine dining out and about with him. His chestnut fettuccini that he made on Thanksgiving is the best food I’ve ever tasted in my entire life.
I kept the email of the Thanksgiving invitation to his friend Jim Marshall and me. The Danny he referred to (who did not come) was Danny Fields.
My offer to throw a meal into you on Thanksgiving was not an idle one.
The menu is: young heritage Narragansett turkey lovingly raised and killed at Elmswood Farm, one of the very few places where this rare and almost vanished natural breed is still being raised; fettuccine alla castagna (fresh pasta made of chestnut flour, in a chestnut sauce—an ancient but little known recipe, brought to its ultimate refinement by Old Nick.
Fresh sorrel with fresh baby garlic, fresh baby ginger, and a bit of unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil will constitute a gesture to the presence of greens. There will be dessert.
The wine will be a 1995 vintage Château Cheval Blanc 1erGrand Cru Classé. True Bénédictine herbal liqueur from France will be available for post-prandial sipping, either straight or mixed with good Cognac brandy (a real B&B).
Valium and Alka-Seltzer will afterward be on offer at egress.
Conversation will by all means be optional.
If you choose to come, the suggested arrival time is between 1:30 and 2:30 this Thursday afternoon.
Do whatever you feel like doing, you don't even have to let me know if you're coming or not.
I know you always have Danny over, and I don't want to leave him out, but I have only three chairs at my dining table, and my young friend Austin, in from Texas, will be coming. If Danny wants to come, and is willing to eat seated on the couch, that would be fine.
This was his Christmas email from the same year:
Tonight I eat acorn-fed pork tenderloin and sweet potatoes roasted in pumpkin oil. Then mocha bûche de Noël with coffee ice cream, and then, before bed, hot chocolate and a bit of Bénédictine.
Yours truly, in it with you,
Atonement and app. Solstice, Sol Invictus, Christian interlude, INRI and LVMH, Hallmark and Signet and the Vermont Country Store.
The passion and the satispassion of all emoticons, the holy war of all team members for freedom from all gluten. The LGBT Virgin Mary.
Behold the baby Jesus, overhead pull-string light of this life, born with a little nose job, paper currency clenched in little hands and mouth. Mirabile visu, mirabile dictu.
As with the wish of sweet dreams, which brings but the same worn-out dull incubi, the hollow seasonal rote-cant of merry Christmases and happy new years brings neither merriment nor happiness, but only the ever more wearisome continuance of the same dire trudge through the same dire sludge.
I thus will not wish you a merry Christmas, and thus not a happy new year. I wish you something else, something fine and something wonderful, instead.
So this the day after the day when I said what had upset him, and what was the last day we were together, he said, “I care about you.” I replied plainly, “I know you do.” He also said, “If you find love in this life, cherish it for all that it’s worth.”
I left his apartment and boarded a flight to my Texas home a mere two and a half weeks before he died. There was no way to know for sure if it would be two more weeks or two more years. However, the almighty gut did know. If there was anyone I would have wanted to and felt a duty to be there right until the moment he went it was Nick. But it was fitting too that the person born at night – who knew and navigated the darkness in life through to the light – should die by himself, as he was a creature all unto himself and like no other, in the dark of night.
When I got the call that he had died the Spectrum cable guy was trying and failing to install my Internet in my home in Texas. The next thing I did was shave. Funny the things we remember – stupid, really.
Then I called our pal Joe Nick Patoski. He suggested when I go up to New York to the funeral service to take notes of all the stories people would tell as I might want to read them someday. I knew at the time of him telling me that Joe Nick was imparting me with wise words, the kind that can only come from a wise man. I also knew them to be words I would not follow.
But everybody did have stories. The common thread was the expanse of Nick’s knowledge, his generosity to impart it, he seemingly having been everywhere and done everything and knew everything about whatever it was, and the unmatched depth of his heart and true caring for others welfare. He was the person you went to when you had a real problem. For me and for all the others in his life, he had the ability to make it all better. Whether it was with humor or the simple phrase that articulated precisely that which was ineffable to one.
Joe Nick Patsoki told me about the time when he “picked up Nick at the El Paso airport that he had that wicked grin, looked sort of ‘rode hard and put up wet,’ and said, ‘I just lost five hundred bucks to George Jones’ …..honestly, it might have been $5,000. Later that day as we drove through Big Bend National Park, I let him drive for a couple hundred miles, more than he’d ever driven before. He’d gotten his license in NYC, but had never really driven. And there was no traffic, so the worst would be if he drove off the shoulder of the road. He did a decent job driving.”
This reminded me of how Nick was trying to get a driver’s license in New York and failed his test. I think he was trying to get a license because he was thinking of moving out of Manhattan at first to Wildwood Crest in New Jersey, and then later somewhere in Long Island so that he could spend his last days with the sound of the ocean waves crashing and a warm fireplace.
Lenny Kaye told me about the time he and Nick were invited to a press junket to see the band Black Oak Arkansas. They arrived there in Arkansas, were in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do, nothing to drink, and were so bored that they decided to leave. They rented a car and drove in the middle of the night, Lenny thinks to the airport in Memphis, Tennessee, and had a great bonding experience along the way. Nick told me that they drove so fast the roof of the rental car nearly came off.
His cousins told me about how he once took all the old ladies in the old neighborhood out to a nice restaurant for lunch. I recall how he had wanted to take the woman who made the mother of pearl buttons on his shirt out to lunch as he admired her craftsmanship. To me it came across that people truly mattered to Nick. I had a very serious and scary health issue last summer and Nick called me every day like clockwork to check up on me and see how I was doing, while not making it known and unbeknownst to me he himself could barely get off the couch or eat. Nick was the type to always lift you up, and genuinely wanted to see you do well.
His friend Natalie Butler spoke of similar consideration: “…here’s a guy towards the end of his life, not really in great shape at all and during one of our many walks home, I shared with him about impending testing that week at my doctor (for some serious stuff) and Nick immediately offered to take me and wait for me, while I was to be in radiology. He kept insisting and sympathizing, saying ‘he knows what it’s like.’ And while I did not take him up on his offer, his kindness, generosity, and selflessness was always there – underneath any story of his rough exterior. I miss him everyday.”
After the funeral and burial there was a public gathering / celebration at Circa Tabac for friends, family and fans. People came up to testify and tell tales. His friend Billy Altman recalled when Nick noticed that the complete Oxford English Dictionary was incorrectly priced at a store and had to act fast. Like a cat burglar or a thief in the night Nick wrangled his friends, Billy being among them, to help him haul the complete OED back to his apartment in the village.
There are so many stories Nick told me that I couldn’t remember the details or specifics of. Such as what was the name of the gangster who had Jew tailors that owed him five grand and couldn’t pay so they offered to make him a jacket as payment. The gangster accepted. The Jew tailor made him the jacket and afterwards said: “I could make you pants to go with it but I only owe you five grand not eight.” Or was it seven grand instead of eight?
His friend Greg had said at the funeral that Nick knew more about everything than he’d ever know about anything. The loss of that resource is a big one. He was a well that was seemingly bottomless. The list of what he turned me onto is too long to fathom; books, records, movies, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, purslane, duck rillettes, sea island cotton socks, the proper length pants should fall on your legs, the difference between braces and suspenders, season 4 of the show Shameless, the fact that Muddy Waters took the song “Got My Mojo Working” from Newark born singer Ann Cole who toured with Muddy, a marinate recipe for swordfish steak and the fact that Henry Miller had sciatica.
I picked an old penny off the ground and mentioned it to Nick not thinking much of it. He went through an entire history of coins in America and how to tell whether or not the penny I had picked was worth anything or not. And how even up until the 1970s they printed one thousand dollar notes, or was it five hundred dollar notes? And how Arnold Rothstein would walk around with one pocket of one thousand dollar bills (or was it ten-thousand?) and the other pocket full of smaller ones. Or how about the name of that legendary hill, in which part of New Jersey, where Sonny Liston would train by pushing a wheelbarrow full of cinder blocks both up the hill and down it? And what was the name of the author who Frank Costello met once in Central Park, had a pleasant casual conversation with, asked her how many book sales constitutes a good number, then went out and purchased that very amount all by himself, thus placing the author on the best seller list, all because Frank Costello found her to be a nice, genuine good person? Oh, well. I think it’s in the book Uncle Frank.
I do, however, remember the story he told me of when Nick was working as a bartender at Dodger’s on the corner of Bedford and Downing and Vinny “The Chin” Gigante walked into the bar. Nick told his boss that he wanted to ask The Chin if he was that good of a shot that he could shoot Frank Costello at point blank range in the face and just graze his head so as not to kill or seriously injure Frank, or if he was that bad of a shot that he could miss at point blank range. Nick’s boss replied, “Nicky – I wouldn’t ask him that if I was you.” But it’s not the same.
He saw things in a way that you could put me in a room for a thousand years and I’d never think of what he did. For instance, last summer I was walking by Penn Station and saw a huge line and crowd of people. I looked up and saw a big Billy Joel banner hanging with a sign underneath it saying ‘Sold Out.’ I told Nick about it and he remarked that they’re wasting money with the banner. The show is already sold out. What do you need to spend more money on publicity for? I never would have thought of that.
Similarly when a guy from the neighborhood offered him a “Cuban” cigar he remarked that there was no way to know if it was from Cuba just because of the band. It probably wasn’t. Anybody can put a Cuban band on any old cigar and call it Cuban. And also when I told him about a place I found in the east village – Russo’s - that had homemade mozzarella cheese he replied, “Whose home?” I said I didn’t know. He asked if I saw a kitchen in the place. I said I didn’t think so, didn’t remember, and would have to go back. He said when I did go back to then ask to see the pots and pans that they made the cheese in, and check to see if there was water in them. If there was water then they had been used to make the cheese, otherwise the place is full of shit.
Also learned from Nick that American Wagyu is not real Wagyu because in America they have no standards, rules or regulations to call something Wagyu. The real stuff comes from Japan. Nick was buying two and three thousand-dollar Wagyu steaks from Japan and I sat on the couch as he talked to them over the phone on their recommendations of what the best way to cook the steaks would be. He imparted me with the knowledge that you could tell by the price if a restaurant is selling fake Wagyu. If they were selling something called Wagyu for fifty bucks it is total bullshit, as the real Wagyu that he was purchasing uncooked cost thousands.
And then as we were bemoaning how those asshole mayors, first Guiliani who killed the city, and then Bloomberg who put the final nail in the coffin, banning smoking from all the clubs and bars, Nick said he put a brand new white t-shirt outside his window and in the morning it was brown. That was the quality of the air we are breathing. And people get in a tiff about a small stream of cigarette smoke. It's all a joke. A bad one. One that's not funny. But as his father told him, “You can't lose your sense of humor, then they've really got you." Also, I learned from him that in fact that Angela Lansbury and Paul McCartney are the same person.
It was that way with everything, absolutely everything. There was always something new, something to learn, something I’d never thought of before. In one of our last phone conversations he told me how he was on the phone with the US government agency for agriculture and was trying to find out what cows in this country are fed. As he learned, grass-fed means next to zilch as there are over one-thousand different types of grass, and grass can go bad or be rotten, and also that a diet consisting solely of grass is in no way wholly nutritious.
He had so many ideas that poured out of him. Such as his idea for an album duet of Jerry Lee Lewis and Thelonious Monk. One's head shakes in wonderment at the possibility of what such a pairing could've sounded like. And also his idea to make an album of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, and let them bicker in the studio over who had the better piano. He had great ideas that I had to remind him about that he had forgotten. But nothing and nobody is black and white, good or bad, we are all in the grey area. If I hadn’t moved out of New York City and to Texas (which I was able to do thanks to Nick putting me in touch with his friend Phil) I didn’t think I would have been able to hang in.
Phil, who records under the name Homer Henderson, invited me to stay in his 1948 Airstream trailer over the phone until I got myself settled without ever meeting me, saying: “any friend of Nick’s is a friend of mine.” There was an entire network seemingly, with Nick as the head. If a person introduced himself or herself as knowing Nick or as being a friend of his, you automatically had affinity for the person. They went from being a stranger to being an old friend and an immediate pal, no questions asked. You felt a duty to treat the person with the same kindness, respect and generosity that Nick treated you with. If you didn’t, you felt there would be consequence.
Nick had a knack for finding good people and surrounding himself with only those kinds of quality folks. He also had a knack for being found by good people. He would say that he didn’t have the most readers but he had the best readers. The same was true of the people in his circle – they were the best. Everyone I met through him was humble, kind, generous and well intentioned. Nick wouldn’t have anything to do with you if you didn’t have all or most of those qualities and if you weren’t a real person. He became very conscious of eating real food that came from the earth and not a factory. It was the same with people. He only wanted to know real people.
I thought it was just that given the amount he gave to others in his work as a writer he received great benefits in return from his friends, acquaintances and other people he met in passing and encountered in life who were eager to do something good for him without wanting or expecting anything back, other than perhaps to see him get joy or excitement or pleasure or interest or to crack a smile or even get the hard sought after laugh from him. Getting both Nick and myself to do a spit take at the bar was a high water mark for me. Although I could never remember what it was over, I’d bet it was at the expense of somebody after hearing them say something dumb that reinforced a running joke we had going with ourselves.
Through his friend Phil in Texas I hooked up with writer Joe Nick Patoski, another beautiful cat and longtime friend of Nick’s. Joe Nick and I first met at a Joe King Carrasco and The Crowns show at Lake Travis in Austin, Texas. Joe Nick had managed the band for a spell, talking about the longest week he ever spent in his life was eight days managing the band in Bogota because of “the presence of cocaine in Columbia. There was so much, by the third day, Kris (his wife) and I were craving coffee and weed, not blow.”
Nick said how he cursed himself for putting me in touch with Phil in Texas because he figured I would go there for three months, hang out and then come back. He didn’t think I would stay. I’d come to New York and live with family so that I could spend half the year if not more with Nick. But you couldn’t keep up with Nick. He was a storm, a whirlwind, and a tornado. He sped up life and added excitement to it. When you were hanging with him it was a rollercoaster ride and you had to hang on, baby. All by his presence he brought the nightlife, the street and the urban-ness to where there was none. I didn’t think I could survive it the way he could. Or I was afraid of the consequences of not being able to take a breather. Because if I was in New York and he called or emailed to meet up I couldn’t say no. I just couldn’t. I dropped whatever I was doing and came a running. It just seemed more important. I didn’t want to miss out on the chance to witness and be a part of what you could never conceive of – be it something he said, did, made you realize, made happen, or to just laugh our asses off, which was generally what we did most frequently.
In the days after coming back from the cemetery the movie Donnie Brasco was on television. The heart of that movie was the friendship between the Johnny Depp character and the one played by Al Pacino. So many movies and the like focus on man and woman romance. While perhaps a romantic affair with a partner has a strong pull and power that cannot be replicated with a platonic one, the relationship of a friend is often more pure and more truly intimate.
Much of our discussions towards the later years centered on the change in the human species and how they preferred the touch of a handheld gizmo to that of another person. And how dead on the movie Invasion Of The Body Snatcherswas to the current climate, even down to how in the movie they were called “pod people” and today people wore iPods. (Don Siegel, the director of the movie, took Nick out to dinner in Los Angeles and told him, “If you’re gonna be a whore, you might as well be a high priced whore.” Siegel also imparted Nick with the knowledge that a man never seduces a man. A woman only allows a man to think that he’s seduced her.)
Nick would say that at least before you represented yourself, be it good or bad. Now people had become simulacrums. And yet this species of ours has this desire to assert their individuality and how different they are from one another based on something as superficial as skin pigmentation or where you were geographically born – which you have no control over (as Nick would say, ‘You’re born here - you’re American’). Either that or their oh so clever slogan on the t-shirt they wear.
As I learned from Nick it’s been proven scientifically that there is more genetic diversity within the species of a chimpanzee than there is between humans. As Nick would often say and has written about, the one defining characteristic of humans that sets us apart from other species is what we ourselves with a straight face refer to as “inhumanity.” No other species commits genocide, torture, or acts of abuse for the sheer heck of it. A shark, for example, kills for food, survival, or out of self-preservation. If it ever takes a nibble at a human it’s either because they’ve mistaken it for something else or out of curiosity as to what we might taste like.
But at least we always had each other. Whatever they were, the times with Nick were always the good times. He would say that when it comes to having friends, “You only need one.”
The image that keeps coming back to me is an early one. I think it was as we were leaving Circa Tabac on Watts Street. I was walking behind him and he was wearing a long black leather coat. I saw a person who was fiercely independent, his own man, had made himself into what he was, and had found and known his own true nature – which is to know inner sanctuary. He never allowed anything into his world nor tolerated anything that disrupted or disagreed with his nature, be it a record, a person or anything else. Yet he was the most understanding person as well.
It wasn’t an accident that he was the legendary writer and figure that he was. Although fortune of course played a role and he also worked as hard as anyone possibly could, he had the magic. That which he wrote about being in Jerry Lee Lewis, “the final wild son,” was in him too. And with age it only became sharper and more refined, more concentrated.
He was the portal to the New York City that I was born too late to truly know. By the time I was of age to have fun it was New York City in name only. Through him and his stories the city I had smelled as a child and breathed but for an ephemeral wisp as an adult became alive and known to me. Without Nick Tosches a light has gone out of New York City. The last true light, the brightest most intense light, and the heart and love that held all the strings of all the confused lost souls together in warmth and comfort.
One of the many things he said to me that is implanted in my brain is, with regards to the death of both of one’s parents, that one is never weaker and never stronger. That precisely describes my current state due to his death.
Two people could not have understood, accepted, supported, and in comfort openly shared what was honestly within them as much as we did. The uncanny thing was that this rapport was instantaneous and unwavering. What we found was probably a once in a lifetime occurrence. I wouldn’t expect to ever find that deep a union again - for there is nobody walking this earth that carries within them the weight and depth of Nick. I bet plenty of people go through life and never find what we did in each other even once. We were lucky.
Since his death I have been searching outwardly for a replacement to fill the emptiness created by the loss of his love, and in doing so, realized that such can only be found within myself.
"St. Nick" from Me And The Devil book jacket. Photo by Deborah Feingold.
"Nick at his seat in the bar." Taken during Book release party for Me And The Devil.
"I'm In Love With Your Knees" CD cover. Photo by Lornography.
"Austin & Ol' Nick" at Sophie's Bar after Anthony Bourdain show filming. Photo by Aaron Brookner.
"B/W Nick with boobies." Photo by Gardabelle.
"Nick & Austin at Duane Park bench." Photo by Lornography.
"Christmas card from Nick."
"Nick at Lakeside Lounge." Photo by Heloïse Esquié.
"No Glove No Love." Nick with Zo - daughter of Trinity Boxing Club's owner Martin Snow. Photo by Martin Snow.
"Nick 65th Birthday / Retirement Party." Taken on Johnny Depp's private island.
"Nick with Heloïse Esquié - friend and translator of his last books." Outside bench at Reade Street Pub.
"Nick's Blue Suede Shows" that went with him into the dirt. Photo by Michelle Talich.
"Nick in Fedora." Photo by Sante D' Orazio.