*”Excuse me, but I have an unusual question to ask you, if I may.”

It was Saturday afternoon at the Farmer’s Market. I was sitting at an outdoor table, reading the paper, minding my own business, when the thirty-something dishwater blonde in camouflage cargo pants and green T-shirt approached.

“Are you…fifty or older? See, I told you it was an unusual question.”

When I didn’t seem bothered by the query and answered that I was in fact 53,  the woman relaxed and pulled up a chair.  She represented a casting agency seeking people my age for a TV commercial hawking a cholesterol medicine. “You have an interesting look,” she said.

I didn’t dare inquire how she defined “interesting.” I interpreted it as older but not dying.  In any case, I told her I wasn’t an actor.

“Perfect,” she replied. “We want real people.” Even so, she explained that the person cast would be paid professionally–somewhere between five and six hundred dollars for the day’s shoot and earn residuals every time the commercial aired. “Would you like to audition?”  No. I only listened as a courtesy.  

Indeed, I’d forgotten about my encounter with the casting lady  until I noticed the paper she’d given me on my desk the very morning of the audition. The very notion of my auditioning for a TV commercial was laughable.  But I got to thinking: I was familiar with the location. I could drive right on by if I got the heebie jeebies. Why not? I dressed as I was when the lady spotted me–T-shirt and jeans–and headed over.

The great thing, I told myself as I headed up the stairs of the agency, is that I’m not an actor. It doesn’t matter whether I get the job or not. This is not my thing. I’m not invested.

I opened the door and was startled.  In an expansive industrial space with recreational seating were about fifty men and women of all colors,  in their early 20s and beyond.  Apparently this space was shared by several agencies. Most of these people,  working actors and actresses–some working more than others–were  here about  roles in  commercials, TV shows and  films. On the wall, among a list of show titles, I saw the word Vytorin. That was either my commercial or a  villain from “Space Ghost.”

Sheepishly, I signed in at table five and took a seat.  It felt like the free clinic, only everyone in the waiting room was  really, really good looking. Some quietly rehearsed lines with partners.  Others chatted with strangers.  Most, armed with headshots and resumes, sat in icy, uneasy silence while discreetly sizing up the competition. No one seemed to be sizing me up. Even laughter could not lighten the weight of anxiety in the room.

It seemed so humiliating, sitting there in desperate hope that you had the face, body, voice or whatever else these people look for when casting a role.  A bald guy, black, tall, handsome and in his 20s, entered and signed in at TABLE FIVE. I thanked God I was only here out of curiosity.

But wouldn’t it be something, I thought, if they actually chose me: “…Discovered at L.A.’s Farmer’s Market and now here he is in a frame with Meryl Streep… Or Fred Williamson.  It could happen.  

Suddenly, I began to feel nauseous, like I used to feel when teachers called me to blackboards.      Does nausea mean I’m “invested? Another bald black man, middle age, sauntered in. Way too many bald black men in here. I fought the urge to leave. Instead, I conjured in my head a few words about cholesterol for the audition. Something to separate me from the rest.

They had to call my name twice.  Well, It wasn’t my name. I’d signed in as a Jake Timmons, lest I knew somebody up in here.

A bearded, 30-something  man, speaking to me in the patronizing lilt of a doctor trying to calm a patient, led me into an inner office, empty but for a video camera and  sound equipment. He pointed to a sliver of black duct tape in the middle of the industrial-gray carpeted floor and told me to stand there. I avoided the microphone hanging overhead.

“So–J.T.,”  he asked, camera rolling, “what makes you laugh?”

I thought  fast:  “The ironies of life,” I answered, trying to sound assured.  “Yeah.  That’s what  makes me laugh. Life’s ironies.”

“Give me one.”

Shit. “Well, the fact that I know actors and I tell them I don’t understand how they can submit themselves to auditions.  Yet here I am.”

“That IS funny,”  said the cameraman.  

“You’ve got a GREAT voice,” gushed  a female  agent who’d stepped into the room when I began.  

They like me…they really like me!

Awash in what felt like warm and fuzzy acceptance, I relaxed and began the bit I’d thought up while waiting. “You know, Cholest…”

“That’ll be it, J.T.,” interrupted my director. He wasn’t patronizing me anymore. “Thanks for coming in.”  Then, he said it. He said it in a tone inoffensive enough, but it was those immortal words, nonetheless: “There’s no need for you to call us, we’ll call you.”

Relieved in the unsettled way you’re relieved when you’ve found the courage to face blood work but now want to know the result, I asked the lady agent what I do next. “Well, let’s see, T.G. [sic],” she began. “You could go buy yourself lunch. Or, if you live someplace, you could go back there. It’s your call. You just have to leave here.”   

And that was it.  The “audition” itself lasted five minutes, tops.  I headed down the stairs with some actors.  One of them glimpsed my odd contentment. “Boy, you must have nailed it,” she said.

I wanted to say shucks, I did better than that: I didn’t run out of here. I actually stayed and did it.

No, they never called. But it’s nothing I’ll get my pressure up over. Some people don’t know real talent when they see it. And that’s okay.  

Steven Ivory’s book, FOOL IN LOVE (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) is available at Amazon.com (www.Amazon.com).  Respond to him via [email protected]