Mikey and I were joking around to keep up our energy. Some people didn’t understand & thought we were goofballs, but there was a method to our madness. Generally speaking, while working on “Terriers,” we were hyperfocused, although not much about “Terriers” could be referred to as work; it was bliss.
I was excited to be back in San Diego. San Diego is the closest big city to where I grew up. Well, closest American city. It was only one hundred and twenty miles from El Centro, but even when we lived in Nogales, Arizona, San Diego was the preferred escape destination not in Mexico.
It wasn’t always easy as a kid. We never had quarters for the arcade so me and my sisters’d watch other people play pinball and air hockey. I loved swimming in the ocean, but I was brutally self-conscious. I always felt ‘less than’ with my freckly white skin and shitty skateboard with clay wheels.
We stayed at the Mission Bay Motel. My dad told us to stay low when he parked the Buick. Before he went to the office to pay, he instructed us to sneak out in fifteen minute intervals. Years later, Kirk Fox and I stayed at the same motel and I told the brothers who owned the place (who were the same owners from back in the 70s) the ‘sneak out in intervals’ story. They laughed. They said it happened all the time.
There were some shady mother fu&ers at PB. One time K and I busted a tweaker ripping off his parents RV and another time I got called out and bullied by Hamel’s. I was eleven and the kid was probably sixteen. I held my Black Knight board closely to my chest. I’m sure he intuited my discomfort. I was hiding in the pale of a huge crowd watching people do tricks in the parking lot by the amusement park when he started in on me. He looked like a bigger, buffer version of Tanner from the “Bad News Bears.” He was so blond, he was Nordic, but tan as a mother f&ker. He had piercing green eyes. It didn’t get physical, he just ridiculed me mercilessly until I left. Typical shit: “Fa! Fire crotch! “Nice board, f&king tool!”
I felt the sting of tears; heard the hollow swirl of collective laughter. When you’re the target of scorn, colors and sounds get pulled through a dimensional cylinder like a kaleidoscope of Jungian aion.
What did I expect? Red hair, freckles, tight white shorts with the Washigton Bullets logo on them? I walked out the door a target.
It wasn’t all rough. The older I got, the more confident I became. When Scott Koreski moved to El Cajon the summer between eighth grade and high school, I had a whole city of new friends a Greyhound bus ride away. I still feel that way about the Mikes, Joe (Jack J Grant), Bill, Laura & the Grossmont High crew. Scott and I would take the bus from El Cajon all the way to Pacific Beach. It took an hour and a half. The bus route crossed Interstate 8 to Friars Road by the Fashion Valley Mall, the same spot Scott was found dead last year. Thinking of us, sitting on that bus, so young and optimistic; only God knew our respective trajectories. “He who knows the day!” as George, a brilliant/homeless/prowler of Harvard Square who-left-MIT-one-day-and-stepped-off-the-curb-and-lost-his-mind-and-never-got-it-back, once said. We’d been talking at The Tasty about the existence of God and whether our fates were predestined. George helped me write my paper on Kafka’s “The Trial.”
He shouted at me across the tiny diner. "Is Herr K guilty?" He laughed. "We're ALL guilty. We're all Herr K!"
Charlie, the awesome short order cook, said, "Take it easy, Doctor."
George was insane, brilliant, but insane. When I asked him what “He who knows the day,” meant, he said, “An omniscient God, and the date of one’s death, OF COURSE.”
I certainly couldn’t have predicted Scott’s fate. Scott was a slam dunk to eventually be the PTA dad-of-the-year. There are situations, like Scott’s and B’s and K’s, where the universe feels malevolent and capricious. These were great people, good hearts, no ill intentions, would-never-hurt-anybody kind of people. Drugs were involved in Scott’s death, but Crohn’s and Colitis ravaged him. There was childish recklessness in B’s accident, but, like in all stories, you have to peel back the layers.
For so many of us, Mission Beach was our salve. Since I was ten, I ran from the pier to the jetty with my dad or the Imperial Valley Suns. I played in numerous Over-The-Line Tournaments for Driscoll’s Sports HQ; took summer trips with the Bertussis; saw the Martins by the Bay.
Working on“Terriers” allowed me to go back to the scene of the crimes of my youth as an adult and get paid.
When people say Hank Dolworth was their favorite character I’ve played, it’s because I am Hank. Shooting in Ocean Beach with Mikey, was just like hanging with Troy Niday, George Jiminez, and my other friends from El Centro. Michael Raymond James just became a new member of the mix. It was as natural as breathing. My sister, Karina, played my sister for Christ’s sake. It was nirvana.
To make it even more perfect, Mikey and I rented an amazing house on Mission, right on the boardwalk. Even if I had to be to work at 5:30 in the morning, I still had time to do a pre-dawn dive into the ocean.
One particular day, about three weeks into shooting the show, we were filming down near La Jolla and Torrey Pines. My shoulder was killing me (it was broken and my labrum was torn) and my face was badly sun burned. I had to suck it up. On a short break between scenes, I went down to the beach and got in the water in my underwear and asked the ocean to heal me. I said a prayer and reminded myself to be smarter.
You’re too fair…
The salt water drying on my body gave me tingles. It’s a particular sensation with absolutely no other possible source of causation.
Cresting the cliff by La Jolla Farms, the sight of a building froze me. It wasn’t déjà vu per se, I knew I’d been there before. But why? Then it hit me. It was the UCSD Hospital for Spinal Injuries. I felt sick to my stomach. My immediate reaction was guilt and shame.
It’s where I visited B.
The director was still busy setting up a shot. Michael walked up and sensed I was off. He asked what was up. I pointed to the hospital.
“Twenty-five years ago.”
“I used to go there twenty-five years ago.”
“A friend of mine got paralyzed and that’s where he was medivac-ed. We’d drive up from El Centro and visit him.”
Back in junior year of high school, I bought a 64 and 1/2 Mustang from a dude from Cal State Fullerton for $700. 1982/83 El Centro was a little like a more cholo-ed out version of “Grease.” Most of us kids bought cars on the cheap and worked on them ourselves, either at each others’ houses or in auto shop. It seemed everyone had a car on blocks in their front yard. For the white boys, it was muscle cars, for the Mexicans, it was low-riders. Most of the people reading this post will remember those days, and while they were fun and wild, I shudder at the thought of what we used to do: drag race, drive drunk, get sideways in residential neighborhoods, burn donuts in Bucklin Park — general stupid, mindless, teenage, American Grafitti-style bull shi* that looks cool on film, and is fun to reminisce about, but in truth, kills.
My Mustang was fast as hell, but light. The Fords weren’t as heavy as Camaros. They only had 289s or Boss 302s, but they could be overpowered for the weight of their rear ends. Plus, being stupid, I was more concerned with putting money into the engine, not the suspension.
Around the same time, my friend K and his dad bought a Mustang. Their’s was a ’67, but it had a lot of problems so K mostly drove his truck. He even drove their Winnebago to school sometimes — lunch became a rolling party with twenty kids crammed into an RV.
K was the first person I met when we moved to El Centro from Calexico. I loved him from the second he rolled up to our house in a Jaws T-shirt and a pooka shell necklace. I still love him. Coming back from Jacques ‘n Jills fitness one day, I got jumped by six older kids and K went beserker on them with a racquetball racket. He cared for neither number nor odds — he’d fight to the death for me or my family.
K was family.
I’m digressing here, but there’s a destination.
Compounding the car craziness, later that year, my cousin James O'Shea moved to El Centro from Killorglin, County Kerry, Ireland. James was car obsessed. When I’d visit James in Ireland, we’d get hammered, listen to Thin Lizzy, and work on the O’Shea’s Ford Cortina. The kids in Killorglin loved metal and American car culture, but they could never get their hands on a Nova or a Mustang or a Camaro or a Charger. The closest they’d get is seeing them in magazines. They even drilled holes in blocks of wood and stuck them in the struts of their parents’ shi**y Fords to make the back ends look higher like American muscle cars.
Now that he was in El Centro, James had access to real muscle cars. He was like a fish who’d finally found water. One day, James and I took my Mustang to a junk yard and bought two, fat racing slicks. From the back, my Mustang looked like a Don Prudhomme funny car.
I bought some air shocks and James and I rolled by the Sears Auto Center where a friend of mine worked. I was hoping I could throw my car on a hydraulic lift and switch out the shocks on the sly. I didn’t have much money, so I asked my friend, J, if James and I could do the work to save money.
“Nah, I have to do the work. Rules.”
“What do I owe you?”
“A Dr. Pepper.”
J was a cool. We all envied the fact he had a real job as a mechanic while still in high school.
We got the car out of the shop and it looked amazing. I added some air to the rear shocks to lift the back end. The only drawback I thought Mustangs had (and they really don’t — they’re perfect and have been to me since the first tme I saw saw one in Nogales in probably ’74 and thought, “What is this thing of perfection?”) was that their back ends can look a little thin.
Now, with the rear lifted and racing slicks, mine was fat, wide, BAD.
Since K’s Mustang wasn’t running, we joked we should do a wheel swap because K had mag rims in the front of his Mustang and I had mag rims on the back of mine. When K’s Mustang threw a rod, he promised he’d give me the front rims if I made it out to his place. That day, James and I decided to take K up on his word.
We got to Gio’s Mobile Home Park sometime in the early afternoon. K was home with his girlfriend and her brother. After his parents divorced, K and his dad moved out to Gio’s. K’s girlfriend and her brother had recently moved to town, but were already kind of superstars. They were beautiful people, inside and out, and on top of that, B was an incredible guitar player. He possessed an incredibly rare talent. Play him an obscure Zeppelin or Rush song once and he could play it immediately. At the time, I didn’t know them that well, but they were cousins of my older sister’s boyfriend, so we had a connection. B's also the godfather to my nephew, so our families will always be connected.
I asked K about swapping wheels. He said it would be too much of a hassle to do it that day, but we could switch them out later in the week. I took him outside to show him my car and he thought it looked rad and asked if he could drive it. I asked where and he said a mutual friend had kegs at his house and we should meet there. I threw him my keys and he tossed me the keys to his truck and asked if I'd go by the ice factory on the north side of El Centro to get blocks of ice for the kegs.
I don’t know if it’s still there, but El Centro had an honest-to-God ice factory. Me and Bennie O. went there one time after we got off work at the Archives to visit a musician friend who worked the graveyard shift. In retrospect, I’m not proud of this (and I can’t imagine what he was thinking) but the dude poured out a rail of coke for me on a sheet of ice, slapped my back, and said, “Snort it up!”
(Not Benny, btw. He did not approve of that at all.)
I was fourteen. 87% of my substance abuse issues are completely commingled with the false sense alcohol and drugs gave me of being older and more mature than I actually was, when the opposite was true. I even remember (vaguely) one time wandering around El Centro and getting so wasted that I went home and put on a coat and tie. I was 17. I went back to an adult house party that was winding down and was sitting in the living room by myself when I overheard from the bedroom three adults talking. One said, “How the f*(% do we get rid of the space cadet in the living room?”
Being wasted didn’t make me mature, it made me dark. At least I had the pride and dignity to bail, but I don’t remember anything after that except waking up on my parents’ lawn.
So James and I picked up the ice and were driving down Ross through the middle of El Centro when we saw a flurry of activity in the hospital parking lot. There were CHPs, cops, Sheriffs, ambulances — all with their lights on.
“Jesus. What the hell’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” said James. “Maybe there was an explosion at the Nitrogen Plant or something, That’s a lot of cops.”
This was completely unusual for our small town. Instincts. Trust them. I knew something was bad, and I knew it touched me.
We got to our friend’s house, brought the ice to the back yard, packed the tubs the kegs were in, but neither James nor I were in the mood for beer. We were waiting for K to show up. K had a straight shot down Labrucherie from Gio’s to get there and we had to go clear across town, pick up ice, and take a much longer, hypotenuse route back. There was no reason for him to arrive there after us. We left at the same time.
The more minutes ticked past, the more scared I got. James tried to reassure me, but I knew in my gut things were f**ked. I was terrified. I asked our friend if I could borrow his dirt bike to ride up the canal banks by LaBrucherie towards Gio’s to see what was up.
When I got to the stretch between Hamilton and Main, across from the St. Mary’s and the girl’s softball fields, I got my answer. I wanted to throw up. In the middle of a dirt field, I saw what was left of my car. It was crushed front and back like a recycled beer can.
A small crowd of onlookers and a cop were standing near the car. I rode up, dropped the bike, and asked what happened. I didn’t say it was my Mustang.
“Some kid lost control,” said the cop. He pointed to LaBrucherie, probably 100 meteres away, “This thing flipped all the way to here, end over end. Three kids were ejected, one’s being airlifted to San Diego.”
All my fears were confirmed. My head felt like it was floating out of my body from all the adrenaline. On top of that, at the time, I didn’t know the cops were looking for me based on the registration information in the vehicle. While I was standing in that field, cops were at our house on Sandalwood terrorizing my ten-year-old-sister, Karina, who was home alone, screaming at her, “Your brother’s a killer! He killed a kid!” and warned her that if she was hiding me, she’d, “go to jail, too!”
I rode to the hospital and when I got there there was confusion because I clearly wasn’t one of the kids in the ambulance, although K was, and K’d run away out of fear.
Later, K turned himself in and the shitstorm started. Lawyers sued Sears, the junkyard I bought the tires at, the City. It seems like the main culprit was a huge trench that had been dug down the northbound lane of LaBrucherie with no cones or warning signage and when K passed another vehicle, he got caught in the trench and spun off the road.
None of that mattered. The only important thing was B was paralyzed after being ejected form the car.
I can’t remember who came up to visit him with me. I think one time it was Terry Shaver, certainly James made a few trips. We’d drive to UCSD and visit B. One time, he was upside down and he explained they had to flip him so he wouldn’t get bed sores. He was thankful that the break in his spine was a millimeter below the spot that would have made him a quadripelegic. Because it wasn’t, he still had the use of his arms and could play the guitar. And he had a nice guitar, a Martin. I remember him in his hospital bed playing “Over the Hills and Far Away,” and every other Zeppelin song we requested. Even in the state he was in, he was playing and smiling.
B had a Mustang, too. We avoided talking about the accident, but when we did once, he said, “We all drove crazy, it happens.” But he was just being incredibly generous of spirit. It didn’t happen to us; to me. It happened to him. He was given this burden, this insanely unfair cross to bear — a punishment from the universe on an innocent and kind human being that rocked my faith to the core.
I told all of that to Michael Raymond James, sitting there in LaJolla, twenty-five-years later, and he said, “Where’s he now?”
“I don’t know. I know his sister married a friend of mine, but I’ve lost touch with everybody.”
And I had. After I left El Centro in 1984, I went to Boston, London, New York, and LA. Only “Terriers” brough me back to my past.
“You should find out.”
I nodded. I told him that I did know when I went away to college, that B started a heavy metal band called Psychotic Waltz that was immensely popular in South America and Russia and Eastern Europe before the Wall came down and was one of the first bands to tour the former Soviet Republic after its dissolution.
“I know. I saw a picture of him in a magazine once, onstage, in his wheelchair at some huge festival. To take that kind of hit and to come back swinging… what a badass.”
“You should find him.”
“I feel so ashamed I’ve been out of the loop.”
“It happens. Tragedy makes spectators of us all.”
A few days later, I reached out to some friends on Facebook and discovered B was around San Diego, teaching guitar, and working at a Guitar Center in * * *, California.
I made a point to get in touch, but of course, I got selfishly busy. I was overwhelmed. My shoulder was broken, the job was demanding. I’d hit LA after working into early Saturday mornings every weekend to see my kids. One Sunday, driving back from the Valley, I decided the 405/5 nightmare was too much and I ventured on an alternate route. I decided to take the 210 to the 15 South, praying Vegas returnee traffic wasnt too gnarly. Coming into north SD county, I noticed I was running low on gas so I pulled off to fill up. The offramp sign said, * * *, CA pop. * * *. It was the town where I heard B worked.
I pulled into a gas station and when I got out of my car, I saw a Guitar Center in the mall across the street. Oh Lord. But it was Sunday, a slow day. But I knew I’d never be standing in that town again, so I decided to chance it.
I walked in the door of the Guitar Center and immediately saw a man in a wheelchair with his back to me. He was talking to a mom and dad with a teenage kid by a wall of Fenders. I didn’t want to interrupt, so I wandered by the acoustics and noodled with a guitar until the time was right. After the family left, I got up my courage to approach B. His back was still to me. His hair was the same — long, black, down to the floor.
I was about four feet away when he spun around in his wheelchair and said, “I knew I’d see you today.”
Did he really say that? I was nervous, so I launched into small talk without acknowledging what he’d just told me.
“You still play?”
B took me to the acoustic room and we started playing. He was incredible. We talked about the old days. B told the boss he was going to to Starbucks and asked if he wanted anything.
We grabbed coffees and talked about the decades that had passed. B told me he had a hard time remembering life before the wheelchair, but he had dreams where he still walked. I listened. I wanted to say I’m sorry, I wanted to make sense of it, I wanted to be reassured the broader picture had worked out better and he was set for life, etc. but it was what it was.
B rolled up to a Ford F150.
“I like it.”
He opened the door and I asked if there was anything I could do. I immediately regretted it.
“No man, I’ve been doing it myself for a long time.”
He didn’t say it with a scold-style spin, but I wouldn’t have blamed him. He’d done everything in his life without help from others, certainly with none from me, and to suggest, even out of politeness, he might need a hand, was disrespectful of that journey.
No one’s life is easy. I lost touch with K, I gathered he moved around. One time I was doing my sitcom “Grounded for Life,” and we were doing a bit where we’d take questions from the studio audience and a woman stood and asked me “Do you know K?” I was a bit surprised, but I said, “My God, of course I do, I love him!” and she said, “Well, we’re from Houston, Texas, and he told us you two grew up together.”
I thought of K, Jaws t-shirt, pooka shells, racquetball racket, asking for my keys on that Sunday, and I got teary-eyed, there on a sound stage in Los Angeles in front of a studio audience.
When I got back to the pad in Mission Beach, I told Michael I'd seen B. We went for a walk down the boardwalk, and I told him about it, how he knew somehow he'd see me that day. When we got to Hamel's, an older, seemingly homeless, blond, grizzled, leathered-by-the-sun, beach bum got excited when he saw me.
"Damn, damn! Don't tell me... Blade man!! You played in Blade and the Patriot! That shit was rad! You're awesome, bud!"
He clapped his hands on my shoulders and I gave him a bro hug. The sun'd taken its toll, but he wasn't much older than me. He held me for a second and stared deep into my eyes. There was a mutual recognition.
"This is rad, man. I'm glad I met you."
"You, too. Thank you."
When Mikey and I walked away, I said, "That was strange."
"Why? You probably get Blade shit all the time."
"Not that. That dude bullied me when I was eleven-years-old."