48 hours into a nine-day cruise on the Baltic Sea, I successfully traded a first season DVD of the TV show SMILF for a bottle of French wine.
About two weeks ago, my friend Dan asked me to help punch up some scripts for a new live music/theatrical show he was producing on the Lightdream Cruise Line – a ship that is the size of some small cities – with 4000 passengers aboard and over 1200 staff members… Always one for an adventure, I took the gig, fondly recalling the last time I was on a cruise back in high school… I bathed in crystal blue waters, ate unlimited five star food, seduced beautiful women and sipped tropical cocktails by the pool… I was hoping this would be the same thing.
Ehhh, not so much.
Following a 17-hour travel day, Dan, the show’s producer Mark and I boarded the ship in Brest, France. Following our long trip, I was craving a glass of red wine and some Netflix. We met our cruise liasion, Sarah, and she gave us the lay of the land…
“So where’s like, the best bar on the ship?” I asked.
“Oh honey, there’s no alcohol until we reach Copenhagen in four days,” she said.
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Yep. And all the restaurants are closed. Oh, and be aware that there’s no internet or facilities open now… This is called ‘Dry Dock.’”
“And where can I jump overboard?”
As I contemplated learning how to make “toilet merlot” in my cabin, I got the rundown on what exactly “Dry-Dock” is.
“Dry-Dock” is when the ship is being refurbished, rebuilt and cleaned. For weeks, it is in a state of disrepair and thousands of contractors from over 50 countries tear up carpets, put up stages and gather for their three meals a day in the makeshift dining room. People are monitored, allowed 45 minute meal windows, told to avoid sexual contact, can be kicked off board if they have weapons or contraband and nobody is allowed off the ship once they are on…
Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s because it sounds exactly like prison.
If I was going to write a Yelp review about the makeshift dining room where we were forced to eat, I would describe it as “Just a cut below Cracker Barrel…with all the ambience of a shopping mall Red Robin.”
Still, it was our only option and Dan, Mark and I became our own little prison gang, talking under our breaths about Broadway shows and musical theater as massive Scottish, Irish and Croatian guys cursed in their own languages, swallowed gallons of coffee and made us feel like we had to kick one of their asses to establish our dominance in the jail yard…
“I guarantee you we’re the only guys in this dining room right now discussing The Greatest Showman,” Mark said.
The food was constantly recycled and turned into a “new dish” the following day. For instance, the leftover “Breaded Chicken and Peppers” from the night before suddenly showed up again the next morning in the “Breaded Chicken Veggie Scramble.” At one point, I counted four meals in a row featuring a fish called branzino.
One day in the slop line, I chatted up one particularly nice Irish pipe-fitter named Lochlin as we were served what was being passed off as “Lamb Stew.”
“Hey man – where’s the booze on this ship?” I whispered. “Somebody’s gotta have something?”
“Booze? You gotta cohme to Deck One,” he replied in a thick brogue. “We smahggled in everything… booze, dihrty mags, DVD’s.”
And just like that, my trip was saved.
“Wait – why do you have DVDs?” I inquired.
“Shite – with no intehrnet – DVD’s are our only fohrm of entertainment. They’re in high demahnd… Unless you have a thumb drive with pornahgraphy on it – that’s what everybady wants.”
He wasn’t lying. As it turns out, thumb drives with porn on them were traded among the contractors like cigarettes at Riker’s Island. If I could only download my weekly browsing history on Redtube.com, I’d be a very rich man.
“So how much are DVD’s worth?” I asked.
“Depends,” he said. “I just traded seahson one of Stranger Things for four pahcks of smokes… it was fookin’ brahlliant.”
It was then that I remembered I had a few DVD’s with me in my backpack. With any luck, I’d have something valuable on me… I also had a thumb drive that, if I recalled correctly, had Toy Story 3 on it from a family trip a few years back. I ran to my cabin to assess my stash.
In my bag, I had brought DVD’s of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Why I had this I have no idea.) Major League and Major League 2 (Research for a baseball comedy I was writing) and the first season DVD screener of the Showtime TV show SMILF – about a single mom who dates the wrong guys in Boston. It didn’t look very good, but the actress was hot. (I was sent the screener by the Emmy nominating committee, fyi).
I then checked my thumb drive, for Toy Story 3. It was gone. The only thing on it was my latest acting “demo reel.”
That night, Dan and I went downstairs to Deck One to see if we could get our hands on anything… a sip of wine, a beer… something to take away the endless jet lag and long nights of rehearsal.
Lochlin vouched for us – and the DVD’s were thrown on a table. About nine guys came and glanced at them, seeing if any of these films seemed appealing. Sadly, nobody was interested in Benjamin Button or the Major League movies.
“The Benjamin Button movie is too sad and we all fookin hate bahseball,” Lochlin informed me.
SMILF however, had some people intrigued. They wanted to know if the girl got naked, had any sex scenes, if it was funny, etc. I told them I wasn’t sure because I hadn’t watched it yet, but a small bidding war began.
One guy offered up a German porn magazine and two Heinekens. A Croatian guy said he had two packs of cigarettes and homemade Rakia – some type of homemade alcohol. Finally, Lochlin offered me a bottle of Bordeaux he had paid a Phillipino busboy 5 euros to smuggle on.
Lochlin took me to the bowels of the ship. These were the DiCaprio cabins from Titanic and the party going on down there was exactly what you think it would be. A guy was DJ-ing off a laptop, people were dancing and drinking… and there was even a guy giving makeshift haircuts using what I would refer to as my “pube clippers.”
In Lochlin’s room, he showed me how he and four other guys slept in the same room and shared a “Shoilet” – which is a combination of a shower and a toilet. I looked in the bathroom and nearly had a panic attack. These guys were living like pirates in the 1700’s but without barrels of rum, wenches and chests of gold.
He also told me the ship’s morgue was only two doors down the hall.
“The morgue?” I cringed. “For what?”
“About ten fuckers a year die on this ship,” he said. “Someone will prahbably die before we set sail tomorrow.”
I urgently prodded Lochlin to produce the wine and I swiftly stuck it in my bag. I also noticed a couple of other bottles in his room as well. With two more days until Copenhagen, I offered up my thumb drive for another one.
“OK, look my friend – I’m actually an actor – on this drive is a three minute demo reel of a bunch of TV shows and movies I’ve been in… it aint much, but maybe worth at least a glass of wine?”
“Hmmm, “he said, actually contemplating the trade. “What mowvies have you been in?”
“Uhmm… A couple Disney shows, a Jim Gaffigan movie … I dunno – nothing you’ve probably ever seen…”
“Fuck that, Ill just take SMILF.”
I handed it over to him, and with that, I had my hands on a mediocre bottle of French Bordeaux.
Dan, Mark and I savored every pour of that wine that evening. As we giddily went off to bed, hoping to finally have a decent night’s sleep, we passed three contractors casually walking from the top deck somehow holding six beers in their hands.
“Woah, what the fuck?” Dan said. “Where’d you guys get that?”
“At the contractor bar upstairs,” the guy said.
What? A contractor bar? We ran up and caught the last five minutes of a ship regulated “pop-up bar” for the workers. It had been here the whole time and nobody had told us. As it turns out, all of the ship contractors were allowed to come to this bar for a two hour drink window… It was like when the caddies are allowed an hour in the swimming pool in Caddyshack.
Beers were $1.00 and a mini bottle of wine was $1.75. Mark bought the entire bar a round for $14.50.
The following night we were back up with the contractors, who were amazed that a couple of Americans had actually gone down to Deck One and made a wine deal with a Irish guy. One guy from Warsaw informed me that I had been ripped off. He would have given me three bottles of wine for SMILF.
We finally sailed towards Copenhagen and I was reminded of how beautiful the world can be outside of Los Angeles. The contractors left and the passengers got onboard and the drinks flowed and a lot of overweight older couples explored the ship and bought things that nobody in their right mind should ever buy.
At an onboard art auction, I watched two 75-year-old women violently bid on a 72 x 36 painting of a unicorn walking through Times Square… The lucky winner paid $2875 dollars for it.
Meanwhile, the cruise sailed on. We helped establish the flow and structure of the show. After a few days, you start to learn a lot from cruise employees. Most of them are on board for nine months at a time, and many of them are running from some dark, hidden past. It’s almost like the porn industry mixed with hotel management… Which often leads to bad decisions.
Sarah explained it further.
“Everybody sleeps together at first,” she said. “But then you realize you’re gonna have to see them every day for nine months. One night you have sex, the next day you’re fighting over the last box of Frosted Flakes in the buffet.”
“So I’m guessing you’ve stopped sailing your boat in company waters?” I joked.
“No way,” she said. “I banged a sushi chef last year.”
Another thing about cruise employees is that they are obviously extremely removed from current pop culture. At one point, Sarah told me that her favorite film of the past five years was “That amazing Ben Affleck move The Accountant.”
“You have to get off this ship,” I said.
The final night of the cruise and our show was up and running. I had befriended a bunch of new people and watched the show come together. One of the stage directors actually told me that I’d make a great cruise employee as I enjoyed talking to everybody and having a good time.
“I’m flattered, man – but I gotta get back to my family,” I said.
“Oh, you’re one of them…” he said with a sense of disappointment.
I had just been “Family Shamed” by a cruise ship employee.
He apologized for the way he reacted and just said he didn’t know a lot of people who were married with children. I told him not to worry about it and we wrapped up the show for the night.
He then excused himself and went to the shoilet…
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This morning I drove past two skinny homeless men with multiple missing teeth who were smoking cigarettes before nearly running over a mangy stray dog panting in the street. I made a left turn at the Hustler Hollywood store, narrowly averting a woman who was squatting and urinating into a discarded water bottle. I eventually parked and walked around my car, side-stepping two discarded needles some dog crap and a used condom. I dodged a speeding Hyundai that was being driven by a dude vaping and texting at the same time before opening the passenger door… and helping my kid get out of the car.
“Ready for school?” I asked.
Welcome to Hollywood.
I was raised in a peaceful, quiet corner of the desert where coyotes and jumping cholla cacti were my biggest fears while walking to school. I didn’t see a homeless man until I was about 13. Hustler was a magazine that only prisoners and truckers read and needles were something only a doctor could get a hold of. Yesterday, my son asked me why the guy who lives in the dumpster across the street from his carpool pick-up lane is always shouting, “Ho ass bitch” while shuffling down Selma Avenue.
I am raising my children in Gomorrah and it’s starting to freak me the fuck out.
This school year, my son’s entire fifth grade class was moved to a new school campus – about 10 blocks north of the previous campus where they had been since kindergarten. The new campus is on Selma Avenue and is a stone’s throw from the Hollywood YMCA. It’s also a block south of Hollywood Boulevard, nearly 10 medical marijuana dispensaries, six seedy bars, smoke shops, two run-down hotels, a vintage street clock that has been permanently set to 4:20 and about nine tattoo parlors.
Back in my 20’s, when I was stumbling out of the bar Boardner’s (a block away from the school on Cherokee), I could never imagine that someday my son would be taking “Beginner Spanish” 50 yards from where I once puked after a night of Vodka – Red Bulls. I never thought I’d be raising my kids anywhere but some pristine little tucked away school with manicured lawns and open fields and morning sing-a-longs. Little did I know that barbed wire fences, metal detectors and cement soccer fields were going to be the norm for my children…
At a back-to-school meet and greet two weeks after the first day, some other parents expressed their concerns as well.
“We just don’t like the way the school feels,” an angry parent offered.
“We are striving to make everybody comfortable,” the principal, a 40-something man named Reggie replied.
“It’s hard to be comfortable when I smell marijuana every day when I drop my kid off,” another mom piped up.
Hollywood has changed immensely since the rundown 1990’s. Tourism is up, souvenir stores are making great money and people from all over the world are still traveling here to take photos of the sidewalk where an actor’s name is etched into a star. Of course, when the tourists come, so do the hustlers. You’ve seen them selling rap CD’s, trying to get you to take the TMZ Tour and drunkenly swaying into your photos while dressed up in a piss-stained Spider-Man costume demanding five dollars.
Look, my high school was no picnic. I witnessed a shooting, a lot of fights and certainly saw my share of LSD and dirt weed from Mexico, but I was in high school… Not fifth grade. Being raised in the desert certainly shaded me from the inner city realities of gang-ridden America, but I was also lucky enough to travel to places like New York and LA to see how other kids were growing up. Ultimately, their fast-paced lives had a strong effect on me because I headed for college in Los Angeles the minute I turned 18. Thinking back about my childhood dreams, I turned my son one day after school.
“Hey dude, where do you want to live when you grow up?” I asked him.
“Probably the beach… or New York I guess.”
Obviously he hadn’t thought this one out. Not me. By the time I was ten, I had it narrowed down to Los Angeles and Los Angeles.
My son is also already planning out his first tattoo, based on a conversation we had last week. After pouring over NBA star Brandon Ingram’s arms as we were watching a basketball game, he asked me a question.
“Dad, if you could get a tattoo, what would you get?”
“Oh wow, I dunno – probably your name and your sister’s name,” I said. “Something small and hidden and meaningful.”
“I’d probably get Savage in cursive across my eyebrow,” he said.
“You’re not getting a tattoo,” I told him.
“Why not? All the sickest rappers have face tattoos now…”
As we listened to my kid’s Spotify playlist, I heard no less than ten “N-Bombs”, three songs about abusing Xanax, Percocet and Molly and over ten about Gucci, 80,000 dollar watches and ‘Lambos. Every song featured sound effects like “Skrrr” for a cool car or “Skrrrrratatatatata” to mimic an assault rifle peppering an enemy with bullets… Look, I love rap music. I chased a rap career myself at one point… but no 5th grader should be asking his dad what Codeine, Mountain Dew and Jolly Ranchers taste like together.
Alas, the reality of this situation is that I can’t afford to shell out 35,000 dollars to private academies like Campbell Hall or Oakwood… Although from what I remember from college – most of the heaviest partiers came out of these schools. Which gives me some hope… And truthfully, other than the dead guy who was wheeled away from the apartment down the block last week, the school is fun, diverse and growing and I’m actually proud to be a part of the community.
So, as the years roll along, I’ll just have to deal with the syringes, homeless guys and Hustler Hollywood foot traffic for a few more years until junior high. Luckily, that campus is located downtown in a much more secure location…
It’s across the street from an outpatient clinic for opioid addicts…
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
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.
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.
They grow up so fast…
I have to Emcee a Bar Mitzvah next week.
No, not as a favor to a relative… This is a job I am contractually obligated to do. A job I consented to nine years ago. A job that will pay me to slow dance with a 95-year-old great-grandmother as “What a Wonderful World” careens throughout the ballroom of the Calabasas Marriott Hotel. A job that is part of an occupation so nerve-wracking and terrifying, that I once swore I would never do again. Here’s the deal…
Apparently, I did such a good job of emceeing Goldie Thalberg’s Princess Fairy Tale Bat Mitzvah Celebration in 2003, that her father – Alan – had booked me to be a part of his youngest child Max’s Bar Mitzvah – for the upcoming date of September 29, 2012… According to my old boss, Mike, I took a $1000 booking fee in 2003 – and signed a contract. I have absolutely no recollection of this event whatsoever, but Mike said that if I returned the1000 bucks, I could get out of the commitment… Unfortunately, thus far in 2012, I have made a grand total of 329 dollars.
Looks like I’m doing the Bar Mitzvah.
My career shifted right around the time of the Goldie Thalberg party, I was given a small break on television and I began working somewhat consistently – for channels like ESPN, G4 and Discovery Channel. I have not emceed a Bar or Bat Mitzvah since. I actually thought I was out of the game forever. I have not thought about Bar Mitzvahs at all – and in fact – I haven’t even been to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah since 2003. And I couldn’t be happier…
For seven years, it was my only job.
See, from late 1997 to December 2003, I was a part of one of the biggest Bar/Bat Mitzvah/Wedding party planning companies in the world. We controlled the party business in southern California, sending out charismatic party emcees and hot female dancers, adequate young DJ’s and aging cheese-meisters with grease-pan hairdo’s to turn boring parties into the greatest celebrations of a family’s life. The company was called You Should Be Dancing – and at one point, I was a high-ranking performer, desired and requested by Jewish families alike across the expansive California landscape. I sacrificed my Saturday nights for paychecks soaring well into the low four-figure range – all while making a fool of myself in front of a bunch of smiling Jews and their awkward offspring. From Candlelighting ceremonies to mother-son dances, I witnessed it all. The stories are endless and the experience was invaluable, but in 2003, the minute I saw even a slight crack in the window to try and escape, I did – and I never once looked back. Until my old boss called me last week.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” I said to Mike, my onetime supervisor. “When did I do this kid’s sister’s party?”
“2003, Zach,” Mike responded. “You need to call them and start working out the details… unless you just want to return the thousand bucks.”
Hmm. Return the 1000 bucks? The bottom line is, that thousand dollars was spent long ago when I used to have something called “money” in the bank. Long before kindergarten cost 25 grand per year – and way before I knew that “escrow” was an actual thing – not Sheryl Crow’s “hip-hop name.”
Did I have the thousand bucks? Are you kidding me? My wife and I are currently scrambling to refinance our house with some bullshit 2009 Obama-bank Re-Fi that we have been rejected for nine times already. I owe my kid’s dentist $847 for my son’s eight – yes EIGHT – cavities he had filled last month… (For the record, I have never had a cavity in my life, and my kid has brushed his teeth twice a day for 5 years… I am sending this quack to the board for review). I even owe my 90-year-old grandmother five grand because she executive produced the last CD my band put out. (According to my itunes sales, it has netted me negative -3,988 dollars since its release in 2010).
Right now, it’s looking like I am going to have to emcee Max Thalberg’s Bar Mitzvah… And I am scared shitless.
Back in the day, I had a pretty impressive Bar Mitzvah routine. It was cheesy and full of feigned spontaneity, but it worked almost every night. It always started with a traditional Jewish Horah, and went into me leading a choreographed dance to Think by Aretha Franklin -which was then masterfully mixed into the YMCA and The Time Warp. Then, I’d drop the CD in the tray for a hip, new rap dance song like Gettin’ Jiggy With it before closing the set with a popular funny jam like Stacy’s Mom by Fountains of Wayne. Then came the obligatory Sinatra send-off to get people to their tables for their salads, before I would toss on James Taylor’s Greatest Hits and hit the open bar for about 5 double bourbon and ginger ales. I’m guessing that the scene may have changed a bit since then.
“Look, Zach – I’ll send you out with our hippest DJ and some glow-sticks to give away,” Mike promised. ”It’ll come right back to you, you’ve always been a natural performer.”
“I don’t know, Mike, I’m so off on the new music and everything,” I said. “Is Mase still popular?”
“I doubt it… But don’t worry, we have a bunch of Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West and Fun and all that new stuff… you’ll be fine.”
I took a deep breath. Who the hell is Fun?
“How much am I making again?” I asked.
“Well, since you already took the advance, I’ll pay you what all the emcees get these days… $250.”
250 bucks. Not bad for a night’s work, but the pressure and anxiety I used to face preparing for and executing these parties was already beginning to creep back up on me. I wasn’t sure if it was worth it. I opened a bottle of red wine before stumbling upstairs to give my kids a bath. As I soaked them in the tub, I sipped the congenial, crimson liquid and leaned back… wondering how the hell my life had led me back here.
The first time I had to emcee a Bar Mitzvah was when I was 22-years-old. It was a Saturday night, the first summer I was spending in the real world after college, and most of my friends were out at the beach, sucking down Mexican beer and talking to beautiful women, deciding between playing the Rolling Stones or Snoop Dogg on some jukebox. I was stuck in a $50 tuxedo talking to a 13-year-old girl about which song I was going to play next: Barbie Girl by Aquaor MMMBop by Hanson. That night, as the familiar words to “Hava Nagilah” crusaded off the back wall of the party room at Temple Adat Elohim, I nervously took the microphone and was forced to direct the Horah dance as best I could. I had the men grasp hands and come to the middle, circle to the left, stop and clap, circle to the right… I even had to bring in a chair on which to seat little Joshy Schnozzleman as he was hoisted into the ceiling by a bunch of inebriated uncles and proud parents. I was 22 and nervous, breaking a debilitating sweat and completely unable to grasp the concept that I had graduated USC two months earlier with a Broadcast Journalism degree – and was now officially a “Bar Mitzvah Emcee.” I gave myself three months at the job, thinking in the back of my head that some great acting job would come along and take me away from Bar Mitzvah hell…
Little did I know, this would be my profession during my 20’s. Mike even coined a phrase for all of the employees. We had to refer to ourselves as the “Pied Pipers of Party People.” I am not kidding.
By my second year into the job, I had made some good friends. We were all actors and musicians, and we had a job that allowed us to get to auditions during the week and make a decent living on the weekends. Plus, once we figured out a way to have bartenders serve us alcohol during parties, the job eased up and became a lot more fun… And then the incredible stories started coming out.
At a wedding in 1999, a DJ named Ronnie Jacobs had sex with a bride ten minutes after her first dance in a broom closet.
Rick Freed slept with a 45-year-old mother of the Bat Mitzvah girl while meeting her to organize the slide show.
Brad Billings got paid $1000 to show a woman his dick at a wedding.
It went on and on.
The name that was thrown around the You Should Be Dancing offices nearly every day, was Paul Rudd. Apparently, in 1994 or so, Paul had worked at the company as a DJ and emcee before getting his break in the film Clueless. We all aspired to be Paul Rudd, and looked at this job as a launching pad to our acting careers. (Years later, when I interviewed Paul Rudd, I mentioned to him that I used to work at the same company he did… He laughed and asked me how I “got out.” – Like I had broken out of a Civil War prison camp or something). I even saw Paul on a late night talk show spinning stories from his days on the Bar Mitzvah circuit, and even those yarns were entirely inspiring to every one of us.
If he could get out, we all could…
After overdrawing my bank account for a Trader Joe’s purchase, I realized that there was no way out of the party. Thankfully, it was then that I realized that this could, in fact, be a great opportunity. After all, I had met plenty of Hollywood folks at parties over the years – maybe someone would like my dance rendition of Greased Lightning and offer me a walk-on role on Two Broke Girls? Heck, I used to DJ Bar Mitzvahs that Jonah Hill attended… back when he was the funny fat kid who ate all the dreidel-shaped sugar cookies. Maybe this party would open an unexpected door that I hadn’t even considered? I immediately called Mike and told him I was on the job. He gave me the Thalberg’s number and I dialed it up, preparing to fill out the typical Bar Mitzvah worksheet I used to live my life by all those years ago.
Here goes… I thought to myself.
“Hello?” Alan Thalberg said as he picked up his phone.
I promptly hung up.
Nervous and anxious, I decided to look up my old friend Rick Freed on Facebook and see if he was still working in the business. Sure enough, he was. He had branched out and started his own company called “FREED YOUR MIND” and was doing quite well. I messaged him and gave him my number. He called me within two minutes.
“Zach!” He screamed. “Dude! I saw you on TV last month! You’re killing it, dude! How’s life?”
“Not bad, Rick, how are you?” I asked.
“Still sleeping with Bar Mitzvah moms, bro!”
I was taken aback. Was he serious? Was he still in the game of Bar Mitzvah MILF hunting? He must be 42 or 43 by now… hadn’t the whole novelty of that all worn off?
Rick updated me on some of our old friends from the business: Good old Ronnie Jacobs got fired in 2005 when he hit on a girl who turned out to be 16-years-old. He thought she was 25. Turns out, she was a high school junior with an Accutane prescription. Last he heard, Ronnie was DJ-ing at the Spearmint Rhino strip club in the valley.
Brad Billings was a weatherman in Piggott, Arkansas. He had 5 kids.
Rick was, indeed, still sleeping with Bar Mitzvah moms.
“Wow, man… that’s crazy,” I offered. “Listen… I have to do a Bar Mitzvah next week and I’m a little rusty… can you help me out?”
Rick greeted me with silence. His heavy breathing sounded beleaguered as he slowly let his voice drop to a whisper.
“Are you serious, man? I don’t have any positions to hire you…”
“No, no -it’s not like that, man – I made a promise to a family nine years ago that I’d do their son’s party and, well… it’s been nine years. I have to emcee a week from Saturday. I was hoping you could give me some tips.”
Rick proceeded to break it all down for me. He was a lifesaver. His main point was that nothing had changed but the pop music. The dance moves were all the same, the Candlelighting ceremony and mother-son dance hadn’t changed – and they even still played Donna Summer’s Last Dance to close the night. The only thing I might need to do is help the dancers lead a choreographed routine to “All the Single Ladies” by Beyonce.
“Watch the video on YouTube and learn the moves,” he said. “Kids LOVE it.”
You have got to be kidding me.
After thanking Rick profusely and promising him I’d meet him for a beer in the next couple of weeks, I felt somewhat relieved that I might still be able to pull off the YMCA and Grease songs, but that All the Single Ladies idea scared me blind. I quickly Googled the video and began yelling at my wife across the house as I witnessed Beyonce and her dance partners do things the human body was never supposed to do.
“White people aren’t supposed to move like this!!” I screamed.
I finally called Alan Thalberg, who it turns out, had been shocked that I was still available. He promised me a fun night – and said that his kid Max was trying to get him to throw a Playboy Magazine- themed party. He wanted to hire actual Playmates to walk around and dance the Horah in a throne rather than a chair – all while wearing a monogrammed Hugh Hefner-inspired bathrobe instead of a suit.
Max was my kind of dude.
Over the next week, I organized a musical playlist and rented a tuxedo. I learned maybe 4 moves by Beyonce and just accepted the fact that my performance was going to suck. I asked Mike to have the DJ bring the equipment so I didn’t have to lug it all around, and he told me that it was all done on laptops these days. The 350-pound equipment I used to have to carry around was long gone. Everything could be run off of an amp and a MacBook Pro. I cursed the hernia I got from this job in 1998.
When Saturday came around, I avoided drinking beer and watching football during the day so that I would be on my game that night. I combed my hair, brushed up on some Travolta steps from Grease and left two hours early to guarantee I wouldn’t be late.
When I got to the Calabasas Marriott, it was as if had entered a time warp. The same worrisome caterers were arguing over how to plate the chicken. The uptight party planner stressed out over where the chicken fingers and pizza would be stationed during the kids dinner. Even the photographer, who had long given up his dream of becoming the next Walter Iooss, jr. in favor of party photography – looked the same. It was a black hole into 2003… Except now, I had less hair and no idea what these kids were listening to anymore.
When I got to meet Max, I didn’t remember him. After all, he was four-years-old when we had first met. He took me aside and told me how he had originally wanted a Playboy-themed party. Instead, his parents had forced him to have a Hunger Games theme.
“Totally gay,” Max said, the way only a 13-year-old can. “I hated that lame movie.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen…” I began, my palms sweating as the first crowd entered the room. “Welcome to Max’s Hunger Games! Please choose a weapon from the guest table and proceed to your local DISTRICT… also known as your TABLE!”
These are the exact moments why I quit the business for good.
The DJ I had been assigned to work with was named Gus. He was 23 and told me he was really an actor – but was only doing this job for a few months until “his career took off.” I laughed and wished him luck. I made sure he knew the routine… How to transition from the Horah into the YMCA, etc. and he told me not to worry. In fact, he had cued up every song on his laptop to play back-to-back.
“All I have to do is press one button, and we can coast until the salads are served,” he said. “It’s what all the big DJ’s do too, like Skrillex and David Guetta – it’s all total show. They get pad two million dollars to play a pre-recorded EDM track on their laptops.”
Even though I had no idea what EDM was, I thought back to how miserable we used to have it. I used to make sure I had a WALKMAN on stand-by with cassettes in case of emergencies. I dealt with CDs skipping, levels dropping unexpectedly and bad beat mixes between songs. Occasionally, music would come to a complete stop in the middle of a pulsating dance set… It was a DJ nightmare, and we dealt with it all the time. I used to have anxiety dreams about it the night before parties… Now, all Gus had to worry about was pressing one button. Spoiled little prick.
As Max and his friends took their seats at the Katniss Everdeen Table I suddenly caught the eye of a fantastically stunning brunette in a blue ball gown. She was probably 21, and her flirtatious gaze caught me off guard. What was this girl doing at a party like this? It was Saturday night! She should be out hitting the clubs… dating Charlie Sheen… whatever! She was radiant and young, sexy and enticing. And she was walking towards me…
“Hey Zach,” She said, coyly.
It was then that I realized. This sparkling gem of a female was none other than Goldie Thalberg. And she was smoking hot.
“Remember me? Goldie?”
I took a step back. Here I was, 37-years-old and married, staring at a perfectly shaped young woman whose Bat Mitzvah I had emceed nine years earlier.
“I go to UCLA now,” she continued. “I kept up with your career! You did some cool stuff on TV! It’s so cool that you’d come back to do Max’s party. Can we take a picture?”
“Uhh, sure,” I said, even though she had already snapped it with her iphone.
She turned back towards her table. I caught her looking over her shoulder a second later.
“Hey, save me a dance, will ya?”
Keep it in your pants, Selwyn…
As the evening rolled along and I found myself having no problem with the old routine, I did notice one peculiar thing about the kids. They weren’t interested in glow-sticks and flashy novelty giveaway rings anymore… All they did was TEXT. Every 13-year-old kid had an iPhone and was tweeting, updating a Facebook status and occasionally taking photos. At one point, a group of young girls asked to take my picture. I happily posed for them. They asked if they could “tag” me, and I said sure. For a moment, I actually felt kind of cool! Like I was back relating to the youngsters again, the way I used to do all those years ago…
And then, three minutes later, I got a Facebook update. They had tagged me on their page as “The douchey emcee at Max’s Bar Mitzvah.”
Following my terrible rendition of “All the Single Ladies,” where I just gave up halfway through, I found myself leading a “snowball” dance amongst the kids, where everyone changes partners. It was then that Goldie Thalberg asked me to dance. I obliged, and we awkwardly embraced in that junior high way that hormone-ravaged‘tweens often do. As I spun her in a swing-dance pattern, as a way to keep things lighthearted, I happened to catch Alan Thalberg’s eye. His furious squint said it all. He gave me a signal that I quickly read as “Get the fuck away from my daughter.”
I turned to Gus and told him, “Play anything fast – NOW!”
He did. Goldie went to eat dessert and I snuck off to the bar for a double bourbon and ginger ale.
“Dude, you’re not allowed to drink at parties,” Gus told me nervously.
Two drinks later, the party was in full swing. Max shot fake Hunger Games arrows at his family during the Candlelighting ceremony and Goldie got sick and apparently puked up champagne in the bathroom. As the four-hour extravaganza came to a close, I was relieved when I turned to Gus and announced, “Play Last Dance.”
Moments later, the party came to a superbly happy end. The guests sauntered back to their cars and into the San Fernando Valley night as Gus and I went to the bar for a beer before leaving. As per tradition, Alan Thalberg came up to us with cash tips in an envelope.
“Gentlemen, terrific job tonight,” he said.
“Thanks so much,” I responded.
“Zach, at least three of my friend’s have kids Max’s age and were asking if you’d be available in the next few months… I’ll pass along your number if you like…”
I swallowed my beer and looked at Alan. Was he serious? Suddenly, I was back on top! The one time king of the Bar Mitzvah had returned! I was in demand! For the first time in about nine years, I recalled that feeling of accomplishment and recognition after a live performance… That sense that I had brought happiness to the family and had been admired by the crowd… It felt good. Almost like I was willing to step back in the Bar Mitzvah emcee game once again… And after all, you never get cash tips after you nail a take on TV.
“Uhm, you know what, Alan… sure!” I said. “Give my number to whoever you want!”
Alan thanked us again and walked away. I watched Gus gobble an olive from the bar tray before looking up from his iPhone.
“Can I ask you a question?” Gus said.
“Sure,” I responded.
“How old are you?”
“37, wow! I hope I’m not still doing parties when I’m your age!” He said.” No offense, but I’m like, with the best agent now… and I’m doing a sketch show at UCB…”
“You sound a lot like me when I was your age,” I said.
Gus rambled on about how a girl from his acting class had co-starred on “Rules of Engagement” and how he hated reality TV – and then he said something that made me want to punch him in the nose.
“Did you know that Paul Rudd used to work at the company?” He blurted. “Can you believe that? He’s like, a comedy legend, bro!”
I slammed what remained of my beer and patted Gus firmly on the shoulder. I sauntered back to the DJ booth to gather my car keys and jacket. As I strolled out to the parking lot, I took one look back at the cracked façade of the one-time famed Calabasas Marriott Hotel.
A familiar thought rushed over me…
I am never doing one of these fucking parties again…
ZACH SELWYN * LOS ANGELES, CA. * OCTOBER 3, 2012
A week ago, I got into a freestyle rap battle.
Now, I know this is not something that a 37-year-old father of two should ever be writing, but for some reason, last Wednesday night – I felt a burning desire to join an intimidating rap circle and try and drop some dope-ass, quick-minded, funny lyrics on some totally unsuspecting strangers.
If there is ever a moment in my life I could have back, it is this one.
Standing out in front of the Smokehouse restaurant in Burbank – in front of my wife and another couple – whose kid is in the same kindergarten class with our son, I decided to stumble over into a “cypher,” or crew of people rapping together in a cyclical pattern. I suddenly turned from “the bearded weirdo who always drives the soccer practice carpool,” into “the drunk dad from the kindergarten class who thought he was Eminem.”
Let me back up here a minute. See, I used to be a rapper. That is not a typo. I didn’t “wrap” presents… I RAPPED. I recorded a few CD’s and everything. I had skills. A future. A following.
I know, laugh it up…my outside appearance is deceiving. I am white, fatherly and pasty. I wear basketball shorts and t-shirts 90 percent of the time for “comfort.” I occasionally have non-dissolved Rogaine foam in my hair. I am not intimidating at all.
But, believe it or not, at one point in my younger life I was a bona-fide, authentic, legitimate, validated, record deal – having, somewhat admired freestyle rapper. Arguably, one of the best in the world. I could rhyme like Dr. Seuss on a mushroom trip. I could think off the top of my head faster than 99 percent of all improvisational actors I have encountered. I used to perform my skills live with bands in nightclubs, at late night parties and at sketch comedy shows. I garnered mad respect. People would come up nightly and ask me, “How the hell does your mind think like that?” The truth is? I had no idea.
I bet you’re wondering how this all started…
In 1987, if you had asked my mother what career she thought I’d pursue as a young man – based on the thousands of dollars I made mastering Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire’s signatures – she most likely would have said “professional autograph forger.” (A quick arrest at the local baseball card shop in 1989 ended that career…)
She might have guessed I could have followed my father – who is a doctor – into medicine – but a quick “D” in chemistry my sophomore year of high school stifled that dream. (I even cheated. And I still got a D…)
I may have even been able to make a living in the courtroom, brandishing my gift of gab in front of honorable judges while trying to convince the jury that the defendant was not even in the country when the crime occurred… But to me, law school was for the geeks who couldn’t talk to girls at junior high parties. Or make them laugh at summer camp… Or freestyle rap their way into their pants.
“Yo Melissa/ I wanna kiss ya/Take off your dress and I wont dismiss ya…”
The first time I made a rhyme up about a girl was in eighth grade. Her name was Melissa, and we were at Dana Restival’s Halloween party. Everybody knew I was the best rapper in school – and when I dropped those lyrics to her in front of a crowd of people, she continued to follow me around the party for the rest of the night. Around 9:30, we snuck away, near a saguaro cactus in the Tucson desert – and shared our first kiss. It was sloppy, but unbelievably perfect. Brilliant and everything I had ever imagined. In my mind, Melissa was going to be my girlfriend. I thought I had it made… Problem was, she ended up letting John Coates – school hesher – feel her up on the school bus a week later.
Back in the 1980’s, if you were into rap music, it made you unique. I had a partner in crime named “Ryan the Rhymer” (Now a dentist in Tucson) – and we comprised the tightest white-boy rapping outfit at Townsend Junior High School in 1989. We were a two-man wrecking crew known as “SO FRESH.” I wore African leather medallions to school and sported those 3rd Bass/ Dwayne Wayne flip-up glasses as a way to seem more “intelligent.” We wrote raps and performed onstage as a crew at talent shows, and were basically laughed at for not listening to cheesy hair-cock rock like Poison and Slaughter. Back then, we were the musical outcasts, because we liked Beastie Boys, Shinehead and Boogie Down Productions. Then, one day, we won a student council election based on one of our raps (Called “Do it for the School!!!”) – After that, we were no longer considered out-of-touch losers.
The first rap I performed at my high school was when a kid named Eric Tiberon challenged me to a rhyme-off in ninth grade. He was black, and had the entire school behind him mainly for the sole reason that he had a high-top fade that looked like Kid from “Kid ‘N Play.” When I accepted his challenge, people were somewhat scared for me… but the final parking lot battle went a little differently. Eric basically recited Eazy-E’s classic Eazy-Duz-It. I made up a rap about how much being in ninth grade sucked.
Eric rapped about his cars and his girls (Both of which he did not have).
I rapped about being beat up by a high school bully named Jason and getting a C in Geometry. I remember my verse well.
“School sucks, I get up so early/ Bully named Jason always looking so burly/ Said I looked like a freshman girlie/ stuck my head in a toilet and gave me a swirlie…”
Yeah, I know it was WILL SMITH-ish… It wasn’t hardcore or gangsta – but it was funny – and the people loved it. So much so, that Eric and I became friends after that – even going to see Ghostbusters 2 together just to hear Bobby Brown’s new song “On Our Own.” (Still holds up today. CLASSIC jam).
After that, high school was certainly an awkward stumble through athletics, music, girls and experimentation – but hip-hop music was always a staple in my life. I rapped over Humpty Dance break beats at high school proms and earned my juice on the dance floor busting out the Running Man, Roger Rabbit and the Butterfly to songs like The Choice is Yours by Black Sheep during my junior prom. By my senior year, I thought I’d even try to make a legitimate rap album.
And then The Chronic came out.
Dr. Dre’s album changed my life Suddenly, dancing wasn’t cool anymore. My style of rap sucked and whatever street cred I had amongst my Tucson, Arizona brethren went out the window. I was Vanilla Iced-out. Squashed. 187-d. Ignored.
At the time, I was surprised at how little I cared. In fact, it was a relief to know that my rap career had ended… And the following fall I enrolled in college at USC in Los Angeles – where I engulfed myself in West Coast G-funk – but also expanded my mind into other areas of music as well. I picked up the acoustic guitar as a means to get laid – and even started my first band with my pal Jason Richards. (The only other freshman that could play more than 3 chords) We were called, sadly – “Two College Freshman.”
We were at USC – which is a terrific campus in the middle of south central Los Angeles – and we were one year removed from the famed LA riots of 1992 – so the West Coast dominance of rap music was everywhere – but I no longer wanted to be a rapper. In fact, based on the amount of girls I got when I rapped compared to how may I got when I did an acoustic guitar cover of “Your Bright Baby Blues,” I suddenly realized that I really wanted to be JACKSON BROWNE. Especially when legends like 2Pac and Notorious BIG were murdered, I knew the rap game wasn’t exactly cut out for a 3.8 GPS-having son of a Jewish doctor.
I ended up paying tuition and making ends meet in college by DJ-ing and Emcee-ing fraternity parties and weddings – and I eventually branched out into Bar Mitzvahs after school (An entirely different story altogether). But by the time the late 90’s rolled around – and I found myself hanging around musical friends like the bands Matchbox 20, Paperback and even boy-band acquaintances like ‘NSYNC – I noticed that everybody always talked about the newest rap music out at the time. Puff Daddy, Mase, Nelly – you name it. This was the music of the time, and even the biggest musical stars I knew were obsessed with the genre. I’m not sure where it happened for the first time, but I was around some guy who began freestyle rapping. He was decent, but his trite choice of lyrics and lack of originality made me consider attempting my own rap. I jumped in. He nodded along, probably unimpressed – but nonetheless enjoying my effort. When I was done, he gave me a fist bump and walked away.
I did it again with the guys from ‘NSYNC. Living in Los Angeles in 1998 meant I had a lot of young friends who were trying to act, sing, dance, direct, produce – you name it. One of my buddies had grown up with Chris Kirkpatrick – probably best remembered as the guy Eminem threatened to beat up in a song in 2000 – and the dread-locked “bad boy” of ‘NSYNC – the most popular boy band in the history of the world. Chris and I would get drunk together and end up in some random hotel room with a bunch of girls and background dancers and rap producers at two in the morning. Somehow, after 30 Heineken bottles littered the floor and a few joints were passed, people began rapping. I started stepping in. I started getting the laughs. Making up rhymes – and ultimately having the tightest flows of any so-called “rapper” hanging around these after-parties.
Once, around 1999 – I ended up in the Standard Hotel with Dr. Dre. He was surrounded by 300-pound bodyguards and a crew of slinky women who looked like they were in En Vogue. – He employed a personal “blunt-roller” and was encircled by about ten wanna-be rappers. That night was the first time I was actually afraid to rap in front of somebody in nearly ten years. In fact, after witnessing three saggy-pantsed douche-nozzles try to rap Dre’s ear off, I decided that perhaps my rap future was a pointless joke. I guess I always knew what I did in hotel rooms with my friends was more of a party-trick, and less of a career choice, and it didn’t bother me. I had no interest in becoming a professional rapper. I was committed to having fun and getting laid and occasionally jumping on-stage after 10 drinks to freestyle along with my friend’s band at their Hollywood club gigs. None of it made any sense. We were 25-years-old, wasted and happy and sleeping until noon. We were young, dumb, naïve and convinced that fame and success was just around the corner. One of my friends, a former hip-hop dancer for the local rap station Power 106 – began calling me “Zachariah.” I immediately took on the moniker as my rap handle. “Zachariah, the Rhyme Messiah.” There it was. My party trick. I would go around any room and rap about what people were doing, wearing, drinking, you name it. I never thought it would lead to anything but a few free drinks and some laughter.
And then somebody offered me a record deal.
The first studio time I ever had booked was around this time. A girl I had fooled around with named Lisa knew a rap producer named “Cookie” and she arranged a meeting for us at the Skybar on Sunset Boulevard. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do during this meeting, but I put on a cowboy shirt and fluffed my hair up to Lindsay Buckingham –heights. Anything to seem somewhat marketable and charismatic.
At the time, nobody in LA had any type of haircut but a short spiked boy-band thing, so my wild Jew-fro gave me a little edge. It somehow made me a bit more reckless. Maybe even dangerous – if only in that “I don’t give a fuck” drug-addict look that you see outside of Venice Beach grocery stores.
At the Skybar, “Cookie” – as he introduced himself – told me to order a beer. Lisa was next to me, and I think I ordered a Corona because Mexican beer was about all I lived on in my early 20’s. Lisa bragged about my ability to freestyle and Cookie then stared me down, took a long pull off his beer and asked me to “do something impressive.”
It was on. Was he serious? I nearly froze. I was unsure of what to do. Should I recite some lyrics? Tell him some song ideas? I wasn’t sure. Instead I rapped off the top of my head to the cocktail waitress.
“Come here now for a second Miss blondie/ Any chance you wanna get on me?/ You live in LA? I’m from Arizona/ Do my boy Cookie a favor – another Corona?/ Don’t mistake this – I Cant fake this – you’re so hot for a waitress/ Do ya have fake tits? I cant tell/ That’s alright, I still think yer swell/ My name is Zachariah, how do I look?/ Trying to rhyme for this dude named Cook/ Ill steal yer heart like a bona-fide crook/Ill take yer naked photos and put em in a book/ So lets just let this relationship bloom/ So here’s the key to my hotel room…”
The waitress smiled. Cookie looked at me and said, “I want to capture THAT in the studio.”
I made out with the waitress that night.
So a week later, we were in Cookie’s studio, known as “LeftSide.” I had written a song in Las Vegas with my friend Jason Jacobs called “Runnin’ Shit” about two guys who slept with girls, traveled to Mexico and Vegas on random Wednesdays – and got high and drove really nice cars. In reality, we were both Southern California Bar Mitzvah DJ’s. The last time I had been to Mexico was with my mother over a family Christmas vacation (typical Jewish trip – Mexico over Christmas) and I drove a 1989 Dodge Lancer.
To top it all off, I was desperately unable to do anything in the studio that night – but SUCK.
The studio was a small rented office space off of Slauson and La Cienega. Cookie hooked me up with a producer named Warrior – who was a master of the MPC 3000. We smoked some weed, made a beat and put together a silly rap song full of voice imitations and bad jokes and pop culture references. It was called “Come On” and I was convinced it was my ticket to the big time. A crossover hit… a massive smash. Cookie started marketing me to record companies as “If Eminem hung out at Dawson’s Creek.” I should have quit right then.
I put out an EP on Q/LeftSide Records – and it went triple plastic. Every major label denied me. I ended up with a closet full of 3500 CD’s – which included a song called “Other Side” featuring the powerful voice of a silk-voiced friend of Cookie’s named Stacy Ferguson. Today she’s known a little differently. She’s Fergie from Black Eyed Peas. I never thought she had much of a future. She did have a voice from God, but so did a lot of girls. When we stopped hanging out, I didn’t think she’d go very far.
After LeftSide folded, I ended up starting a country rock band that dabbled in hip-hop. We had a little local success, but not much more. From there, I caught a lucky break and got on TV – where I was able to convince the folks behind the screen to let me attempt to record some songs for nearly every show I have been a part of. Today, those residual checks amount to roughly 63 cents a year.
I also recorded a bunch of stupidly silly comedy rap songs about Cartoons I’d like to F*%&, White People Problems and the TSA. I have released a few CD’s on some small labels and I have been hired by over two dozen companies to write and record rap songs for their products, from Levi’s Jeans to Netgear. So, I guess, technically, I once called myself a rapper… but I certainly never took it seriously. And now, the style of rap is so much different, I have no idea how to imitate lyrical geniuses like Lil Wayne and Drake. I’m still stuck in that Will Smith meets Skee Lo style. Storytelling, comedy and fluff rap.
According to my calculations, it had been nine years since I truly “battled” somebody. A battle is when you trade rhymes with another emcee, often including insults, braggadocio and clever wordplay. A lot of rappers suck at this. For some reason, I was always able to come up with quick rhymes. In fact, I have never lost a battle in my life. Other fools have claimed they out-rapped me, but most of them recited something I could tell was written beforehand. I was strictly improvisational.
Freestyle rapping is like working out. You need to do it all the time or you get rusty. Rarely do you take nine years off and step up to the microphone and sound like Rakim. For some reason, however, last week – following a few glasses of red wine, I thought I was back in the Skybar in 1999.
The three dudes standing outside of the Smokehouse restaurant in Burbank were sharing a joint and rapping about “Maybach’s” and “Stackin’ Chips.” The valet parking attendant took our ticket as I caught one of the guy’s eyes. I guess in the 90’s you would call what he was doing “Mad-dogging.” I would normally run from any large crew of wasted black dudes in a parking lot at 11 o’clock at night, but for some reason, I felt the need to jump into the rap battle. Maybe it was because he kept staring at my wife and obviously commenting under his breath about her. Whatever it was, I felt like I needed to say something. I took a step towards them.
“Punk ass bitches get stitches like snitches/rub you out like a genie, grant ya 3 wishes/ Im a killa, son, drinking Miller, son – All the tracks on my album dope, no filler son…”
I heard the guy’s rhyme. Not bad, but I knew I could hang. I sort of stumbled over as my wife failed to pull me back and stop me from entering the cypher. As I walked up, they noticed me and rapped about my approach.
“White boy stepping up, what the fuck he want/ Gonna kick him in the dick if he pull a stunt…”
The 3 guys laughed uproariously. I started getting nervous. I heard my wife gasp. The other couple we were eating with immediately signaled for their Volkswagen Touareg to be ready to drive off should I get into a street brawl or something. I slipped up to the crew of rappers.
“Are you guys rapping?” I asked, realizing I sounded like that fat pledge in Animal House asking the frat brothers if they were playing cards.
They burst out laughing. I thought I was doomed.
“Yeah, you wanna step in?” A large man with a diamond encrusted grenade-chain offered.
“Well, I actually freestyle… was hoping to get in on the cypher.”
More laughter. They punched each other’s shoulders and leaned their heads against one another.
“Are you gonna put your doggie bag down first?” One of the guys asked.
I looked down. In my hand was a plastic bag of leftovers with a red bow around it. I looked like the schlub I used to make fun of when I was younger. The out of touch chump who was taking home half a New York Strip and three pieces of cheesy-bread after a double-date night. I knew the only way out was to rap. I began firing.
“Yo -I take a bag of leftovers from the smokehouse/ you can continue with your jokes now/I’m broke now – so I have to eat this for breakfast/ When’s your next concert? Put me on the guest list/ I spent my weed money on my wife’s gold necklace/ That’s her over there, she’s got the Best Tits/ I’ve ever seen and they aint even fake/ We live in a house over in Toluca Lake/ I bust freestyles in only one take/ Put the kids to bed stay up late and get baked/ and I know I look lame and somewhat old/ You guys look like a younger De La Soul/ But my wife’s calling me to get the car and go home/ Because she don’t want me to catch another cold/ So I’m out – thanks for giving me time / I doubt any of ya’ll can defeat that rhyme!”
I stepped back and took a breath. Wow. I had dropped 16 bars in front of a crew of three hardcore hip-hop heads who probably took rap music more seriously than I ever did… I had held my own. I was proud and I looked back at my wife and the other couple, who were stone-faced and somewhat impressed. Wait until I tell my son about this!!! I thought to myself.
And then one of the guys began answering my challenge. His name was Black Angus.
“Yo, white boy – your white noise aint right boy/ yeah I see yer wife, she no longer tight, boy/ cause I did her last week/ in the back seat of my Jeep/ Did it in five seconds without a peep/ while you was asleep/ getting kids ready for school/ I gave her my tool and took a piss in your pool/ Smoked your bullshit weed/ pulled it indeed/ Killed you like Drago did Apollo Creed/ Planted a seed – inside her – you mind?/ Now you wonder why your kid looks like mine?/ Don’t step into my circle unless you bring skills/ go home to your anti-anxiety pills/ Watch whack white TV like that show the Hills/ and keep being a sucker and paying yo’ bills/ You a dumb-ass honky who cant rhyme for shit/ Now go back to your Minivan before you get HIT.”
The crew cheered. Our friends Touareg sped off and I was silenced. A terrifying chill, like one I’ve had on airplanes when we hit some odd air pocket that scares even the flight attendants, engulfed my body. I was smoked. Forget winning a freestyle battle, I had been pulverized, insulted, dissed and clowned by a dude outside of a steakhouse that I would probably never be able to go to again. I faked a laugh, and tripped backwards towards my wife and our awaiting car. Which, by the way, is NOT a Minivan.
“How’d that go for you?” My wife asked as we raced off into the Burbank night.
“Uhm, not well,” I said.
After five minutes of complete silence, I uttered my final words of the incident.
“Why’d they have to be so mean?”
I sulked into my home. Being a little buzzed, I passed out watching SportsCenter and the thought of rap music sickened me with every commercial starring Andre 3000 or Ice Cube. It was a cold bucket of water to the face that reminded me that I am – at best – an above average rapper. I am a decent freestyler, but in no way cut out to be a professional. Bottom line? I am too much of a pussy.
The next morning, I pulled out the leftovers from the Smokehouse and considered making a steak-and-egg omelet. The one indulgence I was going to allow myself. When I saw that half of a New York Strip in the bag, it brought back too many bad memories from the night before. I tossed the meat in the trash and settled for a bowl of Trader Joe’s ‘Honey Nut O’s’ instead.
That afternoon, the new Rolling Stone arrived.
Fergie was on the cover…
– Zach Selwyn, September 12, 2012