I just sat down in the kitchen, clearing a space for my computer between a pair of half-eaten panettones and the crumbs of what Santa Claus couldn’t choke down before he went over the fence to the neighbors’ house. An hour ago, about halfway through Christmas dinner, our phones all started beeping with alerts that Grammy-winning superstar and Hall of Fame stubble-haver George Michael had died. We had an impromptu tribute at the table, playing “Last Christmas” and providing the most solemn backing vocals that a Wham! song could ever hope for.
George Michael was a longtime favorite of mine. When I was about 9, I had a poster of him holding a guitar and wearing a pair of blue jeans that made you give silent thanks that Levi Strauss started stitching rivets into pieces of denim. (My parents also made me take that poster down every time my grandmother came over, possibly concerned that it would be hot enough to ignite the chemicals in her home perm.)
In addition to being a beautiful man, he was also a top-shelf songwriter. I’ve always argued that there may not be a better Side One on any record than you’ll find on Michael’s first solo release, Faith. The four songs that are stacked together – “Faith,” “Father Figure,” “I Want Your Sex,” and “One More Try” – include three Billboard No. 1s and a No. 2. (“I Want Your Sex” never made it to the top spot because even though relatively tame lines like “Sex is natural/Sex is good” sound like they could’ve been lifted from something David Attenborough narrated, the song was controversial enough that some US radio stations — and even Sir Dave’s own BBC — refused to play it).
So yeah, it’s Christmas night and George Michael is gone and I’m starting to wonder whether any of us are going to survive the last few days of the gasoline-soaked diaper pail that 2016 has become. This year has been wall-to-wall garbage. It has been a stomach virus with a face. It’s the hair you find woven between the bristles of your toothbrush, the mouthful of raisins you mistook for chocolate chips, the sound of a dog barfing in the exact spot where you’ll step out of bed.
On New Year’s Eve, I wish I could grab Father Time by the sleeve of his faded robe and tell him not to let the front door hit him on his way into the ether, but we already know that he’s going to run straight through the walls, like Mr. Kool-Aid if his pitcher-shaped body was filled with sadness and stale hot-dog water.
Since this will be my last column of 2016, I’ve tried to find some way to end on a high note, something redeeming that we could carry onto our shiny new calendar pages, but that’s stupid: We know what this year has done. So while I’m slumped over my keyboard, hate-eating from a plate with Santa’s name on it, I can only think of one good thing that’s happened: My awful upstairs neighbors finally moved out.
I’ve never been more excited to see a U-Haul parked outside or to hear hand-trucks being loaded into the elevator. Now that I think about it, this year started with a literal thud, when Mrs. Awful Upstairs Neighbor resolved to get in shape with some kind of DVD that instructed her to jump and kick her way around their living room, like David Lee Roth in a Talbots turtleneck.
It was like that the entire time that they lived there, providing the incessantly loud top half of the annoying sandwich where my apartment sits. Right below me is some kind of combo dog-groomer/kennel, so most days I hear non-stop muffled barks, like my closets are full of last season’s cocker spaniels. Meanwhile, upstairs, they’d start vacuuming at 6 a.m., apparently so they could sneak up on the dust mites while they slept.
When I first met them, I had no idea what they were capable of. I’m not sure we ever actually spoke during the three years (seven months, two weeks and four days) that we shared an address. They always stood silently beside me in the elevator, wordlessly mashing the button for their floor while I stared at the sides of their heads and wondered whether it was possible to hate someone to death. Then I’d unlock my door, step inside and brace myself for whatever combination of unidentifiable decibels was about to come through the ceiling. I never figured out exactly what they did to be so off-the-charts irritating, but I think some of the highlights included:
• That time they invited a marching band for a large-scale reenactment of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk;
• That time they had aggressive intercourse in a kayak, while wearing spiked golf shoes for traction;
• That time they challenged Michael Flatley to an all-night dance off, when each of the participants were judged for both stamina and obnoxiousness;
• That time a group of centaurs stopped by for a cocktail party;
• That time they hosted the qualifying tournament for the Olympic Long Jump, the one where each athlete was judged on their best 3,000 attempts;
• That time they cloned dinosaur DNA using an amber-encased mosquito and built a prehistoric theme park, complete with several triceratops stomping beside the kitchen island and velociraptors constantly Clever Girl-ing their way to the front door;
• That time they worked as quality checkers for the Genovese family’s cement shoe factory;
• That time Bigfoot came over for an enthusiastic afternoon of hopscotch; and
• That time they prepared their WWE auditions, repeatedly launching themselves from a set of turnstiles they’d strung between a pair of Pottery Barn sofas.
But they’re gone now, thank goodness, and in a few short days, 2016 will be too. Next year’s going to be better, right? It has to be. To paraphrase the now-late George Michael, we’ve gotta have faith. We’ve gotta have faith a-faith, a-faith.