"I can't imagine having to deal with this everyday," Meredith says. "I could never live here. What's it like?"
I stare out the window of the cab, my head pressed up against the glass, watching the blurry Vegas lights zoom by and listening to a drunk Meredith chat up our cab driver.
I'm pretty messed up, too. We've just left the Flamingo, where I'd lost 50 bucks trying to play Texas Hold 'Em.
"It's not fun," the driver says, waiting to turn while of herd of women in tight dresses and heels cross in front of us. "The people around here. They're not good people. The men don't like to work, and they use the women."
Last time I was in Vegas was in April 2011 for my friend's bachelorette party. Over the course of one Saturday night, I lost my phone, got in a fight with a douchebag who grabbed my ass, and woke up sprawled out in the hallway of my hotel, a security guard tapping me on my shoulder, saying, "Miss. Miss."
Before that, I'd only been to Vegas one other time, years ago, with my friend Lindsay. During that trip, we met some dude at a karaoke bar, and he led us to the shady part of the city, where I bought a dime bag of pot on the street. We went to a hotel to smoke with a bunch of strangers, and Lindsay left me sitting on one of the hotel beds while she went outside with the guy we'd met at the bar.
Minutes afters she left, one of my new friends pulled out a gun from a dresser drawer. "Hahahahahaha," I said, "a gun!"
The guy holding the gun cracked up laughing and pointed it at my face as a hilarious joke.
For years, Lindsay maintained that I shouldn't tell that story because "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." But I don't think an ad slogan supersedes the fact that what happened in Vegas is she left me in a hotel with strangers who pulled a gun on me.
We pull up to our hotel, and I drop a bouncy ball in the cab console. "Here's the only thing you need to know about this place," the driver says. "Don't trust anybody. Just remember that, no matter what, okay? Don't trust anybody."
Bouncy Ball # 39 - Mr. Guns
"Oh come on," I say. "It's not like a Golden Corral. It's good food. They have crab legs and steak and shit like that."
We're sitting in a pub in the MGM Grand. I've been trying to talk Ryan into going to one of the Vegas casino buffets for the past hour, ever since we got off the New York New York roller coaster ride (another activity he had been against doing), during which he made this face:
"Well, maybe they have a cheaper one," I say. "I'll ask the bartender." I wave him down. "Excuse me. What buffet would you recommend around here?"
"None," he scoffs. "I don't go to buffets. I don't like hundreds of disgusting people breathing all over food that I eat. They're like dens of bacteria. Don't go to one."
"Well, okay." I order a drink, something called Jungle Juice, and Ryan and I watch as he mixes it in front of us, putting the concoction into two shakers, and then holding them out next to him like free weights, shaking them to show off his huge biceps.
"See?" Ryan says. "I'm glad you asked Mr. Guns over there."
"Ha! Mr Guns," I say. "You dare me to call him that?"
"Yeah, actually," Ryan says. "Call him Mr. Guns. But don't do it now."
"Because I don't want you to piss him off before he brings our drinks."
"Oh, come on," I say. "I'm very charming. He's not gonna get pissed."
Cut to ten minutes later...
"Hey, Mr. Guns," I say.
Mr. Guns stares at me.
"Can I call you Mr. Guns? Because that's what I call you in my head."
He shrugs, completely unaware that he's become a character in one of my stories.
Back when I was getting my Master's, I started writing about real people accidentally. I'd assigned myself the task of writing a novel about my grandmother's experience during the Armenian Genocide, an almost unbelievable story in which she and her younger brother were the only members of their family to survive the forced death march through Syria.
I wrote my grandmother into the story, of course. That made sense. But then I did something weird - I wrote about myself writing the story, and I introduced a character from real life, a guy I had a crush on - a floppy-haired red-head named Kevin Smith.
Kevin had no place in that story, but I made one for him anyway. I don't know exactly why I did it - I guess it was my way of keeping him around. I'm embarrassed of the character I play in the book: her dependency, her obsession, her insecurity. I'm embarrassed that she's me.
But when I read the book, even now, years later, I see the undeniable truth: it’s a good book. Despite how embarrassing it is for me, it’s really good. And I think if I had hesitated to tell the truth in it, if I hadn’t included the things I did, the personal things that make my cheeks burn when I remember them, it wouldn’t have been as good.
So after that, I just kept doing it - stealing people from the world and making them characters in fiction until I woke up one day and realized that maybe I'm not supposed to write fiction. Maybe I'm supposed to write reality.
Right now, my reality is still standing in front of me, stone-faced. "So can I get you something?" Mr. Guns asks.
"Well, uh, can I get one more drink?"
He walks off, and I look at Ryan. We both crack up laughing.
"Oh my God, I feel like such a creep!"
"You said it all serious," Ryan says. "Mr. Guns."
"I like how I thought I was gonna be charming."
"Eh, you could probably still fuck him," Ryan says.
"I'm not even attracted to him. You're the one who named him Mr. Guns, remember?"
When Mr. Guns brings my drink, I hand him a bouncy ball. "I'm sorry I called you Mr. Guns. I feel like an asshole."
"Oh, it's cool," he says. "Believe me, I've heard much worse."
"You know what bothers me?" he says. "The fact that you wrote about this guy." He just finished reading my book. He loved it to the point where he can't stop talking about it, but he's getting caught up over the fact that I included Kevin Smith.
"He doesn't deserve to be in this book," he says. "Why him?"
I shrug. "I don't know. There was just something about him."
Bouncy Ball # 40 - Sosa
"Right there," Sosa says. "You know what you're doing? You're putting too much weight on the foot you're dragging." He demonstrates a perfect glide. "You see? You barely want to touch the floor. It looks like you're dragging it, but really, all your weight is on your other foot.
"Yeah, okay," I say, trying not to show my frustration. I try again, but my foot gets caught.
"You're getting better," he says. "But you're still putting too much weight on that foot. Here, try it with music." He pulls out his phone, searches a minute, and then places it on my coffee table, pressing play. I hear the first few measures of the song "Billie Jean."
"Okay," Sosa says. "Like this." He demonstrates again, the perfect Moonwalk across my living room floor.
Again, I set my feet up like he told me. Again, I try to Moonwalk. Again, I get tripped up in five seconds. I sigh. "How long did this take you to learn?"
"Once I figured it out, like five minutes," he says.
I roll my eyes. "Of course it did."
"Try it again."
"You're still putting too much weight on the other foot," he says. "Okay, so this leg here," he hits my right thigh. "When you start, all your weight should be here, and-"
"You know, I get what you're saying," I say, interrupting. "It's not that I don't understand. It's that my body can't do it yet. Okay?"
He laughs. "Okay, just making sure. Try it again."
I try it again about a hundred times, getting no closer to being able to do it than when he first started to teach me. After about 10 more minutes, I toss my arms in the air. "I can't do this right now. I'm getting too frustrated."
"Okay," he says. "But you're gonna get it eventually."
I throw myself on my couch and groan. "Oh my God, I'm so tired."
"You should go to sleep."
"But I can't! I have to work out."
"Leah," he says. "You don't have to work out. You just drove back from Vegas. Just go to sleep. I promise, it will be okay." He pulls a chair up and sits down. "What you're doing is hard. You get that, right?"
"I know," I say. "I don't even want to do it anymore."
"Well, then why are you doing it?"
"Because I have to. Because I said I would."
"Well, if you're not having fun, and you're stressing yourself out this much, you don't have to do this. You know that, right?"
"I'm gonna finish," I say. "I'm just frustrated. It's like I do so many things all the time. And sometimes I just want to sit back and do what I want, not some stupid shit that I'm forcing myself to do."
"Write about that then," he says.
"Yeah," I say. "It's late. Thanks for talking to me. And for trying to teach me to Moonwalk."
"You'll get it," he says, standing. "Get some rest."
After he leaves, I do a second thing that I wouldn't normally do: I take his advice and go to bed.
Every day since, I try to Moonwalk. I still haven't done it, but I'm getting better.
Bouncy Ball # 41 - Wendi
"I'm really excited for the end of my set," Wendi says, sucking on the butt of her cigarette. "I have something crazy planned."
"Yeah, well, I don't know if it's funny. I thought of it earlier, and I just kept cracking up. I'm so excited."
Wendi and I are standing outside the Downtown Independent waiting for Sleepaway Camp to start. I just walked up, fresh from an open mic. Normally, I'd be at another mic, but tonight, I came here specifically to see Wendi - she's one of the best comics around, and the last few times I tried see her, I showed up late and missed her set.
"I really like your shirt," I say. It looks more like a wrap than a shirt - a long sexy opening v-shape meets down at her waist, where it's secured with a brown belt.
"Oh, thanks," she says. "This is actually for that bit. So excited."
This is Wendi before any set - focused on what she's going to say, almost frantic, obsessing about the new stuff she plans to try.
She's on second to last. I'm enjoying the show, sitting there eating popcorn, drinking a Cherry Coke. About four comics in, when there's only kernels left floating in the bottom of my bag, I set it on the floor and wrap myself in my coat. It's so cozy.
I wake up during the next comic.
Oh awesome. I just fell asleep watching a comedy show.
Finally, the host starts Wendi's intro. She has a good set, which doesn't surprise me. When she gets the light, she pulls the mic stand in front of her, slides the mic in the slot. "Okay, I never do this," she says, "but I want to do an impression for you guys. I came up with it when I was 14."
She steps out from behind the microphone. "This is an impression of me as a stripper."
The crowd yells, "Wooooooo!"
Wendi starts writhing back and forth. She reaches for her belt buckle, slides it off while tossing out small weird phrases like, "Show me your weenis." She drops the belt to the side, grabs both sides of the wrap she's wearing for a shirt, and rips it off.
"Give me your money!" she screams.
The crowd roars.
She's naked from the waist up, save for two chunks of blond wig hair, which she's affixed over each nipple. She has writing on her chest and stomach. It takes me a second to focus on what it says - two words in all caps:
Bouncy Ball # 42 - Skid Row
Tonight, I bring pizza to the people on Skid Row in downtown. Sosa won't let me go alone, so the two of us walk through the alley until we find some people. I give an entire pizza to one man, sitting by himself on the sidewalk, rocking. He smiles slightly, but doesn't say anything.
One block over, Sosa opens a pizza box and walks down the sidewalk, dispersing it to the men huddled next to buildings. "Hey Bro, would you like some pizza?" he says. "Take two."
As we head back to my car, he turns to me. "You know, that's the first time I saw homeless Mexicans."
Bouncy Ball # 43 - Arcade Guy
Thursday night, the Universe calls me to go to the arcade.
When I was young, going to the arcade was one of the many Saturday activities my dad had planned when he had my brother and I for the weekends. We'd camp out at the Skee-ball machine because that's where you get the most tickets, and my dad would egg me on while I tried to beat his high score.
I play a few games. I suck. On my way out, I walk up to a guy holding a toy gun. "You want this bouncy ball?"
Bouncy Ball # 44 - Laura
I check the clock again. It's only been five minutes. Man. This woman has a way of explaining things that makes time stop.
I guess that makes sense, seeing as how I'm sitting in the back room of the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, an actual store on the south side of Sunset Boulevard that sells products like Robot Milk, Viking Odorant, and Barbarian Repellant.
The store's actually affiliated with a volunteer program called 826LA, which provides free tutoring, workshops, and in-school services for the kids in our community. I'm here at a volunteer orientation on a Friday afternoon, and I'm somehow managing to sit still while the trainer goes through boring details.
It's really not that bad - I'm just impatient, a trait that I no doubt inherited from my mom, who to this day can't wait at a stop sign for more than 20 seconds without loudly huffing, "Well by golly, I'm never getting out of here!" Due to my recent activity, I don't sit still well these days, always forging ahead in my mind to an hour, a day, a week in the future. I'm rarely present in the moment I'm living in.
Laura, our trainer, passes around a few examples of some of the projects 826LA students have made in the past. "Every year," she explains, "we pair with a different high school in the area, and we produce a book like this." She pulls out a professional-looking printed book made by the students at Boyle Heights High, titled "La Vida Diferente".
When I have the book in my hands, I scan it, stopping randomly on one of the entries, a short interview with a Mexican street vendor from the area. The entire interview is less than 10 questions, one of them, "How heavy is your cart?"
I don't know if I'd ever even think to ask that. It's so simple.
Another question asks the street vendor about his motivation. "I do this for my family," he says. "My family is my hope."
I close the book and pass it to my right while I listen to Laura use words, words, words, words, words, so many words to say such small things.
Later, when I give Laura a bouncy ball, she asks why. Up to this point, she's the only person who asked.
It occurs to me what I'm doing wrong with this bouncy ball project - I'm not letting the episodes speak for themselves. I'm not letting you see the simplicity of the impressions people can make in such a short time.
I've forgotten that the best way to tell someone's story is to let it be what it is, to become transparent and let it move through you. I should record it how it happened, the way a journalist would, instead of making it mean something, the way a novelist would. I should let it run through me without mucking it up with my own values, my insecurities, my own passions.
I should let it be more like a picture, a glimpse. It shouldn't tell you what to feel. The thing itself should tell you all you need to know.
Like this does: