I do not care at all about Shia LaBeouf. This is surprising, since I stood on a hot L.A. sidewalk waiting in line to sit in a room alone with him while he stared silently at me with a paper bag over his head. He was doing this as a piece of performance art called #IAmSorry, in which the Transformers star again apologizes for plagiarizing a graphic novel (for which he had already apologized using plagiarized quotes) by plagiarizing two of Marina Abramovic’s pieces, one in which she stared silently at people and another in which she let patrons choose various implements to use on her as they chose. LaBeouf is as committed to plagiarism as I am to waiting in long, pointless lines.
I wanted to find out what kinds of people were angry enough at LaBeouf to stand in line all day for a personal apology. But very few were there for the apology part. There were a few young fans who just wanted to meet him, and some people who wanted to save him, including the grown sister of a troubled former child actor. And one guy who was an ex-fan was determined to flog him with the whip from LaBeouf’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which he felt had flogged him for 122 minutes. The vast majority didn’t care about LaBeouf at all but just enjoyed a good spectacle. “I’m not really a fan of his acting,” said Andrew Scott. “But what I am a fan of is crazy.” I’m a fan of people who are crazy enough to stand in interminable lines to see crazy.
The security guards wouldn’t tell us what was going on in there, but every 10 minutes or so, someone would go in all giddy to Instagram their campy celebrity experience and come out silent and rattled. One warned us not to go in, because it felt like participating in a public hanging. Many said they confessed secrets to him. Most just comforted him.
It turns out that making fun of someone on the Internet is way easier than making fun of him at a table in a tiny room while he’s crying and wearing a tuxedo. “I thought it was going to be funny, and it was really powerful,” said Alex Perrone, a 24-year-old makeup artist, who came back to see him a second day. “My routine in the morning is to go to CNN.com and TMZ. This morning I didn’t do that.” Her new routine was to wake up early and wait to see LaBeouf.
Part of what was keeping us in line was a simple psychology experiment about how members of a crowd convince each other they haven’t wasted their time by investing more, which I believe is how Real Housewives stays on the air. But part of it was that because we deify celebrities, we believe they have wisdom to impart. And while I know, after interviewing hundreds of celebrities, that this isn’t true, I must still believe it a little bit. Also, like my new hipster millennial friends, I realized I too don’t have a real job.
I was seventh in line at 6 p.m. when the show closed. As I was leaving, Ross, one of the security guards, told me to come back the next morning before the show opened and he’d get me in. Unfortunately, when I showed up the next day, I was told that Ross had been fired. That’s how, after my new friend Alex let me sit with her close to the front, I wound up standing in line for a second day. I, by the way, have never seen one LaBeouf movie.
Because people were now spending up to an hour with the sobbing LaBeouf, I was fourth in line when the show closed. I had now invested 13 hours and 100% of my dignity in attempting to have LaBeouf not talk to me. There was no way I was coming back again for another bout of self-loathing. I would plagiarize an ending to this column before I did that.
My new friend Alex got there at 6 the next morning and texted to tell me she saved me space No. 23. I showed up at 1 p.m. At 4:30, I was ushered in. I asked LaBeouf if I could remove his bag, and he didn’t say anything, which is performance-art-speak for “You can remove my bag.” Maybe he was acting or having a meltdown, but he was immensely present and responsive for a guy who didn’t talk–laughing, nodding and crying at the right moments as I talked to him. He was whatever was projected on him. But I didn’t have much to project, since his image had never been part of my life. So I just hugged him and told him that I’d try to be less snarky when I wrote about celebrities and that he smelled great for a guy weeping in a tux for four days.
I exited out the back and returned to the line to get kudos for taking only two minutes. They told me it was eight.
I still have no idea what is going on in there. But I’m oddly not furious that I spent three days waiting to go in. Maybe, despite all previous data, I like performance art. Or maybe we really can find meaning in whatever idols our society happens to pray to. Or maybe it’s just not so bad to be outside in line in L.A. in February. If LaBeouf did this in New York, I’m pretty sure he would have been flogged.
This appears in the March 03, 2014 issue of TIME.