On the Town with Jonathan Ames


Jonathan Ames pretends to be a cipher, but you know better. You meet up with him, the writer of the new autobiographical graphic novel The Alcoholic (illustrated by Dean Haspiel) at a benefit one of his friends is throwing at the Bowery Poetry Club. “It’s to raise money for Chihuahuas,” he says. Several dogs attend. Ames, as downtown folk might know, is a ringmaster onstage (he emcees literary boxing matches) but also in life. The Irish-looking mensch has a personal rogue’s gallery of performer friends worthy of Andy Warhol. Reverend Jen, the performance artist whose Waggytail Rescue the benefit supports, wears straight black tresses and realistic Spock ears. “I was born human,” she deadpans, “but became an elf.”

Outside, Ames introduces another pal as “Mangina,” a Jack Russell terrier in a man’s body—specifically, Iggy Pop’s. “Desperate for attention” does not begin to describe Mangina, who, while wearing a dog collar and carrying a prosthetic vagina between his legs, invites all comers to explore his crotch. Later, there’s a motion to get a late snack at Veselka. “I’d love for you to come with us,” Ames warns. “But Mangina’s going to act out so that you’ll write about him.”

Onstage, Ames performs a brief routine with Mangina, which the two describe as an attempt to re-enact their original moment of bonding—”The first time we met,” Ames explains, “we found out we’d both been sexually assaulted by dogs.” In the act, Mangina plays the dog (hence the collar). He’s lost the majority of his left leg and wears yet another prosthesis, which, when he unstraps it, reveals a peg-like appendage, a bone barely covered in flesh. The act, which Ames warns you is unrehearsed and will be bad, consists of Ames and Mangina wrestling awkwardly as the “dog” attempts to remove Ames’s pants and force the withered limb between Ames’s butt cheeks. Fortunately, Rev. Jen has deemed this benefit an “anti-slam,” free from any truly aesthetic judgment. All participants receive 10’s. So, um, 10!

When Ames’s friends are not notorious eccentrics, they’re actual famous people. He’s been in a long-distance relationship with Fiona Apple for two years. They met because she read his books and was moved to contact him. You find this incredibly romantic. You want to meet her, but, he says, she’s just gotten in on a delayed flight, so she’ll be too tired. She’s also “painfully shy.” You’ve watched him send an e-mail to Moby from his phone. Ames has realized that Moby and another odd buddy, the performer Faceboy, have similar birth names: Richard Hall and Francis Richard Hall, respectively. Ames can’t contain his amusement that the two have met without discovering this. You see in him the mark of a dedicated voyeur—the sort who develops a career as a writer to excuse a compulsion to observe. Having outrageous or influential friends deflects scrutiny. He asks—frequently—that you keep certain information off the record, mundane facts that ordinarily you’d set down with no fear of libel.

The Alcoholic—out October 1 from Vertigo—concerns a young man called “Jonathan A.” who becomes a high-functioning alcoholic as an adolescent. His parents die. He wakes up naked in a garbage can after a failed gay encounter with a drug dealer. The 9/11 attacks happen. He meets, separately, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. “The whole book is emotionally true,” Ames says.

Two days later, you meet again—dinner and a movie, a quasi-date. “This used to be Buffa’s!” he declares, disheartened at the death of the greasy spoon at Lafayette and Prince. It’s now Delicatessen, an airy, chic space of simple lines and white-leather furniture, where plastic, glass, and wood mingle trendily. “I like all the wood back here,” he says of the dining area. “It’s like a ski lodge.” Much later, he e-mails you an article from the Post about the tenants upstairs who’ve been pissing into the restaurant’s AC. Delicatessen, like its Chelsea-girl sister Cafeteria, serves fancified diner food with eccentric tweaks—cheeseburger spring rolls the most startling example. “You’re getting that,” he informs you. Mutual salads arrive, Niçoise and Cobb. You talk shop about journalism, teaching. He describes an HBO pilot he’s developing based on a story he wrote for Esquire called “Bored to Death.” Otherwise, he’s better at getting you to talk than vice versa. The spring rolls are not as weird as they sound.

You go with Ames to see Momma’s Man at the Angelika, based on a positive review and a parallel between its loser protagonist and “Jonathan A.” in The Alcoholic. In the film, a man visits his parents’ loft apartment (the filmmaker’s own cluttered childhood home) and stays indefinitely, avoiding his wife and child for a reason that remains unknown. Midway through, Ames nudges you: “Hey, isn’t that the guy in the film?” One of the actors, Piero Arcilesi, whom you’ve just seen doing shirtless push-ups on-screen, sits nervously in the first row. “That’s so strange,” Ames says. Ames has a noncommittal air about him—all his friends are “great” and “fantastic artists,” pace Warhol—but he has naughty ideas. “I had this subversive thought for a moment in the theater. A movie like that, obviously genuine, very much like a classic short story—what if they had a sleazy character actor playing a neighbor go totally psycho, and he kills a child or—” His phone rings: “Hi, Mom.”

“It’s encouraging that films like that still do get made,” he says later. You think the movie should be re-titled The Silent Jews. Since when do New Yorkers keep their mouths shut during a family crisis? Afterward, you head to Noho Star. A rubber ball hits the wall beside you. It’s disconcerting until you spot a wayward lacrosse jock on Lafayette. You take an outside table nevertheless, and as you wait in the cooling night, Philip Glass suddenly appears on the street corner, saying goodbye to a group of his friends. Ames, characteristically mellow, remarks: “It’s a real New York evening now.” Glass hugs his people, shakes their hands, sets off homeward. Neither of you know him, but somehow you both know where he lives.