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I heard Leonard Cohen for the first time at Top Fuel, a small coffee shop in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. He sang like stars across the sky, soaring through the jukebox, like a million birds flying in different directions.

In lacy slips thrown over jeans, my friend Emily and I liked to skip school, catch a bus into Hollywood and hang out at this coffee shop. Someone was always trying to shut the place down and you were supposed to be at least eighteen to enter. A big red sign hung on the back door, but no one ever checked our IDs.

The men and women who went there were mostly sober, trying to stay clean. Ordering coffee, playing pool, and jamming quarters into the jukebox was their way to abandon drinking, drugs, stripping, and gambling. These were real live characters Emily and I could sink our teeth into. I liked to write and Emily liked to draw. We both carried heavy notebooks filled with our observations. I don’t think I ever fully understood the severity or desperation in these customers or their situations, but I knew I looked up to them. They were warriors battling against the big broom and dustpan that was coming to repair Hollywood so that tourists could feel safer as they spent their money, pretending to brush shoulders with celebrities at the Hollywood Chinese Mann Theater. They were trying not to drown in a world that didn’t want them anyway.

Ron owned the place. He was in his middle forties and was a DJ at the Crazy Girls strip club. He rode a Harley and had a long thick mustache. He had a young daughter named Priscilla. She liked to sit at the counter and draw fairies and dragons.

Emily and I were sitting at our favorite table, which was covered in Vargas Girl stickers, when Ron walked up to the jukebox, pressed his face against the glass and dropped his quarter in. I was expecting Danzig or Kid Rock, but instead “Who By Fire” by Leonard Cohen started playing. The music was haunting. The music poked at your ribs. I let the sound cover all of me.

The place was dead, just a few people playing a quiet game of pool. But the walls rattled, they were alive, breathing in the music and the words. I swallowed every word; I did not want to forget. I saw strong images in these words; I saw pictures, blessings, magic, and beauty. I saw drugs and pills, beautiful girls gone ugly, ugly girls becoming beautiful, lipstick, stilettos, prostitutes, hummingbirds, daggers, knives, people hungry for desire, people hungry for love. I saw the Hollywood sign, luminous, large and white. I saw apocalypse and outer space. I saw unity, torn newspapers, claws, fins, and feathers.

“And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,

who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,

and who by avalanche, who by powder,

who for his greed, who for his hunger,

and who shall I say is calling?”

—Leonard Cohen

Is there a song that conjures up a memory, a world, or an experience for you? Where were you when you first heard this song? What was happening in your life at the time?

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