On Friday, September 27, 2019, Karen and I attended a celebration at the Henry J.Carter Specialty Hospital in New York where, via streaming video, we watched the dedication of the Peter M. Kougasian Training Center at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Peter retired from the DA’s office in 2018 after 40 years of service due to the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), but his intellect, humor, and soulfulness remained indomitable. Here are a few highlights of the event:

There’s an insightful biographical profile of Peter on the New York City Bar website, but you wouldn’t get a complete picture of the man until you saw him in action onstage:

From time to time, Peter and I engaged in artistic collaboration, he as wordsmith, I as composer. Our first project was a setting of his paean to diseased relationships, I’m getting sick over you:

There’s no room in my schema
for yaws or emphysema.
Epidemics leave me blue.
I don't dig Asian flu.

But when winter passions rock us
with winds of streptococcus,
well then, what else can I do?
I get sick over you.

Oh, every time you sneeze
you just Hippocra-tease me
with the dreams of your disease
and the cute way that you wheeze.

There’s no sense in our waiting,
my heart is fibrillating.
It’s a love bug no sulpha drug can cure.
Yes, it’s true:
I’m getting sick over you.

So let’s walk down the aisle.
I’ll share your tears, your smile,
and I’ll know by your “I do”
that I’m making you sick too...

I think that Peter was hoping for a musical setting in the urbane style of the American Songbook, but surprise, I’m no Cole Porter (although I sing about as competently as Porter did).

Our next stab at immortality was inspired by a songwriting contest sponsored by the manufacturers of Duck brand duct tape. Yes, you read that correctly. The subject of the song was supposed to be the virtues of duct tape, but not wanting to agonize over lyrics for such an inane (albeit irresistibly inane) endeavor, I recruited Peter to supply the poetry, knowing that he would cook up something delicious in a jiffy. I was not disappointed. What better way to tout the strength and reliability of Duck brand duct tape than to dramatize its application in a real-life situation we can all relate to? The song, titled Stuck together, did not win the song contest. Philistines.

Stuck together, baby, you and I,
stuck together as the years go rolling by.
Stuck together, honey, you and me,
we’ll be stuck like duct tape for eternity

It wasn’t when I looked for work
at the convenience store.
It wasn’t when I took the shift
that stretched from four to four.
I wasn’t when I roasted weiners
just to make a buck.
It wasn’t when I cleared the Slurpee chute
when it got stuck.

Stuck together, baby...

It wasn’t when you parked you car
in the handicapped zone.
It wasn’t when you couldn't tear your mouth
from your cell phone.
It wasn’t when you came inside,
it wasn’t when you paid.
It wasn’t when you tried to leave
with your Gatorade.

Stuck together, baby...

It wasn’t when they showed their nines,
or when they taunted.
It wasn’t when I knew them
from “America’s Most Wanted.”
It wasn’t when they gagged my mouth
and bound my hips.
I fell in love with you
when they put that duct tape on our lips.

Stuck together, baby...

Confession: I supplied the lyrics to the chorus, and I take full responsibility for the grammatical abuse. Peter would never have allowed himself to write “Stuck together, you and me” for the sake of a cheap rhyme. So not only am I no Cole Porter, I’m no Stephen Sondheim, either.

Our one and only collaborative effort that succeeded in being published was not a song, but what can be best described as “Audio Art.” It was developed in response to a call for texts and recordings exploring the subject of hysteria. The publication sponsoring the call, the now-defunct Link: a criticial journal on the arts, solicited works that “explore the complex meanings of hysteria throughout history and in contemporary society, the wildly different guises in which hysteria appears, and the impact of hysterical conditions on artistic practice.” Again, it was the potential for transcendent silliness that compelled me to beg for Peter’s involvement. The dual meaning of hysteria as hilarity and as psychosis immediately suggested the scenario of Sigmund Freud doing stand-up comedy, and who better to write that script than comedian-philosopher Peter Mark Kougasian. Not only did Peter compose the text, he recorded a recitation of it on audio cassette as a guide to performance, assuming that I would record the speech myself in higher fidelity for the final mix. Peter's performance was so masterful, however, that I used it instead, exaggerating the recording’s crappy sound quality in imitation of a very old archival recording. We prefaced the track with the following comments:

“It is a little-known fact that Sigmund Freud began his career in show business playing small clubs and Würsthauser along the Tyrolean Schnitzel Belt circuit. He would typically bring his most seriously disturbed patients on tour with him, putting their neuroses on display while lecturing the audience in his trademark totepfanne (deadpan) style. Although decried as exploitive and barbaric, he defended this practice as an exercise in radical therapy. It was during these grueling tours that Freud honed his deadly adroitness with hecklers, often reducing them to a condition of crippling emotional dependency with a single withering exchange (a great boon to his private practice).”

The track was featured on a compact disc included in the November 1, 2000 issue of Link. Art critic Douglas Kahn had this to say about our effort:

Many of the pieces attend faithfully to the issue’s special theme of hysteria and none are more hysterical than David Snow and Peter Kougasian’s Freud in Konzert, an archival recording of Freud (speaking in English no less) when he was a stand-up comic playing the small clubs and Wursthüuser along the Tyrolean Schnitzel Belt, as the artists explain in their notes. The recording reveals that he is facing a tough house, their difficulty with his jokes arising no doubt from not having read his book on the topic, an unfazed Sigmund gesticulating his cigar like Groucho.

Peter succumbed to illness on September 6, 2021. I was privileged to deliver the following eulogy at his memorial service at the Armenian Evangelical Church of New York on September 25, 2021:

I first met Peter when we were 6th grade students in Cranston, Rhode Island. We attended different schools but were both enrolled in a one-day-a-week science and English studies program for selected students run by a Mr. Hickey. If that name puts you in mind of an eccentric character from a Jean Shepherd monologue, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. But Hickey’s class was an ideal environment for geeky 11-year-olds to meet and bond, and we began a friendship that lasted more than half a century. Peter was always intellectually precocious, but just as significantly, he was morally precocious, a trait not usually associated with adolescents (not from Cranston, Rhode Island at any rate). In ninth grade, he wrote a short story, a succinct, two-page gem set at the end of World War II, titled “Including those who were innocent.” In it, the narrator relates how, as punishment for the misbehavior of a few students, his entire grade school class is forced to remain after the end of the school day. A few minutes into that ordeal, a school administrator comes to the class to announce that Japan has surrendered after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a Kougasian-esque ironic turn, the teacher who imposed collective punishment upon the class relents and allows her students to leave in celebration of the collective punishment of Japanese civilians. It must have been a special hell for someone with Peter’s sensibilities to grow up among the troglodytes of our suburban community, not unlike the narrator of his story. But somehow, Peter thrived, abetted by his wonderful parents and sister, and our friendship survived high school, college, graduate school, and adulthood. When I was going through a rough patch in my personal life in my forties, his email correspondence was a beacon of wisdom and humor. The toast he gave as best man at my wedding to Karen was classic “Uncle Pete,” riffing on the speeches that had preceded his. A few weeks ago, I asked him how he had acquired his adeptness at performing, and he said it was an inheritance from his father. Alex, you are heir to a great showbiz legacy.

When I visited Peter at the Carter Specialty Hospital, I observed how gracious he was to the staff, always thanking them for their care. Given the constant pain he endured, and the arduous effort required to communicate, that was remarkable enough. But often, he would go to the trouble of introducing me to his other visitors, which was nuts. When pandemic lockdown at the hospital made visiting impossible, our communication was reduced to text messages. Knowing of his interest in the work of Marcel Proust, I texted him a 5,000 word New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik about Proust, a literary gift I’m sure no one else in my social circle would have enjoyed half as much. When visiting hours at Carter were finally restored this last summer to a single hour-and-a-half period per week on Fridays, I was privileged to keep Pete company, talk politics, reminisce about Mr. Hickey, and rub his feet on request. Truly, the entire 56-year span of our friendship was a privilege. I was honored with the companionship of a beautiful human being, a great soul, and an example of what it means to be a mensch. Beth, thank you for being his angel and soul mate. We love you.

A lengthy tribute to Peter was published in the October 2021 edition of AMAA News, the journal of the Armenian Missionary Association of America, which you can read here.