It was around 2:15 in the morning when a hammered single mom of three kids with a very visible C-section scar approached me following my music gig at a place called Peri’s in Marin County, California.
“Hiiii Mr. Talented…” She slurred. “I live two blocks away and my kids are prolly asleep – D-ya wanna come have a drink and smoke and hang ouuuuut?”
I looked this woman over. She was about 40, had a swollen and (possibly) fractured purple ankle and was heavily puffing on an e-cigarette…. From behind, half of her dress had hiked up and lodged itself in her butt, revealing a horrifying leg tattoo of a dragonfly that started mid-thigh and ended probably just above her Va-jayjay.
She also had one dreadlock.
“Uhhh… Well, the thing is…” I stumbled. “I’m married – sooo I don’t think it would be a good idea, ya know?”
“Fuck you! You’re an asshole for leading me on!” she snapped.
Wait, what? Leading her on? How was I leading her on?
A few seconds later, it hit me… When I was performing on stage a few minutes earlier, I recalled saying:
“Who’s the hottie in the back/Nice body, nice rack/
Meet me outside in five – My name is Zach.”
Look. If you have ever seen me or my band perform live, I often jokingly flirt with girls in the crowd with improvisational freestyle rap lyrics from the stage… This, however, was one of those rare moments when the girl actually stuck around and thought I was serious… I felt terrible. (Here’s a sample of a freestyle from NYC in 2017)
“Sorry, it was a joke, – like a part of the show??!??!?” I tried to explain to her.
She threw a drink at me, turned around and stopped at the door to say good-bye.
“Your music fucking sucks anyway,” she screamed.
By the way? I never made it home that night. Since I was too drunk to drive, the bartender let me sleep in the back seat of my Prius in the bar’s parking lot…
Did I mention it was a Tuesday?
What the fuck am I doing?
I am 44-years-old. I have two kids and a wife. Most men my age are in bed by 8:30 every night, binge-watching Netflix and thinking about some meeting they have at work the next day with Nancy from H.R.
Not many dudes I know are living like me this summer… touring bars in their mid-40’s trying to sell 20-something kids t-shirts and CD’s of their country hip-hop band that – in most people’s eyes – peaked when they opened for Jason Mraz in 2008…
For the record? On this tour I sold ZERO CD’s.
But let’s go back a few years…
In the 2000’s, every bar I played in was always PACKED. Friends, fans and industry folks lined up outside awaiting new songs – or a 10-minute freestyle rap where I might drop their names into a verse… They bought CD’s and shirts and sang along and I would walk out of the bar with $400 and a thousand business cards… My band played across the country and stayed in fine hotels, sipping top shelf whiskey and partying with rock stars…
But, then came adulthood. People had kids and a lot of my musician friends got real jobs. Some band members moved out of town… Most guys gave up or got into real estate. Even I took a break from it for a while to be around the family and work in the TV business. However, the thrill of performing live was always missing…
So, this past summer I decided that a 9-venue mini music tour of Northern California would be the best thing for my mind, body and soul.
Tour posters from the road…
As the days rolled on, I sort of forgot about the ways of the road… Late nights, uncomfortable beds… bad habits reintroducing themselves… When you’re out driving down I-5 at 9:30 at night – a restaurant like Subway suddenly becomes a solid option. The Yellow American Spirit cigarette suddenly becomes “healthy” decision… Not to mention that most bars where I play like to avoid paying musicians – and instead – offer up FREE DRINKS instead – which ultimately leads to me drinking $4.99 mini bottles of Sutter Home Cabernet – guaranteeing a foggy and painful morning.
Oh, and most bartenders who hear me ask for “the best red wine in the bar” often think I’m joking and laugh in my face.
In all honesty, I quit drinking hard liquor ten years ago…. Waking up in a Super 8 Motel with two lines shaved into your eyebrows like D’Angelo Russell will do that to anybody…
But that’s a whole ‘nother story…
The “Zachariah: Backyard and Wineries” tour began in San Francisco, at a private party where some tech geniuses of the world dug my music and my improv songs about how expensive the city had become… The host had somehow procured 25-plus bottles of the legendary Pliny the Elder beer from Santa Rosa and he was extremely generous with his liquor cabinet. However, as people got more sloshed, a supremely drunk friend of theirs named Kelly demanded I sing Shallow by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.
“Are you gonna sing it with me?” I asked her.
“Fuck YESSS!” She screamed as the party encouraged her.
A few chords later and she was warbling through the “Wooooaaaah – ohhh – h ohhh ohh ohh oh AWWOWOHHHWHWHWH” section of the song. Let’s just say she didn’t nail it, but it didn’t matter. The vibe and energy was fantastic and I assumed every gig would end up this beautiful and natural.
But the next night I drove up to gig at Peri’s Bar in Marin County. It was certainly a success, but I was definitely under-paid and over-served awful tiny bottles of Sutter Home… (Thus the reason why I slept in a parking lot).
When I woke up in the back seat of my 2008 Prius at six the next morning, having sweat through my clothes on stage the night before, I decided that a shower was indeed in order. I quickly Googled “YMCA Marin County” on my phone and found one 10 miles away where my Hollywood “Family Membership” would let me use their facilities. This is also a practice that HOMELESS people participate in.
I ended up spending 45 minutes in the sauna listening to two men talk about their new tech venture that would “change the dumpling game forever.” After they noticed me listening in, they began whispering and eventually left the sauna altogether, protecting their billion dollar dumpling idea.
A billion dollar dumpling idea? What I derived from this moment was that I am definitely in the wrong business…
That night, I performed at the Lagunitas Tap Room in Petaluma. The venue was amazing and they even offered up cash ($80) for the gig. Plus, per usual, they served me all the beer I could drink. Initially I had planned on having one or two beers because I had to drive to meet my wife and kids up north in Cloverdale once the night ended…
However, after my show, I quickly found myself 8 beers in. Since my head was spinning, I asked my new friend Pete (who booked me there) if he had a better idea than drunk driving to Cloverdale.
“Yeah brother… my buddy Andy has an Airstream in a forest that he rents out – it’s $45 for the night,” he said.
“Uhh… like, HOW in a forest?” I inquired.
“It’s desolate, man… super chill and quiet and you won’t hear anybody’s voice for like, 9 hours straight!” Pete replied.
OK. Look. I enjoy nature. I love converted Airstream trailers. But 9 hours alone in one in nature? Yo, I’m not trying to live that Into the Wild life… I am a social person. I need conversation. Shit, I need some WiFi, ya know?
“I don’t know Pete,” I explained. “I sorta need a bed – I slept in my car last night.”
“They have a killer Aerobed,” Pete said. “I’ve slept there sooo many times, you’ll love it – I’ll even drop you off!”
And with that, Pete took me to a beautiful house with 40 acres of land in the woods, where we knocked on the door and met Pete’s buddy Andy who was extremely tired and reluctantly thrust the trailer keys into my hand. He also passed me a Romancing the Stone-like treasure map explaining how to find the forest Airstream… Pete left and I slugged through the dark forest, absolutely fearing for every second of my life, before coming across what was a beautiful 1950-something converted Airstream “Cabin.”
I unlocked the door and went inside. It was about as rustic as you could expect.
There was an Aerobed with a blanket on it…
On the wall hung a calendar from the year 2013…
And there was a shovel in the corner next to a roll of toilet paper beneath a sign that said, “Use Nature’s Facilities.”
Holy shit. What? So no bathroom? Was I gonna have to re-learn the “One-armed tree hang” I had been taught at summer camp as a kid?
I decided to just crash and wake up as early as possible to split.
30 minutes after I went to sleep, I woke up on the floor. The Aerobed had deflated. It was about 45 degrees in the trailer. With no visible air pump nearby, I turned the deflated Aerobed into a pillow and did my best to sleep for the next six hours.
A couple of hours later I woke up to the sound of what must have been two bears humping in the woods… I also swear a mysterious light flashed across the sky and for two hours I panicked about being abducted by aliens and anally probed above the Redwoods. Eventually, around 6:30, I awoke with a stiff neck and took a $20 taxi back to my car at Lagunitas.
Up in Cloverdale I met my family and began thinking that perhaps, the road life was no longer for me… I took the family to the local trampoline park and hit up some small town burger place and I was amazed at how comfortable the safe and respectable family life felt again… For a minute, I almost cancelled my final three gigs…
But, since I can rarely turn down a chance to perform, I decided to carry through on my commitments.
As I was playing the night at an all ages restaurant, the local town drunk “Banjo Bob” (yes, his real name) taught my 13-year-old son how to best hold a pool cue if he was ever to get into a bar fight.
(His advice? Hit the guy with the skinny end, that way if it breaks off – you’re left with the more dangerous thick end of the stick as a weapon.)
To quote my late grandmother: “That’s wonderful?”
The following night, I played at a pretty cool bar in Healdsburg where I ate pizza that a guy had made from an oven that he dragged behind his bicycle… I know what you’re thinking: Bike Pizza? Trust me – It was absolutely delicious.
On the last night, we drove down to San Francisco and the tour ended at a bar in the Marina called Jaxson for a friend’s fundraiser party in the city – where, as I was playing live, a man and woman dry-humped each other on the dance floor in front of me…
Now look, I’m all for dancing, but this was kind of ridiculous… I actually didn’t care. They were wasted and they loved my music and I felt at home for a few minutes with the young Marina area crowd of San Francisco…
Here – watch the video and make your own assumptions:
For the record? That girl dancing did not ask me to come back to her place after the gig.
But the guy did…
“Hi Mr. Talented,” He said… “Wanna come party with me at my place?”
“I’d love to, but, the thing is… I’m married,” I said.
I woke up the next morning in the back seat of my Prius…
ZACH IS NOW BOOKING VENUES FOR HIS SUMMER 2020 TOUR!!
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.
Recently, on social media and my website, I have made no secret of my modern return into the world of competitive basketball. I play full court four days a week at the Hollywood YMCA and recently entered a Three-on-Three tournament against other fathers at elementary schools, which I happened to have won. (My proudest athletic achievement in my life to date – not counting the time I took Colton – the star 7-year-old pitcher – DEEP in a father-son Little League game last summer…)
I have re-discovered a love for the game I haven’t had sine 1993 and I’m actually a better player now than I have ever been.
Throughout my life and into high school, basketball was everything. As a 6’2” inch eighth grader, I was groomed by my coach to become the next great Arizona Wildcats big man. Unfortunately, I haven’t grown an inch since eighth grade. I switched to the wing, where I lacked certain skills, but was still able to hold my own mainly because I was actually grabbing the rim with ease and in top physical shape. However, around age 18, I discovered the usual pitfalls – Weed, beer and women – and decided that since I had no chance, or interest in walking on my college team, I would hang up my Air Jordan XII’s and I only stepped on the court a handful of times over the ensuing decade.
A few years ago, however, I was listening to UCLA great and fellow Grateful Dead-Head Bill Walton broadcast an Arizona- Oregon basketball game, when something he said struck me deep inside. After he spent a few minutes comparing some obscure 1970’s Bob Dylan song to the Oregon Ducks’ fast-break technique, he discussed his history of injuries he attained while playing. At the end of this sidebar, Bill Walton claimed to have broken his nose 13 times.
“That’s what happens when you play defense with your face,” he exclaimed.
He also mentioned his surgically fused ankles, incinerated spine, broken wrists, 36 surgeries and broken leg – all suffered on the basketball court. Walton’s lifelong injuries, along with his 1978–1979 year-long protest of the Portland Trail Blazers unethical treatment of his injuries, gave him the record of missing the most games during an NBA playing career, when taking into account the number of years he was officially listed as a player on a team roster. He spoke of how debilitating it became to walk and I researched even deeper to see that Walton once even contemplated suicide due to severe depression from debilitating back pain.
However, Walton then made a comment that made his life on the disabled list seem even more surreal… He observed a certain move power forward Solomon Hill had made and remarked, “That is a move to study – for those of you who are still lucky enough to play basketball…”
Lucky? How could 13 broken noses and suicidal thoughts be considered lucky? I felt that I was lucky to have quit basketball with my original nose still in place. What was Walton talking about?
Attempting to find out, the next day I dusted off some 10-year-old shoes and made my first trip to a court in what was nearly five or six years. I checked out a basketball at the YMCA that looked as if it had spent a good majority of its life underwater, and went to shoot around. It took me awhile, but eventually I was making short jump shots and working on my cardiovascular fitness while running up and down the gymnasium floor. Some of my old spin moves came back to me, and I put up a couple of nice finger rolls and hit some three pointers. It actually felt amazing.
About an hour later, a few guys asked me if I wanted to play “21” with them, but I declined, afraid of shooting 9 air balls and getting embarrassed. Instead, I continued to work on some post moves and drives and watched them from the corner of my eye. They were laughing, having fun and playing just above the level where I was – which made me think I might have hung in there if I had accepted their challenge. Instead, I returned my ball and went home and told myself I’d be back the next day.
I did come back the next day. And the next. I ran that court nearly every other day for months until I was actually joining the games of 21 and winning a good majority of the time. For the first time in over a decade, I was having a lot of fun playing basketball. I soon found myself in the full court games and now, three years later, found myself coming home and discussing the games with my wife as if I was playing in the NBA Finals. It became an obsession to the point where if I missed a lay-up during a game, I got depressed for the rest of the day. Still, it drove me to come back again, improve and remedy the situation.
My wife thought I was nuts. Every time I would bring up my day on the court, she would roll her eyes and remind me that I’m more Kevin Arnold than I am Kevin Durant. She also warned me to be careful, to which I reminded her that I was playing against a bunch of guys in their 30’s and that I was in better shape than most of them.
And then, about six months ago, I got smashed in the nose by a teenager who lowered his shoulder into me on a penetration. My nose now cracks in both directions when I try to move it, but I luckily avoided a full break. Then, a couple weeks later I was slightly concussed after being run under by a guy who was pissed that I was outplaying him. I ended up sitting out two days nursing my brain – which luckily was not permanently damaged. In December, I took an elbow to the bridge of my nose, which caused it to bleed profusely all over the court and earned me 75 “likes” on Instagram.
In February, I jammed my left thumb so hard during a rebound that I am still having trouble operating the zippers on my jeans. Then I jammed my right pointer and ring finger in consecutive games. I’m consistently fighting shin splints and a bone spur. Finally, last week, I discovered that I have bursitis in my right shoulder and that I might not be able to play for three weeks or so. This will be my first trip to the disabled list in my athletic career. And I’m a month away from 40. According to my dad, the injuries will now just start piling up. In short, I am about to enter my Bill Walton years. Now, my family is giving me all kinds of advice.
“Maybe think about not playing anymore,” my mother offered. “You know, you’re no spring chicken.”
I hung up on her.
“A spin class is much better on your body,” my dad suggested. I simply sent him pictures of my three-on-three trophy and told him I’d be back on the court in a month.
“Don’t do anything stupid, you don’t want to really hurt yourself,” my wife told me.
I rolled my eyes and studied Russell Westbrook highlights like it was important game film.
During the past week, I have found myself watching Bill Walton again. I guess recently there have been petitions to remove him from the Pac-12 broadcast booth, which upsets me entirely. Sure, he can go on tangents about the time Bob Weir and him spoke Arabic to camels in the Egyptian desert, but his unique and loveable qualities are what make him a treasure in the booth. He’s not a cookie-cutter color guy. He’s quotable and full of basketball wisdom. In fact, he may be my favorite college basketball announcer working today. Not only does he know the game, he makes it fun. I know he seems like he might be high or severely “out-there” once in awhile, but his love for the game is like nobody’s I’ve ever heard before. Not only that, his passion for the game is what got me playing basketball again.
Without Bill Walton, I’d still be jogging three miles on a treadmill. Not competing and not getting any sense of accomplishment.
For that, I thank you Mr. Walton. For inspiring me to lace up my sneakers that early morning three and a half years ago and return to the sport of my youth.
The evening after I won the three-on-three “Dads” championship, my wife said I had a “glow” about me. I knew what she was talking about, because I felt it. It was a sense of invincibility and achievement. I felt young again. Above the rim. It brought to mind a famous Bill Walton quote I had read years ago when he said, “You don’t win championships by being normal, by being average…”
I may have only defeated a bunch of dads in a Saturday pick-up tournament, but for those of us who are just hanging onto the final glimpses of what we might be able to accomplish as men, it was as if I won an NBA Championship.
Now if you excuse me, I have to go ice my shoulder. I’m planning on returning to the court earlier than expected…
I could have fucked one of my teachers back in high school. I didn’t. But I could have. She was into me… She told me I made her ‘quiver…’ She said I looked like a movie star. She tried to kiss me. This was 25 years ago… I still think about it.
Nowadays these stories are everywhere. Open any internet browser and you are greeted by a photo of a young teacher who was recently arrested for seducing their 16-year-old Biology student with marijuana and booze and throwing group sex parties and shit. Their mug shots get splashed all over websites and people everywhere shame these women for fucking underage boys…
Back in the day you never heard about this type of shit. If you did, it was always a creepy male Phys Ed. teacher who wore New Balance sneakers and sported a filthy Don Mattingly moustache. Now it seems these sex-starved teachers are women who look like Charlize Theron with John and Kate Plus Eight haircuts.
In the early 90’s, these women didn’t exist.
Except in my high school.
During my senior year, a really cute teacher’s assistant/college student named Debbie joined my AP English class. She was responsible for grading our shitty essays about the “Grapes of Wrath,” and helped with our teacher Mrs. Kelly’s syllabus… and she also happened to give me ‘fuck me eyes’ nearly every single day.
One day after school in the parking lot, Debbie caught me by my Dodge Lancer as I was preparing to roll a Mexi-shwag joint to smoke with my boy Adam.
“Zach, can I talk to you for a second?” She asked.
At first I thought she was going to criticize my schoolwork or something, but instead she ended up asking me on a date.
“Look, Zach – so I know you mentioned that you want to be an actor when you are older… and uhmm… Well, Les Miz is coming to the U of A next Saturday and I actually have an extra ticket – so if you want to go…?”
She smiled at me. The ‘U of A’ was the University of Arizona… and I had been hanging around the campus since I was a kid. I had always noticed the frat guys and the cute girls, but here was one of them actually… hitting on me. Or at least I thought she was. She was confident and she certainly had something none of the high school
girls I had been dating had… a MAJOR.
I wasn’t sure if this invite was a come on, but I liked it. I felt invincible and dominant. Typical 17-year-old shit. I nodded my head, told her, ‘sure’ and we made plans to meet around seven at Centennial Hall on the Arizona campus to see the show. She even gave me her phone number just in case I got lost. Cell-phones weren’t a thing yet, but she promised to check her answering machine from a payphone.
I went back to see Adam.
“What was that all about, dude?”
“Dude, I think I might fuck the English T.A.”
I went home and told my mom that I had plans to go out on Saturday night. My mom went ballistic. My mom can read anybody. Especially back then. She immediately began getting suspicious of this woman’s intentions.
She wanted to know who she was, how old she was, what exactly this teacher wanted with me, etc.
“Mom, don’t worry, she’s like, 22, and she just knows I want to be an
actor – that’s it!”
“Don’t kid yourself, Zach, this woman has ulterior motives… don’t be so naïve.”
Amazingly, I somehow convinced my mom that this could be my only chance to see Les Miserables, and since my mother is a Broadway Theater geek, she relented at the last minute and let me go. But with a warning…
“Keep in mind, Zach, you have way too much going for you to
impregnate a teacher.”
I ignored her and drove off to meet Debbie at the show.
Debbie was waiting in front of Centennial Hall as I walked up from the free parking spot I found six blocks away. I had no interest in dropping $4.00 on the valet… although today, that seems completely reasonable. Meanwhile, Debbie had dressed up for the occasion, much differently than her usual school jeans and sweater. She was wearing an above-the-knee dress and a leather tank top with fringes angling from them. This was no high school girl…
Meanwhile, I wore Banana Republic jeans and my favorite striped shirt from a long extinct mall fashion store called Structure.
During the show, Debbie ‘accidentally’ grabbed my arm a few times as if we were watching a horror film like Nightmare on Elm Street. The thing was, the show wasn’t that scary… It also wasn’t that good.
It may have been the touring company, or the Centennial Hall acoustics, but I was lost for most of the performance. About the only thing I remember about it was that I was hiding a massive chubby in my pants and that New York Yankees pitcher Tommy John had a kid who was performing in the show… I thought that was pretty cool. (Taylor John RIP).
After it wrapped and we stood and applauded, Debbie suggested we walk around the university for a little bit. She actually asked me if I would be interested in getting a beer. I was 17. I rarely drank in high school, but I did have my stepbrother’s fake I.D. He was 5’9”. I was 6’2”. It only worked at one liquor store on Columbus Avenue where the clerk actually believed me when I told him I had, “A big growth spurt last summer.
“I could have one, I guess,” I said.
Debbie smiled and we walked over to U of A Liquors and she bought a six-pack of this relatively new beer called Icehouse.
Growing up in Tucson, you spend a lot of time drinking beer in the washes and deserts hidden off the sides of the streets. She found her little familiar spot where she liked to drink with her college friends and we drank and talked for quite a while… about my Hollywood dreams, our English class and movies we liked. Eventually, near the end of beer number two, she told me that she thought I have “it” and told me that she was confident that I will absolutely make it as a huge movie star.
She then leaned in and began kissing the side of my neck for roughly four seconds.
“Woah,” I said, pulling away and hiding my awkwardness behind a weird laugh.
“I…I…I’m so sorry!” She blurted out. “I thought you wanted this!”
Debbie turned deep red. My stomach twisted. That sinking feeling in the stomach where you just don’t know what the right words are.
“Look, I’m only 17, ya know?” I said.
She wasn’t comfortable. She began rocking back and forth.
“I’m so stupid, this was – this was so stupid,” she said.
“No, no, it’s fine – I just – I’m not sure it’s… right,” I said.
“You’re really sexy, Zach, you know that, right?”
“Uhmm, Thanks,” I said. “I mean, you’re sexy too but…”
And then we sat there in silence for close to ten minutes. Those awkward high school silences…
“Listen,” she said sometime later. “Can we please never tell anybody about this – especially Mrs. Kelly?” She said.
“I will never tell anybody,” I promised. Another five minutes of silence followed before I suggested it was time to call it a night.
As we made the walk back to my car, I began to feel somewhat guilty. I was sort of one of those high school make-out kings – the guy who always loved kissing almost more than anything else… I thought, that when we got to my car, I would grab her and kiss her – just to lift our self-esteem and make the night less disappointing and more epic… But when we got back to my Dodge… I just couldn’t do it.
I looked at her. She seemed confused. She seemed lost, most likely feeling guilty. I told her that Monday morning would be no different than any other day. I told her she shouldn’t worry and that I wouldn’t tell a soul. I thanked her for the ticket to Les Miz and I drove home and masturbated into my pillow.
25-years later, a big part of me wishes I would’ve had sex with her… This was the pre-internet world. Nobody would have cared. She would have not been able to ‘friend me’ on Facebook or post pictures of us in that wash posing with beers in the Tucson night… There would have been no mug shot… She probably had an apartment nearby the campus and life would have just rolled along so easily back then… My God, it would have been so simple to get away with it and I would have a killer story for my friends when I got to college…
Alas, the moment faded, much like my movie star dreams… and my adolescent fantasies. That following Monday morning in class was far less awkward for me than it was for her, although we never seemed to even acknowledge one another.
I recently typed Debbie’s name into Google and found out that she was newly divorced and a mother of three… She was in Scottsdale. She looked old.
It’s funny how life speeds up and people come and go from your lives – I often think back… What if we had fucked? Maybe she gets pregnant and I have a 26-year-old son in Scottsdale right now? Luckily, I don’t. Life is pretty fucking crazy.
I never saw Les Miz again.
I’m not sure if they still make Icehouse beer.
I haven’t smoked Mexi-shwag in decades.
But you’re God damned right I got an ‘A’ in Mrs. Kelly’s AP English class…
Please watch Zach’s NBA2k Vlog from New York City!
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 live about a mile from the building that was once the famous swing dance club known as “the Derby.” In the mid-late 90’s, when the swing music revolution twirled its way across the streets of Los Angeles and turned regular farm boys from the Midwest into Rat Pack wannabes, “the Derby” was the swing club to frequent.
In 1996, Jon Favreau was so inspired, he made a pretty great film about it called Swingers and suddenly star Vince Vaughn had the entire town looking for “beautiful babies” and saying that everything was “money.” I passed a bootleg VHS tape of the film around my college friends and soon fell in hook, line and sinker. After graduation, I dove head first into the post-Swingers madness that raised dirty martinis all over Hollywood. Lines formed around the Hillhurst/Los Feliz street corner where the Derby resided awaiting entrance into the ultimate haven of swing-cool.
I owned 15 bowling shirts, white “creeper” shoes, Cadillac-emblazoned pants, shoulder-pad heavy sport coats, a flask, three Big Bad Voodoo Daddy CDs and a t-shirt that said “It’s Frank’s World, Were all Just Living in It.” I went to Las Vegas monthly, drank gin and tonics and swept my hair up into a James Dean-inspired pompadour. I remember feeling so confident that my “swinger” image would live with me for the rest of my days, I traveled to New York City around 1999 and searched out underground West Village swing clubs to show Manhattan that a “Real Life Hollywood Swinger” was in their presence. Somehow the façade worked and after ringing up a $290 credit card bill, I managed to make out with a girl named ‘Kitty’ who had a Stray Cats tattoo on her shoulder before retiring to her floor mattress in Brooklyn where she woke up six times during the night to smoke Marlboro Reds.
It was all because of Swingers.
And then, about five years ago, it was announced that the Derby was going to be transformed into a Chase Bank. The bar where I spent my early 20’s was suddenly going to be a place where I would curse the teller for charging me a checking account fee… The club where I once dated the hottest bartender in town was turning into a place where a gal named Evelyn would inform me my mortgage was ten days late. When I heard the news, I knew this was not good. The Derby? I thought… A bank? WWJFD? (What Would Jon Favreau Do?)
Turns out, Favreau had bigger fish to fry. Even though he could have easily bought the Derby and used it to store his Iron Man memorabilia, he ignored my twitter plea for him to buy the bar and turn it into a museum. I’m sure Vince Vaughn most likely drank at “Mess Hall,” the restaurant next door, toasting the ghosts of the barroom that made him a movie star… but he was also too busy and uninspired to save the bar. I even tweeted actor Patrick Van Horn, who played SUE in the film. He at least took the time to write me back by quipping “End of an Era.”
A week before the Derby was to be gutted, I gathered my old “Swinger buddies,” – now dads who had traded in slick sport coats and suspenders for Old Navy hoodies – and we poured out some gin for Favreau and Vaughn, for Sinatra, for dirty martinis, for the incredible wooden Derby ceiling, for the memories we had shared at the bar and for the debauched nights spent watching amazing swing bands like Royal Crown Revue sing “walk right in, walk right out…”
We even quoted the movie a few more times to make sure we still knew all the classic lines. “Get there…” “This place is deaaad anyway…” “He’s all growns up… I would never eat here.” “You’re the fun-loving out going party guy, and you’re sweating some lawn jockey?” The night went on and on.
As the evening died down, we all retired a lot earlier than we had in the late 90’s and excused ourselves back to our families. The next week, the Chase Bank transformation had begun and the last remaining memories of my first few years out of college were carried out and discarded.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in line at the Chase, staring up at the exact same wooden ceiling that I had spun girls beneath in the past. The ceiling beneath which I had done shots of Crown Royal a hundred times. The ceiling that watched over me as I tried to find assimilation with a unique sect of people during those weird times when you’re not yet quite sure who you were – who you are – or where you are going.
I got up to the bank teller and deposited my meager check, taking a moment to remark that this building was once my one-time favorite nightclub.
Without making eye-contact she mumbled, “Yep, every one of you middle-aged guys who comes in here has the same story.”
“Fuck off,” I whispered under my breath.
I took another glance at the ceiling and thought of the days gone by. Hollywood is forever a town of transformation. Very few restaurants and bars make it ten years… hence the stories you read about now defunct clubs like The Trip, The Cathouse and Gazzari’s that were the most happening places to be. In my life, the Derby was certainly my place. The place where I was part of a nationwide fad that engulfed my youth when I was a mere lump of clay awaiting to be molded into the lump of Play-Doh I am these days.
As I looked down at my bank receipt and realized how far this journey in Hollywood had taken me, I thought of the dreams I had at age 22 that were still somewhat unrealized. When places that mean so much to you as a kid disappear, you fail to immediately recognize that they will be gone for good and the memories will fade or melt into new ones until all you have left are a few photographs and some journal entries. I look back at my two years as a pseudo-swinger as important remembrances that I will take with me through all of my life. At the time I thought I’d be 22 forever, twirling cute tattooed ladies across slick wooden floors only pausing to sip drinks and wipe the sweat from our brows. I never thought I’d be 40-years-old and in the exact same room looking down at a bank statement stressing about the fact that I barely had enough money that week to cover my DWP bill.
Again, my thoughts turned to Jon Favreau. As the worlds most in demand director, he probably never imagined he would achieve the level of success he has back when he was simply searching for familiarity amongst the Hollywood night-crawlers of the mid 90’s. I reached back out to my old swinger buddies and arranged another drinking night to sit back and reminisce about the Derby days gone by, and we all agreed to get together on a following Tuesday night.
Of course, by Monday morning, everybody had flaked and the plans were cancelled so we could spend some time with our families. We all agreed to try again later, and I thought about how a little piece of all of us died the day the Derby did…
And a part of me knew, that somewhere, high up in those Malibu Hills, Jon Favreau was feeling the same thing…
Buy Zach’s Book “Talent Will Get You Nowhere” on Amazon.com!
My wife and I received an Air BNB request online two weeks ago… It read as follows:
We’re five guys from Germany who don’t do drugs. We are excited to visit LA and really enjoy clubs and West Hollywood.
“What do you think, babe?” My wife asked me. “Should we accept their request?”
“I dunno,” I responded. “Five guys? Clubs? West Hollywood? Sounds like we’re inviting a bunch of Europeans over for a Bacchanalian orgy.”
“You’re an idiot,” she said. “They seem nice AND they said they don’t do drugs.”
“When you have to tell people you don’t do drugs, it means you definitely do drugs.”
“I’m approving them. We can always charge them if they mess anything up.”
I don’t know if I am the only one whose mind works like this, but when I hear that a crew of 25-year-old German dudes want to “go to clubs and enjoy West Hollywood,” I immediately think of that scene in Wolf of Wall Street when Jordan Belfort waltzes into his apartment early from a business trip and finds 25 guys sucking each other off on his $50,000 couches.
When you “Air BNB” your house out, you can’t help but formulate some concerns. We have rented to people of all sexual orientations and we are not bothered by any of it, however, in the six years that we have been doing this, I still haven’t come to terms with the fact that at some point, two strangers from Idaho fucked in our bed the night after they took their kids to Universal Studios.
My wife and I have been Air BNB’ing as long as it has been approved in Los Angeles. We own our house, travel often and don’t stress out when a family of four comes to LA and wants to rent our place for the week. We are often out of town during these times and for years most of our vacations have pretty much been paid for.
When we first began doing this, we rented our place to some younger twenty-somethings and their abhorrent treatment of our property became a serious issue. One six-person rock band from Brooklyn decided that our couch cushions would make fine ashtrays. Following another rental, three bachelorettes from Colorado accidentally left two dildos in my 9-year-old son’s bedroom.
After that, we decided that our home would be rented to families only.
But then we had the request from the five guys from Germany. Since we were going to be out of town that week and we didn’t have any other requests, it seemed like a safe option. Not only that, but the money we would get for the week would sure help us pay some badly overdue bills.
“Fine,” I told my wife. “But if our place gets wrecked that’s on you.”
We traveled to Tucson to visit my mom for a week and asked our dear friend Lauren to help check them in as they arrived. She called us that night with some interesting news.
“They seem sweet,” she said. “It’s weird though… all of them shave their legs.”
“Told ya, they’re male escorts,” I blurted.
“Shut up… maybe they’re like, on a swim team or something,” my wife offered.
“Well, they’re all in their early to mid 20’s,” Lauren relayed. “Good looking guys… but they are using one of your potted plants to put their cigarettes out in.”
500 miles away, I decided to just let it be. There wasn’t much to worry about. I had hidden my guitars in the basement, my vinyl collection was labeled off-limits (A 6-year-old had ruined a treasured Dire Straits LP I had left on the turntable a couple of years earlier) and we had a grand total of $32.16 in cash in the house. My wife’s jewelry was locked away in her closet and about the only valuable thing in our home was a shoe San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker had given me about 13 years ago… So what if they shaved their legs and smoked? Outta sight outta mind… We spent the week in Tucson hanging with my mom.
When we got back to our house on Saturday night, we anticipated the place would appear like it always does post Air BNB… Most people do their best to tidy up, take out trash, re-set furniture and clean out their leftovers from the fridge.
Upon entering our house, the first thing I noticed was that the entire place smelled like Axe Body Spray. Like, the entire house. Every room, every hallway, every bathroom… It had a post 9-keg fraternity party eminence to it.
When a toilet paper roll was finished, rather than replace the roll on the dispenser, they managed to just toss the empty cylinder behind the toilet.
We pride our house on our “Kids Art Wall” where we encourage guests to add to the collection. Over the years, dozens of kids have contributed drawings to the wall and it’s a fantastic little abstract collection of developing artistic minds across the world.
Needless to say, these guys didn’t add anything to the art wall.
They also did not bother to turn off any light in the house.
Nor did they take out the trash… at all. In our backyard, stuffed in about 25 paper grocery bags, resided the ruins of their week… hundreds of beer bottles, countless empty boxes of cigarettes, discarded Red Bull cans and bottles of Starbucks Double Shot Cappuccinos. There were over a dozen empty pizza boxes from three different delivery joints nearby and nine discarded Jack Daniel’s bottles… Not to mention the new cigarette butt succulent plant they had crafted. Maybe they didn’t do drugs, but these guys fucking partied.
According to my calculations… and to the grocery store receipts I found in one of the random trash bags, these guys lived on beer, cigarettes, pizza, energy drinks and coffee for five days. That was it. There was NO sign anywhere that a single meal other than pizza had been consumed. There was, however, one ominous item listed on a grocery store receipt from Thursday: MAYONNAISE.
“What do you think they bought mayonnaise for?” I yelled to my wife across the house.
“Uggh, there are shaved pubes in the sink!” she responded.
As I went around the house opening every window to air it out, I could only imagine what kind of debauchery these Euro-bros got into in our house. Was there any freaky sex? Any late night drug use? Did they jack-off in every room? After finding a piece of pizza jammed in our pool filter, my wife panicked, called our cleaning lady and told her she would have to work a double shift the next day. After finding an empty carton of cigarettes that said “Smoking Kills” on the floor of my daughter’s room, we decided to sleep on the floor in the one room where we do not allow renters to use rather than in our own beds.
The next morning, the Axe Body Spray scent was still lingering. We had taken out the trash and emptied the fridge, but our cleaning lady had the hardest job. When she was done for the day, she mentioned that these five guys had managed to use 32 bath towels during their five day stay. 32 fucking towels. When I was 25-years-old, I owned ONE bath towel that I washed like every six weeks! Who the fuck did these guys think they were?
I decided that a quick internet search on these guys might alleviate my concerns. The kid who had booked the place and had been responsible for the payment was listed as simply a “coach” in Munich. Not sure what kind… Soccer coach? Life coach? Sober coach? (Doubtful). Whatever the case, I checked out his Twitter account and he had recently tweeted about his upcoming trip to the United States. It read as follows:
Me and the boys are going to Hollywood to parteeeey with movie stars! Then VEGAS BABY VEGAS! What happens in Vegas STAYS in VEGAS!!!
After realizing that this guy was still quoting Vince Vaughn from Swingers, a 20-year-old film, I felt a small bond with him. He had probably tried to find a decent place in LA to rent, but was met with rejection after rejection by worried homeowners like myself. He was 25 and just looking to party with movie stars and now he was apparently in Las Vegas, most likely contracting that new un-treatable strain of gonorrhea I keep seeing on billboards all over town.
After a few days, the house felt like home again and my son and daughter fell into their summer routines of Fortnite, swimming and staying up until 11. I thought of this strange world we were subjecting them to… After all, not many kids are forced to leave their houses for Air BNB renters every few weeks. Still, maybe the constant travel and new experiences will teach them more about the world and someday they’ll thank us for forcing them into the car for 8-hour road trips to Arizona… Maybe someday my son and his good friends will go desecrate a family’s house in Germany with their own beer bottles, cigarettes and sink pubes. If anything, these are experiences that not every kid gets to have.
I put my kids to bed and brushed my teeth. My wife and I agreed to watch a new Netflix show and I drank some water. Happy to be back in my bed, I finally felt relaxed for the first time in a week…
And then I found a used condom in the drawer of my bedside table…
ZACH SELWYN’S HOUSE IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON AIR BNB… FOR RESPECTABLE FAMILIES ONLY.
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…
MIGHT BANG IS COMING BACK! DOWNLOAD THE NICOLE SULLIVAN LIVE BONUS EPISODE BELOW!
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 centerfold.
A week later, we hit Casa Vega. At one point she went outside
to smoke and I let her go alone. (I was trying to quit at the time).
When a guy at the bar saw this, he motioned to me and said, “Dude, you don’t let a girl that hot out of your sight for any amount of time.”
I ignored him, assuming she would brush off any potential creeps and
return back to our bar stool where we’d finish our drinks and continue
our evening. After 20 minutes, however, I began to grow nervous.
I went out to the smoking section, and sure enough, there they were:
MEN. All kinds… Guys who had intended to come inside for dinner but
were so mesmerized by her beauty that they decided to hang outside a
little longer. Guys who didn’t even smoke were bumming cigarettes from
her and chain smoking. One guy even flipped her a business card and
said, “I scout for Playboy, if you ever want to be in the magazine,
let me know…”
She laughed and to my surprise grabbed me by the arm. All the men’s
faces dropped as they saw this 23-year-old kid with a Strokes haircut
coyly slip his hand around the top of her waist. Dejected, the guys
all walked inside with their heads down, preparing to settle for
baskets of chips and salsa and not the ravishing creature who I was
lucky enough to be spending the night with.
We went to another bar and then went to my place. Two nights later, I
joined her at her place. We went out once more, on a Saturday, but she
got swept up in a crowd of famous actors and I stood around waiting
for her to return to me, feeling like the unpopular kid in junior high
who can’t muster up the balls to ask a girl to dance. Eventually, when
she began partaking in their bottle service vodka, I grew frustrated,
knowing my time was up. Without even saying good-bye, I grabbed my
jacket and made a quick exit, calling my buddies to meet me for a
heartbreak beer at Coach and Horses, my old favorite dive bar.
“So what if it’s over?” My buddy said. “You were with a Playmate!”
“Yeah dude, my last hook up was with the hostess at Yankee Doodles in
Agoura Hills,” said another.
As the drinks flowed, my confidence returned and I quickly got over
the fling with the help of some good friends. The next day Miss July
and I exchanged a few phone messages, but never reconnected.
Even though it was over, I was still waking on air, feeling as if I
had done all I could and was now exuding an air of confidence that
nobody could touch. I even kept two of her back issues for myself. One
to put on the coffee table, and one to put in a pristine cellophane
folder where it would remain intact on my bookshelf until the end of
my days… It still sits there today.
As I rounded the bread aisle, I saw her again. As luck would have it,
we were approaching the check out line at the same time, inspecting our carts and reaching into our wallets for ATM cards. I purposefully took the spot in line directly behind her and noticed as she unloaded
an unusual amount of dog food onto the conveyor belt. She also bought butter, apples, avocados, bananas, Kombucha and a pre-made tray of
sushi. I was still staring. My 10-year-old took advantage of my distant
gaze and slipped two packs of M & M’s into my cart. I didn’t care. I
had butterflies in my stomach as if I was back in that Hollywood
nightclub 17 years earlier… But then it hit me: I was married. I was
standing with my child. I had no reason to not say something. If
anything, I thought, it would extend the memory a few more years. I
decided to go in for the kill.
“Is your name Taylor? (Not her real name)” I asked.
She looked up at me and smiled.
“Yeah, who are you?”
“My name is Zach,” I said. “Not sure if you remember me, but we sort
of dated about 17 years ago… we met at a nightclub and went to Casa
She looked me over, perplexed.
“Were you that drummer?” She asked.
“No, but I play music…”
“Oh, you were the guy who knew Green Day!”
“No,” I said.
“Oh. Did you know Quentin?”
“Nope,” I responded, realizing that I was barely a flicker of memory
in her mind all these years later – whereas she had held the top spot
in my gallery of former flames for close to two decades. I was a bit
“Oh, wait!” She said. “Did you used to have long curly hair? And you
lived on Harper Avenue and you played me Crash into Me by Dave
Matthews Band on your guitar?”
The cashier chuckled.
“Uhh, yeah, that was me,” I said, blushing.
She hugged me as if we were long lost siblings. I felt my wobbly arms
go around her body once more, immediately wondering what would have
happened if I hadn’t been so stubborn at that bar all those years ago.
My chest pressed against hers and for a brief moment I was 23 again,
stupidly running around Hollywood with a group of horny friends
worrying about nothing but a 10 a.m. commercial audition and where I
was going to be drinking that night. She pulled away and paid for her
groceries and stood behind the bag boy waiting for me to pay and
rejoin her. When I did, we caught up briefly and I introduced her to
my son… who seemed to not have any interest in this beautiful woman
that his dad was talking to.
As it turns out, Miss July still did Playmate conventions. She was
living in the valley, had been married for a year but was divorced and
was raising her 3 small dogs, Gucci, Dorito and Mr. Farts-A-Lot. She
didn’t go out anymore, was disappointed with Tinder and loved The Big Bang Theory. I felt like she was reciting her “Turn-On” list
from her Centerfold interview page – but had updated it as a
We exchanged numbers and she remarked on how handsome my son was. I
told her I’d invite her out to see my band if we ever played again and
I watched her speed off in her Prius. I thought back to the nights we
had shared together and then looked back at my son, blissfully playing
on my phone, seemingly unaware of what had transpired between his father and
that mysterious girl in the produce section 17 years earlier.
As we drove home, he handed me back my phone and stared out the
window. As I watched his eyes dart around the city, I thought of his
future and how he was still so young and innocent and had the entire
world ahead of him. I realized how happy I was to be spending my life
with my wife, my daughter and him, and not a smelly pug named Mr. Farts-a-Lot.
And then, after a few minutes of driving, he broke the silence.
“Dad, I wanna learn some Dave Matthews Band songs on guitar,” he said.
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…
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.