My 25-Year Obsession With Beverly Hills 90210Recently, I was in a bar amongst a group of young screen-addicts who were drinking Moscow Mules and comparing Instagram followers. When the bartender gave me my beer, I noticed that his nametag read, “Nat.” As a joke, I said, “Aww, what happened Nat? Did the Peach Pit close down?”
Nat wasn’t amused. Neither were the 20-something bar patrons surrounding me. In fact, nobody around me even recognized the reference to Beverly Hills 90210, one of my all time favorite TV shows that had been off the air since 2000. I quickly tried to explain to everyone that “Nat” was a solid gold reference from the 90’s, but they promptly rolled their eyes and went back to discussing a recently posted Instagram photo uploaded by the Supra Shoe Company.
“Supra is killin it,” one of them remarked.
I took my beer and walked to the end of the bar to watch basketball.
You must understand. Beverly Hills 90210 was to my generation, the single greatest television phenomenon we had ever experienced. The show debuted the same day I began my sophomore year of high school. Brandon Walsh had sideburns at 15-years-old, Kelly Taylor had already had a nose job and been raped by a college guy. Dylan McKay was balding and had already beaten drug and alcohol addiction. All of this at age 15. Growing up where I did, these guys were already living way beyond their years. At 15, my biggest accomplishment had been when I learned how to waterski during Jewish summer camp.
Donna Martin had a terrible boob job. David Silver’s friend shot and killed himself accidentally. Steve Sanders’ mom was a recovering coke-fiend actress.
My friend’s moms? Well, one of them was considered a local Tucson celebrity because she once taught aerobics to Dyan Cannon at Canyon Ranch.
Nobody I knew drove a Corvette. Nobody knew where to even get drugs OR a nose job… And finally, the most facial hair we could scrounge up at the time was an occasional lone straggler poking its way from the bottom of our chins. Of course, I had no idea that the actors were really 25-years-old. So, intrigued, I studied them. Imitated them. I grew sideburns. I edited my school paper like Brandon Walsh did and treated it as if it was the West Beverly Blaze. I squinted like Luke Perry when I went on dates and I did my best to turn my small table-bussing job at the local 50’s diner Little Anthony’s into my own little private Peach Pit.
Of course, at my high school, the white trash rednecks got all the hot chicks. The dudes who stayed shirtless most of the time, dipped Copenhagen and listened to Metallica. The dudes who drove souped-up 1982 Fords and went jackrabbit hunting and drank Budweiser and sported long hair. The dudes like Randy Gatemouth, a 17-year-old sophomore with two missing teeth and three earrings who wore a T-shirt that said “Big Johnson’s Casino: Liquor Up front; Poker in the Rear.”
I was more of a Brandon Walsh type. I listened to Sting, Dire Straits and rap. I spent 45 minutes blow-drying my hair into a pompadour every morning. I took my dates to my diner and shared milkshakes and maybe got away with a French kiss at the end of the night. Meanwhile, Randy Gatemouth was rumored to have sired a child with a girl from Palo Verde High School who had hidden her pregnancy and given it away for adoption at age 16.
To put it bluntly, Randy Gatemouth did NOT watch Beverly Hills 90210.
But I did. And I followed it religiously. I recall how I was shocked when Dylan and Kelly hooked up when Brenda went to Europe. I remember Brandon losing his virginity. I cried when Dylan’s dad was murdered. (Sorry, spoiler alert for those of you planning a binge watch this weekend). I even WROTE about the show for the school paper, comparing the lives of these fake people on this ridiculous show to the lives of the average Tucson, Arizona high school kid in the early 90’s.
The love affair continued into college, when I rushed a fraternity and was given the pledge name, “Brenda.” Every Thursday my entire frat would gather in the common TV room and watch the show like we were executive producers in a ratings testing lab. I played air guitar to the brilliant opening riff. Much to my surprise, I found kindred souls who never missed an episode.
“Dude, Kelly or Valerie?” Was a common question amongst the guys.
“Bro, I’m from Manhattan Beach,” a brother and fellow fan exclaimed. “No way these bitches can afford a house like that on the Strand.”
“How’s Luke Perry’s movie career going since he left the show?” I would occasionally toss around. (Note to readers: I did see – and enjoy – 8 Seconds.)
After graduation, turning 21 and discovering that the real world existed outside of college, I sort of lost interest in the show. I stayed through an extra year or two, always amused at Steve’s KEG house antics and eventually his wife Janet, but soon it just dried out and became ridiculous. It probably had been for years, but around 1997, I finally decided that I had graduated from my obsession with Beverly Hills90210. And then I began working as an actor.
The only other guy I knew in college who followed his dream into acting was a friend named Marc. His first job? Playing a character known as “The Man” on an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. I never admitted it, but I was so jealous. I refused to act like it was a big deal, but God Damn, it was as if he had “made it.” Here I was, scrambling to get a SAG card, and this kid had swooped in and landed a role on my favorite TV show of all time. I harbored a certain hatred for that for about a year… Until I was asked to audition for the role of BRODY on an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. The character was described simply as, “Steve’s Old College Buddy.” I remember the lines so well. Here is what the script and audition looked like:
STEVE and JANET sit at a table. They gaze into each other’s eyes.
Thanks babe. You’re a great guy.
Steve smiles and holds her hand. Suddenly, BRODY, 23, Steve’s old KEG brother walks up to the table holding a beer. Even though he’s out of college, Brody is still very much living the party life.
Woah! Sanders! The legend, man! I see you’re still scoring as many chicks as in college!
Steve looks horrified. Janet stares daggers at her husband.
I knew it, Steve. You haven’t changed one bit!
Offended, Janet stands and leaves. She covers her mouth crying. Steve looks at Brody, upset.
Woah! What’s up with her?
Steve angrily tosses his napkin on the table.
Thanks a lot, Brody.
Steve walks off, leaving Brody at the table. He sips his beer and returns to the party.
BOOM! That was it. I knew I could nail the part of “Brody” and I worked those two lines as if I was auditioning for Richard III on Broadway. The day of the audition came and I went in, overly prepared. A bunch of other young actors (One who I SWEAR was Jeremy Renner) sat in the waiting room running their lines. When my name was called, I went in and auditioned and walked out with a confident swagger that screamed, “ I NAILED it.”
I didn’t even get a callback. I was crushed. My dream had been shattered. I was so sure I was going to play “Brody” that I cried myself to sleep that night and wondered if I had made a bad decision dedicating my life to the world of acting. My agent, Iris Burton (Legendary rep to child stars who passed away about 7 years ago) called me the next day. Through a cigarette-tinged trachea she told me the bad news. “Zach, it’s not going any further with 90210, but they like your look,” she said. “They wanna know if you’ll do extra work. I said no. We’ll get the next one.” “Wait!” I screamed. “Tell them YES! I will TOTALLY do extra work for the show!” “Are you fucking serious?” “Yes, Iris – it’s my favorite show of all time. I have to be in at least one scene.” “I don’t work with extras, Zach.” She demanded. “I work with stars.” “Please Iris? I’ll only do this once.” Iris Burton hung up on me and I was called in for a day of extra work on Beverly Hills 90210 the next morning. A bunch of young actors, most of who were in high school and/or community college were shuttled from a parking area on a backlot to the actual 90210 set. (I can not recall where this was). When we got there, I managed to find a script and I read through the dailies. I quickly noticed that the role of “Brody” was nowhere to be found. I located an assistant director and asked who was playing the role “I was born to play.” “The Brody role got cut after the first table read,” the assistant director said. “Oh, thanks,” I replied. YES. I now had an excuse on why I didn’t get the part.
I returned to “extras holding” and sat with the crowd of kids I was convinced would someday be lining up to be extras in my OWN TV show. Suddenly, a woman came in and said, “I need four men for a scene at the Peach Pit.” I threw up my arms like Donna Martin over the toilet on prom night. The woman pointed at me. “Red shirt guy, come with me,” she said. I fixed my hair and walked over to her along with three other dudes. Holy shit, I was going to the Pit. The set was a mess. Cables and cameras were everywhere. Lighting guys and grips strolled through their routines as if this job had become a burden. Some even complained about the set up of the scene. To me, however, it was as if I had made it past the most exclusive velvet rope in the world.
This was the time of the show when only Steve, Donna, Kelly, David, Brandon and Valerie remained. When I glanced at the call sheet, Jason Priestly and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen were the only ones scheduled that day, but I doubted they would even be in the same scene as me. Imagine my surprise when I glanced out the window and saw Priestley stub out a cigarette before strolling up to the set for “last looks.” I studied him. In high school, I had actually bought a pair of “Pepe Jeans” because he was the face of the brand for about two months. I idolized him. He was in Tombstone. Hell, he was even in Calendar Girl. I was in awe. He was so suave, so cool. He looked so intimidating… Until I realized he was about 5’8”.
As Priestley got his makeup worked over, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen entered the room next. She was stunningly beautiful and seemed extremely happy. She very charming and took time to shake everybody’s hand. At one point, I tried to “eye-seduce” her, but I think she got a little creeped out by my gaze and turned away. I went back to standing around and waiting.
“You, with the red shirt, you wanna take money from Joe?”
I wasn’t sure if that was meant for me. I looked for the female Extras Wrangler. Sure enough, she was talking to me. She said I had one job to do in the scene.
“Take money from Joe.”
Whatever that meant. As it turned out, JOE was Joe E. Tata. “Nat” himself. The owner and king of the Peach Pit. I nodded my head ‘yes’ and went to my position in front of the cash register.
The scene played out like this: Brandon’s old “sports bookie” was in town for some reason or another and Brandon was freaked out. Valerie was there to comfort him (I think). My role was to take my change from Nat at the beginning of the scene and promptly exit through the front door. They set it all up. I was nervous. They rolled sound and began the scene. “Action!” yelled the director as the huge 35-millimeter cameras spun their thousand-dollar-a-foot film. Nat handed me a few fake bills.
I took them from his hand and responded, “Thanks!” I walked out.
“CUT!” The director yelled. “Did anyone tell this fucking kid to speak?”
I turned bright red. I wasn’t sure what I had done wrong, but I was quickly reprimanded by the Extras Wrangler who told me to not talk. Little did I know it, but I just cost the producers roughly $3000 dollars in 35-millimeter film because I thought I could sneak in my own line on the show. Lesson learned. Don’t speak.
“Just smile and take the money from Joe,” she said to me.
So I did. And I did it again. And again. And at the end, I heard the director say, “moving on” and I fully expected him to come up to me and offer me a recurring role on the show right there. Instead, the Extras Wrangler told me that my day was done and that I would receive my $50 paycheck in the mail within a few weeks. I signed a contract and left, knowing that I was forever immortalized on screen of the TV show that had shaped most of my teenage years.
All these years later, I have had many encounters with cast members of the show. Janet (Lindsay Price) is actually a close friend of my family. Priestley and I have mutual friends and you’re damn right I own his autobiography. David Silver (Brian Austin Green) and I had a West Beverly High “dance-off” at Comic Con 2008 (See YouTube link below). And I’ve hung with Tiffani Thiessen, Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth through mutual actor pals. I once shared a joint with Luke Perry in the smoking section of a club, but we didn’t keep in touch. And last year I failed at trying to get Ian Ziering to be a guest on my History Channel show. (Sharknado made him too big I guess). As for my friend Marc, his acting career took a small detour, and he invented the brilliant “Drop Stop” car crack filler that is revolutionizing the way we stay focused on the road. Couldn’t be more proud of him.
I’m guessing that Jimmy Fallon is days – if not weeks – away from doing some sort of fun Beverly Hills 90210 reunion sketch on The Tonight Show and he’s gonna be lauded and praised for bringing us all back to 1992 again. Heck, if I had a show like that it would be my “sweeps week” cornerstone. Still, for me, the show meant a lot. It made me want to move to California as much as the Doors and Neil Young and posters of hot blondes posing on Ferraris beneath the caption, “Dangerous Curves Ahead.” Whenever I meet a cast member, I revert back to the teenager I was in 1992, dreaming of an acting career and a night partying at a hot club with Shannen Doherty and her 5-day husband Ashley Hamilton. Suddenly my fading youth speeds back to me like Steve Sanders in a street drag race in 1990. These folks are forever in my references and mind and heart.
So, whenever I meet a bartender named “Nat” I am going to reference the Peach Pit as if it were 1993 and I was playing air guitar in my fraternity in front of the big screen TV. No matter what the ultra-hip Instagram crowd at the bar thinks about it. By the way. I eventually saw the scene in the episode where I took the money from Nat at the Peach Pit. If you look closely, you can almost see the tip of my sideburns as I walk out the door…
*Watch Zach’s new video for his song “Too Old for Molly, Too Young for LSD” !*
Recently, on social media and my website, I have made no secret of my modern return into the world of competitive basketball. I play full court four days a week at the Hollywood YMCA and recently entered a Three-on-Three tournament against other fathers at elementary schools, which I happened to have won. (My proudest athletic achievement in my life to date – not counting the time I took Colton – the star 7-year-old pitcher – DEEP in a father-son Little League game last summer…)
I have re-discovered a love for the game I haven’t had sine 1993 and I’m actually a better player now than I have ever been.
Throughout my life and into high school, basketball was everything. As a 6’2” inch eighth grader, I was groomed by my coach to become the next great Arizona Wildcats big man. Unfortunately, I haven’t grown an inch since eighth grade. I switched to the wing, where I lacked certain skills, but was still able to hold my own mainly because I was actually grabbing the rim with ease and in top physical shape. However, around age 18, I discovered the usual pitfalls – Weed, beer and women – and decided that since I had no chance, or interest in walking on my college team, I would hang up my Air Jordan XII’s and I only stepped on the court a handful of times over the ensuing decade.
A few years ago, however, I was listening to UCLA great and fellow Grateful Dead-Head Bill Walton broadcast an Arizona- Oregon basketball game, when something he said struck me deep inside. After he spent a few minutes comparing some obscure 1970’s Bob Dylan song to the Oregon Ducks’ fast-break technique, he discussed his history of injuries he attained while playing. At the end of this sidebar, Bill Walton claimed to have broken his nose 13 times.
“That’s what happens when you play defense with your face,” he exclaimed.
He also mentioned his surgically fused ankles, incinerated spine, broken wrists, 36 surgeries and broken leg – all suffered on the basketball court. Walton’s lifelong injuries, along with his 1978–1979 year-long protest of the Portland Trail Blazers unethical treatment of his injuries, gave him the record of missing the most games during an NBA playing career, when taking into account the number of years he was officially listed as a player on a team roster. He spoke of how debilitating it became to walk and I researched even deeper to see that Walton once even contemplated suicide due to severe depression from debilitating back pain.
However, Walton then made a comment that made his life on the disabled list seem even more surreal… He observed a certain move power forward Solomon Hill had made and remarked, “That is a move to study – for those of you who are still lucky enough to play basketball…”
Lucky? How could 13 broken noses and suicidal thoughts be considered lucky? I felt that I was lucky to have quit basketball with my original nose still in place. What was Walton talking about?
Attempting to find out, the next day I dusted off some 10-year-old shoes and made my first trip to a court in what was nearly five or six years. I checked out a basketball at the YMCA that looked as if it had spent a good majority of its life underwater, and went to shoot around. It took me awhile, but eventually I was making short jump shots and working on my cardiovascular fitness while running up and down the gymnasium floor. Some of my old spin moves came back to me, and I put up a couple of nice finger rolls and hit some three pointers. It actually felt amazing.
About an hour later, a few guys asked me if I wanted to play “21” with them, but I declined, afraid of shooting 9 air balls and getting embarrassed. Instead, I continued to work on some post moves and drives and watched them from the corner of my eye. They were laughing, having fun and playing just above the level where I was – which made me think I might have hung in there if I had accepted their challenge. Instead, I returned my ball and went home and told myself I’d be back the next day.
I did come back the next day. And the next. I ran that court nearly every other day for months until I was actually joining the games of 21 and winning a good majority of the time. For the first time in over a decade, I was having a lot of fun playing basketball. I soon found myself in the full court games and now, three years later, found myself coming home and discussing the games with my wife as if I was playing in the NBA Finals. It became an obsession to the point where if I missed a lay-up during a game, I got depressed for the rest of the day. Still, it drove me to come back again, improve and remedy the situation.
My wife thought I was nuts. Every time I would bring up my day on the court, she would roll her eyes and remind me that I’m more Kevin Arnold than I am Kevin Durant. She also warned me to be careful, to which I reminded her that I was playing against a bunch of guys in their 30’s and that I was in better shape than most of them.
And then, about six months ago, I got smashed in the nose by a teenager who lowered his shoulder into me on a penetration. My nose now cracks in both directions when I try to move it, but I luckily avoided a full break. Then, a couple weeks later I was slightly concussed after being run under by a guy who was pissed that I was outplaying him. I ended up sitting out two days nursing my brain – which luckily was not permanently damaged. In December, I took an elbow to the bridge of my nose, which caused it to bleed profusely all over the court and earned me 75 “likes” on Instagram.
In February, I jammed my left thumb so hard during a rebound that I am still having trouble operating the zippers on my jeans. Then I jammed my right pointer and ring finger in consecutive games. I’m consistently fighting shin splints and a bone spur. Finally, last week, I discovered that I have bursitis in my right shoulder and that I might not be able to play for three weeks or so. This will be my first trip to the disabled list in my athletic career. And I’m a month away from 40. According to my dad, the injuries will now just start piling up. In short, I am about to enter my Bill Walton years. Now, my family is giving me all kinds of advice.
“Maybe think about not playing anymore,” my mother offered. “You know, you’re no spring chicken.”
I hung up on her.
“A spin class is much better on your body,” my dad suggested. I simply sent him pictures of my three-on-three trophy and told him I’d be back on the court in a month.
“Don’t do anything stupid, you don’t want to really hurt yourself,” my wife told me.
I rolled my eyes and studied Russell Westbrook highlights like it was important game film.
During the past week, I have found myself watching Bill Walton again. I guess recently there have been petitions to remove him from the Pac-12 broadcast booth, which upsets me entirely. Sure, he can go on tangents about the time Bob Weir and him spoke Arabic to camels in the Egyptian desert, but his unique and loveable qualities are what make him a treasure in the booth. He’s not a cookie-cutter color guy. He’s quotable and full of basketball wisdom. In fact, he may be my favorite college basketball announcer working today. Not only does he know the game, he makes it fun. I know he seems like he might be high or severely “out-there” once in awhile, but his love for the game is like nobody’s I’ve ever heard before. Not only that, his passion for the game is what got me playing basketball again.
Without Bill Walton, I’d still be jogging three miles on a treadmill. Not competing and not getting any sense of accomplishment.
For that, I thank you Mr. Walton. For inspiring me to lace up my sneakers that early morning three and a half years ago and return to the sport of my youth.
The evening after I won the three-on-three “Dads” championship, my wife said I had a “glow” about me. I knew what she was talking about, because I felt it. It was a sense of invincibility and achievement. I felt young again. Above the rim. It brought to mind a famous Bill Walton quote I had read years ago when he said, “You don’t win championships by being normal, by being average…”
I may have only defeated a bunch of dads in a Saturday pick-up tournament, but for those of us who are just hanging onto the final glimpses of what we might be able to accomplish as men, it was as if I won an NBA Championship.
Now if you excuse me, I have to go ice my shoulder. I’m planning on returning to the court earlier than expected…
Out of Touch at The Dream Hotel * 2015 By Zach Selwyn
It was two-o-clock in the morning and I was standing on the street outside the Dream Hotel in New York City when a slick looking hustler in a Panama hat sided up to me.
“You looking for girls tonight?” He said.
“Naah man, I’m just trying to get some air.”
“You sure? Just up those stairs across the street is all kinds of hoes… I’m talking Thai girls, Russians, Mamis… You ever bang a bad bitch?”
“What exactly is a bad bitch?” I asked.
“If you don’t know, then you’ve never banged one…”
I have been in New York City for roughly 36 hours. In that time, I have averaged 4 hours of sleep a night, eaten 7 street hot dogs and drank close to 19 cups of bad deli coffee. I have also realized that I am the most out of touch loser in the city. The average Manhattan man around my age is sporting a hundred dollar undercut and a long beard – which is eerily similar to L.A. (With only a few less Man-Buns). The difference is, these guys are also rocking 3,000 dollar Ted Baker suits and wingtips. As for me, I am wearing a 1970’s – era Wrangler cowboy shirt, some Lee Riders from the early 80’s and a pair of ¾ boots I scored from a TV show wardrobe department about 4 years ago. My hair is pretty tame and I still have Beverly Hills 90210-era sideburns. I’m also wearing a trucker cap that reads “Roy Clark” on it, bellbottoms and a belt buckle that features Chester the Cheetah riding a Harley motorcycle beneath the inscription “Cheesy Rider.”
I feel a little like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy because NOBODY is dressed like me. Funny thing is, this is how I have been dressing for 15 years. A few years back, in the early 00’s, everybody started dressing like this. Now, those days are long gone and I’m the only guy on 8th Avenue wearing a shirt that unsnaps when you tear it apart and a turquoise ring.
And apparently, I have no idea what a “bad bitch” is.
I realized I was grossly under-dressed when I attended the first business dinner with the company I am working for. I figured it would be a quick bite at a local bar, but it turned into the type of place where they asked me to remove my hat as I sat down. The next day, at the company’s request, I made my way to a J. Crew to try and find something respectable that I would feel comfortable wearing. I settled on a checkered red, white and blue button-down and some horrendously skinny jeans. The price? $254.
When the sales associate asked me “how my sock game” was, I told him, “Fine. I buy all my socks at Ross: Dress for Less.”
“How’s your shoe game?” He asked.
“I have these nice ¾ boots,” I said.
“Uggh, please – nobody is wearing ¾ boots anymore,” he retorted. “You need some wings!”
I walked out of the store.
I couldn’t place my finger on it, but Manhattan had begun to seem too cookie cutter. I guess I was aware of the Duane Reade explosion and the Starbucks on every corner, but I was not prepared for the fashion clones that had sprouted up everywhere. Sure I was ten years older than the average guy out on a Wednesday night, but even I could sense a lack of originality. New York City, which was once full of punk street kids, trendsetters and Mapplethorpe-worshipping leather daddies sticking whips in their asses and walking into a Saks Fifth Avenue, had become somewhat tame.
I recently read an interview with AdRock of the Beastie Boys talking about how the “New York of his youth had disappeared.” I was beginning to understand what he was talking about. Manhattan in the 70’s and 80’s – before the crackdowns and the $8200 a month rent – was an artistic and fantastic place to be. These were the days before the smelly Times Square Jack Sparrows. Before Hell’s Kitchen was a gentrified hipster paradise. In the late 80’s I would visit my second cousin and roll down Canal Street to buy fake Gucci jackets, leather African medallion necklaces and a bootleg cassette of LL Cool J’s Walking With a Panther. The tape-dealers would offer me “smoke,” which scared the crap out of me. At one point, my mom dragged me away from a couple of black guys who were standing around Washington Square Park discussing the new Bobby Brown On Our Own song from Ghostbusters II. I tried to inject some white boy wisdom by saying I thought Bobby should’ve written a second rap verse instead of repeating the “Too hot to handle, too cold to hold” line and they ignored me as if I was “Chester the Terrier” following around the bigger “Spike the Bulldog” in the Looney Tunes cartoons.
The only exception I could find was in the Dream Hotel. The first couple of nights I was in town, I took it easy, stayed in my room, watched TV and had sex with the full-length pillow. However, a hotel room can only hold you captive for so long and eventually I came downstairs to find out where the notorious dark side of this fantastic city had wound up. I now believe it all centers around the Dream Hotel. Within an hour of hanging in the lobby, I was propositioned by more pimps, hustlers, hoes and drug dealers than I have seen in 20 years in Los Angeles. Methy looking skinny teenagers were offering me weed, cocaine and what they claim is “Government pure MDMA.” The lobby was crawling with hookers and late night denizens of the rooftop nightclub, which is named “PDH.” An acronym for what I can only imagine is “Pimps, Drugs and Hoes” based on the army of thick women standing around comparing 9 inch Indian weaves and elastic black twat-length skirts that barely cover their clitori. (Is that the plural for “clitoris?”)
The new Manhattan underbelly had become what Jay-Z sang about in Empire State of Mind. “Ballplayers, rap stars, addicted to that limelight…” Everywhere I went folks were talking about money, cars and rap music. If Los Angeles is supposedly a vapid, material city full of superficial idiots, New York City has embraced a lifestyle full of flashy watches, bottle service, velvet ropes and hangers on… So much so that when I tried to get access to the PDH nightclub on the top floor, the bouncer looked at my “shoe game” and instructed me to “please wait in the other bar.”
I didn’t really want to go up to PDH, but it did seem like it had to be part of my Dream Hotel adventure. So I waited in the bar drinking 17 dollar glasses of shoddy tempranillo wondering how anyone can listen to this much house and trap music in one day. The hotel sort of felt like Miami, but it was 40 degrees cooler and Pitbull wasn’t here singing some shitty song about how “white girl got some ass.”
Finally a large Puerto Rican man came over and told me that since I was a guest of the hotel, all I needed to do was show my room key and I could gain access to the club. I sauntered up towards the door, bypassing the line of desperate gold diggers and club kids and flashed my hotel room key. It was the first time in my entire trip that I had felt somewhat cool.
The nightclub was everything I always hated about nightclubs. Expensive drinks, a DJ mixing Calvin Harris with Blondie, hairy men pouring vodka-cranberry drinks for girls who were most likely being paid to hang around them and intimidating looking security guards who mad-dogged anybody ordering a single beer instead of a 2500 dollar bottle of Grey Goose.
I stayed for 8 minutes.
On my way downstairs, I decided I had to get outside and just see the street. I was sick of the lines, the attitude and the fact that a cast member from Real Housewives of Atlanta had demanded to cut the line… and was placated with a free bottle of vodka. I had to walk to a deli and buy some water and eat a sandwich and try to get some sleep before my work event the following day.
I came back to the hotel with my snacks and drinks – which, by the way, were shoved into about 11 plastic bags by the deli owner as if the plastic problem doesn’t exist in New York – and stopped to listen to the sidewalk pimps do their thing. They were like the dude selling Eddie Murphy’s gold hair dryer in Coming to America. I heard some remarkable stuff:
“You wanna table shower my man?”
“I got one tranny but she visiting her brother at Riker’s right now.”
“Playa, I can get you three at once, but you gotta wear three rubbers.”
I guess Manhattan hadn’t changed that much. Instead of bootleg tapes, men were looking for the booty. These hipster hotels had become infidelity dens and the cops just seemed to look the other way. And as for the falling crime rate – well – as this night was coming to a close, NBA player Chris Copeland was actually stabbed in an altercation outside of 1OAK nightclub just a few streets away from where I was staying.
As I strolled towards the entrance, I passed by my friend in the Panama hat one last time.
“Yo, son – I got you. I know you wanna find out what a bad bitch is,” he propositioned.
“I’m good, man,” I said. “I gotta get to bed.”
I went up to my room and had sex with the full-length pillow.
After Reading Sean Penn’s ‘El Chapo’ Piece, I Decided to See What my Old Pot Dealer From High School was Up to…
Recently, Sean Penn made headlines when he bravely traveled deep into the heart of Sinaloa to meet and converse with the notorious Mexican drug cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Right after the story went to press, El Chapo was captured – and his latest elusive time on the lam abruptly came to a close. Penn’s piece was published in Rolling Stone this week and I found it to be an engrossing piece of long lost Gonzo journalism at its finest. Penn, an actor, long known for his political involvement, put himself in the direct line of peril and danger all while partnering with a famous Mexican film actress to infiltrate the most impenetrable depths of Narco activity. He shook hands, broke bread and slammed tequila with a man that the DEA and Mexican authorities have been unable to locate for close to six months. In my opinion, Penn’s story was a hell of a lot more ballsy than anything else any pampered Hollywood actor has attempted in the past twenty years. (Sorry, Julia Roberts. Playing an AIDS-sensitive doctor in The Normal Heart may have been considered “daring” but it pales in comparison to a 55-year-old Oscar winner risking his life to traipse deep into a jungle of death for an interview for a rock-n-roll magazine).
So, inspired by Sean Penn’s courage, I decided that the recent stories and essays I have written have felt a little too “soft.” I realized that had to step it up. Knowing that I was traveling back to my hometown of Tucson to visit my mother on Martin Luther King, jr. weekend, I made up my mind that I was going to turn the trip into my own personal “El Chapo rendezvous.” I had a great idea…
My goal was to track down Ernesto Gregory, the most successful marijuana dealer in my high school. The last I had heard of Ernesto was through a photograph taken around 2011 by our mutual high school friend, Erik. He posted a picture of the two of them on Facebook drinking in the desert. Erik had captioned the photo with He’s finally out! Welcome home boss!”
Assuming that this caption insinuated that he had just been released from some high security prison, I was under the impression that Ernesto had built up an El Chapo-like narcotics network of hundreds of foot soldiers and truckloads of contraband over the past 18 years. Why else would he have been in jail? Why would Erik call him “boss?” Plus, he was wearing the typical outfit. A Large Polo Horse logo situated on a blue collared shirt on top of True Religion designer jeans. DEA agents call this look “Narco Polo.” Now I have seen Sicario. I’ve watched Breaking Bad. I had no doubt that Ernesto had risen from low-grade weed dealer at Rincon/University High School into a southwestern drug legend – living in ranches and mansions sprawled across the Tucson and Mexico landscape.
And I was going to interview him.
I was set to fly into Tucson International Airport on January 17th. My plan was to eat a bunch of food at my mother’s house, drink wine and play three games of Scrabble all while hearing her talk about how amazing The Revenant was. The following day, I would travel deep into the center of Tucson to meet up with and interview the most intimidating and bad-ass pot dealer my high school had known.
Back in 1993, Ernesto Gregory had owned the school’s finest lowered mini truck. He had a 200-dollar Motorola pager. His “system” – or car stereo – was as custom as they came, complete with an Alpine tape deck, a Sony Discman attachment, two 12-inch Kicker woofers, some Kenwood tweeters and a constant bass thump of MC Breed, DJ Magic Mike and Wrecks ‘N Effect blasting from his trunk. He had his own apartment on Speedway, decked out with a two-foot bong, a television with cable and an unlimited financial account on a sort of early 90’s YouTube video-on-demand predecessor known as “The Box.” He always wore a black Colorado Rockies cap and Marithe and Francois Girbaud jeans beneath over-sized t-shirts of ridiculous animated Looney Tunes characters wearing 90’s hip-hop clothing. His pager code for weed was “907.” His girlfriend was the hottest girl in the senior class – a dark-haired Mexican sex goddess named Racquel Hernandez. And he was tough. As far as we knew, he had never lost a fight. In fact, I recalled him once putting my friend from Hebrew School – Adam Richford – into a headlock and smashing his nose repeatedly until he apologized for “mad-dogging” him in the parking lot. He claimed he had connections through “uncles in Nogales,” where his product came from. And everybody knew, anyone with “uncles in Nogales” was always in the drug game… In short, Ernesto Gregory was the most accomplished 18-year-old kid I had laid eyes on in my young life.
After I landed, I told my mom about my plan.
“Why the hell are you meeting with this criminal?” My mother asked on the car ride from the airport.
“He was the king, mom!” I exclaimed. “Didn’t you read the Sean Penn article?”
“Sean Penn’s an idiot, going to interview that drug dealer!”
“I thought that story was genius,” I said. “Besides, what else am I going to write? Another story about my kids not being allowed to bring refined sugar to school?”
Following a few glasses of wine at the house, my mom was trying to convince me to go to Wal-Mart to buy a knife for the meeting. I assured her that Ernesto and I were in good standing and that no concealed weapons would be necessary. She broke into a desperate sweat. We played two games of Scrabble before deciding to put the third one on pause because we were so tired that word like “uh” and “is” had begun appearing on the board.
My final memory of the evening was listening to my mom curse my name before she went to bed in the other room.
The following morning I fueled up on eggs and coffee, not knowing when I would be back to the house. The afternoon’s plans had been Facebook “messaged” to me by Erik, who I quickly learned from his profile hadn’t left Tucson since graduation. Erik wrote me that Ernesto wasn’t on social media, but he mentioned that he did watch a lot of TV and he had even seen my History Channel show and had once commented, “I know that fucker!” He also told me that Ernesto had demanded that Erik take down the aforementioned photo he had posted in 2011. Sure enough, when I searched for it, it was no longer online… All this solidified my drug-lord theory even more.
Ernesto had agreed to meet at 12:30. I took off in my mother’s Acura and sped over to an address located in the shadow of the bar-heavy downtown area. A place much hipper and enticing than it had been back in the 90’s when druggies and skinheads and homeless wandered Congress Boulevard scaring off any young people looking for a good time. Must have been all the drug money given to the city by Ernesto, I theorized.
I parked in a dirt lot and immediately recognized Erik, who looked like he had been a meth fiend since about 1994. He wore a saggy shirt, filthy pants and sported a patchy beard and shaved head. He had a kid’s BMX bicycle in his pick up truck bed, which I took as also a sure sign of a man on crystal meth. For some reason, heavy meth addicts seemed to always travel on way-too-small dirt bikes. Erik wasn’t unlike them.
I looked up just as a helicopter darted above us in the sky. DEA drone, I thought. Of course. We were most likely being followed. Hell, who knew what corner or alleyway was outfitted with a hidden camera tracking Erik’s every move. Shit, maybe the FBI had caught on to my story as well? I mean, who’s to say they weren’t tracking Erik’s Facebook page when I sent him my original message? I was starting to hit an all-time level of paranoia. Even a pigeon that flapped above us and landed on a telephone wire looked like it had a hidden camera in its eye… I tried to keep my cool.
Knowing some of the narco protocol, I began preparing for my meeting with Ernesto.
“So, should I give you my iphone for safety precautions?” I asked Erik.
“What for?” He replied.
“Oh, I just assumed I wasn’t allowed to bring any electronics to the meeting,” I said.
“We aint goin on no airplane or nothin,” he replied.
At this point, my entire drug kingpin theory went out the window. After all, in the El Chapo story, Sean Penn was told to turn his phone off in Los Angeles, nearly 14 hours before he even made contact with the cartel in Mexico. He had been forced to travel to in two separate SUV’s, two single engine planes and armored vehicles just to meet with El Chapo’s henchmen before gaining approval. He was most likely given a full body cavity search, frisked and water-boarded. Ernesto’s lone henchman was a meth fiend named Erik who was allowing me to bring my iphone into a meeting as if I was about to pitch him a new Angry Birds app to finance… Ernesto’s notorious drug cartel was crumbling before my eyes.
“Follow my truck, we’re going to shoot pool at Pockets,” Erik said.
“Pockets? We’re not going to his house or something?” I asked.
“What house?” He said. “Ernesto likes to play pool. You play pool?”
“Sure, man – I love pool,” I said.
I hate pool.
Pockets was a stale billiard hall way too brightly lit for a Wednesday afternoon. A few biker types with chain wallets and denim jackets drank Miller High Life at the bar. A Mexican guy who looked to be on his 5th or 6th Corona sat watching a soccer game on TV. One lone female, a waitress who would have slept with Bad Blake in the movie Crazy Heart after he played a set at a bowling alley, served beer. In the far west corner stood a chubby man in an Arizona Wildcats baseball cap chalking up his cue. I recognized him immediately as Ernesto Gregory.
His face had filled in and he had put on close to 35 pounds. By his footwear and saggy jeans I could tell that he hadn’t done much to change his fashion choices during the past 22 years. He wore Jordan sneakers, which were probably eight years old and had accumulated a slew of new arm tattoos, including one portrait of a woman who looked a lot like a fatter version of Racquel Hernandez. He drank what I would soon learn was Jack Daniel’s and Diet Coke and was constantly adjusting his pants from the crotch area. My first thought was that the most accomplished 18-year-old I had ever known had become the sloppiest 40-year-old I had seen in some time.
“Zach Selwyn!” He announced as I nervously approached the pool table. “What up Hollywood!”
Oh boy. He was going to call me Hollywood the rest of the day, I knew it.
“I seen you on that TV show about the words and shit!”
“Yeah, America’s Secret Slang, thanks man.”
“Yeah, American Slang! That’s it, what up big homie?”
“Nada man, just trying to catch up with some old friends, ya know?”
“Well shit, let’s shoot some stick.”
Ernesto racked up some balls and began rattling off shots. He was a damn good pool player and I knew that even at my best – which was pretty terrible – I was about to be embarrassed. But, he told me to pick a cue and even though it was 1:30 in the afternoon, I ordered a pitcher of Bud Light. The waitress brought it over and charged me for it. It cost $3.75.
As Ernesto sank shot after shot, we never once discussed drug dealing. In fact, we spent most of our time talking about girls from high school that he had always wanted to screw. Turns out, he thought I was some Olympic-level cocksman in my teens and he assumed that I had slept with every cute girl in our high school. As he dug up names from the past, I could only laugh and try to remember who some of these girls even were. Most of them I had never been intimate with, but to placate Ernesto, I played along.
“Paula Schrapner? Yeah, I nailed her,” I said. Not true.
“Jen Robbins? Blow job,” I lied.
“Did you ever get together with Laura House?” Ernesto asked. “She was DOPE!”
“Uh, we just kissed,” I said, which was actually true. One New Years Eve 1992, we had briefly kissed.
“Man, I wonder what she’s up to now?” He said, staring off at a neon sign.
As the beers flowed, I was finding that I was having a hard time getting anything out of Ernesto. He was stuck in 1993, still pining for girls who were long married, divorced and even had kids in high school of their own. He remembered football games that I hadn’t even thought about in 20 years and quoted our Economics teacher Mr. Franklin from a class I didn’t even recall taking. When I took a second to ask him about Racquel Hernandez and what happened to their relationship, he grew silent, took out a vape pen and pulled long and hard.
“You know we have three kids, right?”
“I did not know that,” I said. “Congrats. I have two. How old?”
“19, 17 and 15,” he said. “But the 15-year-old has blue eyes and blonde hair – aint no way that kid’s mine. We broke up 12 years ago. My second wife bailed on me last year. Bitch.”
Wow. Here I was, stressing out about my 9 and 5-year-old kids in Los Angeles and this guy had been divorced twice and had three kids in high school – one who he was convinced wasn’t even his. I suddenly felt like every pampered Hollywood asshole I have come to despise.
“Hey Hollywood, you never slept with Racquel, did you?” He asked.
“What? Hell no!”
There was a sudden silence. Erik looked ready to tear out my jugular. Ernesto stared me down. This was what Adam Richford would call “mad-dogging.” My mom was right… I should have bought that knife.
“Man, I’m just playing!” He said. “You should see your face, you looked like a little bitch just now!”
Everybody laughed. I pounded my beer. It was then that I decided that I had to get the whole story right here or else I was going to end up on the wrong end of a bong in the south side of Tucson come six o’clock, getting high and watching some show like Ridiculousness on a Futon. I found my courage and lowered my voice to a whisper.
“So, Ernesto – you still in the weed game?” I asked.
Ernesto looked at me and laughed. He looked at Erik and then back to the pool table.
“Man, I aint dealt weed since high school,” he said.
“I thought you went to jail or something?” I inquired.
“Shit man… I shot some endangered pregnant salamander with a rifle during bow-hunting season. Thank God it didn’t die… Luckily I only did two nights in county jail, man. Sucked ass.”
He had shot a pregnant salamander with a rifle during bow-hunting season? He did two nights in county jail? El Chapo had done something like seven years in maximum security before his first escape… As far as I know, he never complained either. Here was my one-time narcotics hero admitting to me that he was scared after doing two measly nights for shooting a fucking lizard. My story was falling apart.
“So, what about the last 15 years? I mean, what have you done for work?” I asked.
Ernesto sunk a 9 ball and looked up at me.
“I repair windshields, man. Over at Glassworx on Speedway.”
I watched him return to the table. My heart sank as he finished off the game by dropping the eight ball perfectly in the side pocket. My story was over. The most notorious drug dealer I had known had become a windshield repair guy. There was no mansion in the hills, no ranch house in Nogales… and no harem of sexy Mexican women. Ernesto had gone straight and my story was dead.
“Why do you ask, homie?” Ernesto inquired. “You need weed?”
Being that my story was a bust, I figured that the very least I could do was to go on one more pot buying deal in my old hometown. Maybe the dealer would be the drug kingpin I was looking for and I could write something about him instead.
“Yeah, sure man. Just a little bit to get me through the next two days.”
“Well, my dude sells dime bags over at hole 14 at the Golf N’ Stuff on Tanque Verde if you want to pick one up,” Ernesto said.
Dime bag? Golf N’ Stuff? I wasn’t interested. The last thing I needed was to buy Mexican weed from a kid at the same place where I had celebrated my 11-year-old birthday party. It just didn’t seem right.
“No that’s cool, man,” I replied. “I gotta get home anyway – maybe we can hook up tomorrow or something.”
“Are you sure?” He said. “This kid gets good shit… he has a couple of uncles in Nogales.”
Of course he did. I threw a five-dollar tip on the wooden table and finished off my beer. I high-fived Erik and Ernesto, promised to be in touch and promptly drove back to my mother’s house where I found her nervously pacing the living room like I was 15 again and out with a senior at my first high school party.
We opened a bottle of wine and finished our game of Scrabble…