Johnny America


The Con­ven­tion­eer


I no­tice an army of shiny new signs mount­ed next to the seat num­bers on the Air­bus to Raleigh-Durham; the uni­ver­sal wire­less in­ter­net sym­bol is un­mis­tak­able. The flight at­ten­dant an­nounces that cock­tails are avail­able for five dol­lars, cred­it card on­ly, and that this flight’s WiFi is brought to us free by Di­et Coke. This is the mid­dle of the end, I think; now the khakis-and-po­los man­agers in coach will be leashed to their Out­look while they fly, but at least they’ll still be al­lowed to ig­nore meet­ing in­vi­ta­tions while they slum­ber. Tech­nol­o­gy will ad­vance, though. I won­der whether it’ll be Mi­crosoft, Re­search In Mo­tion, or Ap­ple who will first bring In­stant Mes­sages in­to dream­land, in­ter­rupt­ing noc­tur­nal emis­sions and dreams of flight.

I think of a mil­lion man-hours spent bring­ing us the op­por­tu­ni­ty to check our Face­book walls and Ac­tion Items while we nib­ble from tiny bags of hon­ey-roast­ed peanuts.

The ho­tel bar is themed around a sin­gle foot­ball game from 1961. There are jer­seys above the booths, and some­thing called a “Pigskin-Ti­ni” on the cock­tail list. I sit at the bar next to a young busi­ness buck. He looks up from his news­pa­per and tells me, “We’re sell­ing our souls to Chi­na.” I nod in a stud­ied man­ner to in­di­cate as­sent with his state­ment but dis­in­ter­est in con­ver­sa­tion, but he ig­nores or per­haps is ig­no­rant of the eti­quette; maybe he feels his ob­ser­va­tions are too ur­gent to hold at bay. “No­body wants to make any­thing any­more,” he tells me, “no­body wants to put mon­ey where their mouth is and start producing.”

I ask him what his line is and he ex­plains that he’s an ex­ec­u­tive sales man­ag­er for one of the ma­jor print­er man­u­fac­tur­ers. “Not that I’m just a sales­man,” he tells me, “I coör­di­nate the company’s re­gion­al man­agers, who deal with sub­or­di­nate floor man­agers, who in­ter­face di­rect­ly with the ground lev­el sales pro­duc­ers, who ac­tu­ate the ac­tu­al sales streams.” I ask whether any of the print­ers his man­agers and pro­duc­ers sell are sourced from Chi­na and of course they all are. He asks what I do, so I tell him the truth: I’m work­ing with a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist to start a mag­a­zine about meta-meet­ings. “You know,” I say, “meet­ings where you get to­geth­er to meet about your oth­er meet­ings; how ef­fec­tive they’ve been in de­liv­er­ing de­liv­er­ables, how fu­ture meet­ings might be made more ac­tion­able, more track­able, more fun.” He nods, takes a sip from his mug, and asks whether we’ve picked out a name for the mast­head. “Of course,” I tell him as I mo­tion a nu­mer­al ‘2’ in the air, “Meet­ings Squared, with the two writ­ten as an ex­po­nent.” He com­ments that Amer­i­ca could get back on track if there were more go-get­ters like us. I mo­tion for an­oth­er glass of Zinfandel.

The ba­by across the aisle is squeal­ing again. I close my eye­lids, lean against the mold­ed plas­tic wall of the 737’s cab­in, and imag­ine my loathing bead­ing on­to my skin like an elec­tric sweat, its in­ten­si­ty strong enough to set hay­wire the ba­sic atom­ic forces. I pic­ture my­self slip­ping through the cabin’s wall, land­ing mo­men­tar­i­ly on the riv­et­ed alu­minum wing, then wav­ing to my for­mer com­muter com­pan­ions as the jet’s ve­loc­i­ty car­ries it on to­ward Chica­go while grav­i­ty re-routes my ar­rival gate earth­wards. I imag­ine my­self ro­tat­ing to spy for a pond or a green­house or a hot air bal­loon to crash in­to — didn’t that World War I pi­lot sur­vive a fall of thir­ty thou­sand feet by cush­ion­ing him­self with the glass sky­lights of a train sta­tion? — but all I see is sec­tion af­ter sec­tion of brown and green farm­land. The squeal­ing from across the aisle morphs in­to an an­i­mal wail. “Yes,” I tell the flight at­ten­dant, “yes, I would like to pur­chase a turkey pi­ta sand­wich with low-fat tzazi­ki sauce.”

The bar­tender is too hip for the tchotchkies chok­ing the bar like moth­balls; he’s mak­ing the oth­er con­ven­tion-go­ers un­com­fort­able with ca­su­al men­tions of too-con­tem­po­rary and too-up-and-com­ing bands.

“An­oth­er round?” he asks me.

I nod in af­fir­ma­tion and thanks. I can’t be­lieve we’ve man­aged five min­utes of con­ver­sa­tion be­fore the busi­ness mook next to me gets around to it: “You know what the prob­lem is? China.”

I flip be­tween the pages of Sky­Mall to com­pare com­pet­ing dog­gy oases which en­able dogs to uri­nate in the com­fort of liv­ing rooms on­to a patch of porous syn­thet­ic turf. One drains in­to a sim­ple pan; the oth­er, more ex­pen­sive and lux­u­ri­ous mod­el drains in­to a plas­tic cis­tern and fea­tures a self-clean­ing sprin­kler mech­a­nism as an op­tion­al up­grade. I flip to an­oth­er page I’ve book­marked, to the per­son­al putting green for ex­ecs who want to prac­tice their stroke while they con­fer­ence call, and I won­der if there’s room for an ‘in­noven­tion’ in the mash-up of the two: if busi­ness­men might want to pee on the putting green in their office.

“Good evening,” the cap­tain says over the all-cab­in in­ter­com, “it looks like we’ll be land­ing in Boston just a few min­utes ahead of sched­ule. Sit back, buck­le up, and we’ll have you on the ground in, oh, looks like just over 25 minutes.”

I’d like to uri­nate in my of­fice, I think. I swipe the glass face of my phone, click past an ad­ver­tise­ment for Di­et Coke, launch a web brows­er, then or­der a pep­per­oni piz­za and a two liter bot­tle of Di­et Coke to meet me at the Hy­att. I con­sid­er my opin­ions about the prompt­ness of piz­za de­liv­ery dri­vers in gen­er­al, of the like­ly traf­fic hin­der­ing my piz­za de­liv­ery driver’s smooth trav­el to the ho­tel, con­sid­er whether it’s more like­ly he’s work­ing his way through school or just mak­ing rent, de­cide that this dri­ver de­serves a three buck tip, se­lect my method of pay­ment, and raise my seat back to its full up­right position.

Filed under Fiction on September 2nd, 2011

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