"You know," I say. "I've quit things before."
"What do you mean?" Sosa asks.
"I mean I always talk about how I never quit. But that's not true. I've quit things. I quit playing softball after high school. I used to be really good at it."
"Oh, well that's not really quitting."
"I quit playing the drums. Got bored and didn't want to anymore."
I look at him. "I quit trying to learn to Moonwalk."
"Oh that's right," he says. "You DID. I'll give you that one."
Bouncy Ball # 124 - Guy outside of Vons
I'm rushing to Vons in the few minutes I have between work and an open mic to grab some groceries for the week. As I pull in, I see a man in a wheelchair at the entrance holding a cardboard sign: "Anything helps."
Perfect, I think. I didn't give away my stupid bouncy ball yet today, so I can just buy this man some food. I buy two sandwiches and an orange and put them inside a small bag with a bouncy ball.
He watches me walk up without changing his expression. I suddenly notice he's not the only homeless man at this entrance. There are a few people across the street and an older man sitting on the concrete right next to us, watching our interaction with slight interest.
"Would you like some sandwiches?" I ask.
"Yeah, sure," he says. "Thank you so much. God bless."
Once I'm in my car, I hear the other guy ask, "What'd she give you?"
"Couple sandwiches. You want one?"
His buddy declines, so the man rolls back over to the entrance and lifts his sign, my bag of sandwiches resting on his lap.
It occurs to me then how far from noteworthy this little interchange has been. In my fantasy world, I'd believed that giving this man a bouncy ball with some food might make me feel a little more connected to the world around me.
But in reality, I don't feel connected - in fact, I couldn't have been less invested in this. I mean, I didn't even realize that there's more than one hungry person sitting here. I'm obviously not the only person that stopped to give him something today, but I'm the only one who stopped so I could have a thing to write about.
I'm the only one who saw a man in a wheelchair holding a sign begging for help and thought to myself, "Perfect."
Bouncy Ball # 71 Revisited - Dad
"YES, IT'S PRETTY NICE OUT!" I scream into the phone.
"What's that?" my dad mumbles on the other end of the line.
"I SAID IT'S PRETTY NICE. THE WEATHER. IT'S BEAUTIFUL." I turn to the group of comics gathered outside the entrance to the Improv and mouth an apology.
"Well, I'm running out of things to talk about," my dad says.
We've been on the phone for almost 30 minutes, most of it consisting of him asking me the same questions and me trying to offer a new answer every time at the absolute highest decibel of volume I can reach. Some highlights from our conversation are when I yell, "ADAIR IS HAVING A BABY! SHE'S IMPREGNATED! I'M SAYING THAT MY FRIEND HAS A BABY IN HER! MY FRIEND! A BABY! SHE'S HAVING A BABY! A MAN MADE HER PREGNANT!"
And then when I'm walking down Melrose, and my dad asks if I could "use some money."
"YOU DON'T NEED TO SEND ME ANY, BUT I COULD ALWAYS USE MONEY!"
"I SAID THAT'S THE STORY OF MY LIFE! I NEED MONEY!"
"What's the story?"
"I'M SAYING I'VE ALWAYS NEEDED MONEY. ISN'T THAT THE STORY OF YOUR LIFE, TOO?"
These are how conversations go with my dad. This is part of the reason why I haven't talked to him since January - because it's nearly impossible to carry on a conversation. He can't hear very well, he's speaking to me on a cordless phone from the 90s, and he has Parkinson's, so his voice is starting to give out, making it difficult for me to make out what he's saying.
I called him today because my uncle asked me to. Otherwise, maybe I could've gone forever without talking to him.
Bouncy Ball # 71 was supposed to go to him. In March, I put a bouncy ball in an envelope along with a story I wrote about him in 2010 for okc.net, a website I used to write for. The story was nice - it's about how I feel like my dad contributed to my sense of humor, how my penchant for telling stories and making people laugh comes from him. When okc.net published it online, I sent the link to my aunt and asked her if I should send it to my dad.
She told me not to send it. She told me he was old and hard of hearing and while maybe my intentions are good, he might get confused by it, or my stepmom might read it to him and take offense to the way she's portrayed, even though it's not about her.
So I didn't send it in 2010.
And though I had the best of intentions to send it back in March, it's still in an envelope on my night stand. Not because I'm afraid of what he'll think about it - because I know it doesn't make a difference one way or the other. He can't read it - I don't think he can see well enough to read. (Or he refuses to try. Not sure which is most true these days.) He can listen to it if someone reads it to him, but my aunt's right - my stepmom wouldn't want to read it out loud and probably would take offense to my portrayal of her.
I can't read it to him over the phone. That's obvious.
The only option is maybe I can read it to him in person, but I'm not sure it'll even get through in person, and that's another 400 dollar plane ticket that I can't afford. And really, why am I trying to fix things anyway? Why is this all on me? Why am I making yet another attempt to connect to someone who just stopped trying to connect to me?
I had a great dad from when I was born to when I was 11 years old. And then my mom moved us to Oklahoma. And then my dad stopped putting in a lot of effort to see me. And then he got diagnosed with Parkinson's. And now we're here.
The truth is, I haven't talked to my dad since January because he hasn't tried to call me, either, and I was doing a little experiment to see just how long it would go if I didn't call him.
"You called me this time, so maybe next time I'll call you," Dad says before he hangs up.
"YEAH," I yell. "MAYBE!"
Bouncy Ball # 125 - Godzilla
"Close your eyes! Quick!" Sosa says.
I close them.
"All these people," Sosa says. "They have no idea."
He wants to save them all, but he's not the type of person who will yell out, "Close your eyes, Everyone! They show Godzilla in this Fiat commercial!" in a crowded movie theater.
Sosa saw the movie already yesterday, and his biggest complaint was that they showed Godzilla in a car commercial during the previews, ruining the suspense they built up about what he actually looks like with all the sneak previews, trailers, and during the film itself.
"You can open them now," he says.
And 45 minutes later, when I see Godzilla for the first time, I know I'm the only one in that theater to have that experience the way it was supposed to be.
Bouncy Ball # 7 Revisited - Jules
I can see her in my periphery, coming toward me with that stupid rolled up mat. I try and will my shoulders to touch the floor, but in the position we're in, I just can't get them down.
Jules leans her pregnant belly over my face while she places the mat underneath my head. "You're getting closer," she says, I'm guessing because she knows how badly I want to punch her right now. "Remember, it takes time."
Back in January, for Bouncy Ball # 7, I attended a free yoga class that my work offers to all our employees for the first time. I've attended every week since then, and during maybe the second week in, Jules told me I don't pull my shoulders back naturally, that I should work on that.
"Try to think about it," Jules had said. "Sit with your shoulders back just while you're typing. Once you're used to that, you can push your shoulders back while you're driving. And then you can gradually think about it more and more."
I don't do anything gradually - instead, I obsessed over putting my shoulders back, standing up straight. I DID think about it when I wrote emails. I DID think about it while driving. I think about it when I'm sitting. I think about it when I'm standing. I think about it a lot.
But for the past month, Jules has said the same exact thing to me. "You need to get those shoulders back."
A few weeks ago, I got flustered. "I'm trying," I said, but I really wanted to scream at her. "CAN YOU AT LEAST ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I'M TRYING?"
She'd nodded. "Yes, but remember, you're retraining your muscles to correct what's happened over years and years. It takes time."
Bouncy Ball # 126 - Kristin
"I didn't want to tell anyone about it," Kristin says. "I basically just told you and a couple other people."
"Yeah, I get it," I say, taking a sip of my water. "Comics are weird about things."
Kristin lives in Denver, but she's in L.A. for tonight's callback audition for the prestigious Just for Laughs festival in Montreal. She's grateful and shocked and nervous and excited all at the same time, and I'm glad I can be here to at least listen, if that helps.
"I know," she says. "And honestly, I can't even believe it. Leah, the night he called me, I was doing a show at a lesbian bar, and I went up onstage just not giving a shit. I mean, I wanted to make them laugh, but I didn't worry about what I was gonna say. So I had a really great set, and then I get this call about auditioning. I took it as a sign, you know? The fact that I was just having fun, and then this just happened for me without me looking to get it."
"I think it was a sign, too," I say. "I believe in signs. I think you're going into this the right way."
I can already tell she's much better off than me going into my first round audition back in April, Bouncy Ball # 87. She's looking at it like a bonus, a fun set that she gets to do rather than the end-all opportunity to prove that she deserves to be here. That's how you should look at things like this.
That's how I should've looked at it.
I give Kristin a bouncy ball for good luck even though I know she doesn't need it. Sure enough, the next day, she texts me that the bouncy ball was super lucky. But it's not the bouncy ball - it's her. She doesn't need bouncy ball magic because she has plenty herself. It's real, tangible, undeniable. She glows from it.
Bouncy Ball # 127 - Joe
"You're too quiet," the girl sitting across from me says. She doesn't move her face when she talks, so it looks like the words just fall out of a hole.
"You're too quiet. We don't know what you're doing."
"Oh." She's right. We're at my friend Joe's apartment in the middle of an intense game of Settlers of Catan. If you don't know the game, yes, it's nerdy, but not D&D nerdy - it's a game like Risk. Joe's been asking me to play for awhile, but I couldn't make it for the past few months.
I'm here tonight, at least physically. Mentally, I'm distant. Because I'd eaten a weed brownie before I got here, rendering me socially awkward and quiet in a game where I'm trading cards left and right without explaining what I'm doing to any of the other players.
Do you guys remember Bouncy Ball # 102? Where I ate a weed brownie and froze onstage during The Workout Room, a show I run at my house? Do you remember that I "quit" smoking weed after that?
Well, I failed. I quit for two weeks, and I started again.
I attempt to explain my card shuffling. "I traded three bricks for a rock and three bricks for a wheat, and I'm buying a development card."
That might be all I say the entire night until right before we leave, when someone starts a philosophical discussion about the nature of free will and the possibility of a unifying force. I catch the end of a sentence, a sound byte:
"...the alternate version of me where I believe I'm a super hero..."
I perk up. "You believe you're a super hero?"
He stares at me, a little taken aback, probably because I interrupted him, and this is one of five sentences I've said all night. "Uh, yeah?"
"Oh," I say. But I'm thinking about how, not even two weeks ago, I used to believe that, too.
Bouncy Ball # 128 - Him
I meet him on a Monday night at the Coffee Bean where we used to go write. I'm surprised how agreeable he is about meeting there after all that went down, after we'd crushed our relationship and our friendship to a bloody pulp.
"I made this for you," I say. "You know, because of the connect-the-dot squirrel you always talk about."
It seems so dumb to me right now that I think he might laugh, but he doesn't. His eyes light up. "Thank you so much! I love it!" He stands, hugs me, kisses me on the cheek.
"Really? You do?"
"It's perfect," he says. "You made this?"
I shrug. "Well, I just put it together."
"I love that it has a bouncy ball in it. It makes sense."
It is perfect. It's both of our ways of finding meaning in life put together. Because to him, life is a connect-the-dot squirrel. When you're in it, you can't see the point of all the separate dots and events that happen, but at the end, if you look at it all together, it's a complete squirrel.
And to me, life is dictated by bouncy balls, and they appear in the Universe like separate dots to tell me to keep going, to finish my squirrel.
To finish the story.
Ok, guys. Real talk time.
I haven't been honest with you about a lot of things. In fact, I lied to you from the very beginning.
When I started this project, this is what I said:
"I'm not looking for meaning. I'm not looking for a common thread or theme to come out of this, though I'm open to the chance that I could find one. There's no big plan for the end, and I have no delusions that this is going to make me understand the meaning of life. When I turn 32 and finish this quest, I'll just be 32. The only thing I'm looking for are stories, and in those stories, tiny connections with other people."
When I wrote this back in January, I may have even convinced myself that it was the truth, but it's not. And for the past couple months, I've been lying to all of you, yes, but it's because I've been lying to myself, and it took me this long to face myself down and admit it.
The truth is, I WAS looking for meaning. I WAS looking for a common thread. I DID have thoughts about what would make a great end to this story, and even when I started writing it, I didn't think of it as a blog - I thought of it as a book. Still, I diligently set about completing this colossal task I placed on myself, and I would like to say, in my defense, for about two straight months, I did a new thing every single day, and it was expensive, and it was difficult, and it made me anxious and tired all the time, but I fucking did it.
After that, well, I did the things I wrote about doing, of course, but I stretched the limits of the plan I'd laid out for myself partly because I was exhausted, partly because I felt like I didn't have enough time for standup, and mostly because of him.
See, about a month into this project, I started talking again to the guy who'd broken my heart, the "him" I've referred to over and over in this blog. It was innocent enough. Not only had I been in love with him, but he was also my best friend in L.A., the person I'd spent all my time with, so I mistakenly thought a month was enough time that I could talk to him again. After all, I had so many stories to tell him. I'd had so many adventures already and so many more to come.
And we picked back up right where we left off. We were inseparable, best friends again. It was like magic - he seemed so impressed by my fortitude in starting the Bouncy Ball Project, he seemed so surprised at what maybe seemed like a transformation in me, that soon enough, just like that, he wanted to try a relationship.
And so we did. While I didn't foresee that happening, I think a part of me believed that I was starting this project as some weird attempt to get him back, and when he came back, I thought it had worked. And I really really thought I was magic. For a moment there, I had everything in the world at once, and I believed that bouncy balls made it happen.
It didn't work out with us. It ended almost two weeks ago. It's the reason my last blog is so sad. It's the reason this one is so late.
The actual story is nothing new - you've heard it before. If you're the kind of person who needs to know things like that (Steve), let's just say that I was very insecure in our relationship, and he was unsure if he really wanted a relationship, and those two things just can't ever fit.
Because while there were great times, while we got along so well and agreed about so many things, while in theory we should be good together, gradually the same problems that we'd had before crept back into our relationship because we never really dealt with them. We never changed anything. We simply said we changed and rushed back into things, hoping that the past would stay past.
I don't regret it. I would do it over and over and over again because I got to know what it feels like to be in love with my best friend, and that's so rare, I'm lucky to have experienced it at all. I've never had that before. I don't know if I'll ever have it again. But I do know that I'll never settle for anything less.
So you guys, I'm admitting to you right now - this has been about a man. I don't like that it's the truth, but I can't lie to myself anymore. When it ended, that's when I realized that I'd been lying to you and to myself. That's when I realized that what went wrong in our relationship really points to a bigger problem - what went wrong with ME.
See, even though I spent a good part of the time doing new things, meeting new people, I didn't actively change the things about me that need changing, the things I've carried around inside that I need to either address or let go, the things that stop me from being the comedian, writer, and human being that I want to be. I didn't address these problems, but instead sat passively by waiting for magic to happen to me. It's easy to sit back and read the symbolism around you. It's easy to read magic into things and let the Universe tell you what to do. It's expensive and time consuming and exhausting, but easy nonetheless.
What's hard is to change your reality, and as far as I can tell, the only way to do that is to act with intent, with purpose.
I read a book on screenwriting called "Save the Cat" that broke down the parts of a movie into structured sections. If this Bouncy Ball Project were a movie, then this week's blog would be the part that the book calls, "The Dark Night of the Soul." It's where the main character hits bottom. It's the point where everything seems hopeless, right before the beginning of Act Three.
Interestingly enough, when I Googled "dark night of the soul" to make sure I knew what I was saying before writing this, I found that the phrase is a spiritual term that crosses the boundaries of several religions, and it means, "a lengthy and profound absence of light and hope."
I read several mystical websites that describe what it feels like to be in the dark night of your soul, and they all described exactly what I've been going through for the past month with my relationships, with writing, and with standup. Several things struck me about this concept. For example, TheMystic.org (yeah, yeah, I know, eat a dick) points out, "The dark night occurs after considerable advancement toward higher consciousness." The site goes on to explain that it's the necessary last state before a final transformation where "In a sense your ego recognizes itself - in the dark night - to be the disease."
I have been the disease. I have been my biggest problem.
The dark night of the soul exists in movies and in real life, and it means the same thing in both. I've thought many times over the course of my life that it's "like a movie," but now I realize that OF COURSE it's like a movie. Or more accurately, movies reflect real life. They're structured, pared down, shorter versions, but they ring true, even if they're unbelievable. And unbelievable things happen in real life. Bouncy balls appear.
So, you guys, I'm going to finish. In the last five weeks of this project, my Act Three, I'm going to first try and clean up all the messes I've made in these past five months. That means that maybe I'll be able to fix some things (I have a few ideas already), that means I'll again try to learn to Moonwalk, but it also means that I'll need to accept that there are things I cannot fix, let them be the way they are, and move on.
After I do that, I'm going to work on bettering the negative things about myself that I've let eclipse all my positive qualities. That means that maybe I'll have to change my way of thinking - for example, I need to re-evaluate the me that is always me, and the person I am when I'm in a relationship and get lost in it.
But that also means that I'll have to embrace some of the qualities I have that I've thought were bad and recognize that they're not bad at all. I'll have to figure out how to let my weirdly romantic overly passionate heart keep going because while it causes most of my suffering, figuring out how to harness that intense passion and aim it in the right direction could be the difference between being good and being great.
I have a hunch that my passion, my fight, and the intensity with which I love are not what I thought they were - huge weaknesses. In fact, I think they might be quite the opposite. I think these things might be my super powers.
And finally, after I work on myself, I'm going to try and tackle just a few of the injustices I see in the world around me. I know I can't change these things, but I think coming at them from a genuine place rather than a place of "I need to find something to write about" could make a tiny difference and return me to my original goal, which was to connect to other people.
I will write about my progress and post it weekly for these last five weeks until my birthday, July 8th. If you'd like to continue reading, please do. If you feel tricked by me, and you don't want to read anymore, I understand. Please just know I'm so grateful that anyone has read this at all - none of you had to. They're long posts, so much longer than 140 characters.
If you've contributed a bouncy ball story, please know that you helped me immensely. If you have a bouncy ball and haven't yet found a story, please know that I'm still here waiting whenever you're ready to send it in, and if you're never ready, that's okay, too.
But also know this: I'm not going on for you. I'm not going on for "him." I'm going on for ME. I'm doing this for me.
I promise to you that there will be adventures ahead and lots of references to super heroes.
And yes, there will be bouncy balls.
Bouncy Ball # 129 - Sosa
I put all the stuff he left at my house in a plastic grocery bag. I don't know when I'll talk to him again, but I know it can't be anytime soon. Because even though he's the person I most want to tell my stories to, he's the person I most want to hang out with, and he's my very best friend in Los Angeles, I love him, and I'm devastated that it didn't work between us.
Because Sosa is "him." They are the same person.
I put a bouncy ball in the bag and hang it on my front gate.
Bouncy Ball # 118 - Chinatown
I stop for a minute to consult the map on the back of the adventure card. "There should be a plaza thing coming up in about a block."
Sosa and I start walking again, up the sidewalk in Chinatown, past the shops with Chinese trinkets and bonsai trees. A card had led us here, card #2 of the "LA Adventure Walk" set we'd won for coming in first place at the Hollywood Scavenger Hunt.
We're making our way to Chinatown's Central Plaza, hoping to see the "Chinese seniors playing xiangqi (Chinese chess)..." that the card mentions. Because of all the time we've spent playing non-Chinese chess lately, it seems like that's the place we're supposed to go.
I'm always looking for the connections in things.
In another small shop along the sidewalk, my eye catches something, a wooden squirrel toy on display atop a table of toy-making kits for sale - pop out pieces of notched wood that you can put together to make one of your own.
"Look at that squirrel," I say to Sosa.
He nods, uninterested. "Yeah. But look at this one." He points to a much more elaborate wooden tank.
"Yeah," I say, but I'm distracted by the squirrel, frozen back in time for a minute to this same place a million years ago, I think. This same spot. I'd been here before with the guy I haven't spoken to. Yes, that's right. I'd come here with him on a day just like today, and I'd pointed to this very squirrel, and I'd said, "That's your squirrel!" because he always said that life was like a connect-the-dot squirrel. He always said that once you connect all the pieces, you can see the full story.
"I think I'm gonna buy this," I say. I have the idea that maybe I can put this squirrel together, finish the story of that guy once and for all. I have the idea that maybe it's a quest I need to complete, like a passage to mark my official move from the past to now, the present. I feel like I must have changed so much from that day in Chinatown with him to today, in Chinatown with Sosa.
About a block down, we reach the Central Plaza, and sure enough, the first thing we see are two old men sitting on a bench by a Bruce Lee statue, playing what I can only assume is Chinese chess. I pretend to take a picture of Sosa, aiming my phone over his shoulder to capture evidence.
As we walk away from the men on the bench, a record plays from the windows of a nearby record store. Ah, yes. I've been here before, too.
Around the corner, Sosa and I come across a wishing well. Nestled on top of a jagged rock fountain with tiny rivers snaking through it, there are different red signs set up in front of bronze-colored bowls. One says, "Peace," one says "Your health," one says "Wealth," one says "Prosperity," one says, "Your Wish," and one says "Romance."
"Isn't that crazy?" Sosa says. "Romance is the hardest one to get."
He's right. All the other bowls are various distances, some close, some far, but the "Romance" bowl is nestled inside of a small cove. To get a coin in there, you'd have to keep it low enough to get underneath the top of the cove, but high enough that it makes it over the bowl's rim. You have to throw it just the perfect distance, too, so you don't put too much in and overshoot the bowl, hitting the back of the cove, or so you don't undershoot, not putting enough momentum behind it, and miss the whole thing completely, your coin dropping with a plop into the water before it even gets close.
I pull all the pennies out of my change purse and give half to Sosa. I hit dead center in the shallow bowl for "Peace," but the coin bounces out.
It doesn't feel right to aim for "Wealth," so I spend the rest of my pennies trying to get in the "Your wish" bowl, but none of them make it. Sosa, on the other hand, keeps making it. So far, he has two.
"I'm gonna try with nickels," I say, plopping a couple in Sosa's hand. He makes it immediately. He now has three wishes. He's a motherfucking genie over there.
But me, I suck. I don't make any of the nickels. And then I try with dimes, but I still can't hit it.
In the end, Sosa gives me one of his three wishes, and I have to make do with this borrowed wish because I've used up all the ones I've ever had.
Bouncy Ball # 119 - Long Beach
"Why are those ships out there?" I ask, pointing to the ocean. "Are we under attack?"
"Maybe they're oil rigs?" Lindsay says. "I have no idea what those look like though."
We're at Long Beach, our feet in the water, staring out into the ocean on this beautiful Sunday.
"You think it's okay if I leave a ball on this beach?" I ask.
"Yeah, why not?"
"Well, I mean, I don't want to purposely throw litter on the earth. It seems a little wrong. Right? I don't know."
Lindsay laughs, probably noticing all the bottle caps, plastic bags, and cigarette butts poking out of the sand bank next to strands of dry seaweed. "I think it'll be fine," she says. "Someone will pick it up."
"Of course," she says. "If I found a bouncy ball on this beach, I'd pick it up."
I smile, looking out past the trash to the infinite wall of water. "I know," I say. "That's why I like you."
Bouncy Ball # 120 - Bill Burr
Monday night, Sosa and I see one of our favorite comedians, Bill Burr, at Bob's Espresso, a quaint little coffee shop in North Hollywood.
Even though he's just telling jokes in a coffee shop, Burr delivers, his set thoughtful and smart and funny and terrifying and completely engaging all at the same time. He talks about the fight he had with his wife just before leaving the house. He talks about his issues with authority figures. He makes an actual case for what he called the best and most just way to commit genocide and get away with it.
After the show, I feel silly waiting in line to talk to a comedian. It's always a weird transition - for almost every moment of my life, I'm a comedian, but when I meet someone like Bill Burr, his experience and career well beyond the scope of the most I'd ever dream of achieving, something I've only wished for, in those moments I'm not a comedian at all, and I lose my identity. I don't know who I am when I'm not a comedian.
It's my turn to talk to Bill. I ask him to take a picture, and I'm nervous while we pose, waiting for Sosa to open the camera on his phone. After the picture, I hold out a bouncy ball.
"Here," I say. "Can I give you this bouncy ball? I like to give these to people."
He grabs it, raises an eyebrow. "Oh, you do?" he says. "Well I guess I'll take it, but I don't know what I'm supposed to do with it."
It's a very Bill Burr response, so I know I shouldn't take it personally. After all, he's right - I did just hand him a small burden that might fit into his jean pocket, but not without poking into his thigh for the rest of the night.
It actually reminds me of the ball I'd given to Marc Maron, another older comedian I admire. Marc had said, "Thank you, that's very nice of you," but his expression betrayed his slight irritation. It seems as far as old comics go, they don't really enjoy receiving these.
And I gotta say, standing here in front of Bill Burr and forcing him to take this orange and cream swirled ball, I feel pretty damn stupid right now.
Bouncy Ball # 121 - Lindsay
"You know what I have?" I say, my arms wrapped around my knees. "You remember when we went on that float trip? It was a long time ago, on Memorial Day weekend. Remember? I made you guys all those puffy paint shirts."
"Oh yeah," Lindsay says. "I think that was back in 2006. No, maybe it was 2007. I was already in Ohio."
"Well I had one of those disposable cameras that weekend, and I never got the pictures developed."
"Really?" Lindsay asks. "You still have it?"
"Yeah, it's somewhere here."
"We need to take those in tonight and get them developed!" she says.
Lindsay is working in LA for the week, but she lives in Seattle. We met our freshmen year in college at OU, 14 years ago.
It seems surreal the way time moves in relation to old friends. The time that goes by between visits seems like no time at all, so while your faces get older, while your priorities change, and your life story veers off on unpredictable curves, you can always come back to where you've been by spending just an hour or two with a good old friend. In a way, it's comforting. In a way, it's terrifying, especially when you start to wonder if in all these years, you've really changed much at all.
An old friend is a time machine. And sometimes they bring you to moments you'd most like to forget about yourself.
Like this one:
During our sophomore year in college, Lindsay and I were roommates, and during a particularly rough patch in my life, when I was having trouble controlling my emotions, I'd hit myself in the face repeatedly until I gave myself a black eye.
I get that it's not a normal thing to do. I'm not saying I'm proud of it. I'm just saying it happened, and since then, I have learned that I have problems controlling my emotions. Sometimes, I feel like I just can't, and it scares me. And at the same time, it seems like there are so many people in the world who are able to control their emotions just fine, so that makes me feel like either there's something really wrong with my brain chemistry, or I'm making this all up and not working hard enough at trying, though that doesn't really fit in with my character, either - just giving up a fight. But when do you need to? When do you look for help?
That was twelve years ago, when Lindsay found out that I had given myself a black eye. That's an embarrassing thing for someone to know about you. I'm embarrassed that I'm writing it now, even 12 years later, even with the perspective of time passed and in the interest of being honest, being transparent in this blog.
But Lindsay's always known it.
There aren't a lot of people that know about the craziest things about you, the things you're most ashamed of, and love you just the same as though it makes no difference at all.
I find the disposable camera tucked in a box on a shelf in my closet, and Lindsay and I drop it off at CVS. They don't have a one-hour service, though, so the photos won't be ready for a week. I order doubles like I would if we were in the 1990s right now, and I promise to send them to her once I get them back.
"I'm gonna give you a bouncy ball, too," I say.
"But you already gave me one," Lindsay says. "I thought you weren't giving people two."
"Well, that rule went right out the window pretty quickly," I say. "I've had to make a lot of changes just so I could keep doing this shit."
She laughs. "So how many people got two?"
I shrug. "Well...actually just one other person. Sosa. He has like three now, I think."
"Wow. Just me and him?" she asks.
"Just you guys."
Bouncy Ball # 122 - Jonathan
"Oh my God!" Jonathan says, his contagious youthful excitement spilling out of him while we paddle out into the middle of Echo Park Lake. "It feels like we're in a movie right now. Doesn't it feel like that?"
"Yes, it does," I agree. "But actually, I feel like that a lot."
"Yeah. It seems like I live a lot of movie moments."
"That's cool," Jonathan says, steering us toward the giant fountain.
"I don't know," I say. "I wonder what it's like to live in reality." I look out over the lake. "I think maybe a lot of people here feel like that. Sometimes, it feels like this entire city is a movie, and everyone who lives here is acting in it all the time."
Jonathan laughs. "It's totally like that."
We paddle around for a while. At one point, we're off near the bank when we see something floating in the water. "Oh my God, please tell me that's not a bird head," Jonathan says.
"Let's check it out."
We try to steer ourselves closer, but it seems like after we get within a few feet of the object, our wake pushes it away from us, so we never get close enough to see what it is.
"Oh my God, what if it's a bouncy ball?" Jonathan asks.
"Well, that's the thing. It could be," I say. I've been here before, very early on in this bouncy ball project. I'd come with my friend James, and during our ride, I'd tried to toss my ball to a kid on another boat, but my throw had been shitty. Just like all the coins that I tried to make into the "Your wish" bowl in Chinatown, the ball had plopped into the water, coming up short.
As I relay the story to Jonathan, he lets us drift into another boat, tied to the dock.
"Man, you suck at steering," I say.
He laughs. "I think we have to back up."
As we start to peddle backwards, I nudge him with my elbow. "Guess sometimes you gotta move back to go forward."
"Ugh!" he says, rolling his eyes. "Come on!"
I laugh, and we drift backwards.
And we drift.
And we drift.
And we drift...
Bouncy Ball # 123 - Andrea
It's about call time for my show when I'm walking down 1st Street in Burbank toward Flappers, and I see her from half a block away. I see hair first, fiery red, then those giant blue eyes, eyes that you can see are unmistakably crazy when she's close to you.
She stares at me. "Hi Andrea," I say.
She scrunches her brow. "Oh my goodness. Leah?" She pronounces my name like the Star Wars Princess. "You remembered my name?"
"Of course," I say. Actually, I'm surprised I remember it, too.
I met Andrea at an open mic that no longer exists, at the Bliss Cafe on Vine Street. When I'd first moved to L.A, I could walk there in five minutes from my Hollywood apartment, which is probably one of the few good things I could say about that mic at the time. While the cafe was cute, and they made great sandwiches and breakfast burritos, it's not an ideal place to do standup. On top of that, because its location in Hollywood, a lot of crazy people came in. And I don't mean crazy like go out with the girls and get hammered. I mean like literally crazy.
But what makes someone crazy?
The last time I saw Andrea...God. It had to be about a year and a half ago on Vine Street. That's why it's so weird to run into her here today.
I don't even know Andrea that well - she's not a comic. I don't actually know her story - I've pieced it together by bits of terrible things she's told me about her past. That's sort of her thing. She'll square you off in conversation, lock right in by looking into your eyes, and never let you go, trapping you with horrible stories about date rape and death and snakes coming out of your face. Happy things like that.
Today, Andrea tells me that she moved to North Hollywood because she couldn't afford her Hollywood rent anymore. "The new place is 500 bucks a month, all bills paid, but there's a catch."
"Uh oh," I say, looking over my shoulder at the club. "There's always a catch."
"My roommate is the most annoying man I've ever met."
"Oh no!" I'm relieved. I thought it would be much worse. "Annoying like how?"
"Well, he has some brain damage, so I will say that. But he seems perfectly fine when you talk to him. You can't tell anything is off about him, you know? And then he'll just start these arguments with people. He yells at our landlord. He fights with our neighbors. He chopped down a tree."
Andrea tells me story after story about her brain damaged 65-year-old roommate while I glance over my shoulder every few seconds. I can see the club, but I don't know how to leave.
Andrea shakes her head. "Anyway, how's comedy going for you?"
"It's good," I say, happy for the out she's given me. "In fact, I gotta go to a show right now. Can I give you this bouncy ball?"
"What is it?"
"A bouncy ball. Like a toy. You can bounce it."
"Oh wow," she says. "Thank you!"
I walk off, head into Flappers. My friend Jeff is the MC of tonight's show. He
goes through the announcements onstage. "If you want to order a drink," he says, "there's a small light on your table. Just push it on, and a server will come find you. It's magic, you guys."
He pauses. "Naw, I'm just kidding," he says. "Magic doesn't exist."
We're walking around in Chinatown, Central Plaza, the cobblestone path leading us through the small alleyways.
There's a record store close to where we're standing, an old phonograph set up outside to play to the plaza, but it's late in the afternoon, so there aren't a lot of people here to hear the old love songs drifting out above us, the pops of the record. A few families scattered about, off in the distance. We can see them, but we can't hear them.
The record pops while one song ends and another begins. Nat King Cole's syrupy voice oozing out, filling up the air around us.
"I used to walk with you...Along the avenue...our hearts were carefree and gay...How could I know I'd lose you? Somewhere along the way."
"Oh my God," I say. "I love this song. It's so beautiful."
"What is it?" he asks. "How do you know this?"
"I can't remember, but I know how it goes."
"The friends we used to know...they smile and say hello...no love like our love they'd say. Then love slipped through our fingers...somewhere along the way..."
"It feels like we're in a movie," he says.
"I know," I say. "It's kinda weird." The scene around us is fantastic, magical. I'm a magical person, and magical things just happen for me, like they do in the movies.
On the other hand, I know it's not real. It's delicate and fragile. It can crumble into a million pieces of dust with just the slightest pressure from any direction. That's the problem with scenes like this, pieces of real life that feel like you're in a movie - they're not real enough to be sturdy.
He lifts my arm up over our heads, and he twirls me. I spin around twice.
Much later, when he tells me that we spend too much time together, I will look back on this moment and wonder if this were one of those times. I'll wonder if in this moment, he'd wished he was somewhere else.
For me, though, I could've twirled for the rest of my life. If it's true that you see flashes of scenes from your life before you die, I think this one would make it to my reel.
"So now I look for you...along the avenue...and as I wander I pray...that someday soon I'll find you...somewhere along the way..."
And I'm twirling. And the record pops.
Somewhere along the way...
And it skips.
And it skips.
And it skips.
And starts over.
Bouncy Ball # 111 - “How to Not Help People” - Story by comedian Seth Joseph
Let me begin by saying at no point during these two stories will you think I am a helpful person.
I live in Chicago and work in a Evanston, a college town a half hour’s drive north. It’s a nice place and reminds me quite a bit of my own college town, Norman. It doesn’t have a giant football stadium that I know of, but it does have neighborhoods of small, well-kept houses, just like Norman. It’s one of those little neighborhoods where I first failed to make anyone’s life any better.
On Fridays I work later in the day, so I don’t go to work until 11:00 in the morning. This particular Friday, I have extra time and take a detour through some of the quaint little streets off the main drag. I’m listening to The Rachel Maddow Show podcast on my phone, resting on my lap as I drive, and thinking about the locally made vegan breakfast sandwich I will purchase at Whole Foods on my way to the office.
I should mention that, in many ways, I’m an insufferable liberal cliche. Like a really over-the-top one. Sometimes it bugs the crap out of me. I can’t imagine how it must be for people around me.
As I’m driving, I see an old woman pushing a grocery cart on the sidewalk. It’s full of a bounty from Trader Joe’s, judging from the bags. She’s wearing a conservative sort of coat, which makes her slight frame look unnaturally top heavy and bulky. In place of matching pants, she’s got on a pair of black and fluorescent pink tights and silver sneakers that looked like they originally belonged to either Jem or one of the Holograms. Put together, she looks like the embodiment of not giving a fuck.
I’m applauding her in my head as I roll down the street, when suddenly she falls forward, straight onto her face. Not even in a funny way, but in an “oh my God, she might be dead” kind of way. I pull over, put on my hazard lights, and then turn off the podcast I was listening to.
Yep, I turn off the podcast before I get out to see if she's hurt. What’s more, I leave the phone in the car when I jump out. Because why would a person need to make a phone call in a situation where someone has been injured, right?
Once I’m out of my car, it becomes clear that the woman is not dead. She is, in fact, pushing herself up. And then she starts talking.
“Oh, thank you for stopping, but I’m okay!”
Midwestern people are like that. Most gunshot wounds go unreported out here because nobody wants to make a fuss. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m fine. But thank you for checking. You’re a nice man!”
What the fuck? Just how midwestern is she? “You’re sure?” I’m still standing in the street, closer to my car than the sidewalk.
“Of course, of course. I’ll be fine.” She’s up now. She’s tougher than she looks. “You have a great weekend. You’re a good man.”
What the fuck just happened?
I get back into my car and drive away after turning the podcast back on, of course. I’m bewildered by what’s happened. I feel like I should have done more. Or, more accurately, done something. Above all, however, I regret that I didn’t have the rubber bouncy ball Leah had sent me. I would have given it to that old woman so her experience was as unnerving and confusing as mine had been.
It’s another Friday in Evanston. I’m leaving work, listening to Slate’s “Political Gabfest” on my headphones, walking to Whole Foods to buy some ingredients for my wife to make brunch the next day.
See above, re: insufferable liberal cliche.
Walking to the store, I pass a man panhandling outside, but then realize that as someone about to buy brunch materials from Whole Foods, I am morally obligated to give this guy the change in my pocket. I turn back, digging the change out, and put it into his cup. He says something, but I can’t hear him over Emily Bazelon and John Dickerson arguing. I don’t really want to hear him.
After I enter the store, I feel like an asshole. A story creeps back into my head that I heard from one of my grade school teachers. She was in a third world country, about to give money to a beggar when her guide stopped her and said, “Don’t you dare give hope without love.” I feel like that’s what I had done to that guy. I didn’t care about him - I just wanted to feel better about myself. That realization makes me feel worse about myself, which I don’t care for at all.
I resolve to do something about it. While in the store, picking up bread and frozen spinach and sausage and whatnot, I also buy a meal for the man who I had so callously disregarded. Vegetable chili, a turkey sandwich, and a piece of chocolate for dessert. I just wish I had that rubber ball with me so I could put it in the bag for him.
I pay, put the food into a small bag with napkins, and spend another 30 seconds trying to decide if I should take my headphones out or not. Out, I decide.
Then I'm out the door, around the corner, heading straight for the panhandler's location, bag in hand…and he’s gone. Was he run off? Did someone give him a dinner already? Was the change I gave him enough to pay for a 40 oz? It doesn’t matter. He's gone, and now I'm stuck with a turkey sandwich I can’t eat because I’m a vegan. I look around Evanston for another 10 minutes, cursing the city for not having more homeless people. In the end, I throw the sandwich away.
The chili is pretty good.
Still need to figure out what to do with that ball.
Bouncy Ball # 112 - The Baldwin Park Stairs
What a stupid fucking idea, I think while I trudge up the Baldwin Park Stairs for the fourth time in a row. I don't even know how I'm moving right now.
Sosa and I discovered the stairs about a year ago, and since then, we've gone several times, but the most we'd ever completed in a row was 3 times up. Today, even though we're way out of shape, we're going up 4 times.
At the top, I throw up. Just a little. I sit next to Sosa for a few minutes, neither of us talking while we catch our breath, then he looks at me. "You ready?" And just like that, he's heading back down.
I watch him bound down in front of me, but I don't even care that he's ahead. I'm just happy I don't have to go up again. As I take the last few steps to the bottom, I realize I forgot to leave my bouncy ball at the top. No way I'm making it back up.
I notice a young athletic guy with a small backpack getting ready to go up.
"Hey," I say. "I'm sorry to ask this, but can you take this bouncy ball up to the top for me?"
He looks very skeptical. "What?"
"Can you bring this up to the top? I forgot to leave it there, and I can't go up again."
"Uh..." He looks up the staircase. I can see he's thinking of just running away from the conversation.
"I mean, you can do whatever you want with it when you get there," I say. "You can throw it in the trash if you want."
He points. "There's a trash can over there."
"No, I don't actually want it to go in the trash," I say. "But I just want it to get to the top somehow. I meant to leave it up there to say like, 'yay, I made it,' you know? But I forgot."
He sighs. Of all the people who've received my bouncy ball, he's by far the most put out by it. It's not even that he doesn't want to carry it - it's like he doesn't trust me, like he thought maybe I rolled it in some biological warfare virus.
He takes it, though, and he heads up the stairs. I turn away so I don't have to see him do what I think he's gonna do - toss it to the side at the bottom.
Bouncy Ball # 113 - John
I'm watching a Netflix documentary called "Inequality for All" about the disparate wealth distribution in America when my best friend John calls. He starts talking to me about our other friend's wedding next year. "I told Lindsay that if I fly to Puerto Rico for her wedding, I'm not getting her a gift. That's her gift."
I crack up laughing. "How'd that go over?"
"Hard to tell," he says. "I told her she better have an open bar, too."
We're joking, yes, but in reality, neither of us know how we're going to pay for this. John just received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, and I have two Master's degrees, but as far as finances go, we're the poorest of our friends. While it seems easy for the rest of them to travel for various reunion events and weekends floating the river, it's always a struggle for us. Specifically, it's always a 400-dollar plane ticket that I have to put on credit.
"I don't think I can make it to float the river," I say. "I just don't know where I can get the money."
"I get that," he says. "If it weren't in Texas, there's no way I'd be able to go."
We talk about our debt for awhile - mainly just stressing back and forth to each other about the horrifying mountain looming above us: our student loans. I think I'd sooner be able to climb the Baldwin Park Stairs 25 times in a row than come even close to paying them back.
"And it's not like I want a lot of money," John says. "I just want to have a career. You know?"
"It's crazy you just said that," I say. "I said that exact same sentence like four hours ago. I just want to work on my career, but I'm not even close to that. And I'm broke."
I wish I could pay John's debts for him. Or at the very least, I wish I could say something that offers some sort of silver lining, help him make a plan to get out of it.
But the truth is, I'm in it, too, and from the inside, it seems like there's no real way out. Both of us have put everything we have into a long shot, and even if we attain our careers, which is all we want, it's unlikely that we'll be able to relieve ourselves from the burden of our education.
Before I hang up, I say, "I know it's hard, but you're gonna have to keep going. That's what keeps me going, knowing that you're out there, too."
On Week Fifteen of this bouncy ball project, I'd included one of my friend Sofiya's stories, a post she'd written inspired by my bouncy ball shenanigans. In it, she gives cookies to strangers. At the end of that post, I'd written, "Sofiya, I owe you a bouncy ball."
I still haven't given her that bouncy ball.
Tuesday, I get a text from Sofiya. "I found this in my front yard yesterday."
I swear I didn't put it there. I don't even know where she lives.
Bouncy Ball # 114 - Chef Marilyn's Soul Food Express
Sosa and I find a to-go only soul food joint on Crenshaw, and we order a la carte meals of starchy sides and fried chicken, food we thought was impossible to find in the obnoxiously healthy L.A.
At the cash register, I drop a dollar and a bouncy ball in the tip jar when the cashier isn't looking. She hands me my change, and then she looks directly at the bouncy ball on top of the bed of dollars in her tip jar.
I remember the guy at the stairs, how annoyed he'd been. Before she can say anything, I grab my leaking bag of fried chicken and candied yams and run away.
Bouncy Ball # 115 - Guy at Vons
"Can you spare a couple quarters?" he asks. "I'm trying to get a dollar for bus fare."
I pull a couple quarters quarters from my change purse.
"Oh, thanks so much," he says.
At the time, it's a non-event. It doesn't occur to me to give the guy a bouncy ball, mainly because I resent myself when I do anything that seems kind for the sake of the bouncy ball project. The way I see it, I should be doing these things anyway.
When I leave the grocery store five minutes later, I pass the same guy in the same spot, and I smile.
"Hey," he says. "Can you spare a couple of quarters? I'm trying to get a dollar for bus fare."
I laugh. "You already asked me."
"Oh," he says. "Well, you get old, you start to forget things."
I wave and continue walking, but when I reach my car, it occurs to me that I have a dollar. If he's trying to get a dollar, why don't I actually give him a dollar? Why had I only given him 50 cents?
I walk back to the man, a dollar in my palm. "Excuse me," he says, looking right at my face, just like he had the first two times. "Can you spare a couple of quarters? I'm trying to get a dollar for bus fare."
Again, he doesn't recognize me. It's been literally five seconds. I drop a dollar and a bouncy ball in his palm. "That's three times, man."
Thursday night, I do a show in Iglewood at a small theatre. It's 11:00 PM when I'm walking across the parking lot to my car.
I look down in front of me.
"No," I say. "No way. Come on." I do a slow circle, looking around for clues of how this got here, but there are none. It's just me in a parking lot in Inglewood, alone.
Just me and this creepy magic bouncy ball.
Bouncy Ball # 116 - Audrey
Audrey is a 7-year-old girl who's recovering from neurosurgery for a condition called Chiari malformation, where the skull doesn't provide enough room for the brain. Unrelated to her Chiari malformation, she also has autism and suffers from seizures.
My friend Amanda told me that Audrey loves receiving letters. She asked me to send her a hot pink bouncy ball with a letter because pink is her favorite color. If you'd like to send Audrey a letter, contact me, and I'll be happy to forward it to her.
Bouncy Ball # 117 - The World Famous Comedy Store
"Hey," I say, crossing paths with tonight's Belly Room booker down by the back entrance to the club. "I'm one of the development spots on your show tonight."
He doesn't seem too pleased about it. "They didn't tell me they put anyone on tonight. They usually send me an email."
I sigh. "Well, I mean, they told me to come here. 10 p.m. Belly Room."
He turns away, and I slink off to the Green Room.
His reaction is not unusual. It happens just about every single time I report the store for my "development spots" in the Belly Room. See, I'm in what they call the "Friends and Family" group at the Store, a highly coveted position that every comic who goes to the open mic hopes to attain. One of the steps up the ladder before becoming a paid regular, and one of the comics who gets to have their name on the wall.
Getting this was a big deal to me. For two years, I signed up for the open mic every time I could. For two years, I waited along with all the other comics for them to post the list. For two years, I watched my name make it on the list, then slowly move down toward the end of the list. Then one night, the club's manager called me over when I got offstage after a pretty good set and said, "Leah, you don't have to sign up for the mic anymore. You can just call on Monday and give your avails."
"Uh. What does that mean?"
He'd laughed. "It means you passed the open mic. You're a non-paid regular."
It was one of the biggest thrills of my entire comedy career. Not only was I one step closer to having my name on the wall, not only could I call in and get booked for stage time at the club, but on top of all that, I did it the hard way. I never once thought it was unfair.
That was back in November 2012. Now it's May, and I've been coming in almost weekly, either trying to get on in the Original Room by checking in with a surly host on Monday, or coming in on a weekend night for what they call "development spots." Essentially, that means they put two or three of their comics on a show in the Belly Room, a show that an outside booker, someone who doesn't work at the Comedy Store, has booked.
Save for two of the bookers, they've all been complete assholes to me when I check in. One night, I came in, and the booker argued with me for several minutes. "No, you're not on the show," he'd said, pissed. "Well, they said I was. Not sure what to tell ya." And back and forth like that for a few minutes before he dragged me downstairs, demanding someone vouch for me. The GM brought us to his office and had to point out the spot where my name was written on the list.
The booker had shaken his head. "Well, I can't put you on before midnight."
Cut to tonight. It's a Friday night, I've worked my incredibly stressful day job all week. I'm exhausted. I have a headache, and I haven't eaten since noon.
Upstairs in the Green Room, the booker walks in and pours a flask-sized bottle of vodka into a Big Gulp. A girl enters, presumably a comic on the show. "Do you have the lineup?"
"Here," he says. He hangs a list by the door. "There it is." He leaves to go seat the showroom, and I don't bother to check the list. I know my name's not on it.
The girl checks the list. "My name's not on this," she says. A few minutes later, two other women walk in, check the list. Their names aren't on it, either.
I stand up and walk into the showroom, find the booker. "Hey," I say. "Just so you know, there are three comics back there who aren't on the lineup you posted."
He rolls his eyes. "Oh, Sam? She's always complaining."
"No," I say. "Literally three comics."
Again, he walks away. I check the time. Almost 10:30, and the show hasn't started. Shit. He's gonna put me on at 1:00.
I make a final attempt to figure out when the fuck anyone is getting onstage, since the lineup in the back is obviously not real. "Hey man," I say. "I didn't drive here. I got a ride." (That's true, by the way.) "Do you have any idea when I should tell him to come pick me up?"
He narrows his eyes. "I got three of you Store guys to put up. They double-booked the room, and the show hasn't started yet. Tell him midnight."
I'm getting real sick of being barked at. "So you don't even have a lineup?" I ask. "Why don't you have a lineup?"
His nostrils flare. His eyes get wide. Oops. I did it. I hit his trigger.
"I told you midnight!" he yells. "And you're asking me if I have a fucking lineup?"
If you're unfamiliar with comedy shows and how they work, the booker usually has a lineup and usually doesn't bite your head off when you ask him about it.
But at the Store, it's different. Because they don't want you on their show, because the club is making them put you on.
I walk off and find a spot on the couch in the back of the showroom. Every 15 minutes, the booker walks by, glares at me until I look at him, then quickly turns away to snub me. I know what he's planning on doing - putting me on last because I dared question his methods.
But he said midnight. I sit and wait until midnight. I sit there for an hour and half of mediocre standup. I'm not exaggerating - three of the people that go on to a completely full crowd are great, but the rest are inexperienced. You can tell they haven't done it very long by their stage presence, their jokes, their mannerisms. This is also not unusual - this is a "bringer" show, which means the people who book it only book people who promise to bring a minimum of five audience members. To be booked on a bringer show, the quality of your performance is irrelevant, and it shows.
Midnight comes and goes. At 12:20, after the booker gets onstage and tells the crowd they can "leave if they want to - it's been a long night," I suddenly realize that this booker, this drunk guy who thinks he's teaching me some kind of lesson by making me wait to go on in front of what's left of this poor, exhausted crowd, has no power over me.
And then I do something that might be unheard of as far as spots at the Comedy Store go. I leave.
While I wait for my ride out front, I bounce a ball on the wall that wraps around the club, thinking about what the Comedy Store claims to be versus what it actually is.
If the Store claims to be some kind of gatekeeper, the place where talented comedians season their acts and become great, how can it be that and also rent out their rooms to bookers who book inexperienced comics, people who don't have ten good minutes? How can they put their name on a show that people come to watch expecting to see quality comedy, but instead ending up sitting through a lot of amateurs, all the while believing this is the state of LA comedy? The Store claims to play a huge part in developing great comics from local talent. But how can it be both things?
I'd been ecstatic to make it through the open mic, but almost every single time I've asked to go onstage since then, someone has treated me like shit. Sometimes, it's a 40-year-old drunk. Sometimes, it's a 22-year-old prick. Sometimes, it's a booker who has never even done standup.
Look, I didn't join the goddamn military here - last I checked, stand-up was autonomous, independent, free. When the Store passed me to do spots, I didn't know that meant I had to let people disrespect me on a weekly basis, or I wouldn't have signed up. And I swear to the Universe, if one person comes at me with, "You gotta tough it out," I'll lose it. Because - and this is no exaggeration - I'm the fucking toughest person I know. I can tough out any punishment, I can push through any adversity, I can overcome any obstacle, I can run up the Baldwin Park stairs four times, I can go to the same open mic for two years, keep my head down, and do my time without complaining, and I can outlast anyone, as long as it's fair, as long as it's justified.
This is not justified.
I'm not trying to say, "How dare you treat ME like that?" What I'm saying is, "How dare you treat ANYONE like that? We're just people trying to be something. What gives you the right? How DARE you give hope without love?"
I'd been so hopeful when I first got passed, but over the last six months, I've tried to dismiss the ball of discomfort in my stomach that shows up every time I'm supposed to go on at the Store. I've started to think that I hate stand up. I certainly hate it on these nights.
Tonight, I realize I don't hate standup. I love standup. I hate what The Comedy Store is doing to it in the Belly Room, making it an exclusive club where funny doesn't matter, but cool or money or the semblance of power or networking does. I hate what standup's become here, in these old rotting halls, where the ghosts of talented comics past haunt the Belly Room while a guy who really wants to be an actor tells a hacky joke about dick size to a room full of people he'd coerced into coming in exchange for ten minutes of stage time he's not qualified to perform.
I see my ride pull up to the curb, and I drop the ball behind me, letting it bounce into the crowd, milling around the wall where my name will never appear.
Bouncy Ball # 104 - Tim
He's mid-conversation, but I tap him on the shoulder anyway. He turns, greets me with that fake smile.
"Hey Tim," I say.
"I didn't mean to interrupt. I just saw you over here, and I wanted to give you this bouncy ball."
He reaches out to shake my hand, but I just palm the ball into his. "It's good to see you," he says. He turns to his brunch companion. "Michelle, this is Ally. Ally, this is Michelle."
I laugh. Of course he doesn't remember me. "Actually, I'm Leah."
His eyes get wide for a second while I watch the recognition cross his face. "Oh, of course, Leah. Yeah, I'm so sorry. You look like a comedian named Ally. Have you lost a lot of weight?"
I shrug. "Yeah, I guess." I'm not offended that he forgot me. I don't know him well, and I probably do look different since the last time he saw me.
I can feel his nervousness. I'd run into him a couple times before, and I know my presence puts him on edge. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy making him uncomfortable.
But that's not why I'm here, giving him this bouncy ball. I'm here because I've been carrying around this grudge for awhile, and since I ran into him today, I take that as a sign it's time to let it go. He wasn't there to taunt me or to threaten me. He didn't even know I was there - it was me that had the problem with being in the same room with him. It's me that needs to let it go.
See, I met Tim back in 2011 when we'd worked together at a Midwest comedy club. He was the headliner, and I was the middle act. It was my first time as a middle act (I'd always been an opener), and let's just say I wasn't ready for it.
In plain terms, I sucked. And Tim didn't like me because I sucked. Every night, he had to follow me and get the crowd back. He had to clean up the mess I'd created. Months later, when I heard from another friend of mine that he was telling everyone in the Midwest how awful I was, I distinctly remember thinking, Well, fair enough.
It should've ended there. But it didn't.
Just before I moved to L.A., Tim headlined the Oklahoma City Loony Bin. The last night he was in town fell on the same night my friends roasted me at the club. Incidentally, it was also the same night they gave me the 250 bouncy balls with my name on them, the very ones I'm distributing now.
My roast ended just about an hour before the regular show, so Tim walked into the club while my friends and family were still in the lobby. That night, he told one of my friends that the only reason I got booked to middle that week we worked together was because I fucked another headliner.
That's right, on the night of my roast, at the comedy club where I started doing standup in 2006, Tim walked into my house and told my friends that I fucked my way to the middle.
In the days after my roast, I found out that Tim had told a lot of people that very same lie about me. And it hurt. I confronted Tim about it. I sent him a Facebook message calling him out. He sent a message back, not five minutes later. It said, "I'm sorry. You're right. Full apology."
It didn't make me feel any better.
I know Tim feels bad for what he said about me - he's since sent me messages trying to help me meet bookers in L.A., congratulating me for getting on a festival. But the effects of what he said about me have lingered, eating away at my insides. It's the reason I don't like to ask people for help. It's the reason I am cautious and untrusting of other comedians. It's the reason I started looking at comedy as a way to prove myself rather than what it used to be - the thing that made me happiest.
"Well, I'll let you get back to your breakfast," I say. "I just wanted to come over and say hi and give you that bouncy ball."
"Well thank you, Leah. It was really good to see you."
"Yeah," I say. "It was good to see you, too." And I actually mean it. Because it's not an accident that Tim is here. It's not an accident that I'm giving him one of the bouncy balls that my friends in Oklahoma had given to me.
I'm supposed to give him this ball. And I'm supposed to forgive him. And I'm supposed to let that go and move forward.
Sometimes I find stories for these bouncy balls. Sometimes the stories find me.
"I feel like there's a trend in television and entertainment now where the bad guy is the hero," Andy says. "It's all about the anti-hero. But I miss the good guys. Why can't we have a good guy to look up to?"
"Exactly!" I agree.
"We need a hero," Andy says.
At that point, Andy, John, and I exchange a look as we all simultaneously break into that Bonnie Tyler song from the "Footloose" soundtrack. "I need a her-OOOOO!"
It's my favorite moment of all the podcasts we've recorded, but no one except for the three of us will ever hear it - a couple days after recording this segment, Andy decided to cut it. It was a smart decision - the segment had nothing to do with our podcast, which is a lighthearted show about fictional characters.
While I agree that it didn't belong, I'm glad to know there are other people in the world who miss having good people in movies, in books, on TV. It's like all our heroes are flawed, and good characters are cliche, outdated, a thing of the past. Today is all about Walt from Breaking Bad and almost every character in Game of Thrones, who make us want to watch to see how bad they can get.
"I wish there were a movie about Jules after Pulp Fiction," John says. "Him as the shepherd, wandering around the world and righting wrongs like Kane from Kung Fu."
I think of Sosa. He loves the end of Pulp Fiction, where Samuel L. Jackson's character says, "I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd."
Andy reads my mind. "Fernando would love that."
"He could play him in the movie," John says. "Sosa could totally play the shepherd. I'd watch a movie starring Sosa as the shepherd."
Bouncy Ball # 105 - Server in that BBQ place near my house
"That is so infuriating." I fork a chunk of cornbread in my mouth. "Oh my God, this is so fucking good."
"Right?" Sosa says. I don't know if he's agreeing with me about the cornbread or my righteous indignation. Probably both.
We're at that BBQ place on Temple, just a block and a half from my house, the one I always said I wanted to try. While we devour the delicious pulled pork, hot links, and cornbread in front of us, Sosa fills me in on this week's news. I'm not proud of this, but on any given day, I have no idea what's going on in the world. I'm not sure if this is indicative of my busy-ness or of my narcissism. Probably both.
Today, Sosa fills me in on Donald Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers, who's leaked racist remarks had come out in public earlier in the week.
"And how much money does that guy have?" I ask. "A hundred million dollars?"
"I don't even know," Sosa says. "Probably more."
"It makes me sick," I say. "He doesn't deserve that. Why do people like that get all the money?" I gesture at the food in front of us. "And why can't I even eat in this restaurant without worrying about whether or not I can afford it?"
This is not rare, he and I eating and talking about injustice in the world. It comes up a lot, actually. It's not that we believe we deserve more money. It's just that it seems like the people who have all the money aren't good people. It's just that it seems so unfair, so unjust, so wrong.
I leave a bouncy ball on the table in our restaurant, and the server calls after me before I walk out. "Excuse me! You left this!"
"Oh, it's for you," I say. "It's good luck."
"Oh," she says. "Thank you."
As Sosa and I walk out onto the sidewalk, I laugh. "She's probably thinking, 'There'd better be a tip and not just this ball.'"
"I'm serious," I say. "That's what I thought when I waited tables. People would leave cards about Jesus, and I'd be like, 'Yeah, that's nice. There'd better be a tip in here.'"
Bouncy Ball # 106 - Chess
"I hate to say it, but I think I might have you."
Sosa's staring at the board, studying his king. "Yeah. If I move here, you'll come take the pawn, and I can't go anywhere. That's check mate."
I can't hold back my smile. It's my first Chess win. Sosa taught me to play a couple weeks ago, so I bought a ten-dollar board at Rite-Aid, and since then, I've been obsessed with it. Over the past few weeks, I've downloaded two apps on my phone, I've played during every moment of free time I have, and I've even watched the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer.
Sosa's pretty obsessed with it, too. For a few days now, he's been waiting for his new official Chess set to arrive by FedEx, which he purchased after we played several games with the cheap plastic pieces that came with my set, and he'd picked up one of my pawns, saying, "These pieces are so light."
"Yeah," I'd agreed. "It's like they have no heart."
I like Chess because it makes me think. But maybe even more so, I like Chess because it's such an apt metaphor for so many things in life, and the writer in me can't stop seeing the parallels. Even in this game, the way I win seems symbolic of something. Sosa had been distracted on the other end of the board taking all of my important pieces, but I'd snuck in a back way when he didn't expect it.
Since that first win, I haven't won another game. Maybe Sosa's playing tougher, I don't know. I know why I lose, though. At first, it was mostly because of stupid mistakes and bad decisions. But even when I stopped making those mistakes, in the end, he always gets me because I'm playing on the defense the entire time, just trying not to get taken.
Like they say in the movie Bobby Fischer, it's about taking risks. You can't just play on the defense, protecting yourself from things that happen. You have to make things happen.
Bouncy Ball # 107 - A random city street
Davey growls, waking me from a restless haze, and I sit up. A man walks by on the sidewalk next to us and peers in, curious. Not a threat. I check the time. 1:30 AM. Must've fallen asleep again. I've been here for two hours now.
I'm sleeping in my car, parked on a random city street in L.A. I have Davey Dog with me. He's sitting shotgun. He spent the first few minutes staring at me expectantly, like we had a destination other than this, but now he's resigned to the fact that we're staying in the car.
Why am I sleeping in my car? Well, to be honest, I have no idea. I'd say I did it because it's something I wouldn't normally do, and I needed a bouncy ball thing, but that's not true - the bouncy ball was an after thought. I'm pretty sure that this is actually a mini meltdown.
Maybe the real question isn't, "Why am I sleeping in my car?" Maybe the real question is, "What happened before I ended up here?"
Monday nights at the Comedy Store always make me feel unsettled. Tonight was no different. I'd walked in and saw that the host was the guy who doesn't like me. I know he doesn't like me because every time I check in with him, he has a sneer of disgust on his face, and he doesn't look at me - he looks over my head for more important people.
So when I saw him hosting, I knew there was no way he was putting me up. I didn't even bother to check in, just sat in the back for the duration of the mic and then stood up to leave. As I was walking out, he was outside talking to another comic. "Oh," he says with disdain when he sees me walking toward him. "I guess you want to check in, too?"
"I, uh, what? I guess?"
"Of course," he says, scowling, and walks back into the showroom.
What a dick. I wasn't gonna ask him shit.
I thought about leaving right then, but something was bugging me about the way he'd said that. It's like he was looking for someone to shit on, and I crossed his path.
You know what? That's not okay.
I headed back into the club, spotted the host's stupid face in the middle of the room and walked right up to him. "Hey," I said. "I wasn't even gonna ask you to go on. I was walking by because I was leaving."
He sighed, annoyed. "Well, everyone's been checking in with me all night. I wasn't trying to sound rude."
"Well, I wasn't asking," I said. "Just wanted to tell you that." I turned and walked out of the club.
After that, I started thinking about what really happened in there. I'd watched the host greet several comics, and he was kind and smiling with all of them. I watched them all walk around the room giving hugs and high fives, and I sat by myself in the back, talking to no one.
I'm not a weirdo. I'm not awkward. I'm not an outsider. In real life, I talk to people all the time. But for some reason, the comedy community, especially in the Comedy Store, makes me feel like a freak. It's like they hate me, and I don't really understand why.
Maybe I'm not spending enough time there. Maybe I'm spending too much time playing Chess and writing blogs and giving away stupid bouncy balls. Maybe I have to cut more things out of my life. Maybe I have to give up more to get something. I decided that I had to spend more time doing standup and less time doing the things that made me happy. But within an hour, the weight of that decision hit me. It hit me that I came close to sacrificing my moments of happiness for a place and a group of people that make me feel less-than.
And then I packed up my dog and drove down the street. And then I found a spot by the curb, and I shut my car off, and I went to sleep.
I still can't say why sleeping in my car made any sense to me. My best guess is that it's a reminder of all the things I do have - a house, a place to sleep. It's a reminder of how much worse it can be. I'm sleeping here to remind myself that being miserable in this moment is a choice, and when I have a choice, it's not worth giving up the things that comfort me, the things that make me happy. It's to remind myself that what the Comedy Store makes people believe - that to be a standup, you have to be miserable - is just plain wrong.
Bouncy Ball # 108 - Bartender at Flappers
"Ok, so now you get to hear my spiel about how I have this drink ticket, but I don't have any cash to tip you. Is it okay if I still order a drink?"
The bartender laughs. "It's no big deal."
"I'm so sorry," I say. "I hate that I can't tip you."
"Really, it's fine," he says. He gets my whiskey and ginger ale.
"Well, can I give you a bouncy ball?" I hold one out in my hand.
"Really? Sure." He grabs it. "You know, I actually prefer this to money?"
"No, really," he says.
I walk into the showroom and take a seat in the back while the rest of the comics in this Uncle Clyde's Comedy Contest go on. I'd gone on first, but felt like I should stay to the end, even though I can tell I'm not gonna place.
I didn't have a bad set - not at all. But there was nothing particularly memorable about my set either. The truth is, I don't feel connected to any of my jokes right now, so in my mind, it really doesn't matter what I do. And I think that reflects onstage - I get laughs, but I'm like a machine. I'm not engaged in my own act. I'm just pumping out punchlines that I think a crowd of people will laugh at.
After all the contestants go onstage, the host introduces the show's headliner - an actual booked comedian who was there to entertain the crowd while they tally up the contest votes. "Please welcome to the stage the very funny Alex Ortiz!"
My head snaps up. "Holy shit," I say out loud. I remember Alex - he used to headline at the Oklahoma City Loony Bin. I'd seen him on that stage so many times. I'd never talked to him, but I feel connected to him now.
The second Alex steps foot onstage, you can visibly see the difference between him and all the contest comics that had gone on before. There's an easiness about him. He's a club comic, the real deal, and he looks like the stage is his home.
Seeing him up there, I remember the excitement I felt watching the headliners in Oklahoma. I remember watching them and wanting nothing more than to be that.
And yet, here I am, years later, jaded in Los Angeles, thinking that you have to know someone or tell some weird quirky hipster jokes. But Alex reminds me that funny is funny no matter where you are. He reminds me that L.A. is not better than anywhere else. He reminds me that I have something that no one can take away: experience.
That's it. I've put the years in. I've done the clubs. I've done a festival or two. I've gotten the audition that everyone wanted and did a fine but unremarkable job. I hit a wall suddenly, a wall that only I know I've hit, and now, sitting here in the back of Flappers, I know exactly why.
I've been trying to do standup like I thought it should be rather than what it means to me. In Oklahoma, I took risks. You never knew what I was gonna do onstage.
I've finally figured out what's been so wrong with my standup. And of course, I can explain it with a Chess metaphor. I fixed all the things about myself that I thought were getting in the way, I put myself on guard, and I've even stopped making bad decisions, but in the end, I'm doing safe comedy. I'm doing passable comedy. I'm not taking any risks.
To be great, you have to take risks.
Bouncy Ball # 109 - Story written by Amanda Webb
I’ve been planning the weirdest adventure.
I’m hanging out near rainbow stacks of cookie boxes while my friend helps her daughter sell girl scout cookies from a stand/folding card table. Kiera is 10 or 11. Her limbs are long and thin, like she’s been growing in a rush. Her mom says “Kiera’s a good salesperson! If she’d just stop touching customers.” I don’t comment, but her words fully click into place when I see Kiera’s 60lb frame lean heavily into the action of dragging a very large man by his extended and obviously reluctant arm towards her table. "Let go of him! Stop touching customers!" her mother and I yell from opposite directions. Kiera’s got a full sales patter down-repeatedly clasping her hands behind her back to innocently ask those in her path “What’s your favorite girl scout cookie?”
Later, Kiera plops down on the bench next to me, where I've been playing with my phone. She pulls her knees up to her chest and casually asks me if she can come over to my house. "Sure!” I answer automatically, only after a pause thinking to ask if her mom is coming, too. I know that Kiera likes my cats (she can’t have any, because her dad is allergic), and I have hula hoops she has seen but not had a chance to play with.
Through sporadic bits of conversation, my friend and I discover that her daughter isn’t planning an afternoon visit or a sleepover, but an actual stay with me. The time period is completely indefinite, and I never ask. Her mom and I keep joking about the hypotheticals, as Kiera works her way back and forth between us, quickly finding solutions to anything in her way. Once school is out, of course! It's okay that my house is gross, and doesn't have room, she'll help me clean it! (I don't even let most people in my house right now because it's embarrassing and makes me feel judged.) I try to imagine the scenario: how long could I get away with a minimum of discipline through fun scheduled activities like hula hooping, swimming, catnipping cats, and whatever else 10 year old girls still like to do?
I get a text the following Monday, from the same friend, saying that on the drive home from school, her daughter asked from the backseat, "Have you asked Dad yet about me staying at Amanda's?" I laugh and text back that I'm going to borrow Kiera because she said she'd help me clean. "For about 10 minutes she will, then she'll watch cartoons," her mom counters, but adds "At least they'll be cartoons you like."
Thanks to that one comment, I realize the idea of hanging out with a 10-year-old girl is really growing on me, in no small part because none of my friends will watch these cheesy foreign shows that are my favorite thing, and I bet Kiera will. I message her mom curiously about some logistics. I'm beginning to think, "This is pretty crazy, and definitely not something I'd normally do… maybe that's a good adventure for a bouncy ball.”
Of course, it hasn’t happened yet. School won’t be out until the end of May, and Leah will probably be done by then. So, no, I have not “borrowed” a child, or stretched the limits of my minimal ability to discipline, or even shared space with a child. I’m sure when that happens it will probably be a more exciting story of mayhem and deep inadequacy on my part, but I’m tired of always waiting for something in the distance. Maybe you’ll get to read that story and maybe you won’t, but I liked sharing this one. You can imagine what awaits me. Right now, technically, this bouncy ball is in limbo. Kiera can have it as a prize and memento if things go well, but if it's a disaster, the ball goes to her mom for succeeding where I have pathetically, immediately, failed.
Amanda, it seems like you believe that you haven't found a story for your bouncy ball.
But the truth is, you've found the story. The story is you.
Bouncy Ball # 110 - 8th Grader at my school
"You know what I hate?" she says, pushing her long brown hair back behind her shoulders.
"What's that?" I'm sitting in the Board Room at the school where I work with one of our 8th grade students.
I'm usually sitting behind a desk doing stupid administrative work all day, but every now and then, I get to interact with the kids that go to our school, and it's always the highlight of my day. Today, I get to work with an anxious but charming 8th grade girl who's going through a bunch of impressions she's planning to do at the Talent Show. Her teacher had sent her to me because I'm a comedian, and she thought I could help with some stage advice.
Her impressions, by the way, are fantastic.
"Well you know, like, sometimes, I'll be doing an impression, you know?" She speaks at an almost-frantic pace. "And sometimes, people who are watching...well, maybe they've heard the impression before or something, you know? And I'll do it, and then they just won't laugh." She shakes her head. "I hate that."
I smile, stifle a laugh. "Well, I hate to say it, Lady, but you're just gonna have to deal with the fact that they're not always gonna laugh."
"But it's so awkward," she says. "I don't want that to happen."
"Well, I'm not gonna lie, it's gonna happen again. And you'll just have to keep going."
"It's so frustrating," Sosa says.
Again, we're sitting in a restaurant eating, talking about all the injustice in the world. Tonight, we've covered racism, homophobia, and the unfair economy of the 1%.
"It's like we're all just pawns," Sosa says. "And we don't matter. We're just pawns to them."
"We're not pawns," I say. "We're shepherds."
About the Bouncy Ball Project
I have in my possession 190 bouncy balls. I'm on a quest to give all these bouncy balls stories.