Unacceptable! shouted the CEO, slapping the table.
My mentor reacted to the CEO's interjection with a blank stare, like an animal terrorized into paralysis. The CEO rose, his shoes squeaking to protest his great weight. With a wave of his hand, he commanded Bob to take a seat his PowerPoint presentation was over.
Bob dropped into the chair next to me and readied his yellow legal pad and disposable pen. He was about the get a dressing down. The last place I wanted to be was sitting next to him. I fiddled with my PalmPilot as if I was ready to jot down notes.
I really didn't know what to do in a situation like this. I was just an intern, getting my first real taste of the marketing world during a summer with a fledgling long-distance telephone company headquartered in Irvine, California. Bob, my reluctant mentor, had been trying to sugar coat the poor results from a recent telemarketing project to get people to switch their long-distance carrier. But the CEO wasn't going to be appeased by the colorful, subtlely-distorted charts in his presentation.
The CEO drew a deep breath, and that seemed to relax him a little. That eased me a bit. I tried to remember what I had learned in that CPR course last quarter just in case the barrel-chested man suddenly keeled over with a heart attack. A second deep breath seemed to calm him even more as he carefully considered his words.
You're showing me a lot of statistics, trying to hypothesize why nobody switched. But the numbers can't prove or disprove your theories. They just suggest more theories. We can't improve the response rate unless we know what's going to entice them.
He thumped his hand down on a three-inch thick binder of names and telephone numbers of the customers contacted in the program. Names and numbers from a marketing database bought from a list broker that made millions selling them over and over. The enormous binder was utterly useless except as a demonstration of how many people had been contacted. Nobody was going to read it or even look something up in it. You'd go online to do that.
Ten-thousand customers! He rapped on the giant binder again. Ten thousand! phone calls, and only thirty-six people switched! What's going on? That's gotta be the worst response rate ever!
Bob didn't even blink. He just stared straight back at the CEO, knowing it was a rhetorical question. I scanned Bob's peers and subordinates seated around the conference table and tried to mimic their somber expressions. It must be killing Bob to be on the spot in front of them and me, his intern.
The CEO was right. Nearly all competent direct marketing schemes consistently garnered a two percent response rate. It was a fact that corporations had counted on for years. You want 10,000 new customers, you contact half a million. You'll get it. Double the contact, double the response. It was a seemingly limitless game. But times had changed. Especially for telemarketing, and in telecommunications, where bundles from the big boys began to set the rules. Nobody took telemarketing calls anymore. Even lonely retirees, coached by their aging baby-boomer children, had come around and told the callers to buzz off.
Bob started to write a note on his yellow pad, but it just turned into a scribble.
You obviously can't solve this one by studying the whole group. Breadth won't tell us the answer. We need depth. A case study. You're going to get inside the head of one of these losers who didn't switch. Deep inside. You're going to know exactly what they were thinking, why they thought it, and what it would take to change their mind. And I'm not talking about calling them up and asking them. People don't really know what they need, or want. You've got to figure that out for them, and then use it against them. I want you to get to know one of these people so well that you can predict what they'll order for dinner next Tuesday, and why.
Bob jotted: case study, dinner, Tuesday.
The CEO's face began to turn red again. Let me get you started. He flipped open the binder near the middle and slapped his finger down at random. Neifeld! Constance L. Neifeld. Make it happen. By Friday, 9 am, this room. With that the CEO waddled out of the room. Bob remained motionless. The silence was interrupted by the gathering of notes and coffee mugs as Bob's colleagues hustled out of the room without looking at him directly. I just sat there, wondering if I should wait for instructions or slide out of the room with the others.
I looked over at Bob's legal pad and saw that he had written one more thing: C.L. Neifeld. After a moment, he rose, flipped through the binder, and copied Ms. Neifeld's phone number to his yellow pad.
Without a word, I followed him back into his office. In retrospect, I guess I was acting like a puppy dog, but I didn't know any better. In one fluid motion he dropped his pad on the desk, closed the door, and plopped into his chair before the computer.
He obviously wasn't very comfortable with the machine. Earlier that morning, we was struggling with Excel and PowerPoint, trying to make those pretty pie charts. I had helped him to finish before the meeting. The silence was awkward, as though Bob was embarrassed by his inability to control the software. To put him at ease, I had tried to make it look like I was struggling with the programs, too, but not so much that we would have missed the meeting.
Now he took a deep breath before awaking the computer from a hypnotic screen saver program. He launched an application that let him query a reverse-street index sort of a phone book that you can use to find addresses from phone numbers instead of phone numbers from names. The computer used the Constance L. Neifeld's area code and prefix to deduce that she lived in Newton Lower Falls, a suburb of Boston. With that information, it checked the Massachusetts directories to match the entire phone number to a particular street address. But it failed.
Unlisted. He pursed his lips for a moment, then rummaged through a drawer full of CD ROMs. If she was listed a few years ago and hasn't moved, then I might have it here in one of the old directories.
The directory he had originally checked was the latest one available on the network. I had to help him redirect the search application to the older directory on a CD ROM that was a couple years out of date.
Bingo! Bob copied Constance's Clearwater Road address to his legal pad under her name. I also copied it into my PalmPilot.
With renewed energy, Bob fetched a number from his Rolodex, and dialed it into the speaker phone.
Yeah, came a gravelly voice across the speaker phone.
George, it's Bob. I need a favor.
Last time I looked at the tote board, you owed me.
Well let's put this one on my tab.
What do you need?
I've been commanded to do an in depth case study.
I can't take that kind of risk.
George, I'm in a real bind here.
Even George's sigh sounded like gravel. Reluctantly, Give me a starting point, then buy me lunch.
Bob bit his lower lip. Constance L. Neifeld. Then he proceed to read her phone number and address.
An hour and a half later I was riding in Bob's car to a little Chinese restaurant in a strip mall on El Toro. Bob had suggested a place at Irvine Spectrum, a nearby entertainment and shopping complex, but George had objected, saying it was too high profile.
Bob didn't say much. He must've popped two or three Rolaids during the short drive.
Who's this George guy? I finally asked.
Someone who can teach you more about consumer research than any of your Stanford professors.
From the gravelly voice, I had expected a smoker with a beer belly, but George was not that at all. His chocolate brown skin was stretched over a narrow bony skeleton. No muscle, no fat, no trace of tobacco. His curly black hair was close cropped and quickly retreating from his forehead. Stylish, small spectacles were firmly planted on his broad nose. He fit neither the marketing archetype nor that of the computer geek. He wore the standard business casual uniform: khaki Dockers and a button down shirt, properly pressed and probably tailored.
Bob and I sat on the bench seat across from him. George seemed to lack the self assuredness that you would expect to go along with his professional grooming. He stared at me. Paranoid?
I didn't expect a committee.
Just my intern.
Obviously what we were doing wasn't entirely legitimate.
Two orders of potstickers and an order of egg rolls appeared. George had ordered before our arrival. He immediately snagged one of the potstickers with his fingers and popped the entire thing into his mouth, sucking in air to prevent the hot insides from burning his tongue. The greasy fingers then produced a notebook computer from the folded newspaper that sat beside him on the table. He slipped a floppy disk from his shirt pocket into the computer.
Seems awfully low tech for you, George said Bob as he uncapped his disposable pen.
Making them smaller just makes them more expensive and the keyboards unusable.
I took my cue and retrieved my PalmPilot, then I snatched an egg roll with my chopsticks and drenched it with mustard.
I obviously can't just give you everything we've got on this customer, began George. His speech was tinted with a bit of sarcasm. Our lawyers insist that, except for sending out marketing materials to select demographics, we can only analyze our loyalty card data in aggregate.
Loyalty card? I interrupted. George glared at me.
George works for [a major supermarket chain]. Those `club' discount cards allow them to track buying patterns and the success of promotions. George analyzes that data.
So loyalty card is a euphemism, I said.
Our world is filled with euphemisms, George said somberly. Then his sarcastic tone returned. To comply with the privacy promises we make to our customers, our lawyers say we can only analyze demographic groups or random samples, not individuals. Minimum group size seems to be eight. So I queried the database for cardholders on Connie L. Neifeld's side of the street, which conveniently gave me a group of nine people.
George swiveled his computer around so Bob and I could peek at it. A list of nine even addresses on Clearwater Road appeared. I immediately spotted Constance's address in the seventh spot.
So my underpowered notebook computer can't deal with so much data, the sarcasm was thick now, so I do a random sample of say, every seventh customer, just to thin the data.
Bob nodded knowingly. I felt stupid for not realizing right away what he was doing. Obviously, selecting every seventh customer from a group of nine was just an indirect way of picking one customer: Constance. But it left him with plenty of plausible deniability. The database logs back at his office would show that he made a local copy a nine-customer demographic group. After our little discussion, his notebook would be wiped clean, and there would be no audit trail to prove that he actually analyzed a single, specific customer.
Voila. The screen filled with an amazing dossier of information about anonymous supermarket customer 16448372. I couldn't believe my eyes.
Very nice, George, Bob said. George popped another potsticker, quickly followed by an egg roll. Obviously we were just having appetizers. I was too engrossed in the computer display to think about the food.
I skimmed as Bob copied the data to his legal pad. George looked about as if he were afraid someone was going to steal his potstickers.
Bob wrote: single female, household size: 2, 32 years old, non-smoker, lives in detached single-family home, one son born Q2 1997, one cat, shops 2.6 times per week, works swing shift, seasonal allergies, sexually active, prudent shopper (store brands) but brand loyal for premium items (Hagaan Das, Vernors soda), light drinker (red wines), wears corrective lenses, paid biweekly, annual salary: $25-50,000, checking accounts: 1, credit cards: 2+, average cash back: $40.
I was astounded. How can you know so much from somebody's grocery list?
It's a supermarket, not a grocery store. Most of the dollars spent in supermarkets are on non-food items: diapers, videos, magazines, cleaning supplies, over-the-counter drugs, tampons, condoms, dry cleaning, and photo labs. The time of day and days of the week and month they shop speak volumes about a household. But food counts too: fresh produce, meats, baby food, diet food, junk food.
Of course they can give you clues, but how can you say so much with certainty?
Bob continued to scribble, letting George explain. George obviously took pride in the accomplishment, but he didn't get much of a chance to show it off, given the sensitive nature of the data.
You can make assumptions from a single fact, but the uncertainty is pretty high. Let's say 90% of 19-year old American women are unmarried. Perhaps 70% of 29-year old ones are married, and 40% of 39-year old ones have been divorced. From a woman's age, I can only take a guess as to her marital status. But if I combine that with other data points does she read Cosmo? does she routinely diet? how frequently does she purchase condoms? those percentages multiply. I can start to gain confidence in my inferences.
He paused just long enough to bite another eggroll.
We've spent years determining correlation factors between lifestyles and purchasing patterns, he continued, chewing with his mouth open. Cross reference purchases with publicly available databases of driver's license information and you can infer a lot. The computer simply applies a table of correlation factors against the data available for the card holder and spits out everything above a threshold level. Ninety percent in this case. I can adjust that if you want.
I was incredulous. I still don't see how you can determine things like size of the household.
Typically by annual toilet paper consumption.
What if she buys toilet paper at a one of those warehouse stores?
George scanned the computer screen. She doesn't.
OK, so how can you tell something like that she has seasonal allergies?
George clicked on seasonal allergies, and a window appeared listing indicators and counter indicators. The former included consistent purchases of decongestants and antihistamines in the spring and fall for the two and a half years that Constance had had her loyalty card. The sole counter indicator was a lower than average facial tissue purchase rate for someone with allergies.
I reached for the computer and checked the rationale behind the other assertions. It all started to make sense. Even the most outlandish inferences seemed reasonable when you saw the data behind them.
Bob finished transcribing the inferences onto a second page in his yellow pad. He smiled, on his way to doing exactly what the boss had asked, but we still didn't know enough to figure out anything about her long distance preferences.
That's the easy stuff. Tried, tested, and true, declared George. He was proud of his work. The computer can do the basics, but a pro can read even more in the raw data.
Bob flipped to a fresh page in his tablet. Go, he said, with a hint of a challenge in his voice and his pen poised to pounce.
George swiveled the computer back toward himself and began working the mouse and keyboard. He studied the screen for about thirty seconds before beginning his narrative.
Last January, she resolved to lose weight. Stocked up on frozen low-fat dinners, a week later she got more serious and for several weeks bought lots of fresh produce and boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Maybe she read one of those Zone books. She bought a sweatband and new shoelaces for a pair of sneakers, so presumably she started jogging. Long laces, big feet. Some double-A batteries, too, probably for a Walkman. Minor binge in mid-February, but back to the healthy food up until spring. She bought a couple trashy romances and a Cosmo then vanished from our radar for nearly two weeks. Probably took a trip. Oh, look! She linked her loyalty card to her frequent flier card to get extra miles. How convenient. Aha! Washington, D.C., Dulles airport. Looks like a vacation: she used a Triple-A travel agent.
Wait a minute, I protested. You can see her airline reservations?
George glared at me for interrupting his story. She linked the cards. According to the agreement, that gave us the legal right to keep any data we got from the airline. It's a little East Coast commuter carrier that happens to have the same parent company as the franchised pharmacies inside our stores. So the companies are free to share the data under the agreement. George had obviously made this argument before, probably with his own corporate lawyers.
I doubt most customers understand the depth of information you guys are collecting.
He grew more impatient with me. It's an opt-in program. She filled out the application for the loyalty card. She signed the agreement which explained our data collection. She provided her name, address, phone number, and driver's license number, which obviously makes it easy for us to cross her with other databases. She even uses her ATM card to make the purchases. She made the choice to give us this data in exchange for tremendous discounts.
And yet she has an unlisted phone number, I shot back. A service which most phone companies charge a monthly fee for, so she's willing to pay for some basic level of privacy.
George raised one eyebrow, mostly in surprise. People aren't consistent. I can't help that.
Back off, Bob said to me. Let him continue.
George's eyes went back to the screen. The frequent flier card isn't doing her any good. Virtually no miles saved up, and those she has are about to expire. She doesn't travel much, at least not on this carrier.
George mindlessly popped the last potsticker into his mouth.
Apparently she picked up a bug, probably all the recycled air on those planes. Or maybe a secondary infection from post-nasal drip related to those seasonal allergies D.C. in the cherry blossom season, you know. She filled a prescription for a generic broad-spectrum antibiotic. Doctor Althouse. Same doc that writes her prescription for birth-control pills. Shortly thereafter she got a yeast infection antibiotics increase susceptibility to those, you know. She treated it with an over the counter remedy.
George scanned the platters for remaining appetizers and snatched the last eggroll without asking. Bob was struggling to catch up with his dictation.
I couldn't help but interrupt again: You've got prescription information?
Yup. Our system normally tracks prescriptions to alert the pharmacist of possible drug interactions that a doctor may have overlooked.
Sure, that's adding value for the customer. But tracking prescriptions for marketing purposes?
Listen, Jimminy Cricket: If they use the loyalty card, we have the right to capture that data. Period.
Youth, explained Bob. He gave George a half-smile and me a stern glare. Go on.
Speaking of the pharmacy, she's got a five-dollar co-pay, and here's her HMO. He turned the screen so Bob could see the spelling of the long name of her health maintenance organization. Yup, definitely a vacation. She came back with two 24-exposure single-use cameras, which were probably impulse items in D.C., since she didn't buy them in one of our stores. Then back to her pre-diet eating pattern.
Amazing, whispered Bob as he caught up in his notes. Anything else?
Let's see, we know that she normally pays by ATM card. Oh, here we go. It's a credit union. What do you know? It's the credit union for employees of that same HMO. So she works for that HMO. Swing shift. She doesn't make enough to be a doctor and she's probably too old to be an intern, so I'm guessing nurse, maybe a physician's assistant. Should take you about ten minutes to find the hospital and verify that.
Something's not right, I said, trying to put my finger on it. It hit me. If she's working at a hospital, why not fill her prescriptions at the hospital pharmacy?
Price, Bob said.
No, she's got the five-dollar co-pay, remember?
Convenience, postulated George, who seemed slightly less irritated now. She works swing, maybe the hospital pharmacy isn't open to her while she's at the hospital.
Or maybe she knows the folks in the pharmacy there and doesn't want them knowing about her yeast infection.
That's pretty naive of her, George remarked.
The waiter dropped the bill and three fortune cookies on the table.
Bob scanned his four pages of notes. Is that it?
George arched his eyebrows in surprise. That's an awful lot. With this kind of detail, we can more than make up the two hundred bucks a year she's saving on loyalty card discounts. You should be able to do something with it.
Of course that's a lot. I'm impressed George. Overwhelmed, in fact.
Bob plopped his Corporate American Express card down on the bill.
George snatched it up and handed it back to him. Yes, you're going to buy me lunch, but not on a credit card, and you're not going to expense it. I just shared valuable data with you. There will be no traceable record of this. Cash is still anonymous.
With an embarrassed smirk, Bob turned his wallet upside down, proving it was devoid of cash. They both turned to look at me. With a heavy sigh I dropped $32 dollars on the table. Appetizers make for an expensive lunch.
Bob and I cracked open our fortune cookies. George popped the floppy disk out of his notebook computer and cracked it open. He withdrew the magnetic surface like a fortune and tore it. Nobody was ever going the read that disk again.
When we got back, Bob disappeared into his office and closed the door. I went back to my cubicle and started to make a spreadsheet with stuff we knew about Constance. After an hour or so of trying different ways to organize the facts, Bob stepped into my cube.
Go home, pack a bag, and meet me at John Wayne Airport by 8:30. We're going to Boston. Red-eye. He dropped a sheet torn from his yellow pad with some flight information scribbled on it. I'll find you at the gate. Just park in the long term lot, and you can expense it when we get back. He left before I said a word.
Except for the hour layover, I managed to sleep on the plane. I don't think Bob did. By the time we landed in the morning, Bob looked awful. The summer heat in Boston should have been nice: mid-80s, right where I like it. But I didn't expect the oppressive humidity when we stepped outside the Logan Airport terminal to get into the rental car. Instantly I was drenched.
Bob drove the white Geo Metro while I navigated from the rental agency map as it flapped in the blast of air from the A/C. It took about 45 minutes to get to Clearwater Road. Suddenly I felt like a detective in a television cop show as we slowly trolled by Constance's house.
The house was off white, near the end of the quiet suburban street. Most of the neighboring homes were well groomed, but Constance's front yard consisted mostly of the exposed top of a huge boulder. The rock blocked most of the house from the street, except for the garage and a single kitchen window above it. Stone steps cut into the boulder led up from the driveway at least fifteen feet to the front door.
Bob studied the house for a moment, but apparently didn't see anything worth noting on his legal pad. He told me to find the county records building on the map. I waved the useless rental car map and laughed, so we drove to a gas station, bought a better map, and looked up a few addresses in the Yellow Pages at a phone booth.
At county records, Bob pulled up some information on Constance's address. I never realized that property deeds were public information. Interestingly, she didn't own it. One of her relatives did: Nancy Neifeld. I was surprised to see how it was actually written on the title: Nancy Neifeld, an unmarried woman. Bob concluded that Constance (or Connie, as he was beginning to call her) must rent the house from her relative, maybe her mother or sister. From George's data, we knew she lived with just her son.
Bob also tried to look up a birth certificate and a marriage certificate for Constance, but they had neither. No dissolution of marriage either. That wasn't definitive, of course: she may have been born in another county, and she may or may not have been married when she had her kid. George's data had simply told us that she was currently single.
The next stop was a Radio Shack. Bob swooped in, selected a cheap set of kid's walkie-talkies, batteries, and some electrical tape. I just tagged along in puppy-dog mode again. At the counter Bob produced two crisp twenties, fresh from the ATM.
Can I get your address? droned the clerk.
What do you need my address for? It's a cash transaction.
As if reciting it for the ten-thousandth time, the pimply-faced clerk replied, We collect your information to enhance value by providing specials targeted to your interests.
Bob handed over the twenties and gave the address of our office back in Irvine.
We drove to another strip mall, very near Connie's house. Bob tore the walkie-talkies from the box, loaded the batteries, and taped down the transmit button on one of them, which he slipped into his shirt pocket. He handed the other one to me. Stay here and take notes. He walked into the Blockbuster Video store.
Unsure of what kind of notes he wanted me to take, I transcribed as much of what I could hear through the little radio into my PalmPilot.
Bob: Hi, uh, I was wondering if you can help me out.
Clerk: Of course. What can I do for you?
Bob: I just flew into town to surprise my girlfriend for her birthday, and I wanted to get a romantic movie to watch after I take her out to dinner.
Clerk: The one in your hand is a popular choice.
Bob: That's the problem. I know she goes here all the time, so I don't know if she's already seen it or not.
Clerk: So how can I help?
Bob: Perhaps you could just pull up her file and see if she's rented it.
Clerk: We're not supposed to do that.
Bob: Oh, c'mon. You wouldn't want to spoil her big night, would you?
Clerk: I don't suppose you have her Blockbuster card.
Clerk: What's her phone number?
[Bob rattled off Connie's number from memory.]
Bob: That's right.
Clerk: She hasn't rented the selection you're holding. [Pause.] In fact, you're probably safe all along the New Releases section. I don't see any recent titles here.
Clerk: She rents a lot. Mostly Hitchcock films, it seems. Some of them twice.
Bob: Yeah, she loves those classic thrillers. OK, I'll take this one.
Clerk: Do you have your card?
Bob: Yeah, but I'm from out of town, you can just put it on her account.
Clerk: No, sir, I can't. But your out-of-town card should work here, if I can swipe it. [Pause.] OK, Mr. Peterson, can I have the last four digits of your phone number?
Clerk: Great. With the late fee from the Irvine store, that's $5.75, due back on Sunday by midnight.
Bob: I can pay my late fee here?
Clerk: Yup, at any Blockbuster.
Bob climbed back into the car handed me the video and asked me to drop it in the return slot. Then, after one more pass by Connie's house, we drove to the hotel. Bob ordered a wake-up call for four o'clock and collapsed onto his bed in his clothes.
I went into my adjoining room and jacked my laptop's modem into the hotel phone. I wanted to see what I could find on Connie on the Internet. I got lots of hits, but none of them were relevant. After more than an hour of surfing, I gave up and took a swim in the hotel pool.
By five we had finished our Big Macs and were in the car and heading back to Clearwater Road. Connie's house looked the same this time, except there was a green Saturn coupe parked in the driveway. Relatively new. Child seat installed in the back. Bob wrote down the license plate, registration expiration date, and the dealer name from the frame around the plate. At the end of the street, Bob made a u-turn and parked a couple houses away from Connie's.
Bob pulled out his cell phone and called someone. Another friend with connections. Another favor. Bob read the license plate number and gave Connie's last name. The call ended. For a luddite, he sure had a lot of well-connected friends. We sat silently. Less than ten minutes later, his cell phone rang. Interesting, he uttered as he took notes on his legal pad.
Interesting. Thanks anyway. He hung up.
You had someone check out her registration? I asked.
Yeah. Got her driver license number from her plate.
What can you get from that?
Everything, normally. Massachusetts still uses Social Security numbers for licenses. SSNs are the keys to the most precious data: credit history, court documents, military. All sorts of stuff.
So now what?
Nothing. Massachusetts normally uses SSNs, but when somebody raises a stink, they make up a separate number instead. Turns out Miss Neifeld raised a stink.
So you got her driver's license number, but it's not her Social Security number, so you can't use it.
Yup. Bob stared out the windshield. His brain must have been racing.
We're just going to sit here? I asked. Like a couple cops on a stake out?
Yup, said Bob. The nap hadn't really refreshed him. There were dark circles under his eyes, and the humidity was obviously wearing him down. He had changed clothes, though, so at least he wasn't as wrinkled.
We waited. And waited. Eventually, I dozed off.
I was awakened by motion. Bob was slowly inching our little Geo forward. A woman was backing out of the driveway in the green Saturn. Dark hair, creamy complexion. Like Demi Moore, but carrying a few extra pounds. No kid in the back, but there was another car parked in front of the house now. The babysitter, I concluded.
We followed the Saturn, just like in the movies. I felt anxious. Curious. Here we were, surreptitiously following this woman we knew so much about. It felt dangerous. It felt wrong, but my guilt was surpassed by my curiousity. By my desire to see this through. I wondered how all this information we were finding would help us satisfy the CEO back in Irvine. I looked over at Bob. I don't think guilt even occurred to him. He was determined to redeem himself. The CEO had embarrassed him in front of all his colleagues, and I think he was beginning to realize that technologically, he was behind the times. Having a kid like me around to help him out with his spreadsheets and Internet connection probably didn't help.
We followed for nearly 25 minutes. Connie was a bit of a lead-foot, so it was tough for Bob to keep up and remain inconspicuous. We arrived at the hospital. Connie parked in the employee lot, while we pulled into the adjacent visitor lot. Connie donned a nurse's cap, and headed inside. She was a nurse, working the swing shift. We had confirmed what George managed to infer from her grocery bill.
Bob sat silently. I was afraid to ask what he was thinking. It seemed he was desperately trying to concoct a reason to go inside, ask questions, and find out more about Connie. The jet lag was evident on his drawn face. The sweat stains around his armpits had grown enormous. The dark spots under his eyes seemed darker than ever. It was dusk, and most of the light on his face was from a sodium-vapor lamp that made him look sinister. Obsessed.
Think you could drive with these crazy Boston drivers? he asked finally. An odd smile crossed his face.
Bob climbed out of the car, placed his right hand in the door jamb, and without hesitation slammed the door on his hand. It was intentional, but he couldn't hold back the scream. Yowsa! That must have hurt. A little blood trickled from a small cut, and his hand was bent in an unnatural way. He had broken his own hand. A few more expletives slipped between his clenched teeth.
His left hand fished in his pocket for the car keys and tossed them to me. Through clenched teeth he said, Head back to the hotel. I'll call you when I'm ready to be picked up. He turned on his heel and marched toward the emergency room door.
I didn't know what to do. Following him into the emergency room wouldn't help, and it didn't seem like a lot of fun. So I drove back to the hotel.
I flipped through the television channels for an hour. I considered ordering a pay-per-view movie, but I wasn't sure how that would look on the room receipt, and I didn't want to mess up the expense report. Eventually I dozed off during a rerun of Larry King Live and had nightmares of fingers and hands being smashed repeatedly in car doors.
I must have leapt off the bed when the phone rang. I was nearly 1:30 in the morning. Bob was ready to be picked up from the hospital. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and piloted the Geo through the humid night back to the hospital. Bob's hand had a splint and was wrapped in bandages, and he looked groggy. It was beyond a lack of sleep. Pain killers.
I got behind the wheel again, and started to drive back to the hotel. Bob hadn't said a word.
Learn anything? I asked to break the silence.
No. Maybe. I don't know.
Worth breaking your hand?
I didn't talk to her directly, but I got bits and pieces from other people on the staff. She's been here for three years. First six months in pediatrics. I'm not sure what department she's in now. It wasn't the emergency room. That Dr. Althouse works here, too. They might have a thing going.
I glanced over. His eyes were glassy, unfocussed. It would sure help if we knew what we were looking for. He slipped into semiconsciousness. Then he woke up again. This is your turn coming up.
The hotel is straight.
We're going back to her house, he said, growing more alert.
What can we possibly do in the middle of the night?
We cruised down Clearwater Road. Not a single light was on. The neighbors were all asleep, or at least sweating on top of the sheets in their dark bedrooms. Apparently the next morning was scheduled for trash collection. Garbage barrels lined the streets. Connie's didn't have lids. Neatly tied plastic bags were visible poking above the rims. The babysitter's car was still there.
Pull right up to her barrels.
Do it! And pop the trunk.
I coasted to a stop beside the garbage. Bob sprung from the car, snatched the plastic trash bags with his good hand and tossed them into the trunk. We took them back to the hotel. I was anxious. Afraid. We had crossed a line. I was an accomplice, and I was wracked with guilt.
Bob tossed his bag on the desk, fished another pain pill from the bottle in his pocket, and swallowed it without even a sip of water. He tried to grasp the bag with both hands, but his right hand refused to cooperate.
Help me! he barked.
I tore the plastic bag open and took a step back. Bob furtively sifted through the contents. A stinky milk carton, dirty Kleenex, and orange peels. Strips of paper.
Little strips of paper.
Bob plunged his good hand into a ball of the little strips and pulled out a handful. He held it high, his arm extended, as if offering it up to the light fixture.
I gasped. She has a paper shredder.
Bob had a manic look in his eyes as he gazed upon the nest of paper. Shredded junk mail. Shredded bank statements. Shredded credit card receipts.
She uses a paper shredder, I said again. She's trying to protect her privacy. She refused our telemarketing call. She has an unlisted phone number. She doesn't fill her prescriptions at the hospital where she works. She got a special driver's license number. She shreds her junk mail.
Bob opened his hand, and the confetti fluttered to the floor. That was the answer. Connie L. Neifeld was not going accept a call from our telemarketer. She resented the violation. She had expended some effort to protect her privacy, and yet we had managed to buy her phone number and used it to try to sell her something.
My guilt gave way to a little chuckle. We had done all this work, prying into her private life, only to find that she valued her privacy. And that sense of privacy was our answer. I could picture the presentation to the CEO: unsolicited telemarketing calls were too invasive for Constance L. Neifeld. To get her to switch, we needed to find a different advertising channel, and to find a marketing message that appealed to her desire for privacy.
Bob's expression changed. For the first time in two days, it seemed to take on a sane expression. Did the revelation trigger the guilt that he had so far eluded? He collapsed face down on his bed, his bad hand tucked beneath him. He was asleep in seconds. The pain pills had caught up with him.
But the story didn't end there. I awoke hours later and checked Bob's room. He was gone. I looked on the nightstand and saw that the car keys were gone. Bob had gone somewhere. I pictured him wrestling with the morning Boston drivers, high on pain pills, and steering with one hand.
Moments later, Bob staggered back in. His shirt was drenched. Something was clutched in his left hand with the car keys. It was then I realized the trash bags were gone.
You took her trash back?
Bob nodded. Something was wrong. Had the guilt finally settled in?
What's up? Were you seen?
He shook his head. No. I slipped the bags back into the barrels. Then I started to pull away, and He dropped whatever it was he was holding onto the desk and popped another pain pill down his throat. And as I pulled away, a cat shot out from nowhere. Right in front of me. Right under the tire.
I tried not to picture the crushed cat. I failed. I cringed.
Bob picked up the item from the desk again, toyed with it for a second, then tossed it to me. It was a little collar. Nylon. Pink. There were two metal tags. One was a pet license. The other was an identification tag. It had the Clearwater Road address and phone number stamped on it.
My heart sank. Up until that point we had invaded Miss Neifeld's privacy, but we hadn't actually entered her life. We hadn't affected her. I had been trying to whitewash my guilt with that thought. Now, Bob had accidentally killed her cat. My hands were dirty, too.
I turned the tag over. It read: My name is Connie-Lynn. I belong to Nancy Neifeld.
My jaw dropped. Connie was the cat. Nancy, the homeowner we had presumed was a relative, was the woman we were interested in. She so cherished her privacy that she had used her cat's name to get the loyalty card from the grocery store. Somehow the phony name had spread through the world of direct marketing, from one list broker to another, and eventually to us. Then, one day, our telemarketer had called and asked this privacy-minded woman if her cat would like to change long-distance companies.