Out of My Head
Peter Gallay


Peter Gallay is a veteran comedy writer whose career spans more than three decades, some of it while actually employed. Gallay speaks French, Spanish, German and Italian, but only a couple of words in each. He currently lives in the Southern California desert. Someday he hopes to find shelter.

My Life
An Unauthorized Autobiograpy

Part I
I was born six months before the D-Day invasion, so I didn’t get involved. I’m told I had a happy childhood, but I really couldn’t tell because of all the yelling and screaming.

My father was a doctor. My mother wasn’t. I had two great uncles and a couple of cousins who were also doctors. Medicine was in my blood. Then I stopped taking it and my blood went back to normal. So much for my medical history.

My first language was Yiddish, which is strange because no one in my household spoke it. I was a second generation American and first generation Californian. Both my parents came from Brooklyn and all my grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. In the old country they had been scholars and teachers and housewives. They didn’t spend much time outdoors so their complexions were what was known as the Jewish Pale.

Many of my other relatives chose not to emigrate and their lives all took different paths. Some to Auschwitz, some to Treblinka, some to Sobibor…

My maternal grandfather arrived in this country with a dollar thirty-seven in his pocket and seven hundred rubles in his shoe. Which all told came to $1.98. His first job was pushcart peddler, but street vendors were going out of style and he sold very few pushcarts.

Luckily my grandmother was an enterprising woman. An excellent cook, she opened a small neighborhood deli and sold homemade old country delicacies. Her most popular item was her famous chopped liver, with secret ingredients she never revealed. Customers made a game of trying to guess its contents. It soon became known in the neighborhood as ‘What Am I Chopped Liver.”

Bubby’s marriage to Zayde was a continuing Romeo and Juliet story, but with a Jewish twist. She wanted to poison him and he wanted to stab her.

My father’s father was a self-taught druggist, who learned his trade through trial and error. Early on he didn’t get much repeat business. But he persevered and eventually became successful enough to have his own home, his own car, and his own defense attorney.

My father’s mother was a formidable, free thinking woman. She was four foot eleven and weighed 185 pounds. She owned a health food store. She was an ardent communist, a fighter for social justice, a suffragette and a feminist. If she’d lived long enough, she surely would have made it all the way to lesbian. She died shortly before I was born, and I am named after her. Her name was Peter.

Part II
The first few years of my life were undistinguished. Ages one and two came and went without my making a mark, except occasionally on the carpet. But then something spectacular happened. My father bought an old upright piano. Its surface was scratched and its keys chipped, but it had a surprisingly nice tone. I think it was a Kenmore.

At any rate, there I was, an inquisitive three year-old, toddling around the house. I stopped at the piano and just for fun, boosted myself onto the piano bench. And then — and then! — wait for it —

Our first house was in Boyle Heights, named after an early Mexican settler, José Heights (originally spelled Jeights). The neighborhood has always been a home to succesive ethnic groups. These days it’s mostly Latino. Sorry, I mean Latinx. When I lived there it was Jewix.

The main street was Brooklyn Avenue, later changed to César Chávez Boulevard, in honor of the famous agricultural labor organizer. He invented the César salad, similar to the Caesar salad but without lettuce, which he was boycotting.

— Are you still waiting for it? Okay, here it is. I was three years old. I boosted myself onto the piano bench and without preamble played the entire Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, start to finish. Hard to believe, but true. Unfortunately, I got every single note wrong, so no one noticed. They all thought I was just some kid banging away. Hah! The joke was on them.

Getting back to Brooklyn Avenue, for a child it was a wonderland of shops and stores. I knew all the merchants by name. There was Shmuel the shoichet, who slit chickens’ throats in the kosher manner. Then there was Melach the butcher, who slit cattle’s throats in the kosher manner. And Shlomo the hit man, who dealt with his rivals in the same kosher manner.

It was about this time I started school: 9 AM. Some of my happiest memories are of my school years. Nothing could match the elation I felt when the bell rang at three o’clock. I did very well in elementary school. My favorite subjects were reading, arithmetic, and conceptual hermeneutics. I even skipped two grades. Nobody told me I could, I just skipped them. My teachers all loved me and gave me straight A’s, except for Mrs Hopkins, who had Parkinson’s and gave me a crooked A.

The next major event for me was my Bar Mitzvah. I didn’t want one. I prided myself on being a nonconformist, and Bar Mitzvah was so mainstream. I flatly refused. But my parents insisted and wouldn’t relent. Nobody budged an inch. It was a Mexican standoff... sorry, a Latinx standoff. We finally came to a compromise. I agreed to the Bar Mitzvah but only if I could study with an Evangelical minister. An odd arrangement I know, but I told you, I was unconventional. The lessons went okay and I was well prepared for the big day.

Worshippers crowded into the temple. I was in my new suit, adorned in yarmulke and tallis. The service began and I was called up to the bimah. My torah portion was the Book of Mark. No one recognized it, not even the rabbi. Then came my speech, which did get a bit of a reaction. It began… “Esteemed rabbi, devoted parents, friends, family and the rest of you Christ killers….” Needless to say, I didn’t get a kiddish cup from the sisterhood.

High school came next (hated it), then college (didn’t go), then the Congressional Medal of Honor (really didn’t deserve it).

Part III
High School
I went to Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. A few years ago I went to see ‘Hamilton’ the musical. I thought it was going to be about high school. Four hundred bucks down the drain.

Our school’s nickname was the Yankees, although I cut so many classes they considered me a Dodger. I wasn’t very social, but I did have a small group of friends I hung out with. My best buddy was Reggie, a good guy but sometimes a rival. We had a couple of girlfriends, Betty and Veronica, and a goofy pal named Jughead. Our teacher, Miss Grundy… oh, hold on, I got confused for a minute. I just realized those aren’t real people. They’re characters in ‘Hamilton.’

I followed a college-prep curriculum in high school. My first year I took Algebra 3, French 4 and Conceptual Hermeneutics 17. But my favorite was US History. This was in 1958, which was many years before 1619. I did well, but I have to admit I cheated on the final. I guess I should be ashamed, but I’m not really. I just consider it an early form of affirmative action.

Like most high school kids, my two biggest interests were sports and girls. I went out for baseball, but had the same success there that I had with girls. Struck out a lot and couldn’t get to first base. Athletic coaches are much maligned, but the best advice I ever got came from Coach Morgan. If he told me once, he told me a hundred times: take a shower.

Alas, when we graduated I wasn’t first in my class. Nor second. Or third. Or fourth. Or… hell, I could go on like this for hours.

Most of my friends applied to Cal Berkeley and UCLA, but I set my sights on bigger things. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, LACC. I chose the latter. It had the best parking. It also had a beautiful campus. Manicured grounds, ivy-covered professors -- sorry, I mean ivy-covered grounds, manicured professors -- and venerable brick buildings, such as Huntz Hall (on the east side), and Monty Hall (the one with the three doors). I didn’t last long in college. I wasn’t prepared to meet the strict demands of higher education, like showing up.

The Military
I left academia and went out to make my way in the world. But before I had a chance, I got a letter from Uncle Sam ordering me to report to my local draft board for physical exam and classification. I called Sam but he wasn’t home, so I talked to Aunt Celia and told her to tell him to stop sending me letters.

Turned out it didn’t matter, for I soon got the real thing from the draft board telling me to report. There we were, three hundred hapless teenagers, stark naked. When we all sat down on the marble bench it sounded like a round of applause. The exams were fairly thorough. One lucky guy found out he had cancer and was exempt. Me, I passed easily. I did have a bone spur in my foot, but the doc said that wouldn’t keep anybody out of the service.

Before I got press-ganged into the Army, I decided to explore the advantages of enlisting. The recruiter said I could be guaranteed learning a useful trade. I checked the want ads and sure enough there were hundreds of openings for men who could do 125 pushups and field strip an M14 rifle.

This was well before Viet Nam. The major unrest at that time was the Berlin crisis. The Army would send me to bail out the unfortunate Germans. It had been all of fifteen years since the Germans had incinerated my family, so what the hell… bygones, right? It was in the Judeo-Christian tradition to forgive. But in the end I decided not to enlist and just let the murdering motherfuckers suffer in agony.

The Congressional Medal of Honor
In the last chapter I mentioned the Congressional Medal of Honor and said I didn’t deserve it. It’s true, I didn’t deserve it and I didn’t get it. Fair’s fair.

Part IV
I finally did get my draft notice and reported to Fort Sill, Oklahoma for Basic training. I wanted to learn Fortran, but no, they insisted on Basic. I was assigned to a barracks with twenty other overjoyed draftees. Our drill instructor, Sergeant Slade, had worked his way up in the ranks, from private to corporal to sadist. He’d get right up in your face and scream at you. I learned some very interesting ethnic slurs from him. I never knew there were so many synonyms for Jew.

I got out of the Army sooner than expected when I was classified as a conscientious objector. It was nothing to do with beliefs, I just objected to everything. Conscientiously. They gave me an order, I objected. They wanted pushups, I objected. They told me to march, I objected. It drove them all crazy. They were happy to get rid of me.

I was a civilian again. I had my discharge, but a urologist cleared that right up. I decided to see the world while I was young enough to enjoy it. I traded my car for a backpack (I was never much of a businessman) and set off for England. I worked my way over on a tramp steamer. My job was feeding the tramps. Apparently they had a shortage over there, and we were sending them some. It was some sort of lend-lease deal, I think.

The ship arrived at Southampton and I immediately set off to hitchhike to London. But all the cars were going the wrong way. Hey! I’m not stupid. I knew they drove on the other side of the street. But this was different. Turns out I had been standing in front of a transmission shop and the cars were all having their reverse gears tested.

I did get to London by the simple expedient of standing backward and sticking out the wrong thumb. London was a fairyland, but they had lots of hetero people, too. It’s an ancient city, as old as the reference in that last sentence. I saw all the usual sights. Nelson’s statue (didn’t look much like Ozzie), the Houses of Parliament (pretty big for a cigarette factory), and the fabled river Thames. I made a major faux pas when I pronounced it the way it’s spelled, which brought immediate opprobrium from the locals. “It’s pronounced Temzz, mate. Temzz.” I was profoundly embarrassed, but luckily my embarrassment was only thamporary.

I traveled throughout the city on their wonderful transit system, which is very easy to find as its location is the same as its name. Underground. They even have a train station just for diabetics. St Pancreas.

One area I was eager to explore was the East End, where my Uncle Moishe was from. Years ago it was the Jewish quarter, famous as the location of the Jack the Ripper killings. Jack, known in the neighborhood as Yankl, worked in a shmata factory tearing remnants into rags, hence his name.

My uncle’s family were river folks. They made their living down on the Temzz as gefilte fisherman. Passover was their busy season, of course, but throughout the year it was a staple of British Jews, always served with gefilte chips. Sadly, the area is all fished out — and in typically antisemitic fashion, gefilte fish were never even put on the endangered species list. Never Again!

I left London and traveled north, hitting the high spots. Of particular interest was Stratford-Upon-Avon, where William Shakespeare was born thanks to his parents’ position nine months earlier: John-Upon-Mary.

I concluded my tour of the UK with quick trips to Scotland, where I tried a forty year old malt (left over from opening day of the oldest McDonald’s in the country), and the Isle of Man, which had a big sign at the airport “John Donne is an ass.”

Part V
It was time to head for France. The first place I wanted to visit was Omaha Beach, site of the D-Day landing. I decided to take the ferry from Bournemouth to Normandy. The ticket agent’s name was Fritz Müller, so I told him I was going to Calais, just to be on the safe side.

The American cemetery at Normandy is a solemn place. For me, it was personally emotional because of my Uncle Morrie. This is the place he would have been buried if he had been killed on D-Day. But Morrie served in the Pacific and died in bed at the age of 89. I looked for his grave anyway. You never know.

This cemetery was the site of the memorable final scene in Saving Private Ryan, where the elderly Ryan visits the grave of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks). Many don’t know that this was based on true story. When the real Ryan asked his wife if he had been a good man, she replied, “What a thing to ask! After all those years cheating on your income tax and those affairs you had with your secretaries and thirty years in the used car business — you’ve been a rotten man!” Legend has it that he killed her on the spot and she’s buried next to Captain Miller.

From there I managed to hitch a ride to Paris with a vacationing French family. I was determined not to be an ugly American. I’d found that when you’re a guest in someone’s country, if you treat them with deference and respect, they’ll always reciprocate.

So I’m in the car with these Frogs and they’re chattering away in their ridiculous language. It’s lunch time, and these Kermits who pride themselves on their haute cuisine start passing around their gourmet feast: cheese, bread, and wine. That’s it. A little cheese, a little bread, a little wine — until someone pipes up, “A little onion?” Fine. Now it’s cheese, bread, wine, onion, cheese, bread, wine…. Wine! While they’re driving! I was lucky to make it to Paris alive.

They dropped me near the Arc de Triomphe. This fabulous monument was built to commemorate all the French military victories over the years. Then someone had the temerity to say, “Name one.” So now it's just dedicated to the great victory of André the Giant over Hulk Hogan in 1988.

But I was here at last! Paris! The city of lights. The city of love. The city that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman would always have. (And the Germans sometimes.)

There were so many fabulous places to visit, but I knew what I wanted to see first. The Eiffel Tower, which, as every movie-goer knows, can only be seen through an apartment window. All over town there were entrepreneurs who for a fee would let you into their room for a quick glance. I found one and asked him how much he wanted. Fifty francs, he said. I started to peel off some bills, but he stopped me. “No. I said fifty franks, not francs.” Turns out the guy was Joey Chestnut and it was lunch time.

Next on the list was the iconic Notre-Dame de Paris, the most famous cathedral in Paris and a particular favorite of Knute Rockne. A glorious example of French Gothic architecture, with its characteristic gargoyles, pointed arches, and flying buttresses (named after a 15th century trapeze act). All of it spectacular. And there right at the entrance, in tribute to Victor Hugo, the great novelist and auto enthusiast, was a classic Citroën 2CV, the famous Hatchback of Notre Dame. (Appropriately parked in a handicap spot.)

There was so much more to see in Paris and so little time. I took it all in. The Louvre, Moulin Rouge, Musée d’Orsay, Montmartre, the Sarbonne, Les Deux Magots café, the Bastille, the Champs-Élysées, Tuileries Garden, the Marais, the Catacombs, Musée de l’Orangerie, Place de la Concorde, Rodin Museum, Montparnasse Tower, Pont Neuf. I saw it all. The most hectic hour I ever spent, but well worth it.

Leaving Paris, I swung by not-to-be-missed Versailles, Louis XIV’s spectacular palace. 2300 rooms, 679,000 square feet, once owned by Aaron Spelling.

2300 rooms! Can you imagine cleaning the place? No wonder Marie Antoinette was so testy. Vacuuming alone, they must have gone through two or three Orecks a week.

The grounds comprised 30,000 acres and contained 1400 fountains, not one of which served an egg cream. I asked one of guides what ‘Versailles’ meant. He told me it means ‘Mar-a-Lago.’

Onward to the east.

Part VI
What can I say about Germany that hasn’t already been said? How about they’re a warm, gentle people with an unblemished history of peace and tolerance. No one’s ever said that before.

True, there was that unpleasantness in the 1940s involving Nazis and Jews, but remember the dictum, "The sins of the father shall not be laid upon the sons." Or so said Heinrich Himmler, Jr. And true to that principle, the Americans took pains to rescue the children of important Germans. This was known as the Berlin Heirlift.

Besides all that, everybody knows there were only 17 actual Nazis in Germany. The 80 million others who cheered and saluted the Führer were just being sarcastic.

My trip from France to Germany started with a lucky break, or so I thought. I caught a ride with a truck that was headed all the way to the border. Problem was, it was hauling a load of escargots and the damn thing only went 5 miles an hour.

Crossing into Germany involved the usual red tape: passports, visas, purpose of trip. But it was relatively hassle free and took only a little longer than it took Germany to cross the Maginot Line going the other way.

To be honest, I never had much interest in visiting Germany. There were a few spots I had always wanted to see — Essen, Dresden, Hamburg — but by this time they had all been rebuilt, so the hell with it.

My main purpose was to visit my elderly cousin Max Liebowitz, who was in an old age home in Baden-Baden. (Fun fact: in English Baden means Walla.) Max had an interesting history. He spent the whole war in Germany, hiding his Jewish identity and working for the underground. He got away with it by a clever ploy. At the start of the war he had his name legally changed to Jack Hitler. Then when anyone questioned him, he'd just flash his ID and that would be the end of it.

The retirement home, called Wartezimmer des Himmels (Heaven's Waiting Room), was a pleasant place to spend one's golden years. They had a variety of age-appropriate recreational activities: half-court ping pong, a weekly 10 yard dash they called The Marathon, and the graceful and possibly future Olympic sport, synchronized falling. In addition, there was a fully equipped rec room with oxygen on tap, and groups for almost every interest: the Broken Hip Club, the Heart Disease Club, the Diabetes Club. There was even a Dementia Club, although nobody ever showed up for meetings.

Sadly, I never did get to see cousin Max. Just days before my arrival, Max died. He'd had a major stroke and his second day in the hospital happened to coincide with Yom Kippur. Observant Max yanked out his feeding tube. Alav ha-sholem.

Time to move on. I was running short of cash and so I went to the American consulate to see if they could advise me on getting a part-time job. While there, I ran into a British diplomat who was on a goodwill mission around Germany. Melville Chamberpot was an aristocrat of the highest echelon and as such, spoke with that ultra upper class accent that was mellifluous, plummy and completely unintelligible. I have a good ear for accents so I was able to translate for the other Americans.

Sir Melville hired me to accompany him on the rest of his trip as his English to English translator. He had a strict itinerary to follow, but I wanted to see some additional places, first of all, Austria. He was resistant — was supposed to confine himself to Germany — but he was a bit of a pushover and I got him to agree. Next I wanted to see the Sudentenland. He refused, but I gave him my solemn promise that if we went there I'd ask nothing further. Satisfied, he cabled the Foreign Office that with this one concession, I'd be back on their schedule. His actual words were "Pete's in our time."

A week later we marched into Poland.

I was getting tired of traveling and ready to return home. But I couldn't leave Europe without at least a cursory tour of Italy. I embarked on a plan to give myself a brief overview of the country's highlights.

First, I stopped in Venice for a quick swim. Then in Florence I went to see Michelangelo's David, but it was too crowded, so I had to settle for his lesser known piece, Goliath, which was nice but much smaller. On to Rome to do as the Romans do, which is to crowd around the Vatican and hope to get a gander at the Pope (which they called the holy see).

I spent the night in a rented garret in Vatican City-Adjacent and inadvertently caused a major ruckus. Before bed, I lit up one of those dry-cured Italian cigars. When its pure white smoke went up through the roof vent, the locals thought a new Pope had been elected and nearly caused a riot.

It was time to sail for home. I decided it would be appropriate to use Genoa as my embarkation point, since it was Columbus's home town. There is a famous statue there called Monumento a Cristoforo Colombo. When I got there I was surprised to see a crowd of protestors demanding that it be changed to Monumento a Indigenous Peoples, which in Italy made no sense at all.

I booked passage on a liner to New York. I went steerage because I thought it meant I'd get to drive. The crossing took five days and eight nights, which I still can't figure out.

But then, finally, off in the distance emerged the thrilling sight of the New York skyline. I was tired and poor, yearning to breathe free of the ship's diesel exhaust. The harbor was polluted with plastic bottles and other wretched refuse. But all of that paled when I finally set my eyes on Miss Liberty. There she was in all her glory, in a skimpy bikini alongside the other contestants in the harbor beauty contest. I was so distracted that I completely missed the famous Statue.

But I was home at last, eager to put aside my youthful aimless wandering and ready to begin life as a responsible adult. Here it is some sixty years later and I'm still ready. But more of that in the next installment.

Part VII
My first act as a responsible adult was to choose a career path. I read a magazine article that suggested I think of someone who's a great success and follow in his footsteps. I chose Fred Astaire. Couldn't handle the footsteps.

I did a personal inventory and realized I had no qualifications for anything. The only work experience I had was a summer job as a Christmas tree salesman.

So I decided to approach the problem systematically. I got out a yellow tablet. I downed it with a glass of water then I sat down and made a list of jobs that required minimal skill.
• Ditch digger
• Taxi driver
• High school guidance counselor
• Bad surgeon

None of those appealed to me. I checked the want ads. I knew that beggars can't be choosers and I didn't want to be a beggar. But there were no ads for choosers.

I was getting desperate. I had to make a decision that would affect the rest of my life. I decided to ask an expert, a professional whose wisdom and sagacity were recognized around the world. I wrote to Dear Abby.

And sure enough, the old broad came through with explicit advice. She said I needed an entry-level job. So I became a doorman.

I worked at an old hotel on the edge of skid row, The Hyatt Vagrancy. At one time it had been an elegant stopping place for the rich and famous. Then talkies came in. The hotel's big attraction now was that they had rooms by the hour. I didn't make much in tips working there, but at least I did better than the bellboys, since very few guests had luggage.

Now and then some unsuspecting out-of-towners would check in thinking the low price was for the whole night. Usually they were mortified when they realized what the place really was, although I remember one husband who considered it an upgrade, while his wife picked up a few extra few bucks on the side.

Alas, the old hotel is gone now, the victim of a freak accident. An abandoned office building next door was set to be demolished. The crane operator was a former minor league pitcher with a nasty curveball. He aimed the wrecking ball at the office tower but halfway there it took a vicious dive and landed on the hotel, low and inside.

Obviously the evaporation of the hotel obviated their need for a doorman. I supposed I could get another job. After all, there are doors everywhere. But I decided to set my sights higher and fulfill a childhood ambition.

I'd always wanted to be an airline pilot, but was a little fearful of flying. Then I found out the Crash of 1929 didn't involve airplanes, so I was good to go. There were three obvious drawbacks. One, I didn't know how to fly. Given One, Two and Three were irrelevant.

Then I had a brainstorm. I could still be a pilot without flying. I'd be a bus driver. It was almost exactly the same thing, just with no wings and more stops.

I spent a good three years driving a bus, and a lousy two years, for a total of a so-so five years. After that I became a comedy writer on a major network televsion show. The path from bus driver to comedy writer is so self-evident that I needn't bore you with the obvious.

So it was on to television and adventures in the small screen trade. Tune in next time.

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT Given the long lapse since the last installment, I find that I'm unable to continue my life story at a satisfactory pace. So to ensure new installments will be produced in a timely manner, I turning the job over to the renowned biographer Robert Caro, who will provide updates at his usual breakneck speed.

Copyright 2015-2024 Peter Gallay, All Rights Reserved