Monday, February 25, 2019

Functionally Obsolete

In signs that development challenges are occurring in the world outside of Howard County, Maryland (“perish the thought and pass the tax abatements!”), they (an evil cabal, bien sûr) recently demolished the building that housed the polling firm where I spent, and occasionally misspent, many a fine hour in 1990, and again from 1992 to 1996.

I suppose the passing of Pat Caddell, former wunderkind and one-time pollster to McGovern, Carter, and yes America’s Uncle Joe got me thinking about that era again.  Of course, it doesn’t take much to fire up the Reminiscence Machine. I was thinking back to the people I met there and some of the hijinks that transpired in and around those premises.  For those reading this who may have Been There, and whose jaws are presently tightening out of disclosure trepidation, don’t worry, your secrets remain safe with me.

So many moments populate the mind, even small, ephemeral ones.  There was the telephone interviewer who once informed a respondent that their “apathy disgusted” his sensibilities.  I had to take him off the phones for a while. There was another interviewer who decided to add his own probe to the “Most important problem facing Michigan” question – whenever a respondent said “crime,” he would follow-up with, “would that be white collar or blue collar crime?”  One day, two unmistakably plain-clothes cops were waiting in our downstairs lobby to speak with one of our employees.  I didn’t ask why.

There was the structured insanity of Election Day Exit Polling.  We would have interviewers stationed at polling places throughout the state.  Then, when they completed a few interviews, they would call into our offices (using pay phones), where an interviewer would, using pen and paper, essentially re-create the questionnaire responses one by one, on fresh survey documents.  These would be collected by our data entry people, who punched the numbers into an early, bootleg, DOS-based form of SPSS. I would run the numbers and report the findings, as they rolled in, to the Company President…who would spend the day in Detroit doing on-air commentary based on our tabulations.  We did this in the 1992 presidential election cycle and the 1994 gubernatorial election cycle.  We had to rent several hulking machines (maybe 486 model desk-tops) to handle our data entry needs in ’94.  I recall running from computer to computer with floppy disks, saving files, and aggregating the data to keep everything together; with the chatter of 24 interviewers in close quarters bouncing off the walls and narrow wooden partitions that separated the calling stations. It was exhilarating chaos but our finger wasn’t just on the pulse, in those moments, we were the pulse.  And we had precious Insights on the electorate.  Special knowledge that made us, or at least my boss, an oracle-for-a-day.

Fueled by apple cider, Quality Dairy doughnuts, and by the vitality of youth itself, General Election Days were heart-pounding.  Of course, for some of the interviewers, it was just another day, 1/14th of their check.  For those who cared, it was a sorting day – winners from losers, and exit polling for the media gave us an early look into who would fall into which category.  For someone in their early 20s who aspired to a career in political polling, it was Christmas in November.

Yet the center, as it inevitably does, fails to hold.  It started to crack after Ronna Romney lost her primary in 1994, and after the GOP Revolution of that fall (that would have assuredly propelled Ronna to the U.S. Senate, if she defeated Spence Abraham, which would have perhaps saved the world from his most notorious aide, Ann Coulter, well, who knows how such things would work out).  According to the multiverse theory, all of these events, and an infinite number of Ronnas won and lost and never ran for anything and were never even born.  

Suffice to say, 1995 was a quieter year.  That building was still a home, of sorts.  But our lives were growing detached from it.  I had just earned my Bachelors and was newly married, to my first wife, who I hired to work at that polling firm back in ’92.  She was finishing up her undergraduate work and was looking for employment in the PR realm.  I was focused on finding a way to get to DC, where the Action was.  And yet, “high above the Subway sub shop,” as my then-boss was wont to say, the building stood.

When I would go back to visit East Lansing, which I did every year or so for a while, I would go into that edifice and chat with my former colleagues for a bit, always seeing new hires roaming the hall.  Shortly after the Wars began, the office moved, less than 200 yards away, but they vacated the spot where I spent so many hours, printing off crosstabs on a dot matrix printer until the early morning hours, coaxing our interviewers to “keep those dials up,” pulling together telephone samples using pages I copied from a Bresser’s Telephone Directory, and once, falling in love. 

The funny thing is that, years after I stopped working there, sometimes, the office door remained unlocked.  Once, perhaps 10 years ago, I was able to walk inside the long-empty office, now clearly hurtling past Condition: Ramshackle.  There were some odds and ends scattered about, a VCR box cover of Pulp Fiction was resting on the floor in the main office, which once offered one of the best vantage points for observing the activity at the corner of Grand River and Evergreen, a short walk away from the MSU Union.  Time and the wrecking ball ended that cozy perch.

And now, the building is gone, living only in the memories of those who trooped up and sauntered down its steps.  I believe a hotel is going to be built in the space it occupied.  I suppose we all have such a place that stands out in our recollection, a place that fills us with a sense of warmth, even when not all of the times experienced there were joyous.  But when we think of it, we default to a smile.

In solidarity.

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