Chapter 5

Chicago : 2004


Walter didn’t remember closing his eyes, but when he opened them, it was no longer nighttime. His watch said 7:07.

It was not just morning, it was the morning. The morning of the calls: Jack Jaffrey’s calls to the Midwestern managers and reps in the top fifty of the national rankings and senior VP of sales and marketing Eric Mulrhony’s calls to Fenniskrante’s top ten regional managers (and top ten sales reps) in the country.

Walter usually scheduled himself in the field on the morning—he did not want to be sitting at home waiting for a call that never came.

In fact, Walter had scheduled himself to be at Dr. Vallabhaneni’s office in Oglesby at eight-thirty to shadow his rep Stu Carroll. However, due to a startlingly uncharacteristic lack of sanity, Walter had let his late wife’s very persistent best friend Marisol sign him up for an over-fifty dating service called Silver Chances. The Silver Chances event that Walter had attended the night before (his first and last) in the ballroom of a hotel in Skokie had turned out to be the site of the biggest non-school norovirus outbreak in Chicago in a decade. So Walter had been holed up in his bathroom for the past ten hours with acute emesis and accelerated intestinal activity.

Walter stood up with a crunch and old-lady hobbled to the sink. He turned open the cold water and the resulting whoosh brought back the blurred-together memory of many, many flushes from the night before. He washed his face and brushed his teeth, making a mental note to buy a couple of new toothbrushes that afternoon: recontamination was not an option.

Walter went into his bedroom and called Stu.

“Sales, this is Stu,” Walter’s newest rep answered, sounding like he was having a “10” morning already. Stu always sounded like he was having a “10” of whatever he was having.

Heigh Stugh,” Walter said. He cleared his throat. “Hi, it’s Walter. I’ve caught this awful stomach flu, so I’m not going to be coming out to Oglesby with you today.”

“Oh, man, I’m sorry Walter,” Stu said. “Stomach flu? That sucks.”

“I’ll call you in a few days to reschedule. You doing donuts and lattés or what?”

“Bagels, lox, and cream cheese, New York style...” Stu said.

Walter’s stomach turned violently at the mention of smoked fish and spreadable dairy product. “Sounds good, Stu,” he said. “Tell everyone I say ‘hi.’” He started back to the bathroom.

“Will do.”

“Bye,” Walter said. He clicked a button that may or may not have been “Off,” tossed the phone towards the bed, ran into the bathroom, knelt down in front of the toilet, and vomited. He would not be having lox for a good long time now, that was for sure.

Stu Carroll, twenty-five, had been working as a sales rep for Fenniskrante for the past three years, but he was new to Walter’s team. Nine months ago, Stu had put in for a transfer from North Carolina to Chicago (apparently, his girlfriend was from the area and wanted to move back). Usually, if a rep at Stu’s level wanted to transfer, he got in the line for open spots and hoped to get lucky. In Stu’s case, however, senior management had seemed anxious to accommodate. A low-performing rep from Walter’s team had been moved quietly to Gary, Indiana; Walter had been asked to shift some things around; and a nice slice of west suburban Chicago had been offered to the whiz kid in North Carolina.

And Stu was good, there was no doubt about that. He had that way of talking to people that made you feel much more interesting and cool and important than you really were. “Rapport,” they called it in sales. Stu himself had claimed on one occasion that he could build rapport with anyone. It had been Walter’s second or third time shadowing him, and Walter had been having a difficult time convincing Stu of his need to keep abreast of financial news. There were an unusually high number of Asian doctors in Stu’s territory, and they all had a taste for a handy stock tip or two. It was a strategy that had worked well for the previous reps covering the same territory.

Stu, while acknowledging that this was a smart strategy, had said, “I’ve got some tricks that might surprise even you, Walter. Let me just finish the rest of the year out my way, since I transferred mid-year, and if it doesn’t work, I’m happy to do the stock thing next year.”

If Stu had counted on Walter’s need to prove himself right, then he had calculated well. Indeed, for the rest of the sales year, Walter had taken care not to counsel Stu on any but the most orthodox of Fenniskrante corporate protocol. Dr. Vallabhaneni, for instance, was a vegetarian—not so strict that he wouldn’t allow meat in his kitchen—but Walter would not as a matter of practice have let any of his other reps bring lox to a vegetarian doctor’s office. However, if Stu took Walter to number one, if his nice southern boy routine actually worked, he could bring Bambi on a barbecue spit to Dr. Vallabhaneni’s office for all Walter cared.

Walter went downstairs to the kitchen to make black tea for his stomach. What a way to spend the morning.

Other than, of course, the big milestones in Marin’s life (her sixteenth birthday, her graduations, etc.), the morning of the annual sales ranking calls used to be the time that Walter missed his late wife Jinny the most. These days (Walter had turned fifty-four in April), he tended to be envious of his married friends in a general way, for the prolonged continuity of their marriages. He would never know the fifty-year-old, the sixty-year-old, the seventy-year-old version of the button-nosed college girl who’d brought an entire barbecued lechon pig to his Toledo, Ohio host family’s July 4th potluck; the chemical engineer who’d run a thirty-person lab while eight months pregnant; the woman who’d organized twelve fellow passengers on their Alaskan cruise (a 15th anniversary present from Walter) to successfully lobby for salmon filleting lessons from the ship’s executive chef.

So, even if Walter could separate Silver Chances’ early evening deliverables from the many hours of vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness that had come later (he could not), Sandra the cute Taiwanese divorcée and Akiko the quirky half-Japanese woman with the gardening business couldn’t offer him what he truly craved: a continuing history.

Walter’s water was boiling, and he turned off the heat. He removed a tea bag from its tiny paper envelope, dropped it into a mug. He poured hot water on it, and the clean smell of the steeping leaves calmed his gut for now.

Walter was still acutely aware of the time. He had approximately two hours to kill. He had to maintain a maximum thirty-foot radius from one of the bathrooms in the house at all times, and yet somehow lose himself in some mindless but consuming task.

Walter decided to reorganize his sample closet. Two years had passed since the last reorganization. The system that he’d devised at the time had quickly turned out flawed—it had left way too much room for samples of Fenniskrante’s antihistamine, Otoclar, which had been cleared by the FDA for over-the-counter sale a year and a half ago, and not enough room for other drugs that the powers that be had decided to push unexpectedly, huge courier boxes of Identol, Betrufel, Oblion, and Asberix samples showing up on Walter’s doorstop every other week. So although he kept the closet looking tidy, there was no guiding principle to the locations of drugs.

First Walter pulled all of the boxes, bottles, and foil-backed sample packets out of the closet’s built-in shelves and wire baskets and sorted them on the floor: ENT (Otoclar, Respiatin, etc.) in the outer left corner; cardio (Identol and the blood pressure medications Angilexin and Angilexin HCT) in the outer middle section; gyn (plastic packs of the oral contraceptive Perpetua and boxes of the antifungal Petrazin) in the outer right; derm with its acne creams, steroid creams, and anti-scarring gels in the inner left; Betrufel and the popular sleeping pill Oblion in the inner middle; Walter’s handy stash of opiates and other pain and arthritis meds in the inner right; and finally digestive and liver drugs (Fenniskrante’s proton pump inhibitor Asberix, the aminosalicylate Calmicol, and others) tossed to the side in a pile.

Some of these drugs were nearly as old as Walter’s daughter (and Stu Carroll, for that matter).

Walter remembered Respiatin’s launch in 1985. Fenniskrante had rented out fifteen blocks of rooms just off the beach in San Diego. It had been a four-day event, starting with two days of presentations by doctors, R&D managers, a handful of finance guys, and some carefully-placed corporate brass, all hyping Respiatin until all in attendance had believed that it was nothing less than a miracle drug that would change the world forever. The next day the Respiatin sales materials had been rolled out. Bags of Respiatin samples and giveaway goodies, everything purple and branded with the Respiatin logo, had appeared on everyone’s doorstops in the morning. The new sales “detail” (the sales presentation to be delivered by Fenniskrante’s reps to doctors all over the country, as dictated point-by-point by the savants in Sales Development) had been disseminated—not only through the detail cards and detail books slipped into the reps’ bags: senior sales managers had also been overheard spouting key phrases and language from the detail throughout the rest of the weekend. And finally, on day four, the corporate chaperones had slipped off to Malibu for champagne and lobster, and a full day of poolside sales team debauchery had begun.

It had been the holy grail in Big Pharma for as long as anyone could remember: a non-penicillin antibiotic with a full antimicrobial spectrum, and Fenniskrante had one, FDA approval and all. Every single Fenniskrante sales rep at the Respiatin launch, including Walter, had left convinced that he was going to be a millionaire. However, back in the real world, the crux of their sales detail argument, 10% of your patients are allergic to penicillin, Respiatin is at least as effective as penicillin, if not better, most doctors had seemed to interpret as: prescribe Respiatin to my patients who are allergic to penicillin. Sales of Respiatin had ended up far below expectations that first year.

Slowly, once they’d retailored their message and expectations, Fenniskrante had started cutting a decent market share with the drug, although never quite overtaking GlaxoSmithKline’s Augmentin. However, Walter remembered more than one doctor’s or nurse’s eyes lighting up in the late eighties and early nineties when he walked in, rolling his Fenniskrante detail bag behind him. During that time, there had been only one thing that look could have meant: the office had been running low on Respiatin samples.

After Walter had been promoted to regional manager in 1994, things had started heating up on the ground. Facing the expiration of their final three Augmentin patents in 1998, the GSK sales team had gone on the offensive. Rumor (or Fenniskrante internal corporate propaganda) had it that GSK sales reps throughout the Southwest had been given free reign to break long-standing industry etiquette and make misleading aspersions about Respiatin by name. A collection of twenty-five Fenniskrante Midwest regional managers (including Walter) had congregated at the Door County lake house of then Midwest VP of sales Hank Miller to hash out a proper defense strategy.

Augmentin had to be taken twice a day for ten days, while Respiatin, because of certain chemical properties inherent in the drug, only had to be taken once a day for five days. Respiatin’s simplified dosage requirements had always been a core point of the sales detail, as patient compliance (and with it a decreased risk of contributing to the development of drug-resistant bacteria) was much more likely with Respiatin. The Door County crowd had decided to hone in on the dosage argument by having their reps highlight the results of a brand new study (Fenniskrante-sponsored, of course) that showed patient compliance for Respiatin at a staggering 99%. As for Augmentin, there had been no need to mention the product by name to doctors. One could just ask questions:

How long do you think that most of your patients keep taking their antibiotics?—Frankie the Fenniskrante sales rep would ask.

Dr. Slow-Adopter would frown and then answer honestly—until their infections clear.

So about three or four days then?—Frankie would ask.

Around four or five days—the good doctor would correct.

So about the time the standard Respiatin prescription ends, or, for other antibiotics, when they still have ten more doses left, is that correct?

This strategy had proved extravagantly effective, and Fenniskrante had grabbed eight more points of market share in 1995 and 1996, nudging Respiatin’s total sales past the $1 billion mark. Augmentin’s patents had expired in 1998, and generics had taken over. Hank Miller had sent boxes of generic brand amoxicillin/clavulanate to Walter and the other managers with a jokey victory note (“I Can’t Believe It’s Not Augmentin!” etc.) Walter had sent his entire Respiatin stash with Marin to college in the fall of 1998, so Walter had actually ended up taking Hank’s generics that winter to quash a bad cough that he couldn’t shake. Walter had taken all twenty doses of the amoxicillin (his own arguments about patient compliance and drug-resistant bacteria not being wasted on him). It had been the end of an era.

There were so many memories in this closet: the rep who had taken Otoclar at the beginning of a sales call to demonstrate the anti-histamine’s non-drowsy effects only to fall asleep in the driver’s seat of his car in that same doctor’s parking lot two hours later; the Perpetua launch in 1992 that all the male reps had dragged their wives to, terrified of all the awkward talk about women parts; the spontaneous parties that had sprung up all over the country when Identol had ascended to the number-one cholesterol drug spot in 1998 after a protracted battle with then-Warner-Lambert’s Lipitor; the insane Betrufel launch in 1993 that had resulted in twelve paintball-related emergency room visits (and not all the result of Fenniskrante’s sizeable U.S. veteran contingent reliving their glory days—sales people are just the most competitive people on the planet).

Launches these days were very different: high-tech and corporate and tame. Litigation-proof. Walter usually only went to the ones in Chicago nowadays. He’d attended a few in San Francisco when Marin had been going to college out there. The launch that he was attending in San Francisco in October would introduce a new neuropathic pain medication, Dipentra. The location of the launch was no accident: California was one of the states with a pharmaceutical sales regulation bill on the ballot in November.

Walter hadn’t told his reps this yet, but he planned to treat them all to dinner at Slanted Door the night before the launch party if their territory came in at number one this year. He must have been getting sentimental in his old age: he didn’t want to use dinner as extra incentive to fuel their sales; he wanted to surprise them, give them something just to give it to them.

Walter heard a mosquito behind his right ear.

Wrong house, buddy, he thought. You picked the wrong house to buzz into.

Walter slowly stretched out to grab an old tennis shoe from the near corner of the closet floor. He turned around and watched the bug drift toward the wall and land two inches above an electric socket.

The phone rang.

Walter swatted, missing his target somehow, and walked quickly to the phone. “UNAVAILABLE ID” flashed on the phone screen. It was a little too early for the call, but Walter picked up the cordless.

“This is Walter Choo,” he said.

“Hello, this is Ronnie from Satellite XTra & Company,” a woman said. “How are you this morning?”

“Not good, I caught the norovirus last night,” said Walter.

“Oh, okay, well...” said Ronnie.

“Norovirus is a vicious strain of stomach flu. It’s highly contagious, and its symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, and basically feeling that you are about to die.”

“That’s... I’m sorry,” said Ronnie.

There was a long pause. Never try to sell to the salesman, thought Walter.

The phone beeped with a call waiting. “E. Mulrhony” and a 312 number flashed on the base’s screen, and Walter pounded the desk with the fat outer end of his fist. Top ten overall! The odds that his reps would be eating Vietnamese food in San Francisco in July had just shot up to one in ten.

“That’s okay,” said Walter. “Some things happen for a reason. I’ve got another call, but thanks for your call Ronnie.”

“Well okay now, you have a nice day now.”

Walter hung up on Ronnie and picked up Eric Mulrhony’s call.

“This is Walter Choo,” he said.

“Hi, Walter. It’s Eric from Chicago, how are you doing this morning?”

“I’m doing alright, and yourself?”

“Not too bad, not too bad. Did you see the Cubs game Friday?” asked Eric.

“Not pretty,” said Walter. “They’ve got to get rid of Sosa. Corked bats? It’s embarrassing.”

“Well, these are the kinds of shenanigans that happen when a decent player thinks that he’s a champion.”

“Very true,” said Walter. “Very true.”

“So Walter, let me cut to the chase—235-C is thirteenth overall this year.” 235-C was Walter’s sales territory. “That’s pretty good. But you also have the number one sales rep in the country.”

“Stu’s number one?” said Walter. His face went numb.

“That’s right. We gave you Stu Carroll, and you somehow dropped five places in the national ranking since last year. Now, I don’t have to tell you that you are well liked on the thirtieth floor. You’re a consistent performer, and we like consistent. However... how do I say this exactly? Effort is not charm. Not in sales, at least. There are some who think that you can be a little overbearing on your reps. I know that your intentions are good, but... Good management is like getting a dog to go in for a bath. You can’t just pull him in there on his leash.”

Overbearing? Effort is not charm? A fistful of nausea rose up, not in Walter’s stomach this time, but behind, in between his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Eric continued, “but we’re having to be extra tough on everyone this year. I’m sure you’ve heard about the D.A.R.E. bills.”

D.A.R.E., as in Drug Abuse Resistance Education, the anti-drug program for grade-schoolers begun under the Reagan administration in the eighties. That was what people in Big Pharma were secretly calling the five state bills proposing garish restrictions on pharmaceutical sales methods and access points, including making it illegal for companies to access pharmacy prescription data for marketing purposes. It was a serious thing, but Walter didn’t see how it related to the condescending lecture he was being given. Shouldn’t effort count for more than charm? Did the conscious and deliberate crafting of a sales philosophy over twenty years of loyal service to a company just not count for anything anymore?

On the bathroom floor the previous night, Walter had considered in depth the problem of marketing a pharmaceutical treatment for a brief and self-limiting disease such as the norovirus. It would have to be marketed to the businesses and schools that were the likely sites of mass outbreak, he’d decided. Cruise ships, hotels, universities, hospitals, schools: these had the most at stake in limiting the scope and duration of an outbreak. These organizations would be the purchasers and dispensers of the product. If it were up to individuals to obtain the drugs on their own, many wouldn’t, and most probably shouldn’t, considering the risk of spreading the disease to their health care providers and other patients.

This had been a lot of effort on Walter’s part, thinking about all of this. Effort that could have been spent watching ESPN on the floor of his bedroom, or lying in the fetal position against the tub with a hot towel on his face. No, Walter had spent his brief breaks between vomiting thinking about how to solve hypothetical problems related to his job.

“Oh no,” he said on the phone to Eric now. “I understand.”

“Thanks for all of your hard work, Walter,” Eric said. “You’re a real team player.” And he hung up.

You’re a real team player. An insult disguised as a compliment. People who talked like that really thought that they were smart, didn’t they? Really thought that people didn’t know what they really meant.

And yet, Walter refused to be bitter. He had worked for Fenniskrante for nearly his entire adult life. He knew this company, and he knew with absolute certainty that the last thing that they wanted was for him to try to be Stu Carroll. Stu Carroll wasn’t a sales strategy. He wasn’t even a sales tactic. He was just a good-looking twenty-five-year-old kid who sold a lot of drugs.

Walter walked back to the sample closet. Its contents were still strewn on the floor. Too many drugs, he thought. Possibly the first time in his life that he’d had that thought. It sounded almost radical after twenty years of boostering the exact opposite sentiment, but Walter knew that it wasn’t.

The mosquito, cocky with its earlier escape, buzzed small and close at the left of Walter’s left eye. Walter swatted at it, and the winged black speck hovered in slow motion in front of his face.

Walter waited. The black speck floated a few inches away and back again.

With a single forceful motion Walter clapped his hands together on the bug, and he knew with absolute certainty that it was dead.