His air of importance contrasts sharply with his obvious lack of clout. This man’s influence departed some years ago. It shows in his hair, snow-white and styled in a forgotten fashion that can only be accomplished with that old-man staple: the miniature plastic comb. The unruly strands that spike at his scalp prove the comb was dunked in water, not hair gel. Product is for girly men.
The thread of his heather grey pants that once held a perfect cuff has surrendered over time, leaving his pant bottoms hanging with the weight of the years.
His morning scent of Listerine and Barbasol is a stark contrast to the spicy, sexy fragrances from the young men surrounding us, fingers scrolling down their iPad screens or flurrying across their Blackberry keyboards. Their slim-cut pea coats make his boxy trench look that much more dated.
Balanced on one knee is his first generation laptop. From my vantage point across the train aisle, I can see that his smudged screen holds a game of solitaire, in which he was struggling to find the Aces.
It’s an early morning New Haven to Manhattan commuter train. Every seat will be taken. He knows this, obviously a seasoned rider versed in the body language required to deter oncoming passengers from taking the open middle seat beside him. His chest inflates to maximize his shoulder width, knees widening and head dipping on cue at the sound of the train doors opening at each stop.
These efforts did nothing to intimidate a seasoned female commuter. She had pursed plum-stained lips, a tweed skirt suit and a no-bullshit bun along with her own broad shoulders to offer. She stood at his aisle’s entrance until the man made a dramatic act of rising and groaning in displeasure, folding his laptop and stepping into the aisle to let her pass.
Despite his reluctance, she never broke her confident stance. She slid into the seat without giving him the satisfaction of an “Excuse me.” It was a confidence blow, another harsh reminder that his imagined power no longer held any weight.
Disgruntled, it was on to the New York Times. He held the paper open wide, like a dog lifting its leg at a tree, claiming what he considered “his territory.” In that remaining half-hour of the commute, his page never changed — the newsprint merely for show. He was tired from the effort it took to project significance, holding the paper before him like a shield.
His show was a desperate attempt to hide his irrelevance. There’s less room for deceit in today’s fast-paced, social media-obsessed world, facades eliminated and privacy negated. No more binder-clipped paper stacks and metal cabinets to hide behind – it’s all out there in the digital limelight – hyper-competitive youth lurking to swallow the old-school businessman whole and shit him out in micro-chip chunks.
He once reigned from a corner office, puffing cigars and patting the asses of eager secretaries, his success based more on his ability to intimidate than actual ability. He considered collaboration a sign of weakness. Company trimming eliminated the need for such figureheads, technology consigning his red pens and yellow legal pads to the trash. Like the building he left, his personal walls are smoke-stained. The carpets that once gave him footing are now marred with old soda stains, musty and pilled.
Today he’s headed into the city to consult on a project, nothing that required an in-person presence, but he leapt at the chance to assert his flesh. The offer is merely a disguised consolation prize from a former protégé filled with guilt and obligation. He hopes to perk up the former business legend with 20 minutes of bogus fame. Inevitably, everyone around the board room table will have their faces in their Blackberries answering e-mails, nodding quarter-heartedly at his stale ideas – as outdated as his accordion briefcase.
The conductor announced our arrival into Grand Central, the daylight ripped away and replaced by the dark caverns that are the station’s bowels. He stood to gather his belongings, rising high above those of us sharing his train car. There would still be several minutes until the train slowed to a crawl, swapping tracks and settling into its temporary resting place.
He uses this time to pet his ego, making a grand performance of closing his overcoat. The train car is his stage and we are a fixed audience. He turns backward, eyes fixed on the heavily made-up Asian woman seated behind him. His gaze begs her to pay him some attention. Slowly, button-by-button he closes his coat over his suit jacket, fingering each circle with intention.
He then straightens each fold of the collar, aiming for crispness that has long gone limp, the angled fabric blemished with faded coffee stains and crusted cream cheese from on-the-go breakfasts of commutes past. He shimmies the belt through its loops until it is perfectly aligned, slipping the buckle into itself slowly, thoughtfully, as if it were a reverse strip tease. This was his time to shine, but the woman he directed his vibes at never looked up from her Kindle. In fact, no one seemed to take notice despite his pleading grasp for someone to make him feel that he still had something – anything – to offer.