He's mid-conversation, but I tap him on the shoulder anyway. He turns, greets me with that fake smile.
"Hey Tim," I say.
"I didn't mean to interrupt. I just saw you over here, and I wanted to give you this bouncy ball."
He reaches out to shake my hand, but I just palm the ball into his. "It's good to see you," he says. He turns to his brunch companion. "Michelle, this is Ally. Ally, this is Michelle."
I laugh. Of course he doesn't remember me. "Actually, I'm Leah."
His eyes get wide for a second while I watch the recognition cross his face. "Oh, of course, Leah. Yeah, I'm so sorry. You look like a comedian named Ally. Have you lost a lot of weight?"
I shrug. "Yeah, I guess." I'm not offended that he forgot me. I don't know him well, and I probably do look different since the last time he saw me.
I can feel his nervousness. I'd run into him a couple times before, and I know my presence puts him on edge. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy making him uncomfortable.
But that's not why I'm here, giving him this bouncy ball. I'm here because I've been carrying around this grudge for awhile, and since I ran into him today, I take that as a sign it's time to let it go. He wasn't there to taunt me or to threaten me. He didn't even know I was there - it was me that had the problem with being in the same room with him. It's me that needs to let it go.
See, I met Tim back in 2011 when we'd worked together at a Midwest comedy club. He was the headliner, and I was the middle act. It was my first time as a middle act (I'd always been an opener), and let's just say I wasn't ready for it.
In plain terms, I sucked. And Tim didn't like me because I sucked. Every night, he had to follow me and get the crowd back. He had to clean up the mess I'd created. Months later, when I heard from another friend of mine that he was telling everyone in the Midwest how awful I was, I distinctly remember thinking, Well, fair enough.
It should've ended there. But it didn't.
Just before I moved to L.A., Tim headlined the Oklahoma City Loony Bin. The last night he was in town fell on the same night my friends roasted me at the club. Incidentally, it was also the same night they gave me the 250 bouncy balls with my name on them, the very ones I'm distributing now.
My roast ended just about an hour before the regular show, so Tim walked into the club while my friends and family were still in the lobby. That night, he told one of my friends that the only reason I got booked to middle that week we worked together was because I fucked another headliner.
That's right, on the night of my roast, at the comedy club where I started doing standup in 2006, Tim walked into my house and told my friends that I fucked my way to the middle.
In the days after my roast, I found out that Tim had told a lot of people that very same lie about me. And it hurt. I confronted Tim about it. I sent him a Facebook message calling him out. He sent a message back, not five minutes later. It said, "I'm sorry. You're right. Full apology."
It didn't make me feel any better.
I know Tim feels bad for what he said about me - he's since sent me messages trying to help me meet bookers in L.A., congratulating me for getting on a festival. But the effects of what he said about me have lingered, eating away at my insides. It's the reason I don't like to ask people for help. It's the reason I am cautious and untrusting of other comedians. It's the reason I started looking at comedy as a way to prove myself rather than what it used to be - the thing that made me happiest.
"Well, I'll let you get back to your breakfast," I say. "I just wanted to come over and say hi and give you that bouncy ball."
"Well thank you, Leah. It was really good to see you."
"Yeah," I say. "It was good to see you, too." And I actually mean it. Because it's not an accident that Tim is here. It's not an accident that I'm giving him one of the bouncy balls that my friends in Oklahoma had given to me.
I'm supposed to give him this ball. And I'm supposed to forgive him. And I'm supposed to let that go and move forward.
Sometimes I find stories for these bouncy balls. Sometimes the stories find me.
"I feel like there's a trend in television and entertainment now where the bad guy is the hero," Andy says. "It's all about the anti-hero. But I miss the good guys. Why can't we have a good guy to look up to?"
"Exactly!" I agree.
"We need a hero," Andy says.
At that point, Andy, John, and I exchange a look as we all simultaneously break into that Bonnie Tyler song from the "Footloose" soundtrack. "I need a her-OOOOO!"
It's my favorite moment of all the podcasts we've recorded, but no one except for the three of us will ever hear it - a couple days after recording this segment, Andy decided to cut it. It was a smart decision - the segment had nothing to do with our podcast, which is a lighthearted show about fictional characters.
While I agree that it didn't belong, I'm glad to know there are other people in the world who miss having good people in movies, in books, on TV. It's like all our heroes are flawed, and good characters are cliche, outdated, a thing of the past. Today is all about Walt from Breaking Bad and almost every character in Game of Thrones, who make us want to watch to see how bad they can get.
"I wish there were a movie about Jules after Pulp Fiction," John says. "Him as the shepherd, wandering around the world and righting wrongs like Kane from Kung Fu."
I think of Sosa. He loves the end of Pulp Fiction, where Samuel L. Jackson's character says, "I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd."
Andy reads my mind. "Fernando would love that."
"He could play him in the movie," John says. "Sosa could totally play the shepherd. I'd watch a movie starring Sosa as the shepherd."
Bouncy Ball # 105 - Server in that BBQ place near my house
"That is so infuriating." I fork a chunk of cornbread in my mouth. "Oh my God, this is so fucking good."
"Right?" Sosa says. I don't know if he's agreeing with me about the cornbread or my righteous indignation. Probably both.
We're at that BBQ place on Temple, just a block and a half from my house, the one I always said I wanted to try. While we devour the delicious pulled pork, hot links, and cornbread in front of us, Sosa fills me in on this week's news. I'm not proud of this, but on any given day, I have no idea what's going on in the world. I'm not sure if this is indicative of my busy-ness or of my narcissism. Probably both.
Today, Sosa fills me in on Donald Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers, who's leaked racist remarks had come out in public earlier in the week.
"And how much money does that guy have?" I ask. "A hundred million dollars?"
"I don't even know," Sosa says. "Probably more."
"It makes me sick," I say. "He doesn't deserve that. Why do people like that get all the money?" I gesture at the food in front of us. "And why can't I even eat in this restaurant without worrying about whether or not I can afford it?"
This is not rare, he and I eating and talking about injustice in the world. It comes up a lot, actually. It's not that we believe we deserve more money. It's just that it seems like the people who have all the money aren't good people. It's just that it seems so unfair, so unjust, so wrong.
I leave a bouncy ball on the table in our restaurant, and the server calls after me before I walk out. "Excuse me! You left this!"
"Oh, it's for you," I say. "It's good luck."
"Oh," she says. "Thank you."
As Sosa and I walk out onto the sidewalk, I laugh. "She's probably thinking, 'There'd better be a tip and not just this ball.'"
"I'm serious," I say. "That's what I thought when I waited tables. People would leave cards about Jesus, and I'd be like, 'Yeah, that's nice. There'd better be a tip in here.'"
Bouncy Ball # 106 - Chess
"I hate to say it, but I think I might have you."
Sosa's staring at the board, studying his king. "Yeah. If I move here, you'll come take the pawn, and I can't go anywhere. That's check mate."
I can't hold back my smile. It's my first Chess win. Sosa taught me to play a couple weeks ago, so I bought a ten-dollar board at Rite-Aid, and since then, I've been obsessed with it. Over the past few weeks, I've downloaded two apps on my phone, I've played during every moment of free time I have, and I've even watched the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer.
Sosa's pretty obsessed with it, too. For a few days now, he's been waiting for his new official Chess set to arrive by FedEx, which he purchased after we played several games with the cheap plastic pieces that came with my set, and he'd picked up one of my pawns, saying, "These pieces are so light."
"Yeah," I'd agreed. "It's like they have no heart."
I like Chess because it makes me think. But maybe even more so, I like Chess because it's such an apt metaphor for so many things in life, and the writer in me can't stop seeing the parallels. Even in this game, the way I win seems symbolic of something. Sosa had been distracted on the other end of the board taking all of my important pieces, but I'd snuck in a back way when he didn't expect it.
Since that first win, I haven't won another game. Maybe Sosa's playing tougher, I don't know. I know why I lose, though. At first, it was mostly because of stupid mistakes and bad decisions. But even when I stopped making those mistakes, in the end, he always gets me because I'm playing on the defense the entire time, just trying not to get taken.
Like they say in the movie Bobby Fischer, it's about taking risks. You can't just play on the defense, protecting yourself from things that happen. You have to make things happen.
Bouncy Ball # 107 - A random city street
Davey growls, waking me from a restless haze, and I sit up. A man walks by on the sidewalk next to us and peers in, curious. Not a threat. I check the time. 1:30 AM. Must've fallen asleep again. I've been here for two hours now.
I'm sleeping in my car, parked on a random city street in L.A. I have Davey Dog with me. He's sitting shotgun. He spent the first few minutes staring at me expectantly, like we had a destination other than this, but now he's resigned to the fact that we're staying in the car.
Why am I sleeping in my car? Well, to be honest, I have no idea. I'd say I did it because it's something I wouldn't normally do, and I needed a bouncy ball thing, but that's not true - the bouncy ball was an after thought. I'm pretty sure that this is actually a mini meltdown.
Maybe the real question isn't, "Why am I sleeping in my car?" Maybe the real question is, "What happened before I ended up here?"
Monday nights at the Comedy Store always make me feel unsettled. Tonight was no different. I'd walked in and saw that the host was the guy who doesn't like me. I know he doesn't like me because every time I check in with him, he has a sneer of disgust on his face, and he doesn't look at me - he looks over my head for more important people.
So when I saw him hosting, I knew there was no way he was putting me up. I didn't even bother to check in, just sat in the back for the duration of the mic and then stood up to leave. As I was walking out, he was outside talking to another comic. "Oh," he says with disdain when he sees me walking toward him. "I guess you want to check in, too?"
"I, uh, what? I guess?"
"Of course," he says, scowling, and walks back into the showroom.
What a dick. I wasn't gonna ask him shit.
I thought about leaving right then, but something was bugging me about the way he'd said that. It's like he was looking for someone to shit on, and I crossed his path.
You know what? That's not okay.
I headed back into the club, spotted the host's stupid face in the middle of the room and walked right up to him. "Hey," I said. "I wasn't even gonna ask you to go on. I was walking by because I was leaving."
He sighed, annoyed. "Well, everyone's been checking in with me all night. I wasn't trying to sound rude."
"Well, I wasn't asking," I said. "Just wanted to tell you that." I turned and walked out of the club.
After that, I started thinking about what really happened in there. I'd watched the host greet several comics, and he was kind and smiling with all of them. I watched them all walk around the room giving hugs and high fives, and I sat by myself in the back, talking to no one.
I'm not a weirdo. I'm not awkward. I'm not an outsider. In real life, I talk to people all the time. But for some reason, the comedy community, especially in the Comedy Store, makes me feel like a freak. It's like they hate me, and I don't really understand why.
Maybe I'm not spending enough time there. Maybe I'm spending too much time playing Chess and writing blogs and giving away stupid bouncy balls. Maybe I have to cut more things out of my life. Maybe I have to give up more to get something. I decided that I had to spend more time doing standup and less time doing the things that made me happy. But within an hour, the weight of that decision hit me. It hit me that I came close to sacrificing my moments of happiness for a place and a group of people that make me feel less-than.
And then I packed up my dog and drove down the street. And then I found a spot by the curb, and I shut my car off, and I went to sleep.
I still can't say why sleeping in my car made any sense to me. My best guess is that it's a reminder of all the things I do have - a house, a place to sleep. It's a reminder of how much worse it can be. I'm sleeping here to remind myself that being miserable in this moment is a choice, and when I have a choice, it's not worth giving up the things that comfort me, the things that make me happy. It's to remind myself that what the Comedy Store makes people believe - that to be a standup, you have to be miserable - is just plain wrong.
Bouncy Ball # 108 - Bartender at Flappers
"Ok, so now you get to hear my spiel about how I have this drink ticket, but I don't have any cash to tip you. Is it okay if I still order a drink?"
The bartender laughs. "It's no big deal."
"I'm so sorry," I say. "I hate that I can't tip you."
"Really, it's fine," he says. He gets my whiskey and ginger ale.
"Well, can I give you a bouncy ball?" I hold one out in my hand.
"Really? Sure." He grabs it. "You know, I actually prefer this to money?"
"No, really," he says.
I walk into the showroom and take a seat in the back while the rest of the comics in this Uncle Clyde's Comedy Contest go on. I'd gone on first, but felt like I should stay to the end, even though I can tell I'm not gonna place.
I didn't have a bad set - not at all. But there was nothing particularly memorable about my set either. The truth is, I don't feel connected to any of my jokes right now, so in my mind, it really doesn't matter what I do. And I think that reflects onstage - I get laughs, but I'm like a machine. I'm not engaged in my own act. I'm just pumping out punchlines that I think a crowd of people will laugh at.
After all the contestants go onstage, the host introduces the show's headliner - an actual booked comedian who was there to entertain the crowd while they tally up the contest votes. "Please welcome to the stage the very funny Alex Ortiz!"
My head snaps up. "Holy shit," I say out loud. I remember Alex - he used to headline at the Oklahoma City Loony Bin. I'd seen him on that stage so many times. I'd never talked to him, but I feel connected to him now.
The second Alex steps foot onstage, you can visibly see the difference between him and all the contest comics that had gone on before. There's an easiness about him. He's a club comic, the real deal, and he looks like the stage is his home.
Seeing him up there, I remember the excitement I felt watching the headliners in Oklahoma. I remember watching them and wanting nothing more than to be that.
And yet, here I am, years later, jaded in Los Angeles, thinking that you have to know someone or tell some weird quirky hipster jokes. But Alex reminds me that funny is funny no matter where you are. He reminds me that L.A. is not better than anywhere else. He reminds me that I have something that no one can take away: experience.
That's it. I've put the years in. I've done the clubs. I've done a festival or two. I've gotten the audition that everyone wanted and did a fine but unremarkable job. I hit a wall suddenly, a wall that only I know I've hit, and now, sitting here in the back of Flappers, I know exactly why.
I've been trying to do standup like I thought it should be rather than what it means to me. In Oklahoma, I took risks. You never knew what I was gonna do onstage.
I've finally figured out what's been so wrong with my standup. And of course, I can explain it with a Chess metaphor. I fixed all the things about myself that I thought were getting in the way, I put myself on guard, and I've even stopped making bad decisions, but in the end, I'm doing safe comedy. I'm doing passable comedy. I'm not taking any risks.
To be great, you have to take risks.
Bouncy Ball # 109 - Story written by Amanda Webb
I’ve been planning the weirdest adventure.
I’m hanging out near rainbow stacks of cookie boxes while my friend helps her daughter sell girl scout cookies from a stand/folding card table. Kiera is 10 or 11. Her limbs are long and thin, like she’s been growing in a rush. Her mom says “Kiera’s a good salesperson! If she’d just stop touching customers.” I don’t comment, but her words fully click into place when I see Kiera’s 60lb frame lean heavily into the action of dragging a very large man by his extended and obviously reluctant arm towards her table. "Let go of him! Stop touching customers!" her mother and I yell from opposite directions. Kiera’s got a full sales patter down-repeatedly clasping her hands behind her back to innocently ask those in her path “What’s your favorite girl scout cookie?”
Later, Kiera plops down on the bench next to me, where I've been playing with my phone. She pulls her knees up to her chest and casually asks me if she can come over to my house. "Sure!” I answer automatically, only after a pause thinking to ask if her mom is coming, too. I know that Kiera likes my cats (she can’t have any, because her dad is allergic), and I have hula hoops she has seen but not had a chance to play with.
Through sporadic bits of conversation, my friend and I discover that her daughter isn’t planning an afternoon visit or a sleepover, but an actual stay with me. The time period is completely indefinite, and I never ask. Her mom and I keep joking about the hypotheticals, as Kiera works her way back and forth between us, quickly finding solutions to anything in her way. Once school is out, of course! It's okay that my house is gross, and doesn't have room, she'll help me clean it! (I don't even let most people in my house right now because it's embarrassing and makes me feel judged.) I try to imagine the scenario: how long could I get away with a minimum of discipline through fun scheduled activities like hula hooping, swimming, catnipping cats, and whatever else 10 year old girls still like to do?
I get a text the following Monday, from the same friend, saying that on the drive home from school, her daughter asked from the backseat, "Have you asked Dad yet about me staying at Amanda's?" I laugh and text back that I'm going to borrow Kiera because she said she'd help me clean. "For about 10 minutes she will, then she'll watch cartoons," her mom counters, but adds "At least they'll be cartoons you like."
Thanks to that one comment, I realize the idea of hanging out with a 10-year-old girl is really growing on me, in no small part because none of my friends will watch these cheesy foreign shows that are my favorite thing, and I bet Kiera will. I message her mom curiously about some logistics. I'm beginning to think, "This is pretty crazy, and definitely not something I'd normally do… maybe that's a good adventure for a bouncy ball.”
Of course, it hasn’t happened yet. School won’t be out until the end of May, and Leah will probably be done by then. So, no, I have not “borrowed” a child, or stretched the limits of my minimal ability to discipline, or even shared space with a child. I’m sure when that happens it will probably be a more exciting story of mayhem and deep inadequacy on my part, but I’m tired of always waiting for something in the distance. Maybe you’ll get to read that story and maybe you won’t, but I liked sharing this one. You can imagine what awaits me. Right now, technically, this bouncy ball is in limbo. Kiera can have it as a prize and memento if things go well, but if it's a disaster, the ball goes to her mom for succeeding where I have pathetically, immediately, failed.
Amanda, it seems like you believe that you haven't found a story for your bouncy ball.
But the truth is, you've found the story. The story is you.
Bouncy Ball # 110 - 8th Grader at my school
"You know what I hate?" she says, pushing her long brown hair back behind her shoulders.
"What's that?" I'm sitting in the Board Room at the school where I work with one of our 8th grade students.
I'm usually sitting behind a desk doing stupid administrative work all day, but every now and then, I get to interact with the kids that go to our school, and it's always the highlight of my day. Today, I get to work with an anxious but charming 8th grade girl who's going through a bunch of impressions she's planning to do at the Talent Show. Her teacher had sent her to me because I'm a comedian, and she thought I could help with some stage advice.
Her impressions, by the way, are fantastic.
"Well you know, like, sometimes, I'll be doing an impression, you know?" She speaks at an almost-frantic pace. "And sometimes, people who are watching...well, maybe they've heard the impression before or something, you know? And I'll do it, and then they just won't laugh." She shakes her head. "I hate that."
I smile, stifle a laugh. "Well, I hate to say it, Lady, but you're just gonna have to deal with the fact that they're not always gonna laugh."
"But it's so awkward," she says. "I don't want that to happen."
"Well, I'm not gonna lie, it's gonna happen again. And you'll just have to keep going."
"It's so frustrating," Sosa says.
Again, we're sitting in a restaurant eating, talking about all the injustice in the world. Tonight, we've covered racism, homophobia, and the unfair economy of the 1%.
"It's like we're all just pawns," Sosa says. "And we don't matter. We're just pawns to them."
"We're not pawns," I say. "We're shepherds."