The Pageant

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A (slightly fictionalized) memoir of my experience judging a preliminary round of the "Miss New Jersey" competition.

Submitted: April 16, 2013

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Submitted: April 16, 2013





by Roger Feldstein

CHAPTER 1: "You Be the Judge"

Judging a pageant is a lot like following Colin Quinn's career. Colin Quinn tries hard, and you want to root for the guy, but in the end he's destined to fail at pretty much everything. Judging a pageant is almost the same; you're rooting for these gals, but in the end, your premonitions of failure are inevitably proven correct. The career of Colin Quinn is a farce, and pageants are farces. But you accept these farces as decor, because you are an outsider to Colin Quinn's world, just as you are an outsider to the world of pageants.

But I'm not an outsider anymore. At least not to the world of pageants. I can't say much about Colin Quinn's world.

The offer to judge the Miss Warren County competition was a pleasant surprise. My boss's wife works for the Miss New Jersey pageant. She said the pageant was looking for intelligent, well-rounded folks who could be objective. My elastic-banded "Boomer" pants reminded everyone I was well-rounded, and so she asked me to be a judge and, heck yeah, I accepted.

A judge. Me, Lewis Goldstein. Judge Goldstein. It had a nice ring to it. My dear mother would be proud. I'd always thought I'd be a great judge. After practicing law for five years, dammit, I was overdue. The only place I thought I'd ever be a judge was the food court, over at the Menlo Park Mall. Those cheesy tacos at the Taco Pit? Out of order! And the chicken-with-broccoli eggrolls at Hunan Dreams? You're being held in contempt!

But now, as an official Miss Warren County judge, I'd finally be hitting the big time. When I saw my family at Passover, there'd be much to talk about. "Oh, you got a promotion? That's wonderful. Let me tell you what's going on with me. You see, I've been asked, no begged, to become a judge. Where? Oh, up in Warren County."

Over the next two weeks, I honed my judging skills over lunch, rating each day's food on a scale of one to ten. The Blue Lime salad at Houlihan's scored a "five," while the Bay Breeze salad at the diner scored an "eight." It was a pretty damn good salad, with a decent personality and even depth, but had just too much creamy, high-calorie dressing for my taste. No need to overdress the damn salad; let the foliage breathe.

Personality and depth, and not too much high-calorie dressing. That's how I like my salads, that's how I like my pageant contestants. If a contestant could meet these simple qualifications, she'd do well in my book.

CHAPTER 2: "Ass Parade"

The Miss Warren County round was a preliminary to the Miss New Jersey competition. There were about a dozen such pageant competitions during "pageant season," a four-month period that saw a pool of contestants competing for the ultimate prize: an opportunity to compete for the Miss New Jersey Crown. Girls who failed to win a local pageant were still able to compete in the remaining pageants that comprised the pageant season.

Miss Warren County was the last pageant of the season. We were destined for the worst of the worst.

Ladies ranging from 17 to 23 were welcome to participate. Most of the constant pool were 22 and 23 year old girls who had been unsuccessfully competing for years, doing the same old trumpet blowing and baton twirling. These girls were veterans on the circuit, the Sally Starrs of the post-MTV generation.

A few weeks passed, and it was the eve of the competition. I was sitting with my gal Ellen on the couch of her river-view apartment in Manhattan. She wasn't too pleased about this whole judging Miss Warren County thing.

"Why you?" she asked. "I mean, why in the world would anybody pick you to be a judge of a tits and ass show? What credentials do you possibly have that would make someone want you to judge shallow women with low self-esteem?"

I sipped my bourbon. "Well, babe, I dunno about this shallow women with low self-esteem thing. But when it comes to judging beauty, they must have seen who I was dating and knew that I hold an unmatched eye for all things beautiful."

Sincerity gets me nowhere. "You can't even dress yourself. You're 20 pounds overweight, and your belly hangs out over your blue, Crayola-colored, K-mart jeans. Last week, you showed up at my nephew's baptism with tan socks that don't match. Who else owns unmatching tan socks? Your entire ideal of beauty is premised on the evil cheerleaders from the 'Revenge of the Nerd' movies. And your cheap cologne smells like Lysol sprayed in the bathrooms at Penn Station. All of this qualifies you to judge a beauty contest?"

"Baby, I keep my nails clean. You know that." I held up my hands for her to inspect. She knew my nails would be clean. I made it a point to clean out the sidewalk dirt under my nails each night. I was proud of that.

Ellen just doesn't get it. "Don't you see how stupid this is? It's a bunch of girls allowing themselves to become objects. They parade around in bathing suits, shaking their asses, all so that they can tell the world how they think cancer is a bad thing."

"Toots, this is not some ass parade. This is a chance for hard-working New Jersey girls to compete for a college scholarship, which can make the difference between whether they move on to greater things or not."

"Bullshit. It's about objectifying women."

"It's about . . . opportunity. It's about rising above. It's about competing and giving it your all. It's about rising above your station. It's about Darwinism. Dammit, it's about the American Dream. That's what it is. The classic, good old American Dream. And it's all good, clean, all-American fun. It's the American Dream packaged into Americana, and presented on a plate like key lime pie. These girls have a dream, they worked hard and, dammit, they're going to show the world that they've got what it takes. These girls . . . these girls . . ."

Damn, even I'm misty-eyed.


CHAPTER 3: Start the Damn Show.

What the hell am I doing in Belvedere, New Jersey, at 7am on a beautiful Saturday morning?

I'm seated at Grover Cleveland's Diner, a pre-fabricated diner that looks like it flew down from planet Mars into this quaint stripmall just off of Route 287. I'm sipping orange juice, surrounded by my fellow judges and our host Don. Don is an effeminate man with child-bearing hips, a goatee, and a "Lyle Lovett" style toupee; since meeting three minutes ago, he has mentioned his wife and adopted daughter no less than six times.

"I met my wife through the competition," Don explains. "She was a vendor. Every year, I'd order programs from her. And one year, I was like, hellooo? I said to her, 'Stephanie, we need to talk about these programs.' And she's like, 'ok.' And I'm like, 'how about lunch tomorrow?' And she's like, 'ok.' So, the next morning we're having quiche and mojitos, and she's nervous because she thinks I'm upset about the programs. And I say, 'Don't worry about the programs. They're fabulous. As are your nails, my dear.' And that's how I began dating Stephanie. And six years later . . . we were married!"

The other judges murmer their approval. I sense a segway into more wife-talk. I think to myself, "Shut the fuck up. Shut the fuck up. Shut the fuck up."

Don isn't a mind-reader. He continues with his I'm-in-fucking-control-of-this-moment tale. "So, every year, Stephanie makes the programs for the competition. And every year, I tell her, 'Honey, you did a bang-up job. But you just made one mistake.' And every year, she says to me in shock, 'What? What did I do?' And I tell her, 'Honey, you didn't register yourself in the Miss New Jersey pageant. And you should have. Because you, my dear, are my Miss New Jersey.'"

More fucking approval from my fellow judges. "Awww" and "that's sweet" and "coooo."

Shut the fuck up. Shut the fuck up. Shut the fuck up.

"You mean Mrs. New Jersey," adds Danielle, an obnoxiously dim-witted 23-year old co-judge.

Everyone else laughs. Shut the fuck up. Shut the fuck up. Shut the fuck up.

"Let's go around the table now and all introduce ourselves. Let's tell everyone our name, where we're from, what we do professionally, and explain how we got involved with the competition. I'll start. My name is Don Ferguson, and I'm from Belvedere. I sell antiques online through my business 'Something Special.' And I've been involved with the pageant for 26 years. I started off as an usher back in junior high school and, 26 years later, here I am, assistant to the judges and M.C. of the Warren County chapter of the pageant. And I love it! Who wants to go next? Danielle?"

Danielle makes eye contact with each of us. She looks like she just walked off the set of one of those New Jersey reality shows; take your pick which one. "As all of you are aware, my name is Danielle Donachella, and three years ago I won the Warren County chapter of the Miss New Jersey competition. I enjoyed my experience so much that I've decided to come back each year and help the next generation of leaders pave their path. I'm currently working as a motivational speaker, and I live in Belvedere."

Don's got an ape-shit smile. "That is so wonderful. Thank you for sharing, Danielle. Who's next?"

A bald, portly man with a short-sleeve, purple dress shirt and a Bugs Bunny tie is next. "I'm Jarvis McCloy. Bedminster, New Jersey. Been living there for 32 years. And I love it. Good neighbors. Good schools. Good people. Property taxes are getting high, but not like the folks out in Essex County. What else? I run a plumbing supply company.  Oh, and I like Bugs Bunny."

He picks up his small spoon, pretends it's a carrot, and does a poor Mel Blanc, "Eh, what's up, doc?" Cheers from the cheering squad. "And I . . . I'm sorry, what other information did you want, son?"

Don puts his coffee down. "How did you get involved with the competition?"

"Oh. One of my client's daughters is involved with this thing. And he asked me to fill out an application. And I thought, whoa, this could be fun. I'm really looking forward to it. I think it's going to be a hoot."

My fellow judges nod their approval. I look over at Danielle. She's typing into her cellphone.

"Ooooh, I'll go next!" begins a motherly 40-something year old woman with glasses and curly brown hair. "I'm a bit nervous. I'm not used to public speaking, but here it goes. I'm Dolores Heppinger. I'm a librarian. But, at night, I make really beautiful birdhouses that I sell at flea markets and on eBay. If anyone's interested, I'll give you my email address. They're really quite intricate, and they're all made from balsa wood so they're so eco-friendly. What else? I live in Hackettstown. And I became involved with the competition because I saw a flyer posted in the Hackettstown library foyer."

"Are you a fan of the Miss New Jersey competition?" asks Don.

"I've heard of it."

Don nods at me. I'm last. I grunt.

"Hello everyone. I'm Lewis Goldstein. I live in West Orange, New Jersey. I'm a lawyer. I mostly represent folks who are appealing their tax assessments. And, what else? Oh, my boss' wife asked me to get involved with the competition because she thinks I'm a good judge of character. So, I'm really looking forward . . . to judging some characters!"


"Excellent!" Don finally approves. "We've got quite a panel! Now, let me tell you about what to expect today."

As Don drones on and on, I look in the distance toward the dessert counter. There's all kind of bear claws, napoleons, 7-layer cakes, and pies in that counter over there. Do I add it to my breakfast? The pageant's picking up the tab. It's worth considering. If dessert wasn't part of this, they should have stated that before we all sat down. Always make the rules clear before you invite players to the game.

"Hey there, uh, Don, is there a piece of pie included with this here breakfast?"


CHAPTER 4: My Fellow Americans

An hour later, I'm in the judges' room, adjusting my clip-on tie. The judges' room is a third-grade classroom at Thurston Howell III Elementary School. Don, Dolores, Jarvis, and Danielle are making idle chat about how the competition has changed over the years, and the sins of Donald Trump.

Don is decidedly against Trump's rival pageant. "It's all about show. It's about the sizzle but not the steak. And those girls have genuine self-esteem issues. They all have their boobs done and their lips done and you're like, 'Who's the real you?' And you see them up on stage, parading around with their fake parts and you're like, 'Ew, I want no part of that.'"

"But they're doing pretty good in the ratings," I chime in. I've got my "Ralfani" clip-on tie on just right, terminating just below my belly button. "I read that somewhere that Trump's pageant is killing Miss New Jersey in the ratings."

"That's because Donald Trump is a whore, and the ladies who compete in that pageant are whores."

"Wow. Those are . . . pretty strong words."

"They're whores. That entire pageant is about whores."

"Strong words . . . again!"

There's a knock at the door. "Come in!" chimes Don. The door creeks open, and there's a masculine lady with poodle hair and biceps that would make Popeye proud.

"Stephanie! Everyone, this is Stephanie!" Don is so proud of his bride. He hugs her like she just returned from the Titanic. "Don't you all just love her? Yeah, Stephanie!" He fist-pumps the air.

"I got the programs." Stephanie's voice is decidedly baritone. She hands him a stack of maroonish xeroxes. Don eagerly passes them out. I look it over quickly, searching for my name. Contestants? Who cares. Sponsors? Wipe me. Judges? Danielle Donachella, Dolores Heppinger, Jarvis McCloy, and . . . Lewis Goldstein! I did it! It was official! My Mom's going to be so proud. This was going to be mentioned in her year-end newsletter she sends to all our relatives. It would be in there, along with her bustrip to Maryland and getting the computer fixed.

I flip to the cover. There's a poor photocopy of a Disney Cinderella graphic obviously downloaded from the Internet that was then printed from a home printer, cut out, Scotch-taped onto typing paper, brought to the local Office Max or Kinkos, mass-copied, and then folded and placed into a cardboard box. Cinderella even had Scotch-tape outlines around her, like a ghostly shadow. For a brief moment, I romantically reflect whether this is how democracy should work. Cheap leaflets distributed to the masses. It sure beats cross-bearing or whatever the Ku Klux Klan did to promote their evening's agenda.

"Are these the best programs or what?  Stephanie did these all by hand. Isn't she an angel?" Don kisses Stephanie's cheek. Stephanie grabs Don's ass and gives it a squeeze before walking out the door. Don kisses -- it appears to be a French kiss -- a stack of flyers, and then reaches for his Chapstick.

There's another knock, and the door opens. A short man, somewhat resembling Emmanuel Lewis from television's classic sitcom "Webster," appears. "Contests are here. They're lined up in the hallway. I'm going to start sending them in two minutes." He lifts his hand to show us two fingers.

"Thanks, Shawn! That's Shawn, everybody! Big round of applause for Shawn!" Damn, Don really is in his glory. Exit Shawn.

"Ok, everybody, just a friendly reminder. This is the question and answer session. Feel free to ask the contestants anything you'd like. There's nothing off limits. You're going to be judging them on the substance of their answers, as well as their poise. You've all been given pencils and a sheet of notebook paper with the contestants' name on it. Please judge the contestant on a score of 1-10. A ten is excellent, and a one means 'that wasn't very good.' But trust me, this is part of the Miss New Jersey pageant, so you're not going to be seeing many ones today. So, are you ready?"

"Send in the girls!" Jarvis cattle-calls.

Don exits and we all settle in behind the third-grade desks, into the miniature chairs. My knees are above my nipples. From this perspective, the classroom door looks huge! I then notice the handmade posters about addition tables, the digestive track, and George Washington's good deeds. Children are the future, I decide.

"I'm so nervous," says Dolores. "I've never judged anything before."

"It ain't nothing," says Jarvis. "I once judged a pig contest. If you can judge a pig contest, you can judge a beauty pageant. It's the same thing. You're just applying different criteria."

I look over at Danielle. She's typing furiously into her cellphone.

The door opens, and Don appears. "Ladies and gentleman, I give you our first contestant. Please welcome . . . Alicia Locano!"

In walks yet another stereotype from a New Jersey reality show. She's got real Jersey flare, you know, the nails, the hair, the make-up, the attitude. She's wearing a spaghetti-strapped dress. If Bruce Springsteen were here, he'd have already written some down-home love song about going to meet her doorstep and driving her down the Jersey Turnpike to make love near a South Jersey tollbooth, and then finding out she's pregnant, and then working a factory job until it closes, and . . . .

"So, my name is Alicia Locano. I'm from Washington Township. I'm currently enrolled at Warren Community College where I'm majoring in human studies. In my spare time, I volunteer with the local Humane Society and train labradors. And, well . . . that's me!  Any questions?"

Danielle is on it. She's got her best "bitch face" on. "So, why do you deserve to be Miss New Jersey?"

"That's an excellent question. I feel that I would be a good Miss New Jersey because I could be a role model for others."

I pick up my #2 pencil and write in "zero" for her score.

Jarvis has a question. "Do you enjoy living in Washington Township? The reason I'm asking is, my wife and I were thinking about moving someday. And we want to move somewhere where the taxes are a little lower."

"Washington Township is wonderful. There are many places to visit. We have one of northwest New Jersey's oldest Dairy Queens. And, parts of the town goes back to the 1950s."

No follow-up to that response. I re-trace the zero already written on my notebook paper.

"Any more questions?" asks Don.

I snap the pencil point, and look up. Fuck it. "Yeah, I've got a question. We've got a presidential election coming up this year. Who're you going to vote for? And why?"

Locano is a deer in headlights. I sense Don is not pleased with this question, but it's out there. You know what I mean? It's out there. There's an awkward pause. A real awkward pause.

"Well, I haven't decided just yet. I need to examine their positions, and then consider the pros and the cons of each position." She seem happy with this answer. And so does Don, and the other judges. What the fuck?

Don, the Christ of mediocrity, says "Thanks, Alicia, that was wonderful and we really appreciate your . . ."

"Well, just a follow-up." I need an answer. Locano was clearly hiding something. She was obviously an anarchist, perhaps a supporter of some radical leftist or rightist ideology. Perhaps she was writing a thesis on how Sacco and Vanzetti got a bad rap. "Tell me, are you a Republican?"

"A what?"

"A Republican."

"I strongly believe that all Americans should be entitled to vote, regardless of their race or gender."

"Thank you, Alicia, we appreciate your participation. Please send in the next contestant."

Damn it, she was either a hell-bent anarchist or a Republican. Either way, she wasn't getting my vote. I again retrace the zero beside her name. I push so hard that the point broke off.

"Alright, we've got eleven more girls to go, so it's going to be a long day. Let's keep to just a few questions, and let's keep them light. You know . . . light and fun."

Fuck you, Don.

Don disappears into the hallway, and re-emerges with a 19-year old girl who resembles a young Brooke Shields on quaaludes.

"Hi, I'm Debbie Trisciano, and I'm from Hillside, New Jersey. I'm currently working as a hair stylist. I'm also an aspiring actress, and recently appeared on an episode of 'Jersey Shore.'"

"Any questions for Debbie?" Don asks.

Danielle begins, "Debbie, why do you think . . ."

I interrupt. "I've got this, Danielle, thanks. Debbie, who are you voting for President?"

It went on like this. For two fucking hours. But there were moments, yes, moments. At some point, obviously the girls were talking about the questions. The sixth or seventh contestant knew she was walking into a bullshit landmine.

"Hello everyone. My name is Shannon Milaco. That's Milaco. As in 'Me like to win.'"

Don eats this shit up like it was Raisin Bran on a rainy Sunday morning. "Ooh. Who's got a question for Shannon? Keep it light, people, please keep it light!"

I start, "So who are you voting for President?"

"Well, by coincidence, I was just talking backstage with some of the girls. And somebody was talking about this one guy who was running and how he's appearing on a lot of talk shows. So, I'm thinking I might vote for him."

Don metaphorically reaches for a second bowl of Raisin Bran. "Wow, that's wonderful. So insightful!" Shut the fuck up.

I'm not letting her off that easy. "So, Shannon, do you know the name of this person you're voting for?"

"I know he's running, and he's on talk shows."

"Thank you, Shannon!" Don puts his arm around Miss Milaco and takes her outside. I write a very big zero next to her name, and even add eyes and a frown inside it.

Don returns with a woman of Middle-Eastern descent. "Everyone, this is our next contestant, Sasha Eichen!"

"Hi everyone! My name is Sasha Eichen. I'm a senior at Harvard. I am the President of the Young Republican Club, as well as the Conservative Debate Squad. On weekends, I donate my time as a protest organizer outside of abortion clinics. During school vacations, you may have seen me here in New Jersey appearing outside your local clinics."

I knew she looked familiar. I'd seen her outside the clinic next to the Dunkin' Donuts with the really good crullers. .

"So, any questions for me?"

The other judges turn to me. I have nothing.

Stephanie speaks up. "So, why do you think you've got what it takes to be Miss New Jersey?"

Eichen doesn't miss a beat. "I should be Miss New Jersey because I am a positive role model. I am the American Dream. I'm educated and hard-working. I'm not like those other girls. I didn't walk off the set of 'Jersey Shore.' I'm here to break stereotypes, and show the world that Miss New Jersey is a strong, independent woman who cares about this country's economy and social mores. I advocate for a conservative fiscal cure to our State's budget, and I beckon all New Jersey citizens to return to their respective religions for spiritual guidance in solving dilemmas created by society's freedoms. And that's why I think I would be an excellent Miss New Jersey."

Nods of approval. Exit Miss Eichen. I start the curvature of writing a zero, but stop myself and create a "one." My highest score yet. The "one" looks like it is going to topple over, so I add a tophat.

There's a few more contestants before Don asks, "So what did everyone think? Let's add up our scores! How 'bout our first contestant, Alicia Locano?"

"Well," Danielle starts, "She seemed nervous. And she tended to ramble a bit. But I liked her poise. I gave her an 8."

"You must have read my mind," adds Jarvis. "I liked her, but she did ramble a bit much for my taste. I gave her a 9."

"Well, I must have missed the whole rambling thing because I thought she was a doll! I gave her a 10!" Damn, Dolores is dull.

My turn. I look at the number etched into notebook paper. "I gave her a zero."

Silence, which Don then has the nerve to interrupt. "Well, considering that the lowest score we can possibly give is a 'one,' I think we'll have to at least give her that . . ."

"A 'zero.' Because she's terrible. She's an embarrassment to the human race. If you give her anything more than a 'zero,' then that's charity."

"Alright, a 'one' it is!" Don just isn't listening.

It went on like this. Danielle, Jarvis, and Delores give each contestant between an 8 and a 10. I give each contestant a 'zero,' which Don then rounds up to a 'one.'

"Ladies and gentlemen . . . we have a tie!  Oooh, this is going to be a close competition! How exciting!"

Shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up!



The next round consists of reading the contestants' essays regarding a most difficult topic, "If I Had One Day to Entertain Someone From a Different State in New Jersey." Each contestant was to write out their answer in 250 words or less. They had four months to write this essay.

They're all terrible, and remind me of the crumbled, paper bags that alcoholics leave behind at Port Authority restrooms.

Most consist of trips to the Jersey Shore, followed by a visit to Atlantic City casinos and clubbing at "Club Breath" and "Club Toxic" and "Club Touch." The only exception? Sasha Eichen's essay, which began with "In the event I have the opportunity to entertain a dignitary from a foreign State, I would begin the morning protesting at an abortion clinic in the Passaic area. I would choose the Passaic area so that we could visit Patterson Falls before venturing south to the Watchung Reservation and its ghost town Feltsville. After exploring the wonders and mysteries of this former industry town, we would drive south to the Pine Barrens to explore the many mysteries of ghost towns such as Atsion and Batsto before turning east to the Jersey Shore for a day of sun and fun. We would conclude the trip with a fun night at Club Mole, in Atlantic City. And that would be my trip with a diplomat from a foreign state. They would leave thinking, 'New Jersey rocks!'"

Despite my reservations about her conservative agenda, I give Eichen a "one." The others get zeros, which Don rounds up to "ones."  When the scores are later added up, Eichen beat out the masses by a point. I'm gripped by fear. I don't want to send a Republican to the White House, much less to Trenton for the Miss New Jersey finals.


CHAPTER SIX: Tits and Ass

For Rounds Three and Four, the judges are summoned to the Thurston Howell III elementary school auditorium for the beauty and talent portions. We sit in the front row, backs to the masses. The performance sold out, and there must be 500 people there.

At 1pm, the lights go out. They return a half-second later, and the curtain opens. There is Don, in a cheap, rented tuxedo. Applause from the fucking applause monsters.

Something looks different about Don. Oh, there it is. Don's wearing a different toupee, with blonde highlights. This guy's got a yellow rat on his head.

"Good afternoon, Warren County, and welcome to the locals of the Miss New Jersey competition! Thank you so much for coming! Thank you so much for supporting these girls. Please give yourselves a big round of applause!" Applause-for-doing-nothing, but-sitting-there-in-your-seats-eating-popcorn-and-participating-in-a-rite-of-passage-as-antiquated-as-lus-Primae-Noctis-or-bouger-picking. "And let's give a big round of applause to our judges. First, former Miss New Jersey Danielle Donachella!" Danielle stands and waves to polite applause. "And next, we have Jarvis McCloy!" Jarvis enthusiastically waves, followed by Dolores. "And finally, we have Lewis Goldstein!" I wave to my adoring fans. A few people clap. Crap. I should have pretended my hands were guns, then fired into the air, and then blew the smoke into the crowd. I missed an opportunity that may never come again.

"And now, let's get on with our show! And we've got quite a show for you! First up is our swimsuit competition. The lovely ladies are being judged on their fitness, because the Miss New Jersey competition believes fitness is important for the ideal New Jersey contestant. So, without further ado, let's introduce our first contestant Alicia Locano!"

I don't know what I'm expecting. I was raised on USA Up All Night television, Troma movies, and JC Penny circulars. I'd been expecting something . . . but what I get is swimsuits wider and more protective than a moat. What is the point of it all?

In fairness, there is a highlight when Shelley Pritziano stumbles out in her American flag bikini -- the only bikini of the afternoon, mind you -- waves to the audience, and blows kisses. I give her a pretty high score, a five, which pushes the grounds of reasonableness. I turn to my fellow judges. Danielle types on her cellphone. Jarvis has his mouth open like a hounddog eyeing a rabbit. Dolores seems confused.

The round ends, and the talent competition starts. Miss Locano goes first with her rendition of "Theme From Titanic," which sounds a little like Arnold Horshack singing "My Ding-a-ling." The audience loves it. Other talents follow, including a clarinetist rendition of "The Greatest Love of All," a flutist rendition of the Supremes' "Stop in the Name of Love," a dramatic reading from Othello, and a classical dance to "Les Miserables Overture." None of them impress me. Threes, they would all get threes. All of them. And that's only because I feel generous.

Toward the end, I glance again over at Danielle. She again types into her damn phone, and I'm curious enough to take a closer look. She is typing into her Twitter account, and I see each and every word. "Still at pageant. This sucks. I was better." She hits "send," and radiates a look of satisfaction, like she had eaten a box of Milk Duds.

Finally, at the very end, Miss Eichen performs. Her act began as a baton show to the Star Spangled Banner. "Oh, say can you see?" She twirls. In the background, a light show goes off. Simulated firecrackers explode at apropos times. There are crescendos and decrescendos. And then a transition to "Pictures on an Exhibition," followed by the finale "God Bless America." The audition loves it! They hoot, they whine, they clap, they adore. "God . . . bless . . . America . . . land that I love!" She cartwheels, kicking a stagehand before landing on her ass. Nobody cares. This was Americana and it was amazing. For the final "God . . . Bless . . . America . . ." she holds her baton high, looks defiantly into the audience, and twirls that fucking baton.

She is a right-wing Nazi, but dammit, she'd soon be putting gas in her VW and heading off to Trenton for the pageant finals. I admit it, I voted for a Republican. And, once in Trenton for the finals, she'll try to push her right-wing agenda. But I don't care. This is America, and every fool has a chance.

The pageant is soon over, and Eichen accepts her damn trophy to thunderous applause.  The DJ has re-cued up Eichen's dance soundtrack, and "God Bless America" blares from the PA system.  Eichen asks for a microphone.  "Onwards to Trenton!"  She defiantly raises her fist. 


CHAPTER SEVEN: Office Politics

At work the next morning, the boss asks how it went. I intend to give a prepared speech comparing the pageant to Michel Foucault's critique of the American prison system. But I can't do that. That wouldn't be right. Instead, I respond, "Well, it had its ups and downs. But the girls gave it their all. And what else can you ask for, you know? This was the human condition on display for all the world to see. These ladies put their hearts on their sleeves and their lofty ideals on their shoulders, and that's a tough thing to do."

There is a pause.

"And they bought me breakfast."

Minutes later, as I make photocopies, I look through the window at the teenagers entering the adjacent Planned Parenthood. An American flag blows in the wind, strong and confident, like it would never falter. Yesterday, I opened a window into the buried vault containing the American Dream, if only for an afternoon. But it is now past time to draw the drapes and look at the task at hand, making photocopies, stapling them, and assembling them into piles.




© Copyright 2018 Roger Feldstein. All rights reserved.

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