The Legend of Rip Van Meeting A corporate player emerges from a really, really long one.
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – There are places in my building that no one ever sees. On 18, for instance, is a row of offices that used to be inhabited by the people from Quality and Productivity. Both those phenomena are over now. For a while the row was inhabited by defunct executives waiting to be launched into the ether, but now we're out of those as well. So 18 stands pretty much empty. Or so I thought.

The other day I was sent to visit this forgotten floor. We're leasing a bit of space in our building, and Vreeland wanted me to check out its suitability. I noticed a door with a small sign on it that said, DO NOT DISTURB. MEETING IN PROGRESS. The paper of this sign was cracked with age. Through the door I heard a tiny, wheezy voice piping: "Ned! Wake up, I tell you! We have to go over the tax implications of the all-stock purchase again!"

I opened the door.

"It's about time you got here!" said a little fellow seated at the far end of a long conference table. He was ancient, dressed in an outre gray suit with wide pinstripes and a fat, colorful tie, his face obscured by a white beard that flowed down to his waist. "We sent out for coffee 16 years ago! Chairman Burnham wants these deal papers! We're almost done!"

In a chair on the side of the large table was the wizened body of another businessman. He had been dead for some time, clearly. He looked happy.

"I'm afraid I don't have any coffee," I said.

"No coffee?" The bearded gentleman blinked at me. "How about cigarettes?"

"No," I said sadly. "There is no smoking allowed in the building anyhow."

"No smoking? Who could possibly stop us from smoking?"

"When did Mr. Burnham ask you to do this?" I said as gently as possible. The former chairman had passed away in the late 1970s. He was a hell of a guy.

"November 16, 1971. That would be..." He looked at his watch. "Twenty-seven years ago. I know it's taken us a bit longer than we anticipated. But making a conglomerate out of a small turbine business isn't exactly a cakewalk!"

Yes, I thought. I had heard of this. In the early 1970s every small corporation was trying to out-Geneen the next. There were plans to buy a root-beer bottling plant, a nuclear-fuel-rod facility, and a yak farm.

"Come on, pal." I took him gently by the elbow and led him into our world.

"There's still stuff I need to wrap up!" he said. But he came.

We stood in the elevator vestibule and waited for the next car down. He stared at several female vice presidents who were waiting to go in the other direction.

"Where are their steno pads?" he asked after they departed.

"They don't have them. They're executives."

"I could see their legs. What are they, hippies?"

We got out into the street. It was about noon and I figured we could both do with a bite to eat. A young man walked past with tiny earphones in his ears and a strip of green-and-red hair running up the center of his otherwise shaved head. His face was pierced in several dozen places. "Ouch," said my friend. "He must have been in a terrible accident." I said nothing.

We sat down at my favorite luncheon spot. I chose it without thinking. "What's this?" he asked me, eyeing a plate of sea urchin and fatty tuna with discreet horror. "It's good," I said. "Eat it."

"Aren't we having drinks first?"

"People don't really drink during the workday anymore."

"I see," he said, downing a mouthful of horseradish and ginger.

After the gasping and choking ceased, I took him to our local luncheonette, which hasn't really changed in the years he'd been in his meeting. We had cheeseburgers. He seemed at peace for the first time since I'd met him. The check came. "Oh, I'll take that," he said shyly, then went pale. "Forty bucks for burgers," he kept repeating as I led him out.

We were on the sidewalk when my beeper and cellular phone went off. The phone was Betty, my assistant, telling me to answer my beeper.

"Was that your secretary?" asked my friend.

"My assistant. You can't call them secretaries anymore. It's disrespectful."

"In what way?"

"I have no idea."

He was looking at my phone. "Where are the wires?"

"There aren't any. Isn't that great?"

"And you can be reached like that at any time?"

"Sure. See?" I pointed to the sidewalk around us, where men and women in business garb were hauling themselves along at maximum pedestrian speed, their mouths flapping into tiny mobile instruments.

"I think I am beginning to," he said.

"I've got to get back right now," I said. "I need to get some financial rationale to the Coast right away."

"Can't you simply put it in the mail at the end of the day?"

"No, no." I tried to explain. "We have these things now, fax machines. They make it possible to do things immediately and get them where they're supposed to be within seconds, literally. We can also send mail electronically from tiny computers that sit on our desks, so we can reply to questions almost before we've thought about what we're saying."

"Tiny computers that sit on your desks?"


"And people expect to get your work product moments after they request it?"

"Yep! Isn't that amazing?"

We had entered the building. I was feeling impatient now. This was the most time I had spent with another person in a business setting since 1987.

"Where are all the people?" he asked. He sounded very sad.

"This is all there is," I said. "In the 1980s we decentralized, which cut corporate head count, and in the '90s the corporation decided to focus on only its core businesses and divested the rest. It works great, especially for, you know, Wall Street."

"Ah yes," he said with an expression I could not read. "Wall Street."

We parted in the elevator. He shook my hand and thanked me, and with a sigh of relief, I thought, got off at 18. I went all the way up to 45 for the first of about a dozen short meetings I had scheduled for that afternoon. I can't stand the long ones. You lose track of things.

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name.