Sep 23, 2014

Last Call at Uncle Johnny's

It's Last Call at Uncle Johnny's

Life is a passport.  Sometimes we plan our trips.  Sometimes life has other plans for us.  Four months ago, I made an unexpected pit stop at Uncle Johnny's.  Now it's time for Last Call.

She took this picture of us - the woman who set me afloat again with her lies and her bullshit and her empty promises of maturity and change and commitment.  Johnny and I posed for her this past holiday season.  Look at us.  We have no idea that - five months later - our lives will intertwine.  No knowledge that, thanks to the latest misadventure in this very interesting chapter in my life, Uncle Johnny would be stamping my passport and welcoming me into his madness.

Uncle Johnny isn't really my uncle.  In fact, I'm not sure he's anyone's uncle at all - not in the biblical sense, at least.  He's a friend of my boss who makes occasional appearances on the syndicated radio morning show I work for.  We both have no hair, fake teeth, and we both sing.  Uncle Johnny sings Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World" and I sing about 40 electro-pop songs you've probably never heard of.

I moved into Uncle Johnny's apartment in May, a displaced victim of infidelity still recovering from being displaced by a superstorm.  I can still remember that feeling after Sandy - that numbness No, it wasn't the drugs.  It was a feeling like you're on another planet.  Everyone around you is doing their everyday and you're a homeless person, a charity case, maybe even an afterthought.  Everyone's train keeps on a rollin' and yours has gone completely off the rails.

Sandy was like that - first everyone cared a lot, then everyone cared a little, then most everyone went back to their real lives, leaving only the people who were affected to continue to care a lot.  Hey Obama, you're still coming back to Staten Island, right?  Right???

That numb feeling had returned, even if this wasn't Sandy.  Even if this new challenge wasn't much of a surprise, even after all the 'told ya so's were elicited by friends and family alike - politely and otherwise.  It was a risk to cohabit with someone who had already shown her stripes, who had already proven herself to be a Love Landmine.  But love is love and faith is faith, and I am who I am, and I took the leap.  I'd say I have no regrets, but unlike the person who let me down, I am not a liar.

I had just unloaded my watery Staten Island mausoleum, short sold it to the highest bidder.  HERE.  TAKE IT.  An acceptable loss after all that had happened just two Octobers ago, after an 18 month battle with the bank that essentially became a second job.  Moving back in was never a serious consideration - a different dude bought that house 5 years earlier.  That dude drowned with all the Batman comics and the Led Zeppelin albums.  Staten Island wasn't exactly a mecca for dating.  The Express Bus and I were already mortal enemies.  It was a half a million dollar washout, it was most of my life savings and almost all of my life inside.  And I was glad to be rid of it.  I was not in debt to any institutions even if I still felt indebted to all the people who had helped me get through that strange Sandy trip.

And now I was in this kickass new construction building with all the fixins - doormen, amenities, a view of the NYC skyline.  I had come all the way back.  But something was up.  Something was off.  I had felt this feeling before, my burning gut.  I had gotten off the mat and was up fighting again, only I was fighting against a tidal wave of bullshit this time, all coming out of the mouth of one woman who I had chosen to put my remaining stock in.  It was just like the house - an investment that quickly turned to garbage.  Only this was easier to walk away from.  It's always easier to recover when something predictable happens.  The night I finally discovered the whole truth, a sleepless night where I was forced to take shelter at my friend's place nearby, he put it into perspective. "What did you really learn tonight that you didn't already know?"  Truth.

And so I found myself on my way up to midtown a few weeks later, walking down from Penn Station to Uncle Johnny's.  I stopped in front of the church across the street and saw the building's exterior and I immediately knew this was where I was going to live.

Because I'm big into signs and there it was staring me in my fat face.  GROW.  This is what it has been all about for me - this over-stamped passport denoting five different residences since Sandy - this adult limbo that I've been trying to shake.  Something amazing had to come from all this.  Moving to Park Slope after the storm, running the NYC Marathon, getting the girl.  I was workin it, girl - all with one thought on my mind.   

Don't survive.  Thrive.

And now all that was behind me, but there was still plenty of growing to do.

Uncle Johnny lives in a factory building.  He's lived in this apartment for over 30 years and he hasn't exactly renovated the place.  Describing the architecture of Uncle Johnny's apartment is simple.  Just imagine your grandparents' unfinished basement, only moved up to the penthouse.  Then add lots of green crystal, candelabras, zebra print, and Marilyn Monroe memorabilia.  Hey, maybe your grandfather was Liberace.

Oh.  And let's not forget the foliage.

Welcome To The Jungle

Uncle Johnny has 18 plants - I spent thirty minutes a day with Johnny's little green watering can, twice a week, trying to keep these monstrosities alive.  I was not entirely successful.  Uncle Johnny now has 14 plants.  Sorry, Johnny.

The building's single elevator is straight out of '70s-era horror films like Dressed To Kill - it's key operated and opens up right into the apartment.  Uncle Johnny's floor is the only one not separated by a door, so basically any stray homeless people or serial killers that get into the lobby can stumble right on into the living room at any moment.  It's really quite thrilling.  Needless to say, my baseball bat was never too far away.

Another "feature" of the elevator is that it stays open on your floor unless you send it back down to the lobby manually.  One night while I was making dinner, my dog Buttons was sniffing around and the doors closed on him, sending him down alone.  10 seconds later, I hear Buttons barking like a lunatic 7 floors below.  I would spend the next hour running up and down the only stairwell in this place in flip-flops, screaming my dog's name at the top of my lungs like a madman - "BUTTONS!!!!  BUUUUTTTOONNNSSSS!Buttons eventually turned up on the roof.  Boundless fun.

Uncle Johnny's bathroom was another adventure entirely.  For one thing, there was no cold water.  So if you're the type that likes skin scalding showers, this is the bathroom for you.  Ah yes, those hot August nights in Johnny's shower stall with a dozen mosquito bites covering my body (Uncle Johnny also has no screens on his windows).  Because, as we all know, scalding hot water is great for bug bites.

There were paintings where walls should have been, and I didn't dare to open the vanity under the sink for fear of what I might find inside there.  This was true army training - the sort of situation that makes you cherish the simple things in life.  Things like cold water and screen doors and a fucking bathtub.  Still, the bathroom wasn't without its charms.

Buttons and I were never short on company at Uncle Johnny's, sharing the space with all types of critters - roaches, skeeters, mice.  I soon became a vermin assassin.  The first mouse was a mercy killing - Buttons found it stuck on a glue trap and turned it upside down.  I put my face against my forearm, begged the gods for forgiveness and quickly stomped my foot atop the trap.  Sorry, Mickey.  The second mouse frizzle fried inside The Raticator.  Yes, this is a real thing - a Rodent Control System I bought online because Johnny refused to pay for an exterminator.  I returned from making music in Seattle to the smell of fried rodent and spent the morning scraping mice guts and burnt hair out of the trap with a wooden spoon.  Yep, this place was a real babe magnet.  Howyoudoin, ladies?

The third kill belonged to Buttons while I was at work.  Good boy.  By August, I was wearing war paint and throwing hand grenades - I was fucking Rambo and the mice were Afghan commandos.  They had no chance.

I retreated to the radio station one night in early July even tho I was on vacation.  It was cooler at work, and also vermin-free.  Heavy thunderstorms raged outside the window of my production studio.

I returned to Uncle Johnny's in the wee hours, waiting for the evil elevator to open, and I could already hear the water.  The doors opened and there was a waterfall in Uncle Johnny's living room.  The ceiling was leaking.  Badly.  It was the morning of the 4th of July, and Johnny was in Italy.  No one was coming to fix this problem, so I went up to the roof to discover about 6 inches of standing water on the level above me.

I laid towels and pots and pans around Johnny's living room, took a deep breath, and crawled up on Johnny's couch, where I always slept, thanks to my fear of things that creep and scurry in the night.  The rest of the weekend was hot and dry and the water on the roof dissipated.  Soon after, I was hanging on that roof nearly every night.  I had some drunken caucuses up there, I talked to God up there, I smoked a joint up there, I had some very public sex up there.  It was the discovery of the century.  Sometimes shitty things have to happen for new discoveries to be made.  That's pretty much been the story of my life for the past half decade.

Outside, it was pure madness.  Cabs, trucks, police sirens, drunk Rangers fans, crazy homeless people, tourists toting their luggage, tour buses, fire trucks, crack heads, prostitutes.  3 dollar a slice pizza.  Buttons hated it out there and who could blame him?  On the first night I stayed at Uncle Johnny's, there was a plastic container of piss on the sidewalk outside the door.  On the last day I stayed at Uncle Johnny's, there was a turd in the same spot.  Not doggie doo, mind you.  A man-sized dookie.  Welcome to Manhattan, American's toilet.

Up on the roof, however, Buttons loved life, always climbing to the highest point of elevation by the elevator shaft, surveying the rat race below.  My dog's well-being has become a big priority in my life ever since my divorce, ever since Sandy.  He has been through every step of this twisted journey with me.  Buttons could have had a complete meltdown at Uncle Johnny's, instead the situation became very manageable.  He is no longer crated, he gets on great with his boarder.  I take him on the subway now.  I take him to work sometimes.  He's running with me again, often 5 or 6 miles at a time.  And he fucking loves it.

Buttons healed up at Uncle Johnny's and so did I.  I ran in Hudson River Park, in Central Park, up the West Side Highway.  I discovered The High Line. I ate a Quarter Pounder with Cheese at 4 in the morning in front of Madison Square Garden and I didn't give a fuck.  I barbecued chicken on a small grill on Johnny's tiny terrace and watched sunset after beautiful sunset with a glass of whiskey in hand and my faithful dog nearby.

I was fucking free, and not just in the literal sense.  After Sandy, all those romantic feelings kept me tied down.  At the time, I saw it as motivation.  Live a better life, be a better man, and you will attain your goal.  And it drove me - more pushups, more miles on the pavement, more writing, more fighting, and more fearlessness.  At Uncle Johnny's I realized a few things.  I am a better man.  With or without anyone, I am a better man than I was before all this blogging bullshit, before all this bad luck and these bad choices.  I got fucked over - again! - but I didn't wallow in it this time.  I posted some true shit in this space that about 900 pairs of eyes saw, then I took it down and I moved the fuck on.

Some still tell me that living well is the best revenge, and I never disagreed with that.  Because I am living well again.  It's quiet in my back yard now.  I can hear the crickets at night, I have a tomato plant.  There is no evil elevator, no bugs, no mice - just plenty of space.  My piano is here, Buttons is asleep at my feet.  But revenge was necessary.  My boss told me that if slamming my ex in this space helped me move past the shitty feeling that comes with being cheated on, then it was a good thing that I did it.  Like most, he empathized.  And as usual, he was right.

Some still tell me that I should be writing full-time and I never disagreed with that either.  I'm just tired of writing about mishaps, about my shitty misadventures with unfathomable floods and insane ladies.  Sure, that's where the best material comes from. But it still feels more like my medicine than my destiny.  Some still tell me to leave New York and start a new life, and I made a real concerted effort to do that this summer.  But it just didn't happen and I'm at peace with it.  I put it out there to the universe that I'm game, I took that first big step.  it's just not time yet.

I went out to Seattle and made an album.  I surrounded myself with amazing musicians and once again benefited from the generosity of kindred spirits, only under much dryer circumstances.  I fell in love with a part of the country I had long yearned to visit.  I dated strange women and some not-so-strange women in five different cities, and I didn't fall for any of them.  Instead, I fell in love with making music again.  My new album will be out next month and it's nice to feel excited about the process, to be working towards another goal, another destiny.

And maybe - just maybe - I would never have done any of that if not for my time at Uncle Johnny's.  And so I'm grateful for the experience.  I dare say I'm enjoying the journey.  I lived in midtown Manhattan, a place I never thought I would spend more than an hour in without losing my shit.

It was pretty fucking awesome.  

It's Last Call at Uncle Johnny's.  We had a great time.  Just one more shot of whipped cream flavored vodka before I go.  Time for another stamp on the passport.  When I tell people about my time here, I won't think about the bugs or the mice or the cheater or the challenges.  I'll think about that GROW sign, I'll think about embracing more adversity, I'll think about this crazy shitty dirty city that I love, that I hate. And I'll think to myself, what a wonderful world.