Zachariah’s new song explores the corporate logo marketing travesty that all of us 90’s kids endure every time we see a Nirvana or Ramones shirt for sale in Target or Wal-Mart. Back in 1992 I had to go to the concert to buy a $30 shirt. Now the logo is on onesies.
My wife and I once hired a hippie nanny named Sioux who hid little bags of weed for me around our house. I remember the day we interviewed her – she was about 19, naturally slender with long blonde hair and she was wearing a skirt that looked like it was stitched out of the AIDS quilt… She had on Birkenstocks. She smelled like lavender. She was gorgeous. My first thought was, “I would have totally dated this girl back in college.”
When you’ve been married as long as my wife and I have, the best way to say you think somebody is attractive is to say that you would have dated ‘back in college.’
Of course, I told my wife this very fact.
“Well keep your hippie dick in your jorts,” she responded.
I laughed. I love my wife. Meanwhile, after a few conversations, I was sold on Sioux to become our nanny for our then five and two-year-old kids… but my wife wasn’t so into it.
“I don’t know – she seems flighty,” she remarked.
“Cmon, what’s the worst that can happen?” I asked. “She gets high and eats all of our ice cream?”
My wife agreed, mainly because we had a wedding that Saturday night and our other go-to nannies were already busy.
“If she fucks up, that’s on you,” she said.
She didn’t fuck up. At least that first night. In fact, when we came back from the wedding a little buzzed from the wine, we stayed up late with her and talked about the kids, how hard it was to meet guys in Los Angeles and eventually, she secretly told me that she hid a tiny bag of weed for me underneath the sage candle she had lit to ward off bad spirits on the coffee table. As she left, I thanked her and imagined that if she was my age in 1995, we would have been one of those hippie power couples that I was always jealous of at Phish concerts.
The second time Sioux babysat, I casually came downstairs wearing my old Grateful Dead 1992 Spring Tour shirt. She went ape shit. Told me it was the coolest thing she’d ever seen. I immediately felt like Phil from Modern Family, pretending that I didn’t even know I had the shirt on… even though I had been calculating the move since the week before. From the corner of my eye I saw my wife shaking her head while watching my pathetic attempt to connect with Sioux over a t-shirt.
“Nice shirt, babe,” she said.
“I guess I’ll go get ready,” I added before running upstairs to change.
When I came back downstairs, Sioux had prepared some food for the kids (all macrobiotic) and smiled one of those young hippie smiles at me – as if we were college sophomores peaking during a Run Like an Antelope solo. My wife smiled at me. I smiled at my wife. She smiled at Sioux. I kissed my kids. Sioux leaned in and hugged Wendy. They separated. The kids ate. My wife watched me as I leaned in and hugged Sioux. As I did, I stupidly whispered a single word into her ear…
Sioux smiled. My wife looked confused. I brought myself out of this fantasy hippie love triangle and said, “OK, bath at 7:15 and bed by eight.”
My wife and I walked outside to catch our Lyft.
In our ride to the birthday party that night, my wife cleared her throat and calmly asked me exactly what “candle” meant.
I told her.
“Last time she babysat, Sioux left me a part of a joint underneath the candle on the coffee table and I smoked it.”
“Oh great, so she’s high around our kids?”
“Well, I mean… so what? Sometimes I’m high around our kids.”
“This is her last night babysitting,” my wife said.
I could understand her frustration. It wasn’t because Sioux was this macrame Goddess with rings on her fingers and bells on her shoes… but face it – if your nanny was sneaking joints around your two-year-old daughter, you might think about getting rid of her too.
Still, I argued that we had nothing to worry about and that by the time we returned home, we would be thrilled to find our kids in bed and that maybe we could even split the little bag of weed I was expecting to find underneath the sage candle on our coffee table.
Until we got back around 11:45 p.m.
As it turns out, Sioux had started a bath for the kids upstairs… and forgot that she began running it. She turned on the water and then came downstairs to get the kids and somehow got distracted… By what, nobody knows – food? A text? A documentary on YouTube about the benefits of Dr. Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar? Whatever the case, she suddenly remembered that the bath was on just as drops of water began seeping through our living room ceiling and landing on the floor. The puddle stain on the roof was large and substantial and we knew we were looking at some serious water damage and mold repair.
Sioux was in shambles.
As she tried to explain how she forgot to turn off the water, we examined the damage and quickly lost the hippie buzz we had all generated earlier. I informed Sioux that we would pay her for her time, but that we fully expected her to be responsible for the damages once we had the roof inspected. She agreed and left, her head hung low, embarrassed and ashamed.
“OK, so she was probably high and forgot about the bath,” I said.
Stupidly, I checked beneath the candle for some weed.
There was nothing.
The damage came to over 1000 dollars. Sioux was broke and we felt bad charging her, so she offered to babysit for free until she could pay us back. Amazingly in Los Angeles, that’s only like, five nights of work…
However, my wife and I chose to not use her again.
The last I saw on Facebook she was living in Oregon with a Spanish guy named Pau.
Zach and Missi Pyle have a new podcast called “Missi and Zach Might Bang!” Exec. Produced by Anna Faris and Sim Sarna of “Anna Faris is Unqualified” – the show takes on celebrity guests, improvisational music and offers entertainment business advice as well! Head to http://www.ewpopfest.com to buy tickets now!!!
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…
After Reading Sean Penn’s ‘El Chapo’ Piece, I Decided to See What my Old Pot Dealer From High School was Up to…
Recently, Sean Penn made headlines when he bravely traveled deep into the heart of Sinaloa to meet and converse with the notorious Mexican drug cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Right after the story went to press, El Chapo was captured – and his latest elusive time on the lam abruptly came to a close. Penn’s piece was published in Rolling Stone this week and I found it to be an engrossing piece of long lost Gonzo journalism at its finest. Penn, an actor, long known for his political involvement, put himself in the direct line of peril and danger all while partnering with a famous Mexican film actress to infiltrate the most impenetrable depths of Narco activity. He shook hands, broke bread and slammed tequila with a man that the DEA and Mexican authorities have been unable to locate for close to six months. In my opinion, Penn’s story was a hell of a lot more ballsy than anything else any pampered Hollywood actor has attempted in the past twenty years. (Sorry, Julia Roberts. Playing an AIDS-sensitive doctor in The Normal Heart may have been considered “daring” but it pales in comparison to a 55-year-old Oscar winner risking his life to traipse deep into a jungle of death for an interview for a rock-n-roll magazine).
So, inspired by Sean Penn’s courage, I decided that the recent stories and essays I have written have felt a little too “soft.” I realized that had to step it up. Knowing that I was traveling back to my hometown of Tucson to visit my mother on Martin Luther King, jr. weekend, I made up my mind that I was going to turn the trip into my own personal “El Chapo rendezvous.” I had a great idea…
My goal was to track down Ernesto Gregory, the most successful marijuana dealer in my high school. The last I had heard of Ernesto was through a photograph taken around 2011 by our mutual high school friend, Erik. He posted a picture of the two of them on Facebook drinking in the desert. Erik had captioned the photo with He’s finally out! Welcome home boss!”
Assuming that this caption insinuated that he had just been released from some high security prison, I was under the impression that Ernesto had built up an El Chapo-like narcotics network of hundreds of foot soldiers and truckloads of contraband over the past 18 years. Why else would he have been in jail? Why would Erik call him “boss?” Plus, he was wearing the typical outfit. A Large Polo Horse logo situated on a blue collared shirt on top of True Religion designer jeans. DEA agents call this look “Narco Polo.” Now I have seen Sicario. I’ve watched Breaking Bad. I had no doubt that Ernesto had risen from low-grade weed dealer at Rincon/University High School into a southwestern drug legend – living in ranches and mansions sprawled across the Tucson and Mexico landscape.
And I was going to interview him.
I was set to fly into Tucson International Airport on January 17th. My plan was to eat a bunch of food at my mother’s house, drink wine and play three games of Scrabble all while hearing her talk about how amazing The Revenant was. The following day, I would travel deep into the center of Tucson to meet up with and interview the most intimidating and bad-ass pot dealer my high school had known.
Back in 1993, Ernesto Gregory had owned the school’s finest lowered mini truck. He had a 200-dollar Motorola pager. His “system” – or car stereo – was as custom as they came, complete with an Alpine tape deck, a Sony Discman attachment, two 12-inch Kicker woofers, some Kenwood tweeters and a constant bass thump of MC Breed, DJ Magic Mike and Wrecks ‘N Effect blasting from his trunk. He had his own apartment on Speedway, decked out with a two-foot bong, a television with cable and an unlimited financial account on a sort of early 90’s YouTube video-on-demand predecessor known as “The Box.” He always wore a black Colorado Rockies cap and Marithe and Francois Girbaud jeans beneath over-sized t-shirts of ridiculous animated Looney Tunes characters wearing 90’s hip-hop clothing. His pager code for weed was “907.” His girlfriend was the hottest girl in the senior class – a dark-haired Mexican sex goddess named Racquel Hernandez. And he was tough. As far as we knew, he had never lost a fight. In fact, I recalled him once putting my friend from Hebrew School – Adam Richford – into a headlock and smashing his nose repeatedly until he apologized for “mad-dogging” him in the parking lot. He claimed he had connections through “uncles in Nogales,” where his product came from. And everybody knew, anyone with “uncles in Nogales” was always in the drug game… In short, Ernesto Gregory was the most accomplished 18-year-old kid I had laid eyes on in my young life.
After I landed, I told my mom about my plan.
“Why the hell are you meeting with this criminal?” My mother asked on the car ride from the airport.
“He was the king, mom!” I exclaimed. “Didn’t you read the Sean Penn article?”
“Sean Penn’s an idiot, going to interview that drug dealer!”
“I thought that story was genius,” I said. “Besides, what else am I going to write? Another story about my kids not being allowed to bring refined sugar to school?”
Following a few glasses of wine at the house, my mom was trying to convince me to go to Wal-Mart to buy a knife for the meeting. I assured her that Ernesto and I were in good standing and that no concealed weapons would be necessary. She broke into a desperate sweat. We played two games of Scrabble before deciding to put the third one on pause because we were so tired that word like “uh” and “is” had begun appearing on the board.
My final memory of the evening was listening to my mom curse my name before she went to bed in the other room.
The following morning I fueled up on eggs and coffee, not knowing when I would be back to the house. The afternoon’s plans had been Facebook “messaged” to me by Erik, who I quickly learned from his profile hadn’t left Tucson since graduation. Erik wrote me that Ernesto wasn’t on social media, but he mentioned that he did watch a lot of TV and he had even seen my History Channel show and had once commented, “I know that fucker!” He also told me that Ernesto had demanded that Erik take down the aforementioned photo he had posted in 2011. Sure enough, when I searched for it, it was no longer online… All this solidified my drug-lord theory even more.
Ernesto had agreed to meet at 12:30. I took off in my mother’s Acura and sped over to an address located in the shadow of the bar-heavy downtown area. A place much hipper and enticing than it had been back in the 90’s when druggies and skinheads and homeless wandered Congress Boulevard scaring off any young people looking for a good time. Must have been all the drug money given to the city by Ernesto, I theorized.
I parked in a dirt lot and immediately recognized Erik, who looked like he had been a meth fiend since about 1994. He wore a saggy shirt, filthy pants and sported a patchy beard and shaved head. He had a kid’s BMX bicycle in his pick up truck bed, which I took as also a sure sign of a man on crystal meth. For some reason, heavy meth addicts seemed to always travel on way-too-small dirt bikes. Erik wasn’t unlike them.
I looked up just as a helicopter darted above us in the sky. DEA drone, I thought. Of course. We were most likely being followed. Hell, who knew what corner or alleyway was outfitted with a hidden camera tracking Erik’s every move. Shit, maybe the FBI had caught on to my story as well? I mean, who’s to say they weren’t tracking Erik’s Facebook page when I sent him my original message? I was starting to hit an all-time level of paranoia. Even a pigeon that flapped above us and landed on a telephone wire looked like it had a hidden camera in its eye… I tried to keep my cool.
Knowing some of the narco protocol, I began preparing for my meeting with Ernesto.
“So, should I give you my iphone for safety precautions?” I asked Erik.
“What for?” He replied.
“Oh, I just assumed I wasn’t allowed to bring any electronics to the meeting,” I said.
“We aint goin on no airplane or nothin,” he replied.
At this point, my entire drug kingpin theory went out the window. After all, in the El Chapo story, Sean Penn was told to turn his phone off in Los Angeles, nearly 14 hours before he even made contact with the cartel in Mexico. He had been forced to travel to in two separate SUV’s, two single engine planes and armored vehicles just to meet with El Chapo’s henchmen before gaining approval. He was most likely given a full body cavity search, frisked and water-boarded. Ernesto’s lone henchman was a meth fiend named Erik who was allowing me to bring my iphone into a meeting as if I was about to pitch him a new Angry Birds app to finance… Ernesto’s notorious drug cartel was crumbling before my eyes.
“Follow my truck, we’re going to shoot pool at Pockets,” Erik said.
“Pockets? We’re not going to his house or something?” I asked.
“What house?” He said. “Ernesto likes to play pool. You play pool?”
“Sure, man – I love pool,” I said.
I hate pool.
Pockets was a stale billiard hall way too brightly lit for a Wednesday afternoon. A few biker types with chain wallets and denim jackets drank Miller High Life at the bar. A Mexican guy who looked to be on his 5th or 6th Corona sat watching a soccer game on TV. One lone female, a waitress who would have slept with Bad Blake in the movie Crazy Heart after he played a set at a bowling alley, served beer. In the far west corner stood a chubby man in an Arizona Wildcats baseball cap chalking up his cue. I recognized him immediately as Ernesto Gregory.
His face had filled in and he had put on close to 35 pounds. By his footwear and saggy jeans I could tell that he hadn’t done much to change his fashion choices during the past 22 years. He wore Jordan sneakers, which were probably eight years old and had accumulated a slew of new arm tattoos, including one portrait of a woman who looked a lot like a fatter version of Racquel Hernandez. He drank what I would soon learn was Jack Daniel’s and Diet Coke and was constantly adjusting his pants from the crotch area. My first thought was that the most accomplished 18-year-old I had ever known had become the sloppiest 40-year-old I had seen in some time.
“Zach Selwyn!” He announced as I nervously approached the pool table. “What up Hollywood!”
Oh boy. He was going to call me Hollywood the rest of the day, I knew it.
“I seen you on that TV show about the words and shit!”
“Yeah, America’s Secret Slang, thanks man.”
“Yeah, American Slang! That’s it, what up big homie?”
“Nada man, just trying to catch up with some old friends, ya know?”
“Well shit, let’s shoot some stick.”
Ernesto racked up some balls and began rattling off shots. He was a damn good pool player and I knew that even at my best – which was pretty terrible – I was about to be embarrassed. But, he told me to pick a cue and even though it was 1:30 in the afternoon, I ordered a pitcher of Bud Light. The waitress brought it over and charged me for it. It cost $3.75.
As Ernesto sank shot after shot, we never once discussed drug dealing. In fact, we spent most of our time talking about girls from high school that he had always wanted to screw. Turns out, he thought I was some Olympic-level cocksman in my teens and he assumed that I had slept with every cute girl in our high school. As he dug up names from the past, I could only laugh and try to remember who some of these girls even were. Most of them I had never been intimate with, but to placate Ernesto, I played along.
“Paula Schrapner? Yeah, I nailed her,” I said. Not true.
“Jen Robbins? Blow job,” I lied.
“Did you ever get together with Laura House?” Ernesto asked. “She was DOPE!”
“Uh, we just kissed,” I said, which was actually true. One New Years Eve 1992, we had briefly kissed.
“Man, I wonder what she’s up to now?” He said, staring off at a neon sign.
As the beers flowed, I was finding that I was having a hard time getting anything out of Ernesto. He was stuck in 1993, still pining for girls who were long married, divorced and even had kids in high school of their own. He remembered football games that I hadn’t even thought about in 20 years and quoted our Economics teacher Mr. Franklin from a class I didn’t even recall taking. When I took a second to ask him about Racquel Hernandez and what happened to their relationship, he grew silent, took out a vape pen and pulled long and hard.
“You know we have three kids, right?”
“I did not know that,” I said. “Congrats. I have two. How old?”
“19, 17 and 15,” he said. “But the 15-year-old has blue eyes and blonde hair – aint no way that kid’s mine. We broke up 12 years ago. My second wife bailed on me last year. Bitch.”
Wow. Here I was, stressing out about my 9 and 5-year-old kids in Los Angeles and this guy had been divorced twice and had three kids in high school – one who he was convinced wasn’t even his. I suddenly felt like every pampered Hollywood asshole I have come to despise.
“Hey Hollywood, you never slept with Racquel, did you?” He asked.
“What? Hell no!”
There was a sudden silence. Erik looked ready to tear out my jugular. Ernesto stared me down. This was what Adam Richford would call “mad-dogging.” My mom was right… I should have bought that knife.
“Man, I’m just playing!” He said. “You should see your face, you looked like a little bitch just now!”
Everybody laughed. I pounded my beer. It was then that I decided that I had to get the whole story right here or else I was going to end up on the wrong end of a bong in the south side of Tucson come six o’clock, getting high and watching some show like Ridiculousness on a Futon. I found my courage and lowered my voice to a whisper.
“So, Ernesto – you still in the weed game?” I asked.
Ernesto looked at me and laughed. He looked at Erik and then back to the pool table.
“Man, I aint dealt weed since high school,” he said.
“I thought you went to jail or something?” I inquired.
“Shit man… I shot some endangered pregnant salamander with a rifle during bow-hunting season. Thank God it didn’t die… Luckily I only did two nights in county jail, man. Sucked ass.”
He had shot a pregnant salamander with a rifle during bow-hunting season? He did two nights in county jail? El Chapo had done something like seven years in maximum security before his first escape… As far as I know, he never complained either. Here was my one-time narcotics hero admitting to me that he was scared after doing two measly nights for shooting a fucking lizard. My story was falling apart.
“So, what about the last 15 years? I mean, what have you done for work?” I asked.
Ernesto sunk a 9 ball and looked up at me.
“I repair windshields, man. Over at Glassworx on Speedway.”
I watched him return to the table. My heart sank as he finished off the game by dropping the eight ball perfectly in the side pocket. My story was over. The most notorious drug dealer I had known had become a windshield repair guy. There was no mansion in the hills, no ranch house in Nogales… and no harem of sexy Mexican women. Ernesto had gone straight and my story was dead.
“Why do you ask, homie?” Ernesto inquired. “You need weed?”
Being that my story was a bust, I figured that the very least I could do was to go on one more pot buying deal in my old hometown. Maybe the dealer would be the drug kingpin I was looking for and I could write something about him instead.
“Yeah, sure man. Just a little bit to get me through the next two days.”
“Well, my dude sells dime bags over at hole 14 at the Golf N’ Stuff on Tanque Verde if you want to pick one up,” Ernesto said.
Dime bag? Golf N’ Stuff? I wasn’t interested. The last thing I needed was to buy Mexican weed from a kid at the same place where I had celebrated my 11-year-old birthday party. It just didn’t seem right.
“No that’s cool, man,” I replied. “I gotta get home anyway – maybe we can hook up tomorrow or something.”
“Are you sure?” He said. “This kid gets good shit… he has a couple of uncles in Nogales.”
Of course he did. I threw a five-dollar tip on the wooden table and finished off my beer. I high-fived Erik and Ernesto, promised to be in touch and promptly drove back to my mother’s house where I found her nervously pacing the living room like I was 15 again and out with a senior at my first high school party.
We opened a bottle of wine and finished our game of Scrabble…
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…