01.11
Life of a salesman

I settle into my seat. The world outside fades into the distance as my plane leaves Boston and its tea parties behind and below. I begin to relax.

Not twenty minutes into the flight and my peace is shattered by a scream from the front of the plane. Some passengers run down the aisle. All of a sudden I’m rigid with tension. Someone covered in blood staggers after them, falls to the floor and crawls into the nearest vacant seat. This can’t be happening. The plane is now full of noise and pandemonium.

I catch the eye of my neighbour. If looks could kill.

It occurs to me, then, that perhaps it wasn’t the most sensible thing to watch a DVD of ‘United 93’ on my laptop on a United Airlines flight out of Boston. I begin to understand why it hasn’t made it to the selection of in-flight movies. Watching ‘United 93’, a graphic account of one of the four fated flights on 9/11, on United 255 is a bit like sitting down in front of ‘The Shining’ with a psychopath in a isolated hotel room; or inviting a cross-eyed banjo player over for a viewing of ‘Deliverance’, or watching ‘Last Tango… Actually, you know what, I’m not going to go there.

Flying makes me tense. Conversely, my wife, tightly tuned otherwise, is strangely soothed by airports. For her, time spent in a terminal at Chicago O’Hare is the equivalent of unwinding over a glass of wine. Whenever her stress levels start shooting up (after a bad day at the office or, more commonly, when she returns from a week long trip in Europe to find her husband has forgotten to feed her now substantially malnourished rabbits), I am always inclined to suggest we drive over to the airport to calm down.

It’s not the possibility of being bombed out of the skies by an angry young man, understandably attracted by the prospect of eternal life with seventy-two virgins, that bothers me about flying. Nor am I particularly concerned by the thought that at any moment any number of things could go wrong and I could plummet to my certain death. What gets to me about flying is the fear that I might miss my plane. While I can’t claim to particularly enjoy being catapulted twenty-eight thousand feet above sea level at Mach 0.82 in a hundred and forty seven ton steel cylinder, wedged between a couple of overweight Americans and being fed the occasional Pretzel by a passing stewardess, it’s an experience that I don’t want to be late for.

There’s no logic to this, as in America planes are like buses. Miss one and you can simply hop on the next. I know this, but still can’t shake my dread of missing the bus, so to speak.

It’s why the bicycle is my preferred mode of transport. You can’t miss a bicycle in the same way that you can miss a plane (although it could be argued that a plane can’t be stolen in the same way that my bicycle was last month). A cyclist who is late has no one to blame, but himself.

The trouble with doing business in America is that to do so on a back of a bicycle is impractical. My associate in London has a sales area of approximately five square miles. He can walk to meetings. I can’t. My territory is three million, seven hundred and seventeen thousand, seven hundred and ninety seven square miles large.

This week I had to make a short presentation to one to my clients. But, because it happened to be in Santa Monica (a mere 1,749 miles away, a good 200 miles further than London to Moscow) this short meeting required a feat of aeronautical endurance that seems to be part and parcel of doing business in US of A. An overnight stay, two four hour flights (both wedged in between overweight Americans), the humiliation of having to undress and unpack in front of security guards, an interrogation as to whether I had concealed a dangerous weapon (a tube of toothpaste) and lots of hanging around (because, of course, I arrived spectacularly early to be sure to catch my plane). You’d think twice about going to Moscow for an hour’s meeting (unless you’re my wife, who recently attended meetings in Chicago, New York, Moscow and London in a single week, getting back before the rabbits had even drained their water bottle), but here 1,749 miles is nothing. It’s not even the width of the country.

America really is very big.

One of Ros’s colleagues recently spent a weekend with a friend who lives out of town. And by ‘out of town’ they mean out of town. In other words, a good two and a half hour drive away from anything, including the local shop. Imagine popping out for the milk one morning and not returning until after lunch, or realising, while unloading the groceries, that you’ve forgotten to buy that one essential ingredient and have no option but to go back to get it. If you bought some flowers they would be dead by the time you got home The ice cream would be a puddle on the back seat. In England, even though all the small shops are being swallowed up by big shops, it’s still hard to drive two and half minutes without finding something to buy. Two and a half hours in a car in England without seeing a shop means you’ve broken down. Or you’re stuck in a traffic jam that’s not moving.

We’re much more condensed. The United Kingdom is eight times as densely populated as in the United States. This means that for every American in a Mini there will be eight Englishmen.

Last month the American population hit the three hundred million people mark for the first time. Consequently everyone here thinks it’s getting a bit too crowded. Specifically they think there are too many Mexicans, but there may be something else going on there. Mind you, the persecuted Mexican could rightly point out that there’s still plenty of room at the Inn. In an average American square mile, if you look hard enough, you’ll find sixty eight people. (By contrast there are six hundred people squeezed tightly into every mile English square mile).

No wonder Willy Loman got a little depressed.

A salesman in American has a lot of ground to cover.

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