I stop for a minute to consult the map on the back of the adventure card. "There should be a plaza thing coming up in about a block."
Sosa and I start walking again, up the sidewalk in Chinatown, past the shops with Chinese trinkets and bonsai trees. A card had led us here, card #2 of the "LA Adventure Walk" set we'd won for coming in first place at the Hollywood Scavenger Hunt.
I'm always looking for the connections in things.
In another small shop along the sidewalk, my eye catches something, a wooden squirrel toy on display atop a table of toy-making kits for sale - pop out pieces of notched wood that you can put together to make one of your own.
"Look at that squirrel," I say to Sosa.
He nods, uninterested. "Yeah. But look at this one." He points to a much more elaborate wooden tank.
"Yeah," I say, but I'm distracted by the squirrel, frozen back in time for a minute to this same place a million years ago, I think. This same spot. I'd been here before with the guy I haven't spoken to. Yes, that's right. I'd come here with him on a day just like today, and I'd pointed to this very squirrel, and I'd said, "That's your squirrel!" because he always said that life was like a connect-the-dot squirrel. He always said that once you connect all the pieces, you can see the full story.
"I think I'm gonna buy this," I say. I have the idea that maybe I can put this squirrel together, finish the story of that guy once and for all. I have the idea that maybe it's a quest I need to complete, like a passage to mark my official move from the past to now, the present. I feel like I must have changed so much from that day in Chinatown with him to today, in Chinatown with Sosa.
About a block down, we reach the Central Plaza, and sure enough, the first thing we see are two old men sitting on a bench by a Bruce Lee statue, playing what I can only assume is Chinese chess. I pretend to take a picture of Sosa, aiming my phone over his shoulder to capture evidence.
Around the corner, Sosa and I come across a wishing well. Nestled on top of a jagged rock fountain with tiny rivers snaking through it, there are different red signs set up in front of bronze-colored bowls. One says, "Peace," one says "Your health," one says "Wealth," one says "Prosperity," one says, "Your Wish," and one says "Romance."
"Isn't that crazy?" Sosa says. "Romance is the hardest one to get."
He's right. All the other bowls are various distances, some close, some far, but the "Romance" bowl is nestled inside of a small cove. To get a coin in there, you'd have to keep it low enough to get underneath the top of the cove, but high enough that it makes it over the bowl's rim. You have to throw it just the perfect distance, too, so you don't put too much in and overshoot the bowl, hitting the back of the cove, or so you don't undershoot, not putting enough momentum behind it, and miss the whole thing completely, your coin dropping with a plop into the water before it even gets close.
I pull all the pennies out of my change purse and give half to Sosa. I hit dead center in the shallow bowl for "Peace," but the coin bounces out.
It doesn't feel right to aim for "Wealth," so I spend the rest of my pennies trying to get in the "Your wish" bowl, but none of them make it. Sosa, on the other hand, keeps making it. So far, he has two.
"I'm gonna try with nickels," I say, plopping a couple in Sosa's hand. He makes it immediately. He now has three wishes. He's a motherfucking genie over there.
But me, I suck. I don't make any of the nickels. And then I try with dimes, but I still can't hit it.
In the end, Sosa gives me one of his three wishes, and I have to make do with this borrowed wish because I've used up all the ones I've ever had.
Bouncy Ball # 119 - Long Beach
"Why are those ships out there?" I ask, pointing to the ocean. "Are we under attack?"
"Maybe they're oil rigs?" Lindsay says. "I have no idea what those look like though."
We're at Long Beach, our feet in the water, staring out into the ocean on this beautiful Sunday.
"You think it's okay if I leave a ball on this beach?" I ask.
"Yeah, why not?"
"Well, I mean, I don't want to purposely throw litter on the earth. It seems a little wrong. Right? I don't know."
Lindsay laughs, probably noticing all the bottle caps, plastic bags, and cigarette butts poking out of the sand bank next to strands of dry seaweed. "I think it'll be fine," she says. "Someone will pick it up."
"Of course," she says. "If I found a bouncy ball on this beach, I'd pick it up."
I smile, looking out past the trash to the infinite wall of water. "I know," I say. "That's why I like you."
Bouncy Ball # 120 - Bill Burr
Monday night, Sosa and I see one of our favorite comedians, Bill Burr, at Bob's Espresso, a quaint little coffee shop in North Hollywood.
Even though he's just telling jokes in a coffee shop, Burr delivers, his set thoughtful and smart and funny and terrifying and completely engaging all at the same time. He talks about the fight he had with his wife just before leaving the house. He talks about his issues with authority figures. He makes an actual case for what he called the best and most just way to commit genocide and get away with it.
After the show, I feel silly waiting in line to talk to a comedian. It's always a weird transition - for almost every moment of my life, I'm a comedian, but when I meet someone like Bill Burr, his experience and career well beyond the scope of the most I'd ever dream of achieving, something I've only wished for, in those moments I'm not a comedian at all, and I lose my identity. I don't know who I am when I'm not a comedian.
It's my turn to talk to Bill. I ask him to take a picture, and I'm nervous while we pose, waiting for Sosa to open the camera on his phone. After the picture, I hold out a bouncy ball.
"Here," I say. "Can I give you this bouncy ball? I like to give these to people."
He grabs it, raises an eyebrow. "Oh, you do?" he says. "Well I guess I'll take it, but I don't know what I'm supposed to do with it."
It's a very Bill Burr response, so I know I shouldn't take it personally. After all, he's right - I did just hand him a small burden that might fit into his jean pocket, but not without poking into his thigh for the rest of the night.
It actually reminds me of the ball I'd given to Marc Maron, another older comedian I admire. Marc had said, "Thank you, that's very nice of you," but his expression betrayed his slight irritation. It seems as far as old comics go, they don't really enjoy receiving these.
And I gotta say, standing here in front of Bill Burr and forcing him to take this orange and cream swirled ball, I feel pretty damn stupid right now.
Bouncy Ball # 121 - Lindsay
"You know what I have?" I say, my arms wrapped around my knees. "You remember when we went on that float trip? It was a long time ago, on Memorial Day weekend. Remember? I made you guys all those puffy paint shirts."
"Oh yeah," Lindsay says. "I think that was back in 2006. No, maybe it was 2007. I was already in Ohio."
"Well I had one of those disposable cameras that weekend, and I never got the pictures developed."
"Really?" Lindsay asks. "You still have it?"
"Yeah, it's somewhere here."
"We need to take those in tonight and get them developed!" she says.
Lindsay is working in LA for the week, but she lives in Seattle. We met our freshmen year in college at OU, 14 years ago.
It seems surreal the way time moves in relation to old friends. The time that goes by between visits seems like no time at all, so while your faces get older, while your priorities change, and your life story veers off on unpredictable curves, you can always come back to where you've been by spending just an hour or two with a good old friend. In a way, it's comforting. In a way, it's terrifying, especially when you start to wonder if in all these years, you've really changed much at all.
An old friend is a time machine. And sometimes they bring you to moments you'd most like to forget about yourself.
Like this one:
During our sophomore year in college, Lindsay and I were roommates, and during a particularly rough patch in my life, when I was having trouble controlling my emotions, I'd hit myself in the face repeatedly until I gave myself a black eye.
I get that it's not a normal thing to do. I'm not saying I'm proud of it. I'm just saying it happened, and since then, I have learned that I have problems controlling my emotions. Sometimes, I feel like I just can't, and it scares me. And at the same time, it seems like there are so many people in the world who are able to control their emotions just fine, so that makes me feel like either there's something really wrong with my brain chemistry, or I'm making this all up and not working hard enough at trying, though that doesn't really fit in with my character, either - just giving up a fight. But when do you need to? When do you look for help?
That was twelve years ago, when Lindsay found out that I had given myself a black eye. That's an embarrassing thing for someone to know about you. I'm embarrassed that I'm writing it now, even 12 years later, even with the perspective of time passed and in the interest of being honest, being transparent in this blog.
But Lindsay's always known it.
There aren't a lot of people that know about the craziest things about you, the things you're most ashamed of, and love you just the same as though it makes no difference at all.
I find the disposable camera tucked in a box on a shelf in my closet, and Lindsay and I drop it off at CVS. They don't have a one-hour service, though, so the photos won't be ready for a week. I order doubles like I would if we were in the 1990s right now, and I promise to send them to her once I get them back.
"I'm gonna give you a bouncy ball, too," I say.
"But you already gave me one," Lindsay says. "I thought you weren't giving people two."
"Well, that rule went right out the window pretty quickly," I say. "I've had to make a lot of changes just so I could keep doing this shit."
She laughs. "So how many people got two?"
I shrug. "Well...actually just one other person. Sosa. He has like three now, I think."
"Wow. Just me and him?" she asks.
"Just you guys."
Bouncy Ball # 122 - Jonathan
"Oh my God!" Jonathan says, his contagious youthful excitement spilling out of him while we paddle out into the middle of Echo Park Lake. "It feels like we're in a movie right now. Doesn't it feel like that?"
"Yes, it does," I agree. "But actually, I feel like that a lot."
"Yeah. It seems like I live a lot of movie moments."
"That's cool," Jonathan says, steering us toward the giant fountain.
"I don't know," I say. "I wonder what it's like to live in reality." I look out over the lake. "I think maybe a lot of people here feel like that. Sometimes, it feels like this entire city is a movie, and everyone who lives here is acting in it all the time."
Jonathan laughs. "It's totally like that."
We paddle around for a while. At one point, we're off near the bank when we see something floating in the water. "Oh my God, please tell me that's not a bird head," Jonathan says.
"Let's check it out."
We try to steer ourselves closer, but it seems like after we get within a few feet of the object, our wake pushes it away from us, so we never get close enough to see what it is.
"Oh my God, what if it's a bouncy ball?" Jonathan asks.
"Well, that's the thing. It could be," I say. I've been here before, very early on in this bouncy ball project. I'd come with my friend James, and during our ride, I'd tried to toss my ball to a kid on another boat, but my throw had been shitty. Just like all the coins that I tried to make into the "Your wish" bowl in Chinatown, the ball had plopped into the water, coming up short.
As I relay the story to Jonathan, he lets us drift into another boat, tied to the dock.
"Man, you suck at steering," I say.
He laughs. "I think we have to back up."
As we start to peddle backwards, I nudge him with my elbow. "Guess sometimes you gotta move back to go forward."
"Ugh!" he says, rolling his eyes. "Come on!"
I laugh, and we drift backwards.
And we drift.
And we drift.
And we drift...
Bouncy Ball # 123 - Andrea
It's about call time for my show when I'm walking down 1st Street in Burbank toward Flappers, and I see her from half a block away. I see hair first, fiery red, then those giant blue eyes, eyes that you can see are unmistakably crazy when she's close to you.
She stares at me. "Hi Andrea," I say.
She scrunches her brow. "Oh my goodness. Leah?" She pronounces my name like the Star Wars Princess. "You remembered my name?"
"Of course," I say. Actually, I'm surprised I remember it, too.
I met Andrea at an open mic that no longer exists, at the Bliss Cafe on Vine Street. When I'd first moved to L.A, I could walk there in five minutes from my Hollywood apartment, which is probably one of the few good things I could say about that mic at the time. While the cafe was cute, and they made great sandwiches and breakfast burritos, it's not an ideal place to do standup. On top of that, because its location in Hollywood, a lot of crazy people came in. And I don't mean crazy like go out with the girls and get hammered. I mean like literally crazy.
But what makes someone crazy?
The last time I saw Andrea...God. It had to be about a year and a half ago on Vine Street. That's why it's so weird to run into her here today.
I don't even know Andrea that well - she's not a comic. I don't actually know her story - I've pieced it together by bits of terrible things she's told me about her past. That's sort of her thing. She'll square you off in conversation, lock right in by looking into your eyes, and never let you go, trapping you with horrible stories about date rape and death and snakes coming out of your face. Happy things like that.
Today, Andrea tells me that she moved to North Hollywood because she couldn't afford her Hollywood rent anymore. "The new place is 500 bucks a month, all bills paid, but there's a catch."
"Uh oh," I say, looking over my shoulder at the club. "There's always a catch."
"My roommate is the most annoying man I've ever met."
"Oh no!" I'm relieved. I thought it would be much worse. "Annoying like how?"
"Well, he has some brain damage, so I will say that. But he seems perfectly fine when you talk to him. You can't tell anything is off about him, you know? And then he'll just start these arguments with people. He yells at our landlord. He fights with our neighbors. He chopped down a tree."
Andrea tells me story after story about her brain damaged 65-year-old roommate while I glance over my shoulder every few seconds. I can see the club, but I don't know how to leave.
Andrea shakes her head. "Anyway, how's comedy going for you?"
"It's good," I say, happy for the out she's given me. "In fact, I gotta go to a show right now. Can I give you this bouncy ball?"
"What is it?"
"A bouncy ball. Like a toy. You can bounce it."
"Oh wow," she says. "Thank you!"
I walk off, head into Flappers. My friend Jeff is the MC of tonight's show. He
goes through the announcements onstage. "If you want to order a drink," he says, "there's a small light on your table. Just push it on, and a server will come find you. It's magic, you guys."
He pauses. "Naw, I'm just kidding," he says. "Magic doesn't exist."
We're walking around in Chinatown, Central Plaza, the cobblestone path leading us through the small alleyways.
There's a record store close to where we're standing, an old phonograph set up outside to play to the plaza, but it's late in the afternoon, so there aren't a lot of people here to hear the old love songs drifting out above us, the pops of the record. A few families scattered about, off in the distance. We can see them, but we can't hear them.
The record pops while one song ends and another begins. Nat King Cole's syrupy voice oozing out, filling up the air around us.
"I used to walk with you...Along the avenue...our hearts were carefree and gay...How could I know I'd lose you? Somewhere along the way."
"Oh my God," I say. "I love this song. It's so beautiful."
"What is it?" he asks. "How do you know this?"
"I can't remember, but I know how it goes."
"The friends we used to know...they smile and say hello...no love like our love they'd say. Then love slipped through our fingers...somewhere along the way..."
"It feels like we're in a movie," he says.
"I know," I say. "It's kinda weird." The scene around us is fantastic, magical. I'm a magical person, and magical things just happen for me, like they do in the movies.
On the other hand, I know it's not real. It's delicate and fragile. It can crumble into a million pieces of dust with just the slightest pressure from any direction. That's the problem with scenes like this, pieces of real life that feel like you're in a movie - they're not real enough to be sturdy.
He lifts my arm up over our heads, and he twirls me. I spin around twice.
Much later, when he tells me that we spend too much time together, I will look back on this moment and wonder if this were one of those times. I'll wonder if in this moment, he'd wished he was somewhere else.
For me, though, I could've twirled for the rest of my life. If it's true that you see flashes of scenes from your life before you die, I think this one would make it to my reel.
"So now I look for you...along the avenue...and as I wander I pray...that someday soon I'll find you...somewhere along the way..."
And I'm twirling. And the record pops.
Somewhere along the way...
And it skips.
And it skips.
And it skips.
And starts over.