Patience, as we’ve all heard, is a virtue. Those of you who have patiently stuck around for 5 parts will be rewarded in this installment. So. What happened?
In the last installment, you will recall that I was stripped of all my food and beverage in exchange for entrance to the Greensboro Coliseum and a chance, not promise, but chance of an audition. I imagined it akin to the long, uncomfortable journey my grandparents made from Europe to the US. The relief of getting off the boat overshadowed any fear or excitement about the chance but not promise of a new and better life.
The benefit of patina.
That relief ended about 2 minutes after getting inside. Such times are the ones that reinforce my gratitude for a little age and experience. While the youngsters were indulging in the cool and uncluttered hallways, I made a beeline for the ladies room. I walk in. Do my business and walk out. No lines. No drama–and plenty of toilet paper and hand towels. A hot dog concession is 15′ away and there are 10 in line. In 10 minutes, there are lines of 50-100 people by each lavatory door and the same behind me at the hot dog counter.
Exercising some unfamiliar restraint, I do not get the hot dog. I sing better on a semi-empty stomach. A big momma passes by cautioning us in an accusatory tone “No chocolate. No dairy. Understand?” I do not want to waste part of my life in another line so I buy the biggest unbuttered popcorn, a Coke zero, and a big bottle of water. I’m good to go until late afternoon and hope that’s enough.
Now to get settled. I walk around looking for my section and realize I have to walk halfway around the building. I’m in row F and when I sit I see 3/4 of the coliseum filled. The floor of the coliseum is covered with 36 cubicles. Tiny chambers curtained off from each other with blue drapes. Most of them look empty but in the ones down on my end, I see people with clipboards entering and settling in. A guy with a bull horn announces that we will enter by sections according to when we registered. There is to be no picture taking. If you’re caught, you’re out. That doesn’t keep me from snapping a discrete close up of one of my polka dot feet. I enjoy feeling like a renegade and tempting fate. No one nabs me and I settle in to watch the section on the far side and left of me get up and be herded to the floor. Others around me make a similar observation; we are being treated like cattle. Before long, old and young, loud and soft, people are entering the cubicles. Some basic truths become apparent. If you sing really loud and sing a gospel song; if you are really old or really young; if you are a cross-dresser or a come outrageously dressed; if you have a really pathetic or ridiculous story you are willing to spill—you will get a golden ticket to the next round.
There is a freak show quality about all of it. I am close enough to hear some great singers who aren’t loud, ancient, in diapers, or sharing the dirty laundry. They are summarily dismissed. I hear no jazz singers. My earlier appraisal of my chances is reinforced. They are dim at best.
In the meantime, every time a loud voice rises, the crowd responds with the fervor of a sports arena appreciating a home run or touchdown. Periodically, we receive pleas from the organizers to quiet down and respect those auditioning. When contestants finish their auditions, they are either handed a golden ticket and exit on the right side of the coliseum or they leave empty handed to the left. The crowd cheers those who wave that ticket and live the thrill vicariously for a few moments. There is a boo every now and then when the crowd and judge’s opinions do not align.
In the Middle of the Maddening Crowd
Through all this, two people behind me are passionately commenting on their musical idols. He gets on a jag about how American Idol winner from season 3, Fantasia Barrino, has not gotten her due in show business because she has a poor business manager. The woman argues back and forth with him. I have taken them to be a married couple but as the hours drag on, I discover they have just met today. The middle aged black gentleman is from Georgia and is accompanying a daughter who will sing. The large middle aged black woman is from Washington, DC and she plans to audition.
Next to me are a couple of kids from Virginia. They are young. She looks like Scarlet Johannson’s sister and he is another skinny kid waiting for his 20’s to add a little weight to his tall frame. They both work retail. She sings with a CW band by night and he just sings. They drove all night and are running on 2 hours of sleep. Mostly they are preoccupied with finding a place to smoke.
As the hours pass, I amuse myself with the dramas unfolding on the floor and text the boys. I finally broke my silence about the adventure after getting bored standing in line early morning. Philip has texted back, “Mom. You’re ridiculous!” He thinks it’s all very funny. The boys were raised to think in terms of good stories and Philip knows that this is a Class A tale. He sends his support and checks in periodically to see how I’m holding up.
Captivity makes you do strange things or at least gets you doing things that you wouldn’t otherwise. At about 2pm, I start playing with numbers. The crowd is big, but not as big as some I’ve seen on TV. Of course, I know now the manipulation that goes on to make the crowd swell look overwhelming. But I am curious, how many people are here? I ask a few around me to speculate. The kid from Virginia says 15,000. The woman behind me says 10. I have nothing else to do but rehearse in my head and watch the spectacle and so I begin to estimate. I count part of a section and multiply by the rows; estimate the differences in sections and then multiply by the number of sections. I project roughly 7,000. Next I begin calculating how long it has taken to “process” the people who have gone through. It has become apparent that my early provision projections were unrealistically optimistic. I will not make the cubicles my 5pm; more like 7-9pm. Sigh.
The hot dog stand beckons me and I head out to seek nourishment and diversion. The halls remind me of backstage at theatre productions from my past. People adjusting their outfits, rehearsing to the wall, looking very serious in their preparations. I’ve been singing in the car for two days. I feel no need to overwork my vocal chords.
The hot dog tastes good. Wearing black pays off again because I have been cavelier with the yellow mustard and it has found a prominent home on my dress—front and center. Off to the restroom. Once I have removed the damn spot, I survey my face. Middle of the night adventures are not gentle to my mature face. I pull out concealer and try to play down the circles under my eyes. My back up plan is the veiling I brought to put on the black hat. In the end, that seems like a ridiculous attempt to disguise my age. (Then I laugh at my concern over being ridiculous—all of this is beyond ridiculous.) This is hilarious. I settle on using the veiling as a scarf that will cover the part of my neck that is sagging a little. The white cats eye sunglasses will cover the dark circles. It all amuses me. These feeble attempts will fool no one.
The middle aged coliseum seat attendant that I pass coming in strikes up a conversation. She’s fascinated. Probably 50. As she asks where I’m from and why I decided to come, her eyes light up and she expresses admiration at the “courage” it takes to do this. “I think it’s great,” she exclaims and wishes me good luck.
They are evacuating the section next to us and the atmosphere changes. I have not decided what to sing yet. For two days, I have been working on a very different and individual arrangement of “A Song for You.” More blues than jazz. I like it a lot, but am fearful that when the nerves of standing there kick in–I will lose the effortless sense of flow that makes it special. Still my inner voice reminds me that my chances are slim, so why not go for it.
The inner debate about whether to do the new song or one I could do in my sleep continues until I abruptly realize my row is standing. Put the polka dot shoes on! Off through the halls, around the far side of the building and down the stairs to the coliseum floor and a sea of people.
A woman in front of me is planning a big gospel number. Her 14-year-old daughter seems to be here as a one-person entourage. “Mama, you look great.””Yes, Mama, it is a great song.””No, Mama, you have never sounded better.” I see therapy in the kid’s future and turn my attention to the young man behind me. We strike up an interesting conversation about the meaning of music in our lives and share our influences. He’s 24. Right between my sons’ ages and works at DW Shoes in Charleston. He writes his own stuff. I find him thoughtful and hope I get to hear him sing. He seems like the real deal to me.
The long massive channel of people is now being separated into lines feeding each cubicle. I have been eyeing cubicle 26. That has mostly been a provident number for me and I’m hoping that’s where they steer me. The young man has been steered to the line next to me. We wish each other well, and I come back to the question of which song to sing. Despite my sense that this is a lark, I’m feeling nervous and decide that I will sing “The Very Thought of You,” a signature tune for me and one I could sing unconsciously.
Why is it nerves never go away? At least they don’t for me. Over the years, I’ve sung for thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of people. Big crowds, small crowds. Weddings, clubs, Governor’s inaugurations, concerts, recordings. I was on TV for 7 years. Acted in many plays. I wish I knew the formula for managing nerves. Haven’t figured that out yet.
All of a sudden, people are moving fast and I am outside cubicle 26. There is an incredible chaos of sound. The sound takes me back to walking past all the rehearsal rooms at Old Main in Platteville. Only here there are six people singing at the same time in a space 18×18 with flimsy blue curtains the only barrier between everyone. Along with nerves, the racket is playing havoc with my concentration. “Breathe. Just breathe and focus,” I tell myself. All at once I find myself walking into #26. There is a blonde woman, 30ish and a dark-haired assistant. “Tell me about yourself.” I tell her I’m a little late to the party, but no one was doing contests like this when I was 26. I have no dirty laundry that I am willing to share, so she asks what I will sing. “The Very Thought of You.” “Any time you’re ready,” she says. My hands are shaking and I am working hard not to focus on her but enjoy the moment, say “what the hell,” and leave it all on the floor. After a few bars, I relax and let go. She looks at me seriously and a bit curiously. I finish expecting a thanks but no thanks. Instead, she holds out a golden ticket and smiles. “Congratulations.”
When I say that this is a complete surprise, there is no false modesty involved. I grin ear-to-ear and as I leave waiving gold ticket overhead, people cheer. It is quite a moment. Ahhh. The relief. The surprise. I take it all in for a moment and then I am ushered quickly through the golden ticket door. None of us know what to expect, but in minutes I am swept into another line. I hear people estimating how many of us won the gold. Mostly people are guessing around 500. As I make my rough projections, that looks about right. Based on what I remember of last year’s show, they only take about 50 from each location. That’s a bit of winnowing. Though most of us anticipated auditioning in front of the judges at the next stage, it becomes pretty clear that there will be another cut before tomorrow’s final auditions. Again, we are ushered into lines facing four cubicles. People are more quiet back here and fidgety. Far fewer are getting invitations to tomorrow’s final audition. The emotional roller coaster has been too extreme for some who leave sobbing. The atmosphere here is less like a festival and more like waiting for the mandatory physical at a military base. By now, I’m relaxed and am into taking it all in. I didn’t expect to be here, so this is icing on the cake.
My time comes. This round, a slim-faced young guy greets me. He asks if I have a good story. I tell him that alas, I think mine will look very vanilla compared to what I’ve heard since getting here. He smiles and gives me a look that says, “Your voice better blow my socks off.” I sing my piece and he tells me I have a really warm sound, but he will pass on me this time. And, so it is over. I smile to myself thinking about this blog and how much fun it has been to be the authentic, ridiculous, risk-taking me again for a few days. I have gotten a look behind the wizard’s curtain and a good story. The trip has been worth it.
On the way to the car, I swap out my polka dot stillettos for flipflops and catch a glimpse of the young guy who was behind me in line. “Did you make it?” I ask excitedly. “Yeah,” he says with a look of grateful surprise. “Did you?” he asks. “No. But I’ll be watching for you. Knock their socks off tomorrow.” He beams and we head our separate ways. “I really enjoyed our talk and I will look up Johnny Hartmann.” I hope he makes it.
That night everything looked greener, tasted better, and seemed brighter. I was relaxed and in a beautiful place. Had to admit I was glad to be done, so that I didn’t have another day of waiting around. I called into work and told them I was taking an extra day. My reward for “working” the X-Factor would be time in Asheville and driving home through the mountains. I finished the day knowing that I had an adventure fix that would last a while and a story that would last forever. A much more moment.