Monday, April 10, 2006

On the Road

Every day I get up and look through the Forbes list of the richest people in America. If I'm not there, I go to work. ~Robert Orben


Back in the bad old days when I was in Quality Control, I used to have to occasionally take business trips. Like a fine wine, I do not travel well. Truth be told, I don't travel as well as Ripple. When I'm on a trip, I get a headache, I can't sleep, and I eat too much. I'd drink too much as well, but booze gives me heartburn. I don't like flying, either, especially when it involves airplanes.
But, never finding myself on the Forbes list, when the boss said, “Go”, I went. On a trip, that is.
One of the reasons I had to go places was to assess potential new vendors or try to sort out problems with old ones. In many cases, this involved traveling with a buyer from the Purchasing Department. Fortunately, the company for which I traveled the most had its headquarters several states away. That meant that I didn't have to travel with the buyer. I met him in the city where the vendor was, and we then went to the site together. As a result, I was generally spared having to make a couple of hours of small talk in a cramped economy-class cabin with someone I barely knew.
Actually, the worst thing about traveling with a buyer was that he had a vested interest in the vendor getting a good rating from me. After all, the buyer found the vendor and recommended the outfit as perfect to make our parts to our schedule. Mostly, he was the cheapest supplier he could find. Now, we in the quality game have a little slogan: “Cheap. Fast. Good. Choose two.” Since the buyer was selling upper management that this vendor could do miracles, there was a natural tension between buyers and quality engineers.
Fortunately, the buyer I traveled with most, Bert, had a more realistic approach. He actually tried to find good vendors and got very upset with them when they failed to perform. So, on a vendor survey, he was actually a good second set of eyes. Bert, therefore, would have been an ideal buyer to go with all the time except for one thing: He never got good directions to anywhere. Consequently, we got lost everywhere we went.
Take our trip to Los Angeles. Please. We got in on Sunday, because we had a long drive to Oxnard (yes, there really is such a place). Things started out just fine. We had a lovely drive up US 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, which you've seen a hundred times on TV. Car commercials are shot there so often, I'm surprised it's ever open. Anyway, after a leisurely drive, we found ourselves in Oxnard. We then spent two hours trying to find our hotel. Well, Bert spent two hours trying to find it. I kept wondering if the place we kept passing was it, but his cryptic and incomplete directions kept saying we had to turn left at such-and-such and, by golly, we were going to keep turning left no matter how many times we passed that place on the right.
Once we finally got into the hotel (do know if you keep turning left, sooner or later you get where you would have gotten turning right?), the first thing I did was ask the clerk where the vendor's plant was. It turned out to be about half a mile away. I had to argue with Bert the next morning, because he insisted that, according to his instructions, the plant was in the other direction. I finally convinced him that, just possibly, crazy as it might sound, a guy who lived in Oxnard might have a better idea of where the vendor was than a guy from Erie, PA.
The next day we got lost in a part of LA we should definitely not have been in, you know, the sort of neighborhood where you can get your wheels stolen – while the car is moving. When I made Bert stop so I could ask a cop for directions, the cop looked at me and said, “Boy, are you guys lost!”
Or there was the trip to Providence, RI. Bert had been told of a great Italian restaurant in the Italian quarter of Providence. Bert didn't have a clue where in Providence the Italian quarter was, he didn't know the name of the restaurant, but he did know it was in a white building. After a couple of hours wandering around Providence in the dark, I insisted we pull into a gas station to ask directions. We couldn't have been farther from where we needed to be without leaving Rhode Island altogether. On the plus side, once we found it, the restaurant turned out to be great (although Bert was never really sure it was the right one).
We also got lost the next day in Connecticut.
But I got some measure of revenge in New York City. We never got lost, because Bert didn't do any driving. We just got into a cab in front of the Port Authority, gave the cabbie the address, and got delivered to the correct place on the first try. The fun came later when we needed to hail a cab to go back. At the Port Authority, they were lined up waiting for customers. Now, though, we were on the streets of the big city, trying to get one to stop and take us back.
Bert had waxed on and on about what a big-city guy he was. This was his element, the hustle and bustle of the mighty metropolis. I half-expected him to break into a chorus of New York, New York. I, on the other hand, am a long-time country boy, growing up in rural Ohio, moving to rural Virginia, and ultimately landing here in rural Alabama. I am a fish out of water in a mighty metropolis. But, city-savvy Bert was having no luck, vainly waving his hand at the cabs whizzing by. Finally, I got sick of waiting. Spotting a cab coming our way, I took a step into the street, stuck my hand out, and hollered, “YO! CAB!” The cabbie cut over three lanes to pick us up. Bert was crestfallen. The hayseed from Alabama had shown him up.
I was feeling pretty smug, but I was soon put into my place. As we were getting into the taxi, a woman wearing an expensive-looking three piece suit stepped to the curb, put down here Gucci briefcase, stuck two fingers in her mouth, and let out a whistle to wake the dead. At least three cabs were pulling over for her as we drove away.
I felt like such an amateur.

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