The Phantom of the Conference

Originally posted January 12, 2009

It was the only type of Biblical Hell that seemed feasible to me.  The eloquent dining hall was stuffed with men and women dressed in varying interpretations of “business casual”.  For every collared shirt there was a pair of torn jeans.  In defense of the jeans, they were ripped because the manufacturer designed it that way.  The extra addition of a few frays somehow added value to the product.

Despite all of our different tastes in clothing, we certainly had more in common than not.  We all worked for Feldman’s Booksellers, a nearly Fortune 500 retailer, specializing in the sale of new and used literature.  We had gathered for our annual “State of the Union” meeting, where both corporate associates and managers working in our multitude of stores that peppered the major metropolitan areas near the Great Lakes came together.

As an accountant (more specifically, a Budget Analyst II), I was comfortable with boredom.  But this.  This was excruciating, I felt like calling the Attorney General of the United States to report an impingement of my rights provided to me by the 8th amendment.  The cruelty of this seminar was apparent, but I would have a hard time proving it was unusual.

The lead speaker, an Ivy League Iron Maiden, had been orating for the better part of an hour about Six Sigma research.  He was some overly educated Ivory Tower dweller, who had probably not created a stitch of wealth for anyone he has been employed by.  The title of his speech was Six Sigma Research: A Prudent Endeavour.  His PowerPoint presentation had all the glitz and glam of a Sarah McLaughlin concert.  I will remember you…do do do do do…

The company had sprung pretty heavily on this event.  The hotel we were staying in was one of the nicer ones in Grand Rapids.  The ballroom was especially impressive, with high domed ceilings and a balcony level, fenced in by a wrought iron railing with a cherry-stained oak banister on top.  You’ll have to understand, from the accounting department’s perspective, all of this extra opulence made us cringe.  We could have done the same thing at the Radisson down the street for 60% of the price.  It was the “higher-ups” that decided that the ROI on the dangling chandeliers and the quaint lantern light fixtures was significant enough to warrant the extra cash.

“As you can see from this graph, the research we’ve done shows a correlation with performance, but not necessarily a causation,” the speaker droned, anticipating a wave of “Oooh’s” and “Ahhh’s” to rise from the crowd with the revelation of his research.  He continued his speech, but was interrupted briefly by a baritone laugh that echoed off of the concave ceilings.  People looked at each other, befuddled by the owner of the cackle.  “It’s best to ignore it,” I’m sure most people thought.

I glanced around to the other tables.  On my left was a group of store managers.  I didn’t know that they were for sure but I could tell they weren’t corporate, because they were more bored by the presentation than I.  I envied store people, they’re jobs were always changing, everyday a new problem to deal with.  On second thought, I liked my routine.

One of the assumed managers, a burly fellow with a military crop top, was drifting off to sleep.  His arms were folded in an attempt to balance his weight upon the chair.  His body swayed back and forth very subtly; his mind snapped him back to reality any time he got too close to fairy land.

The table in front of me was comprised mostly of corporate employees, some sharply dressed marketers and two disinterested IT guys.  I should probably have known their names since we worked in the same building.  But they worked on the 4th floor and I on the first, so we never had the occasion to interact.  Half of the table was genuinely interested in the speech, nodding their head in agreement every time the speaker made a point.   The other half was clearly faking it, nodding their head in agreement every time the speaker made a point.

A slightly stocky IT professional excused himself to go to the bathroom.  His name was Andrew Something.  I had met Andy at a company happy hour one time.  He seemed like a nice guy, I guess.  He wasn’t one for manners though, as exhibited by his leaving the table during the middle of a presentation.  He made somewhat of a scene as he bumbled his way past the other conference goers.  He almost fell right down as he tried to squeeze-step through the tightly packed chairs.  I understand that when nature calls, you have to answer, but in business settings the rules of nature lose some of their intrinsic value.  Andy was met with a few wayward glances and judging eyes as he force himself through to the exit.  I caught myself thinking “You can’t hold it?”  How dare I.

“And that brings me to my newest research.  Is there a seventh sigma?”

I looked at the fork on my finished plate of chicken cordon bleu.  The fleeting thought of a surprise suicide formulated in my head.  But from what I understand, God sends you to Hell if you kill yourself, and I couldn’t risk a Hell of repeated business seminars.  I should go to church more often.

There was a sudden squalking feedback of the microphone that startled every daydreamer back to attention.  The lights on the ornate chandeliers dimmed and brightened, dimmed and brightened.  Someone was probably leaning on the light switch in the back of the room, oblivious to the chaos they were causing.

“Looks like we’re having some technical difficulties,” the flustered professor said.  The chandeliers fell dark one last time and an irritated interest came over the table-sitters.  We heard a booming laugh resonate from the rafters, the same one as before.  The only source of light was our speaker’s PowerPoint, which cast a dull blue reflection off of the shiny faces of his captive audience.  The laugh was disruptive and I’m sure phone calls were already being made to hotel maintenance or security to root out the problem.

In the periphery of my vision caught a movement of some length of fabric on the balcony.  Perhaps it was a curtain caught in the breeze of an open window.  But this curtain had a face, a human face that I barely could make out in the darkness.  The face moved swiftly about the upper rim, a cape fluttering behind it.  Employees stirred immediately as they saw what I saw.  In a post 9/11 world, one can never be too sure where a terrorist attack might come from.  Had it been an orange alert today?  What did al-Quaeda have to gain by bombing a conference of retail booksellers in Michigan?

The face, which I discerned must have belonged to a man, leaped onto the banister with a fragile balance.  He wobbled for a moment and regained himself by grasping onto the hanging chain of a nearby chandelier.  The crowd stirred for this was the most excitement they’d had all day.  Some people had recognized the possible emergency of the situation and promptly holstered their BlackBerrys, a drastic step.  “Is this a team building exercise?” I thought to myself, mouth agape in agitated contemplation.  I sat there, paralyzed by my own scrutiny.  I squinted and could only make out in the darkness a slightly tubby face covered with a white mask.  The blue from the disrupted PowerPoint made it look like a half moon with a round nose and plump eyes in the night sky.

“Silence!!!” the figure bellowed, casting a silence over the throng of confused professionals.  Some people quickly rose from their chairs to leave.  Unlike me, they did not want to stick around to see what happens.

“I think you will find escape quiet impossible,” he stated loudly.  Bill from Human Resources did not heed the instructions given to him by the specter and moved to the door anyway.  He turned the handle to the door and was surprised when it opened as easily as ever.

“No.  The doors are open,” Bill yelled to the crowd, negating our would-be captor’s words.

“Oh…” the ghost acknowledged disjointedly from his perch.  With the light that entered through the open door, the figure’s features were more clearly defined than before.  His moon face was highlighted with the warm yellow light from the bright hallway.  He was dressed absurdly, like a super-hero that got his costume piece by piece from Goodwill.  He wore a Bowler-style hat, reminiscent of the Clockwork Orange gang.  His black cape was too long as he was certainly below the average height for his weight.  Black bike shorts and an ill-fitting UnderArmour shirt completed the outfit.  The tight technical fabric outlined every lump and frump on his body and barely covered his overhanging tummy.  It looked, from my vantage point at least, that he was wearing dress shoes and socks.  Business casual.

There was no doubt in my mind that it was Andy.  It had to be.  The shoes, the stocky build, the lack of equilibrium.  My powers of deduction impressed even me.

“Is that Andy?” someone from the table asked out-loud.

“Definitely,” another confirmed.

“I come to you tonight,” the phantom boomed. “Possessed by the angry spirit of benevolence.”  A pregnant pause gestated to its third trimester.  It bordered on awkward, like he had only planned out the first sentence in a soliloquy.

“You mean ‘malevolence’?” interrupted an employee.  I think it was someone in the Advertising Department, a copywriter perhaps.


“Well benevolence isn’t an angry spirit.  Malevolence is the angry one.”

“Oh..yea.”  Andy tilted his head downward to think about it briefly and his hat slipped off his head, tumbling 15 feet to the table of a store management team from Davenport.  It revealed a cowlick of Alfalfa proportions surrounded by a matted nest of hat-head.  “Aww, man.”  He took a moment to regain his composure and adjust his balance.

“I came to lead a revolt against the company…” he trailed off looking down at the floor below, probably searching for his hat. Those things were expensive.

“What did you say?” someone yelled.

“Yeah we couldn’t hear you.  Try to project a little better.”

“ this better?”  Andy tried his best to enunciate.

“Yeah!  Now what did you say?” another voice called out.

“I want to revolt against the company!  For too long our footprint has smudged every small town in the great Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois area.”

“Don’t forget about Mishawaka in Indiana!” a sales manager from that store said and high-fived his boss.

“Oh yea…and Indiana too.  But that’s the problem.  This cancerous spread of evil must be stopped.”

“We sell books dude.” the crowd participation was ramping up now.

“Yea but…” Someone flicked the lights back on.  All of the drama that led up to that point was instantly evaporated, blown away like the spores of a dandy lion.  Andy looked bewildered as his pupils adjusted their aperture to the right amount of artificial light.

As if the railing he stood upon disagreed with what he was about to say, Andy’s foot slipped to one side and he fell straight down the middle, the cherry banister hitting him where the good Lord split him.  He let out a kind of bellow that could have been misinterpreted as a womanly shriek if it had not emanated from so portly a man.  He clutched his injured crotch and proceeded to slide down the outer side of the railing towards the floor.  The table below him, who had been enjoying the performance from a killer vantage point, saw the figure slowly descending toward them in a free fall and rushed out of the way.  Andy fell ten feet and hit the lip of the table, his girth causing a catapult of silverware and uneaten rolls into the air.  The crowd all gasped for their breath simultaneously and the boring PhD who had been upstaged looked for someone to tell him what to do.

Andy dusted himself off and ran to the nearest fire exit holding his stomach (the pain migrates North).  He kicked the door open like a 4th grader in karate class and screamed, “Beware the Phantom!!”

As the door closed you could see a sliver of the Phantom trip over his long cape. This was followed by a succession of dull thuds that indicated he had probably fallen down a few stairs.

Though Andy never did get the opportunity to fully orate his discontent, I believe I’ll put words into his mouth and fantasize.  He was only taking a stand against apathy.  A worthy adversary.  For no matter how trivial or unsuccessful a revolt, a revolt it still was.  And any revolt, even of the smallest magnitude, takes an effort, a passion not seen in week to week interactions.  That is the nobility and the cause of the Phantom of the Conference.

EDIT: After the police questioned him, Andy said he just wanted a to get fired.  He had a better job offer at another company that paid more money.  So…there you have it.  I guess the new lesson is that “Money is the root of all entertainment”.  There.  That’s better.   More concise.

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