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You Look Nice Today by Stanley Bing


Rating: (Recommended)


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Fortune columnist Stanley Bing presents a dead-on portrayal of real office life in his new novel, You Look Nice Today. Add this dose of realism to a pinch of exaggeration for pleasure, and the combination is a story that’s a joy to read. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 7, (pp. 51-55):

New Year's came and went, and with it the level of energy and resolve that always attends beginnings. The Quality Process was in full cry. Meetings took place across the nation. Meetings and meetings and meetings, and still more meetings, then meals that were nothing more than disguised meetings, then more meetings to plan subsequent meetings. Anyone who endured this at its height lost forever his taste for meetings.

One afternoon, after a truly grueling and stupid day where we quite literally saw each other over and over again for a sequence of gatherings whose discrete purposes were increasingly unclear) Blatt posted a humorous sign she had retrieved from a business magazine.

"Are you lonely? Hold a meeting," said the sign. Under the headline there was a graphic of people sitting around a conference table drinking coffee and yakking. The text then went on: "You can see people draw organizational charts, feel important and impress your colleagues, eat bagels, all on company time. Meetings, the practical alternative to work." And that was it. I thought it was pretty clever, actually.

"What's this?" CaroleAnne said to me somewhat later. She was looking at the sign and scowling.

"It's a joke," I said to her.

"I don't think it's very funny," she replied with surprising asperity. "I wonder at the things people do around here sometimes."

I disregarded this tiny outburst. We all get on each other's nerves on occasion. You can't pay attention to everything. The sign, it turned out, stayed up for many years, with certain consequences that will later become apparent.


The work went on, and with it the travel. Month after grueling month, back and forth and back and forth again, weaving through the great, chaotic tapestry of America, Harb traveled. Sometimes I came along for the ride, in conditions both good and less so. I feel about travel the way I feel about Sambuca. At first, it's sweet. After a while, it becomes sticky and disgusting, even when it has a coffee bean in it.

Most of the time, Harb was crushingly, amazingly alone. Perhaps that is why he began to take CaroleAnne with him with some regularity. On his own or with her help, he led hundreds upon hundreds of Quality conclaves, exhorting wary employees, fearful of noncompliance, to achieve the appearance of ever-greater levels of Quality, Customer Satisfaction, and Productivity.

At night in the fine hotels, whisper quiet and bathed in luxury, Harb lay awake, the flickering of the pay-per-view movie playing out across the room on a television too small for the space it was intended to fill. CaroleAnne was not next door. No, she was on another, lower floor, as befit her standing. But he could feel her in the hotel . . . almost smell her in his room. Why shouldn't he be able to smell her? He had been with her without interruption for more than eleven hours, from the first morning meeting to the end-of-day wrap-ups over dinner to drinks and salty trail mix at eleven P.M.

And what about those drinks? For Harb, it was martinis, mostly, although sometimes, to minimize the effect of the constant, daily onslaught of road life upon his liver, he switched over to beer over ice.

It was hard to escape the end of the day without these semi-informal nightcaps. Often they were conducted with a group of chattering, garrulous wahoos, with Harb at its dead center, the guru, the magnet, the best friend of everybody. But a fair amount of the time, particularly on the last day of a three-day Quality bender, it would be getaway night, and Harb would find himself unwinding with just a few trusted subordinates, and more often than not, only one, and that one would be the kind of person with whom you could truly drop all pretense and, for a few moments, be yourself, and generally, if that one person was there, in that city, at that time, that person would be CaroleAnne.

It is difficult to measure the significance and importance of this rite to those who don't have to work in costume for a living. The day is done. The tie is down around the sternum. The collar is open, as is the well-traveled path to a posh and blessedly silent space upstairs. There is, quite literally, nothing at all on the agenda. The drinks are on the table. The other individual is opposite, all yours. Between that moment and the instant of unconsciousness when you fall into the sleep that immediately precedes the horrible moment of awakening the next morning, a yawning chasm of opportunity beckons. More than any corporate activity, this ceremony of the nightcap is perhaps the most frightening in its lack of structure, its terrible, fierce purity. It is very possible that nothing but friendly human interaction will happen. But everything, for a few moments, is possible. And that makes it special, and different.

Consider it for a moment. You are Harb. A lovely, powerful, well-dressed, mysterious woman toys with her beverage on the bar that stretches like an unmade bed before the two of you. Nobody is counting how many drinks have crossed its scarred mahogany surface in your direction. It's all but deserted. The bartender is giving you looks. It's time to take the party someplace else, if it's going to continue at all. Funny how you never noticed the little flecks of green in the bottom of her deep black eyes, the way the corners of her mouth turn slyly upward when she's thinking about something funny you just said. And what was it you just said? You can’t remember! Oh, good. She can't remember either. And look! Her blouse, which began the day all crisp and bright white and frisky, has, throughout the course of countless assaults of heat, wind, conditioned air, a couple of spilled condiments maybe, lost all its starch, and the top button that concealed her clavicles from view is open now, and she is leaning forward to get a light from you, and you smell the collected experiences of the day on her, and how easy it would be just to lean into that and touch her cheek, and what would happen then? Alcohol clouds the judgment, buddy. Fatigue clouds the judgment. Distance from home clouds the judgment. Who declared judgment to be the be-all and end-all anyhow! Whoever he was never found himself at a Ramada Inn someplace in middle Iowa while the snow is falling on the silent one-stoplight town. And the country music is playing low, and you're not a job description anymore, not a role that has to be fulfilled, you're just a little person at the edge of the great big universe, Charley, and wouldn't it be nice to have a kiss now, just a little kiss, and after that little kiss perhaps a big one, a big old wet one you could fall into and never come out of again?                                 

I'm just speculating, of course. But these are perhaps the thought that might be going through a person's mind in just such a circumstance.

And yet, virtually all the time, in spite of this and that, we still go back to our rooms, read the hotel magazine, drop off to sleep. Frankly, and this is just my editorial comment here, you don't have to listen to it, I think that continual, daily renunciation of bad action represents a form of heroism in this sorry society in which we live. You won't read about it anywhere, this form of heroism. But it exists, unknown and unsung.

And Harb? Friends, if I may call you that, Harb was the greatest hero of them all, at least the greatest I have known, because, as I have noted, he often found himself seated stool-to-stool, knee-to-knee with a slightly tipsy Nefertiti, the only barrier between them their mutual discretion, together battling the fact that, at bottom, they truly, at that point in time, adored each other on virtually every level it is possible for two adults to love each other without touching.

For yes, indeed, it is true—and it must be made clear before any erroneous ideas are permitted to flower—that, after that first chaste kiss in the office at holiday time, CaroleAnne and Harb did not kiss again ever, not even in friendship. They did, however, enjoy ongoing, massive amounts of opportunity to reevaluate that status. And they always passed with flying colors. There are many places where two determined people can kiss, and even more locations where those with equal determination can avoid kissing, and in each of both locales, I must report, Harb and CaroleAnne resisted temptation. Which is not to say that the avoidance and ultimate rejection of oral intercourse eliminated the inappropriate feelings between them, if such they were. No human power can do that, although many have tried. And as anyone who has ever avoided kissing when a simple, affectionate exchange of that nature would be the most natural thing in the world will tell you, resistance is the ultimate aphrodisiac. I cannot relate what the effect months of such exemplary behavior produced on CaroleAnne, for her feelings, as it will become apparent, were a mystery to me and others as well. But Harb, I can tell you, was a Roman candle waiting to erupt into the sky. What wouldn't I give to experience that feeling again!

And didn't he pay for it!


Neither CaroleAnne nor Harb are particularly appealing characters, but chances are if you’ve spent at least a dozen years working in office, you’ve met versions of each of them. Relax and be glad they’re not in your office as you read You Look Nice Today.

Steve Hopkins, October 28, 2003


ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the November 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Look Nice Today.htm


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