Bouncy Ball # 38 - Gary the cab driver
"I can't imagine having to deal with this everyday," Meredith says. "I could never live here. What's it like?"
I stare out the window of the cab, my head pressed up against the glass, watching the blurry Vegas lights zoom by and listening to a drunk Meredith chat up our cab driver.
I'm pretty messed up, too. We've just left the Flamingo, where I'd lost 50 bucks trying to play Texas Hold 'Em.
"It's not fun," the driver says, waiting to turn while of herd of women in tight dresses and heels cross in front of us. "The people around here. They're not good people. The men don't like to work, and they use the women."
Last time I was in Vegas was in April 2011 for my friend's bachelorette party. Over the course of one Saturday night, I lost my phone, got in a fight with a douchebag who grabbed my ass, and woke up sprawled out in the hallway of my hotel, a security guard tapping me on my shoulder, saying, "Miss. Miss."
Before that, I'd only been to Vegas one other time, years ago, with my friend Lindsay. During that trip, we met some dude at a karaoke bar, and he led us to the shady part of the city, where I bought a dime bag of pot on the street. We went to a hotel to smoke with a bunch of strangers, and Lindsay left me sitting on one of the hotel beds while she went outside with the guy we'd met at the bar.
Minutes afters she left, one of my new friends pulled out a gun from a dresser drawer. "Hahahahahaha," I said, "a gun!"
The guy holding the gun cracked up laughing and pointed it at my face as a hilarious joke.
For years, Lindsay maintained that I shouldn't tell that story because "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." But I don't think an ad slogan supersedes the fact that what happened in Vegas is she left me in a hotel with strangers who pulled a gun on me.
We pull up to our hotel, and I drop a bouncy ball in the cab console. "Here's the only thing you need to know about this place," the driver says. "Don't trust anybody. Just remember that, no matter what, okay? Don't trust anybody."
Bouncy Ball # 39 - Mr. Guns
"Oh come on," I say. "It's not like a Golden Corral. It's good food. They have crab legs and steak and shit like that."
We're sitting in a pub in the MGM Grand. I've been trying to talk Ryan into going to one of the Vegas casino buffets for the past hour, ever since we got off the New York New York roller coaster ride (another activity he had been against doing), during which he made this face:
"I don't want to spend 50 bucks on dinner," Ryan says.
"Well, maybe they have a cheaper one," I say. "I'll ask the bartender." I wave him down. "Excuse me. What buffet would you recommend around here?"
"None," he scoffs. "I don't go to buffets. I don't like hundreds of disgusting people breathing all over food that I eat. They're like dens of bacteria. Don't go to one."
"Well, okay." I order a drink, something called Jungle Juice, and Ryan and I watch as he mixes it in front of us, putting the concoction into two shakers, and then holding them out next to him like free weights, shaking them to show off his huge biceps.
"See?" Ryan says. "I'm glad you asked Mr. Guns over there."
"Ha! Mr Guns," I say. "You dare me to call him that?"
"Yeah, actually," Ryan says. "Call him Mr. Guns. But don't do it now."
"Because I don't want you to piss him off before he brings our drinks."
"Oh, come on," I say. "I'm very charming. He's not gonna get pissed."
Cut to ten minutes later...
"Hey, Mr. Guns," I say.
Mr. Guns stares at me.
"Can I call you Mr. Guns? Because that's what I call you in my head."
He shrugs, completely unaware that he's become a character in one of my stories.
Back when I was getting my Master's, I started writing about real people accidentally. I'd assigned myself the task of writing a novel about my grandmother's experience during the Armenian Genocide, an almost unbelievable story in which she and her younger brother were the only members of their family to survive the forced death march through Syria.
I wrote my grandmother into the story, of course. That made sense. But then I did something weird - I wrote about myself writing the story, and I introduced a character from real life, a guy I had a crush on - a floppy-haired red-head named Kevin Smith.
Kevin had no place in that story, but I made one for him anyway. I don't know exactly why I did it - I guess it was my way of keeping him around. I'm embarrassed of the character I play in the book: her dependency, her obsession, her insecurity. I'm embarrassed that she's me.
But when I read the book, even now, years later, I see the undeniable truth: it’s a good book. Despite how embarrassing it is for me, it’s really good. And I think if I had hesitated to tell the truth in it, if I hadn’t included the things I did, the personal things that make my cheeks burn when I remember them, it wouldn’t have been as good.
So after that, I just kept doing it - stealing people from the world and making them characters in fiction until I woke up one day and realized that maybe I'm not supposed to write fiction. Maybe I'm supposed to write reality.
Right now, my reality is still standing in front of me, stone-faced. "So can I get you something?" Mr. Guns asks.
"Well, uh, can I get one more drink?"
He walks off, and I look at Ryan. We both crack up laughing.
"Oh my God, I feel like such a creep!"
"You said it all serious," Ryan says. "Mr. Guns."
"I like how I thought I was gonna be charming."
"Eh, you could probably still fuck him," Ryan says.
"I'm not even attracted to him. You're the one who named him Mr. Guns, remember?"
When Mr. Guns brings my drink, I hand him a bouncy ball. "I'm sorry I called you Mr. Guns. I feel like an asshole."
"Oh, it's cool," he says. "Believe me, I've heard much worse."
"You know what bothers me?" he says. "The fact that you wrote about this guy." He just finished reading my book. He loved it to the point where he can't stop talking about it, but he's getting caught up over the fact that I included Kevin Smith.
"He doesn't deserve to be in this book," he says. "Why him?"
I shrug. "I don't know. There was just something about him."
Bouncy Ball # 40 - Sosa
"Right there," Sosa says. "You know what you're doing? You're putting too much weight on the foot you're dragging." He demonstrates a perfect glide. "You see? You barely want to touch the floor. It looks like you're dragging it, but really, all your weight is on your other foot.
"Yeah, okay," I say, trying not to show my frustration. I try again, but my foot gets caught.
"You're getting better," he says. "But you're still putting too much weight on that foot. Here, try it with music." He pulls out his phone, searches a minute, and then places it on my coffee table, pressing play. I hear the first few measures of the song "Billie Jean."
"Okay," Sosa says. "Like this." He demonstrates again, the perfect Moonwalk across my living room floor.
Again, I set my feet up like he told me. Again, I try to Moonwalk. Again, I get tripped up in five seconds. I sigh. "How long did this take you to learn?"
"Once I figured it out, like five minutes," he says.
I roll my eyes. "Of course it did."
"Try it again."
"You're still putting too much weight on the other foot," he says. "Okay, so this leg here," he hits my right thigh. "When you start, all your weight should be here, and-"
"You know, I get what you're saying," I say, interrupting. "It's not that I don't understand. It's that my body can't do it yet. Okay?"
He laughs. "Okay, just making sure. Try it again."
I try it again about a hundred times, getting no closer to being able to do it than when he first started to teach me. After about 10 more minutes, I toss my arms in the air. "I can't do this right now. I'm getting too frustrated."
"Okay," he says. "But you're gonna get it eventually."
I throw myself on my couch and groan. "Oh my God, I'm so tired."
"You should go to sleep."
"But I can't! I have to work out."
"Leah," he says. "You don't have to work out. You just drove back from Vegas. Just go to sleep. I promise, it will be okay." He pulls a chair up and sits down. "What you're doing is hard. You get that, right?"
"I know," I say. "I don't even want to do it anymore."
"Well, then why are you doing it?"
"Because I have to. Because I said I would."
"Well, if you're not having fun, and you're stressing yourself out this much, you don't have to do this. You know that, right?"
"I'm gonna finish," I say. "I'm just frustrated. It's like I do so many things all the time. And sometimes I just want to sit back and do what I want, not some stupid shit that I'm forcing myself to do."
"Write about that then," he says.
"Yeah," I say. "It's late. Thanks for talking to me. And for trying to teach me to Moonwalk."
"You'll get it," he says, standing. "Get some rest."
After he leaves, I do a second thing that I wouldn't normally do: I take his advice and go to bed.
Every day since, I try to Moonwalk. I still haven't done it, but I'm getting better.
Bouncy Ball # 41 - Wendi
"I'm really excited for the end of my set," Wendi says, sucking on the butt of her cigarette. "I have something crazy planned."
"Yeah, well, I don't know if it's funny. I thought of it earlier, and I just kept cracking up. I'm so excited."
Wendi and I are standing outside the Downtown Independent waiting for Sleepaway Camp to start. I just walked up, fresh from an open mic. Normally, I'd be at another mic, but tonight, I came here specifically to see Wendi - she's one of the best comics around, and the last few times I tried see her, I showed up late and missed her set.
"I really like your shirt," I say. It looks more like a wrap than a shirt - a long sexy opening v-shape meets down at her waist, where it's secured with a brown belt.
"Oh, thanks," she says. "This is actually for that bit. So excited."
This is Wendi before any set - focused on what she's going to say, almost frantic, obsessing about the new stuff she plans to try.
She's on second to last. I'm enjoying the show, sitting there eating popcorn, drinking a Cherry Coke. About four comics in, when there's only kernels left floating in the bottom of my bag, I set it on the floor and wrap myself in my coat. It's so cozy.
I wake up during the next comic.
Oh awesome. I just fell asleep watching a comedy show.
Finally, the host starts Wendi's intro. She has a good set, which doesn't surprise me. When she gets the light, she pulls the mic stand in front of her, slides the mic in the slot. "Okay, I never do this," she says, "but I want to do an impression for you guys. I came up with it when I was 14."
She steps out from behind the microphone. "This is an impression of me as a stripper."
The crowd yells, "Wooooooo!"
Wendi starts writhing back and forth. She reaches for her belt buckle, slides it off while tossing out small weird phrases like, "Show me your weenis." She drops the belt to the side, grabs both sides of the wrap she's wearing for a shirt, and rips it off.
"Give me your money!" she screams.
The crowd roars.
She's naked from the waist up, save for two chunks of blond wig hair, which she's affixed over each nipple. She has writing on her chest and stomach. It takes me a second to focus on what it says - two words in all caps:
Bouncy Ball # 42 - Skid Row
Tonight, I bring pizza to the people on Skid Row in downtown. Sosa won't let me go alone, so the two of us walk through the alley until we find some people. I give an entire pizza to one man, sitting by himself on the sidewalk, rocking. He smiles slightly, but doesn't say anything.
One block over, Sosa opens a pizza box and walks down the sidewalk, dispersing it to the men huddled next to buildings. "Hey Bro, would you like some pizza?" he says. "Take two."
As we head back to my car, he turns to me. "You know, that's the first time I saw homeless Mexicans."
Bouncy Ball # 43 - Arcade Guy
Thursday night, the Universe calls me to go to the arcade.
When I was young, going to the arcade was one of the many Saturday activities my dad had planned when he had my brother and I for the weekends. We'd camp out at the Skee-ball machine because that's where you get the most tickets, and my dad would egg me on while I tried to beat his high score.
I play a few games. I suck. On my way out, I walk up to a guy holding a toy gun. "You want this bouncy ball?"
Bouncy Ball # 44 - Laura
I check the clock again. It's only been five minutes. Man. This woman has a way of explaining things that makes time stop.
I guess that makes sense, seeing as how I'm sitting in the back room of the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, an actual store on the south side of Sunset Boulevard that sells products like Robot Milk, Viking Odorant, and Barbarian Repellant.
The store's actually affiliated with a volunteer program called 826LA, which provides free tutoring, workshops, and in-school services for the kids in our community. I'm here at a volunteer orientation on a Friday afternoon, and I'm somehow managing to sit still while the trainer goes through boring details.
It's really not that bad - I'm just impatient, a trait that I no doubt inherited from my mom, who to this day can't wait at a stop sign for more than 20 seconds without loudly huffing, "Well by golly, I'm never getting out of here!" Due to my recent activity, I don't sit still well these days, always forging ahead in my mind to an hour, a day, a week in the future. I'm rarely present in the moment I'm living in.
Laura, our trainer, passes around a few examples of some of the projects 826LA students have made in the past. "Every year," she explains, "we pair with a different high school in the area, and we produce a book like this." She pulls out a professional-looking printed book made by the students at Boyle Heights High, titled "La Vida Diferente".
When I have the book in my hands, I scan it, stopping randomly on one of the entries, a short interview with a Mexican street vendor from the area. The entire interview is less than 10 questions, one of them, "How heavy is your cart?"
I don't know if I'd ever even think to ask that. It's so simple.
Another question asks the street vendor about his motivation. "I do this for my family," he says. "My family is my hope."
I close the book and pass it to my right while I listen to Laura use words, words, words, words, words, so many words to say such small things.
Later, when I give Laura a bouncy ball, she asks why. Up to this point, she's the only person who asked.
It occurs to me what I'm doing wrong with this bouncy ball project - I'm not letting the episodes speak for themselves. I'm not letting you see the simplicity of the impressions people can make in such a short time.
I've forgotten that the best way to tell someone's story is to let it be what it is, to become transparent and let it move through you. I should record it how it happened, the way a journalist would, instead of making it mean something, the way a novelist would. I should let it run through me without mucking it up with my own values, my insecurities, my own passions.
I should let it be more like a picture, a glimpse. It shouldn't tell you what to feel. The thing itself should tell you all you need to know.
Like this does:
Bouncy Ball # 31 - Winston
"You know," Winston says during a brief break in the karaoke. "One of my goals is to make it into one of your stories."
"Really?" Since the first time I took someone from real life and wrote them in a story, I've always wondered people's reactions to becoming a character.
The music kicks on, the intro to the Quiet Riot song "Cum on Feel the Noize," while Erika, my roommate and Winston's girlfriend, hops up to the front of the room and dances with the energy of 10 kids diagnosed with ADHD.
"Oh my God!" Winston says. "Where is that voice coming from?"
Her singing voice during this particular song is, for lack of a better adjective, terrifying - this throaty raspy growl that comes from some darkness that she must be hiding within.
Earlier, we'd gone to "Rebel Bingo," half-bingo game, half-dance party. If you're curious, it's exactly what you'd expect to happen if a bunch of hipsters decided to start a Bingo game. At one point, the host of the show had yelled out, "This is not just Bingo. This is a REVOLUTION!" and I distinctly remember thinking, "Nah, it's just Bingo."
So here I am, hours later, in a private karaoke room at Soop Sok in Koreatown, watching Erika do an air guitar solo while a really weird Korean music video plays behind her.
After Erika's epic finale, the next singer gets up to sing "What's My Age Again?" by Blink 182. I laugh. "The first time I had sex was to this song," I say. "In a car."
"Oh my God, no!" Winston says. "How was it?"
"I mean, it was in a car. And it didn't last very long."
"Well the fist time I had sex it lasted forever."
"I was drunk."
I laugh. "Was it her first time, too?"
"Oh no," he says. "She had lots of sex with lots of my friends. I don't remember much about it. But I DO remember coming out of the room and looking around thinking, 'Well, I'm one of the sexually active people now. I did it.' I wanted to walk out and announce it to the world."
"So did the girl have a good time?"
"Oh yeah, she was really into it," he says. "I kind of feel bad about how I was to her, actually. Because I really liked this other girl at the time, and she'd be over, and I'd sneak her around so the other girl wouldn't see us together."
"Oh, I know," he says.
"Well, did you ever get with the other girl?"
"We went on like four dates." His voice suddenly loses its familiar joking tone. "Even dating was hard for her. Because, well, she'd been raped...isn't that awful? So she couldn't take any intimacy at all. We were hanging out, and she just said, 'I can't do this,' one day. So we ended it."
"It really did. I mean, on one hand, I liked her so much, and I wanted to be there for her, you know? But on the other hand, I totally understand why she felt like she did, and the best thing I could do was give her space."
Later, before I leave, I hand Winston a bouncy ball.
He looks up at me, surprised. "Really? Just like that?"
"Just like that."
Bouncy Ball # 32 - Breezsa
"Man, I messed up!" I say.
"That was seriously amazing," Sosa says, his giant brown eyes wide.
"But I messed up!"
"Where did you mess up?"
"On the part where I go down to the ground, I'm supposed to do this little thing before with my hips."
"Oh," Sosa says. "Well believe me, no one watching would be paying attention to that."
"Let me do it one more time." I walk over to his computer, restart the song, "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails, and then I get in position facing his closet, my back to him, and wait out the counts before my cue.
Earlier, I'd attended an Intro to Burlesque dancing class, where I learned about 40 seconds of this dance. I'd recruited Sosa to watch me before I forget it.
Because I'm me, I of course made the class into some sort of challenge. When we'd broken into smaller groups, I'd watched the others like a basketball coach scouting the competition. I need to put my hips out more there like she's doing, I thought. And that lady just has more ass than me. Nothing I can do about that.
Like most things I've been trying, I enjoyed the class. It demystified "sexy" for me. Before, I'd thought my athleticism and general "I say fuck a lot" persona made me fluid and strong, but not sensual. I never realized that it was a trick of presentation, that a swish of my hips or a jerk of my neck to flip my long brown hair is the difference between centerfielder and centerfold.
After the class, excited, glowing with sweat, I'd walked over to Breezsa, our instructor. "I want to give you this bouncy ball," I said. "I've been trying new things and giving people bouncy balls."
"Uh...ok," she said. She didn't seem to appreciate the gesture. Then again, I don't know what I expected her to do. Hug me? For a brief moment, I wondered why it's so hard for me to connect to people like Breezsa. And then it hit me.
I don't have to be best friends with the Burlesque dance instructor. I just have to admit that I can learn from her.
Sosa's perched on his bed eating candy and drinking orange juice while he watches me run through the dance again. I arch my back, I shake my hips, I flip my long hair, ending in a sexy pose, and then, poof! I turn right back into myself. "Goddamnit! I fucked it up again."
Sosa laughs. "I swear, Leah, that was amazing. It's so crazy to see you do that."
I hop up on his bed and sit cross-legged, pulling my hair up into a ponytail. "Why is it crazy?"
"Because you don't do things like that."
I shrug. "So was it sexy?"
Bouncy Ball # 33 - Mt. Wilson Revisited
I'm looking out over Los Angeles from the top of Mt. Wilson. The lights don't just shine - they move and sparkle from one end of the city to another, a fluid wave of human interaction seen from the top of a towering mountain. "Do you see that? It looks like magic."
"Yeah," Sosa says. "I'll never unsee this."
The original plan had been to make the drive up the mountain alone, a quest I'd assigned myself because a week earlier, when I'd ridden up the mountain with my friend Brent, we weren't able to see the view due to the dense fog. It bothered me: a quest left undone, a fear left unconquered.
Sosa had decided to tag along at the last minute. I'm glad he's here.
He tries to capture a picture with his phone. Before, I might've done the same thing. I might've spent five minutes trying to get the perfect shot to send to him, wherever he is, with the caption, "I got to see this with my eyes today."
But today, I don't think about sending him a picture. I don't think about anything except what's in front of me. For this second, I've let go of the thoughts that haunted me on the whole drive up the mountain: I should be doing an open mic right now. I should be working out right now. I should be writing right now.
I should be living right now.
Sosa pulls a bag of Berry Sour Patch Kids from his pocket, our favorite candy. He pours some in my hand.
"Oh my God, yes!" I say. "You've had these the whole time?"
"I was saving them for the top."
We stand side by side staring out over the city, chewing our Sour Patch Kids in silence. I feel like a little kid that found a secret path to a place where most of the people shimmering below us have never been.
I'd like you to share it with you, but an iPhone can't show you how it shimmers. That's something you have to see for yourselves.
Bouncy Ball # 34 - Lindsay
"We've never done this before," I say.
I'm at a Korean BBQ restaurant with Lindsay, an old friend from college who lives in Seattle. Her job has her working in L.A. a couple days a week, so here we are, staring at the pile of uncooked meat we ordered.
The server picks up the tongs and moves the meat to the center of our grill. "Don't put in right over the middle," she says, "but get it closer so it cooks all the way." She walks off.
I flip the meat for a few minutes. "Is it done?"
Lindsay shrugs. "It looks done to me."
"Well, okay." I cut the pork in half and put a piece on her plate. I take a bite, and then notice the pink center. "Does THIS look done to you?" I hold my fork out to show Lindsay.
The server comes back, picks up the shears, and cuts the chicken into smaller strips.
"Is this pork done?" I ask her.
"No," she says, barely even looking at it.
"Oh. So...are we supposed to wait for you to cook it?"
"Yeah, I was going to cook it for you."
"Oh. Well, I just ate a piece. Is that bad?"
"I mean, am I gonna get sick?"
"Yeah, you might," she says.
I exchange a look with Lindsay and we put our pork back on the grill. The server stays a few more minutes. "It's done now," she announces and saunters away.
"What the fuck? I told her we'd never been here." I rummage through my purse. "Man, I forgot my bouncy ball in the car. I guess I'll just have to give it to you today."
She laughs. "Is that bad?"
"No, no," I say. "Sorry. I just mean that you're the story tonight."
After the BBQ, Lindsay and I head to Echo Park to a stand-up show - I'm on the lineup. I go up first, seven minutes, but I can't break the crowd the way I want. They laugh, but not big laughs. They're holding back, and I can't quite reach them. The set itself is passable, not great.
I get offstage, frustrated, and Lindsay follows me outside to talk for a minute.
"That was really good," she says.
"No it wasn't. It was okay."
"They laughed," she says.
"Yeah, but I wanted to do better than that." What I really mean is, I wanted her to see me do better than that. I want her to think I'm good at what I do.
"You're better than the last time I saw you," she says. "You're better now than you were in Portland, and you were better in Portland than you were Chicago."
"Yeah, well, Chicago was the worst," I say, remembering the week I'd spent as the feature at Zanies, bombing night after night. Lindsay had seen me on the last show, a Sunday night, and we got in a fight a few hours later at a karaoke bar when I asked her what she thought of my set, and she basically told me I was the worst on the show.
"Well, you're better now. You know, when I was in there watching you just now, I thought, 'She might actually be a comedian.'" She catches herself. "Not that I thought you couldn't do it before. It's just really hard, you know?"
I laugh. A year ago, a comment like that might've ruined my night.
"The point is," she says, "I thought you were really good."
"Would you tell me if I wasn't?"
She smiles. "Did I tell you in Chicago?"
"Well, I tell it like it is."
While we ride down the 10 to Lindsay's hotel, she says, "I can't believe you live here."
"Me neither," I say. "I'm just now starting to feel like I do. It was hard to get used to it."
"What do you mean?"
"I think mostly it's just hard to connect with people here, you know? Where we lived in Norman, I had my best friends around me all the time, so when I moved here, I kept looking for those kinds of connections."
"You can't do that," she says. "You can't compare the present to where you've been in the past. I did that for so long. Everyone I met, I expected them to be like our old friends. But I just cut people off before I got to know them, you know?"
"Yeah, I get that," I say. "You know, I feel like we've known our friends so long that to them, I'm the same person I was when I was 19. I feel like no matter what I'm doing with my life, I'm always that crazy girl they met ten years ago. There's no room to grow." I pause, realizing that I've done that exact thing to Lindsay tonight. "But I guess I do that to you guys, too."
Bouncy Ball # 35 - Rockey
A few days into my bouncy ball project, my best friend Rockey texted me from Oklahoma. "Will you do this ab challenge with me?"
On February 12, I finished it:
If anyone is unimpressed by this, I encourage you to stop what you're doing right now and complete a two-minute plank. If you can't, nothing you say matters.
And yes, if you're wondering, I do look like Superwoman.
Bouncy Ball # 36 - Dave Grohl
"I've been spending a lot of time driving up mountains lately," I say, winding up a dirt road that supposedly leads to some hiking trails.
"Huh," Doug says, ever the conversationalist. "Well, we're just looking for some kind of entrance or trailhead."
"You know, I've heard the word trailhead today more than I have in my entire life."
Doug and I are searching for tarantulas. He'd read on LA Weekly about a walking trail where you could see the spiders skittering across the side of the dirt path.
"So what are you gonna do with the bouncy ball?" Doug asks. "I doubt there'll be any other people since it's so late. Are you just gonna give one to a tarantula?"
I laugh. "Well, Doug, I know you're gonna hate it, but I guess I'll probably have to give it to you."
"No, that's fine with me," Doug says.
"You didn't take the last one I tried to give you."
"Oh yeah. I kinda remember that."
"Yeah, you should," I say. "I threw a big fit about it. But honestly, who doesn't take a bouncy ball? What's wrong with you?"
He laughs. "You know, I just had a thought. I know what we can do if this doesn't work out."
"Dave Grohl lives somewhere up here. I can Google his address."
"What? Oh my God, we have to do that! That's perfect!"
It is perfect, actually. Dave Grohl, from Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, is the reason I know Doug. In college, we had a writing class together, and we both sat in the back of the room for the entire semester, but we never said a word to each other.
On the last day of class, I'd come in hungover, took my usual seat, and immediately sprawled out over my desk, cradling my head in my arms to forget about my splitting headache. I felt a tap on my shoulder.
"Is that a Foo Fighters tattoo on your back?"
"Oh," I said, pulling down the back of my t-shirt. "Yeah."
He reached out his hand. "Hi, I'm Doug."
That was 12 years ago.
"It's this road up here to your right," Doug says.
There's a a driveway that leads up a steep hill and according to the internet, Dave Grohl is in a house at the top. I pull in front of the mailbox and put my hazards on. "Perfect."
I get out, drop the ball in the mailbox, and jump back in my car. "Fuck yeah! Dave Grohl gets my bouncy ball."
"Well, maybe. If that's his house," Doug says.
"Let's just say it is. That's what I'm gonna believe."
Bouncy Ball # 37 - Safari Dal
"Excuse me, do you mind if I plug my computer into that outlet?"
I look up from my screen. There's a guy standing there, his charger in hand. I'm in the Starbucks located in a laundromat on Sunset, the closest one to my house because my washing machine isn't working.
"Sure," I say.
He plugs it in, but it's not long enough.
"Just switch me seats."
"Are you sure? I don't want to make you move."
"Naw, it's no big deal." I pack up my computer and move one table to the left.
"So what are you working on?" he asks, opening his laptop. He pulls out a book, "The Four-Hour Work Week," and places it on the table next to his computer.
"I'm writing a blog right now," I say. "What about you?"
"Well, lots of stuff," he says. "Because I have this plan. I just finished getting my real estate license. I'm trying to think of the best way to make money so I can do what I want to do."
"What do you want to do?"
"I want to travel."
"Oh my God, me too. I think about that all the time." I abandon my blog, even though it's causing me all sorts of anxiety, and I have an interesting conversation with Dallas instead.
Dallas is a rapper in his spare time - he goes by the name Safari Dal. I listened to a couple of his songs on Sound Cloud, my headphones plugged into his computer, and they're actually really good. He used to play college baseball, third base, but after a couple years, he realized that when he's on the field, he's thinking about what he's gonna do off the field, and when he's off the field, he never thinks of baseball at all. Right now, he sells cars to make money, but he's hoping that he'll be able to make enough in the next few years so that he can build his savings, take a few years off, see the world. He also has some ideas: an electronic cigarette that contains healthy vapors, a shirt that has a removable hood so you can change the colors.
He's 20 years old.
"Holy shit!" I say. "You're 20?"
"Yeah," he says. "Is that weird?"
"No, it's just crazy how motivated you are."
"I just have a plan, and I feel like I need to start working toward it. I feel like I need to work as hard as I can right now because I'm just getting older."
"Oh God, wait until you're 30."
He laughs. "It's just hard for me to focus on one thing."
"No, I get that. I have so much going on that I constantly think I'm abandoning one thing for another." Like now, for instance. I'm abandoning the work I'm supposed to be doing to have this conversation.
But isn't this what I'm supposed to do? Isn't the point of this blog the experience rather than the writing?
Ok, guys, real talk time.
I wrote most of this blog in Vegas. I wrote it early in the morning while my friends were still asleep, sitting in the upstairs of a McDonald's because it's the only place nearby with free Wi-Fi.
That's the problem I've been running into - the difference between having experiences and writing about them. Following the bouncy ball premise I've set for myself is a standard that's proving to be more than difficult - it's a fucking pain in the ass.
If the problem were just that I haven't stopped moving once for the last five weeks, I'd shut up about it. After all, I've taken this on myself, and no one but me is holding me accountable for it. But there are more problems than that.
For one thing, I genuinely enjoy the things I'm doing, so much so that I want to continue doing them. I would've loved to learn a sexy dance to the entirety of that Nine Inch Nails song rather than have to stop at 40 seconds. During the first week of this project, I enjoyed my work Yoga class so much, I've attended every week since. But last week, because I went to that particular class and it ran over, a domino reaction went into effect, and I didn't make it home in time to complete my plan for the day, so I ended up making a split second decision to take my clothes off onstage at the Hollywood Hotel, manufacturing a story.
For another thing, I'm putting too much pressure on people, on moments, on the things I've planned that usually fizzle out to an uninteresting end or blow up in my face.
Take this past week, for instance. On Thursday, I had plans to meet Doug, but earlier that afternoon, I got in a very minor car accident in Culver City, a comical endeavor during which a small child with paint on his face stood next to me, asking me a million adorable questions while I took down his grandmother's insurance information.
I didn't think to give that kid a bouncy ball, but I should have.
On Friday, I was so worried about missing another opportunity, as soon as I met Safari Dal, I gave him my bouncy ball thinking it would take pressure off the rest of my day.
As it turned out, Dallas was interesting, yes, but it's also worth noting that at a horse race later that afternoon, I picked the winning horse three out of four times. And then later that night before my set at the Comedy Store, I saw the manager, Tommy, go off on possibly the best rant I've ever seen.
Tommy should've had the story that day. It should've been him.
So I'm going to continue doing this because I follow through with things.
But if I'm being honest, it's my job to report that I already do plenty of exciting things on my own and that everyday I meet someone interesting because I live and work and do exciting things in a city jammed to max capacity with people.
And It'd be nice, so nice, to have a minute to enjoy it.
The Bouncy Ball Project, Week Four: I Take My Clothes Off in Front of a Room Full of My Peers, So the Least You Can Do Is Read This
Bouncy Ball # 23 - Drunk Guy
"So is it always this crazy here?"
I knew he was gonna talk to me. I saw it in his eyes the moment he walked by. "I don't know," I say. "I've never been here."
"Seems a little overwhelming, you know?"
"Yeah. I guess. I don't like the band."
"Wow," he says, leaning in too close. "That's a little hyper-critical."
I'm at Bootie LA, a mash-up dance party at the Echoplex, and I'm definitely one of the oldest people here within a 50-foot radius.
During the band's third song, it had dawned on me that I didn't like watching live mash-up bands. Is this what we do now? I think. Is there any better way to drain the soul out of music?
I pull my face away from the guy's whiskey breath. "I mean, they're fine. I guess."
"Okay, okay," he says. "So what do you do?"
"Like as a job?"
"Yeah. Or I could guess. You know what you look like you do?"
"No, but please tell me. This is gonna be awesome."
"A physical therapist," he says, spraying my face with whiskey spit.
"Wow. Never got that one before."
"You look like a healer. Can you heal me?" He gestures wildly, sloshing his drink on my arm.
"Sure, yeah. I'm a healer. I heal people."
I've moved as far away as possible, my back pressing against the bar. I'm stuck.
"Are you gonna tell me what you do or what?" he says.
I feel a splash of whiskey on my shoulder, a spray of spit on my face. This guy's getting me all wet in the worst way possible.
"You keep spilling your drink on me."
"Yeah. You've done it twice."
"Well how is that my fault?" he says. "You know that people are bumping into me."
Bouncy Ball # 24 - CVS Security Guard
Super Bowl Sunday, I'm at CVS to steal some Chapstick. Why steal? And why Chapstick? Well, because I've actually never stolen a thing in my life and because every time I tell people that they say, "What, even Chapstick? Who pays for Chapstick?"
The closest I'd come to stealing had been months ago with him - we were standing in the back of a full coffee shop, and he was demonstrating how easy it easy to take things.
"Watch," he'd said, lifting the lid of a glass dish and grabbing a blueberry muffin.
No one noticed.
"See what I mean?" he said, holding the muffin up like it was the Ten Commandments. "I could just take this right now. No one cares." He tried to hand it to me, but I won't take it.
Today, though, I steal Chapstick. It's uneventful and easy. I put the Chapstick in my pocket and walk through the self-checkout to buy some cough drops. Simple. I leave, but then I have to double back in because I almost forgot why I'm doing this.
"Hey, guys," I say to the two security guards by the door. "Can I give you this bouncy ball?"
"I give them to people. It's kind of my thing."
The other one grabs it, looks it over. He points to the date written on it, underneath my name: 6/19/11. (All of my bouncy balls say "Leah Kayajanian - Roasted! - 6/19/11".)
"Is this your birthday?" he asks.
"Yes," I say. "I'm three years old."
Bouncy Ball # 25 - The Number Two Bus
I'm sitting by the window on my first L.A. bus ride, riding down Sunset from Echo Park to the Comedy Store.
A woman carrying four Vons grocery bags gets on at Alvarado. She's unkempt, her hair matted, her shirt torn. She has a tattoo on her left breast. I try to read it, but can only make out the first letter, a "C." She sits down in a seat by the front, and the woman in the row behind her gets up and moves, I'm guessing because of the smell.
The Vons lady waves at the woman, and then she turns back to the front, her chin lifted, proud. When she gets off the bus a few stops down, she tells the driver, "Thank you, Sir, and have a good night!" She's the first person who even acknowledges him.
We pass by the Vista movie theater, its marquee a poster for the movie "Her." I'd gone to see it with him, just before we stopped talking. I take a blurry photo of the poster through the bus window.
I'm starting to see why people hate riding the bus. Besides the inconvenience, there's a graveness to it, a weighted sadness that's palpable - it runs between all the passengers like a thread of darkness while they calmly listen to their iPods, clutching their belongings.
We pass by the Wing Stop where he and I had eaten after the first time we'd slept together. We'd talked for so long, we lost track of time, and we both got parking tickets.
I hear a woman behind me moan, "Oh my God" for no apparent reason.
After I posted my last blog, I'd talked to my best friend Rockey about including my memories of him in my writing. "It's not about him," he'd said, "This is about you going on adventures. Soon, you won't even think of him at all."
Rockey's right, I suppose. But I've been purposely cutting him out of my writing when he is ever-present, and there's a dishonesty in that. Because really, every time I'm standing still, my mind goes right to him.
With every bouncy ball I put in the world, I don't know if I'm letting him go piece by piece, or if I'm trying to re-find my best friend like a city-wide game of hide and seek that only one of us knows we're playing.
I hear the woman behind me sigh, "Noooooooo," and I turn around to check on her, but there's no one there.
At the Highland bus stop, there's a middle-aged man on the bench just outside my window. He catches my eye and waves at me. I wave back. He traces both hands down the sides of his face. "Your hair," he mouths, and then he gives me a thumbs up. He slides his hand down the center of his face. "Your nose," he mouths. Thumbs up. I smile. He pats the seat next to him. I shrug. We lurch forward, and he blows me a kiss.
Few stops down, the bus starts beeping to indicate the handicap ramp is coming down. The people in the front of the now-packed bus groan.
It's a very old woman with a walker. She makes her way up the ramp and into the aisle. Before she says a word, another woman in the front seat says, "Don't even look at me like that. I'm not giving you my seat. You're not the only one with problems."
"I didn't ask for your seat," the older lady says, positioning herself in the center aisle, holding on to the strap for balance.
"You were gonna ask."
"No, I wasn't. I don't want your seat. I can stand."
A young guy taps the older lady on the shoulder, and gestures for her to sit in his seat. She smiles, sits with great effort.
"I'm sorry," the woman in the front says. "But you gotta understand, I've been around too many people who are faking it. And you're not in that bad shape. You're still young."
"What? You don't look a day over 60!"
The old woman laughs.
And we ride on. From the outside, we're just a big mobile box, an obstacle for all the other cars on the road that pass by. When I'm in my car, I never think about how there's a small world in this box, life stories colliding, forced to stand jammed next to each other, forced to exist together in this moment.
The inferno, I think. Everybody gets on. Nobody gets off.
At my stop, I leave a bouncy ball on my seat.
Bouncy Ball # 27 - Brent
Brent looks over at me, my hands gripping the seat, my eyes fixed straight ahead. "Are you okay?"
"Well, actually, I'm a little freaked out right now." I'm riding up to the top of Mt. Wilson with Brent.
"You can see all of L.A.," he had said. "It's the best view of the city."
We'd smoked weed beforehand, a terrible decision on my part, because once we start to ascend Mt. Wilson, I remembered that I am deathly afraid of heights, and now I'm super paranoid on top of that because 1) he's driving, which means I have no control over the situation, and 2) I have not told anyone where I'm going, so this is the perfect way to murder me.
My eyes dart around the car. Metal water bottle. That's what I'll use to hit him over the head if he tries to kill me. I look over at Brent and immediately feel bad for coming up with a survival plan - he wouldn't hurt anyone.
"I'm just afraid of heights," I say.
"You're fine," Brent says. "I got this. You trust me, right?"
I hesitate. Do most people trust that easy?
"Yes," I say. "I trust you."
"Okay, then just know that everything is gonna be fine."
Brent is a good driver. He goes slow. He uses both hands on the wheel. The best possible person, I think, to drive a neurotic stoned woman with trust issues up a mountain on a foggy night.
But as we climb further, the mountain is covered in a dense fog, so much so that we can barely see the road in front of us. We're only going 20 miles per hour, but I'm completely on edge.
"As long as I can see the center line," Brent says, "we'll be okay."
We drive a little more until we find a clearing. "You want to go back?" Brent asks.
"How far are we?"
"We're really close."
"And how do you feel? Do you feel scared at all? Do you think you got this?"
"Yeah, I got this," he says. "I'm not scared."
"Okay." I sigh. "Let's go to the top. We've come this far."
I hold my breath for the entire rest of the drive. When we reach the peak, we can't see anything but a haunting cloud cover. "Please just pull over for a second," I say. "I want to put my feet on the ground."
Brent pulls off to the side in front of some sort of building, and we get out of the car, the fog rushing around us. "Man, this sucks," he says. "I'm sorry. I really wanted you to see this."
"It's okay," I say. "It's not your fault. And this is an experience, for sure."
"Yeah, but you're scared."
I feel bad. "Look, man, I'm just afraid of heights. I just am. I wish I wasn't scared, and I'm sorry I got so freaked out. But I'm still here, you know? I'm trying."
"Yeah," he says. "Well, I wish you could at least see the view."
"Maybe it's more poetic this way."
We're standing next to the most fantastic view of Los Angeles, and we can't see a thing.
Bouncy Ball # 28 - Mike
"I love your shoes," I say to the tall guy standing by the Green Room door. "I used to only wear checkered Vans."
"Yeah, aren't they great? And they're so comfortable."
"I'm Leah," I say.
We shake hands.
"So how did you end up at this thing?" I ask.
"Oh," he says. "I'm here with Neko. What about you?"
"I'm here with this girl," I say, gesturing toward Katie. "She works for Comedy Central, and she invited me."
Katie and I are at a taping of the Comedy Central show "@midnight," a social media based sort-of-game-show.
Not only did I get to attend, I got to watch from backstage where there was free wine and food and a bunch of people who believe they're super important. We spent the taping in the Green Room, watching the show on a live feed and eating fancy meat from trays.
I'm loving this. There is nothing better than being a nobody at the VIP party. You just slink around like a criminal, go into rooms that you're probably unwelcome in, and fill your stomach and pockets with as much free shit as you can. The first thing I'd done backstage was shove a banana in one of my coat pockets and a bottle of water in the other.
At one point, I'd actually leaned over the food table and unknowingly knocked over the Creative Executive Producer's glass of wine with my pocket banana. Katie had grabbed the wine just before it spilled , and when I turned back around, oblivious to the damage I'd caused, she was smoothing it over. "She's from Oklahoma," she'd said.
Later, when I tell Mike I'm from Oklahoma, he says, "We were there! We stopped in Oklahoma City for the night. We went to that big store...what's it called? With the hunting and fishing sport stuff?"
"Yeah, Bass Pro!" he says. "We went there, and we went to Toby Keith's restaurant."
"Dude, I know exactly where that is! That was such a big deal when we got that Bass Pro." I laugh. "What did you think of Oklahoma?"
"Well, like I said, I went to the Bass Pro and the Toby Keith's. Is that pretty much what it's like? There was a lot of Duck Dynasty stuff."
"No, that's not what it's like," I say. I pause. "Actually, yes, that's kinda what it's like. That and not that."
Bouncy Ball # 29 - Gust
"Here, just take this bouncy ball," I say. "I'm sorry."
"It's not me that has a problem with it," Gust says. "It's the hotel. You can't be doing that stuff because they got cameras up everywhere around here. And when stuff like that goes down, they come down hard on me."
"I understand completely," I say. "I'm so sorry. I accept full responsibility for my actions."
I'm here at the Hollywood Hotel, one of my favorite L.A. open mic spots, apologizing to Gust, the barkeep and the man responsible for keeping the comedy going down in this hotel basement. I've known Gust since I moved here two and a half years ago, and he likes me. Or at least he did before five minutes ago, when I'd stripped down to my underwear onstage during my open mic set.
Here's what happened - my original bouncy ball plan got derailed, so I had to come up with a new one fast. You know when you're trying to come up with an idea, and the only one that keeps popping in your head is the absolute worst idea, but you can't think of anything else?
My mind went right to "Take your clothes off onstage." I don't know why, but from the second I thought of it, I couldn't stop thinking about it until I did it.
They'd called me up early. "I can't believe I'm doing this," I'd said from the stage, "but I'm gonna do standup in my underwear."
The words had come out weird, breathy, nervous, but I didn't hesitate. I pulled off my shirt, tossed it on the ground, unbuttoned my jeans, and yanked them off.
Every eye in the room was on me. A girl took out her cell phone and either captured me in a photo or on video.
There was a moment, just one moment where I started to think, Yeah, this is bad. Right when I pulled down my pants, I heard my friend Megan's voice from the crowd. "Leah!" she'd said. That's all, but I could hear the subtext. "Leah, you don't have to do this."
But the thing is, I did have to do that. I had to do it to prove to myself that I could do it.
Yes, I'm trying to find stories and yes, I may have gone too far, but after all this shit, I'm still a comedian, and I still know deep down that the best way to get comfortable onstage is to make yourself uncomfortable and work your way out of it.
My stunt didn't last long. As soon as I'd pulled my pants off, I heard Gust yelling at me from the back. "Please put your clothes on, Leah!"
"Oh come on," I said. "I saw a guy up here naked before."
"Yeah, and I almost got shut down," Gust said. "Please put your clothes on."
"Fine," I said. "I guess that's good enough. Is that good enough?"
The crowd clapped.
"So I'm not Jewish," I said, launching into a bit while stuffing my leg in my jeans. "But people guess that I am all the time." I did all my time and stepped offstage wearing jeans and a bra, my shirt and shoes in hand.
Bouncy Ball # 30 - Cashier at the pizza place by the ArcLight
"Goddamn it," I say, making yet another circle around the block.
It's 11:00 PM on a Friday night, and I'm in Hollywood looking for a parking spot near the ArcLight Cinema. About a month ago, a comic friend of mine told me that the pizza place by the ArcLight had phenomenal cookies. I'd written it on my list of possible bouncy ball quests, and tonight, it's just the easiest task to complete. I'd gone to work, then the Improv, then did a show on the Westside.
I'm starting to hate this bouncy ball shit. So far, this project has done nothing but suck away my time.
I find a spot on Vine. I dart out of my car, across the street, and sprint up Vine, down Sunset. When I walk into the pizza place, there's a pastry counter just inside the door.
A snobby man with hipster glasses (and I guess cool hair?) looks me up and down. "Can I get you something?"
"Yeah, I heard you guys have this chocolate chip cookie with rice crispy-"
"We're out," he says, cutting me off. "This is all we have."
"Oh, okay." I look at the pastry display. I see a chocolate chip cookie with bacon on it. "I guess I'll have this."
"The bacon?" he asks. I swear to God, his voice sounds disgusted.
"Yeah, that one," I say. "Sure, whatever."
He rolls his eyes and gets my cookie with so much attitude, I'm almost impressed by it. I have no idea why this guy's being such a dick about a cookie. It's not like I walked in five minutes before they close. And even if it were five minutes before they closed, all this motherfucker has to do is slide a goddamn stale cookie in a sleeve and run my credit card.
When he's hovering over the credit card machine, I drop a bouncy ball in his tip jar. It lands with a thud just as he turns around.
Rushing down Sunset toward my car, I break off a piece of the cookie, shoving chunks of it in my mouth while I mumble to myself. "Goddamn motherfucking prick thinks he's better than me."
I don't even taste the cookie. This is not about enjoyment anymore. In fact, I don't know what this is about. I'm annoyed with myself for putting myself in this situation. I'm annoyed that I have five more months of this goddamn bouncy ball project. I'm annoyed that I'm in Hollywood right now.
I don't know if you guys have ever angrily wolfed down a chocolate chip cookie while walking down a city street, but if that happens in your life, there is a part of your brain that says, "Hey, I think something isn't right here."
I'm not learning anything from this. Yes, I'm doing a bunch of things, but I'm still just me doing these things.
I haven't changed at all.
The Bouncy Ball Project, Week Three: I Lie to a Stranger in Santa Barbara and Get Too Honest with a Stranger in LA
Bouncy Ball # 16 - Nick
"So do you like living here?"
"Love it," Nick says. "I've been here 20 years."
I'm sitting at the bar in Brophy's, a seafood restaurant on the pier in Santa Barbara. I've never been here, but there's something so familiar about it. The seafood, the beach, the pier, the smell in the air - it all reminds me of my childhood weekends spent on Cape Cod.
Nick, a local, had sat down beside me over an hour ago, and he'd bought me and my friend our first oyster shooter.
"Wow, 20 years," I say. "Do you think you'll move anywhere else?"
He shrugs. "I don't know. Sometimes, I think it would be nice to spend some time in other places, but the weather here, man! And the beach."
"Yeah," I say. "Do you live nearby?"
"I live on my boat."
"Of course you do. That actually makes sense."
"Doesn't that ever get old?" I ask. "Living on a boat?"
"Naw," he says. "It's nice because it keeps me active. I don't spend too much time there. So what about you? Where do you live?"
"Oh yeah? Are you from there?"
"No, moved there from Oklahoma."
"Oh wow. Did you go for a specific reason?"
"Yes," I say. "To do standup. I'm a comedian."
"Really? That's awesome!"
"Yeah, it's cool."
"No, I really admire that," he says. "You like Chris Rock?"
"Oh, of course, he's great!"
"Yeah, he's my favorite," he says. "Who's your favorite?"
"Louis CK," I say. "He's pretty much the best."
"Wait, you don't know him? Oh my God! His name's Louis CK? Here, hold on." I Google his name, and a bunch of images come up. "This guy."
"Oh yeah, he looks familiar."
"Wow," I say. "It's so weird to me. To comedians, he's like the most famous one of us, but I'm always running into people that have no idea who he is."
"But he's good?"
"He's the best!" I say. "You like standup comedy?"
"Look him up. Tonight. When you get back to your boat. Do yourself a favor and look him up on YouTube. Start with 'Chewed Up.' That one's my favorite."
"Yeah, that's the name of his special." I take a bar napkin and write it down, all caps. "LOUIS CK, CHEWED UP."
"And if you like that, then watch anything else he ever did."
"Thanks," Nick says. "And what about you? Write your name down, too."
I laugh. "Oh, okay. Well, those clips won't be as good." But I write my name in all caps underneath Louis' name.
Nick and I talk about standup for awhile, and it comes out that he's a musician. "I play the classical guitar."
"Yeah. That's why I moved here. I studied it in college."
"You don't play anymore?"
He shrugs. "Not really. I used to have this beautiful Brazilian classical guitar, custom-made, but I sold it to pay off my student loans. It was really nice, though. Worth about 1800 bucks."
"Wow," I say. "That sucks!"
"Well, I don't know. I paid off my debt. But yeah, sometimes I think back on it, and I think of what it was like to play it."
"So you regret it."
He shakes his head. "I don't look at it like that. It was amazing I got to play that guitar for as long as I did. There was nothing like it in the world, that was the only one, and I got to play it."
I decide that Nick's a cool guy. I give him a bouncy ball.
I almost feel bad for lying to him.
Bouncy Ball # 17 - Annie G
"Oh man, Channel Five!" Annie says. "She just doesn't get it. He's not even looking at her. Who's Gingham looking at?"
"It's a guy, right? He's gay."
"I don't think so," Annie says. She follows Gingham's gaze. "Blond waitress."
I turn around. "Oh my God, you're right."
"And look at that poor girl," Annie says.
Back at Channel Five, the girl in the black dress is sucking down oysters and wine, flirting, doing everything she can to keep her date's attention.
Gingham leans in to kiss her, and it's a tragedy - close, thin-lipped peck that grazes the side of her mouth. "Oh no!" I say. "That's the worst kiss I've ever seen."
"I know, Leah," Annie says. "Poor girl. And check out Channel Three, still going on about her research project. The guy with her's like, 'Oh my God, please make her stop talking about her lab findings on stem cells.' Oh, and check out Channel One. I think Channel One is looking at us."
Sure enough, two guys across the bar are staring right back at us. I crack up laughing.
Annie and I are at Brophy's, and we're having the best time in the world pretending the people across from us are different channels on a row of TV screens. Visually, it makes sense. The other side of the bar is actually a row of windows that lead to an outdoor patio. The windows are open, all six of them, and each one frames a scene.
Channel One, two straight dudes on their cell phones, Channel Two, an older couple trying like hell to bring romance back in their relationship, Channel Three, a bored-looking grad student who came to the bar in a sweatshirt, Channel Four, static, Channel Five, Gingham and his poor lady, and Channel Six, an older man that Annie had dubbed "Walmart." He half listens to the younger guy blabbering next to him while he looks around for women. Later in the night, Walmart will buy both of us a drink because I have nice arms, and, spurred by Annie, I will catch his attention and kiss both of my biceps.
I don't know how we started this game, but we play it until all the stars of our shows find seats in the restaurant, and all the channels turn to static.
It's around this time that Nick sits next to us, and we strike up a conversation.
"So how do you two know each other?" Nick asks.
"Oh, we've known each other since we were 12," Annie says. "We went to camp together every summer in Minnesota. Camp Slammer Jammer."
"I could tell you guys were old friends," Nick says.
I stifle a laugh. Annie and I have hung out just a handful of times, but I like her lots, and we have a nice back and forth. And apparently, we lie to strangers together.
For the next 20 minutes, we tell Nick stories of Camp Slammer Jammer, where we had camp nicknames (hers: Cus-TARD, mine: The Big Laguna) and participated every year in the big Camp Karaoke Contest as part of a group called "514 Levi 32 30."
Annie's the reason I'm here in Santa Barbara. She'd texted me earlier in the week: "Hey, Leah K! I may have a bouncy ball adventure!" She had a place to stay in Santa Barbara for the weekend, and she'd invited me to join.
Annie and I got to this bar by riding rented bikes down a path that runs three miles next to the beach. At sunset, when I'm winding down this sand-scattered path by the sea behind Annie, when she keeps having to stop because her dress gets caught in her bike pedals, I'm a little kid again.
"It feels like I'm in a postcard," I say.
"You are in a postcard, Leah K."
Bouncy Ball # 18 - Linda
"I've been writing mostly about the brain's survival mechanism," Linda says. "You know, the part of the brain that's in charge of fight, flight, or freeze."
I nod, turning my face to cough into the crook of my elbow. Over the course of the afternoon, I've been getting more and more sick - ache-y, fever-y, and now a cough coming on. I'm pretending it's not happening.
I'm at the Culver Hotel with Linda. She'd asked me to meet her here after work, and I've been curious all day about why - turns out, she wants me to edit some things for her.
"I have some information I think would be helpful to put out there," Linda says. "The kids I work with go right to survival mode when they don't know an answer. Their brains just go there immediately, and I've been trying to work with them."
"You mean you can teach them to control that part of the brain?"
"Well," Linda says. "You can keep it in check. This is what I tell the kids - you have a checker in your brain, and he's there to protect you. But sometimes he's too protective, and he shows up even when you don't need him. Sometimes you don't need him there, and you have to say, 'Thank you, Mr. Checker, but I don't need you right now.'"
"Huh," I say. "That's interesting."
I wonder if that works on all parts of the brain. I wonder if I can shut things out by politely asking them to fuck off. Thank you, Mr. Analyzer, but I don't need you to go over every detail of everything that ever happened. Thank you, Mr. High School Coach, but I don't need you to somehow make this friendly flag football game the Super Bowl. Thank you, Mr. Emotional Processor, but I will no longer need you to pay attention to anything my heart says.
Bouncy Ball # 19 - Erika - Matt
I'm lying on the couch watching yet another episode of "Parenthood" when my roommate Erika comes in.
"How was the show?" I ask.
"Oh," she says. "It was amazing!" The thing about Erika is her contagious enthusiasm - her eyes light up with the same amount of passion when she's talking about human rights or when she's retelling a particularly funny improv scene.
"After the show," she says, "I'm standing with Winston, and I'm freaking out about what to do with your bouncy ball. So much so that Winston was like, 'Ok, you're starting to stress me out.'"
"Oh my God!" I say. "I didn't to make you stress out like that! It's not that big a deal."
"No, no" she says. "I just wanted it to be kind of magic!"
I laugh. I'd left work early due to "the sickness," and after getting home and realizing I can't do much with a fever and leaking orifices, I'd asked Erika to take my bouncy ball for me.
"So I go over to that Gelson's right next to the UCB, you know the one, right?" Erika says. "And there's this guy named Matt Bennett. You know him? He's been in a few things." She takes her phone out and Googles his name, showing me the images.
"Hmm. Yeah. Looks familiar."
"Well, that guy," she says. "He's cool. When I moved here, I saw him in a show at UCB, and my friend and I talked to him after, and he was super nice. And then a few weeks later, I ran into him again, and I waved at him like we were best friends. You know? I was just like, 'Oh, that guy's my friend.' Even though he probably meets one thousand people a day."
"So after that, I keep seeing this guy. In the last three years, I've run into him like five times, and every time, he remembers me, or he acts like he does. He was at Gelson's."
"Yeah," she says. "I was wearing a jean jacket, and he was wearing a jean jacket. So I was like, 'This is the guy.' And I went up and I told him, 'Hey, I have this roommate, and she's doing a thing.' While I'm telling him about your project, I'm just holding the bouncy ball, you know? And he's looking at the ball, and he just stops me and says, 'So wait, is that for me?' And he seemed really excited about it! So yeah, I gave it to him. And when I left, I saw him in the parking lot. Not like a stalker. I didn't follow him out all creepy, but you know, I just kind of looked over at him, and he was walking and bouncing your ball. So there you go."
Bouncy ball # 20 - Francine
"So how do I start this?" I say. "Do I just talk?"
Francine nods. "Sure," she says. "Whatever you feel."
"Well, okay, then. Honestly, I feel a little weird about just telling you things."
"Why do you feel weird?"
"Because I don't know you. I feel like, 'Why would she care what I'm saying?' I mean, I know it's your job, but it doesn't really matter."
"Of course it matters," Francine says, her brow furrowed with concern. Uh oh. I hit a trigger.
"No, I didn't mean it like-" I sigh. "Okay."
I'm sitting in my first ever therapy session with Francine, whose name is not really Francine. She's a tiny woman, short with a petite frame, no makeup, and long wavy brown hair. She's around my age, give or take a few years.
"So I guess I'll just talk then."
I tell her about the guy. I tell her about standup comedy. I tell her about my family. I get super emotional. I have a hilarious moment in the middle where she says, "What do you do?" and I say, "I'm a comedian" through sobs. I ask her if she thinks I'm bipolar, and she clears me of that. I tell her that I'm worried that this bouncy ball thing means I'm crazy. I make sure to fit in everything I think needs to be covered from my weird brain.
Francine actually offers me some insight into my life that I hadn't thought of before. In the past, when traumatic or trying events had happened, I didn't have anyone there to help me process them, so I've developed my own self-reliant way of processing things: I write them into stories and jokes. That's how I make sense of them.
"I'm not looking to start any new relationships," I say toward the end of our session. "I'm just going to take this time right now and focus on standup."
"You mean you," Francine says. "Focus on YOU."
I laugh. "Well, same thing."
She gives me a sad smile. "So I want to see you again next week."
"Next week? Is that what people do? They come in weekly?"
"Well definitely at first," Francine says. "To build a relationship."
"Man, who can afford that?"
Francine looks away.
"I'm sorry. Was that rude?" I say. "I didn't mean for that to be rude. I have no filter."
"Oh no," she says. "It's good that you say what you think."
I make an appointment with her, even though I know I'm going to cancel.
I don't want to come back.
Bouncy Ball # 21 - Server at Duna's Restaurant
"Do you have anything that's good if you're sick?"
I'm in Duna's, a Hungarian restaurant on Melrose, to do a comedy show. I'm the first one here and the only one in this restaurant right now.
"The chicken soup," the server says - she's a kind woman in her mid-twenties with an accent and a side braid.
"Yeah, I'll get that," I say. "I can just sit anywhere?"
She nods. After she brings out my soup, more comics and a few audience members trickle in.
Earlier, I'd posted about the show on Facebook, and one of my friends had commented that he knew the restaurant. Years ago, he and a friend had come in to Duna and looked at the menu to peruse the vegetarian items, and they left because they didn't see a lot of options. The owner followed them out and gave them dinner rolls because he thought they were hungry and couldn't afford to eat.
"I'm glad that place is still around," my friend said.
I eat my soup, I do a pretty solid seven minutes, and then I go to the counter to pay my tab. When the server brings my card, I hand her a bouncy ball. "I want you to have this. It doesn't mean anything."
But the woman smiles, hugs the ball to her chest, gripping it like the most priceless treasure in the world. "It means something to me!"
As I walk to my car, I think about how much I've stressed lately trying to find these bouncy balls a home, but I decide not to stress anymore.
Because no matter where I start, they always end up in the exact right place.
Bouncy Ball # 22 - Ryan & Patrick
"I'm fascinated by this Oklahoma thing," Patrick says. "Do you still have family there?"
He's one of the hosts of Crab Nation, a funny internet radio show where they run through and comment on the day's headlines. The other host, Ryan, is a comic friend of mine, and he'd mentioned that I should call in to the show sometime.
That's what I'm doing right now - standing outside my work calling in to a show about what's going on in the world even though at almost every moment of the day, I have no idea what's going on in the world.
"Yeah," I say. "I got my mom, and she's actually in Blackwell. And my friends still live in Norman. I consider my friends my family. Cuz I don't have a good family."
We all laugh.
"The making of a stand up fucking comedian!" Ryan says.
"But I don't want to be like that," I say.
"I guess," I say. "I mean, is it unfixable? Does it have to be?"
"Nah, have a drink," Ryan says. "Who cares? You're fine. Don't worry about it."
"Load a bowl," Patrick says.
"Yeah, smoke up!" Ryan says. "You can numb it."
Finally. Some good advice.
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.