The Day of the General


It’s Thursday morning in the bay area and I’m doing booth duty at another trade show. Straw hat and bamboo cane in hand I’m down here to slap backs, press the flesh, and spout “Lemme show ya what this’ll do!” At least when somebody manages to come by and feign some interest.

Most of the time I just sit on my duff watching the bored and uninterested stroll by as they avoid, at all costs, eye-contact with those such as me. Just like you do when you see a Jesus-freak in the airport coming toward you hoping to sell some of his noxious tractates and screeds.

And this is just Day Two; there is one more to go. Then it’s back home to mow the lawn, pluck weeds and calk the bathtub in anticipation of our nephew’s arrival. Such is life for 20th-Century Man.

But a bit of cheer came into my life yesterday afternoon when I found out General Colin Powell, USA (Ret.), one of the few men in this world I honestly do admire, was going to speak this morning before the show got under way. Way cool. I like the General. I was among the folks who hoped he run for Prez. I hope he still will. He’ll get my vote.

According to the press, the General does a good job of articulating his thoughts and motivating his listeners to transcend – if even for a few moments – their own personal wretchednesses. He helps them focus their tired and bleary eyes upon The Shining City on the Hill. His presentation was to begin at 9:00AM.

(And who knows, this is a big industrial event so he might take a tour of the show. It’s possible he could come by my booth to see what all the fuss is about; I could even end up shaking the General’s hand and passing a few moments with him in conversation. Imagine that!)

So today, in anticipation of the General’s address, I got up a little earlier than I would have otherwise. I hit the shower, performed an extra-neat trim on my beard and donned my best duds.

With a spring in my step, I headed to the lobby for my complementary copy of usa today, then went into the restaurant for a plate of my usual greasy eggs and bacon. Keeping an eye on the time, I stopped by the local Starbucks for a double shot and got to the Moscone Center North by 7:45. I wasn’t going to miss out on this, no sireee.

Bounding down the escalator with my computer bag flapping in the wake, I went into the exhibition hall and headed for the booth to drop of my bag. I bid a cheery good morning to the guard, some old goof with a nightstick and a walkie-talkie.

But he stopped me cold. “Wrong kind of badge,” he told me.

“Say what? This worked fine all day yesterday.” Well, he told me mine had a green strip across the top and that to get on the exhibit floor before the opening gun, I needed one with a black strip.

Hummm. “OK.” I asked. “Where then do I get the correct model?” He peered at me through his bifocals: “Ya gotta go up ta` the registration desk,” he said. “They’ll help ya there” and pointed to the escalator. Back up at the main desk, the lady in charge accommodated me with no hesitation, and in less than half a minute I was on my way back down.

This business about the badge had been kind of like hitting an unexpected pot hole as you are cruising down the boulevard – jarring and a bit irritating, but harmless. Still, it had struck a discordant note.

Back down on the show floor, I was now one of the blessed. I was bid enter by another old fart with a nightstick.

After stowing my gear, I headed out to the auditorium where the General we to speak. Bringing my newspaper with me, I figured I’d get a prime front row seat, then read my paper as the crowd accumulated. Let all the dawdlers and slackers wait until the last minute, I was going to beat the rush. Bwahaaa!

Despite the old fart guarding the portals of knowledge, it could still be a good day. A minor irritation.

I strode confidently past a gaggle of spiffy young women gathered by the message center (“The little fools,” I said to myself. “They stand there like so many sheep. They don’t have enough moxie to go in and claim their seats.”) I breezed in through the open auditorium door, went to the front and found a chair dead-center in the front row.

As I beat the dust off with the front section of my usa today and prepared to take my seat, a homely Pithecanthropus with a face full of zits sauntered up and folded his arms across his chest: “Oh, sorry sir.” he sneered. “The doors won’t open until after eight o’clock. You’ll have to leave.”

What? I’m getting the bum’s rush from some nose-picker in a rented sport coat (and you could tell it was rented by the lingering smell of the flea-dip in which it steeped between gigs). Putting on the plastic smile I use when dealing with lesser lights I replied: “Oh. Hey, no problem. See you later” and walked back out. Out past the gaggle of young women, one of whom cast me a side-long glance.

Behind me, the door banged shut.

Well, now I’ve got an hour or so to kill. Damned if I’ll just hang around the door like some groupie at a grunge concert. I’ve got to at least appear as if I’m Doing Something Important.

Mustering my usual aplomb, I turned to the bank of computers constituting the Message Center and like a good technoid, went to check my E-mail. Aping the fellows on either side, I took my badge and thrust into the mag stripe reader to gain access. While waiting for the system to come back, I slyly spied on my companions to see what they were doing so I could do likewise.

After some few moments of quietly digesting the information on my badge’s mag stripe the computer made a loud honk, the screen turned red and a message began to flash saying: “Sorry, your card is not coded with these permissions. See the System Administrator.” My companions on both sides turned in my direction. One shook his head in dismay as if to say, “What an idiot.”

I felt my ears turn red. I tried clicking on every button, bar and toggle the screen had to offer but nothing worked. Flash, flash, flash. Honk, honk, honk. The damned thing had a life of its own. If I’d only had a hammer!

I was beginning to attract even more unwanted attention, so I ripped my badge out of the reader and slunk away as the computer continued its loathsome honking and flashing. One of the women in the gaggle twittered as I walked past.

It was time for some fresh air. I went back up the escalator to the ground floor. As I walked out the main door, I spotted a huge stretch-limo parked at the curb. Jutting up on both ends of its front bumper were two red flags, each emblazoned with four silver stars. Its liveried driver sat on the front fender sucking a toothpick and rubbernecking at the tall buildings. The engine was running. It appeared the General was set for a quick escape.

It didn’t look like the General would be coming by my little warren after all.

I took a different escalator back down to the exhibit hall so I wouldn’t have to pass by the gaggle of women and the fellows at the message desk.

Hiding behind an espresso stand, I buried my face in the newspaper. I would remain so until the General’s presentation was to begin. I felt I could resurrect the situation by keeping out of sight until , oh, say, eight-forty-five, then scuttling out just in time to beat the rush. After all, they had to open the damned door sometime.

Finally, the hour came. When I finally made my appearance in front of the auditorium door, it was firmly shut and guarded by another red sport coat who, when the clock struck nine, refused to open them. Instead, those in my group stood waiting for this twit to get the OK over his walkie-talkie. Meanwhile hundreds of milling fans were pouring through the other door; the one by which I had attempted my original inglorious entry.

Eventually the word came down and the red sport coat let us in.

Without being unseemly, I elbowed my way to the front of the pack and headed once again for front-row-center. But four rows from the front, I came up against the same Pithecanthropus in the red coat. His face cracked into a broad smile of contemptuous recognition: “I’m sorry sir,” said he as he placed his bulk athwart my path, “These first four rows are for VIPs only.” (With emphasis on “VIPs” and “only.) And sure enough, there was a rope cordoning off The Place of the Elect. And coming down the row from the other end were all sorts of suits. Good suits. The “VIPs”, no doubt.

The Pithecanthropus then turned his attention to a couple of the suits that had just come in and began to bow and scrape and fawn. It was futile; had I tried to assume a seat amongst the blessed, Ally-Oop here would have probably knocked me upside the head with his billy club.

Precious seconds had been lost. Behind me the seats were filling fast. By the time I (again) mumbled some inane apology to the Pithecanthropus and turned to the nether places where I still might obtain a seat, everything was filled back to row fifteen.

As I worked my way back toward my consolation prize, guess what should confront me? Right; the same gaggle of women as had been watching my humiliation since I was first ejected from the auditorium. The one in the lead looked at me with a start as if to say, “Holy shit, it’s him again!” She put her had to her mouth and turned to one of her gaggle-mates. The two exchanged knowing looks, then turned to a third member of their group and the three began to buzz like little bees.

My ears and now my cheeks were glowing red. If I’d been five years old, I’d have been bawling my head off in a fury and busting up the furniture. But I’m fifty-five, so . . . So grace, aplomb and the General be damned. I just wanted out. As quickly as I could, I fought my way back through the onrushing mass of humanity and stole back to my wee little booth.

Going in past the same old fart who originally stopped for the green-striped badge, I muttered about some pressing business: “Gotta send a FAX,” I said by way of explanation. As if he gave a runny crap.

And so here I sit in my little booth, listing to the booming martial music and thundering applause from the Auditorium that announce the General’s appearance. Some frigging blue suit is now sitting in my seat, whistling and clapping away like a fan at a baseball game. Nearby the loathsome Pithecanthropus surely hovers protectively.

The laconic guards still guard the hall, my face just one of the unremembered throng.

As for the gaggle, they’ve probably forgotten all about (I hope) the old fool who spent the last hour and a half trying to sneak in early.

They can all kiss my ass!

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