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.

Reading, Wine, and a Dog

“Would you like another Chardonnay?” I asked. My regular’s glass was a quarter full. He doesn’t like to wait long between glasses. It was late afternoon and not very busy at The Pie Shoppe.

“By the time you pour that glass, I’ll be ready,” he said with a smirk. He comes in almost every day. Roly-poly, balding, and bespectacled, he always sets up a hardback book from the New York Times best-selling fiction list on a reading stand to peruse while he sips four glasses of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. Today he had two books, one two-thirds open on the stand and one waiting near his pudgy elbow.

“That’s a lot of reading for one Pie Shoppe visit,” I said.

“Oh, I read very quickly. I’ll finish this one and be a quarter way into the other one before I leave.” Later, it turned out he wasn’t bragging in vain.

“Guess the Chardonnay helps.” I laughed.

With his third glass, he expects a slice of cornbread. “Center cut. Please make sure it’s very fresh.” If he’s really hungry, he’ll order the turkey dinner or pot roast to be enjoyed with the fourth glass. It was a hungry day, so he ordered the turkey, extra gravy on the side, melted cheese on his veggies. “And I’d like to order a top sirloin to go.”

“That’ll be a nice lunch tomorrow.”

“It’s not for me. It’s for my friend’s dog. I’m dog sitting for a few months.”

“Oh. Must be nice to be a guest in your house.”

He laughed. “She is man’s best friend. I don’t know what to feed her.”

“I’m sure a pet store would have something.”

“Yeah.” He didn’t sound convinced.

“How do you think she’d like her steak cooked?”

“I think she’d like it medium rare. How do you think?”

“Well, I like my steak rare. You know, still mooing. But I’m not a dog.”

His face scrunched at the idea. “Maybe medium’s better. Yes. Medium.”

“Okay. It comes with loaded mashed potatoes. Do you think she’d like that, or maybe just a plain baked potato?” Loaded mashed potatoes come with bacon, chopped green onions, sour cream, and cheddar cheese melted together on top.

“Hm. I’ll take the loaded mashed potatoes. What are the veggies?”

“They’re the same veggies you get. A medley of yellow and green squash, carrots, broccoli and onion. You want that for her.”

“I think maybe she wouldn’t like the broccoli.”

“I can order it without broccoli.”

“That’d be good.”

“Great. Thank you.” I rushed off to place his order.

My dog Jack says, “Let them eat steak!”

As I gave him his fourth glass of Chardonnay, I said, “It’d be cheaper next time if you buy the whole bottle.” A bottle of wine is just under 5 glasses.

“Yeah.” He smiled. “But that would be so indulgent!”

The Art of Persistence

I was shopping at Jons, an Armenian grocery store chain with locations throughout Glendale and East Hollywood. The locals call it Little Armenia. Their selection of quality Mediterranean ingredients make them one of my favorite foodie haunts. I especially love their yogurt, kefir, and carbonated yogurt drink.

I don’t typically dress up for such adventures. Rolling out of bed, throwing on an old tank top and shorts, and stuffing my hair in a ponytail was my beauty regimen. There was no make-up on my face. I was proud I washed it. Living in the quasi-barrio offered many advantages, including dressing with what look liked rash carelessness in other parts of shallow L.A. People preened to be seen on the Westside. I dressed to disappear on the Eastside. The last thing I expected as I scrutinized the cultured dairy section was any sort of male attention.

His softly insistent voice startled me. “Can I take you to lunch sometime?”

I looked to my left where a man about my age stood. He didn’t have a cart or basket and wasn’t carrying any products. His clothes were mismatched and his hair hung willy nilly. Eyes were gray and wandered about. Nails were bitten down to waning crescent moons.

“Um… no… I have boyfriend,” I said, thinking a boyfriend was irrelevant to the question. He made me edgy. Not sure I would even be comfortable discussing the merits of various yogurt brands, much less arranging for lunch.

“I don’t mind if you don’t mind. There’s room for all of us.” His tone was serious and his gaze intent.

“Well, I’m really busy… but thanks for asking.” I still endeavored politeness as I was afraid of pushing some button and him acting out like he came from Crazytown.

“I’m really easy to squeeze into a schedule.”

“I don’t think I can squeeze you in.”

“Well, can I have your number and maybe we can chat?”

“No, I’d rather not.”

“Would you like my number?”

This guy was not going to take a hint and his persistence was turning my edginess into screaming meemies. “No. Look, I really think you should just let this go and leave me alone.”

“Okay, I don’t want to annoy you or anything.”

I stifled an ironic laugh. “Thank you.”

I went back to my kefir selection and he shuffled away. I kept an eye over my shoulder all the way home.

The Gold Crown Incident

With three new tables sat in quick succession, on top of four other tables already started, I was barely caught up. The Pie Shoppe was thick into its lunch rush. A couple at table 70 sat with faces of stone as I greeted them with a harried smile. A Very Old Mom with her Bland Son, who looked to be 50-ish, sat with glazed, almost expressionless eyes and pale skin. My Favorite Busboy had brought coffee for her and iced tea for him. They were ready to order, as were my other two tables

“Is this how it comes?” he asked, with all the personality of a rice cake. He pointed at a picture on the menu of The Pie Shoppe turkey dinner. “We’d like to split it.”

“It sure does. Would you like the lunch portion or the dinner portion?”

“What’s the difference?”

This was all explained on the menu. “The lunch portion is slightly smaller and doesn’t come with soup or salad.”

“What’s the difference in price?”

“The dinner is $15.99 and the lunch is $12.99,” I said, pointing at the clearly marked menu. “The dinner portion comes with soup, salad, and bread, or you can add it to the lunch portion for $2.59. Since you’re splitting your meal, you might want the dinner portion with a salad for 40 cents more.”

Pause.

I could literally hear both the wheels of calculation rotating in his head, and the table behind me tapping their feet impatiently waiting to place their order. Very Old Mom asked, her voice a rasping whisper, “What do I get?” Bland Son explained what I’d just explained.

“Do you want soup, Mom?”

“Our soups today are chicken noodle, potato cheese, and hearty vegetable,” I said.

“I want soup,” Very Old Mom said.

“Okay, we’ll take the dinner portion,” Bland Son said.

“What kind of soup would you like?” I asked.

Pause.

“What’s the soup?” she asked.

“Our soups today are chicken noodle, potato cheese, and hearty vegetable.”

Pause.

“Potato.”

“We’ll take the potato cheese,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “Would you like cornbread or garlic bread with your potato cheese soup?”  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see another table of mine being sat. I groaned inwardly.

“Would you like the cornbread, Mom?”

“Huh?”

“Would you like the cornbread, Mom?”

“Yes.”

“We’ll take the cornbread.”

“Great. Thank you,” I said.

I gathered their menus and did my best to look like I wasn’t running away from that table. I got the drink order from my new table and took lunch orders from two other tables, then rushed to the kitchen to fulfill everything and catch up.

Later, two young girls at the table across the aisle from Very Old Mom and Bland Son flagged me down.

“The table over there needs your attention.” They both looked smugly joyful, like they couldn’t wait to see what happened next.

Indeed, table 70 was also staring at me, eyes still glazed, and there was a metallic object sitting on top of a napkin.

“Mother found this in her soup,” said Bland Son.

It was a gold crown, sucked clean of the potato cheese soup. It looked for all the world like a real tooth, browned with age, a bit spotty, only shiny, like jewelry. Its sparkle mocked me.

Very Old Mom sat stirring her soup.

“I’m sorry. I’ll get the manager.” It was all I could say.

The Bald Man stood at the hostess stand taking the name of a customer waiting for a table. I rushed to him wondering how could I miss a solid chunk of metal while ladling a pureed, cream-colored soup into a bowl. Who in the kitchen could afford fancy dentistry? A thing like that didn’t just fly out of one’s mouth. If it did, it’d be hawked on Pawn Stars before being pureed.

I approached with a vain attempt at wry humor. “Are you ready for this?”

He looked grim. “Yes.”

“Table 70 found a gold crown in their potato cheese soup. They wanna see a manager.”

At first I thought he might laugh, his face contorting into a strange grin. Then, just as quickly, his face became a grim mask. I suggested the crown possibly belonged to Very Old Mom.

The Bald Man took that in and accompanied me back to table 70. Awkwardness hung in the air. I could see the girls across the aisle watching intently, as were several other tables. It was a free show.

The Bald Man quickly offered apologies, then said, “Are you sure this isn’t your crown? None of the kitchen staff has a crown.” My jaw dropped. I hadn’t intended my supposition be mentioned aloud to them. I expected him to follow his apology with a comped meal. The air grew more taut. Nobody said a word. Finally, he offered to comp their meal, or provide another one gratis.

“My stomach’s a little queasy now. I’m not sure I can even eat lunch,” said Bland Son.

“Well, I’ll happily comp your meal. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do.” He apologized again and marched off, a couple hundred dollars’ worth of gold in hand.

I stayed to pick up the rest of the pieces. “Would you like a pie to take home?” I thought if there was a gold crown in the potato cheese soup, there might be a diamond ring in the pie.

“Sure. Okay. We’ll take a pie,” said the son. Of course. Free stuff. Now, pie decision-making prevailed. Bland Son seemed pleased. Very Old Mom sat vacantly. Holes were being bored into my back by the eyes of waiting customers.

“What kind of pie do you want, Mom?”

Pause.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want a peach pie?”

Pause.

“I don’t know.”

I tried to facilitate the decision. “I like the fresh peach better than the baked.”

Pause.

“What’s the difference?” asked Bland Son.

I sighed inside. “The fresh pie is made with fresh peaches and a peach glaze and is mounded on a crust. The baked pie is sweetened peaches baked between a double crust.”

Pause.

“Do you want the double crust, Mom?”

Pause.

“Yes.”

“We’ll take the double crust.”

“Okay. I’ll be right back with your baked peach pie.” I ran away saying, “Thank you!” this time without hiding it. I came back with their pie, apologizing as sincerely as I could– “… hope you’ll try us again…”– as I wished silently, with even more sincerity, I would never see them, ever.

I tried in vain to win back favor with my other tables. My slow service annoyed, though they witnessed the event. You’d think I put the gold crown in the soup. It set the tone for the rest of my shift.

My Favorite Busboy sought me out. “The guys in the kitchen– they no can afford gold for teeth. That guy wanted free stuff.”

I said, “Maybe. I think they were too out-of-it to know it came from her mouth.”

He shook his head.

I guess we’ll never know.

You Can Come Home Again

“Dawn!”

I had just returned from a long walk through my childhood neighborhood in Hawaii. I was standing at my parents’ mailbox, at the foot of a long uphill driveway, removing its contents for them.  A postal truck was parked nearby and the post office lady had had her head buried inside organizing her mail. I hadn’t paid much attention to her until she called my name. It was the last thing I expected to hear. I left Hawaii over 30 years ago and have had infrequent visits since, none of which included the post office.

I turned my head to see an enormous smile in a wrinkled face. She was as small and fragile looking as my aging parents. Her lined face was tanned and blotched from a lifetime in the bright Hawaiian sun. Gray hair, short and frizzy, stuck out about her head. I vaguely remembered the petite, dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who drove up our long driveway to hand deliver large packages. Her brown teeth gleamed with glee as I returned her hello. “What a memory you have! I’m so impressed.”

“I can still remember you and your sister playing in the streets with the other kids.”

I looked down a street all at once lushly familiar and eerily different. My mind’s eye conjured a ghostly image of children skateboarding and her waving as she drove by. Like a skeleton with a new skin, the street looked the same, but many of the homes and landscaping were remodeled. I said, “All of my old friends have moved away. Almost no one is left here from the old days.”

“Are you visiting your folks?”

“Yes.”

“Where’s your sister?”

“She lives in Kailua.”

“Same as you?”

“No, I’m visiting from L.A. ”

Her eyes widened with the kind of surprise I often see when people discover I left Paradise to live on the Mainland. “Why would you leave Hawaii?” they ask in tones suggesting my wanderlust is a sign of mental deficiency. I always answer that I can visit. When I do, so much is different. The plants grow wild in my parents’ yard. New highways are built and roads are expanded. The beaches erode and wash away. Houses develop further and further up the hills. Pineapple and sugar businesses go away and tourism steps up its game to replace them. Hawaii becomes like a woman who changed her style so completely as to be almost unrecognizable. I added, “My Dad’s not doing so well.”

She smiled and said, “When people get old, they like to see their kids. I don’t see your parents so often these days. When I drive up the hill, I leave the boxes at the door. Don’t wanna disturb them.”

Yet, with every visit, something small will happen, like a rainbow dancing in the clouds, and all I ever loved about Hawaii shines with her jewel tone colors in the salty sweet air. Here, the brilliant memory of my old postal clerk lets me know I’m home again. I hugged her spontaneously. “Thank you,” I said, then walked up the hill.

Sisters!

Birthday Bitch

I picked up a bottle of Bitch Wine from the endcap at Trader Joe’s, hoping it would give me an expressive, expansive, and inexpensive Cabernet.

An earthy and elegant woman stood on the other side of the display studying the chalkboard description. Her fingers twirled a supple lock of hair as she read about the voluptuous succulence and creamy mouthfeel of this sassy, full-bodied red.

Her daughter approached, looking adorable in pink leggings which matched the collar of her dress, and clutching a box of Joe-Joes. She stared up at her mother with the cloying sweetness of pleading eyes.

“Put those back, please. We have plenty of junk food at home,” said the mother, not taking her eyes off the wine display.

“But, Mo-om…”

“I said, ‘No!’”

“Buut, Mo-o-o-om…”

The mother looked down at her daughter, exchanging an unspoken communication. Her body sagged and her face crushed into a yearning-to-flee expression. She grabbed two bottles of wine, holding them to her breasts. “Okay. You can have them. But today is the last day of your birthday month!”

Today is the last day of my birthday month and my 50th birthday.

Young Love in Old People

They were so easy to serve, I almost made the mistake of giving them very little attention and dismissing them as uninteresting in lieu of the more needy tables around them. They were lumpy in their comfortableness. Her shoulder-length gray hair sat limply on her head. She wore a simple dress with sensible shoes. His hair was thinning and neat and his sports coat looked worn and clean. Soft and smiling, they brought a quiet dignity to The Pie Shoppe, where many of the young customers sat crumpled into casually torn jeans or sweats. They blended into the bland decor of the restaurant, where the bright colors and brash brassiness of their younger counter parts screamed their being.

Their food was finished and he asked for the check. “We have to go home so she can have her way with me.”

Did I just hear this bland old man make an indirect sexual reference? That was the last thing I expected from a smiling great-grandparent. I felt uncharacteristic warmth on my cheeks and giggled self-consciously. “Well, don’t get too crazy now.”

The woman burst out laughing. “Oh! You have no idea!”

I laughed too. “Well, I guess not!”

He said, “She’s insatiable. I didn’t know I could keep up with her. At first I thought she’d break me. But this old soul’s got some dance in his step.”

“It’s good to know it doesn’t go away!” I said.

“Oh no. It just gets better,” said the woman.

After their check was paid, they gathered themselves slowly together as I said good-bye and thank you. She handed him his cane, then walked ahead as he paused to talk to me, touching my arm as he spoke. “You know, we met again after 60 years. We knew each other in school and didn’t even date. We went our separate ways for 60 years. Now, we’re like kids again! I didn’t know it could be like this.”

My spirit soared as I watched him walk away, stepping lightly despite his need for a cane. Young love in old people. I didn’t know it could be like that either.