Business Trip Epiphanies
The Shuttle Bus
It was a TV scene from a 70‘s detective drama: as I pulled into the overstuffed economy lot, I saw in my rear view that I was being followed. While my head turned back and forth like wipers on a wet windshield, the shuttle bus’s headlights grew a little brighter; a little closer. I continued to drive up and down the relentlessly full rows of parked cars, but far from being anxious, I was comforted. This was the most human thing I’d experienced so far in my trip — unlike the way I had arrived. Turn-by-turn directions by a collection of tones emanating from my cell phone and pushed through my car stereo in a way that merely resembled a woman’s voice was a kind of willful self-deception. It’s designed to have the feeling of caring; she seems knowledgable, but the truth is, she doesn’t actually know a damned thing. She’s not even a she. Ones and zeros react to when I trip certain triggers, thanks to GPS. I turn right, and the phone’s app generates a series of patchwork sounds that create words all stacked like dominoes, and I believe I’m being guided to stay in the left lane for the next quarter of a mile. I will still need this bogus humanity it to get home because, unlike using a card catalog in the 4th grade, or asking for directions at the corner service station, this on demand voice-not-voice will be just as immediate, just as efficient, just as accurate next time, so…why should I bother to actually remember how I got here?
The bus was behind me before I even killed the ignition. I felt awkward as I fumbled from behind the steering wheel with the perpetual coil of cords that for me seem to embody contemporary “connected” life: the phone charger that I hastily disconnected and tossed aside, and the ridiculously overpriced “audiophile” headphones that I so meticulously — well, as meticulously as guilty haste would allow — wound and tucked into their synthetic pouch.
Standing next to my car, thrusting my arms into my suit jacket like a shadow boxer, I saw the driver in the filtered early-morning light. He was a turtle of a man. Late 60’s, perhaps, but the age spots and folds on his gray-fuzzed neck made it difficult to tell. He face was shod in glasses that hailed from the Charles Nelson Reilly era: brown plastic frames with big, rectangular lenses. They caught the greenish color of the dash lights, giving his apparently elderly skin a strange glow, and made even more sallow by the sodium vapor lights in the lot, and the fact that the sky behind the bus was curling in deep indigo clouds.
I tried to make small talk. I’m lousy at small talk.
“Curb service, eh?”
He looked down at his hands, hulkish turnips, gently folded as he seemed to clean one dirty nail with another. His wedding band was like a clamp around a sausage, but it caught the light. Looking my way, he softly, slowly drawled with the sonic grace of Eeyore, “Yeah. We’re the best.”
Suddenly, I felt…looked after.
“S’gonna downpour, soon.”
I walked around the back of the bus. I sat down near the front, fumbling for my boarding pass that I had dutifully printed out at home. I have never been a punctual sort, and to this day when work stress gets too great, I’ll dream at night about missed planes and trains hurtling towards unspeakable death and mayhem. When I exit a hotel room, I’ll do multiple laps of that room, all the while gripping my luggage and pulling it on its skate wheels around the bed and into the bathroom for fear that I’ve forgotten some irreplaceable trinket or article of clothing. I’m horrified at the thought of realizing on the plane, after hustling — unnecessarily — for my seat, that I’d left my hypersonic toothbrush behind the faucet handles in the bathroom.
I chose not to put my backpack or briefcase on the provided rack, but instead clutched them near as if I was on my way to Kennedy or Newark Liberty. Looking up, I saw that his windbreaker-clad arm had been extended to me for what had probably been several moments. At the end of the log his hammy fingers clamped a scrap of paper on which he’d scribbled the coordinates of my little red car.
“There ya go, so’s you won’t forget. Cute little thing…is that a Golf?”
“Huh? Oh…yes it is. I mean, it’s a Golf on steroids. It’s a GTI.”
I furrowed my own brow at the realization of my own awkwardness and misplaced need to name drop. Who the fuck cares?
Good natured, he continued, “I’ve read that people love those cars. That they just go n’ go n’ go.”
“I do love mine,” I said, relaxing a bit. “She’s six years old, and just freshly paid off, so I love her even more!”
“Oh, I hear you there. I was also reading about how much different cars cost people over time, ya know… That some of the most expensive cars just don’t make sense to own when you’re dropping a grand every time you have to have it worked on.”
When he spoke, he seemed to turn his whole body, and he tenderly motioned with his right hand as he did. His brown baseball cap’s adjustable snap band was on its last extended button, and his shoes were Dr. Scholls. His diction was precise, his pace measured. His wedding band clicked against the hard plastic steering wheel as he turned it, never crossing hand-over-hand, but moving each hand near the other, then separating them apart, as his gaze looked in the direction of the turn.
“Goin’ someplace interesting, I hope?”
“May I ask what it is that you do? If you don’t mind talking about it?”
That question always throws me off guard. There’s what I’d like to be able to say that I do, and there’s what I really do. It’s the same conflict I have when someone asks me, “How are you?” I have to quickly determine if they really want to know, or if they’re just checking a conversational box.
But this kindly gentleman really wanted to know. Just like he really wanted to know about the cost of upkeep of all the cars he drove past each and every day, pairing them with their owners.
“I…work in pharmaceutical marketing.”
That phrase, of course, has as much value to the average person as “I work in business.” So I elaborate: “My team and I produce materials that help doctors understand about new products and new therapies.”
For a few blessed seconds, my conscience is assuaged. Then I realize I’m on a shuttle bus, traveling for hours to a town that, otherwise, has no value to me, to go to restaurants I couldn’t afford to take my family, with people I wouldn’t go out to eat with if I didn’t need to work with them.
“How did you get into that line of work, if that’s okay to ask, too?”
Instinctively, my mouth began to form the phrase, “I have no idea.” But taking a breath, I did a quick retrospective, and travelled back in time to when I received a fateful recruiter call one day many years ago before I ever knew the first thing about the vagaries and anomalies of the pharmaceutical industry.
“I studied to be a painter. An illustrator. And a photographer. But I was laid off from the graphic design studio where I worked, the whole company went belly up really, and…I got this call.”
The passenger drop-off area was visible, over his shoulder and through the windshield. The high-vis orange and yellow vests of airport security people could be seen milling around the doors where the sky caps toted that barge and lifted that bale.
“But did you feel that you sold out, that’s the question, right there…”
His eyebrows would raise high above his Charles Nelson Reilly frames, as his lower lip jutted out in simple concentration on his equally simple job.
This time, I didn’t restrict my instinctual response.
“Oh, Lord, yes.”
It was a cathartic answer. I wanted to be probed further. I wanted his simple absorption in his own equally simple work and his ease with questioning me to help me unlock why I couldn’t bring myself to not get on that plane and continue to allow my heart and life to be leeched out by degrees each and every soul-sucking day.
I have absolutely no recollection of the next 45 seconds or so of conversation; either his response or my counter-response. All I recall was apologizing to him as I stood to walk out the wide doors.
“I have to remember to get cash before these trips. You deserve a tip!”
Turning full towards the door, with his elbow up high on the wheel and his other arm draped over his knee, he muttered a dismissal. “Eh, catch me on the way back.”
I pursed my lips in a gesture of gratitude mixed with guilt, and turned to walk down the open doors of the bus, knowing full well that I’d probably never see this gentleman again.
In the Terminal
The job that took me away from the midwest was my first real job in the so-called healthcare marketing segment. I say, “so-called,” because the only people whose health I ever cared for was the owners, stock holders, and lawyers of the clients.
It was a New Jersey agency. Near the shore. Most of our clients were dental, and I don’t mean toothbrushes and toothpastes. I’m talking brands you’ve never heard of, but your dentist sure knows: makers of dental chairs, drills, and that gritty, chalky paste the hygienist uses to whittle away at your plaque after she denigrates your sub-par cleaning regimen.
One of the men who worked there was significantly older, and, if the stories he told weren’t as fabricated as a gold crown, he had no need to work there. He name dropped “superstar” dentists with whom he supposedly had career-long relationships, and spoke of patents he held and inventions he had sold “back in the day.” And he lived in New Jersey’s affluent Northwest, an hour from the office.
Outside of his Rolodex (are you old enough to know what the hell a Rolodex is?) his contribution to the fledgling company eluded me. However, I do remember two things about him with the kind of clarity that comes courtesy of a bitterly-tinged memory.
When my abilities as a daft, young creative manager got me in a frustrated pickle, such as — a third round of concepts presented to a recalcitrant client meant our budget was shot—he’d play the grandfatherly card with the same advice: “Remember, it’s only business.”
That young college grad designer taking too long to understand how to please our biggest client? Fire them. Quickly. But remember, “it’s only business.”
When you’re pitching a potential new client, and you know the right direction to explore, but the Ol’ Boys Network approach shoves you in a direction as gentle as cement shoes that won’t sell with consumers but for which the client will cream his Depends, just smile a tight-lipped smile, cross your arms and lean over your desk and say, “don’t take it personal. It’s only business.”
Oh. And he used to drink coffee mugs filled with hot water — and a squirt of squeeze margarine.
After numbly submitting to the TSA dance, I found my gate, and immediately set up shop. I’ve learned to scope out electrical outlets along the outer walls of terminal gates with the acumen of a sniper.
Yes, I’m a cordie.
My behemoth 17” Mac laptop plugs into the wall and my iPhone plugs into the laptop’s USB. My audiophile noise-canceling headphones are powered on while plugged into a small portable amplifier — also plugged into USB.
No battery goes down on my watch.
Before turning on my favorite rendering of Chopin’s Nocturnes, a birdish man, installed like a fire extinguisher in a nook, speaks sharply at his Blackberry. He, too, is wearing headphones.
“No, Shelly, forget about it. It won’t work. It’s incompatible. I’m not going to talk about it anymore. They are worthless. Worthless. Without value. The worst company I have ever dealt with. Completely. Quit wasting both our time here. What’s his number. I’m going to call him, and sue him, and just get it over with.”
He fingered the Blackberry as if it was a dying sparrow. His feet were propped up on an adjoining chair. He wore what looked like Hush Puppies, or some other soulless, taupe-colored, suede shoes.
“Let me speak to your manager. Alright then, I’ll drag you into this, if you prefer. You sold us a package that your coworker told an employee of mine would never work with our system. Yes. Yes you did. Let me speak to your manager. Now. Let me…I said, alright, if that’s your position, I’ll pull you down deep. Here we go. What?”
His nose was pointed like the sharp tip on an old-fashioned can-opener, and his rat-tat-tat attack of a voice was monotone.
“No, here’s…stop. Listen. You have until Friday to get those gift cards working, or I’m going to to implicate you when I sue your firm for seven thousand dollars. I’m telling you this as a courtesy. Yes. Yes, I am. I’m giving you this… Excuse me, sir? Is that a threat? Alright, then, if you want to escape litigation, put your manager on the phone. Now. Now, sir. Yes, sir. That’s what I said. Yes. I’ll hold.”
I pretended to be listening to music and typing as I snuck a glance at this man: Mid-40’s. Thinning, sandy hair. A face that was both expressionless, yet wild-eyed with an intensity that made me wonder if he’d done coke in college. Plaid, button-down shirt and soft jeans that were clearly expensive but said, “safety whore” at the same time.
“Hullo, sir? Yes, I’m telling you that your associate and your firm sold me a system that you knew full well would not work, and I’m giving you…what? Yes, you did. Yes, you knew.”
His monotone intensity had gone up a few decibels. It was clear that he was either fearless, or driven by fear. Both fuels will power a man to the same stupid ends. He was trying to keep it impersonal.
“As a professional courtesy and to give you the opportunity to make this right I’m giving you until Friday to get the gift cards working as stated in the contract or I’m going to sue you for seven thousands dollars. Friday. This Friday. No, you did this will full know…what? Sir, what did you say?”
And then, bird man cracked.
“You lying SOB. Sir, you have insulted me, and have attempted to defraud me and I…you, you sir, you are a liar. You what? Bring it. Come on. Let’s go. Let’s do it. I’ll have those papers drawn up as soon as I’m off this call. I hope, no…sir, I hope that, yes, your company goes bankrupt before the end of the quarter. Yes, sir. If you won’t comply with my demand then you’ll be sued faster than you know what hit you. Yes, sir.”
And with that, his shaking fingers pressed a button, and he packed away his phone.
But. It was only business.
Charlie Brown’s teacher announced that it was time to board. The language was indistinguishable from choking or drowning. The only reason I knew it was my flight being called was because of the melodious timbre of the female voice vomiting out of the speakers, at an audible volume. If it had been another gate, it would have been quieter.
I’m not a frequent flyer. I don’t have “points,” and I don’t get bonus upgrades. However, I’ve flown for business enough times that I’ve learned not to be a jack-in-the-box when my flight info is called. There’s too much marketing yet to endure, and I’d rather ignore it sitting than standing.
“At this time we’d like to invite our Gold and Platinum CloudFlyer members to enter through the red lane on the left…”
Through the “red lane?”
In front of the woman with the microphone, with her dingy gray-putty computer terminal and LED flight information in red letters behind her, are three velvet ropes and two carpet remnants. One rope extends directly out from her to where the cattle queue begins roughly ten feet away. On either side of it are the colored carpet remnants exhibiting enough wear that I’m pretty sure planes have each landed on them. During the winter. Another rope borders the outside edge of each frayed remnant, so as to prevent any passenger from falling off it’s precarious edge.
Let’s be clear here: there is only one doorway to the jetway, and it’s not exactly gilded. All of us, no matter the state of our pedicures or the date of our last NSF notice, are getting on that plane and hurtling to the same destination through that one door.
But God bless ‘em, there are two nattily carpeted lanes by which to show off the relative size of our vanity to our fellow flying boxcar inhabitants.
Attached to the chromed center post that affixes the dividing rope is a sign, designed in the colors and branding of the airline. It, too, is divided down the middle, with arrows that point to the natty carpet of many colors. On the left side, it reads, “Gold and Platinum CloudFlyer Members.” On the right, it reads, “Silver CloudFlyers Members and coach passengers.”
Sheep on the left. Goats on the right. Or waitaminnit, I think it was Brahmin and untouchables…
As if this macabre sorting dance of capitalist shame wasn’t enough, it’s only the beginning. After the poor sots of Silvers — those nebulous souls who actually pay money for the right to merely appear indecisive — have boarded, “keeping to the blue lane on the right,” it’s time for the Zone Parade.
My boarding pass, printed at home on my own printer with my own paper, is stout and crisp. I’m a designer by training and a photographer by choice, and the inks and papers I use are admittedly designed to work a little harder than most. The “you gotta be kidding me” irony is that my Zone 4, back-of-the-bus boarding pass is actually of higher tangible value than the toilet paper Silver pass of the IT developer who just boarded. He printed his at one of the dozens of kiosks near the ticket counters. Those stingy little droids are stocked by the same people who decided we’d no longer have meals on flights.
The 1’s and 2’s having boarded, one scanner beep at a time at the business end of the blue lane, I haul my packed and topped-off gear to a seat closer to the binary carpet. That’s where I heard Sugar Sweet working from the road.
Sugar Conducts an Interview
“Oh, ah know, shugg, ah know.”
Sugar Sweet is my name for the southern business woman I lighted near, as the 3’s were disappearing into the uni-hole. There couldn’t have been a more bizarre contrast to Bird Man, except for one brilliant fact: they were both expert at being disingenuous.
“Did you ahlready git cher paperwork eeyin, shuhg? You deeyid? Well that’s just wonderful, hon. Saves us a few steps, now, you know. Now, let’s go ahead and talk about that last little detail, mkay? You are currently a contractor, and we do have a set of best practices to follow ‘bout vettin’ and hirin’ contractors into full time positions. Ahm sure you do understand? Mmhmm. It just protects us both, right? Stephanie will have ta call and take you through the beginnin’ of the background checks, cuz she’s our HR leader, and I’m just in procurement, mkay? It’s just how we do things. If you do make it to th’ next stage, then we can talk about the roles n’ responsibilities in a little bit more detail, alright shuhg?”
How that snowball ever actually made it in to Hell, is the big mystery to me. Stephanie’s not making that call, and Sugar Sweet knows it. But no matter; we’re conducting a pre-interview, here.
Ms. Sweet had been deeply immersed in her diatribe long before I arrived at my temporary perch, and she was showing no signs of stopping, now. Sugar, you see, hon, is one of the vast, innumerable adherents to the Cult of Business. She does things the Way They Are Supposed To Be Done, and she does it with the utmost courtesy, gentleness, and respect. She is the very definition of red tape and bureaucracy, but coming from her it feels like a scented red ribbon, tied in an orderly bow.
Around your neck.
These processes are here for a reason, shuhg.
But hey. It’s just business.
A Heart, Full
I stood and took my place at the back of the rabble-rousers. We, the riff-raff of Zone 4, who will make the bulk of those ahead of the wings wonder why we can’t find somewhere in the nooks and crannies of the overheads to cram our backpacks and briefcases.
Just ahead of me were the twin rags and their guide ropes, and further behind them, next to the jetway door, was a wide bank of windows. Through them I could see the yawning swath of concrete that made up the rest of C terminal, its gates, lofty tail fins of taxiing flights, and the choreography of ground crew.
In a fleeting, crystal moment of clarity, I felt as if I was at the front of a great audience. As my vision panned to the right, taking in the breadth of the inside of the terminal, I saw the equally squirming mass of business travelers with phones to their ears, sky caps driving steroidal golf carts laden with the infirm and their baggage, mothers with irrepressible children, and the occasional pilot and flight attendant with their smart uniforms and taut, black rolling bags.
Here, on what once was prairie, is it’s singular, viral conqueror. Free enterprise. Democracy in action. The game.
My inner Eckhart Tolle, the ghost of some buried Ghandi, or some reflection of a tiny Christ attempted to come up for air, and taking it all in felt, for a brief instant, a sense of universal love for these overwrought ground crawlers, my brothers and sisters; my fellow-afflicted.
That’s when Bird Man hobbled past me, with a kind of determined crippledness. Kerthunk — whoosh. Kerthunk — whoosh. I realized then that the reason he had propped his feet up was because he was on crutches.
I came out of my twinkling reverie as his rubber-capped crutches dug into the gray terminal carpet.
“No, I don’t love you people. Maybe I pity you. I loathe the rules you adhere to, either blindly or with raw determination. You resemble the food you eat. You smell funny. You have little or no curiosity. You listen to stupid music, expect others to care for you, refuse to exercise, and most of you have spots.”
“… Aaaa-rush and a push and the land that we stand on / is ours / and people who are uglier than you and I / they take what they want from life.”
Hotel Room. After Client Dinner.
Arriving at my silent hotel room on its equally-silent floor, I’d have to swipe my room card at least twice. I was still a bit buzzed from the Lagavulin 16 year-old and the $147 bottle of Cabernet we had with the clients at dinner. They had the grilled antelope and the rabbit enchiladas with verde sauce. My account manager had the buffalo…
I set the alarm on my phone before covering up for sleep in the king-sized hotel bed. Setting the phone next to the ignored alarm clock in the room, I couldn’t help but imagine a scene occurring back in Dayton:
A roundish, frumpy man massages the shoulders of his wife of many years, pressing his spotted fingers into the folds of her pale percale gown, its print worn thin from years of sleeping next to him. He thanks her for a simple dinner, and kisses her sweetly on the cheek, and drawls, “I love you.” He reaches up past photos of grandchildren to turn off the light next to a clock radio that is set to an AM radio news station. His Dr. Scholls are set next to the door. Above them, on a hook, is a set of bus keys.
“Tell me about who you meet, tomorrow,” she says, patting his hands.
Their rings clink as she does.