Jon McNeill is the Principal of Hunter.
Relatively early in my career, as I began stepping out and leading studies on my own, I was in Miami Beach doing ethnographic interviews with participatory “drive-alongs” for a luxury car brand. It was the last day in town, and I, with client in tow, had three 3-hour interviews scheduled that had to get done before we could fly out in the morning, the last one being scheduled for 9pm. This last interview was with Kenny, a guy who was actually supposed to be interviewed earlier in the week, but had to cancel because his yacht broke down and he was stranded for the day on a small island off the coast. We hear a lot of different excuses for non-participation, but that was a new one.
My client and I get through our first two interviews that day at around 8, hop back in the rental car, and start the trip to interview 3, feeling hungry and tired, having missed dinner. I called Kenny to confirm that we were coming, in case he was on another island. He answered in an energetic but distracted tone: “Yeah, laying out the drinks right now. We’ll get in the car, go get some speed, and come back and I’ll give you whatever you need.” Click.
“Speed? Oh no. Who is this guy? He must mean going fast, in his car,” I thought to myself.
I warned my client that we might have a live wire on our hands, but that we’d just go get the interview that we needed and then grab a bite.
We arrive to the address to see Kenny out front, waiting for us. “My wife is putting the kids to bed right now,” he told us, “so I’d rather not go in just yet and disturb them. Why don’t we get in my car, do the drive, go get a beer, and then come back and do the interview thing?”
We usually did the drive-along as the last part of the interview, but as intrepid researchers, going with the flow is what we do best! Plus, at this point in the day, a drink sounded pretty good. My client and I nodded our agreement and squeezed into Kenny’s convertible: me riding shotgun, and my client folded into the tiny backseat area, holding the camcorder.
As soon as I buckled my seatbelt, Kenny hit the gas and I saw the speedometer jump up to 110 mph. I looked back at my client, white knuckled and – like a champ – rolling video on the whole thing.
We rocketed through a number of dark, mostly empty Miami streets. I was disoriented but loving the way the car gripped the pavement as we took turns in high gear. Just as I was wondering why he was choosing to take us to a bar that was so far from his home, I noticed a police cruiser waiting at a stop light ahead of us. Either Kenny didn’t notice, or he wasn’t worried; we flew through the intersection, still doing over 100.
I flashed on how the rest of the evening might unfold: sirens, mug shots, bailing my informant out of jail… but the cruiser didn’t even give chase. I think the officer knew he wouldn’t catch us.
Finally we pulled into a large parking lot, full of expensive cars, in front of a small oblong building. Two huge bouncers stood out front.
Kenny turned to us and said, “Welcome to the best all-black strip club in Miami Beach!” and headed for the entrance before I could fully process what that meant. My client’s mouth was agape.
Neither my client nor I are what you might call “strip club people”. He had been telling me about how he and his partner were remodeling their house into a real mid-century modern masterpiece. As I looked down at myself, I saw with dismay that the polo shirt I was wearing kind of made me look like the guy on Blue’s Clues.
Since this experience, I’ve heard stories of researchers obliging their clients by taking them to strip clubs, all in the name of client services. And Miami’s relationship to strip clubs did seem to be more casual than other parts of the country, because a few of our other participants had mentioned in passing eating lunch or getting a drink at a strip club. But I was mortified – this was not something I was anticipating. Yet at the same time, I felt cuffed: I knew we had to get this interview checked off, and I didn’t feel like I could demand that we return to his home without ruining our chances at building strong rapport.
I turned to my client and said, “I am so sorry. If I had any idea that he was taking us here, I wouldn’t have agreed. But at this point, I’m worried about insulting him; so let’s just go in, have a quick drink, and head out.”
My client, a saint, shrugged and said, “This is just what happens when you do ethnography, right?” Right.
The bouncers patted us down and we walked inside. Not having a depth of experience in this area, I had to take Kenny’s word for it being the best of its kind in Miami. Kenny was already at the bar, waiting with our drinks.
“So, what do you want to know?” he asked me, as he handed me a beer.
I struggled to remember my protocol questions, and we talked for about five minutes before Kenny excused himself to go to the bathroom. I looked over at my client and we both made a silent acknowledgement that we were done with our beers and ready to go.
Just then, Kenny came back with a stripper on his arm. He turned to my client: “Hey, I bought you a lap dance.”
My client’s face went white. The room began to spin. My client tried to politely decline.
Kenny, confused, said, “No, she’s great, I’ve had her before!”
My client politely declined again, and suggested Kenny go for it.
Kenny asked him, “What is it? Are you married?”
“You have a girlfriend that would disapprove?”
“Well, then, what is it?”
My client started stumbling over his words, trying to come up with a firmer excuse. Then Kenny laid down his trump card.
“Look, man, I’m doing this because everyone thinks you’re cops. You’re white, clearly not having a good time, and if you don’t do this, they’re probably going to take us outside and beat us up.” He waited for my client to answer.
My client looked at me the way survivors of a shipwreck must look at the person holding a life preserver. To my shame, I looked away.
My client, resigned, was led back to a private room. I turned back around in my seat and started processing all that had happened: my conversations with my client, some of the things he said that I hadn’t caught at the time, his answers to Kenny just then… and it all suddenly clicked for me, with a sickening certainty.
Kenny handed me another beer and said, “You know, I think your colleague might be gay.”
“Yeah,” I told him, “I just figured that out myself. But what you don’t know is he’s actually not my colleague, he’s actually my client. You just gave a private lap dance to my gay client.”
I felt ill. Kenny started laughing.
“That’s really funny, man. That’s really funny.”
I think Kenny really felt badly about the whole thing. After my client returned, we left and Kenny took us out to dinner at a kitschy piano bar owned by an old gay friend of his. We all laughed and told stories about crazy things that had happened to us in our lives, and at the end, without us knowing, Kenny paid for everything.
The night ended back at Kenny’s house, in front of a literal parking lot full of his Audis, Porsches, and huge SUVs. He was a fantastic informant, and helped me craft the recommendations for the brand based on his interview.
The car ride back to the hotel was pretty quiet. “Strange night, huh.” I said. My client nodded his head.
We shook hands at the hotel elevator and said goodnight. That was the last time I saw him – he wasn’t at the final presentation, and I heard that he had left the company not too long afterward.
At the end of the study, we sent him a client satisfaction survey, which was standard practice for us at that time. To my shock, it came back straight 10s. My client was a saint.
Unlike many of the other War Stories, this doesn’t paint me in the best light – mistakes were made, character flaws became apparent. But in some ways, the ability to realize that you’ve made mistakes and are flawed is one of the things I treasure most about anthropology — ever since my Intro to Anthro college courses where I began to learn about the long, illustrious line of mistaken and flawed anthropologists who came before me. In fact, often those mistakes and faux pas were the keys to unlocking some heretofore hidden cultural truths. And I think that night was no different, although I don’t think the cultural truths that were unlocked for me were necessarily about luxury automobiles.
I can’t see myself getting into the same situation now – there were at least two inflection points that night where today I would have directed things differently – but it could be that going through that experience together, the three of us, led to a deeper connection and (eventually) a successful interview. It certainly led to a War Story.