Thursday, March 24, 2022

SOLSC 24: A Slice from Fall 1961

I was still attending Antioch College, but had to find my own jobs for part of my sophomore fall quarter. One short-lived one was as a market surveyer, the old-fashioned version of a telephone survey today.

            For a couple of days, I sat in a motel conference room with maybe a dozen others, mostly women, some my age, but mostly older. The trainers didn’t tell us exactly who the client was, but it was clear from the survey form that it was advertisers. We were told to follow the script, don’t ask leading questions, don’t suggest possible answers. On the third day, we were given a list of streets, taken into the nearby town of Ardmore (Pa.), and dropped on various street corners. Then I was on my own.

            It was a working-class neighborhood. My street was lined with duplex shingled houses with a driveway on either side. It was quiet, since children were all in school. I was nervous. My stint as a salesgirl the previous spring had not cured my shyness; the idea of knocking on strangers’ doors and “barging in” terrified me. But other people could do this, so why couldn’t I — and maybe I’d be lucky and no one would be home.

            At first my luck held. There was no answer at the first few doors where I knocked or buzzed. At the next door, a short, rotund woman came to the door, but did not speak English. At another door, a Black woman in a white uniform answered and said the man she cared for was napping; since I was only supposed to talk to the primary resident, I was free to go on. A few more “no answers,” and I realized everyone must be at work. Then, luck failed.

            The woman who came to the door was a bit older than my mother, but not as old as my grandmother, white, about my height, gray hair, wearing a thin sweater and jersey skirt, socks in slippers. I gave my introductory spiel about gathering information about what people watched on television.

            “Come in, come in,” she said, waving me in. “I’ve got a friend here, but we’d be happy to answer your questions.”

            She led me down a narrow hall to the kitchen, which looked out on a concrete yard, with a couple of lawn chairs piled together. There was a faint odor of dishwater and maybe something cooking. The woman, let’s call her Alice, introduced me to her friend, let’s call her Marie, sitting at the formica-topped table, and we sat with her. I took out my folder of questionnaires.

            “Did you watch television last night?” Of course, they had, and Alice and Marie started arguing over which program they had watched last night, or was it the night before, or was it what they expected to watch tonight. Wait, wait, I said. I wasn’t supposed to direct them or make suggestions, but I could focus them by listing the possibilities, since there were only three channels in Philadephia in 1961: ABC, NBC, and CBS. “I need to know only what Alice watched,” I said, then gave her the three shows that aired at 8 p.m. on Tuesday night.

            Once Alice settled on the show she’d watched, I then asked, “Do you remember any advertisements on that show?” Here, again, she consulted with Marie, and I decided to let them talk and record whatever Alice seemed most confident of.

            “What was it that was most memorable about this advertisement?”

            More discussion between Alice and Marie, down to the detail of where the model must have gotten that dress. Now that I was “in the field,” I was beginning to understand the rationale for the survey: what commercials did people remember and why? Was I scrupulously going to stick to the script or get enough information to fill in the bubbles on the survey and write in the details that seemed most relevant? At 19, I was no friend of big corporations, although my lefty parents did work at a large pharmaceutical company.

            We went through the survey, hour by prime-time hour, advertisement by advertisement. After more than an hour, I figured we were finished and got up to leave. Alice offered me coffee, a snack, and I politely refused, thanking them for their help with the survey, but I did have other places to go to. As I left, I felt their desire for me to stay as almost entertainment; I was like the TV shows they watched day and night, living lives they didn’t have but wished they did. It was profoundly depressing.


I’m participating in the 15th annual Slice of Life Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers. This is day 24 of the 31-day challenge.  It’s not too late to make space for daily writing in a community that is encouraging, enthusiastic, and eager to read what you have to slice about.  Join in!


No comments:

Post a Comment