Unfocused Group

I got a call last week asking whether I’d submit to a brief interview to see whether I was qualified for some focus group or other. I said yes, replied to a some questions about my age and health, then got invited to participate in a group that had something to do with flu vaccine.

The group met tonight in downtown Oakland. Eight guys between 50 and 64 years old, all with some sort of chronic health issue that put us at higher risk for complications if we get the flu (mine is asthma; someone else in the group mentioned they had diabetes, which is also a risk factor).

One guy drew everyone’s attention when he came into the research office before the group met. He was wearing what looked like pajama bottoms — or maybe they were some sort of high-fashion lounge pants — and slippers. The guy — let’s call him Larry — began to listen to his cellphone messages with the speaker volume turned all the way up and couldn’t figure how to make it stop. He kind of laughed about it. Innocuous stuff.

Then we went into the room where the group would be observed from behind a two-way mirror. The first thing Larry says to the moderator after she explained we’d be observed and videorecorded is, “Is it OK if I sit on the floor?” The moderator reluctantly went along with that, even though it meant it would be a little harder for everyone else to talk to him. Then she asked us all to introduce ourselves and say what sorts of things we like to do. Larry was first and said he likes to travel and go to the theater. In fact, he said he’d just been to New York and saw a fabulous play on Broadway that’s certain to win a bunch of Tonys. “What’s the name of the play?” the moderator asked. Larry struggled for a while and couldn’t come up with the title, then said it was about a priest abusing a child (looking that much up suggests it’s John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” which has gotten great reviews).

Then the rest of us spoke, then started to discuss influenza. Hardly a peep out of Larry, who was still sitting on the floor. About 15 minutes into the proceedings, the door to the room opened and one of the research firm’s staff members said, “Larry, would you step out here please?” Larry said something like, “What?” in an alarmed kind of way, and she repeated her request. He stood up and walked out. It looked like he had an erection (yes, I looked). There were raised voices out in the hall for a couple of minutes, and a few minutes later, another staff member came in and gathered his belongings. What was remarkable, and added to the impression that Larry had been sitting on the floor, you know, entertaining himself, was the fact the moderator ignored his departure completely. Didn’t bat an eye. Just kept up with the flu talk.

For that gratuitous slice of life, and for spending a couple hours critiquing a few Centers for Disease Control “get your flu shots” posters, we each got 75 bucks. Wonder if Larry got his.

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