Monday, October 7, 2013

The Siren Song of the Red Bricks

It was the fall of 2012.  My baby niece Bliss was just about a year old and I was taking care of her during the day while my own kids were in school.  Bliss was in that learning-to-walk, I'm-so-adorable-no-one-can-resist-me phase. 

I was new in Nashville and was trying to establish connections in the corporate training world so I could get work here as a freelancer.  I was in that don't-know-anyone-in-town but would-someone-please-notice-how-capable-I-am phase. 

And I had scored a networking meeting with a very influential entrepreneur in town.  He was in that I-wear-Converse-sneakers-to-work and feel-free-to-bask-in-my-brilliance phase.  And his office was in one of those abandoned warehouse places.  The kind that have exposed brick walls and polished cement floors.  And he was willing to meet with me.  With me!

I arranged a back-up babysitter for Bliss but when the day of the meeting came, of course the back-up sitter had the flu.  And our Plan B sitter was out of town.  Plan C was having a root canal, Plan D had to study for a big exam and Plan E had moved to Cincinnati six months ago. 

And so after consultation with my sister and her husband we resorted to Plan F, which was me taking Bliss with me to my networking meeting.

I know, I know.  I know.  

But let me tell you it was the exposed brick that led me to believe this was a solid plan.  I mean, when people choose an office space like that, doesn't it mean they are casual and laid-back and so focused on substance they don't even notice style?

The simple answer is: No. 

People choose office space like that for one of a few reasons:

A) They are 22-year-old millionaires.  They graduated from college at the age of 17, and have already created and sold a start-up and profited greatly from it.  They work in office space like this because it reminds them of the meat packing district in Manhattan, where they used to live.  They are too young to have children, much less any tolerance for them.

B) They are 30-year-old billionaires.  They have started and sold two start-ups and for them money is just a way of keeping score.  They have kids and they also have a stay-at-home partner who takes care of those kids so they can focus on substance as well as style at work.  They work in an office like this because it is in stark contrast to their home, which is child-proofed and fluffy and cuddly.  They come here to get away from all that.

C) Some other reason. I don't know what it is.  But I do know that it means they don't like having babies in their office.

When I checked in with the receptionist I explained to her that I had to bring a baby with me to my meeting with her boss, and she smiled graciously.  "Oh, he has a baby about the same age at home!" she said. 

Was it my imagination or did she emphasize "at home"?

As I looked around the office my illusions about the viability of Plan F began to fade.  All of the desks had metal frames, topped with plates of glass.  There were no IKEA bumpers on those corners either.  The walls were indeed exposed brick.  Blood red brick.  And the polish on the cement floor seemed especially slick to me. 

If offices were people, I was standing face-to-face with an anorexic runway model. 

Soon the CEO came out to meet me and when I apologized for bringing a baby to the meeting he said, "Oh, I have one about the same age.  At home." 

It wasn't my imagination.

He took me to the "conference room", which of course had no table.  Tables in conference rooms are so Gen X.  This one had two leather chairs and a small oil drum with a plate glass topper.   

The CEO and I started talking and Bliss began to crawl around the room.  The exposed red brick beckoned to her the same way you and I are tempted by the walls in those indoor rock climbing gyms.  She started cruising around the room, one red brick at a time, and I started to think this meeting might actually go okay.  The CEO explained to me how people abstract out their titles nowadays and he suggested I do the same.  Instead of being a corporate trainer, could I abstract that out to describe what I really do? 

But this is where I get stuck.  Because what I really do is train people.  In corporations.  But I wanted to be cool like the CEO so I started brainstorming.  Corporate storyteller?  Communications medicine woman?  Success diviner? 

Based on where I was heading with this, what happened next might have been for the best.

Just as you and I occasionally lose our grip on the rocks at the climbing gym, Bliss lost hers on the red bricks and crashed down on that slick concrete floor with a thud.  Then there was screaming, and consoling, and some ice in a bag, and then melted ice on the slick concrete floor, and as I shoved my laptop in the diaper bag the CEO said, "I guess we have to wrap this up now but send me an email and I'll introduce you to some people in the industry.  I have some ideas of people who might be able to help you." 

I shoved my laptop in the diaper bag.  Can we just rewind to that one frame?  Yes, the one where I'm holding a wailing baby in one arm and stuffing my laptop into a diaper bag with the other.  That one right there.  Yes.  

Can we please just sit here for a second and cry together?  

What made me think Plan F was ever going to work?  Curse you, red bricks.  Curse you.  

And I think this goes without saying, but let's take "success diviner" off my list of possible titles.

The next day I sent the CEO an email and asked if he could introduce me to those contacts he had mentioned.

"Thanks for the mail.  Remind me who you were again?" he replied. 

I told him I was the corporate trainer from yesterday, the one with the baby.  I figured that would jog his memory, if memory was indeed the problem here.  I also wondered if he was simply repressing all memory of me.  Corporate America's first PTSD victim.

I was also prepared for the possibility that he was blowing me off.  That I wasn't going to get any contacts from him and that the meeting had been in vain.

He responded, "And what did we talk about again?  Who was I going to introduce you to?" 

This was the point where I realized that I was definitely not going to get any contacts out of this meeting.  It dawned on me that with my misguided baby meeting, I might have offended someone who had the potential to tarnish my image in the city.  I'm not saying he had the power to ruin my reputation in Nashville, but he could give it a good ding if he wanted to. 

So in a truly humbling moment I admitted that my best option here was to slip away unnoticed.  To hope that he really couldn't remember my name or who I was.  That Bliss had hit her head so hard on those red bricks that even the CEO had lost all memory of that meeting. 

And so I responded with something kind and vague and I never bothered him again. 

And as far as I can tell, he didn't do anything vengeful.  My reputation in Nashville appears to be intact.  I started finding corporate training gigs in town.  Even my sister and her husband forgave me for the sizable bruise on their baby's forehead. 

But I will always remember that day as the one where Bliss and I were lured in by the siren song of the red bricks.  We both thought we knew how to walk, and we were both wrong.  It was the day we both fell hard and left crying.  But our bruises healed and we got back up and tried again.  Against all odd and perhaps better judgment, we didn't give up. 

But still.  Curse you, red bricks.  Curse you.  That one hurt. 


Anonymous said...

Brick by brick, sister, brick by brick.

Melanie Gao said...

A-to-the-men, susta. I love you!