Archive for the ‘stories’ Category
Posted on July 1, 2013 - by writerman
As the car crossed the state line, we rolled the windows down and pumped our fists.
We’d been driving for eleven hours. It was the late, early 90’s and I was in my early, mid 20’s.
I was born in a small town in northern Canada. Not quite in the Arctic, but close enough. The kind of place where your Halloween costume had to fit over your snowsuit. On Mondays and Wednesdays an overnight train shuttled tourists up to Churchill to take pictures of polar bears. I don’t remember it all that well, but my Uncle Mark once described it as “The Worst Shithole of a Town I’ve Ever Seen.”
It was cold and snowy and lonely and landlocked. We were six hundred miles from the U.S. border, fifteen hundred away from the Pacific, and well over two thousand miles from Disneyland. Naturally, I developed an unhealthy obsession with California. At least, what I knew about it from watching TV and listening to pop songs. The sunshine, the beaches, the singing, dancing raisins. Most importantly, the girls. In my mind, the girls of California were sassy and fast-talking like Janet from Three’s Company and spent all of their free time at the beach, dressed like extras from a David Lee Roth video. Their hair was perfect. Someday, one would be mine. It was fate.
Eventually we moved west to a new town, now only seven hundred miles from the Pacific.
When I was eight, I saw the ocean for the first time.
In junior high, a girl from my math class came back from a family holiday with an impossible tan and a Knott’s Berry Farm t-shirt. She smelled like Coppertone® and destiny. We never spoke, but I followed her around for a couple of weeks until her tan faded.
After high school, I moved to Vancouver to go to college and took up beach volleyball.
At nineteen, I stood up on a surfboard for the first time.
And then, finally, my big chance arrived. My older brother got in to UCLA. I had a free place to crash in California. I also had two weeks off between the end of my summer job and the beginning of the fall semester, a couple hundred bucks saved up and my own set of wheels. My own four-door, 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlas Sierra, to be specific. Like the commercials boasted, this was not my father’s Oldsmobile. It had actually been my mom’s, but now it was mine.
Rob and Keith, two of my oldest friends, were joining me. Turns out that three is the ideal number of guys for a non-stop road trip from Vancouver to LA. One guy drives, one guy sits up front and keeps the driver awake, and one guy sleeps in the back. When the driver gets tired, you rotate positions. Done properly, this saves money on hotels and gets you to Los Angeles in around twenty-two hours. The first eleven hours were pretty uneventful, but things really started to get interesting once we crossed the state line. A candy apple red car blew past us in the fast lane.
The car was a convertible. A Miata with California plates. There were three passengers. Two blonde. One brunette. All female. Definitely cute. Clearly liked to party.1 At least one of them waved to us as they passed. These were the facts and they were undisputed.
A few minutes later, the Oldsmobile’s four-cylinder engine strained as we caught up to the Miata. We waved. They waved back, smiling. I pulled a page out of the Good Will Hunting guide to picking up girls and slapped a series of large, handwritten notes on the window:
“We’re from Canada.”
“Can we buy you dinner?”
And just like that, we were in. They knew a place. We followed them into Sacramento. At that moment, I was more certain than ever that California was my destiny.
When the place they knew turned out to be a family restaurant just off the freeway, I probably should have seen what was coming. But we were too busy arguing about who had dibs on the hot one from the front seat to notice. Once we got inside, the bright lights of Applebee’s would reveal the truth.
Our convertible of California Girls turned out to be a single mom with two daughters.
The older daughter was fifteen. Oh God. I am a bad person. An accidental pervert. I fully expected local law enforcement to appear and slap the cuffs on us. It was too late to run. We stood there, frozen in shock and shame. Finally, Mrs. Single Mom broke the silence, “What are you waiting for? Sit on down! Y’all must be starvin’ after driving all the way from Canada!”
It was actually a pretty nice dinner. I ate my Cowboy Burger™ quickly, wanting the awkwardness to end, but Mrs. Single Mom didn’t seem phased at all. She did admit to feeling a little suspicious at first, but quickly concluded that we were obviously good Canadian boys who posed no threat to her or her young daughters. How could she be so certain that we weren’t dangerous men? Had she no regard for the safety of her children? I would have given her a lecture about being more careful not to expose her daughters to creepy potential predators, except that I was the creepy potential predator in question. We paid the check and got up to leave. She hugged each of us goodbye, and even gave us her address, in case we needed a place to stay on our way home. We didn’t take her up on the offer, but her words stuck with me as we jumped back on the freeway,
“Y’all just seemed like such nice boys, I knew I could trust you.”
This would not stand. I wasn’t going to let my people’s reputation for good manners and civility spoil our hopefully debaucherous road trip. Nice could suck it. We weren’t going to pick up lifeguards or swimsuit models or burlesque dancers with nice. We needed a new game. We needed a little danger.
My parents have four sons. Chris is the oldest, smartest and, by far, the most responsible. He’d decided to join us for our spontaneous sojourn into TJ, probably to make sure we didn’t do anything stupid. But we had him outnumbered.
You might wonder why young men looking for the love of the girls of California were on our way into Mexico. It was basically a legal matter. The legal drinking age in Mexico is eighteen. And so every afternoon, hoards of students from San Diego cross the border for a night of cheap drinks and bad decisions. We were in fine company. The last good decision we made was leaving the car in San Diego and walking across.
First, we checked into a hotel that Rob’s Lonely Planet guide called “well situated” and “affordable.” For twenty-nine bucks a night, the four of us got a room with two beds and one bathroom. The toilet didn’t flush. I called the front desk to request a working toilet. My Spanish isn’t great, but I’m fairly confident that he told me to, “Fix it with my gringo face.” He might have also suggested something involving a donkey and a popsicle, but I can’t say for sure. Either way, we decided to head straight for the nearest bar in search of working toilets and lonely American girls.
Tijuana’s Avenida Revolución is infamous. A chaotic mass of street hawkers aggressively competing for American dollars. If your only exposure to Mexico was a night out on “La Revo,” you’d swear the local economy ran entirely on tacos, Chiclets, ponchos, tequila, photogenic zebras and pussy. We elected to take a methodical approach to our evening. Both sides of the avenue are lined with bars and nightclubs. All offer a free shot of tequila with your first drink. The plan was simple. Enter bar. Pay for one beer. Slam tequila. Move next door. Repeat. When we met some girls, we’d move to Plan B.
To avoid confusion, Plan B was basically Plan A with girls.
Six or seven bars later, we finally met some young ladies. Eight of them, in fact. They were soldiers. Off duty Marines. Which might sound a little scary, but from what I could tell they were cute, between eighteen and twenty-one, and on their way to being as drunk as we were. And if we were buying, they were totally on board with Plan B.
At the end of the block, we finally stumbled into a club with a decent crowd and decided to stay for more than one drink. The girls hit the dance floor with Chris and Keith while Rob and I sat down to discuss strategy. The conversation went something like this:
“OK, which one?”
“Which girl do you want to hook up with?”
“The Asian one!”
“Aren’t three of them Asian?”
“The hot one, obviously.”
“Holy shit, man. Check that out!”
Rob pointed to the dance floor, where my older, shy, responsible brother was in the middle of what I can only describe as a dirty dancing sandwich. Two girls, one scientist. Just then, a waitress in a low-cut top stopped at our table to see if we wanted her to pour tequila from a giant flask down our throats. I mean, what would you have done?
That is the last thing I remember. I woke up the next morning back in the hotel with a bad hangover and a new poncho. The evidence suggested no females had returned with us. Keith was missing.2 The toilet was still broken.
Fast-forward to seven days later, and I had failed to find love at nearly every popular tourist site within three hundred miles of LA. Venice Beach. Santa Monica. Malibu. Hollywood. Six Flags. Even Vegas. Keith did meet a girl in Disneyland, but she lived in far-off Orange County, so it only led to a couple of late-nite, long-distance phone calls.3 We were almost out of time and pretty much out of money. I needed to clear my head. I ditched the guys and drove up to Topanga Canyon for a surf.
From the beach, surfing appears to have no rules. But don’t believe everything you see in an energy drink commercial. Surfing might seem like the unofficial Official Sport of freedom and rebellion, but the truth is that out on the water, there’s a lot of order to the chaos. There’s a certain etiquette that dictates who gets the next wave and who’s got the right of way. It’s a lot like driving around a traffic circle. If everyone observes the etiquette, cars and surfers flow seamlessly in a delicate dance of stop and go and ebb and flow. But, it only takes one jackass to screw the whole thing up. I paddled out.
Thirty minutes later, I was cold, exhausted and terrified. These waves were much bigger and faster and meaner than anything I’d been on before. My ears and sinus cavities were completely full of seawater. It was time to go in. When the next wave came, I jumped to my feet. So did the girl about ten feet to my left. She was headed straight for me. I tried to turn, but succeeded only in wiping out directly in her path. She leaped off her board to avoid a collision. The wave crashed into us and I bounced off the bottom. As soon as I surfaced, I waved in apology, “Sorry! My bad! I didn’t see you there until it was too late.”
She looked pissed, but she waved me over. “Come here for a second! I want to ask you something.”
I clambered back on my board. I was a bit nervous to face her, but as I paddled over the fear faded and was replaced with this singular thought:
“Oh wow, this girl is really pretty.”
Maybe this was my big chance. Maybe I just needed to get away from the guys to meet someone. I mean, I’d always had a thing for surfer girls. Maybe this was the special girl that California had been saving for me. I swam right up to her and smiled my biggest, friendliest Canadian smile. “Hey. Sorry about that. What’s up?”
And that’s when she punched me in the face.
It was a solid punch. Accurate. Well thrown. I’ll confess – it really hurt. Both my nose and my childhood dreams were bruised. She paddled away without a word.
I swam in, dried off and drove back to my brother’s place. We didn’t talk about it. The next morning, we got up and started the long drive home.
It turns out that my fantasies about California Girls had been all wrong. They weren’t Janet. Or Chrissy, for that matter. They didn’t all play volleyball and run on the beach in slow motion in their spare time. Most of them were too busy to hang at the beach, and one of the few things they agreed on was that David Lee Roth was a douche. But that little punch in the face had shown me the truth.
The truth about the girls of California is that they drove like assholes. They got pregnant in high school. They had Semper Fi tattoos. They spoke Spanish and Farsi and Hebrew and Korean. They had a second job, a sick cutback, a wicked left hook and a little scar just below their lips from that accident. They were perfect.
As we pulled on to the I5, I waved goodbye to the sunshine state, but I knew that I’d return. California was like a sunscreen-scented magnet, slowly, inevitably drawing me back to her.
- To be fair, this fact was in dispute, but Rob was so convinced that the rest of us just went along with it. [↩]
- For the record, Keith turned up a few hours later with a sheepish grin and a sordid tale of pick-up trucks, tacos, late-night border crossings and early-morning narrow escapes. [↩]
- To this day, Keith still owes my brother fifty bucks plus interest in long distance charges. [↩]
Posted on March 12, 2012 - by writerman
It was Wednesday afternoon, less than two weeks after I started the Best Job I Will Ever Have, when I realized this alarming fact:
I might have to sleep with my boss.
I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it before. The evidence was really stacked up against me. Every year my boss got a new assistant. Every year it was another young, single man. Every day she would take me out for a lunch that included at least a couple of drinks. And, if I was being honest with myself, I had to admit that I had absolutely no qualifications for this job, whatsoever.
That was the summer I worked at the Toronto International Film Festival. As festivals go, it’s not as glamorous as the one in Cannes or as “important” as the one in Park City, but it’s bigger than both of them. And, because it happens in the early fall, the Hollywood studios use it as a place to launch their potential Oscar-winners. Which means a ton of studio execs, cigar-chomping producers and Hollywood Movie Stars crash into town for the week. Which, in turn, means that nobody really bothers to attend the movie screenings, because they are too busy trying to score tickets to the invite-only, VIP parties.
My boss was the Queen of those Festival Parties. Officially, she was the Special Events Director for the festival. Unofficially, she was the keeper of the keys to the magic kingdom – the one person who could get you into any exclusive event for the chance to rub shoulders with Martin Scorsese and Al Pacino or Clooney and Brad and Angelina. Her name was Party Barbara. She definitely lived up to the moniker. Years of late nights and countless packs of du Maurier Lights had given her voice this distinctive rasp that was two parts Kathleen Turner, one part Tom Waits.
I was Party Barbara’s Boy Friday. Unfortunately for her, I had no experience, or aptitude, for party planning. Like most people in the movie business, I got the job because I knew someone. Barbara was friends with my old boss at MGM, who had recommended me for the job, well, honestly, because I was working at MGM for free and they didn’t have enough work or budget to give me a paying job. And Tammy, bless her heart, wanted me to have the chance to put a couple of dollars in my pocket over the summer and get a taste of what it’s like on the other side of the velvet rope. My job, from what I could tell, was to do whatever Barbara told me. Mostly I answered the phone, set up meetings, made deliveries and drank whatever fancy cocktails she ordered for me. It was also entirely possible that my duties could expand to include seeing my boss naked before the end of the summer. The good news was that, as a recent college grad, my alcohol tolerance was quite high. The bad news was that, as a recent college grad, my moral standards were quite low.
My contract was ten weeks long. Eight weeks of party planning and prep and then two weeks of non-stop festival events and late-night parties. This gave me about eight and a half weeks to keep my conscience clear and my innocence intact. Clearly, I needed a plan.
I turned to a good friend from college for help. Jamie was a clever young fellow. The proud owner of a Masters degree in something or other and now enrolled in law school. I offered to trade pints for advice and by our sixth beer at the Imperial, he’d clearly laid out my three options for me:
- I could quit. Hand in my walking papers and never see Party Barb again. The simplest and cleanest of all my choices, except for the fact that I’d be out of a job and a paycheck. This wasn’t really an option, since I’d just spent the last 6 months working in the MGM mailroom for $0.00/hour and all the pens I could steal.
- I could pretend I was gay. This would have been a possibility except that (a) I’m a terrible actor, and (b) I’d already been hit on by the 60-year-old programmer of the Festival’s gay and lesbian film series and had told him in no uncertain terms that I was not on “his team” while Barbara sat right beside me. Which is a shame, really, because if I’d pulled this one off I could have gone on to turn the story of my hijinks into a totally wacky sitcom starring Neil Patrick Harris.
- I could grow a spine. No means no, after all. I could do my job like anyone else and put my foot down if she pressed the issue.
In the cold, green light of that neon sign hanging behind the bar, Jamie’s logic was undeniable. With a belly full of liquid courage, option three was looking pretty good, but I hadn’t entirely ruled out option two. I bought the next round, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow morning, the right answer would become clear.
The next thing I remember, it was 8:45 am on Thursday morning. Oh, shit. This was bad. I dove in and out of the shower, jumped on my bike and pedaled furiously down College Street.1 But all that training for my failed career as a bike messenger wasn’t going to do me a bit of good now. I was going to be late and Barbara was going to be pissed. And you don’t want to see Barbara when she’s angry.
I stopped at Starbucks on my way to the elevator and lurched into the office, holding Barbara’s coffee out in front of me like a Grande Non-Fat Caramel Macchiato shield.
“Sorry I’m late – I brought Starbucks!” I braced for impact.
But the office was empty. Thank god. I put Barbara’s coffee on her desk, sat down and checked my messages. Ninety minutes later, I’d finished both coffees and sent two dozen emails, but still no word from the boss lady. I was beginning to worry. That’s when the phone rang.
“Good morning, Party Barbara’s office.” I chirped as best as I could.
“Tony…” rasped a voice from deep, down in the basement.
Confused, I said nothing. How did James Earl Jones get this number? And how did he know my name? The voice from the deep cleared its throat loudly and spoke again, with more urgency.
“Tony! It’s me.”
Wait – I knew that voice. It wasn’t the Dark Lord of the Sith. It was my boss, only she’d modified the recipe for her voice, adding one part Lindsay Lohan and two parts Darth Vader.
“Barbara? Is that you? Are you OK?”
“God, I’m hung-over,” she growled. “I’m still in bed. What time is it?”
“It’s almost 11:00.”
“Oh fuck. If anyone asks – I had a meeting with the caterer this morning. I’ll be there soon.”
When she arrived a few hours later, we took a long lunch and I confessed that I was also hung-over and late for work today. This was the first real bonding moment for Barbara and I. Maybe I didn’t know the first thing about party planning, but at least I knew how to get drunk on a school night and still make it to the office the next morning. Which, as I would soon find out, was one of the few true requirements for an employee of the party department. We split a travel package of Advil and she gave us both the rest of the day off.
Fast-forward to the end of the summer and the festival was almost upon us. Two months of planning and organizing and arranging had raced by and my innocence was still intact. Perhaps improved performance in some areas of my work meant that I wouldn’t be required to perform in other ways? I’m feeling cautiously optimistic.
I’m also distracted by the flood of A-Listers jetting into town. The building is abuzz with gossip about star sightings and encounters. I bump into Parker Posey in the lobby. Michelle in the publicity office swears she saw Demi Moore’s car parked outside of the Betsey Johnson boutique in Yorkville. Demi wanted to shop, but she didn’t want to actually go into the store. So, she sat in the air-conditioned comfort of her black stretch limo while her assistant ran in and out of the store, grabbing outfit after outfit and responding to Demi’s demands.
“Do they have that in orange?”
“Find me a belt to go with that one.”
“Can you try it on for me?”
Apparently, if you want to be Demi Moore’s assistant, you need to be her size.
But enough about Demi. Let’s talk about the reason she had finally arrived and was furiously shopping for evening wear:
It was time for Opening Night.
The party was embarrassingly extravagant. Barbara never really told me how much money the festival was dropping on the opening bash, but I’ll bet if you had that amount in cash, you’d need at least a dozen bathtubs to hold it. We rented a huge, empty department store and decorated it from the ground up. Six thousand guests. Three floors. Each with a different theme and color scheme. Each with its own bar and food and entertainment. A 12-piece jazz band played in the lounge on the top floor, next to a row of tables where well-dressed gentlemen hand-rolled Cuban cigars. Half of the second floor was converted into a nightclub, complete with a spinning disco ball and a dance floor that lit up like Tony Manero’s own in Saturday Night Fever. An epic red carpet extended out to the street to welcome the fabulous and glamorous2 as they arrived.
The booze flowed endlessly and the party stretched on late into the night and then spilled over into the Bistro 990 – a fancy-pants French restaurant that had a special license to serve until 4:00 in the morning. Just before the wheels came off, I managed to pour myself into a cab and get home for a few hours of sleep.
The next day we moved our office into the Sutton Place Hotel, where we’d stay for the remainder of the festival. And, because my boss was the High Priestess of Sweet Hookups, I found myself working out of a luxurious suite on the 22nd floor. Barbara also had a direct line to the concierge desk and room service and she wasn’t afraid to use it.
That first afternoon in the hotel, at the time when normal people with normal jobs would take a coffee break, Party Barbara looked over at me and shouted in her raspy rasp, “I feel like a Caesar.3 Let’s get a round of Caesars.”
And suddenly we were drinking cocktails in a fancy hotel suite in the middle of the afternoon. When she ordered the second round, I began to get nervous.
“Hey,” Barbara barked, “You want a shot?”
At this point, I should mention that there was a King-sized bed just on the other side of the door next to my desk.
Before I could answer, a doctor burst into our room and pulled out a packet of syringes and a pair of latex gloves. Barbara got up from her chair and started to unfasten her belt. I began to perspire. Clearly, this was the moment of truth. One of those times in a young man’s life when he is forced to test his mettle and see what he’s made of.
I ran for it. Seriously – I mumbled some excuse about needing to use the restroom and bolted out the door. At first I wasn’t even sure where I was headed, but I quickly realized there was only one person who could help me in this moment: Michael, Barbara’s old assistant. He worked in the fund-raising and development office now, but he’d been in my shoes before. I raced into his office.
“Michael can I ask you something?” I was sweaty, panicked and a little bit drunk, but I had nowhere else to turn. “Do I have to sleep with her?”
“Do you have to sleep with who?” Michael seemed remarkably calm, if a little confused.
“Barbara! Do I have to sleep with Barbara? I know she always hires young guys for assistants. Is this part of the job? Did you have to sleep with her?”
Michael giggled. “Tony, I’m gay.”
“But I’m not!” I shrieked.
“OK, settle down Ashton Kutcher. Barbara doesn’t hire young boy toys so she can fuck them. She just prefers to work with men. And, between you and me, I think she enjoys bossing young men around.”
It turns out that the syringes weren’t for anything kinky, either. They were just vitamin B-12 shots. I headed back to our office to finish my Caesar and get a needle stuck in my ass. As I said before – best job ever.
With the pressure off and the festival in full swing, the party department quickly fell into a rhythm. Stay at the office until 4:00 in the pm. Head home for a nap. Out to dinner and the first of many events, and then on to whatever after-party party was happening, and finally back to the Bistro 990 for a nightcap. Show up at the office by 10:00 the next morning and repeat. Needless to say, the week went by in a blur. Before I knew it, Closing Night was upon us.
The Festival’s Closing Night film was Tom Hanks’ directorial debut – a fun little movie about 60’s pop music called That Thing You Do. Barbara was a big Tom Hanks fan and she really wanted the party to be a hit. We even watched the movie together to get ideas for party themes. It was a huge indoor / outdoor affair complete with live bands, a state fair-style midway packed with carnival games and an exclusive VIP area up above that literally looked down on the rest of the party. As this was the last night of the festival and I didn’t have to be at work the next day, I snuck in a few of my friends to share in the fun and free food and booze.
By midnight, everyone was having a really excellent time, but my friend Dr. Steve had decided that we needed to do something extra special to make this a real night to remember.
We needed to meet Liv Tyler.
A swell idea, for sure, but how to get close to her? Barbara could get me into the VIP area, but since Dr. Steve wasn’t even supposed to be at the party, it was off-limits for him. Still, we would not to be denied. If there’s one thing I learned from Party Barbara, it’s that if you know the right people, you can always get what you need. In this case, I knew the security guys.
You see, the thing about throwing a party with an open bar for 6,000 of your closest friends is that eventually, inevitably, long lines form at the restrooms. In particular, at the ladies room. At this late hour, there must have been fifty or more women lined up at every restroom in the building. And from our pre-party prep, I knew that while we had a VIP area, this particular facility did not come equipped with VIP restrooms. Of course, you can’t invite Liv Tyler to a party and then ask her to wait in line to pee. So, our security team had developed a unique little system.
Whenever Liv needed the ladies, she’d tell Roland, the head of security. Two of Roland’s guys would escort Ms. Tyler right into one of the men’s restrooms, stand in front of her stall while she took care of business, and then escort her out again.
For our plan to come together, all I had to do was ask security to give me a heads up the next time Liv took a potty break.
When we got the good word from Roland, Dr. Steve and I hustled over to the men’s room in question. We made note of the stall being guarded by two burly gentlemen and then proceeded to wash our hands for a very, very long time.
And then it happened. Dr. Steve looked up and found himself sharing a men’s room mirror with one of the most beautiful women in the world.4 Now, some men will find themselves in these types of situations and freeze up, but Dr. Steve had been planning this all night (all his life, really) and he wasn’t going to let the moment pass. He opened with his best material:
Liv smiled back at him. “Hi.”
I jumped in as we all reached for the hand towels, “I really liked the movie.”
She was gracious in her reply, “Thanks.”
We all walked for the door together. Liv got the final word:
“Nice to meet you.”
And then she was gone. Dr. Steve went for a high five. I would not see a bigger smile on this man’s face until I attended his wedding nearly a decade later. He raced off to call our friends at home and brag about the epic moment we had just experienced.
On that note, I decided it was time to wrap up the final party of the final day of the Best Job I Will Ever Have. I said goodbye to my boss lady, stopped by the bar for one last complimentary cocktail and headed home to spend the rest of the weekend sleeping it off.
As it turns out, that would be the last time I ever saw Party Barbara. But just like Liv Tyler, she managed to get in the last word. A week later, two cases of wine arrived at my front door along with a hand-written note:
“Party on! Love, PB.”
You know I will, Party Barbara. You know I will.
- No, I didn’t have a car. Did you miss the part about how I’d been working for free for six months? [↩]
- I even managed a few star sightings of my own. And because I know everyone loves a little Hollywood gossip, here is a quick summary of what I learned behind that velvet rope: Al Pacino is very short. Angelica Houston is very tall. Charlize Theron is even taller. Jennifer Tilly is not putting on that voice. And, Tom Hanks is just as genuinely nice in person as he appears on screen. Later in the week, I would even meet Liv Tyler under very unusual circumstances, but I’ll get back to that later. [↩]
- The Caesar (or Bloody Caesar) is a uniquely Canadian cocktail. Imagine a Bloody Mary with a dash of clam juice and a stalk of celery for a stir stick. I know it sounds awful but trust me, that shit is delicious. [↩]
- At least, according to People Magazine. [↩]
Posted on January 18, 2012 - by writerman
In a previous life, I played in a ska band.
You haven’t heard of us. We weren’t particularly cool or popular. We never got on MTV, signed a record deal or played at the Peach Pit After Dark. We did manage to tour a little and write a lot of upbeat songs about drinking and surfing and girls who hurt our feelings. The pinnacle of our success came in 2004, when the single from our first record reached the #2 slot on the Canadian college radio charts, outplaying bands you have heard of like Modest Mouse, Broken Social Scene and even that fella Jack White beat up from the Von Bondies. That was a good week.
But, the times weren’t always so good. Playing ska is a little like growing a mustache – it inspires highly polarized responses in those around you. Whenever you tell someone you play in a ska band, they invariably have one of three replies:
“Oh my god I love ska! The Specials1 are totally my favorite band!” I think it’s important to point out that this is, by far, the least common of the three responses.
Getting back to my earlier comparison, the second type of response is akin to the glare someone gives you when that hipster mustache makes you look like a convicted sex offender and you are standing too close to their child. These people usually say nothing, but their disdain and disgust with your musical tastes are clearly written all over their faces.
The third and most common response always comes in the form of a question:
After a while, I begin to prefer the hatred. At least hate is an emotional response. This reaction reminds me way too much of that time in junior high when I spent all night screwing up the courage to ask Robyn Erickson to slow dance. God, my thirteen-year-old self had a terrible crush on her. I saw her in homeroom every day. She had this mole on her cheek, just below her eye. And I’m not talking about one of those Cindy Crawford / Madonna beauty marks, either. This was an actual mole around the size of a dime. She was probably self-conscious about it, but as far as I was concerned it only made her prettier. Anyhow, when the familiar strains of Careless Whisper came on, I knew this would be the last slow song of the night, so I raced over and asked her to dance before my nerves could get the better of me. She blinked and said, “Do I know you?” Not outright rejection, just confusion. Her friends turned to see who this sweaty young stranger was. I fled.
Years later, I wouldn’t run away when confronted with confusion about this strange musical genre we played, but I never really found a satisfying way to answer that question. And I won’t try and answer it now. Google it, if you like.
The reason I share all of this is to help set the context for what follows. I’ve been in bands, but we never had a tour bus and I’ve certainly never rolled around in a limousine full of strippers and cocaine. Also, you should know that I’m not a drummer, singer or guitar slinger – I play the trumpet. Even if we had gotten famous, I’m no Dan Auerbach or Travis Barker. More like Vince DiFiore.2
Still, once in a while your number comes up.
One night, we’re playing a small club in Vancouver for the Hot Breakfast record release party. Even though the other guys are technically the “headliners,” we go on last. This allows Canada’s favorite surf-rock-reggae-cowboys to play when the bar is at its most crowded. It also gives them a couple of hours after their set to sell CDs and t-shirts over at the merch table. Our job is to keep the crowd entertained and thirsty so they hang around long enough to spend the rest of their money on drinks and Hot Breakfast merchandise. The crowd stays. The record sells. This is one of the good ones.
After the show, the usual suspects head to the Railway Club for drinks. Which is a lot like going out for a pint after work, except it’s 3:00 am and you’re already drunk. A few beers later, last call is called. Me and Braces decide to hit McDonald’s on the way home and pick up some cheeseburgers to eat in bed. It’s busy, but I suppose that’s what you get at a fast food joint thirty minutes after all the bars downtown close their doors. Still, we’re hungry, so we decide to wait it out.
A rowdy group rolls up behind us. I’ve seen this gang before – rockabilly band Big John Bates, along with three burlesque dancers from the Voodoo Dollz. They are also on the way home from a show and still in costume. One of the girls notices my horn case and wonders what’s inside. “A trumpet.” I tell her.
“Will you play it?” she asks.
“Yeah – if you play us a song, we’ll strip.”
“Seriously? Right here, in McDonald’s?”
I look at Braces to see what she thinks. I know it might seem kind of old-fashioned, but if three strange women offer to strip for you in a public place, I believe a gentleman should check with his girlfriend first to make sure she’s comfortable before proceeding. Braces’s eyes flash me that “what the fuck are you waiting for?” look she has the patent on.
To business then. I get the horn out and start playing. And, three girls in fishnets and corsets get their striptease on for a packed house of hungry drunks, homeless guys and under-paid kids in polyester uniforms. It’s dinner and a show for the price of combo #5. Impressively, the hardworking employees of Ronald® carry on selling fries as if nothing out of the ordinary is going down. Of course, if you work the graveyard shift at a downtown McD’s, you’ve probably seen a lot worse.
The girls get really into it. Shimmying and shaking and flinging their tops around and hamming it up for the crowd. Personally, I’m having a hard time concentrating. You might think this is because of the half-naked brunette gyrating next to the ketchup dispenser to my left, but the truth is I just kept wishing for the chance to make a quick phone call.
A phone call3 to my thirteen-year-old self to give him the pep talk I never got:
“Look dude, I know girls think you’re invisible and the last thing you want to do every night is practice the stupid trumpet, but just hang in there and stick with it. Trust me, someday it’s all going to pay off.”
- Band reference can be substituted with The Skatalites, Sublime, Operation Ivy, English Beat, King Apparatus or The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, depending on the age, sex and nationality of the speaker. [↩]
- Who’s Vince DiFiore? Exactly. [↩]
- If anyone manages to invent this time-traveling phone, please let me know. I figure it’s never too late to make this particular call. [↩]
Posted on January 4, 2012 - by writerman
I am descended from a long line of compulsive storytellers.
Seriously, my Grandpa James was the World Heavyweight Champion of talking shit. Get a couple of whiskeys in the man, and he would hold court for the rest of the night. Fish stories. Tall tales. Jaw-droppingly-inappropriate jokes. Dirty limericks. You name it. And my dad – my dad could have filled a dozen books with his bedtime stories about the wild adventures of Skreed Pailin and Rudd Major on the Black Planet of the Vos. Every word of which he generated spontaneously, on the spot, night after night.1
This is what my people do. We get sunburns. We make sandwiches. And, we tell stories.
I suffer from the same affliction2 – I’ve been telling (and retelling) stories for as long as I can remember. In fact, aside from the obvious physical discrepancies like longer legs and smaller ears, the only real difference between me and my forefathers is that I can type. Which is exactly where all of this is going. I’m carving out this little corner of the internet in an attempt to get all of the stories I’ve been collecting over the years down on paper, so to speak. The DMV Story, That Thing That Happened at McDonalds, the one about how I got Punched in the Face by a Girl, and all the rest.
But first, a couple of disclaimers:
- 90% of what follows is 85% true. Chalk the rest up to a selective memory, wild exaggeration and artistic license. After all, I’m the Writerman, not a historian.3
- These are not in chronological order. I’ll just write ’em as they come to me.
- I have no idea how this is going to work out. I’ve told some of these stories hundreds4 of times, but this is my first attempt to write any of it down.
- Names may or may not have been changed to protect the innocent. If your name hasn’t been changed, you probably aren’t innocent.
There, now that all of the formalities are taken care of, only one question remains:
Which story to tell first…?
- I emailed my youngest brother, who heard the most of these stories, to check the spelling of the character’s names. His reply: “How would I know? Dad never wrote any of it down.” [↩]
- Case in point: once, while out on a first date with a Very Pretty Girl, I got very nervous during a lull in the conversation and started filling the void with a wild and wooly tale about The Time I Went to the Movies with Harvey Keitel. Now, this is a great story – practically guaranteed to win friends, influence people and impress first dates. Full disclosure: I totally stole it. The story in question actually happened to an ex-girlfriend (a fact I may have neglected to mention on that fateful first date). To be fair, the Ex tells it way better than I do, especially the part about how a jet-lagged Jeff Goldblum stumbled into the theatre during the screening, promptly fell asleep in his seat and then almost immediately began hitting on her when he woke up. Some would say this behavior makes me a “liar.” As I mentioned before, I prefer “compulsive storyteller.” I won’t make excuses for my bad behavior, but will say two things in my defense. One: I eventually came clean and fully confessed my crime to Very Pretty, even if it took me almost a year to get around to it. Two: she married me. [↩]
- If you would care to dispute the facts in any of the stories that follow, please get in touch. I can’t promise I’ll change anything or print a retraction, but if you were there when any of this happened, it would be great to hear from you. [↩]
- Not exaggerating. Ask my lovely, patient wife. [↩]