The Day The Derby Became a Bank * By Zach Selwyn
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…
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So, I took Mushrooms Last Tuesday… By Zach Selwyn
Yesterday, like I do most days, I dropped my kids off at school. Then, instead of racing to the gym to run five miles on a treadmill, I went to the grocery store and bought some orange juice and roll-your-own cigarettes. Now, normally, at this point I usually turn my car back towards my house to continue writing screenplays that nobody will ever read… However, this morning was different. I merged onto the 10 Freeway heading west. My destination: Venice Beach.
I should probably mention that I had an eighth of psychedelic mushrooms in my back pocket.
I’m not really sure what inspired me to ‘shroom all by myself on the sands of Venice Beach on a random Tuesday afternoon, but I’m hearing from some friends that it had something to do with feeling middle-aged. Something to do with the routine existence I have been living ever since I had kids. Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that I recently re-read an old college “drug journal” where I spent nine pages describing how I, “shook hands with a very nice lawn chair” during a mushroom trip in 1995.
Whatever it was, I knew one guy who had a connection to mushrooms and he lived in a 1973 Volkswagen Hatchback on the outskirts of Bronson Canyon. He traded me the ‘shrooms for some Screen Actor’s Guild Award screener DVDs… I hope he likes The Imitation Game.
The last time I did psychedelic drugs of any sort was sometime in early 2000 when I hiked into Sabino Canyon in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona and had a spiritual love-making session with the Sonoran Desert. I wrote about five songs in five hours, including one called “Tucson Afternoon” which I filmed a video for years later in the same desert vortex. I was in my mid-20’s and I thought that one last act of frivolity would guide me past the disappointing years I had been coasting through in Hollywood and help me find a new path. Lo and behold, I ended up connecting with a vibe I never even knew existed in my life, which is why if you look at younger pictures of me, a tremendous amount of turquoise jewelry began sprouting around my fingers and neckline around this age. Following my little desert sojourn, I immediately gave away my collection of Vince Vaughn Swingers-inspired suits and began dressing like a Laurel Canyon cowboy from 1972. That was 16 years ago.
It was time to change things up.
Venice Beach on a Tuesday morning is not the Venice Beach you know on a crowded tourist-filled weekend. There are a lot more junkies in plain sight. The smell of weed is even more prevalent – as if cops have just given up – and a dozen or so 1960’s holdovers still worship the decade on the steps of a head shop where they play side one of The Soft Parade on repeat until lunch. The hot women on roller skates are much harder to find. Surfers are packing up from their early rides and beach cops twirl batons while overlooking school-aged skateboarders dropping into the inverted cement bowl. A few human wrecking balls work out in bikini briefs at Muscle Beach (Why this is an acceptable outfit in this day and age I still don’t know) and pose for pictures. Finally, scores of young aspiring rappers hustle their CD’s to Hungarian pedestrians by making them put on headphones and listen to their latest hip-hop creations. It’s a racket, but one that works. In two hours, I will be smoking a blunt with one of these rappers – a mediocre emcee named Philly Phill, telling him about my failed hip-hop album from 1999. He will be telling me how he made 75,000 dollars selling his own CD on the boardwalk in the past year.
I decided to eat a cap and a stem in order to time out my peak just as I arrived at the beach. In mushroom speak, a cap and a stem is a small amount – but probably enough for a good 8-9 hours of full tripping. With any luck, I’d be able to drive home safely around 5:30 and greet my kids as they walked in the door. Plus, I had promised my wife I would clean the kitchen.
It was 8:45 a.m. when the bitter fungi hit my mouth and it tasted as I remembered. Like chalk dipped in vinegar. I gulped down some of the orange juice and went to find a spot on the beach where I could lay out the Mexican blanket I had bought in Sayulita ten years earlier.
Now if I were to go hiking, at most, I would probably pack a water bottle and a cell phone with me. Let’s just say I packed a little heavier for this trip. In my backpack, which made me look like a college kid with scoliosis traveling around Europe in the 90’s, I had two Nalgene water bottles, an iphone charger, a Bluetooth boom box, my laptop, a portable electronic charger, a Wu-Tang Clan hoodie, some sunglasses, contact lens solution, three loose joints, two lighters, a blanket, a floppy beach hat, a cowboy hat, a pair of Dizm sunglasses, a pocket knife (In case I needed to skin a possum), a banana, a four pack of Golden Road IPA beer, my journal and three cans of La Croix sparkling water.
I could survive a month in an internment camp with that much shit.
I also had my guitar with me, in case I was able to find musical inspiration the way I did all those years ago. So, that was how my day began. Freezing my balls off, strumming my guitar and staring at the sea.
Around 9:30, I noticed it all start to come alive. The ocean was inviting, the sands swirling and the marine layer was showing good promise of burning off. I began to smile incessantly, the way that actor does at the end of Boyhood when he takes mushrooms and traipses into the Texas wilderness with that hot freshman girl. My mind immediately went back to the beach memories of my college days. Suddenly, Danielle Watts was in a bikini ten yards away. Melissa Dirks was handing out cigarettes and I was filled with the false promise of the summer of 1995 lasting forever. Only problem was, I was not 18 anymore. I was three months away from 40. Those frivolous anything-can-happen years were long gone, washed away out to the oceans of time where they will forever tread water. As I shook off the memories of the beautiful girls of my youth, I swear to God that I suddenly saw my old mushroom buddy Dan walking towards me. His hair was still long and blonde and a Grateful Dead shirt was where a daily three-piece suit rests now. I was hoping he’d come over and join me in playing a cover of Uncle John’s Band like the old days. He walked over, clasped his hands together as if to say “Namaste” and sat down next to me. At this point, I was so high, I actually called him ‘Dan.’
“I’m not Dan, brother – My name’s Epic,” he said.
“Zach” I told him, unsure of how he invaded my space. Had I invited him? Did I wave him over thinking he was Dan? Was this guy safe? Luckily, my pocket knife was within reach in case I needed to cut someone.
“What are you playing?” He asked, his brown teeth slurring through a prickly beard that resembled the druggy kids I had managed to avoid in parking lots my entire life.
“Nothing, really – man. Just strumming, looking at the waves,” I said, slurring my speech somewhat to a delivery that was part Spicoli- part McCounaghey but sounded very convincing and inviting.
“You know Melissa by the Allman Brothers?” He asked.
I did. I tried to play. The frets melted in my hand. My motor skills were down. I was not fully operational.
“You know what’s weird?” I said. “Legs.”
He nodded. I didn’t know if he could tell if I was on mushrooms or not, but we spoke about how small we all are in the grand scheme of things – How weird it was that when my guitar was made in the 70’s, there were probably 40-year-old dreamers hanging on this same beach just like we were. Now, those guys are 81.
That tripped me out. But it made me believe that this little outing was a very positive thing to do. A good decision. I was aware that the majority of men my age were stuck in some shitty job they hated, pushing emails and paper – definitely NOT on drugs on a beach watching a palm tree behave like Bart Simpson.
Epic said he had to leave. He rolled about 9 of my cigarettes before taking off and I thanked him for being a part of my day. He said he’d write, but we never exchanged any information. I looked at my watch. It was 11:30. I had spent two hours with a complete stranger, watching his facial hair crawl around his lips thinking they were ants. I wrote the following entry in my journal:
Venice. An Epic adventure. One with the anthill beard who melted away as I watched the Simpsons dance in the background. Wish my son wasn’t 8 and he could do this with me. That’s a terrible idea. I have been holding my guitar for two hours and I’ve played one E Minor chord. The clouds are beginning to chloroform. The sky is beginning to shift shape. Interrupted by seabirds longing for the cape. That cloud looks like fondue. OMG! Her shape her shape… Oh how I miss her shape. I’m ship shape.
I peed in a hole I dug in the sand. I smoked, even though I don’t really smoke. I put my guitar away and listened to Black Beauty by Love and Two Sides to Every Story by Gene Clark about 15 times. I smoked a little weed and tried to count the grains of sand in my palm.
I remember suddenly wishing I had brought sunscreen. I thought of all the rich people living up the strand in Malibu. I used to want to live there. I thought a lot about red Tic-Tacs and Fleetwood Mac.
The next thing I knew, a crew of the aforementioned rappers smelled the weed I had been smoking and decided to come join me for a quick puff.
“You like that hip-hop?” One of them called out, perhaps noting that I was now listening to Black Sheep A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing on my iphone.
“Check this out,” a guy with the letter ‘P’ tattooed on the right side of his eyelid said, forcing a homemade burnt CD-R into my hands. “Fifteen dollar suggested donation.”
Intimidated, I put on his Sony Discman headphones and listened. It was rap. Bad rap. In fact, it was terrible. Still, I bobbed my head, acting as if this guy was the second coming of Kendrick Lamar. A beach hustler who would someday open for Drake… Instead, I knew I could out-rap the dude on the spot. I didn’t dare suggest that.
Maybe as a way to just avoid any more coercion, I gave him fifteen bucks and thanked him for the CD. On the top of the record, written crudely in Sharpie marker was his name, a weed leaf and the album title: Philly Phill: Tha Game Done Changed.
Phill and his buddies passed a blunt. I took a few rips of it, mainly appreciating the crawling visuals of the exhaled smoke sailing skyward like dragon vapor from our mouths. We looked cool. I think I said something like, “I loooove smoke.” Phill then grabbed his Discman and moved back to the boardwalk to hustle some more white people the way he just hustled me.
It was now 1:00 p.m. I wasn’t hungry, but I was thirsty. I drank some water and felt the gross warmth of the beers in my bag. I put my guitar in its case and decided that I needed to take a walk. Get the bones moving. Rattle the cage. I made it about 50 yards before salivating over a group of four sorority girls tanning near a lifeguard station.
My whole life, I have seen drugged out dudes leering at young girls. On city streets, in shopping malls… and yes, especially on beaches. I sat and smoked and stared. I wanted these girls so badly. I wanted them to walk over and say I was handsome and then offer to take me into their parent’s beach house down the strand where we would drink margaritas and have surly, mind-bending sex… Oh, you guys want to film this on camera for your million-dollar porn site? No problem…
I think the girl in the pink bikini noticed me first. She used some phrase like, “Ew, creeper, two o’clock” and they looked over at me and turned away. Fantasy shattered. Cover blown. Game over.
I went back over to my blanket, where I was astounded to find my iphone, wallet, laptop and guitar untouched. I had just left everything I owned in the great wide open – amongst the homeless and the crack fiends and the beach bums – and NOTHING had been taken or touched. Miraculous. The only out of the ordinary thing that had happened was that my wife had called.
I had told her I was going to Venice Beach to find some inspiration, but I may have failed to mention the mushrooms. She left a long message. I knew my mind wasn’t quite yet ready for communication with my real life, so I didn’t listen to it. Instead, I packed most of my stuff in my car and walked over towards the cheesy T-shirt shops along the boardwalk to find something beautiful to immortalize my journey with.
I bought a dream catcher.
I passed on the T-shirt of a fisherman getting a blow-job from a mackerel.
I spent way too long in the Native American flute store listening to an R. Carlos Nakai album and smiling at the cashier.
Finally, I sat and watched a mediocre full court game of basketball where, in two hours, roughly 11 minutes of game play took place due to the fighting, foul calling and shit-talking.
After spending a few hours around a community of people like this, you really begin to see everyone’s personalities. Familiar faces reappear on different parts of the beach. A level of contentment sets in. I began to understand how people come to these places, get sucked in and never leave.
Around 4:00 I was beginning to come down, but I knew I had to catch the sunset. A Los Angeles smog-drenched sunset is a miraculous thing to witness, whether you’re on mushrooms or not. Still, I did promise my wife I’d be home by 5:30. I called my brother, the only person I told about my little mushroom journey, and he convinced me to stay.
“No way you’re leaving the beach – you have to see last light,” he said.
He was right. The sunset was tangerine and mesmerizing and sweeping and everlasting and inspiring and I sang a few bars of a new song idea into my phone recorder. I spent an hour looking at photos of my family, realizing how lucky I was to have THEM. How lucky I was to not be sleeping on the beach that night and hustling my CD to tourists with Philly Phill year-round. I was a father and I suddenly didn’t want anything else but my family.
I thought about the traffic I was about to face on the way home and decided to wait it out, rather than get caught in the Waze vs. Google Maps battle that I would have on my journey back to Hollywood. I wrote one last journal entry:
Umbrellad beneath this canopy of calliopes. Her feathers float from her hair. The Stellar sinister society… always calls me back on there… French Fry French Fry. I would make a bad waitress.
I had to go. I winked good-bye to my tripping field and fumbled my way back to my car. I was Jim Morrison. I was Jack Keuroac. I was Hunter S. Thompson. At one point, I dictated into my phone that I was as talented as Ewan McGregor. I don’t know why I did that. The point was, I had discovered a fresh creative line… A new moment of light – and a beautiful reaffirming of my current position on this earth.
On the way home I slipped Philly Phil’s CD into my car stereo and turned it as loud as I could. There were only five songs. They were as wack as it gets. Still, he made more money as a musician than I did that day.
It had been 16 years since I tripped in the desert and emerged swathed in leather, denim and turquoise. Now, as I looked at my much shorter hair in the mirror and the white V-neck t-shirt I was wearing that I had bought in a 12-pack from Target a week before, I peered in the rear view mirror at the fading memory of a wonderful day at the Pacific Ocean.
Philly Phill repeated the one lyric on his CD that I had to agree with.
“Tha game done changed…”
I drove home and cleaned the kitchen.
© 2015 Zach Selwyn
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