Open Mic Night at Brain Wash: My Creative Journey through California


By Gabriel Ricard


Whenever I write articles that reflect on long-ways-back travels, I have to spend at least a few sentences on trying to convey astonishment. It has been eight years since I touched ground in California for the first time, and I have a very hard time believing that. Certain memories have the high contrast weirdness that comes with swearing up and down that they literally just happened a few seconds ago. I haven’t been to California as many times as I would like. The first visit was in 2007, and then I didn’t get a chance to go back until late last year.


Growing up, I wasted a lot of my childhood on movies. One of the reasons for that was for the way it brought me to all the cities I didn’t know if I would ever get to visit. Movies helped me become yet another clichéd little kid who wanted to visit New York City. They also threw me in and around the neon shoebox collages and wildly contrasting sprawling labyrinths that make up the cities of the entire world. California metropolises like Los Angeles and San Francisco were certainly part of the movies I watched. I would imagine I wanted to visit them, but I honestly can’t recall imagining misadventures on the streets of those towns, in the way I wanted to get hopelessly lost in Manhattan or Tokyo.


Even so, when the chance to stay in Hayward came up in the summer of 2007, I was still excited. I was still at a point in my life in which any long road trip was probably, almost certainly a great idea. All of it had potential, both the journey and the destination. I was pathetically enthusiastic for any opportunity to leave Virginia, go somewhere else for an extended period of time, and have no clue every step of the way as to when I might get back home. I’m not quite that blissfully dense about the realities of traveling for a period of eternity and a half anymore. I still move around an awful lot, because it’s ultimately cheaper and more entertaining than having children and waiting for death. Last year, I was back in California for the first time in seven years, so I’m clearly still okay with going on the road for a while.


When I went to California in 2007, it was to stay with my girlfriend at the time, while she was housesitting for friends. I didn’t really care about the reason. I just wanted to take another unreasonably long Greyhound trip from one end of the country to the other. This would be the longest stretch on a Greyhound in my life, going from Richmond VA to Hayward CA. I had gone to places like Santa Fe in 2005, so I at least had an idea of what I was going to be in for. I understood that it would be at least a few days of torturing my knees with cramped coaches, eating food that even my unbalanced body would try to reject outright, and meeting people who emphasize the fact that the rainbow of human diversity consists mostly of ribbons made from hair and food coloring.


All of those constants with traveling are gently horrifying to me now. In 2007, it was still an adventure, and I was still very much ready for it.


I didn’t get to spend a lot of time in Los Angeles, which is roundabout where I’m going to be this Friday, April 25th for what promises to be an extraordinary reading at Gatsby Books. I was there just long enough to have a U.S. immigration official ask me if I was an American citizen (these interactions occurred at every stop between El Paso TX and L.A.), and to get put on a bus that took the longest route imaginable to Hayward, where my girlfriend would pick me up. The part of me that never wanted to see a Greyhound bus as long as I lived (that clearly worked out…) hated the extra handful of hours the route dumped on a body that hadn’t showered in three days. The part of me that wanted as much travel and bizarre human interaction as possible for a novel I swore I was going to start any day loved every second of that last leg of the journey. As I always tried to do when I was younger, I obsessively tried to engage everything around me, while trying with equal fervor to commit everything that was going on to memory.


When traveling, it is both a blessing and a curse to be so intensely aware of the differences between where you are and where you came from. I had imagined that being raised on the west coast of Canada would have made visiting California more of the same. I learned about twenty minutes after crossing the border into California that I was spectacularly wrong. It could have been that I had been living in Virginia for the past several years, but I spent the first couple of days in Hayward and San Francisco dealing with culture shock. Which was fine, since the only thing I definitely wanted to do while housesitting was start my first novel.


And then I remembered that I kind of wanted to try doing standup.


The nice thing about a huge city is that if you want to do something creative, you probably have more opportunities than you are ever going to know what to do with. With my girlfriend’s unwavering support, I realized that if you timed it correctly, you could easily do an open mic show every single night. San Francisco has a fair amount of comedy history, although it usually doesn’t get a ton of credit for that. I wrote up a set, practiced it, understood that I was definitely going to be terrible, and went to a place called Brain Wash. As far as I know, it is still there, and it is still a laundromat/restaurant/comedy club. Because why the fuck not.


There is a reason why I don’t do standup anymore, except for a very poorly thought-out idea that I could do a set to open the Kleft Jaw show at Denver’s Mercury Café last May. I’m not traditionally, non-traditionally, or even theoretically handsome, so I have to assume that I’m kind-of-funny-sometimes-but-usually-not-when-it-matters. Could this ever translate to a viable onstage persona for standup comedy? Possibly. I will probably never know. No one stabbed me with a fork or other laundromat-comedy club-restaurant essential, so I assumed the debut at the Brain Wash was a reasonably successful one. I did several more shows at several other locations throughout the Bay Area over the next few weeks. Zero out of the seven or eight shows that I did give me a clear indication that comedy was right for me, but I had fun. I met comedians who were seemingly content to be marginally successful local one-person industries, took some drugs, broke into a fair, saw the first Transformers three times (I guess I thought it was pretty good), and went to loft parties that were filled with gorgeous people who assumed I had somehow gotten past security.


In other words, I was working a lot.


All of this amounted to becoming a big fan of San Francisco. The fact that the weather didn’t seem to be particularly interested in going past eighty was another. Winning Smashing Pumpkins tickets on the eve of their more-or-less-the-members-who-actually-mattered reunion tour just added to the remarkable time I had there. In hindsight, I wish I had looked into open mic poetry readings and the like. That isn’t just because I’m trying to do as many as possible these days. I just suspect that those would have been a better use of my time and ambitions. I did start on that first novel during the 2007 summer, and that was the extent of any writing I did during that time.


When I finally went home to Virginia, I didn’t really want to leave. I knew I wanted to continue trying standup, but I couldn’t imagine doing that anywhere else. There were some conversations between my girlfriend and I about moving to San Francisco permanently, but it was eventually decided by both of us that the swirling abyss of loneliness was better than putting up with my horrible bullshit on an hourly basis. While I was dealing with that by going on a multi-month bender, I imagined that I would get back to California eventually. There was a hell of a lot more of San Francisco visit, and if I had learned anything from riding through the state, it was that it had a lot to offer aimless idiots with low impulse control.


I wouldn’t get back to the state until late last year. It goes without saying that a lot has gone through my life in those 7+ years. I have thankfully stopped doing standup, but I will probably try it again. I have written several novels. One of them is being published next year by Kleft Jaw Press. My (ex) girlfriend and I are pretty good friends. The fourth Transformers movie needed more Kelsey Grammer.


And so on and so forth.


I had a great poetry reading at Beyond Baroque last year. I fully intend to have another great one at Gatsby Books on Friday, April 25h (only TWO cheap plugs in a single article—not too shabby). I will be reading with some of the best writers in the world, endlessly talented iconoclasts from literary magazines (Kleft Jaw and Drunk Monkeys) that I have had the honor of working for during the past three or so years. Anyone who knows how good people like Allie Marini Batts, Frankie Metro, and Lindsey Thomas are knows that I am under the best kind of pressure to do well that one could ever imagine.


Without even the slightest fear of being accused of hyperbole, the Kleft Jaw/Drunk Monkeys show on April 25th (three) is going to force the entire Long Beach community to accept us as kind-yet-randomly-vengeful demigods. We have to perform at the exact same time as a SECOND Kleft Jaw show, featuring writers like Mik Everett and Ryder Collins, which will happen in Milwaukee WN in cooperation with the beautiful performers of Cream City Cabaret. The fact that we are doing two massive shows in two parts of the United States at the exact same time is a testament to two things: Incredible people have worked to organize these events


Second, these shows will create an incredible impression of the staggering diversity that exists within just two of the literary magazines that are in play right now. My creative journey has had some weird stops in California. Thankfully, these stops have not been tedious. Friday the 25th has the potential to be the culmination of not only the California aspect of that creative journey, but the culmination of everything I have done as a writer over the past decade.


And I’m digging the pressure. Either it’s going to be another career win, or I’m going to make a legendary ass of myself. I’m planning for the former over the latter, but I have to admit that anything could ultimately happen.


That particular insight remains as exciting now as it did when I tried standup for the first time in San Francisco seven years ago. The fact that nets are as uninteresting to me now as they always have been is something I take comfort in.


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