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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE WILLY LOMAN
IN ALL OF US


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

February 17, 2005 -- I have probably written more words about business travel and created more business-travel information products, publications and columns than any human being on the planet. And my bedrock belief, the foundation for every word that I've ever written and everything that I've ever created by, for and about business travelers, is this:

We are not Willy Loman.

I've said it in what seems like a million speeches and typed it in what seems to be a zillion proposals. "We are not Willy Loman," I say. "Business travel is too expensive for companies to send anyone but their best and brightest on the road. Frequent flyers are the cream of the American business crop. We represent the American Dream. We live our lives on the road to create value, to create jobs, to create better lives for ourselves, our families, our companies and, yes, even our country."

So how come, a week after the death of Arthur Miller, the playwright who gave us Willy Loman, the miserable, pitiable traveling salesman from Death of a Salesman, I'm actually thinking that there really is a little Willy Loman in all of us?

What if, for all our power and influence and decent salaries and elite frequent-flyer status and iPods and laptops, we're all just trying to get by on a smile and a shoeshine? What if, no matter how strong we are and how centered we are, a life on the road makes us feel like a piece of fruit? What if, as Willy's ne'er-do-well son Biff so brutally concluded, we're all a dime a dozen?

Attention must be paid, my friends. It is not pleasant to consider. It is not easy to accept. It certainly is not what I want to think about you, about me, about us. But what if there is a little Willy Loman in all of us?

Miller's masterpiece, written in 1949, is justifiably seen as a clear-eyed and unsparing view of the effects of American capitalism on the common man. And it is not hard to see how Death of a Salesman still resonates more than 50 years later. In this period of economic upheaval, when good jobs are disappearing, when the social safety net is frayed, when our own understanding of what we can expect at the end of a life of honest work is being challenged, Willy Loman's plight seems as relevant as ever.

But I'm actually wondering--and stick with me, folks, because I'm writing from my heart here and not my head--if it is the road itself that somehow turns us all into Willy Loman. Miller alludes to the difficulty of a life on the road--Willy's heavy sample cases and his long, lonely drives in a beat-up old "Chevvy" are compelling metaphors even now--but the road, to Miller, wasn't the thing. He was writing about what happens when the American Dream, such as it is, eludes you.

But we live on the road. We know that it isn't the work, per se, that grinds us down. It's the road itself. The little indignities. The large insults. The endless grind that seems to get worse and more inhumane year after year. What if it's the road that demeans us and diminishes us and somehow, in some way, turns us into Willy Loman?

Miller wrote Willy as delusional, a bully, a shallow man of limited ability and understanding whose life, at its best, wouldn't ever amount to much. Willy Loman was not a bad man. Just a little man whose little life was destroyed by his delusions of grandeur and the realities of a Hastings refrigerator with a bad belt.

We business travelers are not little people. As I have always believed, we're too good and too smart for that. By definition, we have never been Willy Loman. As I've always said, the hard-dollar cost of a life on the road is too high for companies to send Willy Loman out there anymore. If we're out there, catching planes and hailing cabs and arranging late check-ins, it's because someone thinks that we're worth a fairly substantial investment of time and money.

Yet, somehow, especially these days, it's the road, the relentless first-flight-in, last-flight-back pressure, the endless insults of bad flights and bad hotels and just bad luck, that wears us down, makes us Willy Loman.

Who doesn't feel like Willy Loman when an airline stuffs us in a regional jet flight after flight after flight? Who doesn't feel like Willy Loman when an airline says we no longer rate even the gruel that once passed for an in-flight meal? Who doesn't feel like Willy Loman when some distracted, self-involved front-desk clerk thinks it's funny to give us the worst room in the hotel, the one near the noisy elevator and the clanking ice machine?

How many salads in a plastic box at the airport does it take to make even the best and brightest among us feel like Willy Loman? How many family birthdays and soccer games and Saturdays do we have to celebrate alone in a hotel room before we become as bitter and beaten as Willy Loman? How many hotel all-nighters with no printer and dial-up access does it take, finally, to make us feel little?

Tomorrow is another day and another flight. And the airline might lose your luggage. Again. Or deny you the free ticket you earned for that Hawaiian vacation that you've promised your family. Again. Or Hertz might change its mind and charge you $2.50 just for the privilege of making a car reservation. Again.

Somehow, just now, it just seems that tomorrow will be another day when living on the road will make us feel like Willy Loman after all.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.