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Welcome to the Dungeon:
Basted Days and Nights in a
20th-Century Dormitory Basement
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, November 29, 2006. (Cover story.)
We felt that we were coming into contact with something different, something that surrounded and interpenetrated us just as we overflowed into it. The remarkable thing was that we did not lose our own individuality. On the contrary…
—Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art (1964)
We were the dregs of humanity on the Dungeon floor, licking up each other’s vomit to get high.
—Rum Raisin, poolside in Las Vegas, 2006
The University of California’s Los Angeles campus currently provides homes for more than 9,000 undergraduates in 15 residential communities. Six of these form De Neve Plaza, a cluster built on what was once the backyard of Dykstra Hall, UCLA’s first dormitory, the 10-story monolith that still stands at the plaza’s southern edge. The newer residence halls look like hotels. Some come wired for cable TV and high-speed Internet. Security’s tight.
But in 1980, just four residence halls — Hedrick, Rieber, Sproul and Dykstra — constituted the entirety of UCLA’s on-campus undergrad housing. Owing to their location, uphill from Gayley Avenue’s fraternity row, many rooms had views — some spectacular — of Bel Air, Westwood Village, even Santa Monica Bay. Dykstra Hall, completed in 1959 and named for student-housing crusader and former UCLA provost, professor and vice president Clarence Dykstra, was UCLA’s first dormitory. It was also the first coed dormitory in America.
Between receiving the letter congratulating me on having been selected for a space in Dykstra and my arrival and check-in at Dykstra’s front desk, I romanticized moonlit metropolitan landscapes through my future bedroom window. High-rise living. A deluxe apartment in the sky. Surrounded by 450 college girls. I was going to get so…educated.
“Oh. This floor?”
“No. Actually, this is the second floor. The first floor’s downstairs.”
“Oh. In the…there’s a…basement?”
“Sorry. Stairs are right over there, across from the elevators.”
I sign the papers, take my key and head downward, not singing the theme from The Jeffersons all the way.
At the bottom of the staircase stands a gangly, long-bearded man in his late 40s, mopping. We introduce ourselves. He’s Harold — people call him Weird Harold, I’ll soon learn, for reasons unrelated to the Bill Cosby character, all-powerful translator of Mushmouth’s Ubbi Dubbi. Beyond Weird Harold is a lounge. With sunlight. So, technically, the first floor isn’t all basement — one side faces the parking lot.
I’m a few days early. The place is empty and still. Weird Harold points the way to my room, 103, all the way at the end of the hall.
Sickly fluorescent lights buzz and flicker along the narrow corridor of pale putty walls and ancient linoleum. Room 103 is on the dark side. But when I unlock my new home, I feel instantly, inexplicably good. I sit on the bare mattress for a few minutes and breathe. There’s one large window, through which I can see the bottom of an ivy-covered hill, excavated specifically to provide fresh air to subterranean mammals.
No one else is around, so after emptying out my ’72 Toyota and loading up my new room, I venture eastward onto the semideserted campus. I’d come to UCLA a few times over the summer, to wander around, explore buildings, buy coffee out of vending machines. But now it’s real. Now I’m an official apprentice grown-up. On my own. Two months deep in post-virginal adolescence. Soon I’ll be drinking too much coffee, beer and hard liquor. Soon I’ll be… something else.
I return to Dykstra, buy a sandwich and a soft drink from a vending machine, and bring it back down to my new basement home. Taking a seat on one of the crappy gold couches in the lounge, I put my dinner and feet on a beat-up dark-brown coffee table and take in the décor. The walls are painted glossy black. Most of the east wall is covered by an enormous, disconcerting painting that I imagine must be the floor’s logo: an isosceles trapezoid of six silver prison bars, with two eerie yellow eyes peering out from between bars three and four. In perspective, monolithic red block letters spell out THE at the top and DUNGEON at the bottom.
It looks like a logo for some high school rock band or adolescent cult.
I hear voices down the hall.
My first-ever roommate, Beef, arrives on a Thursday afternoon in late September, 1980. His possessions are few — whatever he could fit into his bright-turquoise Datsun B-210, and a set of mannerisms that will soon come to be known as the Beef Attitude: Nothing fazes Beef.
Beef’s from San Diego. Beef reads the Racing Form, dabbles in horses. We bond over Joe Jackson records. We rent a minifridge with a freezer and stock it with cheap beer and Otter Pops, especially Louie Bloo Raspberry. We buy books and go exploring.
I like Beef.
The floor populates. Animal, Spike, Wild Man and Little Steve are sophomores. They lived here last year and, after being selected by lottery to return to Dykstra, chose to live in the basement, on purpose. They call themselves — and all of us, now — Dungeonites.
Most of the Dungeonites are freshmen. Kids from Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, the Central Coast. From Puerto Rico, Pico Rivera, Texas, Oxnard, Arizona, Japan, East L.A., Orange County. Kids with ridiculous nicknames and ridiculous real names. Rich kids and poor kids — mostly in between — from suburbs, cities and countrysides. Liberals and conservatives, deists, theists, agnostics and atheists, sluts and celibates, drunk, stoned and sober. Kids majoring in nothing and everything. In wheelchairs, on the UCLA football team. And in the military. Animal, Wild Man, Ronny and Rotty are in ROTC. We talk politics. We disagree. We agree. We get along fine.
Together we represent 100 percent of UCLA’s semi-underground on-campus inhabitants. The surface-dwellers use elevators; we take the stairs. There are two all-male floors — ours and the eighth — and two all-female floors; the other six floors are mixed. With half the Dungeon taken up by janitorial offices, storage closets, a huge laundry room, a handicapped restroom and a mysterious storage area where rusting 55-gallon drums of presumed toxic waste fester behind a locked chainlink fence, our population’s about half that of the other floors. Everyone gets acquainted because there’s just the one bathroom — five stalls, four urinals, six sinks and one shower room with six showerheads — for about 40 of us.
Others enter the Dungeon only to do laundry. Emerging from the elevators with their baskets of clothing, most avert their eyes from the boys in the black lounge.
Animal’s roommate goes by the name of Doc, short for Dr. Dungeon. Doc’s a quadriplegic doctoral student in his 30s, on the verge of a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Doc’s from Houston, and has lived in the Dungeon since 1969. He has cerebral palsy of some kind. Can’t use his legs at all; he can move his arms a bit, but his hands are clenched tight. Doc gets around in a wheelchair fitted with an electric motor, controllable by a Doc-friendly joystick. The chair also accommodates a small tray with a beverage holder.
Animal takes care of Doc’s hygiene, down to the most intimate wipes. In exchange, the university gives Animal room and board.
Another guy on the floor, Scraper, is also quadriplegic, also afflicted with a cerebral palsy that limits muscle control in both legs, arms and shoulders. But he has considerably more upper-body control than Dr. Dungeon, so Scraper rarely uses his big blue electric cart that is usually stored in the handicapped restroom, at the laundry end of the hall. Scraper gets around on aluminum crutches with wrist braces, his legs crossed at the ankles, dragging behind. Tips of steel have been attached to all Scraper’s shoes, to keep the leather from wearing out. These tips cause a peculiar scraping sound, Scraper’s song of approach, whence comes his name.
Every few days or weeks, Scraper falls. He’s rarely injured, but the sound is horrible. A group of us would be studying and drinking in the lounge, and…scrape…scrape…scrape…. But somebody would have just come out of the shower and left a puddle of water in the hallway, or spilled a beer, and Scraper’s crutches would inevitably find the wet spot. You’d hear the most ungodly FWUH-GUNNGKH! You’d wince, shiver, scamper down the hall to check for damage — almost always minor, as Scraper (a.k.a. Scrapey, Shcrapely or the Scrape) generally gained some control on the way down; he was good at falling. You’d probably find Pro, Scraper’s saintly roommate, already there, helping the Scrape back up to his original scraping position.
Scraper has fair control over his upper limbs and over his hands, so, unlike Animal, who gets room and board and a monthly stipend, Pro takes care of Scraper for free.
For a variety of reasons that would take months to describe, most of us have ridiculous names. But there is only one I can’t accept: Wild Man. Sounds like a frat dork with a trust fund who hops up on the table to dance with strippers during rush week. George W. Bush in the Air National Guard — there’s your Wild Man.
But apparently there are other kinds. One Sunday morning, Beef and I sit peacefully at our respective built-in desks, chairs tilted back, facing the open door to the hallway, enjoying the day’s first beer. Suddenly, the door directly across from us opens, and out bursts our sophomore neighbor, Wild Man. By now we’ve shared meals and hung out with Wild Man — but we haven’t met this version.
This Wild Man is possessed. He throws open his door, leaps and lands melodramatically in the hallway, frozen, silent, staring, breathing heavily. Brandishing a golf club, he wears only boxers and a demented stare made all the more disturbing by the Billy Joel blasting from his room.
“Go ahead with your own life, leave me aloooone!” Joel sings. Wild Man leaps again. Lands in our doorway. Pauses, stares, leaps once more, this time to one side, out of view.
Then it begins: shrieks, bellows, divots. Wild Man attacks the wall with his 5-iron.
CHUNG-KAH! CHUNG-KAH! CHUNG-KAH! CHUNG-KAH!
Then it stops. Beef and I exchange looks. Wild Man reappears in our field of vision, now inhabiting the posture of a reasonable 19-year-old man strolling into his dorm room. The door closes softly behind him.
After a moment, Beef says, “That was interesting.”
“That was,” I reply.
We sip our beers and wait.
The Billy Joel stops. Wild Man’s door opens again. The crazed eyes have fallen sad. In addition to his boxers, he now wears over-the-calf tube socks.
“My music’s not too loud, is it?” says Wild Man.
I modify Beef’s and my window screen. Because our window faces the bottom of a steep hillside, the distance between the window’s bottom and the cement gutter outside is maybe four feet. And no one ever goes there.
With a pocket knife, I make one long cut, separating screen from frame. It begins about halfway down one side, across the bottom and halfway up the other.
It doesn’t look any different — it just hangs there — but now empty bottles thrown at the open window pass through the screen and fall outside, breaking in relative quietude. The flap immediately falls back in place, and it appears as if the hurled bottles have simply disappeared into thin air.
For most of us, fall quarter 1980 is spent learning the ways of the big school, studying, drinking beer and, for me, getting stoned and drinking a lot of Jack Daniel’s. I’d taken to drink and drugs rather well in high school, beginning at the end of 1978, right after my older brother, Daniel, died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Danny had been an English major at the University of Illinois, and had been accepted by UCLA’s English department for fall ’79. Danny and I had made short films together since we were little kids, and he’d been planning to apply to UCLA’s film school after getting settled in the English department.
So when I applied to UCLA, not long after his death, it was with the intention of eventually getting into the film school, trying to make something of what my big brother had taught me.
Unfortunately, drinking and stoning aren’t helping with grades. By the end of sophomore year, I won’t have the minimum 3.0 to even apply for the motion-picture/television major. Eventually, I’ll declare a major in art and experiment with video. For now, I drink; I get stoned; I take any class that fulfills humanities-style breadth requirements while requiring minimal actual attendance. I am, as they say, “majoring in lecture notes” — unfocused, open to suggestions. I am not alone.
Soon we will be teachers, writers, lawyers, musicians, financial advisers, private investigators and artists. But for now, we play football, basketball, baseball, volleyball, soccer, drums and guitars. We shoot pool after dinner and share care packages from home. We swap sections of the morning papers between bathroom stalls.
Computers are not yet personal. We are manual citizens. We write by hand. We type on borrowed IBM Selectrics, at best. I have my brother’s old Royal Deluxe manual typewriter in a case.
Every Friday night, there’s a quick floor meeting. At one of the first ones, the sophomores explain how Dungeonites have traditionally thrown big-ass theme parties, because otherwise no one comes down here except to do laundry. It’s the only way to meet girls.
Someone brings up the notion of Dykstra as its own city. If Dykstra is its own city, the Dungeon is Skid Row. Skid Row becomes the theme of our first party.
We get kegs from Liquor Barn in Brentwood. R.R.A. (a.k.a. Scott, Our Resident Adviser) helps with the age requirement. Even though there are plenty of us with the strength to move kegs, it’s nice to have Big Steve (230 pounds, freshman center on UCLA’s football team) just across the hall, for fine-tuning the keg locations after they’ve been tubbed in ice.
The kegs are tapped, and the basting begins.
(No one seems to remember the origin of our use of the term basted, probably because we were all too basted to notice. Just as good citizens on the floors above us and in buildings all around for miles in every direction and on every continent get wasted, trashed, thrashed, fucked up, fried, stoned, ripped, blitzed and twisted, Dungeonites get basted.)
Several rooms have been emptied for the night, including 103. Earlier, Beef and I removed all unattached furniture and locked everything up next door in Little Steve and Pete’s room; desk chairs were brought into 103 and arranged in rows. Our room is now the Skid Row porno theater — we show the Dungeon collection of 8 mm porno loops all night, corrupting the minds of our peers. Gangly Jughead and stony Davey-Boy Reaves have replaced their furniture with a single foldout table covered in crisp white bed sheets. Their room is the Mission. Jughead dresses convincingly as an Inquisition-era Spanish priest, stands behind the table, blesses the guests and serves mind-bending punch from an enormous cauldron.
We’ve dumped all our trash into the hallway. All of it. Guests arrive — not as many as we’d hoped for — but plenty. By midnight, the lounge and hallways are respectably packed with revelers, knee-deep in crap of all textures and stenches. Dungeonites walk, roll and scrape in various states of disrepair.
Animal spends much of the evening writhing on the floor, laughing and grabbing at random ankles. But because he’s Animal, it seems like reasonable behavior.
After that first winter break, Beef and I get rid of our steel-frame beds and put up a loft. (My idea, of course; Beef would’ve been fine sleeping on the floor in the hallway.) Now we have almost twice as much space. This gives our room — one of the most isolated rooms on the floor — slightly more social potential; i.e., there’s room for a keg.
And just in time, this new guy, Rum Raisin, shows up. Moves in with one of the floor’s few isolationists, a Richard Something. Rum Raisin dresses like a frat boy. Traumatizes Spike instantly by wearing hideous green pleated pants and a pink Lacoste shirt. There’s widespread concern that Animal might kill him.
We are, among other things, adamantly anti-frat.
No need to fear. Inside Rum’s frat-boy costume beats the heart of one of the brilliant social minds of our generation. Rum becomes our pimp, a.k.a. social director. Rum organizes our first hugely successful event, the Jungle Party.
We hack off palm and palmetto fronds (with respect, almost: just a few from each tree) from the South Bay to the Valley, and haul them back in Darin’s minipickup, just before its transmission dies on Venice at Sepulveda. We work under cover of darkness, et cetera. We hang these and whatever other jungly vegetation presents itself to us from the walls and ceiling. Someone arranges for Everclear™ to appear by driving down to Mexico and back very quickly.
We post notices. KK, who lives with Brellis right beside the lounge, rigs the speakers and selects the vinyl. The people come. By 10 p.m., the floor is packed and humming, and it packs and hums solidly for three hours or more, then unpacks but still hums until dawn. Home is made temporarily another world, loud and leafy, useless but for the pleasure of those who made it. Basted out of my Juan Epstein/Willie Aames–lookin’ gourd and wearing only a rabbit-skin loincloth, I have become Wild Man.
A quarter century passes like nothing. Animal lives up in Valencia now. Married, with two teenagely Animal-spawn. By hard work and, by his own account, good fortune, Animal’s made a lot of money, mostly by presiding over a private-investigation firm. He’s sort of a secret-agent guy. Seems happy.
Animal’s still a large, intense man, chivalrous, reasonable, seemingly unbreakable. Beef describes Animal as “the heart of the Dungeon.” I believe that’s a compliment to us all.
I leave my car in the parking lot at Animal’s office, and we drive off toward some kind of reunion in Las Vegas, the approximate 25th anniversary of our Dungeon days. Our last road trip together was probably to San Diego about 23 years ago in either a multiprimered ’66 Mustang or an early-’70s AMC Hornet wagon with inexplicable Gucci seats. Suddenly, it’s a huge black BMW sedan with an exotic GPS entertainment panel that I can’t stop staring at.
Down Interstate 5, up Highway 14, Pearblossom Highway east to old Highway 18, in desperate need of a restroom.
“I’m no longer called Animal,” says Animal. “People in my office call me ‘Chameleon.'”
Somewhere around Barstow, Rum Raisin calls with an important reminder.
“Well, hurry the fuck up.”
Rum, Darin and KK are already at the hotel, already basting.
Chameleon-Animal and I check in at the Palms on Flamingo Road around 9 p.m. The place has 55 stories. Animal gets a room on the 27th; I get the ninth. I win. We unpack and return to casino level, where I call Rum Raisin for directions.
“We’re over by the…we’re in the casino, near the…money-thing place.”
Animal and I find KK, who organized the reunion, sitting with Darin and Rum at a small round table in a dorky mall-style Mexican-theme bar. After some quick hugs, Animal and I pull up chairs and catch up. KK wears a beard and has surpassed even my own male-pattern baldness. Darin looks pretty much the same, the fucker. Rotty’s due to arrive shortly.
I shock the others by ordering a ginger ale, then whip out a flask of delicious single-malt scotch. Of all the Dungeonites, I’m the only outright financial failure. Figured I could save some money by packing my own spirits.
We migrate to the bar at the sportsbook, and I realize that the flask was a bad idea. Forgot to take into account the inevitably impaired judgment that ensues when the flask runs dry; that Dungeonites of means would offer to buy drinks, and that I’d have to accept.
By the time Rotty arrives, around 11:30, I’m basted and babbling into my portable audio recorder: “The whole cacophony-seduction is lost on me. I do not know the sportsbook’s secrets, nor those of Lucky Larry’s Shrimpmania slot machines. Cigarette girls in red-and-black vinyl uniforms. Tobacconatrix? I understood the appeal of Old Vegas: Give the casinos your money, they give you cheap room and board — 99-cent shrimp cocktails at 4 a.m., $2.95 steak and eggs in the afternoon. That’s all Las Vegas ever was. Where the fuck are we? Will we still do this in our 80s?”
“Shoma, what are you doing?” Rotty has also aged well, with a full head of hair and a ruddy complexion.
“What? I’m talking into my recording device.”
“We’re heading up to the Ghostbar. You going?”
“Yeah,” I say. “That sounds horrible. Let’s go.”
Ghostbar: Overblown subwoofing discomaniacal black-light den filled with lowbrow 20-something pop-culture knockoffs, modeling at one another on the 55th floor. What are Dungeonites doing here? Has it come to this? I’d have preferred a Motel 6 in Fontana, camping in the Rockies, harvesting sugar beets with the Gururumba in the highlands of New Guinea. Given Vegas, I’d have preferred some Dungeony dive — the Gold Coast across the street has a 70-lane bowling alley, for example.
The Ghostbar has a balcony, though, and the wind blows mighty. Never have I stood in such a wind, so high, so basted.
“Good evening, digital recording device. We’re out on the fucking 55th-floor balcony. The wind is blowing at 640 mph — about 556 knots. What you hear ruining the sound of the wind is some fucking ridiculous remix of AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black,’ our old Dungeon theme song. This pop cash-register version is about to make me spew. Not that ‘Back in Black’ was art, but it was at least sincere. Good evening.”
We mill about the hideous, packed sprawl of a bar. It’s too loud to talk. As I down my fourth post-flask beer — bringing the night’s total to 10 drinks — I realize that I’ve forgotten something important: I forgot to eat.
No single activity better defines Las Vegas to me than the act of vomiting. Vomiting at 6 a.m. with the loud moron neighbors back at it after just a two-hour intermission. Their parting words, at 4 a.m.: “Dude, I’m going back down!” “That chick was hot!” “Dude, hold it down!” “Dude, shut up!” “No way, dude! This is fuckin’ Vegas! YAOW!” “Shut up, man! There’s a dude at the door!”
As the room spins, I recall that Dykstra Hall had amazing sonic insulation. And that, even basted, we were considerate about making with the high-volume activities when others were studying. Or at least, that’s how I remember it.
Haven’t had this much to drink in a decade, but if these fuckers will stay quiet for 20 minutes, I should be able to sleep it off…
Three loud knocks on my door. In my boxers, I receive the report from security: “We’ve had multiple complaints. They’ve agreed to shut up and go to sleep.”
But only for two hours. At 6 a.m., I jolt awake to their extremely loud revelation, “Dude! We should totally order eggs Benedict from room service!”
“Totally!” Soon the party revs up to full throttle again, and this time I’m also contending with pounding, spinning residual images of eggs Benedict.
I dash for the bathroom. If the Palms had thick Dungeon walls, the toilet and I wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Carrillo, A.K.A. the dawg, probably would’ve been playing football for UCLA — he was a star in high school — if he hadn’t been shot in the back in a hunting accident. Carrillo’s fuckin’ huge: 6-foot-4, with a chest like a tailgate and a head that’s as big around as my waist. His legs are rails. Rarely, Carrillo will rise from his chair and prop himself up on crutches, just to scare the crap out of everyone; just as an excuse to let loose with one of his trademark bellowing MWAH-HA-HA-HAAAH!! monster laughs, which he often implements to herald his impending arrival from great distances.
Carrillo’s also an exceptional visual artist, and chooses his canvases wisely. Most of our front doors have write-on/wipe-off note boards. Carrillo rolls room to room, early in the morning or late at night, and draws a character named Mr. (Knute) Knarley on random doors.
Mr. Knarley was a gleeful, disembodied, piratelike head, somewhere between a skull and a light bulb in shape, and Dick Dastardly (Penelope Pitstop) and Mask Man (Thank You, Mask Man) in countenance. Of his dozens of deeply disturbing facial features, most admired was Mr. Knarley’s earring: an identical Mr. Knarley in miniature, dangling from the host Knarley’s earlobe. If you dared to look closely, you’d discover that Mr. Earring Knarley in turn hosted Mr. Subsequent Earring Knarley. And so on, ad microscopium.
—L.A. Weekly, February 11, 2000
It’s considered an honor to wake up in 1981 and find one’s door graced with a fresh Mr. Knarley. Something like finding an Easter egg under the Christmas tree.
I rise in Las Vegas at the crack of noon, 2006. No Mr. Knarley. I call Rum Raisin for a status report. The hotel swimming pool — the primary reason for choosing the Palms — is closed for the day, due to high winds. The Dungeonites have headed eastward to explore the Strip.
There’s no plan and all day to catch up. I head down to casino level, grab breakfast in a counter seat at the 24 Seven Cafe and arrange for a fresh start: a new room, farther from frat row, perhaps not right fucking beside the elevator. Christina at the front desk puts me in 20109, on the 20th floor, with an unobstructed view to the north. I transfer my baggage, return to ground level and head east on Flamingo Road, on foot.
It’s a good walk — about 45 minutes to the Strip. This gives me time to reflect on the beauty of the weather — for fiercer winds I’ve never battled — and the prescience of a recent dream. Street signs have fallen; newspaper kiosks too. Forty-five minutes of sandstorms and diesel exhaust. But pleasant, in the high 70s.
The dream: Two weeks earlier, I’d awakened in the middle of the night with a mysterious desire to own a pith helmet. Ordered one online for $17, went back to sleep. This may well be the first sign of a serious bipolar condition, but it certainly worked out well for now; the pith helmet is ideal protection from these blinding gusts of Las Vegas sand.
I find the lunch drinkers at Mon Ami Gabi. They’re done. I’m not hungry after my trough of pig & eggs at 24 Seven Cafe. Animal needs sunglasses. No; Chameleon-Animal needs expensive sunglasses, from a particular boutique in Caesars Palace. Jesus. Animal-Animal should kick Chameleon-Animal’s ass.
We meander through the Strip crowd and into nearby Uncle Caesars Palace & Upscale Swapmeet Marketplace Mall, I believe it’s called.
The music is hideous and everywhere. As an adult, I’ve discussed music with hundreds if not a thousand people or more, and not one over the age of 14 enjoys this candy-coated regurgitated discotheque sewage. Which means that Vegas’ target audience must be all these 14-year-old text-messaging aficionados with fake IDs and their parents’ credit cards, many carrying what look like red or green plastic bongs, but are in fact portable half-yards of margaritas.
And look — there’s Pete Rose, signing autographed memorabilia at some boutique. I wonder why Pete would be in Vegas.
Good: Animal has his expensive sunglasses, just in time for nightfall. We take a shuttle back to the hotel, hit the showers and return to our new hangout, the sportsbook bar. Little Kurt and Spike have arrived. Spike’s face is in its 40s, but his physique — he’s an avid bicyclist and weightlifter — has remained in its 20s. He wears one of his original Dungeon T-shirts, in mint condition, with a big floor logo on the back and EKIPS — his name, backward — in small letters on the front. Little Kurt (only called little because Big Kurt was huge) used to look like a newscaster; now he looks more like a senator from the great state of Arizona. Little Kurt gets my vote for most charmed life: still married to his high school sweetheart, with three kids and a stable job that appears to pay quite well.
We baste. KK points out a disturbing neighbor, a man resembling Esteban Vihaio, Michael Parks’ character in Kill Bill Volume 2 — a dried-up disco lizard, a defrocked Bolivian priest in a pale-blue shirt and tinted sunglasses, with shiny hair and tight pants for the ladies. Good evening, ladies…
Lizard man complains to the bartender that KK and I are Afghan spies, involved in top-level espionage. As evidence, he points to the red LED on my digital audio recorder.
Dude: If we were spies, we’d be staying at the Wynn, not at the fucking Palms. Bartender calls security. Security surrounds Lizard man, scoots him toward and talks him out the door.
It’s too late to get dinner reservations. Someone at the front desk advises us that the only place we’re likely to find a table is at the overpriced piece-of-shit sliced-cow emporium, a few blocks away.
And so we eat cow-based heart attacks simmering in butter, with baked potatoes. It’s a long table, with Animal at one end and KK at the other. I’m at the KK end, where the conversation’s focused on the music we used to listen to. The other end of the table’s talking about financial shit.
The bar at the sportsbook has become our default gathering spot. We return from the overpriced slaughterhouse outlet to find Toby there at the bar. And we greet him as we would have done in ’81 — by not greeting him. We just stand there, 20 feet away, and look, and snicker. Heh. There’s Toby. Heh-heh. Doesn’t see us. Heh. We form a circle around the target and slowly close in.
Saturday’s less windy at the Palms hotel. The pool’s open. Darin’s gone — won $750 at blackjack late last night, got up early and left. Spike and I have breakfast with KK and Kurt at the 24 Seven. Then we join the others poolside, in the shade.
Rum Raisin and I were roommates for a few years in the post-Dungeon early ’80s, hung out rarely in the ’90s and now regularly since the mid-’00s.
Rum’s also a writer, also lightly basted. “What I cherished most about the Dungeon,” he tells my recording device, “is that no matter what, you were accepted for who you were. You might have a judgment against me — what an abrasive shit I am, or whatever — but it didn’t interfere with the fact that I still get to be who I am and you get to be who you are, and we’re all still a group. And that was what was so cool, because in any other organization, institution, gathering, whatever, there’s a punitive consequence for not being liked by the group.
“To me, that’s the absolute definition of what the Dungeon was: They stuck us in this barely habitable hellhole, so we decided, Fuck you all, we’re a tribe. We don’t care if you’re steroid-addicted or wheelchair-bound, or black or white or brown. We don’t care if you’re gay or a nerd, a jerk, a Bible-thumping Christian or an anarchistic Jew. He’s this, he’s that — who fucking cares? Our code was: He’s my Dungeon-dwelling brother, and we’re sticking together.
“And you know what? That never broke, ever.”
Little Kurt and I reminisce about the Dungeon’s most optimistic group of visitors, his high school friends from Arizona.
“Didn’t your friends scale the side of the building? Up to the eighth floor?”
“Yes. They climbed up on the outside balconies. They were totally inebriated. I was sober enough to know…come on, you guys, we’re having a great time, let’s not die.”
“So often dying will ruin a good time.”
“Thank God they all managed, and they’re all still alive.”
Rum tries to convince me that attractive young women are still attracted to me. Variation on a conversation from 25 years ago, in the cafeteria.
“You’re just not working the writer’s mystique right now,” he says.
“Writer’s mystique!” I shout. “Over here! Writer’s mystique!”
Nothing. But Rum’s a tireless promoter. He tells our young, attractive and married waitress, Molly, that I’m this wonderful and talented fellow, and suggests that she introduce me to her sister, cousin, friend or divorced mother.
I hate selling things, especially myself. I ask of Molly only a margarita on the rocks with salt. After that, I better not drink any more. “I have a mild depression scheduled for 8:30, at which time I’ll sit in bed and write this.”
“Fuck the depression,” says Rum.
“I tried that. It fucks right back, harder.”
“You’re overly polite,” says Rum. “You need bastard lessons.”
In Dykstra’s single immense cafeteria, at the peak of dinner hour, Dungeonites perform ritualistic acts of unsavory dining for the benefit of all. Basted and in our dorky black matching T-shirts with floor logo on the back — not the whole 40 of us, but a good 30 — we eat without utensils; eat with only face. Halfway through the meal, Sammy or Spike or Animal or KK or Rum or Paco or one of the Steves says, “Switch,” and we rotate, as a unit, one seat to the left, then sit and continue grazing on whatever is in front of us now.
This Dungeon Dinner performance happens more than once, but is most effective when the cafeteria serves potato salad and ribs. It’s not easy to maintain dignity while shaking rib meat loose from the bone with a face full of potato salad. But it’s good, clean entertainment for the rest of the populace, a wholesome image of young Americans of all races and creeds coming together to be disgusting as one.
And now we are civilized, in our 40s, planted in candy-engine red leather chairs around a well-trimmed circular table at Corsa Restaurant, in the Wynn hotel. The food we order will not be worth half its cost, but will be twice as good as what we paid even more for last night at Ruth’s Chris’ Steaks’ House’s Cow-o-Rama. Hearty-ass (yet delicate) Italian food, here. And no more dangerous liquids for me. I need to concentrate.
We toast to our dearly departed Scraper, who was killed in a crosswalk as he traversed Malibu’s Pacific Coast Highway in 1990.
Rum and I have been trying to solve a mystery for about a year now. It’s really starting to get frustrating.
“Who was my roommate?” says Rum. “Nobody can figure that out. Richard something. Richard…fuck.”
After dinner, I drink ginger ale while the others baste on couches and low-lying chairs around two coffee tables at the Parasol Up cocktail lounge, just down the hall from Corsa. KK studies the menu. Rotty orders cigars. I’m interviewing Spike’s left shoe.
Rum Raisin is basted and talks to the waitress, who may well be named Bambi. “We all lived on the same dorm floor 25 years ago,” says Rum. “And we’ve all kept in touch this whole time.”
“Wow!” says Bambi. “That’s so cool. Were you in a frat?”
In unison, seven powerful “NOOOs!”
Bambi’s confused. Bambi leaves.
KK has a shlips episode: For just a few moments, he’s compelled by unknown powers to formulate a conversation around the onomatopoeic Dungeon word “shlips,” which has many meanings, depending on how it’s inflected.
KK points to the menu, raises his eyebrows and addresses me formally, as if I’d just offered to take his order. “Gentleman Jack,” says KK. “And I think I would like to drink it…from a shlips glass.”
I nod. “I’ll check with the bartender.”
“Yes. I would like one serving of Gentleman Jack,” KK repeats. “And I’d like to drink that from a shlips glass.”
“On the rocks, or neat in the shlips?” I ask.
“From a shlips glass, please,” says KK. “Look — it’s snowing outside!”
Indeed, the kinetic window display in the thousand-dollar-souvenir store across from us has begun spewing white blobs of…something.
“Dandruff?” I suggest.
“Yes.” KK closes and hands me the menu. “Dandruff, on the rocks, in the shlips glass. Thank you.”
About a third of the ’80-’81 Dungeonites fare well in the year-end lottery and return to the Dungeon for ’81-’82. Others share Dungeon annexes — apartments nearby. Animal fares poorly; he doesn’t get drawn in the lottery, and he doesn’t have money for an apartment. Fortunately, we’ve made friends with the janitorial staff — we call Ruby, the supervisor, “Mom,” and she calls us her boys — and they come up with a solution: Animal’s given the key to a spare storage closet. The room’s about 5 by 5. Animal’s 6-foot-1 or so. But he fixes it up nice, with a broomstick diagonally across it, for hanging his uniform and non-basting clothes, a trifold mattress to sleep on, a hot plate…everything you need, plus free rent. When someone on the floor stays over at a friend’s or goes home for the weekend, Animal’s given the vacant bed, which frees up the storage closet for Rum Raisin, who otherwise sleeps on various floors.
I get Room 122, KK’s and Brellis’ old room, right next to the lounge: prime Dungeon real estate. I rebuild my loft so that it doesn’t meet fire codes. Roommate Terry Williams has the downstairs to himself, and I have a semiprivate bachelor-pad crawlspace — not enough room to stand, but you can sit cross-legged — complete with hard-liquor storage and a bong bar. Posters of the Who and Led Zeppelin, black and blue lights…the floor drug emporium.
“Would you like more eggs, Meat?”
(My parents meet Animal and Beef, both of San Diego. My parents live behind a liquor store in Garden Grove — a good place to stop off. Thereafter, my parents refer to each of them, ingenuously and interchangeably, as “Meat, or the other one.”)
Since we arrived in Las Vegas, I’ve been reminding everyone to set aside a few minutes to spew out short bios into my recording device, for the story. “Five minutes, tops,” I say. “People take you more seriously if you can prove you’re nonfictional.”
No takers until late Saturday night. Others have been standing in line in front of the casino-level elevators, waiting to be allowed entry to the special elevator that goes to the Ghostbar, or to some other chamber of sonic horrors. I can’t take it. I haven’t been drinking. I grab some junk food and head up to 20109. Figure I’ll listen to some audio notes, figure out the story.
I wake up my laptop. The door opens. It’s my sober roommate, Spike, leading a quartet of basties — Rum, Rotty, KK and Little Kurt.
Rum has apparently talked everyone into making statements. Except for Toby, who’s gone off to stay with local family. And Animal, who’s gone to sleep.
The subjects find chairs or beds. I crawl and lurk, a worm, a praying mantis, fine-tuning microphone angles, checking sound levels, wolfing down a cheeseburger and a refreshing beverage. I’m an expert interviewer.
“Somebody go,” says Rum.
“I’ll go,” says Rotty. “My name is Wally Schlecht-Fledgenheimer, spelled the half-Jewish way. I started UCLA in 1980 and graduated in 1984. Then I went to law school, and then I went in the service. I was a captain in the United States Army — an Airborne guy. After I got out of the service, I went to work as a lawyer and got married. I have a stepdaughter who’s 12 and a half, and we live in the town of Alamo, California.
“When I was in the military, I did criminal defense, and now I’m doing product liability and class actions. Sometimes I work with Animal. He does some investigative work for me.”
“Perfect,” I say. Much of his testimony even seems to be true.
“Spike here,” says Spike. “I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Brainy kid in a barrio junior high school. Got my ass kicked all the time. Then I transferred to a high school in a rich area, and I was the poor kid, ostracized. The Dungeon was the first place I felt like I fit in. I lived there for three years. Majored in economics, then went to graduate school at UC Davis. When I got out of school, I really thought I’d know where I was going, and what was going to happen, and what was going on. It turns out I was completely full of shit. Maybe that’s why it’s kind of nice to get back together with the Dungeonites. It takes me back to that time when I still knew everything in the world.”
“My stage name,” says KK, “is Perkie Fuddleshap. My brother’s name is Perkie Fuddlesworth. I grew up in Mildew, California, a suburb of San Francisco. Went to UCLA from 1980 to 1984. Majored in mathematics and system science. Lived in the Dungeon for two years. And then lived with four men in a one-bedroom apartment for two years. Upon graduation, I moved back to the Bay Area, got married, had three kids and got into the electric-utility business, where we buy and sell electricity and electric-transmission services.”
“Holy shit!” says Rum. “You work for Enron?!”
“That is a horrible rumor,” says KK. “Which is not true.”
“Thank God,” says Rum. “We’d have to kill you.”
“Rum Raisin,” I say. “Go.”
“All right,” says Rum. “I started doing crack at a young age. I had my first stable of whores at 11. I was a diplomat for Afghanistan from 1979 until 1981, at which time I went back to school and joined the Dungeon. I volunteer a lot of time at institutions for the criminally insane. I ran for governor of the state of California six times. I’ve only received four votes to date.”
Rotty says, “Twice, you didn’t vote for yourself?”
“I couldn’t,” says Rum. “Not in good conscience. So I started as an English major, but then switched to psychology after self-diagnosing as bipolar, midstroke during a marathon whacking session to the porn magazine Juggs. This was before silicone. I’ve dabbled in house painting and major motion pictures, and have been intermittently forced at gunpoint to ply my skills as a writer, including a stint at a disreputable medical marketing company that specialized in star-fucking. Never be a writer, Dave. Never be a writer.
“Oh — and I have one child. He’s amazing. He reads The Best of Juggs, Juggs Revisited and All Juggs All the Time.”
Senator Little Kurt recorded his bio earlier, poolside. It’s such a depressing tale — the happy marriage, the high-paying job that he enjoys, the healthy, promising spawn — that I can’t bear to include it here.
Those guys clear out, return to their pop-club masochism. I don’t get the attraction. I pour a scotch from my stash, load some Count Basie (a.k.a. Count Bastie) on the iTunes, take a light hit of pipeweed and get back to work.
Summer of ’82 approaches. Most of us will be leaving the Dungeon forever. We formulate plans to share apartments. We decide to have one final kick-ass party: Jungle II, the sequel.
Carrillo spends three or four days painting the walls with jungle animals while the rest of us again gently harvest palm fronds from the Valley to the South Bay. Rum takes a coalition down to Mexico for specialty beverages. We cover all surfaces — from the lounge to the end of the hallway, everything but floors and doors — with freshly killed fronds. The posters go up. We have a reputation from last year. The kegs, the lights, the music, my trusty bong…And Animal. Animal builds a waterfall.
Animal built a small waterfall for the first Jungle party, but that was just a training waterfall. This one, the second and One True Waterfall — meticulously crafted of cement over chicken wire and two-by-fours, tenderly painted and equipped with a mighty water pump — this was Animal’s masterpiece. Animal builds the waterfall instead of studying or attending classes, for nine or 10 days straight. The last three nights, he barely sleeps.
“I remember coming home from a music gig with one of the bands I was working with,” Rum recalls as we sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, westbound through Death Valley, 2006. “I came home at like 3 a.m., and you were working on the waterfall. And you looked up and said, ‘Hey.’ Like it was the most absolutely normal Tuesday night.”
“I don’t know why I built it,” says Animal. “I could think of some symbolism for it, or whatever, but I think I just wanted the waterfall more than I wanted anything else. That’s characteristic of my personality: I lock onto one thing at a time, and then just throw everything into it, to the detriment of other things. I think that’s probably my biggest weakness.”
“It was a thing of beauty,” says Rum. “And it weighed about 800 pounds.”
Seventy-two hours pass like nothing. Sunday morning, with little fanfare, we disband, vowing to gather again as soon as we can. Rum drives back with Animal and me. We hit bumper-to-bumper traffic on the westbound 15 in Death Valley, and after about 20 minutes, we see why: a fatal accident on the eastbound side. A small white car’s lying upside down in the gulley. A crew’s preparing to lift a bagged body out from beside the wreckage.
The problem was that after the party was over, there was still a massive waterfall sitting out in front of the elevators.
“First we tried to lift it,” says Rum. “Four or five big huge monster guys, and we couldn’t even budge it.”
But even if we’d been able to move it, there was nowhere for it to go. Too big to fit in the elevators or down the hall. No way to remove the waterfall from the Dungeon floor at all. It would take forever to destroy.