For much of our country's history, wealth has been a critical social-status maker. One can easily look at the remants of our Founding Fathers' estates - Monticello and Mt. Vernon, most notably - for a glimpse at the privilege and prestige of our orignial leaders. Though some claim we live in a classless society - and shriek at the thought of inciting class warfare - we have been marked this way for two centuries plus change. Think of the robber barons of the late 19th century, the tycoons and their excesses in the 1920s, Roosevelt and the so-called Limosine Liberals, the royalty of the Kennedy clan, the glamor (if you can call it that) of the 1970s, the get-rich-or-die-trying of the '80s, the infinte optimism and technology bubble of the 1990s. Something else also distinguishes American wealth, however, and that is, in this country, "new money" is just as good as "old money."
And so it was on a beautiful day at Jeff Belzer's Chevrolet-Dodge-Kia dealership, just outside downtown Lakeville, that more than 1,000 individuals lined up, interweaved through the rows of shiny automobiles, for their chance at becoming "new money" and jumping into a strata few will ever know. Of course, being an underemployed blogger, I was right there with them at the auditions for the "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" television show.
I showed up a 9 a.m., beaming and confident in my knowledge of triviality. Only in America is the aquirement of inane and useless knowledge so richly awarded, and I felt it was my turn to cash in. Obviously, there were numerous other Minnesotans (and some Wisconsinites) who believed the same about themselves.
The line was already long when I showed up. It wrapped around three rows of brand new cars - ones several people joked of buying if they were to win on TV - and I knew I was in for a long day. But the pay-off would be worth it, right?
During my five hours in line, I found ways to entertain myself. I've been reading The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, which proved to fill the time wonderfully. Also, I was fortunate to be around a quite congenial group of people whose lively conversations cycled from the Vikings-Packers NFL rivalry to the intricacies of the Minnesota accent to the state of our schools today (there was a high school athletic trainer and an educational psychologist in the bunch). I happened to be wedged between two guys named Tony, one a recent graduate of William Mitchell College of Law who received a job offer on his cell phone while waiting in line, and the other had the thickest mullet I've ever seen, wore a cheap gray suit, and informed us of how the lawyer he had during his first divorce saved his life.
Around 2 or 2:30 p.m., we entered the dealership proper and enjoyed relief from the sun. My chance was near; I would be included in the next group of auditions. A short man with fashionably ripped jeans and hair coifed into a fine mess handed out pencils and applications. Beside the requisite "Have you or anyone you know ever been employed by Such and Such Corporation?", there were questions like "What would Meredith Viera find most interesting about you?" and "I could be in the Guiness Book of World Records for..." The mood enlivened distinctly and there was a buzz about the people milling around and sitting on the showroom floor.
Forty five minutes later, about 250 of us were herded into another room. We all took our seats and waited anxiously for instructions, as well as our brief shot at fame and, of course, a cool $1 million.
A youngish woman with dark curly hair and freckles against a pale complexion drew our attention. Her name was Jennifer and she's a producer for "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." (Slight gasp from the crowd.) She lives in New York City. (Audible ooohs and aaahs.) She explained that we would receive two chances to enter the applicant pool. The event was being sponsored by Netflix for their "Million Dollar Movie Week," so we would take a test on movie trivia as well as a test on just regular trivia for the normal show. We were given 10 minutes to complete each 30-question test on a Scantron bubble sheet. In between tests, and while they were being scored, Jennifer and her assistants brought out T-shirts and free 3-month memberships to Netflix in exchange for jumping up and down, screaming, and just plain acting like monkeys. (This particular blogger is, of course, too civilized for such trifles and remained seated, looking with derision upon those who lost all self-respect in the name of a free T-shirt worth less than $1.)
I'm no movie buff, and I guessed my way through the first test. It was the second test that I - and almost everyone else within earshot - was more concerned with. When Jennifer and her assistants handed out the regular trivia tests, the room went silent. When the egg timer was started, it was as if the room was filled with LSAT or GRE takers.
Afterward, people compared answers and wondered what the cut-off would be. For my part, I knew I had to guess on at last six or seven of them (What country is Lake Nasser located in? A. Egypt B. Venezuela C. and D. Some other countries). I still felt like I may eke out the chance to stay on. Jennifer returned with our results, and read the names of those lucky individuals who may get a chance at the the one thing we were all there for. I was not one of them.
Out of the 250-odd people in my grouping, about 15 to 20 made it through. Doing the math, out of the 1,000 to 1,200 people who went through the process, I would venture to guess that only about 100 to 120 people actually made it into the "Who Wants to be a Millionare?" applicant pool. Out of that number, I would say between two and four people will be fortunate enough to actually make it onto the show.
Reflecting on this experience afterward, I realized first that I wasted an entire day, but I could swallow that. Also, I came away with a notion of social mobility, and the things people will do reach for what they consider a wealthy existence. The mere fact that so many people turned out for a longshot at a brief window of daytime television fame and the off-chance of earning a quick $1 million, to me, shows that people are searching for a way out of their present economic status, one unavailable to them within current conditions. Perhaps I'm looking at it too existentially, but thinking about the less than 3 percent of people who may actually make it onto the TV show, and the less than 5 percent of Americans who own more than 90 percent of the wealth, I just couldn't help myself.