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Davis, California

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Column: Trying out for Survivor

I’ve known Frank since grade school. When he tells me he wants to go to the open casting call for the reality-TV show “Survivor,” I’m neither shocked nor surprised. I’m not proud to admit it, but we’ve been watching that shit since we were 12.

On paper, “Survivor” is a show where a group of strangers compete for $1,000,000 while stranded on an island by voting one another off until two are left. Once you get to the final two, you have to persuade the people you voted off why you deserve to be the last remaining survivor. Then they vote for who they think that actually is.

Of course, we were too young back then to understand the backstabbing beauty of corporate culture in a yearly campaign to pervert natural wildernesses, one third-world country at a time. We just liked watching people lose it.

Nine years later, “Survivor” is on season 19, and Frank is working for Deloitte to help billion-dollar corporations pay as little taxes as necessary. On my side of California, I get paid to design brochures to make people think Davis facilities are a lot nicer than they actually are.

Tuesday morning, we wake up at 5:30 a.m. to make the drive out to Cabazon for the open casting call. It’s only about halfway through the drive when we realize we’re headed for an Indian casino.

Again, I’m neither shocked nor surprised. For a game accused of being a microcosm for American capitalism, it’s painfully appropriate to hold the casting call at a casino accused as a microcosm for the myth of the American Dream. Everyone enters through those golden doors thinking they can strike it rich, but only the lucky – not the deserving – ever get there.

Whereas “Survivor” may sound like a relay race where the smartest and the strongest always win, that fortunately is not the case. On the drive to the casino, Frank tells me about the most recent winner: an unintelligent Christian blonde girl who looks like she could jump off the TV screen and fit in your shirt pocket. The runner up was pissed because he was stronger, smarter and therefore more deserving. But the vote was near unanimous.

“That’s just how it works in the corporate world,” Frank justifies. “Yeah, you could be a great worker, but if you pissed anyone off and you didn’t make any friends, your hard work doesn’t get anywhere.”

This isn’t surprising coming from someone who smiled his way up from high school ASB to Deloitte.

Once we enter the casino, we each get a wristband, though Frank is the only one applying. When he goes in for his interview, I wait in the food court. I scan the area, trying to determine who’s here to try out for “Survivor” and who’s here to strike it rich the non-televised way. This one flamboyant guy behind me instructs his friend to introduce herself as “Mexapino” during her casting interview to give her mixed-race looks some spice.

Another girl behind me is dressed in a fitted, black dress and a pair of power heels. I can only see the back of her head. Her lightly-dyed brown hair makes me think she’s one of those Asian girls in one of those business frats who wear suits during the day, but bust out the emerald-green dress and the fake eyelashes by night.

But then she turns sideways, and she’s a white woman in her 40s. She smiles toward the man she’s with, and I notice the neon green wristband as her sleeve slides down her wrist. He’s wearing one, too.

At first, I think there are only a couple people wearing wristbands, but as I look more closely, eating my orange chicken from Panda Express, I notice almost everyone in the food court has one – the two guys to my left dressed for a weekend in Miami, the middle-aged woman eating noodles alone on my right.

When I see these wristbands, I feel as if I’m looking in on a secret I wasn’t invited to see – a vulnerability I only stumbled upon by accident. And when they see my wristband, we share that vulnerability despite how different we may be. No one sitting in this food court has a better shot than another, and we’re all here for the same thing, whether trying out for “Survivor,” sitting at the slot machines or trying to make a living in God-blessed America.

We’re all trying to strike it rich. We’re all trying to get famous. No matter who we are, we all know one thing: To die unnoticed means to not live at all.

GEOFF MAK needs an ENL 110B book and a digital camera to borrow for winter quarter. E-mail him at gemak@ucdavis.edu if you want to save his academic life.



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