Monthly Archives: October 2015

Gristle or Treat!


Aside from mom and sis, there’s little I miss about the East Coast since leaving there 15 years ago.

Space  and free time are as rare as plutonium. There’s a palpable tension and gruffness. East Coasters love to bitch about how out of touch California is with real Americans. But I defy anyone to find a state more American than California; after all, 1 out of every 8 Americans chooses to live here.

And the weather there is miserable. Trade winds may blow West to East, but hurricane winds blow in the opposite direction, straight to the East Coast. A Bronx Cheer from Mother Nature.

But the East Coast does get one thing right: All Hallows Eve. The packed-in housing is a trick-or-treaters delight. And, if it doesn’t rain, the fall air feels good when you’re wearing a latex head. I love latex heads.

I have a few. Ultraman. A mentally troubled clown. clown The Joker.

My favorite, though, is headless. Just a latex mask of a neck stump — with the decapitated head attached to a fake rubber hand so you can put your own inside the skull and move the mouth. My ex-wife and I would unpack it every October for our haunted house party, which drew friends from out of state and costumed kids, literally, by the hundreds to our front door. denverrocks



But we had to tone it down after one child nearly died of fright. Well, that and blunt force trauma.

It was Halloween 1998, and Spencer flew in for the annual ritual. That year, he decided to don a creepy skeleton costume and hide behind the side rails of our front porch to “greet” unsuspecting visitors. Half of which were moms, who apparently thought it hilarious to visit a haunted house that could cause their children to lose control of the bladders or bowels.

That year was our biggest Halloween turnout. At least 250 kids (we counted the scant leftover candy). At least a dozen moms drove kids from their neighborhoods to our house, which was sprinkled with Bates Motel signs, tombstones and severed limbs, all blinking and rotting to Halloween sound effects of creaks and moans and screams. I would have made a great dad.

As the night wound down, a station wagon pulled to our front curb. I peeked through the inconspicuous slits in the collar bone to find a black woman, perhaps in her mid-30’s, pulling up with her daughter, about six and in a princess costume,  in the back seat. DSCN0290

The mother hopped out, ran back to open her daughter’s door. But the girl, seeing the grisly scene, shook her head. No way she’s risking life and limb for a goddamn mini Baby Ruth.

But mom wasn’t having it. She opened the door and physically pulled her from the car, carrying her to the foot of the porch staircase. The girl again shook her head, but mom assured everything would be all right, and pushed her toward the nine steps.

Reluctantly, girl ascended. I whispered to Spencer to not pop out from the side, that this girl was truly unnerved. She took each step deliberately, as one would take up an executioner’s gallows. When she emerged on the porch, she stretched her arm as f a r o u t as she could for the candy bowl, as if she were touching a boy with cooties. I didn’t even make the the mouth move. Just a bloody head in a candy bowl, surely a restrained touch. Like I said, dad material.

No matter. Once she got the candy bar, girl turned and ran. Fast. And leapt from the top stair. Far. Hollywood stuntmen wouldn’t make that leap without protective gear and a padded floor.

Not Princess Stuntgirl. She took off and was caught at the foot of the steps by her mom, who was in a fit of hysterical laughter. I pulled off the mask and ran to the porch edge.

“Sorry!” I called out to the woman. “Don’t worry!” the mom responded, still chuckling as she carried the girl back to the car, though she need not have carried, the girl clutched so. “She’s a little scaredy cat.”

The houses here in L.A. are too spread out to score much of a payday on Halloween. I get a dozen kids, at most. Still, I love the night, and will put the dogs in costume. Esme gets a faux leather jacket that makes her look like a gangster (or that she’s into sadomachism). Teddy gets a dunce cap.

But I always put a “Beware of Dog” sign out, so that, instead of coming to the door, kids ring the doorbell, safe outside the gated front entrance.

I wouldn’t want kids losing their heads.





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Breaking Small (or The Revenge of the Tighty Whities)


It’s been a rough year for Breaking Bad junkies.

First, we had to go cold turkey when the finest drama on television concluded its remarkable run. Then Aaron Paul starred in the abysmal Need for Speed. Bryan Cranston took a forgettable role in Godzilla (though he redeems himself playing a legendary screenwriter in Trumbo). And we won’t discuss  Metastasis, the Spanish-language remake of the series that turned out muy mal.


Even the Vince Gilligan-helmed Better Call Saul, the prequel to Breaking Bad, lacks the tension (though not the dark absurdity) of its source material. Besides, Season Two doesn’t even begin until 2016.

But like a rush of Blue Meth to the market, a show has emerged from BB‘s ashes that not only takes its cues from the dusty drama; it eerily parallels the spectacled odyssey of Walter White.

Say hello to Fargo, Season Two.

Violent, gory and grinning with a wicked sense of humor, Fargo has established itself as the finest crime drama on television. And by avoiding the sophomore jinx that beset shows like The Killing and True Detective, Fargo towers as TV’s best “anthology” series, in which plots and, sometimes, entire casts, reset with each new season.

Such was the challenge of Fargo, which won 10 Emmys last year. But instead of mimicking the first season, which was really an homage to all Coen Brothers films (Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo is a reinvention of No Country for Old Men‘s Anton Chigurh) antonchigurh, Fargo instead tips its cap to something just as sinister, but more New Mexico-centric.


  • A touch of suburban evil. A mild-mannered protagonist (Jesse Plemons) tries to live a quiet, domestic life, but finds he has a knack for the macabre (even in tighty whities). Unlike Walter White’s “molecular dissolution” of victims, Ed Blomquist chooses to turn the unfortunate into hamburger. overalls
  • A son struggling with physical disability: Walter White Jr. (R.J. Mitte) suffered from cerebral palsy; in Fargo, young Charlie Gerhardt (Allan Dobrescu) copes with a crippling, as-yet-unnamed condition that resembles muscular dystrophy. cerebralpalsy charlie
  • A Bob Odenkirk past. He was a founding father of Breaking Bad and the first Fargo, playing a deputy in 10 episodes. saul
  • Location as character. New Mexico played as big a role as any character in Breaking Bad, much like Minnesota deserves a screen credit in Fargo.
  • The death bell. Breaking Bad‘s uncle Hector rang a bell whenever hell broke loose, much like the bell that scores Fargo‘s soundtrack when a body winds up metabolically challenged. bell


Of course, Fargo need only sustain itself for one season, requiring just a sixth of Breaking Bad‘s endurance record. And there’s always the risk of the show running out of gas by season’s finale.

But ask any diehard Breaker if they’d take even a nostalgic sliver of the crime classic’s heyday, and you’ll get a resounding, uniform response. toddnjesse

Ding ding.



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Knock Knock…


One of the nicest things about returning to class is to see chalkboards again.

And erase boards, bulletin boards, Post-It notes  — basically any host to the hand-written word. Hell, even the (grammatical) graffiti and light posts doubling as billboards that dot the UCLA campus are a fun read. It’s like a paleolithic Craigslist.


I’ve had memorable experiences with random scribbles. I bought my first Jeep from a bulletin board ad; a scrawled FOR SALE note that had the seller’s  phone number vertically tabbed at the bottom, like a papered pianist with a dozen little tattooed fingers. I met the Lost and Found Mouse from a desperate LOST sign wallpapered to telephone poles in my neighborhood.

I almost made millions off a brilliant business plan I launched in Detroit, harnessing the power of  scrawls and humor. The only barrier turned out to be that I know shit about business. And it was a stupid idea.

I was an elementary school student and just learning the nuances and of the telephone. When I figured out how to call long distance, I began phoning novelty stores across the country that advertised in Boy’s Life Magazine (which always promised riches selling Grit magazines.


The conversations would go thusly:

“Zakoor Novelty, how may I help you?”
“Hi. Do you sell whoopie cushions?”
“We sure do.”
“What about hand buzzers?”
“Fake dog poop? Fart Machine? X-Ray specs?”specs
“All of those.”
“Cool. Thank you. Bye.

And so it went. Until the first telephone bill. Dad went ballistic when he saw dozens of daytime phone calls to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago — basically any place that had crap by the cartload. Dad informed me, with no small amount of bluster, that it cost to make a phone call to those places. Ah, I realized; people need to call you. A young Conrad Hilton was born!

I was also learning about dial-a-joke. For just pennies, you could call — any day of the week, any time of the day — to hear a hilarious joke with which to impress your friends.


One day, I huddled with best friend and co-conspirator Danny to launch our start-up. We would plaster every telephone pole near Eight Mile Road to saturate the market. We looked to Mad Magazine and friends for material.

What do you call pizza that’s not yours? Nacho cheese! What do elves learn in school? The Elf-abet! Where do pencils go on vacation? Pencil-vania! How do you make a tissue dance? Put a little boogie in it!

Graphically, we wanted our ad campaign to be unencumbered with much copy, pre-dating wannabe imitators like Apple and Google.

Call Dial a Joke! the ad said simply. Beneath it, my home phone.

And for a few days, business was brisk. At least once a day, we’d get a customer. After school, whenever the phone rang, I’d pick up, offer a brilliant quip, and hang up.

What I didn’t realize was that other people might need the phone, too. Namely, mom and dad. But whenever someone called our house, my parents’ frustrated friends noted, some kid was picking up the line, telling a joke, and hanging up on them.

After the discovery, mom offered me my second piece of business advice: Do that again, and I’ll pop your bottom. She ordered me and Danny to shutter the business, starting with taking down the dozens of signs in our neighborhood urging strangers to call our home. Reluctantly, we did.

But I must have missed one. About a month later, as I flipped through Boy’s Life in my bedroom, I heard mom coming up the stairs.

“Scaawt!” she hollered in an angry North Carolina accent. “It’s that damn daahl a joke!”

Surprised, I walked to my parents bedroom, picked up the phone, and offered one of my classic gut-busters: Why did six hate seven? Because seven eight nine! Click.

Get it?


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