Archive for May, 2013

So I hate moving (even though I’m actually about to do so). Even as a kid, I couldn’t stand it. Aside from the thought itself being terrifying, it was a huge pain in the ass. When we moved to New York so Tim could do Broadway, it was another fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type operation. We hit the city with nowhere to go, so we stayed at a place Tim and I affectionately called the Mildew Palace. This was a hotel that had maybe been nice in it’s heyday, but was now falling down around the ears of the proprietors and unwitting guests. Signs promised “New Renovations!” and HBO. I assure you, the renovations – if they existed in the first place – weren’t any newer than a couple decades old. The best thing I can say about the place is that there were no rats (at least, not that I saw) and it was clean-ish. We checked in for what would be a two month stay (and actually felt like several years) in the middle of the worst heat wave I had ever experienced. To my memory, it was 110 degrees in the shade, but maybe it just felt that way. The best part was that our hotel did not possess central air (evidently not one of the “New Renovations” promised on their banners). There was an old window unit that looked to be from the 1970s and sounded like a Harley Davidson when it started up. I’m serious, you could not watch TV or have a conversation when it was on. So this led to a vicious cycle of us having to turn the air off to talk or watch TV, getting way too hot, turning it on again, getting annoyed by the racket, and turning it off for as long as we could handle it. There was, as I recall, only one setting – HIGH/COLD. Despite the noise it did managed to keep the room cold as long as you were right by the unit. Tim and I used to fight for a spot right by it – we’d usually just end up taking turns, but the argument was over who would go first.

Tim: I’m hot.

Me: I’m more hot. Look, I’m sweating. Plus I’m older.

I often played the “Big Brother” card – I had no shame. There were several times I would open the mini fridge and stick my head in for a few minutes. The fridge looked suspiciously newer than everything else in the room (New Renovations!), and frankly I would have opted for units that didn’t sound like a semi truck or expel waterfalls of condensation down the sides. What can I say? My priorities and management’s obviously differed. That latter bit – about the water – was exactly why Tim and I called it the Mildew Palace. The condensation from the AC unit was so severe – and had been going on for so long – that there was mildew everywhere. The room kind of had a stale smell to it, too, but I’ve found that’s par for the course in all but the nicest hotels.

Anyway, after our time at the Mildew Palace came to an end (it wasn’t a stay, it was a tour of duty), Mom found a place through a friend of our agent. It was an older apartment, but it was nice. We were going to be subletting it from a guy named Ken for a couple months while he was off on tour. I didn’t really deal with him, or pay much attention to the deal that Mom made. I was hot, I was tired, and I was not looking forward to carrying heavy bags block after block. In retrospect, I’d say this guy was pretty picky. He gave Mom some kind of list with the things he wanted taken care of around the apartment. There were two trees (really more like bushes) that seemed to be an area of concern.

Ken: I need the trees watered, like twice a day.

Mom nodded.

Ken: And I want my cleaning lady to come in at least once a week.

Mom said okay. I honestly doubt she was listening.

Ken: And don’t paint or anything, and please don’t hang anything up…

There was a laundry list (or so it felt to me). Ken wrote it all down for Mom, who handed the list to me.

Mom: Here.

Me: What’s this?

Mom: It’s the stuff we’re supposed to do. Make sure it gets done.

Me: Okay, sure.

I ended up losing the list, somehow. The trees were watered sporadically the first week, then completely forgotten about. It wasn’t anywhere close to being on Mom’s radar. I tried to do it for a while, but I kept forgetting. I was 12. I had books to read and songs to write. Watering trees was not my responsibility. Besides, Mom was supposed to be the one doing it. I reminded her a few times, but she forgot too. The tries died a slow, miserable death.

The cleaning lady did come, though – that’s probably the one part of the list that Mom kept up with (though she did bitch and moan quite a bit about how expensive it was). This place was literally around the corner from a movie theater, and 2 blocks away from where a friend of mine lived. We had met each other at auditions and hit it off – he was as avid a reader as I was, and into comics as well. We only got together a couple times while I lived there, but he turned me onto a pretty cool comic shop that had tons of back issues.

It was a studio apartment, and frankly too small for 3 people to live in, but Tim and I didn’t complain. Anything was better than the Mildew Palace. There was a couch, a queen bed, and a floor. Mom took the bed, and I insisted on the couch. This left Tim with the floor, but he didn’t seem to mind – he claimed to prefer it. At first I was skeptical, but I have actually seen him turn his nose up at a bed (or a couch) and sprawl out in blankets on the floor. Anyway, it was a hard wood floor – I can’t imagine it being very comfortable – but we got him a sleeping bag and a ton of blankets. When I was making my couch/bed, I spotted something behind the cushions. Actually a lot of somethings.

Me: Dude, come here.

Tim ambled over.

Me: …what the hell is this?

I showed him what I had in my hand. He examined it.

Tim: A pill, I guess. Hm.

He was already fairly well read in medicine and science, so if anyone know what this was, it’d be him. He turned it over in his hands.

Tim: I think it’s Prozac.

Me: Huh.

I examined the pill more closely, and damned if he wasn’t right. PROZAC, it announced, in serious lettering along the side.

Me: Well, there’s an awful lot…

We pulled off the cushions, and found about 15 capsules. We told Mom, who concluded that Ken was some kind of crazy drug user.

Mom: Prozac…isn’t that the pill that makes you crazy?

It was an anti-depressant that had been getting some bad press lately – there had been some killings or something and Prozac was being blamed.

Me: I don’t think it makes you crazy. I think its supposed to stop you from going crazy.

Mom: Well. I bet he’s taking too much. Look at all these pills!

Freaked out, she called Clint. Clint was the son of Doc, who was our family doctor starting with Grandma. Our families went back generations. Clint was an egghead’s egghead – he had a business degree, a law degree, and a degree in medicine (he practiced none of the above, and pretty much existed taking care of his aging father and living off his investments). He was abrasive, crude, and jocular…as a kid, having a conversation with him was always enlightening. He used to tell lots of dirty jokes I didn’t get until I was much older. He told her that the guy was probably depressed and depression doesn’t necessarily mean dangerous. Her fears assuaged, Mom dumped the pills in the trash and said no more about it.

One of the cool things (to me, at least) about where we lived was that I could people watch. I wasn’t trying to be a peeping tom or anything, but it was difficult not to see in people’s windows when they’re right across from you. I’d glance over and see some guy making dinner, or a woman walking around in a bathrobe, or a fat guy in shorts watching TV (as far as I could tell, this guy never moved. I wondered several times if he might be dead). I’d look down at the street below and watch the tops of people’s heads bob past – the hatted and the hatless, bald spots or curly locks. It was actually a rather egalitarian view.

Another thing I was interested in was Ken’s CD collection – he actually had a rather nice stereo as well. I discovered Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell, but he also had a ton of Billy Joel CDs. I was already a big fan, but this guy had CDs I didn’t even know existed. I listened to a lot of music.

After a few months, Ken came back. The apartment wasn’t exactly in disarray – as promised, we kept the cleaning lady coming and didn’t put any holes in the wall. The first thing he saw when he walked in was his dead trees. He gasped.

Ken: My trees!

He ran over to them, running a hand through the dead leaves. By this point, they were pretty much a lost cause.

Ken: Did you even water them!?

Mom: Yeah, we did. They just died.

We totally did not water them, but I wasn’t going to open my mouth. I’d rather deal with a pissed off guy for 20 minutes than my Mom for several days.

He checked out his stereo, and found a CD had gotten jammed. I have to admit, that was totally me – I feel bad about it, even to this day. It was a total accident…I went to swap out some Cat Stevens for some Billy Joel and somehow the tray got pushed in before the CD was totally flat. It had actually happened a few weeks back, but I had been too embarrassed to tell Mom. Besides, I could hardly blame it on Tim who cared exactly zilch for the stereo system – I was the only one to actively use it.

Ken: WHAT.

He pounded the EJECT button. The system whirred, but didn’t give up the CD. It was no surprise to me – I had been trying for the last few days and gotten similar results. I suppose I could have pried it open with something, but I didn’t want to risk damaging it further.

Ken: …what.

Mom: What now?

Ken: Who the hell broke my stereo?!

Mom walked over.

Ken: It’s jammed, see?

He smashed his fingers against the EJECT button repeatedly.

Mom: I don’t know anything about that.

True. She didn’t.

Mom: Danny, do you know anything about this?

Hot panic rose inside my chest. I didn’t care so much about Ken, who, for all intents and purposes we never had to see again, but I didn’t want Mom pissed at me. And I definitely didn’t want 2 people pissed at me. And Mom would definitely be pissed if she had to pay for a broken stereo. I quickly ran through possible dialogue options in my head, and decided on the simplest one.

Me: I have no idea.

Mom: I didn’t think so. Maybe the cleaning lady did it?

Ken practically exploded.

Ken: The cleaning lady!?

He stormed into the bathroom, where he had evaluated another disaster. He was pointing, like the finger of an angry god, at the bathtub.

Ken: And I suppose that’s her fault too!?

The tub was stained around the drain – nothing huge, I’ve seen it several times with many tubs. Just rust or whatever. I wouldn’t have said it was the cleaning lady’s fault per se, but it was either there before or she started doing a lousy job on the tub. I knew when to keep my damn mouth shut, though, and did so.

Mom: That was there before.

Ken: No it wasn’t!

Mom: It was!

Ken: It was not!

He was practically spitting now, and Mom was getting herself worked up even more. Not good. Not good at all. Tim and I exchanged a look and removed ourselves to the main room while they bickered.

Ken: Get out!

Mom was belligerent, and they argued some more. Fortunately, we knew the last day of the lease was coming and we had our stuff mostly packed. Again, I sighed inwardly at the prospect of carrying bags and bags of shit for blocks. Mom returned the following day with a check. Since subletting technically wasn’t allowed in the apartment complex, we had to say we were cousins of Ken’s if anyone asked (no one did). I think everyone basically knew what was going on, but kept their nose out of it. Subletting was sort of an open secret in New York – everyone did it, but nobody knew anything about it. Mom decided she’d get revenge by blowing the whistle – but she was afraid to take the heat of blowing the whistle, so she sort of did this weird passive aggressive thing. She flashed Ken’s check to the doorman – probably too fast for him to see what it was, anyway, and I doubt he would have cared if he knew. But Mom felt she had pulled one over and gotten “revenge” so she was satisfied.

The search for another apartment was on, and we were in a crunch. At the repeated urging of both of her sons, however, we did not return to the Mildew Palace.

 

 

 

 

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Ah, hairspray. And hair gel. And hair products in general, really. These were a daily part of my existence. My hair had to be perfect – Mom was always fussing with it. All the other actors in my age group were well coiffed – quite a few had the miserable existence (like myself) of being Helmet Heads. Helmet Head is what I called it when Mom sprayed way too much hairspray (CFCs be damned) and/or used so much gel that my hair wasn’t going anywhere. Literally not one strand out of place. I felt like it gave my hair a stiff, artificial look – under no circumstances would it have blown in the wind (which was kind of the point – the hair-do wouldn’t get messed up). Thus, I called it Helmet Head. It kind of felt like a helmet too. Back in the day, there was a huge emphasis on the actors looking “perfect” – you had to have great teeth, great hands, great hair. Ideally, blonde haired and thin. Look at commercials from the 80’s and 90’s and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, I wasn’t particularly thin, but I had perfect hair damn it. Mom would fuss and worry about my appearance. Some of this was stage mother stuff – lots of kids in the business had that experience. Sort of a helicopter mom who quasi-worshiped her son and obsessed over everything. The hair was such a big deal to her for whatever reason, though. She even insisted I get a perm at one point (a horrible experience at a cheap cut and blow place). Every once in a while, she’d just start picking on something else, though.

Mom: Let me see your teeth.

I showed her.

Mom: They’re horrible. They’re so crooked!

I couldn’t argue, but I had seen worse – regardless, I didn’t think they warranted that kind of reaction. She acted as if she had never seen my teeth before in her life.

Mom: Let me see again.

I showed her again.

Mom: They’re so yellow…come closer.

After a while I got tired of holding my mouth open for her to peer in – I wasn’t at the dentists, for God’s sake – and shut my mouth. Cue a never ending parade of retainers, cleanings, and dental visits. They’re still not straight, by the way – a little better, I guess, but by no means the perfect, bleached white teeth Mom fervently sought.

Sometimes she’d just be looking over at me and blurt something out.

Mom: God, you’re getting really fat Danny.

I was surprised because this came out of nowhere.

Me: What?

Mom: Look at your gut.

I looked at my gut. I was kind of getting a pot belly, I guess.

Mom: You’re not going to book if you’re fat. You have to lose weight.

She decided on a whim to enroll us all in a weight management program. I don’t remember which one it was – I think it may have been Weight Watchers. The first day, she got into an argument with the lady leading the group.

Weight Counselor: So portion control is a foundation to weight loss. You can’t just have a big plate of spaghetti. You need to limit your intake.

Mom became alarmed.

Mom: Well, what do you mean that I can’t have a big plate?

Weight Counselor: You need to measure your portions. Like maybe an amount the size of a baseball.

Mom: A baseball?

Weight Counselor: Yes, that would be about the most you should eat in one sitting.

Mom: That’s not enough to live on! That’s hardly anything.

Weight Counselor: Well, you can have a salad, or add vegetables.

Mom: Salad?! I don’t like salad. And why would you even have vegetables with spaghetti. That’s stupid.

The counselor argued valiantly – offered up nutrition facts and figures – but Mom was getting more and more steamed. Finally she stormed out of there, muttering about baseballs and vegetables. We tried Nutri-System, but she hated the food (I didn’t think it was so hot either). Thinking we could use exercise, she enrolled us in karate classes. We went to one class before she got into a heated argument with one of the instructors.

Mom: I thought the uniforms were free.

Instructor: It’s a free uniform or a week of free classes.

Mom: Well, why do they even need uniforms?

Instructor: It’s required, it’s part of the training.

Mom: That’s silly. He can just wear sweatpants and a t-shirt. The uniforms are expensive.

Instructor: Well, if you take the free classes you have to buy the uniforms. Or you could just pay the enrollment fee and get free uniforms.

Mom: This is a racket. You people are thieves!

She stormed out, and we never went back. Kind of a shame, really…I sort of liked it.

It wasn’t long before we were back into old habits – her weak efforts at getting us to eat right and be active gave way to piles of spaghetti and drive thru dinners. I don’t think I did this consciously, but watching her erratic behavior made me more cautious and steady. I hate risk. I hate not knowing. I hate abandoning things. I crave consistency at all costs – sometimes to my detriment. Change is a part of life, but it makes me incredibly nervous. Change calls to mind my mother bouncing madly from obsession to obsession, never accomplishing anything of value.

We flew by the seat of our pants a lot. Sometimes I’d forget a script at home, and we’d have to get it faxed to a rest stop en route to the audition. Sometimes we wouldn’t get a script that we were supposed to have gotten, and I’d walk into an audition cold. One time, we got a last minute call to audition for Les Mis on Broadway. I had auditioned when I was much younger, but the casting person took one look at me and turned me away.

Casting Lady: He can’t play a street urchin. He looks too intellectual.

I couldn’t argue. Mom was kind of pissed, though. Anyway, this audition happened to be for Tim. Since it was last minute, we had forgotten the sheet music he was going to audition with at home. He didn’t even really want to audition. He whined about it, but in the end Mom twisted his arm. He weighed the pros and cons of protesting versus being temporarily put out for a 5 minute audition. He chose the latter. I should point out that Tim was a regular kid by every standard – he went out and played in the dirt (something I never, ever did – I was never dirty). He caught frogs. He was loud. He jumped and ran up and down hallways when he took a notion to. He literally ran into the audition and jumped up and down and fidgeted during his interview. Somehow, they thought this was funny and he got the role. I’m not saying he wasn’t good – he was a great singer and actor, too. But the role required lots of energy and Tim had it in abundance.

Several days later, after it was confirmed that he indeed got the role, it became clear we’d have to move to New York. I likely don’t have to tell you this, but rent is insane in the city. Mom actually debated running back home daily between the shows. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, but she actually sat down and did a cost analysis. Turned out it was cheaper to rent an apartment than schlep back and forth every day for 4 hours round trip.

Mom: I guess we’re moving to New York, guys.

And we did – but not without first packing copious amounts of hair gel.

It was one of those months – which was basically every month, at least to me – we were either short on cash or Mom was worried we would be. We would have a roof over our heads – Grandma made sure of that. She paid the electric, water, cable, and mortgage herself. Mom paid a pittance in “rent” – due whenever, and usually in the amount of whatever she could afford. As a kid, I just knew I had to work harder – book more things, bigger things – because, as Mom would lecture me repeatedly, “Everything is so expensive”. There were years I made $100,000 (and this was in 90’s money, which went quite a bit further). There were years I made more. And still, we scraped the bottom of the barrel by the time the end of the month came. As a kid, I did not question this – it was a fact of life. Money was finite and fleeting. As an adult, I understand that mistakes were made. The money wasn’t handled improperly; it wasn’t handled at all. Hundred dollar bills slipped through my Mother’s open fist like sand in the hand of a small child. I don’t blame her for this – I blame her mental illness. I have learned that shopping sprees (of which hers were frequent) and the inability to handle and understand money can be indicators that something is seriously wrong. I didn’t know that then, and didn’t much care. I was doing what I wanted to do – acting, music, etc. I understood (vaguely) that money made all this possible. I didn’t much care where it went beyond that it afforded me the opportunities I sought.

Mom would often spend hundreds at the grocery store, and she’d be in there for hours (or what felt to my brother and I like hours). We would wander off to amuse ourselves while she agonized over which brand of peanut butter to buy. We’d wander back some time later, only to find her staring into space – either still agonizing or zoning out completely, we couldn’t tell. Grocery lists were not an option. She could not explain to us exactly what it was she needed most of the time – we offered, in hopes that it would make the grueling trip go faster.

Mom: I don’t know. I need stuff.

Me: But what? Like, eggs? Milk? I can run and get it.

Mom: Just stuff, Danny. Let me think.

And she would wander the grocery store hunched over the cart and think. We’d pass through the same aisles several times before she’d decide she needed something there or abandon the aisle completely. She’d buy whatever was on sale – and way too much of it. By the end of the week, it either went bad or had to be frozen, and she’d have spent several hundred dollars. She would make a return trip the following week, regardless.

When she wasn’t horribly depressed – sleeping or writing letters to the various Russes – she would be extremely energetic and insist on taking us clothes shopping. She’d run out to the store and buy herself (and us) lots of clothes. It didn’t matter what the style was, or if it looked good, or even if it fit properly – if it was on sale, she bought it. I remember her holding up a sweater for me to try on. It was beige, relatively shapeless and had multicolor squiggles and triangles on it. It sort of looked like a Cosby sweater. She decided that it was “only $5” and thus I should get it. I didn’t question her, though I despised the sweater. When she asked me to wear it, I’d tell her I couldn’t find it, even though I knew right where it was. She eventually forgot about it, and other “sale clothes” replaced it. They weren’t all awful, exactly, but they didn’t look right. Let me put it this way: In my teens, I was wearing acid wash black jeans (on sale), a giant blue FUBU sweater (another killer deal) and cowboy boots (she popped for expensive ones, because she thought they made me look tall). From a fashion standpoint, I was a horrific mess. Not that I knew any different. There was also this one shirt that she insisted was “hip and cool” and it made me look like a deep sea diver. It was short sleeve and had sort of a turtle neck and was made of meshy stuff. But it was on sale! My point in all this being, even though she shopped “cheap”, she shopped a lot and bought awful clothes in bulk. So, yes, a sweater might be $5, but if you buy 10 and then some shoes and then a few blouses and then something for Tim…it’s not $5 anymore. I don’t think she ever got that concept.

When things were tight, she’d still go to sales and the grocery store. Grandma would offer to buy groceries, and Mom would get angry. If she was feeling particularly surly, Grandma would also point out we had stuff in the freezer. Fights would ensue, ending with Mom hopping into the car and going to the store. Often, she’d try to take us with her.

Mom: Let’s go, Tim. Let’s go, Danny.

Me: Where are you going?

Mom: Out.

Tim: Out where?

Mom: The store.

Me: Which store?

If it wasn’t a store I was interested in, I would be reluctant to go. Some clothing stores had SNES games or SEGA games in the kid’s department – you could hang out and play the games while the parents shopped. I would happily go to those stores. But I couldn’t endure the long and agonizing bargain hunting as a general rule. Sometimes we’d stay home with Grandma, who would make us a sympathetic sandwich while Mom huffed away, slamming doors as she went. Sometimes we’d go with Mom while she brooded and shopped in utter silence. Tim and I would amuse ourselves, talking about games or comics or whatever.

Despite spending big on groceries and clothes, she got panicked and tight-fisted when the money squeeze was on. In other words, we needed to watch what we ordered at McDonald’s.

Mom: Get it without cheese.

Me: …but I like it with the cheese.

Mom: But if you get it without cheese, it’s forty cents cheaper.

I scowled.

Me: Alright, I guess.

To put a fine point on it, a friend told me once that my Mother was penny wise and pound foolish. That about sums it up.

Regardless, one of those times she was in a total panic – this was nothing unusual in and of itself, but she was actually talking about selling stuff to get through the month. Finally, she turned to Grandma.

Mom: What do you have that we could sell?

Grandma: I don’t know, Donna…

Mom: What about jewelry? Do you have any jewelry?

Grandma sighed.

Mom: We need this. We’re short.

Me: What’s going on?

Mom: Your Grandmother needs to find some jewelry we can sell fast. If she doesn’t, you’ll have to stop going to New York. I’ll have to put you in regular school or send you to be with your father. I can’t afford this. We’re out of money!

Her eyes were bugging out, and spittle was forming at the corners of her mouth. She was in a full on, panicked frenzy.

Mom: What about your diamond?

Grandma: I’m not selling my engagement ring.

Mom: No, the one you got when you were 16!

According to family lore, Grandma had been given a blue chip diamond for her 16th birthday by her uncle. Even then, it was worth a bit of money. Knowing this, Grandma wore it only rarely – she was afraid to lose it. Nevertheless, Mom was able to convince her that my ENTIRE FUTURE was at stake! We couldn’t afford GAS for the CAR! The diamond manifested itself, and we piled into the car.

We drove an hour to a jewelry store that was only a little better than a pawn shop. They promised quick cash for gold on the spot. Mom and Grandma marched up to the counter and offered up Grandma’s ring.

Mom: What’s it worth?

The clerk eyed the ring for a moment.

Clerk: Let me check.

He disappeared into the back where, ostensibly, he was to examine it. When he emerged, he shook his head.

Clerk: I’m sorry, this is not worth anything. It is costume jewelry.

He plopped the ring unceremoniously back into Grandma’s waiting palm. She examined it.

Grandma: This isn’t my ring.

Mom looked over at it.

Mom: No, it’s not. That’s a ring from a fifty cent machine.

The clerk blanched. Grandma got angry.

Grandma: You took my ring in the back and swapped it out!

The Clerk stammered. Even to me, he looked guilty as hell. I took one glance at the ring and could see it was cheap – it was even bent. Mom roared at the clerk.

Mom: YOU DON’T KNOW WHO YOU’RE DEALING WITH!

Clerk: I swear…I didn’t…

Mom: I COULD HAVE YOU KILLED! I KNOW PEOPLE.

Mom seemed to turn down her wrath from a rolling boil.

Mom: You don’t even have to worry about the police. Because sometimes…you don’t even know who you’re messing with.

If I had been so inclined, I could have tapped the clerk and he would have fallen over. That’s how he looked. We stormed outside, made a big show about making a phone call from a nearby payphone, and debated what to do.

Grandma: Call the police!

Mom: We shouldn’t.

Me: What!? Call the cops, Mom.

Mom: We can’t. It’s just his word against ours.

Me: Yeah, but there’s three of us…

In the end, for whatever reason, it was determined that we should drop the matter, get back into the car, and go home. Grandma mourned her ring for years. And I always felt incredibly angry and bad about what happened. Mom handled it poorly, and I should have taken the reins from her…somehow. I feel like we could have gotten the ring back if we tried – maybe there would have been footage on one of the store cameras. I also felt like it was all my fault, somehow – if I hadn’t been acting and songwriting, Mom wouldn’t have needed the money or had to sell the ring. I mean, ultimately, the ring was being sold for me (at least in theory). But then logic kicks in, and I realize the truth: Mom would have needed money regardless. She would have found a way to twist arms to get what she wanted. And when the money from whatever she sold was gone, she’d try to move on to another pile of cash to blow. That was the problem, I think, that she got used to having money. And in my line of work, there was always more money.

 

There are a small handful of smells I miss. One is how department store toy aisles (and, in some cases, the department stores themselves) used to smell. I’m talking like, Woolworth’s and Jamesway or whatever. The low end type stores. My grandparents used to take me there, and it was a big deal. I’d hop in their big brown Chrysler and we’d go “into town” as Grandpa would call it. Anything that wasn’t “home” was “into town” – usually said with some manner of distaste, though the fact that I loved going out seemed to tickle him to death. I remember being 5 and skipping across the parking lot in my dinosaur shorts (and yes, they were just as awesome as you imagine they are) in hopes of getting some toy or something. I stopped wearing shorts as often after Grandpa died – to me, at least, summer was over after that. I stopped wearing them completely when I started to grow leg hair as a teenager – I truly didn’t understand what was going on with my body and was incredibly embarrassed. Without a guy around to explain it to me, and with a Mom who didn’t know very much about men’s biology, it remained a mystery to me until well into my 20’s. Anyway, that smell reminds me of that. Don’t go sniffing around department stores today for it, though – it doesn’t smell the same. I don’t know if it was because I was a kid and my olfactory senses are different now, or if they’ve started using different cleaner or something, but it’s not the same. I don’t know if I can even describe what I’m talking about, if you haven’t smelled it – it was a new plastic type smell, but it wasn’t cold and impersonal. It was sort of warm and happy. Happy Plastic, maybe? You’ll never see a Yankee Candle labelled as such, though it’d make me laugh my ass off if there was.

Another smell that I miss is the way video stores used to smell – back when they were video stores, I mean. Like…80’s, maybe early to mid 90’s. I remember walking with my Mom up and down the aisles, picking up the video tape sleeves that had Styrofoam blocks inside. I don’t know how to describe this smell either, except that it smelled like VHS tapes, Styrofoam and maybe popcorn. One would think that this smell went away with the big switch to DVD – and it did – but it faded  significantly when VHS tapes became less expensive (or video stores got too lazy) and just started stocking the shelves with the tapes themselves. So maybe what I was smelling was the Styrofoam after all. Hm.

The smell that brings back the most for me, though – the one that literally is like a kick in the head to me – is fax paper. I’m talking before they switched to plain paper – that doesn’t really have a smell – but the old, quasi shiny paper that used to come in a roll. I used to get scripts faxed all the time – in the days before we invested in a fax machine for the house, we’d go down the street to a stationary store and pick up the faxes there. Sometimes we’d actually go there and wait for the fax. Sometimes we’d have to run in, grab it, and take off, if the audition and fax came in the same day. I used to love how shiny the paper was – it was actually really sensitive. If I pressed my fingernails into it, it would leave little gray imprints in the paper. Not necessarily indentations, mind you, but marks. Hell…if I had wanted to (and often I did) I could write with something – say, a pin or a quarter – and make designs on the paper. I got faxes so much that I started anticipating the smell. To me, it smelled like opportunity and success. I remember being seriously disappointed when they switched paper types and it stopped smelling.

Anyway, one of the things the used to do with scripts and sides was go through it with a fat black Sharpie and X out entire parts. Sometimes this was because a scene was changed (or removed) – sometimes it was for clarity. In other words, they were telling you that your part started below the X, so don’t bother reading through the Sharpie. I always read the crossed out parts, though. Always. It provided insight into the characters, or enlightened you about what was going on in the script in terms of the big picture. Another thing about old faxes? They weren’t the clearest. Sometimes a word would come through blurry. Or not at all. So I’d have to sit there and pick through the script – guessing at which words were supposed to fill in the blanks. I got it right, too, more often than not – that’s something I was always pretty proud of myself for.

I also got really good at reading between the lines with life too. I got into the habit of never taking anything at face value. I could often tell something was wrong with people – sometimes even before they knew themselves – and picked and questioned and dug until they told me (or figured out that there was indeed something wrong). If someone said something as simple as “good morning”, it was full of nuance. I sifted through it, seeking to glean any nuggets of meaning. When they said “good morning” did they mean it was a good morning, or they wished it was a better morning? Or were they being sarcastic? In a lot of ways, I was my mother’s son. I wasn’t crazy or paranoid – I was just raised that way. It’s a habit (or a trait?) that cost me a lot of relationships and made me incredibly awkward socially (at least as a teenager). I think it made people around me nervous because I was nervous. My wondering if they were okay made them wonder if they were really okay. And it sort of created a spiral of self doubt and hysteria. Frankly, it probably didn’t have the greatest impact on Mom either.

I just realized that all my favorite smells – or at least a lot of them – are synthetic. Ask anyone what their favorite smell is – a freshly mowed lawn, flowers, rain. My favorite smells were all manufactured. I wonder what that says about me.

I’ve written a lot of negatives about my childhood – the constant running around, money woes, Mom’s paranoia and delusions. But it was also an age of wonder, at least for me. Someone told me once that everything casts a shadow –  the bigger the thing is, the longer the shadow it has. I think now that the good that happened must have been significant indeed. My tendency has been to focus on all those negatives (the shadows, if you will) because many of them are manifested in the issues I now struggle with daily. But today I feel as if I’ve gained a fresh perspective – It wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t all good. Maybe that’s life. Actually, scratch the maybe. It is life.

Let me explain what I mean about it being an age of wonder for me. Everything was electric. Possibilities abounded in such a way as if they were almost tangible. Every possible future lay before me, in a series of alternate universes – and they were all exceedingly wonderful. In a very real way, magic existed for me. I had amazing, wonderful mentors who thought the world of me. And if knowledge was truly power, these men were princes and kings. I was doing things with my life that most adults only dreamed of, or struggled for years to achieve and yet still couldn’t make happen. It was almost (at least to my young mind) as if I waved my hand and willed this life into being. Maybe I did. I was seconds away from writing the next top 10 hit song (none of my songs ever charted or anything, but that point I’m driving at is the feeling). I was seconds away from a big break in film or TV, or booking a huge commercial and feeding the family for months on end with a couple hours work (this latter did occur, and the thrill – the feeling – was tremendous). Moreover, I was a Wunderkind – Mom said so, Uncle Richard knew so, and everyone I met seemed to think some glorious future was unfolding before me. I’m sure a lot of kids get this, but Uncle Richard once told me – quite seriously – that I could be President. We sat down one day and charted out what my campaign platform might be.

Me: I want to do that, maybe. But the music and the acting…that comes first for now. I’ll get to that later.

Uncle Richard laughed.

Even the delusions themselves had a sort of upside to them. Mom’s fear that I would be assassinated or was being stopped by shadowy figures who feared my success was the shadow. The thing that cast the shadow? I was incredibly important – possibly monumentally so. Destined for greatness. Yes, it gave me a big head. But it’s a hell of a nice thing to think every once in a while. I wish I could believe it with the same fervor I did as a youth.

If I wasn’t in the act of conquering, I was planning my next conquest. I was doing. I was being. I was on fire. Even if some part of it – say, 50% – was an illusion, it wasn’t a bad one. I miss it.

I got a call to work on Home Alone 2 – not as an on camera actor, but as someone who sang for the soundtrack. I sang My Christmas Tree (which, if you’ve seen the film, you no doubt know). I got to meet Alan Menkin – the guy who would go on to score Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast and all that. My path actually crossed with him several times over the years, but I’ll get to that. It’s not a story that belongs here. The song itself was actually a proper song – much longer than it was portrayed in the film. Menkin was pissed that the Powers That Be insisted he whittle his song down to a nub. They also ran into some problems because Macaulay Culkin couldn’t sing – and in the movie, he’s supposed to do some sort of solo. Well, they auditioned a bunch of us from the recording to be his voice. I didn’t get the part, but I was pretty damn proud to be in the project. The composers even autographed my sheet music for me – it hangs in my studio to this day.

Mom excitedly pulled me aside as we left. She pointed to Jack Feldman, the other composer from the song, and whispered in sheer delight.

Mom: It’s a Russ!

Russes were popping up everywhere it seemed. That was also magic, I suppose.

And what is magic, really, but the ability to change the world in which we live and make it something more? A bush that speaks and burns but does not consume itself, for instance, or a statue springing to life? What I’m driving at is that it’s a change in perception. Perhaps that statue didn’t spring to life at all – perhaps it was a trick of an overactive imagination.  Perhaps that bush will eventually burn up, and we are hearing voices because we’ve skipped our daily medications. We take this to be magic, and it becomes such because of our belief – regardless of how mistaken that belief may be. Looking back at this with the practiced eye of a skeptic – and believe me, I have learned the hard way that it’s safer to be skeptical – much is missed. The skeptic is safer in his cozy armchair, with his books and his charts and his diagrams than the mad prophet out in the desert searching for magic. You can get burned out on magic – I certainly did – and I traded a world where I was a king pursued by shadowy hordes for one of logic and reason. I thought, then, that this was the only way to stay sane – after all, Peter Pan’s companions couldn’t stay in Never Never Land forever. They had to at least touch base with the real world and put their feet on the earth. But in doing so, they forgot how to fly. So my point, if I have one, is this: Time has made me a skeptic. I have put away foolish beliefs. I have tossed out once treasured truths that, when held up to the cold light of fact were little more than fantasy. But I’m learning – slowly, because I can be rather thick – that there is more to life than logic and reason and things visible only to the naked eye. I am a skeptic that wants to believe.

There’s a recently acquired Polaroid on my fridge these days. It’s was taken some time ago – maybe in ’90 or ’91 – and it’s my first audition with what would turn out to be my longtime agent. We reconnected recently (or, more specifically, Mom reconnected with her) and she passed along this Polaroid. It’s just a basic shot of me, at 8 or whatever, at the agent’s office. They wrote notes on the back: Cute kid, good reader. I see that kid, shoulders straight, starry eyed, and marching toward what can only be a glorious future. Every morning, we stare at each other across time and space – me, the depressed 30 year old and him the idealistic Wunderkind. I am not anything like he would have wanted to turn out, I’m sure. And he’s so very young, and has no idea what’s ahead – the soaring highs and the crippling lows. I would tell him about it – warn him, prepare him, comfort him. I wouldn’t tell him everything will be okay, because it won’t. Not terrible, I suppose – it could be much, much worse – but certainly not what he imagines. But the past is the past, and as they say, it is another country. I have a passport, but I am no longer a resident. I’ve often wondered how the two of us would interact – Past Me, and Future Me. I don’t expect we’d get along very well – Future Me would think Past Me was naive, full of himself, and wound way, way too tight. Past Me would think Future Me was a mopey underachiever who somehow ruined (or allowed to be ruined) Past Me’s plans. I think they’d strangle each other in all of 2 seconds.

Past Me: Get off your ass and do it! You know you can! Why are you being so freaking lazy?

Future Me: You don’t have any idea what I’ve been through! Just wait and see. You’re in for some real surprises, kid.

Is that normal, to feel like past you/future you wouldn’t get along at all? Hm.

When I was about 10, Mom started seriously researching family history – she was insistent that Grandpa told us we were related to Arthur Freed – a famous composer and film producer from the golden age of Hollywood. And when I say that she did research, I mean I did research – she’d take me to the library and grab a book and tell me to read it (which I did) and tell her about it (which I also did). While I didn’t remember Grandpa saying anything specifically about that, he did die when I was 7. Although I have vivid memories of him, it’s entirely possible he related such stories to the family. I didn’t exactly doubt Mom’s testimony, but I was hesitant to get behind it 100%. I’m still not sure what’s the truth – so much of my past is bullshit mixed with delusion mixed with reality – it’s hard to sort it all out sometimes. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter. In researching, for whatever reason, she came across an cousin of Grandpa’s who was still kicking. Her name was Leah, and she didn’t live terribly far from us – maybe 20 minutes down the road. We hadn’t spoken to each other in quite some time – at least since I was born, so that would be 10 years minimum. But Mom suddenly decided to reconnect, talking about how family was important and we shouldn’t forget about people. I knew it was bullshit, of course, because I knew she had an ulterior motive – Mom often did. She wanted to get into Leah’s scrapbooks to find pictures of the Freed family, and maybe get some sort of testimonial from her that we were indeed related (she got both, for whatever good it did her). Leah was a strange lady, at best, and by all accounts not a terribly good person. Back in the day, she and her husband had impersonated Grandma and Grandpa in order to get a large loan (I think it was for a car, if I remember my family lore correctly). I imagine such things were easier to do back in the 50’s and 60’s – no computers or anything. So I guess they were basically identity thieves before such a thing existed in the public consciousness. Anyway, I suspect that little stunt at the bank was the reason our families didn’t speak. Grandma wasn’t real happy about it, but Mom did her best to smooth things out and Grandma went along (she usually did this in things that involved Mom). Long story short, bygones were bygones. Leah had a small house with a trashy front yard – lots of lawn gnomes, globes, and ceramic squirrels. You know the type. Mom pulled me aside before we got in.

Mom: Leah has a…funny hand. Don’t ask her about it.

Me: Funny how?

Mom: Just…don’t ask about it. You either Timmy.

My mind was already spinning with possibilities – was it a stump (I had seen such things before)? Was it some kind of horrific tentacle? Did her arm terminate in a hook? It wasn’t long before I found out. It turned out “funny hand” was as apt a description as “pretty hot” is to a heat wave. Regardless, it wasn’t her hand, it was her forearm – it grew pretty much straight for a ways, then seemed to have decided to make a full on U-Turn. It didn’t get quite all the way back around, but it looked like it had given it the old college try. I’m not going to lie, it freaked me the hell out. I hadn’t been around many people with disabilities (or deformities for that matter) and it always made me feel funny – a little alarmed and nauseous at the same time. I didn’t make fun of them or anything – I felt really bad for them – but I certainly didn’t want to be around them. Add to the fact that Leah’s house wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of cleanliness (and the fact that I basically was all about clean and tidy) and you had one uncomfortable 10 year old. Her house smelled like must, sweat, and old dogs – lots of dogs. She only had one ancient golden retriever but I swear to God it smelled like a herd of maybe 10 or 15. Everything either looked moldy and dilapidated or smelled disgusting. After that one time of going to her house, Mom decided that it would be better if she came to ours (I breathed a giant sigh of relief when this decision manifested itself). Even though she still smelled like her house (a special brand of cologne I thought of as Old Sweat and Million Dogs), it was at least tolerable. She seemed nice enough, I suppose, though I didn’t talk to her much. We had dinner a lot, and I had a hard time eating when she was around (mostly the smell, honestly, but the sight of the hand was upsetting enough to turn my appetite). I’d be cutting into a big slice of ham steak, and get a whiff of must and dog and just put my fork down. After Mom got what she wanted (which took several months), we were pretty much done with Leah. Mom stopped inviting her around, and started making excuses when she called up. I felt an odd mixture of relief and pity – I felt kind of bad that Mom had used her and was basically dropping her, but thanking God I didn’t have to endure torturous dinners with that smell hanging over me like a cloud. I can still remember it today, even years later – it makes me think of rotting bricks. It still makes me wrinkle my nose.

When she died, she didn’t have any direct relatives except for Mom. Basically, Mom went through the house and sold what was valuable and tossed what wasn’t. Most of it was junk, so 95% of the stuff was stuffed into contractor garbage bags and tossed on the curb. What wasn’t junk smelled awful, or had mold, or was under about 3 inches of dust. Nobody wanted anything. At Mom’s repeated insistence that we take something – anything we wanted, she said – Tim selected some sort of turtle knick-knack, and I picked up a clear paperweight with pennies suspended in it. I couldn’t tell if it smelled – I’m sure it did, just by virtue of being in the house – but it didn’t look nasty like a lot of the other things.

The last thing to go were the papers, which Mom and Grandma went through. Most was of no consequence, at least that I remember, except for a pile of her personal writings. I tried to catch glimpses, but I couldn’t quite make it out – and Mom and Grandma did not want to let me see it. Since it was a secret, I was curious and pestered. Still, they didn’t give in. I overheard a conversation between Mom and a family friend who was helping her go over the papers.

Friend: …horse shot…?

Mom: Yeah. You know. Like, semen.

The friend laughed.

Friend: hooooly shit.

I did manage to catch glimpses of Leah’s scrawling script – I had no idea what I was reading at the time, but I understood enough to be revolted. With the benefit of hindsight, I now see Leah had written about 100 pages of sex stories. With horses. Not like, having sex with a guy on a horse. Her. Having sex. With a horse. Sometimes horses in the plural sense. I’m sorry if you were eating just now – it was pretty foul and explicit. Like I said, Leah was weird.

But back to what I was talking about earlier. This blog has been my passport to another country – the past in general and my past specifically. I feel a little like a paleontologist who is digging for dinosaur bones. I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly, just that I’m playing around in the dust of a dead world, hoping to exhume something interesting and useful. Except what I’m digging up is liable to still be alive.

 

I got a call from an ad agency I did a lot of work with – no audition, no nothing, they just called me direct and asked me to do a commercial for them. When that happens, I always considered it a big honor – it was a huge acknowledgement of your talent and success for someone like a client or an ad agency to know you by name, let alone book you without an audition. It was a kind of hush hush thing…all I knew is that it was an ad for Coke. One of the ad agency guys came out and explained the spot to me.

Ad Agency Exec: So, the CEO of Coke is retiring. And we want to send him out with a new commercial, and acknowledge the new guy coming in. We’re re-doing a classic add – the one with Mean Joe Green – only with the outgoing CEO and the incoming CEO. You’ll play one of the CEOs.

Me: Sounds pretty cool.

Ad Agency Exec: So we’re going to dress you up like an old man, Danny.

I was about 10. I could immediately see how hilarious this ad was going to be.

If you haven’t seen the original Mean Joe Green commercial (in the re-do, I was the Coke CEO as the “kid”)- check it out here

Anyway, it was never aired or anything – it was just an internal thing within the Coke Co. as far as I know. I have a video of it somewhere amongst my things, but as of now I can’t put my hands on it. You’ll just have to use your imagination for this one, and take my word that it was pretty funny.

They went all out – they didn’t just dress me up in a suit and tie and all that, they actually sent me to a top FX artist to get a mask done. It was an interesting process – I had to lay down in a chair for a couple hours, perfectly still while they did a mold of my face. I don’t remember what exactly he used (I asked, I’m sure – I was always full of questions), but it looked like plaster and he used gauze. I felt a little claustrophobic initially – after all, you’re not even really allowed to move your face. Opening your eyes is out of the question as well – they’re laden with a heavy plaster of Paris-like substance. The FX guy told me that I was the most calm kid he’d ever worked on – invited me to come back in a few months for Halloween and he’d make me any mask I wanted. I thought that was pretty badass. In the end, 10 year old me ended up looking like a miniature version of a 60+ year old CEO – the mask perfectly fit my face (it was stuck there with some sort of skin sensitive glue). The only downside was that I couldn’t eat or drink anything while it was on (and it was on for quite a few hours). If the mask got ruined, that was pretty much it. I’m sure they had backups, but it would have been time consuming and expensive. I did not want to be the guy that cost the production an assload of money because he had to stuff his face with a cheese danish.

Throughout the process, Mom was practically giddy with excitement. At first I thought it was because I got called direct, and it was a huge feather in my cap. But, as usual when it came to what she was thinking, I was wrong. We got in the car, and Mom rubbed her hands together with excitement. My Grandfather used to do that, and it’s a habit I’ve picked up too. I’ve only ever seen her do it maybe a dozen times in my life, that’s how excited she was.

Mom: This is it! You’re in!

Me: Yeah, it’s pretty sweet, isn’t it?

Mom: I wonder if they’re going to call you again soon.

Me: Maybe. It’d be cool to get the Coke account.

She looked at me funny.

Mom: Yeah, that. But I meant with them. You’re in with them. don’t you get it?

And I did. It suddenly dawned on me – the mask, the “secretive” commercial – was this it? Was I really being invited to be “made” by the Mafia? Was everything Mom ever told me coming true?

Me: Yeah. I do get it.

Mom: This is how they do Russ. It’s all a mask, just like that. I was right! I knew it.

I didn’t have much to say – I was processing. I suddenly felt bad that I had ever doubted her – she was right, of course she was.

Mom: Now they’re going to sit down and talk to you – give you a new identity. They might need to arrange an accident or something. We might have to drop everything and go in the middle of the night, you never know. But you’re going to have to not make any mistakes. They’ll be watching us to see what we do.

She chattered away excitedly for the whole ride home – a good 2 and 1/2 hours. I had never seen her so perky and happy – and haven’t since. The one thing that upset me is that Mom told me not to call the FX guy and ask him for the promised Halloween mask. She said it might “complicate” things with the Mafia or be some sort of test. Although I was really disappointed, I abided by her decision. It would have been cool, though. She stopped at a payphone to call Russ with the good news. I admit to being somewhat curious, and staying within earshot so I could hear the conversation.

Mom: Russ!!! We did it!! It’s happening! The Answer is finally coming back as a YES! But you know all this, already, I’m sure. I’m sure they’ve told you by now. I can’t wait to see you soon, and we can talk all about it!

Looking back on this as an adult (and knowing that the Coke commercial was a coincidence that happened to play perfectly into Mom’s delusion) I know Russ knew exactly fuck-all about the commercial. It makes me chuckle a little bit to think of him listening to another long, rambling message (but this one very excited, because she had been mysteriously validated overnight). She must have seemed absolutely bonkers.

She even let Tim and I play in the arcade at the rest stop – a true rarity, and a sign of her supremely good mood. We played Ninja Turtles while she ran back over to the phone booths to make more calls – whether to my agent, or Russ, I didn’t know. It didn’t really matter to me because I was busy with Leonardo and the gang kicking Foot Soldier ass.

In the end, of course, none of us got new identities as famous people. No mysterious meeting was set up between us and the Mafia. I didn’t become famous or more successful with the help of a shadowy group of powerful men. Life just went on as it always did. As the months passed, Mom became more and more unsettled by this fact. I did too, but I didn’t tell her that. I started to wonder what all this meant. She began to worry openly about whether or not they changed their minds. Did we do or say something wrong? Was another person picked in my place? Did they not think we were good enough? Russ and I were peppered with such questions – and I knew exactly as much as he did. Long, rambling conversations ensued – none of them very positive. Late night chats where Mom wandered into my bedroom at 2 AM became more of a regular thing. She worried a lot. So did I.

I do find it somewhat amazing at how this played into her fantasies, but obviously special effects makeup and masks exist. So do surprise celebrations for outgoing CEOs. It bolstered my faith in my mother, at least until I got a little older. It covered up cracks that had started to show in her delusions and made it look a little more plausible. I know now that she would have taken almost anything and formed it to fit her world – and she would have done so with the same faith that others would tell you the earth is round or the sky is blue. To someone with her condition, everything means something and everything could mean anything. It is to be analyzed, refined, obsessed and wept  over. As Freud once famously said, though, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a mask is just a mask.