*with apologies to Emily Post

I stood at the foot of the non-descript brownstone before me, feeling a bit non-plussed. Only a week earlier, I had received a mysterious phone call inviting me to fly across the country to come in and consult for the A.A.R.P. Since the American Association of Retired Persons is a venerable organization with more than 32,000,000 members, my first instincts told me that this could be a rather lucrative assignment. So I hopped on the first red-eye I could find to the East Coast, and settled in at the Airport Hilton for the night. But now, as I gazed at the small, aged, paint-peeling door before me, rechecked the address I’d been given, and pressed the buzzer yet again, I was beginning to sense that something wasn’t right.

A brisk wind came up, pelting me with rain, and so I buttoned my coat tightly once more and asked the near-sighted little old lady waiting at the bus stop nearby if she would mind sharing her umbrella; the woman merely peered up over her spectacles at me, before turning her attentions back to the street. It was at this point that the door to the slightly-dilapidated building creaked open, whereupon I was greeted by a stocky, balding, mustachioed little man — who’s toupee, I was convinced, seemed to be making a rather pronounced dip to the left — and who’s billboard-sized smile betrayed a missing left molar.

“I’m sorry. I’m confused,” I said through a chill. “Is this the headquarters for the A.A.R.P.?”

“No,” he countered, his slightly-imperfect smile radiating more brightly than ever. “But you’re close. This is actually the headquarters for the A.A.R.R.R.P.”

“A.A.R.R.R.P.,” I chattered back. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“The American Academy for Really Rude and Repugnant People,” the man announced with a widening flourish, as he cracked the door open even wider for me. “You must be Neal Sperling. Come on in.”

I entered the place warily, more anxious to vent the weather from my bones than anything else.

“I’m the executive director, Harry Sez,” Harry Sez said, putting out his hand, as he led me over to the base of a long, dark, and narrow hallway. “And you’re fifteen minutes late. But, hey, I kept you waiting for half an eternity, too. I’m beginning to like how we work together already.”

“I don’t understand,” I countered, resisting an urge to clasp his hand, as I shook the rain from my coat, and my eyes scanned the room to find the radiator which did not exist. “I was sure the voice on the other end of the phone said that my services were being requested by the A.A.R.P.”

“We’ve run into that for years,” Harry Sez said, waving this off in the manner of a 50′s style big band leader. “It’s been a source of ongoing confusion, and it fits our corporate culture perfectly, because it really annoys the hell out of people. Those retired coots keep threatening to sue me for infringement, but I say ‘let ‘ern,” he snorted. “After all, what exactly do they think they’re gonna get?”

I gazed at the dank, poorly-lit hallway before me, noticing that several bulbs seemed to be in serious need of replacement.

“I’m still confused,” I said, peering into the rich medley of uncertain shadows ahead. “Just what exactly is this place?”

“A.A.R.R.R.P. is the official training ground for those entering the corporate work force who want to gain unfair advantages over their competition,” Harry Sez said, without missing a beat, as he wrapped a particularly burly arm around me. “Come…let me show you around.”

I know I should have resisted at this point; but frankly, would you have? Harry led me over to a wide open area, which looked to me to be more like a reconverted warehouse, or factory, separated by a series of corrugated glass and steel booths.

“Just how repugnant do you train these people to be?” I couldn’t help asking.

“Pretty darned tootin’!” Harry responded with another exuberant flourish. “Here, take our basic package, for example…” Harry pointed to several young, gum-chewing women who appeared about ready to enter college, who were hooked up to an impressive array of fine wires and twisting electrodes, and who seemed to be undergoing some form of intensive electroshock therapy. “If their parents haven’t already done so, we train them to entirely eliminate words like ‘please,’ thank you,’ and ‘you’re welcome,’ from their vocabularies. Instead, we get them to substitute such sublime communicative devices as vague pouts, uncertain shrugs, exasperated grunts, and completely disaffected pointing gestures. The training has proven to be particularly effective with newly-hired sales clerks, doctors’ receptionists, and major company switchboard operators,” he beamed proudly.

“I imagine the disaffected pointing gestures must be a real source of irritation to customers dealing with major company switchboard operators,” I offered.

Harry Sez flashed me the “O.K.” sign, glad to see that I was logging onto his wavelength.

“Over here we have a more advanced package,” Harry continued, steering me over to a mock office setting, complete with temporary assistants in-training. “Our most popular courses deal with use of the telephone. For example, we teach temporaries how to place callers on hold before even giving the party dialing in a chance to speak, and without first thinking to ask whether the call is urgent, long distance, or if the other person is on fire, for example. Occasionally, we train assistants to ask dumb questions like, ‘would you like to hold?’ without waiting for the reply — as if the person who called in did so with the very specific goal in mind of WANTING to hold. We also show assistants how to put callers on hold for insufferably long periods, waste extremely valuable stretches of the typical business day, and eventually come back on the line to pretend in a very convincing display of mock outrage and annoyance that they simply forget they had left someone hanging to listen to repeat compilations of very bad elevator music through the course of several leap years and Olympic anniversary celebrations. Finally, we sometimes train assistants, managers, and even executives not to return calls to their suppliers, both known and unknown, particularly if those suppliers have tried to communicate with the company on at least five occasions, or say, if the company would like to maintain good relations with those suppliers, or may be interested in bringing additional revenues into the company.”

“Amazing,” I shook my head.

“And over here,” Harry pointed, “we provide specialized training tactics to telephone solicitors, offering very specific instructions on how to engage in such practices as, say, calling you just as you are about to sit down to enjoy a much-anticipated dinner, in order to sell you some completely overpriced, unnecessary newspaper subscription, or to get you to place your photograph on a credit card you don’t own, or support some extremist political candidate who has completely lost touch with political reality…all with the ultimate goal of convincing you that this unwarranted invasion of your financial and personal privacy is completely for your benefit.”

“That’s pretty repugnant,” I agreed.

“And here we have our newest section, completely devoted to talk show guests,” Harry gestured with pride. “We train guests to engage in such practices as cutting off another guest in mid-sentence by placing a hand in front of that guest’s face, or breaking a chair over that guest’s head when that guest has completely run out of anything substantive to talk about. It’s proven to be one of our most lucrative — and fastest-growing — profit centers.”

“What do you suppose accounts for the growing popularity of these classes?” I now wanted to know, genuinely curious.

“By and large, a lot of it can be attributed to power plays being waged by increasingly fearful and insecure people who believe, in an era of corporate downsizing, frequent job-hopping, shrinking respect for personhood, waning interconnectedness, and diminished control over personal destinies, that it’s simply not worth it anymore to show a measure of respect and civility toward one’s self or to other people,” Harry mused thoughtfully. “But I would say a lot more of it can be traced to a general tendency on everyone’s part to increasingly look to their own short-sighted personal goals and corporate bottom lines as substitutes for thinking about the spiraling conditions they believe they’re powerless to stop — which, of course, eventually creates a perfect breeding ground for promoting increasingly entrenched thinking, disabling despair, and ultimately, enfeebling stupidity. Actually, though,” Harry went on, “our company really likes the way things are going, particularly the enfeebling stupidity part, because we’re finding more and more these days that we have less and less to teach people — which has allowed us to operate at an increasingly higher profit margin.”

I took a slight step back, jarred by jeweled, crystalline insights which seemed to be issuing from Harry’s lips, wondering whether I was staring into the very eyes of Mephistopheles himself.

“Just why is it that you’ve summoned me here?” I asked Harry directly.

“Business is exploding, we’re seeking to expand,” Harry shrugged, as if the answer were obvious. “Rumor has it you’re a genuine creative wiz, always coming up with new ideas, hidden revenue streams, new profit centers no one else has thought about. So we figured you’d make the perfect consultant for us.”

“I work only with a very limited clientele,” I countered, shaking my head. “To be candid, I simply don’t agree with your brand of business philosophy…I simply don’t agree with any of this.”

“Hmmm,” Harry pondered, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “Forceful. Direct. Yet somewhat sublime and seemingly very, very sincere. I like it!” he posited. “That was very, very rude.”

“I just don’t think you get it,” I said, my teeth now grinding even more tightly together. “From where I sit, we may have won a major victory over Communism, but your “school” is destined to set the social and economic fabric of this country back by at least one to two hundred thousand years. If I didn’t know better, I would say this is all part of some larger, profane Master Plan.”

“And now I must ask you to leave,” Harry Sez oh-so-succinctly suggested. It was obvious I had touched a nerve, for he began to push me toward the door.

“Wait a minute,” I protested. “You lured me here under false pretenses. I spent money on air fare, cab fare, transfers, a hotel. I at least expect to be compensated for my costs!”

“Check is in the mail. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. If you don’t like it, lump it. Etc., etc., etc.”

“I want my check, Harry.”

“So sue me. I’m judgment proof. Besides, even if you could find a Marshall dumb enough to try to come by and collect, I can set up shop under a new business in less than 30 days…”

“You have no honor, Harry. Haven’t you ever heard of that Giant Spiritual Law: ‘what goes around, comes around’?”

“I’ve never seen any evidence it,” Harry Sez said, as he finished pushing me to the foyer, lit a thick Cuban stogie in a designated no-smoking area, and began to flick ashes all over my shoes.

“All the same, you’ll be hearing from my attorney,” I declared, pulling at my coat once again.

“Great. Whatever. ‘See you in court.’ Let’s do depositions together.’ But whatever you do, by all means, don’t forget to ‘have a nice day,’” Harry called and waved before shutting the door.

Outside, once more, it began to rain. As I frantically hunted about for shelter, groping for change, I grew momentarily saddened by the notion that, lately, I seemed to be meeting up with so many graduates of Harry’s school — and took little solace in what I perceived to be a tiny glimmer of that Giant Spiritual Law in operation. For as the nearsighted little old lady once again failed to see what percentage was to be gleaned in giving up valuable real estate to me under her umbrella, as the Pretzel Man at the pushcart nearby adamantly refused to provide me with exact change for a cab, and as the policeman who then pulled up on horseback angrily urged me to move along…his horse, for some inexplicable reason, decided to take a poop on the pushcart of the Pretzel Man…who immediately directed his attentions back to the nearsighted little old lady…who seemed all too eager to scoop up what discounted pretzels remained …which the Pretzel Man was all too happy to sell to her at cost.

I believe this is where I came in.