I live about a mile from the building that was once the famous swing dance club known as “the Derby.” In the mid-late 90’s, when the swing music revolution twirled its way across the streets of Los Angeles and turned regular farm boys from the Midwest into Rat Pack wannabes, “the Derby” was the swing club to frequent.
In 1996, Jon Favreau was so inspired, he made a pretty great film about it called Swingers and suddenly star Vince Vaughn had the entire town looking for “beautiful babies” and saying that everything was “money.” I passed a bootleg VHS tape of the film around my college friends and soon fell in hook, line and sinker. After graduation, I dove head first into the post-Swingers madness that raised dirty martinis all over Hollywood. Lines formed around the Hillhurst/Los Feliz street corner where the Derby resided awaiting entrance into the ultimate haven of swing-cool.
I owned 15 bowling shirts, white “creeper” shoes, Cadillac-emblazoned pants, shoulder-pad heavy sport coats, a flask, three Big Bad Voodoo Daddy CDs and a t-shirt that said “It’s Frank’s World, Were all Just Living in It.” I went to Las Vegas monthly, drank gin and tonics and swept my hair up into a James Dean-inspired pompadour. I remember feeling so confident that my “swinger” image would live with me for the rest of my days, I traveled to New York City around 1999 and searched out underground West Village swing clubs to show Manhattan that a “Real Life Hollywood Swinger” was in their presence. Somehow the façade worked and after ringing up a $290 credit card bill, I managed to make out with a girl named ‘Kitty’ who had a Stray Cats tattoo on her shoulder before retiring to her floor mattress in Brooklyn where she woke up six times during the night to smoke Marlboro Reds.
It was all because of Swingers.
And then, about five years ago, it was announced that the Derby was going to be transformed into a Chase Bank. The bar where I spent my early 20’s was suddenly going to be a place where I would curse the teller for charging me a checking account fee… The club where I once dated the hottest bartender in town was turning into a place where a gal named Evelyn would inform me my mortgage was ten days late. When I heard the news, I knew this was not good. The Derby? I thought… A bank? WWJFD? (What Would Jon Favreau Do?)
Turns out, Favreau had bigger fish to fry. Even though he could have easily bought the Derby and used it to store his Iron Man memorabilia, he ignored my twitter plea for him to buy the bar and turn it into a museum. I’m sure Vince Vaughn most likely drank at “Mess Hall,” the restaurant next door, toasting the ghosts of the barroom that made him a movie star… but he was also too busy and uninspired to save the bar. I even tweeted actor Patrick Van Horn, who played SUE in the film. He at least took the time to write me back by quipping “End of an Era.”
A week before the Derby was to be gutted, I gathered my old “Swinger buddies,” – now dads who had traded in slick sport coats and suspenders for Old Navy hoodies – and we poured out some gin for Favreau and Vaughn, for Sinatra, for dirty martinis, for the incredible wooden Derby ceiling, for the memories we had shared at the bar and for the debauched nights spent watching amazing swing bands like Royal Crown Revue sing “walk right in, walk right out…”
We even quoted the movie a few more times to make sure we still knew all the classic lines. “Get there…” “This place is deaaad anyway…” “He’s all growns up… I would never eat here.” “You’re the fun-loving out going party guy, and you’re sweating some lawn jockey?” The night went on and on.
As the evening died down, we all retired a lot earlier than we had in the late 90’s and excused ourselves back to our families. The next week, the Chase Bank transformation had begun and the last remaining memories of my first few years out of college were carried out and discarded.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in line at the Chase, staring up at the exact same wooden ceiling that I had spun girls beneath in the past. The ceiling beneath which I had done shots of Crown Royal a hundred times. The ceiling that watched over me as I tried to find assimilation with a unique sect of people during those weird times when you’re not yet quite sure who you were – who you are – or where you are going.
I got up to the bank teller and deposited my meager check, taking a moment to remark that this building was once my one-time favorite nightclub.
Without making eye-contact she mumbled, “Yep, every one of you middle-aged guys who comes in here has the same story.”
“Fuck off,” I whispered under my breath.
I took another glance at the ceiling and thought of the days gone by. Hollywood is forever a town of transformation. Very few restaurants and bars make it ten years… hence the stories you read about now defunct clubs like The Trip, The Cathouse and Gazzari’s that were the most happening places to be. In my life, the Derby was certainly my place. The place where I was part of a nationwide fad that engulfed my youth when I was a mere lump of clay awaiting to be molded into the lump of Play-Doh I am these days.
As I looked down at my bank receipt and realized how far this journey in Hollywood had taken me, I thought of the dreams I had at age 22 that were still somewhat unrealized. When places that mean so much to you as a kid disappear, you fail to immediately recognize that they will be gone for good and the memories will fade or melt into new ones until all you have left are a few photographs and some journal entries. I look back at my two years as a pseudo-swinger as important remembrances that I will take with me through all of my life. At the time I thought I’d be 22 forever, twirling cute tattooed ladies across slick wooden floors only pausing to sip drinks and wipe the sweat from our brows. I never thought I’d be 40-years-old and in the exact same room looking down at a bank statement stressing about the fact that I barely had enough money that week to cover my DWP bill.
Again, my thoughts turned to Jon Favreau. As the worlds most in demand director, he probably never imagined he would achieve the level of success he has back when he was simply searching for familiarity amongst the Hollywood night-crawlers of the mid 90’s. I reached back out to my old swinger buddies and arranged another drinking night to sit back and reminisce about the Derby days gone by, and we all agreed to get together on a following Tuesday night.
Of course, by Monday morning, everybody had flaked and the plans were cancelled so we could spend some time with our families. We all agreed to try again later, and I thought about how a little piece of all of us died the day the Derby did…
And a part of me knew, that somewhere, high up in those Malibu Hills, Jon Favreau was feeling the same thing…
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I had been at the Great Wolf Lodge for roughly an hour when a drunk and angry ex-firefighter threatened to kick my ass at the indoor water park. He was pissed off at me for disrespecting the “sanctity” of the Great Wolf Lodge… I am 100 percent serious. Let me start at the beginning…
Spring Break. These are two of the most beautiful words in the English language… if you are a child. To parents, these words concur up feeling of hopelessness, anguish and despair. And for some reason? Today’s elementary school kids get two whole weeks off for “Spring Break…” TWO WEEKS! When I was a kid we got TWO DAYS. In college we only got a week. And as far as I recall, it wasn’t even a thing in high school.
But sure… the rigorous schedule of counting, handwriting and connect the dots can be so gruesome and torturous for a second grader – that a two-week vacation at the end of March is exactly what the school nurse ordered… So, if you’re like me, you suddenly begin scrambling to find activities for your kids to do during this gratuitous vacation. So, you make plans…
You drop $75.00 to go see shitty movies like Sherlock Gnomes.
You gain 12 pounds by not being able to go to the gym on your regular schedule. And, in some extreme cases, you agree to take your kids to the GREAT WOLF LODGE for two days…
Which is exactly where I found myself last week, riddled with anxiety as I nibbled on a chicken finger ten feet from a wave pool full of screaming children. Praying for death.
If you have never heard of a Great Wolf Lodge, let me put it this way… Consider yourself lucky. With 13 locations across the country, the kid-friendly indoor water park is to people like me the end of the fucking world. Known for its indoor water park and “wolf-themed” decor, the franchise has drawn families from far and wide to spend their entire monthly paychecks on shitty food, arcade games and the guarantee that you will contract the Norovirus within three spins in the “Lazy River.”
I mumbled something under my breath as I loaded the car, preparing to journey down to the hotel with my wife, our second grade girl and my very unenthusiastic pre-teen who was pissed because he was missing roughly 48 hours of the video game Fortnite.
The drive down was actually somewhat exciting. I was anticipating the water park summer days of my youth, when I met a cute girl in line at the snack bar, chatted up an 8th grade crush and passed a Sony Walkman around with my buddies listening to Straight Outta Compton. Those days were nothing but innocent and fun… and I was hoping my kids might make some amazing memories of their own…
When we arrived, however, my entire demeanor changed. After looking for a space in the self-parking garage for 30 minutes, I was met with the sudden reality that there were a lot of people here during Spring Break. I mean, a lot of people. Like, thousands. And all of them had kids. Small, sweaty, stinky, gross, fat, weird, uninhibited kids…
My first moment of clarity happened when I was presented with a pair of felt “wolf ears” as I entered the lobby.
“HOWL you doing today!?” A bubbly 20-something dude named Bryan asked.
“PAW-SOME!!!” I responded sarcastically.
“Woah! Someone’s got the Great Wolf spirit!” He screamed. “AWWOOOOOOOO!”
I looked around at the hundred of fathers traipsing through the lobby wearing these ridiculous wolf ears… The looks on their faces all read the same: FAILURE.
There is a certain look a man knows when he runs into another man at a place like the Great Wolf Lodge. It is a look of defeat. Of mediocrity. Of deficiency. Like we all expected to be the dads who take our kids in Hawaii or something, but ended up at the Great Wolf Lodge in Anaheim. I recognized this look on every man’s face I encountered.
We checked in and got to our suite, which we were sharing with another family we knew from from LA. Everyone changed into bathing suits to go hit the indoor water park. A small part of me was hoping it would be a fun day, and after all, as long as they had a jacuzzi I figured I could kill a few hours relaxing and hanging out with strangers.
There was no jacuzzi.
And the water park was massive. And loud. And it smelled like feet.
“Daddy! Come in the lazy river with me!” My daughter squealed.
I took a deep breath and stood up. I took off my shirt and walked over towards the lazy river. The first thing I noticed about the water park was that somehow, I had THE BEST BODY THERE.
In my 42 years, I have never been the “ripped” guy at the pool. Ever. Even when I was 18 I had the beginnings of a dad bod and now, at my age, I had been keeping trim and eating well to the point where at the Great Wolf Lodge in Anaheim, California, I was a SWIMSUIT MODEL. Seriously. I was 30 pounds lighter than the average man. My wife, who has always been in terrific shape looked like Hannah Jeter posing for Sports Illustrated. We were “Anaheim 10’s…” and pretty proud of it.
As I strutted around my new Adonis-like physique, I watched as my daughter slowly dipped into the lazy river among what seemed like hundreds of other kids. I put my leg in, noticed it was much colder than I had anticipated, and began walking around the river behind her.
And then some kid’s fleshy leg rubbed up against mine under the water. I froze. It was like in Star Wars when that Dianoga Monster rubs up against Luke in the trash compactor. A gross little bare human leg rubbing against my inner calf. I stopped to gather myself. I felt like a part of the #metoo movement. I was rattled… And then another kid wrapped himself around my chest for support as he floated by… I shuttered. Looking around, I suddenly became keenly aware of little yellow swirls of urine accumulating in certain areas. I also counted three loose Band-Aids and numerous clumps of hair floating in the water. A few more kids hit me with inner tubes as they raced by and finally, when a little girl wiped her snot off of her face and tossed it into the water beside me, my afternoon at the water park was OVER.
“Baby, I’m getting out,” I yelled as she floated down the river.
Her frown broke my heart, but the place was already too much for me. I was done. I had been at the Great Wolf Lodge for less than an hour.
After drying off, I noticed the small line of men waiting for beer. I grabbed my “Wolf Band” which had my credit card and room number on it, and bought my first beer of the day. It was 3:30, but if I was going to get through this place, a buzz was certainly needed. Looking around, I noticed that day-drinking was certainly the norm here, like the way it is in airports when people order beers at 7:00 in the morning and nobody thinks twice about it.
After paying, I turned around, noticing three men behind me waiting for drinks. Two of them had “Lakeland County Fire Department” shirts on. The other was shirtless, proudly showing off a fading Tazmanian Devil tattoo from the early 90’s… I toasted the guys with my beer.
“Gentlemen,” I said. “What happened to us? We were all once virile men… with dreams, passions, desires… goals. NOW? We’re on vacation at the fucking Great Wolf Lodge. What the fuck, am I right!!?”
Suddenly, the shirtless man took a threatening step my way and got directly in my face.
“Are you disrespecting the LODGE, bro?” He asked in an accusatory way.
I wasn’t sure if he was serious. I laughed.
“Sounds like you are,” he continued aggressively, the vapor of liquor prominent on his breath. I felt scared. I backpedaled.
“No, man.. I was just, you know – joking-“
I was taken aback. If I said the wrong thing here, there is no doubt in my mind that this guy would start throwing punches. And whereas a pool fight might be the perfect excuse to get banned from the Great Wolf Lodge forever, I decided to lay off. Meanwhile, his friends tried to calm him down.
“Don’t get into another fight, Jim,” his friend told him.
Another fight? Holy shit… this guy Jim was out here kicking dad’s asses all day.
“No, man, I was just joking around, you know…” I mumbled.
“No, I don’t know, bro,” he said. “I’m a retired firefighter… I don’t back down from shit.”
And then, suddenly, there was an extremely loud wolf howl coming from the wave pool – This was the signal to swimmers that a fresh set of waves was about to begin… 200 kids screamed in delight as the call of the wolf echoed through the waterpark.
“Ohhhh shit, what’s that?” I asked the guys.
“That means the waves are starting up…” Jim said. “That’s the call of the Lodge, bro… you better embrace your inner wolf… because like it or not? You made the decision to come here.”
He was right. I could make the most of this experience and embrace my inner wolf… or make myself suffer.
“Hey man, I’m sorry – it’s my first time here… I was just making a bad joke…”
Jim calmed down. His whole demeanor changed and he became aware that he was not in the octagon, but was at the Great Wolf Lodge. If he had wanted to kick my ass, he would have… but my honesty seemed to have chilled him out.
“Screw it,” he said. “Sorry to get up in your face, bro… come on, I’ll buy you a beer.”
Jim and his pals bought me another beer and I returned back to our deck chairs and told the story to my wife and her friend. They weren’t interested. They were concerned about something much more important.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Apparently, another mom had just told my wife that Pink Eye was going around the lodge that weekend… The woman’s two kids had been infected on the water slide and her husband was in the hotel room with his eyes swollen shut.
“Welp, I’m fucking out of here,” I said.
I took my beer upstairs and went to the bar to watch a baseball game. As I walked back through the water park, I began observing a few things.
I never realized how many adults have tattoos of their children’s baby footprints.
I had no idea that BIG DOGS Clothing was still a thing. There were also a lot of “Exercise…Eggsercise…Eggs are sides… Eggs are sides for Bacon” t-shirts and ‘water pun’ shirts. Like a picture of a snail holding up a seashell to his face beneath the words “SHELL-FIE!”
Finally, the majority of these adults seemed fine eating garbage for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One dad in line at the snack bar even highly recommended the pork nachos.
I thought we were in Anaheim. Somehow we ended up in Wisconsin.
Upstairs, I found a few other dads watching the Dodgers game. I made some new friends – including a pest control guy from Alhambra and a Target general manager from Riverside. We drank a few beers and talked baseball. As a way to make my new pals laugh, I recognized Bryan, the same guy who had checked me in earlier, eating on his lunch break. I approached him.
“Hey Bryan, quick question… do they have a Great Wolf Glory Hole up in this piece?”
The bar got silent. My new pals hid their laughter. Bryan did not seem amused. Within 30 seconds the bar manager tapped me on the shoulder.
“Just a reminder, sir…” He warned. “This is the Great Wolf Lodge… not the Great Wolf of Wall Street Lodge.”
My afternoon concluded in the arcade, where the kids have given up on video games requiring any sort of skill in favor of games where you spin a wheel,… and win tickets. It’s not even a challenge. It’s just a prize wheel. When I arrived, I found my daughter hoarding what looked like 15,000 prize tickets.
“I’m saving up for the stuffed wolf!” She said. I saw the wolf on the wall. At any CVS store across the country, this dumb little stuffed animal would cost $3.99. My wife told me they had already spent $60.00 trying to win it. I went back to the bar.
That night, after ordering pizza to our room, my wife and I shared some wine as the kids fell asleep. At that moment, we heard a rustling in the hallway. Peeking outside, I noticed two security guards dragging a very drunk man from his room.
“How long has he been drinking today?” They asked his wife, who looked terrified.
“Since brunch, I think,” she said.
“We’ll take him to the first aid area and get him some fluids… We’ll check back in 30 minutes.”
I asked the lady what had happened.
“It’s just my dumb husband… every time we come to this place he gets blackout drunk.”
“That makes two of us,” I said, raising my wine glass.
She shut her door on me.
The next day we were set to check out. I was excited to get home and back outside – as we had been indoors for roughly 18 hours straight. The Great Wolf Lodge is like fucking Vegas in that way. You have no reason to ever leave the place… I started packing and preparing to head back to LA.
“Wanna meet us at the pool?” My wife said.
“We’re not leaving?” I said.
“I figured the kids would want another day at the pool,” she said. “I mean we paid for it.”
And just like that, we did a second day at the water park. At this point I officially gave up. I began day-drinking at 11:00. I howled every time that dumb wolf noise started in the wave pool. I contemplated buying a Great Wolf Lodge t-shirt in the gift shop that was on sale from Halloween (Or as they put it… HOWL-ween…)
Deep down I knew that finally, I had reluctantly embraced my inner wolf.
I looked around the pool again. I was a little bloated from the first day and slightly hungover. I was no longer had the best body there. I was one day into my “Midwest” period.
I went over to our deck chairs and ordered the pork nachos…
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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…
This morning I drove past two skinny homeless men with multiple missing teeth who were smoking cigarettes before nearly running over a mangy stray dog panting in the street. I made a left turn at the Hustler Hollywood store, narrowly averting a woman who was squatting and urinating into a discarded water bottle. I eventually parked and walked around my car, side-stepping two discarded needles some dog crap and a used condom. I dodged a speeding Hyundai that was being driven by a dude vaping and texting at the same time before opening the passenger door… and helping my kid get out of the car.
“Ready for school?” I asked.
Welcome to Hollywood.
I was raised in a peaceful, quiet corner of the desert where coyotes and jumping cholla cacti were my biggest fears while walking to school. I didn’t see a homeless man until I was about 13. Hustler was a magazine that only prisoners and truckers read and needles were something only a doctor could get a hold of. Yesterday, my son asked me why the guy who lives in the dumpster across the street from his carpool pick-up lane is always shouting, “Ho ass bitch” while shuffling down Selma Avenue.
I am raising my children in Gomorrah and it’s starting to freak me the fuck out.
This school year, my son’s entire fifth grade class was moved to a new school campus – about 10 blocks north of the previous campus where they had been since kindergarten. The new campus is on Selma Avenue and is a stone’s throw from the Hollywood YMCA. It’s also a block south of Hollywood Boulevard, nearly 10 medical marijuana dispensaries, six seedy bars, smoke shops, two run-down hotels, a vintage street clock that has been permanently set to 4:20 and about nine tattoo parlors.
Back in my 20’s, when I was stumbling out of the bar Boardner’s (a block away from the school on Cherokee), I could never imagine that someday my son would be taking “Beginner Spanish” 50 yards from where I once puked after a night of Vodka – Red Bulls. I never thought I’d be raising my kids anywhere but some pristine little tucked away school with manicured lawns and open fields and morning sing-a-longs. Little did I know that barbed wire fences, metal detectors and cement soccer fields were going to be the norm for my children…
At a back-to-school meet and greet two weeks after the first day, some other parents expressed their concerns as well.
“We just don’t like the way the school feels,” an angry parent offered.
“We are striving to make everybody comfortable,” the principal, a 40-something man named Reggie replied.
“It’s hard to be comfortable when I smell marijuana every day when I drop my kid off,” another mom piped up.
Hollywood has changed immensely since the rundown 1990’s. Tourism is up, souvenir stores are making great money and people from all over the world are still traveling here to take photos of the sidewalk where an actor’s name is etched into a star. Of course, when the tourists come, so do the hustlers. You’ve seen them selling rap CD’s, trying to get you to take the TMZ Tour and drunkenly swaying into your photos while dressed up in a piss-stained Spider-Man costume demanding five dollars.
Look, my high school was no picnic. I witnessed a shooting, a lot of fights and certainly saw my share of LSD and dirt weed from Mexico, but I was in high school… Not fifth grade. Being raised in the desert certainly shaded me from the inner city realities of gang-ridden America, but I was also lucky enough to travel to places like New York and LA to see how other kids were growing up. Ultimately, their fast-paced lives had a strong effect on me because I headed for college in Los Angeles the minute I turned 18. Thinking back about my childhood dreams, I turned my son one day after school.
“Hey dude, where do you want to live when you grow up?” I asked him.
“Probably the beach… or New York I guess.”
Obviously he hadn’t thought this one out. Not me. By the time I was ten, I had it narrowed down to Los Angeles and Los Angeles.
My son is also already planning out his first tattoo, based on a conversation we had last week. After pouring over NBA star Brandon Ingram’s arms as we were watching a basketball game, he asked me a question.
“Dad, if you could get a tattoo, what would you get?”
“Oh wow, I dunno – probably your name and your sister’s name,” I said. “Something small and hidden and meaningful.”
“I’d probably get Savage in cursive across my eyebrow,” he said.
“You’re not getting a tattoo,” I told him.
“Why not? All the sickest rappers have face tattoos now…”
As we listened to my kid’s Spotify playlist, I heard no less than ten “N-Bombs”, three songs about abusing Xanax, Percocet and Molly and over ten about Gucci, 80,000 dollar watches and ‘Lambos. Every song featured sound effects like “Skrrr” for a cool car or “Skrrrrratatatatata” to mimic an assault rifle peppering an enemy with bullets… Look, I love rap music. I chased a rap career myself at one point… but no 5th grader should be asking his dad what Codeine, Mountain Dew and Jolly Ranchers taste like together.
Alas, the reality of this situation is that I can’t afford to shell out 35,000 dollars to private academies like Campbell Hall or Oakwood… Although from what I remember from college – most of the heaviest partiers came out of these schools. Which gives me some hope… And truthfully, other than the dead guy who was wheeled away from the apartment down the block last week, the school is fun, diverse and growing and I’m actually proud to be a part of the community.
So, as the years roll along, I’ll just have to deal with the syringes, homeless guys and Hustler Hollywood foot traffic for a few more years until junior high. Luckily, that campus is located downtown in a much more secure location…
It’s across the street from an outpatient clinic for opioid addicts…
My wife and I received an Air BNB request online two weeks ago… It read as follows:
We’re five guys from Germany who don’t do drugs. We are excited to visit LA and really enjoy clubs and West Hollywood.
“What do you think, babe?” My wife asked me. “Should we accept their request?”
“I dunno,” I responded. “Five guys? Clubs? West Hollywood? Sounds like we’re inviting a bunch of Europeans over for a Bacchanalian orgy.”
“You’re an idiot,” she said. “They seem nice AND they said they don’t do drugs.”
“When you have to tell people you don’t do drugs, it means you definitely do drugs.”
“I’m approving them. We can always charge them if they mess anything up.”
I don’t know if I am the only one whose mind works like this, but when I hear that a crew of 25-year-old German dudes want to “go to clubs and enjoy West Hollywood,” I immediately think of that scene in Wolf of Wall Street when Jordan Belfort waltzes into his apartment early from a business trip and finds 25 guys sucking each other off on his $50,000 couches.
When you “Air BNB” your house out, you can’t help but formulate some concerns. We have rented to people of all sexual orientations and we are not bothered by any of it, however, in the six years that we have been doing this, I still haven’t come to terms with the fact that at some point, two strangers from Idaho fucked in our bed the night after they took their kids to Universal Studios.
My wife and I have been Air BNB’ing as long as it has been approved in Los Angeles. We own our house, travel often and don’t stress out when a family of four comes to LA and wants to rent our place for the week. We are often out of town during these times and for years most of our vacations have pretty much been paid for.
When we first began doing this, we rented our place to some younger twenty-somethings and their abhorrent treatment of our property became a serious issue. One six-person rock band from Brooklyn decided that our couch cushions would make fine ashtrays. Following another rental, three bachelorettes from Colorado accidentally left two dildos in my 9-year-old son’s bedroom.
After that, we decided that our home would be rented to families only.
But then we had the request from the five guys from Germany. Since we were going to be out of town that week and we didn’t have any other requests, it seemed like a safe option. Not only that, but the money we would get for the week would sure help us pay some badly overdue bills.
“Fine,” I told my wife. “But if our place gets wrecked that’s on you.”
We traveled to Tucson to visit my mom for a week and asked our dear friend Lauren to help check them in as they arrived. She called us that night with some interesting news.
“They seem sweet,” she said. “It’s weird though… all of them shave their legs.”
“Told ya, they’re male escorts,” I blurted.
“Shut up… maybe they’re like, on a swim team or something,” my wife offered.
“Well, they’re all in their early to mid 20’s,” Lauren relayed. “Good looking guys… but they are using one of your potted plants to put their cigarettes out in.”
500 miles away, I decided to just let it be. There wasn’t much to worry about. I had hidden my guitars in the basement, my vinyl collection was labeled off-limits (A 6-year-old had ruined a treasured Dire Straits LP I had left on the turntable a couple of years earlier) and we had a grand total of $32.16 in cash in the house. My wife’s jewelry was locked away in her closet and about the only valuable thing in our home was a shoe San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker had given me about 13 years ago… So what if they shaved their legs and smoked? Outta sight outta mind… We spent the week in Tucson hanging with my mom.
When we got back to our house on Saturday night, we anticipated the place would appear like it always does post Air BNB… Most people do their best to tidy up, take out trash, re-set furniture and clean out their leftovers from the fridge.
Upon entering our house, the first thing I noticed was that the entire place smelled like Axe Body Spray. Like, the entire house. Every room, every hallway, every bathroom… It had a post 9-keg fraternity party eminence to it.
When a toilet paper roll was finished, rather than replace the roll on the dispenser, they managed to just toss the empty cylinder behind the toilet.
We pride our house on our “Kids Art Wall” where we encourage guests to add to the collection. Over the years, dozens of kids have contributed drawings to the wall and it’s a fantastic little abstract collection of developing artistic minds across the world.
Needless to say, these guys didn’t add anything to the art wall.
They also did not bother to turn off any light in the house.
Nor did they take out the trash… at all. In our backyard, stuffed in about 25 paper grocery bags, resided the ruins of their week… hundreds of beer bottles, countless empty boxes of cigarettes, discarded Red Bull cans and bottles of Starbucks Double Shot Cappuccinos. There were over a dozen empty pizza boxes from three different delivery joints nearby and nine discarded Jack Daniel’s bottles… Not to mention the new cigarette butt succulent plant they had crafted. Maybe they didn’t do drugs, but these guys fucking partied.
According to my calculations… and to the grocery store receipts I found in one of the random trash bags, these guys lived on beer, cigarettes, pizza, energy drinks and coffee for five days. That was it. There was NO sign anywhere that a single meal other than pizza had been consumed. There was, however, one ominous item listed on a grocery store receipt from Thursday: MAYONNAISE.
“What do you think they bought mayonnaise for?” I yelled to my wife across the house.
“Uggh, there are shaved pubes in the sink!” she responded.
As I went around the house opening every window to air it out, I could only imagine what kind of debauchery these Euro-bros got into in our house. Was there any freaky sex? Any late night drug use? Did they jack-off in every room? After finding a piece of pizza jammed in our pool filter, my wife panicked, called our cleaning lady and told her she would have to work a double shift the next day. After finding an empty carton of cigarettes that said “Smoking Kills” on the floor of my daughter’s room, we decided to sleep on the floor in the one room where we do not allow renters to use rather than in our own beds.
The next morning, the Axe Body Spray scent was still lingering. We had taken out the trash and emptied the fridge, but our cleaning lady had the hardest job. When she was done for the day, she mentioned that these five guys had managed to use 32 bath towels during their five day stay. 32 fucking towels. When I was 25-years-old, I owned ONE bath towel that I washed like every six weeks! Who the fuck did these guys think they were?
I decided that a quick internet search on these guys might alleviate my concerns. The kid who had booked the place and had been responsible for the payment was listed as simply a “coach” in Munich. Not sure what kind… Soccer coach? Life coach? Sober coach? (Doubtful). Whatever the case, I checked out his Twitter account and he had recently tweeted about his upcoming trip to the United States. It read as follows:
Me and the boys are going to Hollywood to parteeeey with movie stars! Then VEGAS BABY VEGAS! What happens in Vegas STAYS in VEGAS!!!
After realizing that this guy was still quoting Vince Vaughn from Swingers, a 20-year-old film, I felt a small bond with him. He had probably tried to find a decent place in LA to rent, but was met with rejection after rejection by worried homeowners like myself. He was 25 and just looking to party with movie stars and now he was apparently in Las Vegas, most likely contracting that new un-treatable strain of gonorrhea I keep seeing on billboards all over town.
After a few days, the house felt like home again and my son and daughter fell into their summer routines of Fortnite, swimming and staying up until 11. I thought of this strange world we were subjecting them to… After all, not many kids are forced to leave their houses for Air BNB renters every few weeks. Still, maybe the constant travel and new experiences will teach them more about the world and someday they’ll thank us for forcing them into the car for 8-hour road trips to Arizona… Maybe someday my son and his good friends will go desecrate a family’s house in Germany with their own beer bottles, cigarettes and sink pubes. If anything, these are experiences that not every kid gets to have.
I put my kids to bed and brushed my teeth. My wife and I agreed to watch a new Netflix show and I drank some water. Happy to be back in my bed, I finally felt relaxed for the first time in a week…
And then I found a used condom in the drawer of my bedside table…
ZACH SELWYN’S HOUSE IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON AIR BNB… FOR RESPECTABLE FAMILIES ONLY.
Yeah, posterized. Embarrassed. Juked. Lit up. Dusted. Shook, took and left for dead. Jammed on by a 20-something human helicopter in the YMCA basketball league I reluctantly joined to appease my doctor, my family history of heart disease and my rising cholesterol. It was pretty damn humiliating, especially since my wife and six-year-old son were on the sidelines – and this 6’6” athletic specimen – with arms like boa constrictors and the vertical leap of a Madagascan Cheetah – decided to gloat while high-fiving his teammates, shouting “Take that white boy!” in my general direction… Our coach Jerome called a time out and quickly informed that I wouldn’t be coming back in the game for awhile. I understood. I sat on the bench and hung my head against my 2004 Arizona Wildcats basketball shorts and wiped heavy beads of sweat into my towel. I slowly looked over at my son – who turned to his mom and asked her why daddy got taken out of the game. Ever the subtle parent, my wife informed him, “Your dad just got annihilated.”
When I first joined the Hollywood YMCA, it was on my doctor’s orders. My family history had a lot to do with it – and his main motive was to get my cardiovascular activity up and my cholesterol down. Since basketball was always my favorite form of exercise, I chose the Y because the courts were full of older players with no other motivation than a little exercise and some fun. The majority of the guys I encountered on Tuesdays and Thursdays were in their 30’s and 40’s and had some sort of knee brace or elbow support sleeve on their bodies. They put up long threes, blew easy lay-ups and spent half the game talking about the Hollywood trades and other silliness, killing time as their kids tooled around the clubhouse downstairs. Rucker Park this was not.
After hanging around the sidelines for 20 minutes or so, I was invited in to play… and I quickly put up a dazzling 6 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in a 21-19 thriller of a pick up game. In my mind, I was back. Back to those glory days of my youth when I used to school young Jewish guys in the “Stephen S. Wise Temple Basketball League.” Back when I made the Junior Varsity team at my high school and actually had the ability to dunk a basketball on a ten-foot rim. (OK, I did it twice, but I did do it…) Back when my life was simple and easy, and when the only thing that mattered was which pair of Air Jordans I would save up for to parade around high school as a way to try and impress hot Tucson girls who actually would consider me to be a potential prom date just because I wore a pair of $100 Nikes…
Nowadays, the last thing I remember dunking was a celery stalk into a Bloody Mary. Those Air Jordans are long gone. So is my vertical leap. And according to Facebook, all those hot Tucson girls have teenage kids and have been divorced an average of two times since high school. So, in my mind, scoring 6 points in a YMCA game was the equivalent of winning an NBA Championship. I immediately told my wife that I loved basketball at the YMCA – and I showed up again the next day to take on another set of chumps with my wicked first step and decent mid-range jumper.
Turns out, the Tuesday – Thursday game features a totally different crew than the guys who play on Monday – Wednesday.
My first indication that the competition was at another level, was the fact that most of the guys on the court didn’t have a mid-section. There were dudes even playing shirtless, a thing you only see down at Venice Beach during the summer, and they looked like their bodies had robotic sound effects when they moved. Some guys had typical basketball tattoos reading ”Ball is Life” and “Love of the Game” beneath an orange ball swishing through a net. One guy stood close to 6’10” and practiced drop-step lay-ups while a scraggly Steve Nash-looking kid fed him bounce passes. Another rained in threes from NBA range, shouting out “ALL DAY!” whenever he connected… which was a lot. Finally, a shredded swing-man named DeMar threw down an Isiah Rider through-the-legs dunk during a fast break. I quickly turned and headed towards the door, opting to run on the treadmill that day instead.
Little did I know, DeMar would be the same guy would dunk on me this morning… Let me back up for a second and explain how I even got invited to play in the YMCA league in the first place.
Back in the summer of 2008, I was covering the famed “San Diego Comic-Con” for Attack of the Show, a TV program I was hosting. The convention was a nerd party of epic proportions, and I took full advantage of every open bar in the Gaslight District of the city – including a party where celebrated Ohio State star and Portland Trailblazers number one draft pick Greg Oden made an appearance. Being one of the only basketball fans in the entire city that night worked to my advantage, and Greg Oden and I spoke for a good 20 minutes before he was whisked away by a publicist for some interview. After he left my presence, a geeky fanboy tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if the seven-foot Greg Oden was Samuel L. Jackson from Snakes on a Plane.
“Uhm, no,” I told him.
In November of that year, I was inspired to get myself in shape. I read that Nike had announced the release of the new Greg Oden Power Max basketball shoe and the minute I had read about it, I knew that would be my shoe. After all, Greg had been so cool at Comic Con, I was convinced he had a Michael Jordan – like career ahead of him and would be exactly the kind of role model I needed to inspire me to revisit my past basketball athletic prowess. So, the day the shoe was released, I took a trip up to the Topanga Canyon Mall where I dropped 130 dollars on a pair of Nike Greg Oden PE’s which featured his name – “Oden” – prominently stitched across the laces as well as the back of the shoe. It was impossible to miss.
Five years later, as you may or may not know, Greg Oden is considered one of the biggest disappointments in the history of NBA basketball. Right up there with Sam Bowie, Joe Barry Carroll and Michael Olowokandi. Yes, a BUST. His injuries have left him sidelined for all but 23 games or so and the guy drafted after him – Kevin Durant – has gone on to become arguably the best player in the NBA. Greg Oden is currently coaching basketball clinics in Oregon. I hope he invested his money wisely, or he might be hanging sheetrock in a few years.
Unfortunately, his shoe is the only basketball shoe I own. Basically, I refuse to ever pay that much money for a shoe again – and I never really wore his model that much anyway – so it is in fairly great condition. A year ago I tried to see if it would sell on ebay, but the only other model on the website was a “Buy It Now” offer for $9.99, so I figured I’d just play ball in my Oden’s until they fell apart. (By the way, if you are interested, you can buy 100 – yes 100 – Greg Oden Topps rookie basketball cards for $3.99 on ebay right now).
So, I am stuck with my Oden’s and there’s a small part of me that actually kind of enjoys the irony of owning them. It’s like owning the film Gigli on Blu-Ray.
The treadmill I run on at the YMCA faces the pathway between the basketball courts and the water fountain, so the players come out every 20 minutes or so for breaks. The players have never noticed me running before, but that Wednesday, they decided to approach my treadmill as I was running following the first game they had played that afternoon. I wasn’t sure why… until they called me by my shoe.
“Yo, Greg Oden!” One wiry dude yelled just as I hit my 9 minute-per-mile stride. “Come off that treadmill for a second, man!”
A little intimidated, I kept running.
“Why?” I asked.
“We wanna ask you a question,” he responded.
I pressed pause on my iphone and stepped off the treadmill. I had run 1.2 miles in 10 minutes. 151 calories. Meh.
I walked over to the crew of dudes who were somewhat taunting me like jocks in high school making fun of the kid who played piccolo in the band. Why were they here? What did they want? I quickly found out.
“Where did you get a pair of Oden’s?” The leader asked.
As his crew looked down at my shoes, the laughs and taunts continued.
“Nice choice, bro!”
For some reason, I was facing ridicule for Greg Oden’s injury-prone career… as if I had been Greg Oden. It didn’t make any sense. So, as I have always tended to do, I made a humorous jibe about the situation.
“Yeah, I got these when he was the biggest prospect in basketball, alright? I could afford one dope pair of shoes, and I fucked up and chose these, OK? Whatchu think, I can afford a pair of Kevin Durant’s?”
The guys laughed. They high-fived. They made me feel better. They were funny, and seemingly down to Earth. And then, maybe as a kind gesture – or just as a way to see how terrible I was as a basketball player – they invited me to come get into a quick game of pick-up hoop in the main gym.
A lump appeared in my throat… Could I hang with these trees? Was my game on their level? I mean, if my shot was on, I might be able to put up a few buckets… but if my nerves got the better of me, I risked the horror of becoming known as the “Greg Oden of the YMCA…”
Painted in a corner, I said OK, and I tightened my $130 shoes and walked out towards the basketball court – convinced that I was about to get schooled by a bunch of guys who probably played division I, NBA D-league or even overseas basketball.
The tip-off was the first sign of the ring of hell that I had entered. After Fez from our team won the tip, a guy named Derrick told Fez that the ball wasn’t thrown up “evenly.” A huge shit-talk session began for the next three minutes and we weren’t even past the tip-off. I had seen these trash-talker games before. Basically, a lot of guys call fouls on every play and their opponents complain about the calls. The games take forever to finish because nobody ever actually plays, they just spend most of the time jawing at each other. It sucks to play in and to watch. I immediately knew it would be that kind of game. After we held a re-jump ball, nearly every two or three trips up the court ended in a heated smack talk exchange.
“Hell, no, THAT’S A FOUL!” Yelled a guy called Jay Reezy who was covering up his embarrassing air-ball.
“Foul… and one,” screamed Joelle as his ball clanged off the rim.
“Man, get yo hand off my dick!” shouted Lorenzo, after I cleanly swiped the basketball from his hands. Yes, it was clean, but he accused me not only of the foul, but of molestation. They took the ball back and scored on sheer intimidation factor on the next play. The reality of YMCA pick-up basketball had set in. When Lorenzo yelled, “I’ma KILL you mother fucka” to oue sidwline coach Jerome who called a traveling violation on a jump shot, it vaguely reminded me of that scene from White Men Can’t Jump (A film that director Ron Shelton actually envisioned while playing on the same Hollywood YMCA courts I was playing on) when Marques Johnson’s character went to his glove compartment to get a gun to settle a dispute. I believe the line was “I’m gonna get my other gun and I’m shooting you AND him…”
Whatever the case, I was scared – and I did my best “hide around the three-point line and pray that nobody wants me to shoot” routine. Woody Harrelson, I was not. Amazingly enough, I did attempt one three-pointer… And I somehow nailed it.
As the game wore on, I notched up another bucket on an inside pump fake that got the team yelling “Nice one, Oden!” As I spent a minute jogging back on defense, I couldn’t help but notice as a guy named Red flew by me and converted a lay-up against an older center whom I had recognized from Tuesday’s game. As I threw the ball in, I jokingly told him, “You should’ve called a foul.”
He smiled and passed the ball up to the front court.
The game turned out to be the longest pick-up game I have ever played in. There was more chatter, more arguing, more fouls called, more shit-talking and more disagreements than I have seen even in my six-year-old son’s Junior Lakers League. It was like playing against spoiled teenagers, and I wanted to fake an injury just to not play anymore… Still, it was the big league players at the YMCA… and I was hanging.
When the buzzer sounded, we were shuffled off the court for the next crew of five. We had lost 21 – 17… and even though I only scored five points, I honestly felt like I had played better than some of the trash-talking intimidators who had been there dealing handfuls of smack to our opponents. I was inspired and convinced that after a little practice, I might be able to step back in to bang with these big boys. Following the game, when coach Jerome invited me to sub on their YMCA league team the following Saturday morning, I knew I had proven myself as somewhat of a baller… I was shocked and flattered, and I responded to his request with a foolish exclamation of “dope!”
I immediately felt like an idiot.
I came home and informed my wife that I had made the team… Sort of. I mentioned that I was invited to substitute for another player and that I needed to be on my A-game on Saturday morning. My wife, an actual high school female basketball All-State player seemed impressed. The stage was set. I had a league game on Saturday! No news yet on if I’d be starting… But I was nervous as shit.
I decided that a quick pick-up game in the Jewish Basketball League wouldn’t hurt my confidence either.
Back in 2000 or so, I was a terror on the courts of the Jewish Basketball League. My old roommate Mike and I had been a lethal inside-outside combination, and even though I would enter most games sweating beer and whiskey from the night before, our Stephen S. Wise Matzah Ballers defeated the Temple Hess Kramer Lions handily for three years straight. Many of our players have gone on to Hollywood success, some are still playing and others are long gone from the city… Still, I always knew in the back of my head that if there was a place to regain my basketball confidence, it was the Jewish league. A run I specifically refer to as “Heeb Hoops.”
Thursday evening, I rolled into the Michael Milken gymnasium wearing a Carmelo Anthony Denver Nuggets jersey and cradling a Vita-Coco water. My old roommate Mike was still running the league. Not much seemed different – except for the fact that Mike was now sporting a “Rip Hamilton Face Mask” that he had been fitted with following his fourth broken nose in Jewish basketball games. (Shockingly, the nose-break is a very popular Jewish basketball injury.)
Mike gave me a silent head nod as I surveyed the competition before warming up. Convincing myself that these young players had nothing on my storied Jewish Basketball League career, I shot a few jumpers, ran some drills and worked on my left-handed penetration – a skill I had been lacking since those JV days back in high school. By the time I was allowed to get in the run, I was on top of the world. And it showed. I shook Gabe Friedman on a crossover that gave us a two-point lead. Mike fed me a pass and Jordan Mogelwitz fell for my pump-fake and ended up watching me bank in a 7-footer on his left. Even Raphie Spiegel bit on my daring long-range three that tied the game at 16 before my old homeboy Mike crossed-over a college kid and put us up by a bucket. Mike and I ended the run with a classic give and go – punctuated by his three-pointer that won us the game. Mike and I celebrated, exchanged awkward 37-year-old dap handshakes and chest-bumps. I had 9 of our points. Mike had 12. It was 2000 all over again. We even smoked a joint in the parking lot afterwards and made stoned plans to form a team that had a shot at winning the coveted “Dead Sea Cup” in the fall. It was amazing. I got home, showered and went to bed, convinced that by Saturday, I would be running YMCA regulars up and down the court beginning at the first whistle.
Oh how wrong I was.
The YMCA league resembled the All-Valley Karate Championship from the film Karate Kid. Some dudes were mad-dogging any potential challengers like Johnny Lawrence did Daniel Laruso. Teams were stretching and warming up like it was the Final Four. Guys with prison-shaped muscles ran “suicide” drills and barked out orders towards their teams. I recognized DeMar the shredded dunker from the YMCA working on his through-the-legs jam during a lay-up drill. Some other players from the YMCA were there too, representing different branches. We were Hollywood, but there was definitely a Downtown crew and an intimidating looking Westside team. Most of their players all looked bigger and more confident than I did. Even my teammate Fez seemed to be in the zone, dishing out chest passes to our team before noticing my arrival and demanding I let my wife and kid know they had to remain outside the gym until the sidelines were opened up to the public… Somehow, I immediately knew this was a bad idea.
I did not start the game. In fact, I “rode pine” the entire first half, doing what I do best… MOCKING PEOPLE. I reverted to the 13-year-old clown who developed his ESPN-worthy broadcast voice on the bench as the 10th man on his junior high championship team. I regressed into the sophomore who spit funny commentary from the bench as my team lost by 29 to Marana High School. I became the stoner kid from college who skipped our fraternity basketball tournament due to a mushroom hangover… I was simply not taking anything seriously.
“Jesus, I’ve seen better jumpers hooked to the battery of my car,” I announced.
“He couldn’t hit air if he was skydiving,” I offered.
“He’s got more turnovers than a bakery,” I joked, terribly.
I went on and on. Until two minutes before the half when our coach, Jerome, informed me that our leading scorer Gary Vernon had sprained his ankle. I was in at small forward, and that I “better not fuck it up.”
Luckily, with a minute left, I handled my own. I was able to guard their sharp-shooter somewhat easily, at least for 60 seconds, and when the halftime buzzer sounded, I hustled to the sideline, winking at my wife and son, knowing we were up by 8 points.
At halftime, I prayed that Gary would be able to return. Unfortunately, he told coach Jerome he was out. I was summoned to start the second half and I told him I was ready to answer the call.
The second half was reminiscent of the YMCA pick-up game I witnessed a few days before. Smack was talked, play was delayed, but luckily, the presence of referees helped move the action along. A minute in, and I got passed the ball for the first time. I looked inside, but had no outlet. I took a few dribbles around the perimeter before handing the ball off to our point guard. He drove the lane and was quickly rejected… the ball bounced towards me. Wide open outside of the three-point line. Now, in my life, I have performed for crowds as big as 1500 people. I have no fear of the spotlight. I embrace. It. So of course, at that very moment, I did what any lifelong performer would do… I froze.
Like a statue. Good old DeMar ran up and swiped the ball from me before beasting towards the other side of the court where he easily converted a tomahawk rim-rocker that brought the crowd to its feet. I was suddenly, the worst player on the court. I felt that familiar lump return to my throat. Sure, I could perform music and comedy in front of 1000 people, but when 18 folks – including my wife and son – were standing on a nearby sideline, I had no idea how to execute anything. The floodgates of failure had been opened.
DeMar went on a scoring tear. 12 points in under five minutes. Our eight point lead became a four point deficit. Game was 21… It was 17-13.
I felt the crowd getting into the game. I looked towards my bench and saw Gary glaring at me – as if I had stuck his pet kitten in a microwave. It was not exactly the teammate support I was looking for. As I tried to juke the opposing team with some cross-pattern routes I remembered from high school ball, I was checked by a player and felt like I had run into a concrete wall. I staggered back slightly, a bit dazed but conscious, before looking up to see Fez’s missed three-pointer bounce my way. I turned my body asunder – if only to imitate the Lebron James and Magic Johnson moves I had grown up worshiping, and felt an inescapable lack of confidence when I sent a lazy pass over the lane intended for a guy named Rick Cahill. Unfortunately, that pass was read with precision by DeMar.
I made the mistake of chasing him down the court. By the time I had come close to catching up with his super-human speed, he was already 39 inches in the air… I lept up as well, and thought for a second that I might have a chance at slapping the ball out of his hands. Instead, what happened will forever be known as the worst sports moment in my life.
He threw down a one-handed fiendishly brutish ogre-fuck of a dunk. The ball thunderously cascaded off of my head. It ricocheted against the back wall and sadly crept towards the exit of the gym before pausing against a stranger’s bag – almost as if it had been shot by a hunter with a cross-bow. It did everything but deflate itself and bleed to death. Coach Jerome called a very necessary time-out.
A few minutes later, we lost 21 – 13. I looked over towards my wife and son. She had already taken him out of the gym as if to not force him to watch any more of the carnage. Our players threw water bottles at the bench and cursed to each other. They asked Gary about his ankle and offered him 50 solutions to get it to heal. They swallowed Gatorade and water without making any eye contact with me and exited quickly and quietly. Before coach Jerome could leave the gym, I yelled out at him.
“What time’s game next week?”
Jerome looked back to me and offered, “You don’t have a game next week…”
As DeMar disappeared to the sidelines and put on a pair of Beats by Dr. Dre, I stood up and made my way down to the locker room to shower. As I walked inside, I could hear many of the members talking about DeMar’s dunk and how incredible it was. When I passed the crew of players tightly seated in a circle, I noticed they were watching something on one of their iphones… Sure enough, it was the dunk. Someone had filmed him taking flight and macerating the rim at my expense. I quickly turned away from the viewing and tried my best to tip-toe back out of the door. Before I could escape, one of the guys called after me.
“Yo, dude!” He said. “Quick question for ya…”
I stopped in my tracks and turned around, afraid of what insulting low blow he would send my way. Anticipating the worst, I took a deep breath and awaited sure insult and humiliation. Finally, he spoke.
“Are you wearing Greg Oden’s?”
I cracked a meek smile and threw my towel over my shoulder.
“Only until I can afford a pair of Sam Bowie’s,” I joked.
The guys chuckled, probably because they felt sorry for me, but it was enough to show that I wasn’t taking any of this stuff that seriously.
As they replayed the dunk over and over on the iphone, I slipped out the door and called my wife. She answered the phone by saying, “I’m sorry.”
We spoke for a minute about everything but the game. What we needed at the store, what time the kids needed to be dropped off at practice… even what Netflix we wanted to order. It was a nice distraction and one that took my mind off my embarrassing moment on the court a few minutes earlier.
I drank some water and said good-bye to some of the other players who were on their way out of the locker room. I looked around the YMCA and quietly announced my retirement from the basketball league to nobody in particular. It was rather unnecessary, but it felt better to say it out loud.
And then I went upstairs to run on the treadmill.
Zach Selwyn October 23, 2012
To read Mike’s wife cute blog entry on Mike’s mask itself – click here – THE FACE MASK