Performance Art in Hollywood
by Charles C. Cole
In 1983, after four years in the Air Force, I joined some high school friends in LA, actually Pasadena. Without qualifications or professional connections, we were somehow determined to become famous actors. For myself I hoped, naively, to be discovered doing community theater. Right away, I won a role as Orderly in The Hasty Heart at the Glendale Centre Theatre, probably because I was the only one who auditioned in a real uniform. The staff was nice, but it didn’t lead anywhere.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get along with my roommate, in part because the service had created a sort of high standards neat-freak, so I needed a good paying job and a new place to stay. I found both, surprisingly quickly, through a one-month contract with an employment service. The client’s family wanted a live-in performance artist, or so it was advertised. “They want to watch,” I was told. I had no experience, but I was game. The agency appreciated that I was ex-military and from Maine, as if it indicated a certain work ethic.
I assumed the residents were bedridden, foreigners or just eccentric. I was assured I was not some psychology experiment, but “living art.” For peace of mind, I was given the street address (but no name), which I shared with my family back east. I also signed a detailed contract, countersigned by the client’s lawyer.
Rudolph Dekker, the president of the employment agency, escorted me into the residence. No one met us at the house, and there were no family photos anywhere I could see. We “validated” the working toilet and sink. Then I was locked in.
For one month, I lived in a large room in this private home, behind a one-way glass wall through which the residents could observe me whenever they wished.
Let me be clear: it was not a cell. There was a king-size bed and a lovely hardwood floor. But there was no phone, TV, stereo, clock, electronics of any kind (including cameras; I looked ). I could make written requests for meals, books, even personal necessities like toothpaste. But no smoking or drinking. I had free weights and a treadmill. There was a drop chute for my laundry. For privacy, I changed in an off-limits, attached bathroom.
I didn’t have to “perform,” just be observed. I had complete control of my “working” hours. I was not required to be particularly entertaining; they just didn’t want me to sleep all day. All this for $4,000 for a month, plus room and board. Per our agreement, they never came into my space or even introduced themselves. Nobody so much as banged on the glass wall. In case things went awry, say I felt threatened, I wore an emergency paging device, a one-button pendant.
There was a floor-level revolving slot in the wall for prepared food to be delivered. I’d included a list of favorite menu items, as requested, in my application. Meals were delicious and punctual, and the portions were enough for two people. The room didn’t have a refrigerator, so I would send leftovers back.
One morning, when I opened the door for an early check on breakfast, I was surprised to find the unfinished remnant of my dinner still on the floor. And it wasn’t alone! There were five cockroaches busying themselves. I was still new to LA, but I’d heard rumors of how these invaders could quickly reproduce. In some way, I didn’t want to insult my hosts by announcing the discovery, as if it were my fault, so I discretely dispatched the critters and flushed them away.
I thought I was clever when, for my next two meals, I immediately flushed the leftovers and rinsed my plates in the bathroom sink. Then one morning I opened the door for my breakfast request of scrambled eggs and bacon and, even though the entrée had a stainless-steel plate cover, the tray was infested: word was out. (I learned later that cockroaches leave distinct trails made of fecal matter to guide one another.) This time I flushed the entire meal “as is” and all of my unwelcome guests with it, though some tried to escape. I couldn’t tell you how many roaches there were in total.
I left a written warning and a suggestion that my hosts leave me canned food such as Spaghetti-Os or cheese ravioli for a couple of days. My point didn’t quite get across: The cans I received were opened for me (because I hadn’t asked for a can opener?). The cockroaches were again plentiful, and I again flushed them away. This was becoming a battle. They even apparently smelled food in the bathroom sink where I’d rinsed the dishes – so I was being invaded from two directions.
From my employers, I received a care package and a note. Making a paste of flour, sugar and borax was an organic “poison” for fighting back, if I should require doing so. Or I could terminate my contract. But the money was too good for giving up and, clearly, they expected an ex-military man to have the strength of his convictions. I fought back and, believe it or not, I won, though not overnight.
When my contract ended and the agency retrieved me, I learned a few elucidating facts. The residents knew they had cockroaches before I was hired yet, due to their religious beliefs, they “couldn’t” do anything about them. They were believers in something similar to Jainism, an Indian religion that endorsed non-violence towards all living things. The belief apparently included respecting the views of others, meaning I was free to do as I chose. So they had built this room to watch how I would respond. Killing cockroaches was my choice. They didn’t insist, but they didn’t stop me. In other words, they used me.
Two months later, homesick for Maine, I left LA. To this day, my family still teases me about my “big contract” in Hollywood and the opportunities I’ve missed.
Copyright © 2017 by Charles C. Cole