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 him.”

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 showed.”

Chris looked genuinely perplexed.  “What do you mean?  That’s him sitting right over here.”  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 the 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 open!”

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.  

TO BE CONTINUED…. 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

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