The Fab Five

Part 1 of the Tennessee Chronicles

Wednesday, January 13

I drive to Philadelphia International today on the first leg of a three-day trip to a manufacturing facility in Tennessee. It lies at the end of a two-hour plane ride and, after that, a two-and-a-half-hour journey by car. One of the agency’s newer clients, the company makes shower enclosures and bathtubs in this remote facility.

Carlene, the director of marketing, has gathered five of us for a PR summit. She’d invited three other consultants—Annette, who runs a small agency in Manhattan; Dinny, the owner of a graphics-design shop in Pennsylvania; and Karen, a database expert who will analyze all of the company’s projects. Together we comprise the Fab Five, the oracles of the bathing world. Several company employees will also be there, including Lisa, who is in charge of PR, and a couple of product managers and finance people. Carlene knows who counts.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The parking facility outside PHL consists of two lots on either side of the road, bordered by chain link fence on one side and a looming edifice of beige brick and broken glass that used to house Westinghouse power systems. On one side of the road the lot has labeled all of the lanes after counties in Europe and South America. I pull into the side where the rows are named after animals and park in Dolphin. The trip is off to a good start.

I shouldn’t be so facetious. It’s just that I don’t always agree with the idea that travel broadens the mind, or that other bromide—that the purpose of life is the journey, not the destination. Completion counts.

Philadelphia Intl AirportJack is my van driver. He’s tall and broad, with an overhanging nose and brown dots at his temple. As he whisks me to the terminal, I ask about the abandoned building. Turns out he worked there in the 1970s. “At one time the plant employed 8,500 people.” We shake our heads.

The tower at Philadelphia International beckons like a snow cone, and within minutes we pull up at Zone 3 for US Airways domestic flights, an underground cavern of highway, taxis, buses and concrete barriers. Jack grabs my bag from the back of the van and opens the door. That’s a surprise. So is the smile and handshake as he wishes me well.

I tell him I appreciate that, then zigzag through the stanchions that mark the queue for the US Airways counter. A mature woman in the company uniform, white shirt with blue slacks and blazer, points to one of the computer kiosks, so I swipe the company credit card, tap in the airport code for Nashville (BNA), confirm that I have no checked luggage and watch the machine grind out a white boarding pass.

After that it gets a little trickier. I’m in terminal A and have to get to terminal F. That means I have to catch a shuttle, so I head down endless corridors, around corners, down the stairs and finally through a door into what looks like a back lot. There’s the bus. It’s packed, row upon row of people and luggage, our backs pressed against the sliding doors, teetering around every corner.

But who’s complaining. It’s not Atlanta, where you need a train to get from one terminal to the next, or the New York City subways, where. . . . But I digress.

Since I’m early I have time to sit in the dining area between Oriental fast food and pizza and watch the people in the Jet Rock Bar & Grill across the way. They look like they’re having fun. From here the place looks more like a mall than a hanger. It gives you a false sense of safety. There are no clocks, so I keep checking the time on my cell phone.

It’s time. Gate F9 is done in US Airways gray, a shelf of a space overlooking the planes. And there sit Carlene and her crew. She’s a tall woman, a seasoned marketing person who has met both Bill Clinton and Miss America, presumably not in the same room. She’s wearing a long pink coat with toggle buttons over a black top over slacks, her hair a little blonder than I remember it. She smiles when she sees me and offers a hug. Dinny is a little taller than me, a slender, distinguished looking man with white hair and a sports coat. Karen has intense eyes and shaggy brown hair. She looks as if she runs 10 miles before breakfast. Tall and slender, she’s wearing slacks and strap-on sneakers. We won’t meet the Annette until later, since she’s flying American from New York.

Together we will conquer the markets. For today, we’ll settle for a safe flight and an uneventful drive into the heartland of Tennessee.

Tomorrow: seatbacks and tray tables up.