Consume Me, Part 1

10 Mar

Have you ever bought a consumer good? Seems like a good enough idea, doesn’t it? You need things, and things are rarely free, and you don’t want to steal, do you? (Remember what happened to Aladdin?) [Editor’s Note: Wait, what happened to Aladdin? He found a genie, married the woman of his dreams, and then he was made sultan of Agrabah.] [Kyle’s Note: Yeah, but people kept calling him ‘street rat.’][Editor’s Note: Well, I mean, I guess that would be a little unpleasant.] [Kyle’s Note: He was clearly disturbed by the remark. He sang a song about it.]

A lot of these companies that sell you these goods employ consulting groups to find out what people want–much like in middle school when you’d send your friend over to see if a girl liked you or not or thought you were cute.

Well, these consulting groups in real life actually pay you money for your opinions. You go to a thing called a focus group and they ask you a bunch of questions and, at the end, compensate you for your time. I went to one of these. I was given VISA gift cards totaling $125. The group’s purpose was to look for why men buy certain underwear and undershirts.

The building is tall, lustrous, and modern. It is as if the building itself is attempting to dress for success. Outside it is raining and cool, but too humid for comfort. I’m wearing a jacket, but it’s more to keep the water off of my arms and my shirt than to keep me warm.

I find parking, head upstairs and approach reception.

“I’m here for the focus group,” I say. “About the underwear.”

The receptionist, a woman with thick, masculine features and hair that looks somewhat dour and unkempt for a place as beautiful and put together as this, takes a sip from her large RaceTrac cup of cola.

“I’ve come a little early and was wondering if there are any spots available at an earl–”

“If you’ll just take a seat over there, they’ll come out to get you.” She looks back at her computer.

“Over there?” I ask, gesturing to two strange looking chairs and a coffee table in the corner of the space.

“Yes, over there,” she says. She does not look up to say this.

I pause for a second, because I’m not sure she understands the situation, that I’d like the consulting group to be aware that if there’s a free spot that there’s someone here now to take it, but she’s shut the conversation down so violently, I lose all my gall and pace to the waiting area.

The chairs look like a three-dimensional rendering of a child’s drawing of some brown quadruped. I wish I could be more specific, but I can’t. Children are by nature terrible artists–their tiny hands and lower-to-the-ground vantage points make it difficult for them to execute still-life art that are acceptable to adult tastes.

I scan the room. I look over to the receptionist and cough loudly. She looks over at me.

“Whoever did the lighting out here must hate school,” I say.

“Why do you say that?” she asks.

“Because it’s all recessed!” I deliver this line with perfect comedic timing and enough charisma to make a circus clown blush. All of this is lost on the receptionist as her eyes bounce around from fixture to fixture.

“Yes,” she says, then returns to her work.

The room really is lovely. The floors are marble, the walls made up of panels of dark wood that stand out from the wall. Between these panels lie lines of brushed silver. There is a kind of awning over reception of fogged glass. The far wall–the wall to the right of reception–is a large window, looking out into a network of highways, where hundreds of cars are lined bumper to bumper, the long string of headlights looking like an asteroid belt against the blue-gray colors of the overcast day.

I look down at my shabby attire. Brown Levi’s, a beaten-up charcoal jacket, a gray v-neck that was given to me. Even the book I’m reading is used and ratty. I feel under-dressed. This feeling is only amplified when I see an employee of the consulting group walk by, immaculately dressed, who seems younger than I am. It’s more than under-dressed, really. I feel outclassed. I feel like I am in a place where I do not belong. I feel like the hired help. I am the test subject. It feels terrible.

Another man walks in, whose appointment is before mine. He speaks briefly to the woman at reception and then sits down. He is wearing a black ribbed v-neck and basketball shorts. I don’t understand this. I just do not understand this. It’s like his top half is headed out for drinks and his bottom half is–I don’t know, going to play basketball. The point is that he looks like shit. His hair is spiked up and his goatee neatly trimmed, so I know that this guy is in fact not going to play basketball. He’s lying to me via his attire. I am going to fight him, I decide. I am going to fight him and then I’m going to pick him up, dust him off, and tell him that when he’s out doing business, he should at least be wearing pants.

He asks me if I’m here for the study.

“No, I’m just here to hang out,” I say, then offer a smile to show that I’m kidding. He chuckles. Then I drop the smile to catch him a little off guard. His chuckle drops off and his smile fades. Then I wink and smile, getting him on his guard again. His smile comes back and he nods in understanding. Then I pull my lips back to show all of my teeth make a soft growly noise, to really get him. He is extremely uncomfortable and so am I. I don’t understand why I put myself in this position. I open my book and continue reading. From my peripheral, I can see him looking at me. I ignore him.

Eventually a woman comes out, introduces herself, and leads him to another room.

Half an hour later a man comes into the waiting area. He is extremely bald and extremely Asian and extremely friendly.

“You must be Kyle!” He says. “You’re here a bit early.”

“Yes, I know,” I say, wanting to get out that I had a reason for being so early, that I wanted to try to get an earlier spot, but I don’t get the chance because before I can explain, he cuts me off.

“Can I get you a drink?”

“Sure. What are your specials?” I ask, smiling, still thinking that jokes are good.

“Specials?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m not sure. Do you think water is special?” he pauses and looks to the ground. “No, water isn’t very special. Water is everywhere.” He seems genuinely troubled by this, and I regret making the comment I did.

“Hey, I was j–”

“Is Coke special? Is that how consumers see things now? Special or not special?”

“No, I–”

“What if I put water in the Coke? Would that make it more special?”

“A little whiskey in the Coke would, I think,” I say, winking.

“My father died of liver disease,” the man half whispers, his mouth arcing to a slight frown.

“Oh my gosh,” the receptionist says, glaring and shaking her head at me.

“How could you say that?” the man in the basketball shorts yells from down the hall, only his head sticking out of the doorway of the interview room. This all seems terribly unfair.

“This all seems terribly unfair,” I say. “How was I supposed to know your–” I turn from him to the receptionist “–his–father died of alcoholism?”

“Compassion,” she whispers. “The Lord.”

I roll my eyes and turn to the Asian man. He is gone.

“Where the Hell did he go?” I ask, getting a real Black Swan vibe from the moment.

“He ran home,” the receptionist says.

“I hope there’s a bottle of water at home,” I respond, then return to my seat. “And I hope he comes back from home with it and gives it to me.” I flip open my book, feeling a little unsure of myself. Wondering if the last bit was really necessary.

After an hour or so, one of the women come out to get me. She is short and petite, with short and petite hair and a short and petite face. “Kyle?” she asks.

“Kyle,” I respond.

“I’m Katie. Welcome! Thanks for coming!”

“My pleasure,” I say. “Although I hope you also find it a pleasure when I come.” I deliver this line then want to throw up from embarrassment.

“Yes, I’m happy you’ve come here,” she says, now trying to avoid the double any possible innuendo.

I go down a hallway with small offices on either side. The doors are glass as well as the walls facing the hall.

The woman slides one of the doors back and ushers me into one of the offices.

Inside the office is a small table and three swivel chairs. On the table are two spiral-bound notebooks and next to each notebook is a very expensive-looking pen. One of the chairs is occupied by an unattractive blond woman in her fifties. She is wearing glasses that appear slightly tinted, obscuring her eyes. She may be cross-eyed. I realize that the tinted lenses may be a way to obscure her disfigurement from other people. It might actually be backfiring though, because the tinted lenses seem to draw attention to her eyes rather than away from them. Her teeth look like the bellies of schooling fish, gray-white and glistening, one running onto the other.

“Well,” she says as I sit. “Do you know why we’re here?”

“Oh, I don’t think anyone knows, really,” I say in complete honesty. While looking into her frightful visage, I couldn’t help but contemplate my own feeble mortality.

She makes a kind of click sound from the back of her throat, then Katie interjects. “Um, I know–and Sheila knows. We know why we’re here.” She gets opens one of the notebooks. “Did Stephen not tell you what we were doing today?” Stephen is the man from the consulting agency who contacted me. Now that I’m looking away from the blonde harridan, my mind clears and I realize what they were talking about.

“Oh! Like the study. Yes. Yes, I know why we’re here.” I lean back in my chair and I ease into a reclined posture. I cross one leg and fold my hands over my lap.

“Good,” Sheila says, smacking the table. She smiles at me with her broad, toothy, slimy grin and seems to look into me too deeply and I’m suddenly aware that I did not see the man in the basketball shorts leave.

Katie sits down and each of them pick up their fancy pens. The pens are thick and black and get bigger towards the back. There are tiny display screens at the end that seem to be keeping time. They write down my name and the time.

“We’re using digital pens that save our notes digitally so we can put them on the computer later.”

“Ah.”

“And Kyle, for better record keeping, we sometimes record the interviews. Do you mind if we record this?”

Pushed in to the adjacent corner, sits another table with a camcorder set up and several small objects covered by a torn black trash bag. I imagine that they have cut the guy before me into little pieces and put him under there, filming it all the while. I start getting hard.

I nod and Katie stands, points the camcorder at me, and presses record. A small red light appears and I wink into the camera’s black eye.

Without moving my gaze from the camera, I begin:

“It seemed like kind of a weird situation. I mean, talking about underwear? In front of a couple of women old enough to my grate grandmother?”

“I’m forty,” the blonde hag says.

“I’m thirty two,” the brown headed petite one says.

“They randomly say their ages, although nobody asked them–” now I turn to each of them “–how the hell old they are because nobody gives a shit how old a bottle of wine is if it tastes like cow piss and looks like a furless Shar-Pei puppy.”

“You’re mixing your similes,” Katie whispers, her eyes downcast.

The room is quiet except for the ticking of a clock on the wall. In order to do everyone a favor, I begin breathing heavily through my nose–to fill the awkward silence.

“Okay, Mr. Irion, I think we should just get started.”

“So do I, I say,” I say. Then we begin.

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