Posts Tagged ‘Acting’

I don’t think I understood what was going on – Mom had just gotten off the phone with my agent. I had heard Mom’s side of the conversation, and I pieced together that something serious was going on – I just didn’t know what. We had a brick cell phone – I mean one of those huge, blocky things with a long rubber antenna, terrible reception, and cost a small fortune to talk on. I knew this call must have been important – otherwise, Mom would have surely pulled off and called back from a payphone. She looked at me thoughtfully.

Mom: The agency is closing its doors.

Me: What!?

Mom: They’re done. They’re bankrupt.

I was floored. The agency was huge – one of the largest in the industry – with offices on both coast and stars on their roster.

Me: What in the hell…

Mom: I don’t know. We’re supposed to stop in tomorrow and talk.

When we stopped in to the office, everything seemed different. I mean, the furnishings and whatnot were pretty much the same, but the mood was totally different. You ever watch a hive of bees when they’re slightly drugged or sleepy? They move, but it’s like they’re underwater. That’s sort of how it felt. What once was a bustling hive of activity was now a dying colony. Nobody had a spring in their step. Desks were empty. Some people were even in the process of putting things in boxes. We had heard rumors – clients were jumping ship by the truckload. Some people weren’t getting their checks, and hadn’t been for some time. The previous owner of the agency had somehow embezzled millions, or the new owners – who had taken over only a couple years prior – had run it into the ground, or maybe it was just an innocent accounting error. I had heard the owner himself was involved in some sort of insurance scam – that he paid thieves to steal his art so he could file an insurance claim. Allegedly, he paid the thieves off and kept the art for himself. Even if half of these were true, this was not what you wanted to her – not, at least, when you worked for (or with) one of the biggest agencies in the business. Besides, going belly up as an agency  – at least one this size – was nearly unheard of at the time.

We sat down across from my agent of many years, who explained to us that we should start looking for other representation. Yes, the rumors were true, and the agency was broke. Embezzlement was suspected – accounts were frozen. The agents hadn’t been paid. Big stars weren’t even getting their checks. I let the conversation break over me like a wave, and didn’t say much. I just watched the two adults – my mother and my agent – talk, and soaked in the office. I liked that office, had practically lived there since I was 8, and was disappointed. I also knew it may be difficult to find an agent – if people were jumping ship like rats from such a big agency, other agents would be flooded with too much talent to even deal with. I sensed changes may be afoot, and they were.

We ended up moving to a smaller manager – Mom’s logic behind this was that we had a history with this person, and a manager might be better than an agent. (If you sign with an agent, you’re exclusive with that agent. If you sign with a manager, they send you out through many different agents, and you can kind of get a feel for who you work well with). I guess it was a good move, or at least a move that made some kind of sense. She was worried we’d get lost in the shuffle at a bigger agency, and I suppose that was a real possibility. I was still doing a significant amount of acting work – still making a living, supporting myself and 3 other people. Work had started to slow down a bit, but I attributed that to the fact that the agency was going under. When I signed up with my manager, I did work less. But the business always went in cycles – sometimes you were up, sometimes you were down. That’s just the way it was.

Mom felt she had some sort of personal relationship with the manager – they were quasi-acquaintances I guess – and she would talk to her quite a bit on the phone. I think she may have let her in on some of her craziness – her theories about the Mafia and Russ – because I eventually started getting the impression that she thought something was funny. Not funny as in off, funny as in ha ha. Especially as things wore on, whenever we stopped in, she’d just sort of sit behind the desk and listen to Mom and sort of have this smirk on her face. You know like when someone says or does something really stupid, and you have a hard time keeping a straight face? It was sort of like that, with maybe a little bit of patronizing thrown in. I can’t explain it any better than that. When I look back on this, I feel an odd mix of protectiveness and indignation, mixed with shame. Indignation, not that Mom should have been taken seriously by any means, but that she should have been respected. At the very least, not made a joke out of. Shame that she was obviously crazy, and I was lumped into that – it reflected on me, and affected my career trajectory.

I can see why maybe the manager got fed up – Mom would call and try to pump her for information, or try to get more auditions out of her. Add in the paranoia – Mom’s fear that certain people were my “competition” and out to get me, like Joey Lawrence or others – and I can see it seriously wearing thin. She even went on a kick for a while that this band called The Moffats were my direct competition, and taking away music opportunities from me. When she presented this to me, even I laughed at her. I stopped laughing when she bought several of their cassettes and listened to them over and over in the car, analyzing them. I managed to find one of their videos, so you guys can know what I’m talking about. What pissed me off even more is when this stuff got stuck in my head (which it unfortunately did). Watch the video and weep with me over the indignity I suffered.

 

Not to long after this, SAG went on strike. There had been strikes in my time, but none this widespread. If I recall correctly, they were striking over contracts for new media – things like shows and commercials on the internet, and higher wages. What I think the union hoped for was a short lived strike that got the clients back to the bargaining table, once they realized they couldn’t live without union actors. There was one problem: The clients realized they could live without union actors.

Reality TV started to pop up – things like Survivor and Big Brother – and as the strike wore on it became more and more commonplace. Networks decided to bypass the sitcoms of old, and just do more reality TV. It was cheaper – sometimes the “actors” (who were real people, at least in theory) weren’t even paid. Total win. What that meant for us as actors was that we couldn’t work, unless we wanted to do non-union stuff. That meant crossing the picket line, which meant losing your benefits and maybe getting kicked out of the union. I had years vested in the union at this point – a great health plan and a pension for when I retired. If I was kicked out, that was gone. Plus, non union work paid chump change by comparison. Non union might give you a few hundred dollars in a lump sum, vs a union gig of a thousand plus they paid you every time it aired. I know a lot of people who weren’t able to work. Auditions dried up. When they did come up, it was for junk. Gone were the big payday bookings I had grown up with. Those were bad days.

Mom didn’t know what to do. We had depended on my income for so long. She was afraid to get a “real job”, because it would tie her down for driving me out to auditions. So she tried things like stuffing envelopes, and get rich quick scams. When they didn’t work – and things became more desperate – she decided to deliver phone books. She took Tim and I along to help. I remember the interview process. The boss – I can’t remember his name – looked at the three of us skeptically. Me, my little brother, and my Mom.

Boss: You guys want to deliver phone books…?

Mom: Yes. My sons are actors – very famous actors, actually, you’ve probably heard a lot of their stuff on TV. Timmy was just in a movie…

Boss: Okay…

Mom: The union is on strike and they can’t work. So, we’re making ends meet right now. Yes. We’d like to deliver phone books.

He shrugged. I don’t think he much cared about our life story. We were just warm bodies to get the job done. We loaded up our car with phone books and drove our route. As per instructions, he didn’t want them tossed at the bottom of the driveway, but actually delivered to the door. It was my first real job – Tim’s too – that didn’t involve doing something we loved doing. I was game for it – I understood it was short term – but Tim was deeply unimpressed and complained the whole time.

The system was that we did the deliveries while Mom sat in the car. I remember one house we went to, and it had this really long driveway. Tim and I got out of the car together, and marched up towards the house. I watched him freeze in mid step. I was about to turn and ask what was wrong, when I heard a low growl. Across the yard was a huge behemoth of a dog – slobber was dripping from its jaws, and it was baring its teeth. It looked like it would eat us feet first if we came any closer. I was pretty freaking worried, but at the same time, I knew we were supposed to drop the phone book at the door of the house. It looked incredibly far away, though. I glanced from the house back to the sanctuary of the car – we were sort of between the two. I took a tentative step forward, and the dog let out another unholy growl.

Me: What do we do?

Tim: Fuck this. I’m going back to the car.

I was about to argue with him, when a second dog – not quite as big, but looking every bit as eager to consume human flesh – rounded the corner of the house.

Me: You’re right, bro. Fuck the phone book.

We backed slowly away, and at first it seemed like the dogs would stay put. I don’t know what it was – whether it was some arbitrarily determined distance or the sound our sneakers made on the blacktop – but the big dog decided to go for it. He started loping towards us and Tim and I broke into a dead run back to the car. We got in and breathlessly slammed the doors.

Mom: Did you do it?

Tim and I almost shouted in unison.

Me and Tim: NO!

Mom: Why?

Tim: There’s two freaking huge dogs. I’m not going to that door.

Mom leaned forward in the driver’s seat – she had been reclining it to shut her eyes – and saw the two dogs about halfway up the driveway. They never made it all the way to the car, but they were clearly pissed – growling and snapping.

Mom: We need to deliver it to the door, or we don’t get paid.

Me: There are worse things than not getting paid.

Tim: If you want to get paid so bad, you deliver it. I’m not going out there again.

Mom could see this was a losing battle, but I don’t think she really wanted us to go back out there again. To end the debate, I rolled down the window and chucked the phone book halfway up the driveway. I didn’t have a very good arm – it landed several feet in front of the dogs, and a little in the grass.

Not long after, Tim started refusing to go on deliveries. Although I dutifully went along for a while, I wasn’t much use to Mom other than as company – I’d usually get out of the car only with great reluctance. When she started delivering at 5 AM, I started refusing to go at all. It wasn’t long after this that she stopped delivering phone books altogether.

I’d like to tell you that things went back to the way they were – auditions once again became plentiful, and money rolled in. I’d like to tell you that Mom was wise and saved up the money Tim and I had made over the years – that it was somewhere safe, perhaps in a savings account or something. I can’t. The industry- or at least the part that I was involved in – did come back, but it was drips and drabs. There would never again be 5 auditions in a day. We’d be lucky if we went into the city a couple times a week. I worked, a little – my audition to booking ratio was still rather good – but it never did recover. Perhaps the title is a little misleading, in any case. It wasn’t the end, but rather the first couple serious body blows that would change things irrevocably. But if you think about it, you don’t wake up one morning and find all your plants dead. You wake up one morning and find them dying. You think to yourself “Oh…they’ll come back. Let me water them a bit.” But they don’t come back – they continue to wilt, little by little until they’re gone.

Mom used to be absolutely bonkers for contests. Still is, actually. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t worth my time, or if it was a long shot…she thought it was a great way to get “a foot in the door”, as she put it. A foot in the door is an old salesman’s term – it means that you literally would stick your foot in the door so they couldn’t close it all the way. Theoretically, they had to listen to your spiel. Anyway, she was always thinking of the next “big thing” – the problem was, whatever she came up with was either ridiculously implausible or difficult to pull off. I remember her reading a magazine once, and getting excited.

Mom: Danny, look! There’s a contest and the winner gets to play at a fair in Iowa.

Me: Why would I want to play at a fair in Iowa? 

Mom: It’s a great chance to get discovered.

Me: In Iowa?

Mom: Yes! They’re having open auditions…

The auditions, if I remember correctly, were at the crack of dawn and it would have been a total cattle call. That’s what we called auditions where there were hundreds of people. Not that I have anything against Iowa in particular – I’m sure it’s fine – but it doesn’t strike me as one of the top places to get noticed in the entertainment industry. Besides, I was already doing great with acting. I shot this idea down with extreme prejudice. Mom grumbled quite a bit about it – something about me “not listening” to her and being a “rebellious teen” – but the idea died rather quickly, thank God.

Anyway…one idea I couldn’t buck was this contest that Paul Simon was holding. It was a Doo Wop competition, and the winner got the chance to appear in his upcoming Broadway show the Cape Man.

Mom: You should do this!

Me: But I don’t sing Doo Wop. I don’t have a group.

Mom: Well, get a group!

Me: It’s in like…2 weeks. How am I supposed to do this?

Mom: We’ll figure it out.

I sat down and cranked out a quick 50’s style song – I figured my odds would be better if it was something original.

Putting a band together on the fly is a hell of a task – but it’s made significantly more simple if you’re friends with some of the top jingle singers in the business. After a couple quick phone calls, I had a bunch of my friends jumping onto the project with me – Jackie, Eden, Lisa, and Jeff. In their own right, they were all totally awesome singers – somehow, we pulled it together in just a couple rehearsals. Then came a curveball. Turned out, after reading the rules, that you had to be 16 to enter. I was 13.

Mom: So just lie. You could be 16. Who would know?

I shrugged. I was a little worried they would ask for me ID or something (they didn’t), but I figured I had come this far. Mom also wanted us to work with Russ, but Philly was kinda far considering most of my group lived in NY and surrounding areas. I have no idea why she thought this would be productive, but she actually wanted me to sing into Russ’s answering machine so he could hear what we sounded like and offer tips. I thought that sounded silly as hell, but basically went along with it. I figured it couldn’t hurt. We went back to practicing some more. For whatever reason, Jeff started being really ridiculous. Not just hitting on the girls, but actually saying really crude stuff.

Jeff: Mmmm. Tasty!

He flicked out his tongue at one of the girls who had her back turned to him, and slowly licked his lips. The girls asked him to quit it, but he just wouldn’t stop. I watched the girls get more and more uncomfortable as crude gestures were made and more comments were said. Not only was he upsetting my friends, practice was being disrupted. If I have one cardinal rule in my life, it’s this: Be A Professional. Somewhat loosely, it translates to being on time, being prepared, working hard at your given task, and having a positive attitude. There are only a small handful of things that set me off – I’m fairly easygoing – but someone Not Being Professional is one of them. People being demeaning to women and/or minorities is another, so really a couple of my buttons were being pushed. I took a quick assessment of the situation, and looked at the girls. They all looked upset. One of them was sitting on the floor, trying not to cry and doing her best not to look at Jeff. I also decided that Jeff wasn’t going to listen to anyone in the room – it had to be an adult. I didn’t really think, and I’m sorry I didn’t. I decided the best answer would be to rile Mom up against Jeff (there was probably a 50/50 shot she’d actually care about what was going on). I knew exactly what buttons to push, and walked out to her.

Me: Mom, Jeff says Russ doesn’t know anything. He asks why we’re even listening to him.

Mom’s face turned several shades of red and blue in quick succession. I immediately regretted my decision – I had used at atom bomb when a scalpel probably could have done the job. But it was too late. Mom was a bulldozer. She practically charged into the practice room, her eyes full of Jeffrey.

Mom: I WILL TELL YOU SOMETHING. THAT MAN HAS MORE TALENT IN HIS LITTLE FINGER THAN YOU WILL EVER HAVE IN YOUR LIFETIME!

Jeff stood there, gaping. He had no idea what he did, just that this bear of a woman was coming down on him with all the fury of an enraged rhino. He tried to speak, I think, but I don’t think he got much to say. Mom literally roared. Jeff’s Mom came to his defense, grabbed him, and started a (blessedly brief) shouting match before leaving. Mom, evidently happy with her defense of Russ, stalked out of the room.

The girls and I were dumbfounded.

Eden: I guess we just lost our bass.

They were all upset…possibly even more so than before. So was I. I felt dirty. I had never before used Mom’s psychosis was a weapon against her, or her as a weapon against others. I tried to tell myself there was no other choice, and I made the right decision, but it didn’t wash with me. Even if I did the right thing, the ends didn’t justify the means.

We talked for a while, each noticing that the sense of palpable tension had left the room. The practice got back on track – we were all professionals, and we had a job to do. We quickly reworked the harmonies without Jeff. From a production standpoint, I missed that bass, and I was sorry he had left. But from a group cohesion perspective, it worked much better.

It wasn’t until years later that I put together what was actually going on. Jeff was gay – a fact clear to everyone (at least the adults) but him. A lot of the mothers made comments about him. I got – vaguely – what “gay” meant, but I didn’t really understand. With some years under my belt, and hindsight, I get that Jeff was struggling with his sexuality and probably overcompensating. At the time, I just saw a bully who was being an ass…I didn’t see his struggles underneath it. I can’t tell you how much of a shit that makes me feel, even today.

Anyway, the contest made the news, and our group was all over the highlight reels from the night. During the intro, I slipped on the stage – not one of my prouder moments – but I recovered. That wound up on the news, too. We made it to the second round, but we didn’t ultimately win. Still, we got to meet Paul Simon. One of the girls the group – Jackie – did something I’ll never forget, and always love her for. She snatched a demo tape out of my hand (I had been carrying it around on the off chance of giving it to someone) and marched up to Paul Simon.

Jackie: You see this kid right there?

She pointed at me.

Paul: Oh, hey there.

We shook hands.

Jackie: This kid is enormously talented. He’s an amazing songwriter. Listen to his stuff.

She pressed the tape into his hand, with a surprising amount of force.

Jackie: I’m serious. Don’t chuck it in the trash. Listen. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.

I was flushed. Nobody had ever gone to battle for me like that before, and no one has since – not like that, anyway. I thought so then, and think so even more now – she had a mile of guts. I had no idea before that moment that she thought I was good, or  even if she did that she actually believed in me that deeply. This may sound almost silly, especially after everything I’ve written about, but it was one of the most flabbergasting, and pleasantly surprising experiences of my life.

She grabbed me by the shoulder and led me away.

Jackie: If he doesn’t listen, I’ll kick his ass. I don’t care who he is.

We laughed.

The group disbanded after that – not that we weren’t all friends and saw each other often, but we ceased to be a Doo Wop band. It wasn’t really a marketable kind of music, and there wasn’t a whole lot of places for underage kids to play. Besides, who had the time? We were busy making money.

Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, head in her hands, and reading a letter. She wasn’t freaking out, which I thought was odd – freaking out was a fairly typical reaction for her. But from her body language, and the body language of Grandma (who was reading the letter over her shoulder) I knew that the letter did not bear good news. I asked what was up. Mom got up…I could see she was shaking a little.

Mom: I’m calling the accountant.

Me: Mom…whats up?

Grandma gestured to the letter, and I picked it up. A quick scan told me everything I needed to know – we were being audited. I listened while Mom flipped the fuck out on the phone to Patrick (our accountant). I would credit her with being initially calm, but I don’t think she was – I honestly think she was shell shocked.

As I may have mentioned before, the finances were a complete disaster. Aside from somehow gaining the interest of federal tax agents, we rarely had any money to speak of. All the funds – mine, Tim’s and mom’s were co-mingled. No savings accounts, nothing set aside in a CD or a mutual fund. Everything in checking, everything together, and nothing tracked appropriately. Obviously, I didn’t have my own checking out – something Mom insisted that the bank refused to do for me since I was under age. I bought that for a while, but then I started to realize I knew plenty of people who had junior savings accounts. Didn’t matter, I suppose…I never pushed too hard, and the subject inevitably got dropped. On a slightly unrelated note, I didn’t get my own checking account till I was 18 and legally able to do so. I not only had to fight tooth and nail to get that accomplished, I had to do it behind Mom’s back because she refused to allow it. I was proud of that little checking account – proud when I put $25 in to open it, and proud of that little stab at independence. But that came later. For now, the routine was this: If I got a check in, I signed it over to her. If Tim got a check in, he signed it over to her, and it all went in the communal account. I didn’t know I was signing over money – nobody explained what was going on, Mom least of all – all I knew is “that’s the way it’s supposed to be done”. Looking back and knowing I could have refused to sign the checks over at any time, taken them to a new account and had my own money…well. It leaves me a bit dismayed. I could have managed my money better as a kid than my mother did as an adult. I probably would have kept more of it too. But I digress.

The accountant we had hired had been our family accountant for years – when Grandma worked at the courthouse, she met his mother on a bus. He took care of our finances ever since, and we were probably one of his bigger (and more complicated) clients. We made a lot of money in New York, so that meant a New York tax return in addition to the state we lived in. Plus, if I flew somewhere and did a commercial in ,say, CA…another tax return. Not counting Federal, of course.  Anyway. Mom spent the next few weeks flipping out.

Mom: Someone tipped them off! Someone sent the IRS after us!

Me: Who?

Mom: I don’t know. Maybe someone who wants to keep us from Russ! Or maybe Bob.

Me: Would Dad really call the IRS? Why?

Mom: I don’t know.
There were several meetings – we met with Patrick and the IRS agents in his office. They asked lots of questions, most of which Patrick answered. They seemed actually pretty nice, considering. You don’t imagine IRS agents to be nice…maybe sort of like Agent Smith from the Matrix. But these guys struck me as just people doing their job. Anyway, as they were wrapping up, they sort of looked at each other – the agents, I mean – and I could tell there was something in that look.

Agent: We’re just about wrapped up. We just have a couple questions for you…

I had a feeling I knew what was coming – Mom had coached me extensively. She didn’t seem to be worried about anything else, just this one specific thing.

Mom: If they ask you if you signed those checks, you tell them yes.

Me: But I did sign them. So, just tell them the truth. Right?

Mom looked a little uncomfortable.

Mom: Don’t give them a big speech. Don’t say anything. Just tell them that you signed them if they ask you. That’s all. Do you understand?

I told her I did.

Mom: If you say something wrong…if you tell them anything but that you signed the checks, I will get taken away and sent to jail. Then you’ll have to live with your Father.

This was her Ace card, and she knew it – still, she dropped it way too often. Despite that, it still had a dizzying effect on me. I certainly didn’t want my mother in prison. Besides, I had actually signed the checks…I was telling the truth.  It was all just the way things were supposed to be done. Right?

Anyway. The moment of truth.

Agent: Dan…did you sign this?

He handed me a copy from the back of a check. It was stamped from the bank – my signature, Mom’s signature, and our account numbers.

Me: Yeah. That’s my signature.

He seemed perplexed. It almost seemed like he thought he hadn’t heard me right.

Agent: You signed this?

Me: Yes.

Again, the agents exchanged a glance. And all at once…the meeting was over. They were packing up their briefcases. They said they’d call.

Some time later, they did – turns out we took off more deductions than were allowed, or something like that – and they hosed us to the tune of about $6k. Based on what I was making – which was in the hundreds of thousands – this was a pittance. Still. Mom called the agent at his office and visited her wrath upon him. I only heard her side of the conversation, but based on that alone I can’t imagine the agent said much.

Mom: WHAT THE HELL IS THIS!? I’LL TELL YOU WHAT THIS IS – IT’S EXTORTION! EXTORTION FROM THE GOVERNMENT. WHAT YOU PEOPLE ARE DOING IS ILLEGAL!

I could have pointed out that, technically, anything the government does isn’t illegal – since they make the laws – but the point would have been lost on her. Regardless, I don’t even think she took one breath during that phone call. Her propensity for epic fits is truly astounding.

Mom: HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO EAT? HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO LIVE?

Eventually, he managed to calm her down. I can’t imagine her explosion helped the situation at all. Most people in that position understand that you can’t fight City Hall. I think she knew that too, but she wanted to make damn sure they came away with the imprint of her hand on their face (verbally speaking, at least).

As in all times of trouble, we turned to Uncle Richard. He was furious, but he didn’t think Mom’s screaming fit was a great idea either.

Uncle Richard: They’re bullying you. You know what you do with bullies?

Mom sat forward.

Mom: Bully them back?

Uncle Richard shook his head.

Uncle Richard: Tell everyone what they’ve done. Tell them everything.

He turned to me.

Uncle Richard: Write a book, Danny. I bet they leave you alone if you bring their actions to light.

I liked the idea, though I thought the subject matter was a little dry.

Mom: He can’t write a book about that. He doesn’t understand what’s going on.

Uncle Richard: He can read, can’t he? Just have him look over the files.

Mom shifted in her chair.

Mom: I don’t think anyone would want to read it…

Uncle Richard: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter if it gets published. The threat is there. If the public sees the IRS beating up on a kid, it’s all over. And they know that.

I went home that night, and fired up my computer – a trusty Compudyne 486. As in 66 mHz. As in 3 1/4″ floppy drive. As in, for the early 90’s…it rocked pretty hard. I spent a couple hours on the word processor – I started with the title page, of course: THE IRS vs A 12 YEAR OLD KID. I had what I felt were good few pages, and showed them to Mom. She hated them.

Mom: It’s…not very good.

Me: I kinda liked it.

Mom: You’ve written better. You should probably stick to music. This book isn’t going to go anywhere.

And then and there, it fizzled out. I hate to say it, but I craved her approval (still do…probably always will). Uncle Richard asked about my progress on the book, and I halfheartedly told him I was working on it. It eventually got dropped. And why was Mom so intent on me not writing the book? I didn’t understand at the time, but I think I do now. I’d have had to research, which meant I would have had to go through the files and finances and figure out exactly what was going on in order to make my case. If I researched, I might find…other things. I might realize that the money was flowing like wine at a medieval feast. It might dawn on me that the funds should not only be handled differently, but actually kept track of and no longer be pooled in a common account. Which might end Mom’s free and easy access to big wads of cash. In short, I might get ideas. Me having ideas was the opposite of what Mom wanted, I think.

I’ve had years to think about this, and I’ve come to some conclusions. I don’t think the IRS was concerned with what my deductions were – I think they were concerned with whether or not my mother was committing fraud with my money. I think someone – I still don’t know who – tipped them off to the idea that embezzlement might be occurring, and lots of it. Based on the reactions of the agents, I think that was the main concern. As for the other stuff – the deductions and whatever – well, they had to find something, didn’t they? They had to justify their efforts. I get that. But what they didn’t count on, and what whoever tipped them off didn’t count on, was the depth and breadth of my naivete and how immersed I was in my mother’s world. Still, whoever was behind this was probably ultimately trying to do a good thing – they just didn’t understand the circumstances. I would have had to have known what was going on with my money (a virtual impossibility, since I was both underage and kept in the dark), and I would have had to lie and say I didn’t sign the checks. Even if both factors were in play, there was no way in hell I was going to send my mother to prison. Or be forced to live with my Dad. Still, the fact that someone knew what was going on (or thought they did) and cared enough to call both puzzles and comforts me. Who they were will probably remain another one of my life’s mysteries.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.