“Some people start talking to themselves whenever I am around,” I observed one fine Saturday.
“How so, Peter?” my wife replied while she checked the firmness of a Cucumis melo reticulatus, otherwise known as a muskmelon or cantaloupe. “Too firm, that one,” she said, rolling it over to grab the one that made her smile.
“See what I mean?” I huffed.
“I was talking to you, not to myself!” Into one of her numerous cloth bags that melon went.
We should have gotten a cart. Goodness knows how heavy a load I would have at the grocery checkout. And I would be the one carrying everything.
“Here comes one, watch out!” I barely said under my breath, frozen as a Gen Z with no time to spare took aim.
Blonde this time, energetic twenty-something, intent on sliding through between us, black leggings, expertly cantilevering without a moment lost. How do they do it? With an enormous handbag, no less!
“She might have left me a kiss!” my wife chortled. We both laughed. It wasn’t going to be a typical Saturday after all. I turned around for no reason.
“Hey there!” It was Jeff here at Longo's. I was almost sure it was. I could feel my face reddening. It wasn’t Jeff? His black mane of hair was expertly unkempt and wild. As I craned to see him in the crowd, I imagined a near-beard, not too long on that hidden face, with only a few items in his hands; what was it? One orange, not too big, two small bananas not in a plastic bag, and coffee beans, lots and lots of those, in a clear plastic bag that could not carry its weight.
Jeff hardly turned to greet us. “Oh, Peter, it’s you!”
Knuckle bumps and handshakes, the memory of which make us awkward, was doubly so for Jeff, balancing fruit and coffee. I offered him one of our sixty or so cloth bags, five of which were at hand.
“On me, Jeff,” I smiled. “Please don’t return it. Wouldn’t want to set a precedent for being careful with these things.”
“Thanks. I just might.”
I spied his name tag, askew with dark lettering over his suit, as he piled his items into one of our bags. “Task One” was emblazoned across it over his name. The plastic sheath the nametag was in was crumpled and bent. Jeff never was one for formalities.
My wife was a mind reader. I was lucky to have her. “You two carry on. Text me,” she said. I called after her.
“Make sure to get a cart!”
I could see that my hold on Jeff was not what I imagined. Gone were the days when a good business deal could stand on its own without all the puffery and extras that people expected these days. I was a dinosaur to him. It was hard to take in, but you roll or get rolled. The hunt was as good as the prize, and Jeff knew better than to be impolite with an old associate. I still knew lots of people.
“You on break? From the conference, I mean?” I asked as we headed to a bar. It was freezing outside; the glitzy lights of the bar were not to my taste, and the noise almost certainly wasn’t.
Jeff snorted. “I’ll take a break whenever I want,” he said as we stepped past the threshold to the bar.
“I am the company now.”
We settled into a table. Jeff ordered a spritzer, and I had my usual. I eyed him while making small talk with that casual charm that he was used to. How can I say this? That phone of his was flipping around in his hands, this text, that email, a call going to his automated AI answer. And that was just in the one minute it took to order drinks!
“What do you do when your hands are full of fruit and coffee?” I finally asked.
“What? Oh, you don’t know? AI can do most of it. It studies me all the time. Some deals it brings me are better than I could do myself.”
“So, you have been replaced already?” I asked.
“In a manner of speaking, yes. Why should that matter?”
I knew Jeff well enough that he would follow that comment with much more that I didn’t need to hear. I better step it up or lose the initiative, I thought to myself.
“I have a deal that AI could never do for you.”
“I’m all ears. Shoot.”
“Turn off your phone first.”
Now, he was on the spot. “What is this some kind of game?” He stared at his screen, I guessed it was stock quotes this time, a trade, maybe a pick to consider from the scrolling I could barely make out. He was engrossed, barely listening. A jab of his finger, then another. He sighed.
“You’re not serious!” He moaned.
“Deadly,” I said.
It was like an AA meeting without the stories, the hangups, or the false camaraderie. This was the real deal. You could imagine a large group of people talking with no one on their cell phones.
Jeff looked around. “This is it? You brought me here for this?”
I nodded as I removed my jacket and handed my scarf and gloves to the coat check person. Jeff did the same. I pocketed my check ticket and looked around.
Oliver was first up. He gave my hand that vigorous shake a young former athlete was liable for, a massive smile on his face.
“Exclusive rights, you said, and exclusivity is what you delivered! My non-existent hat is off to you, sir!”
“Glad to be of help,” I said. “Say, have you seen Michael around tonight? I’ve been meaning to introduce a business associate to him.”
“Sure! He’s right over by that potted plant near the fire exit. You can’t miss him.”
We made our way over to Michael, seated in an overstuffed leather chair, like one you might have seen in a twentieth-century smoking room. A gaggle of young ones surrounded him, neophytes, I would call them. Just learning. I could hear so many questions as we drew near. Some of those people didn’t know how to talk with their hands-free of a device. It would come to them eventually.
Michael stood up and offered his hand. It was an honor he gave very few others in our group. I could see that the neophytes were in awe, studying our every move. I wasn’t in a hurry. There was no need for introductions. Michael knew what I was thinking.
“Why don’t we retire? I know a spot,” Michael said, motioning to a part of the room with a roaring wood fireplace. My hands were cold. A great big fire was just what I needed.
Jeff seemed to have no idea how fortunate he was as he sat next to Michael in those same overstuffed chairs. The neophytes stayed away. They seemed to know that the grownups were talking.
“So, Michael, I have one for you; Jeff Underhill is his name. He’s full of questions that I have tried to answer. But I’m not a Jedi master, as you well know!”
Michael laughed. “It’s always the same, isn’t it? We can only try.”
Jeff looked very uncomfortable. He was sitting on the edge of his seat. “First, I would like to know how this all works. You all run businesses, but personally, apart from your companies, none of you are online. You use cell phones, don’t you?”
Michael looked thoughtful. “You need to ask the right questions to understand us,” he replied.
Jeff folded his arms and scowled. “What questions? Everything should be transparent. AI’s parse everything for us. I shouldn’t have to ask questions!”
Michael sighed. “Then you will never understand.”
I waited on Jeff for such a long time. Did I make a mistake in choosing him? Michael was being so patient, doubtless as a favor to me. But there was a limit to everything. Ask what questions you should be asking, Jeff! I inwardly pleaded. You could only bring a horse to water, after all.
After what seemed a long while, Jeff’s expression changed. “Oh, I get it. This is a club, an old-time business association from the last century, a throwback. You’re all a bunch of Luddites. You refuse to use AI, Google, or Apple. Big data has nothing on you guys, off-grid. I get it now.”
“Do you?” Michael asked.
Jeff joined. Many people did. More than the system could tolerate. AI could not make sense of us because we never used it. We put people first. Loyalty and direct face-to-face human relationships were what mattered. We became the “unpredictable ones,” phenomenally successful because no one could track us.
When the mainstream media and business elites demonized us and called us names, we were ready. Supporting each other and having a shared history got us through. The devil is in the details. And we went for the broad strokes, being human without compromise, no deals with the devil for us.