The Bouncy Ball Project, Week Eleven: Spencer Goes to Silver Dollar City, and I Pick Back up On that Thread Steve Asked About
“How’s the bouncy ball thing coming?” Steve asks while we wait outside the Comedy Store.
"Man, I'm tired. It’s hard trying to do something every single day.”
“Yeah, I bet. I can’t wait for you to pick back up on that thread,” he says, a knowing smile on his face.
I know exactly what Steve means by “that thread.” He means the thread about the guy. He means, “When are you going to get real again and tell us what happened with that guy you wrote about?”
Because whether I like it or not, I’m the main character of this bouncy ball shit, so it’s silly of me to believe I can gloss over personal things. I’ve passed that point by starting this in the first place - either I have to put it all out there, or hide it away.
But what's the best way to tell the people who read this that I’ve boxed myself into a corner here?
“I’m interested in seeing where you go with it,” Steve says.
Yeah. Me too.
Bouncy Ball # 73 – Giannetta
“I’d like to share with you guys today,” she says, taking a seat onstage at this Christian open mic. “I want to talk about following God. Because when you’re younger, and you want to follow God, everyone is behind you. They say, ‘Go out in the world and share God’s light!’ But really, they want you to be successful.”
“See, I grew up in Virginia, and when I was in high school, I was an egghead. When it was time to go off to college, I applied to all these schools that I couldn’t afford, but I prayed to the Lord for an answer. I remember being in church one day, and I heard God’s voice speaking to me. It was so clear. He said, ‘Go to New York.’ And a few days later, I found out that I got a scholarship to an Ivy League school in New York.”
She switches the microphone to her opposite hand.
“So I went to New York, and I was in my third year studying. And then I heard God speak to me again, only this time, he tells me I have to go to Arizona and be with a Native American tribe! And I was like, ‘Come on, God. Are you sure?’ But that’s what God wanted. So I left school and headed out to Arizona, and I had no idea what I was doing. I just basically showed up and said, ‘The Lord told me to come here.’”
Giannetta tells a series of stories just like this – moments in her life when God personally told her to follow him in a direction that she hadn’t intended to go: Arizona to Oregon to Africa to Australia to L.A. She talks about how every time she calls her mom to tell her about God's work that she's doing, her mom says, "That's nice. Have you found a job yet?"
It’s interesting, the difference between saying you have faith and actually living that faith. It takes a bold person to look someone in the face and say, “The Lord sent me here.” To a much smaller degree, it’s how I feel when I look someone in the face and say, “Here’s a bouncy ball. I believe they mean things.”
When Giannetta gets offstage, she sits next to me.
“I liked your share,” I say. “Can I give you this bouncy ball? I believe they’re good luck.”
“Uh, okay?" She scrunches her brow, confused. "So what, you just carry these around with you wherever you go?”
She laughs, turns away.
Oh yeah, I think. Cuz I’m the weird one.
Stories of Bouncy Balls Past
I used to be in love with a guy named Kevin Smith. He never answered the phone when I called him. He never responded to texts. Weeks would go by without me hearing from him.
During that point of my life, I was also getting my Master’s degree, and part of that process required me to write a book. Since Kevin consumed my mind, I ended up writing him as a character in that book. And I also wrote about bouncy balls because they are wherever I am.
One Monday night, I was at a bar just blocks from Kevin’s house, and I texted him, asking him to come meet me. My plan was to tell him I wrote him in my book – I had the first 100 pages printed out neatly in the backseat of my car, ready to give to him. I think I believed that it would convince him to love me.
He didn’t even respond to my text.
When I left the bar, I drove straight to his house. I parked my car in his driveway, and with a bravery I never had when I was sober, I marched up to his front door carrying the pages of my book, knocked once, and busted into his living room.
He was right there, sitting alone on his worn old couch watching TV. I noticed his phone right next to him on the end table, screen face up.
“Oh hi,” he said.
I walked over to him, slammed the stack of papers on his coffee table, said, “I wrote this book about you, Idiot,” and then turned around and walked right out the door.
The next morning, I found a bouncy ball nestled in the joint of my car's windshield wiper. Kevin had left it.
He'd read my book.
Bouncy Ball # 74 – Branson, Missouri – Written by Spencer Hicks
A "Baby Moon" is a made up thing. So is a "Push Present." These are two things created by the Baby Industrial Complex to get unsuspecting husbands to spend money - money that could otherwise go toward buying for diapers, daycare, or saving for college.
As an unsuspecting husband, I took my wife to Branson, Missouri for a "Baby Moon." Aside from my wife, unborn child, and in-laws, I also brought a limited edition Leah Kayajanian Roast bouncy ball.
I have a shit-load of bouncy balls that say, "Leah Kayajanian - Roasted! - 6/19/11." After I found the box of balls in my garage, I took a second to read the date again.
2011? That can't be right. Where the fuck has the time gone?
I felt a pang of nostalgia. Making funny videos. Hanging out in the back of a comedy club. I feel a camaraderie with Leah. It's a feeling only war veterans and comedians can feel. It's a camaraderie that comes with seeing and doing some unspeakable shit together, and living to tell the tale.
Driving to Branson takes 4 hours according to the GPS. It takes about 5 and a half if you have a pregnant woman with you.
We meet my wife's family at a two-bedroom, one-bath cabin just down the road from Silver Dollar City. I'm not pleased with the arrangements, but we're poor, so I ready myself mentally for the horrors that are going to take place in that bathroom with five adults and two children.
I've been to Branson before. I don't remember it being the Disneyland of Tea Party whackos. Every radio station is either Right Wing talk, Gospel, or rebroadcasts of church sermons. Every truck has the sticker of Calvin pissing on Obama, or something about guns. It upsets me that I'm putting money into this economy.
I bring my green bouncy ball to Silver Dollar City, unsure of what I'm going to do with it. I want it to have a great story. In my mind, I'm going to somehow use this bouncy ball to save a life or thwart a terrorist attack.
Leah always had great stories.
It stays in my pocket as my wife and I search for rides that a pregnant woman can enjoy. These rides are limited to Tea Cups, Carousel, and that swing ride that just spins ya in a circle for 30 seconds.
I should mention that I'm cranky. The smell of my in-laws shit lingered throughout the cabin the night before, and I didn't get much sleep. Also, I hate crowds. My wife has trouble figuring this out, "But you perform in front of crowds all the time. How can you hate crowds?"
There is a big difference between being a part of a crowd and being in front of a crowd. Crowds rape and pillage, crowds riot, crowds are only as smart as their dumbest members. Being in front of a crowd, you are still an individual, and you get to amuse these animals with your thoughts and jokes. Comedians understand this. We've done unspeakable things to get the approval of crowds.
My wife and I get to the park at 10 a.m., but after riding three rides, dealing with the dumbest people in America (seriously, I witnessed one little boy fall down and scrape his knee and his dad came and prayed over it, which if you ask me, isn't as effective as a kiss on your boo-boo), and watching one shitty magic show, it's about 2 p.m. The shuttle to take us back to our cabin leaves at 3 p.m., so I convince my wife we've seen everything Silver Dollar City has to offer.
As we walk toward the front of the park, I realize that I haven't saved the world with the bouncy ball in my pocket. Exiting through the gift shop, I pull the ball out and place it in a display of polished gems and colorful marbles. My hope is that this ball will find a new life. I hope it finds a better story than I can provide, a story worthy of its name.
Bouncy Ball # 75 – Lady at the cafe
“Oh my God, Sosa!” I say. “The lady behind you has a bouncy ball on her table.”
He waits a few seconds before turning to look at the table behind us: two older ladies pointing at a laptop opened in front of them. One of them has a small pouch on the table, a blue swirling ball resting on top of it.
Sosa turns back. “Oh my God, that's crazy!”
“It means we’re supposed to be here right now,” I say. “I think I’m supposed to put my bouncy ball next to hers.”
“How are you gonna get the ball on her table?”
I shrug. “Well, I guess I’ll go talk to her. Isn’t that what this is about?”
I stand and walk over to her table. “Excuse me,” I say.
The two women look up at me.
“This is weird, but I just noticed that you have a bouncy ball on your table, and I collect them. I mean, I think they’re good luck, and I really like them. And I see you have one, too, so I was hoping that maybe I could give you another one?” I hold out my ball.
“Well,” the woman on the right says, “let me show you what this is.” She picks up the bouncy ball and uses both hands to twist it, separating the ball into two halves. She holds one in front of me. “It’s my lip balm."
“Wow.” I laugh. “Well, I’d still like to give you this bouncy ball.”
I wonder how many bouncy balls I’ve seen from a distance that were actually not bouncy balls at all.
Bouncy Ball # 76 – Raul
“How come you’re not talking?”
I look up at the middle-aged man in front of me, one of the volunteers. He has dark hair and a mustache, and he's wearing an apron over his white t-shirt and jeans.
“No one’s talking to me,” I say.
“Well why not?”
“Probably because I don’t speak Spanish.”
“Oh, you don’t?" the man says. "You must be white.”
I laugh. “Well, I’m Armenian.”
“That’s white,” he says.
“It is? Man! Okay, I guess I’m white then.” A woman walks up next to me and holds out an open bag, nodding toward the crate of half-rotted onions in front of me. I pick out the best six I can find and put them in the bag for her. She smiles and walks off.
We're at the St. Francis Center on Hope Street in downtown L.A., volunteering for the food pantry program, giving out groceries to needy families in the area.
“I know Spanish from working around other Mexicans,” the man says. “My name’s Raul Rodriguez. I’m Mexican, but I was raised by Germans.” He speaks in German.
“Wow,” I say. “You know German, too?”
“So what do you do for a job?” Raul asks.
“I work at a school.”
“What kind of school?”
“An elementary school,” I say, “for kids with learning disabilities.”
He smiles, points to his chest. “That’s me!”
“Oh really? Are you dyslexic?”
“I have brain damage.”
“I survived cancer. I’ve broken 20 bones. I’ve been shot three times. I was run over by a police car. I was in a coma. Let’s see, what else? Oh, I was stabbed 17 times.”
“My God! How are you still standing here?”
He shrugs. “I’m a miracle.”
“So are you married with kids?” he asks.
I laugh. “No and no.”
“How old are you?”
His eyes widen. “You need to hurry up and have kids!”
“Well, I have some time.”
He shakes his head. “Well, I guess I had my first kid when I was 30. I have three girls.”
“How old are they?”
“My oldest is 24, but I met her when I was 21. She had to find me because I was in prison.” He looks at me, ashamed. “I was a bad boy.”
“What about the other two?”
“The other two are 12 and 18. I’ve never met them.”
“How do you know they’re yours?”
“My girlfriend was pregnant when I went to jail. And the other girl went to jail when she was pregnant. I don’t have a good memory because of the brain damage, so I can’t remember her last name.”
“But the oldest found you?”
“Well,” I say. “That means something.”
He smiles. I rearrange the boxes on the table in front of me, and he disappears for a few minutes before popping up next to me again.
“You need to have kids because it’s your purpose,” he says. “That’s a woman’s job.”
I roll my eyes. “Really? That’s a woman’s job?”
“Yes. You need to have a baby inside of you to learn to appreciate life.”
“Do you think you can appreciate life without having a baby inside you?”
“No,” he says. “Not fully.”
“So men can’t appreciate life?”
“No. Men don’t know anything.” He draws his hand up and counts off on his fingers. “Women live longer, they have more orgasms, they’re smarter, there’s more of them. Is that it? I think that’s it. And all that’s because they know what it’s like to have life in them.”
“I feel bad for men,” I say, “because they can’t show their emotions.”
“I show emotion,” he says.
“Well, you’re the exception. I think a lot of men feel like they can’t show their emotions because they were raised to believe that it’s a form of weakness. So then they hold them all in until they murder something.”
He laughs. “That’s about right. What’s your name?”
“That’s a pretty name.”
“Thank you,” I say. “It means weary.”
“It’s like Star Wars, right? Princess Leah.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot. But I’m as far from a princess as you can get.”
“No,” Raul says. “You’re very beautiful. Are you a lesbian?”
“That’s good,” Raul says.
“Why is it good? Because it’s easier not to be?”
“Because it’s good for a man and woman to be together.”
“Well, I don’t believe that one is better than the other.”
“Really? But you like men?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Then that’s good.”
“Well, I disagree that it’s good. I don’t think it matters one way or the other.”
“But what if we both see the same woman and think she’s cute? Then I say, ‘Look at that woman,’ and you’d be looking at her, too!”
“So? What’s the difference?”
“Then you’d be hitting on her, too.”
“Maybe, but she’d either like me or she’d like you.” I shrug. “Or I guess she could like both of us.”
Later, when I give Raul a bouncy ball, he says, "You gave me something, so now I have to give you something.”
“No, you don’t. You talked to me. That’s good enough.”
Stories of Bouncy Balls Past
I used to be in love with a guy named CP. He took hours to respond to my texts. Months would go by without me hearing from him, but then he’d contact me out of the blue saying he'd be in town for a few days, and would I like to meet up?
I met CP because I worked with him on the road. He lived in Chicago, and I lived in Oklahoma, but I did see him occasionally, when comedy would bring us into each other’s radius.
One of these times was in October 2011. I was in Chicago checking out the comedy scene, so CP picked me up for lunch one day, and we ended up at a hole-in-the-wall Chicago hot dog joint.
After we ordered, we sat down in a booth at the back of the room to wait for our food. As I swung my backpack off my shoulder, the zipper came loose, and about ten bouncy balls bounced in every direction around the restaurant. CP cracked up laughing, watching me frantically chasing them, my cheeks flushed.
When I finally collected all the loose balls and sat facing him in the booth, he said, “What the hell do you have in that bag?”
I shrugged. “Nothing.”
Bouncy Ball # 77 – JP – D3’s Last Stand
“You guys mind if I get real tonight?”
That’s how Ryan started his set at tonight’s Workout Room Comedy Show, the last ever show at D3.
Ryan’s drunk. He describes his set tonight as a “meltdown,” but really, he’s just being honest about how he feels.
“We don’t even really know each other,” Ryan says to us, an audience of his peers. “I see you guys all the time, but we don’t know anything about each other. Jeff, if I die tomorrow, would you care?”
Jeff shakes his head.
“See?” Ryan says. “The only reason I don’t quit doing this is because you guys won’t quit. Let’s all quit. You want to?”
And we laugh.
Because the truth is, we do kind of want to quit. We all fantasize about quitting this stand-up crap to lead a normal life, but we never say it for fear that the Comedy Gods will hear it and think we don’t want it bad enough.
Even though it’s the last night at Dangerfield’s 3, this is typical of what goes on any given Wednesday night here – it’s the place where people get angry or sad, where comedians drop their acts to say what’s really on their minds.
Compared to every other place in L.A.’s vast comedy history, two years as a comedy venue seems insignificant, but D3 isn’t special because of its success as a venue, because of the atmosphere, or because of the quality of comedians who perform there – D3 has always been special because of what it’s not.
First of all, it’s not a comedy venue at all – it’s a guy’s apartment. He turned the front into a homemade stage, set up some chairs, and hung some black fabric on the wall, and just like that, D3.
And because it’s a guy’s apartment, and because he’s welcomed open mic comedians into his house for two years, there are roaches climbing the walls, and there is a constant reek of marijuana absorbed into the carpeting next to giant stains of spillage from mics and shows past, from crazy people and homeless people wandering in the door.
On top of all that, D3 is controversial in the L.A. open mic scene, so much so that a sect of comedians won’t go to the room in protest of the man who runs it, JP. I’m not about to get into details about the incident that caused this rift because it's all based on what other people say and because my opinion on the matter won't change a goddamn thing.
I’m surprised at my sadness when I walk out of D3's gated door. JP’s on the sidewalk talking to a couple other guys about his upcoming plans after he’s released from the burden this place.
“Thanks for letting us do the show here," I say. "Actually, hold on…” I dig through the front pocket of my backpack and pull out a bouncy ball. “Here, I want you to have this.”
“Wow,” JP says, half-joking. “I consider this an honor.”
Say what you will about the man, but this guy made a stage in his house, a place where comics dropped their acts and got real, he opened his door to a bunch of rude, messy, drug-addled comics and people who wander in from the street, and he did it in spite of the fact that he lives in a city where half of the comedy scene hates him so much, they want nothing more than to ruin his career and his life.
I can't think of a damn thing more punk rock than that.
Stories of Bouncy Balls Past
I used to be in love with a guy that I refer to simply as “him.” He always answered the phone when I called him, and if he missed my call, he called me back, even when he was pissed at me.
Almost a year into our friendship, I sent him a video of a bouncy ball with our initials written on it. “LK loves HIM.” In the video, I turned the ball in my fingers so he could read what it said, and then threw it out into the street, my movie capturing bouncing down a hill toward the L.A. skyline.
“Wow,” he’d said when he saw the video. “Thank you. But it makes me feel kind of bad.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I’m not putting any bouncy balls in the world for you. Because I don’t want that.”
And so I thought I knew how this story went because of bouncy balls past.
I had a broken heart before he did anything to break it.
Bouncy Ball # 78 – I-40 Eastbound
We hit the traffic jam just after we cross the Arizona border. People are getting out of their cars to walk over to the shoulder, trying to look ahead to see what’s going on.
“I’m gonna get out,” I say. Sosa gets out, too.
Here and there, a few scattered pedestrians walk by, stopping to chat with each other about what might have caused the jam.
“Bad accident,” a woman says, pulling a German Shepherd puppy on a leash behind her. “One still stuck in a vehicle. My cousin is up ahead, and she saw the wreckage.”
“Where is it?”
“Just right up the road there,” she says.
I shield my eyes with my hand. I see flashing lights of emergency vehicles.
“Three dead already,” the truck driver behind us explains, sauntering over to my car. “I heard it on the radio.”
45 minutes later, we’re back in our cars, drifting forward one at a time until we pass two totaled pickup trucks and what looks like the remnants of an R.V., smashed to pieces on the side of the road. Three people died today traveling on this same road, probably on their way to see the same thing we’re going to see – The Grand Canyon.
"I'm still working on your bouncy ball story," Ryan says as he takes a seat next to me at the Hotel bar. "You need me to get it to you soon?"
"Just whenever," I say. "Think about it like this - when you give me a story, you're giving me one more night I get to go to sleep instead of stressing out about this."
Bouncy Ball # 66 - Joshua Tree - Written by Fernando Ramos Sosa
“What if a man was standing behind that cactus?” Becky says.
“Yeah, and he had red eyes, and they were glowing.”
I’m standing in a desert with my friend Becky. It's freakishly quiet, the moon is very bright like a night sun, and the stars are representin’ like a mofo. We’re parked on the side of the road in a national park without a permit, so we look hella suspicious. “We’re not supposed to be here right now,” Becky had said as we were driving in.
Becky and I are yes-anding the fuck out of each other when a park ranger passes us in a police Chevy Tahoe.
“It’s weird that he didn’t stop," Becky says. As soon as she hits the “p” on stop, I hear him turn around. We’re like, “Oh shit!” We make a mad dash to her car, the park ranger’s ride accelerating towards us. We hop in, she puts the key into the ignition, puts the car in reverse and BAM!
A Chevy Tahoe blocks our path, red and blue lights flashing, a spotlight aimed at the back of our heads. We exchange a look; she puts the car in park, rolls down her window and shuts the engine off.
Officer Mark walks up to Becky's window. "What are you guys doing out here?”
“Nothing,” I say.
“Just came out to see the stars, huh?" He shines a flashlight in the car.
“Yeah,” we say.
He shines the light into the back seat. "What’s with the crossbow pistol? You know that’s illegal to have, right?”
“In California or in the park?” Becky asks.
“Both,” he says.
“Really? But I purchased it at a gun show in California.”
I’m slightly uncomfortable at this point, but I’m thinking, Becky’s got this. This is just a complete misunderstanding. We’re going to be fine. Also, she’s white.
“IDs," Officer Mark says. "Both of you.” He’s definitely in officer mode now, shoulders back, brow furrowed, hand on pistol. He takes the IDs and heads back to his Tahoe.
“Did you know they were illegal?” I ask.
“I don’t think they are. Really,” she says, laughing.
Okay. We’re good. She’s laughing. She didn’t know. Everything’s gonna be fine.
Officer Mark comes back, hunching over to shine his flashlight in the back seat again, trying to get a better look. “So if I search your car," he says, "I’m not going to find anything weird, am I?”
“No” Becky says.
“So where’s the gun?” the officer asks.
What the what?
“There’s no gun in here," Becky says, giggling.
“So what are the ear plugs for?”
I look behind me to where his flashlight is pointing, and sure enough, there's a pair of neon orange earplugs in a small sealed plastic baggy.
Here are some examples of what Becky could’ve said: “I don’t like to hear sounds,” or “I like the way neon orange earplugs look in my ears,” or “They’re the last thing my father gave me before he ventured into the dark mountains of Mordor never to return.”
Becky says none of those things. Instead, she slowly turns her head towards the earplugs, slowly turns her head back to Officer Mark, and you know what she says? NOTHING!!! Absolutely nothing! Nothing comes out of her stupid mouth! You know, like a LIAR.
Oh my god! We are going to fucking jail. I’m going to be handcuffed right now and put into a Chevy Tahoe!
“You know I technically own your car right now, right?” Mark says. “I’m going to search your car and WHEN I find the gun, I’m going to be pissed.”
After the longest four seconds of my life, Becky finally says, “I’m a lawyer, and the worst thing for me to do right now is lie to you.”
“So we’re speaking the same language then?”
He walks back to his Tahoe, rocks crunching under his shoes.
“Becky, do you have a gun in here?” I whisper when he's out of earshot.
“No. I really don’t!”
“Well you’re acting like a fucking liar right now. Why didn’t you answer him about the earplugs?”
“I was nervous. I didn’t know what to say.”
“How about the fucking truth? Why do you have earplugs in your back seat?”
Our conversation is cut short when Officer Mark comes walking back with our IDs. “Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to let you go.”
“Back-up is far off," he says, "and it’s been a long night, so just get this obnoxiousness out of my park and don’t shoot any of my critters with it. Is that fair?”
“Yes” Becky says.
He shines the flashlight on my face, “Is that fair?”
Fair? Let’s see. We’re out here without a permit. We have an illegal crossbow pistol and also a GUN, and you’re just gonna let us go? Fair?
“Yes” I say.
“Alright. Leave. Now.”
I consider giving Officer Mark the bouncy ball, but decide he'll probably shoot me if I do. As we exit the park, I’m feeling grateful that my friend Becky is a lawyer…and also white.
Bouncy Ball # 67 - Keyboard Player at Santa Monica Pier
"Oh my God, did he just say 'human race'?"
"He did!" Sosa laughs. "What is it about this music? It's so...something."
"Yeah," I say. "I know what you mean. There's just something, just, off about it. Like Christian music."
"Yes," he says. "Exactly."
"It's like someone took a bunch of words, entered them into a machine, and this song came out. Just a guy in a room somewhere typing 'love, peace, world, hope, human race, heart.'"
Sosa and I are eating corn dogs at the beachfront in Santa Monica, sitting on a wall that separates the asphalt walkway from the sand.
There's a street performer on the walkway. He's playing keyboard and singing. He has an incredible voice, but his lyrics are generic and corny, rife with phrases like, "True love lasts forever" and "Hope makes the world turn."
A guy pulls his bike up right in front of the keyboard player, and Sosa and I look on with amazement while he closes his eyes, nods his head to the 80s soft rock beat. "Man," I say. "Is that guy really into this?"
The guy's young, maybe 20, and he's wearing skater shoes, baggy jeans, a hoodie, and a baseball cap tilted to the side. He seems a little too cool to be rocking out to these keyboard jams. (Honestly, it sounds like the music playing in the background of a Hallmark store.) Still, the guy stands and listens for the entirety of two songs, and at the end of the second song, he blows our minds when he points at one of the performer's CDs, displayed at his feet.
"Holy shit," Sosa says. "He's buying a CD!"
"Oh my God!" I say. "He's on drugs, right?"
"He has to be!" Sosa shakes his head. "They're 10 bucks. He's paying 10 bucks for a CD!"
We watch in amazement while money and CD are exchanged. I can't wrap my mind around the fact that this kid, this young beach kid, felt so moved by these generic 80s soft rock songs.
What does he hear that we can't?
Bouncy Ball # 68 - Utpara
"Now I want you to walk down a long hallway," Utpara says, his soothing voice seeping into the corners of my mind. "At the end of it, there's an elevator. Step onto that elevator. You're going to ride this down to your heart. So picture the doors closing in front of you and feel the lurch of the elevator as it goes down, down, down, leaves your brain and heads toward the middle of your chest, your heart center."
Utpara works for NASA, but he teaches meditation classes for free on Sundays because he learned so much from meditation, he wants to share that with other people, to spread his peace to the greater world.
"The elevator stops," Utpara says. "The doors open in front of you. Step out of the elevator into a garden. Picture the trees, the flowers, the sky. This is your garden - you can make it look however you want."
My garden is not really a garden. It's the woods in the back of my house that I played in when I was a little kid - a pond, a cranberry bog. My "garden" is New England in the fall. I can feel the crispness in the air, smell the faint scent of dying leaves and a slight hint of saltwater drifting inland from the ocean.
Me and the other few people in this meditation class play around in our heart gardens for a few minutes until Utpara directs us back into the elevator, and we ride back up to our brains.
I open my eyes, and the first thing I see is a picture of Sri Chinmoy staring at me, his eyes half-closed in what Utpara had described as a "high state of meditation." To me, he just looks really really stoned. And creepy. Let's not forget creepy.
This meditation class reminds me of so many experiences I've had in the past few months - the New City Church, which is really not that different from the Scientology Center, which is really not that different from visiting a fortuneteller or a therapist, from attending a yoga class, or an Al-anon meeting. I can see the connection between these things, between the people, who are really the same people over and over again - people who are looking for the best way to live in this world.
Bouncy Ball # 69 - Point Dume
"So you want to tell me about the debate team now?" I ask, shielding my eyes from the sand.
"Sure," Brent says. He pulls out his wallet, takes out what looks like a small business card. "When I was in high school, I joined the debate team my senior year. And the very first debate I was in, I won."
"And I did okay after that," he says, "but then my last match was a split-decision tie. If I would've won, I would've gone to Nationals, but I lost. And it was bullshit."
Brent and I are at Point Dume - it's a small cliff on the coast of Malibu that juts out into the ocean. It's windy today, a little chilly, and as usual, I forgot to bring a jacket. We still have at least a half hour before sunset.
When Brent invited me to ride up to Point Dume, he'd given me instructions. "Bring something that you only hold on to because of a memory." He'd brought his high school debate membership card. I'd brought my piece of The Indestructible Cup.
Brent holds his membership card in his hand while he tells me the story of his last debate, reliving his frustration at losing. "I still get upset when I think about it," he says, "I feel like I've been holding on to that loss for too long. I mean, the way I look back on it, I sound like those guys that relive their high school football games. I make fun of those guys all the time, but really, I'm just like them."
A gust of wind blows sand across our faces.
"I figured it's time to let it go. I've been bitter about this for so long, and I don't think it's good for me."
"Wow," I say. "Well, that's a really good one. My thing isn't that deep."
"No, it's okay," he says.
"I mean, mine's just a funny story that reminds me of my friends." I dig through my purse until I find it, a speckled blue piece of hard plastic, the remnants of The Indestructible Cup.
"This is The Indestructible Cup," I say. "When I was in Oklahoma, I went to a friend's house, and he gave me some wine in this cup. And I said, 'That's a cool cup,' and he was like, 'Leah, that's The Indestructible Cup. No matter what you do, you can't destroy it.'"
"So then for the entire night, he walks around behind me and tells me stories about how he and his friends tried to break this cup, but they couldn't. He was like, 'We ran over it in a truck. We shot it with a BB gun. We threw it off a cliff.' Just all these things he'd done to try and break it."
I shiver, pulling my legs in closer to try and warm up while the sun disappears into the ocean in front of us.
"At some point, he starts trying to get me to destroy the cup. He's like, 'You want to hit it with a sledgehammer? I got a bunch of sledgehammers in the garage.' And I was like, 'Why do you have a bunch of sledgehammers?' So anyway, at the end of the night, he follows me out to my car. He puts the cup underneath my front side passenger tire, and then he stands in front of my car while I start it. Before I back out, he gives me the thumbs up."
I smile, remembering Matt's face, the ridiculous hat he's wearing with flaps that cover his ears even though it's the summer in Oklahoma.
"So I put the car in reverse, and I start to back out, and the cup breaks immediately. Seriously, it shatters in less than a second. I just heard a popping noise, and I saw Matt's face. It destroyed him."
I crack up laughing.
"Matt picked up a piece of the cup, and he came over to my window, and he handed it to me. And he said, all serious, 'Leah, you take this, and every time you look at it, I want you to remember what you did here today.'"
"You broke his cup," Brent says. "You destroyed everything he believed in."
"That's the thing," I say. "I didn't think it was gonna break, either! I believed in it, too!"
It strikes me in that moment, as the sun touches the water, how Matt's excitement about that stupid cup made me believe in its power just as much as he did, how one person's passion can be so great, other people can't help but absorb it.
I dig a hole in the sand, and I place the piece of The Indestructible Cup in the hole. Brent does the same with his membership card, and there in front of the sunset on a crisp, windy night in Malibu, we bury pieces of our past, him leaving his bitterness behind, me finally giving The Indestructible Cup a suitable resting place.
Stories of Bouncy Balls Past - The DMV
I'm new to L.A. I've been here a month, and I'm waiting in line to check in at the DMV.
I survey the room - it's completely full of people waiting in chairs with tiny paper numbers in their hands, their eyes steeped in boredom and irritation, any one of them a time bomb.
I reach the front desk and give the clerk some paperwork. I guess I don't zip up my backpack well enough, because when I turn to go sit down, I swing the backpack up on my shoulder, the zipper comes undone, and about 30 different types of bouncy balls fall out, scattering in every direction.
At first, I'm mortified. It's times like these when I wonder why I feel the need to carry a backpack full of bouncy balls everywhere I go in the first place.
But then a handful of strangers help me chase down these bouncy balls, collecting them, walking up to me, and dropping them in my bag. And the people who aren't helping me, well, they're laughing. Even though I'm embarrassed, I realize that at the very least, I've just done something silly enough to break up the monotony of their mornings.
Bouncy Ball # 70 - Written by Gloria Johnson, Mom
Note: I sent my mom a clear-colored bouncy ball with the note, "Please give this ball a story." Here's what she wrote. Everyone, please enjoy the weirdness that is my mother.
Boing, boing, boing! There I was, pure as crystal, bouncing along, happy, excited about my travel plans, when I was picked up by a homeless person.
He gave me to his pal, Homeless Doggie Duke. I was thrown, chased, drooled on and bitten time and time again. Finally, I was thrown so hard that Homeless Doggie Duke couldn't catch up with me. As I was flying through the air, feeling free again, I spotted my landing destination. Lower, lower, lower...oh shit...an uncovered cesspool!
Well, it could have been worse. Instead of this ugly piss yellow color I have become, I could have been "shit brown" and living with the alligators throughout the sewer systems of the city.
I bounced my way out of the cesspool when an alligator charged at me. He missed, so off of his scaly back I bounced. From crystal clear coloring to pee-pee yellow coloring, oh my! I sure hope you like yellow!
"I forgot to tell you," Sosa says through text. "Last night, Katie asked me if I let you say my name in your blog."
"I guess I never asked you," I say. "Wait, didn't I ask you?"
"I was like, 'let' her? Leah is gonna do whatever she wants."
"Ha!" I say. "That's exactly what my dad said when Brian asked him if he could marry me."
Bouncy Ball # 71 - Dad
I put it in an envelope, but I haven't mailed it yet.
Bouncy Ball # 72 - Apple Squares
On Friday, I find a recipe online for apple squares. My great aunt Agnes used to make these for every family gathering before she passed away, more than 15 years ago, and I've dreamed of tasting them again every day since.
The picture on the recipe looks exactly like her apple squares. I feel connected to my family while I peel and slice six apples by hand.
I feel like a strong Armenian woman while I crush four cups of corn flakes with my knuckles, while I knead the dough into two large balls. I feel like my grandmother, my great aunt, all the women in my family while I roll out the dough on my kitchen counter with the new rolling pin I bought.
Four hours later, after I've missed all the mics I'd planned on making, I feel like a grown ass woman when I finally pull the baking sheet from the oven, golden brown flaky crust glistening atop a bed of apples and cinnamon.
And I feel like a complete failure the moment I fork that first bite in my mouth, and I realize, "Oh my God, these are fucking terrible."
I'm a failure. I failed.
Friday night, after my apple square fiasco, I make it to the Hotel in time for my friend's show. Before it starts, a bunch of us are chatting outside the front doors.
"Hey," James says. "I got a package for you today."
"This guy sent me this package for you. And it's kinda weird, but instead of explaining, I'm just gonna give it to you."
He unzips his backpack, and I watch, interested, as he pulls out...
...a plastic bag full of bouncy balls. Wah. Wah. WAH.
"He says he never wants the bouncy ball thing to end," James says.
I stand, my mouth open, not sure how to react. On one hand, I'm flattered and so honored that someone I don't even know is into this bouncy ball thing enough to buy a package of bouncy balls and mail them to a stranger.
On the other hand, I've been doing everything I can to try and get rid of these things. What had before been my pleasure has now become my burden. Seeing that unopened bag of bouncy balls - how many? 50? 100? 200? - I feel like I just rolled a boulder up to the top of a hill and looked over the crest to find that I have five more hills to go, all of them taller than the first.
"So I think I have an idea of what to do with my bouncy ball thing," I say. "Besides quit, what's another thing I would never do?"
"Another thing you'd never do. Let's see." Sosa thinks for a minute. "I can't think of anything."
"Something I don't like to do," I say.
"Apologize when you're wrong?"
I laugh. "I admit when I'm wrong."
"No, you don't," he says. "Leah, you argue even when you're wrong."
"Yeah, but that's because I believe I'm right," I say. "If I believe I'm wrong, then I'll admit it."
"Ha! Okay." He's looking out the passenger window of my car. "I give up. What's another thing you'd never do?"
"Ask for help."
Bouncy Ball # 59 - Claudio
I'm sitting at a cafeteria table in Leo Politi Elementary school staring at the pendants they have displayed on the wall, representing college teams from around the country. I see Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech. "Huh," I say, pointing. "They don't have my school."
"What's your school?" Claudio asks.
"University of Oklahoma," I say.
His eyes get wide. "That's crazy! My daughter went to grad school there."
"No way! Does she still live there?"
"Oh yes," he says. "Her and her family are all settled in."
Claudio and I are volunteering for an organization called "Reading to Kids" - on the first Saturday of every month, volunteers go to schools around the Los Angeles area and spend the morning reading literature to elementary school students.
When I'd signed up, I'd envisioned a room full of eager children, me at the forefront with "Where the Sidewalk Ends" by Shel Silverstein, capturing their attention with the very first line, "If you are a dreamer, come in..."
In reality, we're given a T.S. Eliot book called "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," and we take turns passing it around the table, reading outdated poems about cats to a group of fourth graders who seem like they'd rather be anywhere else.
And who can blame them? I'm 31, and I'm bored as hell. Imagine being nine, and listening to a lady with stains on her shirt try to explain the importance of a bunch of poems that the musical "Cats" was based on.
"So are you from here?" I ask Claudio.
"No, I'm actually from Columbia," he says. "But I've been here since 1969."
"Wow. You've been in L.A. the whole time?"
"Mostly, yeah. Culver City. Lived there for years, and then I had my girlfriend and her kids move in with me after awhile, and then she decided she didn't love me anymore." He doesn't seem upset about it, just relaying a thing that happened in his life.
He goes on. "I'd told her when she moved in, if she ever decided she didn't love me, she should stay there with the kids, you know? So they could have some consistency. And that's what happened. Then I had to move to Playa del Rey, and that was pretty nice, but I had to move again for my job, and then I ended up back in Culver City, in the place I have now."
"Do you like it?"
"I love it. Actually," he says, leaning in closer, like he's telling me a secret, "it's kind of an interesting story how I ended up there."
"I love interesting stories."
He smiles. "So I was looking for places, and I couldn't find anything. And one day, I'm just driving down Sawtelle, and I'm about to go beneath an overpass, and I look over, and something catches my eye. I turn my car around, and I see it's a small 'For Rent' sign."
"Ah, so it called to you," I say.
"Yeah, but it gets better," he says. "I stopped in, and a guy who lived there called the manager for me. He drove over, opened the apartment for me to check it out. As soon as I walk in, I love it, you know?"
"Oh yeah," I say. "It felt right?"
"Exactly," he says. "So I'm basically telling this guy I want the apartment. I tell him I grew up in Culver City, that I graduated from Culver City High School. And he says, 'What year?' Well, I graduated in '75. He graduated from the same high school in '73. And I look at him really close, and I say, 'Mannfred? Is that you?' Turns out, we played on the same soccer team for two years!"
"Crazy!" I say.
"It gets better," he says. "So he's holding the apartment for me while I get everything ready to move, you know? And the next day, I call him because I got a question about the laundry. I call the number he gave me on his business card, and a lady answers, his wife. I say, 'Hi, this is Claudio,' but before I can say another word, she says, 'Claudio! This is Peggy! How are you?' I worked with Peggy years before that. We used to go jogging together!"
"You're kidding me," I say. "You knew his wife before they were married?"
He nods. "Imagine that?" he says. "I don't even know why I stopped at that place. Something just caught my eye."
"It's like the Universe wanted you to have that apartment."
He perks up. "Yes!" he says. "Exactly! You know," he confides, "things like that happen to me all the time."
Bouncy Ball # 60 - Jessica
It's 8:20, just before classes start on Monday morning, when I knock on Jessica's office door. I can see her through the window, sitting behind her desk, waving me in.
"Hi," I say, shutting the door behind me. "I need to say something."
"About a month ago, you overheard me make a snarky comment about you. I didn't know you were in the copy room, and I said something stupid, and you heard me. When you asked about it, I lied and pretended I wasn't talking about you."
"Anyway, I'm sorry that I did that. It was wrong of me. And the thing is, I didn't even mean it. I was just trying to make Leanna laugh. I actually really like you."
"So I made you these cookies because it's always bothered me, and I've always wanted to apologize to you because you don't deserve that." I place a plate covered in aluminum foil on her desk. "I don't even know if you remember."
"I do remember that," she says. She lifts the edge of the aluminum foil, peeks in. A slow smile creeps up on her face. "Thank you for saying that."
"Well, I mean, I should've said it sooner." I walk toward the door, my hand on the knob. "Anyway, I just wanted to come by and tell you I'm sorry." I turn to leave.
"No, wait," she says, standing. "Let me hug you."
The Things I've Left Out - Bouncy Ball # 4 - Ann
In the course of writing these stories, there have been things I've left out for various reasons.
Sometimes I leave things out because they don't move the story forward, and it makes sense from an editing standpoint.
Sometimes I leave things out because I feel like I'm going on too long, and I cut out things that don't seem vital to the overall arc of the story, if this is a story.
And sometimes I tell myself I'm leaving things out because they're unnecessary to the story, but later, I find that I've left it out because I haven't come to terms with what it says about me.
Take, for instance, when I went to visit Ann, the fortuneteller, during the first week of this project. Just before the end of my reading, while she was summing everything up, she stopped, furrowed her brow, and out of nowhere, she said, "Don't talk behind people's backs."
I had laughed. At the time, it seemed ridiculous. I don't do that, I thought.
Two days later, I was at work. I'd just received an email from Jessica requesting to leave early Friday afternoon. I walked over to Leanna's office, and as I approached her doorway, I said, "Did you get that email from Jessica? Does she ever want to work?"
Just then, Jessica, who'd been in the copy room adjacent to Leanna's office, popped out and looked me right in the eye. "What's that?"
"Oh, I, uh..." I stammered. "Not you," I lied. She shook her head and walked back over to the copier.
I felt terrible. And my mind went right to Ann's weird warning. "Don't talk behind other people's backs."
Bouncy Ball # 61 - The Halfway Point
It's a beautiful afternoon in Los Angeles, and I'm running, meeting Sosa halfway between our places. I struggle uphill on Lucas., but when I reach the top, it's peaceful, easy. I run by a man walking three small dogs, all of which have Velcro shoes on their feet. I think about how if I hadn't run here today, I would have never seen dogs that wear shoes.
I'm still on Lucas when I see Sosa running uphill toward me. "You're kidding!" I yell. "I thought I'd at least make it to 7th!"
He stops next to me, breathing hard, sweat pouring down his forehead. "Oh yeah, I went hard."
"You beat me by a lot," I say. "Man!" I stomp my foot. I'm not a great loser.
"I want to finish this hill and see what's at the top," Sosa says, so we jog up the hill and pause at the next cross street.
"I have a bouncy ball," I say. "And when I was running, I was thinking how crazy it would be if I got murdered, you know? Like what if I got murdered, and I left the ball on the sidewalk, and you came by, and all you found was one shoe and a bouncy ball? Maybe there'd be some blood splattered."
"Okay," he says. "I'd be sad if you got murdered. What do you want me to say?"
"Would you avenge my death?"
He shrugs. "I'd call the police."
I sigh. "But you wouldn't try to find my killer?"
"Oh, yeah," he says. "I'd call the police up and be like, 'Hey, did you find the killer yet? No. Okay, bye.' That's how I'd try to find you."
I laugh. "So you're saying you wouldn't go rogue detective to avenge my death?"
He ignores me. "Let's run to your place."
Right away, he breaks away, and I spend the last leg of our run staring at his back.
The Things I've Left Out - Bouncy Ball # 14 - Sasha
Sasha, the Scientology center counselor, points to a particular low point in the results of my online personality test. "Here," she says. "It looks like you can be a little bit judgmental at times."
I roll my eyes. "I'm not like that," I say.
"Hmm," she says, her lips pressed together. "Okay. Well I think that the way you answered some of the questions maybe shows that you're a little negative at times."
"No, I'm not," I say again. "That's not me."
"Well, remember," she says. "These are based on your own answers. This is your assessment of yourself."
"What do you want me to say? I guess that paper says I'm judgmental, and I don't like people. I'm telling you that's not true."
She nods. "I understand. But maybe...well, do you ever find yourself believing the negative about someone when you meet them?"
"Well, sometimes, sure," I say. "I guess. But I wouldn't say I'm a negative person."
"I'm not saying that either," she says. "All I'm saying is that according to your answers, it seems like you believe the negative about other people instead of looking for the positive."
I sit back in my chair and stare at my fingernails. "I don't do that."
Bouncy Ball # 62 - Sarah
The second grade teacher at the school where I work is having a "Dr. Seuss" week in her classroom. She's asking people around the school to read Dr. Seuss books to her students.
On Tuesday morning, I start my day sitting at a small round table with Sarah and seven second-graders. I read "Horton Hatches the Egg," fully expecting the kids to drift off like the poor fourth graders I'd tortured with T.S. Eliot on Saturday.
But as I read, I'm remembering my own childhood, the first book I read all on my own, "Green Eggs and Ham." And as I read, the kids stare at me, open-mouthed, anticipating the next page. I almost forgot the simplicity and greatness of Dr. Seuss, how his books are timeless, captivating, and more than that, pure magic.
Bouncy Ball # 63 - Andy
"Hey Andy," I say, while Jamar introduces the next comic on the Improv open mic. "I'm changing up my bouncy ball thing."
I lean in so I can whisper. "Yeah, I'm actually giving bouncy balls to my friends and asking them to give the balls stories."
"Oh, that's cool," he says.
"Yeah? You think?"
"So if I give you a bouncy ball right now, you'll give it a story?"
"I'd love to," he says.
I reach in my purse, hand him a bouncy ball. Two hours go by.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Andy Sell...
Stories of Bouncy Balls Past - Andy
"Did I ever tell you my bouncy ball story?" Andy asks. We're standing outside of John's apartment, taking a break between recording our podcast.
"No," I say.
"Well, I have one," he says. "I've had it since I was a kid. When I was little, I had ADHD, but it was before they knew a lot about it, so my teachers just thought I was stupid. They put me in special ed classes and made me take all these tests. People actually called me a retard. That's how bad it was."
"Yeah," he says. "That's one of the reasons I hate that word. And my parents didn't get it because they knew I was smart. No one knew what was going on. But when I went in to take one of the tests, this guy that worked with me gave me a bouncy ball right before. It was one of those ones with multi-colors swirled, you know what I'm talking about?"
"I had that ball with me when I took the test. We got the results back, and it showed I was actually gifted. And I still have that bouncy ball - it's one of the few things I take with me everywhere. It's my 'I'm not a retard' ball."
Bouncy Ball # 64 - Me
I'm at The Workout Room comedy show watching Kevin Camia try some new bits.
The first time I saw Kevin was back in 2008. I'd been only a couple years into standup myself. I was sitting on the couch in the comedy condo for the Oklahoma City Loony Bin, where I was hosting that week. Me and the two other comics working the club were watching Comedy Central's "Live at Gotham."
Back then, it was a little bit hard to make me laugh, but I had no idea how hard I'd become, how years later, I'd sit in the audience in L.A. without so much as a smile while plenty of hilarious, talented people get onstage.
That's one of the curses of standup - once you do it, you don't laugh at it like you used to.
But when I saw that clip of Kevin Camia, he straight up broke me. I laughed harder than I'd laughed in so long. When I got home, I looked up more clips of him. I stumbled on his MySpace profile (yes, MySpace) and sent him a personal message about how much he made me laugh.
And then I went on with my life and never thought about it again until my friend Greg Edwards introduced me to Kevin in San Francisco, and I stood there, fucking amazed that I've crossed paths with this comedian I'd discovered sitting on a couch in Oklahoma City.
And tonight, in 2014, I'm in Los Angeles watching Kevin work out jokes when I realize how amazing it is that I get to see this, how amazing it is that my life has brought me here.
Sometimes, when I'm onstage, I talk about how people like to tell me their life stories.
I try to make a joke out of it, but the truth is, I love that. In fact, I think strangers sharing their stories with me is one of my favorite things about my life, and I wouldn't trade that for anything, not even a five-minute spot on Conan that would prove to my Dad I know what I'm doing.
I used to wonder why people told me intimate details about their lives, but in the past two months of this bouncy ball project, I've figured it out. People tell me things for the simplest of reasons - because I listen to them.
Because we all have stories.
We are the way we are because of experiences - we don't turn into who we are by luck or chance. The crazy person screaming nonsense at passersby on Hollywood Blvd. wasn't taken seriously. The 40-year-old woman has trust issues because someone she trusted did something very wrong to her. The asshole who cuts you off in traffic and leans out his window to call you a fuckwad got beat up on the playground in fifth grade. A woman who stays in an abusive relationship isn't weak - she just believes this is the best she can do.
I'm a 31-year-old woman who tells jokes at night and gives strangers bouncy balls during the day. At first glance, maybe I'm just a weirdo trying to get attention. But I'm also just trying to connect the world in a way that makes sense to me. I'm trying to find a much bigger story by obsessively collecting small ones, patching them together like a quilt.
Bouncy Ball # 65 - Zane - Written by James Nghiem
“I’m a little bit homesick, man,” I say to Zane, nursing a beer as I sit on his couch/my bed. We’re in his apartment/my bedroom.
Zane’s sitting on a sofa perpendicular to me. There’s a dried urine stain from a day-old party on one cushion that I won’t go near for fear that I’ll forget which cushion is which. But Zane looks exceptionally comfortable next to it, lounging and smoking hookah, trying to relax after existing another day in not-so glamorous Hollywood. Maybe he’s just taking the sofa for one more ride, knowing full well that all of his roommates are planning to throw it in the trash when he’s not looking.
Maybe he’s as sentimental as me.
“Los Angeles is cool and sometimes I hated being in Oklahoma, but I still miss it right now for some reason.”
“I get that way too sometimes. You and me probably miss it the most out of the four of us,” Zane says, referring to Neka, his girlfriend, and Chris, his non-
romantic boyfriend who he fights with/cares about as if they’ve been married for fifty years. Me on the couch makes four.
Our collective friendships are moving at a mandatory light speed, dictated by the fact that I’ve seemingly moved into their apartment on a whim. It’s true I
promised Zane I would move to Los Angeles a year and a half ago. But I don’t’ know if either of us believed I would. In my experience a lot of people promise a lot of things that never come to fruition, and I’m no stranger to being one of them.
“Really? We miss Oklahoma more than Chris and Neka?”
“Neka goes on Youtube sometimes and finds 8-hour thunderstorm videos. She falls asleep to it. But yeah, I get that more. I never thought I’d miss thunderstorms. I miss the shit out of some thunderstorms.”
“They don’t have thunderstorms in California?”
“No. If it rains a little everyone goes crazy.”
I take a sip of my beer.
“It’s weird that we’re friends,” I say bluntly. When I helped Zane move last January out of nowhere, we weren’t nearly this close.
“Yeah,” he laughs. “I didn’t even know you that well that time, but I could tell you wanted to come.”
I take another sip of my beer. “When I met you, you were living outside of the Speakeasy in a van. It was during a comedy show. All you owned was a camera.”
“I fucking remember that show! Leah killed it that night. I remember watching all you guys at that place. I loved that shit. Derek Smith was always great. You. So many guys. Were you on that show?”
“Probably. I used to open a lot.”
“Leah was so drunk. I remember I told her I was living in a van and that I hadn’t been able to take any showers and she was just like, ‘You can’t take showers? Fuck that. That’s stupid. You can take shower at my place!' It was so nice.”
“Yeah. She’s like that.”
“And then you were like, 'Leah. You don’t even know this guy. He lives in a van outside of a bar and he has a camera. Don’t let him take a shower at your place. He could murder you.' It was really funny.”
“I loved that van. I had a lot of good times in that van. I really miss living in that van.”
For a second I take a look at the life Zane’s built here, minus the pee-stained couch cushion. I look at the suit he borrowed to attend the Ace Awards, where the show he’s been working on was nominated. Then I look back at him.
“No you don’t.”
“I kind of do.”
“I miss home.”
“No you don’t.”
And now we’ve come full circle. I was the guy who stopped Zane from taking a shower at my friend’s house. And now I’m the friend taking showers every morning at Zane’s house. It seems unfair for someone to help me when I didn’t help them back in the day. Well, if life is a circle, I’ll have to make it up when it comes back around.
I can’t say for sure what this project is supposed to mean to people but as far as I can tell, it’s about connections, stories and breaking out of cycles by doing something you wouldn’t normally do. If that’s the case, it’s not normal for me to feel this optimistic or let go of things.
Hey Zane. Here’s a bouncy ball.
The Bouncy Ball Project, Week Eight: I Impress Some Kids by Beating a Boy and Consider Calling it Quits
"Oh shit!" Sosa says. "I just thought of the ultimate thing you could do for your bouncy ball project."
"Well, the thing is, you have to do something you normally wouldn't do," he says. "And there's one thing that you would never do. The ultimate thing."
"Quit," he says. "You'd never quit."
"Huh," I say. "I...well...that's interesting. But you're right, I couldn't do that."
"I know," he says. "That's why it's the ultimate thing."
Bouncy Ball # 52 - Girl at the Go-Kart Place
"Yes!" I say. "I won!"
Sosa and I are at an indoor go-kart track waiting for our race to start. There's a small arcade room here, so we decided to kill time by playing the basketball shooting game. Our games are linked, so we're competing against each other. I win the first game 44-42.
"It was close," Sosa says. "We're playing again."
If I'd lost, I would've said the same exact thing.
I wait while Sosa goes to get some more tokens. There's a little boy behind me at the air hockey table, his mouth open. "Did you just win that game?"
He runs off. A few seconds later, he comes back in with a girl, his friend, or maybe his sister. She's taller than him with long hair.
The boy points at me. "Her. She just beat a boy."
The girl turns to me, impressed. "You won? Do you play a lot?"
I shrug. "I used to play." I honestly can't believe their reaction, that they're so surprised a girl could win a shooting game. I gotta admit, though, I do feel pretty cool right now.
Sosa comes back with tokens. "Okay, now I'm ready." He puts them in the slot, and as the countdown to the game ticks away, the kids gather behind us. We start shooting, the kids cheering me on. I win again, 44-29. Sosa calls it a "massacre."
"Yes!" the girl yells. The boy jumps up and down in celebration. I give them high fives.
Sosa laughs. "Man!" he says. "I did even worse that time! We're playing again." Again, he walks off to get more tokens.
"Hey, do you guys want a bouncy ball?" I ask the kids.
I pull a couple from my bag, let them choose.
On our third game, I beat Sosa again. I don't even remember the score. A third kid joins my cheering squad.
"You're fucking killing it right now," Sosa says.
"Ooohhhh," the kids say. "He said a bad word."
After the game, Sosa says, "You're good at that. You realize, though, that now I definitely have to beat you in the go-kart race."
"Oh yeah," I say. "I totally get that."
The newest member of my cheer team walks over. "Excuse me," he says. "You gave my friends a bouncy ball. Can I have one, too?"
I smile. "Sure."
They finally call our race number, and I spend a glorious ten-minutes speeding around the track. For four laps, I annoy the fuck out of Sosa by not letting him pass me, but he finally breaks free, and I watch him ahead of me, battling it out with some cocky bald guy named Bert.
When the race is over, we all get printed-out scorecards that break down our lap times. I pick mine up. "Man, 4th place!" I say. Then, "Oh my God! Sosa, you won!"
"What?" He looks at me, his eyes huge. "I did?"
"You fucking won!"
"Oh my God, I won!"
We both start dancing right there in the lobby to celebrate, kids scrambling around us.
Bouncy Ball # 53 - Anonymous Me
"Hi, I'm Leah," I say.
"Hi Leah," a chorus of voices responds.
Even though I've heard them do this several times, I get a strange feeling when they say my name. I feel acknowledged, welcome. That feeling conflicts with the dominant thought racing through my mind during this Al-Anon meeting: "I shouldn't be here. I'm an impostor."
Al-Anon is a support group for people whose lives have been affected by alcoholics, and it provides a safe place for them to talk about this.
Weeks ago, I spoke with a friend of mine who attends meetings, and I related to a lot of the things she'd said. I grew up with an alcoholic stepfather, but I don't think it ever would've crossed my mind to attend a support group. I'd never step foot in this room if it weren't for my friend's recommendation and the fact that I have to do something I "normally wouldn't do" to get rid of a bouncy ball.
That's why I'm an impostor. Here are these people who need this, who get something important out of this, and here I am checking something off of the day's to-do list.
The last time I felt like an impostor I was getting my Master's in English. I'd sit in class without contributing to discussions because I felt like everyone else knew so much more than me. Look at all the words they use with confidence, I thought. Postmodernism, dominant discourse, hegemony.
Look at the guy with the patches on the elbows of his blazer, quoting Foucault about power and knowledge during a discussion about the Harlem Renaissance.
It's not that I didn't understand what they were talking about. It's just that I couldn't grasp the concept of talking about complicated matters in complicated terms. If the point of all this is to change things, to make progress, then why are we excluding people with the way we talk? Why can't we say big things in simple terms?
A few weeks into my American Lit class, my professor called me in to her office. "Your writing is really good," she'd said. "You make a lot of interesting points. I wish you would bring these up in class."
It floored me - there I was thinking I didn't belong. I talked to another grad student about it, and he'd smiled knowingly. "Ah, the Impostor Syndrome."
The Impostor Syndrome is a psychological mindset where people tend to belittle their accomplishments or abilities by writing them off as a fluke. They view themselves a incompetent or as an outsider even though by all standards, they do indeed belong.
Today, while I sit and squirm at the start of this Al-Anon meeting, those familiar impostor feelings creep up again.
But then people start sharing their stories. I won't relay what was said, but I can tell you this - it seems people whose lives have been affected by others' alcoholism share some common traits: anxiety, perfectionism, and the obsessive need to make everything "okay."
Maybe I do belong in here after all.
Even my feeling that I'm an impostor reflects where I came from - it's me wanting to believe I'm fine, that I'm not like the other people in this room. Because when I grew up, there were bigger problems to deal with in my house, so I always wanted to appear "okay." I always wanted to maintain at least the outward show of perfection.
Funny how it is this, the fact that I feel like such an impostor, that actually connects me to everyone else in this room.
A couple months ago, I was talking about addiction to a friend of mine, who's been sober for years.
"I think I can sympathize with addiction," I'd said. "I mean, I don't really have a drug problem. But I get so attached to people, you know? I get addicted to them."
"It's funny you say that," she said. "When you're addicted to something, and you give it up, it's like you lost your best friend. There's this thing that was always there - it's there when you're happy, when you're sad - and then one day, you have to walk around and live life without it. You have to figure out how to function like it was never part of you at all."
Bouncy Ball # 54 - Tom and Cathy
"Okay," I say, approaching a couple sitting at the bar in the Keynote Lounge. "Are you gonna explain that to me, or what?"
I just got offstage at an open mic in Ventura. It's a hike to get here - the drive took an hour and a half - but I got to do almost 20 minutes, and the crowd is mostly "real people."
During my set, I'd talked to this couple, and I found out that the man, Tom, is here tonight celebrating his 71st birthday. When I'd asked him about it, he'd responded, "Everyone gets one. No one gets two."
That sentence confused me, so after my set, I ask him about it.
"Everyone gets one," Tom explains. "No one gets two."
"No, I know," I say. "But what do you mean?"
He sighs. "Everyone gets one birthday."
"Oh, you mean like every year?" I laugh. "I was thinking it meant something deeper."
"Actually," Cathy pipes in, "I disagree with that."
"Yeah, I think that you can have your birthday, and you can also have another birthday that celebrates the day something important happened. My daughter is a cancer survivor, and that day she heard that she beat it, that's her birthday."
"Wow," I say.
"And I survived open heart surgery," Tom says.
Cathy pokes his chest. "That's your birthday."
"Are you guys from here?" I ask.
"Yeah," Cathy says. "We live right down the street. And where are you from?"
"She's from Oklahoma!" Tom says. "Remember? She said it on stage." Then to me, "What part of Oklahoma?"
Tom's eyes light up.
"You know it?"
"Do I know it? Why, yes! I used to date a girl that lived in Bethany."
"Nope, small world. Can you believe that? But that girl broke up with me. She could've moved with me to San Diego where they don't have those crazy tornadoes, but she decided she wanted to stay right there in Bethany."
I look over at Cathy, her face in a pout. "Yeah," she says. "You could've brought her here with you." She's jealous.
"Honey," Tom says. "That was probably before you were even born." He pats her knee, and she smiles.
Bouncy Ball # 55 - Foosball Table in 33 Taps
"You want to quit so bad, don't you?" Sosa asks while we cross the street to 33 Taps, a bar in Hollywood where my friend runs an open mic.
"Yes!" I'm complaining (as usual) because I haven't done my bouncy ball thing yet. I'm hoping that something interesting will happen at this mic because it falls under my rules - I've never been here. It's new. It's enough.
But nothing of note happens inside. It's just a mic. I stand and watch like the rest of the comics scattered about the room.
"Ohhhhh!" I hear behind me, and I turn to see Jeff, his fists in the air. They must've won the foosball game.
I check the time. 10:00.
I walk over to the table and place my bouncy ball in the center. "Hey Preston," I say. "Play this bouncy ball with me."
Preston shrugs, walks up to the other side of the table to control his men, turns his offensive men one time, and hits the ball directly into my goal. It takes less than a second.
"Well," I say. "That's that." I'm about to leave, but now all the comics seem concerned. Preston is reaching into the goal trying to pull out the ball.
"I can't get it." He pulls his head down to look into the hole. "I can see it in there."
Rick walks over and tries to reach in the hole. "Shit, that's not coming out of there."
"What's the problem?" I ask.
Everyone ignores me.
For the next five minutes, four comics try to figure out how to get my ball out of the table.
"I meant to leave that in there," I say. "I don't need it."
Finally, Rick looks at me. "Leah, if the ball is covering the chute, then the other balls can't go through, and the machine won't work."
"Oh," I say. "So I broke this? Just now? I broke this."
He shrugs. Two comics get on the opposite side and lift it while I try to explain. "It literally didn't occur to me that I might break it. There's hinges on the table. They'll eventually be able to open it and unclog it, right?"
"Sure," Rick says. "But it says your name on it."
"Oh yeah." I laugh.
It's at that point that Megan, one of the most blunt people on the planet, walks over, assesses the situation, and says, "How about we all just walk away?"
I point to her. "Yes." And I leave.
"At this point," I tell Sosa while we walk to my car, "I'm just causing problems."
Bouncy Ball # 56 - Mario
I'm sitting on my couch wishing I didn't have to leave to find a bouncy ball quest when I hear a knock at my door.
I open it, holding my dog's collar. There's a teenage boy on my doorstep holding a duffel bag and a binder. "Hi," he says. "I'm hoping I can interest you in buying some items to support our school program."
"Hold on." I drag Davey Dog to my room and shut the door, then I open the screen door. "You can come in. I don't want my cat to run out."
The boy hesitates, and I briefly wonder if I've crossed some sort of boundary. Wait, do I look like I might murder teenage boys?
Still, he comes in, and he sets up on my living room floor, giving his salesman spiel while I watch, the corner of my lips turning into a slow smile. I remember this kid.
He gets on his knees in the middle of my living room and opens the duffel bag. He pulls out a bag of trail mix, a puzzle, some gummy worms, an oven mitt set. He pulls out two candles. "This one is sandalwood," he says, "and this one is a lovely vanilla scent."
He pulls out a jelly bean dispenser shaped like a dog. "He doesn't bite," he says, chuckling at his own joke.
I laugh. "What's your name?"
"Well nice to meet you. I'm Leah." We shake hands. "So what do you get out of this?"
"I get to go on a trip to Universal Studios with my class."
"Cool," I say. "But I mean, do you like doing this?"
"Actually, yes, I really do," he says. "I didn't like it at first though. The reason I had to start was because I got in trouble."
"Oh really? What'd you do?"
He looks down. He doesn't want to answer me. "I just got in trouble at school," he says. "So they showed me a list of programs I could do as part of my punishment, and my mom made me sign up for one. She said I only had to do it for a month, and then I could quit if I didn't like it. But after a few weeks, I started to like it."
"So how long have you been doing it?"
"Over a year," he says. "Actually, it'll be two years on May 29th."
"Wow," I say. "You must like it!"
"Well, yeah," he says. "But also, it's a way that I can do my own thing. It's hard at my house. I have a brother and sister, and we're just trying to get by, so there's not a lot of money. This is really the only way we can do fun things."
"How old are you?"
I nod, walking to my couch to retrieve my purse. "And what was the coolest trip you've gone on so far?"
His face lights up. "Catalina Island."
"Oh, I want to go there!" I say. "Well, listen, I want to buy some of your stuff, but I don't have a lot of cash. So how much are these?"
He points to a couple items. "These are all seven." Then he points to the candy, the candles, the doghouse. "And these are five."
"Okay," I say. "I think I'll take the candle."
I hand him a five, then reach in my purse and pull out a bouncy ball. "Also, can I give you this bouncy ball? I believe they're good luck."
"Sure," he says. "Actually, I really like getting random things like this. It keeps me going."
I shrug. "Well, I wish I could buy more from you."
"Oh, it's okay," he says. "You know, the best part of all this? It's talking to the people. They really really want to help as much as they can."
He packs up his duffel bag and stands to leave. Before he does, he turns to my bookshelf and points to a candle sitting on it, the wick used all the way to the bottom. "Hey, we used to sell these."
I nod. "Yeah, I bought it from you over a year ago."
We shake hands. When I close the door behind him, I'm relieved. I don't have to be anywhere for at least an hour because the Universe sent a bouncy ball story right to my doorstep.
I open a beer, turn on the TV, and light my new vanilla candle.
Bouncy Ball # 57 - High School Student from Denver
My good friend Whitney lives in Denver, where she teaches Creative Writing to high school students.
This morning, I get a message from her - two scanned pages with annotated notes on the side.
Whitney had taken one of my bouncy ball stories and given it to her class as an example for their assignment. "They have to record observations and create prose from the scenarios they encounter," she writes. "And as I was reading this, I knew I had to use it."
I'm truly honored.
So here it is - annotated notes on something I wrote from a high school writer in Denver:
Bouncy Ball # 58 - Brad
I'd be lying if I said I put any thought into today's bouncy ball quest. Still, I've done several things today that I "normally wouldn't do." I went to happy hour with my co-workers, I carpooled to mics with Jonathan, and I ended up at a bar in Koreatown for a comic's birthday party.
This time last year, I'd missed the same comic's birthday party because I'd eaten too much of a weed brownie, and I freaked out in the passenger's seat of Sosa's car. He'd had to take me home and coax me to bed.
Today, I feel like a completely different person than I was one year ago. I think I am a different person.
Before I leave the bar, I ask Brad to start a dance circle in the middle of the bar, and he does because he's just that kind of person, one of the only people in this room confident enough to do it. Once he starts, everyone dances with him.
I don't say anything, just grab his hand and put a bouncy ball in his palm.
Two days later, he tells me that it meant a lot to him.
Ok, Guys. Real talk time.
When I posted my last bouncy ball blog, I felt pretty shitty about it. I felt the writing wasn't my best, and it bothered me that I had to put something out there I didn't feel one hundred percent behind.
I can do better than that. And for you, the people who read this, I feel like I owe it to you to do better than that because we live in an online world of 140-character jokes and short sketch videos, so it's a big deal that anyone reads these stories all the way through.
I appreciate that. I really really appreciate it.
Last week was a breaking point for me because I realized the stories I produce aren't what I wanted to come from this. I know I said at the start that I had no plan, but that wasn't true - I did expect something to come out of this project, but I didn't know what it was. And now, two months in, it seems so obvious to me that when I wrote Week 7, I felt like it was something I had to do rather than something I wanted to do.
If that's the case, what am I gaining from this?
And that's when I seriously considered quitting. I talked to my best friend Rockey about it. I told him that I felt like I couldn't enjoy my life because of all this unnecessary pressure I put on myself.
"It seems like every month, people I know are dying," he'd said. "Just be happy and live life. Life really is too short to put so much pressure on yourself to do things that don't make you happy!"
So with his blessing, I started to formulate a plan for how I'm going to quit.
I thought of how I would make this an epic story, how I could gracefully bow out by explaining to you, my friends, why I couldn't go on, why it was in fact better if I didn't. I would explain to you that if I really wanted to fix myself, to make myself a better person, isn't quitting the best way to do that? Can't giving up actually provide me with the freedom to forget about what other people think?
Wouldn't quitting help me to live in reality?
I tell Sosa about my plan. "It's gonna be great," I say. "I'm going to write something great."
"No, no, no," he says. "You can't do that."
"Leah, if you're gonna quit, you have to just quit. You can't try to justify it. You have to write, 'I'm not doing this any more. Goodbye.' And then nothing else."
He's right. And if I can't quit like that, then I just can't quit.
That's when I came up with a new plan, a loophole that will solve all of my problems with this project.
I know exactly what to do. And I think it's what this was supposed to be all along.
The Bouncy Ball Project, Week Seven: I Sing "Sweet Caroline" with Christians and Let All My Insecurities Hang Out
Bouncy Ball # 45 - Rick
"Welcome!" Lorinda says from the stage as James and I walk in. "Please, come in and have a seat. We have some cupcakes and coffee in the back, so help yourself. Can somebody get them some chairs?"
A guy in the back hops up, grabs two folding chairs that were leaning against the wall, and sets them up in the back row, gesturing for us to sit down.
Cupcakes? Chairs? Feeling welcome? This is already the best open mic I've ever attended. It's a church-run open mic, and I stumbled upon it accidentally (or because the Universe wanted me to).
As James and I get settled, Lorinda introduces the next performer, a guy who makes his way to the stage with a rolling walker. He plays some pretty lackluster songs about Jesus on the keyboard. Midway through the first song, the sound guy, Rick, walks onstage and sits behind the drum set, picking up the beat.
After that set, Lorinda walks back up to the stage and invites her band to come up: a guy on keyboard, a guy on guitar, and Rick on drums. They play behind Lorinda while she belts out a few blues songs with her soulful voice - it blows me away.
The band behind her is pretty good, too - the only time they sound off is due to the drums. Rick lags a few times, his hi-hat quarter notes slowing down the song while the other musicians try to adjust.
A few acts later, Lorinda introduces a group called "Broken Society," a Christian rap/guitar duo. During their second song, Rick once again hops up from his position behind the sound board and sits behind the trap set.
"Oh my God, this guy again," I say.
Rick's drum beat cuts through the song with an out-of-sync snare that doesn't match the guitar rhythm.
The guitarist tries to maintain composure, but when the drums throw him off, he giggles. "I, uh, never had this happen before," he says, too polite to ask Rick to leave. "Praise the Lord!"
Rick continues to play, oblivious to the discomfort he's causing. The guitar player, now bowled over with laughter, has no idea what to do. "Praise the Lord!" he keeps saying. "I don't know if I can do this. Praise the Lord! I'm not used to having drums behind me."
During my set, a pretty solid 7 minutes, Rick locates the "Ba-dum-bum-ching" button on his keyboard sounds and keeps pressing it after my punchlines and some of my setups, which he apparently thinks are punchlines.
When it's Rick's turn to get onstage solo (but really for the 5th time, since he's inserted himself in every other act) he elects to sing karaoke - Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."
And I'm ecstatic to find that during the chorus of this song, everyone in this L.A. church open mic audience does the same thing that people do in Bill's, my favorite townie bar in Norman, Oklahoma - they sing back.
Sweet Caroline, Rick sings.
Bah, bah, bah! we all respond.
Good times never seemed so good, Rick sings.
So good! So good! So good! we sing back.
After the mic, I give Rick a bouncy ball.
"What is this?"
"It's a bouncy ball."
"Oh." His face falls. "I thought it was a tomato."
"Well, it's not."
"At least I could eat a tomato," he says.
"True," I say. "But you can bounce that."
"Yeah," he says. "But I like tomatoes."
Bouncy Ball # 46 - Becky - Laura
"So tell me about your Latin word tattoo," Becky says while we walk up Hollywood Boulevard.
Becky's a comic on the L.A. scene, and I like her because she's funny, she's smart, and she's fun to talk to. When I started this Bouncy Ball Project, she read my first post and came up to me at an open mic. "Hey, you got a minute?" she'd said. "I want to talk to you about magic."
This morning, I met her for coffee, and now we're just killing time before our next endeavors of the day.
"Well it means truth," I say. "And honestly, it's hard to explain. I mean, it's not just truth to me. It's really about a moment. I've tried to tell people about it, but it always sounds insane."
"Yeah, I get that when I try to explain mine," Becky says. She takes off her top layer shirt and pulls up the sleeve of her t-shirt. There's a square with a drawing of a tree in it and the Latin phrase "Omnia Extares."
"Oh wow! So what's that about?"
"It's from where I went to college," Becky says. "Evergreen State. I was in the philosophy program there." She points to the Latin. "This is the school motto. It means 'Let it all hang out.' That's actually something I try to live by."
Later in our walk, my eye catches something on the ground - a small ball with design like a soccer ball. "Oh my God!" I rush over and pick it up. "Aw, it's a ping pong ball." I show Becky. "Thought it was a bouncy ball."
"Man," she says. "That's still pretty cool that you found that. It bounces. It's a ball. What are the odds?"
"Yeah, well, I'm magic," I say. "I told you."
Days later, as I'm writing this, Becky calls me. "Hey," she says. "So I met this really cool girl last night, and I told her that my tattoo meant 'People will believe anything.'"
"I thought I should tell you," she says. "Because we were talking about it. Also, you know that bouncy ball you gave me? Well, I just cleaned out my car, so that was the only thing in there when I went to pick up Laura - that's her name, by the way. And I picked it up, and I said, 'Do you like bouncy balls?' And she said, 'I fucking LOVE bouncy balls.' Just like that. She was so into it."
"So you gave it to her, right?"
"Yeah, I did," she says. "So we'll have to do another thing where you can give me a bouncy ball."
Bouncy Ball # 47 - Benji
"Hi, I'm Leah," I say, holding my hand out to shake Benji's hand.
"We've met like four times," he says.
"I know. I didn't think you remembered."
Benji, a regular at the Comedy Store, sometimes hosts the open mic, and though he's introduced me several times, he always has a look on his face like he's never seen me before.
Tommy, the manager, had mentioned that I should come tonight, that I might get on, so I have no choice but to walk up to Benji and check in, the underlying message, "Hey man, can I get a spot?"
I hate this part of standup.
It's not that I mind proving that I'm good enough - honestly, I probably wouldn't be happy if I got something any other way - but I do mind the pathetic feeling I get when I sit in the back, trying to catch the host's eye while he passes me over, while he tries to decide whether or not I'm worthy enough for a three-minute spot in the Original Room tonight.
Nobody likes this, I remind myself. You're paying your dues.
Benji passes me again, rushing to the back to greet a more important comedian. I sidle over to Tommy, who's in the booth at the club's entrance, and I lean against the wall until he notices me.
"Hey Girl," he finally says, popping his face out the window.
"Oh hey," I say. All breezy.
"So I can maybe get you on the second half of the show. We need a few women. Are you gonna hang out?"
Internal dilemma - if I say "no," then I don't want it enough. If I say "yes," I might be committing myself to hours of waiting with no guarantee of stage time. "How long will that be?"
"Maybe a half hour," he says. "But you don't have to stay if you don't want to."
"No, I want to," I say. "I just have to get up and work early. I know, that's lame."
Tommy shrugs, walks off.
A few minutes later, Benji walks over. "Hey," he says. "Look, I'll try to get you up."
I stare at him. I feel like he wants me to thank him, but I can't bring myself to do it.
"I know that doesn't mean anything," he says.
"Well, I'll stay for a little." But I decide right then - tonight, I'm actually gonna wait this one out.
Turns out, I don't have to wait long. About twenty minutes later, Benji points to me. "You're next."
Even though there are only a handful of people in the audience, I have a really good set. After, I walk up to Benji. "Hey, can I give you this bouncy ball and not explain why?"
"Sure." He smiles. "Thank you."
Bouncy Ball # 48 - Marc Maron
"Oh, just go," Katie says.
"I'm gonna," I say. "In a minute. He makes me nervous." I'm standing five feet away from Marc Maron, standup comic, producer of the popular podcast "WTF," writer and star of his own show, "Maron", and I'm trying to force myself to give him a bouncy ball.
It doesn't make sense that I'm so weird around Marc. No offense to him, but he's not that famous. And most celebrities, I don't give a shit about. I've met one or two here in L.A. for various reasons, and my favorite thing to do when I meet them is repeat their names back like I have no idea who they are.
But Marc, he's different to me. I've heard his voice for so long on his podcast, and I've heard his stories, very personal things he shares, so now I feel like I know him even though I really don't. I've only been in the same room with him twice before.
Two years back, I went to a comedy show and saw Marc right when I'd walked through the door. I panicked, refusing to look in his direction, but every now and then, I became aware of him in my periphery. It seemed like he was trying to get my attention, but I just kept staring straight ahead.
After a minute, his face popped right in front of mine. "Hi," he'd said.
I laughed. "Hi."
Then he just stood there staring at me like he was waiting for me to speak. He seemed to be enjoying my discomfort.
"I, uh, love your podcast," I said. "I listened to it while I was driving through your hometown on my way to Oklahoma."
"Oh really?" he said.
"Yeah. It got me through a snowstorm."
My second Marc Maron encounter happened about a year later. I was sucking onstage at the Comedy Store. Instead of telling jokes, I was creeping out a woman in the crowd by telling her I was going to follow her home later and kill her.
I walked offstage, and when I crossed to the back of the room, I saw Marc sitting alone at a table. Oh. Great.
He hadn't been in the room before I went on. In fact, a few minutes into the next set, he got up and left. It was as though he'd only come in to see me suck, and then went on with his life while I had to somehow live with the fact that I just bombed in front of him.
Cut to tonight. I'm close enough to him that I can eavesdrop on his conversation with a girl who seems like she's trying really hard to fuck him even though he's more into his phone than her.
"Just go!" Katie says.
"Fine!" I walk over and stand in front of him. He looks up.
"Hi Marc," I say. I hold out my ball. "Can I give you this?"
"Yes," he says. "Thank you. That's very nice of you."
I stand there for a few seconds, but I have nothing else to say, so I shrug and walk off. He gets up and walks right outside, and I imagine that he's launching my ball down the street, muttering something like, "Fucking whack job giving me trash."
For the rest of the night, something's bothering me, but I can't quite figure out what it is. Is it because I didn't say anything meaningful? Is it because it was anti-climactic?
Or is it because I am just like any other weird fan, believing there's a connection where there's not?
Bouncy Ball # 49 - Nicole
"So why are you filming?" I ask the girl in the front row.
"I'll explain later," Nicole says, poking her face out from behind her giant camera.
"You keep saying that," I say. "But I don't think you're really gonna tell us."
I'm hosting The Workout Room, a show I help run on Wednesday nights. It's called "The Workout Room" because the comics booked are asked to "work out" new jokes rather than trying to do their best ten minutes. Because everyone knows it's new material, the show has a chill vibe - we've had a lot of great nights in this room, a lot of spontaneous moments, and a lot of huge laughs. Many jokes were born here.
Tonight, not only is the vibe less forgiving - the crowd refuses to laugh at pretty much everything, and only two of the ten people that go on have even a passable set - but on top of that, there's a woman filming us from the front row, and she has yet to explain why she's there. The rest of the comics and I use this as an opening for all of our insecurities to flood out - we believe she's here to make fun of us.
Maybe she's planning to use us as an example of sad open mic comics who will never get anywhere in standup and are too delusional to realize it. I imagine a shot of a successful comic, maybe like Chris Rock, talking about how some people just don't know when to quit, and then she'll cut to me onstage telling some stupid half-formed joke about my boss being the whitest guy on earth, getting no laughs, and then turning to the camera and saying, "So why are you filming?"
That's the thing about standup - it's consistently inconsistent. One night, I'm congratulating myself for a job well done at the Comedy Store, two nights later, I'm bombing in some guy's apartment-turned-comedy-venue in Koreatown in front of some stranger that's filming a documentary. Any time I have a great set, I feel elated for ten minutes, and then I remind myself, "Leah, don't get too excited. This doesn't mean anything. Tonight, you're lucky, but you will fail again."
Because standup is a deck that's always stacked against you, and the best you can hope for is to become numb enough that it doesn't sting anymore.
"No, I'm gonna explain," Nicole assures me. "But for now, just act like I'm not here."
"Oh okay," I say. "Does that mean I should stop talking to you?"
"Well, it's better if you don't acknowledge the camera. I'm filming a documentary."
"You say that like there's some unspoken documentary rules you think I understand."
She pulls her face from behind the camera. "I just mean act natural."
"Oh okay," I say. "But I have this problem. When people tell me to do something, I can't stop myself from doing the opposite thing. It's a sickness, really."
She pulls the camera back in front of her face. "Then go ahead and talk to me."
"Ooh, I like that," I say. "Good use of reverse psychology."
Bouncy Ball # 50 - John
"Hey, My Love," John says. "Remember I used to have a Prius like you?"
"I just bought a Lexus. 8-cylinder engine."
"Yes," he says. "When I drive this car...oh man! I get out on the freeway, and the way the engine sounds, the way it feels to push that pedal all the way down to the floor. I just sit back and watch that speedometer go past 100, 110, 120, and-"
"And your dick grows four inches?"
"No, it's big enough," he says. "But driving that car, My Love. It's a beautiful thing. Only thing, 18 miles to the gallon in gas."
"Oh wow! Damn! Is it worth it?"
"Well, for young people like me it is," he says. "I'm 30. But people your age, maybe you want a Prius because-"
"Hold up! How old do you think I am?"
"I think," he says, "that you are one year older than me."
I narrow my eyes. "Okay," I say. "You're actually exactly right. You just avoided a real bad situation. I mean, how old do I look?"
"Oh, My Love, you look 25. Well, let's be honest. 26."
"Yeah, yeah, I look 30," I say. "It's fine."
He smiles. "You know, I've spent so much of my life living for my family and giving them everything. Everything I do has been for them. That car is the first thing I have that's just for me, you know? When I drive it, I think about who I was before, back before I had kids. When I drive, it feels like I don't have any worries. Like I'm a teenager, you know?"
"Ah," I say. "So it's a time machine."
Bouncy Ball # 51 - Jack
"So how've you been?" Jack says.
"Good." The bartender hands me two beers, and I hand one to Sosa. We're at X-Lanes, a bowling-alley-slash-arcade-slash-bar in Koreatown for another comic's birthday party. "What about you?"
"I've been pretty good," Jack says. He chats with us about standup for a few minutes, but then stops mid-sentence, an odd look on his face. "You know, I am literally standing back to back with the guy behind me right now."
"What?! Do you know him?"
"Nope," Jack says. "Complete stranger. I don't know how this happened, but our backs are pushed right up against each other."
Sosa and I are cracking up.
"It's like we're sewn together," Jack says. "It's like he's my backpack."
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.