This past weekend, I decided to have a yard sale. It sounded like the perfect idea. A fun and social way for me to unload the over-crowded boxes that had been shoved in the back of my garage and turn them into some serious cash. After all, who wouldn’t want to buy my old snap button western shirts I once wore on tour with my band? Or my vintage t-shirt collection that ranged from soft 1970’s Wild Turkey Bourbon logos to an original Rick Springfield Working Class Dog Hanes Beefy-T? Or even the dozens of valuable beer coozies I had collected rifling through Goodwill crates across the country that I just never used? And what neighborhood fashionista wouldn’t jump at the chance to own a pair of my wife’s designer leather pants for a steal at $100? Or any of the hundreds of blouses she had earned working in the fashion industry for twenty years? The way I saw it, my yard sale was more of a vintage pop-up shop than a junk sale – and I was expecting nothing but a hipster, gypsy crowd with millennial money in their wallets and a dream of buying an old suede fringe vest on their minds.
Oh how wrong I was.
The Craigslist ad I had placed stated that the sale would begin at 7 o’clock in the morning. However, a crowd of freakish haggling ghouls began showing up at 5:30, knocking on my pre-dawn door asking me if I would give them a sneak peak into my wares before everybody else arrived. Some came by van, others by bike. One man, I had assumed by the sleeping bag he carried, had camped out on our sidewalk the night before like we were about to release tickets to a One Direction concert. Suddenly, having a yard sale became somewhat frightening but I thought of all the time it would save me having to deal with ebay and those pesky fees, shipping costs and trips to the post office.
Our first early morning visitors were two Spanish-speaking men who were very interested in knowing if we had any “tools for sale.” Having only owned a screwdriver, some nails and a hammer in my illustrious DIY carpentry career, I calmly told them no – before inquiring if they would be interested in a brass Jackson Browne belt buckle.
“No, gracias,” the older gentleman said. He took a look at my daughter’s rusty Frozen decorated bicycle before driving off.
The guy with the sleeping bag asked if we had any bedding and/or pillows for sale. I told him no, and asked him if he’d be interested in a Jane Fonda Workout vinyl record.
Our next visitor arrived around 6:00 a.m. She was an older, haggard bag lady who had over 45 satchels draped off of her weathered bicycle. In the knapsack that was slung around her shoulder she carried an actual brass tai-chi sword that she insisted on wielding in front of my son in a terrible re-enactment of her early morning lesson she had just taken in Griffith Park. After frolicking around the sidewalk like Westley in The Princess Bride for 25 minutes, she finally walked in and inquired about buying some iron rods and curtain rings we had recently taken down from our inside windows. Originally, these rods were purchased for $300 when my wife was doing some interior decorating to her old home in Laurel Canyon. Feeling generous, I offered her the rods and rings – with the curtains included – for $200. She stared at me as if she was about to run me through with her weapon. She mumbled something beneath her breath and eventually moved onto the junk table I had assembled in the back corner. She picked up a set of hippopotamus salt-and-pepper shakers and giggled while examining them.
“These are fun,” she exclaimed.
“My mom brought me those from Morocco,” I told her, lying. In reality they were Goodwill purchases I had used as a prop in a film I had made with my brother in 2011.
“Could you do ten bucks?”
Again, she laughed and twirled around the yard and started speaking what seemed like French to nobody in particular. She wrote her name down in a tiny notebook she had hidden in her stocking, ripped the page out and handed it to me. As she pressed it into my palm, she whispered, “Call me when you realize you’re asking way too much money for everything.”
I looked at the slip of paper. Her name was Laurette Soo-Chin-Wei Lorelai.
Around 7:15, the floodgates began to open. More and more groups began appearing, asking for mainly larger items such as furniture and floor lamps. I was somewhat amazed that no one had snapped up the Crosley turntable, the Pablo Neruda collection of poetry or the coffee table book Nudie: The Rodeo Tailor. After 45 minutes, I was beginning to wonder if that sword-carrying woman was correct… Was I charging too much?
I quickly Googled Yard Sale Etiquette.
According to yard sale laws, the average price of most of your items that are not bulky or still in the packaging – should be around $1.00. My average item was in the 5-10 dollar range, and in my mind, totally reasonable. It wasn’t until I made my first sale that I had a change of direction for the rest of the afternoon.
In 2007 or so, I had bought my son a collectible Star Wars denim jacket with R2-D2 and C-3PO sewn on the back at a trendy Farmer’s Market for $45. Even though he had probably thrown up and peed on it a few dozen times during his toddler-hood, I felt that $30 was a fair asking price. When I mentioned this to the interested woman who had been measuring it up against her own 3-year-old’s torso, she scoffed and hung it back on the rack.
“Ay de mi!” She said in Spanish.
Determined to make my first sale, I decided to bargain with her.
Now, I come from a long line of world-class bargainers. My mother and late grandma used to waltz through Canal Street in New York City with peacock-like confidence, able to nudge an unwavering vendor into dropping the price on an imitation Louis Vitton handbag from 500 dollars to roughly 50 cents in under three-minutes. Together they played the street like silver-tongued Jewish barter hounds, satisfied only when departing the area with 3-5 purses, imitation Rolexes and fake Prada luggage beneath their arms. They have been taking me to the secret inner space of fake handbags since I was about two-years-old and as far back as I can remember, they were the Ronda Rouseys of price negotiating… In fact, I recall one legendary trip where my mother actually made a profit while buying a purse.
Throughout the years, I have mastered the talent myself, but mainly when talking down a woman who once offered to cornrow my hair on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. I have also, never really been the haggled, only the haggler… Nevertheless, I felt that my family history had prepared me to challenge this woman over the Star Wars jacket to the very end… and I would not give in.
“Maam, could you do 25?” I asked.
“How about one dollar,” she said.
“What?” I screamed. “This is Star Wars! Like, collectible!”
“Senor, I will give you two dollars.”
At this point I knew my grandmother was watching down from heaven like a boxing trainer watching her prizefighter take hits in the ring. I refused to back down, so I just slowly lowered my price until she agreed. I decided I would not go lower than 18 dollars.
“20 bucks,” I said.
“3 dollars,” She barked,
“18?” I pleaded.
“Adios, senor,” she said, walking away. Oh my God! What was wrong here? Had I lost the sale? Was I going to be stuck with this jacket in my garage for the next 30 years? Like most hoarders I thought to myself, maybe when my son has a kid of his own, he will give this to him… but I knew that was a long way off. Finally, I surrendered. Mainly as a way to break the ice and make my first sale of the day.
“Maam? 3 dollars is fine,” I said. The lady reached in her wallet.
“How about two?” She offered.
I paused. I looked up at grandma, undoubtedly shaking her head in disappointment from that great Nordstrom’s Rack in the sky.
“Fine,” I said. She pressed two wrinkly dollars into my hands and just like that, I was $42 in the hole, but I had made my first sale of the day.
As the day wore on, my prices dipped lower and lower. I sold a handful of action figures for .25 cents a piece, a stack of vintage T-shirts for a dollar each and had the day’s biggest score when an unopened buffet dish that we had received for our wedding in 2004 went for $4.00. Nearly every item of clothing I was selling dropped in price by 99% by noon. My wife’s leather pants went for two bucks. The Rick Springfield shirt went for a dollar, as did the Mumford and Sons shirt, some Jack Daniel’s glasses and a silver booze flask that had an engraving of a man bass-fishing while naked. As the yard emptied, my wallet grew fatter and fatter – albeit with one-dollar bills – until I found myself exhausted, bored and anxiously wanting to count the bankroll in my pocket. My guess was that I had made $100 or so, based on the flurry of quick deals I made unloading the DVD collection, stacks of children’s books and my unbelievably large collection of novelty trucker hats… which had sold to some professional tree service men who had been working on a job a few blocks down. (Which might explain why if you drove by Franklin Avenue last weekend, you saw six guys on ladders wearing hats with My Other Car is Your Mom on them).
The most disgusting sale of the day went to the three ladies who argued over who would get to wear my wife’s used LuLuLemon Yoga pants. In retrospect, I probably could have sold them to some perverted Japanese businessmen in a vending machine for $60 a piece. Instead, I settled for – yep you guessed it – a dollar.
A crisis struck when I sold my son’s old Nintendo Wii console for ten bucks. Originally, he had wanted $100 for it… Which is 90 dollars more than what the smug bastards at GameStop will give you for the same item. Convincing him that I was a master salesman, I let him give me the Wii to sell at the yard sale instead. Sadly, I buckled early and let it go for $10.00 and I threw in some accessory called a Skylanders Portal. Not even sure that the console worked, I was just happy that I had made a double-digit sale. My son was not thrilled at all.
“You’re the WORST!” He screamed at me. “That was worth at least 300 dollars!”
One thing that kids fail to recognize is how fast technology loses value in today’s ever-changing world. Still, there was very little convincing him that I had struck a decent deal and he continuously stuck his head out the door and screamed at me for my “epic fail.” Ultimately, I ended up giving him the ten bucks even though I was the one who had bought him the original console for $275 back in 2010. Screw technology.
Around 4, the traffic had dwindled down to some neighbors, who we basically just handed items for free to get the stuff off of our property. Although it seemed like a bunch of things had been sold, I was still staring down a massive pile of clothes and books and toys and albums and knick-knacks and just straight up garbage. I prayed for some Saudi billionaire to walk in with a briefcase full of cash and just tell me he was taking the whole lot for $50. Alas, it looked as if my day was over. I cracked a beer and peed on a cactus.
And then, like a boll weevil out of a nearby hedge, Laurette Soo-Chin-Wei Lorelai re- appeared, tai chi sword in hand, pushing her bike in my direction with a Cheshire cat-like simper on her face.
Like a panther she strutted around the sale, inquiring about every single item remaining. She decided to mention that she was a regular on “the scene” and that she could tell you what was going to sell the minute she sets foot in someone’s rummage sale. She offered to help me whittle down my items to try and resell the next day for the bargain price of 10 dollars an hour… I relented. All I was thinking was “get the hell out of my yard.”
I started gathering everything that was left over and throwing them in boxes. She suddenly slid next to me, holding the iron curtain rods, the rings and the hippopotamus salt-and-pepper shakers from earlier.
“Ready to make a deal?” She asked.
“Lady,” I said. “Give me five dollars and go back to whatever hole you crawled out of.”
She handed over a bill, pressing it into my palm and stared directly into my eyes.
“Told you so,” she said.
That night I didn’t finish cleaning up. I was too wiped out. I left the majority of my once valuable wardrobe out for whoever in the neighborhood wanted it. A few things disappeared, which I didn’t even care about. It might be cool to see the neighborhood homeless guy wearing my old Blues Traveler T-shirt.
The next morning I threw all the remaining crap into my car and drove it directly to the Out of the ClosetThrift Store. I shoved it into a filthy back room along with thousands of other donations. As we unloaded all the boxes and unsold clothes and books and toys, they asked me if I thought the huge haul of stuff was worth more than $500. After all, a big donation would serve as a great tax write-off at the end of the year. Unaware of this little loophole, I figured that, yes – this crap was definitely worth more than $500.
They gave me a slip to present to my tax preparer and I drove home, satisfied that I had at least made a donation that would help me out financially.
As for my bankroll, I finally had the chance to count my earnings at the end of the sale. For nine hours of bargaining, labor and sweating under 100-degree weather, I had made a grand total of $47.
Somewhere up in heaven, my grandma was shaking her head in disappointment…
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…
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
I am uncomfortably straddling a white folding chair with 40 other people, ages ranging from 21-60 on a 103-degree day in Alta Dena waiting to work as an extra on a network TV show for the day. The pay isn’t terrible – $142.37 – or something like that, plus whatever gargantuan amounts of Craft Service snacks, candy, sodas and mini sandwiches I can shove into my shoulder bag to take home, but the overall feeling is grim. There is some old Greek food suffering beneath a sneeze guard nearby, a lot of discarded banana peels and a large fan blowing cool air towards us to keep us comfortable – like we’re NFL running backs playing a September game in Phoenix.
The scene has a prison-like feel to it. There are the lifers, the newbies and the guys who are only here for a few days trying to get their health insurance. I fall into that last category, but the fear of getting sexually assaulted by one of the older “inmates” is very real. Only problem is I can’t kick anyone’s ass to prove that I’m “tough.” Instead, I choose to bury myself into my iphone and hope the 45% charge lasts another 8 hours.
A year ago I was in New York City promoting my own TV show in Times Square for Tru TV. Now I am listening to a 22-year-old kid talk about how Hot Tub Time Machine is the main reason he dropped out of college to try to make it as an actor. You gotta love this business.
The majority of chatter amongst these “background players” or “atmosphere” is about the world of extras. Many relay the legendary scene in Ben Hur where an extra forgot to take his watch off during the chariot race. (Look it up – it’s hilarious). Others talk about how Ricky Gervais ripped off their idea when he did his Extras TV show. However, the subject that keeps coming up time and time again is the “bump up.” A “bump up” is when an extra is promoted from an extra to a principal role. Suddenly, the lucky bloke can go from zero to hero and earn Screen Actors Guild daily rate. However, according to everyone, incidents like that are more rare than finding a piece of sushi that hasn’t been in the sun for six hours beneath the cast and crew food canopy.
I am here today because I need to make $6300 before the end of the year as a way to qualify for Screen Actors Guild health insurance, a plan I have somehow managed to attain for the past twelve years. This year, however, the jobs dried up, a ton of work went non-union and I have finally aged out of the commercial actor category of “young, shaggy haired beer-drinking party guy.”
At this pay rate, it will take me working nearly every day for three months to earn the necessary SAG income to keep my family on the health plan. Alternative options – Obamacare and Cobra – basically guarantee that I will be paying 75% more money for lesser benefits. It has long been noted that SAG has terrific health care. The problem is that you need to earn an outrageous amount of money to qualify for it, and this year has been an ice bath as far as SAG work has been going.
“My dad was Jimmy Smits’ stand-in on LA Law,” a man named Sonny who was dressed as a Native American jewelry salesman bragged to the lot of us huddled beneath the blue pop-up tent. “He told me to find a niche as an extra. When I started out I only played Latino, only roles were for prisoners or a gang members. Now that I play Native American, I work all the time.”
I suddenly found myself wishing I had some Native American cheekbones.
As the day rolled along, I began to hear everybody’s story. You coop someone up for long enough, they will eventually tell you their life’s narrative. Every extra on set seemed to have a tale about the one legendary time they were “bumped up” to a principal role. One woman claimed she was bumped on Two and a Half Men because Charlie Sheen fired the original woman who had been cast for her one line of “Suck it, Charlie.” A guy who often plays blue-collar types said he got his bump on Dharma and Greg and had his career-defining moment in a bar fight scene when he raised his fists and said, “Meet my two friends… Mary-Kate and Ashley.”
And then there was Sonny, who said he specifically learned the extinct Native American language Kiowa to nab a line in a Civil War series. His line was “D’on T’ap Piii.” Which translates roughly to “See deer eating.”
I stared at Sonny for a long while. He did look familiar, as that Native American guy you sort of see in films, but I wasn’t sure. Which meant he was a great extra. One who blended in. He bragged of his work on The Alamo, Oz, The Longest Yard, Texas Rising, Hatfields and McCoys. Dances With Wolves and of course, That 70’s Show. The way he saw it, he was an integral part of these films. A guy who went uncredited – but felt he deserved all the success.
“There should be an extras lifetime achievement award,” he offered.
As a young actor, I did some extra work at age 22. At the time, like most young dreamers, I thought I was a small break away from my own series and I treated the other kids in the high school dance scene like castaways and future failures. When I started booking some jobs and enjoying the confines of an air-conditioned trailer with a private bathroom, I swore I’d never go back to the extras holding again. Yet, here I was. A 15-year TV veteran with a decent resume that I was too embarrassed to share with the other inmates. I decided to shut up and do my time and maybe get out of there with a few Clif bars and some coconut water.
Then, there was a call to action.
“Peter, Mike, Donna, Marla, Zach – party scene, now!” An Assistant Director yelled at us, directing us towards the makeup department to get touched up.
I put down my phone and walked over to the area, when Donna, one of the younger extras, mentioned that she often worked on the show. She then proceeded to refer to one of the makeup artists as her “glam squad.”
A short, effeminate man named Ty erupted in her face.
“Don’t call me ‘glam,’ don’t call me ‘glam squad’ or I’ll shove this hairbrush up your ass,” he screamed.
Emily, another makeup artist stopped him before any penetration took place. It was surreal. Never in my life had I seen a fight between an extra and a makeup artist. It was like the Cubs-Pirates bench clearing brawl in the National League Wild Card this season. You couldn’t believe it was happening.
It was a major altercation. Apparently, Ty was sent home and Donna was threatening to sue the show for harassment. It didn’t make sense. In my opinion, being called the “glam squad” wasn’t nearly as bad as being referred to as “background” or “ambience.”
My scene was fairly easy. I had to drink some iced tea and mouth the words “peas and carrots” to another extra. The entire time I was placed in the corner of the party and they shot about 9 angles and we let the main actress do six takes before she was happy. As the director stood merely three feet from me, I tried to convince him that a line would be appropriate for my character. I pitched him ““D’on T’ap Piii.”
He didn’t respond. Apparently he didn’t speak Kiowa.
Lunch was at 1:00 and the extras were told to not touch or come near any food until the entire cast and crew had eaten. I was actually quite full from snacking – so I didn’t need to rush, but a lot of the extras bitched and moaned about the lack of respect. I turned to a fellow extra named Tony, who was about my age.
“Why can’t everyone just relax?” I asked him.
“Welcome to the Screen Extras Guild,” he responded.
An hour later, following one of those naps when you fall asleep with your chin in your hand, there was a small rumbling about a potential bump up for one of the extras. Apparently, a producer had seen one of us and wanted to add a line. The bit was that the lucky person would confront the female star of the show – who was wearing a fur jacket – with an uncomfortable long hug and then said, “you feel like a plushie.” All the extras began rehearsing their lines as if this was an audition for the next Coen Brothers film and we all got excited. I even took a walk around the tent and worked on my delivery.
Eventually, the female star and the director came to the extras tent and started looking around at all of us as if we were cattle being sold at a livestock auction. The female actress passed the first few folks, skipped the youngsters and then whispered to her director, “I need a middle-aged schlub.”
I am certainly creeping up on middle age, but I don’t feel like I look that way. I’m in great shape and still have hair and my skin has been hiding from the sun throughout the years as I write my life away. However, I was chosen as one of the three finalists to play “middle-aged schlub.”
We all went and had a private audition with the actress and director. I immediately messed up my hair, raised my jeans to mom-jean height and did my best to look like a total Midwestern chump who would give a hot girl a “long hug” and make her uncomfortable.
“Mmm, you feel like a fluff – wait, what’s the line?” The first guy said, immediately messing up his chances.
“You feel like a plushie,” said the next guy who was 40 pounds heavier and 100% balder than me.
When my turn came, I looked deeply into the actress’ eyes. She stared back at me for about five seconds. I knew this was my job to lose… so I did my best to “eye-bang” her and get the job on the spot. Instead, before I could get my line out, she interrupted me.
“You look like that guy from that Tru TV show,” she said.
“I am that guy!”
“What are you doing in the extras tent?” She replied.
“Trying to get my health insurance,” I said, hoping she would feel my pain and give me the bump up on the spot. I dug deeper into my plea, mentioning that my family had been sick a lot the past year and I was a huge fan of the show.
“You might be too recognizable,” she blurted. “Second guy, you got the job.”
And with that, the fat, bald guy went off to his own folding chair, better food and a holding area behind the video village where the producers and directors hung out.
I returned to my spot in the tent. All the other extras wanted to know what had happened and I told them I relayed the story as best I could. When I mentioned that the female star had said I was “too recognizable” the tent wanted to know why. After all, not one of these folks had any idea who I was. I told them. Nobody had even heard of my show.
“I get recognized all the time,” said Sonny. “People stop me when I walk down the street.”
The rest of the day I watched my phone dwindle down towards the 3% range and eventually die. In a way, I felt like that iphone charge… A year back I was flying high at 100%. Now, I was hanging onto 3.
Before I left, I managed to fill my bag with enough high fructose corn syrup snacks to kill a small village and I hopped into the first awaiting white van that would shuttle us back to the parking lot. Luckily, I ended up in the same row as the female lead actress from earlier.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m sorry about that moment back there… I just recognized you from that other show – I didn’t mean to make you feel bad.”
“Amazingly, you’re the first person to know me from that like, ever,” I said.
“I’ll tell you what. Give me your manager’s name and I’ll make sure we get you in for a small role this season,” she offered.
I couldn’t believe it. Here she was telling me that she would go out of her way to get me a speaking part on her show. I got her personal email and said I’d be sending my demo reel and headshot over immediately. We exchanged good-byes and I returned my mom jeans to the costume department and signed out for the day.
As I walked to my car, the lead actress shook my hand and said I would be hearing from the production office very soon.