Archive for April, 2013

Whenever we were in New York (which was often – several times a week if not more) we would run up to my agent with flowers or candy or whatever and just kill some time chatting. Very rarely did they have any time to chat – or at least not much. Phones were ringing off the hook, and people were running back and forth to fax machines or meeting with clients. Because I booked a lot of stuff, I got a little more face time than the average Joe Schmoe, but it was still limited. We might sit in the office for half an hour to talk to our agent for 10 minutes while she scarfed down an egg salad sandwich. If they got too busy, we just excused ourselves and left. A lot of people might consider this a waste of time, but it was essential for staying on top of their minds and growing a working relationship. It is a fine line, though – you need to not be a pest. And yes, there were “those clients” who called constantly, dropped in unannounced on a regular basis, and just beat the bush to try to get some extra auditions. If you did it in the right way though, you could ask without asking, if you know what I mean.

One of the things a lot of actors freak out about is being type cast. Some people just are naturally type cast – if you look like a big, hulking goon, you’re probably going to go out for roles as a big, hulking goon. Someone with a more “average” look might be able to fit into several different roles, and these people had the most to worry about I think. If they booked a role where they played a serial killer, and they did it really really well – they might only ever get cast a serial killer. I know of some actors who did their jobs so well that casting people were only able to see them as that one, iconic role. They were never able to do anything else. It happens. Anyway, as I think I’ve mentioned before, I referred to as “charactery”. In agent-speak, this meant that I had glasses and was bookish. I could be cast as a brainy prep school kid, or a boy genius, or a nerd that gets picked on, or…well. You get the idea. I wasn’t going out for roles as a surfer. I was one of those people who was typecast because that’s what they were. People always saw me with glasses and a book in my hand, and thought “Oh, that’s the smart kid. Let’s have him play the role of the kid who discovers a new chemical element.” I didn’t mind being seen as smart – in fact, I was secretly very proud of that – but as I got older, the feedback started to shift. I started trying out for more “normal” roles, and the feedback was basically this: He’s not credible as a “real” kid. He’s not a real boy.

I couldn’t disagree with them. I didn’t know how to play, at least in the sense that other kids did. In general, I didn’t know how to relate to other kids – at least the ones that weren’t actors. Actors, at least the ones I’ve ever run across, are usually pretty smart. With rare exception, I’ve never had problems connecting with them – maybe because we had at least acting in common. But put me in a room with “real” kids, and I had no idea what to do. They thought I was weird. I thought they were dumb. A typical conversation might go something like this.

Me: What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?

Kid: My what?

Me: You know, Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet and stuff.

Kid: We had to read it for school. It was alright I guess.

Me: Oh. Well, have you read any Micheal Crichton?

Kid: No, but my Mom read one of his books I think.

Me: Oh.

Kid: You skateboard?

Me: Not really.

Kid: Oh.

After my interactions with them, I’d feel odd and isolated – almost like an alien having just observed an entirely different race and culture. I couldn’t understand people who didn’t discuss politics, or books, or didn’t have intellectual curiosity beyond hanging out at 7-11. I’m not trying to bash normal people here. I’m just saying that as a kid – with little social skills and living in a bubble – I had little time or patience for them. I was a bit of an elitist in a lot of ways. So no, when a role demanded I “just be a kid” I was utterly lost. I’ve been 35 years old since I was 6.

One of the ladies that worked in the agency once pulled my mom aside.

Agent: You should have him play with real kids sometime.

Mom: Real kids?

Agent: Give him as normal a life as possible. He’s going to need to draw on that for his roles.

Whether Mom had taken this advice to heart or not (she didn’t, by the way), it simply wasn’t going to happen. Public school was out – mostly because I’d have to be pulled out of class on a regular basis. And where to find friends and connect with so called “normal” kids, let alone normal people Mom would trust? Even if I did, where would I find the time to hang out? Add Mom’s paranoid fantasies about Russ and the Mafia into the mix, and the chances of a normal life just slipped to zero.

Any success I had in film and TV work was basically because I played a brainy kid well. My role in a Babysitter’s Club episode was basically as a smart (but very smarmy) kid of dubious moral character who was running for class president. I auditioned for a lot of roles that I ultimately didn’t get – Jumanji, Newsies, The Good Son. I came this close to landing the role of Reggie in Richie Rich. Basically, they were looking for someone to really build the character of an aloof, slightly evil genius. Not that I was necessarily an evil genius (though I admit, I did admire some comic book villains), but it wasn’t a stretch to play someone who was aloof, intellectual, and un-relateable. I got to 3rd callbacks to play this role – everyone really seemed to like me, from the director on down. We even got a call directly from L.A., asking us to send them some candid shots. I didn’t really do anything candid – I was far too tightly wound for that – but in this case it probably worked in my favor and made me seem more like the character. In the end, the role I was auditioning for was cut down from being the major villain in the movie to almost nothing, and they ended up going a completely different way with the character. The kid that booked it had frizzy red hair and wore bow ties – he was actually a friend of mine, and I was really glad to hear he booked it.

It followed me all throughout my life, at least until fairly recently (again, therapy – it helps) – that feeling of being separate, of not being “normal”. Ironically, in my teenage years I would have given anything to be “normal” – to go to the mall or school or movies. To have friends to hang out with all the time. To be not a real boy meant being out of place nearly all the time, except in a very limited set of circumstances. It took me a long time to realize that even if I could relate to so-called normal kids, I would never actually be normal. They would always look at me as an oddity – maybe because I was jumpy and twitchy (I could be assassinated at any moment, after all), maybe because my mother was eccentric, or because I used big words and talked about books. Or because I was “famous” – I insisted to them that I wasn’t, that it was all just a job but they didn’t understand. I told them I was just like them, but they didn’t believe it. I can’t exactly blame them – neither did I. I couldn’t even begin to act like one of them for a 2 minute audition. So I sighed, shook my head, and went back to reading. And when the calls came in for the nerdy kid, for the socially awkward brainiac, I gladly took them. I knew what they were asking for, and it was a part I could play.

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Hustle

Posted: April 26, 2013 in Acting, Life, Mom, Music
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

One word that comes to mind when I think of those days is hustle.  We hustled a lot. Not just back and forth to auditions and lessons, but we had hustle. I mean…I was pitching demos left and right to anyone that would listen. When I started writing and recording on a regular basis, we’d basically give out the demos to our industry contacts and friends. I mean, if I was meeting you and I shook your hand, I would pass you a demo tape. Most didn’t get listened to, I’m sure – as Grandma might have said, they no doubt wound up in File 13 – her word for the office trash can. Some probably listened out of curiosity. I was a savant, a boy wonder (or whatever…pick your word) and they wanted to see exactly how good a 10 year old kid could write. I enjoyed the attention – almost all of it was supportive and positive – but it wasn’t long before I started to wonder if they were listening because it was good or because I was a novelty. I thought it was probably the latter, and that depressed me. Listening back to my old stuff now is a cringe inducing experience. I imagine it is for most writers. Some, like myself, are bound to have a book or a room or a case where they put all their bastard children (artistically speaking, of course). If they’re anything like me, visits are difficult and rare. Songs I thought were great when I was 8 or 10 I listen to at 30 and cannot believe I wrote such a tremendous mound of dung, let alone peddled the demo tapes to everyone who would listen. They were good for my age, but I realized very quickly that in order to not just be a novelty, I had to be as good or better than the adults who were writing (and who already had dozens of years more experience than I did). I saw this, and worked harder. I put my nose to the grindstone until it was bloody and raw. I don’t like my old work, with only one or two exceptions, but I’m proud of it because it allowed me to cut my teeth and develop as an artist. Someone once said that 90% of the stuff you will write is useless junk, if you’re lucky. The other 10% is hopefully worth something.

Anyway, I used to do a lot of jingles – don’t know if I mentioned that before. It’s an industry that is all but dead now, but in the early 90’s it was still booming. We would get calls (sometimes from jingle houses, sometimes from agents), I’d run in with maybe 3 or 4 other people, we’d harmonize a few times and crank out something great. I’ll see if I can’t find a few jingles that I did and link them at the bottom of the post.

Somewhere along the line, I got the idea (or Mom got the idea) that I ought to write jingles. I hit every jingle house I knew with demos, and most of the ad agencies too. In retrospect, they were never going to hire a kid to do anything like that – it was too much of a gamble – but we didn’t know that. What Mom also didn’t know – or at least didn’t put together properly in her head – was that giving demo tapes to the jingle houses created a conflict of interest for them. Let me explain. Most of the people who worked at the jingle houses were writers and musicians – hired by an ad agency or other client to write, play on, and produce a jingle. Giving them a demo of some songs was in and of itself not a bad idea, but giving them a demo and asking if they were interested in having me write jingles was in poor taste. It would be like walking into a store, handing your resume to the manager, and trying to apply for his job. Rather futile, somewhat offensive, and mostly dumb. But since we didn’t know what we were doing, at least in regards to the music business, we ran around acting like a couple of rubes. Everyone was very gracious in accepting the demos – I never heard anyone say a bad word about it. But in the end, I don’t think they knew what to do with it, even if they wanted to help. I did, somehow, come into contact with a very nice guy who ran a major ad agency. I had done some work for him in the past, and had handed him my demo. Not only did he very graciously listen, but wrote a letter to tell me how much he enjoyed it, and how he would gladly consider me as a candidate if I wanted to apply for a position there in the future. The guy was a giant in the industry – he coined the phrase “It’s everywhere you want to be” for Visa, for instance – there was no reason for him to take the time to listen to some kid’s tape. But he did, and I still have the letter.

A friend in the business told me once “If you were sitting in a theater, and somebody like Madonna was sitting behind you, you’d reach under your seat and hand her a demo tape.” He was joking (kind of) but he wasn’t wrong. I would have. And if I didn’t think of it on my own, Mom would have insisted I do it. I remember sitting in a diner once in rural Pennsylvania, and Mom and I overheard a conversation at the next table. The guy had worked for Pepsi or something, and somehow Mom got the impression he was important. So she sent me over to ask him what he did for Pepsi. This was very rude,  since it would have been obvious we were eavesdropping, but it was also tactless. You just don’t do that sort of thing, you know? Anyway, I did as I was bid and found out the guy was a truck driver for Pepsi. We had a polite (but very confused, at least on his part) chat. He seemed to have no idea why I was explaining that I was a songwriter. I sat back down in the booth, and related our conversation to Mom.

Mom: So he wasn’t important?

Me: I guess not. He drove truck for Pepsi, he wasn’t like, in an ad agency or anything.

Mom: Oh.

I went back to my food.

Mom: Well, hand him a demo tape anyway. He could know somebody.

And, once again, I got up from the table and trotted over to where the poor bewildered soul sat. He thanked me for the demo tape, handed it to his wife who put it in her purse, and smiled at me oddly. He probably thought I was the strangest freaking kid he’d ever run into. And he was probably right.

When I look back on these times, I do feel embarrassed. True, we didn’t know any better, but we could have had a little more tact. Somehow, I blame myself the most, even though I really was just doing what I was told. Mom supposedly knew best, in most if not all cases. In my 30 years on the planet, I’ve learned that if you’re nice to people – really genuine – they want to help you. I’m not saying I wasn’t genuine, but basically walking around asking people to listen to my demo all the time wasn’t ideal. It didn’t make them want to listen. I was some snot-nosed brat off the street, flinging tapes around like a mad man. I didn’t care about them personally, just what they could do for me. Granted, that attitude was learned behavior, but it is a very sorry attitude. I’m embarrassed to have ever had it.

At the same time, although we wanted people to listen, we didn’t know what to do when offers of help came. We didn’t want to seem overeager or rude (ha ha) by asking for help directly, so Mom’s plan was to simply ask for guidance and advice, rather than direct help. Once, we had a meeting with a fairly famous songwriter.

Songwriter: Okay. So what do you need me to do? How can I help?

Mom and I looked at him blankly.

Mom: I guess…just…offer advice.

And he graciously did. But Mom’s plan of asking for “advice” and hoping to get actual help failed 100% of the time. We simply didn’t know how to be direct when the chips were down. Quite literally, we flopped around like a dying fish – hoping that merely by moving and acting the desired outcome would materialize.

Nowadays, I have the opposite problem – probably because of how I feel about all that stuff. I hesitate to give people a demo, and frankly feel a little chagrined about it when I do. I take very specific opportunities, but they’re ones that I ponder carefully and execute with precision. I no longer crassly walk around asking people to listen to my music, or force demo tapes on them. Mom shakes her head at me these days and tells me I don’t have the drive, that I don’t have hustle. And she’s right – at least, by her definition, I don’t. I learned from carelessness, and it has made me careful. But sometimes I miss the frenetic energy, the constant buzz of doing, and I wonder if there isn’t something to it after all.

 

Kool-Aid, Pink Swimmingo

Sprinkle Spangles

 

There is an island somewhere in the world called Snake Island. Don’t remember where it is, exactly, but it’s absolutely full of extremely venomous snakes. If it’s on the island, it will pretty much kill you within minutes. When you’re on the island, you’re never more than a foot or two away from certain death. I think that was essentially Mom’s view of the world when I was growing up. I couldn’t go visit my friends at their house (at least 90% of the time) because she was afraid something would go missing and I would get blamed. I wasn’t a thief, by any stretch of the imagination, though I did steal something once when I was about 4 or 5. I kept pestering Mom for a Peppermint Patty – I think they were maybe 5 cents at this diner we were at – and she kept telling me no. Well, when she was paying, I decided I wanted one anyway. So I snatched one from the jar when no one was looking. In the car, Grandpa saw me eating the Peppermint Patty (rule #1 of thievery: don’t flaunt your spoils) and asked Mom what was up. She slammed on the brakes, and interrogated me. I buckled under the pressure and admitted that yes, I did take it. I got a very long lecture about it – one of the few reasonable lectures I ever got from her, actually – and perhaps most importantly, my Grandfather was extremely pissed. That made the biggest impression, because I really looked up to him. They made me go back into the diner with a nickel, admit what I’d done to the manager, and apologize. Mom kept threatening me with jail time on the ride home. I was pale and sweating. That was the beginning and the end of my career as any sort of thief.

Anyway, she knew I wouldn’t steal anything, but I think she had this paranoia that I would get accused and there would be a big problem, and it’d be a black mark on my career. Nowadays, if you steal something, you end up having the opposite problem – media flocks to you and you tend to become more famous (or infamous, as the case may be). Whenever I went to someone’s house, I was always nervous and antsy. I never took anything I was offered – not even water, and not even if I was dying of thirst. I would pretty much sit as still as I could wherever I could find a perch. I was (and still am, unless I know the people in question very well) extremely uncomfortable.

She was afraid to let me ride my bike around the block, or walk to friend’s houses. It was practically a given that I would get hit by a car or snatched by a child molester. We lived on a quiet street that wasn’t exactly frequented by cars. Even then, the speed limit was 25. I think I’ve talked before about being suspicious of almost all food that was put in front of me (potentially poisoned, naturally) and never, ever leaving my drink unattended anywhere (and if I did, just get a new drink – who knows, someone could be trying to drug me). Leaving my backpack out of my sight was also a no-no, because someone could plant drugs or other incriminating evidence on me. If someone spit on me (something which hasn’t ever happened that I recall) I should immediately go to the ER and get tested for AIDS. Unless there was no other option, truck stop restrooms – or really almost any public restroom – was out of the question, no matter how clean. I could easily get diseases from the seat. When I was old enough to drive, I had to fight tooth and nail to get a license. Even then, she refused to let me drive on the highways (I would be killed in a terrible, fiery crash that would be visible from space). When I was in college, she would freak out if I took a class at night. When I asked her why, she told me that I could get attacked by a bum, who would punch me in the throat and I would never be able to sing again. Hoping to assuage her very specific (and very insane) fear, I assured her I would only travel well lit routes and give any deranged bums a wide berth.

She came by these fears honestly – my family, at least on my Mother’s side, were well versed in the art of hysterical paranoia. My Great Grandmother was so afraid something would happen to my Grandmother, she wouldn’t let her go next door to her Aunt’s house. And this was back in like,  the 30’s when crime was a lot less rampant and cars went 15mph. If you left the house, she feared and fretted that something horrible would happen to you. From what I hear, she pretty much paced back and forth until everyone was back in the house and within her line of vision. Hell, she didn’t even let my grandparents date before they were married. Well, they could date, but they could only “date” if Great-Grandma went with them. It wasn’t a propriety thing, at least I don’t think that was all of it. She was honestly paranoid something awful would happen if she wasn’t there. She very reluctantly let them go on their honeymoon alone. Grandma was very similar (though not quite as bad, at least with Tim and I – she had more of a Grandmotherly concern than full on paranoia most of the time).

I have to admit, I handled none of this very well. As I grew up, I started exhibiting symptoms of serious OCD. I didn’t know what this was at the time – actually not until my late teens – I just knew that I had rituals that I had to perform and when they got disrupted, I got very very upset. For instance, I carried probably close to a pound of change in my pockets and about $60 in ones in my wallet. I memorized the serial numbers of the bills, and the dates and imperfections of the coins. I determined that this was my “lucky money” and I could not possibly spend it for any reason. When I felt stressed (which was pretty often) I’d play with the coins in my pocket or the bills. It wasn’t very long before the bills were little more than rags. I became convinced that I couldn’t write songs without them, or that I’d not be able to book auditions without them. Once, when Mom needed change for the meter, she asked for a quarter from my pocket.

Me: No, you have to find some other change.

I didn’t tell her no very often, but this was a subject I was passionate about.

Mom: Well, I need a quarter.

Me: Can’t you find something in the ashtray?

Mom: There isn’t any in the ashtray.

Me: Well, break a dollar somewhere then.

Mom was taken aback.

Mom: I’m not going to break a dollar, Danny. Give me some quarters.

I freaked out.

Me: But this is my lucky money! I can’t give it up.

Mom was pissed.

Mom: It’s just a fucking quarter. Now give it to me! I need it for the meter, we’re going to be late!

With a great deal of regret and reluctance, I fished in my pocket. I began studying the coins – deciding which I would be willing to give up. Should I give up the one with the red dye marks, dated 1956? No…I liked that one. What about the one with all the nicks from the ’30s? Or the one that looked like it had been chewed in a shredder? I couldn’t decide, and it didn’t help that I couldn’t calm down. These were my safety net – I realize now I was creating a sense of security for myself. It’s what allowed me to hold it together, at least mostly. When that security was threatened, I lost the capacity to cope with the world and couldn’t handle it. I would give her one of the latter-dated coins, I decided – one that was relatively insignificant to me but had found its way into my pocket somehow and thus became lucky. I handed it over.

As she fed the meter, I opened and closed the car door several times, stuck my foot out and put it back in, and locked and unlocked the doors repeatedly. If Mom noticed, she said nothing. I didn’t have an exact count – it was never really about that, anyway – it was about doing it until I felt better.

I also had a “lucky comb” – how or what caused it to be lucky is completely lost to me now, although it was possibly because I happened to book an audition or write a great song while it was on my person. It was just a typical black comb you’d get at any drug store – probably cost less than a buck. But again, I would take it out and play with the teeth of the comb – running my fingers over it until I was soothed. By the time I threw it away years later – and I do mean years later – many teeth were broken and bent. There was gunk (probably old hair gel) stuck between the teeth. It looked like the grin of a lunatic.

I had a ritual for when I finished writing songs, too. I would open and close the piano lid a certain number of times – again, no specific number but it was usually even and I usually stopped whenever it felt “right” to do so. Then I stood with my hand on the lid for several seconds until the heat from my hand left an imprint on the lid. Then I would arrange the sheet music on the piano just right. Always the same sheet music – Somewhere Over The Rainbow, with Judy Garland‘s face peering out at me, and Harbor Lights. Sometimes Elton John joined them if I was feeling in a particularly light mood. If anyone touched my piano, I freaked the fuck out. If anyone played my piano, God help them. Actually, it was more like God help me. I paced, wrung my hands and was very, very agitated until they were done (if they were a stranger or someone I felt I couldn’t be direct with, at least). If anyone had ever asked me to explain this, I didn’t have the words – one of the few things in my life that I could never clearly communicate. I just would have stammered something about “things need to be this way” and hoped they understood.  The one and only time I completely lost my shit with my brother was when he decided he was going to come up and play my piano. I had finished writing, and my ritual was done. The piano was “closed”, as in it couldn’t be touched again (except by me) until whenever it was I was going to write next. I heard plinking on the keys and became immediately concerned. I rushed down the stairs to find Tim tinkling on the keys. He was old enough by then to know how to play a bit – he had taken some lessons with Russ as well – and there was certainly no reasonable expectation that he would damage it. He knew how to treat an instrument respectfully.

Me: What are you doing?

Tim: I’m just fooling around.

Me: Well don’t.

Tim saw I was quite serious. I was on the balls of my feet and my hands were in my pockets, jingling my lucky change.

Tim: Why not?

Me: Because I have a system, and you’re ruining it.

He laughed. I think he thought I was joking.

Me: It’s not funny. Get the hell out of here.

The change was jingling faster now, and I was sweating.

Tim: What’s your deal, dude?

Me: I don’t have a deal. Don’t ever touch this again. You’re not allowed.

He got up, then, a question on his lips. It never reached them, because I shoved him away from the piano – one of the only times I’ve ever actually laid a hand on him.

Me: I play piano. Not you. Buzz off. Never touch it again.

He left, and I went immediately into my ritual – with a few elaborations to make up for the “impurity” of someone else having soiled the keys. It was a long time before I felt settled, but when I did, I finished up and went to bed. I added a new ritual after that night – checking the piano to make sure nothing was disturbed. I did this several times a day, maybe more. I would be in another room, and start to panic that something had been moved – despite the fact that I heard no one playing. I would drop what I was doing, run upstairs and double check. Once relief washed over me, I could return to whatever I had been doing.

There was a time in my life when I was a complete nutcase, at least in private. I’m not happy about it. In fact, I’m rather ashamed of it. But it’s part of the story, and so it goes in here. I always felt bad about what happened – Tim never touched the piano again, at least not when I was around. He fiddled with playing guitar and even played drums for a bit. But once I came to my senses a bit more (many years and therapy sessions later) I came to realize I was a pretty freaking horrible older brother, at least in this incident. My therapist would tell me that I was just a kid, that I was trying to cope too. She may have a point, but I should have known better. I should have risen above the situation – I was smart enough to do that, even if I was just a kid. But I didn’t, and there it is.

The change and money that I felt was so lucky eventually got put away. After the day with the meter, and a couple other close calls where Mom needed to borrow some cash, I became too paranoid about keeping it on me. I worried that she would need it, or it would get spent accidentally by me (there was exactly zero chance of that happening, because I was way too attached). I ended up shoving them in pirate treasure chest I had gotten – it ended up being a sort of catch-all for random stuff that was important to me. A pair of cufflinks from a tux I wore on TV once, a mini troll doll, some Mardi Gras beads someone had given me backstage, a Chinese coin I picked up somewhere. And of course, the lucky money. I ran across it recently when I was going through the pirate chest – they bills were barely discernible as cash at all. George Washington’s austere gaze had faded so much that he could barely be made out. They almost looked like tattered grey strips of napkin. The coins – with only a couple of exceptions – were indistinguishable from any ordinary, garden variety quarters. I remember looking down at them as an adult and asking myself “Why in the hell did I save these? Why were they so important?” In the end, there’s only one real answer that makes sense: because I needed them.

No story about Russ would be complete without talking about Harlan. He started coming to Russ for lessons maybe a year or two after I did – I think he always had the time slot after us. This guy was huge – I mean huge. Like, 6′ tall, easily. And he was built like a dump truck. He was easily 400 pounds and it wasn’t fat. At least, not all of it. The thing about Harlan was that he was nuts – I mean legitimately off his rocker. He was coming to Russ for music therapy (which probably worked to some degree – he stuck with it for 20 years as far as I know). You never knew what this guy was going to do, and even though he was nice enough there was always this slight aura of danger about him. He was very well versed in CQC combat, Judo, and several other martial arts – built like he was, I have little doubt he could have killed someone with very little trouble. He constantly put cigarettes out on his hands or tongue. Once, for a $50 bet, he opened a beer bottle with his teeth. Broke nearly all his front teeth in the process. He had several psychiatrists quit on him – one story I heard was that he found out where his shrink lived, went there at night, and painted his entire fence bright red (it had been a white picket fence). His shrink was pissed. Despite being Jewish, he read Mein Kampf on a regular basis – I can’t tell you how many times I saw him in the waiting room with that tattered book. Not sure if that meant he was an ardent follower Hitler (one wouldn’t think so, but with Harlan it was a possibility) or if he was looking for something in there. I’d come out of the lesson room, and he’d be sitting in the waiting area at Russ’s desk (usually a spot reserved for Russ), smoking and reading Mein Kampf, or possibly a CQC book. Despite his incredibly intimidating visage, he was always very nice to me – always went out of his way to say hi. He’d rise from behind Russ’s desk like a bear waking up from hibernation, and rumble a greeting.

Harlan: DANNY!

I’d wave. Mom was scared to death of this guy – she was convinced he was nuts – and didn’t want any of us to get too close.

Harlan: Come over here! Got somethin’ for ya.

I’d amble over, and he’d present me with something – usually some knick-knack he found or made. I got dozens of presents from Harlan over the years – a bullet keychain, which he made himself (Mom was horrified, and made me throw it out), some art he painted (again, Mom threw this out – there wasn’t anything offensive in it that I could see, though. I just saw a lot of shades of blue), and – wait for it – an honest to God Star Wars Millennium Falcon from the 80s’. That’s still in my closet somewhere. I insisted on keeping it. As a kid, he just seemed like a strange guy that Mom didn’t like. She told me repeatedly that he was dangerous – but then she told me repeatedly that pretty much everything was dangerous. As I grew up, I started to see signs of his illness – part of this may have been my matured perception, and part may have been Harlan’s own illness wearing him down. I started to notice he would shuffle instead of walk, for instance. Sometimes he’d stare off into space – not too unlike Mom, actually – though at the time I thought that was fairly normal. Sometimes he’d be so doped up on anti-psychotics he’d sit there and drool. I could almost watch his brain cells vegetate. It was kind of sad.

Anyway, because Mom was convinced Harlan was a nut, and because Harlan was Russ’s last student for the night, it gave Mom an excuse to stick around long after our lesson was over. We’d wait around – literally in front of Russ’s studio – until Tim or I complained enough. Then we’d run down to Dairy Queen or Checker’s or something, swing back, and eat our food in the car. Now that I think of it, it was kind of like we were on a stakeout. We’d wait for Harlan to leave, then go in and say hi to Russ again. Under the guise of “making sure he was okay”, Mom would again pepper him with questions about the Mafia, or the Answer, or whatever. Maybe she’d give him a letter or card to give to “one of the Russes”. What I’m saying is, Russ basically started getting a double dose of Mom when Harlan started taking lessons.

Harlan would do art – not just paintings, but he’d do weldings of different objects. He gifted Russ part of a metal grate, a small-ish hubcap (at least, I think it was a hubcap) and some metal he twisted up so it looked like a flame. He attached it to a mobile and Russ hung it from one of his windows. Considering it was art, and considering it was in public, it was open to being viewed (and interpreted) by anyone in the waiting room. One lady was waiting for a lesson, and started interpreting Harlan’s work.

Lady: Oh, I get it.

Harlan looked up from Mein Kamp, and crushed his cigarette into an ashtray with his massive paw.

Lady: The ring is like, the goal. The thing you want.

Harlan stared.

Lady: The fire represents you, and the fence is life trying to keep you from your goal.

Harlan kept staring, but his stare was turning into a glower. The lady was clueless.

Lady: Right?

Harlan blew up – I’ve seen few other people go from 0-60 that fast.

Harlan: NO GODDAMIT THAT IS NOT WHAT IT IS! FUCK YOU, LADY. GODDAM!

He stood up, which wasn’t a good thing. The lady quickly apologized, and Russ rushed out to calm the situation. Somehow, he could always talk to Harlan. Maybe he had a gift for dealing with crazy people. Who knows.

Russ: Harlan, she didn’t mean anything, man. Just chill out and have another cigarette. We’ll get to your lesson in a minute, okay?

I heard the screen door slam – the lady was out the door and halfway down the street already.  I don’t blame her. I’d have had the everloving piss scared out of me if I had been her. Then again, I don’t blame Harlan either – as an artist, it pisses me off endlessly when people don’t get my “art”, and I’m expected to just be okay with it. I’m really not. It’s one hurdle I’ve faced when opening up my music to public consumption. I imagine a lot of artists share that feeling. Sometimes I wish I had the balls Harlan did and was able to say “No, goddamn it, that’s not what the song is about. Your interpretation is not correct.” I’m learning (slowly) that art can have more than one interpretation and that’s okay.

Russ closed the door to the lesson room and sat back down. He made an exaggerated motion of wiping sweat off his brow.

Russ: Close one. We got the immovable object out there.

Mom and I laughed.

Russ: And have you smelled him? Guy smells like a Jewish deli. 

I’ve been in a few Jewish delis in NY, and Russ was right. Harlan did smell a bit like pastrami.

One thing Harlan did teach me, though, is about persistence.  When he first started coming to Russ, he was terrible. And I mean terrible. He couldn’t hold a tune, his rhythm was awful, you name it. If there was something that could be wrong with someone’s singing, Harlan exemplified it. But by the end of my stretch at Russ’s – 20 some years or so – Harlan sounded good. Not just good, actually. Really good. If you’re bad at something – hell, even if you’re really freakin’ terrible – but you really want to do it…stick with it. You’ll get better. Maybe only incrementally, and it may take you 20 years, but you will improve.

I always wondered at how Mom was so sensitive to “crazy people” despite having so many problems herself. I have a friend who worked in a psych ward once tell me that the crazy patients will all congregate. You can tell a patient is getting better when they start to separate themselves and the others stop talking to them. Mom has – at least to some degree – been concerned about “crazy people” and had a fairly good eye for what constitutes a crazy belief. If a friend of hers believes in the Illuminati, she will immediately dismiss it as nuts. I’ve always wondered if she dismissed these things because she knew they were crazy or because she “knew the truth”, and her delusion trumped theirs.

 

That’s how I used to feel when I tried to talk to Mom. Like I was placing a call and the number just wouldn’t connect. I knew the number, dialed, and waited. Sometimes it would be 20 rings, and she’d pick up. Sometimes I’d get an error message. Sometimes we’d talk, and it would be clear as a bell. Those conversations were somewhat rare, though. At first I didn’t notice it so much – when I was a kid, I’d just chatter away. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized I was talking at her, not to her.

I used to be quite the little chatterbox when I was little. I used to wander up to adults (I’m talking like, when I was 5 or 6) and just talk to them about dinosaurs or whatever. It really didn’t matter who it was – a casting person, an agent, Tim, Mom, or some stranger at a truck stop. I’d find something to talk about. I remember us going to a buffet when I was a kid, and for whatever reason I started talking to this lady. She wandered around the restaurant and I followed her. My parents realized I had wandered off, and panicked. They found me just chatting away about whatever. Turns out the lady was the owner, and when she found out I sang and did shows, she hired me to do some singing gigs.

When you’re in the car – especially on long trips, like the drives to NYC were – there’s long silences. Anyone who has ever been on a road trip understand this. If you’re lucky, those silences are comfortable. If you’re not, they can be awkward. When your mentally ill mother is driving you, and you have no idea what she’s thinking about, those silences can be anxiety inducing. Long silences meant she was thinking, usually. If she got that thousand yard stare, that was very bad. She might burst out crying (that was typical), she might become very, very depressed and suicidal, or she might become angry. She might harp about Russ and the Mafia, and become paranoid. When she thought – and she had plenty of time to do so in the car ride – it was like spinning a roulette wheel where every slot but one or two was pretty bad. The only answer I could come up with was to try to distract her – to try to engage her in conversation, about whatever. Mostly I’d talk about comics or books I was reading, or dinosaurs, or TV shows. If she tried to steer the conversation towards Russ, I tried to keep it positive. This was sort of my Hail Mary play – if she insisted on making the topic Russ or the Mafia or something, I would insist on it being positive. I wasn’t sure she was crazy yet – I still trusted her – but I was sure things weren’t quite as bad as she seemed to think.

Remember when I told you that Mom and I used to be very close, and then a series of breaks happened? This is the first of them, and it happened like this. I was about 12, and I had spent some time quietly reading in the car (another gargantuan novel – I don’t remember what it was now). I finally looked up, and saw her staring off into space. I called out to her. No response. I waited. I called her name again. Still no response. Gingerly, I put my hand on her arm.

Me: Mom.

She snapped out of it, but I could see immediately she was pissed.

Mom: What.

Me: Um.

Mom: What, Danny. I am trying to THINK.

Me: I was, uh, concerned. You looked tired.

Mom: I’m thinking.

Me: Oh, okay. I didn’t know.

The hell I didn’t. I knew perfectly well what was going on. She was inside herself, replaying some event (real or imagined) and would come out with some new thing to be worried or obsess about. I went back to reading for a while. When I looked up again, she was still distant. I decided she’d been zoning out long enough (the fact that she was zoning out while driving wasn’t a big concern to me, though it probably should have been). I decided to take some tentative steps into a conversation.

Me: So, uh. I’m reading this book.

Nothing.

Me: It’s about this guy…and he’s a time traveler. And he goes back to King Arthur’s court.

Silence.

Me: It’s really cool. He invents electric fences and stuff…

Hearing no response, I continued talking. I pretty much gave her a full, running narrative of the book. Every once in a while I would look over to see if she was listening. I wasn’t sure if she was, but she did look a little less distant, I thought. That was good.

Me: …what do you think about that?

I had been talking for maybe 20 minutes. I watched her. She was tilting her head in this funny way. Remember the old RCA dog? The one that listened at the Victrola and heard “his master’s voice”? That’s kind of what she looked like, though I have no idea what voice she might have been hearing.

Mom: Danny.

I felt cold. She did not sound very happy.

Mom: Shut. The fuck. UP.

I shrank. My plan had backfired. I was supposed to bring her out of her trance, not piss her off.

Me: I’m sorry. I just, uh. Got bored. Was trying to talk to you.

Mom: I am trying to THINK!

She jammed two fingers into her temple when she said “THINK”, emphasizing her point. At this juncture, all I wanted to do was calm her down and get back to the status quo.

Me: Okay, okay. I’m sorry. I’ll stop talking.

Mom: THANK you.

I stuck my nose back in my book. I was hurt and angry.  I don’t think I looked up for most of the ride home, until she spoke again.

Mom: It’s just the things you talk about, they’re so far over my head.

I looked at her. I didn’t think they were that difficult to comprehend. It was a book for God’s sake.

Me: Okay.

Mom: I just…have a lot on my mind.

Me: Alright.

She tried to open up the conversation again, but I was having none of it. I was pissed at having been yelled at just for talking.

I did get over it – eventually – but it took me a couple weeks. We went back to the old routine of me chattering away to her while she drove. Hell, I even talked while she didn’t drive. I remember we were walking through a mall and I was just going on and on about some idea I had for a commercial. I was excited about it.

Me: What do you think? Pretty cool, right?

She was clearly distracted.

Mom: Uh, yeah. Cool.

Later on, we got a call from the agent – I had an audition where I had to tell an original joke. I told her I didn’t have one ready, and I’d have to think about it.

Mom: But you do. Didn’t you tell me that joke in the mall?

Me: A joke?

Mom: Yeah. 

Me: That wasn’t a joke…that was an idea I had for a script.

It dawned on me then that she wasn’t listening at all – in fact, I don’t think she paid attention enough to have any idea of what I was talking about most of the time. I reflected on many of our past “conversations”, and saw that she wasn’t actually listening, but rather letting my words wash over her – like I was a wave and she was a pier. I shouldn’t have reacted like this, but it was too much for me to handle. I shut down. I stopped talking to her almost completely, unless she initiated it. I kept my nose in my book and inhabited my own inner world. In an ironic sort of way, I wasn’t much different than she was.

It took her months to notice I had stopped talking, which upset me more. I had hoped she would notice and say something. When she did, it wasn’t in a way that I anticipated.

Mom: You’ve become a bit of an introvert.

Me: Hm.

Mom: I don’t think that’s good, Danny.

Me: Oh?

Mom: You’re not outgoing with people anymore. I think it’s bad. It makes you look like you’re not interested at auditions. You need to be more outgoing. Like you used to be.

I was pissed.

Me: Oh, ok.

I put my nose back in my book. Sometimes, when you keep trying to place a call that doesn’t go through, you hang up.

I don’t know what got me started on the subject, but I was thinking today about how paranoid I am about bugs crawling into my ears. Whenever I go out to a park in the summer and get those gnats flying around, I start to inwardly freak out that they’ll find their way into my ears or something. To illustrate how much this bothers me, I’ll give you an example. Nothing wakes me up from a sound slumber – sometimes not even an alarm. I can sleep wherever – on a train, in a car, beneath a blaring fog horn. It’s largely the product of having a commuter childhood, I think – a great portion of my life was spent in a moving vehicle. Anyway…nothing will snap me awake faster than feeling like there’s something in my ears. I start to worry it’s a bug, and then rub it or whatever until I’m satisfied it’s not. When my anxiety about this is particularly bad, I actually get up and clean out my ears in the middle of the night. I know it’s a relatively irrational fear – my conscious mind is fully aware of this. I just can’t shake it though.

It all started when I was visiting L.A. during a commercial shoot when I was 8. We were out on the town, our pockets fat with per diem (an industry term for “spending money”). A lot of sets will give you some amount of cash to take care of meals or clothes or whatever – it’s usually a generous amount, much more than a typical person might need. Rest assured, you’re not regulated to eating off the dollar menu when you have that kind of cash in your pocket. Anyway, we were sitting in traffic (which is a common practice in L.A.) and there was some sort of preacher on the radio. I’m talking one of the over the top televangelist type guys. And he was telling this story of a “miracle” that had supposedly occurred.

Preacher: Now, I’m telling you brothers and sisters that this little six year old boy – he was no more than six, brothers and sisters – he got a BUG in his EAR. That’s right. A BUG had managed to worm its way into this little child’s ear!

He didn’t say bug. He said BUG. All in caps. It sounded like he was throwing up.

Preacher: Now this little child’s mother and father, they took him to the doctor. And the doctor was perplexed, brothers and sisters, I tell you he was perplexed. You see, there was nothing they could do for this little boy who had a BUG IN HIS EAR.

He was getting wound up. I was fascinated.

Preacher: The doctor, with aaaaaaaaaalll his understanding and modern science, told them that there was simply nothing they could do. This BUUUG had worked its way so far into this child’s EAR that it was making its way to his BRAIN.

His radio audience gasped audibly. I was horrified, but riveted. How the hell did a bug get to someone’s brain?

Preacher: Now, this little child – only a six year old boy, brothers and sisters, just a six year old boy – had only days to live. The doctor informed his parents.

A long, meaningful pause. The crowd waited. I waited. The preacher burst out, suddenly even louder – a fact which seemed impossible.

Preacher: But I TEEEEEELL you, brothas and sistahs, that GAWD performed a MIRACLE on THIS. LITTLE.BOY. Can I get an amen?

It turned out that he could.

Preacher: This little boy was listening to THIS VERY PROGRAM several weeks back. And it is thanks to a miracle of GAAAAAAWD that he is alive toDAY! You see, brothas and sistahs, you see on that day several weeks ago, I was preaching. And the Lord laid it on my heart to reach out with His plan of Salvation-ah. Oh yes He did. Can you say hallelujah?

They could.

Preacher: And this little boy, this little boy that the doctors couldn’t help with all their modern science, he was LISTENING. And he accepted GAWD-AH into his heart that very night.

Cheers and applause.  I just wanted to hear how he got that freaking bug out of his ear.

Preacher: And he laid his tiny little hand on the top of the TV – and he prayed the sinner’s prayer with me, just as many of you may do tonight. And the instant he laid his hand on that TV…

There was a loud POP as he clapped his hands into the microphone.

Preacher: That BUUUUUUUUG dropped over DEAD! It was a MIRACLE OF GAWD! Can I get an amen?

Many amens were had.

Preacher: Now, if you’ll just reach into your heart – think about that little boy now, brothers and sisters – and reach into your heart, and see if the LAWRD isn’t telling you to give something to this ministry toDAY-ah. It could be five dollars. It could be TEN dollars. It could be TEN THOUSAND DOLLAHS CAN YOU SAY AMEN!

Mom shut off the radio. I had heard enough anyway.

Me: Mom, do you think a bug can get into your ear like that?

Mom: Um. I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Me: But what if it could?

Mom: It’s pretty unlikely.

Me: But it could, right? Would I have to go to the doctor?

Mom: I guess you would. It’s just not going to happen, though. That’s not a normal thing.

I could tell she was getting irritated, so I shut up. I was pretty worried, though. Over dinner, the thought that bugs (or BUUUUUUUGS if you prefer) could get into your ear and crawl into your brain really preyed on me. I figured that even if medical science couldn’t cure me, I had a fail-safe. Just find a preacher on TV and lay my hand on the screen. Nevertheless, the idea itself gave me the freakin’ creepy crawlies. I found myself shrugging and shaking my head all night, discouraging imagined bugs from burrowing into my brain.

It stayed with me, right up until a checkup I had some years later. I was having some kind of ear infection, and Doc was checking out my ear. He seemed concerned, and taking an awfully long time looking at this one ear.

Me: What? What is it?

Doc: I thought I saw wings fluttering…

My eyes grew huge.

Me: Like a bug!?

Doc pulled back.

Doc: Yeah, but it must have been my eyes.

The guy was pushing 75 at that point, so I’d bet dollars to donuts it could have been. Nevertheless, no bug was found. But good God did that send me into a fit of panic. It served to further cement an already deep seated fear into my psyche.

And that, brothers and sisters, is how a phobia is born.

Can I get an amen.

One of the privileges of growing up in the business is having access to things other people – particularly people my age – didn’t have access to. I’m not talking about rubbing elbows with important people (though there was that), and I’m not talking about money (there was that, too – though I didn’t really care about it at that point). I’m talking about getting into places or doing things you have no business doing when you are that age. The moment you say you’re an actor, or that you’re researching a role, or that you’re there because you’re a part of the show, it’s almost like you have carte blanche. Let me give you some examples.

When I was still quite young – perhaps 7 – I was doing a lot of singing appearances. This was mostly with the variety show I was on. Most of their stuff was fairly kid friendly – malls, the piers at the shore, that sort of thing. At least once, I went to a casino. I remember being led by my dad past slot machines and bright lights. They made me think of my Nintendo back home, and I really wanted to play with them – of course I wasn’t allowed to. Perhaps my access at that age didn’t extend beyond all reason, but I can’t imagine many kids my age getting to see the inside of casinos (maybe the eating areas, I suppose).

Another time, we played at a race track. I’ve never been back since – never saw the need to gamble, at least not on that – but when I was still pretty young, around 6 or 7, I played a show at a race track. I was semi interested in the horses running around, and in the frenzy of activity from the gamblers. Dad decided he wanted to gamble, after pondering his choices. I asked him to explain what was going on, and he did. It was a largely unnecessary, since I understood the gist of it. I didn’t get the idea of odds, or what amount you might get if you won, but I understood that people were betting on horses. I don’t know why, but I heard the announcer boom a name and it caught my ear.

Announcer: IT”S CHOCOLATE SIS!

I lit up. I decided that was my horse. There are some obvious racial connotations to that name, but I didn’t get them at the time. I just thought it was referencing somebody’s sister who was literally made of chocolate. For me at 7, that was a pretty badass concept. I insisted to Dad that he place a bet on Chocolate Sis for me. He ignored me. I pulled his sleeve and pestered. And pestered. He finally quieted me by assuring me he had placed a bet for me (whether he actually did or not, I have no idea). I think he must have won, because we went up to the counter afterwards and he turned in his ticket. I watched other people irritatedly throwing their tickets on the ground – it kind of looked like a sudden explosion of confetti. I saw a guy running behind them, picking them up. I had assumed he was just on cleanup, but I didn’t find out the purpose until years later. Evidently professional gamblers pick up losing tickets to use as tax write offs, since it’s considered a loss.

I have dozens of stories like this, but I’ll just tell one more to illustrate my point. When I was about 12, I had to audition for an anti smoking commercial. The idea behind the commercial was this slob of a kid – undoubtedly a “bad seed” – smoking cigarettes. Clearly the role called for somebody comfortable with smoking, and I clearly was not. I don’t know where this came from, whether Mom or the casting director or the agent, but supposedly they wanted you to bring cigarettes to the audition. Mom pulled over on an NYC street corner and told me to go buy a pack. I looked at her incredulously.

Me: I’m twelve.

Mom: I know, but I don’t have change for the meter.

Me: Um. Aren’t they not allowed to sell to me?

Mom rolled her eyes.

Mom: They’ll sell them to you. Tell them you’re an actor, and it’s for a role.

And damn it if she wasn’t right.

I walked in and asked for a pack of cigarettes. I told them it didn’t matter what kind. The guy behind the counter gave me the eyeball.

Cashier: Uh. I no do dis.

He pointed to a sign – we’ve all seen them – “If you are born before this date you can’t buy cigarettes”.

I sighed, partially because this was kind of a hassle and also to show that I wasn’t trying to put one over on him. Sort of like, sorry we’re both in this position, buddy, but I gotta do what I gotta do.

Me: I know, I know. It’s for a role. I’m an actor.

His face lit up.

Cashier: Actor?

He emphasized the “or” at the end, so it sounded like acTOR?

I nodded.

Me: It’s for an anti smoking commercial.

He seemed swayed, but a little suspicious.

Cashier: Is for TV?

I told him it was.

He pushed a pack of Kools to the middle of the counter, considering. Then he pushed it the rest of the way, beaming. I guess he thought I was famous or something. Anyway, I got the cigarettes. I didn’t smoke them – didn’t even like having them in my mouth, actually. I was scared to death I would get addicted, get cancer, and die. (I didn’t get the gig, by the way).

I would argue that people who have grown up in the Business are a bit more worldly than others – as a general rule, they tend to be more mature, in my opinion. It’s one reason I didn’t “rebel” like a lot of teens did – I had already tasted alcohol and didn’t like it. I had bought cigarettes, had them in my mouth, and didn’t like it. I thought drugs were possibly the dumbest thing you could do to yourself. I would never have dreamed of shoplifting. I did act out as a teen, but it was in other ways that were much more subtle. Nothing illegal, at any rate.

That experience thing went both ways, by the way. Sometimes you had to audition for a role so far out of your depth you had no idea what to do with it. I was supposed to audition for this one project – can’t remember the name off the top of my head – but it was a movie about a kid who discovers he’s gay. The script was extremely explicit. Not pornographic or anything like that, but extremely frank sexual talk – very graphic. Anyway, even though I was worldly in the sense that I had experienced things most kids my age didn’t, I was also sheltered to a woeful degree. Hell, my Mom never had a birds and the bees talk with me. By the time I was old enough to sort of figure things out, her advice was very forthright.

Mom: Do not ever have sex with a girl. Do not get her pregnant. You will ruin your life.

And that charming little thought has done wonders for my sex life, let me tell you. Anyway, being so sheltered and reading a script that was so frank and openly sexual made me extremely uncomfortable. Hell, I couldn’t read the thing without getting beet red and stuttering. Mom insisted that I audition for it – even though I told her I didn’t want to. It felt so weird that I was in no way comfortable auditioning, let alone performing the role. Evidently, I was in good company – there were a lot of kids who wouldn’t even consider auditioning for it. Mom thought that meant I had a good shot, since competition would be low. Still, it was a very tough role to even read. She made me bring it to my acting coach (I had gotten one in NY, in addition to Uncle Richard – besides, by that point he had moved well beyond the sphere of simply an acting coach). I gave it my best, but I just couldn’t do it. After only a few minutes I was red-faced and embarrassed. I could not even meet the eyes of my acting coach. At best, I could only spit out the lines. Ultimately, my acting coach pulled Mom aside and told her there was no way I could reasonably audition for this. I just wasn’t even remotely comfortable with the sexual nature of the script. Mom was a bit deflated, but I was relieved.

At some point, Mom became convinced that kids in my age group were taking pills to stay small. I guess that’s feasible – I’ve heard of this happening with child actors, but I can’t imagine a parent wanting to do that to their kid. I wouldn’t think it was a common practice, though Mom seemed to see it everywhere. Supposedly (in Mom’s view, at least) they were doing this to be more competitive – they were older, but they were small enough to still play younger roles. Mom pondered at one point trying to obtain such pills for me, but was quickly discouraged by my doctor and agent. Her next thing was trying to make me taller – I don’t really know why. She had me put lifts in my shoes, or wear shoes with tall heels. I guess she thought if I was taller I could look older and go for older roles. Again, she turned to medical science – she asked our doctor to give me growth hormones. He didn’t exactly refuse, but he didn’t exactly endorse it. In the end, it was dropped – though I do kind of wish I were taller.