Only after you have stood in a busy convention hall bathroom and heard a woman belt out "Black Velvet" above a chorus of flushing toilets can you truly understand the fierce determination of an artist. Because everyone waiting to audition for "American Idol" at the Washington Convention Center yesterday is an artist.
The way they see it, they are all destined for Hollywood, and they are all traveling under God's wing. They are all hopeful, and they are all sincere, and they are almost all going to lose, except for whichever one happens to be talking at the moment.
Mary Beth Starkey of Floyd, Va., teases her eyebrows after getting up early from her beauty sleep
(James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
"I'm going to win 'cause I didn't come here to lose," says Tricia Hannah, 25, of Bridgeton, N.J., in the sort of pithy phrasing you might see on inspirational calendars.
They speak with the certainty of youth.
"I know I'm going to make it," says Dale Corn, 24, of the Baltimore suburbs. "It's going to happen eventually, whether it's this or something else."
Is it something unique to the American character, this blithe confidence, this certainty that we are all intended for greatness?
When the contestants arrive -- skinny and fat, glamorous and dowdy -- they seem utterly unintimidated by the crush of people they'll be competing against. There are at least 8,000 people here, both competitors and companions, according to midday Fox network estimates. They have driven six hours from North Carolina or Connecticut, or flown in from Vermont, and they have waited in a line that at times stretched 2 1/2 blocks.
The hopefuls have settled into the Convention Center's upper exhibit halls for a night or two of sleepless anticipation on concrete floors, laying out their sleeping bags next to strangers, changing into pajamas and washing their hair in the restroom sink.
They play guitars and form singing circles. One person compares the atmosphere to Woodstock, but it's a Woodstock with the trappings of pop commerce. There are American Idol Pop-Tarts, American Idol playing cards and American Idol bubble gum. There is a karaoke machine, which only reinforces the impression that the people here are -- much like the folks you see in karaoke bars -- not quite as good as they think they are.
A crowd of kids will form, but instead of a producer or celebrity in the middle, there is some unknown singing his or her heart out, being treated already like a pop idol. Because anybody could be the next big star, there is a sense that everybody is the next big star.
In the meantime, though, they are also golf caddies and substitute teachers and Marines and recruiters of door-to-door salesmen. Nicole Heckman, 19, of Reading, Pa., is a beauty school student, "just something to fill the time," she says, because to her, anything other than a singing career is just passing the time. They have friends in the music industry who -- they swear -- are just waiting to sign them on. One has a 41-year-old mother with a ruptured disk who is sleeping on the concrete floor to save her spot. They are waiting to sing "Come Fly With Me," made famous by Frank Sinatra, or the theme from "Touched by an Angel," or Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Hopefuls were expected to arrive throughout the evening and into this morning. In Cleveland, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said, the turnout was about 15,000. Organizers said they were forced to open the Convention Center on Monday, a day early, because of the crush of people waiting outside. Washington is the third of eight cities where auditions are taking place.
On the sidewalk, a cop "la-la-las" for another cop, and jokes that he could try out, too. And why not, aside from the fact that he's surely older than the cutoff age of 28? As "American Idol" loser William Hung discovered, you don't even have to be good to get your 15 minutes of fame. Hung was the clumsy, tuneless singer whose audition performance of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" made him famous, garnering him fan Web sites, talk show appearances and a record deal. (His album "Inspiration" came out in April; "Hung for the Holidays" is due for Christmas.)
"We want the very, very best and the very, very worst," Lythgoe says, referring to the pool of people who will get past auditions today and tomorrow to appear before celebrity judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul on Friday and Saturday.
"American Idol" follows in a grand tradition of various American gold rushes. Talent is less important than a persistent belief in luck. Why invest all those years at Juilliard when you can just buy a showbiz lottery ticket?
For some, there is a sense of desperation. Robert Helton, 68, of Flintstone sits in a portable chair beside his granddaughter, Kimberly Nicole Helton. She is 20, dressed in a pink T-shirt and fast asleep on the floor, an arm stretched out over her head. Helton says she's a waitress at a Bob Evans restaurant.
"I just want to see her make something of herself," he says.
Jan Johns, 27, of Lanham studied musical theater at the Boston Conservatory, and her dream is to do cartoon voiceovers. Johns is perhaps a touch more cynical than many here. She is a little older and knows something about the entertainment industry. She fears she may be "typed out" if there are too many other brown-haired white women trying out. She says she used to think of acting and singing as art forms, but now it is just a job. And she really wants a job.
She looks out over her competition, rows and rows of people.
"This is such a long shot," she says. "What am I thinking? Why am I here?"