What’s in Your Wallet?

“In critical and baffling situations, it is always best to return to basic principles and simple actions.” – Winston Churchill

I was working on a project with a product management team from 3M. Usually I like to go down to their corporate headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, but this week, they decided to make the trip to the Small Office.

They flew in that evening. I picked them up at their hotel and we went to a fairly decent restaurant near the airport. Part way through the meal, I realized that I had forgotten my wallet. Which meant I drove without my license. Which also meant that I had no credit or debit card with which to pay the bill. I was going to be the perfect host.

I spent the appetizers running through my options – which ran from silly to nilly. They didn’t know me here, so there was no reason to trust that I would return, say, the next day with the money. I have it on pretty good authority that washing dishes is not really a thing. And I left my magic wand at home with my wallet. So first pass… nothing.

Linus (of the Peanut cartoons), for whom happiness is a warm blanket, famously said “there is no problem so big or complicated that it cannot be run away from.” That option was evaluated here and it also came up wanting: I am too slow.

In a moment of lucidity, some time between the ruffles and the truffles, I came up with a plan. Excusing myself, I went to the washroom and, out of sight and ear shot, I called our incontrovertibly heroic CEO, the Man from Glad. If he could join us, he would pay the bill and no one would be the wiser. I knew he would answer his cell – he is 24/7 available under any and in all circumstances. But on this fateful night, he was already engaged and could not help me out.

Before returning to the dining room, I tried calling my wife. Perhaps she could think of something to save the day (night). I called the house – no answer. I called her cell phone – a flip top! no less – but, again, no answer. I left messages, but I had no expectation they would be received and acted upon in time… even assuming she would be in a position to help.

I’d been gone long enough that I had to worry they’d send in the cavalry. So I returned, heavy of heart and light of pocket, to my esteemed company.

Some time between the ruffles and the truffles, I came up with a plan.

I dragged out the meal, hoping for a miracle. Various cheeses. A kind of smoothie concocted of Cointreau, a rosé wine, strawberries and brown sugar. A wonderful desert named Marie Louise, made with lobster-stuffed grapefruit, sweetness and succulence. And so on, while the clocked ticked.

And just when I figured I had run out of time and options, in swept a guardian angel: my wife. She had received my message, found my wallet, jumped into a taxi and came to the restaurant. My guests looked up quizzically as she approached the table.

“Hi guys”, she said with a relaxed smile, as if she had known them all for years. They stood up respectfully, though with not the slightest idea of who she was. She explained to them that she was at a fashion show with girl friends and that, since she had heard so many good things about these people and since she was nearby anyway, perhaps she could join us for coffee.

I could not have been more impressed and more in love with my wife than I was at that moment.

If you’ve been following the Small Office for a while, you would know that stories inevitably become sagas. So, yes, our fairy tale would end happily ever after, but it was not quite over yet. Because just when I figured I’d been saved, in swept another guardian angel: our V.P. Sales, Bull Terrier. He had received a message from our coolheaded CEO, and came straightaway to the restaurant to help me out. My guests looked up quizzically as he approached the table.

“Hi guys”, he said with a relaxed smile, as if he had known them all for years. They stood up respectfully, though with not the slightest idea of who he was.

Well we all had one last Baileys for the road, as my wife surreptitiously slipped me my wallet. So no dishes, no magic wand, just the power of real friends.

I conclude this tale with a line from newspaper and radio commentator Walter Winchell: A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out. With this, I must thankfully agree.

A Bitter Pill

A while back, I wrote about J.C. and how he turned state tax – or, more precisely, the lack of one – into a salary boost. This gave him an unfair advantage over his peers. Well, the Black Widow and her multi-legged HR minions had another weird one to deal with this week. I am never quite sure what she sees from her vantage point (tucked away as she usually is in dark places), but I do know this one had her wickedly pacing back and forth across her sticky web.

The Small Office has a medical plan, which means you do not have to default to The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known familiarly as Obamacare. The company pays the standard cost of a private health plan in whatever location you reside. If you live in Canada, where Medicare has been around since forever, the company outlay is low. If you live, say, in Denver, Colorado, the outlay can be very high indeed. Jessica, a social media maven, lives in Denver.

The cost of health coverage through a private health service provider could run as much as $20,000. This, like the J.C. situation, further hampers us in our attempt to create a fair and equitable hierarchy-based salary structure.

So Jessica made us an offer she was sure we could not refuse. Her husband already has a health plan of his own. It is a Platinum level family plan covering checkups, vaccines, urgent care, lab and hospital services, as well as prescription drugs. It costs him that $20,000 a year. If we were to pay for half of his plan, we would be able to provide the promised coverage at half the cost, saving $10,000. That her husband’s plan would now only cost them half as much should be irrelevant to us. It’s a win-win. The net effect, however – the real bother – is that we would be paying ten grand for coverage she already has. In other words, it is a simple money grab.

What we do becomes what we are willing to do.

But Jessica made her offer in such soft and sincere tones that we could hardly ascribe spurious motives to her proposal.

In the Charles Dickens novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, there is a wonderful image of a similarly calculated expression. Madame Todgers, who owns the boarding house where the Pecksniffs stay when in London, “stood for some moments gazing at the sisters (Seth Pecksniff’s daughters, Charity and Mercy) with affection beaming in one eye and calculation shining out of the other”.

You would imagine the Black Widow, likely trained by the greatest trickster of them all – Anansi the Spider – would have an answer for Jessica. That she didn’t was quite vexing to her. And once again, we were creating precedents, something anathema to the Small Office way of being. We checked with Rigor Mortis, our counsel, who basically said that the exception defines the rule. What we do becomes what we are willing to do. Or, simply put, our actions define our policy.

As usual, it was left to our level-headed leader, the Man from Glad, to end the deliberations. This, he said, will leave a bad taste in our mouths and $10K in the bank. That’s not a bad trade-off. Swallow hard and make the deal.

Which, of course, we did. Which, of course, we were always likely to do.

(Note to Small Office visitors: If you wish to meet the likes of Montague Tigg, Augustus Moddle, Lafayettte Kettle and Zepaniah Scadder, to say nothing of the ladies Spottletoe and Gamp, give Martin Chuzzlewit a read.)

Going Bugs

Jack Anderson is a big man. Well, he’s a wide man anyway, with giant hands and an oversized head that fits uncomfortably on square shoulders. He is an important distributor for the Small Office and could, I guess, be forgiven for strutting about like a potentate. And flying like one with his very special toy, a Gulfstream IV corporate jet. He is extravagant to be sure, but generally manages to stop short of excess.

Our cordial and not quite so colossal CEO, the Man from Glad, Bull Terrier (our V.P. Sales) and I hosted Jack a couple of days ago. Our day began with the perfunctory coffee and muffins in a small conference room at our head office. It was one of those conference rooms with floor to ceiling glass on two sides, one looking in and the other looking out onto a grey Thursday morning.

Jack took his coffee black. He must have found the coffee quite to his taste, because he quaffed it rather quickly. While he talked, his thick hands casually reached out to the coffee pot and refilled his cup, a cool handcrafted ceramic mug that our marketing team acquired for us to use as gift items.

He had much to say over the next two hours and much to drink. At least four or five cups of coffee and, later, several small bottles of coke. This continued over lunch in reverse order, with coke the dominant drink followed by yet more coffee. Our curious and normally discreet CEO, his brow furrowed with concern, finally asked the question Bull and I had been withholding for the last few hours. He couldn’t help but notice that Jack was consuming an awful lot of caffeine. “I’d be on the ceiling by now”, he said.

Jack shrugged and explained how he was recently on vacation in South America – an Amazon cruise actually – and was bitten by some insect. He now has some unpronounceable and rather exotic disease and has to take a very strong medication for it. The medication makes him nauseous. The only cure for the nausea is caffeine. Hence all the coffee and cokes.

True to her nature, the wife repaid his devotion by running off with a wealthy sea captain.

There is Vietnamese folk tale that suggests the origin of the mosquito: A young man foolishly desired to resurrect his dead wife. She was a vain, self-serving kind of woman but, for reasons only known to him, he remained devoted to her. He made a deal with a genie to bring her back. All the resurrection would require was three drops of his blood.

True to her nature, the wife repaid his devotion by running off with a wealthy sea captain. Finally coming to his senses and deciding he no longer wanted any part of her, the young man asked for his three drops of blood back. Good riddance she thought to herself as she complied with his wish. She picked up a sharp knife and pricked the tip of her finger. But, as soon as the blood began to flow, the loathsome libertine died and shrivelled to a husk. She was reborn as the first mosquito. She set as her mission to bite her former husband, exact her three drops of blood, and return to human form. And, so the tale goes, to this day, mosquitoes bite humans, looking for that very same elixir of life.

So what, you may ask, is the connection between Caffeine Jack and the young man in our tiny tale? Well, nothing really. Unless, in their small obsessions, they were bitten by the same bug.

Cheap at Twice the Price

“I buy expensive suits. They just look cheap on me.” – Warren Buffet

Okay, I concede. A 40-watt bulb in a cheap lamp gives off the same light as a 40-watt bulb in an expensive lamp. And a monkey dressed as a bum or dressed as a bishop remains a monkey still. But dim is dim and cheap is cheap; this is something I cannot get around.

It seems that there is competition among senior managers in the Small Office to prove who can be the prince of parsimony, the paragon of penny-pinching, the pearl of the paltry and the picayune. There is this idea that thrift equates to good corporate citizenship.

I recently described how our otherwise particular CEO, the Man from Glad, goes all penny-ante on me when it comes to hotel accommodations. In the past, I have written about a regional manager who surprised me as we exited a cab by leaping out almost before it came to a full stop. This left me alone to pay the fare and the tip. And there was the senior sales rep who, when he had to give a hotel staffer a tip, simply said, “Don’t plant potatoes in the fall”. Man Mountain, of whom we will hear more later, is a gargantuan fellow who covers more real estate than Century 21 simply by standing still. Yet when he flew into head office last month, he rented a Smart Car to save a couple of bucks. General Ledger, our CFO who pays even what is overdue grudgingly, gives restaurant waiters precisely 15%. That is, a before tax restaurant tab of $14.25 will net a waiter a tip of $2.14. He would pull pennies from his pocket to come up to the right change. Not a penny more, though he would brag that it was not a penny less.

The waiter looked at him with a dollop of disdain.

The other day, though, I believe we found our Black Knight of the nickel and dime. A few of us sauntered over to a nearby deli. A club roll is basically five different grilled deli meats on a hamburger bun. It is about $2 cheaper than a corned beef on rye. So Ned, a member in good standing in General Ledger’s white shirt brigade, orders the club roll. He then asks the waiter if he could change the hamburger bun to rye. He then asks the waiter if he could cut the five different deli meats to, say, one, namely the corned beef. Oh, and can he throw in a pickle?

Grasp all, lose all. The waiter looked at him with a dollop of disdain and said, shall I throw in fries with that? Ned smirked. The waiter kept looking at him, the dollop having grown to a gob. I’ll see what I can do, he said finally.

That, I thought to myself, is something I prefer NOT to see.

Mixed Message

We were in yet another interminable meeting of indeterminate value. This is a chronic condition in the Small Office – indeed, this is one of its defining characteristics – but this condition is becoming increasingly acute as summer approaches.

After a couple of hours, General Ledger, our CFO with the SETI satellite dish ears, called for a much welcomed bio break.

Cowboy Bob was, as always, relaxed and resplendent in slightly more casual attire than most everyone else, his stockman style boots perfect for the long day ahead. He is easily bored and prone, in such circumstances, to become mischievous.

General Ledger went to relieve the pressure building up in his tiny bladder. He left his cell phone on the table. Cowboy Bob reached over and picked up the phone. He tapped on the TEXT icon and then began typing. A short message to some unknown destination. He waited to click the SEND button until the second General Ledger re-entered the room. A click and the phone was set down quickly, to be as it was with no one the wiser.

General Ledger was blissfully unaware of the unfolding drama.

At noon, as our buffet lunch was being set up, our perfectly punctual CEO, the Man from Glad, entered the conference room, having been invited to attend the afternoon session. He waited his turn in line like everyone else, and then took those mean little party sandwiches to the table, along with little cheddar cheese squares, red grapes, and a small bottle of Perrier. Before he dug into this bridge ladies fare, he checked his phone for messages.

There were several, including one text, recently “sent” by General Ledger. It was a brief acknowledgment of the Man from Glad’s superior leadership skills and heartfelt gratitude for his being such a swell person. It was a short but syrupy suck-up. Our somewhat disconcerted leader raised an eyebrow and scanned the room. General Ledger was blissfully unaware of the unfolding drama and greedily gummed the pasty spreads that filled those horrid white bread triangles. His capacious outer ears did him little good now. The Man from Glad checked his phone again, shook his head and began to eat his lunch.

Cowboy Bob, cool as an autumn morning, never looked up.

This all reminds me of a line from Idries Shah, the writer and publisher of Sufi spirituality: “A certain person may have… a wonderful presence; I do not know. What I do know is that he has a perfectly delightful absence.”

Cereal Killer

“Parsley is gharsley.” – Ogden Nash

Food is a recurring theme in the Small Office. Being at the top of the food chain likely means that you are going for breakfast. Food for thought would be the snacks they give out at brainstorming sessions.

Anyway, I was travelling with our CEO and resident gastronome, the Man from Glad. We met up with Bull Terrier and our regional manager for the Northeast, Kyle C., for breakfast.

I ordered first. Just a light breakfast: Chorizo Eggs Benedict comprising a poached egg, chorizo, roasted red peppers, Peppadew peppers, mozzarella and Hollandaise sauce, all on an English muffin, accompanied by home fries and applesauce.

Our more disciplined and clearly less voracious leader ordered a bowl of cereal. Bull Terrier followed with a muffin and Kyle C. a fruit cup.

What, I wondered, merited their uniformly critical gazes?

When the food came, the three looked at me like they were going to lay me out on a platter and stuff an apple in my mouth. What, I wondered, merited their uniformly critical gazes. After all, why eat prunes when the peaches are ripe, right?

Our steadfast CEO scooped up a spoonful of Honey Nut Cheerios with crispy oat flakes. Oats were apparently wild on this blustery morning. Bull Terrier picked at an oatmeal muffin stuffed uncomfortably with dates, cranberries and pecans. Kyle C.’s fruit cup was mostly melon.

I dove headfirst into my Benedictine delight, careful not to get any of the Hollandaise sauce on my suit. I would have artfully framed all that tsk-tsking and moral indignation as little more than jealousy, but my mouth was full.

If I am to be accused of anything, let it be that I have manners.

Otel California

You can count on our discriminating and well-dressed CEO, the Man from Glad, to always go first class. In this, his character and wallet are fully aligned. This does not mean he is a spendthrift. On the contrary, he exercises restraint in most things. But he recognizes the lifetime value of elegant things and does not confuse self-restraint with self-denial. All that said, he is scary cheap when it comes to hotel lodgings.

I can recall one evening driving to our hotel with our Yankee Clipper and then host, Kyle C., at the wheel. He knows his territory and where it is safe to room and board when travelling. So we get close to this roach motel along a dirt road and I notice Kyle slowing down. The entrance is up a bit of a hill, but Kyle stops short, puts the gears in Park and idles for a moment. Our keen-eyed leader asked Kyle why he is not driving up to the door. Without hesitation, our maritime guide responds, “because I don’t want my hubcaps stolen”.

A loose shutter thwacked against the faded clapboard.

Fast forward to last Friday. We are scouting a place to stay overnight and we approach a shabby looking building with a neon sign flashing OTEL. Bzzzt. Bzzzt. The word flashes on and off. Bzzzt. Like an electronic bug zapper. The wind picked up and a loose shutter thwacked against the faded clapboard siding. I looked at our otherwise prudent and protective CEO, terror-stricken.

“This place is straight out of Psycho!” I cried out.

“Oh come now,” he said calmly. “It is close to where we want to be. And as long as the sheets are clean, we should be good.”

“The sheets are clean because they change them every hour!”

After much cowering on my part – I insisted that it was Norman Bates staring at us from behind ratty second floor curtains – he finally relented and we made our way to more reasonable accommodations.

Fortune may well favor the bold, but for Friday anyway, I was more than happy to park my poor and not so sorry soul somewhere else.