February, 1998-- I'm standing at one of the Jeopardy! contestant podiums, which are wider and deeper than they look on TV. The black plastic buzzer feels cold in my hand. Though glowing with color from remote-controlled spotlights, the room is remarkably quiet and still.
I can't see my opponents while we're playing the game, but I do feel their movements, the bodily cues of whose winning or losing -- small changes in posture, the shuffling of feet, the tensing of shoulders, the slight intake of breath near the end of each clue.
And every twelve seconds, every twelve seconds, every twelve seconds, clue after clue: black plastic cacophony, cliklikikkityclikit, a trio of thumbs crashing down on our actified buzzers, searching for that one perfect millisecond when our lights may come on.
I'm in the semi-final round of a $100,000 Tournament of Champions. The game is a struggle. But then, near the end, in the category WE'RE MALAYSIA BOUND, comes this:
OF PROTON, ELECTRON, OR
NEUTRON, WITH "SAGA," IT'S
MALAYSIA'S NATIONAL CAR
The two bodies next to me relax for a moment. I can feel my opponents thinking the same thing that I am:
Say what, again, Alex? Who knows what the hell people drive in Malaysia?
The three of us just stand there, suddenly silent. This is utterly trivial, something none of us would ever have possibly known or had cause to find out.
The clue passes. Twelve seconds later, forgotten.
I'm lost in the dark in a downpour near Kuala Lumpur. I've gone for a walk to get away from the city, where humid gray grit has been choking my lungs. But now I don't know where I am.
I'm in Malaysia because some things have changed in my life. I am older. I've lost one dear loved one and I'm fearing more losses. I need some time away just to clear out my head. And I'm curious about lots of things I had first seen in my Jeopardy! studies. I am starting to realize just how little I know.
(Yes, good players do study, and no, you have no way of knowing what on earth you should know, so yes, good players sometimes drive themselves batty trying to master the database of everything that ever happened to anyone anywhere.)
So I've bought a round-the-world ticket and saw Windsor and Singapore and the Cape of Good Hope. I will head next to Bangkok and Bali and many more places.
But first I must find my way out of a deluge. I am somewhere in a park near a road perhaps a six-mile trudge through a strange third world capital. I have lost track of direction. I am utterly lost.
Before I put out my thumb, or even decide if a thumb is the best way to hitchhike, or come close to my bearings, a car pulls to the side of the road.
It's a Proton Saga, in fact. Malaysia's national car, I can see.
The windows are filled with Koranic script praising Allah. If you watch too much TV, something bad happens next. But beside all the Islam, there's a Pink Panther on suction cups. And the driver is smiling and waving. He is hoping to help.
Faraad is a construction worker from Melaka. His English is only slightly better than my Bahasa Malaysia, which means little more than just "thanks" and "hello." But still we talk, about the rain at first, and then movies and music and television, using names of celebrities, hand gestures, and patience. Soon we are laughing.
My rescuer is a long way from home himself. He has a job on a construction site nearby, and he can make enough money to send some home to his kids, whom despite no common language I can see that he loves as much as I may love breathing. His jaw clenches. He misses them.
I didn't see my father a lot growing up. He was always working, too. Suddenly I'm eleven time zones from my birthplace -- literally on the other side of the planet -- and still I have never left home.
I don't know what to say in my own language, much less Faraad's. But I understand, just as you do. So he sees that on my face, as he would see it on yours.
So Faraad doesn't mind for one minute that I am dripping all over his new national car. He smiles and waves when he drops me off in the city, and then he drives back the way that we came. Faraad has gone far out of his way. How far I will never know.
Faraad has been simply a friend to a stranger, happy to help, eager to extend a kind hand.
When I first passed the Jeopardy! entrance test almost ten years ago, I thought I knew what you could win by going on a quiz show, and what you might learn in the effort. As you can see, looking back, I've been wrong about a lot more things than just big clues on game shows.
I certainly never imagined, standing in the Jeopardy! studio, that someday even thinking about a Proton Saga would make me smile. Something I didn't know and wouldn't have remembered is now one of my happiest memories.
I have a new book out this week. It's called Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade In Jeopardy!, and you can find more about it at Trebekistan.com. It's a goofy memoir about not winning on Jeopardy! in various tournaments with a frequency few can match. (So far, in fact, I have not won over $3.1 million. Few people can say that. Or would.)
In addition to sharing the memory tricks I've picked up and a bunch of fun behind-the-scenes stuff -- not many people know this, for example, but there's a drawer in Alex's podium that actually contains all human knowledge -- there's an actual story, too, filled with incidents like the unexpected rainstorm in Malaysia.
Friendships form, lovers part ways, several people face death (some win, some lose), I say the wedding vows in front of a large phallic statue with a woman who runs off to Ecuador, and for a while I am chased by baboons. Also, there's a bit where Alex isn't wearing any pants. And every word is true.
I like to think it's kind of a fun read. The reviews are good. I'm hoping it does well. But I also realize I have no idea what happens next.
I saw the story of the last ten years of my life in a store for the first time today. The entire display was misfiled under a big sign: "Puzzles."
Between his various high-stakes losses, Bob Harris has also managed to win over $127,000 and two Camaros on Jeopardy!. For more about the book, including reviews, excerpts, and numerous extras, visit Trebekistan.com.