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Actor. Musician. Host. Writer. Dinner Guest.
Zach breaks down the crowd, the Seattle Mariners and Lenny Kravitz’ penis.
Live from August 4, 2015…
Back in 1994, just three weeks into a relationship that I swore would last forever, my hippie Phish-loving girlfriend “Rainbeaux” announced that she was, “giving up toilet paper” as a way to preserve the environment.
“I’m sorry, what?” I responded.
“Look at the facts,” Rainbeaux said. “Every time we use a pre-fab product like toilet paper, we are destroying not only the rainforest, but the redwoods and like, all the natural resources of our planet… It’s a no-brainer for me.”
“Well, it’s a boner-killer for me,” I thought to myself.
If Rainbeaux wasn’t so fascinating and beautiful, I would have run away immediately… Instead, I did my best to question her plan.
“So… like, what are you gonna use when you…uhh – you know, go to the bathroom?” I asked her, calmly.
“It’s called Hmong Hill Hemp Cloth from Thailand,” she explained. “A guy who I met on last Phish Tour introduced me to it. It’s made from undernourished plant cloth and hemp fibers and It originated with the Hmong Hill Tribe…and for like 2000 years – their community is like… the healthiest in the world.”
I nodded my head in solitude, looked into her green eyes – and smiled vacantly.
“Sure, whatever you want,” I said.
She smiled and went back to drawing octagonal prisms in her sketch book.
Rainbeaux’s genius “save the planet” idea was to purchase 100 cloth swatches as her permanent toilet paper – and to just simply wash them at a laundromat whenever everything got dirty… I was secretly disgusted by this entire hippie dream of hers, but I went along with it for the time being because, well… she was cute and we were 19-years-old… and that’s just the kind of shit you do at that age… Especially when your “Are you a REAL hippie?” status is in question by a beautiful woman wearing patchouli and a tie-dyed sundress.
So, after I announced that I would support her toilet paper protest, she made me promise her I would give up toilet paper myself.
I promised her I would.
A minute later, she told me that I was “a real mystic” and then for the next 30 minutes, we made love listening to her $750 dollar Natural Sound Machine from The Sharper Image.
Of course, around 3:30 a.m. I woke up and rushed to her dorm’s community bathroom because I had to take a massive crap… And when I was done, I had torn through about a half a roll of Charmin Double Ply…
“Rainbeaux,” of course, wasn’t her real name. She was born “Hannah Gurlin” and she had grown up rather wealthy in Highland Park, Illinois, beneath the tutelage of a father who encouraged horseback riding as a a hobby and an older brother with a weed connection and a penchant for the Grateful Dead. After turning down offers from multiple respectable schools in the midwest, she had decided to attend UCSB (UC Santa Barbara) as a way to major in creative writing while enjoying the Southern California party lifestyle. We first met at a Big Head Todd and the Monsters concert during our freshman year, in one of those moments when the cute girl next to you singing along to the song Bittersweet made you feel like anything on the planet was possible…
Our eyes met as we sang together: “We work our way arouuuuund each other… as we tremble and we bleed…”
These were the deep connections that could make any lovelorn college kid in the 90’s soul fall head over heels.
After the show, Rainbeaux and I exchanged phone numbers – and we eventually met up again at a Dave Matthews Band show that spring…
A month later we went to a Phish concert… and that night we ended up sleeping together while listening to Mazzy Star Fade Into You. As we laid in bed, we discussed my theory that “The 90’s were just the 60’s Upside Down…” It seemed real, it seemed perfect and we both thought we had a once in a lifetime connection.
Of course, no long-lasting relationship that begins at a Big Head Todd concert can ever be expected to last.
Our relationship peaked when we embarked on an epic five-city West Coast Phish Tour – where we exchanged words of “LOVE” following a post-show Shoreline house party that as I recall, was crawling with ecstasy and Parliament Lights.
And then, a week later… was when Rainbeaux gave up using toilet paper.
Rainbeaux was the type of woman that you fell in love with in your 20’s. She had a zest for life, could party with anybody and it didn’t hurt that her dad was always sending her money. (Back then rich trust-fund hippies like this were referred to as “Trustafarians.”) But eventually, the hippie dream, much like it did to our parent’s generation, turned on us.
My main concern was not flunking out of school. (I wanted to make sure my dad’s tuition checks were going towards something besides my social life).
Rainbeaux’s main concern was how she would be able to make the type of money her parents made to support her lifestyle… She claimed she was a “writer…” yet she barely wrote anything. I was the one always writing. She could never seem to get anything down on paper… and it became awkward when she becoming jealous when my short stories, as dumb as they were, began appearing in the pages of my local college humor magazine.
As the used Hmong Hill Hemp Cloth began piling up in a wastebasket near her closet in the dorm room, I stopped wanting to come over. It was … sadly… disgusting. After she noticed that I had not been taking any cloth with me when I went to the bathroom, I came clean and was forced to admit that I was actually guilty of using “pre-fab” toilet paper. She was unhappy. I told her that after spending a few days on the Hmong Hill… I needed to hike back DOWN to reality.
She cringed, asked me to consider “her feelings” and I told her I didn’t think I could continue following her experiment. A few days later we broke up.
That was it. College went on. I drifted into my dreams and she did the same. We lost track of each other.
It had been nearly 20 years since I had been in touch with Rainbeaux, even after doing some embarrassing social media stalking…
I could never find her… Not online, not on Facebook… I even checked obituaries. There was no sign of Rainbeaux’s or Hannah Gurlin’s existence anywhere.
Until last week – when DEAD AND COMPANY came to the Hollywood Bowl right by my house here in Los Angeles.
My brother and another friend, Mark (Who was once arrested for dealing nitrous balloons at a Grateful Dead concert in 1989), had all gone to the Dead and Company show hoping to relive any slice of our youth that had faded as quickly as adulthood had arrived. John Mayer was playing Jerry Garcia’s parts and the band I fell in love with as a kid was playing better than ever.
Amazingly, Mark revealed to me that he had a fake business license for about five years in the late 80’s that let him pass as a FROZEN YOGURT SHOP OWNER – Basically, he would take his fake yogurt license into a legitimate NITROUS DEALER and procure as big of a nitrous tank as he could, claiming that his “Chocolate/Vanilla Swirl” was super popular and that he needed to buy the max amount of nitrous to get back to Sacramento.
It worked for a while, but eventually, his drug dealing days caught up with him and Mark was arrested at an early 90’s Grateful Dead show in Irvine. For his crime, he paid a thousand dollars and did 100 hours of community service.
To this day, he fucking hates frozen yogurt
Anyway, the three of us jumped out of our Lyft around Highland and Hollywood and embraced the free flowing beauty of the “Shakedown Street” parking lot scene where I quickly spent way too much money on a collectible “Arizona Dead Pin” and some $5.00 bootleg t-shirts…
After vaping and laughing and walking around for a minute, Mark pointed out about 100 plus “balloon dealers” openly distributing the gas on the premises – as if we were at a dental convention and we all needed emergency root canals…
All of this was shocking, not only because of the notorious Grateful Dead parking lot trouble that has existed in the past – but because when Mark was arrested 20-years-earlier, he had merely sold one balloon and was caught, cuffed and carried out…
Back then, the cops didn’t believe his story that he owned a Frozen Yogurt shop. Maybe it was because when they asked for the name of it, he replied “IKO IKO FROYO.” (Apparently the cops giggled at this before arresting him).
At the Hollywood Bowl, the cops didn’t seem to give a SHIT about anything going on. I counted 15 nitrous dealers, countless weed dealers, girls offering K, shrooms, molly… there were even makeshift pop-up bars operating on picnic tables where you could buy any mixed drink you wanted. It was insane. About the only thing I didn’t see for sale in that parking lot was a black market kidney.
And then, through the crowd, I saw RAINBEAUX.
I wasn’t sure if it was her at first, but I certainly remembered her eyes. Green, maybe a bit grey now, but still gorgeous. I watched her flit about some friends for a second in a yellow sundress before realizing that YES, it was her… the only obvious difference I noticed, was that she now had two little children wrapped around her legs.
No matter what, when you see an ex-girlfriend with their children, it makes you think about a lot of shit…
I decided to say hello, and walked up to where she was standing.
“Are you RAINBEAUX by any chance?” I said to her as she was least expecting a conversation.
She lit up. She turned around. She stared at me…
“Oh my God… Zach Selwyn?” She said.
I felt like Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way when his ex recognizes him after getting out of prison.
Charlie? Hello Gail…
“Hi,” I mustered… “I knew that was you.”
We hugged for a while – one of those “what could have been” hugs… and she quickly introduced me to her kids – Saffron and, her youngest – a kid named… ZACHARY. She said he was not named after me.
Secretly, I didn’t believe her.
We hugged again. Deeply. She told me that she hadn’t been “Rainbeaux” for a long time. She was back to being known as… “Hannah.”
She asked me about everything – especially how my writing was going.
“Yeah, it’s fine, I guess,” I meekly admitted. “I just post stuff online and write songs and, whatever, it’s a long story.”
I asked her about her writing career. She said she never had the guts to pursue it. She had been teaching Neo-natal yoga in Poway and was married to a dermatologist.
“Wow, didn’t expect that,” I said.
We rambled on for a moment, talking about what songs we were hoping to hear that night. I was hoping for Estimated Prophet.
“You know, Estimated was my official battle cry/anthem when I moved to LA – telling all my friends and family not to worry about me,” I said before singing out the lyrics, “California! Preaching on the burning shore…”
She smiled. “I remember… Do you remember how much I loved that song Bittersweet by Big Head Todd and the Monsters?”
I stared into her eyes as her daughter ran back up and hugged her.
“Of course I do,” I said. She smiled.
After I introduced her to my friends, she said good-bye, scooped up her daughter and began to walk away. As she was 10 feet or so up the sidewalk, I had to ask her one final question that had been bugging me for years…
“Hey, Hannah…” I said. “Are you still on that ‘Toilet Paper Protest’?”
She stopped, turned towards me and flashed kind smile before responding…
“Haha – NO,” she laughed. “I’m going through about, like – a box a half of baby wipes a week.”
I raised my beer in her direction and nodded my head.
As I watched the concert that night, I thought often of the days I spent with Rainbeaux, and I began to think that I should have brought my own children to the show with me…
Until some guy behind me passed me a Nitrous balloon and said it would make me feel like “God was licking my ass.”
I’ll just let my kids have their own experiences…
Move over Jimmy Fallon – Zach informs you about the latest Jingle Punks happenings – Lil Dicky, Hoodie Allen and MORE!<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/110420785″>Featuring Hoodie Allen, Lil Dicky, Meow Mix, and more</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/jinglepunks”>Jingle Punks</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
Re-Examining the 1997 NBA Draft – If I Had Been Selected…
(Originally published @Nerdist Sports 2017)
At the end of my senior year in college – despite having not played organized basketball since high school and maintaining a 1.8 blood alcohol level for four years straight, my friends dared me to declare for the NBA draft. I wrote an official letter the NBA commissioner David Stern and presented my accolades: Six-foot-two. 3.8 G.P.A. Fraternity scoring leader and dunk contest winner on the 8-foot hoop in the parking lot.
I wasn’t selected.
Looking back now, I have to argue that I might have been a better pick than 75% of the players in the 1997 NBA draft. Sure, the draft produced perennial all-stars Tim Duncan (#1), Chauncey Billups (#3) and Tracy McGrady (#9), but for every one of those guys, there are three Ed Elisma’s (#40), Bubba Wells’ (#34) and Ben Pepper’s (#55). Who’s to say that if I was chosen in the late second round I wouldn’t have made a better impact than a guy like 44th pick Cedric Henderson?
I was too short to be a forward, my high school position. My handle wasn’t strong enough to compete for a point guard slot, so basically, my only shot was to be drafted as a shooting guard – and my guess is I would have been picked somewhere around 46 – where Orlando took Alabama marksman Eric Washington. (Whose best year came with the Idaho Stampede in the NBA D-League in 2010).
Due to some late garbage time minutes, I estimate I would have averaged roughly 1.2 points a game… Which is more than draft picks C.J. Bruton (#52), Roberto Duenas (#57) and Nate Erdmann (#55) ever averaged in their careers.
The 11th pick of the draft was a guy named Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Nobody past the top 10 picks truly ever made a big statement in the NBA. Sure, Stephen Jackson (#42) was a key piece to the 2003 Spurs, Bobby Jackson (#23) was a sixth man sparkplug and Mark Blount (#54) was a dependable center for a few teams – but overall, 1997 was pretty mediocre… Even though I once bought into the ESPN theory that Jacque Vaughn (#27) would be the next Allen Iverson.
My own personal draft journey began after a two-game playoff run in the annual 1997 fraternity basketball challenge.
It was in a game against Pi Kappa Alpha. Their starting point guard tried to take me off the dribble to the left. I stuck my arm just above his bounce and poked the ball free into the open court. I ran after it, scooped it up and laid it in for the victory. My fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi had won our first play-off game in 10 years. In our next contest, we gave the brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon a good run, and I poured in 21 points. Ultimately, we lost on a late technical foul call when I got kicked out for calling the referee a “dickbag.”
It was after that game, while consuming a lot of Natural Light beer, that I decided to declare for the draft.
On draft day 1997, I sat on my mother’s couch with baited anticipation as the others had their moments. I ordered some pizza for my family. My mother thought I had lost my mind.
As the evening progressed, I had seen enough of the long, tailored mustard and pinstriped suits making their way to the podium to shake David Stern’s hand. I watched as guys like Tony Battie (#5), Danny Fortson (#10) and Antonio Daniels (#4) put on those crisp new NBA caps. I accepted the inevitable as the first round telecast came to an end.
The second round was only on the radio, so I sat in my Civic, listening in.
“And with the 48th pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, the Washington Bullets select Predrag Drobnjak from KK Partizan, Serbia.”
Really? A guy named Predrag was taken? Nobody could even pronounce his name. So what if he was a six-foot-eleven three time Euro League National Champion? I played on the frat tournament second runner-up team!
Most of the players from the ’97 draft ended up overseas, injured or, in Ron Mercer’s (#6) case, involved in a strip club assault or two. I was no different – except for the fact that I never played one minute in the NBA.
Then again, neither did Serge Zwikker (#29), Mark Sanford (#30) or Gordon Malone (#44).
I still think I would have had a shot.
Ed. Note: Zach Selwyn currently averages 15.2 points per game in his over 40-YMCA league.
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…
Buy Zach’s FIRST ALBUM “Ghost Signs” on itunes!
By Zach Selwyn
I can vividly picture the scene taking place on a Newark, New Jersey street corner in 1922… Prohibition is hanging heavily over every boarded up bar and single family household on the block. The streets are full of the penniless, making bedding out of old jackets on the grey and crunchy dirty sidewalk snow. Children are wrapping up nightly stick ball games to return home for dinner as the streets darken with denizens of the nightlife and small time hoods…
And then suddenly, out of the darkness, trotting up in a horse-drawn buggy, appears Rabbi Levi Zalman, who is suddenly swarmed by scores of men from these homes looking to procure the finest bottle of bootleg wine they can get their hands on. Money is exchanged, prayers are said and the men race home to their families. With every sale, Rabbi Zalman mutters, “Baruch Hashem.” (Blessed be the name of the lord). When it’s all over, Rabbi Zalman rides away a very rich man…
Of course, Rabbi Levi Zalman is not a Rabbi at all. In fact, he is Jack Joseph Brauer, an out-of-work shoe peddler from East Jersey City who has just unloaded his Government-relegated weekly supply of booze for a shade over $5,000.
He is also my great-great grandfather. This was his “congregation.”
Ratified in 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution – which is America’s only Amendment to later be repealed – federally prohibited the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol. Of course, this was one of our biggest failures in our short history, and led to the golden age of organized crime, corruption and sheer madness across the country.
Doing some research (And I am not the first to report this – just giving you some background) Jewish households were allowed a certain amount of wine per household per year. To top that off, if you were a Rabbi, and you lead any type of “congregation” (12 members or more) you were allowed to get as much wine as you wanted for religious purposes at any time you desired… So guess what happened? A lot of “new Rabbis” suddenly started showed up.
“There were fake Rabbis everywhere,” my grandmother told me years ago before she died. “If you knew 12 people, that was a congregation… why do you think so many people started converting to Judaism during the 20’s? FOR BOOZE.”
So, when Jack Brauer’s shoe business got hit with hard times in the early 1920’s, he bought some religious robes, sported a fake beard and marched up to the proper Governmental distribution center and bought as much alcohol as he needed… He flipped it in two days and kicked off a successful six-year-run as the biggest “Rabbi Bootlegger” in Newark, New Jersey.
A few years later, when the American Jewish Committee began cracking down on the large number of fake Rabbi’s, my great-great grandfather Jack was NOT on the suspected fraud list. In fact, he continued to support his family until 1931, just before the Amendment was repealed. How? He had the third largest congregation in New Jersey at the time. (Even though it was 95 percent FAKE.)
Now, according to the three part documentary Prohibition by Ken Burns, other religions had these loopholes as well. In fact, Priests were ALSO able to purchase liquor for religious ceremonies. Of course, the government could actually reference records to determine if someone claiming to be a Priest actually was a Priest. But Rabbis? There was NO WAY OF TELLING WHO WAS A RABBI.
According to writer Daniel Okrent, “Rabbis were suddenly showing up everywhere. Irish Rabbis, Black Rabbis…” Nobody ever doubted their religious claims.
As is turns out, my grandmother was correct. In the 1920’s, Jewish congregations increased in membership by like, 75 percent. In short? BOOTLEG LIQUOR BUILT MODERN DAY JUDAISM. In fact, I don’t think you can reference a time in history when more NEW Jews suddenly showed up out of the woodwork to embrace Judaism in our nation’s history. No wonder we say prayers over the wine…
A few years ago, my grandmother Florence passed away. Readers of my stories should be familiar with our adventures together in her later years, which included a trip to the Ace Hotel, smoking medical marijuana and leafing through her old photo albums so she could announce who was presently, “Dead.” When she passed, it was a sad moment, and a week later, our family went through her home to get rid of old useless items…(My grandfather’s 5000 VHS tapes of classic movies) and save valuable ones… (My grandma had always claimed that she had hidden “thousands of dollars in cash” all over the house and that it was our job to find it when she died.)
Of course, knowing this, we tore open her home like Jesse Pinkman looking for hidden cash in that drug dealer’s condo in the film El Camino…
My mom and I found some money, but the “thousands of dollars” my grandma promised turned out to be something more like 220 bucks. We also uncovered a lot of jewelry and a stamp collection valued at about $39. So, if you’re the new couple that bought the place? If you ever find some ungodly wad of $100 dollar bills in a crawl space, hit me up…
Aside for a few of my grandma’s stray Vicodin, which I squirreled away in a jacket pocket, the only other item in the home that really intrigued me was my grandmother’s birth certificate. On it was listed her parent’s names and occupations – (Ruth Brauer-Kaplan – housewife. Jacob Kaplan- Dentist) – as well as her GRANDPARENT’s names and occupations… What intrigued me was the job description as reported to the state of New Jersey by JACK JOSEPH BRAUER –
His job: RABBI.
“Wow so Grandma’s story was true?” I asked my Uncle Steve who was helping my mom go through Florence’s old belongings.
“Yes indeed,” he answered.
“So was he really a Rabbi?” I asked.
“Do you know what a ‘Rabbi’ was back then?”
“I’m guessing a bootlegger?”
“It’s great getting to know your family, isn’t it?”
I went into the kitchen and poured myself a large glass of wine. I toasted my grandma on her final journey and raised my glass up to Jack Joseph Brauer – my great-great grandfather who kept so many families buzzed during the dark years of Prohibition…
“Baruch Hashem,” I said.
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