Tuesday, March 28, 2006

My Breakfast with Donald

As I mentioned at the end of the post below, I've got myself back on track these days, and recently I took the opportunity to put my newly returned mojo to the test. I've been a fan of "The Apprentice" since it debuted a couple of years ago, and at least once each season I would find myself sitting in my living room and thinking to myself: 'some of these people are idiots...I could be on this show.' And then I would recline back in my Lay-Z-Boy and return to just passively viewing the television. Daydreams were one thing, but the logistics of taking a leave of absence from work and heading up to Manhattan for several weeks always brought a cold dose of reality.

But my free time is a tad bit more flexible these days, so when Donald Trump came on at the conclusion of last week's episode and announced that they were currently casting for next season's show, I decided that I would go for it. I downloaded the application from NBC's website and noticed that they were having an open casting call in NY on Friday. The audtions were going to be held at Trump Tower beginning at 9 a.m.--apparently wrist bands would be distributed to people about one hour before, and they asked that no one appear in line until after 6 a.m. I recalled seeing news reports from the first few seasons of thousands of people lined up around several blocks, so I figured that arriving there early was my only shot.

To get there, I would have to leave my house at three o'clock in the morning to drive to Trenton, take a 3:45 a.m. NJ Transit train to Penn Station, and then take 2 subway lines to make it to Trump Tower in time. I am definitely not a morning person, so rather than risk snoozing right through my alarm, I decided to stay up and chat online until about 2 a.m., and then hopped into the shower and put on my best interview suit. A minor mishap while attempting to walk my dog while drinking a cup of coffee required a quick change into my second-best interview suit, but I still made my train with plenty of time to spare.

The final subway stop put me just about one block away from Trump Tower around 5:45 a.m., and as I walked down Fifth Avenue, I was shocked to see only about 50 people in line ahead of me. I guess that by Season Six, the bloom is off of the rose a little. Either that, or more people just decided to submit their entries by mail, with a 10-minute video of themselves explaining why they should be the next Apprentice. It was apparent that the first ten people in line were die-hard fanatics who had camped out and slept right outside the front entrance overnight. I settled in and started talking with the people in line around me, and pretty soon a steady stream of people started appearing. By 7 a.m., the line stretched around the corner and almost all the way down 56th street.

There was definitely an odd mix of people in line that morning. A good majority were dressed like me, in sober business suits and little portfolios tucked under their arms. But there were also a couple of people eccentrically dressed, hoping to stand out like Danny, that odd guy with the guitar from a couple of seasons ago. Right in front of me was a woman in her late 40's who looked and sounded a little like Bette Midler, and who was holding court in our little section of the line. Apparently she was a veteran of this process, and claimed to have made it to the second round last time, sitting down at a table with Caroline and George. There was a lot of nervous energy in the crowd, and a few people were talking out loud to no one in particular, as if rehearsing their own little stand-up routines. I just passed the minutes in line by leafing through the NY Times and shivering in the cold.

Actually things heated up a little when Yes, and... Corp. faced its first challenge before even getting through the revolving doors. It was about 7:30 a.m., and I was looking over my application one more time to make sure that everything was in order. Completed questionaire...check. Signed release form...check. Current copy of resume...check. Valid U.S. Passport...che--what the f*#&??. I patted down the pockets in my suit jacket and pants several times, and then a cold realization hit me as I pictured my passport nestled safely in the breast pocket of the coffee-stained suit now lying on my bed at home. I confirmed with the Divine Miss M ahead of me in line that you definitely needed proof of citizenship to apply. I could just imagine myself sitting at the boardroom table watching the disapproval fall across George's face while Caroline crossed her arms and shot a question at me through that clenched jaw of hers: "If you can't even submit a properly completed application, how can you possibly hope to become the next Apprentice??"

I cleared my head and focused on the application guidelines again. They stated that a copy of a passport could also be submitted, and I quickly came up with a Plan B. I called home on my cell phone and, miracle of miracles, my son actually woke up and got to the phone before the answering machine clicked on. I directed him to the passport in my bedroom, and then gave him a one-minute tutorial on how to scan an picture using the copy machine in my home office. I explained to him the way to save the image onto the computer, and had him attach the photo to an email which he addressed to my Yahoo account. Once he received confirmation that the message had been sent, I told him to wait by the phone. I asked the people in line to save my spot, and dashed into the lobby to get directions from the security guard. I flagged down a cab and headed several blocks over to a Kinko's on Columbus Circle, where I ran inside and jumped online to access my email. I opened and printed out the attachment, and then hopped back into another cab and was back in line about 15 minutes from when I started, with a fresh black and white copy of my passport now tucked away at the end of my application.

Not ten minutes later, one of the production assistants came outside and escorted the first 50 of us through the lobby. We were taken downstairs to the ground floor of the atrium of Trump Tower, which is set off by a huge indoor waterfall several stories high. It was also right next to an elaborate a la carte breakfast restaurant, which was featured at the beginning of one of the shows from a few weeks ago when the teams were given the task of coming up with a commercial for a new brand of Grape Nuts cereal. Most of the people in line kept focusing on their portfolios, but with my hunger kicked into high gear from my little jaunt across midtown Manhattan, I grabbed a little something to eat. (FYI--I give the chocolate chip muffins 3 out of 4 stars.)

Pretty soon a buzz came over the crowd as the first sightings were made of The Donald. He was being trailed by about a half-dozen camera crews and several minions. He turned out to be dressed in the exact same suit and tie that he is wearing in the opening credits of the show, and he is actually much taller than he appears on the screen. His hair is frequently mocked by Letterman and Leno, but honestly it looked perfectly fine that morning. All in all, he really did look like a billion bucks.

Another P.A. from the show came over and grouped everyone into clumps of 8 people. Eventually, each group would be sent over to one of four tables that was presided over by a moderator. Our group's turn came after about 45 minutes, and as we arranged ourselves around the table and handed in our applications, the moderator explained the process. First everyone was to go around the table and state their name, their occupation, and where they went to school. Next, we would be given a topic to debate amongst ourselves. We weren't supposed to try to persuade the person from the show, but rather get our point across to each other.

Trump sauntered over to our table within a few minutes, and then the introductions began. Our table was located right at the base of the large waterfall, so everyone had to shout a little to be heard. People started going around the table, and things were pretty run of the mill until it came to the woman sitting to my right. She was a physician, and had gone to Harvard Medical School. She was also currently getting a Master's degree from Columbia. Trump raised his eyebrows and asked her what she was doing applying for a position like this. She smiled and said with sincerity that she wanted to branch out from just medicine and that she wanted to work for him. He nodded his head and complimented her on her impressive resume. Then came my turn.

I cleared my throat and gave my name and said that I was a trial attorney from Philadelphia who had graduated cum laude in economics from Villanova and received my J.D. from the law school there. Following right on the heels of Dr. Quinn, Ivy-League Medicine Woman, I might as well have said that I was a parking valet with a mail-order high school equivalency diploma. Trump nodded at me as if I had just recited today's specials from the menu, and then shifted his gaze to the person over on my left. I took a little consolation in the fact that he did not follow-up with more questions to anyone else in our group.

The Donald moved off to the next table, and then the moderator gave us our topic for debate: 'Should dating be allowed at the workplace?' Right off the bat, two people piped up. The first was an Indian guy in his early-thirties who started sounding off about how people had to be allowed to express themselves and pursue their desires. An African-American woman in her early twenties chimed in from across the table with a similar point of view. Even though the two of them were pretty much saying the same thing, they began to loudly volley back and forth while the rest of the group attempted to get a word in edgewise. I sat back and took in their main points while the verbal ping-pong match continued.

Personally I think the situation can get complicated at work, but I have no problem with the idea in general. But since most of the people in the group seemed to be advocating that position, I thought it might be a good tactic to weigh in with the opposing point of view just to stand out. I was able to break into the discussion and pointed out that first and foremost, the company had to be concerned with the safety of its employees and its own liability, and that clear workplace guidelines and employee training had to first be established. A couple of people agreed with my points, and I later followed up with the dangers of superiors getting involved with their subordinates. The Indian gentleman picked up steam once again, and started warning about companies limiting personal freedom and becoming Big Brother. I cut him off and said that at the end of the day it was an office not a singles happy hour, and if he wanted to use work to find dates then he should get a job at Match.com. The moderator had been quietly taking all of our comments in, but at that line he broke out laughing and continued to chuckle even when the next person started speaking. I hoped that I had scored points with that one.

After about ten minutes he cut off the discussion, and then he explained that we had to choose a project manager from our group based on their performance during the debate. We began to go counter-clockwise around the table and announce our individual vote and the reasoning behind it. He made it clear that no one could vote for themselves. Most of the people started voting for Mr. Loudmouth, giving the vague explanation that he seemed to be the most vocal. When it came to my turn I voted for the doctor, because she had made a number of valid points in a direct and focused manner. It turned out that she cast her vote for me based on the same reasons. The moderator thanked us all, and then we were done. He explained that they would make their decisions about who to bring back for the second round that day, and that those chosen would receive a call by the end of the afternoon.

I walked back onto Fifth Avenue just before ten o'clock, and then took a stroll down to Times Square. I tried to score some discounted tickets to 'Spamalot' on Broadway, but $300 for a single orchestra seat isn't quite my idea of a bargain. Needing a little energy boost, I went to a Starbucks and got a caramel frappucino, and then still feeling a little fatigued I crossed the street and ordered an expresso at the Starbucks on the opposite corner. I walked through Central Park in my overly caffeinated state for an hour or so, and then made my way back down to Penn Station to begin the return trip to Philadelphia. I forced myself to stay awake once I got home just in case the phone rang, but I'm pretty sure that if they brought back just one person from each table, the physician was the one who would have received the call. After about 36 hours of no sleep, I finally crashed during the most exciting moments of Villanova's come from behind win in the semi-final round of the NCAA tournament.

I'm definitely glad that I took my chance and went up there for the day, if only to say that I actually did it. And I got to meet Trump himself in person. At least now I won't be sitting there wondering 'what if' when I watch the show next season. Who knows, I might even find myself heading up to New York again for another open call someday. Except maybe next time I'll try to pad my resume with an impressive occupation to stand out a little from the rest of the group. Maybe something like: 'Chief Justice.'

And if that doesn't work out, there's always "Survivor"...