Why did I skip dinner to wait, along with 124 of my fellow college students, outside the Marriott Hotel at Cambridge Center, only to return home at 20 minutes to midnight? The answer: to get rich quick. But, rather than starting a dot-com company, I chose to try out for "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Hey, if you can not only win a million dollars, but also meet Regis Philbin, who could pass up such an opportunity?
I must admit that I have watched "Millionaire" nearly every week since its first episode. To my surprise, I find myself sitting on my couch at home, imploring the contestant in the "Hot Seat" to choose this or that answer, indignantly banging my fist on the coffee table when he wastes all three lifelines on the question, "Who is the current president of the United States?" To me, it was as if the Red Sox let the ball boy pinch hit for Nomar.
But no matter how engrossing you find game shows in general, what makes "Millionaire" groundbreaking is how accessible it has made wealth to the average American. Standing in line, I met a student from Tufts who decided to change her hair color from blue to pink to ensure that the producers who choose the final thirty contestants remembered her vividly. I also spoke with a junior from Cornell who drove over six hours and endured the never-ending traffic of Boston's streets. Near the back of the line, an old high school friend of mine--currently a student at Brandeis--waited patiently with his friends who, after we all met, joined me in my lament about skipping dinner.
Though that awe-inspiring list of universities reeks of snobbery, the crowd was anything but elitist: People of all races, classes and social groups joined together and, like Shakespeare's "band of brothers," went through the same ordeal. First came the endless waiting in a single-file line: By the time we were allowed into the Marriott's conference room, the sun had set and the temperature dipped, and more than five students left the line in impatience.
Then came the written examination--a series of thirty Fastest-Finger questions ranging from "Place the following steps for making pancakes in order, from first to last" to "Place the following female authors in order of their births, from earliest to most recent." Finally, after nearly 80 percent passed the test--a number that surprised the show's producers--the interview process began. They said they were looking for "poise and a sense of humor" and that we "should look good on camera." I do not know how good I looked at 11:30 at night, but I figured that my chances of becoming one of the 30 contestants were as good as anyone else's.
I reflected upon my evening as I took the T from Kendall back to Harvard. As I looked around at the 11 people with whom I shared the Red Line car, I noticed men, women and children of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. Then it hit me: Like public transportation, "Millionaire" is a great social leveler, with its distinctive questions that make a life-changing sum of money winnable for most Americans. And that will be its contribution to the annals of television history and American culture.
So I wait, along with a microcosm of America, until October 20, when I shall sit by my phone from 4 to 8 p.m., waiting patiently to hear of my fate. And even if I do not get "the call," I will be content with the knowledge that our society has made one road to economic security open to anyone who has ever made pancakes.
Ari E. Waldman '02 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.