Chapter One – The Project
I stood outside the building waiting for Lisa to give me the sign to enter. For some reason, I was too blasé. I suppose you could say we’d already failed, and I therefore had nothing to lose. I would try to do what I’d planned, nothing more. Still, something in me refused to accept failure. Somehow, I still believed there was hope, that it was still possible to make a change, that this meeting was not a waste of time, perhaps even contained the seeds of a new beginning.
I saw my reflection in the building’s transparent glass cladding: I was wearing a smartly pressed, three-piece suit and a starched white shirt. I kept unbuttoning and rebuttoning the top and second buttons of my shirt, indecisive about leaving them open or closed.
Suddenly it started to rain.
I waited in the building’s busy lobby, impatient to see Lisa. She still hadn’t shown up. Was everything all right? I felt a stab of concern.
The conference was taking place exactly three years after the project started. I had tried to postpone the gathering using diplomatic and not-so-diplomatic means, until I realized that was a dead end. It simply couldn’t be ignored or bypassed. It was stuck there, like a giant wall blotting out the future. I knew it was right in front of me and that I would crash into it; I had no choice. I was only hoping the pain would be endurable.
So why was Lisa late? She should have been here to meet me already. What the hell was holding her up?
Just as I decided to go ahead without her, she appeared wearing a tight blue dress and elegant heels. She had short blond hair, metallic blue eyes, and an odd habit of gesticulating as she spoke. Most people use their hands to speak, but Lisa’s gestures were unlike any I had seen. She’d speak while making strange circular motions with one hand that would force the attention of her audience away from what she was saying. She knew it, but could not control this tic.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Does it make a difference if I’m not?”
She smiled at me with understanding, and proceeded quickly towards the conference hall. The hubbub coming from the room made it clear that the number of participants exceeded expectations. For if a catastrophe was about to occur, why not have a ring-side seat?
But actually, I told myself, there is no catastrophe. The failure is already behind us, though not entirely. We were now dealing with the wreckage, and it was my job to collect the pieces and reassemble them into something entirely new.
Lisa marched towards the podium. She was a member of my team. Before that, she’d been involved in internet projects, and for a time had worked as a project manager in a large production company. When I took the job, and met her for the first time, she’d been full of self-confidence; she’d made the impression that the job was tailor-made for her. Despite the project’s failure, I had nothing against her. Without her, the situation would have been much worse; of that, I was certain.
Lisa and the other managers were all professionals. They had mastered the fields they managed, and I couldn’t point to a single significant mistake any of them had made – the same way I couldn’t understand where I myself had gone wrong. So, what happened? The truth was that I no longer had the energy to think about it.
As I was waiting for Lisa’s hands and her opening remarks, I continued to repeat my mantra; praise the work done to date, stress the project’s importance and define clear goals that can be attained in the future. But how would I manage to speak about each of these points for fifteen minutes, without mentioning a single concrete task or deadline?
I was no longer sure if there was any point to this whole exercise, but with one hundred members of the project group, crammed into a space designed for eighty, it seemed too late to retreat. The wall was right in front of me. For a second, I thought of myself as a superhero who’d manage to smash through it.
Lisa signaled me to step up and take the microphone.
The silence was complete. I heard it descend on every corner. The gazes coming my way were getting darker. It seemed as if one enormous, dumb-struck eye were looking at me; I was facing a gigantic pixelated storm cloud. I took a deep breath. Lisa sent me a piercing glance, as if asking me if I was all right, but afraid to be overheard. My hand made a calming motion in her direction, to say that everything was under control.
I took another deep breath, cleared my throat, and started speaking in the most confident voice I could muster.
“To all of you – welcome. I am very happy to be here with you. You must be asking yourselves why you were invited here today and what is so important to share in this setting. And, you know what? You’re right.
“We’ve come a long way, but we’ve reached a difficult point. Some would describe it as failure. I hate that word. As do you, don’t you? And, maybe you’re asking yourselves how we got to where we are and what role each of us played. It’s hard to avoid these questions. Believe me, I’m asking them too. Along with many other questions. But I suddenly find myself saying; why ask? And even if I had answers, what good would they do?
“In any case, the reason I asked you to come here today is essential, and has nothing to do with what is past. It concerns what will be.
“What do I mean? I’ll get to that in just a moment, all right?”
I took another deep breath. The storm cloud dissolved into familiar human faces. I took a moment to look at each one, if only for a fraction of a second. Instead of the heavy sense of despair that had been my constant companion this whole time, I felt something else – a kind of transcendence of spirit, a feeling that perhaps, after all, with all of the resourcefulness and talent packed into this room, it was still possible to do something and save this project.
Four days earlier, at the end of March, I had returned from yet another meeting with George Madison, our major donor. We used to meet with George and his people at the end of every month for a day or two to present the state of the project. Sometimes we met face-to-face, and sometimes by conference calls. This time, it was just George and me; each of my team members had half an hour by phone to present the month’s progress, the major achievements and key challenges still to be met.
In the past, there had been some unpleasant meetings with George and his team, but this was the worst yet. I had the feeling George was sick of our presentations, or more accurately, sick of our excuses. Which was understandable. After all, he had given us tens of millions of dollars, waiting to see his name emblazoned on the new wing of the maternity ward at the end of two years. But it was now three years later, and the end was nowhere in sight.
In the first few months, it was easy to present progress in the form of walls going up, one floor being finished, another emerging, until the new four-story wing was complete. We had the sense of making great strides, right on schedule. We received many compliments. But over time, our presentations became increasingly ill-defined.
In hindsight, I can say perfectly honestly that we did nothing. Construction was the responsibility of a contractor, who had been selected by tender and had to show incremental progress in order to get paid, which is precisely what he did. Throughout that period, which lasted around eighteen months, we observed a great deal of impressive action, but we weren’t planning for the day when the building would be delivered to us and we would have to get it ready to fulfill its function.
And, in fact, after a year and a half of construction, we took possession of the building as planned, ushering in the stage considered simpler; bringing in and installing the new systems and getting them ready for a trial run. This stage, which was supposed to have lasted all of six months, was dragging on and on a year and a half later.
Gradually, we realized that almost all our operating assumptions had been too optimistic. Although everyone was working very hard, progress was painfully slow, and I couldn’t find a way to speed it up. As if that weren’t enough, suppliers failed to meet their deadlines, holding us up for long stretches and blaming us for the delays, leading us to distrust our own plans and forecasts, which we had to postpone over and over again.
George was a wealthy and extraordinarily generous man. He was at least seventy-years-old, but he still had a full head of salt-and-pepper hair. He dressed well, but casually, in a way that didn’t hint at his great riches. Aside from his philanthropic activities, I think he also owned some baseball team, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t feel comfortable asking him, because I knew less than nothing about the sport. I didn’t know any of the teams; in fact, without fail, baseball induced in me nothing but stupendous boredom.
As far as our project was concerned, he was the perfect donor, expecting us only to use his money well. During the last year, we made sure to thank him at every opportunity and apologize for the many delays, but George’s patience was running out.
Four days ago, at our last meeting, he was furious. He said he had completely lost faith in our ability to complete this project, and even hinted that we were deliberately misleading him. Worse still, after realizing where matters stood, he turned his brown eyes on me and said:
“You know there is a clause in the contract that says I can withdraw my donation if the project is not completed in four years? I see you know and as far as I can tell, that’s exactly what’s going to happen!”
A slight tremble started climbing up my legs, and the room seemed to grow dark. I opened my mouth to answer, but all I managed was some hesitant stammering. I really didn’t know what to say. Should I promise to have the project done on time? I had to promise, but did I believe in it myself?
George’s words were like an ice-bath. To my great embarrassment, I couldn’t contradict him from my heart. I knew that, given the current situation, there was an excellent chance this could drag on for four years. When the construction phase ended, I really thought we’d be able to complete the project in six months. I never imagined that we’d be where we were at the end of the third year. I did my best to reassure George, promising we would do everything possible to improve the situation.
“Give us one last chance,” I was close to begging. He dismissed me with a noncommittal grunt. He wouldn’t act on the clause in the contract, at least not yet, but the threat was hanging over our heads like a gloomy, menacing shadow. The rifle had been introduced in the first act, and it was set to be fired in the third. A clear and present danger.
The meeting ended because there was nothing left to say. I walked towards the door, feeling as though I was losing my balance. Someone saw me and sent me a questioning look; I think she wanted to ask me if I was all right, if I needed some water. I quickly looked down and hurried out.
Just outside the building, I stood as if the ground beneath my feet was shaking. My mouth was ashy, and for a moment I lost all sense of time and place. I had no idea where I was supposed to go now, what I was supposed to do. Just then, my wife tried to reach me on my cell phone. I rejected the call, but she called again. When I answered, she spoke for a while. I’m sure I listened but whatever she said made no impression. In that moment, I couldn’t think at all. I mumbled something into the phone and walked away from the glittering office tower into a plaza, filled with artificial trees, SUVs, and glass windows reflecting blinding light in every direction. When I reached my rental car, I realized I had no idea where to go now. I was supposed to be meeting George for dinner later on, a dinner scheduled before the blow-up of the meeting. How could I get through a meal with him after what had happened? And how was I supposed to pass the time until then? I was hoping he would call to cancel.
I started the car and took a deep breath. “I’m OK, everything will be OK,” I muttered as I started driving. I didn’t believe my own words.
The next few hours were hazy. George didn’t cancel our dinner plans, and I think I went back to the hotel. I probably checked my emails and talked with some of my colleagues on the phone; I know I called my wife to see what she wanted earlier. She asked me if everything was all right; of course, I said everything was fine, but I knew that she realized something was off.
I kept looking at my watch. I wasn’t sure if time was slowing down or speeding up. What the hell was I supposed to talk about? I tried to reach Lisa, Fabian and Laura, but all I got was recorded messages saying they’d get back to me, which only stretched my nerves even thinner.
I thought about project managers and how alone they are, especially when everything goes wrong and everyone else is trying to distance themselves from the failure. When one of them finally called me back, I didn’t pick up. I was incapable of speech. I had to concentrate, put something together right away, but nothing came to mind.
At dinner, I sat down next to George. He looked relaxed, as if our earlier conversation were a distant dream. He drank more than a couple of glasses of wine, told some funny stories, and praised the spaghetti alle vongole, as if the dish were a classic work of art.
Then, a lull in the conversation. Like a hawk, I swooped down on the opportunity and asked a smiling George for three more months before he acted on his threat and withdrew his donation and support. I swore to him that we would regroup and present a different state of affairs next month. Virtually begging, I asked him not to do anything drastic till then.
I had no idea what I was going to do, but I must have been desperate enough and pitiful enough for George to decide to wait. He finished the dregs of his wine, looked at me again with his steady brown eyes, and said:
“It’s your last chance. Afterwards, we pack up what’s left and go home.” He put the glass down on the table, got up, and left.
* * *
The next day, we cut out the meetings we had planned with George as the gist had already been said the day before; there was no point in making presentations if the entire project was now on ice. The cancellations left me with plenty of time on my hands until my flight home, scheduled for noon the next day. Looking for a place to sit down and think about what had happened in the last twenty-four hours, I decided to go into the city. Maybe seeing the water and the bridges would cheer me up.
I got out of the cab somewhere near the Golden Gate Bridge. I looked at the big store windows, fancy restaurants, souvenir shops and neverending stream of foot traffic, the cars whizzing past like futuristic vehicles, all clean and metallic, looking as if untethered to the ground and about to take off for the sky and the stars.
At some point, it started to rain but I just continued walking down the street, overcome by an enormous sense of failure. I felt trapped, and so intense was my gloom that I didn’t notice I was without an umbrella, until I realized I was wet to my skin.
I ducked into a small neighborhood bar. It was relatively quiet and tastefully furnished, the walls covered in murals done by graffiti artists. The large television screens were showing different sports channels. Despite the odd juxtaposition between the graffiti and the digital screens, the designer had managed to create a welcoming ambience.
The indoor heating helped dry the worst of my soaking. I hung up my jacket and sat down on one of the comfortably padded barstools at the horseshoe-shaped bar. The barman placed the menu in front of me and immediately started reciting the list of cocktails he assured me matched my mood. I must have looked truly miserable, but I still opted for a Belgian beer, whose only advantage over its competitors was its unusually high ten percent alcohol contents. At that point, this was the only thing I cared about.
Music was playing softly. I recognized Nirvana’s “All Apologies.” The song mirrored my state of mind so perfectly I almost burst out laughing.
I sipped my beer slowly. My mind kept churning over the situation. I tried to find a sequential line of thinking that would lead me out of the corner I was backed into. The barman sent me a look of understanding, and started to talk. At first, I didn’t realize he was talking to me, but once I caught on I tried to pay attention, even though the last thing I wanted to do was engage in pointless small talk.
I gathered that the murals had been done by a well-known artist and had even been photographed and featured in an art magazine. I nodded with feigned enthusiasm and asked how long it had taken to paint. I must have touched a sore spot, because the barman switched gears and embarked on a long saga he had obviously recited dozens of times before, complaining about the many months the project took and how the bar opening had to be postponed because of the delay in the artist’s work.
At least I’m not alone, I thought. If the opening of a thirty-square-meter bar is delayed, no wonder it’s tough to add eight hundred square meters to every floor of a major hospital’s maternity wing based on a far-reaching technological vision, new systems, and many suppliers.
“So how long did it take you to build this place?” I asked, trying to shift the burden to speaking to him. Maybe I didn’t want him to start asking me questions about my own story; I feared the moment I would have to open up about it.
He told me about the old space he had bought at an outrageous price, the three months of renovations, followed by three unscheduled months of mural painting. I smiled and said that I understood him more than he could imagine. He tilted his head to one side and raised his eyebrows, as if asking me to explain. In answer, I told him I was in charge of building a new hospital wing, including buying equipment and getting it ready for use, adding that the project’s completion had already been postponed by a year and the end was not yet in sight. I thought this would finish our conversation; maybe a customer at the other end of the bar was trying to catch his attention, and I sighed in relief that he didn’t ask any in-depth follow-up questions. I sipped the last of my beer and got ready to leave. There had to be a better way to pass the time.
“Why was it postponed?” I suddenly heard another voice coming from behind my right shoulder. I turned my head and saw a balding man of about fifty, smiling at me. He must have overheard everything.
“Pardon me for butting in,” he apologized but again asked, “but why was it postponed?”
I smiled back and said: “I wish I knew.”
He was clearly unsatisfied. He shook his head and said, “tell me more.”
I took a deep breath and looked at him more closely. He was built broadly, like a wrestler. He was wearing black slacks and a button-down shirt, whose tails he had pulled free as one would after a hard day of work. Yet he didn’t seem exhausted or even particularly tired. On the contrary, he seemed relaxed and energetic, as if he were only just gearing up for the day.
In any case, something in him exuded calmness, and he seemed genuinely interested in the story. It may, I thought, be good to share it. Maybe I would suddenly be struck by a new angle, shout “eureka,” and run outside like a madman. Besides, the beer was making itself felt. My speech suddenly felt lighter. Nirvana’s In Utero notes also helped put me in a pleasant twilight state.
I started telling him about the decision to expand the maternity ward and the technological vision. I described how we spent years trying to identify a donor, and once he was found, how we messed up the project so that its very existence now hung in the balance. With a wry smile and in broad strokes, I told him about yesterday’s awful meeting and how I suddenly had a free day because I was such a rock-star. “So maybe there’s nothing to do but have another beer,” I joked, but the stranger didn’t laugh.
I expected the fellow to say something like, “I’m sorry for your troubles,” and perhaps add how he was sure things would get better, the type of statements used to frame a conversation and allow it to move on to other topics and superficial chatter. Instead, he leaned forward, pulled his chair a little closer, and said:
“OK. Now you’ve really got my attention. What happened? And what was your role in all of it?”
Who does this guy think he is? I asked myself. Why does he think that small talking at a bar entitles him to know the finer details of a failure I intend to forget? And why does he care? Is he working on something similar? Is this some kind of industrial espionage?
I needed to decide if I wanted to continue the conversation. So I stalled, and said: “I’m Gary, I’m a project manager at a hospital. I have a small team, but I am personally responsible for this fiasco, which I’m still managing. Who are you, sir, and if I may ask – why are you so interested?”
This may have been brusque, but it didn’t faze him. He provided a cheerful answer: He was an experienced project manager, though he had recently been spending most of his time consulting for various institutions and large project managers.
I felt my lips curling into a bitter smile. There were too many project managers running around in the world in general and in San Francisco in particular. They look like everyone else, dress in corporate clothes, carry on normal conversations, and go for a beer at the local watering hole. Nothing I didn’t know already.
I also knew all about so-called consultants who troll business district bars, dropping in ostensibly by chance, to sink their hooks into the next sap, desperate for someone to extricate him from a mess with their “expertise.” All of San Francisco was a pond full of fish, and these types walked around with their transparent nets. I remember Fabian telling me about one such type who pestered him like a black fly. It took him a long time to get rid of him, and the resulting irritation lasted months.
I despised consultants. Even the best, who really had the experience and had managed many successful projects, were generally only engaging in Monday morning quarterbacking. I felt that without the heavy responsibility, that in practice weighs on project managers’ shoulders, it was really hard to be of any help in decision-making. The consulting process always seemed promising at first, but would invariably end up being pointless, though time-consuming and costly. The last thing I needed right now was another consultant who would scatter about pearls of wisdom and feel-good insights about perfect project management.
“I’m not interested in consulting services at the moment. And whatever we discussed here must remain confidential.” I was sorry to have gotten sucked into the conversation, sorry about the beer, my irresponsible meandering when I was supposed to be solving serious problems. The sound system had by now segued into bland country music, which was grating on my nerves. My plan was to excuse myself with a smile, pay for the beer, and leave. “And any case, I’m flying home tomorrow,” I added.
To my surprise, he continued looking at me in a friendly, cheerful way, and said with undisguised confidence that he was not looking for a consulting position and had no intention of offering me his services for a fee. I was stymied. Was this a new trick of the trade?
“The bottom line is,” he continued, “that your hospital story strikes me as interesting. Seeing that fate threw us together, I’m curious about the project’s circumstances.”
I looked at him wordlessly. I had no idea what to say.
“Look. Years ago, I cracked the code of project management and made myself a tidy little sum. I expect I will continue to make money off it in the future too. So, the last thing I want is to offer you a service you don’t want, certainly not for money.”
“I understand, but not really. Forgive me for being frank, but what do you want?”
He opened his mouth and let out a loud guffaw. “Listen, till your flight tomorrow, I can show you some simple principles that will help you down the line, but if you want to continue spending your working hours in bars, that’s fine with me.”
He turned to the barman and said: “Put his beer on my tab and let us have another round.”
The barman served us new beers. We clinked our glasses and after a small sip, which became a rather larger one than I’d intended, I said to him: “OK. You win. Now I’m curious. What can you teach me by tomorrow?”
“It’s really simple,” he answered. “I’m going to give you two assignments and see if you can carry them out. If you can, you’re on the right track, and we’ll take it from there. What do you say?”
“Sounds great,” I said. “But don’t you want to hear a little about the project I’m managing? How it’s structured? What’s been done, and what’s left to do?”
“At this point, it’s best that I don’t know,” he said with absolute confidence. “Just describe the project in a few words, tell me what your role is, how many people are involved in it and how many report to you directly and indirectly. Also, who is the worst employee without whom the entire project would advance faster?”
The worst employee? I thought, and started to laugh. It really was an interesting thought, and my mind immediately started going through all the bad people in the project. They bubbled to the surface and disappeared without leaving a trace.
“All right,” I said. “As I mentioned, the project is the expansion of the hospital’s maternity wing. The building is up. What’s left essentially is to bring in the equipment and systems, install them, test-run them, and get the space ready for use.
“I report to the hospital’s development and operations manager, and occasionally also to the hospital director. My title is general project manager and I have three project managers under me. Each of them is responsible for a particular piece of the project. That means that I directly supervise only three people. Indirectly, there are about two hundred professionals and team members, as well as service and goods providers.”
“And who is the worst performing?”
“I can think of one person in particular. I can hardly deal with him,” I said with a grim smile. “He manages the hospital’s integration group. When we install new computer systems, he’s supposed to test them and link them up with the hospital’s existing systems. Every conversation with him becomes an argument, and every single assignment I give him is late. Sometimes I feel like giving him a good swift kick in the pants and getting rid of him.”
“OK,” he answered.
“Is that enough data for you?”
“Actually, it’s way more than I needed. In fact, I only wanted to know the number of people involved in the project and the worst performer, but I figured that if I only asked those two details you’d insist on telling me about the project as a whole. All right, what you told me about your job and the structure of the team is typical of almost every project in the world. Let’s get started.”
I’d finished my beer and was feeling a little logy, but was still focused. The barman had finally turned the country music off and was now playing something lighter with a good beat, a piece I couldn’t place. A cluster of people entered the bar just then. I looked at the bald guy in front of me and thought, assignments? He’s going to give me assignments? Is that all that’s missing from my life at this moment? More assignments?
In any case, the beer in my brain and pleasant surroundings dispelled all resistance. “Fine,” I said, “assignments it is. What have I got to lose?”
“Please note,” he said in a serious tone of voice, his eyes suddenly larger than before, “the first assignment is to prepare a forty-five-minute speech you’re going to give to all the people involved in the project. Later on, I’ll help you get all the people together in the most effective way possible.
“The speech itself should be divided into three parts. In the first, you’ll describe the amazing work that’s been done to date. In the second, you’ll emphasize the project’s importance. And in the third, you’ll define clear goals that can be achieved in the future.”
“Are you kidding me? I’ve done this more times than I can count,” I protested.
“Wait, I’m not finished.”
“Yeah. Your speech cannot contain a single negative statement whatsoever! It also cannot refer to any specific assignment or specific goal.”
I mulled that over for a couple of seconds before responding: “Let’s say I can talk about failure in a positive way for fifteen minutes. Most of the people know the background as well as I do, so we can skip those fifteen minutes. And defining goals that can be achieved – doesn’t this require one to relate to specific tasks and targets and deadlines?”
“Look,” he said, “I can’t explain everything right away. For now, you’re just going to have to trust me. But I will say this: You’re experiencing a problem every project manager faces. Everyone tries to move the project in the right direction, on time, along with the various parties – the managers, the personnel, the suppliers – to achieve the same goal.
“This is a complex problem, but the solution is simple, and it begins with people. I have just given you your first step. After you take it, I’ll tell you more about its purpose. Shall we go on to the second assignment?”
“Do you have a GPS or some type of navigation app on your phone?”
“Yeah, I have an app based on driver information and other traffic data.”
“Excellent,” he said, glancing at his watch. “It’s almost two o’clock. I want you to leave at five and head into town and drive to Eric’s Place. Just put that into your app. Every app knows it.”
“All right, but what exactly will I find there, and why do I have to go there at five? What am I supposed to do there?”
“Nothing special. Just show up and gather some impressions. We’ll talk about it tomorrow morning over breakfast. Where are you staying?”
“At the new hotel near the university.”
“Outstanding! I know it. When is your flight?”
“At three in the afternoon.”
“Which means you have to be at the airport at one. I’ll pop over to your hotel at eight in the morning, if that’s all right with you. We’ll have some time to go over your speech and talk about your impressions of Eric’s Place. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to run.”
“Wait! If you’re such an expert, could you take a look at our plans tomorrow? I have a pretty detailed Gantt chart with close to six hundred lines that Lisa, one of my project managers, maintains. I think this Gantt gives an excellent picture of what we planned to do compared to what actually got done in practice.”
“Uh-mazing!” he answered, with an amused look on his face. “When I say ‘uh-mazing,’ I mean that it’s quite a product, that Gantt of yours! If it has six hundred lines, I’ll bet it has at least a thousand six hundred links. I’m really sorry that you guys worked so hard on it, because it’s not going to do us a lot of good at this point.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty complex, but how can you say it’s not going to work without even looking at it?”
“Listen,” he said, pausing for a moment to consider his next words, “to succeed, you have to understand that every project is a dynamic, social and human event long before it becomes an engineering or operational challenge. I’m sure that your Gantt contains a brilliant analysis of the project, but you have to admit that it hasn’t really helped you so far. Don’t worry, we’ll be getting back to this. But now I really have to go. See you tomorrow at eight.”
He put a fifty-dollar bill on the bar and hurried out the door.
* * *
I stayed put, trying to understand what exactly I’d done and why I’d agreed to the stranger’s scheme. Eric’s Place? What is he trying to get out of this or teach me? What’s waiting for me there? Should I be wasting my time on this instead of trying to understand how to dig myself out of the hole I’m in?
Maybe George Madison was right after all. Maybe there was no chance of completion by the end of the fourth year if the project manager was gallivanting around the city like a pilgrim, looking for the Holy Grail, instead of working nonstop.
But I had no choice. I’d agreed to meet him over breakfast and didn’t have his phone number. Suddenly it dawned on me: I didn’t even know his name! If I tried to tell anyone about this, they’d think I’d lost my mind and had been talking with a ghost.
Come on, man, pull yourself together, I told myself. Given the state I was in, I had nothing to lose. I’d followed my principles and experience, and look where those had gotten me.
I considered the sentence the stranger tossed out at the end, about a project being a social event. Any endeavor involving people is a social event, but what did this mean in the context of this project? I hoped things would get clearer with time. Now it was time to head to the hotel. I used the opportunity to call home and speak with my wife and kids.
I told her about the lousy meeting with George and the cancellation of the other appointments. Anna wasn’t particularly surprised, because she had experienced the gradual worsening of our relationship with George Madison and his team of consultant together with me. When she asked how I was going to pass the time till my flight, I said something vague about going into town, and a breakfast meeting tomorrow with a consultant I’d met in a bar.
I knew that, at some point, I’d have to tell her exactly what I’d done, and I was suddenly disconcerted. I could already hear her grilling me: You did what? You met some lunatic in a bar who gave you an assignment to go someplace you’ve never heard of? For real? What’s wrong with you?
Instead of being with her and the children, in the little down-time that I had, reading Sean a story or helping Marianna study for a test, I’m chasing my own tail in another city. And she and I have grown so distant. We hardly talk anymore. Eric’s Place? What’s happening to me?
I’ll make it up to her, I promised myself. When it’s all over, I’ll take a vacation and make it up to her.
But when would it all be over? And how?
I got into my rental and set up my navigation app. It found Eric’s Place right away and steered me into the heart of the city’s financial district. It has to be a restaurant or a bar, I thought. It was only twenty-five miles away, but for some reason the app was giving me a drive-time of ninety minutes.
I didn’t pay much attention to this oddity, and assumed the app would find the best route to the destination. I was off. For a second I considered calling Anna, but changed my mind. Not now. This wasn’t a good time.
The first part of the journey was routine. For the first twenty five miles or so, the navigation app took me down the highway, heading to the city, with no hint of what was to come. Although only thirteen more miles were left, the app continued to insist on the time lag, indicating I had another seventy minutes of travel ahead of me.
As if I’d made no progress to date.
I tried to battle the nerves that were starting to seize me, especially as I saw the app calculating and recalculating the route. There must be a traffic jam up ahead. Great, more time down the drain.
For a second, I considered making a U-turn, and telling the smiling fellow tomorrow that I was grateful for his willingness to guide me, but really – wasting my entire afternoon stuck in traffic was not exactly my idea of help.
But, deep within, I knew it was already too late.
At exactly the twelve-mile mark, the navigation app instructed me to exit the highway, which is when I realized the reason for the extended time it was showing. It was about half past five, and, in the city’s financial district, thousands of brokers, account managers, office assistants, and investment advisors were hurrying home. It was rush-hour, and travel was reduced to a virtual crawl. Was this a test of the limits of my patience? Was that the whole story?
I tried to move the map on the screen to see where I was supposed to go next, but it was baffling. Eric’s Place nestled in a tangle of tiny side streets, and it seemed that there were dozens of possible approaches.
The app struggled to find the shortest route. It would change its directions after I’d already entered an intersection. The first time it did that, I had just enough time to switch lanes, though I did see jumpy drivers cursing me on all sides. The second time, I had no opening to move; to my horror, I saw the app adding another ten minutes to my arrival time. Wonderful. If the man at the bar wanted to show me how much was out of my hands, how much I was dependent on other people and outside factors, he should have found a different method.
After a while, I started cursing the navigation app, the bald guy whose name I didn’t know, the hospital, George Madison, and my life in general. I decided to try to figure out how to get to Eric’s Place on my own, and I stopped listening to the app. I slowed down to ask passersby for directions, but everyone shrugged and indicated they didn’t know it.
After driving for an hour, I was only a mile and a half away, but then I realized that Eric’s Place was located near the local football stadium where a game was starting at seven. Better and better. I found myself caught amongst cars painted green and white, surrounded by fans on foot, who were moving faster to the stadium than the cars in the street. The app, which had earlier advised many turns in an apparent attempt to keep me away from the stadium, chose this moment to come back to life. I followed its new directions and left the river of fans behind. At last I was driving at a normal speed.
The journey is close to its end, I thought. Another turn or two, a stubborn red light, a short delay in trying to find the entrance to the parking lot, and voila – here I was, in front of my destination, after eighty minutes of driving.
The Holy Grail, I thought, almost laughing out loud in despair and relief.
The place was set higher than the parking area, which was almost empty. Judging by its size, the place attracted many visitors. An ostentatious neon sign with the name and a bottle of wine flickered fitfully. The entrance wasn’t immediately visible, so I got out of the car and walked around the building looking for the door.
Finally, I found a wide staircase that led to a set of wide double doors. I pushed on one, but it was locked. I could see inside and clearly saw light and movement, so I decided to knock. Almost immediately, I heard a shout: “Just a moment please.” I waited by the door. As far as I could remember, the bald fellow hadn’t told me what I was supposed to do here, other than register my impressions.
“Hello!” I heard a friendly voice greeting me through the crack of the barely open door. “Are you the electrician?”
I was momentarily confused, but answered: “No, I’m not the electrician.”
“Oh, so how may I help you?”
“I wanted to come in and see the place. Are you open?”
“Not right now. But come by later, around eleven tonight.”
“Sorry, but I won’t be in the area that late. Couldn’t you just let me in now?”
The door opened a little wider to reveal a handsome Latino, whose body language indicated he was not about to let me in. In fact, he seemed to be hiding the space behind him on purpose.
“I’m sorry, sir, but we’re closed. There’s nothing to see. But if you come back at eleven, I promise you’ll have a good time.”
“Couldn’t I just take a peek? Someone asked me to stop by and have a look at this place and express my opinion.”
“Sir, you do understand that none of the ladies has arrived yet? There’s nothing to see. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“What do you mean ‘none of the ladies has arrived yet’?”
“Just that. None of the ladies are here. This is a strip club, sir. Please go away. I have work to do.” He didn’t wait for my answer before slamming the door in my face.
I stood in front of the double-doors. I could feel my sense of outrage radiating from my chest and spreading down to the tips of my fingers. A strip club? What kind of a sick joke was this? What was I supposed to tell Anna?
I looked right and left to make sure I was alone. I felt more mortified that I had ever felt in my life. I wanted the earth to open up beneath me and swallow me whole.
I started walking, almost running back to the car, while trying to set my thoughts in order. How did I allow a man, I don’t know at all, lead me astray like this? How did I fall into this trap? He was surely sitting someplace laughing his head off, planning to tell his buddies about the senior manager he sent on a wild goose chase to a closed strip club at rush hour.
All those people I stopped to ask for directions – what could they have been thinking? I was lucky nobody here knew me. When I see him in the morning, if I see him at all, I thought, I don’t know if I’ll be able to contain myself. You’re such an idiot, I told myself, you and him both. What an incredible waste of time.
I got into the car feeling angry and ashamed. My phone screen showed I’d missed a call from Lisa. She’d left a text message asking me where I was. What was I supposed to answer? That I fell prey to some crook whose name I hadn’t even bothered asking for? I decided to keep the whole thing to myself. Better that no one knows, better to forget how low I’d sunk.
I turned the navigation app back on, but turned it off at once. Furious, I decided I’d figure it out on my own, no matter how long it took me.
The road was clear now that the game was under way; the fans were gone from the streets. Within half an hour, I was back at my hotel. I decided to skip dinner as I had no appetite left. All I wanted to do was end this day as fast and simply as possible and get under the covers.
I parked in the lot facing the lobby and walked in, receiving a friendly greeting from Michelle at reception. After three years of monthly meetings, I knew almost all the staff at the hotel.
“Good evening, Mr. Balder. How are you?”
“Great,” I lied. “And you?”
“Just fine, thanks. I have a letter for you. It came about an hour ago, and then we had a call from Mr. Hamilton who personally asked me to make sure you got it.”
“Who is Mr. Hamilton?”
“Oh, I thought you knew him. He said you’d met today in town.”
“So, Hamilton’s his name. I see. Do you know that clown?”
“Sure, everyone does. He’s a regular at the academic center nearby. He’s very partial to our Burgundy Suite.”
Michelle handed me the letter. For some reason, I couldn’t meet her eye. I felt that she was able to read the humiliation in my face. I regretted having called him a clown. I thanked her, took the envelope, and headed for the elevator.
The Burgundy Suite occupied the entire top floor of the hotel and was reserved for special guests and VIPs only. Assuming Michelle was right, someone like that would not have misled me in such a degrading way. So, what was going on?
I sat down on one of the lobby sofas and opened the envelope:
Please allow me to apologize for the rough ride you endured this afternoon. Tomorrow morning, I’ll explain why I asked you to go there. I know you’re feeling tricked, but that wasn’t the intention. Try to find the humor in the situation, and meet me for breakfast as planned.
As for the first assignment, I’m attaching a link you can use during our meeting.
I’m curious about your situation, and look forward to staying in touch. I’ve handled projects for many years, but it isn’t every day one runs into projects such as yours. This is an opportunity for us both. I hope to see you at eight. I’ll be waiting in the dining room.