Like the town, the campus was a lot quieter than I would have expected at this pre-registration time. There were some students walking around, and a few cars on the streets, but nothing like the swarms that usually filled the streets at this time of year.
When we reached the Statler, Beau was able to get a room with no difficulty. He went to the car and got their luggage, and a bellhop brought it inside and took it to their room. They were on the first floor again - and without reservations, this time.
I led the way down the hill, and we parked on Aurora Street, at the east end of the Commons. As we got out of our cars, Beau noticed a Chinese restaurant. "Hey, guys, we were in such a rush to get things together that we didn't have any lunch. Becca, could you deal with Chinese for lunch?"
"Any time!" She grinned at Gregg and me. "I love Chinese food. Is it good here?"
"I really can't say. I've never been to this restaurant, but it always looks busy when I go by."
"That's recommendation enough for me. I'm starving!" She grabbed Beau's arm. "Let's go!" We followed them into the restaurant. Since it was about midway between the lunch and dinner hours, the buffet was not set up, but they had an interesting looking menu. A waitress showed us to our table, and we sat down. The waitress brought four cups and a teapot. Then she brought menus and put them in front of us and walked away.
I looked across the table at Gregg with a question on my face. He just smiled and shrugged. I turned to Beau. "We had lunch earlier, but if it's OK with you, we can talk while you're eating. I had an idea I'd like to run by you, for your opinion."
"Sounds good to me. Just don't get between me and my lunch, or you're likely to get bitten." He grinned. While he and Becca were deciding what they wanted to eat, Gregg and I just sat and sipped the tea, a very nice Oolong.
The waitress came over and took their orders. When she had gone back to the kitchen, Beau turned to me. "Well, what's this idea you have?"
"Well, Beau, it helps to be a native of this town. I know something about the local history, and there was a situation about twenty years ago that gave me an idea about what we might do, to get Ithaca back on its feet, and to drum up a little business for the Benson consulting firm."
"You've got my attention! What have you got in mind?"
I told him briefly about the investment scandal and how the courts had helped the investors who had lost all their money by turning all the real property over to the committee. I could see his interest growing, as he saw the possibilities emerging. I knew that Beau's mind worked a lot faster than most people's minds, but it still surprised me when he asked, "So, how can we get in touch with the Business Owners' Association to set up a meeting with their board of directors?"
"I got the name of their president from one of the articles in the Journal. I can look her up in the phone book. I'll talk to her, or you can talk to her, and see if we can set up a meeting."
"I think, since you're our local representative, that you should set up the meeting." He looked over at Becca, who nodded and smiled. "We'll be there, of course, to back you up and field any questions that you're not ready yet to answer. How does that sound?"
"It's fine with me. I'm brand new at this, so I really appreciate any help you can give me."
Beau paused for a second or two, then continued. "Once we get the board of directors behind us, you can approach the individual business owners and offer our services to get them back in business as quickly and efficiently as possible."
I just looked at him. "Beau, I knew some things about you, and I've heard some things about you, but nobody ever mentioned that you're a mind reader!" He grinned, and Becca and Gregg laughed. Becca spoke up.
"He does give that impression, doesn't he? I can tell you, though, from my own sad experience, that you never get used to it!" She smiled lovingly at Beau, who just grinned again.
Their dinners arrived, and the conversation turned to what was going on in Fremont. It was a very pleasant half hour or so. When they finished, Beau paid the check and we went outside. He looked around. "Oh, there's Madeline's restaurant. We're not far from your store, are we, Gregg?"
"No, it's just down the block."
"Do you have your key with you?"
Gregg blushed. "I always have it with me. It means a lot to me."
We crossed the street and started down the Commons toward Gregg's store. Becca let out a little gasp of surprise. "There's nobody on the Commons, and all the stores have "Closed temporarily" signs on their doors. This is so sad!"
Beau's face set in firm determination. "Yes, and we're going to have to change that." We walked the rest of the way to the store in silence. When we got there, Gregg fished out his keys and opened the front door.
We closed and locked the door and just stood in the middle of the empty store, looking around. From the look on Gregg's face, I was sure that he was already seeing shelves of toys and kids looking at everything with wide eyes. I caught his eye, and we both smiled. It was as if he knew I was seeing his vision of what could be.
We went into the back area, and Beau noticed something none of us had seen before, a door in one side wall. Beau walked over and opened it. There was a dark stairway leading down. "Hey, you've got a basement here. Wonder if the lights are on." He flipped the switch by the door, and the stairway lighted up. "We should take a look at this." We followed him down the stairs to the basement.
It was a large area, obviously under the entire building. There was nothing special to see, plumbing running along the ceiling, a big gas furnace in the corner, and lots of open space. Beau grinned. "Well, you won't have to worry about storage space, at least." Gregg nodded, and we turned and went back up the steps.
We went over to the elevator. It really was small. Gregg looked at Becca. "Do you want to make two trips, or can we all squeeze in?" She giggled. Beau snorted. "Hell, we're all grownups, and we're all friends! Why make two trips?" We squeezed into the elevator and pushed the button. The extra weight made the motor strain a little, and the car shuddered once or twice, but it got us to the third floor. We got out and looked around. Beau turned to Gregg. "Have you made any plans on how you want to remodel this floor? This hall is dark, and you really don't want to have to leave lights on day and night."
"No, I was thinking of taking this front wall out altogether, so that the hall and kitchen would get light from the front windows. I thought I'd tile the hall from the elevator to the far wall, and put the kitchen at that end, opening into the living room. The living room is big enough so that I can use the end by the kitchen as a dining area, and still have a huge living room."
Becca nodded. "That sounds like a good idea. Let the floor covering define the areas. And it will be easier to maintain, too."
"That was my idea," said Gregg. "I wanted a condo, because I didn't want a lot of yard work. I don't want a lot of housework, either. The simpler, the better!"
"Hey, do you want to come and redesign my house for me?" She giggled, as she turned to Beau. "Why don't you have good ideas like his?"
"I do. You just never asked what I thought." He grinned, and she punched him lightly in the arm.
"I thought I'd leave the back wall pretty much in place, except where we put in the stairway to the roof. The bathroom will back up on the kitchen, to make plumbing easier, and I'd like it about the same size. That way, I'd have room to put in a hot tub, to ease sore, aching muscles." So I'll have a bedroom about the size of the living room. I like big, spacious rooms."
"I love it already," Becca smiled, as she gave Gregg a quick kiss on the cheek. Too bad you're opening a toy shop; you have a great future as a home designer!"
Gregg grinned and blushed. "I don't think so. I've had my fill of the big business world. I think I'd like to spend my declining years playing with kids in the store, instead of worrying about all the contractors and stuff."
"Speaking of contractors, have you found one yet?" Beau asked.
"Hey, give 'em a break, hon! They just got back in town," Becca reminded him.
"I know, but I thought maybe Harley would know someone they could get to do the work."
I glanced at Gregg, wondering if he had noticed the frequent use of "they" in Beau's and Becca's conversation. Did they know something, or at least suspect something? Or was it just an accidental sort of thing? Were they, maybe, seeing something that Grant had seen before, something that Gregg and I were just discovering? He didn't seem to notice the word in their conversation, or maybe he was just ignoring it. Whatever the case might be, I wasn't going to say or do anything to upset the delicate net of feelings that seemed to be growing between us. I was determined to hold onto it and let it grow, if it would. And, oh, how I hoped and prayed that it would grow.
We finished our tour and took the creaky elevator back down to the store level. Beau had been looking around as we took our tour, and he turned to Gregg now. "I think you've got yourself a winner here, Buddy. Since the boys won't be needing the second floor apartments, you can rent them out, and that will bring in a little extra cash." He turned to me.
"Harley, we need to get on this thing with the Business Owners' Association, and get that moving. And I'd like to talk to Kate Dolan, to see what her plans are. The sooner we can get your office set up in the house there, the sooner we're in business. From what you told me at lunch, I think we may have a thriving business here in Ithaca. You're going to be a busy boy! We may have to look into setting up more office space in the house and getting you some help."
I almost staggered. I knew that Beau had a habit of thinking and planning ahead, but this was more than I could take in. Did he really see our business expanding that much? And could I handle it, if he was right? I was getting distinctly nervous at this point.
Becca apparently realized what I was thinking, and smiled at me. "Don't worry, Harley! He's always like this. But we have full confidence in you, and we'll be there for you, if you need any help - any time!"
Beau turned to Becca. "I think we ought to consider bringing in David and Aaron from the Detroit office to help get this set up, don't you? They're young, but they're really sharp, and they can give Harley a hand getting things going. They'd only need to be here a week or two, I imagine."
"That's a good idea, dear. Detroit's a little slow right now, and those two are really top notch. As soon as we find out what's going to happen here, we can contact them and see if they'll be willing to come to help Harley get things set up."
Beau grabbed me gently by the arm. "Well, let's get going, man. We've got places to go, things to do, people to see." We left the store and walked back up the Commons to Aurora Street, where our cars were parked. When we got to the cars, Beau arranged to follow me to my house, and we could start calling to try to set up a meeting with the Business Owners' Association.
When we reached my house, I pulled into the driveway, and Beau pulled into the next driveway down the street, turned around and parked at the curb in front of the house. I noticed that he was in the same spot where the State Police had been sitting, but I decided not to mention this to Gregg. He still seemed to be upset by that whole situation.
We went in, and Gregg went immediately to the kitchen to put on coffee. I got Beau and Becca seated comfortably in the living room and hunted up my telephone directory. We were in luck! The Association had a telephone listing. I wrote down the number on the slip of paper where I had jotted the name of the president of the Association. I grinned at the two seated across from me and dialed the number.
A very pleasant young female voice answered the call. "Downtown Business Owners' Association. How may I help you?"
I glanced quickly at the slip of paper in my hand. "Is Ms. Bittner available?"
"Yes, just a moment, please. May I tell her who is calling?"
"Thank you, Mr. Gordon. Just one moment."
I heard the inter-office phone ring twice, and a more mature woman's voice spoke. "This is Marcia Bittner. How may I help you?"
"Good afternoon, Ms. Bittner. My name is Harley Gordon. I am the local representative for the Benson consulting firm of Fremont, Nebraska. I've been reading in the Journal what's happening, and I have to tell you I'm really upset by all this."
"It's a real mess, Mr. Gordon. We're all in shock here. I just don't know where to start, to try to get things back to normal - if that's possible!" Her voice sounded as if she were on the edge of tears. I spoke up quickly.
"That's why I'm calling, ma'am. I'm a native Ithacan, and we just got back from a trip to Nebraska and walked into this! It's like being hit between the eyes with a rock!"
"Well, if you're a native, you can certainly understand how we're all feeling right now. It's like someone dropped a bomb on Center Ithaca!"
"Ms. Bittner, are you a native here, or did you come from somewhere else?"
"My husband is a professor at Cornell, and we moved here from Illinois about fifteen years ago."
"Then, maybe you don't know about the big scandal that happened here. It was about twenty years ago, and it really rocked the town for a while."
"No, I haven't heard of anything like that!"
"Well, that's what gave me the idea to try to help, if I can, to get the Commons back on its feet. I'm assuming that you do have a board of directors for the Association?"
"Yes, of course. Why do you ask?"
"My employers, Mr. and Mrs. Benson are here in town for a couple of days. I called and told them what was happening, and they flew in to see if there was anything they might be able to do to help. Mr. Benson would like to speak to the directors, to offer some suggestions that might help. Would you be able to call a meeting so that we could get together and talk the situation over?"
"I can have them here in the office this evening. We're all just frantic, and I'm sure they'll be willing to listen to any and all ideas!"
"That would be great! What time did you want to meet?"
"How about 7:30, here in the Association office? You know where that is?"
"The address was in the phone book. You're right over the book store on the Commons, where the Workers' Rights office is, aren't you?"
That's right. We'll plan to meet with you at 7:30, and thank you so much for taking an interest in our problem."
"It's everyone's problem, ma'am. If the Commons dies, downtown Ithaca is dead. There will be nothing left but a ring of shopping malls around the corpse."
"You are so right about that! Thank you again for calling, Mr. Gordon, and I'll look forward to meeting you this evening." She hung up.
I turned to Beau and Becca. "Well, we've got a meeting with the board of directors this evening at 7:30. Their office is right here on the Commons, just a little way down and across from Gregg's building."
We spent what was left of the afternoon discussing how we might approach the board of directors. Beau asked me to go over the details of the previous scandal, so that he had a clear picture of what happened in that situation. Becca didn't say much during our conversation, but she was paying close attention. Gregg looked a little confused, but he had a big stake in all this, so he practically hung on every word.
About 6:00, Beau stood up. "I don't know about anyone else, but I could use a little supper. And you know what sounds good to me? I'm still tasting and smelling that steak I had at that diner where we ate when we first came here. If no one objects, I'd kind of like to go back there."
Becca brightened. "Yeah, and those pork chops were perfect! I could go for some more of those."
Gregg just looked at me and grinned. I could already hear another order of meat loaf. We took our cups back to the kitchen, locked up the house and headed for the State Diner. Since it was just the four of us, Beau suggested that we ride together in his rental car. Gregg and I sat together in the back seat.
As we drove down the street, both Beau and Becca remarked on how quiet the town seemed, how little traffic there was on the streets. Gregg spoke up. "Wait until you see the diner! You remember how busy it was, late in the evening, when we first arrived? It's anything but that, now." Becca just sighed and shook her head.
The street in front of the diner was almost empty when we arrived. Beau parked near the diner, and we all got out and went in. As we looked around, there were only a few people there. Beau looked at me. "I can't believe this. Is it like this all over town?"
"You've seen the Commons, and this is pretty much what the rest of the town is like now."
He just shook his head. I could see emotions passing like clouds over his face, before that determined look settled back. Beau was ready for a fight, and somehow I was glad that I was on his side in this one. I don't think I would like to stand up against him when he's in this kind of mood.
We finished our dinner and drove back up to the Commons. Beau found a place to park, with no difficulty. We walked around the lower end of the Commons, which Beau and Becca had not seen earlier. It was the same, sad and depressing. Beau looked at his watch.
"It's about twenty after seven. Where is this place we're going for the meeting?"
I pointed to a store just up the Commons from where we were standing. "It's upstairs in that building."
"Well, then, let's go. Harley, I know you're going to do a great job of convincing these people to do what they need to do to get this town back on its feet. We're here, if you need us, but it's your show. You're the local rep, and they need to know you."
Becca smiled and patted my arm. "Just tell it to them the way you told it to us this afternoon. They can't help but see the wisdom of the plan you suggested."
I was nervous, but somehow having these two people beside me and Gregg behind me made me feel a lot better. We walked up the Commons to the store, and I took them through a side door at the entrance. We climbed the stairs and were met at the top by a very chic woman, probably in her late forties or early fifties. She would have been very attractive, except for the lines of tension on her forehead and around her mouth and the worried look in her eyes.
"Hi, I'm Marcia Bittner. And which of you gentlemen is Mr. Gordon?"
"I'm Harley Gordon, Ms. Bittner. These two lovely people are Beau and Becca Benson, from Fremont, Nebraska, and the gentleman hiding behind us is Gregg Garrison, who just bought a building on the Commons and is afraid he's going to lose his investment."
"Well, come on in and meet the board of directors. They're anxious to hear what you have to say. We've been going crazy, trying to find a solution to this mess, and, so far, we've come up empty-handed. We're willing to listen to any ideas that might help."
She led us into a large room with a big conference table in the middle. There were eight people seated at the table, four men and four women. As we walked in, the men stood up to greet us. Marcia Bittner introduced us to them, then went around the table, introducing each of the board members. I just knew that I wouldn't remember a single name, and I prayed that it wouldn't matter.
Ms. Bittner waved us to seats at what seemed to be the head of the table and sat down next to one of the women on the side. "The floor's all yours, folks. You've got a captive, and very eager, audience."
I took a deep breath and stood up. "Hi, I'm Harley Gordon. I'm a native Ithacan, so what's happening here hits me way down deep. I've been talking with my friends, the Bensons, here, and they flew in from Nebraska to offer their help. So, let's see what we can do to save downtown Ithaca."
Well, I certainly hope something can be done to improve the situation in town there. Knowing Beau and Becca, especially Beau, I somehow am certain that something can be done.
I am also very pleased to see the progress that is going on between Gregg and Harley. I really do think they are meant for each other. Everyone seems to see it but them. Of course they are each hoping the other one cares as much about them as they care about the other, but they are both too afraid to make the first move, so to speak. Let's all hope they can somehow find the courage to try.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher
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