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These days we seem to be looking for our leaders on reality TV. Who are these campy characters we root for from our living rooms? I decided to find out firsthand by attending the casting call for the latest season of Donald Trump’s NBC show The Apprentice.

I awoke at 4 am, donned a suit, and took the 5:04 train to Penn Station, New York.  From there I hopped a cab to arrive at Trump Tower before 6:30. There was already a line.  A looong line. Stacks of empty pizza boxes and lawn chairs meant a number of intrepid souls had spent the night on Fifth Avenue and made a party of it.

Banishing a momentary impulse to bail, I took my place at the end of the queue. Trump had thrown down the gauntlet so as far as this motley assemblage was concerned, it was game on. I started out by making some new friends. There was the blonde twenty-something nurse and her downsized sales rep friend who had made the midnight drive from Massachusetts. There was the  determined, square-jawed buttoned-up MBA candidate.  Then the outspoken lady microbiologist from Latvia, and a working suburban mom (shaken from a fender-bender on the way in from Jersey), and a strange, self-professed computer genius who rambled on about how the FBI was after him. Just the folks you’d expect to meet in The Big Apple.

The serpentine line moved glacially slow, reminding me of Star Wars 1977, or Disney World before Fastpass. About an hour into the scene there was a mix-up in the line and 50 people wound up jumping ahead. There were mutters of displeasure as we rued our chances of getting a coveted wristband that would assure a first-round interview.

As we slowly shuffled forward we were approached by camera-toting foreign tourists asking what we were waiting for. Our reality show explanations were met with confusion but they all understood the name “Trump!”

The morning dragged on. One of the greatest tests of endurance is to stand for hours at a time with absolutely no idea of how much longer you’ll have to wait. It should be an Olympic event.

At 11:30 we finally wound our way into the lobby of Trump Tower where our applications and consent forms were double checked. Then seven of us were seated at a table and a Trump aide took our applications and shuffled through them before passing them to Donald himself. He looked through the papers then asked a single question, “Health Care Bill…for it—or against it—and why?” The Latvian microbiologist took the cue, jumped in, and she made an eloquent case in favor of it, citing Eastern European health care successes. Then the MBA candidate fired back with a powerful free market argument against the bill.

Then we all weighed in while Trump and the aid watched and after several minutes the signal indicated our time was up. If we were picked, they’d get back to us. I had a sense they knew just what they were looking for, and I figured the paranoid computer FBI fugitive was a shoo-in.

Behind us, the line of other hopefuls waited their turn. Walking out of Trump Tower we passed all the Trump souvenir baubles and shameless “You’re Fired!” t-shirts for sale. No matter how high class we might think we are, we all have to hawk something.

I came away from the experience with a respect for the perseverance of reality show candidates, even the goofy or “untalented” ones often mocked on these programs. They’re all people willing to dedicate time and effort to chase a dream against the odds. And that’s really the only way it can be done.