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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…
WATCH ZACH’S NEW SERIES “ONE MINUTE MUSIC MINUTE” at OLE TV! @oletvofficial
Re-Examining the 1997 NBA Draft – If I Had Been Selected…
(Originally published @Nerdist Sports 2017)
At the end of my senior year in college – despite having not played organized basketball since high school and maintaining a 1.8 blood alcohol level for four years straight, my friends dared me to declare for the NBA draft. I wrote an official letter the NBA commissioner David Stern and presented my accolades: Six-foot-two. 3.8 G.P.A. Fraternity scoring leader and dunk contest winner on the 8-foot hoop in the parking lot.
I wasn’t selected.
Looking back now, I have to argue that I might have been a better pick than 75% of the players in the 1997 NBA draft. Sure, the draft produced perennial all-stars Tim Duncan (#1), Chauncey Billups (#3) and Tracy McGrady (#9), but for every one of those guys, there are three Ed Elisma’s (#40), Bubba Wells’ (#34) and Ben Pepper’s (#55). Who’s to say that if I was chosen in the late second round I wouldn’t have made a better impact than a guy like 44th pick Cedric Henderson?
I was too short to be a forward, my high school position. My handle wasn’t strong enough to compete for a point guard slot, so basically, my only shot was to be drafted as a shooting guard – and my guess is I would have been picked somewhere around 46 – where Orlando took Alabama marksman Eric Washington. (Whose best year came with the Idaho Stampede in the NBA D-League in 2010).
Due to some late garbage time minutes, I estimate I would have averaged roughly 1.2 points a game… Which is more than draft picks C.J. Bruton (#52), Roberto Duenas (#57) and Nate Erdmann (#55) ever averaged in their careers.
The 11th pick of the draft was a guy named Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Nobody past the top 10 picks truly ever made a big statement in the NBA. Sure, Stephen Jackson (#42) was a key piece to the 2003 Spurs, Bobby Jackson (#23) was a sixth man sparkplug and Mark Blount (#54) was a dependable center for a few teams – but overall, 1997 was pretty mediocre… Even though I once bought into the ESPN theory that Jacque Vaughn (#27) would be the next Allen Iverson.
My own personal draft journey began after a two-game playoff run in the annual 1997 fraternity basketball challenge.
It was in a game against Pi Kappa Alpha. Their starting point guard tried to take me off the dribble to the left. I stuck my arm just above his bounce and poked the ball free into the open court. I ran after it, scooped it up and laid it in for the victory. My fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi had won our first play-off game in 10 years. In our next contest, we gave the brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon a good run, and I poured in 21 points. Ultimately, we lost on a late technical foul call when I got kicked out for calling the referee a “dickbag.”
It was after that game, while consuming a lot of Natural Light beer, that I decided to declare for the draft.
On draft day 1997, I sat on my mother’s couch with baited anticipation as the others had their moments. I ordered some pizza for my family. My mother thought I had lost my mind.
As the evening progressed, I had seen enough of the long, tailored mustard and pinstriped suits making their way to the podium to shake David Stern’s hand. I watched as guys like Tony Battie (#5), Danny Fortson (#10) and Antonio Daniels (#4) put on those crisp new NBA caps. I accepted the inevitable as the first round telecast came to an end.
The second round was only on the radio, so I sat in my Civic, listening in.
“And with the 48th pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, the Washington Bullets select Predrag Drobnjak from KK Partizan, Serbia.”
Really? A guy named Predrag was taken? Nobody could even pronounce his name. So what if he was a six-foot-eleven three time Euro League National Champion? I played on the frat tournament second runner-up team!
Most of the players from the ’97 draft ended up overseas, injured or, in Ron Mercer’s (#6) case, involved in a strip club assault or two. I was no different – except for the fact that I never played one minute in the NBA.
Then again, neither did Serge Zwikker (#29), Mark Sanford (#30) or Gordon Malone (#44).
I still think I would have had a shot.
Ed. Note: Zach Selwyn currently averages 15.2 points per game in his over 40-YMCA league.
In the late 90’s I was lucky enough to sleep with a Playboy
Centerfold. For the sake of this story, let’s call her “Miss July.” She
wasn’t the current centerfold by any means, in fact her issue had
already been off the racks for nearly seven years at the time of our
tryst, but she had been a popular Playmate in the 90’s… and one that I
had admired for years. For some reason, the planets aligned and she
and I shared a three-night fling at our respected apartments doing all
we could to pretend that we had anything in common outside of our bed
Following our little hook up, I rifled through a used bookstore for
her back issue, buying at least six copies to give to my high school
friends. I called nearly every guy I knew to share in my glory and
walked on air for a good three months after our encounter, knowing
that I had achieved one of the ultimate male fantasies. I even sent a
back issue to my dad. After all, Playboy was my bible growing up and
bedding one of the world’s most beautiful women suddenly made me feel
like I could accomplish anything in my life.
Last week, while walking through a grocery store with my 10-year-old
son, I ran into Miss July in the produce section. At first, I stopped
and stared at her, like every man in the store had been doing since
she walked in the vicinity. She was still gorgeous and shapely and
wearing an outfit that only a Playmate can get away with.
Her breasts were still high and on display. He hair still blonde and
bountiful, with ringlets cascading beneath her shoulders – as if she
was currently in the middle of a photo shoot. I ogled for a minute,
before coming to the realization that she was, indeed, Miss July. My Miss July. The girl I had slept with all those years ago. I hadn’t
thought of her in so long, I assumed she had moved to the other side
of the country where I would never see her again.
And now here she was fondling a pair of avocados.
“Why are you staring at that girl?” My son asked, snapping me out of
the coma my 40-year-old mind had drifted into.
“Oh, I think I know her,” I said, secretly hoping that he might
recognize her beauty and high-five me after we left the grocery store.
“Cool,” he responded. “Can I play on your phone?”
I gathered my thoughts and strolled around to the coffee aisle. I
wasn’t sure if I was going to say hello to her, afraid that she would
think I was some stalker from her Playmate days. I also didn’t want
her to blurt out something stupid, like “Oh my GOD! You were that guy
I slept with in the 90’s!” Worst of all, I thought, she wouldn’t
remember me at all. I let my son pick out some cereal as I mulled over
my next move.
Like most happily married men, I still harbor the memories of my
single years when one-night stands were so daring and fun and
whimsical. After all these years, they hold a nostalgic place in my
heart as something fantastic and perfect – when in reality they were
normally panic-riddled and led to health concerns and loneliness.
My week with Miss July began at a nightclub in Hollywood. She was
gorgeous, fending off the masses with her icy stare and constantly
turning down drinks from potential suitors clamoring to be in her
airspace. I had no idea she was a Playmate at the time, but she
certainly had the look. She was dressed to the nines in a fur jacket
and sipping on a vodka drink when my friends dared me to go speak to
her. As I was in my cups, I waltzed directly up to her and began
rubbing her jacket.
“Interesting. A New Zealand back country field rabbit coat… Very
rare,” I said.
She laughed and stared me deep in the eyes.
“Are you on ecstasy?” She replied.
“No,” I exclaimed. “Not at all… why?
“Normally when I wear this coat out a bunch of druggies just want to pet it.”
I laughed and thought of a quick comeback.
“I’d rather pet you,” I blurted out confidently.
She actually laughed and wrote her number down on a bar napkin. I told
her I’d call her and I did – the next day – breaking any rules which I
had learned from popular movies like Swingers. She was surprised to
hear from me. We made plans to go out to a Casa Vega, a Mexican
restaurant in the valley for margaritas the following night. When she
cancelled on me two hours beforehand, I thought I was doomed. When I
asked her why she had to cancel, however, my eyes lit up.
“I have to fly to Iowa for a Playboy convention in the morning, I’m so
sorry,” she said.
“Why? Do you sell advertising for them or something?” I inquired.
“No, silly – I was Miss July a few years ago! I thought you knew…”
I didn’t know. Now I did. I immediately called my friends and sang
them J. Giels Band lyrics through the receiver. Yes. My baby was a centerfold.
A week later, we hit Casa Vega. At one point she went outside
to smoke and I let her go alone. (I was trying to quit at the time).
When a guy at the bar saw this, he motioned to me and said, “Dude, you don’t let a girl that hot out of your sight for any amount of time.”
I ignored him, assuming she would brush off any potential creeps and
return back to our bar stool where we’d finish our drinks and continue
our evening. After 20 minutes, however, I began to grow nervous.
I went out to the smoking section, and sure enough, there they were:
MEN. All kinds… Guys who had intended to come inside for dinner but
were so mesmerized by her beauty that they decided to hang outside a
little longer. Guys who didn’t even smoke were bumming cigarettes from
her and chain smoking. One guy even flipped her a business card and
said, “I scout for Playboy, if you ever want to be in the magazine,
let me know…”
She laughed and to my surprise grabbed me by the arm. All the men’s
faces dropped as they saw this 23-year-old kid with a Strokes haircut
coyly slip his hand around the top of her waist. Dejected, the guys
all walked inside with their heads down, preparing to settle for
baskets of chips and salsa and not the ravishing creature who I was
lucky enough to be spending the night with.
We went to another bar and then went to my place. Two nights later, I
joined her at her place. We went out once more, on a Saturday, but she
got swept up in a crowd of famous actors and I stood around waiting
for her to return to me, feeling like the unpopular kid in junior high
who can’t muster up the balls to ask a girl to dance. Eventually, when
she began partaking in their bottle service vodka, I grew frustrated,
knowing my time was up. Without even saying good-bye, I grabbed my
jacket and made a quick exit, calling my buddies to meet me for a
heartbreak beer at Coach and Horses, my old favorite dive bar.
“So what if it’s over?” My buddy said. “You were with a Playmate!”
“Yeah dude, my last hook up was with the hostess at Yankee Doodles in
Agoura Hills,” said another.
As the drinks flowed, my confidence returned and I quickly got over
the fling with the help of some good friends. The next day Miss July
and I exchanged a few phone messages, but never reconnected.
Even though it was over, I was still waking on air, feeling as if I
had done all I could and was now exuding an air of confidence that
nobody could touch. I even kept two of her back issues for myself. One
to put on the coffee table, and one to put in a pristine cellophane
folder where it would remain intact on my bookshelf until the end of
my days… It still sits there today.
As I rounded the bread aisle, I saw her again. As luck would have it,
we were approaching the check out line at the same time, inspecting our carts and reaching into our wallets for ATM cards. I purposefully took the spot in line directly behind her and noticed as she unloaded
an unusual amount of dog food onto the conveyor belt. She also bought butter, apples, avocados, bananas, Kombucha and a pre-made tray of
sushi. I was still staring. My 10-year-old took advantage of my distant
gaze and slipped two packs of M & M’s into my cart. I didn’t care. I
had butterflies in my stomach as if I was back in that Hollywood
nightclub 17 years earlier… But then it hit me: I was married. I was
standing with my child. I had no reason to not say something. If
anything, I thought, it would extend the memory a few more years. I
decided to go in for the kill.
“Is your name Taylor? (Not her real name)” I asked.
She looked up at me and smiled.
“Yeah, who are you?”
“My name is Zach,” I said. “Not sure if you remember me, but we sort
of dated about 17 years ago… we met at a nightclub and went to Casa
She looked me over, perplexed.
“Were you that drummer?” She asked.
“No, but I play music…”
“Oh, you were the guy who knew Green Day!”
“No,” I said.
“Oh. Did you know Quentin?”
“Nope,” I responded, realizing that I was barely a flicker of memory
in her mind all these years later – whereas she had held the top spot
in my gallery of former flames for close to two decades. I was a bit
“Oh, wait!” She said. “Did you used to have long curly hair? And you
lived on Harper Avenue and you played me Crash into Me by Dave
Matthews Band on your guitar?”
The cashier chuckled.
“Uhh, yeah, that was me,” I said, blushing.
She hugged me as if we were long lost siblings. I felt my wobbly arms
go around her body once more, immediately wondering what would have
happened if I hadn’t been so stubborn at that bar all those years ago.
My chest pressed against hers and for a brief moment I was 23 again,
stupidly running around Hollywood with a group of horny friends
worrying about nothing but a 10 a.m. commercial audition and where I
was going to be drinking that night. She pulled away and paid for her
groceries and stood behind the bag boy waiting for me to pay and
rejoin her. When I did, we caught up briefly and I introduced her to
my son… who seemed to not have any interest in this beautiful woman
that his dad was talking to.
As it turns out, Miss July still did Playmate conventions. She was
living in the valley, had been married for a year but was divorced and
was raising her 3 small dogs, Gucci, Dorito and Mr. Farts-A-Lot. She
didn’t go out anymore, was disappointed with Tinder and loved The Big Bang Theory. I felt like she was reciting her “Turn-On” list
from her Centerfold interview page – but had updated it as a
We exchanged numbers and she remarked on how handsome my son was. I
told her I’d invite her out to see my band if we ever played again and
I watched her speed off in her Prius. I thought back to the nights we
had shared together and then looked back at my son, blissfully playing
on my phone, seemingly unaware of what had transpired between his father and
that mysterious girl in the produce section 17 years earlier.
As we drove home, he handed me back my phone and stared out the
window. As I watched his eyes dart around the city, I thought of his
future and how he was still so young and innocent and had the entire
world ahead of him. I realized how happy I was to be spending my life
with my wife, my daughter and him, and not a smelly pug named Mr. Farts-a-Lot.
And then, after a few minutes of driving, he broke the silence.
“Dad, I wanna learn some Dave Matthews Band songs on guitar,” he said.
11 years ago I covered a $659.48 bill in a Vancouver bar because Jason Momoa had conveniently, “left his wallet at home.”
Aquaman owes me some cash.
All of these Aquaman billboards that are towering all over the country have had me nostalgic for a night, back in 2007, when I had spent the night drinking and hanging out with a young actor named Jason Momoa who was playing “Ronon Dex” on a TV show called Stargate Atlantis.
I had met Jason because I had made and performed a viral “Stargate Atlantis rap video” about how much of a superfan of the TV show I was… (even though I had never seen an episode). The producers then offered me a small role as “Scientist #2” on an upcoming episode of the program and they even flew me up to Vancouver to act in a scene. We also scheduled a “Set visit” for the TV show I was currently on called Attack of the Show.
This whole thing started when my friend Jane, a veteran TV producer, was asked by the Stargate universe to create them a “viral video” for the internet.
This was during a small period of time when TV/Film companies were hiring producers to try and capture lightning in a bottle for the masses by shooting high quality videos that seemed cheap, affordable and easy to digest online… This was WAY before influencers, SoundCloud rappers and Instagram stories… This was before everybody had an iPhone and a high quality camera in their pockets and garage band on their laptops. If you had musical talent and were willing to work for next to nothing, you could get a million views and the respect of the industry in about a week.
I had recently performed and produced a series of comedic rap videos for Attack of the Show – which led to Jane calling me to do a song about Stargate Atlantis as they attempted to develop their online brand.
“Have you ever seen the show?” Jane asked me on the phone one afternoon.
“No, but that won’t matter,” I responded. “Send me the DVD’s and I’ll write a song tonight.”
Her messenger delivered the DVD’s that afternoon. I watched six episodes. By 11 p.m. that night I had written an entire rap song about how much I loved Stargate Atlantis and how, as an actor, my dream was to be on an episode of the show…
Two days later we recorded the rap song with a music producer named Terrace Martin. Yeah, the same Terrace Martin who rolls with Kendrick Lamar. You know that song “Damn?” THAT TERRACE MARTIN. The man is a hip-hop legend. However, back in 2007 he was just another guy trying to make it, like we all were… and his resume included some indie rappers and a couple of songs with Snoop Dogg.
Here’s the Stargate Atlantis song and video we shot while making it…
After this song and video went “nerd viral,” which meant that all the Stargate Atlantis fans went crazy analyzing the lyrics and anointing me the “King of Stargate rap music” – I began receiving hundred of emails and MySpace requests from Stargate fans across the world. They all had names like “Wraith Woman #2” and “Daedulus Dude” and were asking me for my address so they could send me things like Stargate collector’s plates and shit. (I still have these). It was crazy. The fans rivaled Trekkies or the disciples of the Star Wars Universe. I had suddenly been accepted into the tight circles of Stargate fanatics.
The video was spreading and an executive producer on the show held a cast and crew screening and made me an instant celebrity amongst the cast, grips and writers of the show. It was INSANE. A week later they flew me up to Vancouver to play my small role, put me up in a hotel and even PAID me… These are the type of jobs that RARELY come along…
Anyway, I first met Jason Momoa on set the day of my scene, and I watched him train incessantly for some tricky fighting sequence. I interviewed him along with the rest of the cast for my set visit and got along well with everybody. What stood out to me most about Jason was that, whereas the rest of the cast had big, beautiful trailers… Jason had an AirStream trailer from the 1960’s. The other cast had couches, but Jason had removed his and fastened in a hammock instead. The dude was definitely living a different life as a TV star.
After interviewing him, we started talking music and went back to his Airstream where he showed me his 1940’s Gibson acoustic guitar that was worth about $5,000. I played it in awe and dreamt of the day I could play a character like his – a “Satedan,” a member of civilization from the Pegasus Gallery on my own bad ass science fiction TV show… Instead, on the episode that day I was simply playing “Scientist #2,” a character who contracts some disease and had a few throw away lines to Dr. Mckay (played by the hilarious David Hewlett).
By the way, I still get occasional 13 cent residual check in the mail from this role…
After my scene was shot, Jason casually mentioned that he had a day off the next day and wanted to know if I had any interest in getting some beers that night.
“Sure, man,” I said.
That evening we met at the hotel and proceeded to ambush the nightclubs of Vancouver. At first, we met some of his friends for drinks where the bartender refused to charge him anything. A few beers in and we headed over to a dinner spot where a bunch of his friends joined us. The drinks and food flowed and I was amazed at how many people stopped and paid their respects to Jason and his impressive dreadlocks. He was a big time celebrity in town… I just thought he was a cool guy. Then, around 11 p.m. the bill came.
We all sort of stared at it for a long time. And then Jason picked it up. He looked at it, leaned over to me and whispered in my ear.
“Dude, I left my wallet at my place, can you cover this?” He said
“Uhhh, pay me back?” I said, rather scared to look at the total.
“Yeah man, we’ll go to my apartment. I have cash.”
And so, just like that, I put my card down and bought Jason Momoa and his friends a $659.48 dinner.
And then we went to the bar and I bought some more beers. And then some more. And then we stopped at a liquor store on the way home where I picked up some Stella Artois to take back to his place.
I was about $750.00 in the hole at this point.
Momoa’s apartment was sort of like his trailer. He had decorated it with a bunch of his homemade leather furniture, was definitely not a fan of pre-fabricated food and he immediately put on the incredible Tom Waits CD Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards.
We drank a few beers and talked about Hollywood, his girlfriend Lisa Bonet and how he had dreams of becoming a “Warrior” in the movies or something… I told him how my dream was to play the Greek Theater in Los Angeles someday. We went back and forth about how the wolf was his spirit animal and mine was the eagle. He showed me his screenplay, which was wrapped in a handmade leather-bound notebook of some sort – and I gave him my band’s new CD Alcoholiday, which he told me he liked. He then gave me a copy of a terrific book called “Hobo” by Eddy Joe Cotton (A MUST READ) and we toasted to our dreams until the early morning.
Around 3 a.m. I called a cab and my night out with Jason Momoa had come to a drunken, blurry end. I stumbled back to my hotel room at the Sutton Place and got into bed… It was then that I realized SHIT. I forgot to ask him for the money from dinner.
The next day my wife called and asked me if I had spent $750.00 on our card, as she was getting “fraud alerts” from the bank.
“Yeah, it’s a long story,” I said. “But I made a cool new friend!”
A few weeks later, the British TV station SKY 1 contacted me about using my Stargate song as a promo to hype the upcoming new season of the show. I agreed and it opened up a brand new fan base across the pond. To this day, the ASCAP residual checks I got from that usage are above and beyond any financial success I have ever experienced.
And somewhere, on an old hard drive of mine, exist about 25 photos of me and Jason hanging on set… in the bars and among the barflies of Vancouver back in 2007. There is also a segment we produced for Attack of the Show on a DVD buried somewhere in my garage, but I ain’t trying to go dig that shit out either… If you have it, internet, feel free to post it.
Jason and I stayed in touch for a few years, texting songs and book recommendations to each other, but once he got more and more successful, our texts stopped and we both fell into busier work and fatherhood. Now, as I see him staring at me from the stage of Saturday Night Live – or from behind his massive Trident on an Aquaman billboard, I feel like he finally became the “warrior” he had told me he wanted to become.
As for me, I haven’t played the Greek Theater yet… But, when I make it there, I’ll perform any song you want to hear…
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…