Scoundrel Time

Invisible Theater


Not long after the Loma Prieta earthquake, our collective decided to stage an Invisible Theater performance in the atrium restaurant of a grand hotel in San Francisco’s Financial District. When Eva and I walked in, she nodded to our brother Robert, who was sitting forward in his seat several tables away and lit up with pre-show adrenalin. He pretended not to see us. Eva, who’d never been at one of our disruptions, gave an annoyed shrug. I tried to avoid exchanging looks with the Electric Disciples scattered throughout the room, nursing cups of soup or the cheapest possible drinks. Not all of us were performing tonight, but we were there to support each other in case we were needed.

Eva and I took over a table for two, examining the super-realistic fabric orchids growing out of plastic cubes: the arrangements even had moss and fake water. An artificial waterfall spilled from a nearby balcony into a greenlit fountain. We ate cups of thick clam chowder sprinkled with oyster crackers and tasting of bacon.

A software convention had packed the place—halls, elevators, lobbies, the restaurant. Well-heeled conventioneers from all over the world sat in soft leather chairs at the glass-topped tables, drinking margaritas and talking about their kids and jobs. An American next to us asked someone whether Senator Gore’s information superhighway bill was likely to go anywhere, and the other conventioneer laughed and drew a dismissive circle in the air around his temple.

We’d prepared a classic situation right out of Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed. We were mad for Boal’s ideas: breaking down the bourgeois distinctions between actor and audience, theater and life, drawing in spectators to illuminate injustice wherever we found it.

Robert, wearing a conventioneer’s badge borrowed from an open-minded designer of video games, began the disruption by saying to his waiter, loudly, “I can’t eat any more convention food. Can’t you give me something real?”

“Everything we have is on the menu,” said the waiter. A man in his fifties, a professional. Those around us looked annoyed, though a few seemed to have sympathy for Robert’s moxie. Perhaps they weren’t crazy about their overpriced dinners, though I would have been happy to eat anything. We were always hungry. By choice, we were always reminding ourselves. We could, theoretically, have found real jobs.

Robert pressed the waiter, who recommended the Continental Special: filet of sole amandine, rice pilaf, and green beans at $24.95. Robert said, “I’ll have it.”

Convention conversations went on all around us: people who saw each other once a year trying to make up for lost time. Violin-drenched Muzak created an elevated, comforting mood.

When Robert’s food came, he ate it quickly, then stood, holding the bill. He called out to the waiter, “Don’t worry. I plan to pay for this in full. But I don’t have any money.”

“You’ll pay or you’ll go to jail,” said the waiter, our unwitting antagonist who was also our victim. He was having a hard night. Fully on the side of the Worker, we often forgot to take into account the actual people around us trying to do their jobs. And we’d waited tables often enough ourselves to consider even the worst customers to be a temporary nuisance.

But I couldn’t help looking at Eva’s appalled face and regretting having invited her. She was still a grad student beginning her work on finding the roots of empathy, and she studied the literature on neuroscience the way our ancestors might have studied Talmud. Though she’d explained it to me, I had no idea what she actually did—something to do with matrices and patchy distributions in a cat’s caudate nucleus. And she didn’t seem to have any sense of what Robert and I were up to either.

“You should do whatever makes you happy, Julia,” she’d say, sounding doubtful.

Robert was now the center of attention. “I will pay you with labor-power,” he said to the waiter. A quote from Augusto Boal, translated from Spanish, which understandably confused the waiter. After some back and forth, Robert said, “I’ll work as long as I need to in order to pay for that filet of sole.”

Some of the customers began to call out jokes and tell stories of their worst meals ever: deep-fried snake meat, boiled potatoes at a retirement dinner. Before they could get distracted by their own ideas, Robert said, “I’m afraid I’m unskilled labor. You’ll have to assign me a fairly simple task. I can wash dishes, for example. What does your dishwasher make an hour?”

“He makes what dishwashers make,” said the waiter. “I’m going to call the police.”

“Let him wash dishes,” shouted one of the conventioneers. He waved his plate in the air. “He can wash mine!” His buddies, toasting with their glasses, said, “And ours!”

The manager, a short, balding man with a walrus mustache, appeared in the back doorway and marched toward Robert. “Excuse me, sir, but I’m going to have to ask you to come into the kitchen for this discussion.”

Robert insisted, “How many hours of dishwashing will pay for the fillet of sole?”

I stood up, “The dishwashers here make minimum wage: $3.35 an hour.”

Robert said, “But that would be ten hours, counting tax. And tip—don’t worry about that. I plan to pay my tip. But I can’t work ten hours for a dinner that took me ten minutes to eat. What about gardening? How many hours would I have to garden to pay for that dinner?”

Eva had her head down, studying her plate. By now we had one of the biggest audiences of our entire career. A member of our collective sitting several tables away stood and said, “I know one of the gardeners. They’re day laborers. Except for the head of the gardening service, they make less than $5 an hour.”

The manager, sweating but professional, reached out for Robert’s elbow, but Robert pulled away. “So I would have to work a full day out in the sun or the rain to pay for this dinner?”

A red-faced man at a nearby table said, “No one here gardens in the rain. Get a grip, buddy.”

Another member of our collective stood and said (in another translated speech), “My friends, our quarrel is not with these waiters. They work like us and can’t be held accountable for the prices. Who knows whether they could afford to eat here themselves? Our quarrel is with the system itself. Perhaps we should take up a collection for this man’s meal. Give whatever you can—a dollar, even a quarter. If you work for Apple, put in a twenty. And whatever’s left over will go for a very generous tip to our brother, the waiter.”

Some applause, some laughter, some disconcerted looks. A man bellowed, “Why should I pay for his dinner when I’m already paying for mine?”

“Are you paying, or are you on a per diem?” asked a jolly-looking fellow at the table across from him. “You should definitely be on a per diem for these things.”

“I’ll pay for his dinner if he also plays the violin,” said an older bleached blonde in a maroon power suit, her grand shoulder pads starting to look dated.

The manager went away, presumably to call security. I was hoping we’d be gone before they arrived. If Eva hadn’t been there, it might have felt less humiliating. Or maybe her presence threw Robert off; he’d lost his usual air of command.

Meanwhile, the hat went around. We collected more than fifty dollars, which Robert left for the waiter, who seemed inclined to refuse it, disappointed at not getting us arrested.

We parted from our fellow actors—they’d paid for their bowls of soup and were now headed to the Mission to get burritos. Robert, Eva, and I went walking through the streets of the Financial District, a ghost town at night. Eva would hardly speak to us. Finally, she said, “You betrayed everyone in that room, not only the poor waiter. You think you’re better than they are.”

Robert said, “I think they need to be awakened.”

“Who knows what it’s like for them? What if they have kids? Meanwhile, their mother lives with them, and they have to take her to the doctor three times a week and risk being fired from their sixty-hour-a-week job programming some wretched security system. Why shouldn’t they come to a convention and eat a goddamned piece of fish without you guilt-tripping them?”

I said, “Oh, come on, Eva. They’ll all go home talking about it. One of the highlights of their week.”

“It’s like a children’s game gone horribly wrong. You two want everyone to be as miserable as you are. The whole family has bad brain chemistry. Why not see a doctor and get on Prozac like everyone else? Then you can stop blaming the world for everything.”

Robert put his arm around her shoulders. “I expect you’re right, Eva. You usually are. But we can’t help ourselves, can we, Jules?”

Our ongoing wrestle: were we part of a larger conversation, or was that self-inflating wish-fulfillment? What did it mean to be part of a conversation? Was our job merely to illuminate the nature of power and its effects on people’s lives? Was there anything we could do onstage to change that news at all? What if we created openings in people’s consciousness or their sense of empathy so that they were better able or more willing to take in the information already out there?

I said, “We want to change the world, Eva. One meal at a time, if necessary.”

Enormous buildings surrounded us: luxury hotels and quick lunch places that closed in the evening. We walked out toward the Embarcadero, gazing at the ruins of the old freeway that was destroyed in the earthquake. After we crossed over the trolley line, we stopped for a guy juggling flaming hoops in the plaza. He had a line of patter going—chip in for a last meal before I set myself on fire; I can take my eyes off the hoops but don’t you do it; I used to work in one of these banks but it was a whole lot more dangerous. That made us laugh, and Robert reached in his pocket, looking for money. He shrugged and said, “Jules?” And that made us laugh harder.

“Fine,” said Eva. “Pay me back when you hit the big time.” She dropped a dollar in the guy’s hat, and he spun his flaming wheels up into the air, nodding and grinning at us.

We headed out to the pier, looking up at the bridge, the lights of the cars, commuters on their way home, dodging each other, maneuvering to get ahead by a couple of car lengths, or maybe just working to keep from getting hit.

“We’ll probably go on doing invisible theater,” Robert said, his voice unusually apologetic.

“You could take the rest of the evening off from saving the world,” said Eva. I figured she was about to add, “It probably wouldn’t notice,” but she refrained.

Evening lights slid across the ripples of the bay. Couples stood with their arms around each other, huddled in their coats against the wind, kids running up and down the pier. A guy leaned on the railing, smoking. He had white-gray hair and a big mustache, probably in his early seventies. He looked as if he had always been handsome, maybe more so now. His wry sadness showed in the angle of his shoulders, his downcast expression.

I was hoping Eva would take us somewhere for dinner. Somewhere tasty but cheap, where I wouldn’t feel too guilty about her paying out of her fellowship money.

The guy leaning against the railing threw his cigarette into the water and winked. “Pretty girls,” he said to Robert. “You’re a lucky fellow.” He looked jaunty and forlorn at the same time, and I decided—because I never thought of death then—that someone had recently left him, and he probably had a broken heart.

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