This is from Bob Zmuda’s book about Andy Kaufman (copywrite violation)it is a little profane and very out there. Mr. X turned out to be Norman Wexler, who wrote the screenplay for Saturday Night Fever. It is perhaps the funniest and oddest thing I’ve ever read – enjoy!
“I’ve got a job for you,” he said. “You’re not going to believe this, but it’s true. This job is unbelievable.”
“You know what they say: If it sounds too good to be true…” I said. Chris shook his head. “I know, I know, but this job, this is for real.”What I am about to tell you may initially appear to be a sidetrack 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 bringing 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 – comptetely _fucking insane.
“This gig pays two thousand bucks a week,” Chris said matter of factly, “and you’ll be working with one of the top screenwriters in the world, 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 movies. I was beginning to believe him. But then again, that’s when you sink 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 dazzled 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 patrons 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. Guerrilla 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 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 who 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 an Uzi. I detected
Brooklyn but also some
New England during his verbal onslaught. He was probably in his early fifties, 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 expensive 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 dollars 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 off 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 that the terrorized man behind the door had been Xs 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 the 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 and 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. Xs characters were in constant mortal danger. Ergo, Mr. X and, by default, 1, 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 into 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 Xs 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 twenty-four hours prior. He outfitted me with a complex array of watches, all set to different times, with which to keep track of the twenty-four-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 twenty-four 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 twenty-four 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 the banks of either the East or
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 CLA, 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 with 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 out 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 physician because there’s far more on the line than mere human life -big bucks are at stake. Though he had 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 as 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 event 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 the 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 fifteen degrees, the high humidity made it seem like fifteen below. X liked to hear the sounds of the streets, 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 protectivepartition -had his windows up and the heater on. “Hey,” he barked though the glass, “open your fucking windows! I am paying, man, and I want those windows open!”
The driver timidly looked in his 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 do. I twirled the small case on my lap to face Mr. X, snapped it open, and exposed the stacks of cash. He reached in and pulled out some bills. “Open the glass,” he commanded, “and shut the heater off!” The guy noticed the cash and went for the button. The glass slid down a few inches. X tossed a couple of hundreds forward. The driver saw them but still protested. “But sir, really, it’s awfully cold out.” He wasn’t negotiating, rather just voicing his though 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 attending the gallery. She was eighteen or nineteen and very pretty. One thing I haven’t yet mentioned was that Mr. Xs 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 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, fifteen thousand dollars,” she said, dumbfounded by circumstances. I was thinking that a good day for her would have been two or three hundred, so this kid had hit the jackpot. I counted out the money. X then looked at me to make sure I was in recorder range and sidled up to her. “Okay, honey, this one last thing,” he said, as I braced for impact. “I want you to suck my cock now.” The girl went bleach white. “What?”
“Come on,” he said. “All these struggling artists here? I’ve just spent fifteen thousand dollars on this shit, and I want you to suck my cock as a gratuity.” “But I. . . ” said the deer in the headlights.
“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 fifteen 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 X pressed his case. “You are a fucking idiot,” he railed. “Do you know how hard these fucking artists worked 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. 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 our 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 eightieth 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 frame 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 whose 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 as 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 had 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, 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 that 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.
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 multitude. Nervous that Mr. X had acquiesced too easily, I felt like a meteorologist who sees a tornado on his 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 Xs 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 seen 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 often 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 if he 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 of 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 Xs 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 his 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. Xs photo and the 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 only were not mad 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 punchy 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 the 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 a 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 were all generally secondhand or thirdhand unless I was talking. Andy became increasingly fascinated by the tales of this strange man and would pump the waitresses for tidbits. They all told him to talk to me, because having survived Mr. X for three weeks, I had become a sort of 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 to
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 wanted 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. Andy was transfixed, so much so that he missed his exit off the
Jersey turnpike. He didn’t care. We kept going. He had found his new 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 adult 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 theater 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.
“What’s your best Mr. X story?” he asked. “I dunno, I think they’re all good,” I said.
“Well, yeah, I mean the story that really sums him up. But you’ve probably told me all of ’em, haven’t you?” I could tell Andy had gotten hooked on the Mr. X stories. I also saw he was trying to understand Mr. X, to figure out what made him tick, so that maybe he could invest some of Mr. X in his own characters. “I got one you haven’t heard,” I offered.
“What? What?” he said, sounding just like a little kid. “The glazed-donut story. I tell you that one’,”
“The glazed-donut story? No, no, tell me, I want to hear it.” “How close are we to this club?”
Andy shook his head. “Doesn’t matter, we can be late. Besides, it’s better to keep an audience waiting. Go on, tell me the glazed-donut story.” I sat back and looked out the window at the lights flitting by and pictured that day: sunny, a few puffy clouds, a generally nice day. Mr. X and I had picked up our cash that morning, nearly fifty grand. It was afternoon, and, as we hadn’t even spent a dime yet, X was getting restless. “We rolled over to
Jersey one afternoon, midday maybe,” I began.
“Like here? Somewhere around here?” Andy asked, trying to place the story. “No, I think it was like
North Bergen, Secaucus maybe,” I answered.
At this point in my story, Kaufman did something that was very unusual. Over the years I would see him do it hundreds of times, but this was the first. He was recording me, not on tape like Mr. X did, but in his mind. Possessing a truly photographic memory, his eyes would take on a wide, distant look, and then the tips of his fingers would twitch lightly as if he were typing on an invisible keyboard. Years later I would witness him memorizing entire Taxi scripts at one sitting using this technique. Not only committing his own lines to memory, but all the other characters’ lines along with stage directions and page numbers. It was just like Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond, in Rain
Man. Oddly, Andy was somewhat embarrassed by this extraordinary ability and never flaunted it. I asked him once how he did it, thinking it was something he had learned in a TM course. Slightly flustered, he admitted that the ability came to him suddenly one day after a particularly bad LSD trip. He told me that he had also seen the future on that same trip. When I commented that that was great, he objected strongly, saying we’re not supposed to see the future.
I continued with my tale. “Anyway, so we’re in
Jersey, drivin’ along in the limo, and Mr. X sees this bakery, says, ‘Driver, stop over here, I want a glazed donut.’ So the driver pulls over, and we go inside for a glazed donut. Okay, so inside, it’s midday and there’s a few people in line, so X just blurts out, ‘I want a glazed donut. Well, everybody turns, there’s some ladies shopping, and they look at him and then ignore him, so he goes, ‘I want a glazed donut,’ real loud, like they’re all just hard of hearing, and this woman behind the counter, her name badge said ‘Flo’ . . .
“You’re joking. . . ” said Andy. “No shit, ‘Flo.’Anyway, Flo is matronly, an older woman, you know, kind of stern … so she says, ‘Sir, you’ll have to take a number like everyone else.”‘
“You don’t talk to him like that,” added Andy, knowing enough about Mr. X. “Exactly,” I concurred. “But oddly, X doesn’t say a word. He takes a ticket and quietly goes to the back of the line.”
“Uh-oh,” said Andy as he pulled the car over, readying for the story to go into overdrive. “Yeah, ‘uh-oh,”‘ I agreed and then continued. “So Mr. X waits, and finally he gets to Flo, and she says, ‘Okay, now you want a glazed donut?’ and X shakes his head. ‘No, I’ve changed my mind. I want this here. And I want those, and that. And those over there, and all of that. Oh, and while you’re at it I want those racks of bread back there. All of them.’ And Flo narrows her eyes and says, ‘Sir, please don’t joke around. We’re a business here.’ And Mr. X yells, ‘Zmuda? The case!’ and I step forward and pop it open. . .”
“Like usual,” Andy added, having heard Mr. Xs “Zmuda, the case” line in other stories. “Yeah, so I say, ‘Madam, this man is Mr. X, a famous writer, he’s written a number of major motion pictures, and he’s a millionaire, he’s very eccentric, and I can assure you he’s completely serious. This case?’ I point into the case, which is open showing all the cash. ‘It has over fifty thousand dollars in it, and Mr. X is ready to pay for anything he wants, so please help him. Well, Flo realizes this is probably for real, so even though she already hates him she starts ringing stuff up, and now the manager comes out of the back to see what the hell’s going on. So Mr. X introduces himself while I’m lugging boxes of rolls and bread and shit out to the limo. We fill the limo, so X goes, ‘Get on the phone and get a truck over here to pick up my baked goods.”‘
“You hired a truck?” Andy said, his face going slack in amazement. “What? You just called a trucking company and said, ‘Come over and pick up our donuts’?” “Exactly. And they came, a full-size fucking delivery truck. Meanwhile, Mr. Xs bought so much stuff we have to send for another truck. It’s the Marx Brothers. We’ve hung out the Closed sign and cleaned out the whole front of the store. Now Mr. X goes into the back room. He starts buying all their back stock aswell as shit coming out of the oven – it’s still hot – not to mention all their butter and flour and salt and sugar, everything. Meanwhile, the owner, he’s at his calculator, and he’s in fuckin’ hog heaven, he can’t believe this guy, buying his place to the walls, damn near.
“So now Mr. X goes to work on the employees. First the bakers, there’s like three older guys in white outfits, and he says to one of them, ‘You must be pretty hot in that, it’s hot back here. I’ll tell you what, take off your clothes down to your underwear and I’ll give you five hundred bucks. Zmuda, the case!’ So I hand over the cash and the old guy strips down to his skivvies. Mr. X checks him out and says, ‘Listen, for another five hundred, take off your underwear.’ So the old guy drops his boxers, and he’s bare-ass naked. So Mr. X turns to the others and says, ‘I’ll give you each a thousand if you do the same,’ so two minutes later the bakers are nude, and X turns to the ladies who were working the counter and are now watching the old guys strut around naked but a thousand bucks richer. X says to them, ‘Take off your clothes, only down to your underwear, and I’ll give you a thousand each.’ Well, they’re in their underwear, bras and girdles, in about three seconds, and I’m handing them money. All of them except Flo, she’s the holdout. Mr. X can’t break her. She hates him. A test of wills. Flo versus Mr. X. “Mr. X takes the challenge, he says, ‘C’mon, Flo, just take off your blouse, leave your bra and girdle on, but take off the blouse. I’ll give you two thousand dollars.’ She says, ‘I can’t do that,’ and X says, ‘I’ll make it three thousand,’ and the other ladies are saying, ‘Flo, do it, it’s fine, it’s just your blouse, it’s okay,’ ’cause they’re standing in their girdles and bras and they’re one grand richer. Mr. X ups the ante to four, then five. Now Flo’s sweatin’, the manager is yelling at her to drop her top, and her girlfriends are saying she’s nuts. Mr. X keeps going until he finally says, ‘Flo, let me ask you this, what does your husband make in a year?’ Flo won’t answer, but one of the other ladies says Flo’s husband, Alex, drives a delivery truck and makes about nineteen grand. So Mr. X says, ‘Flo, take off your top only, leave your bra and girdle on, and I will give you nineteen thousand dollars. It’s as much as Alex, your beloved husband, makes in a year. Think of his face when you bring home that cash.’
“Well, the scene is now insane. Here’s the truck drivers loading our bread, the manager’s delirious, looking for anything else to sell, here’s three old men, nude, three or four older ladies in their underwear, and everyone is yelling at Flo to do it. Flo is in tears, but she stands firm. So Mr. X gets bored trying to break her and heads into the cooler, where he finds a wedding cake. ‘I want this,’ he says, and the manager goes white and says, ‘Sorry, Mr. X, but that’s a wedding cake, it’s custom made, and I have to deliver it in a few hours, and they’re a lovely couple.’ And X says, ‘I don’t give a fuck, I want it. Zmuda? The case!’ and I count out another three thousand, and it’s ours now. Meanwhile, the bakers are still nude, and they’re partying with the counter ladies on some beer we had delivered, and the manager is now about thirty thousand bucks heavier in the wallet, and he’s on the phone to the wedding couple to tell them about the tragic accident on the freeway where their cake got ruined. And speaking of ruined, Flo is destroyed, her life could have changed, but she wouldn’t cave in to the will of Mr. X. I say to him, ‘What are we going to do with all the food?’ and he says, ‘Fuck it, let it rot,’ so I get on the phone before we leave and have the truckers take it over to a food bank. So now we’re done. X goes out and gets in the limo, and I make a final pass to survey the wreckage, the party is going full swing, and the place looks like it was looted by rats, not an edible thing left in sight, like it was never a working bakery. So I walk out the front, and as I do … that’s when I see it. All by itself in the front display case, not even a crumb to keep it company, sits one … solitary … glazed donut.” Andy was totally mesmerized. “He’s a genius,” he pronounced finally, without irony.