Loss and Redemption

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

I was stunned this week to learn on PBS NewsHour that Velvet Underground’s first album sold fewer than 5,000 copies. That was a footnote to a TV obituary for Lou Reed.

The astonishment came in two parts. First that so few people recognized in 1966 how important, however raw it might have been, that album was in the arc of rock ‘n roll history. And second, that I, a mere Tween at the time, was one of the fewer than 5,000 purchasers. News of Lou Reed’s passing brought back memories of swaying back and forth, huge headphones firmly in place, humming along with “Heroin” and “Waitin’ for My Man” while dutifully completing homework algebra assignments. Reed’s notion of the “wild side” and Frank Zappa’s attitudes about “normal people” kept me plowing through many a dull math and science assignment in high school.

A couple of years ago I saw Laurie Anderson in concert at Lincoln Center when she brought her husband out for a surprise encore. Reed appeared dazed, dissipated, hardly aware of his surroundings, and painfully out of touch with the music he was supposedly playing with Anderson. She propped him up, tried to get him on key, and appeared melancholic at his side. The writing was on the wall.

The Lou Reed loss is one of those publicly shared bits of melancholia that marks a moment of connection to nameless, millions of “others” out there in the world that on this day may also be acknowledging their walks on the wild side, recalling days of black leather and tough-guy poses.

Yesterday was also a day for shared recall of all that was frightening and lost when Hurricane Sandy slammed New Jersey and New York City. Frankenstorm has left both visible and psychic marks on New York every bit as important as the loss of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Since Sandy struck political leaders, insurance companies, developers, and average citizens have all been compelled to imagine climate change, sea level rises, and the awful future coastal America may face. For those living in still-recovering areas – Far Rockaways, Breezy Point, Red Hook, and Jersey south shore – the here and now remains too challenging to allow much rumination about IPCC forecasts for planet Earth.

Frankenstorm was fueled by an unusual cluster of horror: full moon at high tide, the largest Atlantic storm front in known history, and its arrival in precise alignment with the lunar event. Twelve hours before Sandy gave us her worst, I inspected the New York City riverfront at the preceding high tide. Already the East River was so high that the storm drains meant to carry flood waters safely away from us were instead spouting like geysers, sending water shooting four feet in the air with each wave of river movement. As winds built, I felt doom approaching. All night I watched, and took photographs, as one element of the NYC power grid after another exploded in sparkling showers reminiscent of fireworks, plunging huge swathes of the city into darkness. As the terribly night wore on I saw all of lower Manhattan transformed into a ghostly silhouette, only emergency lights revealing the dark water’s rise, devouring neighborhood after neighborhood.

For those of us that witnessed 9/11 from nearly the same vantage points as Frankenstorm’s horror and aftermath it was often difficult to tell which was churning our emotions – the past or present. When the lights went out over much of Manhattan I looked across the East River and darkened lower Manhattan and for a moment felt the same shock I’d experienced on September 12, 2001 when I awoke, looked out the window and couldn’t recognize the Lower Manhattan skyline without the Twin Towers.

I was working at Newsday on 9/11, one of the last surviving journalists ensconced in a cubicle at 2 Park Avenue. For three years I’d worked in a huge space, surrounded by former colleagues’ cubicles, left in whatever sorry state the reporters, researchers, editors and photographers had abandoned them to when they lost their jobs with just twenty-four hours’ notice, with the death of New York Newsday. It was a great paper – maybe the best Gotham ever had for coverage of local and regional news. New York Newsday kicked ass so effectively that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani banned our reporters from the Mayor’s press room, and the New York Times, briefly panicked about our garnering of Pulitzer Prizes, actually started covering metro news.

When New York Newsday died I lost a lot of friends, scattered to the journalism winds across the English language media. I tried to keep in touch, and some of us gather annually to guzzle beers and reminisce, but Journalism is in a sorry state, and the day-to-day struggles of those die-hards that strive to reveal real truths daily in print or broadcast media are taking steep personal tolls.

One such struggling intrepid reporter was Elaine Rivera, who died of liver failure this week. She was a terrific New York Newsday colleague – hilarious, flirtatious and so tenacious that those hoping to keep secrets tried – usually in vain – to dodge her. Beware the lying politician – Ms. Rivera is after you! Correction: was after you. Elaine was only 54 years old. She had reported for El Diario, WNYC, Newsday, and a long list of other outlets.

When I try to calculate what all these passings mean to me, to us, to our world – well, I don’t have a useful algorithm. Maybe I spent too many hours in high school listening to Lou Reed when I should have been working on my trig homework.

I wasn't very good at math. No, that’s not right. I was very good at math, placed in the advanced classes at age twelve. But when puberty hit I looked around my math class and noticed only one other female and a load of geeky boys. I got the message: girls don’t do math. And I simply turned off that part of my brain.

Killing my math genes got me in trouble in grad school at Berkeley as I struggled to calculate titrations for my immunology experiments. It was easy math, but I’d spent ten years trying not to be a geek-girl, listening to that Lou Reed and Jimi Hendrix when I should have concentrated on cosines. Still, I could have been a good bench scientist. Leonard and Lee Herzenberg showed me that when I did research with them at Stanford.

 In the 1970s Len reasoned that the mysteries of immune responses to invading microbes could never be comprehended unless scientists could study living cells – the B and T cells, macrophages, dendrites and other components of the immune system. In 1970 the only living cells researchers could look at were indistinct schmeers of the immune system. So Len invented a solution, which has revolutionized immunology. He learned that certain molecules used in biological systems, such as fluorescein and rhodamine, reflected photons at particular frequencies. The chemicals could be attached to proteins located on the surface of living cells – proteins that defined the difference between a CD4-T cell versus a CD-8 cell, for example . When cells that were so-labeled with fluorescence-emitting chemicals were passing in front of a laser beam, the laser pushed them off to the side, separating the targeted cells from the rest of the immune system schmeer. By altering the gem sources of the lasers, and using different fluorescing chemicals to label various cell types, Herzenberg could separate out several subtypes of cells into catch tubes in a single run thru his ingenious device, the Fluorescence-Activate Cell Sorter, aka FACS.

If it had not been for Herzenberg’s perfection of his FACS during the 1970s, and its commercial production by Bectin-Dickenson, researchers in the early 1980s would not have known that there was a new virus in the world that specifically attacked and killed CD4 cells. It was that knowledge, acquired through use of FACS machines, that gave the new disease the name Acquired Immunodeficiency Disease Syndrome, or AIDS.

I was proud to have worked on the FACS, if only briefly. I learned an immense amount from Len and Lee Herzenberg, and treasure their instruction. A great mentor knows not only what knowledge to impart but also how to nudge a pupil towards tough decisions. I thank Len for helping me to accept that my great love was the knowledge gleaned from scientific inquiry, not the process or toil of the search. He helped me open the door to writing and reporting about science, and eventually global health and world affairs, without feeling that I was sinning to walk away from the lab bench.

Perhaps if I’d not spent so many hours listening to Lou Reed and his wild peers in high school I might have been a better bench scientist. But then I never would have had the great joy of working at New York Newsday alongside colleagues like Elaine Rivera. I might not have written any of my books, covered any of the world’s AIDS epidemics, lived in New York, witnessed 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy and sat here, writing this blog.

Loss, and redemption…