My second work-related visit to America was in 2003, three years after my first. Boston was the destination and this time Mark, my objectionable employer, accompanied me, along with two humourless accountants. We flew Air America – Mark not stooping to Air India when booking for himself – and stayed in one of those US hotels where all the money has been lavished on the lobby, the rooms left to crumble quietly. The mission was the same as in Chicago: to attend a conference and steal ideas from the Yanks. Mark was also scheduled to speak, in the guise of ‘Expert in the British Market’. With some modest script input from me and a great deal of pretend confidence he successfully winged it.
Mark was on good form throughout; American grins and vigorous handshakes and ‘awesomes’ suit him perfectly. He dressed exactly as an American might hope an Englishman to dress – smart yet colourfully odd. He dazzled the women with white but wonky Limey teeth. He made suggestive remarks that might have attracted lawsuits were they not put-downable to English eccentricity. He waltzed the three of us around the dinnertime conference networking sessions and post-session networking dinners with tireless bonhomie. He took us to a proper Boston seafood restaurant and paid. But this was the only time Mark came unstuck; he ordered lobster and it arrived intact and barely dead along with some terrible metal instruments. The dismantling process was traumatic and not helped by the quantity of sauce, but he pulled through in the end and converted it into a Big Joke.
On day three of the conference Mark good-morninged us with a tremendous announcement. Rather than returning to Heathrow, he would be flying on to New York for further networking and theft. The two humourless accountants were scheduled to leave ahead of me anyway, so this meant that suddenly I had two clear days in Boston all to myself; a free holiday. I shook Mark’s hand and waved him and his tyrannical bonhomie off to the airport.
Did I waste my two free days alone in Boston, Massachusetts? Did I hide in my crumbly hotel room reading A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, or lounge about the lavish lobby drinking Sam Adams beer? I did not, despite the temptation. I got out and had a holiday is what I did. I walked to the malls. I took a Trolley tour of Beantown. I went to the theatre to watch the Blue Man Group, who were funny and made excellent use of the music of KLF. In a downtown bar, almost a pub, where I stopped for an early-evening beer an All-American guy explained the rudimentaries of baseball to me as we watched the Red Sox playing Houston on the TV. I had a bash at explaining cricket. He then offered to give me a ticket for the very game that we were watching. “Don’t you want it?” I asked. “I'm good right here. It’s raining. They play all the time. Here you go, you’re in the Bleachers.” “Can I give you the money?” “Nah go on.” Yanks are often like that, which is why I like them so much. I paid for his beer and dashed out to get a taxi for Fenway Park, where I sat in the open-air Bleachers and tried to fathom out the scoreboard until the rain got too much even for me and I snuck over to a covered stand and found a seat amongst chuntering Boston fans whose chant repertoire was much less impressive (“Let’s go Red Sox” and “You suck Astros” both to the same tune being the extent of it) than their ability to consume hot dogs.
Before leaving for the airport I bought a gift for Mark. It was a humorous mug with illustrated instructions on How to Eat a Lobster. Back in England I presented this to him along with a postcard on which I had scribbled Thanks for my free trip to Boston. He seemed taken aback by the gesture. Later his stepson told me that Mark had been much moved by the gift, saying that nobody else he had taken to the States had ever thanked him. But then they were mostly humourless accountants. From then on I was a protégé. My wife and I were invited round for dinner and given random cash gifts for meals out. Then three years later Mark sold the company but continued to work, sort of secretly, for a division that had now become our rivals. I wrote the slightly mean but not really ill-intentioned dig “Good luck in your new job” in his leaving card. Mark took great offence, his stepson later told me. He hasn’t spoken to me since, except for one awkward accidental meeting in a DIY store where his wife rescued things by making a fuss of my baby daughter.