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!
Out of Touch at The Dream Hotel * 2015 By Zach Selwyn
It was two-o-clock in the morning and I was standing on the street outside the Dream Hotel in New York City when a slick looking hustler in a Panama hat sided up to me.
“You looking for girls tonight?” He said.
“Naah man, I’m just trying to get some air.”
“You sure? Just up those stairs across the street is all kinds of hoes… I’m talking Thai girls, Russians, Mamis… You ever bang a bad bitch?”
“What exactly is a bad bitch?” I asked.
“If you don’t know, then you’ve never banged one…”
I have been in New York City for roughly 36 hours. In that time, I have averaged 4 hours of sleep a night, eaten 7 street hot dogs and drank close to 19 cups of bad deli coffee. I have also realized that I am the most out of touch loser in the city. The average Manhattan man around my age is sporting a hundred dollar undercut and a long beard – which is eerily similar to L.A. (With only a few less Man-Buns). The difference is, these guys are also rocking 3,000 dollar Ted Baker suits and wingtips. As for me, I am wearing a 1970’s – era Wrangler cowboy shirt, some Lee Riders from the early 80’s and a pair of ¾ boots I scored from a TV show wardrobe department about 4 years ago. My hair is pretty tame and I still have Beverly Hills 90210-era sideburns. I’m also wearing a trucker cap that reads “Roy Clark” on it, bellbottoms and a belt buckle that features Chester the Cheetah riding a Harley motorcycle beneath the inscription “Cheesy Rider.”
I feel a little like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy because NOBODY is dressed like me. Funny thing is, this is how I have been dressing for 15 years. A few years back, in the early 00’s, everybody started dressing like this. Now, those days are long gone and I’m the only guy on 8th Avenue wearing a shirt that unsnaps when you tear it apart and a turquoise ring.
And apparently, I have no idea what a “bad bitch” is.
I realized I was grossly under-dressed when I attended the first business dinner with the company I am working for. I figured it would be a quick bite at a local bar, but it turned into the type of place where they asked me to remove my hat as I sat down. The next day, at the company’s request, I made my way to a J. Crew to try and find something respectable that I would feel comfortable wearing. I settled on a checkered red, white and blue button-down and some horrendously skinny jeans. The price? $254.
When the sales associate asked me “how my sock game” was, I told him, “Fine. I buy all my socks at Ross: Dress for Less.”
“How’s your shoe game?” He asked.
“I have these nice ¾ boots,” I said.
“Uggh, please – nobody is wearing ¾ boots anymore,” he retorted. “You need some wings!”
I walked out of the store.
I couldn’t place my finger on it, but Manhattan had begun to seem too cookie cutter. I guess I was aware of the Duane Reade explosion and the Starbucks on every corner, but I was not prepared for the fashion clones that had sprouted up everywhere. Sure I was ten years older than the average guy out on a Wednesday night, but even I could sense a lack of originality. New York City, which was once full of punk street kids, trendsetters and Mapplethorpe-worshipping leather daddies sticking whips in their asses and walking into a Saks Fifth Avenue, had become somewhat tame.
I recently read an interview with AdRock of the Beastie Boys talking about how the “New York of his youth had disappeared.” I was beginning to understand what he was talking about. Manhattan in the 70’s and 80’s – before the crackdowns and the $8200 a month rent – was an artistic and fantastic place to be. These were the days before the smelly Times Square Jack Sparrows. Before Hell’s Kitchen was a gentrified hipster paradise. In the late 80’s I would visit my second cousin and roll down Canal Street to buy fake Gucci jackets, leather African medallion necklaces and a bootleg cassette of LL Cool J’s Walking With a Panther. The tape-dealers would offer me “smoke,” which scared the crap out of me. At one point, my mom dragged me away from a couple of black guys who were standing around Washington Square Park discussing the new Bobby Brown On Our Own song from Ghostbusters II. I tried to inject some white boy wisdom by saying I thought Bobby should’ve written a second rap verse instead of repeating the “Too hot to handle, too cold to hold” line and they ignored me as if I was “Chester the Terrier” following around the bigger “Spike the Bulldog” in the Looney Tunes cartoons.
The only exception I could find was in the Dream Hotel. The first couple of nights I was in town, I took it easy, stayed in my room, watched TV and had sex with the full-length pillow. However, a hotel room can only hold you captive for so long and eventually I came downstairs to find out where the notorious dark side of this fantastic city had wound up. I now believe it all centers around the Dream Hotel. Within an hour of hanging in the lobby, I was propositioned by more pimps, hustlers, hoes and drug dealers than I have seen in 20 years in Los Angeles. Methy looking skinny teenagers were offering me weed, cocaine and what they claim is “Government pure MDMA.” The lobby was crawling with hookers and late night denizens of the rooftop nightclub, which is named “PDH.” An acronym for what I can only imagine is “Pimps, Drugs and Hoes” based on the army of thick women standing around comparing 9 inch Indian weaves and elastic black twat-length skirts that barely cover their clitori. (Is that the plural for “clitoris?”)
The new Manhattan underbelly had become what Jay-Z sang about in Empire State of Mind. “Ballplayers, rap stars, addicted to that limelight…” Everywhere I went folks were talking about money, cars and rap music. If Los Angeles is supposedly a vapid, material city full of superficial idiots, New York City has embraced a lifestyle full of flashy watches, bottle service, velvet ropes and hangers on… So much so that when I tried to get access to the PDH nightclub on the top floor, the bouncer looked at my “shoe game” and instructed me to “please wait in the other bar.”
I didn’t really want to go up to PDH, but it did seem like it had to be part of my Dream Hotel adventure. So I waited in the bar drinking 17 dollar glasses of shoddy tempranillo wondering how anyone can listen to this much house and trap music in one day. The hotel sort of felt like Miami, but it was 40 degrees cooler and Pitbull wasn’t here singing some shitty song about how “white girl got some ass.”
Finally a large Puerto Rican man came over and told me that since I was a guest of the hotel, all I needed to do was show my room key and I could gain access to the club. I sauntered up towards the door, bypassing the line of desperate gold diggers and club kids and flashed my hotel room key. It was the first time in my entire trip that I had felt somewhat cool.
The nightclub was everything I always hated about nightclubs. Expensive drinks, a DJ mixing Calvin Harris with Blondie, hairy men pouring vodka-cranberry drinks for girls who were most likely being paid to hang around them and intimidating looking security guards who mad-dogged anybody ordering a single beer instead of a 2500 dollar bottle of Grey Goose.
I stayed for 8 minutes.
On my way downstairs, I decided I had to get outside and just see the street. I was sick of the lines, the attitude and the fact that a cast member from Real Housewives of Atlanta had demanded to cut the line… and was placated with a free bottle of vodka. I had to walk to a deli and buy some water and eat a sandwich and try to get some sleep before my work event the following day.
I came back to the hotel with my snacks and drinks – which, by the way, were shoved into about 11 plastic bags by the deli owner as if the plastic problem doesn’t exist in New York – and stopped to listen to the sidewalk pimps do their thing. They were like the dude selling Eddie Murphy’s gold hair dryer in Coming to America. I heard some remarkable stuff:
“You wanna table shower my man?”
“I got one tranny but she visiting her brother at Riker’s right now.”
“Playa, I can get you three at once, but you gotta wear three rubbers.”
I guess Manhattan hadn’t changed that much. Instead of bootleg tapes, men were looking for the booty. These hipster hotels had become infidelity dens and the cops just seemed to look the other way. And as for the falling crime rate – well – as this night was coming to a close, NBA player Chris Copeland was actually stabbed in an altercation outside of 1OAK nightclub just a few streets away from where I was staying.
As I strolled towards the entrance, I passed by my friend in the Panama hat one last time.
“Yo, son – I got you. I know you wanna find out what a bad bitch is,” he propositioned.
“I’m good, man,” I said. “I gotta get to bed.”
I went up to my room and had sex with the full-length pillow.
HOW TO SURVIVE A GRATEFUL DEAD SHOW WHEN YOU LOSE YOUR FRIENDS IN THE PARKING LOT * By Zach Selwyn
My old college friend Bernard (Or “Burner – for reasons that don’t need to be explained) called me the day before Father’s Day. He had an extra ticket to the 50th Anniversary Grateful Dead concert in northern California. I informed my wife that I would be traveling to the show the following Saturday night.
“Haha yeah right,” she said.
“No. I’m going.”
“Stop it. Now, what do you want to do for Father’s Day? Should we meet the Bartons for brunch? Or do you want to have people over to bar-be-cue?”
“I hate the Bartons,” I said. “I want to go to the Grateful Dead.”
“Are you serious?”
“Well, take your son with you, don’t you think he would enjoy it?”
I didn’t think that was the brightest idea. The smoke and the dancing and twirling was completely mind-blowing to me when I was at my first show at age 18. Back then I was scared shitless. Too many drugs, too many lost souls… too many people having a lot more fun than I was. I told my wife that I’d rather let my son find his own musical path. (Then again, if he’s following 5 Seconds of Summer around the country in 10 years I may have failed somewhere.) Plus, I told my wife that a 9-year-old boy does not need to see his 40-year-old dad clink Absinthe cups with a dude in hiking shorts who made Silicon Valley millions by inventing the Nook.
“Do NOT drink Absinthe,” she demanded.
“I won’t, I promise.”
Eventually, I got the green light – and I called Burner back and committed to his 70-dollar ticket. Which I soon found was WAY too expensive for my shitty seats behind the stage where just a few songs into the set a man would face-plant and nearly die on the concrete right next to me.
Recent online ticket prices for the Santa Clara shows had settled at $20-$40 depending on where you were seated, way down from the rumored $1500 nearly a month earlier. This was due to the “Soldier Field Panic Purchase” that nearly every Dead Head and ticket scalper had fallen for when their final two shows of this “Fare Thee Well” concert were originally announced… Thinking the tickets to Santa Clara might be listed at the same price as the Chicago shows, folks bought up dozens of seats at face value, only to find themselves losing money when trying to unload the tickets in the parking lot the afternoon of the show. (Steal Your Face Value, anyone?) Even Burner was left with a handful of tickets that he ended up trading for “pieces” (pipes or chillums), 50th anniversary bandanas, T-shirts and at one point a foot long joint being sold by a spritely blonde nymph out of a giant cardboard box.
Now, a fair amount has already been written about these shows – if you want to hear about the set lists and the fan reactions to Trey Anastasio and the supposed $50,000 “fake rainbow” – go Google that now. This is my personal adventure about smoking a lump of hash with a crazy looking scallywag who was dragging a dirty pet pit bull named “Iko” around on a hemp dog leash – and becoming so cosmically altered, that I managed to lose my friends for the duration of the show long before the first note of Truckin’ was even played.
It was a surreal experience to say the least. When I last saw the Grateful Dead in 1995, the crowd was pretty much the same… just about 20 years younger. But now, those folks have grown up. Gone are the days of living in the Vanagon and hopping from town-to-town. The “Only Users Lose Drugs” shirts I used to fawn over had been replaced by at least 25 men happily wearing a t-shirt reading “Grateful Dad.” (Thank you, honey for not getting me THAT for Father’s Day.)
A vast majority of the well-off crowd could be found eating sushi and sipping wine in the safe “red” parking lot, while the more traditional “Shakedown Street” blue parking lot catered to the jewelry designers, pushers, providers, dealers and, yes, the guys selling veggie burritos. (At $5.00 a steal – considering it was $11.00 for a nitrate-riddled hot dog in the stadium). Bottom line was, it was a very balanced scene. Which is how I went from talking about music with a doctor who lived in Marin County – to witnessing a hippie trade a T-shirt for a Churro – to eventually asking the aforementioned scraggly looking pit bull owner if I could have a hit of his joint.
“It’s hash bro,” he said.
“Nice,” I said.
“Nice,” he responded.
I took a long drag from the tightly rolled spliff. It was licorice-like in flavor… and reminded me of smoking hash on a Eurorail with a Spanish stranger during a train ride from Switzerland to Germany in 1996. I exhaled.
“Nice.” I said again.
“Real nice,” he said and pulled off the joint again.
I stared up at the clouds.
“Nice,” I laughed.
“Totally nice,” he replied.
We stood and watched the sky for a few minutes. I started to realize that for the past ten minutes, I had managed to keep a totally coherent conversation going by merely uttering the word “nice.”
I shook off my daze and decided to gather myself to find Burner and our other friends and head inside. We were 30 minutes away from the opener and I didn’t want to miss it. I looked back at my hash-providing friend and we shared an ever-knowing look of “I’ll never see you again, but thanks for the time together.” I threw up a peace sign. As I walked away to find my buddies, I heard him utter one final word as a fare thee well to our little session.
Back on Earth, I was suddenly totally confused. Burner was gone. Swirls of dreadlocks and weathered faces engulfed me. I wasn’t sure if I should head back to the blue lot and skip the show altogether or saunter forth inside all alone. Like a wilderness-trained tracker, I decided I’d take some photos to document the beauty of the signage and the sky and the colorful people and cars all around me. Scrolling through my camera roll a day later, all I can find is a few pictures of the stadium and a wasted girl passed out on a lawn. I definitely could not find my friends. I was high and wandering… but at least I had a ticket to my seat.
Having lost buddies at concerts over the years, I am somewhat used to making friends and surviving. This was certainly not the first time I had been alone at a Grateful Dead show… In fact, at the LA Sports Arena in 1993 I accidentally left the concert mid-song and walked 23 blocks away until I was lost in a Ralph’s parking lot deep in South Central Los Angeles. Luckily, the night cashier slipped me a Fentanyl and called me a taxicab. Once I lost my buddy in Santa Barbara and ended up sleeping in a bush after a Neil Young concert. At the Dead show, however, I wasn’t truly worried, because nowadays we are all lucky enough to have cell phones.
I looked down to text my friends. No service. Of course. No fucking service.
I made my way inside and ogled the crowds flittingly dancing along. Anticipating the first note of the show that would send me into another stratosphere. They started with Truckin’. The place went nuts.
Then the guy next to me almost died. His friends pounded his chest until he sat up and they forced water down his throat. Scared and afraid, I went to get a beer. I met some kind gentlemen in the beer line. We spoke about how awesome the show was that we were missing… by waiting in that beer line. I looked around. A girl next to me made sure to use all 9 pockets of her leather fanny pack. At least three guys purposefully wore cargo shorts to show off the “Jerry Bear” leg tattoos they had done in the 90’s that they were waiting all these years to uncover once again… Finally, a woman carrying a six-month old baby in what seemed like a paper bag attached to her back came dancing through the crowd. The kid’s head bobbled furiously, unstable and terrifying. In Los Angeles, the helicopter moms of Orange County would have screamed, rescued the baby and brought it to the nearest hospital. At the Grateful Dead show, however, grown men laughed and spewed forth dragon breaths of marijuana smoke into the sky as the baby drifted right through the haze. It was absolutely disturbing. I could not imagine my kids in this environment. As much as I would want them to appreciate what the music can do for everybody, the last thing I would want is my kid getting a second hand weed buzz around a group of folks sending wafts of OG Kush into the atmosphere.
A few songs later, I had settled down. It suddenly hit me that I was completely alone and that my conversations with strangers were fun but fleeting. I wasn’t making any new friends… I wasn’t analyzing every note Trey played… The worst part was, I was barely even seeing the show from my seat behind the stage. I watched the majority of it on a big screen. So, I wandered around and decided to talk to the security guard. His name was Reed.
“What’s crazier, a 49ers game, or this?” I asked.
“Well, different crowds, ya know?” He said. “Niners fans drink a few beers and try to look tough. These folks drink 10 beers and dance around like fools!”
“So is this the rowdiest show you’ve ever seen here?” I asked.
“Oh hell no, the worst was the WWE Wrestling event. I broke up about 30 fights, had to throw a guy down some stairs.”
“What’s the weirdest show you’ve ever seen here?”
“Kenny Chesney. Was like a Gay Pride Parade met the deep south.”
He shook my hand and walked off.
A few beers later, I was overwhelmed by hippies praying to the miracle rainbow in the sky yelling out things like “It’s a gift from JERRY GARCIA MAN!” (If you can imagine a bunch of high people reacting to a rainbow at a 50-Year Grateful Dead anniversary show, it’s EXACTLY how you picture it…) The argument that the rainbow has been faked is everywhere online, but in truth, if the Dead had 50K to blow on a holographic rainbow, I would hope they at least should have tried to construct a hologram Jerry Garcia instead. (Shit, I’d have settled for hologram 2Pac.)
As the evening went on, as a way to remember what I was going through, I began dictating voice notes into the “recorder” app on my iphone. These are the translations as best as I could decipher them:
A: I have just spent the last hour hanging with a giraffe
B: (Me singing a song idea for my band to record in the future) – “Sunday Ticket, who’s got my Sunday ticket… man are you with it? I wish I could stop and smell the roses – but the elements of elephants are lost among the doses – I suppose it’s the way of the Dead – I suppose it’s the way of the Dead” (Then yelling): “WAY OF THE DEAD!!! MY NEW SONG WOOOOOOHOOOOOO!!!!”
C: Hot dogs, nachos, chicken fingers… hot dogs nachos chicken fingers…
D: What hole have these people been hiding in since 1995?
The last note made sense. A lot of these fans were folks who looked like they never recovered from Jerry Garcia’s death. They had been in exile, awaiting the return of the Grateful Dead for years, sort of like those Japanese soldiers you read about who were trapped on islands with their loaded weapons unaware that the war had ended months earlier.
The highlight of my night came during the song St. Stephen. I had never heard the tune live – nobody really has – and it lifted my spirits high. For five minutes, the long drive alone had been worth it. So had the hash and the lost friends and the $70 seats. I reached high for the sky and let out primal screams of joy and happiness and thought about my kids, my wife, my career, my goals, my dreams my family. I was genuinely ecstatic. I had found my top of the mountain… It was one of those moments that I remembered having as a kid – worshipping this band for slices of perfection like that – when everybody is smiling and nothing can go wrong. A moment of calm and peace I hoped would never end…
Of course, an hour after the show I found myself cursing technology and feeling depressed about having to wait in a two-hour line for an Uber.
I left the venue alone. Got to the hotel alone. I was in bed by 1:00. I woke up before my friends – who had stumbled in at 3:30 – and shook off the cobwebs before beginning the long drive back to L.A. As I listened to the radio and heard reviews of the show it became clear how awesome the evening had been. I re-played to my voice memos and shuffled Dead songs on my iphone the whole drive, wondering how I could call my work and get out of it Monday so that I could stay and watch the second night show instead. Thankfully, I decided one amazing show was enough and I rode down California 5 with Santa Clara and the Grateful Dead in my rear view mirror. As I watched northern California disappear behind the rolling hills, one word came to mind as I smiled and traveled the golden road home…
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…
Zachariah’s new song explores the corporate logo marketing travesty that all of us 90’s kids endure every time we see a Nirvana or Ramones shirt for sale in Target or Wal-Mart. Back in 1992 I had to go to the concert to buy a $30 shirt. Now the logo is on onesies.
The following is an email chain I exchanged with my Hollywood agent, who I have paid 10 percent of my income to these past ten years. In that past decade, he’s brokered a deal or two for me and has also bought me lunch three times. His agency is a big one, but I am a lowly peon in the cable TV hosting game, dwindling way beneath the Seacrests and Trebeks of the world. However, I am undoubtedly the biggest sports fan on the roster. Which is why, as a die hard NBA fan, I began asking him for tickets to the agency “luxury suite” four months ago to watch the Los Angeles Clippers play the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Staples Center on January 16, 2015…
Oct. 12, 2014.
From ME: Yo – Looking for Clippers – Cavs tickets on Jan 16 2015. I think the Cavs are gonna be great this year – and their new coach is a mastermind. Clips look strong too. Both teams will be in top playoff mode around January. If possible, might I be able to get into the agency box seats that night? Asking early to make sure… Thx – Z
From AGENT: Z! Of course buddy. Emailing tickets guy. You need two, right?
From Me: Yes Thank you so much.
Nov. 8, 2014.
From ME: Checking in on Clippers – Cavs tix for January. Has anyone asked about them? Thx – Z.
From AGENT: You’re #1 on the list. I got you covered big Z.
From Me: U Rule. Thx.
Dec. 9, 2014.
From ME: Hey brother – any news on those tickets? It’s getting close and I want to make sure I get in here before the office shuts down for holiday season.
From AGENT: Thank you for your email. Our offices have closed until January 7, 2015.
Jan 7. 2015.
From ME: My dude. Zach here – Hope your holidays were awesome… I was in Seattle with the fam. Checking in on Clippers – Cavs game for January 16. Wanted to see if you could email the tickets to me? Or maybe messenger them? Very excited – thank you sooo much.
From AGENT: Hey Z. Checking in with tickets guy again today.
Jan 8. 2015.
From ME: Any news?
From AGENT: Hang tight.
Jan. 12, 2015.
From ME: Hey man, sorry to bother you – but game is in 4 days – trying to figure out babysitter and all that stuff… Looking forward to seeing LeBron.
From AGENT: (No reply).
Jan 16, 2015.
From AGENT: Hey Z, so sorry bud but we had an overflow of ticket requests for this game… Apparently both teams are playing really well. Matthew Perry snapped up a pair this morning and Giuliana Rancic is top of the list for the other pair. Sorry bud. We’ll get you into a game. I know we have seats for the Lakers – Nuggets on February 10… Chace Crawford just turned them down.
In the world of celebrity, free stuff is king. Matthew Perry and his 500 million dollars does not need free basketball tickets… Plus, he’s sober, so all the free booze in the luxury box was going to be ignored anyway. Giuliana Rancic? Or DiPandi or whatever her name is? Are you kidding me? She makes fun of celebrity dresses for a living. She probably heard the word “Cavs” and thought it was a leg workout. And Lakers – Nuggets tickets? The Lakers are led by a guy who is famous for being Iggy Azaleia’s boyfriend. Kobe is out for the year. They’re not exactly a hot ticket. The point was, I was not considered successful enough to snag the Clippers tickets. I was looking at some washed up pretty boy from Gossip Girl named Chace Crawford’s rejects… Perry and Rancic were gonna be on their iphones in the suite the entire time and most of the so-called Hollywood celebrities who were going to the game probably think “Chris Paul” is a type of champagne.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, the Lakers were all that mattered. They had Del Harris, a young Kobe, Van Exel was being name-checked in Jay-Z songs, Eddie Jones and huge NBA stoner Sam Perkins. (Who looked blazed in 99% of his games). My friends and I would drop $25.00 to sit in the nosebleed section of the Forum just to catch a fading glimpse of what the legendary teams of the 80’s left behind. They were likeable underdogs who fought hard and always battled. Then came Shaq. And Phil Jackson and Kobe became Kobe. Those were the last years I liked the Lakers. Kobe lost his appeal when he shaved his mini afro and faced his legal troubles. Still, going to games was fun because, hey – going to the games are always fun. Still, these last ten years I stopped rooting for them and began just appreciating all professional basketball in general.
Now, Los Angeles is all about the Clippers. A recent text from a buddy read: Lakers are for Fakers…I’m going to the Clips game. The abundance of Lakers flags that people used to display from outside of their car’s windows are long gone. The sea of purple and gold has been replaced by red, white and blue. And let me tell you, I have never seen anyone play pick-up basketball while wearing a Carlos Boozer jersey.
Still, the luxury box is indeed, luxurious. I emailed my agent back a few days later and accepted the Lakers – Nuggets tickets. At least I could see Arizona Wildcat-alum Jordan Hill and possibly watch a few Jeremy Lin up–and-unders. Plus, my brother is a huge hoops fan as well and neither of us are Matthew Perry – sober. Watching two out-of-the-playoff race teams loaf up and down the court over free hot dogs and Stella Artois isn’t a bad way to spend a Tuesday night.
I emailed my agent a week before the game to make sure he could send the tickets over.
Feb. 3, 2015
From ME: Hey man – excited for Lakers – Nugs game on Tuesday… Can you messenger the tickets or email them? Thx brother – Z
From AGENT: Yo, Z – Hey man… looking into this. Looks like Chace Crawford might want the tickets after all… but it depends on if we can get him seats on the floor or not.
From ME: You’re fired.
When it was all said and done, Chace Crawford ended up not going, so I snagged the tickets. The game was poorly attended and didn’t even get exciting until the 4th quarter. Jack Nicholson wasn’t there. Neither was Leo. Or any other familiar celebrity face that we have all come to associate with the Lakers. Instead, it was my brother and myself, sitting amongst a bunch of 22-year-old agent assistants in the luxury suite, sipping Stella Artois and filling up the stat sheet with junk food.
I looked long and hard down at the floor as the game wound down. I was having the time of my life. I guess watching LeBron James would have been a lot more entertaining, but this was still a pretty awesome way to see a basketball game. As a sports lover, sometimes it doesn’t even matter who is playing. And after Swaggy P made a three-pointer and did the eye goggles gesture with his hands, I suddenly became a Lakers fan again for the first time in ten years.
And as I squinted hard at the row of folks seated on the floor, I believe I recognized a celebrity typing away into his iphone three seats down from the Lakers bench.
It was Chase Crawford.
Buy Zach’s newest album “Skywriting” on itunes NOW!
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…
Yeah, posterized. Embarrassed. Juked. Lit up. Dusted. Shook, took and left for dead. Jammed on by a 20-something human helicopter in the YMCA basketball league I reluctantly joined to appease my doctor, my family history of heart disease and my rising cholesterol. It was pretty damn humiliating, especially since my wife and six-year-old son were on the sidelines – and this 6’6” athletic specimen – with arms like boa constrictors and the vertical leap of a Madagascan Cheetah – decided to gloat while high-fiving his teammates, shouting “Take that white boy!” in my general direction… Our coach Jerome called a time out and quickly informed that I wouldn’t be coming back in the game for awhile. I understood. I sat on the bench and hung my head against my 2004 Arizona Wildcats basketball shorts and wiped heavy beads of sweat into my towel. I slowly looked over at my son – who turned to his mom and asked her why daddy got taken out of the game. Ever the subtle parent, my wife informed him, “Your dad just got annihilated.”
When I first joined the Hollywood YMCA, it was on my doctor’s orders. My family history had a lot to do with it – and his main motive was to get my cardiovascular activity up and my cholesterol down. Since basketball was always my favorite form of exercise, I chose the Y because the courts were full of older players with no other motivation than a little exercise and some fun. The majority of the guys I encountered on Tuesdays and Thursdays were in their 30’s and 40’s and had some sort of knee brace or elbow support sleeve on their bodies. They put up long threes, blew easy lay-ups and spent half the game talking about the Hollywood trades and other silliness, killing time as their kids tooled around the clubhouse downstairs. Rucker Park this was not.
After hanging around the sidelines for 20 minutes or so, I was invited in to play… and I quickly put up a dazzling 6 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in a 21-19 thriller of a pick up game. In my mind, I was back. Back to those glory days of my youth when I used to school young Jewish guys in the “Stephen S. Wise Temple Basketball League.” Back when I made the Junior Varsity team at my high school and actually had the ability to dunk a basketball on a ten-foot rim. (OK, I did it twice, but I did do it…) Back when my life was simple and easy, and when the only thing that mattered was which pair of Air Jordans I would save up for to parade around high school as a way to try and impress hot Tucson girls who actually would consider me to be a potential prom date just because I wore a pair of $100 Nikes…
Nowadays, the last thing I remember dunking was a celery stalk into a Bloody Mary. Those Air Jordans are long gone. So is my vertical leap. And according to Facebook, all those hot Tucson girls have teenage kids and have been divorced an average of two times since high school. So, in my mind, scoring 6 points in a YMCA game was the equivalent of winning an NBA Championship. I immediately told my wife that I loved basketball at the YMCA – and I showed up again the next day to take on another set of chumps with my wicked first step and decent mid-range jumper.
Turns out, the Tuesday – Thursday game features a totally different crew than the guys who play on Monday – Wednesday.
My first indication that the competition was at another level, was the fact that most of the guys on the court didn’t have a mid-section. There were dudes even playing shirtless, a thing you only see down at Venice Beach during the summer, and they looked like their bodies had robotic sound effects when they moved. Some guys had typical basketball tattoos reading ”Ball is Life” and “Love of the Game” beneath an orange ball swishing through a net. One guy stood close to 6’10” and practiced drop-step lay-ups while a scraggly Steve Nash-looking kid fed him bounce passes. Another rained in threes from NBA range, shouting out “ALL DAY!” whenever he connected… which was a lot. Finally, a shredded swing-man named DeMar threw down an Isiah Rider through-the-legs dunk during a fast break. I quickly turned and headed towards the door, opting to run on the treadmill that day instead.
Little did I know, DeMar would be the same guy would dunk on me this morning… Let me back up for a second and explain how I even got invited to play in the YMCA league in the first place.
Back in the summer of 2008, I was covering the famed “San Diego Comic-Con” for Attack of the Show, a TV program I was hosting. The convention was a nerd party of epic proportions, and I took full advantage of every open bar in the Gaslight District of the city – including a party where celebrated Ohio State star and Portland Trailblazers number one draft pick Greg Oden made an appearance. Being one of the only basketball fans in the entire city that night worked to my advantage, and Greg Oden and I spoke for a good 20 minutes before he was whisked away by a publicist for some interview. After he left my presence, a geeky fanboy tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if the seven-foot Greg Oden was Samuel L. Jackson from Snakes on a Plane.
“Uhm, no,” I told him.
In November of that year, I was inspired to get myself in shape. I read that Nike had announced the release of the new Greg Oden Power Max basketball shoe and the minute I had read about it, I knew that would be my shoe. After all, Greg had been so cool at Comic Con, I was convinced he had a Michael Jordan – like career ahead of him and would be exactly the kind of role model I needed to inspire me to revisit my past basketball athletic prowess. So, the day the shoe was released, I took a trip up to the Topanga Canyon Mall where I dropped 130 dollars on a pair of Nike Greg Oden PE’s which featured his name – “Oden” – prominently stitched across the laces as well as the back of the shoe. It was impossible to miss.
Five years later, as you may or may not know, Greg Oden is considered one of the biggest disappointments in the history of NBA basketball. Right up there with Sam Bowie, Joe Barry Carroll and Michael Olowokandi. Yes, a BUST. His injuries have left him sidelined for all but 23 games or so and the guy drafted after him – Kevin Durant – has gone on to become arguably the best player in the NBA. Greg Oden is currently coaching basketball clinics in Oregon. I hope he invested his money wisely, or he might be hanging sheetrock in a few years.
Unfortunately, his shoe is the only basketball shoe I own. Basically, I refuse to ever pay that much money for a shoe again – and I never really wore his model that much anyway – so it is in fairly great condition. A year ago I tried to see if it would sell on ebay, but the only other model on the website was a “Buy It Now” offer for $9.99, so I figured I’d just play ball in my Oden’s until they fell apart. (By the way, if you are interested, you can buy 100 – yes 100 – Greg Oden Topps rookie basketball cards for $3.99 on ebay right now).
So, I am stuck with my Oden’s and there’s a small part of me that actually kind of enjoys the irony of owning them. It’s like owning the film Gigli on Blu-Ray.
The treadmill I run on at the YMCA faces the pathway between the basketball courts and the water fountain, so the players come out every 20 minutes or so for breaks. The players have never noticed me running before, but that Wednesday, they decided to approach my treadmill as I was running following the first game they had played that afternoon. I wasn’t sure why… until they called me by my shoe.
“Yo, Greg Oden!” One wiry dude yelled just as I hit my 9 minute-per-mile stride. “Come off that treadmill for a second, man!”
A little intimidated, I kept running.
“Why?” I asked.
“We wanna ask you a question,” he responded.
I pressed pause on my iphone and stepped off the treadmill. I had run 1.2 miles in 10 minutes. 151 calories. Meh.
I walked over to the crew of dudes who were somewhat taunting me like jocks in high school making fun of the kid who played piccolo in the band. Why were they here? What did they want? I quickly found out.
“Where did you get a pair of Oden’s?” The leader asked.
As his crew looked down at my shoes, the laughs and taunts continued.
“Nice choice, bro!”
For some reason, I was facing ridicule for Greg Oden’s injury-prone career… as if I had been Greg Oden. It didn’t make any sense. So, as I have always tended to do, I made a humorous jibe about the situation.
“Yeah, I got these when he was the biggest prospect in basketball, alright? I could afford one dope pair of shoes, and I fucked up and chose these, OK? Whatchu think, I can afford a pair of Kevin Durant’s?”
The guys laughed. They high-fived. They made me feel better. They were funny, and seemingly down to Earth. And then, maybe as a kind gesture – or just as a way to see how terrible I was as a basketball player – they invited me to come get into a quick game of pick-up hoop in the main gym.
A lump appeared in my throat… Could I hang with these trees? Was my game on their level? I mean, if my shot was on, I might be able to put up a few buckets… but if my nerves got the better of me, I risked the horror of becoming known as the “Greg Oden of the YMCA…”
Painted in a corner, I said OK, and I tightened my $130 shoes and walked out towards the basketball court – convinced that I was about to get schooled by a bunch of guys who probably played division I, NBA D-league or even overseas basketball.
The tip-off was the first sign of the ring of hell that I had entered. After Fez from our team won the tip, a guy named Derrick told Fez that the ball wasn’t thrown up “evenly.” A huge shit-talk session began for the next three minutes and we weren’t even past the tip-off. I had seen these trash-talker games before. Basically, a lot of guys call fouls on every play and their opponents complain about the calls. The games take forever to finish because nobody ever actually plays, they just spend most of the time jawing at each other. It sucks to play in and to watch. I immediately knew it would be that kind of game. After we held a re-jump ball, nearly every two or three trips up the court ended in a heated smack talk exchange.
“Hell, no, THAT’S A FOUL!” Yelled a guy called Jay Reezy who was covering up his embarrassing air-ball.
“Foul… and one,” screamed Joelle as his ball clanged off the rim.
“Man, get yo hand off my dick!” shouted Lorenzo, after I cleanly swiped the basketball from his hands. Yes, it was clean, but he accused me not only of the foul, but of molestation. They took the ball back and scored on sheer intimidation factor on the next play. The reality of YMCA pick-up basketball had set in. When Lorenzo yelled, “I’ma KILL you mother fucka” to oue sidwline coach Jerome who called a traveling violation on a jump shot, it vaguely reminded me of that scene from White Men Can’t Jump (A film that director Ron Shelton actually envisioned while playing on the same Hollywood YMCA courts I was playing on) when Marques Johnson’s character went to his glove compartment to get a gun to settle a dispute. I believe the line was “I’m gonna get my other gun and I’m shooting you AND him…”
Whatever the case, I was scared – and I did my best “hide around the three-point line and pray that nobody wants me to shoot” routine. Woody Harrelson, I was not. Amazingly enough, I did attempt one three-pointer… And I somehow nailed it.
As the game wore on, I notched up another bucket on an inside pump fake that got the team yelling “Nice one, Oden!” As I spent a minute jogging back on defense, I couldn’t help but notice as a guy named Red flew by me and converted a lay-up against an older center whom I had recognized from Tuesday’s game. As I threw the ball in, I jokingly told him, “You should’ve called a foul.”
He smiled and passed the ball up to the front court.
The game turned out to be the longest pick-up game I have ever played in. There was more chatter, more arguing, more fouls called, more shit-talking and more disagreements than I have seen even in my six-year-old son’s Junior Lakers League. It was like playing against spoiled teenagers, and I wanted to fake an injury just to not play anymore… Still, it was the big league players at the YMCA… and I was hanging.
When the buzzer sounded, we were shuffled off the court for the next crew of five. We had lost 21 – 17… and even though I only scored five points, I honestly felt like I had played better than some of the trash-talking intimidators who had been there dealing handfuls of smack to our opponents. I was inspired and convinced that after a little practice, I might be able to step back in to bang with these big boys. Following the game, when coach Jerome invited me to sub on their YMCA league team the following Saturday morning, I knew I had proven myself as somewhat of a baller… I was shocked and flattered, and I responded to his request with a foolish exclamation of “dope!”
I immediately felt like an idiot.
I came home and informed my wife that I had made the team… Sort of. I mentioned that I was invited to substitute for another player and that I needed to be on my A-game on Saturday morning. My wife, an actual high school female basketball All-State player seemed impressed. The stage was set. I had a league game on Saturday! No news yet on if I’d be starting… But I was nervous as shit.
I decided that a quick pick-up game in the Jewish Basketball League wouldn’t hurt my confidence either.
Back in 2000 or so, I was a terror on the courts of the Jewish Basketball League. My old roommate Mike and I had been a lethal inside-outside combination, and even though I would enter most games sweating beer and whiskey from the night before, our Stephen S. Wise Matzah Ballers defeated the Temple Hess Kramer Lions handily for three years straight. Many of our players have gone on to Hollywood success, some are still playing and others are long gone from the city… Still, I always knew in the back of my head that if there was a place to regain my basketball confidence, it was the Jewish league. A run I specifically refer to as “Heeb Hoops.”
Thursday evening, I rolled into the Michael Milken gymnasium wearing a Carmelo Anthony Denver Nuggets jersey and cradling a Vita-Coco water. My old roommate Mike was still running the league. Not much seemed different – except for the fact that Mike was now sporting a “Rip Hamilton Face Mask” that he had been fitted with following his fourth broken nose in Jewish basketball games. (Shockingly, the nose-break is a very popular Jewish basketball injury.)
Mike gave me a silent head nod as I surveyed the competition before warming up. Convincing myself that these young players had nothing on my storied Jewish Basketball League career, I shot a few jumpers, ran some drills and worked on my left-handed penetration – a skill I had been lacking since those JV days back in high school. By the time I was allowed to get in the run, I was on top of the world. And it showed. I shook Gabe Friedman on a crossover that gave us a two-point lead. Mike fed me a pass and Jordan Mogelwitz fell for my pump-fake and ended up watching me bank in a 7-footer on his left. Even Raphie Spiegel bit on my daring long-range three that tied the game at 16 before my old homeboy Mike crossed-over a college kid and put us up by a bucket. Mike and I ended the run with a classic give and go – punctuated by his three-pointer that won us the game. Mike and I celebrated, exchanged awkward 37-year-old dap handshakes and chest-bumps. I had 9 of our points. Mike had 12. It was 2000 all over again. We even smoked a joint in the parking lot afterwards and made stoned plans to form a team that had a shot at winning the coveted “Dead Sea Cup” in the fall. It was amazing. I got home, showered and went to bed, convinced that by Saturday, I would be running YMCA regulars up and down the court beginning at the first whistle.
Oh how wrong I was.
The YMCA league resembled the All-Valley Karate Championship from the film Karate Kid. Some dudes were mad-dogging any potential challengers like Johnny Lawrence did Daniel Laruso. Teams were stretching and warming up like it was the Final Four. Guys with prison-shaped muscles ran “suicide” drills and barked out orders towards their teams. I recognized DeMar the shredded dunker from the YMCA working on his through-the-legs jam during a lay-up drill. Some other players from the YMCA were there too, representing different branches. We were Hollywood, but there was definitely a Downtown crew and an intimidating looking Westside team. Most of their players all looked bigger and more confident than I did. Even my teammate Fez seemed to be in the zone, dishing out chest passes to our team before noticing my arrival and demanding I let my wife and kid know they had to remain outside the gym until the sidelines were opened up to the public… Somehow, I immediately knew this was a bad idea.
I did not start the game. In fact, I “rode pine” the entire first half, doing what I do best… MOCKING PEOPLE. I reverted to the 13-year-old clown who developed his ESPN-worthy broadcast voice on the bench as the 10th man on his junior high championship team. I regressed into the sophomore who spit funny commentary from the bench as my team lost by 29 to Marana High School. I became the stoner kid from college who skipped our fraternity basketball tournament due to a mushroom hangover… I was simply not taking anything seriously.
“Jesus, I’ve seen better jumpers hooked to the battery of my car,” I announced.
“He couldn’t hit air if he was skydiving,” I offered.
“He’s got more turnovers than a bakery,” I joked, terribly.
I went on and on. Until two minutes before the half when our coach, Jerome, informed me that our leading scorer Gary Vernon had sprained his ankle. I was in at small forward, and that I “better not fuck it up.”
Luckily, with a minute left, I handled my own. I was able to guard their sharp-shooter somewhat easily, at least for 60 seconds, and when the halftime buzzer sounded, I hustled to the sideline, winking at my wife and son, knowing we were up by 8 points.
At halftime, I prayed that Gary would be able to return. Unfortunately, he told coach Jerome he was out. I was summoned to start the second half and I told him I was ready to answer the call.
The second half was reminiscent of the YMCA pick-up game I witnessed a few days before. Smack was talked, play was delayed, but luckily, the presence of referees helped move the action along. A minute in, and I got passed the ball for the first time. I looked inside, but had no outlet. I took a few dribbles around the perimeter before handing the ball off to our point guard. He drove the lane and was quickly rejected… the ball bounced towards me. Wide open outside of the three-point line. Now, in my life, I have performed for crowds as big as 1500 people. I have no fear of the spotlight. I embrace. It. So of course, at that very moment, I did what any lifelong performer would do… I froze.
Like a statue. Good old DeMar ran up and swiped the ball from me before beasting towards the other side of the court where he easily converted a tomahawk rim-rocker that brought the crowd to its feet. I was suddenly, the worst player on the court. I felt that familiar lump return to my throat. Sure, I could perform music and comedy in front of 1000 people, but when 18 folks – including my wife and son – were standing on a nearby sideline, I had no idea how to execute anything. The floodgates of failure had been opened.
DeMar went on a scoring tear. 12 points in under five minutes. Our eight point lead became a four point deficit. Game was 21… It was 17-13.
I felt the crowd getting into the game. I looked towards my bench and saw Gary glaring at me – as if I had stuck his pet kitten in a microwave. It was not exactly the teammate support I was looking for. As I tried to juke the opposing team with some cross-pattern routes I remembered from high school ball, I was checked by a player and felt like I had run into a concrete wall. I staggered back slightly, a bit dazed but conscious, before looking up to see Fez’s missed three-pointer bounce my way. I turned my body asunder – if only to imitate the Lebron James and Magic Johnson moves I had grown up worshiping, and felt an inescapable lack of confidence when I sent a lazy pass over the lane intended for a guy named Rick Cahill. Unfortunately, that pass was read with precision by DeMar.
I made the mistake of chasing him down the court. By the time I had come close to catching up with his super-human speed, he was already 39 inches in the air… I lept up as well, and thought for a second that I might have a chance at slapping the ball out of his hands. Instead, what happened will forever be known as the worst sports moment in my life.
He threw down a one-handed fiendishly brutish ogre-fuck of a dunk. The ball thunderously cascaded off of my head. It ricocheted against the back wall and sadly crept towards the exit of the gym before pausing against a stranger’s bag – almost as if it had been shot by a hunter with a cross-bow. It did everything but deflate itself and bleed to death. Coach Jerome called a very necessary time-out.
A few minutes later, we lost 21 – 13. I looked over towards my wife and son. She had already taken him out of the gym as if to not force him to watch any more of the carnage. Our players threw water bottles at the bench and cursed to each other. They asked Gary about his ankle and offered him 50 solutions to get it to heal. They swallowed Gatorade and water without making any eye contact with me and exited quickly and quietly. Before coach Jerome could leave the gym, I yelled out at him.
“What time’s game next week?”
Jerome looked back to me and offered, “You don’t have a game next week…”
As DeMar disappeared to the sidelines and put on a pair of Beats by Dr. Dre, I stood up and made my way down to the locker room to shower. As I walked inside, I could hear many of the members talking about DeMar’s dunk and how incredible it was. When I passed the crew of players tightly seated in a circle, I noticed they were watching something on one of their iphones… Sure enough, it was the dunk. Someone had filmed him taking flight and macerating the rim at my expense. I quickly turned away from the viewing and tried my best to tip-toe back out of the door. Before I could escape, one of the guys called after me.
“Yo, dude!” He said. “Quick question for ya…”
I stopped in my tracks and turned around, afraid of what insulting low blow he would send my way. Anticipating the worst, I took a deep breath and awaited sure insult and humiliation. Finally, he spoke.
“Are you wearing Greg Oden’s?”
I cracked a meek smile and threw my towel over my shoulder.
“Only until I can afford a pair of Sam Bowie’s,” I joked.
The guys chuckled, probably because they felt sorry for me, but it was enough to show that I wasn’t taking any of this stuff that seriously.
As they replayed the dunk over and over on the iphone, I slipped out the door and called my wife. She answered the phone by saying, “I’m sorry.”
We spoke for a minute about everything but the game. What we needed at the store, what time the kids needed to be dropped off at practice… even what Netflix we wanted to order. It was a nice distraction and one that took my mind off my embarrassing moment on the court a few minutes earlier.
I drank some water and said good-bye to some of the other players who were on their way out of the locker room. I looked around the YMCA and quietly announced my retirement from the basketball league to nobody in particular. It was rather unnecessary, but it felt better to say it out loud.
And then I went upstairs to run on the treadmill.
Zach Selwyn October 23, 2012
To read Mike’s wife cute blog entry on Mike’s mask itself – click here – THE FACE MASK