#51. Writer Jonathan Ames is a good friend (1998–2019)

One of the better redheads.

Do writers even get famous anymore? Jonathan Ames is famous to me. It’s almost awkward for me to write about him, because Ames has remained a sweet friend and gracious supporter of mine for over 20 years. At the newspaper where I spent the late 90s, I first received a copy of Ames’s essays, What’s Not To Love? which led me to perhaps my favorite novel, The Extra Man — all of that long before he created the beloved HBO mystery comedy show, Bored to Death. Below I’ve written a brief timeline of my adventures with Ames over two decades:

  1. Tampa, 1998

I wrote to Ames out of nowhere. In emails he came off lonely, though maybe I projected that onto him, having read lots of his thoughts on loneliness in his books, and in his NY Press column about his life and perversions. When I met him, he’d recently won a Guggenheim fellowship, still he spoke of drowning in student loans. Somehow, we became passionate pen-pals.

2. St. Petersburg, 2000

I talked my bosses at the St. Petersburg Times newspaper into booking Jonathan Ames and Neal Pollack for the St. Pete Festival of Reading, and putting them up in a beachfront hotel. Jonathan read multiple times that weekend and tried his damnedest to woo this redhead girl I’d fallen for. But what I remember most is we all stopped for drinks on the way to the authors’ hotel. I didn’t drink, but we all smoked a little, and after leaving the bar I got so fucking lost. My friend Lance sat beside me up front in my sister’s car, which I’d borrowed because it was nicer, and Ames and Pollack sat in the backseat, drunk and loud, while I drove all over St. Pete like a stoned moron. I finally pulled over to a gas station, and left everyone in my car to go bother an attendant during his smoke break outside. As the attendant gave me detailed directions, I looked over his shoulder to my sister’s car and saw Jonathan Ames standing before the open trunk, holding a golden sword above his head. Not a toy sword. Not plastic. A heavy gold and silver real sword. In the middle of the guy’s directions home, I bolted away across the parking lot to the car to stop Ames. “Hey! Hey put that down!” Was that sword in his luggage? I wondered. Turned out, my sister forgot to warn me about the sword on board.

3. New York City, 2002

Jonathan wrote a blurb for a little pink collection of my writing called Commonplace, published just before I moved to Louisiana in 2001. Once I reached New Orleans, McSweeney’s.net published a piece I wrote about my Bourbon Street restaurant job, which I turned into my first novel, The Donkey Show. Jonathan Ames hooked me up with his literary agent, and also wrote a blurb for my novel, a copy of which I mailed to the McSweeney’s shop in Brooklyn. Eggers’ lackeys contacted me to schedule an event at their comically tiny bookstore. But when my friend Jonathan Ames agreed to read with me, McSweeney’s moved our big shebang to the large, trendy event space, Galapagos, where I read and played music in front of hundreds of Jonathan’s fans. The reading turned out so well for me, that I forgot it was also my birthday until after the show. It started to snow just as Ames led us all on foot to a swanky (but affordable!) Thai restaurant, where late into the meal, he stood on his chair, made an elaborate toast in my honor, then got the entire restaurant to sing to me.

4. New Orleans, 2004

I was very excited when Jonathan returned to New Orleans with his new novel, Wake Up, Sir! “Don’t loan this out to your friends,” Ames told me upon gifting me one of his first copies, hot off the press. “Make sure you tell people to buy it.” One of my only prized possessions, that copy of Wake Up, Sir! got soaked in Katrina’s floodwaters, because of course I did loan it out. Ames crashed on our couch that night, and the next night we performed together at the old Mermaid Lounge, where my artist friend Johnny T acted out a performance art piece that involved a gross prop: his own long turd on a plate. But my strongest memory of that visit was the intense, sweaty-as-hell, mid-summer bike ride Ames and I took across most of New Orleans. Over the course of seven hours, the sun burned fucking brutal as I showed and told Ames everything about every neighborhood — just before Katrina would swoop in and fuck everything up. Not many of my friends could have survived that ride, much less enjoyed it like Ames did. They don’t call him The Herring Wonder for nothing.

5. New York 2005, San Francisco 2006

I vaguely remember eating pizza slices in New York with Ames, while we were locked out of New Orleans after Katrina: the same NY trip when someone broke my car window and stole every piece of my clothing. Later that same refugee year, I watched Ames read in a San Francisco bookstore. I remember after his reading he said to me, “You seemed pretty tuned out,” as if his performance had let me down. “It was really good — you’re always good — but I had already heard you tell that story a couple times.” After his reading, we walked to a Latin diner to have coffee with (recently-MeToo’d) author of The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliot.

6. New Orleans, 2011

Jonathan had nailed down a TV deal for Bored to Death, and was dating Fiona Apple. I felt exhilarated by my friend’s success. Ames was really doin it! Dying to share his newfound money, he bought rounds of drinks at any bar where we ran into my friends, even though he himself wasn’t drinking. He graciously bought softshell crab po’boys for my family of three (even the baby). One afternoon, back at his nice St. Charles Ave B&B (no more surfing my couch), Ames told me, “I have a surprise for you. I have Fiona Apple’s new album. It hasn’t come out yet.” Ames plucked the burned CD from his bag. “It has a song called Jonathan.” For some reason, as he messed with the CD player, I chose that moment to give Jonathan a TED talk about the dangers of leaked albums. “She hasn’t had a new album in years. That’s a really big deal to have that. If anyone got hold of that CD, and leaked those songs. Man…” I think I really freaked Ames out; in the end he didn’t hit PLAY. He put the CD back into his bag as we moved on to other topics. Idler Wheel…, incidentally, went on the become maybe my favorite album maybe of the decade — though that “Jonathan” song kind of creeps me out.

Since last I saw Ames, he moved to Los Angeles, created the Patrick Stewart comedy, Blunt Talk, and the novella You Were Never Really here, recently turned into a very good Joaquin Phoenix movie. Ames and I usually catch up via phone once a year or so, and I always love talking with him. Jonathan Ames has always been a good friend.

Michael Patrick Welch’s “132 Famous People I Have Met” series is FREE, but please consider donating to his VENMO (michael-welch-42), or to his PayPal account (paypal.me/michaelpatrickwelch2), so he can feed his kids, pay his mortgage, etc.

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