"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a T.S. Eliot book called "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," and we take turns passing it around the table, reading outdated poems about cats to a group of fourth graders who seem like they'd rather be anywhere else.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.
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.