Whining, dining with Dr. Death

   I was meeting my friend Simpson for lunch.
   "Iíll be back round 1:45," I announced to Ms. Ferguson, my loyal office manager, as I headed out the office door. She looked up from her reports and eyed me suspiciously.
   "Are you having lunch with Simpson again?"
   "Yes. So?"
   "So donít bother coming back," she said, returning to her work.
   I was aware of her concerns. Simpson was in a similar business and he had a tendency to dwell on negatives. Quite often I had returned to the office after one of our lunches and been surprised to see we were still open and operating. He had that effect on you.
   He wasnít unusual. Privately, most business leaders practice the art of whining. It keeps them on their toes, protects against the evils of over-confidence. When the media come calling, the show begins Ė never display a weakness, be positive.
   Simpson, who was still waiting for his first media contact, had no need for the show. He simply spent his days planning for success but dreading what he sees as his inevitable failure in business.
   "Well, Simpson," I exulted as I sat at his table in the restaurant. "Howís it going?"
   Wrong question. He ignored me.
   "Youíre buying. Iím broke."
   "What do you mean youíre broke? You were just telling me about the $5,000 you spent on that entertainment center for your home."
   Simpson managed a pitiful chuckle.
   "Thatís right. When all is gone and I hit the streets, Iíll be the only bum in the Tenderloin caring a 35-inch television set on his shopping cart. That cheers me up."
   "Business that bad?" I asked. Wrong question.
   His moaning turned heads in the restaurant. "This is it," he said for the thousandth time in the years Iíve known him. "Weíre all in big trouble. Look at this place."
   He motioned to a slew of empty tables.
   "It used to be impossible to get a reservation here. Theyíre dying, just like the rest of us."
   "What do you think the problem is?" Wrong question.
   By the time he was finished, lunch was over and I had sunk down to his level. The country was in a shambles, the international market was a joke, and the forecast for the future was doom and gloom. We agreed to sell everything, but who would buy?
   Doctor Death, as I have come to fondly call Simpson, had performed his magic once again.
   Since in my mind I was now just as broke, we split the tab. The waiter was the big loser in the conversation, since neither of us could any longer afford a big tip. We got up to leave and ran into the proprietor of the restaurant. Having eaten there for years, we knew her well. We also knew her business was suffering.
   Nevertheless, we felt obliged to ask. It was a ritual, performed at every opportunity by struggling business people. You ask the question and pray for a negative response. She did not disappoint.
   "OK" she replied. "Not bad." Analysis: Pathetic. Lucky if she gets through the week.
   "Is it picking up?" asked Simpson, sensing blood.
   "Oh, yes, I think so." Analysis: No way.
   We said goodbye and walked outside, feeling much better about the world. It was a good restaurant and the proprietor was a fine person and deep down inside we both hoped she would pull out of her tailspin and return to her glory days.
   Thatís not what made us feel better, though. It was that silent camaraderie among business people in distress. And the camaraderie is heightened when another businessperson is in more distress than you.
   While there is genuine sadness and concern for your compatriotís misfortunes, there is also an undeniable sense of self-worth in knowing that, so far, youíre a survivor.
   Suddenly, Simpsonís problems (and the ones he envisioned for me) seemed inconsequential. We may indeed go under some day, as Simpson continues to predict, but we wonít be next.

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