(Editor’s Note: The following is a short story from OKC-based comedian James Nghiem.)
“People come here and think the city’s gonna fix them,” Mario said as he tended bar. “The city’s not gonna fix them, bro. It’s not the city, it’s you.”
It was a slow night. When it’s empty and dark like this, even beautiful California is just another place you can feel alone.
“People come here doing the wrong stuff and they get here and do the exact same stuff,” he continued. “They fall into the same patterns. They look at the city like that’s their problem. They’re their own problem. It’s never the city. It’s always you. Remember that.”
I tried to take this to heart, even as I left Los Angeles, but there were a few people I made an exception for. When it came to some, I blamed the city.
On my last day in Los Angeles, I was walking to my car, trying not to make eye contact with the homeless man who was screaming at the air. He was holding a flat tire from his bike and desperately trying to make a connection with anyone. He was frantic.
“You! You,” he said to a random man on the street who was vigorously ignoring him. “Oh you won’t look at me! I hate this city! If I had any money, and you were in my position, I’d give you all I had! This fucking city! This city doesn’t care about anyone! I just want someone to look at me! I have a flat tire! I just want some change to put air in it! Look at me! Nobody in this city will look at me! They won’t even give me change!”
He got to me but didn’t look at me. His face gave me the impression that he was about to cry or fall to his knees. Whichever. It’s not like he had the energy to prevent either at this point. He couldn’t even stop himself from yelling over some change.
“Hey man,” I said, “here’s five dollars.”
“No. No man. I wasn’t talking to you. I’m just tired of this city. I can’t believe it. I’m so tired. No one will look at me.”
“I know. Me neither. It’s a terrible place,” I said and handed him five dollars. I didn’t really need it then. The experiment of living in Los Angeles was over. I wanted to go home. “Take it.”
“This city. It makes me angry all the time.”
“Me too. I get it.”
“Thank you. Thank you. It’s just this city. It wears on me.”
“It’s cool. I know, man.”
I learned a lot of lessons from home before I moved. Lesson 901: Comedians are crazy. People say this so much that it sounds cliché, but I’ve witnessed this mania firsthand and experienced it, too. Standing in front of Zach’s new/used vehicle, I was simultaneously admiring his truck’s beauty while worrying about the relative poor-man’s fortune it must have taken to purchase it. As I did this, I reminded myself: Zach’s crazy. Comedians are all crazy.
“Fuuuuck,” I said. “That’s nice.”
“I know. Right?” he said, flipping up seats and opening compartments to reveal gratuitous secret speakers as well as other luxuries.
“What happened? How’d you do this?”
“I’m doing comedy full time.”
“What? What do you mean? Did you pay for this with comedy?”
“No. I’m living out of my car. This is an investment. I’m gonna sleep in this. I’m gonna hit the road.”
“Whaaat? The fuck? Are you serious?”
“Don’t worry,” he said with a calmness that probably only comes after answering these same questions from a line of concerned friends and family, which I was sure I was currently at the end of. “I’m only parking in safe places, under street lights. I thought it out. Trust me.”
“What are you going to do for food?”
“Easy. I’m eating fresh.”
“What? Like Subway?”
“I’m getting a cooler full of ice. I’m putting meat in there. I’m gonna eat a lot of apples. A lot of organic apples. Really fresh. I’ll be super healthy, super organic.”
“You sound like Kramer right now.”
“We’re all Jerry.”
And we left it like that, exchanging good lucks and goodbyes. Months passed before I saw Zach in Norman again. His once shiny truck was dented and hobbling.
“What the fuck?” I said. “What happened?”
“Somebody hit me in Denver while I was parked on the side of the road.”
“Jesus, man. You look terrible.”
“Of course I look terrible! All I’ve been eating are apples!”
I was hosting an open mic at The Hollywood Hotel when I met the kid from Tennessee. He didn’t tell his parents where he was headed, packed up his car and drove to California with a few months’ worth of comedy experience and the expectation of making it or going home fast. He fumbled through his pockets for some quarters so that he could buy a drink to perform; a rule at this particular mic. I bought him a water to appease the bartender, then said he should probably find a job and a place to stay that wasn’t his car. Sleeping out of your car can go bad, I’d learned.
“You can’t make it here fast,” I said, telling him advice I wish I could follow myself. “Get settled in. Comedy is a long game, man. Seriously.”
“Thanks,” he said, gripping the bottle of water with his dirty hands and smiling. “And thanks for the water. That’s really nice.”
And then he disappeared. He showed up a few months later in line, outside of Flapper’s Comedy Club in Burbank, again, with a smile on his face.
“Hey. I remember you from my first open mic here!” he said.
“How’s it going! Are you doing better? Did you get a place?”
“No. But I got this,” he said, pulling out a bottle of shampoo from his pocket with his still dirty hands. “I go into the ocean and hit my skin with a couple drops of this and I’m good to go.”
My eyes widened and my head kind of tilted like I was about to shake it.
“Fuuuuck,” I said, unsurprised. Because comedians are crazy no matter what city they’re in.
I was at Othello’s in Norman, sitting at the bar. My arms were crossed, and my head was drooping. I was tired. I was tired from work. I was tired from drinking. I was tired of all of this. Maybe Oklahoma’s the problem, I thought.
My other comic friends had already made their way to Chicago, Austin, Denver, New York or California. It might’ve been time I did the same, unless I wanted to run the risk of getting trapped.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
My mom says I need to stop absorbing so much negative energy from my environments. In my rebuttal, I always suggest that my energy helps to change the energy of my surroundings. On nights like this, which are frequent, I don’t argue. Is it the city or is it me that’s filled with this joy-draining anxiety?
Cameron walked in from the dark. At the time, he lived in the aforementioned Austin. I was happy to see him even if there’s always a 40/60 chance that we get into a fight. Despite being good friends, we always have something to debate. Maybe tonight will be different, I thought. Maybe he’ll say something nice tonight.
“You look terrible,” he said.
“I believe it. No argument here.”
“You look like the last guy in the nursing home after all his friends have passed away,” he said, laughing.
I nodded, then said, “I think I’m gonna move.”
I was at The Hollywood Hotel, listening to a comic tell a series of derogatory Armenian street jokes. If you’ve never heard an Armenian joke, they’re kind of a mix between hateful “Jews own everything!” knee-slappers and “Mexican’s are smelly!” zingers. It’s the opposite of delightful. When he was done, I shook his hand escorted him off the stage.
“Give him another round of applause,” I said convincingly into the mic, but I didn’t really want anyone to applaud this asshole. “It’s weird living in Los Angeles and hearing shitty Armenian jokes. Where I’m from, we only had one Armenian girl, and she was one of the most beloved comics in town.”
I got some light, punchy laughter out of this. In the front, I saw one of my comic friends, Wanjiko, whispering to somebody and smiling. I guessed she felt like she was on the inside of this joke. She knew I was from Oklahoma and that my Armenian best friend Leah was from there, too. We both lived in L.A. now. Despite being comics and living in the same city, I never saw her these days. This was accentuated by the fact that she wasn’t here now. Los Angeles is so big, even if you’re doing the same thing as everyone else, you’re still stuck doing your own thing.
When I was younger, my dad told me a story about a parent who died and was so worried about his kid that he skipped Heaven and rushed back to Earth. When he returned, he was reborn as a child, but so much time had passed that his son was a dying old man. I always thought it was a stupid story.
After I got off stage, I was sitting alone, drinking and timing the next comic to make sure he didn’t wear out his welcome. Maybe there’s not much of a difference between being a ghost chasing after a time that’s passed and being the last dude at the nursing home. Maybe they both should both move on, let go to find something happier.
Fuck this city, and fuck me for feeling this way.
When I got back to Oklahoma, I counted up the time that I had stayed in L.A.: five months and 30 days. During that time, I stayed in four apartments and one house. Sometimes, my roommates weren’t the calmest.
I was living in L.A. with a pair of transplants, a couple from east of here. Most of the people I met in L.A. were all transplants from east of here. I was asleep on the couch when Billy and Kelly nudged me awake. They were a little drunk but in good spirits.
“Can you go into the other room?” Billy asked with a smile. “Me and the lady friend are gonna have some alone time.”
“Whatever,” I said. My eyelids were flickering. I was half asleep.
“Thanks! You’re the best!”
I labored to our fourth roommate’s room. She wasn’t home, and we decided I could get a couple hours of sleep on her bed while she was gone. I wasn’t asleep long when Kelly rushed into the room. In the dark I couldn’t see her.
“Billy hit me!” she screamed.
The change in energy was so sudden and I was so disoriented that I almost thought she was joking.
“What?” I said lazily. “What’s going on?”
“I said Billy hit me!” she ran back out like she didn’t want to wait for me to boot up. I followed her.
In the living room, Billy had his hands up and his shoulders squished inward in a very peaceful manner. He looked embarrassed, like he farted or broke a glass.
“Bro! Bro!” he said. “I didn’t hit her.”
“What’s happening? What’s going on?”
“He talked shit on my family! And then he hit me!”
“I didn’t hit her.”
“Why does my lip hurt! Look at my lip, Billy!”
I didn’t have my glasses. I couldn’t see anything.
“Dude. What’s happening?” I said, and moved toward Billy. I was trying to be composed.
Billy’s eyes looked like a dog’s as it was being scolded. They were so big and scared, but not of me.
“I said something. I don’t remember what I said, but she’s drunk. She said I was talking shit on her family and ran up and started hitting me. I pushed her off of me, which I probably shouldn’t have done. She hit her head on the wall and bit her lip. She’s drunk and hit her head. That’s why she doesn’t remember anything.”
“Billy! Then why is my lip fat?” Kelly screamed and ran toward the door.
“Don’t go out there!” Billy pleaded and ran after her. “L.A.’s dangerous! You’ll get raped!”
“Oh my god!” Kelly yelled angrily.
“Oh no oh no,” Billy said. “I shouldn’t have said that but please stay. It’s late. Something bad could happen!”
She ran out the door and Billy ran after her. I started to follow them when Billy ran back inside.
“Oh god. Oh god. I twisted my ankle. Oh god,” he said.
I finally had my glasses on. I helped him to his bed.
“My life is over,” he said, crying. “She’s at the landlord’s house. I’m gonna lose my apartment. I’m gonna lose my life. I lost my girl. I only came here because her.”
“She’s at the landlord’s apartment. She’s staying there tonight. Oh god. This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Did you hit her?”
“No. God no.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Then go to sleep. She’s good for the night. Figure it out in the morning.”
“I want to die.”
“No you don’t. Go to sleep.”
He calmed down but continued to cry. I hate this city, I thought. Why is every night some variation of this?
Taking a break from California, I went back home to do some shows and play some music with my brother. I was in Tulsa doing a show with my friend Brady who I’d asked to open for me at a comedy show. The venue owner had just informed us that times are, in fact, tough. He did this as he handed me a wad of cash that was less than what we had agreed upon. I counted it up, and it was enough to buy some hot dogs. Brady and I went to find some hot dogs.
“I feel like shit, man.”
“Don’t say that,” he said, stuffing his face with a hot dog. “I won’t know what to do if you get sad. You’re a young comic warrior, man.”
“You told me that once. You told me I was a young comic warrior.”
“Man. I was probably drunk.”
“No, but it helped. When OU let me open up for Hannibal Buress, I was freaking out backstage, but I remembered you told me I was a young comic warrior. And I chilled out a lot. James Nghiem told me I was a young comic warrior.”
“Yeah. Don’t let anything make you sad. You’re a young comic warrior. You’re James Nghiem. Everybody knows that.”
I was drunk outside of an arcade bar with an even more inebriated blind girl. Technically, she was only legally blind and compared herself to the mouse from Flowers for Algernon: a creature with a limited perception of the world that was perhaps better for it. She was on a mission to find funny people. At least, that’s what she said. Her friend had told her that I was funny, hence my being there.
“I want to make fuck-you money,” she said. “So I can say fuck you to everyone who was mean to me in high school.”
“Uhhh … That’s cool,” I said. I guess everybody needs a thing they care about.
She was working on a Clerks-style indie project set in the lower levels of Hollywood; levels like working on set dressing, makeup and other behind-the-scenes Hollywood jobs. Coincidentally, I know a lot about the movie Clerks, and she wanted some insight on what open mics are like. She was short, so as we stood, I was looking down at her twitching eyes and smelling her terrible breath while she was looking up. I wasn’t sure what she was seeing.
“You can kiss me if you want,” she said.
“Man … I’m good,” I said. I was wondering if this is where this was going.
“Yeah. I’m not into this.”
“Yep. I’m not attracted to you,” I say again with different words.
“Did you just come to talk about my movie?”
“You know I’m really rich, right?”
“I don’t give a shit.”
“Fuck. Now I have to see your comedy.”
She continued to drink some more and, amid being blackout drunk, she told me some story about how when she was 16 her first boyfriend drowned at the beach, high on heroin. It was probably the saddest story I heard in L.A., and during my time there, I heard a lot.
Time passed. She started dating a comic but still hit me up from time to time to talk about the movie she was trying to put together. Also, she’d gotten progressively interested in the L.A. open-mic scene. I wondered if she was starting to get competitive with her boyfriend and needed pointers.
One day, she called me to see if I’d gone to the beach yet. The answer was no. I hadn’t been to the beach since moving here, so I agreed to meet her.
“Do you know what’s significant about the beach?” she asked when we got there.
She paused, as if to say, you remember that story about how my boyfriend died? The memory of which hit me. She hasn’t been to the beach since her high school boyfriend died. Fuck.
“Where are your friends?” I asked.
“Most of my friends don’t know that story. It’s too dark.”
“Then, why the fuck am I here?” I said.
“Because you’re James Nghiem,” she said, and moved toward the ocean, the ocean where she left her most painful memory.
I thought back to Brady. I thought back to all the comics I’d met in California, and how I’m not that different from any of them, and how I possibly can’t matter that much in a place where there’re armies of people like me. Then I looked at the ocean, and I thought I was witnessing someone overcome some terrible trauma. I was thinking the human spirit can never be broken. And it made me happy to finally learn this lesson.
Later on, after some time, a mutual friend informed me that this girl is a terrible liar and addicted to heroin. It was possible that all her stories were made up, thus negating any good vibes acquired from that day.
I hate this city. I hate myself for ever believing in it.
It was my last night in Los Angeles when I went to find my best friend Leah to tell her I was leaving. I didn’t really know anyone in L.A., and my departure wasn’t a big deal for anybody outside of me, but I felt like it would have been shitty if I left without saying anything.
I arrived at her house, where she was running an open mic out of her garage. I walked through a crowd to get to her. She looked pretty distracted. Running a mic takes a lot of energy. I assumed she was timing whoever was on stage.
“Hey,” I said when I got close to her. I texted her earlier, so she knew I was coming. “All right. I’m heading out.”
It was a very abrupt, low-key good-bye.
“Really?” she said, not surprised by me leaving, but maybe surprised of how shitty my goodbye actually was. “Hey. Listen. It’s not the city. It’s you.”
I know she probably meant this as a rallying cry or pep talk. She meant it’s not the city that sucked, but it is I who in fact sucked, and if I were ever going to grow as a human being I needed to show this city that it didn’t beat me. That wasn’t how I took it.
“I know,” I said, “but if it’s not the city and it’s just me, I’m always me in whatever city I’m in. If it doesn’t matter what city I’m in, I’d rather be at home. I’m tired, man. I can’t sleep here.”
She didn’t seem to know what to say to this. Maybe it was too loud to hear me over the comic on stage and the noise pollution outside. Maybe I was being difficult and contrary for no reason. But it didn’t matter. I was leaving, and maybe in my mind I had already left. Instead of arguing, she told me she loved me as she hugged me.
Multiple people during my stay in California told me that I gave terrible hugs. In the moment, I wondered if it felt like she was hugging a ghost. Maybe I am a ghost and I’ve simply learned not to hold on to things that aren’t meant for me; like this state, the people in it, a past life where my friends never evolved and we all occupied complementary spaces in one another’s lives.
Ghost or not, I did my best to hug her back, and then we separated. After which, I went home to figure out where I was heading next. At home, a little happier, I debated whether I hated myself or that city more.
Fuck it. Even ghosts have futures they can’t foresee. Even ghosts can write happy endings for themselves if you give them a second. If you’re fortunate enough to choose the setting in which your story unfolds, you better believe that. Make it a good one, whatever city you wind up in.