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Off the Grid

June 13, 2013 | by

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As they do every year, the prestigious Cal Hi Sports magazine, an influential prognosticator for gridiron talent, made a list in 1994 of the top prep quarterbacks on the West Coast. Among them were Kevin Feterik at Los Alamitos, who would end up starring for QB-haven BYU; Cade McNown, a lefty from Oregon who later stewarded UCLA’s mini-dynasty; Brock Huard from Puyallup, Washington, who started as a freshman for the University of Washington and is now an ESPN analyst; a Michigan-bound senior from San Mateo named Tom Brady; and me.

At Beverly Hills High School I was that Johnny B. Goode character with “Golden Boy” sewn into the back of my letterman jacket. My favorite t-shirt read “Football is Life, the rest is just details,” and that was an understatement. I wasn’t the fastest or strongest kid, and, with my frame (6’1”), I’d never be considered anything but tiny at the college level, so I determined to be the smartest player in the game. And I studied like a Manning, becoming a geek of the game, a savant who could quote you strings of statistics like a cabalist. In contrast, the only thing I remember from my actual classes at the time is a sign one teacher had mounted near the clock in their room. It read: “Clock watchers, time will pass, will you?” I did, but barely. My devotion to the game was total.

So when, five years later, six months after quitting football for the second and final time, I woke up on a park bench in Berlin with no map, and no itinerary, I had no idea who I was.

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3 COMMENTS

Afterlife

April 16, 2013 | by

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Christopher Wallace is dead, murdered in the early hours of March 9, 1997, one block from my childhood home in Los Angeles. But exactly two weeks after his death, Wallace’s alter ego, the Notorious B.I.G., rose again with the album Life After Death. Geppetto was gone, but his Pinocchio lived on.

Like Wallace, “Biggie” grew up in Brooklyn, but in Bed-Stuy rather than Wallace’s more middle-class Clinton Hill. He dealt drugs, toted four-fours, and took falls, all of which Wallace did. But Biggie was a goddamned capo compared to his dramaturge’s small-time crook. Where Wallace was really gifted—almost preternaturally so, considering he died at twenty-four—was in the constructing and performing of a character, his character. Biggie was a fiction—not so farfetched as to court incredulity, but idealized, a romanticization of the writer. He was autobiographical to a point, but embellished into a Mitty-esque wish-fulfillment through whom his audience could vicariously fantasize about the good life: popping bottles and topping models.

In character, and within the strictures of the medium, Wallace could do and say things he’d never get away with as himself. With his heavy tongue he could probe the decay of poverty in a bouncy radio hit, or parody our nihilistic materialism with a club banger that made him millions, and never be in danger of hypocrisy.

Biggie was, his fans understood, the Flatbush Falstaff, dedicated to excess and frivolity, while Wallace was the mysterious magus who spawned him. Sadly, even magi are mortal. But, luckily for us, Big Poppa is forever.

Christopher Wallace is dead. Long live Biggie Smalls. Read More »

10 COMMENTS

Time Out

July 10, 2012 | by

Late in the third quarter of a blowout loss at North Torrance High School my junior year I woke up in a blurry huddle. Grids of stadium lighting were smeared on the South Bay night sky as if they’d been moved before they dried. My teammates stood around me in their away whites, the sateen jerseys looking smudged and shabby in the dark. I shouldn’t have been surprised if a star suddenly dilated just to wink at me, such was my loopy state of mind—and my self-regard as a high school quarterback.

A timeout had been called, apparently. There was no apparent rush to get back to the line of scrimmage, run another play. And our coach was in the huddle with us. Oh, thank god, I thought, Coach is playing. I’d never seen him in uniform before, but didn’t think to question it—we needed all the help we could get. Though, standing next to the star receiver with whom he’d traded outfits, he did look a lot taller than normal.

Reassuring counsel was given by someone, maybe me, as we gathered ourselves to go back on.

We settled on a simple play: everyone run as far as you can as fast as you can, and I’ll throw the ball to one of you, ready, break. I stepped under center in a kind of euphoria, took the snap, dropped back and threw our coach—or, rather, the receiver onto whom I’d transposed Coach’s face—a forty-two-yard touchdown, and walked off the field, vindicated and giggling.

A blink and it was two hours later. Read More »

1 COMMENT

The Thief’s Journal

May 24, 2012 | by

Some days, after eighth grade at Emerson Junior High, I would walk to the 7-11 on Overland, in the shadows of the monumental Mormon temple on Santa Monica Boulevard, and just loiter there. I never bought anything, but walked up and down the rows staring intensely at Corn Nuts, Big League Chew, and sundry sparkling sugar bombs.

I didn’t then, nor do I now, have anything resembling a sweet tooth. I’ll trade dessert and candy for savory treats every time (I loved Funyuns, whatever they were), and yet, I wanted a snack. I didn’t have any money, of course—I was twelve—but it wasn’t as if I were starving to death. At the time of my choosing I could walk to my father’s apartment nearby, where he would make me green-chile chicken with polenta, or leg of lamb and gratin dauphinois, or maybe even steak and mashed potatoes. But my dad doesn’t do snacks. He might have food for the entire week, but when I open the fridge, there’s nothing there.

The bus would take a good forty-five minutes to my mom’s, where the fridge was full of Clausen pickles, deli meats, and cheese for my beloved Triscuits. I could have skated if I’d have brought my board, but, forty-five dolorous, head-pounding minutes of boredom and discomfort, sitting next to cat ladies and gangbangers on the rough, tough, and dangerous bus … I wanted a snack. I needed a treat.

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2 COMMENTS

A Star Turned

February 6, 2012 | by

This is a story about the life and death of a Hollywood icon—much of it myth, uncorroborated hearsay, and patchwork nostalgia, but it’s all how I remember it.

In its day, which is to say from around 1996 to 2003, Les Deux Cafés was the brightest starlet of the Hollywood nightlife scene, and like many of her sexy habitués, she was famously unpredictable, hauntingly seductive, and seemingly hell-bent on her own destruction.

Hidden in a nondescript parking lot, behind an unmarked steel door, the “the two cafés” girded a pair of Provençal-style gardens dotted with mosaic-top tables and dripping with night-blooming jasmine and eucalyptus. Around the old magnolia tree dropping its leaves on the slate slab floor, past the mobile garden bar (and tables 20-23), you approached the main house through the patio—an elevated porch, covered by a canopy of grapevines and three species of Japanese wisteria, and heated year-round by an outdoor fireplace. These were the most coveted tables (numbers 50-62), each of them handmade glass-tile arabesques—where Al Pacino shot double decaf espressos and Six Feet Under shot episodes, where Tim Roth and his family ate most Sunday nights, where Heath Ledger, Djimon Hounsou, Nicole Kidman, Ridley Scott, and David Lynch ate Hama Hama oysters and drank Veuve Clicquot on quiet nights, and Lenny Kravitz and Bill Murray chopped it up and table-hopped on the busy ones.

Inside the house, a two-story white clapboard Craftsman bungalow, you came to the walnut-paneled banquettes (tables 70-101), where romantic couples would be getting engaged. The House, which was placed on a trailer and moved several blocks to this site, had reportedly belonged to James Cagney in the thirties. Designer Paul Fortune—who, after his masterful work at Les Deux Cafés, would famously revamp the restaurant at the Sunset Tower—hung his own portrait of the actor over the indoor fireplace.

Behind the house was the cavernous kitchen, and down a long, poured-cement corridor, past the bathrooms where TV stars did cocaine, was the Trapeze Bar—a jazzy, high-ceilinged modernist boîte where, long after the California smoking ban, performers still puffed through their sets, and, right after the Grammys, Puffy would dance on tables and buy out the bar’s collection of Krug Clos du Mesnil.

But, though the café was Siren-song beautiful, the real draw—what we lurch for with the electromagnetic descriptor vibe—was felt more than seen. The service was abysmal (infamously, and intentionally so), the food was okay, but the scene ... the scene was the thing. It was lost on no one that the garden tables were arranged as an amphitheater, the better to watch everyone else. Owner and guiding spirit Michèle Lamy casted the staff more than hired them, and, consciously or not, we all performed in her play. Read More »

13 COMMENTS

The Escape Artist

January 11, 2012 | by

Graham Greene stole the title of my memoirs. Rueful and proud, ringing of a boastful confession, imaginary maps, and the magician’s exegesis, his Ways of Escape would have been a perfect header for my career of flight—from reality, relationships, and, finally, the country. It is a series of escapes in which Mister Greene, who made so seductive the life of an exiled libertine, is not entirely innocent.

But he needn’t take all the blame. At least part of the credit for my fleet-footedness is due to a childhood spent shunting between single parents and rival school districts (or is it the other way around?). I was always arriving, never staying too long, and, with another departure constantly looming, my relationship to home became abstracted to fungible goods, dispassionate.

As an only child, I spent a lot of time by myself. But I never ran with imaginary friends, opting instead to invent imaginary versions of myself. I dreamed constantly of flying (by mastering the basketball double pump), climbed ficus trees, and read Dragonlance books. Their rogues and wizards enchanted me, wandering far from their homes, always in search of a tree city called Solace.

In the fifth grade, I asked the girl I was crazy about to go steady with me, only to call back five minutes later to explain that I’d had too many Jolly Ranchers, and, unfortunately, it was over between us. I’ve left every relationship since—be it of five months or five years—in a similar fashion. It really isn’t them. It’s me, and I have to leave all that I know to get rid of him, to start over. Like a writer in the movies, with a pile of crumpled paper in the bin beside him, I am forever beginning anew. This next draft is going to be the keeper—the real me.

Meanwhile, I’ve inherited my father’s method for home improvement: moving. At the end of my chapters I pull up stakes like a fugitive and purge everything, from beds to furniture to collectibles and clothing. A stack of my first-edition Gavin Lambert books now lives in a baby nursery in Culver City, an espresso maker is in Echo Park, and a few dozen ties are reentering circulation from an Out of the Closet on Fairfax.

Jobs are no different. At least four times I’ve gone home from a day’s work without a word, never to return. I’ve left schools, left my position as starting quarterback for a college football team, and left this piece a half dozen times. My distinguishing feature is a pair of taillights. Read More »

2 COMMENTS