Tales From The Old Stash

excerpted from his 1999 memoir
What I am about to tell you may initially appear to be a side track to
my story about Andy Kaufman, but the nature of the man you are about to
meet, and the events that transpired around him, not only had a direct
bearing on bring me and Andy together, but also had a strong influence
on much of the comedy we would go on to create.  I must warn you that I
will refer to this man only as, let’s say, Mr. X or simply X.  I have a
strong motivation to do so: I believe that Mr. X is still alive, and
even now, more than twenty-five years later, I continue to be terrified
of him.  If I were to use his real name he might come after me. Why?  
Because he is – without exaggeration – completely fucking insane.

“This gig pays two thousand bucks a week,” Chris (Albrecht) said
matter-of-factly, “and you will be working with one of the top
screenwriters in the word, this guy has Academy Awards.”

My reality was thirty dollars a week, so my hearing stopped functioning
after the word “week.”  “Two thousand?” I repeated, thinking Albrecht
had gone over the top in his cruelty.  I searched his eyes for evidence
of deception.

“I’m not shitting you, Zmuda. This guy needs an assistant.  That’s
where you come in. You’ll learn how to write movies while making two
grand a week.”

“You’re making this up, you’re fucking with me.”

“No I’m not,” he insisted. “This is one hundred percent on the level.  
The guy’s name is Mr. X.”

Chris then rattled off a partial filmography of my savior that included
only big name movies.  I was beginning to believe him.  But then again,
that’s when you the knife with a good put-on.

“Is this legal?” I asked, assuming this was the deal killer.

“Totally. He’ll be at the Improv tomorrow afternoon. I want you to come
down and meet him.  He’s a little eccentric, but you’ll be fine with

That last sentence should have been a red flag, but I was so dazed by
the prospect of making two thousand dollars a week that I couldn’t
think straight. In those days you could buy a brand new luxury car for
less than ten thousand, so this was big money. Especially for a guy who
had been putting thirty clams in his pocket every week.

The next day, a Wednesday, I nervously arrived at the Improv a few
minutes before my two o’clock appointment. The main room was closed,
but the bar was open.  A few patr0ons were having cocktails and some
employees were shuffling around getting ready for the evening crowd. I
saw no one that looked like the guy who was going to lay out two large
a week for “assistance.”

A couple perched nearby chattered away., and off in the corner sat some
poor homeless guy.  I checked out the shabby old man because I was
surprised Budd let him in, let alone gave him a drink.  He was garbed
in faded, filthy military-officer’s attire, his hair was matted like
foul dark moss, and his feet were naked and appeared to have been spray
painted with black Rustoleum.  I stole glances at this man, for he
alternately fascinated and frightened me.

The bar clock was typically fast, but even taking that into account, by
two-thirty I figured Mr. X was a no-show and that Albrecht had nailed
me. Guerilla comedy was wonderful but I was in no mood for it. Just as
I was about to leave, Albrecht arrived.  I assumed that cold son of a
bitch was there to gloat over his latest coup.

“So what do you think?” he asked innocently.

“I think you fucked me over,” I responded bitterly. “Your guy never

Chris looked genuinely perplexed.  “What do you mean?  That’s him
sitting right over there.”  He pointed at the homeless man with the Al
Jolson feet. He ushered me over and the unsanitary man glanced up. At
close range he looked even more soiled than from a distance.  Then I
noticed the solid-gold Rolex on his wrist. How could this be?  This was
the guy was going to pull me out of the starving-artist funk? I
reflexively extended my hand, despite being afraid to touch him. At
this proximity I could smell him.

“Uh, hi. Mr. X? Hi, my name is—“

“Shut the fuck up, idiot! If you want this job you’re going to have to
learn to keep your fucking mouth shut for five fucking minutes.  You
think you can keep your fucking mouth shut for five fucking minutes? Do
you think you could do that? That’s number one.”

His gravel voice assaulted me with the speed and force of lead from a
Uzi. I detected Brooklyn but also some New England during his verbal
onslaught.  He was probably in his early 50s, but his egregious
personal habits had added hard years to him.  But also at this range I
could see through the tarnish to the glint of brilliance in his eyes.
He studied his expansive timepiece as I shut up, knowing that a word
uttered here would end my chances with this madman.

After five minutes, Mr. X looked up at me. What nationality are you?”

I decided a smart-ass answer like “American” wouldn’t fly, but I
figured the real answer would somehow lose me the gig as well. I
gritted my teeth and told the truth. “Polish.”

“You’re Polish?  You’re hired. I always felt the reason the Nazis
wanted to destroy the Poles is because the Poles were developing
extraordinary powers of ESP.”

Huh? I should have known what I was in for with that one sentence, but
I didn’t flee.  Instead we walked out and climbed into a limo that had
been idling at the curb  all this time. X settled into the seat.  
“You’re hired. Two thousand a week, off the books, cold cash.  You’re
paid at the end of each week. You’ll assist me, and in the process I’ll
teach you how to write great screenplays.”

Our first stop after leaving the Improv was a low-budget walk-up
apartment. Mr. X and I went to the door and knocked.  A peephole
allowed the inhabitant to identify his visitors, and a second later we
heard furniture being pushed against the door, as if to ward of
vampires. “Go away, you fucking maniac! Came a frantic, muffled voice
from within.  “Leave me alone. I’ll call the cops.”  The man in the
apartment and X argued through the door for a few moments, then we
left.  Two weeks passed before I found out the terrorized man behind
the door had been X’s previous assistant.

As I got to know Mr. X, I noticed that he would often stutter during
his staccato delivery, as if his mind’s thesaurus were trying and
rejecting words, as if when one word didn’t carry enough bile or venom
it would be discarded and replaced with right combination of invective.

Mr. X was truly a great screenwriter with considerable accomplishments,
but there was a secret to his success. As any writer can tell you,
conflict is the essence of any good story. Though most writers create
conflict either solely through their imaginations or by drawing upon an
adapting actual life experiences, Mr. X went them one better. He would
venture out daily to manufacture and electronically document real
conflict and then immediately adapt the experience to whatever project
he was writing. This sounds relatively safe until you discover that
most of Mr. X’s characters were in constant mortal danger. Ergo, Mr. X
and, by default, I, his assistant, would be in that same danger of
losing our lives.

My travels with Mr. X would begin in the morning (unless we drove
around in marathon three-or four-day sessions, which did occur), when
we would commute via limo to a luggage store. There I would purchase a
cheap valise every day. Same store, same case. Every morning.

Then we moved on to the bank where we would withdraw somewhere between
twenty and fifty thousand dollars in cash.  The cash went in the
valise. Same bank. Every day.  Then it was on to the electronics store
where I would buy three Panasonic battery-powered tape recorders. Same
store, same three recorders, fresh batteries. Every day.

Into the three recorders I would place three tapes. One tape was of the
music du jour, often Sousa or some march, sometimes rock, depending on
X’s mood. The next tape was blank, and I placed it into one of the
recorders and punched the “record” button. The use of the third tape,
containing the previous day’s audio record, was the strangest. Mr. X
required me to play it back, perfectly synchronized, to allow us to
hear what had happened exactly 24 hours prior.  He outfitted me with a
complex array of watches, all set to different times, with which to
keep track of the 24-hour tape as well as when to change the other
tapes. Once I dared ask, “Mr. X, why are we playing back what happened
exactly 24-hours ago?”

X narrowed his eyes and shook his head as if dealing with the biggest
dipshit in creation.  “Because I want to know if my mind has grown in
the last 24-hours, asshole.”  If my mind has grown?  I knew then that I
had fallen through the looking glass.

Thus would begin our days. With recorders slung over me as if I were an
overzealous street rapper, we would patrol the streets in the limo
looking for excitement. And if we didn’t find any, we created it.  
Often in our sorties, X would flag our driver to stop. X would then
leap out and either urinate right in the street or rummage through a
Dumpster for some discarded food, which he would then wolf down. His
breath could have been classified a toxic weapon, and his body odor
would have sent camels in retreat, but two grand bought a lot of
patience from me, and I did my best to ignore the stench.

The end of our day would see us at banks of either the East or Hudson
Rivers – whichever was closer – whereupon I would remove the tapes from
the machines for safekeeping, climb out of the limo, and hurl the
recorders and empty money carrying case into the water. Occasionally we
would give the items to kids on the street, but usually they would
become reef fill. Early on I asked, “X, why do we throw these away?  
They’re perfectly good recorders. And the cases too.”

He would look at me with wild eyes and lower his voice, cognizant of an
enormously dark fact to which he was about to make me privy. “Because
you cannot tell if the CIA might be taping us, monitoring us through
the equipment. I need to know it’s virgin, that the government hasn’t
touched it.” Tapping his temple with a finger, he added with a knowing
nod, “With that stuff they could find out everything we’re doing.”

“But what about the cases? Why do we get new ones every day? I said,
hoping to save us from one of our errands. “Couldn’t we at least stick
to one?”

Mr. X leaned forward shaking his head and whispered, “Fingerprints.”

I thought, Yeah, sure, why didn’t I think of that? I kept visualizing
that $2K a week in my hands. I can do this, I can do this. . .

X and I obtained the large volumes of cash every morning for two
reasons. One was strictly our of necessity.  He offended so many people
that I was constantly being commanded “Zmuda, the case,” whereupon I
would pop open the money case and either X or I would then dole out
varying amounts to salve the injuries we’d caused. But more on that in
a moment.

The second reason was more complex. Mr. X was a brilliant writer, in
demand not only for his original screenplays but also for his
“script-doctoring” abilities. A script doctor is a Hollywood
phenomenon, a writer who gets paid more than any real doctor to polish,
punch up, or rework screenplays.  The job is far more lucrative than
the job of a physcian because there’s far more on the line than mere
human life – big bucks are at stake. Though head not won an Oscar as
Chris had claimed, he’d been nominated and was considered one of the
best. Mr. X was highly sought after because his dialogue had that
stunningly edgy taste of reality.

Well, no shit – he had suckers like me recording it.

But Mr. X had problems with his chosen career.  He hated it. Here was a
man who literally ate garbage, had seen neither a comb nor deodorant in
eons, and loathed spinning off the words that made him millions.  
Consequently, he needed incentive. Many could find it in the huge
paychecks alone, but X needed more of an edge, needed to risk oblivion,
needed to keep himself off balance. That’s why he spent money as fast
or faster than he made it, to give himself a very powerful reason to
want to make more. As I said, the man was unquestionably nuts.

In addition to being the keeper of the recorders, I carried in my right
breast pocket a tape, which Mr. X had given me explicit instructions on
using. I also carried a manila envelope that was never to be separated
from the tape. In the even of his arrest or impending arrest he planned
to yell, “Catch 22, Zmuda!” and I was to carefully remove the tape from
my pocket, insert it in the music machine, play it at high volume, and
then follow its instructions. Mr. X was very serious about the catch 22
tape and frequently asked me if it was safe. I was dying to know what
the tape and envelope contained.

A few days into my new job, Mr. X and I were cruising the streets of a
particularly tough upper-Manhattan neighborhood. Though the temperature
was probably about 15-degrees, the high humidity made it seem like
15-below.  X liked to hear the sounds of the street s, so he rolled our
windows down. In about two minutes the light snowfall had dusted the
interior of the limo like a powdered donut, and I had frost on my face
and could no longer feel my hands. We used a limo service and thus
often had different drivers. Mr. X noticed that our driver – a newcomer
to mondo X who was shut off from us by the protective partition – had
his windows up and the heater on. “Hey,” X barked through the glass,
“open your fucking windows! I am paying, man, and I want those windows

The driver timidly looked in the rearview mirror at Mr. X. “Sir, I
don’t want to get cold. It’s way below freezing.”

X gestured to me. “Zmuda!  Open the case!”

I had been through this routine a few times and knew what to do. I
twirled the small case on my lap to face Mr. X, snapped it open, and
exposed the stacks of cash He reach in and pulled out some bills. “Open
the glass,” he commanded, “shut that heater off!”

The guy noticed the cash and went for the button. The glass slid down a
few inches. X tossed a couple hundreds forward. The driver saw them but
still protested. “But sir, really it’s awful cold out.” He wasn’t
negotiating, rather just voicing his thoughts, not knowing what or whom
he was up against. X tossed a few more hundreds over the seat and
directed, “Open your windows all the way.”

The guy looked at those four or five portraits of Ben Franklin staring
back at him from the seat and dutifully rolled down his windows. And so
it was with Mr. X He was an insane, mobile Monty Hall, and I was Jay,
always ready with a prop or cash, prepared to show enraged citizens
what was behind door number two before they could kill us.

One day Mr. X spotted an art gallery in the Village and ordered us to a
halt. He was far less interested in the art than he was in the young
lady in the window attendant the gallery. She was 18 or 19 and very
pretty. One thing I haven’t yet mentioned was that Mr. X’s libido was
almost as powerful as his madness. Many hours of our day were spent
pursuing women for Mr. X or visiting the haunts of various
streetwalkers or prostitutes. But this young gallery attendant was as
pure as driven snow, and Mr. X reveled in that.

“I want some artwork,” he announced as we walked in. He pointed. “That
one, that one and that one.” The pretty young thing’s eyes widened as
Mr. X turned and gestured at another wall. “And those too.” Like most
of our victims, the girl was taken aback by what fairly appeared to be
a disturbed mendicant in a tattered uniform of obscure origin, so X
snapped his fingers. “Zmuda! The case!”

Money doesn’t talk, it screams.

I stepped forward and flipped open the money bag. “How much?” I asked.

The girl totaled the damages and couldn’t believe the adding-machine
tape. “Uh, the whole thing comes to, uh, 15-thousand dollars,” she
said, dumbfounded by the circumstances. I was thinking that a good day
for her would have been two or three hundred, so this kind had hit the
jackpot. I count out the money. X looked at me to make sure I was in
recorder range and sidled up to her.

“Okay, honey,” he rasped,this one last thing,” he said as I braced for
impact. “I want you suck my cock now.”

The girl went bleach white.  “What?”

“Look, honey,” he rasped, “you think people are gonna buy this shit?
Nobody is gonna buy this shit.  I will buy it. I am paying you
15-thousand dollars, but I need you to suck my cock, and now.”

“Get out of here, right now!” she screamed. “Or I’ll call the police!”

Now the girl was in tears and reaching for the phone, but Mr. X pressed
his case. “You are a fucking idiot,” he railed. “Do you know how hard
these fucking artists work to create this shit, and you are too selfish
to help them out? All you had to do was take my fucking old cock and put
it in your mouth and that’s it.”

The girl was now conversing with the police, so I closed the money
case. Without further ado we quietly retreated to the limo.

Many of our encounters were like that: someone was pushed to the
breaking point, I opened the case, and the money healed all wounds.
Sometimes. The art gallery was one of the few times it didn’t work.
Another time happened a few days later. This incident almost got us
killed, and all the money in the world wasn’t going to save us.



Coming in the next issue....

We cruised down to Little Italy, which as the name implies, is a
bastion of the Italian-American community. It is also the favored haunt
of many of those particular Italians who find the legal structure of
the country an intolerance. X apparently had a plan that day, because
we went directly to a small neighborhood Italian restaurant that
despite a Closed sign in the window, had a crowd inside and people
arriving in the parking lot. It was a birthday party for some Mafia
capo’s elderly mother...

1999 Bob Zmuda