Statistics Canada phoned me up last week and asked me to take part in a focus group. The goal was to learn about attitudes towards energy conservation in this great frosty land of ours.
They would pay me sixty dollars in cash to sit in a boardroom for a couple hours, and my opinions would represent thousands of Average Canadians.
I’d never done one of those before but it sounded like it could be fun. There was always the chance that the focus group would be composed of me and a bunch of hot women. I would wow them all with my sparkling insights, subtly influence government policy in favour of my own ideals, and then we’d all go have sex in an elevator. We’d take their money and go have a classy dinner. It’d be great! I said “Sure, what the hell.”
The woman on the phone told me I’d have to take a survey before I could qualify for the group. It took twenty minutes, or maybe half an hour; I was looking at porn on the computer the whole time. “Yep… nope… no… no… oh twice a week… no… we don’t have one of those… no… no… how many light bulbs? In the whole house? God, I don’t know… You want me to count?”
She had me counting light bulbs and estimating British Thermal Units (“Three… hundred… thousand?”). At one point she asked what my basement walls were insulated with.
“Marshmallow Fluff,” I said.
There was silence for a moment.
“I’ll just put down, ‘Unsure,'” she said. Ohhhhkay.
So on Monday evening I got to ride my bike out to the rotary to visit Corporate Research Laboratories or whatever it was called. I showed up early and wandered around the property taking pictures.
There was a playground out back for the company daycare, and in the back parking lot they’d set up a cute little nature park. Presumably, stressed-out executives could go sit in this little park during their lunch hours and commune with “nature.”
The park had immaculate flower gardens, and a bunch of trees, and a little footbridge spanning a stream with office garbage floating around in it.
At ten to seven I went around to the front entrance. A greeter met me at the door to let me in and escort me through the checkpoint. (They run a tight ship at Corporate Research Laboratories.) She was a tall skinny blonde with braces on her teeth, kind of sexy in a nerdy corporate way.
She walked me over to the elevator. Then she reached inside and pressed the button to the seventh floor for me. Her arm snaked out and the elevator doors closed and I never saw her again.
The high degree of security was making me feel a bit seditious, like a spy in a movie or something. When the elevator doors opened again, I just stood there for a moment and stared intensely straight ahead.
I was looking at a receptionist who sat at her desk.
“Hello?” she said.
Without taking my eyes off her, I advanced slowly across the foyer.
“Are you, ah,” she said. “Are you here for the focus group?”
I walked right up to her desk and stopped. I nodded once.
“It’s just over there, on the right,” she said. “That was kind of weird, the way you got off the elevator…”
“Thank you,” I said and walked over to the boardroom.
Once inside the room, I began taking stock of the group. There was a used car salesman, and an entrepreneur guy, as well as a couple of typical Maritime barneys in foam-and-mesh hats. My hopes of spending the evening in a room full of opionated babes were quickly dashed. Of the nine people in total who eventually showed up, there were only two women, and they were, shall we say, not my type.
Everyone sat around beforehand talking about fishing and finding cheap gasoline and quitting smoking. “I quit some fast after the heart attack,” one of the barneys was saying. “Couple years ago, ate a whole bunch of nasty greasy food one day… eight or nine zzzzzts [he mimed those electric heart attack paddles] and I woke up a month later. Missed the Super Bowl, I was pretty pissed about that. Ha ha ha.”
He’d been 34 at the time. I’m 32. I felt like saying, “Hey guy, thanks for having a heart attack at 34.”
A wall of the room was taken up by a big panel of one-way glass. They had a tray out for us with coffee, juice and sweets. A video camera was trained on the boardroom table, and microphones were suspended from the ceiling. I kept looking at the microphones: a matched pair of AKG condensers.
Finally the moderator showed up. He had on a nametag that said “Garth.” He sat down and gave us all a big smile.
“My name is Garth,” he said. “I just want to say that I love your city. It’s so beautiful here, yesterday we went to Lunenberg and today we went to Peggy’s Cove…”
One of the women in the group spoke up. “You from Ontario?” she said.
As if we couldn’t tell. “Yes,” said Garth. “Ottawa.”
“We feel your pain,” she said. (I thought that was a strange comment to make until I realized they were talking about some recent bad weather Ottawa had been having.)
It turned out the purpose of the meeting was to help refine the survey I’d taken on the phone. They were planning on giving it to thousands of people. If I’d realized the focus group was going to be about the survey itself, I might’ve paid more attention when I took it.
As it was, I didn’t have a whole lot to contribute to the group. Fortunately there were a few people who were more than willing to talk a lot. The tendency in the room was to ignore the questions or use them as a springboard to discuss mundane domestic details. Meanwhile Garth would gently try to steer things back on track.
“Dishwasher? We have one but it never gets used. Wish to God the kids would use it.”
“Know what you mean, I can always tell when the kids are home, I get home and the sink’s full of dirty dishes.”
“Jesus, I get up for work at 6am, come home the place is a mess and they’re all just sitting there playing Grand Theft Auto…”
“So,” said Garth. “Would you say… once a week, for the dishwasher? Less than once a week…?”
There was an older guy named Joe and I started to feel like I was bonding with him, simply because both of us barely spoke; silently calling into question the rest of the blather.
At one point Garth asked something about energy consumption on weekends. “Weekends, what’s that,” said the entrepreneur guy. “Last summer I worked six straight months without a day off.” And blah blah blah. I have no idea what the guy even did, but he sure seemed to enjoy “working.”
I swear, if I ever again mention on this website that I’ve been “working” too much, somebody take me outside and shoot me in the head.
The questions droned on. I got bored. I squinted at the one-way glass and tried to make out the shapes of people moving around on the other side. I sat and watched people doodling.
I left on the pretext of using the bathroom, thinking I would go snoop around corporate HQ but the receptionist caught me heading into the office kitchen and said, “Excuse me, the washroom is over here.”
Finally things were about to wrap up. There was a knock on the boardroom door and someone handed Garth a slip of paper with a few additional questions on it. One of the questions was, “Were there any terms on the survey that usually go by a different name in the Maritimes?”
I felt like telling them that a “compact portable stereo system” is generally referred to as a “cod squealer” ’round these parts, but instead I rolled my eyes at the one-way glass. What was this, Upper Canadian Research Laboratories?
The discussion ended and we got paid cash in small brown envelopes. I was disappointed when no one escorted me out of the building. I could’ve gotten off the elevator anywhere and proceeded to steal all their top-secret data.
I’m sure that would have been very very exciting but I really needed to get the hell away from Corporate Research Laboratories.