Register Saturday | June 15 | 2019

Reality's Apprentice

Perception and deception in the city that never sleeps

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
in the Providence Journal, March 11, 2004

If you’ve ever pondered the blur between reality and Reality TV, hear my tale. Last fall, the two collided in very personal ways for me during the filming of NBC’s The Apprentice. The premise of the show was to see which of sixteen participants was the most successful in the world of business, with the winner getting a prize job working for billionaire Donald Trump. In episode seven, this scheme got played out in a hyped-up competition over real estate. The participants were challenged to renovate and rent one of two “rundown” Brooklyn apartments in forty-eight hours. One of those apartments was a one-bedroom in a brownstone on Third Street, under which my family and I live on the lower two floors. Onscreen, 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, our upstairs neighbour, had jumped out the window.

It was a Saturday night in mid-August around 8pm. My wife was in the kitchen, sponge-bathing our newborn. I was upstairs on the couch with our two-and-a-half-year-old son. It was supposed to be story time, but by mutual agreement we had decided to skip the book and watch the opening drive of the Jets’ pre-season football game. Then came the thwump. My first thought was that something big, like a refrigerator or a sofa, had tipped over in one of the apartments above us. 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 at that point was that 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 still wet from his bath. The picture could not have been more stark: I was a bad parent; she was a good parent. Luckily, she was so rattled and upset by whatever had happened that she didn’t even notice what we were doing.

“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 thought I might have been hurt. As the 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. What I saw next made me yell out (I confess) like a little girl. 

No matter how many times you see such things on TV or in the movies, you do not expect to find a body  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, my upstairs neighbour.

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 twelve feet, but it was a hard one, and he had landed face first. Was it a suicide attempt? Could he have fallen out0by accident while changing a light bulb? There was blood on his face, and he had knocked out some teeth. Much worse were his forearms, bent into several zigzags. 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 some relief. I touched his shoulder occasionally to comfort him and keep him still while we waited for the ambulance.

As neighbours go, M, it must be said, was a pain in the ass. We’d moved into the brownstone on the same weekend nine months before. A divorced father of two in his mid-forties, he worked in the “music industry” and had a busy, self-important way about him. Whatever problems he had became your problems. Not enough cash for the moving truck? Lend me some money. No lamp in the living room? Let me borrow one of yours and never give it back. Once, when his phone lines weren’t working, he spent an evening in my kitchen yelling at Verizon and redialing their number each time they hung up on him. Sometime later, UPS started delivering heavy, densely packed boxes to 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 and through my son’s bedroom (pulling back the futon couch and unlocking the entrance to the hallway and stairs that led to M’s apartment), I realized from the label that it contained stacks of record albums. He probably had quite a collection. But he was still a pain in the ass.

The cops and paramedics arrived. I recognized one as a neighbour from my old apartment building. Why not, I thought, on a night when bodies were falling from the sky? As they worked, I remembered him telling me he used to drive an ambulance with a guy who wrote a book called Bringing Out the Dead. The book was now a movie directed by Martin Scorsese. M’s plunge seemed to fit that story, as though the movie world and the real world had merged.

The cops asked M why he had jumped. I braced for his answer. The month before, M had told me that he was on disability leave from his job. Since he lacked any obvious injuries0or impairments at the time, I assumed he was lying or had been laid off, like everyone else we knew in the entertainment business. Finding him on the balcony only fit with that picture—the sad end to his downward spiral.

For some reason, however, M looked up at me and asked, “Can I tell them?” Sure, I said. “This guy,” he began, “had a gun, and he came into the cockpit and made us jump.” The story became more disjointed. One of the cops picked up a bottle of pills that had fallen from M’s pocket. “What kind?” the other cop asked. “Assorted,” his partner answered. They took M away on a stretcher.

A few weeks later, M’s mother came by 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 when he was 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.

The apartment stood empty for more than a month, until early October, when my wife and I got a call from our landlord’s wife. Great news, she explained. A Reality TV show wanted to use M’s old apartment for a forty-eight-hour make-over.

She talked fast, as though anxious to get off the phone. The idea did not sound like a good one. A marathon renovation? 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 doesn’t particularly care whether the lie is convincing, that they had agreed to stop work around ten 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 genre. To me, shows like Survivor or The Bachelor felt like poor cousins of pro wrestling: the body slams look painful, but you suspect they are artfully set up. In truth, I had no idea what an undertaking Reality TV shows actually are. When Michael, a friend who wrote for television, told us he had 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? It seemed so unnecessary.

The television 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 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 recently snapped in half and my landlord had yet to repair it.

Stretching across the gap, I thought about the degree to which—after only five years in New York—the romance of film and television had lost its illusion for me. The movie world and the real world occupy the same crowded space here; the apparatus of Reality is everywhere. 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. I can’t count the number of shoots I’ve seen around DUMBO, the old warehouse district below the Manhattan Bridge where I once had an office: Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, a thousand episodes of Law & Order, Third Watch and NYPD Blue. Watching TV is no longer a relaxing or mindless act. New York itself has gone somewhat out of focus, and the brain has to work to keep Reality and reality apart.

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 ten o’clock that night, I took my dog for a walk, pushing through all 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 sleep, 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. 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 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 armoured 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 is not my little sister. The hand came up again, 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 me 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 Reality TV. I told her I wanted the production stopped and everyone out of our building, now.

Of course, she replied, 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 suspect the production 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, fall was in the air. It was so quiet outside, we thought the whole thing must have been a dream. But the evidence did exist: signs up and down the block cheerfully advertised the new rental. As 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 down the production and the last van had pulled away. Our forty-eight-hour nightmare was over. 

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 days’ 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 location manager showed up next. I was getting used to receiving apologies. He said that no one had told him about our two children. If he’d known 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 location manager gave me a $100 gift certificate to Baby Gap. He hoped we’d watch the show when it premiered in January. 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. I went outside to investigate. Like an episode of Cops run amok, there were crushed cars and smashed glass underfoot, and so many police lights were strobing through 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. My beloved Odyssey, newly purchased, was among them.

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, neighbourhood 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. New Yorkers are at their best when the world’s falling apart.

The cops, it turned out, had been chasing a stolen BMW. Frustrated by their inability to apprehend the thief, they had finally tried to pin it in place by smashing and crashing it against the row of parked cars. The idea was almost inconceivable. Somewhere cameras had to be rolling.

In all, I counted twelve parked cars smashed, bashed and crushed for the sake of one stolen vehicle. I was beginning to get pissed off. This didn’t seem like very smart policing from a cost-benefit standpoint. Two cops on foot had nearly been run over when the BMW drove up on the sidewalk in a last-ditch effort to escape. One heavy female cop sat on a stoop, trying to recover. I eyed her without much sympathy as she was led to the ambulance, weeping inconsolably. The other cops gathered in a circle in the middle of the street and told us to be patient while they worked out the details of what had happened. 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 neighbour, was walking her dog. She saw me on the sidewalk and asked what had happened. It was the first time that we talked for any duration. I had never mentioned M to her before and it didn’t seem like the right moment now. She said good night and went up to her apartment.

After New Year’s, we had some 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: the upstairs neighbour who jumped out the window, the Reality TV show filmed in the same apartment, the police chase that wrecked our minivan.

Michael, our TV-writer friend, was particularly interested. He was back in the Reality TV business, as the producer of MTV’s new show Boiling Points. The Apprentice, he insisted, was going to be a really big deal.

As the date for our episode approached, I followed the show closely. Not only did I have an insider’s interest in the story, but as a frequent ghostwriter of business and leadership books, I was also intrigued by the corporate Reality being portrayed onscreen.

Trump started showing up on magazine covers, like an avatar of business savvy. Debates sprang up in blogs and on Slate discussing the issues that emerged with each episode; MBA programs used The Apprentice as fodder for courses on ethics, teamwork and competition. The words “You’re fired” became a catchphrase that seemed to resonate with the times. I couldn’t quite believe how seriously the show was being regarded.

Finally, our real estate episode aired. Trump gave his introductory lecture—real estate development is his forte, of course—setting up the challenge and the parameters for victory. Troy, the team leader of Protégé, “duped” Katrina, the team leader of Versacorp, and got our brownstone on Third Street, which looked better than the other place. The renovations began. My rantings from that night were left on the cutting room floor, thankfully. I glimpsed the kitchen M had jumped from and felt the distance between then and now funnel downward in some temporal vortex.

Knowing what I knew, however, I felt that something strange was happening onscreen. The logic of the contest seemed to be slipping from the participants. The goal had shifted (had it not?) from maximizing profits to maximizing rent. Didn’t the costs of the renovation matter to those margins? And apart from a little paint and some late-night sanding, no real renovation work was done. It seemed like a façade, at multiple levels.

D appeared, cheerful and friendly. We’d gotten to know her in the intervening months and liked her a lot. She was mature and friendly, a graduate of the Columbia journalism school and a 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. Seeing her on Reality TV was an altogether unreal experience. She agreed to the rent and there was much rejoicing. Back in the boardroom, Troy’s team won for securing the higher rate, and a member of the losing team got to hear Donald Trump’s patented words: “You’re fired.” The episode ended, and the kabuki drew to a close.

Or did it? Before the episode aired, we’d learned something from D about her role in the show. She had actually rented the apartment before it was renovated, had even made arrangements to move in before learning that it had been pulled off the market for the show. Our landlord told her not to worry: she could still have the apartment at the agreed-upon rent, she’d just have to participate in The Apprentice to get it. Onscreen, she went through the motions and rented the apartment at a price higher than the one she would actually be paying.

Since Troy’s team had purportedly won that contest, this meant the results were a sham. In the world of business circa 2004—Enron, WorldCom, Nortel—what could be more real?

Yet a larger question remained. Why did it work out so that in each episode, anyone with any verve or ballsiness was booted off the island? The show seemed to reward those who stayed in the background and avoided responsibility for a team’s direction or accountability for mistakes. The eventual winner of The Apprentice, many noted, was a man who hardly resembles Trump at all. Was the real lesson of the show that those who aim to do well in corporate America had better hang back, take few chances, let their colleagues get picked off one by one and say “Yes” to the boss’s great ideas? Perhaps that’s a chapter for the Donald’s next ghostwritten leadership book.

What of small-r reality?
D never watched the show and just wanted the whole thing to go away, but her editor asked her to write about her inside role. The gossip got picked up by Page Six of the New York Post. Media friends circulated her article and CNN grew interested in doing an exposé debunking the Reality TV myth. D was ambivalent about that possibility, but decided to write everything down and see what happened. The lure was too powerful to resist.

I am ambivalent, too. In writing this, what are my real motives? I have no suicidal urge to bring on the wrath of the Donald’s lawyers, nor any desire to pull down the curtain on Reality TV. In a world of Martha Stewarts and missing WMDs, there are bigger fish to fry. I am even more ambivalent discussing M. I would not want such an incident made public if it had happened to me. There is a difference between telling a compelling story to friends and launching it into the world like some Paris Hilton home video.

Yet exposing secrets and contributing to the reality phenomenon feels irresistible. Life, TV and New York are already unreal. The corruption is total: you don’t get noticed in the boardroom if you aren’t willing to play along. Two hundred and fifteen thousand applications to be a contestant; twenty million viewers weekly. If Reality TV teaches us anything, it is this: We’re all eager to join the party, and in our various ways we are all survivors. We’ll do whatever it takes to play along, keep our jobs and draw a little camera light. We all want to stay on the island.