A few years ago I worked for a large company that had business all over the country. My job involved flying into cities all over the map to have meetings with clients and vendors for the sole purpose of buying them lunch and making them smile. We’re here for you, I’d tell them. Whatever you need, we’re here for you.
I spent hours doing detective work at my desk, figuring out where decent restaurants or cafes might be hidden in the small towns I’d be visiting each week. It’s no easy job. You can’t trust a soul. One person’s gourmet is another’s pig roast: Sam’s Spit, in South Carolina, is not in the Zagat Survey. There’s a good reason for that. So when the clerk at the hotel tells you Sam’s Spit is the jumping joint in town you’d better get a second opinion. Otherwise your client might not smile, and remember: that’s the job.
Occasionally the job took me to small rural towns nowhere near a city. These visits were the most difficult. Large companies in rural towns typically mean that the company is the town. One way in and one way out - lots of trees and little pavement. Pick your nose in your car half way over Red Farm Hill and they’re already talking about it at the Egg and Basket Dairy three miles down road.
I arrived in such a town on a scorching day in August a few years ago. The city I flew into had one tall building. One. Before the plane even entered the state I could make it out in from my window seat. I asked the attendant if she’d ever been there before. She had.
“Lots of parking lots.” She told me.
“But there’s only one building.” I said, confused.
“I don’t know, they like parking lots. Building, parking lot, building, parking lot…” she said with a shrug.
“But there’s only one tall…” I tried.
“They’ve got lots of space, what do they care?” and she walked away down the aisle assisting people into their upright positions.
It’s strange how cattle don’t fear low-flying aircraft. You’d figure they’d be flat against the ground, legs splayed, with terror in their eyes each time a jetliner passed six feet above their backs. But they don’t. They don’t even seem to notice. As the jet came howling down over the runway I could see flies square dancing on the rump of a very handsome looking cow in a field below us.
A man at the exit gate had a sign with my name printed on it. He wore a white suit and hat, with a cream colored tie and shoes. His name, as the pin on his lapel read, was Rudy.
Rudy was a thick man with a cheery eyes and a bad sunburn. When I approached him he fumbled quickly to get the sign under his arm, extended his hand eagerly, and smiled from ear to ear.
“You must be my man!” he declared.
“You must be Rudy!” I replied, clamping my hand in his.
“Yes I am!” he said, tapping his pin. “Got any bags to pick up?”
“No bags, Rudy.”
“Fine, fine.” He said, checking his watch.
“How’s it out there?” I asked.
“Hotter’n we’re used too.”
We crossed the main lobby of the airport.
“Hey Rudy,” I said, tagging behind, “It's very, very clean here in here. No litter, not a spot on the carpet - I don't even see a spec of dust...”
“That's how we like it here.”
Rudy whisked me out into the standby parking area. There were at least four standby areas and another four secondary standby areas followed by a series of parking areas – short-term, day, long-term, auxiliary, attendant, and on and on. They were all empty.
“Rudy,” I shot another stupid question “how is it that there’s so much parking around here?”
He stopped just in front of his limo. He turned to me and gave me a quizzical look. “Well, I’m not sure about that…” he said slowly, pulling the white hat from his head and scratching behind his ear. “I guess we just got a lot of space sideways is all.”
“Ah. I see.” I said.
And I did see: I saw it when he took off the hat. Rudy had a thick, black-haired toupee glued to his head. It shrugged back and forth as he scratched behind his ear. A trickle of sweat ran down the side of his neck. It was damned hot out, he wasn’t kidding about that, and the rug on his head was making him sweat after a minute away from the air conditioning.
“We’d better get a move on quick. I’m dyin’ out here,” he said, tossing his white hat into the passenger seat while unlocking the rear door.
I climbed into the back of the car with my briefcase. Rudy locked the doors, started the engine, and flicked on the A.C. to full blast.
I spent the next forty-five minutes trying to keep my eyes off Rudy’s wrecked head. It wasn’t a comfortable ride. The edges of his toupee flared out around the sides like a tin sign after a gunshot wound. None of it wanted to stay down close to his head. Bits of Rudy’s natural hair edged out beyond the limits, sickly brown brush; I tried to ignore it and watch the beautiful rolling landscape unfold in front of us but I couldn’t help being drawn back to that strange little monster on Rudy’s head.
Rudy either didn’t notice my staring or didn’t care. He was happy and cordial for the whole drive.
As we pulled into town I kept my eyes open for a nice place to eat. I also asked Rudy if he knew of any good places this far out of the way. I’d had no luck in the office: it would have to be off the cuff figuring. He filled me in on the local joints. I took notes. He knew quite a bit about the town. Then he told me he was a local. There you go.
“And here we are, right on time. The ArchDyne Group.”
The limo came to a gritty stop against a raw gravel drive. The large, two story, concrete building had a large sign above the front entrance. It said: The ArchDyne Group in glowing red letters. It could have been any building in any office park in any town in the country. The name of the company didn’t suggest a thing. It rarely did. They could have sold dental floss or skyrockets. No difference.
“Thanks Rudy.” I said, stepping out of the car. “Hey, you’re picking me up at seven to take me back to the airport?”
“That’s right. See you at seven.”
The whole interior of the building was done in polished black stone with glass doors everywhere. The same stone that covered the floor and the walls of the main entrance also covered a tremendous reception desk. A young woman at the desk wearing a lightweight headset greeted me with a smile.
“Good morning!” she said cheerfully. “How may I help you today?”
“Hello,” I replied. “I’m here to see Mr. Baker and Mr. Higgins for an eleven o’clock appointment – I’m Mr. Roberts.”
“Oh, You’re New York! We’ve been expecting you. Please, you can have a seat while I buzz Buzz and Bob.”
She giggled. “Isn’t that just a riot! I forget how funny that sounds. Mr. Baker , Buzz Baker?” she rattled quickly. “Of course his name is Sylvester but we call him Buzz.”
I smiled, but all I could think was that I’d have to call him Buzz.
“There’s coffee just around that corner if you’d like…” she noted.
“Thank you…I’m sorry, what is your name?”
“May. Short for Maybell,” she said with a scrunched up nose.
A call came in and May took it. I ducked around the corner for a coffee and returned to find May finishing up her call.
“Excuse me, May,” I asked, “What’s the best place in town for lunch?”
“Oh, that’s the Red Pony just down the way.” She answered.
“Thank you.” I took a seat on a thick leather couch and sunk halfway down into it. Red Pony, Red… Yep. Rudy had it too. One more check and it was smiles, smiles, smiles.
end of part 1