With the exception of a ﬁve-month stint in Los Angeles, I’ve spent my entire life living in New Jersey and Queens, and it shows. I am a stereotypical northeasterner. I’m always in a rush. I’ve attracted stares from out-of-towners when I’ve shoved past someone blocking the subway door. I’ve considered kicking a man’s crutches out from under his feet because I thought he was going to make me late. It’s not like I think this behavior is okay. It’s just that I’ve spent more time sitting in Lincoln Tunnel trafﬁc than most kids spend in front of the TV.
For a full six months after entering therapy, I felt shell-shocked and alone. I’d been put on medication, and was experiencing an array of side effects. Some were funny (Depakote made me fall asleep at the dinner table in the middle of a date); others were chilling (the muscle relaxant that accompanied my Risperdal warned of possible sexual side effects; I never dreamt that meant I would ejaculate what was for all intents and purposes water). It wasn’t easy, but after a lifetime of anger, and a college career that only saw me grow more and more out of control, for the ﬁrst time I’d decided to get help and try to heal. I gave up drinking. I made it a point to actively search for the positive side of everything.
And perhaps as a result, after years of self-doubt and self-destructive behavior, I was ﬁnally dropping all of my internal defenses and starting to look at all the possibilities life offered.
So despite my loyalty and devotion to New Jersey, despite my long-standing job at Weird NJ, and despite the fact that it was the only home I’d ever known, when Matt Besser, the owner of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, called me in January of 2004 about a writing job for the Comedy Central show Crossballs (which he was executive producing), I knew I had no choice.
“I read your submission packet,” he began. “You’re not going to be a writer for my show, Chris.”
I was let down. “That’s okay, Matt. Thanks for giving me a shot.”
“I’m not done,” he interrupted. “I know you write for your magazine. And I know you’re funny. So if you want to come out here and be a writers’ assistant, I promise you that by the end of it, I will teach you how to write comedy.”
I didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” I told him. “I’ll do it.”
“This job will not be glamorous,” he told me. “And it will not be easy.”
“That’s okay,” I told him. “I know how to work hard.”
“Then be at work Monday, in LA,” he told me. It was late on Thursday.
It was my ﬁrst real job in entertainment and I was nervous, scared, and excited. But despite my anxiety, I was actually more than happy to make the move to the West Coast. I imagined that, in addition to being a good career opportunity, it would provide me with not just a change of setting but a change in attitude, a fresh start. Los Angeles could be my own Shangri-la, a place where I could let my guard down. Relax. Give the veins in my forehead a break for a while. So with that one phone call I decided to drop my entire life in exchange for this chance at a new, less stressful beginning.
I spent my last weekend in New Jersey moving everything I owned from my apartment in Montclair to my parents’ basement a few towns away. When I took the mirror down off of my closet door, I realized for the ﬁrst time that I no longer looked like a kid. I was about to turn twenty-four. The boyishness that had plagued me through high school and college was quickly fading away. I had ﬁnally put on some weight (although that was actually just another unfortunate side effect of the Depakote). I certainly wasn’t stylish, but it seemed as though taking care of myself had resulted in a happy by-product: for the ﬁrst time in my life, I looked presentable.
At the bottom of a box I packed away the skunk my grandpa once tormented me with and the top hat I wore as White Magic. The framed covers of the Weird NJ issues I had worked on joined them. As I taped the last of the boxes shut, I sat on the edge of my bed and started to cry. Not because I was sad. And not really because I was happy. But because I realized that after twenty-two strange, hard years of willing insanity and one tough year of recovery, the roughest patch of my life was over.
The next morning my mom gave me a hug and helped me put my bags into a cab, and then I moved on.
I arrived way too early for my ﬁrst day of work to ﬁnd the doors to our bungalows locked. After ﬁve minutes of standing outside, I noticed a woman on a bike riding toward me. I assumed she was the ﬁrst co-worker I was meeting. I smiled and nodded to greet her. She skidded out on her bike. “If you nod at me again,” she said, “I will fucking kill you.” Then she rode away.
Welcome to Los Angeles. Welcome to your new life.
Most of the people I met in LA, even if they weren’t completely crazy, unfortunately weren’t much better than that girl on her bike. The majority of them were despicable in ways I consider worse than the most terrible aspects of New Yorkers. New Yorkers will be rude, but at least they do so out of the rationale that everyone around them is always slowing them down. Los Angeles, I learned, is a city full of people who have the personality of the coolest pretty boy from your eighth-grade class. But I also met people who were a huge exception to this rule. They were all Mexicans.
The second day at my job, as I was walking across the lot I saw two production guys standing around a boom box that was blasting Morrissey. As a sad, angry teen, I’d grown to love Morrissey and was shocked to see that these tough Mexican guys did as well.
“You guys dig Moz?” I asked.
“Yeah, man,” a shifty looking guy said. “You wanna hit this?”
He reached a lit joint toward me.
“No,” I said, “we’re at work.”
“Little bitch,” he said. “That’s your name now. Little bitch. I’m Gomez. But you call me Padrino, ‘cause I’m your godfather. That’s Muerto.” He pointed to his grinning friend.
“Doesn’t that mean ‘death’?” I asked. They both burst out laughing.
“Yeah,” Gomez replied. “You’ll see why.”
I later used that interaction as an excuse to talk to Wendy, the cute receptionist I already had a crush on.
“What’s Jose’s deal?” I asked her.
“No one really knows,” she answered. “All I know is that he has a side business where he drives shitty cars to Mexico and sells them every weekend. I have no idea how he gets back to work every Monday.”
I grinned at her, hoping she would grin back and we could start a love affair that would end in our happy marriage. She did not.
“Why do they call him ‘Muerto’?” I asked.
“It’s hard to explain,” she told me.
It didn’t take me long to ﬁnd out how Jose earned his nickname. Just a few days later, while walking down a hallway, I was blindsided and tackled to the ﬂoor. Jose cackled as he pinned me down. He reached down to my jeans, sticking his ﬁngers deep into a small hole in the knee. “Who’s the king?” he asked me.
“What?” I answered.
With that he tore my entire left pant leg to shreds. He leapt to his feet, cackling again as he sprinted away. I spent the rest of the workday enduring jokes about my eviscerated pants, which looked like they belonged on some old-timey pirate.
Gomez and Jose’s favorite activities seemed to be (1) smoking weed; (2) sleeping; (3) playing basketball; and (4) telling me long-winded stories about how they were forced into being drug mules during their teenaged years. Despite the fact that work isn’t on that list, they also managed to do their jobs, and well, too. But as far as my personal interactions with them went, anyway, they were usually involved in one of these four things.
Hear me out, though. I’m not saying that my Mexican friends were lazy. I don’t believe in that stereotype. These guys produced an enormous amount of effort. It’s just that they aimed all of their effort at being laid-back and having fun. There’s a difference between that and laziness. Lazy people spend their time sitting on Facebook or yelling at racist ﬁfteen-year-olds who are also playing the newest version of “Call of Duty.” These Mexican guys didn’t waste time like that. What they demonstrated wasn’t laziness; it was aggressive relaxation. I even hoped that one day I could learn to live like them. They were the ﬁrst people I’d met who lived with such a little amount of anxiety. Considering how I’d spent a quarter century being nothing but stressed out, it’s understandable how I quickly came to idolize my two new friends.
Gomez took the idea of being laid-back to a whole new level. He summed it up with two simple words—“No worries.” There was nothing you could say to phase Gomez. And if you came close, “No worries” was the magic phrase that drained all the tension back out of the room. During one particularly tough shooting day, all of our props were late to set. I panicked, tried to rectify the situation, and turned to Gomez for help.
“Gomez,” I said, “you think we can get that stuff here by four o’clock?”
“What’d you call me, you little bitch?” he said in his slow drawl.
“Gomez, we—.” He interrupted me.
“What?” He grinned.
“Mi Padrino, do you think we can get that stuff?”
“No worries,” he said. “You little bitch.”
No worries. This was Gomez’s deﬁning philosophy on life. It was his mantra, his guiding principle. And he never deviated.
I tried to adopt this philosophy as my own, but it was slow going. When the company that shipped my car from New Jersey took close to a month to deliver it instead of the week they’d promised, I said No worries to myself. But it didn’t stop me from being furious. When the car arrived and was strangely coated in a thick layer of rock-salt residue, I again told myself No worries. I still wanted to punch the truck driver in the face. No worries was easy to say, but the mindset was hard to adopt. You can take the nebishy, neurotic, hyperbolically angry kid out of the Northeast, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be anything other than nebishy, neurotic, and hyperbolically angry somewhere else, I guess.
When Gomez strolled into my office one Wednesday afternoon while Jose blocked the doorway, I knew something was about to happen, and that it was most deﬁnitely trouble. No worries, I tried to tell myself. No worries.
“Little bitch,” Gomez said, a slight smirk on his face.
“What’s up, Padrino? I’m kind of busy,” I replied in the shitty tone that is my trademark when I’m stressed.
“What are you doing this weekend?” he asked.
“Nothing, I don’t know, why?” I snorted.
“Don’t make plans.” He grinned. “We’re taking you to TJ.”
TJ. Tijuana. Before I could protest, he walked off. Muerto followed behind, his trademark cackle at full volume.
Tijuana would have intimidated me even if I weren’t being led around by a former drug mule who thought of me as his bitch. As someone who had just stopped drinking eighteen months earlier and who was ﬁnally feeling good about himself, I was scared shitless at the prospect of heading to a debaucherous party city of terrifying proportions. And yet I didn’t protest. I didn’t bitch or moan. It turns out I wanted to go. I ﬁgured if I was going to leave New Jersey for California, I might as well extend the adventure and check out Mexico. Besides, I had to push myself. A big part of my motivation to move had been to try something new, something beyond the familiarity in which I had lived for so many years. Coming to Los Angeles had been a good ﬁrst step that I had taken on my own — but in my quest to relax, it was the Mexicans who set the bar for me. Maybe going to Mexico would show me how they managed to pull it off.
Besides, for all their crazy behavior, Gomez and Jose were my friends. If they wanted to show me where and how they grew up, I was not going to say no. No worries, I told myself.
We left after work on Friday and the trip quickly developed an uneasy air about it. Jose picked me up in an old, broken-down white van, undoubtedly part of his underground car-sale empire. “Get in, pussy,” he said as he screeched to a halt. He was driving with one hand and rolling a joint with the other.
I climbed inside. We stopped for gas just a few blocks from work. Since the car’s gas gauge was broken, the automatic cutoff didn’t work and Jose sprayed about four gallons of gasoline all over the ground. He climbed back into the driver’s seat.
“Dude,” I said, “we gotta tell someone. They’ve gotta clean that up.”
“No worries,” he replied.
“But Jose, someone could light a cigarette and torch this place,” I protested.
“No worries, you little bitch,” he said. We drove away.
Jose lit his joint ﬁve minutes after we got onto the highway. A slight contact high set in as we headed deeper into Southern California than I’d ever been. The desert rolled into the distance on either side of the highway and I realized that I’d never seen anything like it in my entire life. I rolled down the window and put my feet up on the dashboard. By the time we cruised past the San Diego skyline, I was as relaxed as I’d been in about half a decade. Finally, Southern California was having an effect on me. Jose smoked nonstop until we came to the border, and not even the manic bustle of the crossing managed to stress me out.
We pulled up in front of Gomez’s house and my Padrino jumped in the car.
“We gotta show you the town, little bitch,” Gomez said. “Let’s go to the bar.”
“I don’t drink,” I told them.
“No worries,” they said in unison. We parked downtown and entered a bar called Adelita’s. It looked nice, almost like a club. As we entered, I realized that its niceness was a moot point, and that the major difference between this bar and others was actually the prostitutes. The hundreds of prostitutes. Women in bikinis, women in lingerie, women in street clothes. They wandered all around Adelita’s. Big ones, little ones, light ones, dark ones, ugly ones, and yes, beautiful ones.
“Yo, you little bitch,” Gomez said to me. “You can fuck any of these women for forty dollars. Which one you want?”
“I don’t want to sleep with a hooker,” I said, very seriously, “Get me out of here.”
Jose started to protest.
“No,” I said. “Get me out of here. Right now.”
Gomez was irritated. “All right, no worries!” he said, bristling at my anger.
We shuffled outside, not talking. Jose grabbed the van and pulled up in front of the bar. We jumped in, and Muerto dropped us off at Gomez’s house shortly after. He soon left, presumably to go sell that piece of shit van.
Gomez and I got food before heading to his family’s home. The streets surrounding it were narrow and busy, ﬁlled with people and honking cars. But when he lifted the large metal garage door that marked the border of his property, I was shocked to see a beautiful estate. I stepped onto a large stone patio, vegetables growing around its border, and Gomez’s lovely mother ran out to meet us and hugged me immediately. We sat outside on lounge chairs, looking out over the city. I met Panchi, Gomez’s Chihua hua, who, Gomez informed me, had a huge dick. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning, and he’s running around, dragging it on the ground behind him,” he told me. “Whenever that happens and you catch him, he looks at you, and he always looks real ashamed.”
I laughed. After our showdown at the bar, I feared that Gomez and I would be at odds. But a meal and some bizarre stories had gotten us back to business as usual. I looked at the tiny (but huge) dog and laughed again. Gomez grinned at me.
“Now, look,” he said, “do you want to go back and get a hooker or what?”
“Dude, no!” I exploded. I was amazed he brought it back up after our earlier blowout. “And I’m really not sure why you won’t just drop this.”
Disappointed, I opted to head to bed rather than hang out with my Padrino any longer. I woke up at three in the morning to Gomez shaking me.
“Little bitch,” he said. “Little bitch, wake up.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I imagined nightmarish scenarios where the drug runners who forced Gomez into mule-itude had returned and were now after me.
“Nothing. But look, let’s go back to Adelita’s,” he said. “You can fuck a whore. I won’t tell anyone, not even Muerto.”
I looked up at Gomez, my friend. In the short time I’d known him he’d already shown me a lot and I appreciated him for it. Still, enough was enough. I felt the familiar sensation of anger snapping to life inside me. Since moving to California I’d come to enjoy a sunny rage-free few months, but now, with Gomez’s late-night prostitution prodding, it returned. I sat up, and though I was still half-asleep, I lost my cool. I pounded my ﬁst into the bed and gave Gomez a wild-eyed stare.
“Gomez,” I said. “Look at me. I’m gonna tell you one more fucking time, and then we’re going to have a serious fucking problem. I don’t want to fuck a whore.”
“Why not, man?” he said. His voice melted from insistence to desperation. “It’s clean. They even give you a towel afterward.”
“What do you think my problem with this is?” I shouted. “And why do you think a towel will ﬁx it?”
“Damn you, little bitch,” he yelled. “You gotta get it over with sometime.”
I rolled over. He stayed in the room. I ignored him — if I hadn’t, we would have wound up in a full-on shouting match or, worse yet, a ﬁstﬁght. Lying on my bed in furious silence I kept hearing one phrase, rolling over and over in my head — “Get it over with sometime.”
Get what over with sometime? I asked myself. I’d never seen Gomez this insistent about anything, nor this upset. Get it over with sometime? I repeated it in my head. It?
Then it hit me. I sat straight up in bed and turned to my friend.
“Gomez, do you think I’m a virgin?”
He blinked. “You’re not?”
For the ﬁrst time, I saw myself as my new friends did.
When high-strung Americans see laid-back Mexicans, they tend to unfairly label them as lazy. It occurred to me that when Mexicans see someone as high-strung as me, someone always in a rush, someone always irritated, they must make assumptions, too. In this case, the only logical explanation for a person who behaved like me was that he must have never gotten laid in his entire life.
I breathed heavily, unsure of what to think. Okay, I told myself, you’re twenty-four years old and they think you’re a virgin. That’s humiliating.
But I was also touched. For much of my life I’d felt like I’d had to ﬁght every battle on my own. Now an immense sense of gratitude overtook me as I realized that Gomez wasn’t mocking me. He was looking out for me. Misguided and embarrassing,
yes, but the important thing was I had a friend who had the heart to treat me to a Tijuana whore.
I looked at Gomez, his sleepy eyes waiting for an answer. I wanted to express myself, but couldn’t ﬁnd the words. How did I explain that I was angry, but also touched? And that I wasn’t what he thought I was? Finally, I said the one thing I knew would get across everything I was feeling. For the ﬁrst time, it made sense.
“Padrino,” I said, grinning at him. “No worries.”
“My boy!” Gomez yelled, probably waking up his big-dicked dog. “For real?”
I nodded. Without saying anything else, he understood.
Since that trip, Gomez has stopped calling me “little bitch.” Now, he calls me “Padrinito” — the little godfather.
A few short months later, Crossballs wrapped. I didn’t have another job lined up and debated whether to stay or to head home to the Northeast. On the one hand, there was Los Angeles, a place I had just begun scratching the surface of, a place that had afforded a necessary reboot of my personality, but one that also, I sensed, was overall too gilded and superﬁcial for my liking.
On the other hand, there were New Jersey and New York. Places I had deep connections to and very fond memories of, but places that I had some long-standing and still painful negative associations with.
Early in the summer of 2004, I made up my mind and drove cross-country back home. I owed the East Coast another shot. I’d never known it while I was happy. I’d never experienced it with No worries.
*Also, they’re pussies about driving in the rain.
From the book A BAD IDEA I’M ABOUT TO DO: True Tales of Seriously Poor Judgment and Stunningly Awkward Adventure by Chris Gethard. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.