No matter where you go, there you are
- Buckaroo Banzai
Back at the offices of The Lightweight Group, Bulstrode and Tré sat down to kick off Tre’s primary project. Tré was charged with the task of putting all Bulstrode's properties under the same branded umbrella. He was to form and implement a strategy to make sure that every Lightweight store would be immediately recognizable as such.
Tré began the meeting by requesting a little history. "It'd probably help me put the strategy in place if you could tell me how you got started.”
“Well," said Bulstrode, "back in the 60’s, I worked as a bartender and part-time manager at The March, where my daughter now works. After a bit, I came into a little money, which I added to what I’d scrimped and saved, and managed to buy the place outright.”
“Built it from the ground up, huh?” said Tré.
“Indeed,” Bulstrode went on. “The March did well under my ownership. I trimmed some fat, cleaned up operations, made sure the staff minded their p’s and q’s, and within a couple of years, I’d put together enough cash to buy my next bar, Scottie’s, which is around the corner from The March. I incorporated into Lightweight Group Enterprises and then did to Scottie’s what I’d done to The March. Within a year, I had enough capital to buy my third place, The Exit Inn. With earnings from that, blah blah blah bought some bars blah blah blah I’m a great businessman blah blah blah.”
I may have editorialized at bit at the end there. Between you and me, Bulstrode is doing his own fair share of editing the story about how he came across the funds to realize his march to success.
“How’d you end up with a name like ‘Lightweight Group,’” asked Tré, taking notes. “Does the name have some significance that I can consider?”
“Oh,” said Bulstrode distantly. “In my youth, I was a boxer. When I started working at The March, there were some who thought the double entendre was amusing. I never did. But I was inclined to the name when I founded the corporate entity nevertheless.
“Do you want me to incorporate a boxing theme into the rebrand?” asked Tré.
“No,” said Bulstrode. “Boxing is not important in this phase of my life.”
“How about this then,” said Tré. “I’ll get started by visiting all your bars and restaurants to see if some kind of organic cohesion springs up. If there’s anything in particular you’d like me to focus on, though, you’ll let me know?”
“You bring me ideas,” said Bulstrode curtly. “And I’ll tell you if I like them or not. I hired you because you said you had good ideas and I believed you. If you don’t, then I’ll just have to find someone else. All I care about is that everyone recognizes all my stores as part of the same group and that that group is sophisticated and successful.”
Bulstrode bent down to his own work indicating that Tré should leave him. So Tré went back to the tiny office designated as his workspace and got down to work. And work Tré did. He went through each store, file-by-file, examined menus and sales figures, locations and staff make-ups. He immersed himself in the minutia of the Lightweight Group, trying to find the thread that linked them all together.
He didn’t waste any time wondering why Bulstrode was so keen on this project. So while he’s working away, let’s you and I examine the roots of the rebrand and Bulstrode’s M.O. at large.
From the very moment he’d first conceived of this business almost 30 years prior, Bulstrode had known exactly what he wanted: importance; legitimacy, gravitas. He wanted to matter. He wanted people to know who he was. By branding all these businesses the same way, everyone walking the streets of Chicago would know of his wealth and success. They would envy and admire him as they walked past a bar on State Street or a restaurant in Edgewater.
He worried, though, about the inescapable tawdriness of selling liquor in dark rooms. And so as he put Tré to work on the unifying, local fame inducing re-brand, Bulstrode himself was working hard to pre-empt impressions of tawdriness with expressions of godliness. He was actively courting a position as an elder at his church, a beautiful and respectable downtown Presbyterian church.
Bulstrode and Susan had married there back in 1966. Her parents had been regular parishioners and, since the wedding, he and Susan had been as well. No matter how late his Saturday night (and in his line of work, they could get pretty late), he turned up for services every Sunday. Perhaps at the beginning, maybe on that sunny summer afternoon in 1966 when Susan became his wife, he’d been genuinely moved by the power God's love. Maybe he’d felt honestly drawn to Christ's redemptive light. Maybe, as a younger man, Bulstrode had wanted to cleanse himself of some sins.
But these days, there is no resonating piety in Bulstrode’s churchiness. Bulstrode is focused with laser-like precision on perception and reputation above all. The rebrand would mark him as successful; the position on the board would mark him as respectable. He would, almost 30 years after kicking off this march to success, be there.
We spend a great deal of our lives trying to get there, don’t we? But, of course, there is no there. The business of living a successful life, of finding security and fulfillment and joy, is a constant struggle and there’s only one end to the struggle. As the saying goes, there’s no getting out of life alive. It’s an overwhelming fact, a scary one; one that’s prone to grip us in the middle of the night: it never really stops.
We never get there.
But we can console ourselves with this: what thing worth doing is done easily? What thing worth having is had easily? It’s the doing, the striving, and the trying that gives us meaning and provides context. How satisfying would it be to be only satisfied? Seeking and striving is the stuff of life.
Bulstrode has sought and striven, clawed and battled his way away from what he perceives as his dim, insignificant past into a respectable, substantial present. Bulstrode expects his obituary to be run on the front page of the Tribune Metro section. That’s his there. His obituary will begin, “James Bulstrode, business owner, civic leader, elder at 4th Presbyterian…” And he would do what it takes to make that obituary happen.
Pity. For all his success and savvy, Bulstrode doesn't understand that he won’t be around to read it.