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Manufacturing Reality

Reality’s Apprentice

Reality TV may seem a world away from real life, but what happens when Donald Trump’s The Apprentice moves in upstairs? Worse, what happens when it seems to be a sham?

As each person is voted off, they receive a meal, shower, room and a visit from the staff psychiatrist. They come to check on you, making sure you are all right. Some people leave the game angry, or depressed. Others leave ill, while still others leave with a sense of relief. The psychiatrist continues to call on you even after you return home, as many people have trouble adjusting to the normal routine of life again.
Survivor Thailand contestant Helen Glover, the Providence Journal, March 11, 2004

 

My reality collided with reality TV during episode seven of NBC’s The Apprentice. The premise was a hyped-up competition over real estate. The remaining participants were challenged to renovate and rent one of two ‘rundown’ Brooklyn apartments in 48 hours. One of those apartments was a third-floor, one-bedroom in a brownstone on Third Street, where my family and I live on the first two floors. On screen, the team leaders stood outside our stoop and negotiated for the apartment above us. Off screen, we knew a few things they didn’t. A month before, for instance, the previous occupant and my upstairs neighbor had jumped out the window.

It was a Saturday night around 8 p.m. in late August. My wife was in the kitchen, sponge-bathing our newborn. My two-and-a-half-year-old son and I were upstairs sitting on the couch. It was supposed to be story-time but by mutual agreement we had decided to skip the book to watch the opening drive of the Jets’ preseason football game. Then came the thwump. My first thought was something big had tipped over in one of the apartments above us, like a refrigerator or a sofa. I knew I should look into the backyard, but frankly, I was tired of odd disturbances and felt a little blasé about investigating. Only a few days before, the blackout of 2003 had knocked the city and most of the Northeast into complete darkness. Seven days before that, our second son had been born—enough reality for any young father. And besides, the Jets now had the ball.

Ten seconds can seem like a lot of clock during an NFL game. I had already forgotten about the thwump when my wife called out from downstairs. My biggest anxiety to that point had been the chance she would come up the stairs, unannounced, and catch us watching TV. Now she was taking the stairs two at a time, the baby in her arms.

‘I think someone’s outside,’ she said. ‘I can hear them moaning.’ Downstairs, with the door open for air, she’d heard the thwump more clearly than me, and assumed I had been hurt. As man of the house, I finally roused myself to investigate.

The balcony door was the quickest route to the backyard. I tugged but it was stuck. I pulled harder and it released with a reluctant sucking sound.

 

No matter how many times you see such things on TV or in the movies, you will be surprised to find a body laying on your balcony. This one had mussed black hair, long enough to be a woman’s; thin arms, splayed as if still in free fall; and was lying face down. Where had it come from? Somehow, I imagined it plunging from the heavens, as though from a passing airplane. T-shirt and shorts. Bare legs crossed, hips turned gently sideways. There was something familiar about the straggly hair and bony thinness. Then I realized that the ‘body’ was M.

M was alive but at that moment he looked pretty bad. I knelt down beside him, as my wife called 911, and told him not to move. He assured me, in a sped-up, hyper-aware voice, that he did not intend to. It wasn’t a long fall, no more than 12 feet, but it was a hard one, and he had landed face first. Was it a suicide attempt? Could he have fallen out by accident while, say, changing a light bulb? There was blood around his face, and he had knocked out some teeth. Much worse were his forearms, bent into several zig-zags. He asked me in an insistent but reasonable voice to take the ‘ribbon from his wrist.’ There was no ribbon, just bone pushing out against his skin, but I pretended to untie it anyway and the gesture seemed to give him relief. I touched his shoulder occasionally to comfort him and keep him still while we waited for the ambulance.

As neighbors go, M, it must be said, was a pain in the ass. A mid-40s, divorced father of two, he worked in the music industry and had a busy, self-important way about him. His problems became your problems. Not enough cash for the moving truck, lend me some money. No lamp in the kitchen, let me borrow one of yours and never give it back. UPS delivered heavy, densely packed boxes for him; since I worked at home, I didn’t mind signing for them until I discovered that they were already being sent in my care. As I lugged yet another box up the stairs I realized from the label that it contained stacks of record albums. He probably had quite a collection, a thought that made his life seem more interesting. But he was still a pain in the ass.

The paramedics and police finally showed up, and I backed away with some relief to let them do their work. I looked around. The other apartments. The stars. To my surprise—and why not, when bodies were falling from the sky?—I recognized one of the paramedics. He was a neighbor from my old apartment building. Here, in action, he cut a different figure, seriously competent and in charge. I tried to strike up a how-ya-been reminiscence but he wasn’t having any of it. While he worked, I remembered he once told me how he had driven as a paramedic with the author of Bringing Out the Dead, a book that had been made into a movie directed by Martin Scorsese. M’s plunge even seemed to fit that story, the movie world and the real world merging, as though we were on some set rather than my balcony.

The cops asked M why he jumped. For some reason, M looked up at me and asked, ‘Can I tell them?’ Sure, I answered. So M explained. ‘This guy,’ he said, ‘had a gun, and he came into the cockpit and made us jump.’ I was surprised but not shocked to hear his Sept. 11-inspired fantasy because it had the same dream-like eeriness I’d felt when I stepped out on the balcony and wondered where the body had come from. One of the cops picked up a bottle of pills that had fallen from M’s pocket. ‘What kind?’ the other cop asked. Assorted, he answered, and they took M away on a stretcher.

Neighbors had gathered on their stoops to see what was the matter. It was a warm night. Watching strange happenings was beginning to become a habit. During the blackout three days before, we all bonded in that uniquely New York way, laughing uneasily, relieved that terrorists hadn’t hit us again. The ambulance pulled away. The police officer told me the night of the blackout had been extremely uneventful as far as police incidents, but now, a few days later, strange stuff was going on all over the city. I thanked him for the help and went back inside.

 

A few weeks later, M’s mother visited to make arrangements for his stuff to be moved out. She looked tired, as though held together by tight wires, but strong and upright. She told me that M had broken his back as a teenager and become addicted to painkillers. The rods in his vertebrae had cracked recently, hence the disability leave. By necessity, he had started taking painkillers again. It got out of control. She was sorry for our trouble. I was more sorry for hers. She was going to take M in, once he got out of the hospital, and look after him.

M’s apartment was empty for more than a month. Like compulsive New Yorkers, we wondered if the rental market was softening. On a Thursday night in early October, my wife got a call from our landlord’s wife. Great news, she explained. A reality show wanted to use the apartment for an episode; the participants had to renovate it and rent it within 48 hours. She talked fast, as though anxious to get off the phone. The idea did not sound like a good one. Workmen pounding nails at four in the morning? We had two children. One of them was only eight weeks old. Did she realize this? She assured us, like a used-car salesman who didn’t particularly care whether the lie was convincing, that they had agreed not to work after 10 or so each night.

Reality TV was coming to visit. Some people might have been excited by the idea, but I was not a follower or a fan of the subgenre. I couldn’t stomach Survivor, The Bachelor, or any of their many variations. When Michael, a friend who wrote for television, told us he had just been let go from a writing job for the now struggling Who Wants to Be a Millionaire we laughed in his face. People write for that show? Now we were being assaulted by the very object of our derision—and this time it was personal.

The crew showed up the next morning with cables, duct tape, and bad attitudes. They blew the power in M’s apartment five minutes after arriving and rang our bell to get it reset. I told them what I thought of their reality show before huffing inside to do as they asked. The switchbox was in the basement, which had flooded with sewage only a few months before, and there were still fans working around the clock to dry it out. The third step on the wooden stairs had snapped in half and my landlord had yet to repair it. Stretching out across the empty space, I was reminded of how the movie-making business loses its romance for people living in Brooklyn. Crews set up, and you can’t park your car. Some production assistant with a walkie-talkie stops you from walking down your own sidewalk. For a few years, I had a studio in DUMBO, the old warehouse district on the waterfront below the Manhattan Bridge. I can’t count the number of shoots I saw. Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky. A thousand episodes of Law and Order, Third Watch, and NYPD Blue. The illusion had no reality for me anymore, and New York itself had gone somewhat out of focus.

Back at our brownstone, the crew kept expanding. A few vans and some student-filmmaker types had grown to a team of technicians and a monstrous crane just outside our window, with enough lights to divert planes from LaGuardia. At 10 o’clock that night, I took my dog for a walk, pushing through all of the technicians and grips and production assistants collected on the sidewalk. When I returned, my son was standing in his window, fully awake, awed by the commotion. After we finally got to asleep, a sanding machine started up. Enough was enough.

The scene outside reminded me of a frat party. There were assholes sitting on my stoop. There were assholes going up and down the stairs. I couldn’t stop an asshole to ask a question without some other asshole cutting between us. Everyone was young. Some looked like they were acting, and I would later recognize them on TV. They talked about the wonders of our brownstone in a self-conscious, stagy way, as though they knew they were on camera. They didn’t care that we couldn’t sleep. This was the Iraqi invasion of reality TV shoots, and we were embedded—whether we liked it or not.

I burst into the upstairs apartment. A healthy hip-looking young black man was coating a wall with primer, smiling, as though handling a paintbrush at midnight was the coolest thing he’d ever done. A camera and boom mike were inches from his head. When I entered the room and demanded to see the production manager, the camera rotated toward me like the turret of an armored tank. In my rage, I sensed I was about to make the producers very happy, perhaps even launch my future appearance on a video of Reality TV Gone Wild. I didn’t care. I wanted the production manager. She was talking on her cell phone. She held out a hand for me to wait. I waited. She turned away and kept talking. I grabbed her arm, more physically than I’ve ever grabbed a woman who was not my little sister. The hand came up again for me to wait, peevish, distracted. I didn’t care if she was talking to Steven Spielberg, I wanted some respect. I pulled her into the hallway so we would be off camera. She asked in a calming voice to be specific about the one thing they could do to make everything all right. Because the same line had already been used on my wife by a different production manager, I recognized this as a tactic for dealing with irate ‘friendly fire’ victims of TV production. I told her I wanted the production stopped and everyone to get out of our building, now.

Of course, they would shut down, but it would take time. Mollified, I went back to my apartment. It took a lot of time. It took about four more hours and I suspected the production probably stayed on schedule without interruption. In the interim, I called my landlord and frothed into his answering machine. I didn’t expect sympathy, I just wanted him to be as miserable as I was. In the morning it was so quiet outside, we thought the whole thing must have been a dream. But the evidence did exist; there were signs up and down the block cheerfully advertising the new rental.

There was a touch of fall in the air that Sunday. People trooped in to see the apartment. Crew members avoided our eyes. We did not make a scene. By five o’clock, they had shut it all down and the last van had pulled away. Our 48-hour nightmare was over.

 

It made for a good story among friends. A reality TV show was filmed in the apartment above ours. Yes, that’s right, the apartment where the guy jumped out the window. As Matt, a clinical psychiatrist, pointed out, ‘This may be the only opportunity you ever have in your life to use the word defenestrate.’

The new tenant moved in. For appearing on the show and renting the apartment, she received $2,000 in free furniture. We vowed not to hate her. She looked nice enough, though she also seemed afraid of us. If she’d gotten that much for furniture, we figured our landlord must have gotten a few bucks for lending out the place. We wondered how much. He rang our doorbell one afternoon, looking sheepish. He apologized for what we’d gone through. I said that if he’d given us a few day’s warning we could have left town, gotten a hotel room, visited the grandmother, anything. He said he’d only found out about the shoot a few hours before we did. I didn’t believe him. He gave me a $100 gift certificate to a nearby Italian restaurant. It wasn’t a month’s free rent, but what the hell.

A locations manager showed up next. I was getting used to receiving apologies. He said that no one had told him about the two children. If they’d mentioned we had kids he never would have allowed the shoot to take place. He hoped our landlord had done right by us, given us a free month’s rent or something. I started to resent our little gift certificate. But then the locations manager gave me a $100 gift certificate to Baby Gap. He hoped we’d watch the show when it was broadcast in February. It was going to be big. Produced by the same guy who did Survivor. Donald Trump was in it. I hadn’t seen Donald Trump during the shoot and I didn’t give a shit if he was involved or not, but we shook hands anyway. That was the last I heard from anyone related to the show.

 

Reality TV moved on, but reality itself continued to visit us. Two months later, there was another mysterious noise in the middle of the night. Not a thwump this time, but a thud and a crunch. My wife woke up and looked out the bedroom window. She saw smoke, flashing lights, and police cars repeatedly backing into the cars parked along the street, like a smash-up derby. Our brand new minivan was docked in front of the apartment. She was pretty sure it had been hit, too.

I put on my coat. It was cold, the first week of December. Outside, like an episode of Cops run amok, there were crushed cars, glass crunching below my feet, and so many police lights strobing in the darkness that the air seemed translucent. The entire row of cars on our side of the street had been wiped out: cars pushed into cars, cars up on the sidewalk. I walked over to my beloved Odyssey and saw a crushed front bumper, a smashed side door. To an extent I felt lucky—the car behind mine was completely destroyed, as though a tank had rolled over it—but the sight was still painful. People milled about, neighborhood strangers who had never met my eye before. Now they were coming up to console me. ‘I really liked that new car of yours,’ one said, using the past tense. The feeling of comradeship reminded me of the blackout.

The cops had been chasing a stolen BMW. As the chase sped from the Red Hook housing projects to our neighborhood, more cars joined in. The BMW had been surrounded at the top of Third Street, and the chase appeared over. But the thief accelerated, turning sharply in the intersection, and headed back down the street. This time, the cops literally tried to pin the BMW in place by smashing it against other parked cars. Over and over, they bumped and crashed and pinned. Finally, the pursuit vehicle jumped the curb in front of my minivan, taking out my front bumper in the process, and headed up the wide sidewalk. Two cops on foot had nearly been run over. One heavy female cop sat on the stoop, trying to recover. I eyed her without much sympathy as she was led weeping to the ambulance, inconsolable.

All total, I counted 12 parked cars smashed, bashed and crushed for the sake of one stolen vehicle (which was itself pretty much ruined by this point). I was beginning to get pissed off. This didn’t seem like very smart policing in the cost-benefit sense. The cops gathered in a circle in the middle of the street, ostensibly to work out the details of what had happened, but we all knew what was really going on. Someone had fucked up big time and they were trying to get their stories straight.

D, our new upstairs neighbor, was walking her dog. She saw me on the sidewalk and asked what had happened. It was the first time that we had talked for any duration. I had never mentioned M before and it didn’t seem like the right moment. She said goodnight and went up to her apartment.

 

There was the upstairs neighbor who defenestrated, the reality TV show filmed in the same apartment, the stolen car that smoked our minivan. In January, we had friends and their children over for my son’s third birthday. While the kids fought over toys, party horns, and cupcakes, I told the story again. Michael, our TV writer friend who had worked on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, was particularly interested. He was in the reality TV business now, the producer of MTV’s new show, Boiling Points. I had seen Boiling Points and thought it was brilliant and hilarious, better than Fifth Wheel or Extreme Dating. In Michael’s view, understanding the calculus of media publicity and corporate backing that goes into such things, The Apprentice was going to be a big deal.

The show finally began. As the date for our own episode drew close, we got to know D, our new upstairs neighbor. We really liked her. She was mature and friendly, a Columbia Journalism School graduate and newspaper reporter. She gave us a key to her apartment because she often lost her own; we gave her a key to ours so she could look after our mail when we went away, something we would never have done with M. We talked about her experience on the show. It turned out that she had actually rented the apartment before it was renovated. She had looked at a few places in the neighborhood, picked the apartment upstairs from us, and made arrangements to move in before learning that it had been pulled off the market for the show. She went ballistic. The landlord told her not to worry, she could still have the apartment at the agreed-upon rent but would have to participate in the episode in order to get it. During the filming, she went through the motions and rented the apartment at a price higher than the one she would actually be paying. The negotiation was a sham.

Were we surprised? A little. But had we expected documentary realism? To me, reality TV always seemed just a shade above pro wrestling. The body slams look painful but you suspect they are artfully set up. But to know, to actually know, that reality TV and reality were different… D just wanted the whole thing to go away and the story to never get out. It seemed a rare and noble reluctance for a journalist but, then again, maybe she had signed some non-disclosure thingy—now that was reality.

 

Trump started showing up on magazine covers. The show was catching on. In a jobless recovery, during a time of great economic strain, the words ‘You’re fired’ have a particular resonance. A fly-on-the-wall look at business dealings, teamwork, and leadership is cinema verite for the art of survival. Blog and Slate debates sprung up to discuss the issues. MBA programs used The Apprentice as fodder for courses on ethics, collaboration, and competition. As a ghostwriter for business and leadership self-help books, I felt my worlds overlapping in a decidedly surreal way yet again.

Then came the real-estate episode. I sat by myself with a notepad on the couch—the same couch where the whole thing had started. My wife was in Seattle at an art show. Our kids were asleep. Quite frankly I was worried I would be making my own appearance on television, yelling at the production manager and looking like some raving ax murderer once the editing room got hold of me. I told friends all over the planet the episode was coming up. I was curious and watched with trepidation to see how it would really turn out.

Trump gave his introductory lecture. Real-estate development was his forte, of course. He set up the challenge and the parameters of winning. The two teams had to negotiate over the two available apartments, then renovate and rent those apartments in a 48-hour period while maximizing the profit margin. Our brownstone on Third Street looked pretty good. Troy, the team leader of Protégé, ‘duped’ Katrina, the team leader of Versacorp, to get it. The renovations began. Although the place was a mess and the teams complained at their Herculean task, any renter has seen worse. I glimpsed the kitchen overlooking our balcony and felt the distance between then and now funnel downward in some temporal vortex.

Before long, I could tell my ranting was not going to make it on screen, a major relief. There were a few scenes of paint being slapped on, but no real renovation work for all the disruption we had experienced. Even more disconcerting, the show lacked the usual level of intrigue and tension, and I felt the logic of the contest slipping from the participants. The goal had shifted (had it not?) from maximizing profits to maximizing rent. Yet, didn’t the costs that went into renovation matter to those margins? D. appeared, cheerful and friendly. She agreed to the rent and the team rejoiced.

The board room scene commenced. Troy’s team won because they had secured the higher rent. Since D actually was paying less than the stated amount, this meant the results were rigged. In other words, wasn’t a participant being booted off the island on a false premise? The significance finally hit home, and I saw the parallel with Enron and its own accounting irregularities. In the world of business circa 2003, what could be more real? Meanwhile, back in TV-land, tensions within the losing team focused on the ‘duping’ incident. A sharp line was drawn between Katrina’s culpability and Tammy’s harsh criticism. In post-mortem consensus, Tammy was accused of being disloyal to her team while Katrina, who had a real-estate background, was faulted for being a poor leader. The brouhaha seemed overblown and staged. Then Trump laid judgment. ‘You’re so obnoxious in this case, Tammy, you’re fired.’ Tammy took her medicine with a grim, teary-eyed smile, and the kabuki drew to a close.

 

How did the show affect our lives? D missed it entirely. She is not a TV watcher and didn’t realize it was on, but I suspect she was trying to avoid it. In an e-mail, she told me the editor at her newspaper had asked her to write about her inside role. The gossip got picked up by Page Six. Now various media friends were circulating her article and CNN was interested in doing an exposé to debunk the reality TV myth. D was ambivalent about that possibility—she had never wanted the story to go forward—but she decided to write everything down and see what happened. The lure was too powerful to resist.

I was ambivalent, too. In writing my own essay about the show, what am I really doing? Do I want to contribute to any disruption of Trump’s juggernaut? What if The Apprentice turns out to be the Quiz Show of its day? I am even more ambivalent about describing what happened to M. I would not have wanted the incident made public if it had happened to me. Although it makes for a good story, there is a difference between telling it to friends or using it in fiction and launching it onto the Internet like some Paris Hilton home video. And yet, in the end, exposing my secrets and contributing to the reality phenomenon feels irresistible to me too. Life, TV, and New York were already unreal enough. The corruption was total. You didn’t get noticed in the board room if you weren’t willing to participate. We are all guilty of that, in our various ways. The Donald threw himself into his role with vigor and enthusiasm—he was made for reality TV and reality TV finally caught up to his personality. The show’s contestants, and the 200,000 other applicants, not to mention the estimated 18 million viewers each week, were just as eager to join the party. Our landlord had no compunction against being part of the game—he sold us all out by lending the apartment despite having promised it to a renter, and never gave our two children or even M’s circumstance a second thought. D wrote her account, reluctantly. And, of course, in writing this essay I embrace the phenomenon, too. We’re all survivors, willing to do whatever it takes to stay on the island. If anyone in this whole thing has even a potential for innocence, it’s M. I’m not saying he is innocent, but at least the tribe hasn’t spoken.

Keith Hollihan is a writer living in St. Paul, Minn. More by Keith Hollihan