It’s St. Paddy’s Day. No, actually, it’s one a.m. the morning after St. Paddy’s Day, and I, having zero-fourths Irish blood in me, haven’t stopped “celebrating” yet.
Standing there on the sidewalk outside my favorite karaoke bar, I look like some tragic figure you see on the local news when they run one of those “Young and Social or Irresponsible Binge Drinker?” stories. I’m wearing about seven different shades of green and six party bead necklaces that I got by screaming, “I need those!” and repeatedly slamming my mug of green beer on the table.
Also, I’m in handcuffs.
I try to mentally prepare myself for my very first trip to jail. Possibly because I’m drunk and stoned, my brain cannot process the severity of the situation.
“Leah!” I hear coming through the wall from the building behind me. The karaoke girl is calling me up to sing. “Is Leah still here?”
“I’m here,” I want to say. “Handcuffed outside the window.” Instead, I turn to the girl next to me, a friend of mine, who looks sincerely scared out of her mind because of our little predicament.
“Man,” I say. “I really wanted to sing that song.”
She smiles nervously. I giggle.
“Is this funny to you?” Coppy McCrimestopper asks.
“Not at all,” I say.
“Then why are you laughing?”
I shrug. “I laugh when I’m nervous.”
It finally occurs to me that I may have reached my limit of luck. I’m 28 years old, I’m about to go to jail for smoking pot out of a tiny glass pipe in the parking lot of a skanky karaoke bar, and because I have no concept of consequence, I’m more worried about the fact that I missed the opportunity to sing Me and Bobby McGee to a bunch of drunk townies.
Suddenly, I feel a little stupid. A flash of panic hits me when I realize that this might just be the kind of bad news that could keep me from moving to L.A. in July.
Truth be told, me getting arrested has been a pretty long time coming. For the last ten years, I’ve been traipsing around my college town doing a plethora of illegal things right out in the open because I believe that I’m invincible like a superhero, and therefore can do whatever I want. In fact, I have often said those words out loud to my friend James Nghiem while doing these illegal things.
“Leah,” Nghiem will say. “Are you sure you can drink that bottle of homemade wine while we’re walking down the street?”
“Sure, man,” I’ll say. “I can do whatever I want. I’m invincible like a superhero.”
“But where are you gonna put the bottle?”
And then I’ll chug the rest of it, say, “Here looks good,” and place it on the sidewalk right at the corner of Asp and White Street like you do when you live in a town that has failed to arrest you for ten years of constant in-your-face illegal activity. Because if you believe you’re invincible, you have to test it, right?
I’m not talking about Russian Roulette here. I’m not talking about luck. I’m certainly not the type of person to purposely put myself or anyone I know in actual physical danger (though, due to my careless nature, I have accidentally ended up in some fairly dangerous situations). My invincibility is based purely on my extraordinary ability to get away with shit, to escape punishment no matter how well-deserved that punishment may be.
I’m 20 years old, and I’m in college. I work part time waiting tables at Coach’s, a barbecue restaurant that has a very strict no-smoking-cigarettes policy—smoking in your Coach’s uniform is never okay. Period.
Because we’re all 20, none of the servers really feel it necessary to follow the rule; most of us rebel smokers just wait until we have a lull in our tables, sneak out back when the manager is busy in the office, and light up.
One afternoon, I’m in the back enjoying a few moments of calm before more trashy white people get mad at me because there just isn’t enough sour cream on the baked potatoes I bring them. I have my lips puckered around the butt end of a Camel Light when the owner of the restaurant, a short sandy-haired man with a Napolean Complex, bursts out the door. He and I make eye contact, the cigarette still dangling from my mouth.
My first reaction is to simply open my lips, let the cigarette fall to the ground, and shove my hands in my pockets.
He doesn’t rush over to yell at me. Instead, he saunters over in an infuriatingly calm manner and stands next to me. “Hey Leah,” he says. “What’re you doing out here?”
“Oh, nothing,” I say. “Just trying to get some air.”
He nods. “You weren’t, by any chance, smoking a cigarette, were you?”
I turn to him and look right into his eyes. “No,” I say. “We’re not allowed to do that.” Meanwhile, the cigarette is still lit, rolling back and forth on the ground between our shoes. Smoke wafts up in the middle of our conversation like we’re in the audience at a Van Halen concert.
He crosses his arms. “Leah, you’re not lying to my face right now, are you?”
I laugh because that’s what I do when I’m nervous. “Nope.”
Then we just stare at each other. For a full 30 seconds.
“Well,” I say, finally breaking the silence, “better get back in to my tables.” And then I turn around and run back inside. That’s right, I literally run away from facing the consequences of my actions. Here’s the thing, though: he doesn’t fire me for lying to his face. He doesn’t even write me up for violating the sacred smoking policy. In fact, he doesn’t ever mention the incident again.
He’s not doing me any favors. He should definitely fire me. He should bring his short-man’s wrath down upon me to teach me a lesson, to build my character, to make me understand that actions have reactions. I might turn out okay if he fires me. I might own my own business or start a human rights law firm or contribute something tangible to this world.
Instead, he does nothing, and my defiant personality starts to wonder, What else can I get away with?
I believe they call that tempting fate.
My best friend Rockey and I spent many a night getting drunk at Joe’s apartment. (Not the almost-forgotten MTV movie that came out in 1996—an actual apartment rented out and lived in by a bipolar, but lovable guy named Joe.) Now, the thing about Joe’s apartment was that once Rockey and I were inside of it, it became an inescapable vortex of chaos and destruction. Every time we went over there, we played drinking games, got hammered, and systematically ruined all of Joe’s nice things, starting with a very lovely Boston fern that Rockey ran over while he was running out the back door to throw up.
A few weeks later, I knocked over Joe’s fishbowl during a blackout. Joe walked up holding a half-empty glass bowl, a pissed-off-looking fish swimming back and forth in three inches of water, and held it up in front of Rockey’s face. “Leah tried to kill Redman.”
“Oh my God!” Rockey said. Then, “Who the fuck is Redman?”
One night, Rockey passed out in Joe’s bed, so I went upstairs to try to get him. In an attempt to fight me off, Rockey started flailing around like an agitated crackhead and managed to knock over and break some very expensive looking equipment on Joe’s nightstand. I didn’t even recognize the thing he broke. If I had a guess, I would say it was a very integral piece of machinery necessary for the maintenance of a time machine. Of course, it might’ve just been a clock, or an anal probe. Either way, it was definitely not indestructible.
I have no idea why Joe kept inviting us over.
One of my last memories at Joe’s apartment also happens to be one of my favorite all-time memories. That night, Joe had convinced himself that nothing bad could happen if we all sat down and watched movies. No drinking games. “Okay,” Joe said, as we took our places in his living room, “tonight we’re not breaking anything.”
Rockey, with his ever-present drink in hand, plopped down in Joe’s favorite armchair.
“God, take it easy,” Joe said. “Stop jumping around in my chair!”
Rockey rolled his eyes. “Why?” And then, in a very obnoxious mocking voice, he sang, “What’s gon-na hap-pen?”
On the last syllable of the word “happen,” the leg of Joe’s favorite chair snapped, and Rockey tumbled out onto the carpet into a heap of retard, spilling his drink all over the floor next to him. I half-expected Joe to lose his cool and ban us from his apartment forever.
But he didn’t. He just cracked up laughing because it was hilarious, the most perfect joke. All those times before when we broke everything at Joe’s house, those were all setup for the punchline, Rockey tempting fate with a perfect line, “What’s gonna happen?” before toppling onto the ground in a puddle of ridiculousness.
“You’re gonna drop that,” Vinnie says. He’s a server assistant in the restaurant where I work. He’s just handed me a tray of food, and because I think it’s funny, I’ve been tossing it a few inches into the air and catching it.
“Come on, Vinnie,” I say. “What could possibly go wrong?”
“Well, you could drop all your food.” He gives me that sarcastic look that I love, the one that clearly says, “Do I look like I’m here to humor you?”
I laugh. “No, it’s cool. I get it. I just like to say that before I do things. You know, it’s like on a movie, when the hero unfolds his foolproof plan, and the one skeptical guy is like, ‘I don’t know, Sid. Not sure if we can pull this one off.’ And the hero says, ‘What are you talking about? What could possibly go wrong?’ And then the rest of the movie is about all the things that can and do go wrong.”
Vinnie stares at me.
“I just think it’s funny,” I say. “I like to tempt fate.”
That’s an understatement. What I mean to say is not that I like tempting fate—more like I can’t resist it. It’s a tiny uncontrollable impulse that rises up inside me, an impulse that feels like instinct, which I follow without question. Like the impulse to end my engagement. The impulse to get onstage and do stand-up comedy. The sudden decision I made to move to L.A. in July and try to make it in this business. It’s like a triple dog dare between me and myself that I can’t turn down.
And once I do it, there’s no going back. I make the choices, and I’m stuck with them.
It’s 2008. My boyfriend and I are walking back to our house from the open mic at Othello’s. I’m drunk and pouting because I had a bad set. I keep setting him up to argue with me, saying things like, “If you thought it was so funny, how come I didn’t see you laughing?”
We reach the parking lot of an Episcopalian church halfway between Othello’s and our house, and I refuse to walk anymore. I plop down on the curb directly in front of the opening of the beautiful and peaceful church garden.
“Come on,” my boyfriend says. “Get up.”
“Nope,” I say. “I’m staying here.”
We argue this way for a few minutes until I inevitably win (I’m very stubborn, and I always win), and he leaves me there on the curb, mumbling to himself as he continues the walk to our house alone. I watch him disappear into the night.
A few minutes tick by before I notice a car driving down the nearby road followed by a police car. The policeman puts on his lights, and the car pulls over right next to where I’m sitting, pouting on the curb, something that, as far as I know, isn’t illegal.
Then, impulse kicks in.
Instead of getting up and walking home like a normal person, I do a ninja back somersault into the church garden, and I hide behind the two-foot wall surrounding the garden.
Immediately, I know I’ve made an odd choice. I can’t explain the impulse that made me hide, but I know it’s a split second decision, and it feels exciting, like a triple dog dare to do the wrong thing, something I’m not supposed to do.
Of course, now I have no choice but to follow through with this ridiculous decision. So I just have to lie here in the garden with my face smooshed into some lovely begonias because I know if I stand up now, the cops will notice that I’ve been hiding, and I’ll most likely end up with a ticket for public intox, or for being needlessly suspicious.
Ten minutes pass, the traffic-violating car drives away, and I sigh my relief. Finally. But the cops don’t leave. Instead, they drive right into the church parking lot, and I can clearly see them through the garden entrance. The passenger door opens, and an officer emerges. He takes a few steps in my direction and starts beaming a flashlight toward the area surrounding me.
Now I definitely need a plan.
The same impulse that pushes me to hide from the cops kicks in again. I military crawl my way through the length of the garden out the back entrance and all the way to the corner of the block. I stand up, dust myself off, and walk back down the sidewalk right by the church and the cop car. When I walk by, the cops are still searching the garden for whatever evil might lurk within. They give me a passing glance, but they obviously have more important issues to deal with. Me, I’m just a girl walking down the street. Getting away with ridiculous shit because I’m invincible like a superhero.
A sane person might look at my string of indiscretions and say that my impulsive nature and my tendency to tempt my own fate are severe character flaws. I used to think they were, too.
But now I realize that the definitive turning points in my life have always been the results of decisions I’ve made on a whim when I’ve had nothing left to lose. What’s more, in the course of my life, each time I’ve been presented with an easy and obvious path, I’ve purposely taken the harder route.
I have three college degrees, but I don’t really use them. I am well-qualified to get a steady job, but I choose to wait tables. I had the chance to get married to a great guy and live that kind of life, but I choose to be alone. I had the chance to do anything in the world, but I choose to be a stand-up comedian.
So now, because I’m invincible and because I have nothing left to lose, because I’m afraid of nothing, because I triple-dog-dared myself to do it, because I did not go to jail for smoking pot in the parking lot of a karaoke bar on St. Patrick’s Day, I’m moving to L.A. on nothing but a few bucks and an impulse. Because I’m gonna be famous one day. And if that happens, it will all make sense. It will be the final punchline to all my setups.
What could possibly go wrong?
“I’m not going to arrest you girls,” the cop says.
My friend exhales.
“Okay, then,” I say, “how about you take me out of these handcuffs?”
“No.” He narrows his eyes. “You can just wait.”
After filling out all my personal information on my citation for “possession of paraphernalia,” the officer finally uncuffs me. “Have a good night and try not to get in any more trouble.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Sure.” He hands me my ticket, and I immediately crumple it and shove it into my pants pocket. I’ve officially learned nothing from this encounter.
Looks like my invincibility cloak is still intact. I head back into the bar where my friend James Nghiem is waiting so I can tell him my story, my newest piece of evidence for the case of my invincibility.
And maybe, just maybe, I still have time to sing.