"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 17 March 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Err Travel


[Asleep at the wheel]

The Sunday New York Times

is a both a unique pleasure and

a unique value. At her fattest,

the Gray Lady offers some

insightful reporting, some crisp

writing, and some flickering

glances into the minds of people

who think in ways we can't even

imagine actually thinking.

Dropped into a travel piece a

few weeks back, for example, a

generally favorable description

of an ocean cruise dipped, for a

moment, into icy horror: "The

napery," the writer shuddered,

detailing a trip to the dining

room, "was paper." Note also

that a recent sports page piece

on personnel changes in two

major league baseball teams

began with a pithy saying in

French. All notions of a

classless society aside, people

for whom the sight of a

Cincinnati speedballer hurling

fire down 90 feet of

spit-drenched dirt brings to

mind nothing so much as a

particularly delicious passage

from Rimbaud tend to either

write for Suck or sign our

checks. And we don't cover baseball.


So it interested us,

back on 8 March, to see that the

Times had taken up most of its

Sunday magazine to explore the

intricacies of business travel,

air travel in particular:

"Business Class as a Way of

Life," the cover read.

Recognizing the Times as the

cultural house organ for the

people most of us know largely

by its email - trickled down,

through layers of middle

management, to the functionary

strata, where we try to ignore

it as much as possible so we can

get some work done - we make the

little hop-skip of faith and

assume that this must be an

issue (or set thereof) much on

the minds of upper management

and other enormously responsible types.


There's a mild little

disconnect, here, from true

top-drawer Times-ness: The

typical frequent business-class

traveler is likely to respond to

paper napery by wiping his mouth

on it, blowing his nose into it,

and chucking it onto the airport

floor as he races for the gate;

while The Man is also much in

the air these days - sneak a

peak as the cabin attendants

hustle you back toward your

section - most of the

gray-suited global business

warriors queuing up at the

check-in counter for the red-eye

to Hong Kong are plain old

salesmen and service-providers,

front-line types whose

world-traveler status lends a

new cachet to the old title of

"traveling salesman." And we've

never once heard a traveling

salesman toss the ol'

Français around on the

subject of Mickey Hatcher's old job.


[Baggage claim of life]

The series of stories on

business travel kept wandering

into the same territory: There

was an appearance from a

businessman with an apartment in

Hong Kong, for example, who

spent so much time racing from

continent to continent (using a

cell phone to ask his secretary

to schedule appointments with

his more stationary wife) that

he never actually bothered to

stock the place with anything

more than his suitcase and a few

bottles of hotel shampoo; there

was the sidebar on the heart

attacks and panic attacks

suffered by "people who have

been traveling a long time" on

business, away from friends and

family in long stretches,

isolated from the world

precisely as they race around

it; there was the interview with

a middle-aged man sitting in a

first-class lounge at O'Hare

International, "trying to

control his temper," who

acknowledged that he "once sat

down and did the math," figuring

that he'd spent three years of

his life in airplanes and

airports; there was the US

executive stationed in Mexico

City who doesn't send his

children to school without armed

bodyguards, but doesn't mind the

threat of death and kidnapping

much because he knows he's going

to leave one day, presumably

with a jumbo pot of money; there

was the executive in a New York

bar who argued that it's not

such a big deal to fuck around

while you're traveling on

business, because you're

"somewhere where nobody knows

you. It's like a parallel universe."


[Bizarro Air]

And there was, still

making us shudder to think about

it, the guy at a restaurant in

the airport Hilton. The

restaurant "has no menu in the

ordinary sense." Instead, a

waitress in "gold toeless

sandals, sheer hose and a

clinging, tasseled bodysuit cut

high at the crotch and tight and

low around the breasts" brings a

tray of raw, shrink-wrapped meat

to the table for customers to

point and grunt at: Gimme the

porterhouse, honey. The guy was

drunk and complaining about how

business travel these days

(unlike the old days) is all

work and never a chance to

"chase skirt." He takes the

cigar out of his mouth, points

at a waitress. "I love my wife,"

he says. "But that girl there,

I'd give her one."


One Times writer who spent three days at

O'Hare - earning his place in

heaven, for sure, with a

pre-emptive term in hell - noted

that the airport had, like most

airports increasingly have, a

complex of meeting rooms. The

emerging cultural trend of the

week - so sayeth the Times - is

the growing tendency of business

travelers to fly into a city for

a meeting, save time by actually

meeting in the featureless

airport meeting center, and

immediately jump on another

plane to zip off to another

opening, another show.

(Incidentally, we should mention

that the writer who wandered

O'Hare, talking to angry men in

first-class lounges and

horrifying men in nauseating

restaurants, is Richard Rayner.

Nice work, Ray - have a steak.)


Deep inside one story in the

package, the Timeswraps what

could almost be a neat little

bow around the frenetic pace of

all this cellular telephony and

e-ticketing. Another Times

writer talked to a salesman who

has been visiting the same

corporate headquarters in the

same town for 10 - 10 - years.

"Downtown?" he asks the writer,

responding to a question with a

question. "Is there one? There

may be a nice little downtown

square here. I don't know if

there is or not. Isn't that wild?


This see-that-says-it-all

money line is damaged

somewhat by the fact that the

salesman is visiting Wal-Mart

headquarters in Bentonville,

Arkansas. But we once worked for

three weeks in Victorville,

California, and managed - no

kidding - to stop in at the Roy

Rogers Museum, so we're not sure

there's an excuse for never even

seeing the town square.


Still, Bentonville. So the bow will

have to be the young man at

O'Hare who insists that, "This

is the way business is done in

the '90s. If you don't do this,

you're a dinosaur, dead meat."


It's probably not so shocking to

mention it, but you could scan

all of these stories for some

small hint of a business

traveler finding a city overseas

that he loves, or a neighborhood

away from home that he enjoys

visiting, or whatever. You won't

find it, and you knew that.


[News that doesn't fit]

True, magazines tend to end up

creating the stories the editors

have brainstormed in the weekly

meeting, and one suspects the

Times could have maybe found, say,

one business traveler for whom

the experience of doing global

commerce wasn't a good deal like

living in a film loop on

existential crisis and spiritual

anomie. Still, the there's-a-downtown?

quotes were there to

be had, and it's hard to resist

the urge to shape telling

patterns out of frequently

recurring parallels. In the same

newspaper a few weeks back, a

book review noted that the

author of a series of spy

thrillers was a retired

diplomat, pen name W. T. Tyler;

"Tyler," the review reads, "has

begun to show impatience with

international entanglements and

most especially with the

American diplomatic corps and

its indifference to information

actually drawn from the field...."


A nice summing up,

and it fits. The blather of US business leaders

and politicians turns,

increasingly, on our broad and

deep participation in a thriving

global economy, on the ways that

technology has shrunk the world

and made it possible for us to

live, and work, across the

entire stretch of the planet.

But the details suggest that a

careful parsing may be in order:

We are, it seems, living on the

whole world rather than in it,

skipping off other cultures like

stones off of water and thinking

that we've mastered them. Hey,

we love the idea of a shrinking

world growing closer together,

but that notion of malaise over

there? We'd give it one.

courtesy of Ambrose Beers