“Huh?” I asked helplessly. We were in the middle of yet another production meeting, and I thought I’d heard my name mentioned.
“You’re going to…” and here TWO named our southern office located in some North Carolina backwater.
“Training,” TWO said. “Capital B has decided to decentralize certain functions now centralized there. We’ll need you to get up to speed as you’ll be the chief liaison between the Northeast and Southeast regions.
“Why me?” I asked. My fear of flying is well known and to her credit TWO did an admirable job hiding her glee at my discomfiture.
She gave me an answer but what it was I don’t know as her words were drowned out by the sound of smoke being blown up my ass.
“Oh,” she said rising. “One more thing: Brett will be going with you.”
Nigel sidled up to my cell, glanced up and down the hall and slipped into the narrow space. “Here,” he said thrusting several small glassine packets at me.
“A survival kit for your trip,” he said mysteriously.
At the airport, I was accosted by a burly, grumpy woman in a TSA uniform as I attempted to clear security. I am convinced TSA does their recruiting exclusively among ex-Nuns discharged from their teaching duties for extreme cruelty, and who were only too happy to substitute the Word of the Director of Homeland Insecurity for papal infallibility. I caught her eyeing my hand and I knew instinctively she was wishing she had a ruler instead of a gun.
“You can’t take this on the plane,” she said brandishing a large bottle of lotion she had found in my carry-on.
“But it’s lotion!”
“I don’t care what it is! You can’t take more than three ounces of liquid on a plane!”
“Since when?” I challenged.
She gaped at me. “Since, like, forever!”
“Oh, I don’t fly much,” I admitted.
“Don’t you read the newspaper?”
“Um. Actually, no. So depressing…anyway back to your three ounce rule—I’ll be gone for three days, I need more than three ounces of lotion!”
She stared at me incredulously.
I tried again: “I have very dry skin.”
I was forced to check my bag. By now it was so late I didn’t have time to worry about what our latest travel policy said about checking luggage. Luggage checked, I sprinted down the corridor to the bar closest to my gate where I ordered two Churchill Martinis (pour gin over ice in a jigger, nod towards France, and shake). Martinis are the perfect drink for pre-flight jitters, providing maximum alcohol but with little volume thus eliminating the need to get up and pee mid-flight. (Is there anything more terrifying that standing over a toilet trying to pee while suspended in midair?)
Semi-drunk, I arrived at the boarding gate to discover my plane was delayed an hour. It would, in fact, be more than four hours before we took off by which time I was sober and the airport bar closed. I am a barely tolerable flyer drunk; sober I am impossible.
Despite the seductive lateness of the hour and the paucity of witnesses I resisted my usual post-touchdown ritual which generally involved genuflecting, kissing the ground and shrieking gratefully, unbelievingly “Land!” I picked up my upgraded economy rental which turned out to be a small unmarked armored truck and got on the “highway,” a long winding road one lane wide, sometimes two with a constantly changing speed limit: 40, then 50, then 45…40…50…40…so that you were always going too fast or too slow. It was impossible to get lost as the road ran one way in each direction, from the airport through the center of town and on out to the suburbs where the office complex was located. Even someone as directionally challenged as I was couldn’t get lost. It was dark though and that caused a certain amount of anxiety.
This training was led by Savannah, the local practice leader, a Valdosta, Georgia native and a graduate of the southern beauty queen circuit. This three-time Miss Valdosta Feed and Grain would cut your throat or throw you under the bus as easily and thoughtlessly as she had once issued the “pageant wave.” Yet she would deliver the death blow so genteelly and smile so beatifically that you almost wouldn’t mind. Imagine, if you will, Suzanne Sugarbaker with a shiv and the mind of Machiavelli. Her rise within The Corporation had been breathtaking.
That morning, she greeted everyone with a Miss America smile—lips stretched over Vaselined lips and held for the beat of a flashbulb—a smile no less dazzling for its insincerity.
As the meeting started at 7:30 a.m., there was a breakfast buffet: fish and grits, and something called “chicken biscuits.” A quick survey of the buffet table and I settled for an apple juice and the contents of Nigel’s survival kit: Vitamin C, Pepsid AC, and Xanax, of which I took two.
“Good morning,” Savannah began. “We have a packed agenda so I’m going to get started now. We’ll be running straight through until 6:45 when we’ll leave for dinner. We’ll have a working lunch around noon.”
Preamble over, she launched into the heart of the session. “Most companies today face a range of HR challenges around role definition, fuzzy process design, capability gaps within their HR function, and inadequate in-house support. Quite simply put, most organizations don’t have the bandwidth to effectively manage HR processes. That’s where we have opportunity with our outsourcing solution.
“HR business process outsourcing has moved beyond cost reduction and now plays a strategic role in helping companies improve workforce performance, enabling them to gain the agility they need to prosper even in this economic downturn.
“We are forming a decentralized Center of Excellence for HR Process Outsourcing around thought leadership, best practices and innovation in strategic talent management and new economy leadership. Our Center of Excellence model follows a multi-pronged strategy focused on maximizing the effectiveness of each company’s HR function. Redefining the HR operating model, leveraging technology, innovative sourcing and reorganizing HR processes and HR roles are the keys to our success in this space.”
As much was said and not much of it was sensible, I stopped listening early on, choosing to daydream rather than be perplexed.
We were in that twilight state of consciousness that often follows a heavy lunch and a boring speaker when Brett arrived. Pulling a pile of luggage behind him, he was wearing a very tight belted suit. A black-and-white checked shirt whose checks were easily fist-sized exploded out of the narrow opening at his neck and from his sleeves.
“I have been to thirty-two countries but this was my first time on a shuttle bus!” The words snapped in the air like a pennant.
“Hello, Brett,” Savannah said icily. “You’re late.”
“I know! I’m soooo sorry,” he said while making it clear that he wasn’t sorry in the least.
The afternoon dragged on, the endless talk punctuated by the near-constant buzzing of Brett’s iPhone.
Dinner was an equally dreary affair until Brett with his usual self-absorption said,” Don’t you know? It’s all about me!”
“No,” Savannah drawled, contradicting him. “It’s all about me.”
The woman next to me, dropped her napkin and as she picked it up whispered to me,” Oh, don’t you wish someone would just drown them both?”
Midway through dinner, Nigel tweeted me. We hadn’t been in touch all day as cell phones, Blackberries and laptops were banned so we could all focus our attention on the wisdom Savannah had committed to sharing as part of the decentralizing effort.
Nigel Gale @MannequinMan
How is it?
Prometheus Jones @THEUS
Egos at war. Like watching 2 super powers collide. Thx 4 the Xanax.
When I tuned back in Brett was speaking. “So I jump into the Town Car and I look up and there was Anna Wintour glowering at me! And then I realized I had gotten into her town car by mistake!”
This anecdote was greeted with silence.
Note to self: Name-dropping only works if your listener knows the name you’re dropping. I sighed. “Anna Wintour,” I repeated. “You know, the Devil Who Wore Prada.”
Murmurs of recognition. Brett shot me a look that would have been gratitude in anyone else. As it was the look seemed to be making a notation against me.
Eyes rolling across each other and locking drew my attention away from Brett. I could almost hear their shared thought: They really do have their own language!
Dinner was over at last. Just as everyone started gathering their things to leave, Brett said brightly,
“Let’s all go for a nightcap!”
“There’s a bar across the lobby. Let’s pop in for one quick drink, then off to bed for everyone,” Savannah said. "We have a full agenda tomorrow!” She added with false brightness.
From the twilight light provided by the jukebox, I could see there were peanuts on the bar and sawdust on the floor.
“Well! Isn’t this quaint!” Brett bleated. “You’d never find anything like this in New York!”
Savannah stiffened. Her haughtiness, borne of the fact that she was Savannah, three times Miss Valdosta Feed and Grain, seemed to fade for a minute. She looked both lost and baffled. That she, she, should be condemned to life in this Carolinian backwater, looked down on by the likes of Brett, was just too much, and typical of the unjust cruelty of Fate.
Brett sashayed up to the bar. Even in the dim light, I could see the bartender’s eyebrow rise and his “well would ya look at that” grin.
“I’d like a Caipirinha!” Brett fairly shouted.
“A what?” the bartender asked.
“Never heard of it.”
“Surely you must have—it’s all my friends and I drink. It’s the national cocktail of Brazil!”
“Well,” the bartender drawled, “Maybe you and your friends should go back to Brazil.”
“Fine. I’ll have a martini—very dry, very dirty—You’ve heard of that, right?”
The woman standing next to me whispered, “That bartender is so going to spit in his drink.”
I ordered a beer, which the bartender lazily handed me. Domestic. Served in the bottle. It was going to be a long night.
Missed Episode 8, Into the Fire? Read it here.
Next Episode Wednesday, July 27.
Next Episode Wednesday, July 27.