Lileks: Making a difference, one question at a time

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS
  • Star Tribune
  • September 5, 2013 - 9:32 PM

Every phone survey I’ve gotten goes like this, more or less:

“Hello, Mr. Leekus?”

“Lileks. It was Leekus but I had an operation.”

“Thank you! I’m from Meaningless Generic Company Name, and as you can tell from the background noise, this is a hellhole boiler-room whose ceaseless din reminds one of a chicken coop. I numb my pain with alcohol when I get home, but for now, I’d like to ask you some questions. Do you have the time?”

Finally! I’m being polled!

“Sure,” you say, but not too eager — you don’t want to sound as if the last conversation you had took place three weeks ago, and consisted of pushing the YES and NO buttons on the ATM.

“Thank you! These are questions about something that concerns you deeply, and about which you have detailed, personal knowledge. Before we continue, do you or anyone in your household work for a company that is connected in any way to the subject we’re discussing?”

“Uh, yes. That’s how you can be sure my responses will be useful.”

“I’m sorry. We’re only asking people who are ignorant on the subject.” Click.

Well, last night’s call was different. It concerned the mayoral race.

The first question had to do with whether I was able to vote in the last election. You want to say “sure, twice,” just to see the reaction, or “No! Huge bats kept me from the polling place! They looked like people, but that’s just their disguise! Are you calling about the bats? There’s one outside the house now in a mailman’s uniform!”

But I just said yes — and was treated to a list of candidates to be ranked on a scale of 1 to 100.

Hmmm. That guy? 37. That one? 29. That one? 82. No, 81 — I hate the tie he’s wearing on his website.

I was careful not to rank anyone whose name was unfamiliar, because if you say “Carl Marcks? Oh, 70,” and he doesn’t exist, everything else you say is taken with a bag of salt the size they use for water softeners.

The survey-taker then read statements from every candidate, all of which boiled down to this (names are made up):

“Fred Angals will be a strong leader for leading with strength in the community to strengthen communities. His experience in government means he has a proven track-record of walking around City Hall and chewing gum at the same time, while working with partners who have partnered to work together, leading. He will be a strong voice for education, possibly a baritone, and will work with business to create vague, nonbinding platitudes about taxation. Does this give you a favorable impression, slightly favorable, or make you want to spit on the ground and make the ancient sign to ward off the evil eye?”

“Is there a category where I can be slightly favorable and still spit?”

Alas, no.

She read one of those for every — single — candidate, and they all sounded the same.

Everyone’s a strong voice for education. One of them promised to “fight” for better education, suggesting he’d drop into a principal’s office now and then and pop him on the nose, just to get his attention.

Finally, the mask fell. More and more questions were about a particular candidate. I don’t know if my responses had pushed the survey in this direction, or the preceding 10 minutes were intended to bore me so completely with everyone in the field I would get loopy and start speaking what I really thought.

“[Candidate’s name] is a graduate of Minneapolis schools. Does this give you a favorable impression, not so favorable, or cause your guts to roil as though you had eaten six pounds of raw ground beef?”

I had the candidate’s Wikipedia page up and said, “Well, his high school is two blocks from my house, and they haven’t burned it down out of shame, so, favorable.”

Then some questions about allegations of past impropriety, and whether they made me feel favorable, not so favorable, concerned, indifferent or consumed by the weary, blank ennui of someone for whom life has lost all meaning.

I was tempted to say, “Oh, I was part of the investigative team. There was nothing there” — but that would invalidate everything that had gone before.

The poor woman would realize that the one person who’d agreed to talk, the one person who seemed to give thoughtful answers, the one person who didn’t interrupt with questions like “who’s not a Jewish Freemason? You got any of those?” was a survey-taker’s nightmare: Someone who knew so much about the subject his answers were absolutely useless.

I’d love to see what the data says when the survey’s complete.

I mentioned that my ethnicity was “Lunar,” so if the candidate starts talking about the positive contributions of Moon People to the city of Minneapolis, I’ll know I’ve made a difference. • 612-673-7858

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