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Harmony seldom makes a headline. — Silas Bent

I hadn’t set out to torture the mayor of Coronado, but things rarely turn out the way I expect. I didn’t even know Coronado had a mayor, at least not before I read the line-up of my fellow judges. The others were radio folk from different stations: Hula from 94.1 and Sherry from 92.5. I wondered if I should feel insecure about being the only non-Asian at the table. Even the two ABC anchors hosting the event were of Asian descent. The Asian American Journalists Association had produced the contest, the title of which — San Diego’s Got Talent — was ethnically generic.

The mayor wore a dark blazer over a white, untucked shirt, black pants, and flip-flops. All of the judges had dressed down, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I had been mistaken for one of the contestants after I walked in with my feather headpiece and sequined shirt.

After we met and exchanged pleasantries, I said, “So, mayor of Coronado…that means you probably work with the superintendent of the Coronado school district.”

“Yes, I do,” he said.

“Then you probably know my mother,” I said. “Maria.”

“Maria? She’s your mother?” I watched as the mayor processed this collision of two worlds. Once he’d recovered, he said, “She’s great, she’s the gatekeeper for the superintendent. That’s not an easy job.”

“Hang on a second, I’ll call her.” Before he could object, I said, “Hi, Mom? Do you know some guy named Casey Tanaka? He says he knows you.” I handed him the phone.

I could tell by the man’s polite responses that my mother had seized upon this unexpected audience with a prominent person to sing her daughter’s praises. I held out my fingers and nodded for the public-spirited man to hand over the phone. Once I had it back, I jokingly chided my mother: “I put you on the phone with the fucking mayor, and instead of, ‘Hi, Mr. Mayor, how are you doing today?’ you go and brag about me?” She was laughing, but poor Mr. Tanaka seemed unsure how to respond. Beneath his strained smile, though, I sensed something about him — the guy could take a joke. This did not bode well for Hizzoner.

As a fundraiser for young journalists, the contest catered to the media — all of the contestants were members of the press in one way or another, as well as most of the audience. While we were all waiting for the show to begin, one of the hosts came by the judges’ table and asked, “How are the judges doing tonight? Are you feeling tired?”

“We were,” I said, making sure my voice projected throughout the theater. “But then I shared some cocaine with the mayor here, and now we’re wide awake and ready to go!” I didn’t look to my right, where the public servant sat, but David later told me he had gesticulated wildly, insisting via pantomime, NO, all you journalists, there has been NO sharing of any COCAINE! By the time I turned to look at him, the mayor was smiling. I was relieved.

I’d prepared myself for the contest by watching snippets of America’s Got Talent. The organizers had asked me whether or not I’d be a “Paula” or a “Simon,” but I never made it through clips from American Idol. The mayor playfully practiced saying, “Dawg” and other Randy Jackson-isms. I didn’t want to be a British dick or pill-popping pushover, so I loosely modeled my judging style after the late Greg Giraldo, of Last Comic Standing fame.

We’d been instructed that no one was to bust out a 10 score prematurely. To make up for any unfairness that might be caused by starting conservatively, we were told we’d have a chance to later award trophies that were not based on numbers alone. I had my own tactic — whatever anyone else scored, I would score one point higher; that way, everyone would like me the best.

The first contestant was a woman who performed a cabaret number. When she was finished, the hosts began with Hula, who was seated at the opposite end of the table, which meant I got to be the last to judge. When it was my turn, I held up a number that was one digit higher than the highest of my predecessors’.

After the second performer (a girl playing the Chinese zither), the hosts decided to shake things up and start at the other side of the table, with me. I’d never heard a zither before — the sound had been moving, ethereal…but I wanted to keep with the trend of starting low. I asked the girl if the brief moment her fingers had paused over the instrument near the end of her song was deliberate or if she’d made a mistake. In a quiet voice, she said, “It was not part of the song.” I held up my card.

The mayor went after me: “Considering that you’re 15 years old, that was amazing,” he said. He gave a higher score than I had. As the last two judges were showering praise and showing their cards, both of which were higher than mine, I leaned over to the mayor and said in his ear, “Thanks a lot. I didn’t know she was only 15. Now I’m the asshole.” Maybe if I had been a resident of Coronado he’d have been more sympathetic, but he didn’t seem too concerned with my predicament.

I was pleasantly surprised at the elevated level of talent displayed throughout the evening. Chinese dancers, musicians, comedians, singers, theater actors — I would have been happy to have paid to see them perform. We enjoyed and judged until we were down to the last two contestants — a DJ who would spin tunes while the other shot basketball free-throws.

While they’d been setting up for the double-act, I’d jokingly complained that I had no wine, after which the organizers swiftly delivered a beverage to each of the judges. Red wine was placed before me; white wine was set down before the mayor, despite his insistence that he didn’t want any. Minutes later, the free-thrower missed the hoop and the basketball came crashing down on the judges’ table, knocking the cup of white wine all over the poor man seated to my right.

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