Short Story

We were planning a trip to Atlanta to visit a certain large retailer headquartered there. We argued about flying Delta, which touts itself as the world’s most trusted airline but can be primarily trusted to delay your departure, divert your flight, and somehow lose your luggage on the way. (To be fair, I prefer even Delta to Northwest, but that’s another story.)

Cowboy Bob, comfortable in his It’s Not a Boot, It’s an Attitude Durangos, was calf-roping poor Tom Haas who has been, on more than one occasion, the object of CB’s pranks. The ostensible plan was to take Tom to a strip club in the Buckhead area of the city. A midget stripper named Pinky was well know in certain circles to heat things up by shaking her outsized booty to the sound of thunder claps.

Truth may make the devil blush.

Tom was so enthralled by Cowboy Bob’s off-color descriptions of Pinky’s unbecoming behavior that he hardly noticed the winking and the shaking of heads around him. Bull Terrier accidentally snorted beer through his nose. (Not to worry, he has a small nose and it was no more than, say, a depth charge sized snort.)

Now I know that there used to be a pretty raucous bar scene in Buckhead, but things have become significantly more… uh… civilized. Buckhead is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods, not just in Atlanta but in all the Southeast. With its impressive mansions, exclusive boutiques and fine eateries – my favorite being the Holeman and Finch Public House – Buckhead has earned a reputation as the Beverly Hills of the East.

One never knows for sure with Cowboy Bob, but I suspect Pinky is just another urban legend and I fear Old Tom will be disappointed.

Then again, maybe not. Truth may make the devil blush but, I imagine, it will be Pinky that takes care of the rest of us.

The King of Id

“If you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.” – Donald Trump

There is an account we have been chasing almost as long as I’ve been in the Small Office. It is not a huge account and securing its business would not materially change our fortunes. But it is strategically important in that it is a segment leader and politically well connected in its home state.

The president is generally unlikeable. He is a stump of a man with chia pet hair and a poor complexion. He has a sly smile and a sizeable gut, giving him the appearance of one who had swallowed both the cat and the canary. Now I’m sure it’s not his fault he’s ugly and I’m sure he has had his reasons for spurning our advances, but one could wonder if life is too short to chase after a prize not worth winning.

He opined in his smarmy, oleaginous way that our major competitor is larger than us, ironically expressing his belief that size matters. Our rangy and very aristocratic CEO, the Man from Glad, decided it was time to give him a run for his money. So we invited him to visit our largest operation, a state-of-the-art facility that looks more like a university campus than it does a manufacturing plant and distribution center. The site covers every bit of 14 acres.

What is play to the cat is death to the mouse.

“Judge me by my size do you?” said Yoda. Our long-legged leader walked our prospect from building to building, inside and outside, hither and thither, through engineering and our test labs and the warehouse and the sales office, retracing his path, crisscrossing and re-crossing and double-crossing our foolish prey. With his long strides, he had our visitor running ragged, desperate to keep up and, more importantly, look like he was keeping up. What is play to the cat is death to the mouse. Rivulets of sweat ran down Chia’s layered forehead and sagging cheeks. By the time he returned to the conference room to resume discussions, his ego had melted into a soggy, sorry mess.

Oh yes, for good measure and best effect, just after the two had set off on their magical mystery tour, we turned up the heat in the conference room just a notch.

And so it was that Chia was suitably humbled, the dismissive seeds he had sown coming back to him in exact kind.

Pop Goes the Weasel

I was asked to assess the performance of a portfolio manager who I have, in the past and for good reason, referred to as The Weasel. He has a tiny face with sharp teeth, small round ears and the blackest of eyes. His neck is thick and his torso slender, so that the one flows unimpeded into the other. He is a silent hunter, skulking around in the high grass and thick hedge. He is a very political creature, squeezing in and out of tight spots, a master of innuendo, implication and impeccable timing. There is no question he gets the job done, but one always has to wonder on whom he is doing it.

I took him out to lunch, a favored custom in The Small Office. Food – going out or ordering in – is not just what we do; it is a way of being. True, it would be odd for it to be just the two of us, but I took him to a restaurant down the street from the office where you can always count on others to be within earshot. In other words, it was very public and perfectly safe. So even a clever beast like The Weasel would not be able to sniff out a rat… which I wasn’t because, in truth, I was being more the weasel. I would be wending my way into his burrow. Those of you who think it takes one to know one might imagine that he would see me coming. But you would be mistaken, for few ever recognize themselves.

He took my casual approach as good news.

My purpose was primarily to get his take on how things were going, how he felt he was doing, where he saw himself fitting in the organization. I wondered if he saw himself at all as others saw him, if he would overrate or understate his accomplishments. I gave no sign, no hint, no inkling of dissatisfaction. And since his ears were always cocked for the slightest sound of shuffling, he took my casual approach as good news. His basic mistake was in gauging my manner instead of reckoning my purpose.

Clearly he believed he had done an excellent job in the past year – even if his singular achievement was in portraying how excellent it was. So it came as a shock to him when he received a 2 (out of 5) performance rating, which translates in The Small Office system as a Requires Improvement. He was too concerned with bureaucracy, procedure and politics to take risks, to think out of the box, to engage in meaningful teamwork, to sacrifice for the good of the whole. He kept valuable information under wraps and offered up insights only when they could be foolproof and fully ascribed to him. All this not only kept back the team, but made us wonder how far he personally could progress. Stalking is, after all, a solitary business.

The Weasel came to me a few days after his appraisal. He wondered aloud why I led him on, why I was not honest with him. He disagreed with our assessment, of course, but that was beside the point. Well, it was the whole point but his questions were fair. I wasn’t dishonest with him, but I certainly wasn’t forthcoming.

Full of courtesy, full of craft, eh? All I could do was shrug.

Right from the Gecko

Gilles came to see me in my office, a look of consternation on his face. He is a Parisian who speaks English with a strong accent. He can’t pronounce his Ts, so he says things like “I’ll see you Thoosday.”

He asked me if I could help him with a language issue he’s been having. I told him to sit in the comfortable leather chair I keep for just such occasions.

As he tells it, he has heard people use the expression “from the get go”, which doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. Or maybe, the expression is “from the gecko”. But that makes even less sense. So, he asked me, which is it?

I’ll see you Thoosday.

To believe with certainty, it has been said, one must begin with doubting. Well, then, Gilles must have been very certain indeed. One colleague explained carefully why this was this but another assured him, as a friend, that this was that. A third said both were fine but meant very different things. Well enough was enough. He knew that he could count on me to clear this up once and for all.

Now geckos are endearing sorts – for lizards anyway. They chirp, they change colors, and they can reproduce without copulation. They also have adhesive toe pads. And they lick their eyes to keep them clean, which is important indeed for nocturnal creatures that eat mosquitos. So pretty much anything from the gecko is cool, right? Geico figured that out long ago. And now so will Gilles.

I looked directly into that Gallic face and said with an air of solemnity that enough is seldom enough and that he should have known this from the gecko.

Balancing Act

“But I’m not so think as you drunk I am.” – J. C. Squire, from the Ballade of Soporific Absorption

Manny B. was my first boss. He was always good to me. I learned years later that he would give me full credit for things we had done together, setting me up nicely for the next steps in my career. He was a bit rough around the edges, though, and, as such, not everyone’s cup of tea. He looked like Brezhnev, heavy set with bushy eyebrows and slicked back hair. He was a gruff and manly thing and would come out with rather ghastly expressions like “well, it’s better than bear shit in the buckwheat!” He accused his boss of changing his mind more often than a whore changes pants. Once, when he was swamped, he exclaimed, “why don’t they stick a broom up my butt and I could sweep the floor at the same time!” He did not abide Mondays and, most annoying, he had the ability to postpone eating until he was through at least two martinis. I’ve personally seen him break two teeth on olive pits. He was with martinis a bit like Winston Churchill was with whiskey; through diligent effort, he learned to like it.

He teetered and tottered, falling this way and that.

So when, at the end of a long afternoon, he was seen lurching to his car in the parking lot, the assumption was that he was drunk. A colleague helped steady him and texted me to get over there right away. Which I did.

I’ve seen Manny after a few too many. He was always a happy drunk, laughing easily if a tad too loud. But Manny was not laughing now. On the contrary, he was clearly distressed. He teetered and tottered, falling this way and that. I piled him into my car and took him home. It was an effort for me and his wife to get him down the walk and into the safety of his living room.

When I got back to the office the next day, there was a buzz about Manny, that he was falling down drunk at work and that we practically had to scrape him off the parking lot. At the Small Office, being drunk on the job is cause for dismissal.

Manny didn’t show up that day. Late in the afternoon, his wife Claire phoned me to say that he was in the hospital. It turns out that he had a viral infection of the vestibular nerve in his inner ear. The result was severe vertigo. Drink had nothing to do with any of it.

Dean Martin was quoted as saying you’re not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on. Turns out he was almost right.

What’s That Smell?

I am a pretty good judge of character. Character is a good thing when it falls within that fairly narrow band of behaviors we generally accept as normal and when it comes in moderate doses. To be sure, we get a lot of characters applying for jobs; it just takes a keen eye and about six minutes to weed out the dubious and the downright strange. Of course, that depends on your definition of dubious.

The Small Office makes the hiring process difficult for applicants. They must run a gauntlet of interviews and submit to a series of written tests, along with background checks by the NSA and blood work by SETI looking for alien DNA. Well, not quite, of course, but close enough. And even so, some ditzes, defectives and duds slip through the cracks.

Not on this day, however. For some reason, I was asked to meet with a prospective mid-level accounting clerk named Glen. I only received Glen’s CV minutes before the interview and so I had to look it over on the spot. The footer of the CV had the name Amanda on it. I asked him who that was. He said it was his girlfriend. I asked why her name was on his CV. Despite being outed so early in the game, he replied with no apparent discomfort that she had written the CV for him. I then noticed that his reference was also named Amanda. I scratched my head in mock misapprehension. Is the Amanda that gave you the reference the same as the one who wrote your CV? Sure is, he answered proudly. A friend in need, eh?

I scratched my head in mock misapprehension.

I once had to interview a prospect for an executive assistant post. She was a bit matronly, her hair tightly wound into a bun in a way that made it look like she was asking a question. A silk scarf hung loosely around her neck. When she walked into my office and sat herself down in the leather chair I keep for just such occasions, I detected an odd but familiar scent. As we talked and compared her experience with the job’s requirements, that smell and its mysterious origins became a distraction. Menthol? Camphor? Old people? She talked, I sniffed. Is that smell harmful to pregnant women? Cats? I sniffed, she talked. Then it hit me. “Got it!” I exclaimed aloud, startling her. It’s Bengay. Hah!

There was a lip smacker, an eye roller, a persistent farter, and a Gen Yer who, in a stupefying moment of Darwinian self-destruction, when asked what she liked about her old job responded that she appreciated how all her colleagues covered for her when she missed assignments or came to work late.

H.L. Mencken claimed that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Perhaps. But you could well go broke hiring them.

Terminal Velocity

“Hell… as every frequent traveler knows, is in Concourse D of O’Hare Airport.”  – Dave Barry

I have spent, over the course of my career, too much time in airport terminals. Chicago’s O’Hare, which in the past I have cited as the only airport in the world that screams at you, is endlessly dreary. Your senses and sensibilities are under continuous assault. You are surrounded – or, more accurately, engulfed – and invariably jostled by people who want to be somewhere else. And, oh, good luck finding Concourse D!

I was travelling with our overly methodical and obsessively punctual CEO, the Man from Glad. We were waiting to board a plane; since we were flying United, we knew waiting was more a reality to be endured than a process to be followed.

Suddenly, his cell phone began to ding. Ding. Ding. What the heck is that? To his horror, our CEO realized that he had screwed up time zones and we actually (theoretically?) had a presentation to give in 10 minutes to a major investor.

First we ran to the United desk and cancelled our flight. Then began a frantic search for a quiet spot with Wi-Fi where we could set up. Restaurants along Concourse B were not going to provide the privacy we needed, most certainly not Tortas Frontera with its griddle-baked pork chorizo tortas, Wolfgang Puck Café or the Garrett Popcorn emporium. Eventually, with only minutes to go, we found a place approximately near nothing in particular, under stairs, with little but a narrow ledge to sit on.

He unceremoniously ripped into his own giant foil bag of chips.

We were able to hook up with the investors and, cool as ice, as if presenting on the fly was standard practice, began our Powerpoint presentation.

Just one slide in, an airport ground crew employee in navy ARC-rated coveralls pulled up alongside, tore open a crinkly bag of Doritos, and launched into a very loud, open-mouthed chew. Munch, munch, crunch, crunch. Soon a buddy of his joined in, with a hoot and a high five. He unceremoniously ripped into his own giant foil bag of chips. Crunch, crunch, munch, munch. Seriously? I thought to myself. I mean, seriously?

What’s that noise? inquired one our straight-laced investors. Chomp. Hold on for just a minute, replied our insouciant CEO. Munch. He leaned over to our two interlopers. Lunch. Would you mind so very much moving elsewhere so that we can make a presentation? He pointed to my laptop with an exaggerated air of resignation and shrugged heavily. Sure thing, mate, said one of the crew. The two cinched their chip bags closed, rose with a noisy flourish and sauntered off.

It all reminds me of a line from Bennett Cerf, one of the founders of publishing giant Random House: Good manners, he said, is the noise you don’t make when you’re eating soup.