E S S A Y I’m riding with Jim, my new sales rep in upstate New York. We’re going over to meet with Larry, the senior purchasing agent at the Bausch and Lomb Company in Rochester.
“We have to take him out to lunch,” Jim says. “I always take him out to lunch. He gives me valuable information on pricing and new product launches. He tells me what the competitors are up to.”
“OK,” I shrug. But I’m not much in the mood for entertaining today. Over the years, I’ve found that wining and dining purchasing agents is a particularly big waste of time. I’ve found them to be, as a group, either lugubriously boring and tediously lackluster people, or all smiles and chatteringly chipper like a pack of demented squirrels.
Larry is no exception. He’s short, slow-moving, and stocky with close-cropped hair and thick-lensed glasses. Over lunch he swills down, without a whole lot of ceremony, two vodkas-on-the-rocks and three red wines, which is a lot when you’ve got to go back to work.
But what really gets my goat is his habit of repeating himself over and over again. I probably wouldn’t mind it so much if he had anything useful or interesting to say, but he doesn’t. Everything he says is just so damned boring, a continuous rambling stream of useless, nonsensical blathering.
To make matters worse, to add to the unbearableness of it all, I can hardly hear him. He speaks in a soft, inaudible monotone. He’s practically whispering. It’s maddening, him droning on and drinking, drinking and droning on, and on and on.
What is this guy talking about? Why am I here? And what the hell is he doing in a job like this, a job of decision-making and dealing with vendors and customers? I’m annoyed with Jim, too, for getting us into this stupid situation. I want to get it over with and get back to work. I’m glaring at Jim. Jesus, this is like being at the dentist.
Then Larry, for no particular reason I can determine, blurts out that his birthday is Saturday; he’s turning 44. I notice his college ring, 1970, the same year I graduated college. But I’m only 42. Where did those extra two years of his go? Suddenly, a light goes on in my thick, foolish, insensitive head. I understand his mindless meanderings.
“So Larry,” I say, “You’ve been to Vietnam.”
Jim’s mouth drops open. “How could you possibly know that?”
But Larry peers quietly over his thick glasses at me for a long time. Then he smiles a soft, easy smile, rubs his wrinkled forehead hard and says, “I was in the Iron Triangle the winter of ‘66.”
I order another drink for him, and one for myself, too.
Michael Estabrook lives in Acton, MA.