Section 1 - The Night We Met
I was thinking about Joan, as I drove over the Cahuenga Pass. The seemingly mystical Cahuenga Pass, which transports you from the harsh basin of Los Angeles over the the rolling Hollywood Hills into the lush East San Fernando Valley. I grew up in North Hollywood to become the local high school’s undersized-fullback, by pumping myself up with weights, playing with terror in my heart, and the dubious distinction of being the fastest white dude on my varsity football team. As I drove that night over the Cahuenga Pass, haphazardly seeking a future in the future, I was thinking about Joan.
I met Joan the month before with Reno, my friend, and sometimes enemy, roommate and fellow comedian. Although by then, I was sure to remind everyone, including myself, that I was no longer a comedian. Conversely, Reno proudly identified himself as a stand-up comic. We lived together in a loft near Little Tokyo in the “Arts District” of Los Angeles with a crazy special effects guy, who built all of our tiny wooden bedrooms, that were more like treehouse forts, raised off the ground for maximum floor space.
The day I met Joan was also going to my last chance to have fun in Los Angeles, at least that was the plan. I had already decided I was going back to school at Sonoma State University. A year earlier I had quit film school at Humboldt State University and now I was heading back to school to learn how to become a real writer, a writer that told stories, not jokes. Unlike my heroes Kerouac, Hemingway, Twain and Bukowski, I thought I'd find adventure in college. I was really looking for something safe and contained.
On that fateful day, I wanted to feel careless and free, by pulling off one last goofy stunt with Reno before going back to college, where I hoped to learn to be serious. Maybe I was always serious. The first time I ever performed "comedy" was at the Humboldt Brewery open-mic night the year before. I was with my older and wiser ex-girlfriend, who like a gypsy fortuneteller, looked deeply into my eyes and said, "You reminded me of Bob Dylan."
While I was really trying to do my best Woody Allen.
It's fun to make people laugh, it's intoxicating and you want to do it again and again like a new drug. On the other hand, all comedians know there is nothing lonelier than when you're driving home alone from a gig, especially when just moments before, you were killing the room. Sometimes it's enough to make your friend laugh, especially if he's another comedian.
Reno and I wanted to laugh in public, for real, for old-times sake. In the late 80’s The Onyx “Sequel” was the authentic Eastside coffeehouse in Los Feliz. Stuff happened there. You could even happen to meet someone at The Sequel, someone interesting and weird.
So Reno and I decided to stage our last hurrah there because we knew we'd get a reaction. Our plan was pretty simple. We were going to pretend to be enthralled in a game that we were going to make up the rules of as we went along. We planned to use coins and other simple and available objects to create patterns and supposed reasons one player was going to have the advantage over the other. Then we'd flip the rules just when someone was trying to understand our game. In high school we called stuff like this “fortafisgaris.” The aim is to confuse and mystify. A 'Candid Camera' stunt without the camera.
We drove to the Onyx from the “Arts District” in my beat up Volkswagen Rabbit, still my favorite car that I ever owned. It was late afternoon when we walked into a calm, yet nearly full house. We were about to stir it up.
Reno grabbed a prime table that had just opened up, as I went to order us a couple of coffees. Reno would rant in his act, and in life, that the American people were quickly being hypnotized into paying five bucks for a cup of coffee. At The Sequel, the coffee was the price of admission, and we were about to put on the show.
Behind the counter was “Rain,” the tragically gothic barista and Nigel, the shift boss, a tall good-looking British dude, who “played American Blues guitar.” Reno and I had once booked him perform at one of our "Lofty Ideals" shows. We gave him the headlining slot. Nigel brought six guitars, five audience members and bored everyone to halfway through the first song.
Ahead of me in line was an attractive older woman, who’d be labeled a cougar today, with her too-tight jeans and obviously free spirit. She wasn't really standing in line, she was dancing.
"Ha," was the first sound I ever heard from this strange older woman.
At first I didn't know what to say back, mostly because I wasn't sure if I knew her. The strange woman looked like a secret crush of mine from high school. Her name was Ruthie and she was the gorgeous older sister of teen movie-queen, Shelly Gable. In the movies Shelly played awkward outsiders, while Ruthie would have been cast as the pretty girl with the quarterback boyfriend. Her eyes were beyond blue.
“Hey" I said with confusion.
Was I talking to Ruthie? She looked so much older, still hot. At the time older women were my preference. The strange woman just laughed and danced over to the cream and sugar counter.
"Can I help you?" Eco barked.
"Oh yeah, two cups of coffee."
I could hear Reno silently laughing as her words bounced off the high wall of the coffeehouse. As I was waiting for our coffees, a magical thing happened. The strange woman danced over to Reno. "Can I join you?" It was perfect.
I sat between Reno and the strange woman at the table. “Awesome. Alright!” the strange woman blurted when she saw me. I glanced at Reno. Were we still going to try and play our game? More importantly, did I know this strange woman. Was it Ruthie? Now that we were sitting at the table it was socially acceptable to really examine her face.
“So, what do you guys do for fun,” she asked with a laugh.
We were caught in our own charade. “This,” Reno answered calmly.
“Right on,” the strange woman chuckled. “I’m feeling really good today. I don’t have to be
anywhere. I don’t have to do anything. Today anything is possible.”
Reno gave me another glance. I was still unsure if it was Ruthie, but if it was, she looked much older and weirder. I had to know.
“So, what’s your name?” I blurted.
“Joan,” she said with a smile.
Like suddenly waking from a spell, I was able to stop seeing this person as Ruthie my secret high school crush. Joan stared at me intensely and I saw her for the first time.
“Do either of you guys have a dime? I’ve got to make a call.”
Reno dramatically pulled a dime out of our game-piece bag. “I happen to have one right here,” Joan smiled and said playfully “Why thank you,” and walked to the back past the kitchen to the payphone.
“Is this chick for real?” Reno whispered under his breath.
“I think so. Let’s just see what happens.”
“Yeah, we don’t need to play the game. We already have our hands full.”
After a moment, Joan made her way past the counter back to our table. “Let’s just see,” Reno whispered.
“I needed to call to let my friend,” Joan announced.
“Cool,” I nodded as I wondered who her friend was and all the possibilities both good and bad.
“So where you do you work?” Reno asked to fill the awkward silence.
“Ben Frank’s on Sunset. I work graveyard...but not tonight...thank God.”
“Yeah, they’re open 24-hours. I’ve been there after doing a set at the Comedy Store,” Reno boasted, trying to make a connection.
“Maybe I served you if it was after midnight.”
“No, I would have remembered.”
“Who knows, you look familiar to me. I used to work at the House of Pies across the street from here too.
Reno shook his head playfully,“No, I would have remembered you.” The heavy door at the Onyx always opened like cracking thunder shaking the bells of a mad church. A tall bearded man dressed in dirty and wrinkled clothes entered the coffeehouse and walked up to our table.
Joan turned to him, “Hey, man. I’ve been waiting for you.” Joan got up and asked him “Do you want a coffee?”
The tall, dirty, bearded man nodded yes and sat down in her chair. There was a strange silence as if things are normal. Reno lived for the awkwardness. The man glared down at the table. I couldn’t stand it any longer so I spat out, “So you’re a friend of Joan’s?”
“I’m her husband.”
“Oh,” I nodded.
Reno seemed a bit thrown off, too. “Yeah, we were just sharing a table with her. She seems like a great woman.”
The dirty man just glared at us.
Joan returned to the table and put a to-go cup, fully prepared with cream and sugar, down in front of the dirty man, her husband. I offered my chair to Joan and grabbed another from a nearby table.
“I see you guys all met,” she said with a sly smile.
“Oh, we’ve met,” Reno said with his wry smile.
“I’m going to have to take care of some paperwork with Stuart. Will you guys still be here later?” I could hear Stuart growl.
“Probably. We were planning on hanging out for a while,” I said.
“Great, I’ll catch you guys later.” They exited to the sound of the mad thunder and bells.
Reno and I were pretty stunned. Who were these strange people? Joan was too hot and too free for us to leave, so we both agreed to scrap our phony game and grab a copy of the LA Weekly and wait to see what would happen next.
Lance Anderson is a writer living in California.