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!
Out of Touch at The Dream Hotel * 2015 By Zach Selwyn
It was two-o-clock in the morning and I was standing on the street outside the Dream Hotel in New York City when a slick looking hustler in a Panama hat sided up to me.
“You looking for girls tonight?” He said.
“Naah man, I’m just trying to get some air.”
“You sure? Just up those stairs across the street is all kinds of hoes… I’m talking Thai girls, Russians, Mamis… You ever bang a bad bitch?”
“What exactly is a bad bitch?” I asked.
“If you don’t know, then you’ve never banged one…”
I have been in New York City for roughly 36 hours. In that time, I have averaged 4 hours of sleep a night, eaten 7 street hot dogs and drank close to 19 cups of bad deli coffee. I have also realized that I am the most out of touch loser in the city. The average Manhattan man around my age is sporting a hundred dollar undercut and a long beard – which is eerily similar to L.A. (With only a few less Man-Buns). The difference is, these guys are also rocking 3,000 dollar Ted Baker suits and wingtips. As for me, I am wearing a 1970’s – era Wrangler cowboy shirt, some Lee Riders from the early 80’s and a pair of ¾ boots I scored from a TV show wardrobe department about 4 years ago. My hair is pretty tame and I still have Beverly Hills 90210-era sideburns. I’m also wearing a trucker cap that reads “Roy Clark” on it, bellbottoms and a belt buckle that features Chester the Cheetah riding a Harley motorcycle beneath the inscription “Cheesy Rider.”
I feel a little like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy because NOBODY is dressed like me. Funny thing is, this is how I have been dressing for 15 years. A few years back, in the early 00’s, everybody started dressing like this. Now, those days are long gone and I’m the only guy on 8th Avenue wearing a shirt that unsnaps when you tear it apart and a turquoise ring.
And apparently, I have no idea what a “bad bitch” is.
I realized I was grossly under-dressed when I attended the first business dinner with the company I am working for. I figured it would be a quick bite at a local bar, but it turned into the type of place where they asked me to remove my hat as I sat down. The next day, at the company’s request, I made my way to a J. Crew to try and find something respectable that I would feel comfortable wearing. I settled on a checkered red, white and blue button-down and some horrendously skinny jeans. The price? $254.
When the sales associate asked me “how my sock game” was, I told him, “Fine. I buy all my socks at Ross: Dress for Less.”
“How’s your shoe game?” He asked.
“I have these nice ¾ boots,” I said.
“Uggh, please – nobody is wearing ¾ boots anymore,” he retorted. “You need some wings!”
I walked out of the store.
I couldn’t place my finger on it, but Manhattan had begun to seem too cookie cutter. I guess I was aware of the Duane Reade explosion and the Starbucks on every corner, but I was not prepared for the fashion clones that had sprouted up everywhere. Sure I was ten years older than the average guy out on a Wednesday night, but even I could sense a lack of originality. New York City, which was once full of punk street kids, trendsetters and Mapplethorpe-worshipping leather daddies sticking whips in their asses and walking into a Saks Fifth Avenue, had become somewhat tame.
I recently read an interview with AdRock of the Beastie Boys talking about how the “New York of his youth had disappeared.” I was beginning to understand what he was talking about. Manhattan in the 70’s and 80’s – before the crackdowns and the $8200 a month rent – was an artistic and fantastic place to be. These were the days before the smelly Times Square Jack Sparrows. Before Hell’s Kitchen was a gentrified hipster paradise. In the late 80’s I would visit my second cousin and roll down Canal Street to buy fake Gucci jackets, leather African medallion necklaces and a bootleg cassette of LL Cool J’s Walking With a Panther. The tape-dealers would offer me “smoke,” which scared the crap out of me. At one point, my mom dragged me away from a couple of black guys who were standing around Washington Square Park discussing the new Bobby Brown On Our Own song from Ghostbusters II. I tried to inject some white boy wisdom by saying I thought Bobby should’ve written a second rap verse instead of repeating the “Too hot to handle, too cold to hold” line and they ignored me as if I was “Chester the Terrier” following around the bigger “Spike the Bulldog” in the Looney Tunes cartoons.
The only exception I could find was in the Dream Hotel. The first couple of nights I was in town, I took it easy, stayed in my room, watched TV and had sex with the full-length pillow. However, a hotel room can only hold you captive for so long and eventually I came downstairs to find out where the notorious dark side of this fantastic city had wound up. I now believe it all centers around the Dream Hotel. Within an hour of hanging in the lobby, I was propositioned by more pimps, hustlers, hoes and drug dealers than I have seen in 20 years in Los Angeles. Methy looking skinny teenagers were offering me weed, cocaine and what they claim is “Government pure MDMA.” The lobby was crawling with hookers and late night denizens of the rooftop nightclub, which is named “PDH.” An acronym for what I can only imagine is “Pimps, Drugs and Hoes” based on the army of thick women standing around comparing 9 inch Indian weaves and elastic black twat-length skirts that barely cover their clitori. (Is that the plural for “clitoris?”)
The new Manhattan underbelly had become what Jay-Z sang about in Empire State of Mind. “Ballplayers, rap stars, addicted to that limelight…” Everywhere I went folks were talking about money, cars and rap music. If Los Angeles is supposedly a vapid, material city full of superficial idiots, New York City has embraced a lifestyle full of flashy watches, bottle service, velvet ropes and hangers on… So much so that when I tried to get access to the PDH nightclub on the top floor, the bouncer looked at my “shoe game” and instructed me to “please wait in the other bar.”
I didn’t really want to go up to PDH, but it did seem like it had to be part of my Dream Hotel adventure. So I waited in the bar drinking 17 dollar glasses of shoddy tempranillo wondering how anyone can listen to this much house and trap music in one day. The hotel sort of felt like Miami, but it was 40 degrees cooler and Pitbull wasn’t here singing some shitty song about how “white girl got some ass.”
Finally a large Puerto Rican man came over and told me that since I was a guest of the hotel, all I needed to do was show my room key and I could gain access to the club. I sauntered up towards the door, bypassing the line of desperate gold diggers and club kids and flashed my hotel room key. It was the first time in my entire trip that I had felt somewhat cool.
The nightclub was everything I always hated about nightclubs. Expensive drinks, a DJ mixing Calvin Harris with Blondie, hairy men pouring vodka-cranberry drinks for girls who were most likely being paid to hang around them and intimidating looking security guards who mad-dogged anybody ordering a single beer instead of a 2500 dollar bottle of Grey Goose.
I stayed for 8 minutes.
On my way downstairs, I decided I had to get outside and just see the street. I was sick of the lines, the attitude and the fact that a cast member from Real Housewives of Atlanta had demanded to cut the line… and was placated with a free bottle of vodka. I had to walk to a deli and buy some water and eat a sandwich and try to get some sleep before my work event the following day.
I came back to the hotel with my snacks and drinks – which, by the way, were shoved into about 11 plastic bags by the deli owner as if the plastic problem doesn’t exist in New York – and stopped to listen to the sidewalk pimps do their thing. They were like the dude selling Eddie Murphy’s gold hair dryer in Coming to America. I heard some remarkable stuff:
“You wanna table shower my man?”
“I got one tranny but she visiting her brother at Riker’s right now.”
“Playa, I can get you three at once, but you gotta wear three rubbers.”
I guess Manhattan hadn’t changed that much. Instead of bootleg tapes, men were looking for the booty. These hipster hotels had become infidelity dens and the cops just seemed to look the other way. And as for the falling crime rate – well – as this night was coming to a close, NBA player Chris Copeland was actually stabbed in an altercation outside of 1OAK nightclub just a few streets away from where I was staying.
As I strolled towards the entrance, I passed by my friend in the Panama hat one last time.
“Yo, son – I got you. I know you wanna find out what a bad bitch is,” he propositioned.
“I’m good, man,” I said. “I gotta get to bed.”
I went up to my room and had sex with the full-length pillow.
HOW TO SURVIVE A GRATEFUL DEAD SHOW WHEN YOU LOSE YOUR FRIENDS IN THE PARKING LOT * By Zach Selwyn
My old college friend Bernard (Or “Burner – for reasons that don’t need to be explained) called me the day before Father’s Day. He had an extra ticket to the 50th Anniversary Grateful Dead concert in northern California. I informed my wife that I would be traveling to the show the following Saturday night.
“Haha yeah right,” she said.
“No. I’m going.”
“Stop it. Now, what do you want to do for Father’s Day? Should we meet the Bartons for brunch? Or do you want to have people over to bar-be-cue?”
“I hate the Bartons,” I said. “I want to go to the Grateful Dead.”
“Are you serious?”
“Well, take your son with you, don’t you think he would enjoy it?”
I didn’t think that was the brightest idea. The smoke and the dancing and twirling was completely mind-blowing to me when I was at my first show at age 18. Back then I was scared shitless. Too many drugs, too many lost souls… too many people having a lot more fun than I was. I told my wife that I’d rather let my son find his own musical path. (Then again, if he’s following 5 Seconds of Summer around the country in 10 years I may have failed somewhere.) Plus, I told my wife that a 9-year-old boy does not need to see his 40-year-old dad clink Absinthe cups with a dude in hiking shorts who made Silicon Valley millions by inventing the Nook.
“Do NOT drink Absinthe,” she demanded.
“I won’t, I promise.”
Eventually, I got the green light – and I called Burner back and committed to his 70-dollar ticket. Which I soon found was WAY too expensive for my shitty seats behind the stage where just a few songs into the set a man would face-plant and nearly die on the concrete right next to me.
Recent online ticket prices for the Santa Clara shows had settled at $20-$40 depending on where you were seated, way down from the rumored $1500 nearly a month earlier. This was due to the “Soldier Field Panic Purchase” that nearly every Dead Head and ticket scalper had fallen for when their final two shows of this “Fare Thee Well” concert were originally announced… Thinking the tickets to Santa Clara might be listed at the same price as the Chicago shows, folks bought up dozens of seats at face value, only to find themselves losing money when trying to unload the tickets in the parking lot the afternoon of the show. (Steal Your Face Value, anyone?) Even Burner was left with a handful of tickets that he ended up trading for “pieces” (pipes or chillums), 50th anniversary bandanas, T-shirts and at one point a foot long joint being sold by a spritely blonde nymph out of a giant cardboard box.
Now, a fair amount has already been written about these shows – if you want to hear about the set lists and the fan reactions to Trey Anastasio and the supposed $50,000 “fake rainbow” – go Google that now. This is my personal adventure about smoking a lump of hash with a crazy looking scallywag who was dragging a dirty pet pit bull named “Iko” around on a hemp dog leash – and becoming so cosmically altered, that I managed to lose my friends for the duration of the show long before the first note of Truckin’ was even played.
It was a surreal experience to say the least. When I last saw the Grateful Dead in 1995, the crowd was pretty much the same… just about 20 years younger. But now, those folks have grown up. Gone are the days of living in the Vanagon and hopping from town-to-town. The “Only Users Lose Drugs” shirts I used to fawn over had been replaced by at least 25 men happily wearing a t-shirt reading “Grateful Dad.” (Thank you, honey for not getting me THAT for Father’s Day.)
A vast majority of the well-off crowd could be found eating sushi and sipping wine in the safe “red” parking lot, while the more traditional “Shakedown Street” blue parking lot catered to the jewelry designers, pushers, providers, dealers and, yes, the guys selling veggie burritos. (At $5.00 a steal – considering it was $11.00 for a nitrate-riddled hot dog in the stadium). Bottom line was, it was a very balanced scene. Which is how I went from talking about music with a doctor who lived in Marin County – to witnessing a hippie trade a T-shirt for a Churro – to eventually asking the aforementioned scraggly looking pit bull owner if I could have a hit of his joint.
“It’s hash bro,” he said.
“Nice,” I said.
“Nice,” he responded.
I took a long drag from the tightly rolled spliff. It was licorice-like in flavor… and reminded me of smoking hash on a Eurorail with a Spanish stranger during a train ride from Switzerland to Germany in 1996. I exhaled.
“Nice.” I said again.
“Real nice,” he said and pulled off the joint again.
I stared up at the clouds.
“Nice,” I laughed.
“Totally nice,” he replied.
We stood and watched the sky for a few minutes. I started to realize that for the past ten minutes, I had managed to keep a totally coherent conversation going by merely uttering the word “nice.”
I shook off my daze and decided to gather myself to find Burner and our other friends and head inside. We were 30 minutes away from the opener and I didn’t want to miss it. I looked back at my hash-providing friend and we shared an ever-knowing look of “I’ll never see you again, but thanks for the time together.” I threw up a peace sign. As I walked away to find my buddies, I heard him utter one final word as a fare thee well to our little session.
Back on Earth, I was suddenly totally confused. Burner was gone. Swirls of dreadlocks and weathered faces engulfed me. I wasn’t sure if I should head back to the blue lot and skip the show altogether or saunter forth inside all alone. Like a wilderness-trained tracker, I decided I’d take some photos to document the beauty of the signage and the sky and the colorful people and cars all around me. Scrolling through my camera roll a day later, all I can find is a few pictures of the stadium and a wasted girl passed out on a lawn. I definitely could not find my friends. I was high and wandering… but at least I had a ticket to my seat.
Having lost buddies at concerts over the years, I am somewhat used to making friends and surviving. This was certainly not the first time I had been alone at a Grateful Dead show… In fact, at the LA Sports Arena in 1993 I accidentally left the concert mid-song and walked 23 blocks away until I was lost in a Ralph’s parking lot deep in South Central Los Angeles. Luckily, the night cashier slipped me a Fentanyl and called me a taxicab. Once I lost my buddy in Santa Barbara and ended up sleeping in a bush after a Neil Young concert. At the Dead show, however, I wasn’t truly worried, because nowadays we are all lucky enough to have cell phones.
I looked down to text my friends. No service. Of course. No fucking service.
I made my way inside and ogled the crowds flittingly dancing along. Anticipating the first note of the show that would send me into another stratosphere. They started with Truckin’. The place went nuts.
Then the guy next to me almost died. His friends pounded his chest until he sat up and they forced water down his throat. Scared and afraid, I went to get a beer. I met some kind gentlemen in the beer line. We spoke about how awesome the show was that we were missing… by waiting in that beer line. I looked around. A girl next to me made sure to use all 9 pockets of her leather fanny pack. At least three guys purposefully wore cargo shorts to show off the “Jerry Bear” leg tattoos they had done in the 90’s that they were waiting all these years to uncover once again… Finally, a woman carrying a six-month old baby in what seemed like a paper bag attached to her back came dancing through the crowd. The kid’s head bobbled furiously, unstable and terrifying. In Los Angeles, the helicopter moms of Orange County would have screamed, rescued the baby and brought it to the nearest hospital. At the Grateful Dead show, however, grown men laughed and spewed forth dragon breaths of marijuana smoke into the sky as the baby drifted right through the haze. It was absolutely disturbing. I could not imagine my kids in this environment. As much as I would want them to appreciate what the music can do for everybody, the last thing I would want is my kid getting a second hand weed buzz around a group of folks sending wafts of OG Kush into the atmosphere.
A few songs later, I had settled down. It suddenly hit me that I was completely alone and that my conversations with strangers were fun but fleeting. I wasn’t making any new friends… I wasn’t analyzing every note Trey played… The worst part was, I was barely even seeing the show from my seat behind the stage. I watched the majority of it on a big screen. So, I wandered around and decided to talk to the security guard. His name was Reed.
“What’s crazier, a 49ers game, or this?” I asked.
“Well, different crowds, ya know?” He said. “Niners fans drink a few beers and try to look tough. These folks drink 10 beers and dance around like fools!”
“So is this the rowdiest show you’ve ever seen here?” I asked.
“Oh hell no, the worst was the WWE Wrestling event. I broke up about 30 fights, had to throw a guy down some stairs.”
“What’s the weirdest show you’ve ever seen here?”
“Kenny Chesney. Was like a Gay Pride Parade met the deep south.”
He shook my hand and walked off.
A few beers later, I was overwhelmed by hippies praying to the miracle rainbow in the sky yelling out things like “It’s a gift from JERRY GARCIA MAN!” (If you can imagine a bunch of high people reacting to a rainbow at a 50-Year Grateful Dead anniversary show, it’s EXACTLY how you picture it…) The argument that the rainbow has been faked is everywhere online, but in truth, if the Dead had 50K to blow on a holographic rainbow, I would hope they at least should have tried to construct a hologram Jerry Garcia instead. (Shit, I’d have settled for hologram 2Pac.)
As the evening went on, as a way to remember what I was going through, I began dictating voice notes into the “recorder” app on my iphone. These are the translations as best as I could decipher them:
A: I have just spent the last hour hanging with a giraffe
B: (Me singing a song idea for my band to record in the future) – “Sunday Ticket, who’s got my Sunday ticket… man are you with it? I wish I could stop and smell the roses – but the elements of elephants are lost among the doses – I suppose it’s the way of the Dead – I suppose it’s the way of the Dead” (Then yelling): “WAY OF THE DEAD!!! MY NEW SONG WOOOOOOHOOOOOO!!!!”
C: Hot dogs, nachos, chicken fingers… hot dogs nachos chicken fingers…
D: What hole have these people been hiding in since 1995?
The last note made sense. A lot of these fans were folks who looked like they never recovered from Jerry Garcia’s death. They had been in exile, awaiting the return of the Grateful Dead for years, sort of like those Japanese soldiers you read about who were trapped on islands with their loaded weapons unaware that the war had ended months earlier.
The highlight of my night came during the song St. Stephen. I had never heard the tune live – nobody really has – and it lifted my spirits high. For five minutes, the long drive alone had been worth it. So had the hash and the lost friends and the $70 seats. I reached high for the sky and let out primal screams of joy and happiness and thought about my kids, my wife, my career, my goals, my dreams my family. I was genuinely ecstatic. I had found my top of the mountain… It was one of those moments that I remembered having as a kid – worshipping this band for slices of perfection like that – when everybody is smiling and nothing can go wrong. A moment of calm and peace I hoped would never end…
Of course, an hour after the show I found myself cursing technology and feeling depressed about having to wait in a two-hour line for an Uber.
I left the venue alone. Got to the hotel alone. I was in bed by 1:00. I woke up before my friends – who had stumbled in at 3:30 – and shook off the cobwebs before beginning the long drive back to L.A. As I listened to the radio and heard reviews of the show it became clear how awesome the evening had been. I re-played to my voice memos and shuffled Dead songs on my iphone the whole drive, wondering how I could call my work and get out of it Monday so that I could stay and watch the second night show instead. Thankfully, I decided one amazing show was enough and I rode down California 5 with Santa Clara and the Grateful Dead in my rear view mirror. As I watched northern California disappear behind the rolling hills, one word came to mind as I smiled and traveled the golden road home…
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…
Zachariah’s new song explores the corporate logo marketing travesty that all of us 90’s kids endure every time we see a Nirvana or Ramones shirt for sale in Target or Wal-Mart. Back in 1992 I had to go to the concert to buy a $30 shirt. Now the logo is on onesies.
The following is an email chain I exchanged with my Hollywood agent, who I have paid 10 percent of my income to these past ten years. In that past decade, he’s brokered a deal or two for me and has also bought me lunch three times. His agency is a big one, but I am a lowly peon in the cable TV hosting game, dwindling way beneath the Seacrests and Trebeks of the world. However, I am undoubtedly the biggest sports fan on the roster. Which is why, as a die hard NBA fan, I began asking him for tickets to the agency “luxury suite” four months ago to watch the Los Angeles Clippers play the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Staples Center on January 16, 2015…
Oct. 12, 2014.
From ME: Yo – Looking for Clippers – Cavs tickets on Jan 16 2015. I think the Cavs are gonna be great this year – and their new coach is a mastermind. Clips look strong too. Both teams will be in top playoff mode around January. If possible, might I be able to get into the agency box seats that night? Asking early to make sure… Thx – Z
From AGENT: Z! Of course buddy. Emailing tickets guy. You need two, right?
From Me: Yes Thank you so much.
Nov. 8, 2014.
From ME: Checking in on Clippers – Cavs tix for January. Has anyone asked about them? Thx – Z.
From AGENT: You’re #1 on the list. I got you covered big Z.
From Me: U Rule. Thx.
Dec. 9, 2014.
From ME: Hey brother – any news on those tickets? It’s getting close and I want to make sure I get in here before the office shuts down for holiday season.
From AGENT: Thank you for your email. Our offices have closed until January 7, 2015.
Jan 7. 2015.
From ME: My dude. Zach here – Hope your holidays were awesome… I was in Seattle with the fam. Checking in on Clippers – Cavs game for January 16. Wanted to see if you could email the tickets to me? Or maybe messenger them? Very excited – thank you sooo much.
From AGENT: Hey Z. Checking in with tickets guy again today.
Jan 8. 2015.
From ME: Any news?
From AGENT: Hang tight.
Jan. 12, 2015.
From ME: Hey man, sorry to bother you – but game is in 4 days – trying to figure out babysitter and all that stuff… Looking forward to seeing LeBron.
From AGENT: (No reply).
Jan 16, 2015.
From AGENT: Hey Z, so sorry bud but we had an overflow of ticket requests for this game… Apparently both teams are playing really well. Matthew Perry snapped up a pair this morning and Giuliana Rancic is top of the list for the other pair. Sorry bud. We’ll get you into a game. I know we have seats for the Lakers – Nuggets on February 10… Chace Crawford just turned them down.
In the world of celebrity, free stuff is king. Matthew Perry and his 500 million dollars does not need free basketball tickets… Plus, he’s sober, so all the free booze in the luxury box was going to be ignored anyway. Giuliana Rancic? Or DiPandi or whatever her name is? Are you kidding me? She makes fun of celebrity dresses for a living. She probably heard the word “Cavs” and thought it was a leg workout. And Lakers – Nuggets tickets? The Lakers are led by a guy who is famous for being Iggy Azaleia’s boyfriend. Kobe is out for the year. They’re not exactly a hot ticket. The point was, I was not considered successful enough to snag the Clippers tickets. I was looking at some washed up pretty boy from Gossip Girl named Chace Crawford’s rejects… Perry and Rancic were gonna be on their iphones in the suite the entire time and most of the so-called Hollywood celebrities who were going to the game probably think “Chris Paul” is a type of champagne.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, the Lakers were all that mattered. They had Del Harris, a young Kobe, Van Exel was being name-checked in Jay-Z songs, Eddie Jones and huge NBA stoner Sam Perkins. (Who looked blazed in 99% of his games). My friends and I would drop $25.00 to sit in the nosebleed section of the Forum just to catch a fading glimpse of what the legendary teams of the 80’s left behind. They were likeable underdogs who fought hard and always battled. Then came Shaq. And Phil Jackson and Kobe became Kobe. Those were the last years I liked the Lakers. Kobe lost his appeal when he shaved his mini afro and faced his legal troubles. Still, going to games was fun because, hey – going to the games are always fun. Still, these last ten years I stopped rooting for them and began just appreciating all professional basketball in general.
Now, Los Angeles is all about the Clippers. A recent text from a buddy read: Lakers are for Fakers…I’m going to the Clips game. The abundance of Lakers flags that people used to display from outside of their car’s windows are long gone. The sea of purple and gold has been replaced by red, white and blue. And let me tell you, I have never seen anyone play pick-up basketball while wearing a Carlos Boozer jersey.
Still, the luxury box is indeed, luxurious. I emailed my agent back a few days later and accepted the Lakers – Nuggets tickets. At least I could see Arizona Wildcat-alum Jordan Hill and possibly watch a few Jeremy Lin up–and-unders. Plus, my brother is a huge hoops fan as well and neither of us are Matthew Perry – sober. Watching two out-of-the-playoff race teams loaf up and down the court over free hot dogs and Stella Artois isn’t a bad way to spend a Tuesday night.
I emailed my agent a week before the game to make sure he could send the tickets over.
Feb. 3, 2015
From ME: Hey man – excited for Lakers – Nugs game on Tuesday… Can you messenger the tickets or email them? Thx brother – Z
From AGENT: Yo, Z – Hey man… looking into this. Looks like Chace Crawford might want the tickets after all… but it depends on if we can get him seats on the floor or not.
From ME: You’re fired.
When it was all said and done, Chace Crawford ended up not going, so I snagged the tickets. The game was poorly attended and didn’t even get exciting until the 4th quarter. Jack Nicholson wasn’t there. Neither was Leo. Or any other familiar celebrity face that we have all come to associate with the Lakers. Instead, it was my brother and myself, sitting amongst a bunch of 22-year-old agent assistants in the luxury suite, sipping Stella Artois and filling up the stat sheet with junk food.
I looked long and hard down at the floor as the game wound down. I was having the time of my life. I guess watching LeBron James would have been a lot more entertaining, but this was still a pretty awesome way to see a basketball game. As a sports lover, sometimes it doesn’t even matter who is playing. And after Swaggy P made a three-pointer and did the eye goggles gesture with his hands, I suddenly became a Lakers fan again for the first time in ten years.
And as I squinted hard at the row of folks seated on the floor, I believe I recognized a celebrity typing away into his iphone three seats down from the Lakers bench.
It was Chase Crawford.
Buy Zach’s newest album “Skywriting” on itunes NOW!
My wife recently began complaining about a mysterious “putrid foot stench” emanating from the closet in my 10-year-old son’s room. After moving around some stuffed animals I had used to hide my stash spot, she came upon the source of the funky smells that had started making their way throughout our entire house… She found the shelf where I had been storing all of my son’s old basketball shoes.
My dad got him a tiny pair of Air Jordan XIII’s when he was a baby, which he wore once. His first nice pair of Nikes was a 2010 Air Jordan 2 in the “candy blue” shade, which he wore for about a year. Then, at eight, he scored a slightly worn pair of Lebron Soldiers before moving up to the blue, white and gold Under Armour Steph Curry 2’s. When his foot got too big for those, I treated him to the latest Kyrie Irving Nikes, which he recently outgrew. When we went to a Clippers game, Raymond Felton handed him a pair of his game-worn sweaty shoes (which only ripened with time) and I recently passed him the size 23 XXL Shaquille O’Neal shoe I once drunkenly bought at a silent auction a few years back for $200.00. (Luckily this shoe lives in a glass case).
Since his birth, I have managed to save 11 pairs of outgrown basketball shoes, along with his game worn Felton’s and the Shaq shoe – hoping that one day they might be worth a fortune and possibly cover a few college tuition payments.
However, my plan didn’t exactly win over the entire household.
“Who the hell saves smelly basketball shoes?” My wife asked.
“Trust me, someday they’re gonna be worth a lot of money… People ALWAYS want basketball shoes.”
“Right,” she argued. “Because Nikes with dog shit on the bottom fetch a high price on ebay these days.”
I knew she wouldn’t understand why I was doing this, so I had to tell her the story of my own personal basketball shoe heartbreak…
In 1985, I begged my mom for a pair of the first pair of Royal Blue Nike Air Jordan shoes. The minute I outgrew them, about six months later, my mom sold them to the used clothing store Buffalo Exchange in Tucson for about $3.00. Since my foot was growing at a rapid rate (I had a size 13 by 8th grade) my mom refused to buy me any more expensive basketball footwear until my foot stopped growing.
So, between those amazing blue Air Jordans – and my eventual 1989 Nike Air Flights, I was stuck playing ball in K-Swiss, a $15 pair of Cons and even a horrendous pair of high-top Ponys.
Today, if my mother had saved those original black and blue Air Jordans, they’d probably be worth over $5,000. Instead, they are probably in some desert landfill somewhere, long ago discarded as trash, when it reality, they are some of the rarest collector’s items in the sneaker game today.
If you have ever driven by a store like Supreme or Undefeated on Fairfax Boulevard and seen a line snaking around the corner for 300 yards, you have seen the pop culture phenomenon of sneaker collecting first hand. “Sneakerheads” are people who collect, admire, re-sell and worship sneakers – going so far as to be able to recognize knock-offs from the real deal by the tiniest angle of the tread on the bottom of a pair. The sneaker collecting business is mainly relegated to basketball and skateboarding shoes and some kicks have fetched upwards of 25 grand on ebay and other high-end marketplaces… Shoes like my original blue Air Jordans are in rarified air amongst the sneaker nerds of the world.
Back in 1985, of course, nobody knew this. Kids were busy collecting comic books and baseball cards, not old shoes. My baseball cards are not worth the cardboard they were printed on. My comic books? Let’s just say I saved the wrong ones. (Anyone want to buy a Thundercats #1?) If you were lucky enough to collect basketball cards in the early to mid-80’s, there is a chance you may have a valuable rookie card if you have, say, a Jordan or a Charles Barkley. In reality, most of my friends back then liked basketball, but would have rather owned nine Wally Joyner rookies than a 1984 Sir Charles. So, if you were the kid who collected basketball shoes, you weren’t considered smart, you were considered a hoarder… or just certifiably insane.
“Mom, don’t throw those away!” My son yelled when he saw the stacks of shoes sitting in the “sell back” pile that we bring to a used clothing shop on Larchmont Boulevard every month.
“Oh no, daddy hasn’t got YOU believing this shoe nonsense now too, does he?”
“They could be worth a lot of money!” He cried.
My son gathered his shoes up and walked them back towards his room where he stashed them. I was impressed. He was becoming my little 10-year-old Imelda Marcos.
As my wife watched him, she gave me a death stare and shook her head.
“Look,” she said. “Maybe you should teach him to save something that nobody has thought about saving yet.”
“Like what, Crocs?”
My wife laughed.
“Just something that doesn’t… smell like a feral squirrel crawled into our house and died.”
My wife and I went upstairs and talked to our son about his unique collection of used, sweaty basketball shoes. After some deliberation, it was decided that I would be selling a few select shoes on ebay for him – and that we would put the profits towards some new kicks. His choices were the latest Chris Paul’s, the Kevin Durant KD 9’s or the Russell Westbrook “half boot-half basketball shoe” model that looked like something off of a Bell Biv Devoe album cover from the 90’s.
He adamantly demanded that we not buy him those “Wack-ass James Harden Lunch lady shoes.”
The first shoe I listed on my ebay was his first pair of baby Air Jordan XIII’s. I put an offer up to “Buy it Now” for $50.00.
They sold in 30 minutes…
*Zach Selwyn still owns a pair of Nike Greg Oden shoes from 2008.
It has been nearly 19 years since I left my childhood home for college.
In that time, the closet in my old bedroom has been housing the rotting souvenirs of my youth. Souvenirs that eternally remind me of my precious, fading juvenile memories. Items that will forever sentimentally call out to me, and ALL of us children of the 1980’s… Invaluable, beautiful trinkets that I have been unable to part with since I was 13-years-old.
Of course, I am referring to thousands of ridiculously worthless Pac-Man key-chains, Garbage Pail Kids and armless GI Joe figures. Go-Bots and Star Wars spaceships that were shoved into back drawers directly next to a myriad of autographed baseballs – ranging from superstars like Gary Sheffield to busts like onetime Cleveland Indians prospect Luis Medina. At least 120 baseball-themed posters, like the Jose Canseco-Mark McGwire Bash Brothers print and the Bo Knows Bo Nike series. And finally, a colossal amount of baseball cards littering the back wall of my closet, long ignored and cast aside.
From what I remember, there is even a small collection of stuffed animals that somehow found themselves packed into a moldy cedar trunk – not unlike the toys from Toy Story 3 – who were forgotten when Andy eventually headed off to college…
They are all there. Forgotten and lonely, praying that someday their owner would return home and rediscover them – bringing them out for one last play date…
As mentioned, the majority of the closet was packed with my onetime extensive collection of baseball memorabilia.
My mother always told me typical stories of her mom accidentally throwing away all of her toys and collectibles when she went off went to the University of Wisconsin in 1964. She never forgave her parents for tossing out scores of Mickey Mantle baseball cards and rare Howdy Doody collectibles, which were now worth thousands of dollars. So, in my early years, she encouraged me to save certain things and to collect potential items for future profits… So, I jumped into my collecting with a furious passion.
Back then it was cool to own 123,000 baseball cards.
Today, they call it hoarding.
My closet has virtually lain dormant for 19 years. In that time, a certain online website known as ebay has shattered the dreams of memorabilia collectors everywhere, revealing that there were a lot more Mike Schmidt rookie baseball cards in the world than we once would have thought. Onetime Topps Nolan Ryan rookie cards – that the Beckett Baseball Card Monthly previously listed as being worth 725 dollars – are now available online for eight bucks. And the glorious holy grail of all kid collectors nationwide – the 100 dollar Don Mattingly 1984 Donruss rookie card – was suddenly available for a paltry $14.99 on ebay.
Even the crown jewel of my collection – my grandfather’s 1920-21 Christy Mathewson W514 Strip Card – which had once been admired by a middle-aged man willing to trade me a used car for it, was now selling for 250 dollars online… or best offer…
The goldmine in my closet has officially gone belly up.
My mother finally placed the phone call that I always expected would come… The newsflash that it was time I went home to clean out my closet of all my old childhood memorabilia. The alert that she was turning my room into an office – and that she needed some ‘at home’ space.
“What?,” I said. “Clean out my museum?”
“If it’s a museum, nobody is taking the tour,” my mom responded.
So, reluctantly, this past weekend, I returned home to Tucson, Arizona to begin cleaning out the two-decade old treasure chest that I once swore would only be sold to pay for my kid’s college fund.
I arrived in town like a cast member of American Pickers. It had been so long since I had explored my collection of stuff, I wasn’t sure what was still in that closet. After all, 19 years? I wasn’t sure if moths had eaten away at everything… or if I would discover some long lost prize that would pay off my student loans and credit card debt.
When I opened the door to the lost tomb of my childhood, I was immediately hit with a warm wave of nostalgia that spread over me as if I was a 13-year-old screaming at Ken Griffey, jr. for an autograph in 1988. Everything was there. All the busted bats I convinced players like Joe Carter and Cory Snyder to give me during Spring Training. The scores of batting practice foul balls I had gathered and had signed by one time major league prospects like David Taylor and Craig Smajstrla – and tens of thousands of baseball cards. Other souvenirs like pine tar rags, batting gloves and lineup cards from my days of following the Tucson Toros and the Cleveland Indians helped compose my makeshift museum. I had stored unopened Kraft Macaroni and Cheese boxes that had cut-out baseball cards of Angels’ rookie Wally Joyner on the back panel sitting in the corner of my closet, adjacent to a Michael Jordan Wheaties box. I even found a few Kathy Ireland Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues that had been dear companions to me on lonely junior high afternoons… It was a beautiful assemblage of my long lost childhood. And I couldn’t quite figure out where to start.
From1981 until about 1990, I rearranged my bedroom in a tribute to the game of baseball. Don Mattingly was my boyhood hero, and box scores, batting averages and ERA’s practically ran my life for nine splendid and unforgettable years during my adolescence.
When other kids went to Golf-N-Stuff on the weekend to meet the cute 6th grade girls like Amy Foust and Erin Shelly, I went to Tucson’s premiere baseball card shop “The Sports Page” with my collector-geek friends. My mother would often walk by my room and see me obsessing over Dave Winfield’s career batting average or Rickey Henderson’s stolen base record and casually mention that she had heard some of my other friends were going to a local water park with some classmates… I offered up a simple shrug of my shoulders and poured directly back into rearranging my baseball cards, occasionally choosing to alphabetize them so that I would always be able to pull them out at any given moment.
Girls were certainly around, but I was way to insecure too ever do anything about them. I left the girls at school to the skater kids who were dressed in Vision Street Wear and rode designer Gator skateboards…
Me? I was a baseball card kid. The Vice President of the baseball card club and a hip-hop music fan who used to write songs like The Baseball Card Rap to perform with some of my friends at a school talent show.
Basically, I was a complete fucking geek.
My parents seemed to never truly understand my obsession with America’s pastime. Perhaps it was because my own personal baseball career had come to an abrupt end when I broke my arm in fifth grade. My much-hyped little league comeback fell through and I hit a combined .216 over the next three seasons. So, I found my true baseball success in collecting memorabilia and autographs from big league ballplayers.
My mom could only stare in bewilderment as her oldest son spent all of his allowance and Bar Mitzvah money on what she viewed to be merely useless pieces of cardboard. In fact, the only time I remember talking to my mom about baseball cards was when I asked if I could fly to her childhood home in New Jersey to look in the attic for all those Mickey Mantle rookies she claimed her mom once threw away.
My travel wishes were never granted.
I started picking through my closet at a snail’s pace. Initially, it was mind-blowing.
Old baseball cards and memorable pictures brought me back to those hot summers spent in drug stores scrambling for the newest rookies, slipping Wade Boggs rookies into plastic album sleeves and standing outside in the 92 degree Tucson weather trying to get minor league players like Craig Biggio to sign a baseball.
The majority of my memories came rushing back to me all in the cards. It was like a Rorschach test…I was thrown back into Mattingly’s clean-shaven face on his ’84 rookie… Dwight Gooden’s pre-cocaine gold tooth on his ’85 Fleer card. Even Ryne Sandberg’s impossible youth on his 1983 Topps rookie that I traded for back in 1985.
Every scrapbook, picture and signature recalled a memory of a childhood full of innocence and a passionate love for the game of BASEBALL.
It was actually a fairly peaceful and calming experience. For the first hour, I was suddenly 11-years-old again. Going through common cards and rediscovering lost names like Alvaro Espinoza and Steve Sax was both magical and cathartic… However, when I came across a poorly-forged Mark McGwire autographed baseball shoved deep inside my closet, I suddenly burst into tears.
The first friend I had ever had in my life was a kid named Nathan. Our parents had lived together when we were born -two months apart- in 1975. At age two, Nathan’s family split Tucson and moved back east to Fairfield, Connecticut. My family stayed in Tucson. Still, by that time, a brotherly bond had already been formed and as the years moved on, Nathan and I grew closer through written correspondence, summer travel and phone calls.
Around first grade, we discovered that we shared an intense passionate love for the New York Yankees – forced upon us by our fathers. We also both had an extensive collection of baseball cards, inherited from older kids who had moved onto skateboards and girls, and we both began collecting them with fervor. As the years rolled on, our collections grew endlessly, as did our friendship.
My first Yankees game was in 1983 – with Nathan and our dads – against George Brett and the Kansas City Royals. (It was the day before the Pine Tar Game). Dave Winfield hit a home run and Nathan and I split about 5 hot dogs and 3000 calories of stadium treats. A lifelong obsession had been kicked into high gear and the memories are still there – from Winfield’s homer soaring into the bullpen to that first view of the infield as we walked up from the escalator. I get chills just thinking about it.
As the years rolled along, Nathan and I continued to share our baseball card collecting stories through the mail. However, it wasn’t until 1986 or so, when I had begun obtaining hundreds of players signatures at spring training, that Nathan began to get somewhat jealous of my collection. At the time, if you were a kid in Tucson, you could walk up to Hi Corbett Field and practically stand in the on deck circle as the teams warmed up to play each other. My buddies and I would skip school and get to the field to watch guys like Mark Grace and Rob Deer take batting practice before snagging their signatures. It was the end of an era, when ballplayers still made the league minimum of $62,500 and didn’t face any threat of being harassed and jumped by some stupid drunk fan hanging around the dugout… Even though they did offer Dollar Beer Night time and time again.
Meanwhile, as my autograph collection grew, I found that more and more collectors from across the country began asking me to get them signed baseballs from the superstars of the day like Canseco and McGwire…(This was way before the steroid era and Canseco’s tell-all book Juiced).
Still, realizing that I had an inside advantage to any collector from, say… Vermont, I recognized a little business opportunity.
So, I began charging a fee.
It was actually Nathan’s idea to charge. I was so adept at getting autographs, that I would charge five dollars to a guy in Nebraska for a Canseco ball and maybe a little bit more for a team ball. I went to at least 25 games that spring and got everything I could get signed. From there, it was sold, stamped and shipped. By the end of spring training, I had made roughly $375 and was buying any baseball card I wanted at The Sports Page. It was easy money. It was actually quite perfect and even a bit business savvy… I had become an entrepreneur.
But it was about to get easier.
That August, Nathan wrote me a letter and suggested a way to make even more money.
Have you ever considered forging the autographs?
I was on it like Tony Gwynn on a knee-high fastball. Within days, I had mastered every All-Star’s signature. I spent hours perfecting Will Clark’s end of name “K-tail,” Mark McGwire’s curvaceous bubble “cG” and Dwight Gooden’s sloping, elongated “D.” I had handwriting intonations down pat… And nobody could tell the difference. I was suddenly, a MASTER FORGER.
Nathan came to visit the following spring and proceeded to take back about 50 forged items to Connecticut. We had agreed that he would sell them to his local card shop and we would split the profits. Within two weeks, after convincing his local baseball card shop that he had been collecting autographs in Arizona at Spring Training, he had pulled in 750 dollars.
All on 100 percent forged material.
I guarantee that if you ever bought an autographed baseball or card in Fairfield, Connecticut or Tucson, Arizona during the late 1980’s… Nathan and I had something to do with it…
So that moment, when I held the poorly forged Mark McGwire ball, it made me cry.
I knew I was feeling emotional, but it was for many different reasons. One was because Nathan passed away 15 years ago at the age of 21, long before we ever got to reunite and laugh about our little criminal business venture. Back then, our operation was so easy to pull off, because nobody would question 13-year-old kids who were selling really legitimate-looking autographs. In the years following, I have read about dozens of teenagers and adults getting arrested and caught in the forgery game. (Most recently Babe Ruth baseballs were the subject of a criminal investigation).
I am happy to say that we got out before there was any industry crackdown.
Our little gig continued for a few years, until Nathan and I both stopped caring about baseball cards and retired from the forgery racket about $2500 richer. Girls and music and pot had entered our lives and we suddenly realized that maybe those cool skater kids had the right idea all along…
So, there I was. In my childhood bedroom, holding that poorly forged Mark McGwire baseball – obviously feebly done with a nervous, shaky hand back in 1987. It was a touching return the last days of my innocence… Long before overdue bills and property taxes. Long before I followed a girl named Leslie around the country on the heels of a Grateful Dead tour just to hope she would consider me as a boyfriend, and long before I had a family of my own to feed… And long before Nathan’s demons got the best of him.
And now, here was my mother demanding that I throw away everything in my closet. I decided to take a stand.
“Mom, I can’t do this right now,” I screamed from across the house.
“Oh shut up and get rid of that crap,” she responded.
I wiped the tears from my eyes and approached her in the living room about five minutes later.
I sat down and relayed some of the stories and forgery adventures I had shared with Nathan all those years ago and told her I wasn’t able to emotionally get through the memories stored in the closet just yet. Having recently lost her best friend to cancer, my mother sat me down and talked me through it.
She totally understood.
She also informed me that it had been 15 years since his death and that I needed to get over it. She had to go clean out her best friend’s house in San Francisco just after she had passed away a year earlier… All I had to do was throw away some baseball cards and get back to my family in Los Angeles.
It was as intense of a moment I have ever shared with my mother and we have never felt closer.
After agreeing to keep a few items, but sell the majority of the cards to a baseball card shop, I managed to get through the rest of my closet somewhat easily. I found some special bits and pieces that, worthless or not, meant the world to me and tucked them away for my son.
My grandfather’s Christy Mathewson card passed down from my uncle for my Bar Mitzvah.
A Craig Biggio Tucson Toros cap.
Even that 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly card.
The rest of my collection was bundled up into a box and headed towards a baseball card shop. I decided I was going to sell it all to the “Sports Page.”
I dialed the number from memory. 886-5000, expecting to hear Mike or Orby answer, the way they did back in 1988.
Instead, a woman answered. She did not work at the Sports Page.
She went on to inform me that the Sports Page had closed roughly 12 years earlier, and that she used to get people calling her looking for the shop all the time. Turns out, I was the first caller looking for The Sports Page in about 9 years.
Wow. Had it been that long?
I was shaken again, but I eventually managed to find another store in Tucson willing to look at my collection. As I brought the nearly 120,000 cards into the shop, I looked around at the changing face of what was once my obsession. Gone were the display cases full of modern rookie cards. The new collector’s items of choice were LeBron James or Kobe Bryant autographed game-worn jerseys. Both of which came with a certificate of authenticity. I couldn’t blame ‘em.
I sat and talked to the two baseball card employees for roughly 45 minutes about the changing face of collecting, the effect ebay had on the hobby and the future. After they scoured through my cards, they told me there wasn’t really much they’d be interested in, and I told them I kind of figured that would be the case. They suggested Goodwill. I admired a Derek Jeter autographed baseball mitt in a glass case and a Josh Hamilton signed bat before thanking my new friends for their time.
However, before I packed it all in and left for the parking lot, they informed me that if I had any autographed items of value I’d be willing to sell, to come back and they would take a look.
I surveyed the store and thought long and hard.
“Well, I do have a Mark McGwire autographed baseball…”
I looked towards the sky. Nathan would be so proud…