Ode to a Traveler

John Desmond Ott

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 [2007] 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”


“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.


40 thoughts on “Ode to a Traveler

  1. Hi, I just discovered your blog through a link at Scintilla’s blog.

    This is absolutely beautiful!! What a wonderful friendship you must of had.

  2. That was a beautiful tribute to someone you loved very much. Thanks for sharing him with us. I’m sorry he’s gone 😦 *hug* Take care dear.

  3. Chris. How ironic that we’d have the same memories about John and music? I drove in this morning to Aretha Franklin oldies thinking about him. I’m now sitting at my desk in tears after reading your thoughts. This is so tough.

  4. Oh Honey. So sorry for this latest loss. What a week!! It is obvious this special person left some pretty heavy footprints on your heart and in your life. It is wonderful that you allowed others to celebrate his spirit. I love you.

  5. Sweetie, I am so, so sorry. I had this kind of thing 5 years ago this month, and one of the many funerals I attended was that of my dearest friend, Nick, whom I still miss every day of the world. Know that you are in our thoughts. Hugs, Cyn

  6. Hello travel writing friend. It hurts when someone we care about passes away. It sucks. 2008 has been a crap year for me in the death department (stopped counting), so I understand your sadness.

    You have special memories of your friends, especially John. I don’t know if I can write anything to make you feel better, except to just cry and know that it is okay to cry.

    I’m sending you a big hug and virtual luv from Louisiana.

  7. Love it, I just printed this because I am creating an album for his daughter Joana with everyones stories so she can see how loved her Dad is. It has been two and a half weeks since John left us and I have cried everyday. We are having a celebration of his life in NYC on Nov 21st. His wife and daughter are arriving tomorrow in the states. Thanks for an amazing story, he was my hero also. D. Lee

  8. Thank you for capturing his spirit and sharing your journey …. you clearly had chosen to follow your heart with a small nudge from a man who handle life with a positive state of mind…I too define myself by the company I hold close to my heart…G.B.

  9. I was fortunate enough to have met John and to have travelled across the US for a couple of months together. Funny enough, I think he was at that job in NY when we made plans for travel (in ’97?) and then said he might not be able to make it afterall because of low funds. The next day he informed me the trip was “on” again as he had cashed out his 401k and was ready to go! Your piece above definitely embodies the person that John was and how I will always remember him. Thank you

  10. wish I could give you a big snuggle hug my dear. I remember you sharing the shenanigans during your college days. Mom has informed me of your rough days recently and really hope you can try to get some sleep soon. Thank you for sharing John with us.

  11. what a great tribute…John and I travelled together in Costa Rica and then, a few years later, I got word that he was in SF(on his way to the Korean DMZ of course). I invited him over and he stayed with me for about 5 months. I loved John and the way he lived his life was just awesome…I had an annual MSU-UM bet with him and MSU won for the first time this year in about a decade. John- I miss you and your care free attitude.

  12. I too worked with John at the ‘serious’ job. It was called Barton & Polansky Associates. I know I am not alone in that we all admired and envied John in his ability to come and go to wherever his desire led him. It got to be a bit of laugh when we would have yet another ‘going away’ lunch for John! I also had the pleasure of living in Massachusetts at the same time as John. It was great to be able to reconnect with him for a time. We laughed that I moved somewhere after him and left before him (~2.5 years), it almost always would be the other way around. It was also funny that I ended up in Michigan, sort of a reverse trip. John remains an inspiration for how he lived his life and, though it had been a while since we spoke, will always be missed.

  13. I knew John since HS.
    My heart aches with this news, and I know I am one of many.
    Your writing is beautiful. Much like yourself, I could not wait to hear his next adventure, then listen to his tales of travel when he returned.
    An exotic bird with a heart of gold.

    I remember his first trip.
    He bought a money belt (i thought those were for spies), and I remember him filling it with cash telling me where he was headed. I was amazed. When he returned (i loved hearing his stories, places he saw, people he met) I remember asking him what hotel he stayed at. Hotel?, John said. I met some people at a bar and stayed with them. Now that’s my Johnny!

    See you soon brother……….

  14. Wow! Your writing is inspiring Christine. I am blubbering right now of course. Sorry for your loss. He sounded like a wonderful person.

  15. John was a friend from NYU. My first friend as a matter of fact. I just read about his death (I blame Lou Reed for that as well….John would have liked that) as I was looking to re-connect.

    Damn………..How are his wife and daughter doing?

  16. Pingback: How I Travel: The BootsnAll Writers | BootsnAll Travel Articles

  17. Christine,
    This is beautiful.

    I just finished posting this five minutes ago:

    I went to send you an email tonight and it bounced. It bounced, and I realized how long it had been since I’d last heard from you…since life seems to get crazy and we lose touch with friends that influenced us the most. My last email from you is a picture of your sweet baby girl. I’ve read all of the wonderful tributes, seen all the photos, emailed Geoff and Edward Modinger and got back in touch with Sasi tonight, b/c I can’t quite believe the internet is how I found out why your email bounced. You were one of my best friends in San Francisco. Thank you for always looking out for all of us, and for always encouraging me to write and write and write. You were my real live Kerouac and Cassady all into one.
    In my last email to you, I sent you this quote, and it still seems so appropriate now. “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…” — Jack Kerouac, “On The Road” Love always and many prayers to your beautiful family.

    I’d love to connect with you.

  18. Hi I’m Maya Joana I’m the kid thank you I have never met him so I don’t know much just stories but thank you for being a story teller

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