Today I decided to attempt something a little more narrative-ey based on a real experience. Feedback is welcome!
I was sitting alone at a table in a campus cafe yesterday, trying to actually get some work done after a long week of procrastination. It was afternoon, and the cafe was completely full, save the two unoccupied chairs at my table. I was just starting to get into my book on race and power in WWII when two well-dressed older gentlemen approached me.
“Can we old fogies sit here? We just need a place to eat lunch; we don’t want to interrupt you.”
“Sure, of course. It’s all yours.”
They sat down and pulled their lunches out of a plastic “Thank You” bag. I tried to go back to my reading, but one of the men began asking me questions about school; what year was I, what school was I in, did Wharton only have an MBA program until recently (his “recently” being forty years ago, he admitted, laughing). I answered, then asked them about their reasons for visiting Penn.
“We’re back visiting,” the quieter man said. “We graduated from here fifty years ago.”
The other man nodded as he wiped crumbs of falafel from his face. “Things have changed an awful lot here. This building wasn’t even here when we were here.” He looked around wistfully, then back at me.
“So you say you’re into business, huh?”
“Everything is a marketplace. Do you realize that? Your church group, your university, they’re all marketplaces. People are having transactions and exchanging goods. Even your stomach is a marketplace for bacteria, and a marsh is a marketplace for birds and bees and bacteria.”
I nodded, unsure of how to respond. “That’s very true.”
“It’s all infrastructure,” he continued. “Infrastructure can be hard, like this building itself.” He stomped on the floor. “Or it can be soft, like a network of people. What is medium infrastructure then? Why, it’s this building plus the institution itself.”
The quieter man remained quiet. I again nodded. “That makes sense.”
“The purpose of marketplaces is to trade, interact, cooperate, compete, and share. You realize everything is a competition, right? You try to start a church group, and you claim that you don’t want any competition among the members? Sorry to say, that’s not going to happen. There is always competition.”
I tried to make myself relevant to the conversation. “Exactly. I learned in Management that you have to learn how to harness competition to get results. You can’t eliminate it.”
The talkative man smiled. “Yes, exactly! I’m just trying to make this relevant to your economic mind.”
I didn’t know what that meant, but I nodded and smiled.
Talkative Man resumed conversation with Quiet Man, and for a few moments I fell back into my book, highlighting over the highlights someone had already made in my worn history book.
Finally, Quiet Man said he had to catch his train back to New York. He picked up his briefcase. “It was nice to meet you,” he said. Awkwardly realizing we had not been introduced, I held out my hand. “Taylor,” I said. I can’t remember if he gave me his name in response. He exchanged a hearty hug with Talkative Man and left.
Talkative Man turned back to me. He began talking about Jewish Nobel Peace Prize winners, then about the government of his home country. He pulled out a book he published about his national government and how it works and began showing me the pages.
He kept interrupting himself with “I’ll quit lecturing you now,” and then continued to lecture. About twenty minutes later, he had concluded his speech on the problems with Economics as logic-driven, not research-driven, and he put the book back into his bag.
“It was lovely meeting you, Taylor.”
“And you too,” I said. He pulled out a business card and handed it to me. “Shoot me an email if you ever want me to send you more about the marketplace.”
I chuckled and tucked the business card into my book. “I’ll do that.”
He stood up and grabbed his bag, then smiled at me. “So, what is the marketplace for again?” He waited for the answer.
I hadn’t realized I would be tested. “Um, sharing, trading, cooperating…”
“Yes! Don’t forget competing and interacting.”
“I won’t!” I was unsure when I’d ever need this knowledge again in such terms, but it was a promise he wanted to hear.
“You’re a smart woman, Taylor. Good luck in your endeavors.”
And with that, Talkative Man walked away.
I sat there, confused by how an hour of homework had just turned into an hour of conversation with two random alum. I had heard college was great for alumni networking, for gaining connections. As I looked down at the business card, stuck between two yellowed pages of my book, I wasn’t sure what kind of connection I’d just made, but I’d gained something – after all, everything is a marketplace.