Monday, Apr. 26, 2004

Being No. 101

If you're like me, which is to say ridiculously egotistical, you look at lists like the TIME 100 and wonder, Where do I fit in? Just how much did I miss by? Am I somewhere in the top 1 billion, or am I down around Dennis Kucinich?

But wouldn't it be worse to find out that you were 101, the person who just missed being recognized as one of the 100 most powerful and influential people on Earth? Wouldn't that haunt you for the rest of your life, knowing that if you had just not slept in that one morning or skipped your kid's stupid school play, you could have made it? Wouldn't that drive you Salieri-mad? That's why I needed to call someone who just missed the TIME 100 and let him know. It was the only way I could feel better about myself.

There were several candidates who just missed the list, but the one who intrigued me most was Paul Farmer. An M.D. with a Ph.D. in anthropology, Farmer, 44, is a professor at Harvard Medical School who spends most of his time at a charity hospital in Haiti that provides treatment each year for 340,000 poor patients suffering from such diseases as tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria. He has a MacArthur genius grant. The organization he founded, Partners in Health, has pioneered the treatment of HIV/AIDS and multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in resource-poor settings, a fact I copied directly from Harvard's website because I don't understand it. Farmer recently upgraded from living in a church rectory in Boston to a college dorm for the few months he's not in his home in a squatters' settlement in Cange, Haiti. He is the only person on Earth who could have lasted in a guilt-off with Mother Teresa.

Telephone reception in remote Haitian villages is apparently pretty weak, so I had to wait four days for a peasant to switch a broken cord on Farmer's Internet-based phone. When we finally talked—after Farmer had driven four hours each way for a meeting with a Dominican health commissioner—I informed him that he wasn't top-100 important. He tried to take the news in stride, though he was clearly bummed out. "I was reading People magazine recently, and a pop star—her first name is Jessica, but her last name escapes me, a blond—was saying how nice it was to be at the top of some list, the name of which also escapes me." Jessica someone? I was not believing for a second that this guy has ever read People.

I explained to him that although he missed the TIME 100, Simon Cowell made it, for being honest enough to tell people they're singing Elton John songs off-key. To this, Farmer responded, "Who's Simon Cowell?" Maybe someone should spend a little less time saving people's lives and a little more time "reading" his People.

I tried to make Farmer feel better by telling him that other important people missed the list, like Tony Blair, Alan Greenspan, Colin Powell and Paula Abdul. I also suggested that he put on his résumé "101st on TIME's list of 100 Most Influential People," but Farmer told me his résumé is "Harvard format" and has no place for it. "But I'll make sure and tell people here in rural Haiti about it later in the morning," he said. "I'm sure the patients will be anxious to know about it."

The problem with Farmer's career, it seemed to me, isn't so much that he's slacking at his job but that he doesn't have a publicist, agent, manager or even a stylist. He's probably missing all kinds of lists, like People's Most Beautiful. After all, he's not a bad-looking guy, judging by pictures I've seen in magazine stories about him, and chicks love doctors. "Look what it did for George Clooney," I explained. Farmer joked that he had indeed made People of Haiti's Most Beautiful list. I was getting the feeling Farmer had a bit of a savior complex.

We had to end our phone conversation because I had a dinner reservation, and he had to deal with a peasant with an unremitting fever. But interviewing Farmer made me feel better about myself. By not making the list, we are in a way equals. Plus, I figure it's just this kind of socially responsible journalism that will move me up higher on next year's list. And if I ever come down with a communicable disease, I know a really good doctor.