Apprehension gave way to fear as he exited the cab on 48th and Lexington. It was all he could do to grab his bags and find enough personal space to step out of the cab, as throngs of people in black coats and black shoes surrounded him on the corner. Two or three from the crowd were jockeying for position near the open passenger door to take the cab away from Randall Williams if he would "just get out of the way". At that same moment there was a break in the crossing automobile traffic and a few of the black herd would dart across the street followed sharply by a blazing electric horn. No one waited for the "WALK" sign in this town. It was 8:49 AM.
"It's Manhattan", they had said in a typical midwestern condescending tone as if to suggest that he was worrying about his upcoming trip for no reason. "It's the center of the civilized world for God sakes", said another of his homebound friends. He would force a smile and shrug his shoulders and attempt to find some body language that showed he was indeed comfortable, but the drama wasn't fooling anyone. Regardless of his own mental preparation and despite the "worldly" advice from his co-workers, Randall Williams was not at all familiar with the intricacies of travel and not at all comfortable being away from home, much less this very strange and gothic place.
His hands shook a bit while reaching for his wallet and he fumbled with the paper currency to find the right amount. Randall found it difficult to calculate a simple percentage of the fare for a tip, and his mind seemed to be racing in 50 different directions simultaneously. A bead of sweat started to form at his hairline, he was sure he could feel it. "Shit" he thought, as if he really needed one more little thing to worry about. Randy paid his fare plus 10% and worried about the cab driver noticing his growing vulnerability. He stood upright on the street corner as dark bodies without hats passed him on both sides. He was bumped first on the left then again on the right where he then stepped quickly behind a mailbox on the same corner to avoid being bumped again.
The word "civilized" popped into his head again, but this time in sarcastic context. "There was clearly no peace and tranquility here" Randy mumbled to himself. He fumbled for the piece of paper in his pocket that had directions and phone numbers but he was interrupted by a gust of December air that penetrated his well-worn tan overcoat. Randall could feel that he had been sweating and it was now dampening his shirt. He pulled the sleeve of his coat across his hairline to remove even more of the moisture. It was 8:55.
His directions were sketchy at best; given to him late on a Friday afternoon by the customer he was about to visit this Monday morning. Randy was given the major intersection but no street address, only instructions to look for the "Fidelity Manhattan" building main entrance. What Randall couldn't know is that the less than brilliant executive secretary had been reading from a standard logistics folder and had given him directions for the Hotel Intercontinental, not the bank which was a block away on Madison. She was new after all but looked good in black Spandex, which is of course the only real qualification for an office receptionist in Manhattan. After circling the block in a desperate attempt to find it, Randall stopped at a corner deli, bought a bottle of water and asked for directions. It was 9:20 AM.
Randy's mission, whether he chose to accept it or not, was to represent his company on a site visit to this Manhattan based bank and simply "make them happy". These were Randall Williams's only tangible instructions. The bank it seemed was angry at the world for not being able to install and configure the software that Randy's company sold them. His only smile of the day for came from a fabricated image of a short, fat, balding bank executive shaking his fists at the sky. It wasn't really a matter of who was to blame. Many other customers didn't seem to have any trouble in installing the software in question, but that didn't matter to Fidelity Manhattan. Their software project was behind schedule and because of the scope of the implementation; delays meant millions of extra dollars per month. Fidelity Manhattan wanted somebody's ass to hand to the board of directors. This is how 21st century business was done. Somebody else was always to blame.
Randall was very late, but based on his one and only experience in getting through LaGuardia Airport then waiting in an endless line for a cab, there seemed to be a built in believable excuse somewhere. He stopped at the guard desk in the center of the lobby and asked for directions to the Finance Floor. Surprisingly, security had been notified, Randall was expected and a visitor badge had been prepared for him an hour before. Randy was pointed to the elevator bank to the left of the reception area for the upper floors and he made his way to the first open car in the group. Sweat was running down the middle of his back in little droplets now and his hairline was completely wet. He struggled to take off his overcoat while he kept re-playing what he would say to this customer over and over in his mind. "We are sensitive to the fact that you've had some trouble implementing our software" "We're hear to help if we can", "You are one of our most valued customers". No matter how he phrased it in his mind, nothing sounded quite right. Nothing sounded apologetic enough.
Randy could feel his heart pounding through his blue button down oxford and his breaths started to become short and quick and shallow. "Breath damn it" he muttered out loud in the empty elevator while he forced himself into some longer sustained breaths. He knew that the CIO of the bank had threatened a lawsuit against his company, and he knew that the bank's software implementation problems would have to be resolved but what he didn't understand was "why did they send me?".
He was greeted on the 41st floor by some 26-year-old "newbie" with an imitation Italian three-button suit and a similar cheap but outwardly pleasant attitude. He was led to a large conference room with tall oak double entry doors and antique brass door handles. The Italian suited aide had to lean back with his meager body weight to get the door to open at all. The room surrounded a rectangular dark finished hardwood table with glass top, 30 rocker-back leather captain chairs, and pictures of former bank presidents on the walls. Dimly lit with mini spotlights aiming down from the ceiling, the room garnered a group of more dark suits in the back of the room near the coffee pot. They all turned towards Randall upon his entrance and no one there appeared to be in a good mood this morning.
Nobody actually said anything at first. A couple of the older suits made no attempt to hide a prolonged glance at their respective wrist watches. Suffering through the knots that had already formed in his stomach, Randy began with the best greeting he could muster. "Good Morning" he tried to say with assertion and confidence. He had prepared an explanation for the issues this customer was having, but he also carried, with management approval, monetary and service concessions because of the difficulty the bank was having. Randy was in fact prepared to offer them all the assistance they needed to fix their current stated issues at no charge, regardless of who was to blame for the issues at hand.
Before Randall could get into the second sentence of his greeting, he was quickly interrupted by a short, wide balding man at the opposite end of the table. "We're not interested in anything you have to say" said the bald one. "We told your regional VP last Thursday that we didn't want another explanation, we wanted action, and here you are to explain our problems to us all over again".
Randy was taken aback. It didn't occur to him that the sheer fact that they had assembled for him in this meeting room meant that they did want to hear what he had to say. The wide pinstriped one spoke again. "We spent 17.3 million dollars for your software, and another incurred cost of 9.2 million in consulting services and what do we have?" Of course he didn't want anyone to actually answer. "We have crap". "We can't stabilize the database, we can't get the security straightened out to actually log into the database anyway, and your documentation tells us nothing". "We log calls into your support center and despite the fact that we're supposed to have priority access to services there, they don't return our calls." This was untrue of course, but the fat man was rolling. "So I don't want another explanation, and I especially don't want it from an errand boy."
The regional VP had told Randy only that they needed a technical guy like "him" to help assess the situation in New York. It didn't occur to Randy to question the reason why he was being given authority to offer concessions. It was clear now, that the VP wanted nothing to do with the trouble brewing at Fidelity Manhattan. The Fat man was right. Randy was indeed an "errand boy".
Randall Williams couldn't actually feel his hands tightening into fists during the prior speech but there they were, on the table with white knuckles displayed for all to see. Randall couldn't have known that his own management team had already engaged in this verbal beating with the bank the previous week, and that the bank was expecting a full team of people to magically appear somehow on Monday. Today was Monday and Randall Williams was the only one sent. The sacrificial lamb, the stooge, the beatings had continued.
With eyes focused on the source of the verbal abuse and trying desperately not to show the emotion that was welling up inside him, Randy started to tune out the onslaught of carelessly chosen words. He found humor in the fact that his mouth was desperately dry while his forehead remained soaked. He continued to stare at the fat man. His face was now pale and the tingling in his fingers began to grow into pain as Randy clenched his hands together more tightly. His body reacted to the growing lack of oxygen, and Randy suddenly inhaled deeply and uncontrollably. He forced his hands to un-couple and he started to regain feeling in his fingertips.
Another voice interrupted the only one doing any talking in the room. Hang on there Tom, "Ah, the fat one had a name", Randy thought. The new voice continued, "Perhaps we should hear what this man came here to say".
This was all new ground for Mr. Randall Williams. Married, father of two young girls, all he ever wanted was a decent job at a decent company where he could still spend time with his better than decent family. Maybe he was picked for this trip because he had never been involved with customer relationship politics and because he still cared about product quality and customer service. Maybe he was picked because no one else wanted to suffer through verbal discourse with this customer.
The next few hours were a blur. Randy did his best to break the conversation down into a discussion of the actual problems that remained, and an estimate of what it might take to fix things. The Fidelity management team continued to hurl one-liners and comments with hidden meanings out during the meeting for their own entertainment. Randall Williams came to a conclusion sometime after the first hour, that he might be lucky enough to identify the source of their trouble, but he also understood that he would never make them happy.
The sweat never stopped forming on Randy's brow, and his right shirt sleeve was discolored along the seam from the endless wiping. He could feel his heart race every time the conversation at the table turned ugly and he was still having trouble breathing. The details of the bank's troubles were laid out in front of Randy and the angry discourse continued well past the lunch hour. There were no formal break points in the meeting, and the executives would simply excuse themselves from time to time to use the rest room or make a call. There was no such break for Randy and he was utterly alone.
Sometime around 3:00, the fat one interrupted another of his colleagues and started in on Randy once more. "This is enough". "I'm tired of going through these issues a second time, when they are clearly your issues". He was pointing a stubby index finger at Randy. "The bottom line is that we told your management team last week what our problems were, and they failed to respond". "Our lawyers will be in touch with you in the morning".
Thinking they were making progress, Randy was shocked at the outburst. He fumbled for the words to tell them all about his company's offer of services and support, but the fat man followed quickly with "Gentlemen, let us adjourn for the day". The group of dark suits made their way quickly out of the conference room without making any eye contact. Randy stood, bent at the waist with palms resting on the conference table. His head was down and he stared at the grain of the wood on the table through the smudged glass top.
Randy gathered his things, loaded his documentation case and packed his computer bag. He put on his sport coat and overcoat then threw the computer bag strap over his right shoulder. Randy grabbed the documentation case and made his way, unescorted, to the elevator.
Randall Williams pushed the button to go down, and stood there for what seemed to be an eternity. His breathing was still shallow and fast and he once again tried to force himself to calm down. No elevator was stopping on this floor.
The stair case was just to the left of the elevator, and despite being up on the 13th floor, Randy was willing to do just about anything to get off this "damn floor". As soon as the door to the stair well closed behind him Randy breathed a small sigh of relief. There was nobody else trudging up or down these stairs.
Randy struggled down the concrete and steel steps and the straps from his computer bag were now digging painfully into his shoulder. His breathing increased again and the sweat was flowing freely all over his upper torso. Randall Williams was not in shape, and the addition of multiple of layers of clothing didn't help. His bags were heavy and he had trouble controlling his balance by the time he reached the 8th floor. Randy's knees started to ache and the back of his throat was completely dry. He could feel his heart race again as he started to play out the events of the day in his mind. Randy worried about what his boss and his bosses' boss would say about his failure at the bank, and he agonized about perhaps being responsible for a lawsuit being brought against his company. This wasn't true of course but Randy wasn't being rational about anything then.
5th floor, 4th floor, Randy could barely hold onto the documentation case with his left hand so he switched it to his right. He noticed that his whole arm was tingling and he had trouble moving his fingers. He thought back to the conference room and how the "fat man" enjoyed making Randy the target of his insults. He thought about how his co-workers would tease him endlessly about the whole affair. He thought about how ill-prepared he was for dealing with the stress or this type of combative customer and he longed for the security and comfort of his cubicle back in Peoria.
Struggling at first with the door handle at the bottom of the stairs, he made his way through the lobby and out on to Madison Avenue. Instinctively needing to move away from the scene of the disaster, Randy walked back towards the corner of Lexington and 48th. The cold afternoon air blew through his open topcoat and sport jacket and caused his body to wrench as it wrapped around his sweat soaked body. The tails of his coat waved behind him as he struggled to walk further. Randall Williams started to experience a new sensation. He was losing some feeling in his arm again, but this was different. His legs began to grow weak and he could feel the weight of both his daughters on his chest, but his daughters weren't there. Randy looked frantically for a place to sit down but there was nothing in his path. Just behind the wall of the next building to his left was an opening leading to the entrance of an apartment building. He made the turn and immediately went down on his right knee. Randy dropped his bags, clutched his chest and fell backwards on gray granite paved stone.
His eyes were still open and he looked skyward. He felt a slight sting in his eye, then another. It had started to snow. It was quiet and peaceful and he suddenly saw images of his wife and daughters, but the images were fleeting. He heard voices all around him now but he couldn't make out the words and a peculiar "warmth" started to flow over him. He thought he heard someone shouting but there soon was an absence of all sound, and later an absence of all pain. Randall Williams laid still, barely breathing, finally finding peace in Manhattan.