Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Next Ken Jennings?

The online auditions for Jeopardy! are right around the corner and I have signed up once again this year, because apparently I am just a glutton for punishment. To clarify: I have qualified to be on the show three times in my life but have yet to appear on the air for whatever reasons the cosmos deems hilarious in each particular year. The most recent time also happened to be the first time the online test was offered, requiring Sarah and me to take a trip to New York City after I passed the cyberquiz. Previous to that, all the tests I had written were offered in Toronto and I was two-for-three on those. The very first one I ever wrote was in 1989 and I blew it, which was even harder to swallow because I could have written it in Los Angeles the year before while I was on vacation and, I later heard, the one I wrote and failed in Toronto was the exact same test, meaning I would have had two cracks at it. Let's clarify once again: if you "fail" a Jeopardy! test it only means you scored under 70% on it, which means you got more than 15 wrong out of 50 questions. To further expand on this: over the three tests I wrote in Toronto a grand total of eleven people scored highly enough to be allowed to stick around for a mock game; I was two of those eleven people. And I still haven't been on the show. Hell, yes, I'm a little bitter! I did win a hat on one of those occasions, though, by sitting in the chair with the masking tape stuck to the bottom. So I'm a little lucky, but just not lucky enough to be on the damn show. So far.

Hotel 41, as it was called then
In 2006 I wrote the first online test they ever offered, choosing New York City (among several American cities) as where I would like to be "interviewed" should I progress to the next stage. At that time, they did not offer a Canadian city as a choice and, as I had never been to New York, I thought it might be as good a place as any to go. Bonus points: I knew Sarah would love it! After the test several weeks went by before I finally received an email telling me that I had "passed" the online portion and asking if I would be available to meet with other successful applicants at the Waldorf Astoria on May 18, 2006. I accepted immediately and Sarah and I began planning a whirlwind trip to NYC (which would include dinner there on my birthday, the day before the audition). We flew via Jet Blue out of Buffalo around lunchtime on Wednesday the 17th, landing at JFK and taking the Long Island Railroad to Penn Station, a few blocks from the boutique hotel we had booked for the night: Hotel 41 at Times Square (apparently now called "Equity Point" for some reason). We walked up the few blocks from Penn, checked in and immediately headed back out to spend as much time as we had available soaking up the sights of Broadway, Times Square, Rockefeller Plaza and, of course, the Empire State Building.

Birthday dinner in Times Square
We were blessed with pretty decent weather for that time of year (although it was quite windy at the top of the Empire State Building, but certainly not cold) and the threatening rain held off until we were done walking around for the day and tucked back in our snug but cute little room. We walked up and down Broadway and settled on a place called the Times Square Grill. There was nothing fancy about the place; it struck me as a cross between a Firkin Pub and The Keg, but it had "Times Square" in its name and seemed like a pretty good place to land. I don't remember much about the meal but the view of the vibrant street scene from our table sticks with me. Also, I had a new point-and-click camera (the second of three I spoke of yesterday) after the previous model had failed me at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, of all places. I celebrated the first outing with the new Pentax by spilling about a third of my caramel apple martini onto it shortly after it arrived at the table. (You can see the glass, having already done its damage, in the picture above.) The lens and shutter never really did work 100% properly after that. Sigh. Anyhow, after dinner we walked back down to the hotel, stopping along the way to share a slice of New York Cheesecake from a cake shop we passed and then dropping into the Hershey store for a pure adrenaline rush of sight, sound and sugar. It couldn't be a late night, unfortunately, because I had to be at the Waldorf for 10 a.m. and we planned on walking there.

Clock in the main foyer of the Waldorf Astoria
The next morning, Sarah walked over with me to the Jeopardy! gathering and then continued on her way up to Central Park to spend the morning. The weather was even better than the day before—if memory serves, the temperature reached the mid-20s celsius that day—and I was a bit uncomfortable in my suit and light sweater combo that I had chosen for the occasion. To make matters worse, I am normally pretty cool when it comes to trivia contests but this time was different: I was keenly aware that we had spent a great deal of money that we really didn't have to take a whirlwind trip to New York City just so I could write the secondary test. I put a lot of pressure on myself that I probably could have done without and I don't actually know how well I did on the written part of the day's proceedings. However, I know exactly how I did on the personality portion and the mock gameplay and I can tell you that I should have been called back on that alone. There were a lot of people in that room and the mock set would only take three players at a time (as on the actual show), so many of us had to sit on our hands and wait for quite a while before it was our turn to play. At one point I had to pop out briefly to use the facilities and when I came back in one of the co-ordinators made a big deal about welcoming me back. I pretended to be overly flattered and mimed a "Call me!" motion with my hand, to the amusement of everyone present. This helped to ease the tension I was still feeling and when it was finally time for my turn (I was in the very last group called up) I was starting to get the old edge back. We only played for a few minutes, but I rang in first (and answered correctly) on every single question but one—again, helping me feel better about my chances...until the very last question. The category was something like "Bird, Fish or Mammal?" and the answers were single words such as "Perch" or "Wallaby". I had just been asked to speak louder by one of the co-ordinators (which struck me as odd because I spent the first few decades of my life being asked to "keep it down") and when the next question appeared, "Auk", I rang in first, drew in a deep breath and said, "What is an auk?" at the top of my lungs. There was a moment or two of stunned silence and then, before anyone could rule against me, I realized my mistake and quickly yelled, "I mean, 'What is a bird??'" Hilarity ensued, let me tell you, and I laughed and said, "Well, at least all of you could hear me that time, right? Sheesh..." When the laughter died down the game was over and we were all thanked for our time and sent out into the New York sunshine. I really thought I was a shoo-in at that point, mainly because of the gaffe and elegant (and self-deprecating) recovery....but I never got the call. That snub was particularly hard to take and I haven't written the test since.

Ah...Central Park in May
But I wouldn't know about that snub until a full eighteen months had passed with no call. That day, May 18, 2006, I left the Astoria and raced down Madison Avenue at lunchtime in my suit, feeling like it was just a normal work day and I was one of the Mad Men grabbing a dog at a cart. We had to check out of the hotel by 12:30 and I only had about twenty minutes to make it all the way back, but I managed to do so. Sarah and I brought our luggage down to the lobby and asked them to store it for us for the afternoon, then raced back uptown to Central Park (second time for Sarah) to bask in the warm May sunshine for a couple of hours. It was a glorious day and we hated for it to end, but we had to fly out of JFK in the early evening, so we went back to the hotel to collect our luggage (exactly twenty-four hours after we first checked in!) and asked them to call us a cab to get to the airport. They burst out laughing and told us there was no way we would make our flight in time if we tried to get out of Manhattan at rush hour via cab, which caused us a little moment of panic. We rushed back down to Penn Station and reversed our trip of the day before, taking the Long Island Railway out to, I believe, Jamaica Station (though I might have that wrong) where we transferred to the Airport Shuttle, arriving at our gate at the airport with plenty of time to spare. We learned from a fellow passenger that, while it had been gorgeous in NYC that whole day, Buffalo was on the other side of a huge thunderstorm and there was no guarantee that we would be going back that evening after all. But go back we did and I made it to work for one more day before the Victoria Day weekend began. We would have loved to have taken that day off, too, and spent the weekend in New York but we simply could not afford it, sadly. But in a way it's an exceedingly more romantic memory, I think, to have flown down to New York for a birthday dinner and just stayed the one night. At least that's how I like to remember it.

And if I am successful at the online test again next week, the pressure will not be very great at all when I write a second test in Toronto. And because I have more or less given up on ever getting on the show (I'm starting to lose the speed of recall that one needs to succeed on Jeopardy!), there's likely a better chance than ever that I will make it on the air this time.

Which would be great, because I could really use the $250,000 for winning the Tournament of Champions.

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