11 years ago I covered a $659.48 bill in a Vancouver bar because Jason Momoa had conveniently, “left his wallet at home.”
Aquaman owes me some cash.
All of these Aquaman billboards that are towering all over the country have had me nostalgic for a night, back in 2007, when I had spent the night drinking and hanging out with a young actor named Jason Momoa who was playing “Ronon Dex” on a TV show called Stargate Atlantis.
I had met Jason because I had made and performed a viral “Stargate Atlantis rap video” about how much of a superfan of the TV show I was… (even though I had never seen an episode). The producers then offered me a small role as “Scientist #2” on an upcoming episode of the program and they even flew me up to Vancouver to act in a scene. We also scheduled a “Set visit” for the TV show I was currently on called Attack of the Show.
This whole thing started when my friend Jane, a veteran TV producer, was asked by the Stargate universe to create them a “viral video” for the internet.
This was during a small period of time when TV/Film companies were hiring producers to try and capture lightning in a bottle for the masses by shooting high quality videos that seemed cheap, affordable and easy to digest online… This was WAY before influencers, SoundCloud rappers and Instagram stories… This was before everybody had an iPhone and a high quality camera in their pockets and garage band on their laptops. If you had musical talent and were willing to work for next to nothing, you could get a million views and the respect of the industry in about a week.
I had recently performed and produced a series of comedic rap videos for Attack of the Show – which led to Jane calling me to do a song about Stargate Atlantis as they attempted to develop their online brand.
“Have you ever seen the show?” Jane asked me on the phone one afternoon.
“No, but that won’t matter,” I responded. “Send me the DVD’s and I’ll write a song tonight.”
Her messenger delivered the DVD’s that afternoon. I watched six episodes. By 11 p.m. that night I had written an entire rap song about how much I loved Stargate Atlantis and how, as an actor, my dream was to be on an episode of the show…
Two days later we recorded the rap song with a music producer named Terrace Martin. Yeah, the same Terrace Martin who rolls with Kendrick Lamar. You know that song “Damn?” THAT TERRACE MARTIN. The man is a hip-hop legend. However, back in 2007 he was just another guy trying to make it, like we all were… and his resume included some indie rappers and a couple of songs with Snoop Dogg.
Here’s the Stargate Atlantis song and video we shot while making it…
After this song and video went “nerd viral,” which meant that all the Stargate Atlantis fans went crazy analyzing the lyrics and anointing me the “King of Stargate rap music” – I began receiving hundred of emails and MySpace requests from Stargate fans across the world. They all had names like “Wraith Woman #2” and “Daedulus Dude” and were asking me for my address so they could send me things like Stargate collector’s plates and shit. (I still have these). It was crazy. The fans rivaled Trekkies or the disciples of the Star Wars Universe. I had suddenly been accepted into the tight circles of Stargate fanatics.
The video was spreading and an executive producer on the show held a cast and crew screening and made me an instant celebrity amongst the cast, grips and writers of the show. It was INSANE. A week later they flew me up to Vancouver to play my small role, put me up in a hotel and even PAID me… These are the type of jobs that RARELY come along…
Anyway, I first met Jason Momoa on set the day of my scene, and I watched him train incessantly for some tricky fighting sequence. I interviewed him along with the rest of the cast for my set visit and got along well with everybody. What stood out to me most about Jason was that, whereas the rest of the cast had big, beautiful trailers… Jason had an AirStream trailer from the 1960’s. The other cast had couches, but Jason had removed his and fastened in a hammock instead. The dude was definitely living a different life as a TV star.
After interviewing him, we started talking music and went back to his Airstream where he showed me his 1940’s Gibson acoustic guitar that was worth about $5,000. I played it in awe and dreamt of the day I could play a character like his – a “Satedan,” a member of civilization from the Pegasus Gallery on my own bad ass science fiction TV show… Instead, on the episode that day I was simply playing “Scientist #2,” a character who contracts some disease and had a few throw away lines to Dr. Mckay (played by the hilarious David Hewlett).
By the way, I still get occasional 13 cent residual check in the mail from this role…
After my scene was shot, Jason casually mentioned that he had a day off the next day and wanted to know if I had any interest in getting some beers that night.
“Sure, man,” I said.
That evening we met at the hotel and proceeded to ambush the nightclubs of Vancouver. At first, we met some of his friends for drinks where the bartender refused to charge him anything. A few beers in and we headed over to a dinner spot where a bunch of his friends joined us. The drinks and food flowed and I was amazed at how many people stopped and paid their respects to Jason and his impressive dreadlocks. He was a big time celebrity in town… I just thought he was a cool guy. Then, around 11 p.m. the bill came.
We all sort of stared at it for a long time. And then Jason picked it up. He looked at it, leaned over to me and whispered in my ear.
“Dude, I left my wallet at my place, can you cover this?” He said
“Uhhh, pay me back?” I said, rather scared to look at the total.
“Yeah man, we’ll go to my apartment. I have cash.”
And so, just like that, I put my card down and bought Jason Momoa and his friends a $659.48 dinner.
And then we went to the bar and I bought some more beers. And then some more. And then we stopped at a liquor store on the way home where I picked up some Stella Artois to take back to his place.
I was about $750.00 in the hole at this point.
Momoa’s apartment was sort of like his trailer. He had decorated it with a bunch of his homemade leather furniture, was definitely not a fan of pre-fabricated food and he immediately put on the incredible Tom Waits CD Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards.
We drank a few beers and talked about Hollywood, his girlfriend Lisa Bonet and how he had dreams of becoming a “Warrior” in the movies or something… I told him how my dream was to play the Greek Theater in Los Angeles someday. We went back and forth about how the wolf was his spirit animal and mine was the eagle. He showed me his screenplay, which was wrapped in a handmade leather-bound notebook of some sort – and I gave him my band’s new CD Alcoholiday, which he told me he liked. He then gave me a copy of a terrific book called “Hobo” by Eddy Joe Cotton (A MUST READ) and we toasted to our dreams until the early morning.
Around 3 a.m. I called a cab and my night out with Jason Momoa had come to a drunken, blurry end. I stumbled back to my hotel room at the Sutton Place and got into bed… It was then that I realized SHIT. I forgot to ask him for the money from dinner.
The next day my wife called and asked me if I had spent $750.00 on our card, as she was getting “fraud alerts” from the bank.
“Yeah, it’s a long story,” I said. “But I made a cool new friend!”
A few weeks later, the British TV station SKY 1 contacted me about using my Stargate song as a promo to hype the upcoming new season of the show. I agreed and it opened up a brand new fan base across the pond. To this day, the ASCAP residual checks I got from that usage are above and beyond any financial success I have ever experienced.
And somewhere, on an old hard drive of mine, exist about 25 photos of me and Jason hanging on set… in the bars and among the barflies of Vancouver back in 2007. There is also a segment we produced for Attack of the Show on a DVD buried somewhere in my garage, but I ain’t trying to go dig that shit out either… If you have it, internet, feel free to post it.
Jason and I stayed in touch for a few years, texting songs and book recommendations to each other, but once he got more and more successful, our texts stopped and we both fell into busier work and fatherhood. Now, as I see him staring at me from the stage of Saturday Night Live – or from behind his massive Trident on an Aquaman billboard, I feel like he finally became the “warrior” he had told me he wanted to become.
As for me, I haven’t played the Greek Theater yet… But, when I make it there, I’ll perform any song you want to hear…
It was around 2:15 in the morning when a hammered single mom of three kids with a very visible C-section scar approached me following my music gig at a place called Peri’s in Marin County, California.
“Hiiii Mr. Talented…” She slurred. “I live two blocks away and my kids are prolly asleep – D-ya wanna come have a drink and smoke and hang ouuuuut?”
I looked this woman over. She was about 40, had a swollen and (possibly) fractured purple ankle and was heavily puffing on an e-cigarette…. From behind, half of her dress had hiked up and lodged itself in her butt, revealing a horrifying leg tattoo of a dragonfly that started mid-thigh and ended probably just above her Va-jayjay.
She also had one dreadlock.
“Uhhh… Well, the thing is…” I stumbled. “I’m married – sooo I don’t think it would be a good idea, ya know?”
“Fuck you! You’re an asshole for leading me on!” she snapped.
Wait, what? Leading her on? How was I leading her on?
A few seconds later, it hit me… When I was performing on stage a few minutes earlier, I recalled saying:
“Who’s the hottie in the back/Nice body, nice rack/
Meet me outside in five – My name is Zach.”
Look. If you have ever seen me or my band perform live, I often jokingly flirt with girls in the crowd with improvisational freestyle rap lyrics from the stage… This, however, was one of those rare moments when the girl actually stuck around and thought I was serious… I felt terrible. (Here’s a sample of a freestyle from NYC in 2017)
“Sorry, it was a joke, – like a part of the show??!??!?” I tried to explain to her.
She threw a drink at me, turned around and stopped at the door to say good-bye.
“Your music fucking sucks anyway,” she screamed.
By the way? I never made it home that night. Since I was too drunk to drive, the bartender let me sleep in the back seat of my Prius in the bar’s parking lot…
Did I mention it was a Tuesday?
What the fuck am I doing?
I am 44-years-old. I have two kids and a wife. Most men my age are in bed by 8:30 every night, binge-watching Netflix and thinking about some meeting they have at work the next day with Nancy from H.R.
Not many dudes I know are living like me this summer… touring bars in their mid-40’s trying to sell 20-something kids t-shirts and CD’s of their country hip-hop band that – in most people’s eyes – peaked when they opened for Jason Mraz in 2008…
For the record? On this tour I sold ZERO CD’s.
But let’s go back a few years…
In the 2000’s, every bar I played in was always PACKED. Friends, fans and industry folks lined up outside awaiting new songs – or a 10-minute freestyle rap where I might drop their names into a verse… They bought CD’s and shirts and sang along and I would walk out of the bar with $400 and a thousand business cards… My band played across the country and stayed in fine hotels, sipping top shelf whiskey and partying with rock stars…
But, then came adulthood. People had kids and a lot of my musician friends got real jobs. Some band members moved out of town… Most guys gave up or got into real estate. Even I took a break from it for a while to be around the family and work in the TV business. However, the thrill of performing live was always missing…
So, this past summer I decided that a 9-venue mini music tour of Northern California would be the best thing for my mind, body and soul.
Tour posters from the road…
As the days rolled on, I sort of forgot about the ways of the road… Late nights, uncomfortable beds… bad habits reintroducing themselves… When you’re out driving down I-5 at 9:30 at night – a restaurant like Subway suddenly becomes a solid option. The Yellow American Spirit cigarette suddenly becomes “healthy” decision… Not to mention that most bars where I play like to avoid paying musicians – and instead – offer up FREE DRINKS instead – which ultimately leads to me drinking $4.99 mini bottles of Sutter Home Cabernet – guaranteeing a foggy and painful morning.
Oh, and most bartenders who hear me ask for “the best red wine in the bar” often think I’m joking and laugh in my face.
In all honesty, I quit drinking hard liquor ten years ago…. Waking up in a Super 8 Motel with two lines shaved into your eyebrows like D’Angelo Russell will do that to anybody…
But that’s a whole ‘nother story…
The “Zachariah: Backyard and Wineries” tour began in San Francisco, at a private party where some tech geniuses of the world dug my music and my improv songs about how expensive the city had become… The host had somehow procured 25-plus bottles of the legendary Pliny the Elder beer from Santa Rosa and he was extremely generous with his liquor cabinet. However, as people got more sloshed, a supremely drunk friend of theirs named Kelly demanded I sing Shallow by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.
“Are you gonna sing it with me?” I asked her.
“Fuck YESSS!” She screamed as the party encouraged her.
A few chords later and she was warbling through the “Wooooaaaah – ohhh – h ohhh ohh ohh oh AWWOWOHHHWHWHWH” section of the song. Let’s just say she didn’t nail it, but it didn’t matter. The vibe and energy was fantastic and I assumed every gig would end up this beautiful and natural.
But the next night I drove up to gig at Peri’s Bar in Marin County. It was certainly a success, but I was definitely under-paid and over-served awful tiny bottles of Sutter Home… (Thus the reason why I slept in a parking lot).
When I woke up in the back seat of my 2008 Prius at six the next morning, having sweat through my clothes on stage the night before, I decided that a shower was indeed in order. I quickly Googled “YMCA Marin County” on my phone and found one 10 miles away where my Hollywood “Family Membership” would let me use their facilities. This is also a practice that HOMELESS people participate in.
I ended up spending 45 minutes in the sauna listening to two men talk about their new tech venture that would “change the dumpling game forever.” After they noticed me listening in, they began whispering and eventually left the sauna altogether, protecting their billion dollar dumpling idea.
A billion dollar dumpling idea? What I derived from this moment was that I am definitely in the wrong business…
That night, I performed at the Lagunitas Tap Room in Petaluma. The venue was amazing and they even offered up cash ($80) for the gig. Plus, per usual, they served me all the beer I could drink. Initially I had planned on having one or two beers because I had to drive to meet my wife and kids up north in Cloverdale once the night ended…
However, after my show, I quickly found myself 8 beers in. Since my head was spinning, I asked my new friend Pete (who booked me there) if he had a better idea than drunk driving to Cloverdale.
“Yeah brother… my buddy Andy has an Airstream in a forest that he rents out – it’s $45 for the night,” he said.
“Uhh… like, HOW in a forest?” I inquired.
“It’s desolate, man… super chill and quiet and you won’t hear anybody’s voice for like, 9 hours straight!” Pete replied.
OK. Look. I enjoy nature. I love converted Airstream trailers. But 9 hours alone in one in nature? Yo, I’m not trying to live that Into the Wild life… I am a social person. I need conversation. Shit, I need some WiFi, ya know?
“I don’t know Pete,” I explained. “I sorta need a bed – I slept in my car last night.”
“They have a killer Aerobed,” Pete said. “I’ve slept there sooo many times, you’ll love it – I’ll even drop you off!”
And with that, Pete took me to a beautiful house with 40 acres of land in the woods, where we knocked on the door and met Pete’s buddy Andy who was extremely tired and reluctantly thrust the trailer keys into my hand. He also passed me a Romancing the Stone-like treasure map explaining how to find the forest Airstream… Pete left and I slugged through the dark forest, absolutely fearing for every second of my life, before coming across what was a beautiful 1950-something converted Airstream “Cabin.”
I unlocked the door and went inside. It was about as rustic as you could expect.
There was an Aerobed with a blanket on it…
On the wall hung a calendar from the year 2013…
And there was a shovel in the corner next to a roll of toilet paper beneath a sign that said, “Use Nature’s Facilities.”
Holy shit. What? So no bathroom? Was I gonna have to re-learn the “One-armed tree hang” I had been taught at summer camp as a kid?
I decided to just crash and wake up as early as possible to split.
30 minutes after I went to sleep, I woke up on the floor. The Aerobed had deflated. It was about 45 degrees in the trailer. With no visible air pump nearby, I turned the deflated Aerobed into a pillow and did my best to sleep for the next six hours.
A couple of hours later I woke up to the sound of what must have been two bears humping in the woods… I also swear a mysterious light flashed across the sky and for two hours I panicked about being abducted by aliens and anally probed above the Redwoods. Eventually, around 6:30, I awoke with a stiff neck and took a $20 taxi back to my car at Lagunitas.
Up in Cloverdale I met my family and began thinking that perhaps, the road life was no longer for me… I took the family to the local trampoline park and hit up some small town burger place and I was amazed at how comfortable the safe and respectable family life felt again… For a minute, I almost cancelled my final three gigs…
But, since I can rarely turn down a chance to perform, I decided to carry through on my commitments.
As I was playing the night at an all ages restaurant, the local town drunk “Banjo Bob” (yes, his real name) taught my 13-year-old son how to best hold a pool cue if he was ever to get into a bar fight.
(His advice? Hit the guy with the skinny end, that way if it breaks off – you’re left with the more dangerous thick end of the stick as a weapon.)
To quote my late grandmother: “That’s wonderful?”
The following night, I played at a pretty cool bar in Healdsburg where I ate pizza that a guy had made from an oven that he dragged behind his bicycle… I know what you’re thinking: Bike Pizza? Trust me – It was absolutely delicious.
On the last night, we drove down to San Francisco and the tour ended at a bar in the Marina called Jaxson for a friend’s fundraiser party in the city – where, as I was playing live, a man and woman dry-humped each other on the dance floor in front of me…
Now look, I’m all for dancing, but this was kind of ridiculous… I actually didn’t care. They were wasted and they loved my music and I felt at home for a few minutes with the young Marina area crowd of San Francisco…
Here – watch the video and make your own assumptions:
For the record? That girl dancing did not ask me to come back to her place after the gig.
But the guy did…
“Hi Mr. Talented,” He said… “Wanna come party with me at my place?”
“I’d love to, but, the thing is… I’m married,” I said.
I woke up the next morning in the back seat of my Prius…
ZACH IS NOW BOOKING VENUES FOR HIS SUMMER 2020 TOUR!!
I could have fucked one of my teachers back in high school. I didn’t. But I could have. She was into me… She told me I made her ‘quiver…’ She said I looked like a movie star. She tried to kiss me. This was 25 years ago… I still think about it.
Nowadays these stories are everywhere. Open any internet browser and you are greeted by a photo of a young teacher who was recently arrested for seducing their 16-year-old Biology student with marijuana and booze and throwing group sex parties and shit. Their mug shots get splashed all over websites and people everywhere shame these women for fucking underage boys…
Back in the day you never heard about this type of shit. If you did, it was always a creepy male Phys Ed. teacher who wore New Balance sneakers and sported a filthy Don Mattingly moustache. Now it seems these sex-starved teachers are women who look like Charlize Theron with John and Kate Plus Eight haircuts.
In the early 90’s, these women didn’t exist.
Except in my high school.
During my senior year, a really cute teacher’s assistant/college student named Debbie joined my AP English class. She was responsible for grading our shitty essays about the “Grapes of Wrath,” and helped with our teacher Mrs. Kelly’s syllabus… and she also happened to give me ‘fuck me eyes’ nearly every single day.
One day after school in the parking lot, Debbie caught me by my Dodge Lancer as I was preparing to roll a Mexi-shwag joint to smoke with my boy Adam.
“Zach, can I talk to you for a second?” She asked.
At first I thought she was going to criticize my schoolwork or something, but instead she ended up asking me on a date.
“Look, Zach – so I know you mentioned that you want to be an actor when you are older… and uhmm… Well, Les Miz is coming to the U of A next Saturday and I actually have an extra ticket – so if you want to go…?”
She smiled at me. The ‘U of A’ was the University of Arizona… and I had been hanging around the campus since I was a kid. I had always noticed the frat guys and the cute girls, but here was one of them actually… hitting on me. Or at least I thought she was. She was confident and she certainly had something none of the high school
girls I had been dating had… a MAJOR.
I wasn’t sure if this invite was a come on, but I liked it. I felt invincible and dominant. Typical 17-year-old shit. I nodded my head, told her, ‘sure’ and we made plans to meet around seven at Centennial Hall on the Arizona campus to see the show. She even gave me her phone number just in case I got lost. Cell-phones weren’t a thing yet, but she promised to check her answering machine from a payphone.
I went back to see Adam.
“What was that all about, dude?”
“Dude, I think I might fuck the English T.A.”
I went home and told my mom that I had plans to go out on Saturday night. My mom went ballistic. My mom can read anybody. Especially back then. She immediately began getting suspicious of this woman’s intentions.
She wanted to know who she was, how old she was, what exactly this teacher wanted with me, etc.
“Mom, don’t worry, she’s like, 22, and she just knows I want to be an
actor – that’s it!”
“Don’t kid yourself, Zach, this woman has ulterior motives… don’t be so naïve.”
Amazingly, I somehow convinced my mom that this could be my only chance to see Les Miserables, and since my mother is a Broadway Theater geek, she relented at the last minute and let me go. But with a warning…
“Keep in mind, Zach, you have way too much going for you to
impregnate a teacher.”
I ignored her and drove off to meet Debbie at the show.
Debbie was waiting in front of Centennial Hall as I walked up from the free parking spot I found six blocks away. I had no interest in dropping $4.00 on the valet… although today, that seems completely reasonable. Meanwhile, Debbie had dressed up for the occasion, much differently than her usual school jeans and sweater. She was wearing an above-the-knee dress and a leather tank top with fringes angling from them. This was no high school girl…
Meanwhile, I wore Banana Republic jeans and my favorite striped shirt from a long extinct mall fashion store called Structure.
During the show, Debbie ‘accidentally’ grabbed my arm a few times as if we were watching a horror film like Nightmare on Elm Street. The thing was, the show wasn’t that scary… It also wasn’t that good.
It may have been the touring company, or the Centennial Hall acoustics, but I was lost for most of the performance. About the only thing I remember about it was that I was hiding a massive chubby in my pants and that New York Yankees pitcher Tommy John had a kid who was performing in the show… I thought that was pretty cool. (Taylor John RIP).
After it wrapped and we stood and applauded, Debbie suggested we walk around the university for a little bit. She actually asked me if I would be interested in getting a beer. I was 17. I rarely drank in high school, but I did have my stepbrother’s fake I.D. He was 5’9”. I was 6’2”. It only worked at one liquor store on Columbus Avenue where the clerk actually believed me when I told him I had, “A big growth spurt last summer.
“I could have one, I guess,” I said.
Debbie smiled and we walked over to U of A Liquors and she bought a six-pack of this relatively new beer called Icehouse.
Growing up in Tucson, you spend a lot of time drinking beer in the washes and deserts hidden off the sides of the streets. She found her little familiar spot where she liked to drink with her college friends and we drank and talked for quite a while… about my Hollywood dreams, our English class and movies we liked. Eventually, near the end of beer number two, she told me that she thought I have “it” and told me that she was confident that I will absolutely make it as a huge movie star.
She then leaned in and began kissing the side of my neck for roughly four seconds.
“Woah,” I said, pulling away and hiding my awkwardness behind a weird laugh.
“I…I…I’m so sorry!” She blurted out. “I thought you wanted this!”
Debbie turned deep red. My stomach twisted. That sinking feeling in the stomach where you just don’t know what the right words are.
“Look, I’m only 17, ya know?” I said.
She wasn’t comfortable. She began rocking back and forth.
“I’m so stupid, this was – this was so stupid,” she said.
“No, no, it’s fine – I just – I’m not sure it’s… right,” I said.
“You’re really sexy, Zach, you know that, right?”
“Uhmm, Thanks,” I said. “I mean, you’re sexy too but…”
And then we sat there in silence for close to ten minutes. Those awkward high school silences…
“Listen,” she said sometime later. “Can we please never tell anybody about this – especially Mrs. Kelly?” She said.
“I will never tell anybody,” I promised. Another five minutes of silence followed before I suggested it was time to call it a night.
As we made the walk back to my car, I began to feel somewhat guilty. I was sort of one of those high school make-out kings – the guy who always loved kissing almost more than anything else… I thought, that when we got to my car, I would grab her and kiss her – just to lift our self-esteem and make the night less disappointing and more epic… But when we got back to my Dodge… I just couldn’t do it.
I looked at her. She seemed confused. She seemed lost, most likely feeling guilty. I told her that Monday morning would be no different than any other day. I told her she shouldn’t worry and that I wouldn’t tell a soul. I thanked her for the ticket to Les Miz and I drove home and masturbated into my pillow.
25-years later, a big part of me wishes I would’ve had sex with her… This was the pre-internet world. Nobody would have cared. She would have not been able to ‘friend me’ on Facebook or post pictures of us in that wash posing with beers in the Tucson night… There would have been no mug shot… She probably had an apartment nearby the campus and life would have just rolled along so easily back then… My God, it would have been so simple to get away with it and I would have a killer story for my friends when I got to college…
Alas, the moment faded, much like my movie star dreams… and my adolescent fantasies. That following Monday morning in class was far less awkward for me than it was for her, although we never seemed to even acknowledge one another.
I recently typed Debbie’s name into Google and found out that she was newly divorced and a mother of three… She was in Scottsdale. She looked old.
It’s funny how life speeds up and people come and go from your lives – I often think back… What if we had fucked? Maybe she gets pregnant and I have a 26-year-old son in Scottsdale right now? Luckily, I don’t. Life is pretty fucking crazy.
I never saw Les Miz again.
I’m not sure if they still make Icehouse beer.
I haven’t smoked Mexi-shwag in decades.
But you’re God damned right I got an ‘A’ in Mrs. Kelly’s AP English class…
Please watch Zach’s NBA2k Vlog from New York City!
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…
It was somewhere between Los Angeles and Palm Springs when I found myself helping a woman re-apply bloody gauze to an open wound that had split open due to complications from liposuction in Tijuana.
Moments later, another woman – with a razor blade tattoo on the side of her neck – smacked her 7-year-old son for spilling his Mountain Dew on her iPhone and screamed something at him in Spanish.
Sometime after that, a man with an infant child walked out of the bathroom in the back and promptly dumped a full diaper in the trash bag hanging in the middle of the aisle.
We still had seven and a half hours until we hit Tucson…
Welcome to the Flixbus.
For the past few months, my mom and a bunch of other friends have been raving about a new public transportation service known as “The Flixbus.” For a low price, you can travel on this large “comfortable bus” anywhere you like and select from a great list of pre-chosen movies – and use free WiFi the entire time. I looked it up and it seemed legit. And definitely affordable. A ticket to San Diego from Los Angeles cost $4.99. A ticket to Palm Springs? $6.99… To get to my hometown of Tucson, I was looking at $22.00. Since Southwest Air wanted nearly $400 for two one way plane tickets, I booked my 9-year-old daughter and I on a 12:30 Flixbus to Tucson leaving from downtown LA.
Wanting to beat the crowd, my daughter and I took a Lyft down to the parking lot across from Union Station, right by LA’s famed “Twin Towers Correctional Facilities.” It’s an intimidating spot – heavily populated by at least five bail bond storefronts and street meat hot dog vendors. It’s hard not to take note of family members leaving the bail bond stores, openly weeping about their loved ones having spent the night in jail.
“Are they crying because they have to take the Flixbus too, daddy?” My daughter asked.
“Uhh, no. Whole different situation.”
I promptly took notice of the waiting area and its potential to escalate into a violent “prison yard” type of situation. A woman was walking around selling homemade “street tamales” out of a plastic bag, three 12-year-olds were selling bottles of water and packs of cigarettes and two men with children were openly sharing a blunt in front of their kids. (As would happen, I ended up buying two street tamales and a bottled water, as I had not thought to pack any food for the journey.)
I hadn’t even boarded the bus yet and I was $19 dollars in the hole.
The line to board the bus was non-existent. as Everybody sort of milled about near an area until the ticket conductor shouted out, “Palm Springs, Phoenix and Tucson line up HERE.”
The awaiting pack scrambled immediately. As people got tossed aside and trampled like they were rushing the stage of a Travis Scott show… Elbows were thrown. Space was cleared. Somehow, I managed to grab all of my luggage and scoop up my daughter before she was flattened to death. Sadly, even though we were the third people in the waiting area, we had been easily bullied to the back of the line by the violent mob, which was led by a 6’7” ex-linebacker wearing a baseball cap reading: K.U.S.H. Keeps Us Super High.
My advice? Pay the extra $20 online and get a reserved seat.
Once my daughter and I got on the bus, we noticed that any available seats together had been claimed. Eventually I was forced to convince a man who looked like he had recently been let out of a Texas prison to switch seats with me so that my daughter and I could sit together… He scoffed, kicked the side of the seat and mumbled something under his breath.
“Thank you so much, sir,” I said.
“I run this bus, cocksucker.”
Eventually he moved and we accepted the fact that we were stuck in the last seat in the back of the bus… basically right next to the toilet. And then, minutes before we left, a rather large woman came back and destroyed the bathroom… I nearly vomited. My daughter asked to switch seats. The bus pulled out into traffic.
Nine hours to Tucson.
The first thing people tell you about the Flixbus is that you can watch unlimited movies and surf the web, email, text, whatever you like. As it turns out this is simply not true. After trying for nearly an hour to watch Euphoria on HBO GO, I was alerted repeatedly with notes that I was in a “non-connection zone” and that I was possibly traveling “out of the continental United States.” I switched over to Netflix and was met with much of the same. Incredibly long loading times, spotty streaming and the inability to watch anything. After looking up the Flixbus website, I came across some small type in the “Services” section that read, “Please do not stream Netflix, YouTube or HBO Go on the Flixbus as it slows down everybody’s WiFi speeds and will not load correctly.”
Wow. That would have been nice to know. Oh, also? They DO NOT ALLOW MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS on the bus that are bigger than 12 inches… So unless you’re strictly a harmonica player, forget bringing your acoustic guitar anywhere. (Since I was going to play a gig in Tucson, I now had to rent a guitar from the local music shop).
Anyway, reading deeper, they recommended that passengers watch their curated film selections on the Flixbus app, which were “expertly chosen” and free. I checked it out. The selections were the same as what you’d expect on an airplane: Wonder Park, A Madea Family Funeral and about 9 shitty Melissa McCarthy movies.
Seven hours and 45 minutes to Tucson.
As we rattled over the freeways on the outskirts of Los Angeles, weaving in and out of the carpool lane, I was convinced I was going to die on the Flixbus. My daughter was getting carsick from the bumps and sudden stops and I could not believe that I had chosen this as my best means of transportation to Tucson…
The bus continued to shake from side to side, causing a middle-aged lady across the aisle from me to begin moaning. Like, painfully moaning. And grabbing her sides. Thinking that she may be in labor with a child, I looked over and noticed that she had a freshly dressed wound on the side of her mid-section. At one point, she screamed “Fucking FUCK, can you drive a little slower?”
“Are you OK ma’am?” I asked her, hoping she hadn’t been shot in a bank robbery gone wrong and was using the Flixbus as an escape tool.
“Uggh, yeah – I’m just recovering from plastic surgery,” she said.
“On the Flixbus?” I responded.
“Well, I live in Palm Springs,” she proceeded to tell me. “I went to Mexico for liposuction because it’s like, 75 percent cheaper down there.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “Didn’t you go through some sort of like, recovery first?”
“I’ll be fine once I get to Palm Springs.”
We hit a bump and she made a noise that I have only heard once before in my life back when I witnessed a goat slaughter in a tiny village in Mexico in 2003.
“Oh fuck,” she screamed. “One of my sutures popped – can you just hold your finger here for a second?.”
Shielding my daughter from the horror of this situation, I regrettably leaned over and put pressure on an area of bloodied gauze that had come undone. Eventually, the woman fastened it back together with a clip and thanked me profusely. I excused myself to the bathroom and threw ice cold water on my face.
30 minutes later the ride was smoothing out. Looking out the window I saw the desert approach.
“Folks we are stopping in North Palm Springs in eight minutes,” the driver announced. “We will have time to get refreshments and some air.”
“Thank fucking God,” the bleeding woman said.
We pulled into an AM/PM parking lot in Palm Springs and the lady limped off the bus and met her ride. She waved good-bye to me and sped off into the Palm Springs afternoon. For all I know she bled out on the way home and is dead.
The good news was that 12 passengers got off the bus in Palm Springs. This freed up some seats and we moved a few aisles away from the bathroom. The miles began to roll away and I started to fantasize that I was Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy taking the bus to a new dream, over expansive desert land and into the heart of opportunity. Of course, Jon Voight was heading to New York City in 1968 and I was going to Tucson to visit my mom, but the view sure was pretty.
20 minutes later, I opened up one of my tamales-in-a-bag and gave it a shot. It smelled like some sort of fucking rotting animal. A few passengers looked over at me and covered their faces with blankets and scarves. Acting casual, I took a small bite and chewed for a few seconds before beginning to feel violently ill. I managed to spit the food into a bag and quickly wrapped it up, avoiding the grossed out looks of my fellow Flixbus friends. Luckily, that was exactly the moment when the newborn’s father emerged from the bathroom with the full diaper. He tossed it in the center trash bag and the entire bus groaned and began cursing him out.
“What am I supposed to do?” The dad asked the gallery of hecklers.
“Flush that shit,” the guy in the K.U.S.H. hat suggested.
The driver came on the intercom and reminded everyone that nothing but toilet paper could go down the toilet. The passengers collectively groaned and went back to their devices. At this point, between the tamale and the diaper, the bus was turning toxic. If you lit a match in the thing, there was a strong chance the bus would explode.
Six hours to Tucson.
Our next stop was in Blythe, California, on the Arizona border. Here, we were given a 30 minute lunch period and the only restaurant around for miles was a McDonalds 25 feet away. Assuming this would be my last chance to eat before 9:30 that night, I broke down and ate six Chicken McNuggets and an Oreo McFlurry.
I also called my mom to alert her of our progress.
“How’s the Flixbus?” My mom asked. “Watching any good movies?”
“Well, nothing really works,” I said. “Half the seats don’t have outlets, the WiFi in the desert sucks and they don’t allow streaming… and I refuse to watch Life of the Party. (That’s a terrible Melissa McCarthy movie BTW…)
“What kind of food do they have?” She inquired.
“They don’t have food,” I said.
“What?” She said. “On their website it says you can purchase snacks and stuff from the driver?”
What? Here I was nearly puking street tamales and eating Chicken McNuggets when the driver had food on him the entire time? Why were we not informed of this? I tracked down the driver as he smoked a cigarette and asked him if I could see a menu of the food they offered on board.
“Their aint no menu, mane… We just have some Ruffles and shit.”
Ruffles and shit?
“Come on my man, you don’t have like a Tapas box? My daughter needs some Wiki Stix!”
“This aint Alaska Airlines, mane,” he responded.
Eventually, 100 miles from Phoenix, a college kid broke down and went into the bathroom to vape. He was far from discreet and as a man who once routinely snuck weed to smoke into airplane bathrooms, I viewed his efforts as amateurish. The key to smoking on a bus or airplane is to basically flush the toilet as you exhale with your face nearly in the bowl. Yeah, this is a disgusting activity, but for some reason back in the mid 90’s I had no problem shoving my head inside an airplane toilet. Now I can’t even USE bathrooms on moving vehicles. Anyway, the kid opened the door and a cloud of Watermelon E-Juice enveloped the back area. The kid walked out as if he had done nothing wrong.
The smoke was impossible to miss and even though it dissipated quickly, it really upset the bus driver, who pulled over to the side of I-10 and DEMANDED to know who had smoked on the bus.
My daughter raised her hand to volunteer the information.
“Put your hand down,” I said, knowing that being labeled a “narc” at age 9 doesn’t do anybody any good.
“Who was smoking back here?” The bus driver said. “I demand an answer!”
I expected somebody to speak up… but nobody did. We all held together in a Flixbus code of silence. Shit, we felt like we were in La Cosa Nostra. For the first time on the ride I sensed a camaraderie with my fellow passengers. We all sort of looked at it the same way… If this was a bus in 1957, people would be smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey from flasks. We all had the same thought… Let the kid vape.
Four and a half hours to Tucson.
The rest of the trip went fairly smoothly. I was amazed at how well behaved my daughter was and as the stops piled up, the passengers started getting off. A few people got on in Phoenix and we got to Tucson in roughly nine hours and 30 minutes. To put that in perspective, If you drive directly from LA in a car, you’re guaranteed to spend eight hours on the road and you have to buy gas. If you fly to Tucson from LAX, door to door takes about five hours and 30 minutes. So, I basically lost four hours of my life, had to endure some awful smells and I got to be an impromptu nurse to the woman recovering from plastic surgery.
When we got to my mom’s house, she had food and wine waiting for me and I told her all the fun stories from my 400 mile road trip in a public bus. We laughed, drank and I slept in until 8:30 the next morning when I awoke to my mom freaking out about a dead animal in the walls.
“Zach, some animal died in the wall I called the exterminator already,” she shrieked.
I woke up and smelled what she was talking about. I opened my backpack and found the OTHER street tamale I had forgotten to throw out buried beneath my laptop.
“Found it, mom,” I said.
She made me throw it out in the neighbor’s trash can…
WATCH Zach’s music video for his song “Watch the Horses”…
48 hours into a nine-day cruise on the Baltic Sea, I successfully traded a first season DVD of the TV show SMILF for a bottle of French wine.
About two weeks ago, my friend Dan asked me to help punch up some scripts for a new live music/theatrical show he was producing on the Lightdream Cruise Line – a ship that is the size of some small cities – with 4000 passengers aboard and over 1200 staff members… Always one for an adventure, I took the gig, fondly recalling the last time I was on a cruise back in high school… I bathed in crystal blue waters, ate unlimited five star food, seduced beautiful women and sipped tropical cocktails by the pool… I was hoping this would be the same thing.
Ehhh, not so much.
Following a 17-hour travel day, Dan, the show’s producer Mark and I boarded the ship in Brest, France. Following our long trip, I was craving a glass of red wine and some Netflix. We met our cruise liasion, Sarah, and she gave us the lay of the land…
“So where’s like, the best bar on the ship?” I asked.
“Oh honey, there’s no alcohol until we reach Copenhagen in four days,” she said.
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Yep. And all the restaurants are closed. Oh, and be aware that there’s no internet or facilities open now… This is called ‘Dry Dock.’”
“And where can I jump overboard?”
As I contemplated learning how to make “toilet merlot” in my cabin, I got the rundown on what exactly “Dry-Dock” is.
“Dry-Dock” is when the ship is being refurbished, rebuilt and cleaned. For weeks, it is in a state of disrepair and thousands of contractors from over 50 countries tear up carpets, put up stages and gather for their three meals a day in the makeshift dining room. People are monitored, allowed 45 minute meal windows, told to avoid sexual contact, can be kicked off board if they have weapons or contraband and nobody is allowed off the ship once they are on…
Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s because it sounds exactly like prison.
If I was going to write a Yelp review about the makeshift dining room where we were forced to eat, I would describe it as “Just a cut below Cracker Barrel…with all the ambience of a shopping mall Red Robin.”
Still, it was our only option and Dan, Mark and I became our own little prison gang, talking under our breaths about Broadway shows and musical theater as massive Scottish, Irish and Croatian guys cursed in their own languages, swallowed gallons of coffee and made us feel like we had to kick one of their asses to establish our dominance in the jail yard…
“I guarantee you we’re the only guys in this dining room right now discussing The Greatest Showman,” Mark said.
The food was constantly recycled and turned into a “new dish” the following day. For instance, the leftover “Breaded Chicken and Peppers” from the night before suddenly showed up again the next morning in the “Breaded Chicken Veggie Scramble.” At one point, I counted four meals in a row featuring a fish called branzino.
One day in the slop line, I chatted up one particularly nice Irish pipe-fitter named Lochlin as we were served what was being passed off as “Lamb Stew.”
“Hey man – where’s the booze on this ship?” I whispered. “Somebody’s gotta have something?”
“Booze? You gotta cohme to Deck One,” he replied in a thick brogue. “We smahggled in everything… booze, dihrty mags, DVD’s.”
And just like that, my trip was saved.
“Wait – why do you have DVDs?” I inquired.
“Shite – with no intehrnet – DVD’s are our only fohrm of entertainment. They’re in high demahnd… Unless you have a thumb drive with pornahgraphy on it – that’s what everybady wants.”
He wasn’t lying. As it turns out, thumb drives with porn on them were traded among the contractors like cigarettes at Riker’s Island. If I could only download my weekly browsing history on Redtube.com, I’d be a very rich man.
“So how much are DVD’s worth?” I asked.
“Depends,” he said. “I just traded seahson one of Stranger Things for four pahcks of smokes… it was fookin’ brahlliant.”
It was then that I remembered I had a few DVD’s with me in my backpack. With any luck, I’d have something valuable on me… I also had a thumb drive that, if I recalled correctly, had Toy Story 3 on it from a family trip a few years back. I ran to my cabin to assess my stash.
In my bag, I had brought DVD’s of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Why I had this I have no idea.) Major League and Major League 2 (Research for a baseball comedy I was writing) and the first season DVD screener of the Showtime TV show SMILF – about a single mom who dates the wrong guys in Boston. It didn’t look very good, but the actress was hot. (I was sent the screener by the Emmy nominating committee, fyi).
I then checked my thumb drive, for Toy Story 3. It was gone. The only thing on it was my latest acting “demo reel.”
That night, Dan and I went downstairs to Deck One to see if we could get our hands on anything… a sip of wine, a beer… something to take away the endless jet lag and long nights of rehearsal.
Lochlin vouched for us – and the DVD’s were thrown on a table. About nine guys came and glanced at them, seeing if any of these films seemed appealing. Sadly, nobody was interested in Benjamin Button or the Major League movies.
“The Benjamin Button movie is too sad and we all fookin hate bahseball,” Lochlin informed me.
SMILF however, had some people intrigued. They wanted to know if the girl got naked, had any sex scenes, if it was funny, etc. I told them I wasn’t sure because I hadn’t watched it yet, but a small bidding war began.
One guy offered up a German porn magazine and two Heinekens. A Croatian guy said he had two packs of cigarettes and homemade Rakia – some type of homemade alcohol. Finally, Lochlin offered me a bottle of Bordeaux he had paid a Phillipino busboy 5 euros to smuggle on.
Lochlin took me to the bowels of the ship. These were the DiCaprio cabins from Titanic and the party going on down there was exactly what you think it would be. A guy was DJ-ing off a laptop, people were dancing and drinking… and there was even a guy giving makeshift haircuts using what I would refer to as my “pube clippers.”
In Lochlin’s room, he showed me how he and four other guys slept in the same room and shared a “Shoilet” – which is a combination of a shower and a toilet. I looked in the bathroom and nearly had a panic attack. These guys were living like pirates in the 1700’s but without barrels of rum, wenches and chests of gold.
He also told me the ship’s morgue was only two doors down the hall.
“The morgue?” I cringed. “For what?”
“About ten fuckers a year die on this ship,” he said. “Someone will prahbably die before we set sail tomorrow.”
I urgently prodded Lochlin to produce the wine and I swiftly stuck it in my bag. I also noticed a couple of other bottles in his room as well. With two more days until Copenhagen, I offered up my thumb drive for another one.
“OK, look my friend – I’m actually an actor – on this drive is a three minute demo reel of a bunch of TV shows and movies I’ve been in… it aint much, but maybe worth at least a glass of wine?”
“Hmmm, “he said, actually contemplating the trade. “What mowvies have you been in?”
“Uhmm… A couple Disney shows, a Jim Gaffigan movie … I dunno – nothing you’ve probably ever seen…”
“Fuck that, Ill just take SMILF.”
I handed it over to him, and with that, I had my hands on a mediocre bottle of French Bordeaux.
Dan, Mark and I savored every pour of that wine that evening. As we giddily went off to bed, hoping to finally have a decent night’s sleep, we passed three contractors casually walking from the top deck somehow holding six beers in their hands.
“Woah, what the fuck?” Dan said. “Where’d you guys get that?”
“At the contractor bar upstairs,” the guy said.
What? A contractor bar? We ran up and caught the last five minutes of a ship regulated “pop-up bar” for the workers. It had been here the whole time and nobody had told us. As it turns out, all of the ship contractors were allowed to come to this bar for a two hour drink window… It was like when the caddies are allowed an hour in the swimming pool in Caddyshack.
Beers were $1.00 and a mini bottle of wine was $1.75. Mark bought the entire bar a round for $14.50.
The following night we were back up with the contractors, who were amazed that a couple of Americans had actually gone down to Deck One and made a wine deal with a Irish guy. One guy from Warsaw informed me that I had been ripped off. He would have given me three bottles of wine for SMILF.
We finally sailed towards Copenhagen and I was reminded of how beautiful the world can be outside of Los Angeles. The contractors left and the passengers got onboard and the drinks flowed and a lot of overweight older couples explored the ship and bought things that nobody in their right mind should ever buy.
At an onboard art auction, I watched two 75-year-old women violently bid on a 72 x 36 painting of a unicorn walking through Times Square… The lucky winner paid $2875 dollars for it.
Meanwhile, the cruise sailed on. We helped establish the flow and structure of the show. After a few days, you start to learn a lot from cruise employees. Most of them are on board for nine months at a time, and many of them are running from some dark, hidden past. It’s almost like the porn industry mixed with hotel management… Which often leads to bad decisions.
Sarah explained it further.
“Everybody sleeps together at first,” she said. “But then you realize you’re gonna have to see them every day for nine months. One night you have sex, the next day you’re fighting over the last box of Frosted Flakes in the buffet.”
“So I’m guessing you’ve stopped sailing your boat in company waters?” I joked.
“No way,” she said. “I banged a sushi chef last year.”
Another thing about cruise employees is that they are obviously extremely removed from current pop culture. At one point, Sarah told me that her favorite film of the past five years was “That amazing Ben Affleck move The Accountant.”
“You have to get off this ship,” I said.
The final night of the cruise and our show was up and running. I had befriended a bunch of new people and watched the show come together. One of the stage directors actually told me that I’d make a great cruise employee as I enjoyed talking to everybody and having a good time.
“I’m flattered, man – but I gotta get back to my family,” I said.
“Oh, you’re one of them…” he said with a sense of disappointment.
I had just been “Family Shamed” by a cruise ship employee.
He apologized for the way he reacted and just said he didn’t know a lot of people who were married with children. I told him not to worry about it and we wrapped up the show for the night.
He then excused himself and went to the shoilet…
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