Rubber Sold

It takes more than headshots and agents to get a part in a TV tire commercial. You've got to have The Look. Mine, I'd say, falls somewhere between amused and confused.

I am so convincing I scare myself. I'm standing in a small dingy room, staring into the lens of a video camera and demonstrating why I should be hawking Snickers on national television. A casting director is working the camera and lobbing pro forma questions about my vital statistics. Each answer, I'm certain, seals and reseals the audition for me. How could the candy bar executives who'll be screening my tape think otherwise? They want a young journalist who loves Snickers to play the role of a young journalist who loves Snickers. Their search is over.

It's as if I'm on a sugar high. With a final glance at the cue card bearing the two-line testimony each wanna-be Snickers spokesman must read, I summon my best Voice of Confidence, the one that will evoke an eventful career of uncovering corruption in high places and pounding out late-breaking exclusive stories, all fueled by that life-affirming mixture of peanuts, caramel, and chocolate. "When you're the eyes and ears of a million people," I intone responsibly, "you can't let your stomach get in the way. That's why I carry Snickers. Snickers stops the hunger."

I'm so profoundly self-deluded I don't even laugh. Despite the fact that I never carry Snickers. I never eat candy bars, for that matter, and if I were to eat candy bars, Snickers would certainly not be my first choice.

There's another trifling incongruity: The newspaper I work for has a circulation of about 100,000.

But right now, standing in front of the camera in the studio of this North Miami casting service, these details matter little. The audition is only the newest link in a chain of improbabilities, a chain that began a day earlier with an unsolicited phone call to New Times. In the newspaper business, unsolicited phone calls are a risky proposition: Occasionally they result in stories, but by and large they amount to zilch. This is because newspapers are magnets for slightly unhinged people -- often lonely, always imaginative -- who swear they have The Next Big Story That Will Blow The Top Off a Giant Conspiracy and Bring Government to Its Knees. Good reporters are trained to listen patiently to these people, then tactfully refer them to an unwitting colleague.

Being the only idle staffer in an otherwise exceptionally quiet editorial department that particular Tuesday afternoon, I took the call. As I was rehearsing the part where I sympathetically interrupt my tipster to say we're already working on that particular Big Story, I suddenly realized my interlocutor wasn't a nutty theorist. Excitable, yes, but lucid.

She introduced herself as Kim Nammoto, a representative from The Casting Directors Inc. in North Miami. A national candy bar company (Kim refused to say which) wanted an Anglo or Latin male reporter in his twenties for the role of a reporter in a commercial that was to be shot over two days the following week. In New York City. All expenses paid. Plus, Kim assured me, a salary of "at least $10,000."

Two people in our editorial department fit the specifications. I was one; the other I'll refer to as "Steve," to spare him from embarrassment.

Faster than you can say "conflict of interest," Steve and I were heading north on I-95 toward our audition, and abundant riches and stardom in TV land.

The film playing in our heads, the one documenting our rise to celluloid fame, clatters off the reel at the first glimpse of The Casting Directors Inc. Wedged between a used-car dealer and a photographic studio in a shabby strip mall, the agency doesn't exactly suggest glamour. A stained carpet leads through a maze of small, cluttered rooms. The walls are plastered with a collage of images clipped from glossy magazines: hundreds of beautiful people. It looks like it was transplanted from an adolescent girl's bedroom.

Kim hasn't arrived yet, so we sit in the waiting room and contend with the owner's bulldog, who shows his affection for Steve by slobbering all over his black pants. The drool smear nicely complements the ink stain on his button-down shirt, a touch Steve is certain adds more realism to his hard-working-journalist persona. I, dressed in old chinos and a white oxford shirt, steer clear of the mutt and obsess about the length of my hair. How journalistically mainstream are ponytails? My audition will reach beyond issues of cosmetics, I resolve, and into the metaphysical realm where newsprint and sugar collide. I am going to locate that node of joy and become its human embodiment.

Kim, a giggly Rubenesque woman with a head of unruly black hair, arrives and ushers us both into the small studio, which is furnished with a tangle of video equipment and an old sofa -- "the proverbial casting couch," Kim comments suggestively.

I go first. My audition passes quickly, and very convincingly, I think, despite the earlier fretting about unconventional hair. Steve follows. Except for an involuntary shiftiness in his eyes, he is, to my mind, the journalistic poster boy for a new Snickers-happy generation. We're both positive one of us got the part. After all, we ask, who is our competition? Only the Miami Herald among local papers won't be sending any reporters, Kim replies. "They told me their employees don't endorse any products." At this I feel an ethical quandary begin to scramble my optimism. (Am I prostituting my integrity to a chocolate-covered multinational? My future flashes before me, a fleeting micro-nightmare: I am a public relations flack.) But I quickly eradicate it with a simple calculation: No Herald reporters equals less competition equals an even better chance I'll become a rich man!

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