It wasn't a likely place for temptation, and she wasn't a likely temptress. I have a cousin who needs a 12-Step program to stay away from Bloomingdale's, but that's never been one of my particular besetting sins. I had made my pickup at "The Wall" and ridden a half-dozen times up and down the escalator with a two-year-old, thus fulfilling the two objectives I'd set out with. I had made it through the mall without coveting my neighbor's wealth, or lusting after my neighbor's spouse, and, the commandments intact, we were heading for the exit.
I saw her from the corner of my eye and sensed that my election was sure. Clutching a clipboard, she closed in. "Just 10 minutes of your time, I promise." And in an exercise of that terrible freedom that is man's, which philosophers analyze and psychologists trace to early childhood conflicts, but which to the rest of us feels like a flip of the coin, suddenly I followed her.
Into the bowels of the three-tiered Behemoth. A sterile cubicle, a table between us. A few screening questions about microwaves and such, to ascertain my middle-classness, and the first task was revealed: to indicate which of a rapid-fire litany of breakfast offerings I'd seen advertised. I was in trouble. Her pencil hovered impatiently over the paper.
"I don't watch much TV," I tried to make a virtue of ignorance.
"That's OK." She was undaunted, not believing the abysmal reality of my condition.
Name after name raced by: "Aunt Jemima's Homestyle Waffles," "Aunt Jemima's Microwave Pancakes," "Kellogg's Common Sense Oat Bran Waffles," "Swanson's Great Starts Budget Breakfast," "Downyflake French Toast," "Downyflake Blueberry Waffles."
People who know great things don't need to be ashamed when they don't know trivia; in fact, it is construed as greater glory to them to be above the fray. But when you don't know the great books, or nursing, or quilting, or American League batting averages, an interview by a breakfast food representative can be a moment of deep personal trauma. I waffled.
Finally I heard it, a glimmer of familiarity in a hostile and uncharted sea. I lunged for the word Eggo, the name triggering a 1970s TV jingle. My self-esteem was spared for the moment and her survey rescued from implausible whiteness.
But I had spoken too fast. In my enthusiasm, had cut her off in mid-sentence. It turns out there have been refinements since I last tuned in, in the early "Eggo" days when brand and variety were one. "Eggo Nutrigrain Waffles," "Eggo Blueberry Waffles," "Eggo Raisin Bran Waffles."
Too late. I was already committed. How could I break in and ask the poor woman to erase the only circle she'd scored on the page? If she sensed my equivocation, she ignored it and moved on. Page two.
"The reasons that would cause you to buy an Eggo Blueberry Waffle," was the first category.
Uh-oh. We were entering the murky realm of causality. I decided, however, not to share my private, perennial debate as to whether motivation is fundamentally multiple or one.
"'Makes me feel like I'm doing something special for myself' ... Your choices are: (1) highly probable; (2) probable; (3) good; (4) fair; (5) fairly improbable; (6) highly improbable."
I don't know about other people, but I always get bogged down somewhere between "fairly improbable" and "highly improbable," my emotions, apparently, not capable of as fine gradations as those of the test crafters. Moreover, the choices didn't fit somehow, and the implicit flattery and manipulation in the question was a tad distasteful.
"I don't know," I mumbled.
"Most people stick to the middle when they're not sure," she intoned flatly.
"All right, then, 'Good', No. 3."
"OK." (Circle). "Is convenient."
"Well, convenience is a good thing but ..."
No empathy was forthcoming from the face across the way.
"Fairly improbable," I pronounced, learning on the spot how bad speeding laws and badly phrased surveys make liars and criminals of innocent people.
"Is appropriate for women."
"What the heck does that mean?"
"It's whatever you think it means."
"Probable." (Am I blushing yet? I've never read the list of ingredients on the box, but I suspect the proposition is fairly improbable.)
"Is made for people just like me."
"Is the kind of breakfast I would make if I had the time."
(Problematic premise) "Good."
"Page three, Swanson's Great Starts Budget Breakfast."
"Excuse me, but are these going to be the same questions as on page 2?"
"Look, you're busy and I'm busy. How about we circle 'Good' all the way down?"
My accomplice complies unblinkingly, preferring the unconvincing to the unfinished.
Sensing some ineffable personal stake, I make one last stab at salvaging meaning before going under altogether: "How about just attaching a note stating that nutrition is uppermost for me?"
Maybe somewhere in the Kellogg complex somebody is interested in that comment. And somewhere in a laboratory, an underpaid chemist is worrying about the latest New England Journal of Medicine findings on oat bran. But in this room it's all about the survey. More precisely, it's about penciled-in circles and bolting out for lunch.
Ten minutes was the promise and 10 minutes it was. "Thank you. Have a nice day now," she said walking to the door.
"Yeah. Feels like summer today, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, don't forget your bag now."
I picked up my cassettes and my son, and as I rose to leave, I realized that I was capable of anything.