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I'm 40. My life is perfect. I'm a runner for Warner Brothers in LA. I ride a motorcycle all day on the freeways of LA. I deliver all kinds of crap for all kinds of big shots, and some not-so-big shots, and it's up to me if their script or whatever makes it over the hill by 5 on Friday night. Joel Silver will personally kiss my butt if I can get a script to some actress in Topanga before she hops the plane for London. What can I say? But life wasn't always this good. I used to go to a high school in New Jersey.

So anyway, you may wonder how I got from there to here. How does a kid go from being a roach scuttling through the halls of a prison-like New Jersey public high school to being one of the most powerful dudes in Hollywood? If you don't have any money, you gotta have the right teachers, and I had Teller.

Here's additional background: There was a time when I lived in San Francisco. I went to comedy clubs, hung out with Penn & Teller and Will Durst. I wrote for underground music magazines and interviewed punk rockers like Lee Ving of Fear and Bruce Loose of Flipper. I worked as a bike messenger, stayed up all night observing the scene and hoped to be an artist. Anyway, back in the day, Penn & Teller were known as the

Asparagus Valley Cultural Society and there was a third member named Weir Chirsamer. They played their gig six nights a week at the Phoenix theater on Broadway, in North Beach.

But back to that high school in Jersey where I lived the tail end of the baby-boom. It was a ragtag, hand-me-down experience where everything came second hand, from clothes to fights with parents to the infrastructure of the schools. The classrooms were packed. Even classes like Latin had 35 or 40 kids. And schools are prisons, if prisons can be defined as places where society warehouses those it has no idea what else to do with. In the old days teenagers went to work, because you were probably dead before you made it to 40 anyway, so why fuck around. Nowadays people live to be 70 and 80 and even 100 and the labor market can't absorb the extra bodies. So some bright boys got together and said: 'Let's throw up some buildings in a field somewhere and shove all the kids in 'em and that will make the problem go away, oh yeah, we'll call it school and say the kids are there to learn.'

Teller was oblivious to this state of affairs. He actually intended to teach us Latin. He admitted that he had dreams, fairly often, in Latin. I was impressed, all I ever dreamed about was girls, and the results were messy. People in the neighborhood made fun of the dirty laundry.

Anyway, like any good prison, the High School I went to was run by gangs, one black and one Italian. A skinny white kid from the north end of town, whose name did not end in a vowel, entered the building at his own risk. That's OK, the lessons I learned in how to negotiate with the Bobby Vendettis and the Carlton Truncheons of the world have stood me in good stead these last two decades. But the lesson I learned from Teller is one I'm still working on. I know Teller taught me something, but to this day I'm not exactly sure what. To me that's the mark of a really great teacher: They can shape and mold you without you even being aware that you've been shaped and molded. One things for sure, I didn't learn diddly squat about Latin. But Teller kept passing me along because he enjoyed my wise-ass attitude. His class was the only place I could be a wise-ass. In any other place if the words that came out of my mouth were anything but: "Here's my lunch money, take my Adidas, thank you for not punching my teeth out." I was in trouble.

Of course this idyllic life was shattered quickly enough. Old Teller said he was going off to be a magician. I couldn't beleive it. He'd apparently been hacking away at magic for some time, behind my back. I recall one time walking into the language lab, a mothballed relic of some Suzuki method educators idea that Americans needed to learn a foreign language, of all things, to find Teller entertaining some a the baddest African American kids in the school with a simple cup and ball trick. I'd also heard that Teller and a friend from college had formed an outfit called the Ottmar Scheckt Society for the Preservation of Weird and Disgusting Music, or something like that, and that the two of them were doing birthday parties and so forth around Princeton. But none of this sank in. I just assumed that Teller would be there as long as I needed him, then I would graduate. I was wrong. Anyway, that last year I survived without Teller, not the least because his replacement liked to wear see-through shirts and leather mini-skirts and high-heel boots. Word kept filtering back that Tellers magic career was heating up.

So I graduated with my class. The truth is I hadn't amassed enough credits to qualify for a diploma, but it was the '70's and they let me slide.

Then I had to find a college to take me. My dad was Joe College. You know the type. Incessantly running down the memory lane of some leafy campus and going to work at a think tank in that citadel of Ivyness: Princeton, New Jersey. And here I was, barely escaping a crappy PHS in Trenton, on a Mulligan, and then being rejected by the bare minimum state colleges, talk about a tense household. Finally the University of Maine came through, and I was off to the frozen wastes of Maine. The only thing colder than Orono, Maine in January was the look of disapproval my dad made when he realized that his son was not going to be a Rhodes scholar. At least I had Stephen King for English one semester, and he actually approved of a story I wrote about a drug dealing alien. Then I was in Florida for Spring Break.

There's something about sitting on a beach, watching swaying palm trees, drinking fruity-sweet alcoholic beverages, that makes it hard to focus on getting back to studying among snow drifts. I'd heard that Teller was doing OK out in Frisco. My father made it clear that I was not welcome back on the old homestead. I had no intention of freezing my ass off for four years in Maine, only to get some crappy corporate job in

some has-been city somewhere between Philly and New York. I really had to figure how to get to Cali.. In the end I settled on going by bicycle. I made it all the way to Lancaster Pa., before I bailed and hung out my thumb and wound up in North Beach two weeks later. Now that was a trip.

And sure enough Teller and his pals had staked a claim on Broadway and were packing the house six nights and several afternoons a week. Teller and Weir Crisamer had picked up a hulking kid named Penn Gillette and they were now dubbed the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society. Penn was big and loud. He would go striding along Columbus, setting off car alarms, juggling empty wine bottles and hitting on the strippers getting off work at the Condor. Teller was silent, even then, and Weir was the consumate straight man, down to the narrow lapels and blackness of his suit.

After I got to Frisco I had a sudden attack of shyness, and actually made no effort to let Teller know I'd arrived. I was overwhelmed. It was Frisco in the '70's, anything went, so they say. The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society was the toast of the Bay Area. They'd been extravagantly praised


from Gilroy to Sebastopol. People even came to the shows from as far as Modesto and Sacramento. I figured Teller would probably just as soon forget me, I'd been such a disruptive brat in his Latin class. But eventually I downed a 40 and left a note at the Phoenix theater box office. By the time I got back to the flophouse on Mission where I was staying, there was a phone message from Teller. We did lunch the next day.

"So why are you here?" said Teller.

"I want to be an artist," I said.

  "About time," said Teller. So I embarked on being an artist. Teller introduced me to all the right people and took me to all the right shows and all the right happenings. I partied with Snakefinger, went Christmas shopping with the Residents, helped Jello Biafra get out Thanksgiving dinner, and went to no end of arty gatherings, of which there's no shortage in Frisco. But pretty soon, Teller began to get impatient.

"So what are you going to do?" He said.


"I'm going to be an artist," I said.

"Yeah, but what kind of artist?" said Teller.

"A writer," I said.

"A writer's not an artist," said Teller.

"What're you talking about?" I said.

"An artist has to perform something," said Teller.

"I don't get it," I said.

"Well, a writer doesn't perform anything, he just records the world around him."





"Oh," I said. I was such a stupid 19 year old kid that I believed it.

"Look, can you write something funny?" said Teller.

"Sure," I said.

"Well then, take it to one of these open mikes at a comedy club...."

"You mean blab it out in front of like...a live audience?"


"I couldn't do that..."

"If you don't have enough conviction in your own work to perform it live THEN YOU'RE NOT AN ARTIST."



"OK, OK, sorry, sure, I'll give it a shot," I said.

"Great, try this place, it's called the Holy City Zoo, at 5th and Clement, let me know how it goes."

"OK, sure," I said.

But it didn't work. I sucked. Once I got on stage, with that mic poking me in the face and the lights showing me up and the crowd waiting for their entertainment, I froze. I couldn't remember a single thing, not even my own name. I may have even wet my pants in sheer terror on one occasion. And the guys that ran the open mics quickly quit letting me on. Although Teller was disappointed, I was relieved, and actually, I kept going to comedy clubs long after I'd been shut off the performers lists because I'd made friends with some of the comedians. There was Ralph Leland, who wore a tuxedo and brushed his teeth on stage and did impressions of people he'd met at the bus-stop. There was Len Pardoe, who was a Trekkie and did a pretty good Captain Kirk imitation and then there was Will Durst, who, as part of an anti-tobacco monologue, would


stick an entire pack of cigarettes in his mouth all at once and light 'em up, then inhale and wobble around the stage from the gnarly nicotine rush. Fairly often Will or Ralph and I would hang out after a show and go up to Chinatown for some Chow Mein. We would talk on and on about nothing, sitting around on the top floor of Sam Wo's on Jackson, towards the front, as traffic splashed through the rainy streets. We must have been talking about something, I recall alot of words flying, but we never seemed to arrive at any conclusions or uncover any finer truths. One thing we did come up with was the need for a comedy newsletter, and Will Durst and I decided that we would be the ones to publish it. That was fine with me. I could just write stuff and put it in the newsletter and not go on stage.

At some point Teller got involved in the actual production of the newsletter, and may even have paid for the printing of the first batch of500. He showed us how to do cut-and-paste layout, this was way before desktop publishing, and suggested some places to go to sell ads, such as Ralph Records, who bought a quarter page as soon as I mentioned Teller. I've heard that Will Durst, up there in Frisco, still publishes that comedy newsletter sporadically to this day, 20 years later. The thing is, I dropped out not long after the first issue got distributed. I

had become an anarchist bike messenger and I was into weird drugs. Teller, with his classical sensibility stressing order and beauty had begun to look mighty square in my eyes. classical sensibility stressing order and classical sensibility stressing order and beauty had begun to look mighty square in my eyes. And Durst was a little too concerned with having a career. He did wind up writing a column for the Examiner, but also, to his credit, he was kicked off Lettermen for doing political material. But I haven't talked to him since.

Teller and I went separate ways. I don't think there was a blowout, it was more like a drifting, but the way I found out that Asparagus Valley had packed up and moved on was when one day I rode by the Phoenix Theater on my bike and noticed the names were different on the marquee. It was quite some time before I talked to Teller again. His career moved onward and upward, and mine, well, moved on. I got married, had kids, started a business, saw the business prosper, lost it to divorce, moved to LA, started a second relationship, moved to Arizona, had a kid, bailed on Arizona, came back to LA, bailed on wife #2, went to work as a messenger, and then one day I opened the LA Times and there were Penn & Teller, playing the Cerritos Performing Arts Center for

one night only. I called the theater and left a message. My son had been in some scrape at school and he was down, I thought maybe a magic show would cheer him up. I was broke, and I thought perhaps if Teller called back, I could cadge free tickets. I've long since conquered my neurotic performance anxieties. I can plunge into any situation nowadays with barely a thought of failure. Life has taught me that no matter what, I'll probably live to have days I regretted. And Teller called right back. At first he hemmed and hawed and said the show was sold out, and I said OK, but then Teller put me on hold for a minute and when he came back on he said there would be a couple of tickets at the box office. So my son and I went. We had a great time.

The next day I visited Teller at his hotel room. It was tense. He was sure I was there to pump him for the secrets of a successful show biz career. He'd become a show biz person, obssessed with security and trade secrets. All I really wanted was to just hang out like we used to, go to a movie, get some chow mein, talk about art, but you can't go home again, so they say, and anyway I'm not sure I believe in art anymore. And looking at Teller, sitting in that sterile hotel room going over the receipts from the show on a printout calculator, I had the feeling that maybe art had died in



his soul as well.

Everything that dies eventually comes back. I keep writing to Teller. I've sent him a script which he said was unreadable. I've sent him some stories, which he didn't bother to acknowledge. And I've sent him some poems. On Sunday afternoons I often drink a 40 of Olde English and then sit down at my computer and just type whatever crazy thing comes into my head. And for all his emphasis on order and logic and so forth it's this last format, the drunken rambling poetry, that Teller likes best. Go figure.

When not exacting his vast influenece over the entertainment industry, Pete Moss updates his web log, Piss And Vinegar.

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