Too Old to Live?

At first, they annoyed me. Her husband shuffled behind his walker as she led him into my section without waiting for a hostess. It was like they owned The Pie Shoppe or something. He was pallid and potbellied, and his face looked baffled. Rumpled clothes hung loosely and thinning hair stuck out confusedly. She was alert but equally disheveled in a faded, floral tent dress. Her hair looked to be tied in a bun a couple days before and hadn’t seen a comb since.

She guided him carefully into the booth, folded his walker, and neatly set it out of the way. I told them I’d be back with menus. When I heard her tell her husband with a musical voice that “her friend” was getting them menus, I became charmed. I’d never seen them before.

I brought them menus and exchanged politenesses with her as he sat silently. “We’re ready to order,” she stated with firm intent.

He started the order. “I want a French dip and fries,” he said in a loud, expressionless voice. As he spoke to me, he watched her and she nodded her approval. He went on, his words garbled as if his tongue was too thick. I had to pay close attention to understand. “What’s the soup?”

“Our soup of the day is beef barley,” I said.

“I want some soup.”

She shook her head. “You can’t have any soup. It’s too much salt.”

He repeated, “I want some soup.”

I looked to her uncertain of how to proceed. Her head did not stop shaking. “So, no soup?” I asked.

“No soup,” she confirmed. He continued to stare at her. She ordered a cheeseburger, medium-well, with fries.

They had no conversation as they waited for their food. When it came, she was in the bathroom. He didn’t acknowledge me, but gaped at his plate of food, grinning. A loud guttural noise escaped his throat. As I walked away, he sang a toneless, wordless song to himself in an outside voice while sprinkling salt on his food. This humming continued sporadically after his wife joined him to eat.

“I want a peanut butter cookie,” he said as I cleared their plates.

“You can’t have a peanut butter cookie.” She sounded like a mom admonishing her 8-year-old for the umpteenth time. “You’ve had enough sugar today.”

He stared at her.

As I ran their credit card, she sought my company at the computer. “It’s his first night out after his stroke,” she announced without provocation.

“Oh.” I was at a loss. “He seems strong.”

“His body is strong, but he’s got vascular dementia. He’s lost most of himself. It’ll progress until his mind is utterly gone. Still, the doctors know how to keep him alive. They know how to keep his body ticking.”

“Yeah. Modern technology can do a lot.”

“It’s the Tree of Knowledge. We think we’re doing good, but we don’t know what we’re doing. We keep our bodies living long after our essence has died. We keep the heart beating and the blood pumping. For what? The empty shells we become? That’s not a life. People weren’t meant to live so long. My father died at 68. His mind was still sharp and that was long enough. Now I’m 74.” Her slate eyes shined like water running over river rocks. “He’ll be 81 next month.”

“You’re very spry.”

“My mind is healthy. I’m lucky. Not everyone is like me.” Shiny eyes stared at her husband. “I already lost him.”

“Yeah, I understand.” I said. My chest knotted.

She signed her credit card receipt, then grabbed my hand and squeezed, her eyes still watery. “Thank you. Please enjoy the rest of your day.” She walked back to her table to gather her husband. They shuffled out the way they came.

Sometimes we say farewell before we are gone.

 

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Branding Myself

The box office was about to open. Asian Actor and I were volunteering as usher and cashier, respectively, at The Players’ Theatre. Many of the small theatres in Hollywood were co-ops run by actors. To increase elusive performance opportunities, many actors, including those with experience and talent, did all the backstage work: producing, writing, stage building and lighting, stage management and box office.

Theatres always reminded me of attics, filled with farragoes of character effects and clothes, all the embellishments of history. Stories oozed from their crevices, sharing space with the dust bunnies. The box office was tiny and cluttered. On the walls were tacked programs from old shows and pictures of costumed actors performing in a variety of settings, both colorfully detailed or colorlessly austere.

Tonight, in exchange for cash, I would give out programs which doubled as tickets. Asian Actor would allow those with tickets in the door. A gray lock box with $20 in small bills served as my cash register. I sat on a bar stool in front of a converted bench seat which served as a counter for the box office window.

Asian Actor and I chatted through the open window. He shared with me his ethnic heritage, half-Chinese and half-Swedish, and talked of his membership with The Asian Theatre. His dark almond eyes smiled easily in a lean, expressive face. Black, stick-straight hair sat merrily on his head. He was slimly built. I could barely recognize his Caucasian half. I’d heard about how well-respected The Asian Theatre was, and expressed interest in joining the group as well.

“They generally work with Asian actors,” he said, by way of discouraging me as I might not be the right type.

“That’s great, cuz I’m half-Asian too.”

He did little to hide his surprise. “Really!” he exclaimed, as if I’d somehow won the lottery. “Girl, you pass!”

I stifled a snort. I pass? I knew he meant I passed for someone entirely Caucasian. On the one hand, I didn’t feel like this was a lottery win. On the other hand, I knew this wasn’t true.

My exact ethnicity is half-Japanese and half-German. In the business of casting, however, this information was irrelevant. What mattered was my physical appearance and how that could be applied to various categories of characters. The demands of a role were segregated by nationality and type. Such labels were my brand. My Agent marketed me as “ambiguous ethnic” since I could pass for Caucasian, Italian, Eastern European, Mixed Ethnic, and others. I could also play a variety of types, such as “mom,” “career woman,” “comic sidekick,” “teacher,” and so on. In Los Angeles, where the Hispanic population is almost 50%, I’m generally mistaken for Hispanic, including by casting. Since Caucasian roles outnumber all other ethnicities combined by a goodly percentage, it’s a desirable brand.

Headshots are the actor’s calling card. When I first arrived in Hollywood at the turn of the century, black and white headshots were still the norm. I passed for Caucasian and auditioned almost everyday.

On a different day, I received a morning call from My Agent. I saw his name on my cell phone, so I answered, pen and paper already in hand. After my hello, he said, without pausing, “You have an audition for an American Bank commercial this afternoon at 3:45 with Casting-R-Us at MidCity Casting. You play a Hispanic mom. Casual dress. Be prepared to improv.”

“Got it. Thank you.”

“Good luck.” He hung up. Though I liked My Agent, conversations with him were always succinct, measurable by number of words. He had a long list of actors to call with similar information, and didn’t need to spend time on pleasantries.

Auditioning experience taught me it’s best to try and suggest ‘Hispanic’ as much as possible in my appearance, but I wasn’t sure how to do that without plastic surgery. I settled on jeans and a t-shirt, and a little extra makeup around the eyes. The top half of my hair was pulled into a clip at the back of my head. A half up, half down hairstyle enabled casting to see my entire face and the length and quality of my hair, all of which factored into casting decisions.

After a few years, color headshots became the norm. With that, invitations for auditions for Caucasian women disappeared for me. It seemed I only passed for Hispanic, and just barely. Auditioning became a once a week affair, at best.

MidCity Casting rented rooms in a large warehouse-type building to casting directors for their casting sessions. Upon entering, there was an open, central waiting area the size of a playing field with doors around the perimeter leading into casting rooms. The decor was spartan with utility carpeting, benches near each door, and a raw ceiling revealing air conditioning ducting and piping. Their walls were painted in a variety of autumn colors with poster art throughout. At the entry was a large blackboard listing all the casting agents and the shows or commercials they were working for. I located Casting-R-Us, put my name on the sign-in sheet, took my headshot with a résumé stapled to the back out of my portfolio, and sat down to wait.

The room appeared chaotic, a hive of activity. A nervous din penetrated, reverberating around the ducting. Casting assistants wandered near their doors, calling out names and collecting headshots. Some actors paced. Some stood alone or with others rehearsing a bit of script or chitchatting animatedly. Everyone was waiting: In one corner grouped some gorgeous Caucasian women, “model-types,” early 20s, dressed as brides for a national jewelry chain commercial; another group of overweight, 20-something Caucasian men dressed in jeans and plaid shirts gathered for a popular beer commercial; some Caucasian toddlers waddled around benches under the watchful eyes of their mothers for a car commercial; some retired Caucasian women, late 60s, all with dyed hair and conservative dress for a pharmaceutical ad; a few babies sat in strollers next to their Caucasian mothers waiting for a baby clothing commercial; a set of African-American teenagers, girls and boys, for a public service announcement. I sat with a group of Hispanics and African-American women, all late 30s, mostly dressed in jeans and a casual top.

There were a lot of us, so I feared I’d be waiting a long time. Fortunately, casting moved quickly through the line-up. They were calling us in four at a time, typical of commercial auditions. They’d look at a hundred actors to fill two spots. I was called before an hour passed. I walked in with two Hispanics and an African-American.

The room was as spartan as the waiting area. In the back, a woman and three men sat in chairs surrounding a collapsible banquet table. Next to them, a young man stood behind a small digital video camera. We all filed in and stood behind a line of masking tape on the floor. The woman, who was obviously Casting Director, rose. I surmised the other three were the director and ad agency representatives. “Thank you for lining up so perfectly,” she said.

We all gave a little laugh. One of the Hispanic women said, “You’re welcome.”

Casting Director continued. “We have a lot of people to see today, so we’ll move through this quickly. We’ll start with you.” She pointed at me as my position was at the beginning of the line. “You’ll slate your name and then I’ll ask you a question. Please answer briefly, we don’t need your whole life story. And that’ll be it. Any questions?”

No one had a question. This was a basic “personality audition,” typical for commercials where there was little or no dialogue and they just wanted to see your personality and how you looked on camera. With the camera pointed at me, Casting Director said, “Slate your name.”

I looked into the lens and said, “Hi, my name is Dawn Akemi.” I smiled a greeting into the camera.

“Okay, Dawn, did you do anything fun this summer?”

I gave a brief story about my recent trip to San Diego to visit some friends. I chose the slight Spanish accent I hear all over L.A. from the Hispanic Angelenos who grew up here. Casting Director watched me with a frown, said “thank you” in a clipped tone, and moved on. I figured I wasn’t Hispanic enough for this ad, which was more often the case than not.

Next were the two Hispanic women. They were asked “What’s your favorite food?” and “What’s your favorite sport?” Casting Director seemed more engaged with them and asked a follow-up question of each. They were true-blue Hispanic, not the pretender I was, with solid Spanish accents, and both talked of growing up in L.A.

The African-American woman was last and she was asked, “What’s your favorite color?” We all listened to a cute story about the color orange. Casting Director smiled and then frowned. “This commercial is looking for specific ethnic types. The roles are of people who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. I’m gonna ask you another question and when you answer this time, could you Black it up a little?”

The woman looked shocked, as did we all, then quickly recovered. “Black it up?” she asked. She spoke with no accent.

“Yeah, you know. Do a bit of that Ebonics. And do that neck thing. You know, bob your head like a chicken.”

“Um. Yeah. Okay.” The air in the room felt suddenly humid. Awkwardness permeated.

Casting Director asked, “Do you have a special childhood memory?”

She answered with a character accent, talking about the time she went to Disneyland. Her head moved back and forth on her neck. Casting Director was still frowning when she finished. Her frown turned into a small smile and she said, “Thank you.” She sat back down.

We all filed back out and walked toward the exit. Once outside, I heard one of the Hispanic women say under her breath, “I think I’ll need a shower now.”

I stifled a snort. It felt good to be outside in the fresh air.