Is The Owner In?

Copyright 1994 by Robert L. Gidley. All rights reserved.

This piece appeared in The Seattle Times Pacific Magazine of Jan 23, 1994. [They only bought first serial rights, so it's okay for me to put it here.] Paul is still my boss. Comments?

Because I have my own business, I answer a lot of phone calls. I welcome the ones from customers, but the ones I truly despise are those that begin: "Is the owner in?" These people are part of the legion of salespeople who have an amazing opportunity they want to share with me. They sell magazine subscriptions, light bulbs, credit cards with incredibly low interest rates ("Less than 25 percent!"), you name it. What they have in common is the desire to talk on the phone until I give them some money to shut them up.

I have had stock brokers call and ask if I am interested in investing in the stock market - they have a stock that's sure to double in value in just a few weeks. "Hey, listen pal, if I could afford to invest in the stock market, would I be answering my own phone? Think about it."

And they are offering me this special opportunity, because, amazingly enough, they got my phone number out of the phone book!

Sometimes, of course, the calls are scams. I once had a salesperson insist that what he was offering couldn't possibly be a scam because he would send out a courier to pick up my check.

"Hey! You're right! Anybody who was a con artist couldn't possibly have somebody with a car standing by to pick up my check! Where do I sign?"

After a couple of years of this, I finally hit on the solution: hire a boss! So I invented Paul Bidney, our all-powerful, but elusive owner.

"Hello, may I speak to the owner, please?"

"That would be Paul Bidney."

"Is he in?"

"Yes, but he's in a meeting right now. Would you like to leave a message?"

"Oh, no, I'll just call back."

Of course, Paul is always in a meeting (or at lunch, or not in the office yet). And, of course, they always call back trying to catch up with him. Sometimes they almost catch him.

"Sure - oh, he just stepped out!"

Eventually, they give up, usually after a couple of days of not being able to reach Paul.

Sometimes they get frustrated. "Isn't Paul ever around?"

"Hey, stand in line, pal. My last paycheck bounced and I've been looking for him myself!"

Lately it's occurred to me that since Paul is a fictional character, he doesn't have to simply be "out of the office" when these folks call.

"I'm sorry, but Mr. Bidney is in Washington testifying before a Congressional subcommittee this week." And if the salesperson has let slip what she is calling about, say, selling us yet another long-distance phone service, I add, "He's testifying about fraud in the telecommunications industry and I'm sure he'd be interested in talking to you."

Sometimes I try to introduce a little surrealism into their day. "Mr. Bidney is on a tour of the Far East, inspecting opium fields in the Golden Triangle." This usually slows them down a bit.

Sometimes, though, I run into a particularly persistent person. Somebody who is just sure his luck will change and he will catch Paul when he's in the office (and not in a meeting or on the phone or passed out in the copier room).

The record is held by a stock broker, who called every day for two weeks. Finally, I started to feel sorry for him, so I decided to put him out of his misery.

"Hello, is Paul Bidney there?" By this point, a certain desperation had crept into his voice when he called.

"Oh. You must not have heard," I said gravely.

"Heard what?"

"Mr. Bidney was killed in an automobile accident yesterday." You could practically hear the black border around my voice.

"Uh, gee, I'm really sorry."

"Yes, it is a tragedy. He was such a vital, enthusiastic guy. Always on the go." Which is why he was never in the office. "But, as Paul would say, 'Business is business.' How can we help you?"

"Well, uh, I guess I need to speak to the new owner."

"Ah, that would be Dave Lyons."

"Is Dave in?"

"Dave is out making Paul's funeral arrangements. Would you like to leave a message?"

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Copyright 1994 by Robert L. Gidley. All rights reserved.