Last February in New England. The snow, as predicted, falls all night. I wake with the alarm at 5 AM, don the warm and crappy clothes, and in the darkness I rev up the snowblower and proceed to clear the driveway. One hour later I am driving the Saturn Vue southward and westward. The morning snowfall is wispy and fog-like, and it collects in undulating patterns on the highway. Eventually I arrive in New Haven, Connecticut, where I park the car at Union Station just as my train arrives, the Amtrak Acela.
Take it from me, the Acela is the only way to commute in or out of New York City. Leather seats with plenty of leg room, plenty of snacks and coffee, more reliable than the airplanes, and you whiz by the cars and buses ensnarled on I-95 and the BQE. Another benefit is that you arrive in Midtown, which is where you need to be. Acela is not even all that expensive, at least from New Haven.
For the return trip the next day, I take Metro North, the commuter railroad, to save a few bucks.
October, 1995. Porter Hull Publishing* sends me for focus groups in an unlikely pair of cities: St. Louis, Missouri, and Boise, Idaho. My job is neither to conduct the focus groups nor to participate, but merely to bear witness. I wile away the hours sitting behind a one-way glass mirror, watching and listening, dutifully taking notes that no one, including me, will ever review. Over the next ten years I will attend maybe a dozen sessions like these. The facilities always supply snacks, including soft drinks and bowls of M and M’s or Jolly Ranchers, and bags of pretzels and chips, and always a tray of sliced fruit, or celery and cauliflower, as the healthy option. Sometimes there will be an exercise bike, or kiddy-fidget toys like a ping-pong paddle with an attached ball.
Watching focus groups can be boring as hell.
You might wonder, as I did, why my company was sending me, a junior editor, on a multi-day trek across the country, treating me to airfare, hotels, and meals at nice restaurants, so that I may be essentially redundant with a camera and a microphone. I gleaned a variety of answers to a more diplomatic version of that question. Certainly, editors can benefit from hearing the opinions of customers. Someone also said, “to keep the marketing department honest.” But a more cynical explanation, and possibly the more accurate, was that Porter Hull, in those days, had an institutional need to spend a lot of money on employee travel. The departments had travel budgets that required justification, which meant they needed to be spent.
I was not complaining.
As I had figured out from the get-go, travel on your employer’s nickel is one of the best superficial experiences that capitalism has to offer. It also is marginally profitable, especially when you add up all the free food. Not to mention the frequent flyer miles. We’ll save that diatribe for another essay.
The moderator of the focus groups is a man I will call Gerry Reischl, a false name that makes for an obscure pop-culture reference, if anyone is interested. Focus-group Gerry is a wiry, intense fellow who wears oversize black-rimmed eyeglasses and enunciates words very clearly, like a radio announcer. He is a professional marketing analyst whose services are demanded by the likes of peanut-butter merchants and apparel manufacturers, as he enjoys discussing over dinner at the Holiday Inn.
Gerry has lots of habits, all easy to identify after only two days of observation. Before heading into a session, he fires himself up by saying, “OK, let’s rock and roll!” With a welcoming smile and outstretched hand he greets all of the participants and asks them to pronounce their first names, so that he may address them properly. “We have an honorarium of 50 dollars for each of you,” is an expression that Gerry makes his own, thanks to a syrupy emphasis on the word “each.”
For two hours, Gerry leads a dozen biology teachers through a detailed analysis of several mock-up textbooks. How do we feel about the chapter opener? Look at pages 17 and 18, do they have the right balance of text and photos? What kind of assessment do you need to see in a lesson review? Is it better to have multiple choice questions, or short-answer questions, or a mixture of both?
After the last focus group in Boise, on the drive back to the hotel, Gerry sees a sign for an outlet mall and says, “Hey, let’s go shopping!” Which we do. We being the party of me, Gerry, and the marketing assistant who drew the short straw. I am the only one at Porter Hull who was interested in going to Boise. One hour later, I have bought a shirt while Gerry has bought a brand new wardrobe, it would appear. He loads the trunk with packages from various stores, and if I remember right, a new suitcase to put them in. He looks very pleased.
Curiously, rumor had it that when Gerry is not on the road or visiting clients, he lounges around his apartment all day in his pajamas.
Why did I want to go to Boise? Part of the reason was the itch to travel to new places, especially in the western United States, where I always feel at home, or so I liked to think. I had never been to Boise, and had barely been to Idaho. One of my personal, marginally-pointless goals was to stake a claim on each of the 50 states, a goal since achieved.
Another reason for Boise is that it allows me a stopover in Minneapolis on the return trip. It so happens that my cousin is getting married that weekend, and just like that I have free airfare for attending. Two days after bearing witness to Gerry and his stage act with the teachers and his trunk-load of mall purchases, there I am in my cousin’s back yard, surrounded by all the relatives, bearing witness yet again but for sacred reasons, and for people whom I know much better.
Lacing all of these events together is Northwest Airlines, which I fly by myself because my colleagues prefer other carriers. My itinerary looks like this:
NW) EWR – DTW – STL
NW) STL – MSP – BOI
NW) BOI – MSP
NW) MSP – EWR
Sitting on those airplanes, especially the last pair in and out of Minneapolis, it dawns on me that Northwest Airlines is lifting me repeatedly out of one life and dropping me into another. Each flight transforms me into a new person, or arguably a slightly different version of myself, except I am not sure who myself actually is.
Four weeks ago; Edina, Minnesota. The weekend visit to friends and family has concluded, and my teenage son Maxwell and I are headed to the airport for a flight back to Boston. Northwest Airlines is long since defunct; I have us booked on JetBlue. We have a cushion of an hour, though, and there’s a task I want to complete: fixing the broken band on my wristwatch. This is the sort of thing that I could do at home, but don’t, because there are a million other things to do. So I stop at Southdale and escort Maxwell into Dayton’s, long since remade as Macy’s, but nevermind that. I find the jewelry counter, where the woman informs that she won’t be able even to look at the watch for another hour.
Instead of giving up, I walk into the main part of the mall with the idea of finding an independent jewelry repair. I don’t even look at the directory. This is the sort of wishful thinking and spur-of-the-moment decision-making for which Maxwell, now almost age 14, would dutifully mock me. But lo, what is this? Right in front of us is a walk-up counter called “The Fixery.” There is no line, and the man announces he can repair the broken band right away. Maxwell entertains himself in a nearby store that sells video games. We’re out of the mall in 20 minutes, mission accomplished.
This feels very, very good. I am enjoying the feel of the watch on my wrist as I type this, and I enjoy checking the time. The watch was a gift from my wife, many years ago.
The most successful gift from me to my wife came courtesy of another business trip, this one to North Carolina. Off I-85 near Greensboro is a store called Replacements, Limited, where they stock and sell china of discontinued patterns. I buy up their supply of our pattern, and have it shipped home for our anniversary.
Ooh, good job.
New Jersey, 1998. The biology textbook is now published and on the market, but seemingly a big flop. So much has happened over the past three years; it feels impossible to trace how the good intentions and sound advice from teachers, reviewers, advisors, authors, marketing people, and Lord-knows-whom-else had been transformed into this Strange and Unusual Object in our hands, and that features our names in the credits.
The indelible memory is the lead editor showing the book to the New Guy, recently hired to run the department, the third in a sequence of such persons. After a brief perusal, the man says, “It looks like there’s spilled blood over the pages.” He is referring to the brown and orange colors that, for whatever reason, dominate the design. But it strikes me, both then and now, that the comment could just as easily describe the miserable conflicts that fed into the book’s development. We had not actually come after each other with knives and scalpels, but if we had, it might have proven a lot less painful. (Or so I say, glibly. I have never been attacked with real knives and scalpels, thank God.)
The book also has a lot of brown in the photographs due to the brown fur of the animals. It is a biology textbook, and mammals, certainly, tend to have brown fur. But the photos have a cheap look to them, or so I perceive. We obeyed the order from on high to use as many free or inexpensive photos as possible.
I invent a saying: If you’re going to skimp on the quality of your art and photographs, you may as well put a picture of a turd on the cover. Because that’s how the book will be treated.
Within a few weeks of the “spilled blood” denouement, I receive an offer to join St. Cue Publishing* in Manhattan. After weighing the decision carefully for about three nanoseconds, I say yes. It remains the easiest job-transfer decision I have ever made.
Back to the Acela from last February. After the last stop in Stamford, I announce to my seat-mate that I need to make myself presentable. I collect my overnight bag and head to the bathroom, which, like everything else on this train, is spacious and reasonably elegant. Here I shave, I brush my teeth, I splash water on my face and under my arms, and I strip out of the warm and crappy clothes, including old shoes and underwear, and into business attire suitable for meeting the Important Clients who are the purpose of the trip.
This all goes as planned, except the Acela bathroom has a window. Granted, we’re traveling at 70 miles per hour. Nevertheless I imagine some good citizen of Fairfield County peering through that window, optically or otherwise, and catching only my bare backside. So, if perchance that was you, I apologize. The mooning was unintentional.
*The names of both publishing companies in this essay have been changed to protect the guilty party—me—from annoying complaints. If you think you know the real names of the two companies, let me urge you to keep them to yourself instead of making a big stink on Facebook.