As we were led back into the dressing room, one could sense that something was very, very different. When we were last there, the air crackled with optimism and light-hearted banter. All of that was gone, replaced by the sort of generic hubbub that one might hear in any other room full of people. The winners were given a few forms to fill out, and the rest of us simply picked up our belongings and headed downstairs where the shuttle bus was waiting. The ride itself was eerily quiet, as though the air had been sucked out of the bus. It was more the shock at the suddenness than anything else, I believe, that hit us as we rode back to the hotel. The past week had been a crescendo, building up to the whirlwind that we had just experienced. But there had really been no gentle let-down at the end; we very much went from being VIPs to regular people as soon as we walked off the stage.
If there was any sense of connection as we entered the hotel, I did not pick up on it; from what I saw, everybody pretty much went back to their rooms and on their own way. This was completely understandable, of course; the events of the day very much left one with a sense of overload, and some decompression was needed. At the same time, I did carry a personal sense of regret that I had not had a chance to connect with more of my fellow contestants than I had. Although I did get the sense that they were all good people, the ebb and flow of the day did not give much opportunity to sit at length and get to know the others in any sort of depth. Of my nine cohorts, I got to spend a few minutes of quality time with four of them; the rest were very much a missed opportunity that could only be attributed to the frantic pace that we had just been put through.
After taking a bit of time to catch our breath – and to let my phone-a-friends that they were off the hook – Donna suggested that dinner followed by a nice walk through town would be a good idea…just a stroll to take in the lights and sights of mid-town Manhattan at night. And a wonderful idea it was; our itinerary was pretty much wide open until our flight back the next afternoon. We had not planned anything in advance, inasmuch as we had no idea of what to expect…”go with the flow” was going to be our mantra.
As we walked along the streets that evening, the sights jumped out at me, of course…the buildings, the lights, and the throngs of pedestrians, even on a Wednesday night. But there was something else, more memorable than any of this. The first time that I saw a large cardboard box set on the sidewalk, I did not realize at first what its purpose might be. As I walked past, however, it struck me:
This was somebody’s home, strategically placed above a grate in the sidewalk so as to concentrate what little heat that may be rising from whatever subterranean source. And this sight repeated itself several times as we walked along. Then there was the guy who appeared to be seated on the sidewalk with his back propped up against a building with a sign next to him that read “Need money for brandy research”, perhaps mercifully passed out and oblivious for the moment as to whatever hand life had dealt him. And it dawned on me that, for these people, the Christmas season also meant the advent of the January cold. And that, if the worst thing in the world to ever happen to me was letting the brass ring slip through my fingers on a game show, then I was truly blessed, indeed. The brass ring thing, of course, was far from the worst thing to happen in my life…and any incipient self-pity that might have started to work its way through my subconscious was quickly vaporized. We had been given – literally given – a chance to experience something that very few people ever would…and, when everything was said and done, we would have a home and family to come back to…what was there to regret?
The next day, on the advice of phone-a-friend Betty Ann, we went to the Carnegie Deli; from there, we walked to the American Museum of Natural History. Along the way, I was amazed by the traffic. I had driven downtown Chicago a few times, but there was no way that I would ever take the wheel here; seeing a car drive by with Missouri plates triggered something of a pity reflex in me. And, once again, there were the people. Somehow, we must have appeared to be tourists; more than one person walked up to us out of nowhere suggesting places for us to go. Had I been prescient, I would have taken up the directions offered by the person who recommended that we take in the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center. Of course, we had no inkling of the events that were to unfold the following September; as it was, we wanted to stay fairly close to midtown, as we needed to catch our ride to the airport that afternoon.
As we returned to the hotel, we were delighted to find that fellow contestant Tim Ryan and his wife Nancy would be on the same flight as us. This was not totally unexpected, as they were from the Twin Cities, and we would be making a connection at MSP for the last leg of our flight home; nevertheless, it was a treat knowing that we would be able to spend a bit more time with them to recount our individual experiences.
Night had fallen by the time our plane took off. As I looked out my window, I was struck by the endless sea of light below us…on and on and on, as far as the eye could see. As we worked our way westbound, the endless lights gradually gave way to the rural darkness that was pockmarked by the scattered small clusters of lights marking the towns below us. The dark patch of Lake Michigan caused me to glance out the window a bit more frequently; before long, the dots of light that mapped the familiar layouts of Wausau and Stevens Point – as well as the tiny dot in between that marked Mosinee – came and passed from view…a sign that Tim and Nancy would soon be home, and not too much longer after that, us as well.
As we got home we were, of course, asked how it went. We had fun, I told them, but no, we couldn’t say how we did. This would be but the first time we would be asked that question, of course. For now, though, it was time for some rest. The alarm clock would be ringing once again tomorrow, and there would be a paycheck attached to it.
The ride was not yet completely finished, however…