My Jeopardy! Adventure, Part 3: Wha’ hoppen?

(c) 2019, By Fran Fried

Note: This is the third and final part of my tale of my wild Jeopardy! trip, coming on the second anniversary of my appearance’s air date (Oct. 20, 2017). If I wrote a screenplay about this, it would’ve been turned down because no one would believe it. I still don’t, either, and I lived it. But with the exception of 10 minutes of exquisite torture, it was a good experience. And it’s a good way to finish my book, whenever that will be. For Part 1, go here. For Part 2, click here.

Thursday morning, August 3rd, 2017

Yeah, things turned kinda upside down (snap) like that.

A text from Paola, my bestie, back in Connecticut, on my phone as I awoke. I had talked to her the night before and I told her about my musical earworms that morning. So she wanted to send me some inspirational music to absorb. It was Iz Kamakawiwo’ole’s wonderful ukulele version of “Over the Rainbow.” That was a Big Sweetie thing for her to do. Then again, she’s always been a Big Sweetie. I was ready. Mentally, at least, I was ready. And the knee that caused me great pain the morning before wasn’t bothering me as I walked to the shower. And I wore the fancy top she bought me at Macy’s, so she was coming along for the ride.

Adan, the waiter in the hotel lobby restaurant, was ready for the nervous visitor from the East Coast with coffee, and this time I didn’t miss the coffeepot. I was a little more relaxed than the day before as I ate my omelet, though still a little anxious. Not in a nervous way, but in a stored-up-energy way. Anyway, the day started inauspiciously for one young woman in a wheelchair, who couldn’t make it aboard the bus; she had broken her foot badly days before and was in a walking cast, but couldn’t put any pressure on it, and after a couple of futile attempts to climb the three steps into the van, she and her husband hailed a cab to follow us.

The second day, this was old hat. Manny Abell, Emily Wilson and I sat on the couch, small-talking and waiting our turns for makeup, as all the newbies sat at the table and went through the paperwork and the spiels from the contestant crew and all the jitters we experienced the day before. It was like one of those war movies where the grizzled, weary veterans arrive in camp and watch an eager new batch of recruits fall in. Minus the actual battle and blood and guts, of course. But yeah, I did relax a bit more. For the moment.

One thing I noticed the day before was that I was easily the oldest contestant there, at 56; everyone else was in their 20s and 30s. In my everyday life, I was spiritually closer to 30, so I felt a little weird, knowing that, despite being young at heart, I might have been old enough to be some of their mothers. This day, at least, there was someone around my age: Tom Blake, a video editor from NYC.

And off we went to the studio, back through our paces. And I got to see some creative work by the stage crew. The task was to figure out a way to get the woman in the wheelchair, Kathleen Kosman, a lawyer from Dearborn, Michigan, onto a podium. The wheelchair was too big to fit, but they found a special chair nearby, and with the help of her husband and some of the crew, she was able to slide into it, they raised her into place, and from watching her, you wouldn’t have known she was seated.

I felt a lot more comfortable – not totally, mind you, but just knowing the drill – as the day’s shooting commenced. Emily was chosen to face Manny, as was Jayanthi Martins, a finance manager from Austin. One of the contestant crew members told us that the draw was weighted so that the contestants who weren’t chosen the day before, meaning Emily and me, would be selected at some point during the day.

The third category (Caught, about famous people who were captured) saw Manny break away from Jayanthi, with whom he was tied, by getting the first four clues, including the Daily Double for $1,000 to take a $2,200 lead, though Jayanthi caught the $1,000 clue to head into the first break. The two of them would falter with a couple of missed clues each, giving Emily the chance to catch up. Manny led after the first round, with $4,200, to Jayanthi’s $3,600 and Emily’s $3,400. Another good game.

And more jockeying as well in Double. In the first category to go, Technology, Emily took the lead with the $2,000 clue, moving ahead $200 on Jayanthi and $800 on Manny. And she stormed through the first three clues of Phrases Literally Translated, including a $2K Daily Double in the $1,200 slot, to shoot from $5,800 to $9,000. But over the next two categories, Jayanthi and Manny jumped to the first two slots, respectively, a $200 difference.

And sometimes you get the right clue at the right time – and Manny chose The History Bookshelf (a category I wish I had gotten) for $1,600, hit the second Daily Double, wagered $4,000, easily got William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, then got the $2,000 clue (Howard Zinn), and while it wasn’t a runaway, he went into Final with $19,000 to Jayanthi’s $12,400 and Emily’s $11,400. On the Final clue (Enron, the company that reported more than $110 billion in revenues in 2000 and was bankrupt the next year), Emily bet $8,000 and took the slight lead. Jayanthi, who played so well, went for GM and bet the house. But Manny bet $6,599 to keep his spot on stage.

And as the three went off, we waited for one of the crew to announce, “The next two contestants are … Fran and Carlos.” Boom. We drew numbers for position; Carlos Nobleza Posas in the middle, me at the end. (And I would find out a few months later that Carlos, a New Orleans native living in Salt Lake City, had actually already been in our living room, via the TV screen. He had played a soldier of a druglord on an episode of NCIS: New Orleans the previous season; he was proud to say he’d been shot by Scott Bakula, and posted a photo of them together, smiling.)

And that’s when it hit me. The unleashing of an entire butterfly sanctuary into my gut. Holy shit, this is it! And damn it all, I didn’t want to face Manny, but it is what it is. And off we went to the green room as well.

I walked in as Jayanthi was pulling her suitcase out of the wardrobe closet; I could tell she was a little upset at the way it ended, as she had been in the lead at one point, and I was hoping that things go south like that for me. We all had a quick touchup of makeup, and Lauri told us, “If you need to use the bathroom, do it now, because you’ll never have to pee more than you will right before you go on.” And in my case, it was true.

Alone in the loo, I was truly a bundle of nerves and lack of confidence. Butterflies? Hell, these were now hummingbirds – territorial, aggressive. Oh, God, what if I fuck this up? Lauri knocked and asked if I was ready, because we needed to go on. I looked one last time in the mirror, straight into my eyes, and for the second time in as many mornings, I found myself talking myself back into the positive again. Bitch, you’ve been waiting for this your whole life! You know you’ve got this. Get out there!

We returned to the studio and assumed the positions. The podiums didn’t have to be adjusted very much. Mitch, one of the sound techs, wired us. He was very polite, almost apologetic that he had to loosen the bottom of my top for him to get the lavalier mic inside and up top (well, I did that part) to clip it on. The mic cord was attached to a wireless pack that was belted onto our waists. John took our sound levels, and then we wrote our names on the glass screens. And John had me do it again because mine was a little too sloppy. (That’s what journalism and scribbling furiously your whole adult life does to you. When I left college, I had the clean, clear handwriting of my childhood. By my 40s, it was somewhere between Arabic and hieroglyphics.)

Maggie wished us luck, and with all of us wired, height- and light-adjusted … It’s showtime.

Episode 7612: What is ‘I live in interesting times’?

I just did some last-minute self-psyching; I didn’t even pay attention to my opponents. Well, at least as much as I could manage, as I was kind of in a daze. This isn’t real, is it?

John counted down. Music swelled. The fabulous new 3D graphics swirled on screen. And I’m in a daze. Then Johnny said the magic words. And it was just one of those flash moments of This really IS for real. Johnny Gilbert is about to announce my name

I was so concerned with not looking like an idiot on camera when they keyed in on me that I almost missed Mr. Gilbert say, “A writer, editor and deeJAAAAY from Prospect, Connecticut, Fran Fried.” Well, he

A writer, editor and deeJAAAAY …

got the pronunciation right (“Freed”), but the DJ part got an eyebrow raise from me. That was unusual. Then again, I’m kinda unusual. Trebek emerged, resplendent in a dark suit and diagonally striped purple tie. “Well, the Navy is well-represented by our current champion, Manny,” he said. “Today, we are happy to welcome Fran and Carlos. (Trebek mentioned my name!) Good luck, players; here we go into the Jeopardy round.”

The roller coaster has left the gate and reached the top of the first peak. And now …

Okay, let’s get this thing started. Or, a half-hour for one lousy buck.

Manny, fishing for the Daily Double, opened with The Midwest for $600. Carlos rang in with the answer (“Bigfoot, the original 4×4 one of these, lives in Pacific, Missouri”; “What is a monster truck?”). Next, Letter Perfect for $200. “A 3.0 GPA.” Carlos: “What is an A-plus?” No. Me: “What is an A?” No. (Shit! My first answer is wrong. In the hole right off. Aaaagh!) Manny knew it was a B. But I rebounded when Manny missed on the $400 clue, which was “500 in Roman numerals”; he went with C, I went with D and got an A to get on the plus side. Carlos got the $600 clue, Manny the $800, and I was in last.

Carlos missed on The Midwest for $200 (the city where the Iowa Hawkeyes play in Kinnick Stadium); Manny and I stayed silent. (Hey, I’m from a state where the only Division 1 football teams are UConn and Yale; what do I know about the Hawkeyes except their unis are an homage to the Steelers?) Manny hit the $400, and I was like, I need to get moving here. Next clue, Midwest for $800: Grosse Isle is in this river that shares its name with a Midwest metropolis; I chimed in with Detroit to pull into a tie with Manny at $1,000. Then, my years of newspaper experience landed me the $1,000 answer: I knew that North Dakota’s oldest still-circulating paper was in Bismarck. (My memory played tricks on me, though. When I watched the episode with Mom 2 1/2 months later, I told her, “I got this one wrong,” only to see that I was wrong about getting it wrong.)

I learned just how fast Carlos was on the draw, when he beat me to Cheeseheads, the Green Bay Packers’ supporters, on I’m a Huge Fan for $200. I started to feel comfortable with my own ability, kinda like football teammates pounding the shit out of each other before the game to knock out the butterflies. But as I said, he was fast.

And the next clue, Fan for $400, gave me my first WTF moment. “al-aholicsanonoymous.com is devoted to helping you become a more rabid fan of this rock satirist.” Carlos beat me again: “Who is ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic?” Except he pronounced it “Yankovich.” In the true Slavic pronunciation of the word, he was right, but as it pertained to this famous person (who, as we know, lost on Jeopardy!) in particular, it was wrong – and despite the mispronunciation, on a show where so often contestants are dunned for not pronouncing proper names correctly, they let it slide. (Mr. Yankovic himself would tweet the night the show aired: “Weird Al who?”) But I let it go, too, and kept focusing on the board and hoped the clue crew would overturn it on further review. Besides, I certainly wasn’t gonna bitch about it – there’s a huge difference between competitive and cutthroat, and my opponents were good guys – and the game was still young. (After further review, or not, the call stood.)

We all drew blanks on $600, but I answered Frank Capra on the $800 clue (change one of the vowels in a zodiac sign and you get an .org devoted to the director of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Carlos hit for $800 (Bella Thorne, whose fans are Bellearinas) but then I grabbed the $1,000 clue with “Pronounced differently, it’s a Burmese title of respect, like for Mr. Thant.” U Thant was the UN secretary general when I was a kid, and I even pronounced it correctly: “Oo.” So at the first break, past the initial nerves, I was starting to feel a bit more confident. I had $3,800 to Carlos’ $2,400 and Manny’s $1,000.

Had I the presence of mind, I’d have asked Alex to smile. In the end, I had all presence, no mind.

The crew came out and made adjustments wherever necessary, and brought those duckpin water bottles; I made sure just to have enough to wet my throat. Maggie Speak, the beloved producer in charge of contestants, told me, with a smile, “You’re doing great!” And Alex came over and performed the one bit of interaction with us that you don’t see on TV: posing for the Me-and-Trebek photo. And the crew got the shots, John told us it’s good, and then on with the game.

The most-asked question most of us get is: “So, what’s Alex Trebek like in person?” Well, there’s your answer. Save for that one moment, what you see is what you get, photo aside. For the sake of keeping things on the up-and-up, we don’t interact with him at all. I mean, he’s a well-traveled, well-rounded, highly intelligent, erudite and polite Canadian who looks younger than his late 70s, and sometimes, though not often, lets go with a snarky remark – but you already knew all that. Sorry I couldn’t be of much help.

But on with the introductions.

“Fran Fried is a writer, editor and DJ from Connecticut who has narrated a documentary that is currently being shown all around the country, and I haven’t heard of it. Tell me.” We had to write down five interesting things about ourselves for Alex to ask about, and since he had hosted a Bandstand-like show in Toronto in the early ’60s called Music Hop, I had a feeling that was the point to which he’d gravitate. Over that winter, I had narrated a documentary called The High School That Rocked!, which was shown at several festivals. It was about Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut; from the mid-’60s into the early ’70s, before concerts became an industry, the students brought in some of the biggest names in music to perform in the auditorium.

“Really?” Trebek asked.

“Yeah. Steven Tyler’s teenage band opened for The Yardbirds there. Um, The Doors, Cream, let’s see, Buddy Miles” –

“Stop right there,” he said. “You’re bringing back too many memories for me.” We all got a laugh out of that.

On to Carlos, who had a much better story; he ran with the bulls both in Pamplona … and in his native New Orleans. “Wait a minute,” Alex said. “They have bull– a bull run in–” and Carlos explained, “No; they have volunteers sign up who are ladies from the local roller derby team, who chase you around” – and there, you can hear me chuckle with the audience – “with Wiffle Bats.” More laughter. “I will say they are as intimidating as the fighting bulls of Pamplona, Spain.” Even Trebek chuckled. Meanwhile, Manny told of the gift his father, who was a foreign service officer, gave him when he completed his flight training: a 14-carat set of gold wings with his name engraved on them. That was a very cool treasure to cherish.

Enough with the chit-chat. “Fran, back to you. You’re in command.” In a life where I don’t always feel in control of the craziness swirling around me, at least I could say I was in command of the board. Once.

On to Let’s Remodel the Kitchen for $200, and another right answer (Pantry) to get to 4K. Manny beat me to the $400 and $600 clues, Carlos hit $800 to pull within $800 of me, and onto A Novel Idea for $1,000 (we all stood in silence for Henry James and his book The Ambassadors). Then he tied me with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in Novel Idea for 8. He then took the $600 clue and landed the Daily Double: “Let’s make it a true Daily Double.” He missed, going with Heart of Darkness instead of Les Miserables, and I took a breath of relief, at least for the moment. At least I had a cushion, though I knew it might not last, the way he was ringing in.

He missed on the $400 clue to go in the hole, picking the wrong Neil Gaiman novel (Manny put in American Gods on the rebound). And then I got Kitchen for $1,000 wrong – kitchen countertops made of this mineral, the second-most abundant in the earth’s crust and cheaper than granite. I went with marble – nope. (Hey! When I was a kid, my father put in a Formica counter; what did I know?) Manny rang in and could take the lead … but he drew a blank, and Carlos stood pat. It was quartz.

With a minute to go and six clues left, Manny jumped to Let’s Save the Planet. He got the $200 (CO2), I hit $400 (The Audubon Society), and then I whiffed on the $600: “npca.org aims to protect these, like Acadia in Maine & Kings Canyon in California.” I said “What are national forests?” when I should’ve said national parks. Fuck! I lived that close to Kings Canyon when I was in Fresno! And I’ve been to both places! Idiot! Manny with the rebound again to get within $600. Carlos hit the $800 clue to work out of the hole as the round ended. I had $2,800, Manny $2,200 and Carlos $400. I blew a couple of easy ones, but while I didn’t feel any false sense of comfort, I felt I was holding my own pretty well.

The halftime break was a blur – more water, more adjustments, more encouragement from Maggie – and I was able to take some deep breaths. I was relatively calm and feeling at least sure of my abilities. I only had $2,800, but I had the lead. I did miss a couple, but I also was jumping in on the buzzer pretty well, something that’s been the downfall of so many smart people. It was starting to feel more and more like those nights playing in the living room – except in a giant studio, on the other side of the screen.

Carlos started off Double. The category was a cutesy one, Supreme Court Justice Before & After; before & afters are staples of both Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune; the second word of the first clue is also the first word of the second. As Carlos answered for $400, “First Chief Justice ever who, despite ’99 Problems’, was always Big Pimpin’,” was John Jay Z. (And just hearing Trebek say “Big Pimpin’” was pretty funny.)

We all left the $400 alone (Clarence Thomas the Tank Engine, as the kids’ favorite train wasn’t in my roundhouse of cultural references), but I would’ve been beside myself had I not gotten the $1,200: “This Heisman runner-up jurist, now the home of ‘The Original Slider.’” Byron White Castle. I first read about White in one of those sports heroes books from the school library in third grade (he was an All-American back at Colorado and played for the Steelers a couple years in the late ’30s before going into law), and White Castle played a huge part in my college years on Long Island; I went out as a giant White Castle cheeseburger for Hallowe’en my senior year.

Oh, do I wish I had bet the house on this one. I kicked myself a bit about it.

Then I did something totally uncharacteristic of me. The part of me that’s old-school about wanting contestants to run the categories in monetary order when I’m watching on TV cherrypicked It’s a Battle for $1,200 … and by the extra hair of time before the sounder began, I immediately knew I had landed a Daily Double, much to my joy and pleasant surprise. Win or lose, I wanted to at least get one. The things you really kick yourself for later on. I had $4,000 to Manny’s $2,200 and Carlos’ $800. I would’ve bet more, maybe the house, but the game was so close that I only wagered $1,500. (Oh, to have had the guts of Austin …) It was a gimme clue; the answer was “What’s Antietam?”

Manny missed the $1,600 (the second WWI battle of the Marne), and Carlos and I passed. A slight sigh of relief at that point; while it was still too early, I had $5,500, Carlos $800 and Manny $400. I stretched it to $7,500 when I hit the $2,000 clue (the battle of San Jacinto), and at that point, I was in kind of a zone. It absolutely was playing in the living room – total focus, tunnel vision, on the board, timing the buzzer just right, the instant Alex stopped speaking, as I’d done thousands of times. Carlos just beat me to the $800 (a video of Iwo Jima), and ditto Before & After for $1,600 (John Oliver Wendell Holmes). Suddenly, he was making a move. I wanted to be where all leaders want to land: in runaway territory, where we can’t be caught in Final. My chance to reach that was now threatened, and I felt at least a little tension.

We all passed on the $2,000, and Carlos moved to A Suffix Will Suffice for $400, where I buzzed in with “-phile,” as in Techno- and Cine-. Manny missed for $800, going $200 in the hole, and I thought Carlos would ring in, but we both passed. He dug himself back out of the hole with the $1,200, and then he wandered into one of my wheelhouses: October, a Fan’s Dream. Sports.

Manny chose the $1,200, and all I needed to hear was “This bearded Houston Rocket …” to know it was No. 13 himself, the best beard in the NBA, James Harden. I went to $1,600 (the Patriots), which put me at $10,700 (Carlos at $2,400, Manny at $1,000). Carlos beat me on the buzzer to the $2K clue (Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes), but then I reached $12,300 with “-ette” for $1,600 on Suffix. And I gave it back on the $2,000 clue. I was wrong on “Add it to ‘My’ or ‘Neur’ & you’ve got a real pain’; I answered “-osis,” but Carlos was also wrong with”-opathy,” and Manny stood pat. (It was “-algia.”)

So no real harm, and I had control of the board. Back to my safe spot, October, a Fan’s Dream, for $800, the team that lost to the Cubs in the World Series. (I was a beat writer for two seasons at my first paper for the Indians’ Class AA farm team, and during my 18-year estrangement from Yankee fandom in the ’80s and ’90s, because of George Steinbrenner’s antics, I was a Cleveland fan for a few years.) But as I moved away from Chief Wahoo (the symbol more than the team) a long time ago, I answered “Cleveland.”

And on the night it aired, I would get a Twitter shout-out from a fan of the NHL’s newest team for answering “Vegas” as the city of the $400 clue – not Las Vegas, but the team’s proper name, the Vegas Golden Knights.

(And I should note here an interesting gender tidbit I encountered after the show reached TV. Quite a few people I know said that other people watching the show with them remarked, “She sure knows a lot about sports.” It had less to do with my gender identity (and I truly don’t know how many strangers clocked me or not) than with gender in general: people’s baked-in perception that “girls aren’t supposed to know sports.” Not even most of my friends knew that I was a sportswriter for six years at my first newspaper, back in the ’80s. That included 2 ½ seasons as a Hartford Whalers beat writer. (Cue up “Brass Bonanza” …) Perception vs. reality. And the reality is that there are several sports journalists who also happen to be transwomen. Now back to my Simplicity sewing patterns …)

I now had $11,500 to Carlos’ $2,400, with 11 clues to go. I still didn’t feel totally comfortable, believe it or not, but part of me was relishing the idea of getting closer to a runaway. Manny got the $400 Famous Battles (Waterloo). Two full categories left. Ancient Wisdom for $1,200; I rang in with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Up to $12,700. Manny answered the $800 (a Pliny the Elder reference to Africa); eight left. He then missed $1,200 (Aristotle stating that man was this type of animal; answered social, when it was political); Carlos and I stood pat. Seven left.

Next up: Ancient Wisdom for $2K – the Roman poet who wrote Georgics; we all passed on Virgil. Six left.

Invention & Discovery for $1,200 – “A 2010 discovery about the protein Ovocleidin-17 may hold the key to this age-old question (it’s the bird).” Carlos rang in with “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” He was up to $3,600. Five remaining.

Invention for $1,600 – we all passed on liquid biopsy. Four left. Less than a minute to go.

And then, a voice: “Stop!”

What the …

Things you don’t see at home: Whenever Trebek says “We’ve had a scoring change” or something similar, it means the game has been stopped, and the clue crew deliberates over an answer that may or may not have been right. Which is what happened here. As they did this, we three had to turn to face the back wall as if we were in timeout. It felt like 10 minutes when it was only a couple. And I felt the blood drain from my face, I felt my nerves tightening. Oh, fuck – this isn’t gonna end well.

Well, it didn’t. Harry Freedman, the executive producer of both Jeopardy! and Wheel, came over to deliver the judges’ verdict. “We’re gonna give Carlos back the $2,000 he lost” on the myopathy/neuropathy answer. Are you kidding me?!? And I know the look I gave Harry was one of anguish and shock. That was a $4,000 swing, and all of a sudden, Carlos was seriously in striking range. Why did they wait until four clues left?

And yeah, it was a borderline call at best. And I mean, at the absolute extreme. According to the Mayo Clinic, peripheral neuropathy causes weakness, numbness and pain. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, myopathy’s main symptom is muscle weakness; if I read the passage right, muscle cramps are sometimes a symptom in acquired myopathy, but the main symptom in inherited myopathy is muscular dystrophy. Not only was my lead suddenly in danger with just four clues left, but on a questionable call. On top of Weird Al Yankovich. But, of course, the decisions of the judges are final, right? And to bitch about it, especially in 20/20, would diminish the fact that Carlos was indeed a formidable competitor. Okay, let’s win this …

And then Carlos took Invention for $2,000 – the last Daily Double. And Alex told him the good news. He now had $7,600 to play with and bet $5,100 for the tie. “William Shockley shared a Nobel Prize for creating this device that supplanted vacuum tubes in electronics.” I knew it was the transistor – more importantly, so did Carlos. You could see the joy in his face as he reared his head back. As they cut back to the three-shot, you could see me looking up with a look of great concern. Three clues to go.

Invention & Discovery for $800 – element 113 on the periodic table, Nihonium, named due to its discovery in this country. As much as I studied the table those nights leading up to the show, origins were another animal. We all passed. Japan – “Ni” for Nippon. Two to go.

Invention for $400. One of those kick-yourself moments. David Meilahn and Bob Barnett made the first calls on one of these, talking to Alexander Graham Bell’s grandkid. Carlos whiffed with rotary phone. Then I did the same with the visual (video) phone. Of course it was a cell phone, you idiot! Manny got it right to get back to $1,000. And the last clue was left on the board.

In a Looney Tunes cartoon, the response would be some punch-drunk guy who was just wailed on slurring, “Wha’ hoppen?” In my surreal real world, it was What the fuck just happened?

Please, God, if you’re there, give me a category I’m not gonna screw up. Please?

Alex unveiled the Final category: Asian Geography. Uh-oh. So much for that little request of mine. A category I was not comfortable with at all, and had they not changed the scoring, I would’ve had a decent lead going in, and I could’ve made a conservative bet. But since Carlos came on in such a mad-rush blitz, and since I figured he’d bet the house, I was now gonna be forced to go all-in on a category I shouldn’t have been betting in the first place.

(And this is something that the judgmental, armchair-quarterback douchebags who play along at home and then go off on social media on contestants who lose don’t understand when they spew their comments on the game. If you’re not in the moment, if you’re not feeling what we’re feeling onstage – in this case, dealing with a situation that changed so quickly and so late in the game, suddenly tied instead of ahead comfortably, with a category of which you’re almost totally unsure, and knowing how your opponents are playing – you have no idea. Bitch, YOU get on the show and find yourself in this situation and see how YOU react and see how YOU bet!)

The final break – the final adjustment of equipment, bottles of water brought out one last time, Maggie offering words of encouragement, but they were lost to me. I was as tense as fuck-all, and suddenly, I was faced with my childhood dream being shot to hell, and in a most ridiculous way, since very little in my life has ever been “normal.” I bargained with whatever God is like someone in Kubler-Ross’ bargaining stage of dying – Okay, then just let me win one game! Please!

Okay, crew back in place, partitions up, and on we go to the Final Jeopardy answer … And I hold my breath here in anticidread:

“My favorite category is Geography,” Trebek said, “and today we’ve narrowed it down to Asian Geography. Players, here’s your clue: ‘It’s the only country that borders both the Caspian Sea & the Persian Gulf.’ You have 30 seconds. Good luck.”

FUCK!

Now I’d been brushing up on my world geography with the interactive website I found right after I learned I was gonna be on the show. I’d focus on one continent at a time, and I went back over them several times. And as far as Asia is concerned, had the clue been in China, Japan, the Koreas, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, India and maybe the Philippines, I’d have had a shot. But this? Hell no!

And it looked on TV as if I had the answer right away, but the truth is, I put down “What is Tibet?” as a placeholder answer to come back to. Of COURSE I knew full well it was wrong, but I didn’t want to leave a blank.

I was panicking something fierce. In 20/20 hindsight, I would’ve written something cutesy and witty, channeled my inner Cliff Clavin, and written “What is a country that’s never been in my kitchen?” (Look up the Cheers episode where Cliff appears on the show.) But no. More like No! My childhood dream is crumbling to pieces! No, goddammit, no! I’m not giving up! I couldn’t even make an educated guess. And knowing ahead of everyone else that I would finish with zero, I was doing my best to not lose it on national TV. As it was, my knees felt weak.

And I wouldn’t have gotten the answer because I didn’t think of Iran as being in Asia. I thought of it as the Middle East, and yes, technically, it’s in Asia. But I always thought of it as separate from the rest of Asia.

“We’ll come to our champion,” Trebek said. Manny was looking grim. He answered Iraq. Incorrect. He bet $999. Carlos’ expression was a mixture of smile and exasperation, as he shrugged. He answered Azerbaijan. “And you were right to raise your hands,” Alex said. I figured at that point he, too, would bet all; at least I was right about that.

Holy shit! Manny’s gonna win with a dollar! Of course, I knew this before anyone else. And I dreaded the denouement that was just about to happen. “Look at Manny’s reaction – uh oh,” Trebek said.

And as he came to me, I put my hands up to my ears. I really didn’t want to hear the reaction. “You don’t want to hear the answer, do you?” he asked. (His question was edited out.) I smiled tightly and shook my

I don’t want to hear it, Alex!

head sheepishly. “So your wager, Fran, is very important.” I drew a huge breath and heaved a massive, very audible sigh, and I really don’t know why I was smiling at that moment. Maybe because I didn’t want to become a puddle of goo.

My wager was revealed. And because of editing, you didn’t get to hear the chorus of gasps from the audience. You longtime watchers, think of the

A split-second before everyone else knew what I knew already.

reaction you heard from the audience the moment they realized Ken Jennings lost. That’s what I heard – except I would end up winning 74 fewer games. The kid who had wanted to be a five-time champ since childhood ended up with zero.

Yep – the infamous $1 Game.

“You risked and lost it all. And Manny, congratulations. You win the game with a dollar!” And with that, he gave a huge shrug – the image that, after it aired, launched a thousand memes; okay, maybe just a few – and broke into a broad smile and a “whoop!” of relief. (And at least one of his friends went out for Hallowe’en that year as Shrugging Manny.) Having placed my hands over my ears, I thought a split-second later that maybe I’d become a meme monument to failure, or at least denial. (And was so glad I didn’t.)

The shrug that launched a thousand memes. Okay, maybe just a few.

“The smallest win in many, many years,” Trebek added, as the lieutenant was finally able to let loose a huge smile. In fact, in the Trebek era, it was only the second time a contestant won with $1. And, like Manny, the winner was a military man – Air Force Lt. Col. Darrell Scott pulled it off in 1993.

His three-game total was now $42,799. I was awarded second place and Carlos third, thanks to a new tiebreaker system. The first tiebreaker was who was leading going into Final; since we were tied at that point, the next tiebreaker was whoever was leading going into the last Daily Double. So, among other things, I had the dubious distinction of finishing with $1,999 more than the winner.

Carlos and I shake. As the old song goes, laughing on the outside, crying on the inside …

Anyway, I stood there stunned. Gobsmacked is more like it. I shook hands with Carlos, and I think with Manny, and I remember talking with Carlos, and Trebek came over to smalltalk, but at that point it was a blur. Then the music ended – that’s it. Game over. You’re done. Just like that.

Things move pretty quickly after that, as they prep for the next show. Maggie came over to me and gave me a hug.

“You played a great game!”

“But I lost!”

“But it was great television!”

And yeah, it was. Had it happened to someone else, I would’ve said the same thing. And I was trying hard to remember her words about the silver medal. Mitch the mic tech came over to unstrap the mic and battery pack, and he had such a sad face, I thought he was gonna cry. Believe me, I sure felt like it, and I’m one who’s had a near-lifelong problem with that particular emotion.

I wasn’t ready to leave yet, though. Maybe after lunch (which I would now have to pay for). I needed the loo again, so I was escorted to the green room. Chelsea Feltman, an opera singer and actor from Brooklyn, was getting ready to face Manny, and she was doing what I would’ve done: trying out different shoes, and at different heights. “They don’t have us go out on the floor afterward; we’re behind the podium the whole time,” I told her. “Just wear whatever’s comfortable.” She thanked me, I hit the loo, then headed out to the audience. The contestant crew and some of the people in the audience offered kind words of sympathy, and I was gracious about it, but Dammit, I don’t want to be an object of pity! I went to sit with the remaining contestants, just as a reflex, but was told I had to sit across the aisle. Worse, I couldn’t talk to the contestants-to-be. Yep – when you’re done, you’re done.

I sat and talked with Kaitlin Solomon; her husband, Justin Broughman, a young teacher from the Shenandoah Valley, was waiting on the other side of the aisle for his chance to hit the stage. Not yet. Manny was to face Chelsea and Joanna Kimmitt, a classical flutist-turned-librarian from Long Beach. Still numbfounded as all hell, I settled in as the crew was set to go, the music swelled, Johnny intoned, and on to Episode 7613.

The next show’s lineup.

“Big surprise ending on yesterday’s program,” Alex told the camera. “Of course, Manny winning with one dollar only. There’s nobody on the Jeopardy! staff who can recall the last time that happened. But, he earned the right to come back and play today.”

I was starting to calm down. That lasted about 20 seconds – until the fourth category of the first round was unveiled. Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry, in honor of what would’ve been his 91st birthday. (He had died that March.)

Are you fucking KIDDING me?!?!? This was insult on top of injury. Yesterday, it was a category on Rickenbacker Guitars. Now this. I couldn’t have gotten at least one of those categories?!?!? Just one? Something where I could run the category? It was all I could do to keep from screaming out loud. Fuck this! I’m not staying after this.

The game started out strong; all three of them came out of the chute flying, running through two categories with none wrong, Joanna taking a slight lead. Then Chelsea, in Book-Pourri, hit the Daily Double on the $600 clue, and it was a sports clue – “The subtitle of this numerical book by Elliot Asinof is ‘The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series.’” I’m sitting there mentally screaming Eight Men Out! Eight Men Out! Sports categories tend to be kryptonite to some contestants, and Chelsea drew a blank. She only bet $800, so it didn’t set her back much, and she got it back on the next clue.

During Alex’s post-break interview, he asked Manny about the previous game. “How surprised were you at the end of yesterday’s game?” “Incredibly surprised,” he chuckled. “You had figured that, ‘Hey, I’m gone.’ Right?” “Right. I was ready to walk off into the sunset and take my winnings and go home.”

Eventually, on to Chuck Berry. The $400 clue, a video, was the duck walk (Manny). $600 was Keith Richards (again Manny, as people chuckled at the mention of the guitarist who’ll outlive the rest of the universe). For $800, the “Long Tall Sally” singer who paid tribute to Berry in Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. Silence from the trio. Little Richard! Little Richard! silently screamed a certain ex-contestant in the audience. The $1,000 clue: Johnny B. Goode (Manny). The $200: St. Louis (Manny again).

After that, another blur. At halftime, Manny had $6,000, Joanna $4,000 and Chelsea $3,800. Well-played. Some more small talk with Kaitlin and an Englishwoman sitting in front of us. Joanna and Manny broke out early, Joanna taking the lead, and Chelsea kept close until she missed a Daily Double for $3,000 in the Statues category. Again, though, she bounced back, as Manny took a slight lead. He hit the last Daily Double, in X Abbreviations, bet $5,000 (Xenon) and stretched his lead to $8,600 over Joanna. He ran the score to $19K, a runaway at that point. But the two women just crept back into the picture at the very end – tied at $9,200 to Manny’s $19,000 – and Joanna added $400 more with the final clue to avoid the runaway. (X Abbreviations – Extra Small and Extra Large).

Historic Connections was the Final category: a 1796 medical experiment with an English farm girl that led to a breakthrough announced in Geneva on May 8, 1980. Chelsea missed (chickenpox vaccine) but only bet $401. Joanna got the answer (the eradication of smallpox) but only bet $399 to finish with $9,999. Manny, though, smiled a grimace and shook his head. He answered “What is in-vitro?” … and bet almost the house: $17,000. Wow. That close. That had to hurt worse than my loss in some ways.

Anyway, I was ready to go. I’d had enough. I wasn’t staying for lunch. “Are you going?” Lauri asked. “Yeah.” He, Chelsea and I signed the paperwork to get our money, which was slated to arrive by check not by February, but sometime before Christmas.

So yeah, that’s it. We headed back to the green room to gather our belongings.

I asked Manny if he wanted to cab it back. Chelsea had someone coming to get her. When we had our things, Lauri gave us our lovely parting gifts: A Jeopardy! tote bag and baseball hat. I also grabbed a handful of pens. It’s not like the Art Fleming days, when contestants would get an encyclopedia and a copy of the home game. Then again, the runners-up didn’t get $2,000 or $1,000 to go home with.

On the way out, I just had to ask Lauri.

“As best as I could figure out, I’m only the third member of my tribe to make the show. Is that right?”

“What tribe?”

“The trans tribe.” The first time in any interactions with the J! folks that any of us brought up the word.

“Yeah, I think you’re right,” Lauri said. But just as quickly, she said, “It had absolutely nothing to do with you being chosen. We love you. You have a great personality. But that said, we’ll be having more in the future.”

“Yeah,” I told her, “I didn’t think it did have anything to do with it, but I appreciate you telling me that.”

We walked out the door into the blazing sunshine. Six years and my body had become so unused to being in the California sun again – hot, dry, brighter than back home. I could get used to it again.

Lauri called a cab for us once we got to the security gate. We stood there to wait. Then, one last reminder that we were done with – we were told we couldn’t wait inside the gate; we had to wait out on the curb. So there, we parted. Lauri gave me a big hug, and we took the long short walk to the sidewalk on Culver. Chelsea was kind enough to a photo of Manny and me; I never posted it socially because the bright sunlight uncovers a multitude of sins, like my protruding stomach. Anyway, her ride arrived, and we hugged; our cab came about a minute later.

The ride back to the hotel was silent; both of us were stunned at the way things unfolded in our losses. Thankfully, it wasn’t too long a drive. We arrived, and I had to stop to ask the front desk for something; Manny and I shook hands, and he headed to the elevator. I mean, if I had to lose to someone, at least I lost to a good guy.

It was around 2 p.m. And I just couldn’t call anyone to tell them what happened, and not because of the NDA I signed. I was disgusted. I just wanted to crawl into a hole. But a couple minutes later, I was back in my frozen room, and I did the next best thing: I took off my clothes and crawled back into bed.

Some good that did. My mind was racing laps at Indy. I tossed and turned, and of course, the emotions came out. Since I had the presence of mind to not make other guests think I was being attacked, I yelled into my pillow. AAAAAAAAAAAAAGH! Goddammit, I blew it! I fucking blew it! And every 10, 15 minutes, I would yell another AAAAAAAAAAGH! into my pillow. And an occasional I blew it!!!! for good measure.

I thought at some point I would calm down enough to get at least a couple hours’ rest. Some good that did. After trying to fall asleep for an hour and a half, I just said fuck it; it was getting close to 4, and well, I might as well get dressed and head back down to dinner. Another bacon cheeseburger, another side salad, another mango iced tea, another pleasant chat with Asia, another 22 bucks.

But I ran into some of my fellow contestants at the bar: Tom; his two cousins; and Kathleen and her husband. Tom ($16,601) won the first game after lunch (Justin second, Joanna third), and the all the pain and inconvenience proved to be worth it for Kathleen; she took the last game of the day/week ($20,400); Tim Suba, a public education consultant from L.A., placed second, Tom third. They expressed their sympathies, but talking brought me back out of my dark cloud. I asked them how they did, and was able to enjoy their victories. They all went their separate ways for dinner; I wish I could’ve afforded to go someplace away from the hotel. I mean, this was once-in-a-lifetime. I was fucking tired of scraping and scratching to make a living.

I walked over to the lounge across from the front desk, and took out the laptop and started writing so I could engage my mind on something besides the game. Justin and Kaitlin were heading their way, and they ran into me as I was setting up at one of the tallboy tables in the lounge. We had a great conversation; it must have run a half-hour. All the contestants I met over the two days were good people. It was a collegial atmosphere, and while we all wanted to win, as I said above, it wasn’t cutthroat. On that front, it was a good thing.

The unconquering zero returns home

Friday Aug. 4th

I was in bed early and up early, as usual. A restless, mostly sleepless night, as you can imagine. Another bright, hazy, sunny summer Friday in Los Angeles.

I left the hotel about 8:30; the flight wasn’t taking off ‘til 12:10, but I didn’t know what the travel crush would be like at LAX. I unceremoniously took a Prius cab back to the airport, taking in the last palm trees I knew I would see for a (long) while. And wouldn’t you know? I was waved through security for the flight back as well. I must be doing something right. And it wasn’t yet 9; I would be able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and have time to write.

The waiting area was cramped, and the food court and bathroom availability lacking, even more so because of some renovations going on. But I found a Mexican restaurant and got a breakfast burrito (the first I’d had since I left Fresno), and there was a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf shop right in the middle of the food area (a chain I used to frequent on my trips to San Francisco), but I waited out the long line to get a latte, and after breakfast, I sat down to do some writing. First off, a letter to the Contestant Crew:

There’s got to be a morning after …

Hi kids. Sitting in LAX with a lot of extra time to kill (my first leg to Baltimore leaves in three hours) and trying to capture the last three days in the massive file that will be my book …

Anyway, I just wanted to thank y’all again for all the kindness. It was much appreciated. And yeah, I know, you deal with lots of the lows as well as the highs on the day-to-day with your jobs, but I still greatly appreciate it. And that goes for the rest of the crew as well.

As for me? Well, yeah, yesterday’s post-show decompression and the overnight, as you can imagine, were full of spontaneous outbursts of shouting “AAAAAAGH!” and beating myself up and occasional calm and cursing the luck of the draw, but I’ll be okay … at least until Oct. 17. I’m glad I talked myself into going down to the lobby for dinner; ran into Tom and his cousins, and Justin and Kathleen and their spouses, so that took some of the edge off of it all.

Oh well … anyway, back to writing. Thanks so much again! (Lauri told me that, yes, I’m indeed only the third of my dysfunctional, dysphoric tribe to make the show, and going through the process without it being a thing at all was, well, a big thing. 🙂 Being on national TV and just being myself, one of the crowd, even if I did colossally fail, means a huge step toward the day when no one cares about such things as gender identity. And Maggie, I still have some stories to tell ya.)

Y’all have my email; my phone is 203-XXX-XXXX. And if you folks ever decide to do a Bad Beats Week or a Second Chance Tournament somewhere down the road, please keep me in mind. Save for the last couple of minutes, I really did enjoy being there. Be well.

Big hug,

fran

Not 15 minutes later, I got a response from the Maggie herself:

Fran!!!!

My Fran! I miss you already!!

That was a hell of a game. And you were perfection. I know because I am a professional!!!!

Thank you for enriching our family with your presence on the show.

Love you

Maggie

That was good. I’m still hoping they’ll have a second-chance tournament, or maybe a bad beats tournament, at some point. You know, it’s always gonna feel like unfinished business.

Well, as it turned out, I wasn’t three hours early after all. It was more like four or five. A cell of thunderstorms in the Midwest had just started to wreak havoc with Southwest’s flight schedule. The original plan was to depart at 12:10, get to Baltimore around 8:20, then take off for Bradley at 9:45 and land at 12:20. Well, we weren’t taking off, and it would be at least an hour before we started lining up at another gate, and then it seemed like another hour. I lost track of time by the time we were able to board at last.

I was on early enough to grab my usual spot on the aisle, starboard side, a couple rows behind the wing emergency exit. I forgot that flying while trans usually means I have a row, or at least a space, to myself on the plane. (It does have its advantages.) Someone was brave enough to take the window seat in my row: a pretty young blonde. We small-talked for a short while. She was an actress; she told me she lived in L.A., was going back to see her family in Maryland, then flying up to NYC to take over the role of Cynthia Weil in the Broadway production of the Carole King musical, Beautiful. Not long after we were aloft, I let her be, as she was busy studying her lines. And I was writing down all the notes in my head onto an old reporter’s notebook.

We didn’t get to Baltimore until quarter to 10. There was much confusion as to where to go; I finally figured it out and found the gate shortly after 10. We weren’t gonna take off until about 11:30 – and the fucking food court was all but closed, and I was starving. Unbelievable. But a couple of girls working at the pizza place, who were cleaning up for the night, left out the leftover pizza and garlic knots they hadn’t sold, and soda was on the house. I grabbed two slices and a Coke and took a breather. No New Haven pizza snobbery here; beggars can’t be choosy, and besides, it wasn’t that bad.

So we finally were able to board, and the plane landed in Windsor Locks about quarter to 2. By the time I caught the shuttle and made it to the car, I was luckily I could still drive. I had to fight to keep my eyes open on 84, but finally, I pulled up about 20 to 3 in the morning.

I looked in the living room window heading up the walk, and the back of the cable box was lit. And wouldn’t you know Mom was up, waiting for me? There’s always a Murder, She Wrote rerun on some Hallmark channel somewhere …

I collapsed onto the sofa in a blob of exhaustion.

“So how did you do?”

Well, we did sign the non-disclosure, but hey – it’s my mother!

“Well, it was epic.” It was the first of countless times I would say that. “I lost, but it was the way I lost …” and I wearily told her, adding, “I’m telling you this, but you really need to see it to get the full effect.”

“Well, it’s something you always you wanted to do,” she said, “and you did it, and you went for it. It just didn’t work out.”

And with that, I dragged my bags down to my cramped bedroom and took out just enough items to get me through the night – a T-shirt and the toiletries and some meds. And then, at last, I collapsed on the bed. I didn’t wake up until early afternoon. Well, I did let out an occasional AAAAAAAAGH! This would continue sporadically for the next two weeks or so.

I was back to functioning sometime around 3 Saturday afternoon. As I unpacked, I called three of my closest friends, people I knew wouldn’t spill the beans. Starting with Paola. “Oh, no, Big Sweetie! I don’t believe it!” was her initial reaction. Then it was Joe, who was heading into the City on Metro North to start his shift on the copy desk at the Daily News. “Kid,” he said, “if this were anybody but you telling me this, I’d tell them they were lying.” Drew had some sage advice, as he usually tends to, after I told him how the game shook out. “You’re kicking yourself now,” he told me. “But had you bet all but a dollar, and you both got it right and lost by a dollar, you’d really be kicking yourself.” He was right, of course; I still felt somewhat shitty, but a whole lot better once he put it that way. Sometimes you just go for it and it doesn’t go the way you want.

I wasn’t looking forward to work on Monday morning. I couldn’t tip my hand, and so I forced a weak smile.

“There you are,” Lisa, my supervisor, said; she and the rest of the crew were all smiles. “How did it go?” Silence. A tight smile. “I know; you can’t tell us.” But one of my coworkers asked the question that I would hear countless more times (and still do): “So what’s Alex Trebek like?”

And after that, we settled back into the grind, and it would be a sorta-forgotten matter. At least until October.

The dread

Well, I kinda lost my taste for the show after my fiasco. This is not an uncommon occurrence, as I’ve learned; some of the one-and-done contestants are traumatized by the experience; some, winners and non-winners alike, are like been there, done that, hit the buzzer, met Trebek, got the pen and the tote bag – next! Besides, my low-pay job was keeping me on the go three days a week, from around 10 a.m.-8 p.m. And I wasn’t giving anything up to anyone who knew me. Mom and my friends who knew kept my secret; to the rest of the world I was disclosing absolutely nothing. Nothing. In fact, as August rolled into September, Summer into Fall, and September into October, I was increasingly dreading the airdate that was inevitably drawing closer. And I really didn’t know how I’d deal with it – or even if I would. I seriously considered letting this pass by and then fade into the ether.

But I also realized that there was a certain percentage of the population that would kill me if I didn’t say something. What’s a chica to do?

Okay – I give in!

Oct. 9th, 2017

Okay. The Jeopardy! folks had emailed me four days earlier with the jpgs of me behind the podium solo and the me-and-Trebek shot. Nope; not putting it up. I stewed it over on and off through the weekend.

But this day – the first of the shows shot my first day there, and a week and a day before my airdate – I said, “Ah, screw it.” I mean, word was gonna trickle out, anyway, social media being what it was.

Settled. I’ve posted things before on the Book of Faces that have drawn a large number of eyeballs, and my birthday consists of the pleasurable task of sending thank-yous for hundreds of birthday wishes. And thousands of people here in Connecticut, not to mention Fresno, will be among the 9 million watching around the country. Fuck it. You need to go along for the ride, whether you want to or not.

So I grabbed the me-and-Alex image and attached the following:

Okay … Here goes nothing …

Tuesday, Oct. 17.

All I can say is that it’ll be epic television, and that my weird and interesting life will take another turn toward not being the same.

And then there’s that moment of Rubicon pause – something with which I was well familiar, having encountered it with every big step forward during my transition, which suddenly was years ago, and how the hell did that happen? It seems like decades now. I’ve kind of forgotten, in the good way, the transition. No, not forgotten; poor choice of word. It’s just that all the hell that went with the transition was so long ago, and my second life has been second nature for so long … Save for me writing about it, like this, or on those rare occasions where I talk about it to classes, it’s something that doesn’t come up in everyday conversation, and it hasn’t in a while.

But the transition – in some ways, it’s certainly a big moment in the big picture. I mean, how many people in the trans tribes have wanted to do what I did but have been too understandably fearful? I mean, I know I’m not the first to appear, but I’m one of the extremely few, maybe three, and I’m out there in the open. And does my making it to the show open the door for other trans contestants?

Well, I’ve already done the heavy stuff. I’ve transitioned rather publicly. And what the hell – if a transperson sees me on the screen, even though I’ve made an idiot of myself, and says, “Hey! Maybe I can do this,” well, then maybe it’s worth the embarrassment of losing the way I did. Then maybe I did something good and pushed the ball forward for the rest of us.

And the trolls? That’s inevitable. Fuck ’em. Trolls gonna troll, and I know they will. Guys who’ll never, ever make the show, sitting in their cellars, hiding like cowards behind fake names and photos of everything but their pathetic selves. Do they deserve to rent space in my head? Do their opinions really count? Are they deserving of my respect, and thus, my time?

Hit it.

Yes, there’s a thrill when I post something that connects with lots of people. Like when I posted my initial photo of Frannie 2.0 that January night in 2011. I did it without fanfare, and the friend requests that first month spewed forth in a gusher.

Well, this isn’t a brag, nor meant to be, as I spend a lot of time – maybe too much time – alone. I know a lot of people. I have friends and friendly acquaintances from every corner of my life: grade school, high school, college, friends from the New Haven and New York garage scenes, and Fresno and San Francisco, excellent musician friends both famous and not so, ex-girlfriends, all the places I’ve worked, fellow journalists from other papers, other transpeople I’ve met in my travels. Some I see very frequently, others I’ve never met face-to-face but have become cyber-day pen pals. In that regard, I’ve lived a good life. And the word spread faster than a rash. Over 900 likes on my photo, more than 500 comments, 80 shares. Pleasantly overwhelming.

And it also didn’t take long for the media to souse me out. After all, I was part of it for so long. The first was Jack Kramer, who was the editor of the Register for all but my first two years there. He was doing a story for the Branford Patch news site. Then Susan Dunne of the Hartford Courant, Meredith Guinness of the Fairfield County news site The Daily Voice (and the wife of Bob Fredericks, a former Waterbury colleague who was at the New York Post). LaSalle Blanks of WTNH-8, the New Haven ABC affiliate that airs the show here, found me through friends on my post. Then Fresno, right close to the airdate. One of my poker crew from the Bee, B.J. Anteola, was assigned to do my story, and Heather McLane, who was a longtime news assistant at the Bee, did an online Q&A with me for the blog for which she then worked, FresYes. (And I don’t know who this guy Farris is, but it’s Heather’s byline.) And a couple hours before the show aired here, a producer called me to record a phoner for KFSN-30, the Disney/ABC owned-and-operated station that airs the show in Fresno. (One of their reporters, Corin Hoggard, a Facebook friend with whom I spent some time on the patio at the Landmark, my late, lamented hangout bar in the Tower District, tracked me down.) It was their telecasts where I first honed my buzzer skills, standing in front of the set, clicking in and projecting my answers loudly enough. Oddly enough, no one from my first two papers – my Connecticut hometown papers, Waterbury and New Haven – contacted me, though the Register did sneak in a paragraph somewhere the day before.

So I was squeezing in some interviews during off-days and slow times at work. By that time, I had moved to the other side of my part-time company’s business, maintaining databases for cinema websites around the world, and my immediate boss, a French transplant who I don’t think got just how big the show is, didn’t seem too happy about me taking a little extra time away from my desk. But it was once-in-a-lifetime thing, so I did it a couple of times, and the work still got done.

It was weird being on the other side of the phone, the notepad, the camera, after a generation or so of me asking the questions. I don’t generally speak in soundbites, and yeah, I was a little wary at how I would come off, but I had to trust that these things would go well. And they did. There were a couple of things here and that were inaccurate – which prompted me to think, well, maybe I did the same inadvertently as well, in the course of interviewing, and in the era just before the Internet explosion, scrawling things down in notepads in hieroglyphics even I could barely read. And I took great care with my interview subjects. And I know my interviewers did, too. Nobody knows your story better than you. But the little things were that: just little things. The essence was there.

The only thing I was a little weird with was the Courant’s headline, six columns across the features section: “CT transgender activist to appear on Jeopardy.” The trans thang only came up late in the interview, and of course I absolutely understand that it was a great angle on which to peg the story. But I thought the editor definitely overplayed the activist part. It was just part of the flippish blurb on my Facebook profile: “Writer, editor, Cygnus Radio DJ, accidental civil rights activist.”

My activism, for the most part, has subtle: I’ve won hearts and minds one or two or a few at a time by living out in the everyday world, by writing in my blog in the early days, by answering friends’ questions, by telling my tale to groups, by posting and sharing stories on social media with my own impassioned commentary. It’s never been a formal form of activism. I’ve never been part of a group, especially after some negative experiences in San Francisco during my transition.

And having been a features editor at a large paper myself for five years, I was always careful not to add an agenda to a writer’s story. Playing up the activist part, which I didn’t really get into in the story, seemed like pushing an agenda. But who knows? Maybe I am an activist. As I told some of the reporters, I don’t go around with a neon over my head flashing “Trans!” But I guess you can do something positive just by existing, though I’d rather do more than just exist. And I told LaSalle from Channel 8 that if someone in my situation saw me on the show and was inspired to try out, then maybe it was all worth it.

With B.J., with whom I had a joking relationship as I whipped him at the card table (okay, he beat me on a couple hands here and there, too, but not many), the interview was easy and breezy. Hell, he was a Fresno peep, one of my poker pals and an ex-colleague, so he was there almost from the ground floor and knew my story well. With LaSalle, on a windy, raw Monday, the day the day before the airdate, we shot the story on the Prospect Green, at the Civil War statue, and I was goofing a little; I let loose a Johnny Gilbert “THIS … iiiiiiis Jeopardy!” that he wasn’t expecting, and he asked me to do it again, and of course it ended up being the first thing viewers saw.

But all the while in the week leading into the show, I felt a sense of anticipation and maybe even guilt. Two good friends who own bars were planning viewing parties on the magic night. Paul Mayer, owner of my favorite musical watering hole, Café Nine in New Haven, was planning to bring in a TV and some catering trays, expecting a packed room in his small corner bar. And Peter Detmold, the onetime co-singer/guitarist/songwriter for one of Connecticut’s best bands of all, The Reducers, co-owns the Dutch Tavern, a longtime fixture (Eugene O’Neill drank here, among other places) in downtown New London with his partner in life and biz, Martha Conn. He, too, was planning to air the show for my friends out east. I, however, would watch with my mother in the quietude of the living room in beautiful downtown Prospect. I owed her that; besides, she was the one who fronted the money for me to get out there.

Between my first media wave and the viewing parties, deep down, I felt guilty. I mean, I lost! And most spectacularly. I felt as if I were pulling a con job on my friends, and on viewers and readers, leading them on when I damn well knew what happened. I had let my friends, my family, my fellow transpeople down. But hey, I couldn’t blurt it out, nor even hint at it, or wave my arms and say “Don’t watch!” I had to go along for the end of the ride. But I did tell every reporter who asked: “All I can tell you is that it’s gonna be epic.”

Epic. As Maggie told me that knee-buckling August afternoon, great television.

And I told some, “And I hope you’ll still respect me in the morning.”

Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!

Tuesday, Oct. 17th

I was working a Wednesday-Friday schedule at the part-time job, so I didn’t have to ask for the night off. My brother Ken and his brood were supposed to come over and join us, but he got home late from his job (he’s a higher-up at the company where he’s been since the early ’90s, and he works mad hours) and was wiped out, and it was just before 7, so they watched it at their place. I ordered a small veggie pie from Anna’s, the pizza place up the street, and ate as the 6:30 news came on. And once again, the anticipation of sorts built up. No turning back; another moment where my life would never be the same.

One pleasant surprise was the response of so many Prospect people to my appearance. Someone posted on the You know you are from Prospect … Facebook page the day of: “Fran Fried from Prospect Ct on Jeopardy. Wow!” Keep in mind that this is the town where I never fit in as a kid, when I was a frightened, depressed, scared boy, treated like the bottom of the barrel despite being one of the smartest kids in school – and this was decades before I realized and embraced my trans self. But as I told myself when I moved home, “When you were growing up, the town was only 2,500 people. Now it’s almost 10,000, and many of the people you knew then grew up, moved away and/or are dead. Most of these people don’t know you. Act like you belong, same as Fresno.” Anyway, the post had over 100 likes, including my brother Ken and sister-in-law Cher, my neighbor Crystal, and several of my childhood friends and acquaintances. And the comments were of the “Go Fran!” variety. My childhood friend/former Waterbury Republican colleague Terry Corcoran checked in with “Watching it now! So proud of her.”

Two of the other best compliments came I received came ahead of airtime, from guys who I respect and who shared my Courant story on their news feeds. One was the champ himself, Lt. Abell: “An article profiling one of my competitors on tomorrow’s show. Fran was pure class and a truly fascinating person to talk to. It was an honor and privilege to know her and to split a cab (twice) back to the hotel after filming. Best of luck, Fran! #jeopardy #respect

And then, there was Matt James, from my old Bee poker crew, who will always write better than I can (but I could still kick his ass at the table; gauntlet down, Ross!), and in a perfect world, he would still be a sports columnist at the Bee and would’ve had a Pulitzer on his shelf by now. Maybe two. Instead, like me, he was let go by the Bee and moved home – in his case, running his family’s farm in southwest Kansas. And even with both hands on the combine, driving neck-deep through the corn at harvest, he can still outwrite me. But if I really wanted to sing an Eric Carmen song, I’d sing something from his Raspberries days, not that foofy Dirty Dancing song:

I could talk about Fran Fried all day, and so I will try. For starters, she is one of the best people I know. You know that cliché about how so-and-so never said a bad word about anybody? Well those are lies. Those are the things you say at the funerals of boring people. If you mean anything to me at all, I’ve probably said something at least borderline mean about you at some point. Sorry about that. And seriously, if any of you knot-heads gets up at my funeral and solemnly pukes out, “He laughed every day,” just know that I’ll have paid someone in the crowd to stand up and throw a pineapple at your head, and before you laugh that off, remember that I have a cousin who pitches in the majors, and he’s a lefty, so you’ll more than likely dodge the wrong way and the coroner will definitely write, “Pineapple to the face,” because I will have paid her not to use CSI nonsense like “blunt force trauma,” and so it will probably make national news. (Yes, the coroner in my story is a woman. Stop with your preassigned gender roles.) No one laughs every day. Not me. Not Fran. People cry. They make up dirty lyrics to “Hungry Eyes” in their head. They scream at cows when no one is looking. I have done a whole bunch of stupid stuff. I once broke into an airport and drove my car down a runway at 2 a.m. That was back when TSA wasn’t all fussy and you could break into an airport and drive your car down a runway with no headlights. Simpler times. My point is, talk about THAT at my funeral. No, wait, my point was that Fran is as close to that ‘never said a bad word about anyone’ as I’ve met. Not counting my friend Brooke, but whatever, this isn’t about her.

Fran and I worked together at a newspaper in the 1800s. Back then, Fran dressed like a boy, had a long pony tail, wore colorful shirts, sometimes bandanas, sort of a Johnny-Fever-with-purpose look. Which worked, since Fran had the most insane record collection I’ve ever seen — It takes up rooms; the kind that would make you leave town when she needed help moving — and has DJ-ed at several points in life. So Fran started playing poker with the guys from the sports department at midnight because that’s when we got off work. It was immediately clear that Fran knew a lot, and not in an obnoxious way like your friend who just watched a documentary on the poultry industry and now can’t stop talking about it. The information was just there, color coded, alphabetized, available on request. Like having your own human Google that could tell you not just facts, but a crazy story about the girlfriend of the backup singer of a band nobody in the general population had even heard of. I mean, whatever percentage of our brains normal people are tapping into, .02 or whatever it is, Fran has broken into 10 times that. People used to order Nancy Kerrigan-style hits to open up spots on Fran’s pub quiz team. Barely an exaggeration. There was seriously a waiting list. As you know if you’ve read the headline below, Fran is going to be on “Jeopardy” today. Yes, it’s still on the air and 9 million people watch it every day because it’s awesome and despite a recent push in the opposite direction, books and knowledge are awesome. This is not the first or second or probably even third time she has tried. It’s easier for a poor person to get into Harvard than it is to get on “Jeopardy.” There are many tests and interviews. Shockingly, they don’t have an amazing run of just picking random brilliant people to be on the air. I’m actually surprised there are enough smart people left in America to keep having the show. We’ve got to be just a couple years from Trebek writing the questions on supermodels’ stomachs in marker and cash falling from the studio ceiling. But we haven’t gotten there yet, because Fran is the real deal and my DVR is set.

There is something else of note, of course. Fran doesn’t dress like a boy anymore. She will be just the third transgender person to appear on the show. Someday soon that will not be a big deal, but unfortunately it still is and so I’m going to make a big deal of it. There are people who you meet in life that change you. There’s nothing you can do about it. I was there when Fran transitioned. I mean, I wasn’t THERE there. I mean, I was her friend then and I was there when she walked into that first poker game with a bunch of sports writer looking somewhat like the incredible woman you see now. I can’t imagine what kind of courage that took. And the crazy part is, it wasn’t that weird. And this was not a sophisticated group of gentlemen. This was a bunch of dumbass dudes who made bad jokes and watched football and didn’t even have girlfriends. It was never really weird at all, even though Fran would get frustrated when someone would inevitably mess up the pronoun, and I would shake my head and laugh. You’re gonna have to cut us some slack, Fran, we’re idiots, you’re still using the same name, and last week you were Johnny Fever. Great memories.

Even though we are scattered across the country now, we all still play in the same fantasy football league and if I said Fran was a little short on cash and was thinking about not playing this year, any of them would plunk down the money. She’s family.

I think back on those days and how many hours Fran and I spent in coffee shops, just talking, you know, about makeup and wigs and music and journalism and cycling and hormone treatments and the best places to buy women’s clothing online and, yes, suicide. You may assume being transgender is all rainbows and strawberry shakes, but shockingly it ain’t. Even if you live on one of those fruity coasts. Fran has lived more life than anyone I know and I’m so glad that she’s here today. On TV, in fact. For millions to see. That a girl.

Yeah, I was kinda verklempt when I read Matty J’s post. Damn you, curse you, love you.

*****

I settled in on the couch with my mother about 20 minutes ahead of showtime, and I have to tell you, the nerves (or maybe it was the eggplant and roasted peppers on the pizza) started up in full earnest, even though – no, maybe absolutely because – I knew what would unfold. I felt like Fran Fraud, the woman who conned my friends into watching me lose. I mean, it felt as if I conned two of my friends into holding viewing parties at their bars, where other friends and assorted strangers would gather and drink in the hopes I would be a champion, when I already knew what was gonna happen. I was sorta hoping it would be over so I could just take my lumps and get it done.

At some point leading into the show (some of this is a blur, despite some of my friends being convinced that I have the Marilu Henner total-recall thang going on), I warned my peeps in the other time zones to stay off Facebook until after the show aired. Anyway, time’s up … this ride is about to begin …

“Well, here goes. Strap in. I hope y’all will respect me in the morning. And peeps outside of the Eastern time zone: Last warning. Stay away from FB the next couple hours or so.  AND THANK YOU FOR ALL THE LOVE!”

Bring up music and fancy graphics, cue Johnny Gilbert, cut to the smiling woman on the far end of the bank of podiums, then Carlos and Manny.

Some of the game was a blur in the moment when I was playing, and as I already said, I recall at least one instance – the North Dakota newspaper – when I told Mom, “I got this one wrong,” and was surprised when I saw I actually answered correctly.

I tried to keep away from the phone and the laptop during the commercial break, but of course, I couldn’t. My Facebook page exploded with excitement, even more so when I was leading after the first break. And friends who were watching at the Nine and at the Dutch told me later that people were yelling at the top of their lungs and cheering wildly.

Again, all this was tempered by my knowing what was coming, and how let down everyone would be. And I didn’t really want to see it all fall apart once again after I’d lived it. Hey, athletes do this all the time. How many times does a player have to relive things in the locker room after the game, especially if they blew a lead, or worse, if they made the error that cost the game. How the hell did Bill Buckner handle it for that long? With me, I wasn’t famous, and I was one-and-done on a game show. Even if it’s the cultural touchstone of game shows.

“Like I told you,” I said to Mom, “you’re not gonna believe it until you see it.”

And she did. And so did 9 million others, including hundreds of friends and acquaintances on both sides of the country, as well as relatives in scattered-about places. And as my wrong answer and my Titanic wager were revealed, I felt a great disturbance in the force – the sounds of all those people yelling “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” and “Oh SHIT!” and “ARE YOU KIDDING?!?!?”

I felt like Charlie Brown when he thought he had killed the Christmas tree. I mean, I was representing a whole universe of people, I brought so many along for the ride with me – my family; the friends I grew up with and went to college with; my journalism pals on both sides of the country; the friends I’ve made since the early ’80s in New Haven; the Fresno friends who were there from the start of my transition; my friends back here in Connecticut who came on board very readily; the hometown I never thought I would, or would ever be able, to return to;  every single transperson who’s aspired to be on the show – and I let everyone down. Even had I won one game instead of my goal of five … just one …

But Mom was the voice of reason. “Well, you wanted to be on the show your whole life, and you did it. You went for it, and it just didn’t work out. I’m proud of you.”

(Cue up tightening throat and tear ducts threatening to overflow their banks.)

Immediately as Jeopardy! morphed into Wheel, the landline rang. Ken checked in from his house: “We saw it. You did good. We’re proud of you.” I let him talk to Mom as my phone started to go nuts. I told Jack Kramer I’d talk to him for a followup Patch story, and he was in the leadoff spot.

And after I was done with that, B.J. Anteola checked in from Fresno. He was doing a followup piece as well, and he had just seen the East Coast feed at the Channel 30 studios.

“What can I say, Bryant?” I said. “I got thundered on the river.” Texas Hold ’Em talk with one of my old poker crew. And can you guess what the breakout quote was when the story went online? Same with the actual paper, which was designed by the commish of our poker crew, Kenny Lewis. “What can I say? I got thundered on the river.” Fucking Bryant; fucking Looloo. Love you guys. It was the biggest – only – laugh I had from the whole experience. (And he did check in with his own comment: “I’m proud to call you my friend! Even before the Jeopardy! episode. But please use your river-catching powers for someone else like Kenny and not on me!!!”)

My pal Joe Erwin checked in at some point during the night, too, on his dinner break at the Daily News: “Like I told you: If it had been anyone else besides you telling me this, I’d say they were lying.”

I spent the next two hours reading the comments and feeling the love. Hundreds of comments. Hundreds! And believe it or don’t, not one “You blew it!” Lots of “You played a great game!” responses. Lots of “Proud of you”s. Some told me I was robbed on the –opathies. Some told me I looked so calm and confident and poised up there (and from late in the first round until it all fell apart, I was playing as if I were in my living room). Some commented on my near-run of sports; Dave Schneider, the frontman for the world-famous hockey rock band The Zambonis, posted, “WHO IS THE FIRST PERSON TO EVER MENTION THE LAS VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS ON JEOPARDY?” Some mentioned that they would never have been able to do what I did, and reminded me that I actually made it to the show. Joanna Kimmit, who beat Manny the next game, also commented: “Jeopardy! history, Fran. One hell of a game, and you should be damned proud of yourself. I bit my nails all the way through that taping.” There was another post on the Prospect page, and several comments were along the lines of “You made us proud” and “You represented the town well.” Dozens of people checked in on Twitter and followed me, including a group of girls in a dorm room at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

And there was this from Joni, a former Fresnan living in Sacramento who had found me on social media a few months before through mutual friends: “Gosh, you made it to the big tops. There is no denying, more money for any of us 99%ers would be nice…But you didn’t come out a loser. You gained so much more. The experience, the energy, and a worldwide mic to let your name and voice be introduced to a broader population. Im literally standing ovationing you. SERIOUSLY!”

Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!

I felt more relieved than anything. And I did feel the love. In waves, in droves. I can’t imagine I’ll ever have that feeling again, or that many people rooting for me again, but I at least had it. And I wish I were able to get all of them – friends, fellow contestants – together in one big room. One huge Christmas party. Impossible, yeah, but stranger things have happened, especially in this life of mine.

My nurse practitioner, Vanessa, also messaged me. She’s a good friend of Jocelyn Maminta, longtime reporter, fill-in anchor and one of the co-hosts of Channel 8’s Good Morning, Connecticut, the station’s post-Good Morning America show, and Jocelyn got in touch with me to arrange the 9:30 time slot the next morning. I emailed my boss to let her known I was gonna be late; I don’t think she liked it much, but again, being from France, I don’t think she fully appreciated how huge Jeopardy! is. But I figured she’d get over it. Besides, I was staying later, and I was gonna get my work done.

By the morning, it was all over the national news. Today had it; Mom saw it on GMA. Countless national and local media outlets published stories. And by the end of the morning, if not sooner, Manny shrugging his shoulders became a meme several times over, both in photo and GIF form, and there were people who actually went out for Halloween as the shrugging Manny. I guess I should thank him. I had feared my covering my ears would become a GIF, and his “Hey, what can I tell you?” shrug was much more to the point.

I got to the studio at quarter to 9 the next morning and was greeted by one of the assistant producers, who brought me down to the studio. It was a massive open space where everything is shot – the news desk, the weather map, and the sofa used on Good Morning Connecticut, the sofa where the guests waited their turn, and on the opposite end was the kitchen for the cooking segments.

With Jocelyn Maminta on Channel 8’s Good Morning Connecticut the morning after.

Jocelyn greeted me and told me what was happening. I would appear for a 5-minute segment around 9:20, 9:25. Also greeting me, with a huge smile, was Gil Simmons, the chief meteorologist, who appeared on the morning news. “I was looking forward to meeting you,” he said. I told him, “My mom’s gonna love hearing that.” “Why, is she a fan?” “Yep.” He went and grabbed a promo photo card, asked Mom’s name, and signed it. That was cool.

I was brought over to the couch. Jocelyn – every bit as friendly as Vanessa had told me – chit-chatted for a minute leading into the segment. Then, the red light. She introduced me, and the first thing I said, with a big smile, was “That was pretty brutal, huh?” She asked me how it happened; I told her how the game was stopped, and suddenly I was in a dead heat, and how I had to bet all-in on a category I had no business betting. And at the end, she brought up the trans angle, and I pretty much reiterated what I had told LaSalle and several others: If someone in my situation saw the show and said “Maybe I can do this,” and was encouraged to try out, then it was worth it.

And then, segment over and off to Ridgefield. Where my colleagues were all wanting to talk to me about it. Someone had brought out the TV from a conference room, and the cinema crew members who were around at 7 o’clock pretty much stopped to watch, and I was told they were all screaming at the outcome. I also went down to my old listings crew and talked to them. Carole was clearly not happy, as I had work to do, so five minutes in, I shushed and bore down and got to the task at hand. Clearly, my celebrity at work lasted the Warholian 15 minutes, tops.

I kept the trolls at a mile’s length. Was there shit said about me because I’m trans? Oh, hell, yeah, I’m sure of it; as a journalist, we were taught to never assume, but I’m not a journalist anymore, so. Twitter is a cesspool for this stuff. I was surprised to see that there was some of this “She’s a he” and people with panties in twists over my gender on, of all places, the Jeopardy! Facebook page. I figure that shit would’ve been deleted by a moderator. Oh well.

The only one that bothered me was this snarky douchebag from Deadspin: “Jeopardy! Dummy Wins With $1 After Beating Two Even Bigger Dummies.” I was a regular reader. Deadspin is a sports site that tries to have it both ways: present serious journalism and juvenile frat-boy snark. Well, we fell on the snark side. And the armchair quarterback gave me extra shit for betting the house, then added a parting line about Tibet. If he’d known the first thing about the show, he’d have known that 1) People get questions wrong, unlike him; 2) The situation called for me to bet the house, albeit against my will (and Drew was right; I’d forever be kicking myself had we all got it right and I underbet); and 3) Tibet was a placeholder answer while I tried to figure out the actual answer, and I was too caught in the moment to try to be clever, then ran out of time.

On the other hand, the word trans didn’t appear in the story; the staff has a writer who’s male-to-female. So there’s that; douchebaggery sometimes has its limits.

But yeah, you snarky fuck – you try out, make the show and win – then you can give us shit. Manny, Carlos and I actually considered challenging him publicly to do just that, but in the end, we thought the better of it, as the story was starting to cycle out already. Still, if I ever, by some slim chance, met him, I’d call him out.

The actual lovely parting gift

The true lovely parting gift, though, wasn’t the blue Jeopardy! tote bag, or the blue Jeopardy! hat, or the pens. It was the friends I’ve made through the show.

Almost immediately, I received invites to several private Facebook Jeopardy! groups – for contestants in general, Women of Jeopardy!, New England Jeopardy! contestants … and eventually, there were groups added for LGBTQ contestants, for progressively political contestants, and a beauty page. Dozens upon dozens of kind words and welcomes and friend requests. It was overwhelming. I never knew pages and groups like this existed. Open sesame!

The annual Trebeknik for New England Jeopardy! contestants, August 2019.

It’s a fantastic siblinghood – champions, multiple champions, Tournament of Champions champions, one-and-dones, from all sorts of interesting walks of life. Manny, Carlos, the other contestants I met in my two days – so many peeps I would like to get together with again for longer than the mad rush of a TV episode, so many I’d love to meet in real life. We don’t just talk about the show (though there’s plenty of that). We commiserate about jobs, job opportunities, our day-to-day highs and lows, with the realization that, TV show or not, we’re all in the slop together, good and bad. (And in August 2019, I got to meet several of my New England peeps at a picnic in Massachusetts.)

The next day, Colin McEnroe, the longtime Connecticut Public Radio show host and Hartford Courant columnist, opened his show by proposing that I run for governor. I was at work, so I didn’t hear about it ’til later. I emailed him: “Thanks for the kindness. But do you really want to stick me with that budget mess? Congress? Maybe. (I can bring the fight for civil rights to D.C.) But governor? Not quite so sure …”

And there was a recognition factor, to a point, in my town. The Saturday after the show aired, the owner of Oliver’s, the supermarket in town where I did Mom’s grocery runs on the weekends came up to me and asked me about the show. The kind words from everyone on Facebook. The morning crew at the Dunky D’s up the street from me. Obviously, that fades away, but hey, it was nice while it lasted.

And, as my worlds often come together in weird places – something that never ceases to astound me, yet almost always pleases me – well, there was my favorite band. Bill Milhizer, the drummer for The Fleshtones, who doesn’t do the social-media thing, emailed me. He told me he and Peter Zaremba, the frontman, watch the show faithfully, and my face popped up that Tuesday; he said, “oh my God, it’s Frannie!” and immediately called Peter to see if he was watching. He thought I got a raw deal, but he was proud of me.

Peter Zaremba with The Fleshtones at Quinn’s, Beacon, N.Y., 10/25/18 – minutes after I met Austin’s father.

Fast-forward a year, October 2018, the Friday before Halloween. The Fleshtones at Quinn’s, a restaurant/bar in Beacon, N.Y., the city along the east bank of the Hudson (across from Newburgh) where Ken Fox, the bass player, lives. It’s a narrow, shotgun/railroad-style space with a small stage way up front, and, as you can imagine, it gets mighty crowded up there. I was crammed with my friends Blair and Maureen a person or two from the stage. And in walked Bill through the front door, along with another older guy – unruly shock of white hair, white beard, leather jacket. Right before the show starts, Bill came up to me:

“You see that guy I just walked in with?”

“Yeah.”

“You know that guy on Jeopardy! who won all that money?”

“Which one? There’s a lot of them.”

“The crazy one.”

“Austin?”

“Yeah. That’s his father.”

Sure as hell – Rick Rodgers is a well-liked, well-respected mural artist in Beacon, a onetime industrial city that’s been reinventing itself as an artists’ colony of sorts. I mean, who knew? Anyway, I did get to introduce myself to Rick for about 30 seconds before the ’shtones took the stage. He left before the show ended, but both Bill and Peter sat down with me separately afterward at a booth, bought me a drink, and wanted to hear all the gory details of my experience on the show.

How do you like that? The band that’s been my favorite for 35 years, a band I’ve been friends with since 1986, guys I’ve interviewed, wanted to hear my story. Knock me over with a feather.

Most people wish for the Hollywood ending, and some get it. I got the French art house ending. Or maybe something in between. And maybe some of my friends are right: I’m much more memorable for the way my game shook out than if I had won. And yes, I am, indeed, grateful for the many people who’ve come into my life because of this experience of a lifetime. And I’m proud that I was able to get up there in as my real self in front of 9 million people and, until the very end, represent myself well. But as I said before, damn, the money sure would’ve come in handy.

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2 Responses to “My Jeopardy! Adventure, Part 3: Wha’ hoppen?”

  1. Mykl Belfatto Says:

    Great story Franny! Sorry you missed 😦 Can you get another invite due to that point award drama?

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