It was a good place to grow up. My dad was on the Antioch PD. Grandpa Acosta was a barber, a musician, and a self-taught artist. His murals are still on display at Pittsburg’s Mecca Restaurant. For whatever reason, I turned into a Swiss Army Knife kind of guy — a proverbial “jack of all trades.” I never focused on a single project or followed very far down a single pathway.
I graduated with the Antioch High School Class of ’99 and married Jessica Johnson three years later. I entered the adult world with a lot of aspirations but no set goals. I graduated from the American River College Firefighting Academy and completed all the requirements, but before I could properly look for a job with one of the local fire districts, Jessica and I took a gamble on the future and moved to the capital of gambling, Las Vegas. The decision to move was somewhat random because we had gone there on vacation and just on a lark had looked at some properties. Two weeks later we put money down on a house, moved in, and I started hustling for work.
I applied for a position as a Las Vegas firefighter, but there were only six fire departments in the county and hiring was slow. While waiting for a job to open up, I wasn’t able to earn sufficient income to cover our mortgage and expenses. My brother was studying dentistry at the time in a medical school in Las Vegas. My sister-in-law, Dawn Marie, who was working at P.F. Chang’s, told her manager about my problem and he said I could make good money tending bar on The Strip at the new Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. I knew nothing about bartending but really needed the dough so I created a résumé with some fictitious entries and did a sufficiently good job acting the part of an experienced California bartender to convince Margaritaville’s manager to hire me.
Even though I started the job not knowing white rum from white vodka, I turned out to be a natural at tending bar. I watched what the other bartenders were doing and asked a lot of questions. Fortunately, Margaritaville specializes in tropical drinks, which involves putting a shot or two of tequila in a glass and then adding ingredients. Most of the patrons ordered one of the 11 margaritas on the menu that had fancy names such as “Who’s to Blame,” “Uptown Top Shelf,” and “Last Mango in Paris.” I may have started out ignorant but I wasn’t dumb. I’m a quick learner and usually only had to make a drink once to learn how to make it, so within a few days I was setting up those standard drinks like I had been doing it all my life.
I enrolled in a bartending school that failed to teach me anything useful about actually tending bar but did supply me with a helpful book of recipes. I would carry it around in my back pocket and consult it for instructions when a patron ordered some exotic drink like a Muddled Orange & Strawberry Tequila Fizz or a Blackberry Sage Tequila Smash.
The biggest part of tending bar is making conversation, which I am really good at. I’ve never been at a loss for words and am easy to talk to. I have a naturally friendly attitude, so on some shifts would make more in tips than I took home in salary.
Margaritaville was a happening place, and I had a number of run-ins with celebrities. In fact, one of the run-ins turned out to be literal because I was late for a shift and in my haste I collided with Céline Dion. She was not happy about the rough physical contact, and her security guys were even less happy. I didn’t recognize her and tried to smooth things out. She had a little girl with her and I said, “Your daughter’s really cute.” That was just adding insult to injury because the “daughter” turned out to be her son René-Charles. It was a bad experience that turned out to be one of my best stories. (Bad experiences often have a way of doing that.)
Jimmy Buffett himself came into the bar a few times while I was there. He turned out to be exactly as his public image portrays him — an easygoing “just letting it happen” kind of guy.
The famous NFL quarterback Drew Breeze spent a few hours in my bar and carried on a nice conversation with me. I’m no fan of the Saints, but Drew turned out to be a down to earth humble sort of a person, apparently unimpressed by his reputation as one of the top quarterbacks ever to play the game.
They shut down the bar one night to serve Mötley Crüe’s lead vocalist, Vince Neil, and his Barbie Doll-looking wife Lia Gerardini. Vince asked me if I had Maker’s Mark bourbon. I told him we just served Tequila. He told me to go downstairs and get some Maker’s Mark, and then made me pour a shot for myself. I became a Maker’s Mark fan on the spot.
After four years in Las Vegas, Jessica was ready to move back to California. It was bad timing because my plan for a firefighting career was at last making some forward process. North Las Vegas Fire District was about to make me an offer. However, an opportunity was apparently opening up with the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department on the Peninsula, so we packed up everything and moved back to California. As it turned out, the Vegas job offer came through but the California job fell through. I summarize that part of my story by saying that I left California to become a Las Vegas firefighter and came back a Las Vegas bartender.
We were like refugees when we got back to California. I was working as a part time limo driver, working part-time in Sacramento Wilton Fire District, tending bar part-time, and fell into a hospital job as an emergency room technician. My life was assailed by a perfect storm as my personal life, finances, and career seemed to be going off-the-tracks.
Things needed to change, so I decided to go to college and study medicine. Nothing came of the medical courses, but things opened up when I took a drama elective. Performance appealed to me. I always thought I would be good at doing stand-up and am creating a following at my twice a month comedy act at Brentwood’s Mannheim Social Club. People are glad to come out on those Monday nights to see some live entertainment. The club is part of an emerging nighttime scene in Brentwood. There’s a new energy. It’s becoming a destination; people are finding more reasons to go downtown.
In 2013 I found a casting call on Craig’s List for a feature film called Refuge. I was unprepared and showed up without experience, résumé, or even the standard headshot. To further emphasize my amateur status, I had a problem with childcare that day and brought my 10-year-old son with me to the casting call. When I registered, the receptionist looked at me in a funny way, like I hadn’t zipped my fly.
But all that stuff was incidental because the only thing producers want to see is how you do in front of the camera. One-hundred-and-fifty hopefuls showed up that day and I was one of only four candidates to be selected for a role. That was the starting point of everything else. I began to network, got an agent, made a few commercials, did some hand modeling, some voice overs, and have been a walk-on and an extra in a number of films. Along the way I’ve built a network of industry contacts. For example, I was on a BMW commercial working with Rafael Siegel for hours. We became friends; now we are colleagues.
I have moved on to writing, directing, producing, and am currently editing a TV Pilot called Adulting that I am trying to sell to a studio. Four of us local players are trying to build a production team. We have a lot of synergy and are creating high quality short films on shoestring budgets. We’re doing horror, drama, and comedy as a way of showcasing our ability and hoping to attract the attention of investors to finance a major film. For example, we just completed a short film here in Brentwood, called The Run with Rob Carrera and Dania Denise. I’m also working on a horror story using the town of Locke and the Ryde Hotel.
My three children, Tyler (14), Alexys (11), and Lola (9) are important parts of my life. I began to coach children’s softball and basketball games before the kids were born, so I’m having a great time now coaching teams that they are actually playing on. I have gotten the kids into the entertainment industry and have landed a number of bookings for them. There are many opportunities out there and by trial and error I learned how the system works. Once you learn how to manage the process of auditions, it is easy to get bookings. Tyler played a younger version of me in a flashback on Refuge. He’s appeared in music videos and TV pilots. He and his sisters have done commercials together. My daughters have been on posters for the new UCSF Children’s hospital and have appeared in Intel and Pay-Pal commercials. The two girls will be in an upcoming major motion picture. The kids love the work.
Life never stands still for me; I’m still jumping from one plan and one goal to another. I am hoping someday to open my own bar and design it as a speakeasy-style comedy club.
I’m still living life with more aspirations than set goals, usually coloring outside the lines and just watching to see what might come along. Except for times when I was actually near some blazing building, life would have been more comfortable if I had just landed a career with some fire department. But the Swiss Army Knife style is who I really am. There’s nothing I wouldn’t try. I’m going my own way and living life just for the fun of it.
And it is fun! I can’t wait to see what happens next!