THE J. EDGAR HOOVER DIRTY LAUNDRY LAUNDROMAT
FRK-3.12.2019-Notes for a Memoir THE J. EDGAR HOOVER DIRTY LAUNDRY LAUNDROMAT Copyright © Fred R.Kline 2019
"A Happening is an assemblage of events performed or perceived in more than one time and place. Its material environments may be constructed, taken over directly from what is available, or altered slightly; just as its activities may be invented or commonplace. A Happening, unlike a stage play, may occur at a supermarket, driving along a highway, under a pile of rags, and in a friend’s kitchen, either at once or sequentially. If sequentially, time may extend to more than a year. The Happening is performed according to plan but without rehearsal, audience, or repetition. It is art but seems closer to life." Allan Kaprow
I had first read about “Happenings” in the 1960s when I was living in San Francisco and thought it was a wonderful idea, capable of making life more fun. Allan Kaprow had conceived the Happening as an art form in late 1959 and famously performed Happenings into the 1960s and beyond. Art history and artists should be forever grateful for this high-spirited break with tradition. The very word “Happening”could spark a refreshed and creative attitude about a commonplace event: “Come on over, we’re having a little Happening tonight!” This perception could generate more juice than just having a little party. Everyone was ready to be on stage in the 60s, changing the mundane into New Age. Life was happening!
It came to pass that I became an actor in a Kaprow Happening called “Laundromat” in Berkeley in 1968 , which I later learned was one of “Six Ordinary Happenings” commissioned by Project Other in Berkeley. Just imagine, I can still remember a 50-year-old Laundromat experience! A notice in the San Francisco Chronicle had called for volunteers to gather on a Saturday morning. I took a break from my writing and left the city on a foggy morning and tripped across the Bay Bridge to sunny Berkeley. My wife was not impressed with a laundromat activity and she opted out. Well, it sounded like a holiday to me.
I seem to remember about ten people were involved but I don’t remember any of their names. I’m pretty sure we did not introduce ourselves beyond cordial greetings but we signed up on an actor’s list. Kaprow gave us a short written script and a little chat. We were the cast and crew and we worked for the fun of it. He said just be yourself and let it happen. Chance and spontaneity were okay within the framework. John Cage, the composer-poet and magus of chance, had been Kaprow’s teacher, and mine too, but for me Cage was a teacher at large, a presence whose music and writings were of great interest and he had liked my recent poem cycle I, Dodo (Double-H Press, San Francisco, 1968) which I had sent to him.
As scripted, the action would take place along Telegraph Avenue, the main drag in Berkeley. First we would find a thrift shop and then each of us buy something like a dollar’s worth of used clothing. I’m pretty sure it was Kaprow’s money and it wasn’t much but in 1968 it ended up buying quite a pile. Then we would go to a laundromat where we washed the clothes, dried the clothes, wrapped the clothes in brown paper packages with string, all purchased in a Five & Dime, and then we would give the refreshed used clothes back to the original thrift shop. It kind of put me in mind of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”.
As it played out along the way to the laundromat, on an impulse I bought a giant 5 feet high personality poster of that weird American J. Edgar Hoover, who was still at large as the Director of the F.B.I. I proceeded to tape up the domineering J. Edgar Hoover mug shot in the laundromat and, making an announcement, officially christened the place “The J. Edgar Hoover Dirty Laundry Laundromat”.
The regular customers and the Happening People were amused. Every once in a while as the clothes were washing and drying, I stood up in front of J. Edgar Hoover and announced straight-faced “Big Brother is watching you!” This encouraged paranoia among the group’s pot smokers as well as adding an edge of living dangerously in the laundromat. Everyone knew there were F.B.I. secret agents lurking around the streets of Berkeley disguised as hippies, and probably as laundromat people too.
Once washed and dried and folded and packaged and tied neatly in brown paper packages, we walked back to the neighborhood thrift shop. On the way, a generous impulse came over me and I tried to give away my package of clothing to a Berkeley sidewalk person, a hippie girl who seemed needy. HAPPENING ACTOR (Fred Kline): You want some clean used clothes? HIPPIE GIRL [sitting on the sidewalk]: What? What kind of clothes? HAPPENING ACTOR: Just random stuff. All clean. You know, underwear, socks, some ties. HIPPIE GIRL: Are you putting me on? HAPPENING ACTOR: No, no. It’s right here, all wrapped up. It’s like a present, you know, clean clothes. HIPPIE GIRL: That implies a priori that you consider me dirty. HAPPENING ACTOR: You could dress up in clean used clothes. Get a fresh philosophical start for the day. HIPPIE GIRL: Why don’t you get lost. HAPPENING ACTOR: Oh, Come on. Please, just take the clothes. Can’t you see I’m on a mission. HIPPIE GIRL: Are you one of those 7th Day Adventists? HAPPENING ACTOR: I’m just a Happening person, in this Happening see, you know about Happenings, and this is part of my mission. It’s hard to explain. It’s okay. Here, it’s just clean used clothes. You can even sit on them. [He moves to put the package under her rear end] HIPPIE GIRL [She jumps up and walks off]: Pervert! HAPPENING ACTOR [calling after her]: Hey, wait a minute, I’m just trying to give you clean used clothes. HIPPIE GIRL [shoots him the bird]: Creep! HAPPENING ACTOR: Hey relax, it’s only a Happening! ((But not happening with you.))
It was weird. Other people walking by seemed to be surprised that I was not asking for spare change when I politely stopped them. They quickly became suspicious and in the end refused the neatly tied brown paper package. My question “You want some clean used clothes?” just didn’t grab them. At this point, my feelings got hurt. I took the stuff back to the original thrift shop and asked if they wanted some clean used clothes. They willingly accepted my gift and said thank you. That was it. It had taken about two or three hours. Kaprow thanked us. THE END.
I was hoping Kaprow would take us out to lunch but he didn’t. That would have been nice. Actually, I don’t remember saying more to him than hello and goodbye. If he gave us a memento, like directors do on movie sets, I must have lost it. I guess I could have kept the tie I washed but I didn’t want to waste a good washed tie when a poor person probably could have found a use for it.
Somewhere, I’ll bet, a black and white photographic record of this adventure exists along with a very short script titled “Laudromat: A Happening”. I wasn’t watching him but Kaprow did have a camera and must have taken some quick and unobtrusive snapshots. I know for sure he didn’t pose us or ask us to smile. These photographs, which I have never seen and couldn’t identify anyone but myself, are the true artifacts of the happening, the actual evidence for art history to ponder. My evidence, my solemn testimony, is herewith set down. Which reminds me, I left J. Edgar Hoover overseeing the laundromat, watching dirty laundry come clean, or else. ___
If you think of art as a “work of life,” and you are an artist, then it all makes great sense. It is also true if you attempt to live life as a “work of art”—a larger philosophical idea that you can make happen in your own mind whenever you please. Both ways it is hard to pull off, but worthwhile. Life always gives you a stage, which is loosely scripted and enhanced by surprising props. We, the Laundromat gang, were having fun on a mundane “stage”, and yet, amazingly after five decades, I have come to think of “Laundromat” as an enlightened life-lesson.
The “Laundromat” credits are just now coming to light. This experience and eye-witness testimony of Fred Kline, Poet-at-Large & Set Designer in the Happening called “Laundromat” in Berkeley 1968, is to the best of the author’s knowledge the first published footnote to this curious event. #