Recently, my friend and I went to South Square Mall in Durham to try out as extras for Dawson's Creek.
"I think this could be our big break," she said. It seemed like a possibility. I put on a little pair of shorts and headed over to her house.
In the courtyard outside Belk's, we followed a flock of teenage girls who were trying to appear at once alluring and wildly disinterested, to the end of the line. We were handed green cards on which we were to write, among other things, our name, height, weight, bust size, hip size, shoe size, hat size, auto make and model, and any special talents. We had no idea what our hat size was.
We struck up a conversation with a guy behind us, a large man whose hair was done up in a fussy matrix of bleached pigtails. He was there because his father had sent him an e-mail suggesting he go, he told us, straining after a look of worldly blasé. He had been a wrestler for World Championship Wrestling until he'd messed up his shoulder in a body-slam gone awry, and was now trying to get a career as a rapper off the ground. What was his wrestler name? He said it had been Toad until they ran into copyright problems with the X-Men, and then it was changed to Frog. Two girls in rattan platform sandals made their way past us in line, giving Toad a wide berth.
I talked to several mothers and their lipsticked daughters, a man who had been in a crowd scene in Dirty Dancing, a couple of gelled and tanned young men under whose ribbed T-shirts were discernable many major muscle groups, and a slight girl in thick spectacles whose T-shirt, gusseted with safety pins, read "UNDISCOVERED GENIUS."
Few people I talked to had ever watched Dawson's Creek or would admit to having watched it. Some held worn portfolios under their arms, which were ignored by the perky girls at the head of the line who took our cards and pointed a Polaroid at our heads in a single motion, slapped the still-murky photo to the card, and waved us through.
Afterwards, we stood around uncertainly in the courtyard. A woman behind us was berating her boyfriend for not showing his teeth in the Polaroid. My friend suggested we visit the spot upstairs where a man had recently been shot. The second-floor railing was lined with people watching the crowd below. A woman with a man in tow approached me.
"Is that that Dawson's Creek thing?" she asked and I nodded. "You ought to try out for that," she said to her companion.
"I don't act," he said, and the woman let out a squawk. "You act all the damn time," she said. "You act sick, you act tired ..."
Later, I asked the woman in charge of the tryout if anyone ever gets discovered this way. "I wouldn't say discovered so much as upgraded," she replied.
A boy next to us with a weightless Afro seemed untroubled by this prediction. "I was in Patch Adams," he said. "Remember the scene where she storms out of the library? I'm the one going up the stairs while they go down." He bounced on his toes, buoyed by the memory. "And anyway, if this doesn't pan out, I'm going to be a glassblower."