More First Person pieces:
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I read a lot of how-to books on making it in this city. Hollywood's multiple versions of How to Win Friends and Influence People could fill the shelves of the Mar Vista Library (which is really small, but still). The books are stuffed with mindless industry platitudes; in my early L.A. days, the one I always tried to follow, often against my better judgment, was "Always say yes."
Which is exactly how I ended up in handcuffs on Hollywood Boulevard. At 11 a.m. On a Tuesday.
My friend RJ had asked me to star in his film project. Me, who is not an actor. Who is a writer. Who can barely navigate a dinner party without unknowingly taking a whole pint's worth of nervous beer sips while trying to think of witty one-liners, let alone perform in front of a crowd. And RJ wanted to film me dressed as Waldo (skinny guy, glasses, red-and-white–striped shirt and cap), parading outside the Chinese Theatre with the likes of Batman, the Joker and Captain Jack Sparrow.
I said yes. I had been led to believe that you always say yes.
And so on a warm winter's day, I stood near the corner of Hollywood and Highland in my barbershop-pole T-shirt, tapping Waldo's cane on Groucho Marx's star, eyeing the morning crowds. The boulevard smelled like sunscreen and urine, which did little to quell the sick feeling that I was far out of my element.
RJ — exactly the type of guy who always says yes without needing a push from some corny motto — told me I looked great. He told me I was going to nail this. He told me the shot was beautiful. He told me, finally, to walk into the throng of tourists mingling outside the theater.
On the sidewalk, a gregarious, hip-quaking Elvis caroused with middle-aged women. Batman posed stoically with families. A seedy-looking Joker turned on a lovely young woman to demand, "Why so serious?" Oh God, I thought. Is this why I moved to the West Coast? Is it too late to go to law school?
But strangely, once I came to terms with the tourists spying on me, just about bursting out of their Keds to declare "I found you," I realized that I actually liked the attention. I hid behind shoulders and street signs while cheeky teens aimed their iPhones at me. Little kids waved. Fathers chuckled. Mothers thanked me. Elvis — the King himself — winked at me. And behind those glasses, underneath that candy-cane striped hat, I was no longer myself. I was a star. I was Waldo.
That's when a friendly-looking LAPD officer called me over to his cruiser, "just to talk." The next moment I was in handcuffs, watching in slow motion as two hipsters cruised by in a Prius, filming the incarceration of America's favorite elusive oddball.
I pleaded with the officer. It wasn't my project! I knew nothing of permits! Up the street, the Joker also was being escorted into a black-and-white. The demented clown eyed me through his greasy green hair and snuck a conspiratorial grin in my direction. Suddenly, it hit me.
"Wait! I'm not a street performer!"
The cop wrote on his pad. Said nothing. He seemed to believe this was a game he and I had played before, and would play again someday soon. More cars rolled by. Tourists pointed their phones at me. Obvious jokes echoed through the crowd ("I know where's Waldo. He's behind bars!"). And then I was whisked away to jail.
I was handcuffed to a bench at the Hollywood station for an hour — chained with my hands behind my back, bent over like the world's saddest comma, wondering if there was a Patron Saint of Yeses at whom I could direct my profanities. I was charged with "blocking the sidewalk." My arresting officer, declining to define this mysterious allegation, had emptied my pockets to find $100 in 20s, fresh from the ATM — no grimy singles wrested from naive tourists and thus no panhandling charges.
Cuffed next to me, the Joker breathed loudly and muttered to himself in an unhinged voice. He clearly believed he was the Joker. Either that or he was the most professional actor among us, refusing to break character even in the face of incarceration. Which is more than I can say for poor Elvis, who had traded in his kingly bluster for tearful sniffles.
A cop approached to inform me that my friend wanted to bail me out but didn't have enough money. "$25,000 bail," the officer said. "Outstanding warrant."
"What?" I tried to breathe. Halt the panic. "Twenty ... I'm not ... That can't ... !"
"You're lucky. Some of these guys got a rap sheet 20 pages long." Then he moved in close to my ear to whisper, "One of 'em is a convicted sex offender." Next to me, the Joker — no lie — mumbled, "Welcome to Obama's America."
Outstanding warrant? Hadn't I paid all my parking tickets? Did those traffic cameras at Olympic and Highland actually work? Did they match my fingerprints from that time I got so drunk that I drew penises on the dewy windshields of those parked cars on Sunset? Was I, in fact, a werewolf who had killed dozens under the spell of moonlight? Did he say sex offender?!
Eventually, mercifully, I was uncuffed from the bench. Leaving the rest of the team behind, I was led into a cell by yet another cop, who assured me that I'd be released shortly. There was no more mention of an outstanding warrant — I could only assume the previous cop was a Kafka fan with a sense of humor.
I sat alone in the cell for two hours, and then I surrendered my $100 to a cheerless woman collecting bail behind a caged desk. She handed me a plastic bag that contained my hat, glasses and (I would soon find out) only one of my two shoelaces. And then I was officially released.
Rather than argue before a judge, in the following weeks I coughed up $400 for a civic-minded lawyer to write an angry letter to the city attorney's office, which promptly tossed the case. Officially speaking, the incident never happened — aside from the time spent in jail, the cost of legal counsel and the enduring dread of Jailbird Waldo photos popping up across the Internet.
The tricky thing about the "Always say yes" mantra that got me into this mess isn't just that it's a silly platitude to live by. It's that saying yes in Hollywood isn't really about the experience itself. It's not about living in the moment or personal growth. In this town, you say yes only because you never know whom you might see and, more importantly, who might see you. Out here, we operate on the notion that the more people who see you, the better.
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I'm not qualified to judge whether that's true. All I can tell you is it's a thorny proposition if the person who sees you is a cop in the midst of a city-mandated sweep of people dressed in funny costumes.
On my way out of the police department, the officer at the front desk called to me: "You one of those performers they scooped up today?" I stared down at my poor old, laceless shoes, which had been reduced to slippers, and the plastic bag that held Waldo's hat and glasses. Then I stood up tall. Met the officer in the eye. And remembered my mantra: Yes.