OFF THE END OF THE BENCH: from SEVEN SEVEN SEVEN

9/11 was another topic Larry and I talked about that night in Edison’s. It was a connection every New Yorker who’d been down there that morning had with each other no matter what their take on the Administration’s response to it was. So unreal and dreamlike it seemed in the months and years after it happened. So mind-boggling. When I looked up at the skyline the missing towers were always a reminder of that tragic day. But slowly things got back to normal. Slowly the rebuilding started. Slowly the emotional blow faded and daily life again prevailed. Other unavoidable things came up that made me forget what I saw and how I felt.

The week after Larry introduced me to the sweet, rich flavor of buffalo burgers Richard sent me to a conference at the Hyatt Regency in Scottsdale. He’d been travelling a lot those weeks, to San Francisco and Chicago and London, and spending three nights in Arizona wasn’t as appealing as he’d thought it would be when he registered for it.

“Which is why I’m sending you as my replacement,” he said jokingly. “Not that I think a Boston guy can do that, but someone has to pinch hit for me and you’re the last player left on the bench.” But I had the feeling it was intended to be just as much a treat for my being a good, obedient dog around there. Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter. He said, “See what you can pick up and put something together for me. I’ll let a few people know you’ll be out there so you don’t feel like a party crasher.” I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to pick up, if anything, but I didn’t press him for clarification, and I’d make sure to take notes I could develop into a couple of pages to cover my ass with in case anyone was interested in what I’d done out there. I also felt a rush of gratitude. It was just what I needed at the moment, to get out of New York a while and set my eyes on a completely different landscape.

I said bye to Lucy early that morning and sensed relief like a release of air coming from her that I’d be gone the next three nights. It didn’t bother me she felt that way. All the emotion between us had been expended and the thinking done and there was only to recognize it was time for one of us to make a move out the door and soon enough that would be me. By the time my plane landed at Sky Harbor and I took a taxi to Scottsdale I’d put all that behind me like a desertion from a war that was no longer worth fighting.

The ATIP Operations Conference & Exhibit wasn’t the first professional conference I’d been too, but it turned out to be the most extravagant by far. It took place in April, 2007, when all the borrowed money had people so flush with cash and giddy with the expectation there’d be more and more of it that it seemed impossible it would or could come to an end a little over a year later, when the high risk game of Hot Potato would play out and the resulting losses would be staggering. But no one knew that then, or they didn’t care to know, and if they had any idea something bad like that was lurking in the afternoon shadows they weren’t saying anything. Why spoil the fun of a pleasant, air-conditioned dream on someone else’s tab? Why not create more risky financial products few people understood or knew the value of but intended to profit from? Why not believe the value of your property and retirement fund would continue to go up forever? Why not buy a home with a value ten or fifteen times more than you made in a year and fill the bathrooms in it with ten dollar bars of soap that would make you smell nice when you came out of the tub?

In theory, I went there to hear financial industry analysis and investment advice from key business leaders from Standard and Poor’s, the U.S. Treasury and The Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation. In theory, attendees like me would get insights and tools to identify opportunities for new, efficient operational models at a time of tightening financial regulation. The list of speakers that would provide that was impressive: the Chairman and CEO of one of the country’s biggest banks; a New York Times columnist and bestselling author; the senior partner of a firm that provided tax reporting solutions to multinationals. I had no idea why a former Commander of U.S. and International Forces in Afghanistan was making an appearance and what he was going to talk about, but that was a speech I wasn’t going to miss.

In theory, ATIP would provide me with knowledge I’d pass on to Richard and use for my work at Beal and elsewhere. In reality, as a consulting Business Analyst, even a long-term one at a highly respected company, I had little interest or need to be there. But I didn’t quarrel the slightest with Richard’s decision to call me off the end of the bench, and the next Monday I took an early flight with a business class seat out of LaGuardia and got to Scottsdale in plenty of time to register and look through my ATIP Orientation Packet that included folders of written material, advertisements and an ATIP t-shirt, neatly folded and a medium, as if the organizers knew that was the size I wore.

At seven that evening I crossed out the name on the tag the packet had also provided and added my own and stuck it to my shirt and went down to the Welcome Reception out on the patio. It was still over a hundred degrees and there were people splashing around the pool and dunking in the two spas. Large fans and mist spraying systems had been set up in several areas to keep the attendees cool. I accepted the glass of champagne offered by one of the waitresses roaming around with trays in their hands and then I went looking for a tag affixed to a man named Edward Donahue.

Edward Donahue was the Executive Director of Global Technology at one of the largest computer services companies, the name of which I won’t mention though its three letter acronym was known worldwide. I’d found him in the packet and looked over his photo and saw he had an economics degree from Cornell and an MBA from Wharton and that the subject of his Tuesday afternoon presentation would be “Reducing Capital Investments in Applications, Operations and Information Technology Infrastructure.” And even if it wasn’t stated, I had no doubt the best way to do that would be by partnering with his company. Richard made sure to tell me going to it was the one thing I absolutely had to do for him. “Make sure you say something after it,” he said, “to let him know you were there and heard what he had to say.”

I recognized Edward Donohue before I read his tag. He was standing with three others by a huge potted cactus. Each had a glass of champagne in hand, and they appeared to be involved in a rather amusing conversation. One man was brown-skinned with black-rimmed glasses and an athletic build. Another man with graying hair was around sixty, tall and hunched. The lady with them was in her thirties, I assumed, wearing a white shirt and pastel-green shorts. Edward Donohue was dressed as if he had just come off the golf course, in a pink Izod jersey and tan slacks, and maybe that was the main focus of his appearance at ATIP, to spend the late mornings on the course a quarter mile down the street, a few power-broker foursomes that would provide some friendly competition and get a bit of business out of the way at the same time.

“Richard told me you were going to look me up,” Edward Donohue said in a voice that was assertive even when it was involved in easy conversation.

“As his stand-in, he said it was the first thing I should do,” I said.

“Those are some big shoes to fill,” Edward Donohue said, and I could tell he meant it as a joke.

“I think I’m up to it,” I said. “But don’t tell him I told you.”

“Well, I’ll let him know you stopped by to say hello,” Edward Donohue said. “He made sure to tell me not to make you an offer so I guess I’m prohibited from doing that.”

The tall, hunched man’s name was Jack. “Then maybe I will. What kind of money you looking for, Robert? I’m sure we can work something out.”

“Well now, I think that number just went up,” I said, and there was laughter all around. After it settled down I humped my shoulders, and added, “Hey, Richard doesn’t have to know anything. What happens in Scottsdale can stay here far as my thinking goes.”

“That’s the case with most of these conferences, isn’t it Ed?” the lady who’d introduced herself as Eileen Foster joined in with her own comedic bit. She had an attractive smile and appeared fit, a runner or avid bike rider, or one of those types who did yoga before she went to the office and then spent an hour at night in aerobics class that was followed with a vegetable, a green salad and a cup of herbal tea before she poured the wine.

Not knowing if custom permitted my staying there with them, I made a little nod and said I’d see them around over the next few days. Edward Donohue told me to be sure to sit at their table the following night and before I left them and moved on to the trays of catered food I thanked him for his kind gesture. After that, I ate and hung around a while among the chatter and networking, then I beat a hasty retreat up to my room and took a beer out of the mini bar and clicked on the t.v. and found the Celts-Bulls game which was just about to tipoff.

The next day the Hyatt’s giant ballroom was set up with tables with white cloths and shiny plates and silverware and seating assignment cards. I found the card with my name on it on a table near the stage. There were two men sitting down and Eileen Foster was hovering around, a glass of something in her hand that looked a lot like sparkling water.

“What’s this, no champagne?” I said.

“I’ve been waiting for it, but I’m afraid I’ll be going without tonight, unless I want to pay for it myself, and that wouldn’t be very smart business,” she said.

“I’m a lot like you. Once a standard like that’s been set I expect it to continue and can never understand why it doesn’t.”

“They like to start these off with a bang and end them with a bigger bang. They make a good impression and send you back feeling you got your money’s worth,” she said, happy, it seemed, to have someone to talk to while she waited for her colleagues to fill the table. In fact, I noticed from the cards, she’d be to my right and I also thought I heard a movie line coming out of her mouth that wondered if I wanted to buy her a glass of bubbly and then maybe we might get famous with each other from there?

But that wasn’t about to happen, and I said, “And the rest is filler to make sure you stick around for the whole thing?”

“No, the rest is cheap white wine and broiled chicken with rice and carrots. There may be a roast with potatoes too, if that’s the kind of thing you like eating.”

With a little more conversation I found out she’d had a good day. In the morning she’d gone to the Fitness Room and then swam thirty laps. After that, she sat in on the Exhibit Hall Luncheon that had the simple, straightforward theme of “A Look Ahead.”

More and more people started coming in and soon the seats at our table were filled and we were served what the menu called New American Cuisine, or what I thought of as quite fine food that was so good I see no reason not to list my selection: shrimp, watercress and mango salad; beef tenderloin; wild mushrooms; fingerling potatoes with whole grain mustard dressing; mesclun greens with balsamic vinaigrette. There was no overcooked roast beef as Eileen Foster had mentioned earlier, though there was a fine tarragon chicken piccata with orzo pasta she’d ordered and seemed to enjoy eating up.

“I’m originally from Milwaukee, the suburbs, a place called Elk Grove,” Eileen Foster said as we forked our food. “I was such a wild kid my parents never thought I’d make anything of myself. Another case of suburban rebellion, I guess. I went off to Madison to polish those particular skills. What my parents never understood was it was that part of me that’s the reason I’m where I am now.”

“I looked over your bio and must say it’s quite something. Quantitative analysis and operations research at Sloan. Pretty nifty. They must be proud of you.”

“I work hard and keep the focus and it seems to get me where I want to go.”

“Well, I’m looking forward to the panel you’re on. Infrastructure, risk and efficiency. That’s a lot of territory to cover.”

“It’s not my topic, but I have a few things prepared to say.”

After dessert, a fresh fruit tart with vanilla tarragon syrup for me, tropical fruit and berries with sorbet for Eileen Foster, more wine arrived and our plates were cleared and Edward Donohue pushed back from the table, stepped up to the stage and gave the opening introduction to the proceedings we were presumably there to listen to even more than to eat the fine food and drink the Gold Medal California syrah. He settled behind the podium and spoke in a voice that boomed out at us, “Tonight you’ll hear diverse views about the latest regulatory reforms and operational developments that your firm will be able to benefit from. You’ll get a variety of perspectives on the impact of recent legislation on operational matters and how they might affect profits. You’ll get clear insights into future industry trends and business process enhancements…”

At the end, Edward Donohue walked back to our table with a smile on his face and a nod here and there at the people he knew who were up out of their chairs clapping. When he got back and sat down we hailed his speech in glowing terms. It was another proud moment for him, of the kind he was used to, I could tell, and he reveled in it for a moment before he threw out a few jokes at his own expense: “For those of you who don’t know me so well I’ll let you in on a little something. That’s the first time I didn’t have to  pull my notes out in a panic. Isn’t that right Jack?”

“I’m not going to say anything about what you might have or might not have in your pocket,” Jack said, and he drew a laugh with that.

I woke at eight the next morning, a little hung over with food and drink and called room service and ordered a pot of coffee. “That’s all I’d like at the moment,” I said into the phone a second time, and when it came I doubled the total on the bill before signing it.

Out on the balcony the sky was blue, a deep unblemished blue and I sipped the coffee intending to go to the Fitness Center once I was fully awake. I had hopes of running into Eileen Foster, who’d have the same goal in mind, to sweat out the syrah, the fat and the sugar. Sitting there, I went back and forth on calling her. It was something I hadn’t done in a while, called a woman with the intention of getting together to do something that didn’t include Lucy. It was always better to work out with a partner: I’d use that pitiful starter line and add ‘at least that’s what I’ve read in the magazines I pick up around the gym when I’m looking for a distraction that can’t be loaded on my iPod’.

“Up for some time in the Fitness Center?” I said into the phone. Eileen Foster sounded sleepy and I wondered if I’d woken her?

“I need to get moving eventually,” she said, and suggested a run outside was a better idea. “Can you give me a half hour?”

She was late, but not enough to be disrespectful, when she met me outside the Hyatt’s sliding front doors. “I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t make you stand out here for too long?”

“Not a big problem with me, I’m enjoying this bit of breeze, little as it is,” I said, and then Eileen Foster described the five mile route she’d mapped out for us on her computer.

She wore her ATIP t-shirt, running shorts and a plain white golf visor. Her hair was clipped back and she gave off the confidence and appearance of the ex high school jock she was. Out of the parking lot, we veered right and I dropped off behind her single file as we headed down a long commercial strip with a lot of traffic and activity and then past the golf course I imagined Edward Donohue teeing a ball up on and staring down the palm-lined pipeline of a long par four. After that, we came to a bend and an open area of low, dry grass and fast food rubble and where, up ahead, there was a lot of dust and noise as a construction crew was building the framework for the foundation of a large structure. The pavement was smooth and past the dust and construction we went by an office park and then the road opened up again, a rolling landscape of earthy hues that in another mile fed into an upscale residential neighborhood of housing with red tile roofs and stucco walls and entranceway arches and crisp, clean Southwestern landscaping, and the red sandstone McDowell Mountains rising behind it. The traffic was light and I pulled up next to Eileen Foster. She had an easy, loping running style and her head made a little bob every other stride.

“Hope you don’t feel crowded,” I said. She glanced over at me and smiled. I was happy to share something with her even if it was nonsense.

“Nope, not at all. Plenty of room for everyone out here.”

“With all the building going on, it doesn’t look like that’s going to last much longer,” I said. “You’ve been out in these parts before I take it?”

“Sure. Haven’t you ever been?”

“Never. But I see the attraction, even if there’s no natural water source to quench the thirst of all these people that keep moving here.”

“I expect that will be figured out. I have great faith in human ingenuity.”

We kept up an easy pace, not slow, but easy enough. The sun was bright, the air dry. It wasn’t yet hot enough to be debilitating, but my breathing picked up and when I looked at Eileen Foster I saw the focus on her face, a wrinkled determination to finish something and move on to something else, an attitude that must have helped her score the many successes she’d had up to then and that I was sure she’d add many more to.

“I’d like to get my parents to move out here when they’re a little older, it’s a nice life,” she said.

We swung off to the right, around a bend. Up ahead, above the cypress trees, the top two floors of the Hyatt came into our view. It was a mile away but it seemed we’d gotten to that point sooner than either of us expected. Had we picked up the pace that much, in a hurry to get a bottle of water at the finish line? Eileen Foster said it felt like it, but we were still a long way from Olympic medal times.

There was a lot of bustle out front of the hotel as we walked into the entrance, sweaty and satisfied with ourselves to have that accomplishment out of the way. There were still four hours before Edward Donohue’s presentation and the vendor workshops that came after it, a dead zone in the lives of a couple of conferees that had to be filled up somehow. I didn’t have any ideas for it other than getting something to drink and eat. “Well thanks for coming along, I enjoyed that a lot,” I said.

“It was your idea, I’m glad you included me in it,” she said, then added, “I was thinking I might use the spa. Would you be up for that too?”

The five mile run and twenty minute spa and the conversation relaxed us. So much so that when I saw her that night at the General Session in the Ballroom and we drank wine at another group dinner and after that occupied two chairs on the patio and talked some more, I recognized one of those convergences of events that had to be acted on in the moment or become another regret. And that’s what happened. I had one of those “why the fuck not” shrugs of my shoulders I wished I’d had more of and I threw the words out there. “Do you want to come up to my room?” I saw in her eyes and then heard in her voice the question relating to the ring on the index finger of my left hand. Without much of a pause I let her know Lucy and I were on the skids, as in something that was over. I said, “There’s a bottle of champagne in the mini bar I thought you might be interested in sharing with me out on the balcony.”

It was another pretty weak line, there was no doubting that, and I thought I saw her enjoying a laugh on the inside. A little private giggle at another awkward proposition from another guy wanting to get into her pants.

Then came the surprise, and Eileen Foster said, “I could do that, sure, I think it’s a good idea.”

And so I waved her by and followed her out to the elevators.

(2012)

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