Nonconventional Thinking
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Ah, New Orleans! Las Vegas! Houston! Alas! Will I ever see your convention centers again?

It's starting not to look that way.

Many things are the same this year, after all. We rise in the morning with a stomach full of lead. We make our way to our desks for the usual round of honking and bobbing and weaving. We have too much salad at lunch and responsible drinks after work with valued companions and the occasional mark. We fear many of the same monsters and aren't surprised when a new one comes along. But one thing is very, very different. We're not going to the Big Show anymore.

It's possible that the Big Show is dead, in fact.

Think back...I am standing in the middle of Bourbon Street in New Orleans on a warm January night in the late 1980s, which were the high point of these things. My friend Rafferty is in the middle of the street, where they do not allow cars. It is 3 A.M. We have to be up for a meeting in a few hours. "A nightcap!" he is screaming. "Just one cocktail!" I think if I have another I will fall to my knees and expire. I grab his hand and haul all 6 feet 3 inches and 225 pounds of him down the street toward Canal, where our hotel awaits. "You're a wimp!" he is hollering. "A wimp!" But that is not the word he uses.

The next morning he is back at the convention center for our morning gathering before the booth opens. It isn't much of a meeting, but you have to be there. Conventions are not about business; they're about the pretense of business.

Now all that is over, I think. The Big Show has shrunk by 60%, they say. Nobody I know is going. The Little Show, which takes place in a few months in San Francisco, is now a sorry, faded affair attended only by a few wireheads and technoid middle managers.

What is to become of us?

A few years after the nightmare on Bourbon Street, I remember, we were in Vegas, a truly terrible town in which day is night and night is a complete gross-out. Me and Rafferty and Schoendienst and Kruger and Morgenstern completed our work on the sales floor at about 7 P.M. and headed out for some drinks, followed by cocktails, succeeded by a nightcap or two. Perhaps there was food in there somewhere, but back then, in the mid-'90s, Vegas wasn't really all that big on food. My, how we laughed and were stupid. You really can't get that stupid as an adult unless you are at the Show. In that stupidity lies freedom.

At any rate, most of us peeled off at perhaps 2 A.M., but Rafferty, who had formed a close friendship with our driver, Lenny, kept the car for one last cocktail. The next morning I found myself at a meeting at Caesars Palace. Everybody was there, about 30 of us. But Rafferty was not. In the middle of the senseless and tedious meeting, which was with the CEO and must be considered the penance we had to pay for being allowed to come to the convention at all, Morgenstern pulled me out. "Rafferty is missing," he said, his face very grave. I thought of the last time I had seen him, leaning out the window of the Town Car screaming, "You're all pussies!" as the limo tore off for further adventures. "We called his room and then sent a bellman," said Morgenstern. "The bed hasn't been slept in. He's not answering his page or his phone. I'm worried." We all were. Rafferty had someplace to be in about half an hour, and if he didn't make his appointment...well, that would be considered very bad form in the highest realms. And perhaps he was...dead! That would be bad too.

At 8:59 and 59 seconds he strode onto the convention floor, looking fine. The same cannot be said for Lenny the driver, who was discovered by the police fast asleep in the front seat of his vehicle, pulled over to the side of the road somewhere out in the desert. This was a professional Vegas driver. He had seen everything and directed others to worse. And here our friend Rafferty had used him up, left him in a coma, and walked back to town. We were so proud of him we could have burst.

Mighty deeds! Tales of excess and foolery! Men and women, sick unto death, riding into battle to sell the impossible to the unfit!

It wasn't all wine and song at the Show, of course. There was the Floor, where you spent most of the day in the Booth, which was no little cubicle, not ours--our booth was Xanadu, the size of a city block, covered with art and signage, filled with executives and food! Those who flew into our web seldom emerged without glazed eyes and a lighter checkbook. There were private offices and screening rooms and conversation pits and several bars. But we never drank during the daytime. Guys who drank during the day were obviously in serious trouble.

Sometimes you had to wander out of the booth to grab a little reality as others saw it. That's when you could meet the beautiful blonde woman with the trained chimpanzee on her shoulder who was selling...what was she selling? Oh, well. And look! Over there, signing those inflatable hot dogs...wasn't that Kiss? Sure! Look how they stuck out their tongues and wiggled them! Of course, they were a little fatter than we remembered them, but who isn't? And over there in the corner, the tiny Japanese booth where nobody spoke any English at all, not one word, but the sushi was excellent. And hey! Wasn't that Chyna of the WWF? Wasn't she...scary? And the dogs and the midgets and the guys in terrible off-brown polyester suits eating and laughing with their mouths open, and the huge throb and hum rising in the gigantic metal tent--it was the noise of a city, a city of commerce, of human life thrown together for just a little time and making the most of it. And then came the night, and the closest thing that passes for friendship in this business game.

And now Rafferty is gone home for good, along with so many others, and industry has consolidated to the point where there is almost no distinction between buyers and sellers, and the Big Show is over, and we must all carry on without it. I'm sure we'll do fine. But...

...will we ever meet again in Jackson Square at dawn to eat beignets and drink big mugs of hot, black coffee heavy with chicory and sleep? Will we ever turn to one another again at four in the morning over the craps table, hyperawake with the oxygen they pump into the casino coursing through our systems, and throw our arms around each other in the victory that always precedes catastrophic loss? Will we ever emerge from the sales floor flush with millions of dollars in new revenue wrung from guys 2,000 miles from home who could not say no? Will we ever come together again under the big tent? Perhaps not, perhaps not...

But ah, my friends! We'll always have Lunch, will we not?

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