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…
This past weekend, I decided to have a yard sale. It sounded like the perfect idea. A fun and social way for me to unload the over-crowded boxes that had been shoved in the back of my garage and turn them into some serious cash. After all, who wouldn’t want to buy my old snap button western shirts I once wore on tour with my band? Or my vintage t-shirt collection that ranged from soft 1970’s Wild Turkey Bourbon logos to an original Rick Springfield Working Class Dog Hanes Beefy-T? Or even the dozens of valuable beer coozies I had collected rifling through Goodwill crates across the country that I just never used? And what neighborhood fashionista wouldn’t jump at the chance to own a pair of my wife’s designer leather pants for a steal at $100? Or any of the hundreds of blouses she had earned working in the fashion industry for twenty years? The way I saw it, my yard sale was more of a vintage pop-up shop than a junk sale – and I was expecting nothing but a hipster, gypsy crowd with millennial money in their wallets and a dream of buying an old suede fringe vest on their minds.
Oh how wrong I was.
The Craigslist ad I had placed stated that the sale would begin at 7 o’clock in the morning. However, a crowd of freakish haggling ghouls began showing up at 5:30, knocking on my pre-dawn door asking me if I would give them a sneak peak into my wares before everybody else arrived. Some came by van, others by bike. One man, I had assumed by the sleeping bag he carried, had camped out on our sidewalk the night before like we were about to release tickets to a One Direction concert. Suddenly, having a yard sale became somewhat frightening but I thought of all the time it would save me having to deal with ebay and those pesky fees, shipping costs and trips to the post office.
Our first early morning visitors were two Spanish-speaking men who were very interested in knowing if we had any “tools for sale.” Having only owned a screwdriver, some nails and a hammer in my illustrious DIY carpentry career, I calmly told them no – before inquiring if they would be interested in a brass Jackson Browne belt buckle.
“No, gracias,” the older gentleman said. He took a look at my daughter’s rusty Frozen decorated bicycle before driving off.
The guy with the sleeping bag asked if we had any bedding and/or pillows for sale. I told him no, and asked him if he’d be interested in a Jane Fonda Workout vinyl record.
Our next visitor arrived around 6:00 a.m. She was an older, haggard bag lady who had over 45 satchels draped off of her weathered bicycle. In the knapsack that was slung around her shoulder she carried an actual brass tai-chi sword that she insisted on wielding in front of my son in a terrible re-enactment of her early morning lesson she had just taken in Griffith Park. After frolicking around the sidewalk like Westley in The Princess Bride for 25 minutes, she finally walked in and inquired about buying some iron rods and curtain rings we had recently taken down from our inside windows. Originally, these rods were purchased for $300 when my wife was doing some interior decorating to her old home in Laurel Canyon. Feeling generous, I offered her the rods and rings – with the curtains included – for $200. She stared at me as if she was about to run me through with her weapon. She mumbled something beneath her breath and eventually moved onto the junk table I had assembled in the back corner. She picked up a set of hippopotamus salt-and-pepper shakers and giggled while examining them.
“These are fun,” she exclaimed.
“My mom brought me those from Morocco,” I told her, lying. In reality they were Goodwill purchases I had used as a prop in a film I had made with my brother in 2011.
“Could you do ten bucks?”
Again, she laughed and twirled around the yard and started speaking what seemed like French to nobody in particular. She wrote her name down in a tiny notebook she had hidden in her stocking, ripped the page out and handed it to me. As she pressed it into my palm, she whispered, “Call me when you realize you’re asking way too much money for everything.”
I looked at the slip of paper. Her name was Laurette Soo-Chin-Wei Lorelai.
Around 7:15, the floodgates began to open. More and more groups began appearing, asking for mainly larger items such as furniture and floor lamps. I was somewhat amazed that no one had snapped up the Crosley turntable, the Pablo Neruda collection of poetry or the coffee table book Nudie: The Rodeo Tailor. After 45 minutes, I was beginning to wonder if that sword-carrying woman was correct… Was I charging too much?
I quickly Googled Yard Sale Etiquette.
According to yard sale laws, the average price of most of your items that are not bulky or still in the packaging – should be around $1.00. My average item was in the 5-10 dollar range, and in my mind, totally reasonable. It wasn’t until I made my first sale that I had a change of direction for the rest of the afternoon.
In 2007 or so, I had bought my son a collectible Star Wars denim jacket with R2-D2 and C-3PO sewn on the back at a trendy Farmer’s Market for $45. Even though he had probably thrown up and peed on it a few dozen times during his toddler-hood, I felt that $30 was a fair asking price. When I mentioned this to the interested woman who had been measuring it up against her own 3-year-old’s torso, she scoffed and hung it back on the rack.
“Ay de mi!” She said in Spanish.
Determined to make my first sale, I decided to bargain with her.
Now, I come from a long line of world-class bargainers. My mother and late grandma used to waltz through Canal Street in New York City with peacock-like confidence, able to nudge an unwavering vendor into dropping the price on an imitation Louis Vitton handbag from 500 dollars to roughly 50 cents in under three-minutes. Together they played the street like silver-tongued Jewish barter hounds, satisfied only when departing the area with 3-5 purses, imitation Rolexes and fake Prada luggage beneath their arms. They have been taking me to the secret inner space of fake handbags since I was about two-years-old and as far back as I can remember, they were the Ronda Rouseys of price negotiating… In fact, I recall one legendary trip where my mother actually made a profit while buying a purse.
Throughout the years, I have mastered the talent myself, but mainly when talking down a woman who once offered to cornrow my hair on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. I have also, never really been the haggled, only the haggler… Nevertheless, I felt that my family history had prepared me to challenge this woman over the Star Wars jacket to the very end… and I would not give in.
“Maam, could you do 25?” I asked.
“How about one dollar,” she said.
“What?” I screamed. “This is Star Wars! Like, collectible!”
“Senor, I will give you two dollars.”
At this point I knew my grandmother was watching down from heaven like a boxing trainer watching her prizefighter take hits in the ring. I refused to back down, so I just slowly lowered my price until she agreed. I decided I would not go lower than 18 dollars.
“20 bucks,” I said.
“3 dollars,” She barked,
“18?” I pleaded.
“Adios, senor,” she said, walking away. Oh my God! What was wrong here? Had I lost the sale? Was I going to be stuck with this jacket in my garage for the next 30 years? Like most hoarders I thought to myself, maybe when my son has a kid of his own, he will give this to him… but I knew that was a long way off. Finally, I surrendered. Mainly as a way to break the ice and make my first sale of the day.
“Maam? 3 dollars is fine,” I said. The lady reached in her wallet.
“How about two?” She offered.
I paused. I looked up at grandma, undoubtedly shaking her head in disappointment from that great Nordstrom’s Rack in the sky.
“Fine,” I said. She pressed two wrinkly dollars into my hands and just like that, I was $42 in the hole, but I had made my first sale of the day.
As the day wore on, my prices dipped lower and lower. I sold a handful of action figures for .25 cents a piece, a stack of vintage T-shirts for a dollar each and had the day’s biggest score when an unopened buffet dish that we had received for our wedding in 2004 went for $4.00. Nearly every item of clothing I was selling dropped in price by 99% by noon. My wife’s leather pants went for two bucks. The Rick Springfield shirt went for a dollar, as did the Mumford and Sons shirt, some Jack Daniel’s glasses and a silver booze flask that had an engraving of a man bass-fishing while naked. As the yard emptied, my wallet grew fatter and fatter – albeit with one-dollar bills – until I found myself exhausted, bored and anxiously wanting to count the bankroll in my pocket. My guess was that I had made $100 or so, based on the flurry of quick deals I made unloading the DVD collection, stacks of children’s books and my unbelievably large collection of novelty trucker hats… which had sold to some professional tree service men who had been working on a job a few blocks down. (Which might explain why if you drove by Franklin Avenue last weekend, you saw six guys on ladders wearing hats with My Other Car is Your Mom on them).
The most disgusting sale of the day went to the three ladies who argued over who would get to wear my wife’s used LuLuLemon Yoga pants. In retrospect, I probably could have sold them to some perverted Japanese businessmen in a vending machine for $60 a piece. Instead, I settled for – yep you guessed it – a dollar.
A crisis struck when I sold my son’s old Nintendo Wii console for ten bucks. Originally, he had wanted $100 for it… Which is 90 dollars more than what the smug bastards at GameStop will give you for the same item. Convincing him that I was a master salesman, I let him give me the Wii to sell at the yard sale instead. Sadly, I buckled early and let it go for $10.00 and I threw in some accessory called a Skylanders Portal. Not even sure that the console worked, I was just happy that I had made a double-digit sale. My son was not thrilled at all.
“You’re the WORST!” He screamed at me. “That was worth at least 300 dollars!”
One thing that kids fail to recognize is how fast technology loses value in today’s ever-changing world. Still, there was very little convincing him that I had struck a decent deal and he continuously stuck his head out the door and screamed at me for my “epic fail.” Ultimately, I ended up giving him the ten bucks even though I was the one who had bought him the original console for $275 back in 2010. Screw technology.
Around 4, the traffic had dwindled down to some neighbors, who we basically just handed items for free to get the stuff off of our property. Although it seemed like a bunch of things had been sold, I was still staring down a massive pile of clothes and books and toys and albums and knick-knacks and just straight up garbage. I prayed for some Saudi billionaire to walk in with a briefcase full of cash and just tell me he was taking the whole lot for $50. Alas, it looked as if my day was over. I cracked a beer and peed on a cactus.
And then, like a boll weevil out of a nearby hedge, Laurette Soo-Chin-Wei Lorelai re- appeared, tai chi sword in hand, pushing her bike in my direction with a Cheshire cat-like simper on her face.
Like a panther she strutted around the sale, inquiring about every single item remaining. She decided to mention that she was a regular on “the scene” and that she could tell you what was going to sell the minute she sets foot in someone’s rummage sale. She offered to help me whittle down my items to try and resell the next day for the bargain price of 10 dollars an hour… I relented. All I was thinking was “get the hell out of my yard.”
I started gathering everything that was left over and throwing them in boxes. She suddenly slid next to me, holding the iron curtain rods, the rings and the hippopotamus salt-and-pepper shakers from earlier.
“Ready to make a deal?” She asked.
“Lady,” I said. “Give me five dollars and go back to whatever hole you crawled out of.”
She handed over a bill, pressing it into my palm and stared directly into my eyes.
“Told you so,” she said.
That night I didn’t finish cleaning up. I was too wiped out. I left the majority of my once valuable wardrobe out for whoever in the neighborhood wanted it. A few things disappeared, which I didn’t even care about. It might be cool to see the neighborhood homeless guy wearing my old Blues Traveler T-shirt.
The next morning I threw all the remaining crap into my car and drove it directly to the Out of the ClosetThrift Store. I shoved it into a filthy back room along with thousands of other donations. As we unloaded all the boxes and unsold clothes and books and toys, they asked me if I thought the huge haul of stuff was worth more than $500. After all, a big donation would serve as a great tax write-off at the end of the year. Unaware of this little loophole, I figured that, yes – this crap was definitely worth more than $500.
They gave me a slip to present to my tax preparer and I drove home, satisfied that I had at least made a donation that would help me out financially.
As for my bankroll, I finally had the chance to count my earnings at the end of the sale. For nine hours of bargaining, labor and sweating under 100-degree weather, I had made a grand total of $47.
Somewhere up in heaven, my grandma was shaking her head in disappointment…
Zachariah’s new song explores the corporate logo marketing travesty that all of us 90’s kids endure every time we see a Nirvana or Ramones shirt for sale in Target or Wal-Mart. Back in 1992 I had to go to the concert to buy a $30 shirt. Now the logo is on onesies.
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…