Duty

Behind me, men and women dressed in variations of cocktail attire sip on glasses of red and white wine. They talk excitedly (the women’s voices more animated than the men’s) against the live quartet, which plays a strange selection of classical music I associate with Shakespeare’s time.

I am sitting in a tiny alcove at the Ritz Carlton Dana Point where the hotel has set up a not very high-end version of a business center. There’s an outdated HP Deskjet in front of me, and an even older Lenovo computer and keyboard upon which I write this out. To my right, an off white hotel landline, the kind that normally hangs in the bathrooms in Las Vegas, right next to the toilet, in case you croak on the john.

I hadn’t planned on being here. On Thursday nights, I plan for yoga or some other exercise class. If I’m tired, I drive home slowly (to the frustration of other drivers), and have a simple dinner with my parents and then take a walk. If I’m really tired, I eat dinner, then stare at a blank blog post. But this afternoon my boss decided it would be a good idea if I went with him to an awards ceremony.

“If you’re busy, get someone else,” he said. But what do you say to that. “Oh yeah, I’m going to be busy. I was going to exercise.”

So I shook my head and said, “No no, busy? Pah. I’ll be there.”

So here I am, dressed in my not even very professional work clothes, hiding in the “business” alcove while women in sparkly tops and heavy perfume swish around behind me. The men look more or less the same, though some of them wear tuxedos that look so crisp it’s a bit too obvious that this is their first time at a function like this. Look at me. The executive assistant doing her own peculiar brand of sneering.

There are hobnobbers and then there are hobnobbers. Corporate climbers. Brown-nosers. Ass-kissers. Whatever you want to call them. You can spot them a mile away, but not before you hear them. They greet you a little too warmly. Shake your hands a little too firmly, as though willing you to remember their grip and their steely, semi-desperate stares.

At dinner later, I will meet a 50 year old female photographer, hired by the company putting on the event to take photos of all the honorees. She will have a hard look about her face, though maybe it’s because she’s tired of doing these events.

“Thirty years,” she’ll tell me, “I’ve been a photographer for thirty years, and before, I liked it. I worked for builders and took photos of houses and condos in progress, and it was fine. I went to shitty middle of nowhere places like Perris and Temecula and Fresno, but it was calming. I made little road trips out of it and memorized where all the In n’ Outs were, and when I got to where I was going, the houses would just be there and I would just photograph them and then head on out. There wasn’t no fuss.”

“What happened?”

She will scoff, as though it were obvious, but not unkindly, “Well the economy went to shit and all those builders stopped building, which is how I got roped into gigs like these. These corporate circus shows.”

She will talk a little too loudly and you will be grateful to be sat at a table in the corner, right next to the speakers so that the “corporate ring master” at the podium will drown her out somewhat, at least to the people at the surrounding tables.

She’ll tell you stories about the brown-nosers she’s met, because she’s done the circuit for almost a decade now, and which CEO’s are the real deal and which are full of corporate “baloney sawdust bullshit,” though more often than not the latter are hardly ever CEOs but people on the brink who for some reason, just can never quite make it to the top.

She’ll nod her head not too furtively towards the chairman of this or that and say, “Like him. That guy is SUCH a phony.” You will think that perhaps Salinger based Holden Caulfield on this wiry, rather mannish woman sitting next to you who rather than eat her steak and shrimp pushes them around the plate, an errant corral.

“My boss is very genuine,” you say, and she will nod in agreement, and you can tell she means it. 

“I know him,” she’ll say, “I’ve met him a couple of times and I can tell you, he doesn’t do that bullshit. I know who’s an ass kisser and I know your boss gets his ass kissed plenty and he doesn’t need to do none of that himself. He’s the real deal.”

You will look at your boss then, though you can’t see his face too clearly. He’ll be sitting at one of the head tables, dressed smartly in his tuxedo, which although pressed, is hardly new. He wears it well. His forehead will be a bit shiny from the warmth of the room, or all the bodies trying to introduce themselves to him and his wife will be standing next to him with the tired smile she puts on at events like this. He shakes hands with a tall gentleman and laughs, then turns slightly and his attention is quickly devoured by another shorter, rounder gentleman. He laughs again – a real, hearty laugh, from the belly. Or is it? You won’t be able to tell, but then again, does it matter? He’s doing his job. You’re doing yours. You turn back to the photographer, who hasn’t eaten any of the meat.

“He is the real deal,” you repeat, but she doesn’t hear you. She’ll be getting ready to stand up and has already lifted her heavy camera and hung it around her neck.

“Ugh,” she’ll say, “Save one of the desserts for me. I’m off to photograph some phonies.” 

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