My arrival in Atlanta lacked appropriate fanfare. No winsome blond belle greeted my plane, delicately boned hand upturned and cupping a gently ripened peach. I noticed the distinct absence of a military band playing a rousing rendition of "Dixie" in time with my heavy footfalls. Nowhere in sight was a swarthy limo driver in a fedora clutching a sign to his chest scrawled with my name. In fact, there was nothing at all to indicate that Atlanta was even remotely aware of my arrival. This was disappointing, as it's not every day that the City of a Hundred Hills welcomes a man of my stature. Twenty-five, overweight, unemployed and recently "relocated" to my parents' house in New Jersey, I am truly a man in full.
Rather, I am a man fully in need of a job, which is why I was in Atlanta. Many moons had passed since I last set foot in an office, several more since I last received a legitimate paycheck. After a few months spent ferrying back and forth by bus across the toxic swamps of New Jersey and into Manhattan to search for something, anything, while my enthusiasm waned, I had a break. The break came in the form of an interview with the sales team of a well-regarded consulting firm in Atlanta. In retrospect, I should have stayed home and burned myself. It would have been less painful, and left me with arguably more attractive scars. But after all that time without a job I accepted the invitation with what I now recognize as "irrational exuberance."
It hadn't been so long ago that the burst of the dot-com bubble had hardly seemed tragic. In June of 2001, I entered my reign of unemployment with the carefree enthusiasm I thought the exclusive possession of characters in Fitzgerald short stories. I was idle; I was handsome; I was rich. Well, not rich exactly. The company I worked for never actually made any money. But on the last day before the padlocks sealed the entrance and the creditors repossessed the foosball table, our CEO kindly cut me a handsome severance check. Our investors, having been fleeced, were understandably reluctant to provide anything more than the two-week severance pay required by law. So the CEO masked the payment, the equivalent of 6 weeks gross pay, as an expense reimbursement.
That meant two things: 1) it was tax-free; and 2) I could begin collecting unemployment insurance immediately. I approached summer like a swill pot with a trust fund. I had no plan and a bloated sense of entitlement. I would drink; I would womanize; I would wear plaid pants, follow the sun and work on only the tan between my toes. Occasionally I would don a Thomas Pink shirt and swing into Boston to chat idly with a venture capitalist or two. And for this I would be rewarded with the legacy of my two years of 80-hour workweeks by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' Department of Employment and Training: $480 per week before taxes. All would be well in the world.
With the exception of a short period in early 2002, when I was forced to steal filet mignon from the local grocery store and drink dusty bottles of vermouth found in closets while Congress debated funding an extension to unemployment benefits, all was well in the world. Then, in September of 2002, my situation took a turn for the worse. First, my extended-extended unemployment benefits ran out. Then, in November, the striped bass left for warmer waters and I no longer had an unlimited source of free sushi available from my adopted back yard. I was soon forced to leave the massive house on the water on Cape Cod where I'd been living rent-free for the better part of a year (courtesy of the generous family of a college friend) and move back in with my parents in New Jersey.
The new reality was pleasantly emasculating. No longer required to deal with the social difficulties associated with living the single life in a multimillion-dollar waterfront home, I could focus on more pressing issues like fighting with my 14-year-old physics-failing brother over the last slice of humble pie. There was a brief period of calm following my return to my parents' home during which I was urged to "take time to figure out the right next step." Then my mother began to excise classified ads for jobs with exciting titles like "Night Janitor -- Inmate Control Center" and "Kitchen Bitch" and lovingly attach them to my still-sleeping chest with a figurative thumbtack. Apparently she did not appreciate my descending to the kitchen at midday to distract her from her third pot of coffee and 12th cigarette.
So when a company that actually made money offered to pay to fly me to Atlanta, put me up in a fine hotel and take me to dinner and then spend a day talking to me in complete sentences that did not contain verbs like "clean," "wake" or "leech," I had but one thought: "Choo-choo-choo, I'm back on the gravy train."
After looking around the airport unsuccessfully for my non-existent livery driver, I retrieved my luggage and called my father on my mobile phone.
"Dad! What's the haps, man? I'm in Atlanta."
"Why are you calling me?" Not exactly the enthusiasm I'd hoped for, given this was the first opportunity I'd had in three months to land a job that would get me out of his house and off his "payroll." Perhaps he was just having a tough day at work.
"Well, I seem to have -- ahem -- misplaced my itinerary and need the name of my hotel so I can get a cab and take it to my, uh, hotel." I am a very articulate young man.
"Why do you do this, son? Why are you seemingly incapable of getting yourself from point A to point B without assistance?" I recognized an unpleasant if familiar subtext here that would have rattled a lesser man's confidence.
"Just want to make you feel, you know, like part of the process. I know you like that."
"I am part of many processes, Andrew. Too many," he said. In the background I heard the staccato tapping of fingers on a keyboard echo through my father's cavernous office. He retrieved the e-mail I'd sent him earlier in the day. "It's the Georgian Terrace Hotel, Peachtree Street. Goodbye." And with that, he was gone.
Luggage in hand I exited the airport and emerged in the moist southern air, which even in January brought to mind girls with slow drawls, seersucker and sex. I could live here, I thought. I hailed a cab. The cab did my bidding and stopped. I was in man in control of his destiny.
"The Georgian Hotel, my good man," I told the large West Indian cab driver after he loaded my luggage into the trunk and I was safely settled in the back of the car.
"You in fa' the chicky show?" he inquired in a thick patois.
I'm not a big fan of strip joints or prostitution. I'm not a prude, but the Scotsman in me figures why pay for what you should be able to get for free. Also, I thought that West Indian Cab drivers only offered to procure women for their customers when in the West Indies. Then again, I was pretty far south. I soon received much needed clarification.
"The Chicken show? You in town for the Chicken show, man?"
Oh. The Chicken Show. Of course! He wasn't welcoming me to Atlanta with pleasures of the flesh; he wanted to know if I was in town to see MC Chicken. It had been a while since I'd seen MTV Jams, what with all that time spent dodging emotional knives hurled at my dignity from across the kitchen by my mother. I was sure that MC Chicken was all the rage in the "dirty south," and seeing as how I was wearing my more "urban" green corduroys with my "Bling-Bling" Barbour jacket, the cabbie clearly pegged me as a white guy with a hip-hop affectation. Sort of like Eminem, only Canadian and with wavy brown hair and a love of sweaters.
"Actually, man, I don't know Chicken. What's Chicken about? Is that tha' dope shizzle?" I cloaked my ignorance in the vernacular of the street. I felt I was missing something, some bright shining cultural bridge built in rhyme by a fine-feathered rapper (maybe he was Asian?) to connect large black men with small white ones in cabs in cities all across America. MC Chicken. I bet he like the thigh, but he like the breast best -- Word up.
The cabby was incredulous. "What's it all about you say? Man, you crazy. You don't know Chicken you say? Everybody knows Chicken, man. Where you from, you don't know Chicken?"
I hadn't heard a hip-hop radio station in a while, maybe a year. But how did I miss the meteoric rise of MC Chicken to the pinnacle of popular culture? Like the Beltway snipers, I was now clearly operating outside the loop. I felt so distant from my fellow man. I sank in my seat, looked at my feet -- Word down.
"Chicken, man! Like you eat, man! Like you eat! The bird, you know."
Oh. Chicken. Like you eat. The bird. I am an idiot, and probably a racist.
"There a big chicken show in town man -- a Poul-try Con-ven-tion," the cabdriver explained. Despite the heavy accent, he had the patient tone of a mother speaking to her small, retarded, ice-cream-eating child. It was a tone I would come to know quite well during my brief stay in Atlanta.
The chicken show. Apparently poultry dealers and their associates from countries far and wide had convened in Atlanta for the largest trade show in the world devoted to the little fowl and their shelled embryos. I imagined a giant convention center cacophonous with clucking, the air crowded with feathers like a schoolgirl's bedroom after a particularly raucous pillow fight. It was also a scene redolent of something rank and sinister. I was certain evil geneticists were huddled together in a shady back booth, discussing the engineering of grotesque, beakless near-chickens that were fed by a tube connected directly to their digestive track. These quasi-chickens had neither wings nor legs but breast and breast alone; these were the kind of chickens that turned Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC once and for all. Out front jiggle-jowled men in bad suits slapped backs while speaking passionately of guano and grain and such. Greasy, bloated white men from Arkansas with names like Lyman and Doyle made poor puns involving "chicks," bourbon Old Fashioned in one hand and a flaccid rubber chicken in the other. Actually, it sounded like it might be sort of fun.
I momentarily entertained the idea of bagging the next day's interviews in favor of mining the chicken show for rare gems of human experience. Then I remembered my mother as she drove me to the bus station earlier that day. She was trying to quit smoking and the combination of nicotine withdrawal and deep resentment toward my lack of professional progress made her frothy and insane with rage. She threatened to puncture my thin veneer of dignity with razor-sharp barbs about "sitting on my ass fishing like a goddamn Rockefeller while my unemployment ran out." I was definitely going to those interviews. I would definitely get that job.
The driver informed me that my hotel was "very nice" and located across the street from the "Fabulous Fox Theater." This had to be a strip joint. When we pulled up to the hotel, it was clear that the cab driver knew from very nice. It was fittingly elegant. I checked in, proceeded upstairs and entered a suite that was larger than any apartment I'd ever occupied. And it was all mine! Why? Because I'm a superstar, that's why. I forgot that for a minute, lost focus, what with my mother's endless pre-departure requests to take out the trash and get a job blending with my embarrassment about the chicken show miscommunication to create bizarre reverberations in my head.
But this suite was a four-room affirmation. It was a manifestation of my glowing promise, complete with windows that opened and a balcony overlooking Peachtree Street. I let loose an evil cackle, took a shower, dressed and headed down to meet those I would soon effortlessly vanquish in the competition for precious employment.
Three gin and tonics and several handshakes later I was seated in the middle of one of two tables for 10 that made up our party. The other candidates were large guys in their mid-to-late-20s, all wearing some variation on a well-starched Banana Republic theme. I was the only one of the would-be young Turks wearing a blazer, which was just fine by me. Actually, I had no choice. I forgot to iron the back of my shirt before I left home. I was also the only one with hair that touched my ears, brown shoes, and sweating.
To my left was Cliff Rogers, a product engineer with the company. In speech, appearance and demeanor he closely resembled the children's television host with whom he shared a family name. After talking to him for five minutes I was sure of a postprandial invitation to join him in a visit to the land of make-believe. Across from me sat Mike, another candidate, who was my age and handsome in a bland, blond, Florida State date rapist sort of way. It turned out he actually lived in Florida, where he had spent the last three years selling "IT Knowledge Capital" to "C-Level Guys" in the "F1K." I don't know what was more powerful, my embarrassment for him for using such phrases, or for myself because I actually knew what he meant.
To my right was an unoccupied seat, which remained empty throughout dinner. This empty space was like an imaginary Maginot Line separating Cliff, Mike and myself from the other guys at the table. On their side of the line was Germany, a sober and efficient land filled with clipped talk of "creating a pure segmented distribution channel." (This was decidedly not a euphemism for the female sexual anatomy, regardless of what one might like to believe.) On our side was France: several bottles of wine and the occasional curse word, most of which came to or went from me. Mike, the consummate salesman, knew a little bit about a lot. He was a musician (trumpet), a golfer (18 handicap), fisherman (small-mouthed bass, which I consider the white trash of fish), and all-around nice guy. If we were France, he was the Vichy recruiter.
Just around the time I was finishing my guinea fowl and wondering if such boutique poultry were represented at the chicken show, the conversation turned to the Fox Theater, whose great flashing marquee was clearly visible through the wall-to-ceiling French doors and windows that lined the street side of the dining room. It was then that Salesman Mike revealed a subject of which his knowledge knew no end: theatre organs. Salesman Mike was passionate about theater organs. Did I have any idea of the range of sounds that these things could make? A human voice; silver, snarling trumpets; the noble bellow of the bassoon -- it seemed that a true old-school theater organ could do everything short of cluck. Apparently, the organs were built above great catacombs to allow them to rise up from the floor before a movie and then back into the recession afterwards. When in playing position, the great hollow beneath allowed sound space to swell and rise before its thunderous release into the theater.
According to Mike, many a gentle organ player had met his untimely end by falling off his seat during a particularly rapturous performance and tumbling into the empty catacomb beneath. Most of the organs built in the 1920s were no longer around, but the Fox was one of the five or six original organ installations still in existence. Unable to resist, I suggested we all go across the street after dinner to negotiate a peek at the Fox's organ. Dirty bastard that he was, Mr. Rogers chuckled. Mike, however, looked desperately across the table. He had already gone in and pleaded with the manager for a tour. He said he "just wanted to caress that organ, man." Mr. Rogers executed a well-timed spit take.
Just before dessert, a vole-like man with no eyebrows seated himself in the empty seat beside me, ordered a double martini with five olives and three onions and a salad with extra balsamic vinegar, and began talking at a rate and volume that would have made an auctioneer blush. He did not stop until dinner was over. It turned out he was the founder and CEO of the company I was interviewing with. He was a former director of one of the world's biggest consulting firms and talked at length about the art of consulting. He considered himself a "Jedi Master Consultant." When he said this he had a large piece of lettuce hanging from his lower lip. Near the end of dinner he rose on the tips of his toes and leaned in over the table to make a particularly powerful point about a group of people who worked for him and whom he called "package-slammers." Apparently the package-slammers were spending too much time thinking about the big picture and not enough time slamming packages. One can imagine the problems this creates for the business. I can only imagine because I had fallen victim to the hypnotic rise and fall of the lettuce leaf, thereby missing several key points. Eventually the lettuce fell into his triple cappuccino, breaking the spell.
Dinner ended with the general agreement that everyone staying in the hotel that night would meet at 8 a.m. in the lobby and walk to the office together. As I was leaving I stopped to say goodnight to Mr. Rogers.
"It's going to be a beautiful day tomorrow. Oh, boy," said Mr. Rogers. Fueled by all the cabernet at dinner, Mr. Rogers had obviously made an early departure for the land of make-believe. "You better watch out, Andrew. I've got a few doozies up my sleeve for tomorrow. Oh, boy."
"Really, Mr. Rog -- er, Cliff? Well you tee 'em up and I'll hit 'em, isn't that right Mike?" I nudged Mike with my elbow. Now with a boozy handle on the salesman vibe, I was starring in a play of my own creation: Glen Gary-Glen Stupid.
Mike was sincere in his agreement. "Got that right, buddy."
"OK. I'll give you an idea of the kind of hardball questions I've got planned." said Mr. Rogers with a purple-toothed grin. "How about this one: Why are manhole covers round?"
Mike revealed his own version of the blank stare. It was more handsome than the one I'd directed at Vole Man, CEO and founder during his caffeine-addled monologue. Mr. Rogers may have stumped Salesman Mike, but not me. I was soon-to-be ace Salesdude, ready to slam whatever package Vole Man said to slam in the battle for earnings in the cutthroat, no-nonsense New New New Economy. I knew the answer to this question.
"Because manholes are round, Cliff."
Score one for the AG.
Organs, package-slammers, manholes -- the undertones of homoeroticism among salesmen are not unlike those created by the ass-slapping men in tights who play football for a living and the pudgy, drunk men who pay money to scream their name. I'd had enough. I retired to my suite on the 11th floor and soon fell fast asleep. That night, I dreamt I was trapped in a giant chicken coop with the Phantom of the Opera. Headless chickens danced around us to the distant sound of a Hammond organ. I tried to gnaw my way out of the coop while the Phantom rapped about the existential loneliness of the C-Level guy. He was wearing a big gold chain. When I bit down on the wire that formed the wall of the coop, my teeth shattered. Just before my 5:45 wakeup call roused me from this revelry, I remember screaming at the Phantom about my inability to fix my teeth due to my lack of dental coverage. He offered me his mask, but I threw it back in his disfigured face.
I didn't have a clue what my dream meant, but it was unsettling. I went upstairs to the indoor pool, located on what the girl at the front desk called the "pee ay-ch" level, for a morning swim. After a sumptuous room-service breakfast and the usual morning maintenance I packed, dressed and went down to the lobby to rendezvous with the rest of the group for the march to the office. There was nobody there. I circled the lobby. Not one soul from the night before. Thinking I was perhaps early, I took up a post by the door next to a 3-by-5-foot poster advertising the chicken show -- officially known as the International Poultry Exposition. Highlight events included the presentation of the Poultry Processor of the Year Award and a forum called "The Avian Influenza Experience." I was thinking about what a great band name that would be when Vole Man appeared at my side. He was significantly less manic than the night before.
"Hey. We're either early or late. What do you think."
I thought he was asking a question, but there was no rising intonation at the end of the sentence to indicate this was the case, no aural question mark. Wanting to seem like a man of decisive action, I suggested we wait three minutes and then walk on our own. This satisfied Vole Man. He turned his vole back, his vole head hung low between his vole shoulders, nodding.
"Hey. You see this." Mimicking his ask-without-asking Jedi interrogation technique, I gestured toward the chicken show poster with my jacket. He turned back to face me. "It's the chicken show." I was out on a limb now. Would he recognize the profound comedy of the chicken show, or would he draw an imaginary line through my name on the list of candidates in his head? I felt that I was in safe territory, as I was pretty sure he had not the foggiest idea of my name.
"Heh. The chicken show," said Vole Man. He raised a nonexistent eyebrow, which made me uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that I cracked and revealed my backup plan for the day.
"Yeah. I figure if it all goes to shit by midday I'll just swing on over to the chicken show, get me a rubber chicken or something."
He looked at me square in the face, the tip of his vole nose hanging down to just above his upper lip. "If it all goes to shit."
Before I had time to answer his question that was not necessarily a question with a bumbling explanation about my cab ride from the airport and the hilarity of the chicken show concept, he turned on his little vole heels and scampered out the door, dragging his luggage behind him with one hand and gesturing for me to follow with the other. I wondered: If the uniformed bellhop hadn't been there to hold it for both of us, would Vole Man have held the door for me? I pondered this in the silence as we walked the four blocks to the office.
I felt comfortable in the office. Located on the eighth floor of a restored 1920s hotel, it was dot-com redux: navy blue carpets, three-dimensional geometric shapes jutting out at odd angles from the light-blue walls, glass everywhere, and a busty receptionist with a lush Georgia accent. On her desk was a basket of the softest peaches I've ever caressed in public. They felt like baby chickens. The conference room in which we met (Vole Man and I arrived five minutes late) was called the "Spaghetti Junction Conference Room." I thought it was rather droll to name a conference room after what sounded like a children's cooking show. When I later inquired of an employee where the name "Spaghetti Junction" came from, I was informed that "Spaghetti Junction" was the name of a highway interchange that was the site of more fatal accidents in Georgia than any other junction of its kind. People were killed at Spaghetti Junction. Frequently. This may or may not be true, I do not know. But I do know this: None of the other conference rooms had names.
I was assigned a seat at the far end of the 30-foot conference table. At my place I found a clear package containing around two pounds of printed collateral describing the company's main intellectual products, the day's itinerary, bios for the six people I was to interview with over the course of the day and a notebook with a black cover embossed with the company's name -- CogentResponse. It was filled with blank pages of the kind of gridded paper that I hadn't seen since I took high school chemistry for the second time. What was the name of this kind of paper? I assumed the book was for taking notes during the two-hour introductory session just beginning. It sure beat the pink, spiral-bound, one-subject number I would have been otherwise forced to pull from my laptop bag.
The presentation began with a few words from the new president of the company. He was a large, affable guy. I had already spoken with him at length on the telephone. His was the "view of CogentResponse from 50,000 feet." I thought about my flight. I had the window seat. Everything pretty much looks the same from 50,000 feet. I directed my attention to drawing big boxes by connecting the little boxes printed on the paper in my CogentResponse notebook. I suddenly remembered: graph paper! Everything was coming back to me now. I may have been in the woods for a while, but I was not off the map. I felt pretty good about my prospects.
The accompanying PowerPoint presentation was filled with charts and boxes and Venn diagrams all designed to illustrate to the audience why CogentResponse was unlike any other consulting practice. It looked a lot like the presentation I'd seen given by just about every other consulting practice. I decided to take some notes. This is when the trouble began in earnest. President Bill was not speaking a language that one would immediately recognize as English. He was speaking an obscure dialect known as Business. I once spoke Business fluently, but I was now having a hard time understanding much of what was said. "Share empiricals to create synergy." "Data drives collaborative learning to create lock-in." "Leverage unparalleled knowledge to generate superior prototypes."
I felt like an adult returning to the foreign country of his birth, not having heard his native language since his last diaper change. I had a sense of vague familiarity when the locals started making noises, but an inability to determine the meaning. I required nonverbal communication. I needed hand gestures, grunts, the beating of breasts, the flapping of wings. The PowerPoint was of no assistance. Halfway down the other side of the table, Salesman Mike nodded deeply to express his profound appreciation for the company's ability to "streamline human systems utilizing technology enabled processes." My organ did not make these noises, but apparently his did.
Two hours later I knew even less about what this company did than when I'd arrived that morning. It is important to note that I did not come in blind. I spent a great deal of time doing my "due diligence" in preparation for the phone conversations with President Bill and salespeople Brian and Julie, the success of which led to my invitation to this meeting. I had looked at their Web site.
The problem was that this didn't seem at all like the same company. What they did made sense to me two weeks ago. Now it certainly did not. The only thing that happened in the interim was an unexpected seven-day trip to Nova Scotia during which I arrived about 40 minutes too late to witness the death of my grandfather from cancer, ingested about 12 of my late Pa's leftover Ativan to stop the dreams I was having about Pa's resemblance to the creature Gollum as he lay dead but still warm on his hospital bed, and took a few trips to the "woodpile" with my Uncle Smokey. I was certain my inability to comprehend the presentation was not chemical.
I wasn't really too worried about it, though. This was just a sales job. I'd learn about the products prior to and during training. To get to training, all I had to do was tease these people with a brief introduction to the smooth, smart young man known as Andrew Grant. They'd love me, hire me, and whisper to each other how I might "represent the future of the business." "Sure," they'd say between awed glances as I strode past them down the hall, whistling Puccini and throwing the occasional cartwheel, "He might come off a little eccentric once in a while, but that's part of what makes him such a visionary. He's no package-slammer."
The presentation ended and it was time for the interviews to begin. I had my first interview with Julie, a salesperson who was also President Bill's daughter. I had talked with her for a while on the phone and figured I had already blinded her with charm. As long as I didn't belch or fart in her presence, she'd sense only a pleasant white glow during our time together. Or so I thought.
Julie's smile swallowed about three-quarters of her face. I did some mental math. She could certainly fit her entire fist in her mouth, plus most of her forearm and at least half a roll of quarters. Also, she loved me. I knew it. How could she not? I was a handsome young man with a rapier wit, wearing a blazer over a shirt with French cuffs. If she had loved me on the phone, she would adore me in person.
Things began swimmingly. We talked about Vermont and Atlanta. I gave her the story of my business career from, oh, I'd say about 7,200 feet. I tried to put my usual interview strategy into place: as soon as the pressure starts to rise, take control and ask as many intelligent questions as possible of the interviewer until time runs out. Ideally, get them to emote. If they emote, they'll forget to ask you any hardball questions and they'll walk away thinking you are brilliant just to salvage their pride. This had proved effective in the past.
The problem was that today, emoting was not listed on Julie's Outlook schedule. Asking seven specific questions of me was. Moreover, she hadn't just written her questions down, she had typed them out. I found this disconcerting, although I couldn't say why.
The first few were pretty basic questions about specific skills I'd developed in previous jobs. I fielded these with aplomb. I noticed that she had the "consultative seller's" habit of beginning a statement by repeating back what her interlocutor had just said, only in smaller (and in my case more precise) words. When she asked me to list the various functional areas that CogentResponse specialized in I kept coming up one or two short, but she'd merrily repeat my answers back to me, counting them off on her fingers until they added up to seven. Fortunately, each time she did so she'd forget one I had said and add one I didn't. This significantly reduced the pressure on me. Then Julie decided to escalate the level of inquiry to include the hypothetical.
"Let's say I'm the CFO of Sears Canada and you want to sell me on CR's service. How would you go about preparing for the call?"
Without wasting even a second to think, I was off and running. "Well, Julie, I'd begin by exhausting all available sources of public information related to the company, things like quarterly reports, analyst statements, press releases and things, any of the myriad things that constitute sources of practical and empirical insight into that business's state of affairs, its competitive advantage, its challenges related to change management, you know. I'd also try to find out his name."
"So, you're saying you'd look at their Web site. Great!" Her smile threatened to engulf her eyes. "Anything else?"
"Well, when I was doing sales research for the V.P. of corporate sales at FutureClicks I'd make a lot of deceptive phone calls to try to get information out of unsuspecting low-level managers. You know, pose as a reporter or an analyst or something. You must do that all the time, hey?"
"So, you're saying you'd call their headquarters and lie. No, I don't really do much of that." When her smile disappeared, it was the close of a Venus' flytrap. She removed a pen from the CogentResponse cup on her desk and made a note in a notebook exactly like my own. Then she resumed the interrogation.
"What do you think about having a $2M quota? Does that scare you at all?" I flipped a mental coin. Judging by the intense worry she'd expressed about hitting her fourth-quarter goals during our phone conversation, it was clear that for Julie $2M was a number to be respected and feared, like a wolf in your living room. When the mental coin clanged to rest in the vast empty warehouse of my mind, I told her the result.
"Scare's the hell out of me, Julie. And I wouldn't trust anyone who didn't feel that way. But fear is a great motivator." I gave the right answer. The flytrap opened and I emerged, sticky but alive and undigested. She made another note.
"What do you want to be doing in 10 years, Andrew? I mean, what do you want to be when you grow up?" She smiled even wider this time, and I swore I could see what she had for breakfast. I thought about this, thinking about how the lowest level of hell was a middle-management position, how I'd like to craft brilliant literary fiction in a house on a hill overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Any of these things would have been fine to say. But instead I said the wrong thing.
"You know, I don't think we ever really know the answer to that question, Julie." She nodded, one of those plastic clowns at the fair through whose open mouth you can throw a basketball to win a stuffed chimp. She seemed to be right there with me, so I decided I'd make a little joke. "I mean, I asked my grandfather that same question when I saw him last week."
"What did he say?"
"Nothing, actually. He was dead. Still warm, though. Died about 45 minutes before I got there." To let her know I was just engaging in a little black humor, I let my eyes well up with tears.
"I'm sorry." This time her mouth was just gaping, and it didn't look nearly as big as when she smiled.
"He was retired anyway, so I think he liked that just fine. But that's what I'd like to be when I grow up. Not dead. Retired." I sighed, just to put her at ease. There was a knock on the window behind me. Our time was up. I rose. Julie rose. She reached out to shake my hand, but remained behind her desk.
On my way down the hall to take a 45-minute break before my next interview I realized that when she said "I'm sorry" she might not have been expressing her regret for my loss.
The next interview was with a 28-year-old salesman named Jake. I liked Jake. Jake looked like me. He was preppy, had a quick laugh, and didn't seem to take himself or his responsibility too seriously. According to rumors among the other candidates, several of whom were Jake's former colleagues, Jake made a lot of money. He didn't have any formal questions for me, he just wanted to talk shop about the Internet bubble and "get a feel for me." We spent the second half of the interview talking about what we wanted for lunch. I aced this one. Then came the knock and it was time to eat. Jake looked very happy as we walked to the buffet in Spaghetti Junction.
Our schedule allotted an hour and a half for lunch, which seemed excessive. I soon learned why: Vole Man was to give a speech about synergy. After introducing himself by saying that he never took less than half an hour to introduce himself, he took the time to tell us how smart he was. Then he mentioned how rich he was. Then he told us that he wasn't as rich as he used to be because CogentResponse's stock used to trade at $40 but now was at $2.60. This wasn't a problem because he knew that this latest strategy was a world-beater. He shared with us his vision for the company, technology, the future. He was one part Carl Sagan, one part L. Ron Hubbard, one part Martin Short. Again he expressed his displeasure with the "package-slammers coming up out of the dungeon to look around at the fields when they should just be slamming packages."
Feeling sort of sorry for the package-slammers, I was bopping along, fading in and out, eating a turkey sandwich, when Vole Man said something that made me stop and wonder why the hell I was there at all. He said, and I quote, "The dot-com guys got what they deserved because they were all idiots. I would never hire one of those guys. They'll ruin a company from within because they have no discipline, and in the process they'll ruin it for the shareholders."
The guy was showing a great deal of bravado for someone whose company had lost 96 percent of its share value and was facing a class action suit from its shareholders. What worried me, though, was that I learned my every business lesson as a "dot-com guy." Then I took those lessons and applied them to life, first as an "eco-entrepreneur" (helping a friend use his trust fund to build a "fully sustainable yogic retreat center," or "commune" for short, in Panama) and then as a beachgoer who designed a loyalty program for the ice-cream man in exchange for free Choco-Tacos. (I left this off my résumé.) So what if every company I've worked for has abruptly gone out of business within eight months of my arrival? There was no causal relationship between hiring me and filing for bankruptcy. I worked hard; I worked smart; it wasn't my fault. Yet Vole Man saw a massive economic albatross draped around my neck. By the time he finished talking about why someone like him would never hire a guy like me two hours had passed. I felt like someone was standing on my chest and kicking me in the stomach.
Because of Vole Man's prolonged diatribe, the afternoon interviews were scaled back to half an hour each. This was precisely enough time for me to dig myself a very deep hole, fall in, and bloody my fingernails in a futile attempt to climb out. Occasionally, like the serial killer in "Silence of the Lambs," one of my interviewers would throw me down a bone in a bucket. It wasn't much, but it was something.
Take for example my interview with "Jane." Jane's résumé overview is three pages long. Jane is a highly experienced management consultant. A lawyer once told me that management consultants are the kind of people who will steal your watch and then make you pay them to tell you what time it is. A lawyer said this. Apparently Jane is renowned across many an industry for her ability to execute "current state assessment, visioning, and future state definition" for programs that result in "gained efficiencies, reduced headcount and increased billing." In other words, five minutes ago it was 10 of 12. Now it's 5 of 12. In five minutes it will be high noon, and that's a good time to fire one clean shot into as many skulls as you've got bullets and then relieve the dead of their wallets. Looking at her "three-pager," I pictured a small German woman wearing austere black eyeglasses and brandishing a switch.
Jane arrived 10 minutes late and led me into her corner office. She was tall, in her late 30s. Long, dark, curly hair wildly framed her girlish face, out of which looked deep chocolate eyes. She was gorgeous, crow's feet and all. She was also very funny. We joked back and forth for a few minutes about how she hated her job. I started to feel a little better after the lunch speech. Then I slipped up, getting a little too loose for my own good.
"How did you get here?" She asked, seemingly with sarcasm.
"Well, actually, I walked over from the hotel this morning with Alan. You know, we rapped. He's a riot by the way. Crazy little Vole Man." I figured I might as well let her know that I'd been hanging with the big (little) guy. Instead of laughing and engaging in a little witty repartee about her odd little boss-person, Jane lowered her gaze and looked into the back of my skull.
"Right. You can't be serious. I mean -- How did you get here? By what freakish circumstance did your résumé find its way into a pile with the rest of these seasoned professionals? I'm looking at this résumé and I'm thinking, Hey, this guy has never done anything serious in his life. Even the names here are ridiculous: QuantumLeaps, FutureClicks, Luminescence. What the hell are 'boutique eco-bungalows?' How did you end up here, talking to me?"
I was too shocked by her sudden change in demeanor to debate the relative merits of those names versus "CogentResponse."
"Oh, uh, a consultant that my father knows -- Ray Epstein -- he, um, connected me with Bill."
"Right." She had me pegged. "Let me guess -- they are old college buddies. Roommates." Ask without asking: I recognized this Jedi Consultant Mind Trick.
"No, actually, er, he, um, my dad, hired Ray." My father had most certainly not hired Ray. I needed to regain my footing, and fast. "Ray has done some work in the past for my father. My father gave my résumé to Ray, Ray gave it to Bill. I spoke with Bill, Brian, and Julie, and then a recruiter called and offered to fly me down."
There. I got it out in one piece. My stock was rising.
"Right. Listen, we are about out of time, so let me just cut to the chase here." This was a completely different person than the dry, breezy woman who'd so entertained me just 10 minutes prior. This was the cold, hard, killing machine I'd imagined. Maybe she was German. She continued, "In three hours the management team of this firm and several representatives from the sales group will gather together in the conference room --"
"Spaghetti Junction." Yes, I interrupted her to say "Spaghetti Junction." What's worse, I then proceeded to nod my head in a way that one could describe as "knowingly."
"In the Spaghetti Junction Conference Room, yes." She took a deep breath. "And I'm going to have to stand up and tell the rest of these highly skilled individuals with a breadth and depth of experience unrivaled in their industry why we should spend some of our limited budget to bring in you, a guy whose most recent professional experience was not building but planning to build 'eco-bungalows,' which sounds like a cheap euphemism for a Third World commune. To wit: Why should we hire you as a member of our inside sales channel? What makes you more likely to succeed in that role than one of the five other young men your age I've talked to today, each of whom has had at least three years experience selling to C-Level guys in F1K companies? Please, enlighten me."
A long time ago, somewhere in the far, far East, a wizened Asian sage asked the question, "What is it that when you say its name disappears immediately?" The answer, of course, is "silence." I almost had that beat.
"Well, I'm, uh, an articulate guy who can give what it takes to do what has to be done to execute the team and see through its mission." I could have been the president of the United States.
"Right." She hoisted her pen and made a note on a piece of paper. "Articulate. Yes. I think we've got that down. So, my articulate friend, can you please succinctly articulate to me the CogentResponse Value Proposition?"
I opened my mouth. I looked her in the eye. I tried to speak, but I failed. Something had severed the connection between my brain and my mouth. But in retrospect, this was for the better. I say this because what came into my mind was not a paraphrase of the value proposition I'd heard some 12 times already today, but an image of the Fabulous Fox Theater. A light rain fell, and the streets looked black and slick. A tall Southern girl, umbrella in hand, tossed her long blond hair over her shoulder, looked back and laughed. It was the CogentResponse receptionist. On the old-fashioned marquee two words flashed red against a yellow background.
I started to laugh. Much to my surprise so did Jane. My laugh is high and nasal and starts high in my throat with my mouth closed before progressing down into my diaphragm to shake my whole body. Hers started in her belly and stayed there. She bounced little-person fists at the end of tall-woman arms thrice against the top of her desk. We both laughed for what seemed like a very long time.
When the laughter died, and along with it my hopes of moving to Atlanta in five days to start an exciting new job, she "did me a favor" and explained to me for the 13th time today the CogentResponse Value Proposition. She did this with remarkably clarity, in less than 50 words. With the same patience exhibited by my cab driver the day before, she said this was something I needed to know. I thought about slapping my chest with the thumb side of my hand while rocking forward and back and trying to bite my own ear, the international sign for "I'm a retard," but in a rare moment of restraint I decided against it.
Then she told me it was time to leave her office.
The last interview didn't have such a happy ending. Olga was a ruthless 26-year-old salesperson with a $3M quota and very little tolerance. When I entered her office she smiled uncomfortably, spreading her very full lips to reveal small pointy teeth and big gums.
Maybe it was just because it was the end of a long day. Maybe it was the $3M quarterly quota. Maybe she, like my mother, was trying to quit smoking. Whatever the reason, Olga was determined to prove that I was unworthy of even the least amount of respect, never mind a job, within the first minute of my allotted half-hour in her office.
"What's our value prop? How do you sell this to a CFO who doesn't give two shits who you are? What, specifically, are the questions you ask?" She started there and did not let up. My response? Well, I decided to take a different tack this time. Rather than just blurting out strings of words and hoping I said them fast enough and used enough biz-speak and polysyllabic malapropisms to confuse Olga and myself in turn, I opted to stare thoughtfully out the window for a full minute.
I remember distinctly thinking, "C'mon, brain. I know you can do it. I believe in you." Unfortunately, my brain responded not with any of the phrases I'd heard dropped like a NASDAQ stock in the Spaghetti Junction Conference Room. Nope. My brain offered only static and organ music. Soon, as I expected, I began to hear the chant.
"Chicken show. Chicken show. Chicken show." I eventually shut everything out to give my first honest answer of the day.
"I ... don't ... know."
To her credit, Olga was like a bear encountering a dead child at a picnic area. She decided that I wasn't worth eating and I wasn't a threat and left me alone. She, like Jane before her, decided to just give me the answers. She even recommended a few books if I was "actually serious about sales." I was shell shocked. When it was time to leave I got up and stumbled drunkenly out of her office, accidentally slamming the door behind me. I wondered if her lips served as adequate airbags when I heard her walk directly into the abruptly closed door with a thud.
So things weren't going too well. In the parlance of our times, they'd gone to shit. The whole thing was funny, in the way stroke victims are funny. I'd had enough anyway. Walking down the hall I acknowledged I was not going to get the job. The certainty of that provided buoyancy to my thoughts, a certain lightness to my steps. Of course, this is a sensation experienced by many trauma survivors. I cruised into Spaghetti Junction just as the wrap-up was getting underway.
Vole Man was nowhere to be seen. President Bill was giving a speech about CogentResponse values and culture and the importance of family. He reminded us never to confuse family with business. Business was business. If times were tough, he would be the one who'd not hesitate to put us out on the street. Did that include his daughter? Family was different, he said. If times got tight at home no one's mother would say, "Sorry, my child, but you are an underperformer. No food for you tonight. We've moved your stuff into the yard."
When he finished, everyone began gathering up their belongings to leave. Most of the other candidates jostled for position in an attempt to make one last press upon Bill or the head of sales. I made my way over to the cookie basket, which contained a variety of huge, soft, delicious cookies, and dumped its entire contents into the empty front pocket of my laptop bag. Then I walked out of Spaghetti Junction and down the hall toward the door. I must have looked pretty bad, because the receptionist spoke to me as I struggled to push the door labeled "Pull."
"Hey," she drawled lazily. I turned and walked up to her desk. She extended a delicately boned hand. "You want a peach? They're real nice, even if they're grown indoors."
I took the peach, thanked her, turned and left. Outside, I looked up at the sky. It was about to rain. I was still unemployed. But I was eating a peach on a warm January afternoon in Georgia, which wasn't so bad. With two hours to kill before my flight I walked toward the MARTA stop and wondered if I had enough time to hit the Chicken Show on the way to the airport.