Modern Day Lepers

"The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, "Unclean! Unclean!" As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp."
Leviticus 13: 45-46 NIV

Shunning people is an ancient social custom, and like many ancient social customs, its whys and hows have been muddied in these postmodern times. With leprosy not being the medical concern it once was and the caste system eliminated, there are no clear lines as to who can be made a social outcast anymore. Many groups vie for the vacant position, but I think one group leads the field in social ostracization: market researchers - the dreaded survey people.

Survey people are viewed with suspicion, and rightly so. Who knows what the lurking people at the mall or on the street or in the park want? Sign a petition, donate some money, join Greenpeace, do some market research, agree to go on "Blind Date"... These are a thousand things that left to his or her own devices the average person would not do, and it is the mission of the survey people to coerce, cajole or trick them into doing it. This is not an easy job, either, since the survey people are about as hard to miss as a train wreck. The wildness of their eyes, their ever-present clipboards, the desperation in the air... No, the survey people are a breed apart, a group of outsiders, and I should know. For one hellish day, I was one of them.

I did it for a college friend, a friend who promised me easy money for a day of "passing out flyers" at the New York Book Fair. I could bring friends! I could enjoy the beautiful day! I would be paid in cash under the table! It sounded easy enough, so I showed up early that morning looking, as directed, neat, presentable and literate, and with my good friends and fellow enlistees Joe and Kevin in tow.

Needless to say, we had been tricked, a fact we fully realized when we received our bags of not surveys, but clipboards.

"We're shooting for one to two hundred surveys taken per person, so an average of 25 an hour," said my Judas college friend.

For the next five hours I roamed the street, trying to sucker someone into taking my clipboard. (The insidious marketing people told us that if you can get people to physically take hold of the clipboard, they will feel obligated to take the survey. Apparently New Yorkers are a hardened breed, since no one seemed to have any compunction about handing them back uncompleted, or dropping their clipboard on the ground if I refused to take it back.)

"Unclean! Unclean! Free poster today for a survey?" Some people smiled and mouthed insincere apologies before sprinting away. Some looked startled. Some looked positively frightened. No one actually clutched their child closer to their breast as they passed, but more than one grip was tightened on stroller handles as leery mothers with pinched faces scuttled by. Some people-evil people-taunted me by asking lots of questions about the survey and its nature and the very purpose of my existence before they refused to do it.

At the Book Fair's end, we turned in our bags and compared notes. As a general rule, the people who took pity on me and agreed to get a free poster were lesbian couples, mothers with two or more preteen children, and men over thirty. (When almost no one will talk to you you have a LOT of time to observe the few who will). Joe had been the darling of women between the ages of 18 and 25 and gay men of all ages. Kevin had had the most success with black women over 40 as well as men waiting for their wives. We had all been lucky with teachers, who are so fanatical about free posters that they will do anything, including approaching the Untouchables, to get them.

So what's the lesson here? I guess I'm asking for clarity and transparency. Maybe if we all agree that the survey people are to cast out, then those people unfortunate enough to have to do it-me, say-can live knowing that they will be shunned, knowing that it's a certainty that no one will talk to them. Make the survey people unclean by decree, by constitutional amendment, by municipal bylaw, by whatever. After all, it's the ambiguity that hurts. It's that faint, cruel hope that maybe someone, somewhere will take drop food in your begging bowl/fill out your survey for a lovely full-color poster that keeps us lepers from the peace of despair.

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