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.
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…
We play “Fake or Florida” and talk about women’s panties…
THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM THE PRIVATE JOURNAL OF ZACH SELWYN MARCH 12, 1996
SOMEHOW, WE’RE ON A PLANE TO MIAMI…
Woah daddy… I am lucky to not be in jail right now.
It is 9 o’clock at night in Los Angeles and we are finally on a plane – on our way to Miami, where we will catch a puddle jumper to Key West to begin our Spring Break… My traveling companion is my best friend Dave Green… and we both just spent an hour detained at the airport for trying to board an earlier flight with two fake ID’s and an eighth of magic mushrooms balled up in one of Dave’s socks.
Luckily, the cops didn’t find the mushrooms.
They did, however, confiscate our fake ID’s and they laughed at how stupid we were… 20-year-old kids trying to use fake identification to take advantage of a free ticket issued by Dave’s father’s frequent flier miles…
If this all seems confusing, let me start this story one week ago…
Dave’s father, Rob Green, is a high-up stock trader from New Jersey. He is a constant traveler, and has miles on United Airlines that he never uses. So, as a gift to his son Dave, he transferred him two free round-trip airline tickets anywhere in the continental United States…. AND HE TRANSFERRED THEM BOTH IN DAVE’S NAME. Rob Green had also earned himself a free week stay at a hotel down in Key West, Florida that he said Dave was free to use. So, a week ago, Dave asked me if I wanted to go to Key West with him for Spring Break.
“Of course I said, but I can’t afford it.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Dave said. “I have two free tickets.”
“Yeah, but they’re both in your name.”
“I know, I looked that up. We have to mail the tickets in to change the name from mine to yours and it takes too long to convert them. So instead, we should go get you a fake ID that says your name is also Dave Green and we’ll both just use them… Plus, we need fake ID’s to get into bars in Key West anyway…”
PRESENT DAY LOS ANGELES NOVEMBER 9, 2018
Getting fake ID’s to board an airplane was Dave’s first dumb idea. We were both college students, with hair down to our shoulders often found dressed in Grateful Dead t-shirts. To the naked eye, we looked like drug users. To a cop looked like drug dealers… Even my mother asked me how I was able to afford all the concert tickets I had been buying that year. When I told her I had ways of making money, she thought I was definitely dealing weed. (As it turns out, I had quit that after my freshman year. I was currently letting my fraternity brothers use my car for $10 a day…)
I was sort of the original UBER.
Anyway, since Dave was intent on getting me on the plane using his free ticket, a day later we found ourselves driving to a place in downtown Los Angeles known as “The Drive Through.”
“The Drive Through” is located in and around the corner of 7th and Alvarado. USC college students have called it the “drive through” for years, because you basically drive up and dozens of Latino men and women suddenly race to your window with whatever vices you needed. Weed, mushrooms, ecstasy… hookers… it was all there. Most importantly, however, we were told they could also get you a decent fake ID for $35.00.
As we pulled around the corner, we were easy marks. We were swarmed. Dave motioned to a shorter hustler and said, simply, “We need ID’s.” Five minutes later, we had pulled into an alley where we were escorted into a back room of a dirty warehouse. On the wall was a large blue screen. Everybody spoke a lot of Spanish. Having been a decent speaker since high school, I was still only able to translate the words “fFacil” and “Dinero.” That meant “Easy Money.” A woman snapped two photos of us standing in the corner of the blue screen. We filled out some forms and in about a half hour, we both had brand new fake “Dave Green” California driver’s licenses.
The quality, however, was not exactly what you might call “acceptable.”
My ID said I was 5’7” tall (I’m 6’2”) and the city of “Los Angeles” was misspelled as “LOS ANGSELE.” It was by far the worst fake ID ever issued. And that beats my step-brothers 1991 Arizona ID which mistakenly identified him as a woman.
When I examined this amateur document, my only hope was that, once we got to Key West, a Florida bouncer at a bar would have no idea what the California driver’s license looked like. So maybe, in the dark cover of a doorway, we would be able to pass through.
Meanwhile, as bad as my ID was, Dave’s had some issues as well. It did not have any mis-spellings, but it did say he was born in 1964 and that he was 31-years-old.
We complained briefly about the shitty ID’s, but they brushed us off, took our $70.00 and acted like they had better things to do than hear any complaints. We left, scared and disappointed and returned to our apartment where our roommates laughed at the pathetic documents we had procured.
Our friend Oren, a pre-law student had one comment for us…
“You guys are going to jail,” he said.
And guess what? Oren was right. Well… Dave ended up in jail… I did not. Luckily, I had a backup plan.
THERE ARE 3 POLICE OFFICERS BEHIND YOU, GENTLEMEN…
A couple of days after we had scored these ridiculous fake ID’s, I phoned my friend Josh Katz in Tucson, a senior at the University of Arizona. We didn’t exactly look alike, but we both had long hair. A week earlier, he had turned 21. So, I asked him if I could use his old driver’s license as my fake ID when I got to Florida. Luckily, he sent it immediately and I was in possession of a genuine Arizona drivers license that said I was of legal drinking age. The only issue was that Katz was about 15 pounds heavier than I was in his photo so, I had planned to just tell the bouncers that I had “lost a little weight” since the photo was taken.
So, now I had three ID’s in my wallet. My actual driver’s license, from Arizona. Josh Katz’s license. And a $35.00 piece of shit from “the Drive Through” that said I was “Dave Green from Los Angsele.”
Dave and I left for the airport about an hour before the flight was set to take off. We got to the gate and decided to go in different ticketing lines to check in. (Our master plan). Next, we handed over both of our ID’s… and said our names. (This was 1996… air travel was a LOT different back then). Dave obviously used his real Dave Green ID to get on the plane – and had no problem getting a ticket. When I tried to use MY Dave green ID, however, the American Airlines employee took a long look at my license and asked me for my name.
“Uhm, Dave Green,” I said.
“Funny, another Dave Green is already checked into this flight… can you hold on one minute.”
“Sure,” I said.
She went to the back room. My hands started shaking and trembling. She was gone a long time. Dave came over to make sure everything was OK… About 10 minutes later, she returned and informed us that there were three police officers behind us who wanted to have a little chat…
When you get handcuffed, it happens surprisingly fast. It also kind of fucking hurts. Dave and I were shackled and forced to the ground, where three LAPD officers paced above us, displaying the fake ID I had failed to board a plane with.
“Where’d you guys get this ID?” They asked.
We stayed silent. Finally, I spoke up.
“This guy at our college gets them for like, 35 dollars… 7th and Alvarado.”
“Well, this guy makes pretty shitty ID’s,” an officer said.
“How much cocaine is in your luggage?” Was their next next question.
Luckily, as far as I knew, we weren’t transporting any contraband… They asked for my REAL ID, and I gave it to them. They asked for my name, date of birth, everything… it was frightening. Meanwhile, Dave looked shaken and nervous. The cops took our bags and proceeded to open them up in front of us. It was at this time, when Dave leaned over and whispered something in my ear…
“Dude, I have an eighth of mushrooms balled up in one of my socks.”
They brought out the drug-sniffing dogs. They prodded everything. A box of condoms spilled out from my toiletry bag. My dirty boxer shorts were lifted in the air by a metal pointer device. My heart raced… I was going to fucking jail. 20-years-old, and I was gonna have a record.
“What was the plan here, boys?” An officer named ‘Polo’ inquired.
It was then, that Dave manned up and explained the entire situation.
“Look… this is my fault,” he explained. “My dad gave me two tickets in my name and we didn’t have time to transfer Zach’s name onto the ticket… so we got him a terrible ID and thought it might work because were just trying to get to Spring Break.”
The cops laughed. They asked me to confirm the story.
“He’s right,” I said. “We sort of knew it was a long shot because of how terrible the fake ID is… but we’re just two college kids and… yeah this was pretty stupid.”
“We are so sorry,” Dave said. “The changeover process takes so long… I feel like a idiot.”
There was a pause in the conversation. They had a little private meeting and I hung my head in shame, knowing this was probably the moment that would make my parents pull my tuition and force me to go finish up at a community college. They came back, and I was expecting to be dragged to a squad car outside.
“So you don’t have any drugs on you?” They asked. “Because we found something in one of the bags.”
That was it, I thought. Possession of a psychedelic drug. Transporting it across state lines. Dave and I were going to spend many months in jail.
“No sir,” Dave said, with absolute confidence. “We’re not druggies, we just wanted to have a few beers down in Key West.”
Was Dave insane? They said they had found drugs… Amazingly, they zipped up our bags and gave them back to us. They had NOT found anything, the cops were just bluffing.
“You have two choices,” the officer said. “Go home now… or you can buy another ticket for Zach to Miami tonight – but not in your fake name. Dave.”
They laughed. Then they un-cuffed us. We were free. Holy shit.
“Holy fuck,” Dave whispered.
He then went up to the counter and Dave bought me a round trip ticket for $875.00 on his dad’s credit card…
We were on our way to Miami, having dodged the first bullet of the trip.
AND THEN DAVE GETS ARRESTED…
We celebrated our close call with the cops by both having a few beers on the airplane. The flight attendants didn’t card us, or just didn’t care if a couple of kids had a few Bud Lights on a five hour flight. We landed, stumbled over to the Key West plane and then lost our shit nearly cartwheeling the plane into the Key West airport when some funneling winds blew our craft in an awkward position. Still, we had landed. We made it to the hotel and checked in and slept for about five hours.
We awoke to the crashing waves of the sea below. The hotel we were at wasn’t exactly some five star resort, but it had some amenities that catered to tourists, like a wave runner rental, a banana boat ride and a small slide going into the swimming pool. There was a beach bar called “Rum Runners” and waiters who brought you the local fried delicacy, a sea snack called a “Conch Fritter.” Dave and I settled in and I was happy to discover that my Josh Katz ID worked flawlessly at the Rum Runner, where I chatted up two guys who worked for the Equal Sugar Additive Company. Since I had to tell everyone that my name was Josh Katz, my new name was suddenly, “Katz,” and I felt like a Jew Lawyer who was constantly ridiculed by his partners.
“Hey, Katz – What are you drinking?”
“Hey someone bring Katz a beer…”
“Katz, you do taxes?”
It was then that one of the guys, named Neil, informed me that Key West was known for having a fair amount of six-toed cats running around the island.
“They’re called polydactyls, or something,” Neil explained. “A shit load of them live over on the former Hemingway estate… We’re gonna call you ‘Six-Toe’ the rest of the day, man! Hahahahahha.”
And from then on, I was “Six-Toe.” I guess it was a cooler name than “Katz” and it also meant I didn’t have to pretend I was the guy on my fake ID… I was just, simply, Six-Toe.
My new friends bought me a few rounds and I delivered them to Dave on the beach and I had suddenly caught a day-drinking buzz by 3:30. Retiring to the hotel for a nap, we sat on the balcony smoking Parliament cigarettes discussing what bars along Duval Street we needed to hit up to meet other college girls on Spring Break.
We woke up around 8 and hit the town in a taxi. As we cruised through town, the ghosts of Ernest Hemingway, Shel Silverstein and Hunter S. Thompson circled the streetlights – even though the raw hedonism of what Key West was before Jimmy Buffett had commercialized it was fading fast… Gone were a lot of the local smuggler bars… replaced by the corporate genius of “Margaritaville” and foot-tall hurricanes in a collectable glass.
The sidewalks were full of locals who looked a lot like we did. Long hair, pirate attire and sandals. Drum circles thumped out rhythmically from every street corner and being that we weren’t quite a year removed from the death of Jerry Garcia, local buskers warbled their way through covers of songs like “Bertha” and “Bird Song” above guitar cases full of loose change and homemade signs reading, “All who wander are not lost.”
We were dropped in front of the world famous Sloppy Joe’s Bar, a famous Hemingway haunt featuring the writer himself on their logo. Dave mentioned that he’d like to go in their eventually, so we took a stroll down Duval, looking for busier bars where more age appropriate females might want to have a covert fling with a couple of California boys. Soon, we landed in front of a Grateful Dead-like hippie bar called “Barefoot Bob’s.”
The band inside was playing “Soul Shine” by the Allman Brothers. I caught a glimpse of a blonde hippie Goddess dancing shoeless on the makeshift floor in front of the band. I turned back to Dave.
“This is our spot,” I said. I produced the Katz ID and breezed past the bouncer. I went to the bar and turned around to see where Dave was. I quickly noticed that he was stuck outside, being questioned repeatedly by the bouncer.
“Shit,” I said.
A few minutes later, two cops were escorting Dave to a nearby squad car. He was shoved in the back seat and I ran out after him. Too late. Dave was gone, off to the Key West police holding area for trying to use a fake ID to enter a bar. As the bouncer chuckled behind me, I heard him giggling to a nearby employee…
“Look at this piece of shit… It says that guy was 31-years-old.”
$175 DOLLARS OR COMMUNITY SERVICE
I had no way of contacting Dave. I had no idea who to call or what to do. I went back inside of Barefoot Bob’s and was now laser-focused on paying my tab and getting back to the hotel to gather myself. As I asked the bartender for one last shot of tequila before I went back to the Marriott, a slightly built blonde guy standing next to me toasted me in a strange accent with his Bud Light.
“Cheers, man… to Key West, huh,” he said.
“Yeah, man – cheers – except my buddy just got taken to jail for using a fake ID…”
“That sucks. I lost my license a few weeks ago at a bar because it’s from Sweden… so I roll with my passport now.”
He produced it. His name was Jonas Sarviddsen. He was 23 and impossibly tan, like one of those lifelong beach kids that never seem to freckle… but only get perfectly bronzed.
“I’m Jonas” he offered.
“I’m Zach… sorry dude, I gotta split and figure out where my boy Dave is…”
“Oh, I know where he is,” he said. “He’s at the police station. They’ll keep him overnight and he’ll have to do community service or pay 175 dollars.”
“What? How do you know that?”
“‘Cause that’s what tI had to do when they took my license… But, luckily, I called home and my mom sent proof that I was 23… Americans have no idea what a Swedish license looks like, ya know?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Alright, dude – I gotta go.”
“Wait,” Jonas called out. “I’ll help you – I can help you with getting him out of jail.”
This shit was getting weird. A young Swedish guy was trying to tag along with me for some reason. I motioned to the bartender for my bill once again and he brought it. Without hesitating, Jonas threw a 20 dollar bill on the bar and said, “I got it, dude… just let me go with you to the hotel.”
OK. I am not homophobic, nor am I even scared of strangers who weigh 40 pounds more than me… but for some reason, this was feeling weird. I didn’t think Jonas was trying to hit on me, nor did I think he was taking me to some underground lair where I would be beaten and robbed… I just thought it was strange that he had bought my drinks and wanted to help me find Dave… I inquired into what was going on before we took even another step out of the door.
“Look man,” he said. “I live over in Marathon – I run Hobie Cats for tourists, but I came up here to party with my girlfriend – she’s a lawyer… makes good money, you know – but we split a few nights ago. She was cheating on me… it sucked. I slept on the beach last night and it sucked even more. Honestly dude? I’ll buy you as many beers as you want if I can come crash at your hotel for a night or two.”
I didn’t know what or where Marathon was, but I knew this situation seemed weird. I thanked him for the drinks, politely declined his offer and walked outside to hail a cab.
A minute later, he was outside with me.
“No cabs around here for a while,” he said from behind me. “But I have a car if you need a ride.”
Shit, I thought. A car would save me 15 bucks back to the hotel Plus, it didn’t look like there were ay around at that moment… And then I noticed that Jonas had cigarettes. And he also had a joint. And in this moment of weakness, when I should have been calling the police, or Dave’s father or going home and sleeping this horrible night off, I caved in to temptation. The smoke hit well. About twenty minutes later I was letting Jonas drive me to my hotel in his 1993 Nissan Altima.
“Windows down cool with you? A.C. is expensive, man,” he said.
“Cool with me,” I said, letting the ocean breeze wash through my hair as we drove through the city streets.
My best friend was in jail and I was letting a 23-year-old Swedish stranger drive me to my hotel where I was gonna let him crash for the night. In my mind, I figured I’d wake up without a kidney, drugged and robbed or not even wake up at all.
Fuck it, I thought. This guy bought me drinks and smoked me out… What could go wrong?
THE FOLLOWING MORNING
The ringing of the hotel room phone woke me up around 6 a.m. I wasn’t missing any vital organs and as far as I knew, Jonas hadn’t taken any of my cash… I rubbed my eyes and said hello.
It was Dave. He was calling me with his one phone call after spending the night in the Key West drunk tank. (Even though he blew a .03 when they administered a breathalyzer upon admittance). He was being charged with possession of a fake ID and underage drinking. And, just like Jonas had told me, he had two options… Pay the $175 fine, or do some community service. Eight hours worth to be exact. Being that he had already milked his dad when he bought me that $875.00 plane ticket the night before, he chose to do the community service… He would be picking up trash on the side of the road for the next eight hours. Then, he said he needed to take a taxi back from the station to the hotel. At that point, Dave decided, that he wanted to just get the hell out of town. Back to L.A. I told him I would do whatever he wanted… I was fine leaving without encountering any other police activity. He thanked me for understanding and I was about to hang up when Jonas spoke up from his other bed.
“Tell him we can pick him up so he doesn’t have to spend the money on a cab,” he said.
“Really?” I said back.
“Yeah, I owe you guys for the room last night… Tell him we’ll be there at 4 pm when they get back to the station.”
I told Dave I had met this cool Swedish fellow named Jonas and that he had a car and that we could save him a taxi ride back to the hotel… Dave was confused, but when I told him that Jonas had gone through the same night in the drunk tank a week earlier, he seemed fine with it.
“Just get me out of here and make sure we have booze and cigarettes when I get back to the fucking hotel,” he responded.
“No worries,” I said. “Jonas is like, 23 – he can buy us whatever we want!”
And I hung up, Jonas and I went back to sleep… and Dave went to the side of the road to pick up trash while wearing an orange jumpsuit.
I woke up around 11 a.m. feeling refreshed and ready for the day. Jonas had been up since 7:30, and had even ran on the treadmill in the hotel. I hated early morning workout people. Jonas made me feel like I was a cigarette away from a heart attack. After we showered, we went into town and ate at some cafe before heading back to the hotel to lie on the beach. It was then that he told me his story…
Jonas Sarviddsen was born in 1972 in Umea, Sweden. He never knew his father, and his mother had remarried a guy who had five kids from his previous marriage. After they split, Jonas had moved to Florida to get into treasure hunting, a very real profession in the keys, as I was finding out… where SCUBA-trained men, immigrants, dreamers and privateers scoured the floor of the sea searching for lost gold, jewels, doubloons, canons, metal, weaponry, you name it. If you were at all lucky, you could unearth anywhere from ten million dollars worth of sunken currency… to a valuable sword from past days of piracy and high seas adventure… Depending on what you admitted to finding, you were allowed a percentage for yourself and, according to Jonas, many men and women had spent the 70’s and 80’s getting very rich finding treasure at the bottom of the seas just off of the Florida Keys. Jonas was a licensed SCUBA diver and a captain. He was here to find sunken treasure. That was his job. He had been on hundreds of dives… and, up until this point, his biggest find was a piece of a broken sword form an 18th century Spanish ship that had fetched him $3,000 two years back. But three grand won’t get you very far in the Florida Keys… especially with an alcohol problem and a girlfriend who broke up with you on the beach just 48 hours ago…
“I’m pretty sure I know where a French shipwreck is, but these locals won’t let me explore it unless I pay them like 10 grand,” Jonas explained. “If you pay up ten large, we can split all that treasure dude, I’m serious.”
Serious or not, I was a college student already $50,000 deep into my student loans. I made $80 dollars a night as a fraternity party DJ… As much as I’d like to say I was interested in becoming a pirate treasure hunter, I had to turn him down.
“Dave’s dad has all the money,” I explained. Maybe you can ask him.”
“There’s a lot of lost history at the bottom of these waters,” he replied. “I’m gonna get rich someday.”
I have always been fascinated by those movies like Boyz in the Hood when a character like Doughboy (Ice Cube) comes back from a bid in prison and the neighborhood throws him like, a big bar-be-cue dance party – where all the homies gather round and celebrate their buddy’s freedom. I had never been a part of one of those parties, but I felt that after Dave’s experience, he needed a welcome home celebration as a way to make sure he wasn’t really serious about leaving Key West for LA only 24 hours after we had arrived. Jonas and I made a pact: We would throw Dave a “Get out of Jail” party and bring in a bunch of females, booze, joints and music… We spent the afternoon recruiting locals and other spring breakers to meet us at our hotel around five o’clock.
The first group of girls we had met were on spring break from Notre Dame. Kat, Emily and Rachel. Catholic girls They had driven down from Miami after flying in from Chicago and they had a rental car that they had affixed a lame Black Fly’s Sunglasses sticker upon… It read “FLYGIRLS.” This little sticker made them seem crazier than their Catholic school upbringing, even though they had probably purchased the thing at a Spencer Gifts for .99 cents… The sticker, for them, was the equivalent of a bachelorette party “penis hat” or something. It said they were in town and ready to get crazy… Which meant cigarettes, maybe a little weed, a thong in public and a shitload of Coronas.
To Jonas it meant “College chicks ready to have an orgy.”
I was just happy to have some females to finally flirt with – and especially to make Dan’s return from the clink a lot easier. (The more and more I think about this, the more hilarious it is to me that a middle class white dude picking up trash for eight hours deserved a ‘Get Out of Jail’ party). Still, he had brought me to Key West, so I was gonna take it upon myself to make sure his trip was better than it had been the first 48 hours.
Jonas and I bought a bunch of beer, rolled some joints and picked up Dave at 4:00 p.m. He had spent the day in the sun with 14 other 20-something kids who were all arrested for possessing fake ID’s. Jonas and Dave immediately got along, especially since Dave’s dad had a boat while he was growing up, so he took to Jonas right away. However, Dave didn’t want to immediately go back the hotel. His suggestion was that we meet his new friends Tim and Keith, who he had bonded with on the road spearing styrofoam cups that had been discarded by passing motorists. He said they Tim could get us into a bunch of clubs and that he knew where all the strippers went after their shifts. I was tempted, but Jonas reminded me that we had the Notre Dame girls coming by and that we had bought a shitload of beer for Dave.
“Maybe we can meet up with them later,” I suggested.
“OK,” he said. “They gave me the names of some bars we should be able to get in without a problem.”
Dave got home and wanted to sleep. He did. For four hours. The FLYGIRLS, as we had begun calling them, finally said they’d come by for a few drinks around nine. Dave woke up at 8:30. Jonas and I were just starting on the Sam Adams.
Kat, Emily and Rachel showed up. Dave perked up. We drank. We smoked. We went swimming…. Dave was into Emily, Jonas was into Rachel and Kat and I hit it off… for a few brilliant minutes, it was perfect. We were all on the beach, stumbling drunk, high, young and happy…
Dave looked at me and said, “thanks man… I needed this.”
“You did some hard time, bro,” I responded.
We all laughed and decided to go into town. It was around 11:30 at night.
Jonas said he was OK to drive, and the girls took their rental as well. We landed on Duval Street, seeking pizza and more cigarettes… and eventually found a small restaurant bar where we sat down on the outside patio and laughed and smoked for a few hours. I had managed to sneak a bunch of beer into the place in my backpack, so I slowly filled my glass throughout the night as the warm Florida air kissed our skin and left us smiling for hours. It was one of those nights where nearly everything seemed to flow perfectly…
The funniest moment was when Neil from the Rum Runner drove by the bar and yelled out simply, “SIX-TOE!!!”
Around two in the morning, we were all making out with our girls in different areas of the boulevard. From a distance, we heard a car tire screech and a police siren. It startled me enough to know it was time to go home and we hopped into Jonas’ car and made it back to the hotel for a final balcony cigarette and a conversation with each other about how this was one of the best nights we had ever had… I guess that when you’re 20-years-old, you seem to have a lot of “Best Nights Ever…” That is the beauty of youth, isn’t it? We are all grow so much and experience so much that every day is potentially a better day than we’ve ever had in our entire lives…
That’s the key to life, isn’t it? Keep moving and make every day your best day ever…
AND THEN CAME THE GIRL…
12:30 the next day and Jonas brought us back into town. We were all hungry, well rested and glowing. Jonas was grateful for letting him crash at the hotel, but he said that he had to get back to Marathon for a night to pick something up. “Some treasure hunting shit,” he said. We said our good-byes and I wasn’t sure if we’d ever see him again, but no matter what, he had been a huge part of this journey already. He dropped us at a restaurant where we could smoke and feel the salty air… It was then that our waitress arrived.
April was 18, from Vermont and had just moved to Key West. She was a restaurant employee by day and a poet by night and had complimented me on my rather lame “Carpe Diem” t-shirt. She had dreamer’s eyes, a body of a Goddess and one of those kind smiles that made you want to just start kissing her… She was full of beauty and laughter and as she filled our water glasses, both Dave and I knew we were in trouble.
After all, Dave and I had a long history of failing in love with the same women.
Freshman year there was Danielle, a northern California girl with a love of Marlboro Mediums, weed and white wine. Sophomore year there was Casey, a gorgeous Orange County blonde who we had both made out with merely weeks apart. And then there was Heather, my one-time girlfriend who Dave had subsequently dated after me… We were both acutely aware of our strange attraction to the same women, but as best friends, we had always shrugged it off. As we used to say in our fraternity house, “Bros before Hoes.” (Yes, this was – and might still be – a horrible motto that frat guys say to each other while in college).
But then again, girls like April did not go to the University of Southern California.
And guys like us weren’t your typical Spring Breakers partying for a week in Key West.
“Oh my God, that waitress,” Dave said.
“Yeah, she’s pretty… spectacular,” I responded.
We looked at each other sand started laughing. An hour later, she had agreed to meet up with us when she got off work.
“I’m done at seven tonight and then me and some friends are watching Basketball Diaries,” she explained.
“Oh, I love Leo,” I said.
“Me too!” She said through a smile. “He’s so talented.”
Dave rolled his eyes at me.
“You know, he got his start on Growing Pains, right?” Dave offered.
“He did?” April responded.
“Yeah, totally,” I said.
“I loved that show!” April said.
“I know… Alan Thicke, right?” Dave said.
“You know he did the theme song, too, right?” I added.
On and on we went with this type of shit. Dave and I trying to one up each other to impress this Goddess of the Keys with some stupid knowledge about Leonardo DiCaprio’s fucking acting career. Who cared. We were both just trying to hook up with her.
After we paid our bill and agreed to meet up with April after work, we strolled down Duval Street window shopping at the stupid tourist – friendly stores where a knock-off Calvin Klein T-shirt that had re-imagined the CK logo as a KW (Key West) logo sold for $15.00. I wondered who the hell would buy such a dumb shirt.
And then Dave saw an even dumber shirt.
On display in the window of this Key West novelty store was a white T-shirt with a small slogan printed upon the front of it… It read as follows:
I’M SHY, BUT I’VE GOT A BIG DICK.
“I need that,” Dave said.
“I’ll pay for it if you wear it the rest of the day,” I said.
Less than three minutes later, Dave was wearing a T-shirt that guaranteed he would never successfully run for any political office.
“I can’t believe you bought that,” I said.
We went to the hotel to swim and lay in the hammocks.
Dave disappeared upstairs to shower and take a nap. I fell asleep. Dave woke me up because his “prison friends” Tim and Keith were meeting us at a dockside bar where they didn’t card anybody… and a bunch of strippers were supposed to show up after ten.
I looked at my watch. It was 8:30. Shit, I had overslept and missed meeting April to watch The Basketball Diaries.
AND THEN CAME THE CRACK PIPE…
The dockside bar was amusing, as Dave quickly be-friended an older man in his 50’s who had a large beard and a bevy of women surrounding him. I spent most of my time doing shots with Tim and Keith and playing the jukebox, filling it with the Dead, Allman Brothers and Rolling Stones songs as we ordered beer after beer without ever being asked for our ID’s. Dave and the older guy were doing shots. Tim had cigarettes. The night air cooled my skin as every beer went down easier than the previous one. We got high and sang along to the jukebox and smiled and laughed and it was only around 11:30 that night when I realized that I was sort of bummed that I had not met April at her friend’s place to watch the movie. The so-called strippers never showed up, but life was good nonetheless.
And then Dave smoked crack.
I wasn’t sure how this started, but it seemed like the older guy in his 50’s was the one holding the pipe. He had walked around a corner with Dave and some girls and they had smoked a little weed… or so we had assumed. When Dave came back to the bar, however, something had changed.
“Dude, I smoked something that tasted like glue,” he said. “Now I’m all fucked up, bro… but I feel amazing.”
“Glue?” I responded. “What the fuck, man? Was it freebase?”
“I don’t know man, but you should take a poke,” Dave said.
“Fuck that,” I said.
And then Tim and Keith informed us that yes, the bearded man Dan was smoking with was known for smoking “Bazookas.” A combination of crack or cocaine and marijuana in a joint.
“Holy fucking shit,” Dave said as his eyes dilated and his head started spinning. “I’m so fucked up.”
Tim, Keith and I managed to calm him down, after a while, and thankfully the jukebox had enough familiar music on it to see Dave’s head in the game. After about an hour, he decided he was going to go sleep on somebody’s boat in the marina, and we had a hard time restraining him as he stumbled into the docks with a glazed look in his eye. Eventually, a security guard helped us pour him into a cab and we sped back to the hotel to crash. Of course, this didn’t come easy, as Dave and I sat up talking for the next five hours, After I dumped an ashtray full of cigarettes over the balcony onto the plant life just beneath our room, I decided that it was time for bed. I crawled into my bed and put a Jackson Browne album on my Sony Discman… My Opening Farewell was the final track… I overanalyzed the lyrics for hours… was this his farewell to his opening album? Or was this a metaphor to my farewell to his days drinking snd smoking? Or a farewell to a woman he had just met and didn’t want to leave…? Every time I thought that I understood his lyricism, it hit me that he was 23 when he made this album. 23. Man., he was OLD. I couldn’t sleep.
Shit, at least nobody got handcuffed tonight.
THE TREASURE HUNT
Jonas had been knocking on our door for what seemed like 30 minutes. When I finally got up and answered, he high-five me and said he had great news… He had discovered a wreck 13 miles off shore where we could salvage some serious boating parts and hopefully come to the surface with some treasure. He claimed that he had spent the past 13 hours on the water, hovering above a wreck that even the deepest and most experienced treasure hunters didn’t know existed… It was the rest of the unrecovered the loot from the famed Nuestra Señora de Altocha, a half a billion dollar wreck uncovered by a famous Key West hunter named Mel Fisher in the 1980’s… Jonas said there were cannons, jewels, gold, and more sprawled everywhere across the nearby ocean floor. All he needed was a few grand to hire a crew and get some equipment and we would all be worth millions in less than 24 hours.
I tried to wake Dave to hear this plan. He wouldn’t budge.
“I dunno, man,” I said. “Dave wouldn’t pay $175 for community service yesterday… why is he gonna go ask his pops for three grand for a treasure hunt?”
“If he wants to be stupid rich, he will,” he responded.
After he woke up, 30 minutes later, Dave called his father to ask if he could fund a treasure hunt for himself, his friend Zach and a Swedish pirate who had apparently discovered sunken treasure off the shores of Key West. His dad actually held a conversation with him for a good 20 minutes about it. In the end, however… he had denied Dave’s request.
“Fools seek treasure,” he had told him. “Smart men seek rich wives.”
Dave’s dad was fucking cool.
We took the Hobie Cat out to the wreck anyway, and Jonas navigated the wind perfectly until we hit some coordinate he had written down in a journal. It was much colder out on the water. Luckily, to combat my sea-sickness, I got high and sang “Wooden Ships” in my head to keep my balance… and sanity. When we found the area where Jonas’ treasure was, we looked down and saw only lumpy sand.
“Beneath those mounds is gold, weaponry, collectibles, man… who knows!” He declared.
I think Dave was happy he hadn’t procured any moment from his pops. This seemed like we were searching for El Dorado or something. Still, Jonas went down. He was able to deep-dive for up to three minutes and he wanted get as close to the surface as he could. As he sunk down in the water, leaving me and Dave alone on the Hobie cat, Dave awkwardly looked at me and whispered, “Have you ever seen Dead Calm?” He said. “We’re gonna DIE out here.”
We both laughed for the remainder of Jonas’ trip to the bottom of the ocean.
When he came back he said it was too rough that day and the visibility wasn’t up to par for treasure seeking. Fuck it, he said. We should go back to shore and have a party. Dave and I agreed and our days as treasure hunters came to an end.
That night we took Dave’s mushrooms. More importantly I tracked down April after her shift and was able to apologize to April for missing the Basketball Diaries screening.
“Oh, don’t worry – we just got drunk and went swimming instead,” she said.
I invited her out that night to meet on Duval Street and – if she was in – to take some mushrooms with us. She agreed and we met up around nine. The world spun, the walls breathed and the trees swayed to the beautiful balance of the world. I took my journal with me and wrote a half poem/ halflove letter to April about her delicious energy, her nymph-like easy way of gliding through life and how if I was to live near her, I would love her, caress her and make her every day better than the last… as a lover and a friend. I was smitten with this girl – and made a decision to giver her this note at some point in the night. Of course, you’re smitten with a lot of things when you’re on mushrooms… For instance, April and I walked into a touristy store full of tchotkes and refrigerator magnets and I decided that it was a good idea to buy a stuffed gecko and name him DWAYNE because for some reason – at that moment in my life – DWAYNE was the best name in the entire world and this beautiful girl who was lacing her arm through mine looked like a dream and maybe… just maybe… if you someday get married, this DWAYNE gecko will become some symbol of everlasting love and commitment…
“I think DWAYNE is having a good time,” April said.
“I think I love you,” I said to April as we sat in the branches of a Banyon Tree.
I had never told a girl I had loved them before. I didn’t know if I did. I didn’t know what to expect. But I didn’t care. At that moment, I was in love with that face. I laid my heart on the table and awaited a response.
“Hmmm,” she hummed. “You’re sweet.”
I read that one pretty easily. I was in love with this girl and she was just happy to be in the moment. I watched Dave as he lit a cigarette a few feet away from me… I shook it off, took a walk to a street corner and wrote another stupid poem in my journal. Something about breath in the skies, billowing canvases my new life as a “Gentlemen Pirate.”
When I came back, Dave had moved in on April and was giving her a neck massage. Same shit, different state.
After April declared it, “The best back rub she had ever received” she smiled at Dave and slid away to meet another guy at the ice cream shop for a quick hello. Dave and I sat together, gathered our thoughts and admitted that we were both in love with the same girl.
“Why does this always happen to us?” He asked.
“It will probably happen the rest of our lives,” I said.
“Let’s have one more cigarette in honor of this epic trip.”
“Yessir… I’m quitting after this trip by the way.”
“Yeah… me too.”
April came back with her friend, a musician from a local band called Grooveyard. They were about to play and she wanted to go watch them. Of course, Dave and I tagged along. The band was a Buffett-meets-Marley like reggae outfit full of stoner-friendly grooves and clever hooks. I dropped 16 bucks on a CD. Dave and I watched as April flirted with the bass player… We were both coming down and somewhat devastated. Even DWAYNE, the little stuffed gecko in my pocket looked upset and confused. When the show finished, Dave and I both stared at each other, wondering if she was coming with us – or going home with the rock star.
“She’s gonna bang the bass player,” I said.
“Yep,” Dave responded.
But a few minute later, April came over. And smiled. And told us that we made her feel “slinky,” which Dave and I both totally understood at that particular moment in time.
“I’m sort of in love with both of you,” she said. “And I know you’re like close friends… so I don’t wanna be that person in the middle.”
“I get it,” I said.
“I do too,” Dave added. “But you wouldn’t be the first one.”
She smiled, leaned in and kissed us both on the cheek. As she turned to walk away with her bass player she looked back and both of our hearts melted.
“Wait,” I yelled before running up to her. “I want you to have something.”
I reached into my journal and tore out the 2 page poem I had written for her when I was flying high on caps and stems a few hours earlier. I pressed it into her hand… As I did, I whispered in her ear.
“Read this when you’re alone… and please call me and write me and understand that this was a once in a lifetime connection.”
She smiled at me, spreading her lovely energy across my face, which I swear to God, at that time, I inhaled… deeply.
“You’re a beautiful soul,” she said.
She kissed me on the cheek and walked out of the bar. I walked back to Dave… who had one thing to say.
“You wrote her a fucking poem, didn’t you?” He said.
I couldn’t help but laugh.
Before we left Key West, Jonas came back over and we had one last hotel party. The Flygirls came over as well and we all decided we would keep in touch forever. Jonas gave me all his information. I wished him the best of luck in hunting down that Spanish treasure in the middle of the ocean and he thanked us for letting him stay in our room. My make out buddy Kat told me she wanted me to visit her. I told her I would… In reality, I was only thinking about April…
Dave and I were too hungover on the flight home to discuss the trip. I couldn’t even write much in my journal, but I did manage to list the “best memories” – most of which are featured in this story. When we landed, we definitely spun some incredible tales to our roommates about our Key West adventure. We rattled off tales and sea stories of our brushes with law enforcement, all the beautiful women we met on Duval street, our mushroom journey and of course, April… After swearing off smoking anything, we put on the Grooveyard CD and proceeded to get high and smoke Parliaments until 5 o’clock in the morning with our roommates laughing about our fake ID’s and the close call at LAX a week prior.
“Told ya so,” Oren said.
The next morning was Monday. Classes started at 9. I somehow got up, fished through my jacket for any loose marijuana or Parliaments and came up empty… All I could find, hidden an inside pocket, was DWAYNE. I picked him up and looked him in the eyes…
“What up DWAYNE?” I asked.
After no answer, I tossed him on my bed and went off to somehow force myself through my first few classes.
Two weeks later, a letter arrived in the mail from April. She told me she was writing to me while sitting on a beach smoking weed, thinking of both me and Dave. She had said she had fallen for both of us, and was unable to get herself to write until we had long left the island. She said my letter had blown her away. At the very end of the letter she asked me how DWAYNE was… and then mentioned that she had felt like we had a connection she couldn’t process at the moment, but was able to process now.
She wrote: When you told me you thought you loved me, I wanted to respond… but I couldn’t… because I was stunned… And then I read your poem that you put in my hand – and Zach – please find me somewhere in the future… I think I love you too… And I’m here.. but I can’t come to LA because I can’t afford it but my heart is with you… Please understand that you and Dan mean soooo much to me…
At the end of the letter she quoted a Grooveyard song and reported the most recent news out of Key West…
Apparently someone had recently discovered a 20 million dollar sunken Spanish treasure right off the coast.
I called Jonas but never heard back… Man, I hoped it was him…
*This story was originally conceived and written in Key West, Florida in March of 1996. After discovering it in my journal from that time, I re-visited it and pieced together whatever memories I still had from that time. I recently tracked down April on social media and found her to be back in Vermont, married with a child. I added her as a friend. She did not respond.
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 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!
Zach recently began shooting a multi-episode series for History Chanel – where Zach travels deep into the heart of America to find the most unique and unusual people, jobs, locations and history he can find! Produced by Bullet Point Films, expect the series to premiere on TV and online in late 2017 or early 2018! Here’s a sneak peak of Zach at Rhinebeck Aerodrome in upstate New York and in Grand Teton National Park… Look for him on the road!
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…
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…