Johnny On the Spot

By the late 1990s heroin was cheaper, purer, and stronger than it had ever been. Twenty dollars would buy two bags, or “enough to make a beginner feel good all night. As youth icons Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix succumbed to romantic and widely publicized heroin addictions, the fashion world glamorized a beauty ideal known as heroin chic. Junk was intrinsic to the zeitgeist of the age

In prior decades, a heroin high was achievable only through direct injection, but the potent heroin of the 90s was easily smoked or snorted casually at parties.  Unsurprisingly, the decade witnessed a surge in casual teen use of the drug.

The Partnership knew what they wanted as their poster child for heroin addiction: a nice suburban teenager from a typical all-American family.  They needed a kid who had gotten hooked on heroin the 90s way—not by shooting up, but by snorting or smoking the drug once at a party—and who was now a full-blown addict.  The Partnership needed to make an example of someone for America’s youth, and they needed a junkie with puppy dog eyes to serve as a warning.

The Partnership called Jon Kane to find this kid.

Jon knew that junkies love sugar and money.  He went to Tompkins Square Park and advertised that he had more than enough of both; soon, Jon had booked two solid days of meetings with homeless addicts.  He held the interviews at the old opticnerve™ studios on 22nd Street with a large bowl of cookies, a wallet full of $20 bills, and the help of his pretty assistant.

Jon still has a stack of DAT tapes of these interviews stored behind the DJ booth in the studio.  There is no DAT player; the tapes haven’t been heard in years.  What they contain, Jon says, is “All real sad, all real desperate.”

After two days of unhappy stories, Jon found five young addicts who fit the profile The Partnership wanted.  He told them each that, if selected, they would need to go to rehab after the shooting was done.  All the kids had been in and out of rehab more than once and Jon asked each one why this time was different.  Johnny said it was different because this was national television.   “Nobody else said that,” said Jon.  He believed in Johnny the most.

Jon called Johnny’s family to ask their permission to shoot.  Johnny’s father said he was a good kid and not to trust him at all.  Johnny’s tiny Italian grandmother gave Jon her blessing.

Johnny never got high, only sick when he didn’t have heroin. Once you’ve done enough heroin, you never get high.

Heroin costs money, and you do different things to get it.  Some junkies steal meat from large chain grocery stores and sell it to the bodegas that line Manhattan’s streets– they call this cattle rustling.  Johnny stole lots of things, but mostly books, because he liked reading; there’s a name for that too, but Jon doesn’t remember what it is.

Jon needed to keep Johnny in one place and out of prison for a week so they could film.  Jon got Johnny a motel room and paid him to stay there.  Not wanting Johnny to overdose, Jon sent the money to the motel in $20 increments via his assistant. He didn’t know how much heroin $20 would buy or for how many people;  Jon’s assistant told him she needed to go there every three hours, and she did.

This arrangement seemed to work out well.

There’s Johnny.

Once the week was out, Jon had the footage he needed.  It would be two weeks before the government-run rehab had an opening.  Jon gave Johnny $150 and told him to take the PATH train back to New Jersey and call when he got home.  Johnny promised.  They had become very close.  They hugged goodbye.

Jon waited by the phone all night and into the early hours of the morning. The phone didn’t ring.  Johnny didn’t get home.


There Are No Bad Days

Yesterday morning The Captain came in with a limp.  No-body asked him what happened.  The Captain said his day had “started out nice and then it just didn’t end.”  He had gotten locked into the warehouse lot for the night and injured himself when he fell scaling the warehouse gate. No-body arranged some pastries on a plate.

No-body asked Jon Kane if the theme for today’s story could be The Worst Day.  Jon was in his office cum woodshop, sitting in the dark. “Worst day. At optic? Worst day at optic… Great. I love it.”

No-body went down the hallway with a piece of paper in her hand and stepped into opticnerve™ Studio 7B where Pork and Rang Rang and two other men sat four abreast on the window ledge smoking cigarettes and looking out over the ocean.  No-body pulled the double windows open a crack and the cold air came in.

“Come out and join us!” they said, “There’s plenty of room.”  But there would only be enough room for No-body if somebody jumped.  The men said they would think about their worst days.  No-body shut the window on them.

After lunch No-body asked them again.  Anonymous stood in front of the fireplace, framed by strands of colored lights and said: “Today is pretty bad.”  (A portrait of Jon’s father in military uniform hung to Anon’s right.) “And yesterday.”  (On his left, a mural of a snake climbed a painted branch)  “And tomorrow.” Everyone laughed.

Behind him the firewood was stacked six feet high. No-body said: “They’re all bad days,” and put another log on the fire,  “that’s my lower back tattoo.”  There was a thumb-sized hole in the side of Nobody’s dress.

Then the men went away and took their untold stories with them. Spills walked in and poured himself a bowl of Gorilla Munch.  No-body asked him about his worst day and Spills said: “Where should I start?”  Then he laughed, but he didn’t start anywhere.

No-body rearranged the fruit bowl and sat down on the office swing with an empty piece of paper in her hand. Then Jon opened his office door and stuck his head out. “Wait, Can I tell about my worst day?”

No-body said he could if he wanted to.

Jon paused to search his thoughts.

“Never mind. All my days are good days.” He closed the door.


Mariah Carey Lets Her Hair Down


In 1973, Mariah Carey was three years old and learning to sing by practicing Verdi’s Rigoletto in Huntington, Long Island. Jon Kane was eleven and sitting on his front porch in Pittsburgh with his hand wrapped in an Ace bandage. In East Bruinswick, New Jersey, “Johnny” was still three years away from being born.  Mariah would grow up to become the bestselling female vocalist of the millenium, Jon would become a ski-racer, then a DJ, then a film editor, and Johnny would become a junkie.

Anyone who has ever done heroin will tell you it is the world’s most beautiful feeling, but most people prefer to listen to Mariah Carey. That’s why Jon Kane met Mariah, in 1998, and why, thirteen years later, over 60% of readers on the opticnerve™ blog voted to hear a story about a famous singer instead of a junkie.  (We don’t have a childhood photo for “Johnny,” but that doesn’t matter.  His story ends here.)


It was 1998 and Jon was filming a series of promotional spots for VH1: Behind the Music.  Earlier in the year, he had interviewed Jewel in Alaska surrounded by her close family and organized a surprise reunion between John Cougar Mellencamp and some of his long lost childhood friends. When Jon’s not beating them at arm wrestling, he likes to film his celebrity subjects off their guard.

Mariah Carey feels most at home in water.  At least, that’s what she had her people tell Jon Kane. That’s why he arranged to shoot her in a rooftop pool.

Jon was to meet Mariah at 8:00 PM in Manhattan, the day after his second daughter was born.  The hotel rooftop was cleared of civilians and the lights and equipment set up.  Nine o’clock passed, then ten, then midnight.  Finally, at two in the morning, Mariah—along with an entourage of twenty— made her entrance. They had come from a night on the town and the atmosphere was festive, if unprofessional.  Mariah was in what Jon would describe delicately as “a party kind of mood.”

She was wearing a one-piece bathing suit and jeweled stiletto heels and armed with an uncompromising manager and an exacting contract.  “You can’t get her hair wet,” everyone kept saying.  Jon tried to film Mariah on an inflatable raft but that didn’t work.  She was unfocused; her entourage was noisy; it was three in the morning; it was getting later.

Finally Jon put his foot down and insisted that everyone leave.  Except for Mariah and her manager, everyone did.  And then, very quickly, they captured the intimate scene you see here.

Jon didn’t say anything when Mariah dipped her head in the water, but he did ask her about those shoes.  “It’s fine,” she said.

Then everybody went home: Jon to his new baby girl, Mariah to her mysterious dreams. “Johnny” was somewhere in New Jersey, asleep on a doorstep, his story erased before it had ever been told.

Pick Your Poison

Each video in the opticnerve™ archive comes with a private history.

For example, it was written in Mariah Carey’s contract that she couldn’t get her hair wet.

For example, Jon Kane needed “Johnny” to stay clean for a week.

Thank you for playing.  Results will be tabulated on Thursday morning; your story will be served at the end of the week.

“All is Welcome” in Love

Today, like it or not, we all have love on the brain. Today is Valentine’s Day and this is (like love) inescapable. Here at the opticnerve™ studios, everyone is happy to be alive or putting on a good show of it.  Everyone smiles and steps lightly and the dogs behave themselves. The weather is warm and the wind is high.  A young man named Moose started today.  He going to bring five live lobsters home with him when he leaves work.

As the optic staff balanced budgets and created graphics and juggled Fresca cans and conference calls and editing software and bubble wrap they thought of a love story they could give you. Consider it a valentine:

Around twelve years ago Jon Kane and cinematographer Russell Lee Fine had just begun their road trip across America to “pluck stories from the air” for a documentary short.  It was 90 degrees on an isolated stretch of road in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and when Jon and Russell passed a store that looked so unusual that they decided to stop for a drink.

They entered a building filled with oddities, none of which seemed to be for sale.  There was, however, an ancient cooler with four glass bottles of Coca-Cola.  Margaret, the women you will soon meet below, came out of a back room eating her lunch.  Sensing a good story, Jon and Russell decided to wait there with her until her husband came home.

The Reverend screeched up the gravel drive in what might have been a battered Cadillac DeVille and exited the car cursing.  But he lit up when Margaret introduced him to their visitors and the cameras, who then began to shoot the first footage for Fellow Americans.

Jon doesn’t know what the Reverend was saluting up there at the top of his tower, but Margaret said he saluted like that every day.  Nobody but the Reverend knows what he is paying his tribute to, but, whatever it is, it is bound to be a deeply strange and profoundly mysterious phenomenon.

Spring is the in the Air

New York is, of course, a dirty city.  The ocean is dirty too. Red Hook is a peninsula and the opticnerve™ studios sit at the end of a pier, so a lot of broken and used-up things wash up on the rocks outside. Scraps of old bags and broken toys, cigarette butts, and occasional empty grey shoes accumulate along the railings that line the concrete walkway behind the warehouse.

Jon Kane likes to make art out of garbage and so finds use for some of the miscellaneous trash.  He’s particularly fond of driftwood. The opticnerve™ staff are by now well accustomed to stepping around shapeless hunks of wood that will later become decorative silver wall ornaments or hanging mobiles.  Shellacked pieces of old stumps and branches litter the floor of Jon’s office where plaster skeleton parts keep his chainsaw company.

It was a sunny morning last spring when the police dragged the corpse out of the water.  They laid it at the end of the pier and draped it in a white sheet.  The body lay there all day under its shroud, “glittering in the sunshine,” as Jon would tell it.  It wasn’t the first corpse to wash up outside the studio, but it was the first one that Jon had seen there. Rang Rang says they kill them in Jersey then they float over here.

The corpses always come with the spring.  Jon explains that the warming water causes the bodies to bloat and surface after a cold winter spent on the ocean floor.  This sounds approximately scientific.

Sparrows and starlings also hatch their young in the spring, and their nests are everywhere around the warehouse– this means soon the ground outside will be littered with dead hatchlings.  “The corpses and the birds come at the same time” says Jon, “It’s a real springtime phenomenon.”

He has a picture for you.

It might make a nice Valentine

When interviewing prospective employees Jon sometimes stands and walks to the window, where he points at the rocks below. Stroking his chin contemplatively, he remarks: “A corpse washed up right there, once.  A bloated corpse,” then falls silent and peers out over the water.  Potential hires should be prepared to ask the right questions.  For example: Was it a man or a woman?

If he answers “It was a woman.  The bloated corpse of a woman,” then, translated roughly, he means You’re hired, for now.


The Tempest

It was March of last year, a few days before Easter. The thing to remember about that night is that it was stormy everywhere. Hard rain was falling all over the city, “But in Red Hook,” says Jon, “it was apocalyptic.”  At 499 Van Brunt St. the winds cut down the pier at sixty miles an hour.  The clouds would drop eighteen inches of rain by the end of the night, and rising tides and the last of the winter thaw combined with the rainfall to turn the cobblestone streets into a greasy swamp.

Elsewhere in the world, a lot of bad things hadn’t happened yet.  Spills and Roni were in the studio, working on a spot for Rodarte. Twitching images of gaunt women draped in lattices of leather and string repeated themselves on the screens of the edit room as the untended fire went out.

It was maybe too late at night to be editing footage of a fashion collection inspired by Japanese horror films; it was time for Spills and Roni to go home.

When they went downstairs they stepped outside and found a lake where the lot should be. The water, they swear, was waist-deep in places. A glassblower stood in front of the warehouse, half submerged in water.  He raised his arms in a gesture of comic defeat and announced “Exploration time!” Then he waded away.

Spills and Roni stood on the high concrete blocks that mark off the parking lot to keep themselves dry, and Spills took out his camera to capture the flood on film.  That’s when a man materialized out of the blackness, wading through three feet of water, wearing garbage bags for pants and carrying a spotted dog.  The hard wind barely ruffled his long white beard and hair.

Spills and Roni went back into the studio and huddled for warmth.  Convinced they were stranded indefinitely, they trembled, and resolved to sleep in the studio if they survived the storm.  If you ask Jon Kane, he’ll tell you what happened next:

I remember the night perfectly.

I called into the studio to check progress on a job. [Roni] and [Spills] were in a full blown panic about being flooded in. It was real rainy out for sure. I drove my car over to see what was up. The water was all the way back to Fairway on Van Brunt, like a lake. I drove to the other gate and drove through. The land slants up that way so there was no water. I drove along the back of the pier, around the dumpsters, and up to the front door, which, by this time had no water in front of it.  I had my Big Boots™ on, of course. The water had receded and they didn’t realize. They were no longer flooded in. I walked in, told them they were pussies, drank some whiskey, watched their video, and went home.

If the waters would part for anyone, they would part for Jon Kane, of course. The love between the three men only grew stronger after surviving the storm.

The only victim in this story was The Tempest. Pork, who was not in the studio, remembers that night only as the day his Tempest sank.

R.I.P. Tempest

He found her in Greenpoint on Easter Sunday, broken beyond beyond repair.