January 11, 2002
I was not always as suave as you know me to be now, and recently a memory came unbidden that reminded me of just how un-suave I have been in the past. Years ago, I was a copywriter at a large advertising agency and one Friday afternoon we were having our annual “state of the agency” meeting in a large room at the Hotel Syracuse. We had a brewery account, so there was beer on ice, and I, of course, found my way to that with a rapidity that would have inspired a bird dog. I distinctly remember having two refreshing cold ones before we were called to the other end of the room for the President’s speech. There were more than 100 employees so the rows were long and the chairs were close together. I had not planned well, and found myself on the far side of the room from the only bathroom.
As the President carefully laid the foundation for his informative and motivating talk, I realized I was not going to be able to sit still for all of it. After five or ten agonizing minutes, I arose as quietly as I could and began excusing myself down the row, traversing the width of the room, glancing at the President who was looking back at me, and not to share a wink and a smile.
Arriving at the doorway of the bathroom, I could not see a light switch, inside or out. But I now imagined I was being watched by 100 people and did not want to ask around if anyone knew where the light was. I stepped inside, closed the door, and figured I’d find the light switch by touch. It was a windowless room. I never did find the light. But I knew what a bathroom felt like, and first I found the toilet, then the little roll of paper, then the sink and the soap. I was doing okay in the dark, until it came time to find a towel. In spite of my exploratory waving, my hands came in contact with nothing soft and absorbent.
I took another step into the void, reached out farther and farther, and finally brushed against a shower curtain and found a towel hanging over the rod, a large towel at that, and almost like velvet, still in a plastic sleeve from the cleaners. I dried my wet hands thoroughly, thinking about what a nice touch of class this was for the Hotel Syracuse. Then I groped my way back to the door, stepped into the light, and blinked my way back down the row, trying not to look at the President.
After the talk, I applauded heartily and did not bolt to the beer, hoping to salvage something of my cool. Standing by my chair, I watched as one of the Vice Presidents walked into the bathroom. The light came on instantly. A moment later she emerged, holding, on a hanger, still in the cleaner’s plastic sleeve, a rose-colored velvet dress she was wearing to a party that evening.