by Justin Maurer
When I was 16 years old I had my dad thrown in jail for physically assaulting my sister. I fell completely out of touch with him until he heard that my career as a touring punk rock musician had fallen on its face.
“Son, your uncle and I want to retire. I’m offering you a unique opportunity to run the family business.”
This was a lie, but for some reason I believed him. My girlfriend and I moved in with my Uncle. My Uncle and Father were physically built like a comedy duo. Uncle was the portly funny one and my dad the tall serious one.
Uncle would drink a handle of Jack Daniels every day, mixing it with Coke Zero, and take a nap in the afternoon with his dogs. He spoke in a distinct way, annunciating every bit of his sentence.
Uncle Mitch had a lackey named Ned who would drive in from Ventura on a moment’s notice. Ned was the handyman, delivery boy, and attorney. Ned wore green crocs showcasing his yellowing toenails, wore a long beard, and often brought multiple pet parrots around in his large pickup truck.
My dad would walk around his home office in a Speedo, flailing his arms around while making business calls on his headset phone. He was a health nut and consumed varieties of powdered vitamins, wheat grass that he grew in his shower, and unholy concoctions of yogurt, canned salmon, and leftover spaghetti noodles. My dad forced his girlfriend to measure her Ph balance from her urine, and they had a chart in the bathroom with a pen and string scotch taped to it, detailing their daily Ph balance. He would say things like this to me:
“Son, when I’m your dad I will sign off on my emails as DAD” (his email signature was always in caps). When I’m talking to you as boss, I’m CEO and you have to listen to CEO. Got it, son?”
“Are you dad right now or CEO?”
“But you just addressed me as Son.”
My dad grew up on the Westside of LA and thought his calling was to be a Catholic priest. But first he played drums in a KISS cover band called Dreams, wearing the Peter Criss cat makeup.
Dad attended Catholic Seminary and snuck out at night to teach disco dancing lessons and to have sex with his students. He met a Hard of Hearing priest who taught him American Sign Language. They formed a new wave band called The Defenders and played venues like Madam Wong’s West, The Hollywood Biltmore Hotel, and Filthy McNasty’s. My Dad would sing and sign in American Sign Language simultaneously.
To improve his sign language skills, he volunteered at a summer camp for deaf children and that’s where he met my mom. My mom was born deaf and was attending Cal State Northridge, which still hosts one of the largest programs for deaf students in the United States.
My parents were married in ’82 and divorced by ’92. It was a dysfunctional family situation and I turned to punk rock as my solace. At the age of 15 I began playing in touring punk bands and releasing records.
As a teenager we only saw dad about once a month. One day my sister hung up on him and he burst into my mother’s house in a rage. She was in the basement doing laundry and as she’s deaf she didn’t hear all of the commotion upstairs. It sounded like they were killing each other.
My sister took a barstool out into the driveway and began smashing the windshield of my dad’s Nissan minivan. His new girlfriend was in the passenger seat as my green haired, lipringed, barefoot sister repeatedly bashed the window with the chair. My dad followed her out into the driveway, picked her up by the face and threw her onto the gravel. She ran back into the house bleeding. I put my arm against the door jam and wouldn’t let him come into the house. He laughed mockingly and left. The police arrested him later that night and we got a restraining order against him. I didn’t speak with him for a decade following.
However, the early 2000s found me in my dad and uncle’s employ. They sold gray market dental supplies which are products that are smuggled into the US through Canada to avoid customs and taxes. They are the same exact name-brand wholesale dental products, just sold for a fraction of the price.
My girlfriend and I lived with my Uncle for a few months and then moved into another house he owned in Long Beach. We rented the attic room for $750 per month. My pay from my dad and uncle was $750 every 2 weeks. They’d pay me with a check from their company and then I’d write a personal check right back to my uncle. It was something like indentured servitude or sharecropping. I borrowed a little more money from them to buy a used car, a 1986 Saab 900. It was always breaking down and I had to borrow even more money to fix it. Nearly all of my pay went right back to my dad and uncle. It seemed like there was no escape.
How the gray market deal went is that a Canadian grey market dealer would ship a box of dental supplies to my uncle. I’d drive my Saab 900 over to his house, somehow fit these massive boxes into the back of my 2 door hatchback and make the drop in South L.A.
Before the drop I had to call Arjun in Ontario, Canada.
“Who is speaking please?” He would screen his own calls.
“This is Justin from Cash Sales in California.” (Yes, they called their illegal business Cash Sales)
“Ah yes, please deliver the first box of supplies but do not give him the second shipment unless he gives you the second check.”
In south LA I’d park in a lot filled with dented worn out cars and one bright yellow Ferrari. The owner of the Ferrari was my contact. I’d knock on a heavy metal door and an eye slot would slide open like the Wizard of Oz. A voice would say,
“Who are you?”
I’d say, this is Justin from Cash Sales.
The heavy metal door would slide open.
In a back room would be Mr. Yellow Ferrari.
I brought the first box in and set it down on the table.
“Where’s the 2nd shipment”? Ferrari demanded.
“I’m sorry, Arjun says that I can’t leave you the 2nd box until you’ve made the 2nd payment.”
“I’ll tell you what man, take this check for 50 grand, tell Arjun he can deposit it right away. Here’s 2 more post-dated checks for 25 grand each, that cool?”
I’d bring in the 2nd box and then make a stop at Kinko’s where I’d ship the checks labeled as “legal documents” to Arjun in Canada. My dad and uncle would make a ten percent commission on each one of those checks.
I confronted my Uncle about it.
“You just get paid your hourly pay! You’re lucky that we gave you a job and a place to live! Where’s the money you owe me?”
I suffered this job for a year or two before I was forlorn, depressed, and even suicidal. I had nothing to show for it but my 1986 Saab 900.
One day headed across the Vincent Thomas Bridge to San Pedro, my car exploded. I cruised in neutral all the way down to PCH. Black smoke was billowing out of the hood. I was worried it would catch fire. My uncle refused to pick me up in Carson and I had to get a $50 cab to his house. At that point I knew I needed out.
My uncle’s ex-wife is a professional American Sign Language interpreter. She got into the field after meeting my mom. She encouraged me to apply for a few jobs and miraculously I got one.
I gave my dad and uncle 30 days notice, moved to L.A., and never looked back.
Although, looking back, I still owe my uncle $750 dollars.
Justin Maurer is a writer, musician, and ASL Interpreter. He is a CODA (Child of a Deaf Adult), and his first language was American Sign Language. He most recently rose to local prominence ASL Interpreting for the January 2019 Los Angeles Teacher’s Strike as well as ASL interpreting for prominent speakers such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former First Lady Michelle Obama. He has appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “Entertainment Tonight”. He has toured the world and released records with his punk bands CLOROX GIRLS, MANIAC and SUSPECT PARTS. His autobiographical play “Falling On Deaf Eyes” premiered June 2019 at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. One of his songs,“Outside Place,” was featured in the independent film, “The Lifeguard” (2013) starring Kristin Bell. Another song, “All The Time” was featured on the Showtime’s “Shameless.” His song “Seventeen Television” was an entrance theme song for WWE Wrestler CJ Parker. He has published 4 chapbooks and his poetry appeared in the 2019 collection “Nation Of Dirty Assholes”. Maurer’s writing and criticism has appeared in The Rumpus, Vice Spain, Faster Times, Dum Dum Magazine, Trop, L.A. Record, Color Magazine, Maximumrocknroll, Razorcake and Vol 1. Brooklyn. Read more about his music and writing here: www.justin-maurer.com