My friend John, pictured above, would have been 44 today. Join me after the jump to learn about the influence he had on my life, in a re-posting of something I wrote a month after his death in 2008.
In the last four days, I have received news of the deaths of five people I knew and loved. Their deaths are unrelated, and have hit me hard, especially as one piece of tragic news has piled on top of another. I have known each of them for over half my life.
If you’ll indulge me, and you don’t mind my rambling, I’d like to share some cherished memories of one of these fine people now – his name was John Ott, and he is a big reason why I live the way I do today.
I have to confess I laughed out loud when I read in his obituary that he graduated from NYU in 1995. It’s certainly true, and easily glossed over by the casual reader; but it’s a fact that is just so… well, when I met him in 1988, during my first days at NYU, he was a sophomore. When I graduated in 1992, he was a junior. And that, to me, is John in a nutshell: All in good time.
My God, how we razzed him about it. Every year, we – me, Howie, Dave, Tiff – would meet up after winter break, and inevitably we’d realize that yet again, John had gone down to visit his buddy D. Lee in Florida and just… stayed there. Then one day every May he’d resurface, looking tan and sheepish, and it was like he’d never left. John is one of those people – you have one in your own life, I’m sure – whose laugh is contagious, and as soon as you see him, you both start laughing. “I dunno,” he’d say, “it’s warm there. I like it.” Giggle. And off he’d go to register for the following fall.
I had led a pretty adventurous life up to that point, I suppose you could say, but it was all under an umbrella of structure, and expectations, and obligations. I had never met anyone like John in my life. How could he be so cavalier about his college degree? Who goes and lives someplace just because “it’s warm there”? How did he afford it? He was like an exotic bird, and I always had questions for him when he returned.
Jesus, the memories are flooding in. I’ll try to stick to the point, because I do have one, I swear it.
We were roommates for a while after I graduated, on East 24th Street, in this crazy triplex, which came with this crazy girl also named Christine. He taught me how to cook; he taught me about the genius of Eric Clapton and Aretha Franklin; we played a lot of cards and laughed more than is probably legal; and then he discovered South America.
I don’t remember the name of the place he worked at in New York, but it was, like, a serious grown-up office job. He’d work there until he had saved enough money to go to Ecuador for a while, and then he’d quit the job and go until he ran out of money. Then one day he’d resurface, looking tan and sheepish, just as he always did – and somehow, this company would give him his job back, and a couple times they even promoted him.
He was the original Peter Gibbons, and he was my idol. I probably thought about his life more than he did, because I secretly dreamed of living that way, too. And when I finally hatched my crazy scheme to move to Rome, he was the first person I called. I told him what I planned to do, and he was my cheerleader from that very first day.
Then he went to Ecuador and never came back. We kept in touch, of course, but finally I felt like we were equals, each living our dream. I am a freelance writer living in the South of France and Rome; he opened what is now a popular bar in Quito, and got married.
The last time we heard from each other was just over a year ago:
“hey, i know i haven’t spoken to you in quite a while, but i want to introduce you to my daughter. she was born monday [October] 22nd  in guayaquil ecuador. 8 lbs 10 ounces. and she can already dance salsa. hope all is well – drop me a line if you can. all is well here, and welcome to visit, john”
“OMGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG NAME PLEASE.”
“haha! good to hear from you air! [Air was my nickname, after he discovered I am unable to jump more than two inches off the ground.] yours was by far the coolest response to the announcement. her name is maya joana. what the hell is going on with you?”
“what is going on with me. how much time do you have? I’m in the south of france with an amazing man. i’m a freelance writer now and living The Life. i hope you know this is all YOUR FAULT, this life i lead abroad and loving it. love you johnnyotis.”
I do love you, Johnny Otis, and I will miss you more than words can say. Thank you for being my friend, my inspiration, and my hero. I promise you, you will never be forgotten.