Many moments of my five-year, post-Duke lifecould be characterized as impassioned, idyllic, or inspired. This, how-ever, was no such moment. I was running through the deserted early morning streets of lower Manhattan. I was alone, mostly, except for the camera crew, sound technician, and producer strewn out on the street behind me.
I was two weeks into the production of The Bachelorette, ABC's widely watched reality-television show, in which twenty-five (presumably) eligible bachelors compete for the affections of one (presumably) desirable bachelorette. The object of our affection and the star of this particular show was Jen Schefft, an attractive, twenty-eight-year-old from Chicago and a former contestant on The Bachelor (a similar reality show, except the roles are reversed). Tonight, it was Jen I was seeking as I ran through the uncharacteristically quiet streets somewhere around Little Italy. Actually, I knew where she was--thirty blocks north and eighty-five stories high, at the top of one of New York's most iconic structures, the Empire State Building. Now I just had to get there, fast.
Earlier, the show's host, Chris Harrison, had interrupted Jen's group date with me and three other bachelors at Puglio's, a famous pizzeria in Little Italy, and taken her from us to a waiting limo. (I'm regularly asked if the group dates were "awkward." In a word, Yes. I suppose we maintained our sanity by thinking of Jen as our "collective" girlfriend. At least we liked to think of her as "ours." But, more accurately, we were hers, a collection of obsequious male courtiers. It worked, as long as everybody kept his hands to himself, of course.)
When Harrison returned, he told us that she was headed to the top of the Empire State Building. We were to follow her, but, much to our dismay, there were no additional limos waiting outside. Instead, we were given the challenge of finding our own means of transportation--a race between the four bachelors on this particular date--and we had to do so without using any money or breaking any laws. The winner would enjoy some coveted one-on-one time with Jen.
And so here I was, running through the deserted streets, camera crew in tow, looking for a cab to sweet talk into a free ride uptown. The longer I ran, the more difficulty I had suppressing the only question that seemed relevant at the time: "What the hell am I doing?"
In fact, I had asked myself that question a number of times over the three months since I received the first of what would turn out to be many calls from the producers of The Bachelorette. I was living in Aspen, Colorado, when I first got their message. A passion for skiing, fishing, and biking had inspired me to leave my job at the (now-defunct) academic pop-culture magazine, Lingua Franca, in Manhattan and head to the small, opulent mountain resort community. I had been teaching skiing and tending bar to earn a living and sustain my lifestyle--not necessarily using my public-policy degree, but, as I told my parents, "just getting the 'ski-town thing' out of my system."
I was described on the show as "Ben Sands, 26, Ski Instructor," but it was bartending that had gotten me there. A few months earlier, I had won Aspen's annual bartending competition, "The Aspen Cocktail Classic." The city used the event to promote restaurants and nightlife in Aspen and, as a result, pictures of me and my creation, the "Aspen Sugar Daddy," had turned up in magazines and newspapers around the country. The producers saw the story and gave me a call--a preliminary inquiry to find out who I was, what I did and, of course, if I was single.
Single? Yes. Desperate? You'd have to be, right? Without a doubt, it's an unorthodox way to meet your future wife. Then again, one girl, twenty-five guys--it reminded me of Big Beer Thursdays at Satisfaction, the Duke student hangout. Only this time there'd be cameras, microphones, and a national television audience to capture, share, and critique your success and failure. I knew that it was a crazy idea, but when the producers invited me out to L.A. to take part in the final casting interviews, I went.
Mass of marriage material: Sands, second row, fourth from left, amid the competition. © 2005 ABC Inc. All rights reserved
Perhaps it was simple curiosity, perhaps a fatalistic sense that this might be happening for a reason, or perhaps just to see what would happen next. Regardless, I arrived in Hollywood open to any possibility but expecting nothing but a new story to share with the people sitting across the bar from me. After successfully negotiating two probing on-camera interviews in front of network executives, a battery of personality and aptitude tests, and a comprehensive exam by a Beverly Hills psychologist, I found myself getting ready to head to New York for the biggest blind date of my life. While I gave the decision a lot of thought, in the end it came down to a simple rationalization: I aspire to lead an interesting life, and this experience qualified.
And this was interesting, I thought, as I stood alone in an elevator car, speeding to the top of the deserted Empire State Building. After two weeks of round-the-clock filming, I was becomingly increasingly comfortable in this most surreal of environments. I was living with a steadily decreasing pool of roommates--the original twenty-five had been whittled down to just six--in a $15-million townhouse in the West Village. Our reality-television home resembled a luxurious frat house with dorm-style bedrooms, a large kitchen that served as our primary living and socializing space, a Ping Pong table, and even a "kegerator" that, unlike the refrigerator in my old off-campus house at 202 Watts Street, conveniently never ran out of suds. The only major difference between this and a "real" bachelor pad was that we had no television, no newspapers, no radio, and very little freedom to move about the city. The only time we could leave the house without a camera crew in tow was one thirty-minute period a day, which I spent running along the Hudson.
Moments of great excitement and intrigue were coupled with long stretches of patience-testing boredom. Ironically, boredom seems to be the primary antagonist in a reality-television show. For the first few days, our time in the house was vibrant and exciting as we were getting to know Jen and one another. As we spent more and more time sequestered, however, confrontations, reality-television's signature characteristic, became more frequent. For the sake of distraction, the men in the house became increasingly adversarial, and the cameras drank up the drama thirstily.
I always found it particularly interesting how different individuals in the house responded to the inherent pressure of our situation. Some guys would react to the drama with more drama, flying off the handle at the slightest injustice; others would exhibit more tact. It occurred to me that when the hundreds of hours of footage shot were distilled down to seven, forty-minute episodes, confrontation would serve as the foundation of the show--it simply made for better TV. Our television personas would ultimately be defined by such moments, and I realized early on that there was great risk of being misrepresented in the final primetime manifestation of the program.
As a result, I consciously avoided the acrimony and the cameras that homed in on it. I sought out small, quiet conversations, which, considering the short time we had known one another, were extraordinarily intimate and compelling. Through these conversations, I met a collection of motivated, personable, energetic romantics. I often wondered why men like these would participate in a show like this. Who wants to have his personality, profession, motivations, even eyebrows (!) reviewed by an unsympathetic, highly critical, national television audience? Who would knowingly walk into a situation in which, more likely than not, he would be "dumped" on national TV? The truth, I suppose, was simple: The alternative, our "normal" life, was far safer, but undoubtedly less compelling than that provided by the instant notoriety and pseudo-celebrity this opportunity could offer.
Was it boredom that had brought us all here in the first place? That's probably an unfair generalization, but, without a doubt, every lawyer, banker, and ski instructor in the house was looking for a new story to tell--a story to differentiate himself from every other lawyer, banker, and ski instructor out there. And perhaps that's a generational thing. Five years out of college, who isn't looking to differentiate himself from the rest? Who isn't looking for some purpose and direction to couple with book knowledge and "real world experience"? Some of us go to law or business school to find that direction, some join an N.G.O. to find that purpose, and others, well, they end up racing through the streets of lower Manhattan on a cold November night, full of purpose but desperately in need of a cab.
It would be months before an audience of more than 10-million viewers would watch our dramatic race. Sure, it was a little clichÈd, but, for the first time in this whole experience, it felt like we were to have some honest, healthy competition. An optimist, as well as a romantic, I had no doubt that I could talk my way into a free ride uptown. As the first cab pulled up, however, I immediately realized the difficulty of the task at hand. I wasn't dealing with the staff of Aspen's Mountain Taxi. My plea was going to have to resonate on an emotional level, while at the same time successfully negotiating cultural barriers. I was not only going to have to communicate my plight, but
Ben Sands. Zach Ornitz/Aspen Daily News
I was also going to have to explain why a guy, who clearly didn't subscribe to US Weekly, should care. The first two cab drivers shrugged off my supplications but, with the third, I finally got it right and heard a glorious, "Okay, get in." And so we did--a cameraman, producer, sound guy, and naÔve twenty-six-year-old ski instructor from Aspen--on our way to see how this extraordinary adventure would play out.
For $30,000, you can rent the Empire State Building for a night. And so, with the exception of a few security guards, the lobby was deserted when I arrived. I ran through the marble corridors looking for the bank of elevators and waited impatiently as the special Otis sped me up toward the observation deck. Like the elevator, this dating process had continued to accelerate, and now time spent alone with the bachelorette was critically important. As much as Jen was making a decision about me, I was also making a decision about her. But up till now, my limited interaction with her had made it difficult for me to evaluate whether she was a woman with whom I could spend my life.
I ran up the final staircase, two steps at a time. I reached the door leading to the observation deck and paused. I was alone. I had left one camera crew at the elevator and another would be waiting for me once I passed through the door in front of me. I took a minute to collect myself. My breathing slowed as I put on my sport coat, straightened my shirt, and wiped the droplets of sweat from my brow. Then, taking a deep breath, I opened the door.
I was too late. Wendell, a thirty-two-year-old entrepreneur from Chicago, had beaten me to the top, and to the girl. The race was over and now I had to walk out of the Empire State Building as I had come in, by myself. As I left, my thoughts turned to the "Rose Ceremony" that was to take place the following night. The reality of my situation was that I still didn't know much about Jen, and she didn't know me. The next step in this process was to bring her home to meet my parents. How could I do that if I hardly knew her? How could Jen possibly feel comfortable in such a situation? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed certain that my nationally televised demise was imminent.
Rose Ceremonies, the infamous and often unceremonious rituals in which the bachelorette selects men to continue on in the process by giving them roses (and sends the other contestants home empty-handed), are even more dramatic and tense to participants than they appear on TV. Eighteen hours after coming in second in the race to the top of the Empire State Building, I nervously stood with the five other bachelors and waited for the start of what I anticipated would be my last Rose Ceremony.
Fifteen minutes later, just one rose remained. Jen stood at the center of the room, painfully deliberating whom to give it to--John Paul, a twenty-five-year-old entrepreneur from Oklahoma City, or me. Whether her apparent indecision was real or simply for dramatic effect, I don't know, but, during those moments of hesitation, I had a brief epiphany. I looked around the room and saw four guys with a conviction that the woman in front of them might one day be their wife. I had no such conviction and realized, as Jen's eyes darted from John Paul to me, and back to John Paul, that I was no longer meant to be there.
Until then, hubris, that most classic of fatal flaws, had blinded me to this obvious truth. What was going to happen was supposed to happen, and it needed to happen. As I put aside my pride, I felt the sense of foreboding that gripped me slip silently away..."John Paul," she whispered, and it was done.