It was around 2:15 in the morning when a hammered single mom of three kids with a very visible C-section scar approached me following my music gig at a place called Peri’s in Marin County, California.
“Hiiii Mr. Talented…” She slurred. “I live two blocks away and my kids are prolly asleep – D-ya wanna come have a drink and smoke and hang ouuuuut?”
I looked this woman over. She was about 40, had a swollen and (possibly) fractured purple ankle and was heavily puffing on an e-cigarette…. From behind, half of her dress had hiked up and lodged itself in her butt, revealing a horrifying leg tattoo of a dragonfly that started mid-thigh and ended probably just above her Va-jayjay.
She also had one dreadlock.
“Uhhh… Well, the thing is…” I stumbled. “I’m married – sooo I don’t think it would be a good idea, ya know?”
“Fuck you! You’re an asshole for leading me on!” she snapped.
Wait, what? Leading her on? How was I leading her on?
A few seconds later, it hit me… When I was performing on stage a few minutes earlier, I recalled saying:
“Who’s the hottie in the back/Nice body, nice rack/
Meet me outside in five – My name is Zach.”
Look. If you have ever seen me or my band perform live, I often jokingly flirt with girls in the crowd with improvisational freestyle rap lyrics from the stage… This, however, was one of those rare moments when the girl actually stuck around and thought I was serious… I felt terrible. (Here’s a sample of a freestyle from NYC in 2017)
“Sorry, it was a joke, – like a part of the show??!??!?” I tried to explain to her.
She threw a drink at me, turned around and stopped at the door to say good-bye.
“Your music fucking sucks anyway,” she screamed.
By the way? I never made it home that night. Since I was too drunk to drive, the bartender let me sleep in the back seat of my Prius in the bar’s parking lot…
Did I mention it was a Tuesday?
What the fuck am I doing?
I am 44-years-old. I have two kids and a wife. Most men my age are in bed by 8:30 every night, binge-watching Netflix and thinking about some meeting they have at work the next day with Nancy from H.R.
Not many dudes I know are living like me this summer… touring bars in their mid-40’s trying to sell 20-something kids t-shirts and CD’s of their country hip-hop band that – in most people’s eyes – peaked when they opened for Jason Mraz in 2008…
For the record? On this tour I sold ZERO CD’s.
But let’s go back a few years…
In the 2000’s, every bar I played in was always PACKED. Friends, fans and industry folks lined up outside awaiting new songs – or a 10-minute freestyle rap where I might drop their names into a verse… They bought CD’s and shirts and sang along and I would walk out of the bar with $400 and a thousand business cards… My band played across the country and stayed in fine hotels, sipping top shelf whiskey and partying with rock stars…
But, then came adulthood. People had kids and a lot of my musician friends got real jobs. Some band members moved out of town… Most guys gave up or got into real estate. Even I took a break from it for a while to be around the family and work in the TV business. However, the thrill of performing live was always missing…
So, this past summer I decided that a 9-venue mini music tour of Northern California would be the best thing for my mind, body and soul.
Tour posters from the road…
As the days rolled on, I sort of forgot about the ways of the road… Late nights, uncomfortable beds… bad habits reintroducing themselves… When you’re out driving down I-5 at 9:30 at night – a restaurant like Subway suddenly becomes a solid option. The Yellow American Spirit cigarette suddenly becomes “healthy” decision… Not to mention that most bars where I play like to avoid paying musicians – and instead – offer up FREE DRINKS instead – which ultimately leads to me drinking $4.99 mini bottles of Sutter Home Cabernet – guaranteeing a foggy and painful morning.
Oh, and most bartenders who hear me ask for “the best red wine in the bar” often think I’m joking and laugh in my face.
In all honesty, I quit drinking hard liquor ten years ago…. Waking up in a Super 8 Motel with two lines shaved into your eyebrows like D’Angelo Russell will do that to anybody…
But that’s a whole ‘nother story…
The “Zachariah: Backyard and Wineries” tour began in San Francisco, at a private party where some tech geniuses of the world dug my music and my improv songs about how expensive the city had become… The host had somehow procured 25-plus bottles of the legendary Pliny the Elder beer from Santa Rosa and he was extremely generous with his liquor cabinet. However, as people got more sloshed, a supremely drunk friend of theirs named Kelly demanded I sing Shallow by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.
“Are you gonna sing it with me?” I asked her.
“Fuck YESSS!” She screamed as the party encouraged her.
A few chords later and she was warbling through the “Wooooaaaah – ohhh – h ohhh ohh ohh oh AWWOWOHHHWHWHWH” section of the song. Let’s just say she didn’t nail it, but it didn’t matter. The vibe and energy was fantastic and I assumed every gig would end up this beautiful and natural.
But the next night I drove up to gig at Peri’s Bar in Marin County. It was certainly a success, but I was definitely under-paid and over-served awful tiny bottles of Sutter Home… (Thus the reason why I slept in a parking lot).
When I woke up in the back seat of my 2008 Prius at six the next morning, having sweat through my clothes on stage the night before, I decided that a shower was indeed in order. I quickly Googled “YMCA Marin County” on my phone and found one 10 miles away where my Hollywood “Family Membership” would let me use their facilities. This is also a practice that HOMELESS people participate in.
I ended up spending 45 minutes in the sauna listening to two men talk about their new tech venture that would “change the dumpling game forever.” After they noticed me listening in, they began whispering and eventually left the sauna altogether, protecting their billion dollar dumpling idea.
A billion dollar dumpling idea? What I derived from this moment was that I am definitely in the wrong business…
That night, I performed at the Lagunitas Tap Room in Petaluma. The venue was amazing and they even offered up cash ($80) for the gig. Plus, per usual, they served me all the beer I could drink. Initially I had planned on having one or two beers because I had to drive to meet my wife and kids up north in Cloverdale once the night ended…
However, after my show, I quickly found myself 8 beers in. Since my head was spinning, I asked my new friend Pete (who booked me there) if he had a better idea than drunk driving to Cloverdale.
“Yeah brother… my buddy Andy has an Airstream in a forest that he rents out – it’s $45 for the night,” he said.
“Uhh… like, HOW in a forest?” I inquired.
“It’s desolate, man… super chill and quiet and you won’t hear anybody’s voice for like, 9 hours straight!” Pete replied.
OK. Look. I enjoy nature. I love converted Airstream trailers. But 9 hours alone in one in nature? Yo, I’m not trying to live that Into the Wild life… I am a social person. I need conversation. Shit, I need some WiFi, ya know?
“I don’t know Pete,” I explained. “I sorta need a bed – I slept in my car last night.”
“They have a killer Aerobed,” Pete said. “I’ve slept there sooo many times, you’ll love it – I’ll even drop you off!”
And with that, Pete took me to a beautiful house with 40 acres of land in the woods, where we knocked on the door and met Pete’s buddy Andy who was extremely tired and reluctantly thrust the trailer keys into my hand. He also passed me a Romancing the Stone-like treasure map explaining how to find the forest Airstream… Pete left and I slugged through the dark forest, absolutely fearing for every second of my life, before coming across what was a beautiful 1950-something converted Airstream “Cabin.”
I unlocked the door and went inside. It was about as rustic as you could expect.
There was an Aerobed with a blanket on it…
On the wall hung a calendar from the year 2013…
And there was a shovel in the corner next to a roll of toilet paper beneath a sign that said, “Use Nature’s Facilities.”
Holy shit. What? So no bathroom? Was I gonna have to re-learn the “One-armed tree hang” I had been taught at summer camp as a kid?
I decided to just crash and wake up as early as possible to split.
30 minutes after I went to sleep, I woke up on the floor. The Aerobed had deflated. It was about 45 degrees in the trailer. With no visible air pump nearby, I turned the deflated Aerobed into a pillow and did my best to sleep for the next six hours.
A couple of hours later I woke up to the sound of what must have been two bears humping in the woods… I also swear a mysterious light flashed across the sky and for two hours I panicked about being abducted by aliens and anally probed above the Redwoods. Eventually, around 6:30, I awoke with a stiff neck and took a $20 taxi back to my car at Lagunitas.
Up in Cloverdale I met my family and began thinking that perhaps, the road life was no longer for me… I took the family to the local trampoline park and hit up some small town burger place and I was amazed at how comfortable the safe and respectable family life felt again… For a minute, I almost cancelled my final three gigs…
But, since I can rarely turn down a chance to perform, I decided to carry through on my commitments.
As I was playing the night at an all ages restaurant, the local town drunk “Banjo Bob” (yes, his real name) taught my 13-year-old son how to best hold a pool cue if he was ever to get into a bar fight.
(His advice? Hit the guy with the skinny end, that way if it breaks off – you’re left with the more dangerous thick end of the stick as a weapon.)
To quote my late grandmother: “That’s wonderful?”
The following night, I played at a pretty cool bar in Healdsburg where I ate pizza that a guy had made from an oven that he dragged behind his bicycle… I know what you’re thinking: Bike Pizza? Trust me – It was absolutely delicious.
On the last night, we drove down to San Francisco and the tour ended at a bar in the Marina called Jaxson for a friend’s fundraiser party in the city – where, as I was playing live, a man and woman dry-humped each other on the dance floor in front of me…
Now look, I’m all for dancing, but this was kind of ridiculous… I actually didn’t care. They were wasted and they loved my music and I felt at home for a few minutes with the young Marina area crowd of San Francisco…
Here – watch the video and make your own assumptions:
For the record? That girl dancing did not ask me to come back to her place after the gig.
But the guy did…
“Hi Mr. Talented,” He said… “Wanna come party with me at my place?”
“I’d love to, but, the thing is… I’m married,” I said.
I woke up the next morning in the back seat of my Prius…
ZACH IS NOW BOOKING VENUES FOR HIS SUMMER 2020 TOUR!!
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 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!
I am uncomfortably straddling a white folding chair with 40 other people, ages ranging from 21-60 on a 103-degree day in Alta Dena waiting to work as an extra on a network TV show for the day. The pay isn’t terrible – $142.37 – or something like that, plus whatever gargantuan amounts of Craft Service snacks, candy, sodas and mini sandwiches I can shove into my shoulder bag to take home, but the overall feeling is grim. There is some old Greek food suffering beneath a sneeze guard nearby, a lot of discarded banana peels and a large fan blowing cool air towards us to keep us comfortable – like we’re NFL running backs playing a September game in Phoenix.
The scene has a prison-like feel to it. There are the lifers, the newbies and the guys who are only here for a few days trying to get their health insurance. I fall into that last category, but the fear of getting sexually assaulted by one of the older “inmates” is very real. Only problem is I can’t kick anyone’s ass to prove that I’m “tough.” Instead, I choose to bury myself into my iphone and hope the 45% charge lasts another 8 hours.
A year ago I was in New York City promoting my own TV show in Times Square for Tru TV. Now I am listening to a 22-year-old kid talk about how Hot Tub Time Machine is the main reason he dropped out of college to try to make it as an actor. You gotta love this business.
The majority of chatter amongst these “background players” or “atmosphere” is about the world of extras. Many relay the legendary scene in Ben Hur where an extra forgot to take his watch off during the chariot race. (Look it up – it’s hilarious). Others talk about how Ricky Gervais ripped off their idea when he did his Extras TV show. However, the subject that keeps coming up time and time again is the “bump up.” A “bump up” is when an extra is promoted from an extra to a principal role. Suddenly, the lucky bloke can go from zero to hero and earn Screen Actors Guild daily rate. However, according to everyone, incidents like that are more rare than finding a piece of sushi that hasn’t been in the sun for six hours beneath the cast and crew food canopy.
I am here today because I need to make $6300 before the end of the year as a way to qualify for Screen Actors Guild health insurance, a plan I have somehow managed to attain for the past twelve years. This year, however, the jobs dried up, a ton of work went non-union and I have finally aged out of the commercial actor category of “young, shaggy haired beer-drinking party guy.”
At this pay rate, it will take me working nearly every day for three months to earn the necessary SAG income to keep my family on the health plan. Alternative options – Obamacare and Cobra – basically guarantee that I will be paying 75% more money for lesser benefits. It has long been noted that SAG has terrific health care. The problem is that you need to earn an outrageous amount of money to qualify for it, and this year has been an ice bath as far as SAG work has been going.
“My dad was Jimmy Smits’ stand-in on LA Law,” a man named Sonny who was dressed as a Native American jewelry salesman bragged to the lot of us huddled beneath the blue pop-up tent. “He told me to find a niche as an extra. When I started out I only played Latino, only roles were for prisoners or a gang members. Now that I play Native American, I work all the time.”
I suddenly found myself wishing I had some Native American cheekbones.
As the day rolled along, I began to hear everybody’s story. You coop someone up for long enough, they will eventually tell you their life’s narrative. Every extra on set seemed to have a tale about the one legendary time they were “bumped up” to a principal role. One woman claimed she was bumped on Two and a Half Men because Charlie Sheen fired the original woman who had been cast for her one line of “Suck it, Charlie.” A guy who often plays blue-collar types said he got his bump on Dharma and Greg and had his career-defining moment in a bar fight scene when he raised his fists and said, “Meet my two friends… Mary-Kate and Ashley.”
And then there was Sonny, who said he specifically learned the extinct Native American language Kiowa to nab a line in a Civil War series. His line was “D’on T’ap Piii.” Which translates roughly to “See deer eating.”
I stared at Sonny for a long while. He did look familiar, as that Native American guy you sort of see in films, but I wasn’t sure. Which meant he was a great extra. One who blended in. He bragged of his work on The Alamo, Oz, The Longest Yard, Texas Rising, Hatfields and McCoys. Dances With Wolves and of course, That 70’s Show. The way he saw it, he was an integral part of these films. A guy who went uncredited – but felt he deserved all the success.
“There should be an extras lifetime achievement award,” he offered.
As a young actor, I did some extra work at age 22. At the time, like most young dreamers, I thought I was a small break away from my own series and I treated the other kids in the high school dance scene like castaways and future failures. When I started booking some jobs and enjoying the confines of an air-conditioned trailer with a private bathroom, I swore I’d never go back to the extras holding again. Yet, here I was. A 15-year TV veteran with a decent resume that I was too embarrassed to share with the other inmates. I decided to shut up and do my time and maybe get out of there with a few Clif bars and some coconut water.
Then, there was a call to action.
“Peter, Mike, Donna, Marla, Zach – party scene, now!” An Assistant Director yelled at us, directing us towards the makeup department to get touched up.
I put down my phone and walked over to the area, when Donna, one of the younger extras, mentioned that she often worked on the show. She then proceeded to refer to one of the makeup artists as her “glam squad.”
A short, effeminate man named Ty erupted in her face.
“Don’t call me ‘glam,’ don’t call me ‘glam squad’ or I’ll shove this hairbrush up your ass,” he screamed.
Emily, another makeup artist stopped him before any penetration took place. It was surreal. Never in my life had I seen a fight between an extra and a makeup artist. It was like the Cubs-Pirates bench clearing brawl in the National League Wild Card this season. You couldn’t believe it was happening.
It was a major altercation. Apparently, Ty was sent home and Donna was threatening to sue the show for harassment. It didn’t make sense. In my opinion, being called the “glam squad” wasn’t nearly as bad as being referred to as “background” or “ambience.”
My scene was fairly easy. I had to drink some iced tea and mouth the words “peas and carrots” to another extra. The entire time I was placed in the corner of the party and they shot about 9 angles and we let the main actress do six takes before she was happy. As the director stood merely three feet from me, I tried to convince him that a line would be appropriate for my character. I pitched him ““D’on T’ap Piii.”
He didn’t respond. Apparently he didn’t speak Kiowa.
Lunch was at 1:00 and the extras were told to not touch or come near any food until the entire cast and crew had eaten. I was actually quite full from snacking – so I didn’t need to rush, but a lot of the extras bitched and moaned about the lack of respect. I turned to a fellow extra named Tony, who was about my age.
“Why can’t everyone just relax?” I asked him.
“Welcome to the Screen Extras Guild,” he responded.
An hour later, following one of those naps when you fall asleep with your chin in your hand, there was a small rumbling about a potential bump up for one of the extras. Apparently, a producer had seen one of us and wanted to add a line. The bit was that the lucky person would confront the female star of the show – who was wearing a fur jacket – with an uncomfortable long hug and then said, “you feel like a plushie.” All the extras began rehearsing their lines as if this was an audition for the next Coen Brothers film and we all got excited. I even took a walk around the tent and worked on my delivery.
Eventually, the female star and the director came to the extras tent and started looking around at all of us as if we were cattle being sold at a livestock auction. The female actress passed the first few folks, skipped the youngsters and then whispered to her director, “I need a middle-aged schlub.”
I am certainly creeping up on middle age, but I don’t feel like I look that way. I’m in great shape and still have hair and my skin has been hiding from the sun throughout the years as I write my life away. However, I was chosen as one of the three finalists to play “middle-aged schlub.”
We all went and had a private audition with the actress and director. I immediately messed up my hair, raised my jeans to mom-jean height and did my best to look like a total Midwestern chump who would give a hot girl a “long hug” and make her uncomfortable.
“Mmm, you feel like a fluff – wait, what’s the line?” The first guy said, immediately messing up his chances.
“You feel like a plushie,” said the next guy who was 40 pounds heavier and 100% balder than me.
When my turn came, I looked deeply into the actress’ eyes. She stared back at me for about five seconds. I knew this was my job to lose… so I did my best to “eye-bang” her and get the job on the spot. Instead, before I could get my line out, she interrupted me.
“You look like that guy from that Tru TV show,” she said.
“I am that guy!”
“What are you doing in the extras tent?” She replied.
“Trying to get my health insurance,” I said, hoping she would feel my pain and give me the bump up on the spot. I dug deeper into my plea, mentioning that my family had been sick a lot the past year and I was a huge fan of the show.
“You might be too recognizable,” she blurted. “Second guy, you got the job.”
And with that, the fat, bald guy went off to his own folding chair, better food and a holding area behind the video village where the producers and directors hung out.
I returned to my spot in the tent. All the other extras wanted to know what had happened and I told them I relayed the story as best I could. When I mentioned that the female star had said I was “too recognizable” the tent wanted to know why. After all, not one of these folks had any idea who I was. I told them. Nobody had even heard of my show.
“I get recognized all the time,” said Sonny. “People stop me when I walk down the street.”
The rest of the day I watched my phone dwindle down towards the 3% range and eventually die. In a way, I felt like that iphone charge… A year back I was flying high at 100%. Now, I was hanging onto 3.
Before I left, I managed to fill my bag with enough high fructose corn syrup snacks to kill a small village and I hopped into the first awaiting white van that would shuttle us back to the parking lot. Luckily, I ended up in the same row as the female lead actress from earlier.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m sorry about that moment back there… I just recognized you from that other show – I didn’t mean to make you feel bad.”
“Amazingly, you’re the first person to know me from that like, ever,” I said.
“I’ll tell you what. Give me your manager’s name and I’ll make sure we get you in for a small role this season,” she offered.
I couldn’t believe it. Here she was telling me that she would go out of her way to get me a speaking part on her show. I got her personal email and said I’d be sending my demo reel and headshot over immediately. We exchanged good-byes and I returned my mom jeans to the costume department and signed out for the day.
As I walked to my car, the lead actress shook my hand and said I would be hearing from the production office very soon.
I recently came across this class picture from my elementary school in 1985. Oddly enough, I have a vague memory of taking this photo and trying to express my disappointment with the world at that time. I had no idea back then that the photo seemed to say to my parents that I’d rather be dead at the tender age of 10 than at my school picture day.
I look depressed. I look like I had already lived five lives. I resemble the type of child who would be marked as a potential serial killer in the future. Amazingly, I remember what was going through my head that day. I was dealing with things like my parents recent divorce, the fact that my “spike haircut” would never want to stand up straight like the other kids. I didn’t smile because my two front teeth resembled something that would have made all species of pacific northwestern beavers jealous. I also remember that my mother made me wear the cloud patterned shirt I am wearing in the photo that day. Maybe if I was Prince I could have pulled that look off, but as a sullen, depressed 10-year-old Jewish kid stuck in Tucson Arizona in the 1980’s, the cloud shirt just felt like a desperate plea for attention.
At the time I was rudderless. The girls were not interested in me. I had become somewhat overweight. My baseball ability had dwindled following a broken arm the previous summer and my basketball skills were starting to translate to bench time more than the starting five. To top it off my grandparents had taken my sister and I on a two-week Caribbean cruise a few weeks before where I spent the majority of the trip being bullied in the youth center by a freckly-face kid from Florida named Robbie who insisted on flicking my ears until I cried almost daily. Perhaps the most embarrassing thing about that cruise was when my grandmother came down to the youth center, smacked the kid across the head and said, “Stop flicking my grandson’s ears!”
As you can imagine, it only made him go after me more.
In fifth grade I was forced to go to Hebrew school three times a week with the looming threat of a Bar Mitzvah hanging over my head presenting quite possibly a challenge that I could never live up to. My main interests lie in collecting baseball cards – which is where I spent every penny and has been well documented in my previous works. I was also trying to make my 3-year-old brother a future baseball Hall of Famer – but he wasn’t interested in the slightest. Baseball cards were everything to me and the bottom line was, when my mother came home and saw me lying on the floor alphabetizing the 1982 Atlanta Braves Fleer set, she didn’t exactly think I had any sort of bright future.
My house was less than peaceful, with my sister and mother not getting along and a new presence in the home – my mother’s boyfriend. He was a recovering alcoholic who had moved to Tucson for a fresh start and began working at a $40,000 a month celebrity rehab facility that was frequented by movie stars and rock stars. His saving grace was that he loved music, and played it constantly around the house.. and that he was pretty funny.
He also loved baseball.
My other obsession with skateboarding, which I was not very good at due to a massive fear of falling and breaking my arm a second time. Yet, I wore the clothes and accepted the fact that I was a “poser” to the cooler kids because it made me feel somewhat connected to something. I was also being forced to take piano lessons by my mom although I was technically allowed to quit in sixth grade.
I quit the day I started sixth grade. Again, another regret.
37-years-later, looking back at this photo, I distinctly remember Mrs. Knight’s fifth grade classroom. It was small – with only eight of us – because they had to separate certain students into a fifth/sixth grade combination class. Luckily the two cutest girls were in class with me. Laura Krapa (tough last name, I know…) And Tina Jarem, who I mercilessly teased and occasionally punched because she had absolutely no interest in me.
And then, there were the three other boys in the class.Ryan, Brandon and Bryan. Being the lone Jewish kid, I was constantly mocked with slurs and insults that I learned to turn into comedy – but I was never invited to their Cub Scout meetings or their swim meets. The three boys were all terrific athletes and overachievers had surpassed me in almost every single category in life at the time – from sports to girls to popularity. When you’re 10-years-old, you feel as if you will never grow out of these situations.
One day in the lunchroom, I overheard the boys discussing their three-piece band that they were going to assemble to play the talent show. Being that my obsession with the Beastie Boys had grown to absurdly fanatical following their appearance in the hip hop movie “Krush Groove,” I somehow thought that if I could just be AdRock or Mike D I could climb out of this despair in which I had been wallowing for the majority of 1985-86. It certainly helped my cause to know that the Beastie Boys were actually Jewish… So, I offered up my services as a rapper and at first, they laughed.
“Dude our song is not a rap song” they said.
I said it didn’t matter because I could rap over anything.
Lo and behold, it worked. That night, I wrote eight of the worst hip-hop bars ever assembled and brought it to school to audition for my three classmates. They were blown away and my career as a performer started just as the 5th grade began to come to a close.
The first rush of adrenaline that you get when you walk off of a stage while wearing your coolest T & C Surf Design shirt and Gotcha shorts with a pair of knock off Ray-Ban Wayfarers you had to borrow from your mother, is a feeling that cannot be described. But any person who has ever performed live knows what it is… It’s the moment when you receive that first look from a girl in your class that says, “Oh my God you’re so much more than I thought you were!” In this case, it was Tina Jarem. Still, I was too afraid to be her boyfriend. She moved away that summer.
Music helped me turn my life and outlook around. If you look into the dead eyes of the kid in this photo, you can see how that experience helped turn me into a more positive person. Within a few months I had my first non-camp girlfriend, Amy. We only lasted about a week, but for me that’s all I wanted. It was like a résumé builder. I developed more humor more confidence and as luck would have it even grew a few inches by the next year.
That summer at camp my longtime counselor Mark took me under his wing as his ‘project’ hoping to develop me into a ladies man. Looking back, it seems weird that he would spend 30 minutes doing my hair before Shabbat services on Fridays. I guess he wanted to make sure I looked ‘fresh.’ With gallons of Dep Gel being slathered into my “never wanted to spike up hair” – I was finally able to get it somewhat reaching towards the sky. Only later, when my hair went curly, did I realize that I had always had wavy hair and that a spike haircut doesn’t look too great when you’re 10-years-old and trying to look like Billy Idol.
When sixth grade came to a close, we reformed the band. The baseball cards took a backseat a couple years later when the guitar was picked up and I suddenly discovered all elements of performing.
Today, at 46, looking back at that photograph of that lost child makes me think of my own children today. I can often spot in a family photo my son’s eyes adrift, looking like there’s no reason for him to be there. My daughter occasionally blinks on purpose to ruin a picture too – the way I did many times before as a kid. The only advice I can try to give my children is that it all gets better and that they need to try new things or else nothing will ever change. I never say that they have to stick with those things, but one of them will hopefully catch their attention and change their lives the way that music did for me on that talent show night in Tucson, Arizona.
I’m not sure why I wrote this today other than the fact that I’m getting older and I think you start to look back at moments in your life where things change. As your own parents get older you start to think about how innocent it all was back then and how we all grow up so quickly and what really matters is love, care, kindness and friendship.
I still keep in touch with those guys from the band even though they have all gone onto different pursuits. I’m still releasing music, however, even though not many people listen to it. It’s still therapy. It is hands down the best medicine that there is and it comes out whenever I am lucky enough to perform live with my current band.
My only regret? I wish I still had that cloud shirt so I could wear it on stage…