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Behind The Barriers Director’s Cut: Celebrity encounters

Jeremy Powers trains in Athens, Georgia, and Sam Smith borrows an overcoat from Leonard Cohen

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Celebrity encounters

Last week, I saw the bass player from Of Montreal in a coffee shop in Athens, Georgia. I was in town shooting Jeremy Powers training for cyclocross nationals. At first I had no idea who it was, but his face was so familiar. About 20 minutes later, I made the connection. I had seen them live, maybe five years ago, and since then, because I’m a big fan, I’ve looked at countless press photos. It was hard to put it together because I was used to seeing him wearing makeup.

Then I started to think about all of the odd “celebrity” encounters I’ve had over the years. Here’s my top five:
5. Seeing Jeff Garlin in the airport
4. Seeing Richard Simmons in the airport
3. Being on the same flight as Kanye West
2. Telling Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz a story about my dad, and getting them to both sign my neck with a Sharpie marker
1. Going to Leonard Cohen’s house and having him loan me a fur-lined overcoat

They all have cool stories associated with them, but I think No. 1 is worth telling in this journal. I was 20 and a sophomore in college in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. My friend, who was in school at Rutgers in New Jersey, was on a meandering trip to Quebec City to hang out with a girl. He had made it to Fitchburg by train. I had a car, so the plan was for us to drive to Montreal, hang out a bit, and he would continue on by bus. Just before we hit the Canadian border, we picked up a friend who was going to college in Johnson, Vermont.

All three of us were 20, and not really concerned with maintaining our appearance. Border control was instantly suspicious of us. They took our drivers licenses and found out that our friend from Johnson had two DUIs on his record. Apparently that’s reason enough not to let you into Canada. So, we turned around, and headed back.

The new plan was to spend the night in Johnson, after which, my Rutgers friend and I would head across the border the next day. I did all the driving that afternoon and, as we approached the border, my friend, who had taken acid in the morning, played Leonard Cohen CDs over and over again while staying pretty quiet.

I don’t know if there was a memo at the border control office, or what, but those guys pounced on us. They went all out. They fully searched our car, and performed isolated interrogation sessions. I remember them asking me in a french accent, “Does your friend use drugs?”

I said, “I don’t know what he does when I’m not around, but I’ve never seen him do any.” It was a lie, but I felt like it was the smartest answer.

They eventually let us through, but only after getting an earful from our host in Montreal. My Rutgers bro had this old family friend who lived in Montreal. She had been college friends with his father. I heard her on the other end of the phone with the officer, screaming, “You let my boys through! They must be so tired!”

Once we arrived at her house, she wanted to take us out for dinner and drive us around to show us the city. She was a ball of energy. She kept making references to “Leonard,” saying things like, “You boys are so skinny! Leonard has some bagels next door. You can have those for breakfast.” We knew that this woman knew Leonard Cohan, but both of us being fans, we were aware that he now lived in California. So we chalked it up to her being a little nutty. We walked over to a Mexican restaurant near her house. It was at this point that I realized my friend was not really in a normal state of mind.

After dinner we were walking around the neighborhood. We could see a man and woman looking through the front window of a hardware store. They seemed really interested in what was going on in the closed hardware store. Our host yelled out from down the street, “Leonard!” and the man turned around. Apparently she wasn’t nutty, and Leonard Cohen owned the apartment next to her’s and was in town to receive an award. He said in his unmistakable deep voice, “Good to meet you guys. You look cold, let’s get you some coats.”

So we headed to his apartment, where he had a whole closet dedicated to overcoats. He handed us each a nice, heavy, fur-lined overcoat and said, “just make sure you get those back to me before you leave.” I looked to my friend and wondered what his perception of this whole interaction might be like. I’m pretty sure his memory of the whole incident might be a little different than mine. But I assure you, mine is more accurate.

Sam Smith
Producer/Director, Behind The Barriers

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