WINNER OF THE 2011 LOS ANGELES PRESS CLUB AWARD FOR BEST MAGAZINE FEATURE
The Trunk Monkey commercial was filmed on what would have been Anton Chekov’s 100th birthday, January 17, 2004. I had been performing in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard for several months for very little money. A good friend told me not to worry about the money—that Anton’s spirit always protects those who choose to take on his work.
In the commercial, for Suburban Auto Group, I play a bandit who breaks into a car only to have the intrepid Trunk Monkey hit me over the head with a Maglite and throw me off a bridge. The commercial became a sensation during YouTube’s infancy. It got tens of millions of hits, played on the JumboTron at Lakers games, and appeared multiple times on America’s Funniest Commercials. Its notoriety helped me build a modest career as a commercial actor and make decent money while I continued my quest for a more “serious, artistic” career.
By the beginning of 2007, despite the fact that I had two national commercials running, $15,000 in the bank, and no debt, my desire for that “serious” career was all but a cross-faded memory in a smoke-filled room. Disillusionment was the order of the day. I’d been beat. Even though I was technically a working actor, it didn’t feel as though I worked or acted. My days were mostly spent getting stoned, having coffee with friends, chasing girls. My friend Tom* would drop by every month or so and leave me quarter pounds of weed, gratis. I mean, not totally gratis—he always needed something, a friend to catch up with, someplace to sleep, a secure apartment to make six-figure transactions.
Tom and I met when we were both studying film and theater at the College of Marin. The first day of class he waltzed into Advanced Production an hour late and, rather than scold him, the teacher stopped class to hear about Tom’s summer travels to Africa. It’s the classic tale of the guy who walks into the room and, for better or worse, gets all the attention. Tom was about five-foot-six, 125, and at first I thought he was a little prick with a Napoleon complex who just knew how to work a room. But when we were assigned to be partners on the class’s first project, we instantly connected. He understood exactly who I was and, more importantly, where I was.
I’d gone to the college to play on the basketball team and figured that film class was a good way to stock up on units without having to do too much. A career as a hoops coach of some kind made lots of sense, but as Tom and I got to know each other better he insisted that I pursue acting and film and drop the sports thing, which I did. He introduced me to some kids he’d worked with in the theater, and soon we were a family. I trusted him, thought him to be untouchable, and felt untouchable in his presence.
After two years of junior college, I studied acting at Circle in the Square Theatre School in New York and then came to Los Angeles. Tom dropped out, chose a life of psychedelics and counterculture, Burning Man, ganja farms, geodesic domes, and dysfunctional love. He tried Los Angeles twice and both times vanished with little more than a voice mail. I never knew if he gave up on his dreams or if they weren’t ever his
dreams in the first place. As he’d often say, I was on my path and he was on his.
Tom joined forces with some folks up north and, when this story begins, is doing what they do up there: farming. Los Angeles is a good place to bring his crop. Not only do I enjoy his visits, I cherish and look forward to them. But when my girlfriend, Amy, finds out he’s coming to town, she decides to spend the weekend with her parents in Ojai.
“I’m sorry, I just—I totally disapprove of him,” she tells me. “He’s a horrible influence on you.”
I nod. “Go see your folks. It’s the right thing to do.”
Amy is moving to New York in less than a month. We’d been neighbors for a while before we started spending more intimate time together. She was getting out of a bad relationship and I was a neighbor with a good ear and just as much free time. At first I welcomed the closeness. But closeness quickly turned into expectations, expectations into rented films, dinner with her friends, claustrophobia. As her imminent move east grew closer, I began, once again, craving insanity.
A couple hours after Amy leaves, I go to her apartment to fetch a lamp I had lent her. The place is cold and empty, full of newly familiar smells, her personal effects and annoyingly wonderful memories of the time we’ve spent together. Prismatic bars of winter light are broken up by Jalousie windows. The whole scene gives me an ill and normal feeling. I rip the lamp cord out of the wall, go back to my place, smoke a blunt, and call Tom to see why in the hell he’s late already.***
Tom arrives about 10 p.m. Then, around twenty minutes later, a man called Particle—that’s right, Particle—shows up in a white Volvo 240. He pops out of the car dressed in chic rags. His hair is shaved on the sides and the back, and long and wild on top. Tom and he embrace. I say hello; he notices the North Face logo on my vest and the Nike swoosh on my shoes, makes eyes at me, then at Tom.
“David and I been close friends for ten years. He’s cool,” Tom assures him.
“As long as he’s on the conscious tip,” Particle says casually. I chuckle. Tom collects these kinda guys.
They catch up a while; we all drink gynostemma tea.
“You wanted a five pack, right?” Tom finally says.
“That cool?” asks Particle.
They go out to Tom’s car and come back, each wheeling a suitcase. They head to the bedroom, close the blinds and Tom opens one of the suitcases. Inside are fifteen vacuum-sealed, one-pound bags of Tom’s homegrown, fitly manicured buds. Particle takes off his
backpack, pulls out a brown paper bag of cash.
“Gracious host,” Tom calls in my direction, “help me count?” My fingers are black by the time I am done: $17,500 in mostly small bills. Tom peels off five hundreds and gives ’em to me. Particle kicks me two more—location fees, standard.
After bagging on Apocalypto for an hour, Particle leaves and Tom and I smoke a spliff and cook some food. He tells me about business, that things are going really well for him. I’m thrilled.
I tell Tom about Amy leaving—that I’m sad, but not really; excited but, eh, not really. I tell him that along with Amy, I also have something with a girl who lives in New York. She’s got a boyfriend and wants to move west, but I already know that she’s a liar and a cheat and that she’ll ruin me, which is, basically, exactly what I want. I tell him that my “Hungry Bruno” Taco Bell residuals are up more than $25,000, but despite that I feel old and lost; like it’s the end of my life.
Tom listens intently, sitting in half lotus and wide awake despite being sleep deprived and completely stoned. When I’m done, he answers, all the while making circles with his thumbs.
“Bro, I see what tears at you. I know what you want and what you really want—it’s good. But there is this thing, bro, your thing, and, sure, you get some pussy, your little commercials—your fix, and you’re happy. You’re Hungry Bruno, the cellphone guy, the fucking Trunk Monkey. … You make some dough, people recognize you once in a blue moon and you’re sort of ashamed, but you more than sort of love it, too. You land a film role, maybe sell a screenplay, whatever! You fuck a bunch of vampirical little whores from places like Denver and Phoenix and it all keeps a smile on your face until you realize at a certain point that the only one you’re fooling is yourself. You go through a crisis, swear off nineteen-year-olds.
“Eventually, you fall in love, get married, get all caught up in that bullshit, and now you’re chasing the perpetual dragon, you keep working to become something, but what the fuck are you going to become? All the things you swore you’d never become? Maybe not. What the hell do I know? And along the way, you make concessions; everyone does, it’s part of fucking life and that’s okay, because it means such different things to you now. … ‘It’s not selling out,’ you say. ‘It’s knowing how to pick your battles’ or some goddamn buzz phrase like that. But all the while this unrest, this thing that is tearing you up inside right this very minute, that thing grows quietly inside you, it lives off you, feeds and grows from everything you covet and desire and fucking want, want, want … to be envied and admired. … You have a couple kids; your daughter wants her nose bobbed so she can look like Natasha Gregson-Wagner, then goes to Harvard or Stanford, or University of the Puget Sound, and you and your Botoxed apparition of a wife get to travel and go on wine tours in Temecula. Then one day your doctor tells you there’s a tumor on your colon the size of a softball and you spend the rest of your life shitting in a bag taped to your inner thigh. It happens faster than you think, David. So nip that shit in the butt. … Drink some ayahuasca, take a heroic dose of psilocybin, and check that fucking ego at the door. Figure out who you really are, what you really want.”
Even though I’m not sure exactly who Tom is talking about, the warning is noted. It’s always a funny thing between us, because we both know that a big part of him still wants to be an actor, and a big part of me wants to live off the grid. Our interludes fuel and fulfill both of our desires to live as two different people. We get our fix and go our separate ways.
But this visit feels different. Tom hasn’t previously dealt this amount and at this frequency. Despite the fact that changes in California state laws work to his benefit, he walks a fine line, keeping details secret from everyone, including me. Tom isn’t exactly paranoid, but I wonder if he’s taken on more that he is comfortable with. We turn on the Criterion Collection of Brazil and both fall asleep in front of the screen. I never get a chance to call Amy.
The Pirate of Penance
Aug 2, 01:07 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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