In 1995 I was living beyond my means on the upper east side of Manhattan. At the time, I was pursuing a career in acting. I’d studied it in high school, majored in it in college and figured I was good enough to try to make a go of it. Then one day I saw an ad in one of the industry papers calling for seat fillers for a TV program on the USA network called USA Cafe Live. It was a low key sort of talk show set in a “coffee shop” and guests such as former mayor Ed Koch would come and hang out at the counter and chat with the host about the Knicks or whatever. There were also tables on set and the tables had seats and the seats needed filling and that is where I came in.
Me and my many years of acting experience.
I’d portrayed Cleante in Moliere’s Tartuffe, Fabian in 12th Night, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and my performance as Orin Scrivello, DDS in Little Shop is still talked about today. I could sing well. I had good comedic timing. I figured Ruggedly Handsome Cafe Patron, while not MacBeth, was at least something I could put on a resume. Plus the coffee was free.
We were instructed to go and sit at the tables and “have pretend conversations” with each other while the host and the guest wagged their chins for twenty-two minutes. Being a trained actor I immediately came up with a backstory for my character (his name was Loomis and he’d taken a bus from Wheeling, WV to Manhattan in search of his biological mother who he had just learned was alive after growing up believing she’d died in a freak blimp accident). I closed my eyes, breathing deeply, getting into the correct headspace to fully inhabit my character. Then the director called for action and I opened my eyes to find myself alone at the table.
I looked around the set. All of the other tables were fully occupied. Some with three and four people. And yet there I was at a table alone with a perfectly good, empty chair across from me, right down in front where the cameras (and anyone watching at home) could see me.
“Don’t panic,” I told myself. “Stay in character. What would Loomis do?”
Loomis was an amiable sort. Loomis would introduce himself to the nearest person to try and make a human connection in these unfamiliar surroundings. Also, the director had said we should be carrying on “pretend conversations” and I couldn’t do that while sitting all alone. I’d look like a total nutter, for God’s sake. And yet, and YET, when I tried to engage those closest to me I found myself shunned. Completely.
I sipped at my coffee and tried to appear above it all the way most people in coffee shops did. I wished I had a newspaper or a book or some sort of coffee shop appropriate prop I could focus on other than the fact that the lights were hot and I was convinced that ALL OF AMERICA could see me sweating.
Now if you’ll humor me for a moment, the Myotonic goat is a domestic breed whose muscles freeze for roughly ten seconds when they feel panic. This often results in a stiffening of the limbs followed by an inevitable collapse. They are also know as fainting goats.
I am not a goat and I did not faint. Although it might have been better if I had. What I did was somehow worse, given the circumstances.
Under the bright Klieg lights, on live television with a studio audience and in front of God and the great nation of basic cable viewers I, dear reader, fell asleep.
They must have been serving decaf.