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.



Sep 11, 2014

Never Forget


That's what they want me to do.  That's what's trending today on all the social networks.

#neverforget 


But how can I ever forget?  How can I ever forget losing you?  My life has never been the same.  Thirteen years later, and that's what this day is always about for me.  Losing you.

I could have been there that day.  I was inside those twin towers four days a week, back and forth from Brooklyn to Jersey City.  Once a week, I went to midtown instead, to our crappy Sales office.  Always reluctantly.  That's where I was supposed to be that day - midtown - instead of inside the mouth of madness.

You were in my bed when my father called.  We were both asleep.  My machine picked up.  "Big Ron, just checking to see where you are.  Just heard about a blimp hitting the World Trade Center.  Call us back."  Dad wasn't drunk, that was the original news report.  A blimp, or maybe a helicopter.  A plane?  At 8:45am on September 11th, 2001, the idea of that was still unfathomable.

And the phone call that roused us from our slumber?  That was my Dad.  That's still my Dad.  Retired NYPD.  23 years on the job.  Always checking in.  Always cynical about the city he grew up in and would live in for fifty years.  Maybe it's an Italian thing.  Maybe it's a Scalzo thing.  But Dad's always on alert.  Every time I fly, my father tracks my flight on his computer.  He almost always calls me immediately after I land to ensure that I'm alive, wherever I am and whoever I'm with.


Dad's call woke us up and I turned on the TV and you and I watched the whole thing from my living room.  Not believing what we were watching.  It didn't seem real - the second plane, both towers on fire just 11 miles away.  I had just bought an exercise bike in Borough Park and you were sitting on it while I sat on the couch.  You were crying on top of my new exercise bike as the North Tower went down.  "Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod."  How can I ever forget?

Me, I was numb.  I was numb in the days and weeks to follow.  I couldn't get to work, to my friends and my co-workers.  My subway route was now rubble.  I would drive daily to the N train, take it to Cortlandt Street and walk clear through the World Trade Center to grab the PATH to Z100 in Jersey City.  I would do my Christmas shopping in that building, would grab breakfast there every once in awhile.  Our station's holiday party was all the way at the top - at Windows On The World, a hundred and seven stories up, less than two years earlier.  A different time, a different world.

I lost you that day.  You were still here but I lost you.  Because I lost myself.  I didn't help anyone in those days that followed, I didn't feel close to anyone or anything.  I made an attempt to drive to work a few days later and it was an absolute nightmare.  Highways were closed, everyone was being stopped and red-flagged on the roads.  Every truck driver was a terrorist and every truck held a bomb.  Anthrax was in the headlines - not the band, the lethal disease.  I remember screaming bloody murder in my car in unfathomable traffic, wanting to be with my co-workers, most of who witnessed the towers go down from directly across the Hudson River and more who put on helmets and backpacks and grabbed shovels and did whatever they could to help the first responders.

Me, I was a prisoner in a Toyota Camry, a three hour attempt to drive 15 miles thwarted by terrorism.  I made it as far as Bayonne, then turned back, defeated.  Apathetic.  I took it out on you.  Your job sent you to Baltimore and you left reluctantly and uneasily.  I was already pushing you away.  I remember returning to work soon afterwards.  I was reading the newspaper in the studio, a big article in the Lifestyle section about how couples who had just started dating were rushing to the altar because hey, the world had changed.  Hey, the world was ending.

Me, I didn't feel like rushing anywhere.  We were together 6 years, and they were solid.  We rarely fought, we understood each other.  Everything was good.  You made me feel like the only man in the world and I was in love with you.  The sex was good, the rapport was good, we liked each others families and friends.  People envied us.  It wasn't perfect, but it was solid - something to be grateful for.

I read that article and I heard myself saying "Not me."  I'm not ready.  Because I wasn't ready and I should have been.  I should have sealed the deal, I should have felt what those people in the article were feeling.  Now is the time.  I should have asked you to marry me, and it would have seemed far from crazy.  It would have been cause for celebration.  But I was lost. 

I lost myself that day, watching those towers go down and wondering how different my life would have been if this was Monday or Wednesday instead of Tuesday, if I would have even been alive at all.  Maybe I would have been covered in soot, maybe I would have been covered in worse.  That's what happened to Father Mychal Judge.  He was down on the ground giving Last Rites to the dying and he was crushed by debris when the South tower collapsed.  Witness accounts state that moments before his death, he was screaming aloud, "Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!"  I'll never forget Father Mychal Judge, a man I never met.


I never wanted to go to that Sales office in midtown.  I fought requests by my bosses to go there, passive aggressively.  Sometimes I just wouldn't go.  I didn't have my own office in midtown, didn't have my own computer or even my own desk.  The place was a Park Avenue shit hole near Grand Central Station, right in the middle of the Rat Race.  In August, I ultimately relented, agreeing to go there once a week.  On Tuesdays.  Whenever I went, I would show up extra late in protest.  That's why Dad's call woke me up at 8:45, why I wasn't already on a train or a bus like most of my friends and co-workers that Tuesday.

I broke up with you two weeks later.  Over the phone, like a coward.  You were at my apartment and things weren't going well and you left to go back to your place, frustrated.  Then I called you and I broke up with you.  "You're breaking up with me, aren't you?," you said uneasily.  I can still hear your voice.

By late October, I realized I had made a mistake.  I reached out, and we reconciled, just for a little while - for my birthday, the holidays.  But I wanted you back selfishly.  I needed a security blanket because hey the world had changed, hey the world was ending.  But my heart wasn't 'all in'.  I drove us up to Connecticut for a long weekend alone and away from the madness, trying to reignite the flame.  I insisted on watching the Yankees play in the World Series while we were up there and you didn't argue - you never did.  You knew it was important to me and maybe it was important to you too.  Somehow, they lost.  In a year they were meant to win, they lost, and I always saw that as a sign of our ultimate demise.  Stupid, I know - but that's what I felt.


The next week, I spent most of my birthday evening fighting over the phone with one of my band mates.  I was leaving the band and it had all come to a head and we were having our little rock star spat.  You and I had dinner with my sister and her boyfriend, and when we got back to my place, I left the three of you watching a movie in the living room while I argued over the phone in my bedroom, effectively breaking up with four other guys.  My sister scolded me afterwards.  I should have been trying harder to keep you.  I should have been working on my relationship and I was taking it for granted instead.

I didn't deserve you.  I didn't do enough.  I didn't care enough, maybe I didn't know how to.  I didn't care much about anything anymore besides my own selfish needs.  After the holidays, you were the one who ended it - and you were much more committed to that than I ever was.  We lived a mile away from each other and I only saw you one more time after that - on the Belt Parkway bike path six months later.  I ran away from a girl I was hanging out with to chase after you, to talk to a woman who I no longer recognized.

I wrote you letters, I wrote you songs.  I begged and I plead and I prayed and you never took me back.  You were cold and callous and you had every right to be.  You told me the butterflies were gone.  At the time, I couldn't understand why - but I understand now.  A few months later, I sat at my office computer and watched you make out with 3 different dudes on a Blind Date ripoff reality show called Shipmates.  You married someone else.  You moved away and you had twins and you got what you deserved and so did I.

Never forget?  No problem.  Losing you was the hardest thing I had to deal with in the years to follow.  I left Brooklyn, I tried to forget you but how can I ever?  I never forget the best thing that ever happened to me, I never forget the love that was ultimately never meant to be.  I got rid of all the photos, but I never forget your smile.  I never forget my cowardice, I never forget the bad karma, and I never forget my fear of commitment.  I never forget that I blew it.  I never forget that I can always try harder, I can always do better. 


The past 13 years spent at what is now known as 'Ground Zero' have often angered me - the bureaucracy that held up the construction of the Freedom Tower, the tourists taking pictures of a hole as if it belonged in someone's scrapbook.  They still haven't figured it out - the new PATH station, the traffic, the building's interior.  I got stuck down there twice this past winter due to falling ice, and suffice it to say I wasn't thinking about ice while being trapped inside like a cow in a cattle drive.  It's still a mess down there, it still feels like we haven't fully recovered from the carnage, and maybe we haven't.

I remember listening to Elvis on Z100 in the days that followed the attacks, the guy who would ultimately become my boss and in some ways, my savior.  He was just talking to people.  He was being a friend.  No music, no sound effects, no pomp and circumstance.  Elvis would later confess that those days that followed were the biggest reason he recognized that what he did really meant something to people and that he truly loved what he did.  I'm still waiting to feel what Elvis feels, that validation.  I'm still searching for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow while I shake off the dust of an imperfect past.

One thing Elvis is always quick to mention these days is that it's September 12th - the day we all came together and started to heal - that really deserves a commemoration.  Ironic that on this day, I am writing this once again surrounded by boxes.  I'll be moving into a new place and starting the next chapter of my life.  Maybe today, after surviving a divorce, a superstorm, and some heartbreaking infidelity, I'm finally starting to heal.


I feel like I've spent half my life trying to run away from New York City, but I'm still here - sure, I've bounced around.  I've lived in 6 different places since Sandy took my house and nearly everything in it.  But I've never left.  I recognize that it could be a lot worse - I feel like we all know people whose friends died, who almost died themselves.  I was fortunate.  13 years ago, the world changed for everyone around me, and for some in much much worse ways.  I do know what it's like to lose someone in an instant - it is truly the worst feeling I have ever experienced.  There's nothing I can say about the brave men and women who responded to the attacks that hasn't been said already, nor that can be said any better.  They are true heroes.   Me, I'm still trying.  Bravery was never my strong suit as a kid, and only now as an adult, having experienced unexpected hardships of my own, have I learned to stare my fears in the face.

New York is a resilient city, and I am a New Yorker, an American.  I'm not much into politics nor religion, but like most in this country, I have no tolerance for oppression of my freedom.  In spite of all its flaws - past, present and future - I'm a grateful citizen of these United States.  I see those lights out my window and I wish they could illuminate the sky every night instead of just tonight.  I know I would help pay the electric bill to feel what I feel when I see those lights.  I feel lucky to be a New Yorker, I feel lucky to be alive, to still have a chance to make a difference in other people's lives.

I feel gratitude.



But what I really think of most when I see those lights - those twin beams that seem to extend all the way up to heaven....what I always think about - is losing you.  I look up at those symbols of freedom and I never forget that you were, and will always be, The One That Got Away.