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.”
It was somewhere between Los Angeles and Palm Springs when I found myself helping a woman re-apply bloody gauze to an open wound that had split open due to complications from liposuction in Tijuana.
Moments later, another woman – with a razor blade tattoo on the side of her neck – smacked her 7-year-old son for spilling his Mountain Dew on her iPhone and screamed something at him in Spanish.
Sometime after that, a man with an infant child walked out of the bathroom in the back and promptly dumped a full diaper in the trash bag hanging in the middle of the aisle.
We still had seven and a half hours until we hit Tucson…
Welcome to the Flixbus.
For the past few months, my mom and a bunch of other friends have been raving about a new public transportation service known as “The Flixbus.” For a low price, you can travel on this large “comfortable bus” anywhere you like and select from a great list of pre-chosen movies – and use free WiFi the entire time. I looked it up and it seemed legit. And definitely affordable. A ticket to San Diego from Los Angeles cost $4.99. A ticket to Palm Springs? $6.99… To get to my hometown of Tucson, I was looking at $22.00. Since Southwest Air wanted nearly $400 for two one way plane tickets, I booked my 9-year-old daughter and I on a 12:30 Flixbus to Tucson leaving from downtown LA.
Wanting to beat the crowd, my daughter and I took a Lyft down to the parking lot across from Union Station, right by LA’s famed “Twin Towers Correctional Facilities.” It’s an intimidating spot – heavily populated by at least five bail bond storefronts and street meat hot dog vendors. It’s hard not to take note of family members leaving the bail bond stores, openly weeping about their loved ones having spent the night in jail.
“Are they crying because they have to take the Flixbus too, daddy?” My daughter asked.
“Uhh, no. Whole different situation.”
I promptly took notice of the waiting area and its potential to escalate into a violent “prison yard” type of situation. A woman was walking around selling homemade “street tamales” out of a plastic bag, three 12-year-olds were selling bottles of water and packs of cigarettes and two men with children were openly sharing a blunt in front of their kids. (As would happen, I ended up buying two street tamales and a bottled water, as I had not thought to pack any food for the journey.)
I hadn’t even boarded the bus yet and I was $19 dollars in the hole.
The line to board the bus was non-existent. as Everybody sort of milled about near an area until the ticket conductor shouted out, “Palm Springs, Phoenix and Tucson line up HERE.”
The awaiting pack scrambled immediately. As people got tossed aside and trampled like they were rushing the stage of a Travis Scott show… Elbows were thrown. Space was cleared. Somehow, I managed to grab all of my luggage and scoop up my daughter before she was flattened to death. Sadly, even though we were the third people in the waiting area, we had been easily bullied to the back of the line by the violent mob, which was led by a 6’7” ex-linebacker wearing a baseball cap reading: K.U.S.H. Keeps Us Super High.
My advice? Pay the extra $20 online and get a reserved seat.
Once my daughter and I got on the bus, we noticed that any available seats together had been claimed. Eventually I was forced to convince a man who looked like he had recently been let out of a Texas prison to switch seats with me so that my daughter and I could sit together… He scoffed, kicked the side of the seat and mumbled something under his breath.
“Thank you so much, sir,” I said.
“I run this bus, cocksucker.”
Eventually he moved and we accepted the fact that we were stuck in the last seat in the back of the bus… basically right next to the toilet. And then, minutes before we left, a rather large woman came back and destroyed the bathroom… I nearly vomited. My daughter asked to switch seats. The bus pulled out into traffic.
Nine hours to Tucson.
The first thing people tell you about the Flixbus is that you can watch unlimited movies and surf the web, email, text, whatever you like. As it turns out this is simply not true. After trying for nearly an hour to watch Euphoria on HBO GO, I was alerted repeatedly with notes that I was in a “non-connection zone” and that I was possibly traveling “out of the continental United States.” I switched over to Netflix and was met with much of the same. Incredibly long loading times, spotty streaming and the inability to watch anything. After looking up the Flixbus website, I came across some small type in the “Services” section that read, “Please do not stream Netflix, YouTube or HBO Go on the Flixbus as it slows down everybody’s WiFi speeds and will not load correctly.”
Wow. That would have been nice to know. Oh, also? They DO NOT ALLOW MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS on the bus that are bigger than 12 inches… So unless you’re strictly a harmonica player, forget bringing your acoustic guitar anywhere. (Since I was going to play a gig in Tucson, I now had to rent a guitar from the local music shop).
Anyway, reading deeper, they recommended that passengers watch their curated film selections on the Flixbus app, which were “expertly chosen” and free. I checked it out. The selections were the same as what you’d expect on an airplane: Wonder Park, A Madea Family Funeral and about 9 shitty Melissa McCarthy movies.
Seven hours and 45 minutes to Tucson.
As we rattled over the freeways on the outskirts of Los Angeles, weaving in and out of the carpool lane, I was convinced I was going to die on the Flixbus. My daughter was getting carsick from the bumps and sudden stops and I could not believe that I had chosen this as my best means of transportation to Tucson…
The bus continued to shake from side to side, causing a middle-aged lady across the aisle from me to begin moaning. Like, painfully moaning. And grabbing her sides. Thinking that she may be in labor with a child, I looked over and noticed that she had a freshly dressed wound on the side of her mid-section. At one point, she screamed “Fucking FUCK, can you drive a little slower?”
“Are you OK ma’am?” I asked her, hoping she hadn’t been shot in a bank robbery gone wrong and was using the Flixbus as an escape tool.
“Uggh, yeah – I’m just recovering from plastic surgery,” she said.
“On the Flixbus?” I responded.
“Well, I live in Palm Springs,” she proceeded to tell me. “I went to Mexico for liposuction because it’s like, 75 percent cheaper down there.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “Didn’t you go through some sort of like, recovery first?”
“I’ll be fine once I get to Palm Springs.”
We hit a bump and she made a noise that I have only heard once before in my life back when I witnessed a goat slaughter in a tiny village in Mexico in 2003.
“Oh fuck,” she screamed. “One of my sutures popped – can you just hold your finger here for a second?.”
Shielding my daughter from the horror of this situation, I regrettably leaned over and put pressure on an area of bloodied gauze that had come undone. Eventually, the woman fastened it back together with a clip and thanked me profusely. I excused myself to the bathroom and threw ice cold water on my face.
30 minutes later the ride was smoothing out. Looking out the window I saw the desert approach.
“Folks we are stopping in North Palm Springs in eight minutes,” the driver announced. “We will have time to get refreshments and some air.”
“Thank fucking God,” the bleeding woman said.
We pulled into an AM/PM parking lot in Palm Springs and the lady limped off the bus and met her ride. She waved good-bye to me and sped off into the Palm Springs afternoon. For all I know she bled out on the way home and is dead.
The good news was that 12 passengers got off the bus in Palm Springs. This freed up some seats and we moved a few aisles away from the bathroom. The miles began to roll away and I started to fantasize that I was Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy taking the bus to a new dream, over expansive desert land and into the heart of opportunity. Of course, Jon Voight was heading to New York City in 1968 and I was going to Tucson to visit my mom, but the view sure was pretty.
20 minutes later, I opened up one of my tamales-in-a-bag and gave it a shot. It smelled like some sort of fucking rotting animal. A few passengers looked over at me and covered their faces with blankets and scarves. Acting casual, I took a small bite and chewed for a few seconds before beginning to feel violently ill. I managed to spit the food into a bag and quickly wrapped it up, avoiding the grossed out looks of my fellow Flixbus friends. Luckily, that was exactly the moment when the newborn’s father emerged from the bathroom with the full diaper. He tossed it in the center trash bag and the entire bus groaned and began cursing him out.
“What am I supposed to do?” The dad asked the gallery of hecklers.
“Flush that shit,” the guy in the K.U.S.H. hat suggested.
The driver came on the intercom and reminded everyone that nothing but toilet paper could go down the toilet. The passengers collectively groaned and went back to their devices. At this point, between the tamale and the diaper, the bus was turning toxic. If you lit a match in the thing, there was a strong chance the bus would explode.
Six hours to Tucson.
Our next stop was in Blythe, California, on the Arizona border. Here, we were given a 30 minute lunch period and the only restaurant around for miles was a McDonalds 25 feet away. Assuming this would be my last chance to eat before 9:30 that night, I broke down and ate six Chicken McNuggets and an Oreo McFlurry.
I also called my mom to alert her of our progress.
“How’s the Flixbus?” My mom asked. “Watching any good movies?”
“Well, nothing really works,” I said. “Half the seats don’t have outlets, the WiFi in the desert sucks and they don’t allow streaming… and I refuse to watch Life of the Party. (That’s a terrible Melissa McCarthy movie BTW…)
“What kind of food do they have?” She inquired.
“They don’t have food,” I said.
“What?” She said. “On their website it says you can purchase snacks and stuff from the driver?”
What? Here I was nearly puking street tamales and eating Chicken McNuggets when the driver had food on him the entire time? Why were we not informed of this? I tracked down the driver as he smoked a cigarette and asked him if I could see a menu of the food they offered on board.
“Their aint no menu, mane… We just have some Ruffles and shit.”
Ruffles and shit?
“Come on my man, you don’t have like a Tapas box? My daughter needs some Wiki Stix!”
“This aint Alaska Airlines, mane,” he responded.
Eventually, 100 miles from Phoenix, a college kid broke down and went into the bathroom to vape. He was far from discreet and as a man who once routinely snuck weed to smoke into airplane bathrooms, I viewed his efforts as amateurish. The key to smoking on a bus or airplane is to basically flush the toilet as you exhale with your face nearly in the bowl. Yeah, this is a disgusting activity, but for some reason back in the mid 90’s I had no problem shoving my head inside an airplane toilet. Now I can’t even USE bathrooms on moving vehicles. Anyway, the kid opened the door and a cloud of Watermelon E-Juice enveloped the back area. The kid walked out as if he had done nothing wrong.
The smoke was impossible to miss and even though it dissipated quickly, it really upset the bus driver, who pulled over to the side of I-10 and DEMANDED to know who had smoked on the bus.
My daughter raised her hand to volunteer the information.
“Put your hand down,” I said, knowing that being labeled a “narc” at age 9 doesn’t do anybody any good.
“Who was smoking back here?” The bus driver said. “I demand an answer!”
I expected somebody to speak up… but nobody did. We all held together in a Flixbus code of silence. Shit, we felt like we were in La Cosa Nostra. For the first time on the ride I sensed a camaraderie with my fellow passengers. We all sort of looked at it the same way… If this was a bus in 1957, people would be smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey from flasks. We all had the same thought… Let the kid vape.
Four and a half hours to Tucson.
The rest of the trip went fairly smoothly. I was amazed at how well behaved my daughter was and as the stops piled up, the passengers started getting off. A few people got on in Phoenix and we got to Tucson in roughly nine hours and 30 minutes. To put that in perspective, If you drive directly from LA in a car, you’re guaranteed to spend eight hours on the road and you have to buy gas. If you fly to Tucson from LAX, door to door takes about five hours and 30 minutes. So, I basically lost four hours of my life, had to endure some awful smells and I got to be an impromptu nurse to the woman recovering from plastic surgery.
When we got to my mom’s house, she had food and wine waiting for me and I told her all the fun stories from my 400 mile road trip in a public bus. We laughed, drank and I slept in until 8:30 the next morning when I awoke to my mom freaking out about a dead animal in the walls.
“Zach, some animal died in the wall I called the exterminator already,” she shrieked.
I woke up and smelled what she was talking about. I opened my backpack and found the OTHER street tamale I had forgotten to throw out buried beneath my laptop.
“Found it, mom,” I said.
She made me throw it out in the neighbor’s trash can…
WATCH Zach’s music video for his song “Watch the Horses”…
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…
see below! Zach brings his worldwide knowledge of slang words to Sirius XM/ Shade 45’s hip-hop radio show “THE ALL OUT SHOW” once a month. Make sure to listen in and hear Zach and Jude play origin games and chop up the English language… on SHADE45 Sirius/XM
Yeah, posterized. Embarrassed. Juked. Lit up. Dusted. Shook, took and left for dead. Jammed on by a 20-something human helicopter in the YMCA basketball league I reluctantly joined to appease my doctor, my family history of heart disease and my rising cholesterol. It was pretty damn humiliating, especially since my wife and six-year-old son were on the sidelines – and this 6’6” athletic specimen – with arms like boa constrictors and the vertical leap of a Madagascan Cheetah – decided to gloat while high-fiving his teammates, shouting “Take that white boy!” in my general direction… Our coach Jerome called a time out and quickly informed that I wouldn’t be coming back in the game for awhile. I understood. I sat on the bench and hung my head against my 2004 Arizona Wildcats basketball shorts and wiped heavy beads of sweat into my towel. I slowly looked over at my son – who turned to his mom and asked her why daddy got taken out of the game. Ever the subtle parent, my wife informed him, “Your dad just got annihilated.”
When I first joined the Hollywood YMCA, it was on my doctor’s orders. My family history had a lot to do with it – and his main motive was to get my cardiovascular activity up and my cholesterol down. Since basketball was always my favorite form of exercise, I chose the Y because the courts were full of older players with no other motivation than a little exercise and some fun. The majority of the guys I encountered on Tuesdays and Thursdays were in their 30’s and 40’s and had some sort of knee brace or elbow support sleeve on their bodies. They put up long threes, blew easy lay-ups and spent half the game talking about the Hollywood trades and other silliness, killing time as their kids tooled around the clubhouse downstairs. Rucker Park this was not.
After hanging around the sidelines for 20 minutes or so, I was invited in to play… and I quickly put up a dazzling 6 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in a 21-19 thriller of a pick up game. In my mind, I was back. Back to those glory days of my youth when I used to school young Jewish guys in the “Stephen S. Wise Temple Basketball League.” Back when I made the Junior Varsity team at my high school and actually had the ability to dunk a basketball on a ten-foot rim. (OK, I did it twice, but I did do it…) Back when my life was simple and easy, and when the only thing that mattered was which pair of Air Jordans I would save up for to parade around high school as a way to try and impress hot Tucson girls who actually would consider me to be a potential prom date just because I wore a pair of $100 Nikes…
Nowadays, the last thing I remember dunking was a celery stalk into a Bloody Mary. Those Air Jordans are long gone. So is my vertical leap. And according to Facebook, all those hot Tucson girls have teenage kids and have been divorced an average of two times since high school. So, in my mind, scoring 6 points in a YMCA game was the equivalent of winning an NBA Championship. I immediately told my wife that I loved basketball at the YMCA – and I showed up again the next day to take on another set of chumps with my wicked first step and decent mid-range jumper.
Turns out, the Tuesday – Thursday game features a totally different crew than the guys who play on Monday – Wednesday.
My first indication that the competition was at another level, was the fact that most of the guys on the court didn’t have a mid-section. There were dudes even playing shirtless, a thing you only see down at Venice Beach during the summer, and they looked like their bodies had robotic sound effects when they moved. Some guys had typical basketball tattoos reading ”Ball is Life” and “Love of the Game” beneath an orange ball swishing through a net. One guy stood close to 6’10” and practiced drop-step lay-ups while a scraggly Steve Nash-looking kid fed him bounce passes. Another rained in threes from NBA range, shouting out “ALL DAY!” whenever he connected… which was a lot. Finally, a shredded swing-man named DeMar threw down an Isiah Rider through-the-legs dunk during a fast break. I quickly turned and headed towards the door, opting to run on the treadmill that day instead.
Little did I know, DeMar would be the same guy would dunk on me this morning… Let me back up for a second and explain how I even got invited to play in the YMCA league in the first place.
Back in the summer of 2008, I was covering the famed “San Diego Comic-Con” for Attack of the Show, a TV program I was hosting. The convention was a nerd party of epic proportions, and I took full advantage of every open bar in the Gaslight District of the city – including a party where celebrated Ohio State star and Portland Trailblazers number one draft pick Greg Oden made an appearance. Being one of the only basketball fans in the entire city that night worked to my advantage, and Greg Oden and I spoke for a good 20 minutes before he was whisked away by a publicist for some interview. After he left my presence, a geeky fanboy tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if the seven-foot Greg Oden was Samuel L. Jackson from Snakes on a Plane.
“Uhm, no,” I told him.
In November of that year, I was inspired to get myself in shape. I read that Nike had announced the release of the new Greg Oden Power Max basketball shoe and the minute I had read about it, I knew that would be my shoe. After all, Greg had been so cool at Comic Con, I was convinced he had a Michael Jordan – like career ahead of him and would be exactly the kind of role model I needed to inspire me to revisit my past basketball athletic prowess. So, the day the shoe was released, I took a trip up to the Topanga Canyon Mall where I dropped 130 dollars on a pair of Nike Greg Oden PE’s which featured his name – “Oden” – prominently stitched across the laces as well as the back of the shoe. It was impossible to miss.
Five years later, as you may or may not know, Greg Oden is considered one of the biggest disappointments in the history of NBA basketball. Right up there with Sam Bowie, Joe Barry Carroll and Michael Olowokandi. Yes, a BUST. His injuries have left him sidelined for all but 23 games or so and the guy drafted after him – Kevin Durant – has gone on to become arguably the best player in the NBA. Greg Oden is currently coaching basketball clinics in Oregon. I hope he invested his money wisely, or he might be hanging sheetrock in a few years.
Unfortunately, his shoe is the only basketball shoe I own. Basically, I refuse to ever pay that much money for a shoe again – and I never really wore his model that much anyway – so it is in fairly great condition. A year ago I tried to see if it would sell on ebay, but the only other model on the website was a “Buy It Now” offer for $9.99, so I figured I’d just play ball in my Oden’s until they fell apart. (By the way, if you are interested, you can buy 100 – yes 100 – Greg Oden Topps rookie basketball cards for $3.99 on ebay right now).
So, I am stuck with my Oden’s and there’s a small part of me that actually kind of enjoys the irony of owning them. It’s like owning the film Gigli on Blu-Ray.
The treadmill I run on at the YMCA faces the pathway between the basketball courts and the water fountain, so the players come out every 20 minutes or so for breaks. The players have never noticed me running before, but that Wednesday, they decided to approach my treadmill as I was running following the first game they had played that afternoon. I wasn’t sure why… until they called me by my shoe.
“Yo, Greg Oden!” One wiry dude yelled just as I hit my 9 minute-per-mile stride. “Come off that treadmill for a second, man!”
A little intimidated, I kept running.
“Why?” I asked.
“We wanna ask you a question,” he responded.
I pressed pause on my iphone and stepped off the treadmill. I had run 1.2 miles in 10 minutes. 151 calories. Meh.
I walked over to the crew of dudes who were somewhat taunting me like jocks in high school making fun of the kid who played piccolo in the band. Why were they here? What did they want? I quickly found out.
“Where did you get a pair of Oden’s?” The leader asked.
As his crew looked down at my shoes, the laughs and taunts continued.
“Nice choice, bro!”
For some reason, I was facing ridicule for Greg Oden’s injury-prone career… as if I had been Greg Oden. It didn’t make any sense. So, as I have always tended to do, I made a humorous jibe about the situation.
“Yeah, I got these when he was the biggest prospect in basketball, alright? I could afford one dope pair of shoes, and I fucked up and chose these, OK? Whatchu think, I can afford a pair of Kevin Durant’s?”
The guys laughed. They high-fived. They made me feel better. They were funny, and seemingly down to Earth. And then, maybe as a kind gesture – or just as a way to see how terrible I was as a basketball player – they invited me to come get into a quick game of pick-up hoop in the main gym.
A lump appeared in my throat… Could I hang with these trees? Was my game on their level? I mean, if my shot was on, I might be able to put up a few buckets… but if my nerves got the better of me, I risked the horror of becoming known as the “Greg Oden of the YMCA…”
Painted in a corner, I said OK, and I tightened my $130 shoes and walked out towards the basketball court – convinced that I was about to get schooled by a bunch of guys who probably played division I, NBA D-league or even overseas basketball.
The tip-off was the first sign of the ring of hell that I had entered. After Fez from our team won the tip, a guy named Derrick told Fez that the ball wasn’t thrown up “evenly.” A huge shit-talk session began for the next three minutes and we weren’t even past the tip-off. I had seen these trash-talker games before. Basically, a lot of guys call fouls on every play and their opponents complain about the calls. The games take forever to finish because nobody ever actually plays, they just spend most of the time jawing at each other. It sucks to play in and to watch. I immediately knew it would be that kind of game. After we held a re-jump ball, nearly every two or three trips up the court ended in a heated smack talk exchange.
“Hell, no, THAT’S A FOUL!” Yelled a guy called Jay Reezy who was covering up his embarrassing air-ball.
“Foul… and one,” screamed Joelle as his ball clanged off the rim.
“Man, get yo hand off my dick!” shouted Lorenzo, after I cleanly swiped the basketball from his hands. Yes, it was clean, but he accused me not only of the foul, but of molestation. They took the ball back and scored on sheer intimidation factor on the next play. The reality of YMCA pick-up basketball had set in. When Lorenzo yelled, “I’ma KILL you mother fucka” to oue sidwline coach Jerome who called a traveling violation on a jump shot, it vaguely reminded me of that scene from White Men Can’t Jump (A film that director Ron Shelton actually envisioned while playing on the same Hollywood YMCA courts I was playing on) when Marques Johnson’s character went to his glove compartment to get a gun to settle a dispute. I believe the line was “I’m gonna get my other gun and I’m shooting you AND him…”
Whatever the case, I was scared – and I did my best “hide around the three-point line and pray that nobody wants me to shoot” routine. Woody Harrelson, I was not. Amazingly enough, I did attempt one three-pointer… And I somehow nailed it.
As the game wore on, I notched up another bucket on an inside pump fake that got the team yelling “Nice one, Oden!” As I spent a minute jogging back on defense, I couldn’t help but notice as a guy named Red flew by me and converted a lay-up against an older center whom I had recognized from Tuesday’s game. As I threw the ball in, I jokingly told him, “You should’ve called a foul.”
He smiled and passed the ball up to the front court.
The game turned out to be the longest pick-up game I have ever played in. There was more chatter, more arguing, more fouls called, more shit-talking and more disagreements than I have seen even in my six-year-old son’s Junior Lakers League. It was like playing against spoiled teenagers, and I wanted to fake an injury just to not play anymore… Still, it was the big league players at the YMCA… and I was hanging.
When the buzzer sounded, we were shuffled off the court for the next crew of five. We had lost 21 – 17… and even though I only scored five points, I honestly felt like I had played better than some of the trash-talking intimidators who had been there dealing handfuls of smack to our opponents. I was inspired and convinced that after a little practice, I might be able to step back in to bang with these big boys. Following the game, when coach Jerome invited me to sub on their YMCA league team the following Saturday morning, I knew I had proven myself as somewhat of a baller… I was shocked and flattered, and I responded to his request with a foolish exclamation of “dope!”
I immediately felt like an idiot.
I came home and informed my wife that I had made the team… Sort of. I mentioned that I was invited to substitute for another player and that I needed to be on my A-game on Saturday morning. My wife, an actual high school female basketball All-State player seemed impressed. The stage was set. I had a league game on Saturday! No news yet on if I’d be starting… But I was nervous as shit.
I decided that a quick pick-up game in the Jewish Basketball League wouldn’t hurt my confidence either.
Back in 2000 or so, I was a terror on the courts of the Jewish Basketball League. My old roommate Mike and I had been a lethal inside-outside combination, and even though I would enter most games sweating beer and whiskey from the night before, our Stephen S. Wise Matzah Ballers defeated the Temple Hess Kramer Lions handily for three years straight. Many of our players have gone on to Hollywood success, some are still playing and others are long gone from the city… Still, I always knew in the back of my head that if there was a place to regain my basketball confidence, it was the Jewish league. A run I specifically refer to as “Heeb Hoops.”
Thursday evening, I rolled into the Michael Milken gymnasium wearing a Carmelo Anthony Denver Nuggets jersey and cradling a Vita-Coco water. My old roommate Mike was still running the league. Not much seemed different – except for the fact that Mike was now sporting a “Rip Hamilton Face Mask” that he had been fitted with following his fourth broken nose in Jewish basketball games. (Shockingly, the nose-break is a very popular Jewish basketball injury.)
Mike gave me a silent head nod as I surveyed the competition before warming up. Convincing myself that these young players had nothing on my storied Jewish Basketball League career, I shot a few jumpers, ran some drills and worked on my left-handed penetration – a skill I had been lacking since those JV days back in high school. By the time I was allowed to get in the run, I was on top of the world. And it showed. I shook Gabe Friedman on a crossover that gave us a two-point lead. Mike fed me a pass and Jordan Mogelwitz fell for my pump-fake and ended up watching me bank in a 7-footer on his left. Even Raphie Spiegel bit on my daring long-range three that tied the game at 16 before my old homeboy Mike crossed-over a college kid and put us up by a bucket. Mike and I ended the run with a classic give and go – punctuated by his three-pointer that won us the game. Mike and I celebrated, exchanged awkward 37-year-old dap handshakes and chest-bumps. I had 9 of our points. Mike had 12. It was 2000 all over again. We even smoked a joint in the parking lot afterwards and made stoned plans to form a team that had a shot at winning the coveted “Dead Sea Cup” in the fall. It was amazing. I got home, showered and went to bed, convinced that by Saturday, I would be running YMCA regulars up and down the court beginning at the first whistle.
Oh how wrong I was.
The YMCA league resembled the All-Valley Karate Championship from the film Karate Kid. Some dudes were mad-dogging any potential challengers like Johnny Lawrence did Daniel Laruso. Teams were stretching and warming up like it was the Final Four. Guys with prison-shaped muscles ran “suicide” drills and barked out orders towards their teams. I recognized DeMar the shredded dunker from the YMCA working on his through-the-legs jam during a lay-up drill. Some other players from the YMCA were there too, representing different branches. We were Hollywood, but there was definitely a Downtown crew and an intimidating looking Westside team. Most of their players all looked bigger and more confident than I did. Even my teammate Fez seemed to be in the zone, dishing out chest passes to our team before noticing my arrival and demanding I let my wife and kid know they had to remain outside the gym until the sidelines were opened up to the public… Somehow, I immediately knew this was a bad idea.
I did not start the game. In fact, I “rode pine” the entire first half, doing what I do best… MOCKING PEOPLE. I reverted to the 13-year-old clown who developed his ESPN-worthy broadcast voice on the bench as the 10th man on his junior high championship team. I regressed into the sophomore who spit funny commentary from the bench as my team lost by 29 to Marana High School. I became the stoner kid from college who skipped our fraternity basketball tournament due to a mushroom hangover… I was simply not taking anything seriously.
“Jesus, I’ve seen better jumpers hooked to the battery of my car,” I announced.
“He couldn’t hit air if he was skydiving,” I offered.
“He’s got more turnovers than a bakery,” I joked, terribly.
I went on and on. Until two minutes before the half when our coach, Jerome, informed me that our leading scorer Gary Vernon had sprained his ankle. I was in at small forward, and that I “better not fuck it up.”
Luckily, with a minute left, I handled my own. I was able to guard their sharp-shooter somewhat easily, at least for 60 seconds, and when the halftime buzzer sounded, I hustled to the sideline, winking at my wife and son, knowing we were up by 8 points.
At halftime, I prayed that Gary would be able to return. Unfortunately, he told coach Jerome he was out. I was summoned to start the second half and I told him I was ready to answer the call.
The second half was reminiscent of the YMCA pick-up game I witnessed a few days before. Smack was talked, play was delayed, but luckily, the presence of referees helped move the action along. A minute in, and I got passed the ball for the first time. I looked inside, but had no outlet. I took a few dribbles around the perimeter before handing the ball off to our point guard. He drove the lane and was quickly rejected… the ball bounced towards me. Wide open outside of the three-point line. Now, in my life, I have performed for crowds as big as 1500 people. I have no fear of the spotlight. I embrace. It. So of course, at that very moment, I did what any lifelong performer would do… I froze.
Like a statue. Good old DeMar ran up and swiped the ball from me before beasting towards the other side of the court where he easily converted a tomahawk rim-rocker that brought the crowd to its feet. I was suddenly, the worst player on the court. I felt that familiar lump return to my throat. Sure, I could perform music and comedy in front of 1000 people, but when 18 folks – including my wife and son – were standing on a nearby sideline, I had no idea how to execute anything. The floodgates of failure had been opened.
DeMar went on a scoring tear. 12 points in under five minutes. Our eight point lead became a four point deficit. Game was 21… It was 17-13.
I felt the crowd getting into the game. I looked towards my bench and saw Gary glaring at me – as if I had stuck his pet kitten in a microwave. It was not exactly the teammate support I was looking for. As I tried to juke the opposing team with some cross-pattern routes I remembered from high school ball, I was checked by a player and felt like I had run into a concrete wall. I staggered back slightly, a bit dazed but conscious, before looking up to see Fez’s missed three-pointer bounce my way. I turned my body asunder – if only to imitate the Lebron James and Magic Johnson moves I had grown up worshiping, and felt an inescapable lack of confidence when I sent a lazy pass over the lane intended for a guy named Rick Cahill. Unfortunately, that pass was read with precision by DeMar.
I made the mistake of chasing him down the court. By the time I had come close to catching up with his super-human speed, he was already 39 inches in the air… I lept up as well, and thought for a second that I might have a chance at slapping the ball out of his hands. Instead, what happened will forever be known as the worst sports moment in my life.
He threw down a one-handed fiendishly brutish ogre-fuck of a dunk. The ball thunderously cascaded off of my head. It ricocheted against the back wall and sadly crept towards the exit of the gym before pausing against a stranger’s bag – almost as if it had been shot by a hunter with a cross-bow. It did everything but deflate itself and bleed to death. Coach Jerome called a very necessary time-out.
A few minutes later, we lost 21 – 13. I looked over towards my wife and son. She had already taken him out of the gym as if to not force him to watch any more of the carnage. Our players threw water bottles at the bench and cursed to each other. They asked Gary about his ankle and offered him 50 solutions to get it to heal. They swallowed Gatorade and water without making any eye contact with me and exited quickly and quietly. Before coach Jerome could leave the gym, I yelled out at him.
“What time’s game next week?”
Jerome looked back to me and offered, “You don’t have a game next week…”
As DeMar disappeared to the sidelines and put on a pair of Beats by Dr. Dre, I stood up and made my way down to the locker room to shower. As I walked inside, I could hear many of the members talking about DeMar’s dunk and how incredible it was. When I passed the crew of players tightly seated in a circle, I noticed they were watching something on one of their iphones… Sure enough, it was the dunk. Someone had filmed him taking flight and macerating the rim at my expense. I quickly turned away from the viewing and tried my best to tip-toe back out of the door. Before I could escape, one of the guys called after me.
“Yo, dude!” He said. “Quick question for ya…”
I stopped in my tracks and turned around, afraid of what insulting low blow he would send my way. Anticipating the worst, I took a deep breath and awaited sure insult and humiliation. Finally, he spoke.
“Are you wearing Greg Oden’s?”
I cracked a meek smile and threw my towel over my shoulder.
“Only until I can afford a pair of Sam Bowie’s,” I joked.
The guys chuckled, probably because they felt sorry for me, but it was enough to show that I wasn’t taking any of this stuff that seriously.
As they replayed the dunk over and over on the iphone, I slipped out the door and called my wife. She answered the phone by saying, “I’m sorry.”
We spoke for a minute about everything but the game. What we needed at the store, what time the kids needed to be dropped off at practice… even what Netflix we wanted to order. It was a nice distraction and one that took my mind off my embarrassing moment on the court a few minutes earlier.
I drank some water and said good-bye to some of the other players who were on their way out of the locker room. I looked around the YMCA and quietly announced my retirement from the basketball league to nobody in particular. It was rather unnecessary, but it felt better to say it out loud.
And then I went upstairs to run on the treadmill.
Zach Selwyn October 23, 2012
To read Mike’s wife cute blog entry on Mike’s mask itself – click here – THE FACE MASK