TALES FROM THE OLD STASH
Bob Zmuda’s Mr. X
excerpted from his 1999 memoir
ANDY KAUFMAN REVEALED (BEST FRIEND TELLS ALL!)
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. How X found this out I do not know, but as we prepared to go in he handed me a case in addition to the money case, this one containing miscellaneous oddities such as tabloid newspapers, pornographic magazines, and sexual devices like dildos and rotating butt-plugs. You know, the usual.
Mr. X and I went to the door, where a big goombah stopped us. “We’re invited,” said X brusquely. That was good enough for the doorman, and we entered. Spotting the guest of honor, a frail little lady obviously celebrating something north of her 80th birthday., we approached just as she blew out the conflagration on her cake.
Mafia guys are often fat bastards, but they pride themselves on their appearance, particularly their hair. That’s probably why all eyes turned to us as we walked up to Grandma Corleone. Mr. X’s hair looked like something that had accumulated during a manufacturing process, and I was conspicuous with three tape recorders slung from my neck and shoulders. X reached into the variety case and pulled out a tear sheet from a tabloid which featured several photos and a lurid headline. The photos included autopsy shots of Jack Kennedy, a from the Zapruder film of Kennedy taking a hit, and a group of beefy Mafia guys milling around. The headline declared: “Mafia Assassinates JFK!”
In the split second that I glimpsed the headline, I knew X was committing suicide and was taking me with him. Before I could do anything, he thrust the clipping in the face of the poor old Mob matriarch and screeched, “Hey, ma, look what your son has been doing!” Well, needless to say, she burst into tears, and we were hastily shown to the back room by a dozen raging Cosa Nostra hoods who only concern at this point was who would get the pleasure of whacking us.
With four or five guns trained on our heads, one of the guys confronted Mr. X. “Are you fucking nuts, you fucking asshole? Insulting my mother? On her fucking birthday?” He made a gesture, and his henchmen knelt us down. I did the only thing that came naturally at that point: I started crying. And I thought fast. . .real fast.
“This guy’s crazy. He wants to die,” I said, whimpering. “His mother died yesterday and he wants you to kill him. He’s so sick with grief he wants you to just kill him. That’s why he came here!” Sizing up the desperation of the situation, I felt it was the only explanation that might get us any sympathy. It did. After a moment or two of deliberation, those fat bastards with the impeccable hair shoved us out the back door. We went to the limo, my hands shaking as if I had palsy. In contrast to my near-death shock, Mr. X was cool as a cucumber. “You fucked up, Zmuda,” he said. “You should have let it go on some more. We were getting great stuff on tape.”
I never talked back to the man, but two weeks of this was getting to me. “If I hadn’t said anything, we’d be dead right now.”
“Maybe you’re right,” he agreed. “”Maybe so. “there was an almost calm look to this lunatic that told me this had likely been a trial run at suicide.
As far as the actual value of our commando missions, Mr. X would send the recorded tapes to a transcription service that would return them three days later, neatly typed up. He would then take that material and work it into whatever script he was writing at that time. It was a form of method writing that was apparently effective, but it was offering the very real possibility of shortening my life. I had been receiving the two grand a week as promised, but given the extreme element of danger involved, coupled with the nearly limitless stashes of cash in my hands every day, I began to make unauthorized withdrawals for hazard pay. Even though my compensation was reaching, or exceeding, four g’s a week, you can’t spend it if you’re dead. I started to plan the moment of my resignation.
During the three weeks of “My Travels with Mr. X,” I experienced the thrill of having guns and knives pulled on me and had my life threatened by everyone from bartenders, club owners, shopkeepers and motorists, to men and women, and children. I had been deprived of sleep for days at a time as we cruised endlessly looking for material for Mr. X, and I had been in a constant state of dire tension, like a soldier in combat, from the moment I had met him. I had reached the breaking point a few times, but on every occasion I had been able to reel it in and hold it together. Our trip to JFK airport would end tat streak of tolerance.
Mr. X had decided that we would fly out of town on the spur of the moment, so we limoed out to lower Queens to catch a plane. The American Airlines ticket counter was packed with hundreds of people milling in half a dozen lines. Of course X went right to the head of one line and accosted a reservations agent.
“I want two first class tickets to Minneapolis,” he demanded.
Why Minneapolis? Why not?
“Sir, said the woman behind the counter, ”you’ll have to wait your turn. Please get in line.”
X tried for a moment to bully her, but it wouldn’t work. He finally gave up, and we went back to wait with the multitudes. Nervous that Mr. X acquiesced too easily, I felt like a meteorologist who sees a tornado on this screen and just waits for someone to report it. I knew something bad was about to happen. I didn’t have to wait long.
“I gotta take a shit,” was X’s simple declaration. Assuming that he had said that so I would hold our place, I turned after a moment to see that he had merely stepped out of line a few feet and had dropped his pants and squatted. I had seem pretty much everything in the previous three weeks, but this caused my mouth to fall open. There is a form of social denial in crowds when a person begins to act antisocially or in a very strange way: people tend to look the other way or stare impassively. Even when a woman is being raped or a man is having a heart attack, a sort of paralysis overcomes people. They watch but do nothing.
So when this seedy, odoriferous psychopath hunkered down and began to void his bowels people looked on but pretended it wasn’t really happening. I was absolutely stunned. Since Mr. X was constantly eating garbage, drinking to excess, and generally treating his system like a Nuclear Superfund Site, his waste material was not only foul, it was unholy. As it were the Bhopal disaster, people in line began to flee his poisonous emanations, yet it was a child who finally said something, exactly as in The Emperor’s New Clothes. “Mommy, said the little girl, who had eyes bigger than the kids on one of those black velvet paintings, “that man is going poo-poo!”
Indeed he was. And as that sickening spray of noxious, loose stool issued forth, a woman screamed. Then another. My recorder recorded. Mr. X grunted. I winced.
Then the police arrived.
Realizing his compromised position, X screamed to me as he struggled to fend off two NYPD transit officers while hoisting his drawers back into position. “Zmuda, catch-22! Catch-22!”
Like a missile technician in a silo, I methodically removed the tape from my pocket and replaced the music tape with the catch-22 tape in the Sousa machine. Meanwhile, the officers were escorting Mr. X out the door, past the pool or putrefaction on the terrazzo, past the line of dumbstruck travelers. Once outside, I punched “play” and jacked up the volume.
“Officers, if you are listening to this tape, the man you are arresting is Mr. X, an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and personal friend of mine. My name is. . .”
Well, I can’t say whom the voice on the tape belonged to because it would give away who Mr. X really is. Or was. As I said, I’m not completely sure if he’s dead or alive, so I’m not taking any chances. But suffice it to say, the voice on the tape commanded instant respect from the two law enforcement officers. They paused to listen to the message.
“Assistant, please open the envelope. . .” As I quickly opened the manila envelope, the significance of the generic nature of the term “assistant” made me realize that X’s turnover in help must be appalling.
“And take out the photo.”
I removed a five-by-seven. It was a photo of Mr. X with is arm around the shoulder of the man on the tape. As did the two cops, I recognized him.
“Assistant, take out the article.”
I pulled out a yellowed newspaper clipping showing Mr. X’s photo and headline announcing that he’d been nominated for an Oscar. Now that we’d established that he was who the tape claimed, the voice continued.
“Officers, you know me. I would consider it a personal favor if you do not arrest this man, my friend Mr. X.”
As the cops pondered this, X waved at me. “Zmuda, the case!”
Now a seasoned commando, I whipped open the case and began distributing cash to the men, one, two, three, four hundred. . .I counted out two or three grand each, and within seconds they not were not made, they were joking with us and actually offering to escort us back inside. That was it. I cracked. As the cops walked off, I handed Mr. X his case of payoff dough, unslung my recorders, and, to his screaming protests, walked away. I was punch from lack of sleep and feared either a nervous breakdown or a knife in my ribs. Hardly short of cash, I took a cab all he way back to Manhattan and went into hiding. And for the next month or two, I was the guy with the furniture piled up against the door.
My exploits with Mr. X got around the Improv. It turns out I have Mr. X to thank for my relationship with Andy Kaufman. Though Andy was a huge hit at the Improv, he was so painfully shy offstage that he had become a loner, speaking only to Budd and sometimes the waitresses. He generally spoke to no one else, not patrons, not fellow stand-ups, no one. But since Mr. X was regular at the club, stories of his exploits had gotten around. If Andy wasn’t outside, sitting in his Dad’s car and meditating, he would sometimes sit alone at the end of the bar and eavesdrop as people told Mr. X stories. The stories all generally second hand or third hand unless I was talking.
Andy became increasingly fascinated by the tales of this strange man and would pump the waitresses for tidbits. The all told him to talk to me, because having survived Mr. X for three weeks, I had become sort of a club legend. One night he approached me.
“Hey,” he said. “Wanna do me a favor?”
“No, My back hurts,” I deadpanned.
He laughed. “Sorry about that. No, I need to go over Jersey to a club. I’m trying out a new character, and I need an audience plant.”
We hopped in Andy’s car. It became clear five minutes after we left that he asked me along because he want to hear all about Mr. X. It had been a few months since I’d quit, and as my fear of death by Mr. X had slightly diminished, I was starting to relish telling stories of my deranged former employer. And was transfixed, so much so that he missed his exit off the Jersey turnpike. He didn’t care. He kept going. He had found his role model: Mr. X.
Andy had experimented with controlling an audience through offbeat and even unpleasant routines, but for Andy, Mr. X took psychodrama to a new level, risking injury, even death. Andy was enthralled that such a man existed. And survived. Constantly pushing the envelope, always striving to break new ground, Andy’s childhood fears had given way to the adul Andy’s mastery of those trepidations. He had preserved the child, but he had taken his fears, which could hold him back, and corralled them, yet he kept the best of what that child had been. In many ways, Andy never grew up.
That night as we roamed Jersey looking for that club, Andy learned a lot about who I was, my guerrilla theatre experiences, my days as a radical, even my flight from Pikeville, Kentucky, after proclaiming the demise of Santa. And with that, Andy began to understand how I’d managed to survive three weeks with Mr. X.