I started calling "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," ABC's intermittent prime-time quiz show, when my friends Margi and Helena left the toll-free number on my voice mail. Friends had been talking to me about the show, hosted by the inexplicably ebullient Regis Philbin, since its summer premiere.
I had been on "Jeopardy!" (always with exclamation point) two years ago and won--on the first day. My second day's performance ended in ignominy and the awarding of a consolation dishwasher/ trash-compactor combo. But I had garnered valuable TV game show experience.
I started calling the show number. Each potential millionaire is allowed two calls per day--and the computer knows when you've had them because each call requires that you enter your birth date and the last four digits of your Social Security number. I tried a third call one day just to check. No dice.
You must answer three questions correctly to qualify. Each question contains four items to be put in correct order within 10 seconds using the numbers on the touch-tone phone.
After a few attempts I started to get the hang of it, and on the third day I answered the questions correctly and so became part of a pool from which contestants for the next round would be chosen randomly. I spelled my name as instructed after the beep and gave my city of residence--Los Angeles--then punched in the number where I would be available to receive the coveted eligibility phone call the next morning.
I warned the receptionist when I arrived at the law office where I work and made sure everyone knew that if a call came for me I was to be found, even if it meant shouting through the door of the men's room.
At 10:30 the call came. A woman named Virginia started not so much to read as to intone a long list of disclaimers and caveats. It was obvious that Virginia had not the first clue what any of it meant, and I resisted the urge to help her pronounce some of the dicier items. After determining that I was not a candidate for public office and that no one in my family worked for Disney, she asked me where I live. I said, "Los Angeles." She said, "I'm sorry, that does not match the answer you gave in your previous phone call, so you are disqualified. Thank you for calling."
I screamed. I pictured Virginia's finger descending toward the button that would disconnect me from the only chance I saw to turn a cranium full of trivia into cash without really working. "Yes it does! Yes it does! Check it again!"
There was a terrible silence of a few seconds' duration, then a surprised little "Oh," and we resumed.
Virginia assigned me an hour on the Sunday before the Tuesday tape date in which I was to call and enter a code number to participate in the second-round playoff, which would consist of five questions. There would be 25 participants competing for 10 contestant and two alternate spots. Those who got all five questions right in the fastest times would be flown to New York the next day. I liked the odds.
Now I had the fever. Already I could picture myself striding confidently toward the show's game chair, placed so high that people have to jump to get into it and are then left with feet dangling in midair. I wondered if I would give in to the temptation to lean over to Regis and ask suspiciously, "She's not here, is she?"
I called every day, and qualified several more times, chose several more tape dates. But Virginia's was the only call that ever came.
As I logged phone time, I began to see patterns. The first question is a throwaway, similar to the first several questions on the show. I suppose it's meant to eliminate the non-English-speaking, the illiterate or the just plain goofy. An example might be "Alphabetize the following orchestral instruments: 1. oboe, 2. clarinet, 3. viola, 4. harp." The category of things to alphabetize is, of course, completely meaningless. It could just as easily be varieties of infectious bacteria. The only knowledge required is of the alphabet.
The second question often involves history or geography. One began, "Place the following countries in order by population, from highest to lowest." I was expecting India and/or China to figure, along with some barely habitable waste places--Libya, perhaps, or Canada. Then I heard the calm female voice say: "1. Israel; 2. Jordan; 3. Lebanon; 4. Syria." That was one of the days I did not qualify. (Look it up, by the way, and see if you're as surprised as I was.)
Question 3 separates the merely smart-alecky from the blessedly lucky and can come from anywhere. I was asked to place in order by date of publication four self-help books I had never heard of and by date of birth four soccer players only half of whom I had heard of. I strained to recall such TV classics as "Grizzly Adams" and "T.J. Hooker." Occasionally a somewhat musty-smelling academic question sneaked through, like "Place in order from earliest to latest the following historical events: 1. The Black Death; 2. The Counter-Reformation; 3. The founding of the Holy Roman Empire; 4. The First Crusade." I got that one, by the way, and felt I deserved extra credit. I had also discovered by watching the first few shows that there are graduate students in American universities who do not know which is larger, a bonsai tree or a giant redwood, and that if we are to trust the selection process, the rest of us must concede that an astonishingly high percentage of the cleverer people in America live in New Jersey.
On the Sunday of the playoff game, I arranged myself and my caramel macchiato at my desk, a sheet of paper ready with roman numerals I through V and next to each one Arabic numerals 1 through 4. I called, entered my PIN and began. Question 1 was the usual no-brainer. Question 2 had me arrange four American cities from north to south. So far so good.
Question 3 began, "Arrange these holidays in the order in which they occur during the year, starting in January." Somewhat unexpected, but I was game. "1. Earth Day." My pulse raced. When the hell is Earth Day? I didn't know it still existed. Think! High school ecology club, recycling in the back of a truck. Not sure. But time's running out. Has to be in summer, doesn't it? Outdoors and all? So I put Earth Day after May Day and before Halloween. No problem.
Question 4 was about the birth dates of queens born centuries apart, and Question 5 was luckily about the chronology of Gene Hackman movies, also spread widely over the actor's long career.
It was over, and I felt great. All I had to do was go home, watch the movie I had rented for the occasion and wait for the call that was scheduled to come in the three-hour window starting in 40 minutes. But first I had time to call Helena.
"Hey! It went great. I think I did really well. By the way, do you know when Earth Day is?"
"I am so screwed."
So it's back to work on Monday. I was evidently one of the very few people alive who didn't know when Earth Day is. But it's burned into my memory now. And next April 22, you will find me wearing clothing made from petroleum byproducts, using plastic packaging profligately, perhaps even taking up smoking again, and generally polluting like mad.