Let me begin by saying at no point during these two stories will you think I am a helpful person.
I live in Chicago and work in a Evanston, a college town a half hour’s drive north. It’s a nice place and reminds me quite a bit of my own college town, Norman. It doesn’t have a giant football stadium that I know of, but it does have neighborhoods of small, well-kept houses, just like Norman. It’s one of those little neighborhoods where I first failed to make anyone’s life any better.
On Fridays I work later in the day, so I don’t go to work until 11:00 in the morning. This particular Friday, I have extra time and take a detour through some of the quaint little streets off the main drag. I’m listening to The Rachel Maddow Show podcast on my phone, resting on my lap as I drive, and thinking about the locally made vegan breakfast sandwich I will purchase at Whole Foods on my way to the office.
I should mention that, in many ways, I’m an insufferable liberal cliche. Like a really over-the-top one. Sometimes it bugs the crap out of me. I can’t imagine how it must be for people around me.
As I’m driving, I see an old woman pushing a grocery cart on the sidewalk. It’s full of a bounty from Trader Joe’s, judging from the bags. She’s wearing a conservative sort of coat, which makes her slight frame look unnaturally top heavy and bulky. In place of matching pants, she’s got on a pair of black and fluorescent pink tights and silver sneakers that looked like they originally belonged to either Jem or one of the Holograms. Put together, she looks like the embodiment of not giving a fuck.
I’m applauding her in my head as I roll down the street, when suddenly she falls forward, straight onto her face. Not even in a funny way, but in an “oh my God, she might be dead” kind of way. I pull over, put on my hazard lights, and then turn off the podcast I was listening to.
Yep, I turn off the podcast before I get out to see if she's hurt. What’s more, I leave the phone in the car when I jump out. Because why would a person need to make a phone call in a situation where someone has been injured, right?
Once I’m out of my car, it becomes clear that the woman is not dead. She is, in fact, pushing herself up. And then she starts talking.
“Oh, thank you for stopping, but I’m okay!”
Midwestern people are like that. Most gunshot wounds go unreported out here because nobody wants to make a fuss. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m fine. But thank you for checking. You’re a nice man!”
What the fuck? Just how midwestern is she? “You’re sure?” I’m still standing in the street, closer to my car than the sidewalk.
“Of course, of course. I’ll be fine.” She’s up now. She’s tougher than she looks. “You have a great weekend. You’re a good man.”
What the fuck just happened?
I get back into my car and drive away after turning the podcast back on, of course. I’m bewildered by what’s happened. I feel like I should have done more. Or, more accurately, done something. Above all, however, I regret that I didn’t have the rubber bouncy ball Leah had sent me. I would have given it to that old woman so her experience was as unnerving and confusing as mine had been.
It’s another Friday in Evanston. I’m leaving work, listening to Slate’s “Political Gabfest” on my headphones, walking to Whole Foods to buy some ingredients for my wife to make brunch the next day.
See above, re: insufferable liberal cliche.
Walking to the store, I pass a man panhandling outside, but then realize that as someone about to buy brunch materials from Whole Foods, I am morally obligated to give this guy the change in my pocket. I turn back, digging the change out, and put it into his cup. He says something, but I can’t hear him over Emily Bazelon and John Dickerson arguing. I don’t really want to hear him.
After I enter the store, I feel like an asshole. A story creeps back into my head that I heard from one of my grade school teachers. She was in a third world country, about to give money to a beggar when her guide stopped her and said, “Don’t you dare give hope without love.” I feel like that’s what I had done to that guy. I didn’t care about him - I just wanted to feel better about myself. That realization makes me feel worse about myself, which I don’t care for at all.
I resolve to do something about it. While in the store, picking up bread and frozen spinach and sausage and whatnot, I also buy a meal for the man who I had so callously disregarded. Vegetable chili, a turkey sandwich, and a piece of chocolate for dessert. I just wish I had that rubber ball with me so I could put it in the bag for him.
I pay, put the food into a small bag with napkins, and spend another 30 seconds trying to decide if I should take my headphones out or not. Out, I decide.
Then I'm out the door, around the corner, heading straight for the panhandler's location, bag in hand…and he’s gone. Was he run off? Did someone give him a dinner already? Was the change I gave him enough to pay for a 40 oz? It doesn’t matter. He's gone, and now I'm stuck with a turkey sandwich I can’t eat because I’m a vegan. I look around Evanston for another 10 minutes, cursing the city for not having more homeless people. In the end, I throw the sandwich away.
The chili is pretty good.
Still need to figure out what to do with that ball.
Bouncy Ball # 112 - The Baldwin Park Stairs
What a stupid fucking idea, I think while I trudge up the Baldwin Park Stairs for the fourth time in a row. I don't even know how I'm moving right now.
Sosa and I discovered the stairs about a year ago, and since then, we've gone several times, but the most we'd ever completed in a row was 3 times up. Today, even though we're way out of shape, we're going up 4 times.
I watch him bound down in front of me, but I don't even care that he's ahead. I'm just happy I don't have to go up again. As I take the last few steps to the bottom, I realize I forgot to leave my bouncy ball at the top. No way I'm making it back up.
I notice a young athletic guy with a small backpack getting ready to go up.
"Hey," I say. "I'm sorry to ask this, but can you take this bouncy ball up to the top for me?"
He looks very skeptical. "What?"
"Can you bring this up to the top? I forgot to leave it there, and I can't go up again."
"Uh..." He looks up the staircase. I can see he's thinking of just running away from the conversation.
"I mean, you can do whatever you want with it when you get there," I say. "You can throw it in the trash if you want."
He points. "There's a trash can over there."
"No, I don't actually want it to go in the trash," I say. "But I just want it to get to the top somehow. I meant to leave it up there to say like, 'yay, I made it,' you know? But I forgot."
He sighs. Of all the people who've received my bouncy ball, he's by far the most put out by it. It's not even that he doesn't want to carry it - it's like he doesn't trust me, like he thought maybe I rolled it in some biological warfare virus.
He takes it, though, and he heads up the stairs. I turn away so I don't have to see him do what I think he's gonna do - toss it to the side at the bottom.
Bouncy Ball # 113 - John
I'm watching a Netflix documentary called "Inequality for All" about the disparate wealth distribution in America when my best friend John calls. He starts talking to me about our other friend's wedding next year. "I told Lindsay that if I fly to Puerto Rico for her wedding, I'm not getting her a gift. That's her gift."
I crack up laughing. "How'd that go over?"
"Hard to tell," he says. "I told her she better have an open bar, too."
We're joking, yes, but in reality, neither of us know how we're going to pay for this. John just received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, and I have two Master's degrees, but as far as finances go, we're the poorest of our friends. While it seems easy for the rest of them to travel for various reunion events and weekends floating the river, it's always a struggle for us. Specifically, it's always a 400-dollar plane ticket that I have to put on credit.
"I don't think I can make it to float the river," I say. "I just don't know where I can get the money."
"I get that," he says. "If it weren't in Texas, there's no way I'd be able to go."
We talk about our debt for awhile - mainly just stressing back and forth to each other about the horrifying mountain looming above us: our student loans. I think I'd sooner be able to climb the Baldwin Park Stairs 25 times in a row than come even close to paying them back.
"And it's not like I want a lot of money," John says. "I just want to have a career. You know?"
"It's crazy you just said that," I say. "I said that exact same sentence like four hours ago. I just want to work on my career, but I'm not even close to that. And I'm broke."
I wish I could pay John's debts for him. Or at the very least, I wish I could say something that offers some sort of silver lining, help him make a plan to get out of it.
But the truth is, I'm in it, too, and from the inside, it seems like there's no real way out. Both of us have put everything we have into a long shot, and even if we attain our careers, which is all we want, it's unlikely that we'll be able to relieve ourselves from the burden of our education.
Before I hang up, I say, "I know it's hard, but you're gonna have to keep going. That's what keeps me going, knowing that you're out there, too."
On Week Fifteen of this bouncy ball project, I'd included one of my friend Sofiya's stories, a post she'd written inspired by my bouncy ball shenanigans. In it, she gives cookies to strangers. At the end of that post, I'd written, "Sofiya, I owe you a bouncy ball."
I still haven't given her that bouncy ball.
Tuesday, I get a text from Sofiya. "I found this in my front yard yesterday."
Bouncy Ball # 114 - Chef Marilyn's Soul Food Express
Sosa and I find a to-go only soul food joint on Crenshaw, and we order a la carte meals of starchy sides and fried chicken, food we thought was impossible to find in the obnoxiously healthy L.A.
At the cash register, I drop a dollar and a bouncy ball in the tip jar when the cashier isn't looking. She hands me my change, and then she looks directly at the bouncy ball on top of the bed of dollars in her tip jar.
I remember the guy at the stairs, how annoyed he'd been. Before she can say anything, I grab my leaking bag of fried chicken and candied yams and run away.
Bouncy Ball # 115 - Guy at Vons
"Can you spare a couple quarters?" he asks. "I'm trying to get a dollar for bus fare."
I pull a couple quarters quarters from my change purse.
"Oh, thanks so much," he says.
At the time, it's a non-event. It doesn't occur to me to give the guy a bouncy ball, mainly because I resent myself when I do anything that seems kind for the sake of the bouncy ball project. The way I see it, I should be doing these things anyway.
When I leave the grocery store five minutes later, I pass the same guy in the same spot, and I smile.
"Hey," he says. "Can you spare a couple of quarters? I'm trying to get a dollar for bus fare."
I laugh. "You already asked me."
"Oh," he says. "Well, you get old, you start to forget things."
I wave and continue walking, but when I reach my car, it occurs to me that I have a dollar. If he's trying to get a dollar, why don't I actually give him a dollar? Why had I only given him 50 cents?
I walk back to the man, a dollar in my palm. "Excuse me," he says, looking right at my face, just like he had the first two times. "Can you spare a couple of quarters? I'm trying to get a dollar for bus fare."
Again, he doesn't recognize me. It's been literally five seconds. I drop a dollar and a bouncy ball in his palm. "That's three times, man."
Thursday night, I do a show in Iglewood at a small theatre. It's 11:00 PM when I'm walking across the parking lot to my car.
I look down in front of me.
"No," I say. "No way. Come on." I do a slow circle, looking around for clues of how this got here, but there are none. It's just me in a parking lot in Inglewood, alone.
Just me and this creepy magic bouncy ball.
Bouncy Ball # 116 - Audrey
Audrey is a 7-year-old girl who's recovering from neurosurgery for a condition called Chiari malformation, where the skull doesn't provide enough room for the brain. Unrelated to her Chiari malformation, she also has autism and suffers from seizures.
My friend Amanda told me that Audrey loves receiving letters. She asked me to send her a hot pink bouncy ball with a letter because pink is her favorite color. If you'd like to send Audrey a letter, contact me, and I'll be happy to forward it to her.
Bouncy Ball # 117 - The World Famous Comedy Store
"Hey," I say, crossing paths with tonight's Belly Room booker down by the back entrance to the club. "I'm one of the development spots on your show tonight."
He doesn't seem too pleased about it. "They didn't tell me they put anyone on tonight. They usually send me an email."
I sigh. "Well, I mean, they told me to come here. 10 p.m. Belly Room."
He turns away, and I slink off to the Green Room.
His reaction is not unusual. It happens just about every single time I report the store for my "development spots" in the Belly Room. See, I'm in what they call the "Friends and Family" group at the Store, a highly coveted position that every comic who goes to the open mic hopes to attain. One of the steps up the ladder before becoming a paid regular, and one of the comics who gets to have their name on the wall.
Getting this was a big deal to me. For two years, I signed up for the open mic every time I could. For two years, I waited along with all the other comics for them to post the list. For two years, I watched my name make it on the list, then slowly move down toward the end of the list. Then one night, the club's manager called me over when I got offstage after a pretty good set and said, "Leah, you don't have to sign up for the mic anymore. You can just call on Monday and give your avails."
"Uh. What does that mean?"
He'd laughed. "It means you passed the open mic. You're a non-paid regular."
It was one of the biggest thrills of my entire comedy career. Not only was I one step closer to having my name on the wall, not only could I call in and get booked for stage time at the club, but on top of all that, I did it the hard way. I never once thought it was unfair.
That was back in November 2012. Now it's May, and I've been coming in almost weekly, either trying to get on in the Original Room by checking in with a surly host on Monday, or coming in on a weekend night for what they call "development spots." Essentially, that means they put two or three of their comics on a show in the Belly Room, a show that an outside booker, someone who doesn't work at the Comedy Store, has booked.
Save for two of the bookers, they've all been complete assholes to me when I check in. One night, I came in, and the booker argued with me for several minutes. "No, you're not on the show," he'd said, pissed. "Well, they said I was. Not sure what to tell ya." And back and forth like that for a few minutes before he dragged me downstairs, demanding someone vouch for me. The GM brought us to his office and had to point out the spot where my name was written on the list.
The booker had shaken his head. "Well, I can't put you on before midnight."
Cut to tonight. It's a Friday night, I've worked my incredibly stressful day job all week. I'm exhausted. I have a headache, and I haven't eaten since noon.
Upstairs in the Green Room, the booker walks in and pours a flask-sized bottle of vodka into a Big Gulp. A girl enters, presumably a comic on the show. "Do you have the lineup?"
"Here," he says. He hangs a list by the door. "There it is." He leaves to go seat the showroom, and I don't bother to check the list. I know my name's not on it.
The girl checks the list. "My name's not on this," she says. A few minutes later, two other women walk in, check the list. Their names aren't on it, either.
I stand up and walk into the showroom, find the booker. "Hey," I say. "Just so you know, there are three comics back there who aren't on the lineup you posted."
He rolls his eyes. "Oh, Sam? She's always complaining."
"No," I say. "Literally three comics."
Again, he walks away. I check the time. Almost 10:30, and the show hasn't started. Shit. He's gonna put me on at 1:00.
I make a final attempt to figure out when the fuck anyone is getting onstage, since the lineup in the back is obviously not real. "Hey man," I say. "I didn't drive here. I got a ride." (That's true, by the way.) "Do you have any idea when I should tell him to come pick me up?"
He narrows his eyes. "I got three of you Store guys to put up. They double-booked the room, and the show hasn't started yet. Tell him midnight."
I'm getting real sick of being barked at. "So you don't even have a lineup?" I ask. "Why don't you have a lineup?"
His nostrils flare. His eyes get wide. Oops. I did it. I hit his trigger.
"I told you midnight!" he yells. "And you're asking me if I have a fucking lineup?"
If you're unfamiliar with comedy shows and how they work, the booker usually has a lineup and usually doesn't bite your head off when you ask him about it.
But at the Store, it's different. Because they don't want you on their show, because the club is making them put you on.
I walk off and find a spot on the couch in the back of the showroom. Every 15 minutes, the booker walks by, glares at me until I look at him, then quickly turns away to snub me. I know what he's planning on doing - putting me on last because I dared question his methods.
But he said midnight. I sit and wait until midnight. I sit there for an hour and half of mediocre standup. I'm not exaggerating - three of the people that go on to a completely full crowd are great, but the rest are inexperienced. You can tell they haven't done it very long by their stage presence, their jokes, their mannerisms. This is also not unusual - this is a "bringer" show, which means the people who book it only book people who promise to bring a minimum of five audience members. To be booked on a bringer show, the quality of your performance is irrelevant, and it shows.
Midnight comes and goes. At 12:20, after the booker gets onstage and tells the crowd they can "leave if they want to - it's been a long night," I suddenly realize that this booker, this drunk guy who thinks he's teaching me some kind of lesson by making me wait to go on in front of what's left of this poor, exhausted crowd, has no power over me.
And then I do something that might be unheard of as far as spots at the Comedy Store go. I leave.
While I wait for my ride out front, I bounce a ball on the wall that wraps around the club, thinking about what the Comedy Store claims to be versus what it actually is.
If the Store claims to be some kind of gatekeeper, the place where talented comedians season their acts and become great, how can it be that and also rent out their rooms to bookers who book inexperienced comics, people who don't have ten good minutes? How can they put their name on a show that people come to watch expecting to see quality comedy, but instead ending up sitting through a lot of amateurs, all the while believing this is the state of LA comedy? The Store claims to play a huge part in developing great comics from local talent. But how can it be both things?
I'd been ecstatic to make it through the open mic, but almost every single time I've asked to go onstage since then, someone has treated me like shit. Sometimes, it's a 40-year-old drunk. Sometimes, it's a 22-year-old prick. Sometimes, it's a booker who has never even done standup.
Look, I didn't join the goddamn military here - last I checked, stand-up was autonomous, independent, free. When the Store passed me to do spots, I didn't know that meant I had to let people disrespect me on a weekly basis, or I wouldn't have signed up. And I swear to the Universe, if one person comes at me with, "You gotta tough it out," I'll lose it. Because - and this is no exaggeration - I'm the fucking toughest person I know. I can tough out any punishment, I can push through any adversity, I can overcome any obstacle, I can run up the Baldwin Park stairs four times, I can go to the same open mic for two years, keep my head down, and do my time without complaining, and I can outlast anyone, as long as it's fair, as long as it's justified.
This is not justified.
I'm not trying to say, "How dare you treat ME like that?" What I'm saying is, "How dare you treat ANYONE like that? We're just people trying to be something. What gives you the right? How DARE you give hope without love?"
I'd been so hopeful when I first got passed, but over the last six months, I've tried to dismiss the ball of discomfort in my stomach that shows up every time I'm supposed to go on at the Store. I've started to think that I hate stand up. I certainly hate it on these nights.
Tonight, I realize I don't hate standup. I love standup. I hate what The Comedy Store is doing to it in the Belly Room, making it an exclusive club where funny doesn't matter, but cool or money or the semblance of power or networking does. I hate what standup's become here, in these old rotting halls, where the ghosts of talented comics past haunt the Belly Room while a guy who really wants to be an actor tells a hacky joke about dick size to a room full of people he'd coerced into coming in exchange for ten minutes of stage time he's not qualified to perform.
I see my ride pull up to the curb, and I drop the ball behind me, letting it bounce into the crowd, milling around the wall where my name will never appear.