AUSTIN, TX—Stoner Mike "Gonzo" Dornheim, 37, a freelance carpenter and part-time drummer, is the favorite uncle of his six nephews and nieces, family sources revealed Monday.
Despite being the object of unspoken resentment from his siblings, who see him as the family's "black sheep," the habitual marijuana user has nevertheless cornered the market on nephew/niece affection.
"Uncle Gonzo isn't like my other uncles, who just talk about work all the time and won't let us make noise in the house," said Brad Dornheim, 8, who, like his siblings and cousins, is unaware of his uncle's marijuana use. "He makes us these awesome banana smoothies. And he has the coolest backyard, with these robot bird sculptures he made out of scrap metal. He even gave me one, but Mom said it has to stay in the garage. I want to be just like him when I grow up. Uncle Gonz rules!"
Niece Caitlin Halloran, 6, agreed.
"Uncle Hank [insurance executive and avid golfer Henry Dornheim] and Uncle Jer [tile salesman and devout Presbyterian Gerald Pivarnik] are totally boring," Caitlin said. "They wear ties every day, even outside church. All they ever do is read the paper and fall asleep in chairs. Uncle Gonzo makes mud pies and builds us tree forts, and he jumps in the leaves with us. I wish all my uncles were like Uncle Gonzo."
Caitlin went on to cite other reasons for Dornheim's favorite-uncle status, including his love of playing Frisbee, his blacklight Pink Floyd posters, his tattoos, and his vast collection of classic Bugs Bunny cartoons.
Despite their disapproval of his lifestyle, Dornheim's siblings cannot find fault with his behavior around the family's younger generation. Dornheim has always been careful never to discuss drugs with the children, and he keeps his basement grow-room securely padlocked when they come to visit. Dornheim also always makes sure his "big people stuff"—including his three-foot glass bong, collection of Bettie Page girlie-photo books, and supply of nitrous-oxide "whippets"—are kept stashed away in a secret compartment built into his vintage 1977 waterbed.
The never-married Dornheim, who for more than a decade has been in an on-again, off-again relationship with a 44-year-old massage therapist and renaissance-fair hobbyist named Guinevere, has no children of his own. As a result, he enthusiastically enjoys the company of his nieces and nephews.
Dornheim's sisters, Pam Halloran and Robin Pivarnik, begrudgingly admitted that he has a way with the children.
"They love his giant fish tank," said Pivarnik, 39. "And he's the only one who is even remotely competitive with the kids at PlayStation 2. He's also the only one who can stand watching SpongeBob SquarePants. As much as I hate to admit it, he seems to be an attentive, responsible caretaker."
Much to his siblings' chagrin, Dornheim is also the uncle of choice for helping the kids with school projects.
"Uncle Gonz helped me with my science-fair entry, and I got an A," said nephew Sammy Pivarnik, 11. "He showed me how to mix baking soda and water to make this cool liquid that turns solid when you squeeze it, then melts back into, like, milk when you let it go. You can play catch with it without spilling a drop!"
"It really blew the teacher's mind," Sammy added.
Dornheim, who, unbeknownst to his nephews and nieces, was nicknamed "Gonzo" by his stoner buddies because of his longtime admiration of gonzo journalist and countercultural icon Hunter S. Thompson, also ranks ahead of his fellow uncles and aunts for his love of pets.
"Uncle Gonzo has four doggies," said 4-year-old niece Emmy Dornheim, carefully counting to four on her fingers. "Their names are Zowie, Zappa, James Tiberius, and Ignatius J. Reilly. They're nice and always want to play. Not like Uncle Jer's dog Bill, who's old and bites and can't come in the house."
Added Emmy: "Uncle Gonzo has lots of strawberry ice cream, and he never mows his lawn, so we can play Tarzan, and he sings the song about Jeremiah The Bullfrog with me. All his couches and chairs are all different colors. I love Uncle Gonz!"
In spite of his daughter's love of Uncle Gonzo, Henry Dornheim still resents his older brother.
"I don't know what kind of example he's setting," Dornheim said. "The other day, he picked up Emmy after school because I had a meeting. When he dropped her off after a few hours at his ramshackle house, Emmy said he let her paint his dog blue. Imagine it! Painting a dog! So what if it was just food coloring and it'll wash out? They're painting an animal!"
Unfazed by their parents' disapproval, the kids still regard "Uncle Gonz" as their favorite.
"The only other uncle I like is Uncle Steve," 12-year-old nephew Henry Jr. said. "Whenever he visits, he always plays us funny old show tunes and bakes awesome rhubarb pies. He doesn't have any kids, just like Uncle Gonz. I wish we could see Uncle Steve more, but he lives far away in San Francisco with his roommate Gary."