The wait is almost over! Missi Pyle & Zach Selwyn are this week’s guests and we play “Fake or Florida” – here’s a preview! http://bit.ly/1LaN6u0
Posted by Anna Faris is Unqualified on Monday, March 7, 2016
Download the episode TOMORROW!!!
Actor. Musician. Host. Writer. Dinner Guest.
The wait is almost over! Missi Pyle & Zach Selwyn are this week’s guests and we play “Fake or Florida” – here’s a preview! http://bit.ly/1LaN6u0
Posted by Anna Faris is Unqualified on Monday, March 7, 2016
Download the episode TOMORROW!!!
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…
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We play “Fake or Florida” and talk about women’s panties…
DISNEY XD 8:00 pm March 16!
also starring the man – Zach Lavine… !!!
By Zach Selwyn
I recently came across this class picture from my elementary school in 1985. Oddly enough, I have a vague memory of taking this photo and trying to express my disappointment with the world at that time. I had no idea back then that the photo seemed to say to my parents that I’d rather be dead at the tender age of 10 than at my school picture day.
I look depressed. I look like I had already lived five lives. I resemble the type of child who would be marked as a potential serial killer in the future. Amazingly, I remember what was going through my head that day. I was dealing with things like my parents recent divorce, the fact that my “spike haircut” would never want to stand up straight like the other kids. I didn’t smile because my two front teeth resembled something that would have made all species of pacific northwestern beavers jealous. I also remember that my mother made me wear the cloud patterned shirt I am wearing in the photo that day. Maybe if I was Prince I could have pulled that look off, but as a sullen, depressed 10-year-old Jewish kid stuck in Tucson Arizona in the 1980’s, the cloud shirt just felt like a desperate plea for attention.
At the time I was rudderless. The girls were not interested in me. I had become somewhat overweight. My baseball ability had dwindled following a broken arm the previous summer and my basketball skills were starting to translate to bench time more than the starting five. To top it off my grandparents had taken my sister and I on a two-week Caribbean cruise a few weeks before where I spent the majority of the trip being bullied in the youth center by a freckly-face kid from Florida named Robbie who insisted on flicking my ears until I cried almost daily. Perhaps the most embarrassing thing about that cruise was when my grandmother came down to the youth center, smacked the kid across the head and said, “Stop flicking my grandson’s ears!”
As you can imagine, it only made him go after me more.
In fifth grade I was forced to go to Hebrew school three times a week with the looming threat of a Bar Mitzvah hanging over my head presenting quite possibly a challenge that I could never live up to. My main interests lie in collecting baseball cards – which is where I spent every penny and has been well documented in my previous works. I was also trying to make my 3-year-old brother a future baseball Hall of Famer – but he wasn’t interested in the slightest. Baseball cards were everything to me and the bottom line was, when my mother came home and saw me lying on the floor alphabetizing the 1982 Atlanta Braves Fleer set, she didn’t exactly think I had any sort of bright future.
My house was less than peaceful, with my sister and mother not getting along and a new presence in the home – my mother’s boyfriend. He was a recovering alcoholic who had moved to Tucson for a fresh start and began working at a $40,000 a month celebrity rehab facility that was frequented by movie stars and rock stars. His saving grace was that he loved music, and played it constantly around the house.. and that he was pretty funny.
He also loved baseball.
My other obsession with skateboarding, which I was not very good at due to a massive fear of falling and breaking my arm a second time. Yet, I wore the clothes and accepted the fact that I was a “poser” to the cooler kids because it made me feel somewhat connected to something. I was also being forced to take piano lessons by my mom although I was technically allowed to quit in sixth grade.
I quit the day I started sixth grade. Again, another regret.
37-years-later, looking back at this photo, I distinctly remember Mrs. Knight’s fifth grade classroom. It was small – with only eight of us – because they had to separate certain students into a fifth/sixth grade combination class. Luckily the two cutest girls were in class with me. Laura Krapa (tough last name, I know…) And Tina Jarem, who I mercilessly teased and occasionally punched because she had absolutely no interest in me.
And then, there were the three other boys in the class.Ryan, Brandon and Bryan. Being the lone Jewish kid, I was constantly mocked with slurs and insults that I learned to turn into comedy – but I was never invited to their Cub Scout meetings or their swim meets. The three boys were all terrific athletes and overachievers had surpassed me in almost every single category in life at the time – from sports to girls to popularity. When you’re 10-years-old, you feel as if you will never grow out of these situations.
One day in the lunchroom, I overheard the boys discussing their three-piece band that they were going to assemble to play the talent show. Being that my obsession with the Beastie Boys had grown to absurdly fanatical following their appearance in the hip hop movie “Krush Groove,” I somehow thought that if I could just be AdRock or Mike D I could climb out of this despair in which I had been wallowing for the majority of 1985-86. It certainly helped my cause to know that the Beastie Boys were actually Jewish… So, I offered up my services as a rapper and at first, they laughed.
“Dude our song is not a rap song” they said.
I said it didn’t matter because I could rap over anything.
Lo and behold, it worked. That night, I wrote eight of the worst hip-hop bars ever assembled and brought it to school to audition for my three classmates. They were blown away and my career as a performer started just as the 5th grade began to come to a close.
The first rush of adrenaline that you get when you walk off of a stage while wearing your coolest T & C Surf Design shirt and Gotcha shorts with a pair of knock off Ray-Ban Wayfarers you had to borrow from your mother, is a feeling that cannot be described. But any person who has ever performed live knows what it is… It’s the moment when you receive that first look from a girl in your class that says, “Oh my God you’re so much more than I thought you were!” In this case, it was Tina Jarem. Still, I was too afraid to be her boyfriend. She moved away that summer.
Music helped me turn my life and outlook around. If you look into the dead eyes of the kid in this photo, you can see how that experience helped turn me into a more positive person. Within a few months I had my first non-camp girlfriend, Amy. We only lasted about a week, but for me that’s all I wanted. It was like a résumé builder. I developed more humor more confidence and as luck would have it even grew a few inches by the next year.
That summer at camp my longtime counselor Mark took me under his wing as his ‘project’ hoping to develop me into a ladies man. Looking back, it seems weird that he would spend 30 minutes doing my hair before Shabbat services on Fridays. I guess he wanted to make sure I looked ‘fresh.’ With gallons of Dep Gel being slathered into my “never wanted to spike up hair” – I was finally able to get it somewhat reaching towards the sky. Only later, when my hair went curly, did I realize that I had always had wavy hair and that a spike haircut doesn’t look too great when you’re 10-years-old and trying to look like Billy Idol.
When sixth grade came to a close, we reformed the band. The baseball cards took a backseat a couple years later when the guitar was picked up and I suddenly discovered all elements of performing.
Today, at 46, looking back at that photograph of that lost child makes me think of my own children today. I can often spot in a family photo my son’s eyes adrift, looking like there’s no reason for him to be there. My daughter occasionally blinks on purpose to ruin a picture too – the way I did many times before as a kid. The only advice I can try to give my children is that it all gets better and that they need to try new things or else nothing will ever change. I never say that they have to stick with those things, but one of them will hopefully catch their attention and change their lives the way that music did for me on that talent show night in Tucson, Arizona.
I’m not sure why I wrote this today other than the fact that I’m getting older and I think you start to look back at moments in your life where things change. As your own parents get older you start to think about how innocent it all was back then and how we all grow up so quickly and what really matters is love, care, kindness and friendship.
I still keep in touch with those guys from the band even though they have all gone onto different pursuits. I’m still releasing music, however, even though not many people listen to it. It’s still therapy. It is hands down the best medicine that there is and it comes out whenever I am lucky enough to perform live with my current band.
My only regret? I wish I still had that cloud shirt so I could wear it on stage…
In the Presence of God *
Firing Squad $
New Suit for My Hangin *
Honky Tonk Saloon @
Bartenders in LA @
You Built me a Ghost Town (Gia Ciambotti) #
The River (With Bobby Joyner) $
Gower Bridge #
Dellmus Colvin @
Last Country Road $
City of Angels #
Executive produced by The Pale Ryda
All songs 2021 Desert Hobo Music (Ascap) written by Zach Selwyn
(Acoustic, Steel, Lap Guitars) Dan Wistrom, Jesse Siebenberg, Leroy Miller, Zachariah
(Drum Programming) Leroy Miller
(Bass) Mark Antoleonos, Jeff LeGore
(Keys) Brian Lapin
(Fiddle) Lucy Clearwater
(Harmonica) Bobby Joyner, Zachariah
(BG Vocals) Lucy Clearwater, Leroy Miller, Bobby Joyner, Zachariah, Gia Ciambotti
MIXED and PRODUCED BY:
A new Zachariah song from the LP “Hungover at Disneyland”. Featuring RJ Robinson on fiddle.
Download song here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/too-old-for-molly-too-young/id952764244?i=952764259
written by Zach Selwyn. Dir. by Adam Siegel.
By Zach Selwyn
It was a hungover morning. Most of them are hungover mornings, but this one was particularly bad. It was actually quite unbearable. It was 91 degrees outside, but for some reason I was in a good mood based on the fact that it had finally stopped raining in Los Angeles. L.A. had been miserable lately. Not to mention depressing. My gas bill in January had skyrocketed to $1800 and wasn’t looking to get any better. A looming writer’s strike and a desolate media landscape had flattened any creative work available in the city. Shit. Even Disney had laid off 7,000 employees sine January 1st. Not only that, but the rain had destroyed nearly every road in the city and never-ending potholes greeted my car wherever I drove, resulting in more than one flat tire.
Anyway, it was a Friday morning and I had to drop my son in the deep valley for a haircut on his day off from school for “Teacher Organization Day.” I wasn’t sure when “Teacher Organization Day” became a national fucking holiday, but apparently, like four times a school year, teachers needed some time to get their shit together. I guess I understood… I need one of those days like, 25 times a month. I just didn’t particularly love when these days were thrust upon myself as a parent, because you suddenly had to do stuff like catch up on haircuts and Costco shopping and shit like going to the Grove to see films you would never pay for on your own, like Dungeons and Dragons. Meanwhile. My son prefers this one particular valley hairstylist to any scissor-slinging tattooed millennial who works at the Floyd’s Barber Shop 0.8 miles from our house, so I basically have to go 13 miles to Encino with him once every three months. And as you know Encino is a pretty miserable place.
It’s ten times worse it with a bad hangover.
After dropping him off, I had a roughly an hour to kill around the Encino corridor. Looking to curb the uneasiness of the body aches I was fighting from the night before, I Googled local bars and hotels to find any sort of affordable Bloody Mary that might help me open my eyes and face the day a little easier. Not finding much, I walked for a few minutes and quickly realized that I was surrounded by nothing but chain restaurants, weed stores and car dealerships. I was on Ventura Boulevard in Encino. I had nowhere to go. I felt like I had become the man I once swore I would never become: A 47-year-old dad, hungover in the Valley on a Friday morning looking for a drink. This wasn’t rock bottom, but Jesus, it sort of felt like the boat was sinking fast.
And then I spotted the Buca di Beppo. Yes. Buca di Beppo. Anyone who has been here knows this place is basically Olive Garden on HGH. You order a plate of spaghetti and it feeds nine people and you take four pounds home to haunt your fridge for the next month and a half. The leftovers are enough to choke an entire village of starving Albanians.
I was certainly their first customer of the day. The general manager, a goateed gentleman named Rick, who was wearing a tie patterned with a bushel of tomatoes, looked shocked that someone had actually entered the restaurant before noon. He struggled to greet me at the door. When he finally did welcome me inside, I noticed that he his shirt was untucked and one shoelace was untied. He brought me a monstrous menu and informed me that the restaurant was featuring a wine special that day: A glass of Apothic Red Wine was going for only $14.00. I thanked him but chose to not alert him that Apothic Red is a bottle of garbage wine found at Trader Joe’s for roughly $7.99.
Since the dining room was still being setup for the evening rush, I was seated in the empty bar, where half of the barstools were still turned upside down on the tables. They had sports on, so I knew I could easily kill an hour there… and I asked Rick how the Bloody Mary was.
“It’s amazing,” he said.
That was all I needed to hear.
I asked for a Bloody Mary with Tito’s and “all the fixings they could give me.”
Rick responded by asking me, “Tito’s? – OK – So Vodka or tequila?”
“Oh. So… What is that?”
“It’s a vodka from Austin, Texas dude,” I said perhaps a little too aggressively. “It’s a Bloody Mary.”
That was my first warning. I should’ve walked out then. This guy did not even know that Tito’s was a fucking vodka company?
I gave him a little side eye as he began working on the drink, making sure he was pouring in the right vodka, but unfortunately, he reached for a bottle of some brand called Helix. Helix Vodka? I had never even heard of that shit. But I watched as he incredulously poured it into a glass and then poured in some bullshit pre-packaged Bloody Mary mix from a plastic bottle that looked like it dressed Greek salads on its off-days. He didn’t even MIX the drink. He just dumped it in, and served it to me raw-dog, meaning it was lacking any olives, pickles, celery, salt, Tajin, fucking pepper… and flavor.
“Dude, Yo – do you guys don’t have any garnish whatsoever?” I asked.
“We have Tabasco,” he said.
“Olives?” I asked. “Maybe a peperoncini?”
“Uhm well, we have those but it means I would have to open the salad bar, which isn’t quite open yet.”
Jesus fucking Christ.
I took Rick’s bottle of Tabasco and tried to make this drink taste like… something. Anything but Clamato juice and ice. And it fell flat. This was by far the worst Bloody Mary ever served on American soil. Right there, in Encino, California precisely one week before my birthday in the good year of our lord 2023.
I sat there for a moment as Rick adjusted his tomato tie and folded napkins and I watched some NBA Playoffs highlights suffering through each and every sip of this bullshit drink. It basically tasted like water with hot sauce in it. The ice cubes were so prevalent that I surmounted that there was close to one to two ounces of liquid in the entirety of the glass. The straw was minuscule and sharp in my mouth.
And then I started looking around at the decor.
If you’ve ever been to a Buca di Beppo, you know that they fancy themselves as a classic “Family-Style Italian Restaurant.” That requires that they must decorate the walls with photos of great Italian American stalwarts of recent past, including 200 pictures of Frank Sinatra, at least 50 photos of Joe Dimaggio and a few stills from the movie Goodfellas. In fact, there was one large bar photo of Dimaggio that caught the Yankee Clipper smiling and youthful, at the peak of career, probably in the middle of a 200 hit season. He was grinning so widely, that there is no doubt he just flossed his teeth with Marilyn Monroe’s underwear. For some reason that photo made me happy. I pointed at the picture and then back to Rick, who mind you, was probably in his late 30’s to early 40’s and said, “What do you know about that guy?”
“Oh, Sinatra?” He said.
I almost went Joe Pesci on him and slapped him with his tomato tie.
“That’s NOT fucking Frank Sinatra, that’s Joe fuckin’ Dimaggio,” I said. “Joltin’ Joe Dimaggio.”
“Oh, the baseball player,” Rick responded. “Dodgers?”
Let me tell you something. If you work in a Buca di Beppo, or ANY Italian establishment that serves a version of a simple red sauce on pasta or a fucking meatball or a basket full of fucking breadsticks, you BETTER know who the fuck Joe Dimaggio is. In New York City, Rick would have been driven to the Hudson River, fitted for some cement shoes and dropped the fuck off the pier. And even the cops would have looked the other way and laughed about it at a bar later that night. But, this was Encino. And Rick was born in 1987 or so. And I was hungover. And unemployed. And bitter. So I leaned back and continued sipping the worst Bloody Mary of all time. A few sips later, I excused myself to the bathroom.
There was a photo of Kirk Gibson above the urinal.
I guess that made sense. Kirk Gibson is an LA hero and that 1988 World Series home run is one of baseball’s grandest moments, but I actually began wondering if Rick even knew who he was. When I returned to the bar, I asked him if he knew who the mustached man above the urinal was. He nodded yes.
Look. I have nothing against Buca di Beppo. In fact, I have enjoyed many fun nights at this restaurant with family and friends over the years… I’ve murdered bottles of wine and meatballs and large pasta dishes here while singing along to That’s Amore with drunk friends two tables over. But this was ridiculous. My advice is forever avoid the Bloody Mary at all costs, and certainly do not enter any Buca di Beppo before 6:30 PM on any given day. You will leave depressed, disappointed and miserable – and when you face that blazing sunlight outside it will shine in your eyes like God’s high beams, informing you that you have made yet one more mistake in your short, miserable, pathetic life.
I paid Rick the $11.00 for the drink and walked outside, heading to pick up my son from his hair appointment. I was feeling a little better, happy that I at least informed Rick who Joe DiMaggio was, and happy that I was now aware of the catastrophic flavor of Helix Vodka. I walked back up towards the salon and texted my son to see if he was done. He wrote me back pretty quickly and seemed happy with his haircut. I squinted in the sun and read his text aloud:
Dad, can we go see the Dungeons and Dragons movie?
I went back to Buca di Beppo’s and ordered another round…