His eyes scan the food court, taking in the waddling personages around him, alert and wary. A man, ten feet away, is talking to his child, explaining why he can not purchase a video game for the young one. A mother, not too far away, doting lovingly over her baby which is somewhere between six months to a year old and happily drooling strained carrots onto his bib. A couple of kids across the way are holding hands and looking excitedly around themselves, wondering, no doubt, if they will be seen in such a state by their peers and also probably wondering if they can get away with sneaking around the corner outside for a short smooch-fest. Everyday people doing everyday things in an everyday shopping mecca. He has come to hate these places over the years, too much exposure to them causing something ugly to occur in his intestinal tract, but he sometimes comes out here to see what's new and different.

A shopping mall, he thinks, is a bit like life in general: the more things change, the more they stay the same. He hates that. Cliches. They grate on his nerves. And Pine Oaks Mall is nothing if not one continuous string of cliches, like every other American mall. Jeff despises them. And his personal distaste for cliches, as fate would have it, is one of the things that earns him major valuta. It's his private cross to bear that inspires him to make such a good living. His entire income is garnered from the selection or even the development of the newest cliches on the block- cliches of the marketing and commercial variety are his stock in trade. Shoes, gadgets and on-the-go items of convenience are his specialty, figuring out which things have the biggest market potential. His clients, companies like Reebok, The Shaper Image and GE, pay him exorbitant amounts of money to report back to them with the newest ideas of cutting-edge marketing, insights to what The Public likes best and most.

He spots trends within the market, designed or accidental motifs that myseriously crop up out of thin air, by immersing himself into the world's biggest sub-culture: the poly-glut consumerist niche. In the early days, the 1970's or late 1980's, he might have found his career as an all-purpose inventor-type, an Idea Man. These days, however, his unique skills and talents are best pointed at just the ideas, leaving the actual design and legwork to those better suited for it. But that doesn't quite have the ring of truth for what he does, not really. Rather than simply coming up with ideas, he notices fashions and fads, keeps a watchful eye out for where they might be headed. When he sees something truly unique and interesting he doesn't stop to ask where it came from. He simply notes it down, either on a pad of paper or mentally, and then calls up a client with what he likes to call A Hot Tip.

It's like this: a client will call him up and say, perhaps, "We want to start a market in a totally new shoe design. Go out there and find what's missing from the market now. Tell us what they want."

Then Jeff goes out and does just that. Sometimes quickly, sometimes it seems to take forever.

About ten years ago he was given just such an "order" from Nike. He spent twelve weeks walking all over Creation and back, looking for anything that might give him a clue, his eyes cast ever downward at people's feet. Came up with nothing. One night, while on his way to an L-Train in Chicago, he was walking behind a young kid who was wearing some tennis shoes. It was rather dark. The shoes had this white stripe on the back heel. The light from a street lamp sort of reflected off the white stripe for a fraction of a second, giving it the appearance of having a light inside the heel of the shoe. Immediately Jeff's mind free-associated with all kinds of things- The Borg, Radio Shack, shoe lamps (situated in the front, which was tried once in the sixties and failed miserably on the market) and basketball. His mind burbled and churned softly until the mental image of street kids playing basketball at night, their sneakers blinking with tiny white lights every time they jumped, blossomed into full being. The idea hit him like a bolt of lightning. He called Nike the next day. They sent him a check for two hundred thousand dollars a week later. Made six hundred times that amount in sales. The fad was short-lived, as Jeff had expected, but it was lucrative and bought him a new car, among other things.

And that's what Jeff Montgomery does- he hunts down ideas. Some of them are his own, most of them belong to some nameless person who hadn't realized what they were doing at the time. Sometimes he's just reinventing the wheel. As long as "his" ideas keep making money for his clients, he doesn't care.

He got into the business totally by accident, back in college. A friend of his, who had gotten his degree some two years earlier and had started up a small company, was bitching about how to market their new product, a common household item. The problem was product placement- where do they sell the damn thing? Jeff wasn't being asked to solve the riddle or even to think about it, but it presented an interesting puzzle to him, so he kept it on the back burner for a few days, thinking about it in between classes. While exchanging some food stamps for cash at a local grocery store (a common college pasttime for him and his friends), he noticed a similar product in the checkout line. Most of the packages were dusty, a clear indicator that it hadn't been touched in weeks, perhaps months. The item wasn't especially useless, but it wasn't packaged in a way that was very appealing, either. Drab. Depressing colors. Blocky lettering. It was a turn-off just to look at the package, nevermind inspect the product. Jeff saw his friend a week later and mentioned it. His friend stopped cold and his eyes got big, the way they do when a person sees a ghost for the first time. Apparently no one had bothered to tell housewares wholesalers that packaging is a major thing to most consumers. His friend's product was distrubuted six months later, placed right next to the drab turn-off competitor's item in the checkout lane, but it had bright, zesty, sexy packaging- and it was practically flying off the shelves.

His friend told some fellow marketing buddies about Jeff's amazing insight, on a lark, at a dinner party of some sort, without bothering to tell Jeff that he would do this. Jeff suddenly found himself getting calls from a pizza delivery chain's marketing department, asking for ideas. The rest kind of progressed from there and he never really knew what all the buzz was about. But as long as the checks and phone calls and requests kept coming, he wasn't about to complain.

He quit college a year later, got a secretary and went into private business for himself, as a "Cool Hunter." The term was somewhat hokie, but it seemed to fit. Companies hired people to find bright, innovative new employees for them- head-hunters. Why couldn't they do the same for their marketing issues, find people to seek out that which is cool? No reason. Jeff was in business, most of it word-of-mouth (the best sort of advertising). And it just grew and grew. He started to get tired of it, had a lot of money socked away- close to a million dollars. He tried to get everyone off his back by raising his fees sky-high. That seemed to draw them to him even more, even started a few bidding wars between competitors to see who could get the upper hand by hiring him first. Madness.

Jeff Montgomery used to love shopping, hanging out in malls. It was, to him, like the adult version of going to the playground. Window shopping was one of his favorite pasttimes, looking into the displays or browsing the shelves for "nifty shit" wherever he could find it. He rarely bought the stuff, but he liked looking for it, talking about it with his friends. Over the years, though, it began to get sickening to him. It was no longer fun; it was his job. The thing he did to bring in dough. He once likened it to sex, for a prostitute. "Those ladies, when they were younger, probably were chomping at the bit to have sex as much as possible," he said to a friend, "like most kids. Then, due to whatever circumstances in their lives, they found that they could make good money having sex for a fee. What they sold out wasn't themselves; they sold out their love of sex. And that's what cheap really means. What I do? That's about as fucking cheap as it gets. And it's the most expensive game in town."

Jeff wasn't whoring out his skills, he realized. He was whoring out his love of consumerism and, in doing so, came to see just how shallow and stupid it really is. Now he does it out of habit, more than anything. He's too old, now, to think about getting a "normal" job, isn't cut from that cloth anymore. He's been softened and worn down to the point to where anything requiring hard physical labor is just... repugnant to him. So he's stuck with it, as much as he hates it.

Sad thing is that, unlike actual whoring, his profession doesn't really have a quantifiable stopping-point. Whores stop whoring when they're no longer desireable or too old to attract anyone. Things will continue to be cool indefinitely. People will still be on the look-out for that carrot, wanting to chase it even though it's being dangled four feet in front of them, never to be truly had, because it goes wherever they go. Until Jeff finally stops finding the cool stuff, he will most likely stay in this line of work.

The travel is nice, though. He's seen all kinds of places that people wouldn't normally see. Tibet. China. Japan. Russia. France. England. Germany. He sees those places on an almost yearly basis, practically knows the roads of Paris like the back of his hand- wishes he didn't anymore. Even the travel has become a sort of cliche. It's rare that a client puts him in business class, but on the odd chance that it happens, he actually finds that more entertaining than being in First Class with all the sushi-eating fuckwads he's come to despise more than even the greater consumerist markets, the bio-mass.

He doesn't buy things anymore, either. Not in the classical sense, anyway. He simply tells his secretary what he needs and leaves it up to her to go out and find what he wants; she has his credit card numbers, knows them by heart, probably. A new suit. A DVD-ROM. A new car. Airplane tickets. Brand names have ceased to have any real signifcance to him since 1996, when things really started to take off for him. As long as whatever product Carrie finds for him works, he could care less where it came from or who made it. His loyalties, at this point, are strictly to his own comfort, brand-name loyalty be damned.

Down the hallway to the left is a man, walking briskly. He has the look of someone who isn't really in a hurry, but someone who would rather not be in the mall for any longer than is absolutely necessary. He's got a bag with him, something in it from Dillards, if the name on the bag is to be believed. Instead of carrying the bag at his side, like most people, he has it slung over his shoulder, the handle straps stretched purposefully so that his hand holding it doesn't have to sit so high on his shoulder, relaxed, gently gripping the straps. Jeff looks at this and a mental image begins to form, as so often it does. He imagines the bag had been designed that way, so as to maximize the shopper's comfort by allowing him/her to simply sling the bag over the shoulder, where it won't seem like it weighs so damn much. The bag is loaded heavily with something, clothes most likely, and perhaps a new pair of shoes. Jeff decides to hold that one in reserve, in case Neiman-Marcus ever gives him a call or JC Penny. Comfort is king in the department store industry- if the customer is made to feel comfortable, then they will most likely have a favorable opinion of the department store, good chances that they will come back. Chicks, especially. They like to share those comfort stories.

Jeff hasn't found anything today, not yet, that might help him to help his client. But he's on a loose deadline, no big rush. Not yet. Whatever it is, it isn't here today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. Maybe another mall. Something. It'll be there. Eventually.

All it takes is time.

Jeff shrugs. Wants a cigarette. Goes outside, into the cold winter air and lights one up. A Winston. He changed from Marlboros last year because they were ruining his throat. Winstons are easier on him, nevermind the damage done to his lungs. Anything, these days, would be better than a 'Boro. The wind kicks the flame of his Zippo lighter around until the cancer stick finally takes light, burns a red ember at the end, emits billowy white smoke. The first drag is harsh with the cold air. Jeff iron-lungs it for a moment, lets it out.

Time to leave. Greener pastures at Garret's Vineyard. The new Shaper Image franchise is opening up there today. Lots of shoppers. Let's go see what they might have to show us. Might be good for a few laughs, anyway.

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