I learned a lot from MTV. Michael Jackson’s Beat It introduced me to the brutality (and choreography) of life on the street. Bon Jovi’s Dead or Alive comforted me during my dark periods of adolescent solitude. Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach shed light on the ethical dilemma of teen pregnancy. Def Leppard’s Love Bites helped me endure the torture of unrequited love. But it wasn’t until August of 2002 that MTV taught me its most valuable lesson of all:
I was a complete fucking loser.
I was 26-years old, sitting on a couch in Waltham, Massachusetts, stoned on extra-strength Vicodin, scratching my shins until they bled, watching Jimmy Fallon host the MTV Video Music Awards. On the adjacent couch sat Bill: part-time friend, part-time drug-dealer, full-time registered sex offender. Bill lived with his elderly mother and mentally disabled brother. Their house smelled like a mixture of dog farts, old slippers, used Band-Aids and burnt Elio’s pizza. None of that bothered me, though, so long as Bill had a fresh Vicodin refill.
“This guy’s good, this Fallon kid,” Bill said, scratching his own shins with one hand while holding a Peking dumpling with the other. Duck sauce was smeared around his mouth, glistening in the light from the television.
Maybe the Fallon kid was good, maybe he wasn’t. But at the very least he was something. Just one year older than me and already an established comedian, TV star, and now host of the world’s biggest music video award show. Myself…I was a personal assistant with chronic bowel disease and a painkiller addiction…living in my parents’ basement.
“I don’t see what’s so great about him,” I said. “His impersonations are pretty funny, but for everything else he just acts weird, like nervous energy. That’s comedy? I could do that.”
“Yah!” Bill said, exaggerated, his mouth full of Chinese food. Shards of dumpling hung from his few remaining front teeth, like the shark in Jaws, after it eats Quint. “Oh, okay, kid. Now I’ve heard everything. Know what he’s got that you don’t? T-A-L-E-N-T. That’s what.”
“Whatever,” I said, sinking into the couch, engulfed by the smell of mildew and crotch. I felt a wave of depression settle into my bones. Watching MTV from your drug dealer’s couch on a Sunday night is one thing; having him belittle you for your aimlessness is an entirely new kind of bottom.
That’s when MTV spoke directly to me. It was the end of the show and Fallon came out to present the encore act.
“It’s been an honor hosting this show tonight from New York City…if you’re from here, you know how magical this place is…and if you’re not from here, welcome to the jungle. Ladies and Gentlemen, my favorite band, GUNS AND (BEEP)-ING ROSES!!!”
I sprung up on the couch. “No,” I said, reaching for the television. I had been awaiting the return of Guns N’ Roses for nearly a decade, confident that I would somehow be chosen to reintroduce them to the world. But the Fallon kid beat me to it. Not only did he cast a spotlight on my own failures, he stole my raison d’etre.
I had never received such a clear sign, as though MTV itself commanded me to move to Los Angeles and set forth on a career in comedy.
For the next two weeks I worked on material, and by mid-September I had a routine that consisted of three things: a) living with my parents, b) cruising around my hometown at night, smoking weed and listening to classic rock, and c) never getting laid. My shtick was neighborhood creep. I recorded my whole eight-minute act onto a microcassette and played it for a few friends, who laughed generously.
That was all the encouragement I needed. It was time to take my show on the road.
My last order of business before heading west was shoring up some Vicodin for the road, which meant a visit with Bill’s “back doctor”, Dr. Wong, a resident of the now-defunct Waltham Hospital. Dr. Wong’s waiting room was as crowded as a refugee boat, a mixture of immigrants with legit medical issues and obese white women clamoring for Oxycontin. Little kids ran around the room smashing plastic cars into each other while Haitian couples waited patiently for physical exams and the chance to be cleared for U.S. citizenship.
After my name was called I followed the receptionist into an examination room. Ten minutes later a small, hunchbacked Asian man in a white jacket walked in. He looked up from his clipboard at me.
“You insurance?” he asked.
“You co-pay?” he asked.
“Okay. So whassamatta?”
I told him I hurt my back lifting weights, and that at times the pain was so intense it seared down the backs of my legs. I stood perfectly still and upright as I said all this, as though pinned together with skeletal traction.
Five minutes later I walked out of the hospital with an appointment for an MRI and a script for twenty-eight Vicodin ES, enough for the drive cross-country and to settle me into my new Hollywood life.
The Vicodin lasted two and a half days. I took my last three pills somewhere near Cedar City, Utah. They were out of my system by the time I reached Henderson, Nevada, and withdrawal set in around Bakersfield, California. Like rigor mortis. I clenched the steering wheel, trying not to move or think. My head ached and my body alternated between chills and hot flashes. Once I got on the 101 Freeway my eyes watered and I felt a torrent of diarrhea against my sphincter. I considered driving straight to LAX, abandoning my car and flying back to Boston.
“Danny boy!” said Jason, an old friend from home, as he opened the door to his studio apartment. He held his arms out to give me a hug but I dropped my bags and ran past him, straight to the bathroom.
“You doing all right, bud?” he shouted through the closed bathroom door.
“Yeah,” I said, holding my head in my hands. “Just a long drive, that’s all.” I thought of my parents’ empty basement, the newly bare mattress and my Grateful Dead poster, thumbtacked to the wood-paneled wall. I thought of cruising past my old high school, smoking a joint. I wiped a cold tear from my cheek.
“You don’t look good,” Jason said, once I finally emerged from the bathroom. He gave me a hug. “You lost some weight…how’s your Crohn’s?” The stench from the bathroom seeped into the room and surrounded us. Jason covered his mouth. “Jesus, man. What happened to you out there?”
I apologized, told him I wasn’t feeling well, and asked if he had any weed. He said he might have a little bit stashed somewhere but he wasn’t sure, he didn’t really smoke anymore. I begged him to look for it. “I think this is weed,” he said, opening desk drawers and searching through empty cigarette packs and matchbooks. “Here’s a tiny bit.” After thirty minutes he had collected about twelve flakes and five seeds, which he placed on a piece of notebook paper for me. “Wait…I have a pipe!” he said, digging one out from his closet. I scraped all the available resin from it, mixed it with the weed crumbs he had found and got two decent hits. I tried for a third but got a lungful of smoldering ash instead.
Jason sat on his bed while I sat on a milk crate on the other side of the room, holding the pipe in one hand and the lighter in the other.
“So, what’s your plan? You been workin’ on a stand-up routine? Let me hear some jokes,” Jason said.
I stared straight ahead, solemnly, and said nothing.
The next morning I woke up on Jason’s floor with severe abdominal pain. It felt as though I was trying to digest a piece of coral reef. “Dude, sorry to wake you,” I said, grabbing Jason’s shoulder, rousing him from sleep. “I need to see a doctor. It’s my Crohn’s.”
An hour later Jason and I were at a strip mall on the 6000 block of Sunset Boulevard. Wedged between a tanning salon and a discount electronics shop was a storefront, its sign printed entirely in Russian. It could have been a travel agency or a deli, if not for the word DOCTOR in the store’s window, flickering in red neon. It was 7:45, Sunday morning. Every other business in the strip mall was gated and padlocked.
“This is a doctor?” I asked.
“Yeah, she’s great. My friend sees her for sleeping pills. You’ll be fine. I’m gonna grab a coffee. Meet you back here in a couple hours.”
Jason drove off, down Sunset. I watched his car disappear into the early morning haze.
“I have Crohn’s Disease, and I think it’s flaring up. I just moved here yesterday. I don’t have a regular doctor yet, and the pain is unbearable,” I told the doctor, in the middle of an empty waiting room.
“Oh, poor thing.” The doctor made a sad face and took me by the shoulder. “You come with me. I examine you.” She brought me into the back room. Inside were six army cots, three of which were occupied by malnourished men who looked like they had just been carried off a battlefield. Bandaged heads and cavernous eyes turned towards me as I entered.
“Lay down, my sweet, and up with your shirt.”
She pressed on different areas of my stomach, massaging small circles with her fingertips, then pulled my shirt back down and motioned for me to sit up. “Eat only eggs and water until belly softens. And you find gastroenterologist for follow-up. Now come, I give you something for pain.”
Forty extra-strength Vicodin, plus two refills.
I walked down Sunset Boulevard elated, as though I had just been offered a role on a sitcom. Like a small piece of the city belonged to me. My stomach already felt better, and I hadn’t even dropped off the script yet.
A week later I moved into a studio apartment on North Sycamore Ave., just off Hollywood Boulevard. In the mornings I walked down to the Shelly Café for my coffee and egg sandwich. Among the regulars there were Batman, Superman, Marilyn Munroe, James Dean and Darth Vader—those costumed characters that loiter in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater, taking pictures with tourists for dollar tips. They all sat at the same table, drinking coffee, reading newspapers, sometimes playing cards. One morning it was only Darth Vader and Marilyn, holding hands across the table, whispering to each other. Another time Batman was by himself, his head facedown in his arms, as though he was napping through class. A waitress came by and asked him something and he just waved her away with a gloved hand.
Jason came to visit me at my new place. I was wired from Vicodin and gave him an exhaustive tour of my one-room apartment. “See this? This is a closet, an interesting closet, more like a half closet. And this? This is where I keep my videotapes. And this right here is the title to my Acura Integra. See?” I held up the title and pointed at it repeatedly. “I own it now. I own the car outright.”
Jason nodded, chewing on his lip and looking around suspiciously. “So, uh, I think I got you a bartending job,” he said, handing me a business card. “Call this guy tomorrow. He’s opening a new club with some friends. They’re looking for a Friday/Saturday bartender.”
“No shit?” I looked down at the business card. It had on it an illustration of a martini glass. Next to that was a phone number and a name:
“We’re looking for a star, the main attraction, the centerpiece of the whole operation. I’m looking at you and I’m thinking, maybe you’re it, kid.”
I nodded. Although I had only known him for five minutes, Johnny Eyelash seemed to really believe in me.
He continued. “I’m talkin celebrities, I’m talkin women, I’m talkin cash. I’m talkin $500 a night, minimum. Fridays and Saturdays, two to six.”
“Two to six…in the morning?”
“It’s an after-hours club. My partners and I rented Liberace’s old penthouse on Beverly. We got everything worked out: zoning, security, cops, neighbors, guest list, cocktail waitresses. We got in-house coke and ecstasy dealers. You’ll have a bar back and any security you need. Personal safety is paramount. Admission to the club is fifty bucks; all booze is free. These fucking mokes’ll be throwing tens and twenties at you, every time you pour a drink. Hear what I’m sayin? We open next Friday. You up for this, kid?”
“All right good. Now I gotta see some people. You can show yourself out, right?” He stuck out his hand. “I gotta real good feeling about this.”
I shook his hand and walked out of the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Finally, I thought, a stroke of good luck. This was how things happened. Taking advantage of opportunities. Johnny Eyelash never even asked if I had any bartending experience. He knew I had what it took just by looking at me.
Back at my car there was a $60 parking ticket stuck under my windshield wiper. No matter. Soon the cash would start tumbling in. This was just the beginning.
That night I celebrated. I took twice my regular Vicodin dose, sat by my kitchen window and smoked cigarettes, looking out into the atrium and watching my neighbors come and go, wannabes, all of them, trying to make it in this city of broken dreams.
The next day I phoned Dave, a friend from back east. “How’s the stand-up comedy going?” he asked.
“It’s great!” I said, pacing around my apartment, scratching myself. “I’m working on some new material, some really funny stuff. I got a job bartending at this exclusive celebrity club. Things are happening, man. I’m getting dialed in. People are starting to notice me!”
“Good to hear,” he said. He promised to fly out for my first headlining gig. I asked how he was doing and he said he’d just been promoted to supervisor at IBM. He also told me his wife was three months pregnant and that they were looking to buy a house in the suburbs. “It’s all good, man. Nothing too exciting. We can’t all be big-time Hollywood comedians.”
“Its not as glamorous as it sounds,” I said, checking myself out in the bathroom mirror. It was 8:30 at night and I hadn’t even showered yet. I was still wearing my pajamas, in fact.
Club Liberace was packed on opening night. The bar was six deep until 5:00 AM. The only celebrities I saw were Scott Baio and Tone Loc, but word was that the curly-haired kid from That 70s Show showed up at some point, too. The crowd was mostly young hipsters and hangers-on; the drinks mostly beer and vodka-Red Bulls. At the end of the night I had $145 in my pocket. I tipped out my bar back, a slow, lanky, bald-headed kid from Nebraska who chain-smoked the entire night. I was embarrassed giving him only thirty-five bucks for six hours work (an hour of setup plus an hour of cleanup), but he seemed genuinely humbled by the gesture. “Gosh, thank you sir. This is the most I’ve ever been paid for anything,” he said. After he sprayed down the bar mats I never saw him again.
That left $110 for me, or roughly what I made after thirty-six holes of caddying, when I was thirteen.
“How’d you do tonight?” Johnny Eyelash said when I popped into the back room to say goodbye. He was feeding a stack of hundred dollar bills into a money counter. I told him I didn’t do so well, especially for such a busy night.
“You got any cooler clothes?” he said, feeding another stack of bills into the machine. “Remember, you’re a star, kid. You gotta dress like one.”
I found it odd that he called me “kid” all the time, especially since I was at least five years older than him, but I took his advice nonetheless. The next night I wore my leather pants, which were a gift from an old girlfriend. I had lost so much weight over the last few months because of my Crohn’s that the pants barely stayed on, even with a belt. I felt like a biker’s kid playing dress-up in his father’s clothes.
The club was dead that night. I walked with sixty-eight bucks.
I was running out of cash, but more importantly I was running out of Vicodin. I had one refill left, and it wasn’t available until the following Sunday. What’s more, my pharmacy was closed on Sundays, which meant I would have to wait until Monday. However, if I had the prescription transferred to the 24-hour Rite Aid on La Brea then I could fill it as soon as I finished my Saturday night shift at Club Liberace. Yes! I got that great feeling again, like I had done something right for a change. I went ahead and transferred the prescription.
My current prescription was gone by Saturday afternoon. I arrived at Club Liberace that night feeling fatigued and irritable, so I bought a forty bag of cocaine from one of the resident dealers. By 4:00 I had finished the entire bag and was grinding my teeth and sweating through my clothes. At one point I clutched my chest and spent three minutes trying to swallow. “You okay, bro?” one of the bar customers shouted at me.
“Yeah…I think so,” I said, taking in short, gasping breaths. I looked at the concerned patron and saw that it was Vince Vaughn.
The night finally came to an end. I made a whopping eighty bucks in tips. I cleaned up the bar by 6:45 and ran to my car. Next stop: Rite-Aid.
I was so excited that I blew a stop sign on my way to the pharmacy and got broadsided by an Oldsmobile Cutlass, sending my Acura spinning onto the sidewalk of Melrose Ave. The impact shattered my windshield and smashed my entire front panel. The Cutlass pulled over with no visible damage. A Mexican father and daughter got out. Judging from his suit and her white dress I presumed they were on their way to church.
“Esta bien?” the man said. I climbed out of my car and met them on the sidewalk, still disoriented. “Esta bien, senor?”
“I’m okay. Are you hurt? Is everyone okay?” I was so visibly shaken it seemed like I was asking myself. The father and daughter kept their distance, staring at me like I had just fallen out of the sky. “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe that just happened.”
The street was empty, the only other sign of life a dog from a nearby yard that wouldn’t stop barking. I brushed shards of glass off my shoulders. If a cop drove by I’d be screwed. What would I tell him? I was on my way to Starbucks for a cup of coffee, at 7:00 on a Sunday morning, wearing leather pants?
No cops came. The man and I exchanged insurance papers and I drove my wrecked car through Hollywood and into my garage without incident.
I was too shaken up to sleep. I changed out of my leather pants and walked straight to the Rite-Aid.
“Sir, we never received the transfer. We have no record of it in our system. So, like I told you twice already, you’ll have to take this up directly with the other pharmacy.”
“They’re closed today!”
“Sir, for the last time, there’s nothing we can do.”
“But my Crohn’s Disease is flaring up. I’m in serious pain, for Christ’s sake.”
“Then I suggest you go to the emergency room.”
I stormed out of the Rite-Aid in a tizzy but returned five hours later, just in case the prescription transfer got hung up in the system. Also on the off chance a different pharmacist was working—a more sympathetic, compassionate one.
“He’s back,” I heard someone murmur behind the pharmacy counter. The original pharmacist from earlier appeared. I promptly turned around and left as he mentioned something about calling the police.
I was back at my studio at 4:00. Some of the other tenants were barbecuing in the atrium. I held my hand to my ear and pretended to talk on a cell phone as I walked past them.
I drew my blinds and turned the volume of my TV up to drown out the sound of amity coming from the barbecue. Then I got in bed, pulled the covers over my head and started counting time in twenty-minute increments. Only forty-four to go until the pharmacy opened at seven tomorrow. I could make it. I would make it.
* * * *
“Dude, you killed it. You were great. I mean that,” Jason said to me as I came out through the Laugh Factory’s back door. He gave me a big hug and slapped me on the back. The group of friends who came with him congratulated me as well.
It was a good show. I did five minutes in an open mike showcase with ten other rookie comics. There were maybe thirty people in the audience, which isn’t bad for amateur night. I started with the parents’ basement bit and then improvised; I talked about my Crohn’s Disease, about strip mall doctors, about the drive to L.A., about Johnny Eyelash and the b-list actors at Club Liberace, and about the car accident. The Crohn’s part got the biggest laugh; apparently people really like to hear about unfortunate assholes.
“When are you leaving?” Jason asked.
“Tomorrow,” I said.
“So that’s that, huh? One show and then call it a career? I’m telling ya, you had something up there, man. You know what they say, there’s no greater tragedy than wasted talent.”
“I’m sure I can think of a few others,” I said.
The next morning I packed up my 1993 Jeep Wrangler, paid for by the insurance I got for my totaled Acura. I dropped my apartment key in the dropbox outside the building manager’s office, took one last breath of cool, early morning, eucalyptus-smelling air, and said goodbye to Hollywood. I drove down Gower, past the Capitol Records building, stopped at a Jack-In-The-Box, then made my way to the 101 South.
In my pocket were forty-five Vicodin, which I bought from one of the dealers at Club Liberace. Enough to get to Boston, if I drove fast.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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