Business Trip To Seattle

It was easy to find the bus to downtown. Against the gray airport and under the ragged drizzling clouds, the yellow bus glowed like a lighthouse beacon. The driver was late. He spoke familiarly, in a fashion that did not observe class distinctions or capitalist roles. From his accent, I guessed Russian. From his attitude, I guessed he hated his job no worse than any other he was qualified for. He drove the tour bus out of the parking lot without stopping for the rising parking gate; it missed his windshield by an inch.

The miles ticked away on Highway 99, past the glittering headlights of the airport traffic, past the blue collar neighborhoods almost invisible in the gloom, through the industrial slums and smokestacks, until the tall buildings of the city proper appeared on the horizon, a great welter and confusion lit up with hydroelectric power as though for a festival.  As we approached, the highway lanes merged into a layered bridge structure with local traffic on the bottom, south bound traffic in the middle, and our northbound traffic on top. We floated by the waterfront tourist shops on our left and rubbed ankles with the tall buildings marching up the hill to our right. We slipped into the canyons between the skyscrapers, and wheeled past the closed shops, the nighttime thrill seekers, the fish bowl fitness centers full of sweaty office workers doing after-dinner penance.

The bus dropped me off a block from my hotel in the business district. It was late and the streets were empty and quiet. Despite the years I had lived here, I was awed by the size of the city, a country mouse gazing up the columns of windows. I could have wished for a longer walk to the hotel, just to smell the wet concrete and let my memories of the city settle.

The hotel lobby was faux elegant: faux wood paneling, faux leather easy chairs, a faux fireplace, faux marble counter. The night desk clerk had his feet on the furniture when I entered. He was a well-dressed young man, dark-haired, tall, robust, clean shaven, practically bursting from his suit, standing with one foot on his chair exposing the hairs on his shins above his dark socks. Seeing me enter, he straightened his body and his tie and welcomed me with youthful exuberance tempered by professional deference.

My hotel room was no larger than necessary. A television offered to play movies for a charge. A turntable platter offered snack food and bottled water, with missing items to be charged to the room the following day. The wireless internet was $10 per 24-hour period, and a local call was a dollar each. I carefully lay my suitcase on the bed, making sure I didn’t trip any unseen switches or services.

I opened the window curtains. The dark sky was lit up from below by the yellow halogen lamps of the high rise construction project across the street. My view, such as it was, was obscured by a large black tube of plastic and metal, about two feet in diameter, hanging outside my window. My hotel was undergoing renovations, and the workman on the roof tossed their debris down this tube to a dumpster eight floors below me. I closed the curtains. By now it was ten in the evening in Seattle, or 1:00 in the morning by my internal Vermont clock. I crawled unto bed, lulled to sleep by the desultory banging of the tube against the window.

At 4:30 in the morning, I woke up, my internal clock still set for the east coast. I called Dawn on the phone. After she had dropped me off at the airport, she had gone grocery shopping, picked up Samuel from school at noon and Rose at 3:00, finished two loads of laundry, cooked dinner, cleaned the kitchen, fed and bathed the children and got them to bed, and did not once lose her temper or her patience. The next morning, Rose woke with a fever over 100 degrees. I would not be home until Friday.

I arrived at the office by 8:00 AM to find that the client, somewhere on the east side, had pushed the meeting back from 10:00 to 12:30. We were to meet him at “the lab.” Following his directions led us to a small, nondescript parking lot surrounded on three sides with loading docks and warehouses. His company had no visible sign, but the directions did say to look for Earl’s Fish Emporium and Three Minute Car Wash, which we found, so we knew we were in the right place. We parked in the one hour parking spot where a picket sign advertised that towing was provided by Starbucks Garage. At last, we located a metal door on a loading dock with the correct street number, but we were early. So we returned to the car and broke out our laptop computers to do some last minute code testing.

“John?”

“Yes?”

“Here we are, two guys with facial hair, sitting in a Toyota Prius, furtively working in the front seats with laptop computers, parked in a warehouse center that is apparently a front for a secret telecommunications lab?”

“And?”

“How long do you think before homeland security arrests us?”

At the appointed time, we got out and opened the unmarked metal door. We found ourselves in a small alcove. To our left, a metal staircase as steep as a ladder went up to a second floor landing, but there was a chain across it reading “Authorized Personnel only.” In front of us was another security door, with a small six by twenty-four inch window. I waved to the security guard inside, and she waved back but did not open the door. John went to move the car before it got towed. Eventually the client found us, waved his magic card against the reader, and escorted us through the portal.

Two hours later we had ascertained that my code was working as well as it could given that his server was not configured properly. We decided to leave before they could catch us twiddling our thumbs. We had done our job and done it pretty well. Then the client announced a major, last minute specification change – actually an alternate interpretation of the existing specification (I’m being large and understanding here), something he had assumed would be there all along. We had twenty-four hours to put it in place.

No problem.

We drove back to the office in downtown Seattle and I got to work.

Il Fornaio is that particular sort of restaurant that I only go to in the company of others who are paying the bill. The wine list was longer than the rest of the menu combined, with bottles ranging from the price of two movie tickets to a tropical weekend air fare. The single vegetarian option on the menu, a goat cheese risotto, was exquisite, artistically served with greens and plenty of extra plate. My boss treated me and two other employees to a meal that probably cost more than my family spends on groceries in a week. I felt almost the swine, rooting about among pearls, but I was grateful.

I even drank most of a glass of wine with dinner. This will astound those of you who know me. I hate alcohol in all its forms, though my aversion is neither moral nor political. I hate how it tastes. I hate the initial, bitter shock of alcohol on my tongue and the burning afterglow in my throat. I have never managed to get beyond these initial sense impressions to the celebrated, neurocidal effects. But I have been reading a lot lately about food and health, and have seen over and over that wine is heart-healthy (in moderation). If I was going to experiment, I may as well do so with an expensive bottle of quality wine that I didn’t pay for. Plus, I still haven’t fulfilled my Dad’s ambition that someday I get drunk.

One of my coworkers has a reputation of being a connoisseur, so we asked him to order. He selected a Pinot Noir that the waitress recommended. The waitress knew the wine menu with her eyes closed, and she was better dressed than any of us, so we took her word. She poured a half-inch of the purplish wine into each of our glasses, and I let mine “breathe” as directed. I intended to be brave, so when the time came to drink, I did not sip. I swilled.

I should not have been surprised to find my mouth filling with the familiar burning, bitter coating of alcohol. It seemed no different than Manischevitz, or Listerine for that matter, except for the utter lack of sweetness. But then my inner, cynical commentary was cut short. From the bottom of my throat to the top of my sinuses, a rich, spicy scent of grapes and cranberry and something else whose name I don’t know filled every cavity in my head. It was almost thick enough to chew, and the overwhelming taste and smell blocked out all other thought. It lingered as long as I held my breath and then slowly dissipated out my ears. 

The sensation was not unpleasant, but neither was it particularly satisfying. It was a curiosity to be sure, a party trick, something I might pay to see once a year or so, but I was left wondering why anyone went through the trouble and expense. In a spirit of scientific inquiry, I repeated the experiment, finishing off most of the glass over the course of the meal. At the end, all I could conclude was that there was more to wine making and wine drinking that I will ever understand.

My boss was a very gracious host, and no one commented on whatever colors my face might have turned. He offered us dessert, and I selected a tapas dulce. I wanted something sweet, but small and not heavy, and so ordered a lemon olive oil cake for four dollars. It arrived on a small plate with four dried cranberries, four decorative dots of sweet cream, and a cubic inch of cake with a teaspoon of cream on top and a sprig of thyme. It was lovely and tasty and perhaps the most expensive thing, per calorie, I have ever eaten. I would venture to guess that I spent more money per hour eating it than my boss charges for my coding services, and I do not come cheaply. It was a rare privilege.

After dinner, I shopped at the REI flagship store and, finding nothing I could use, literally stumbled back to the hotel. I had trouble finding the way back in the now unfamiliar city, and if I stopped walking too suddenly, the momentum in my head made me dizzy. I wondered if I was drunk. There was no euphoria, no headache, no vision of pink elephants. I did not feel especially jocular or mean. I found a seam in the sidewalk and walked perfectly from one end to the other and back. No, I was not drunk. Merely jetlagged and sleep-deprived.

I spent the next day coding and testing. I could have done this from home, and I felt bad that the client had gone to the expense of bringing me there, but of course, the client had wanted me there, so I came. As my boss explained, I was a sort of insurance policy for him, in case my code did not work as expected. To my thinking, he was a wizard of great magical power, and I a hapless demon whom he summoned 3000 miles to a confining pentagram. But that was just the fumes of the Pinot Noir speaking. He was a pleasant and accommodating client, if disorganized, and at the end of my tenure, he dismissed me with a handshake and a smile.

I walked my bags to the Hilton across the street from our office. There was the yellow airport bus, a gleaming beacon in the rain, promising a future better than the six-hour, red-eye flight to Newark that awaited me.

This time, the driver was a large Asian-American, a father of five who spoke with the accent and grammar of an immigrant. He had driven bus in San Francisco for years, and then moved to Seattle because “it was cheaper to live in Seattle.” He said this without a trace of irony. I could not possibly imagine living in Seattle on a bus driver’s salary.

I had the bus to myself. “And how does your company stay in business,” I asked, “if you only transport one customer at a time?”

“The hotels,” he answered. “They pay us to drive people. Back and forth to the airport. And if we are late, they call us up. They are very angry.”

I arrived two hours early for my flight. I had a laptop computer bag and a single rolling carry-on bag, and the line for security was nearly empty. Still, I managed to screw it up.

“Do you have any liquids or gels, sir?”

“No, I … Oh, wait…. I have some bottled water. Does that count? Sorry, I’m a little behind on my sleep.”

“You’ll need to drink it now or throw it away.”

It was a 12 oz bottle, so I drank the entire container, planning to fill it up again on the other side. But they wouldn’t let me walk through the metal detector with an empty plastic bottle.

“You’ll have to pass that bottle through the x-ray machine, sir.”

“Really?”

I reached over and passed it through. On the far side, I slipped on my shoes and got my laptop computer back into its very full bag just as my little plastic water bottle emerged, crushed in half by another carry-on bag.

Exiting security, I entered a modern mall in a large atrium, bordered with fast food restaurant kiosks I have never heard of before – Maki of Japan, Qdoba Mexican Grill, Pallini Pasta and Pizza. At the far end of the courtyard was an enormous wall of glass overlooking the halogen lit tarmac. Between me and that wall was a courtyard full of small marble tables and huge stone planters with trees and lush tropical plants with long red leaves hanging out like tongues. Rows of twelve-foot tall street lamps with hanging baskets lit the area. I could almost believe I was in Paris at an outdoor cafe table, except there was no smoking allowed.

I was surrounded by other travelers leaving Seattle which meant that they were dressed for comfort rather than fashion. I blended in easily. They looked up between bites of dinner, scanning the crowd, occasionally lingering on some attractive or bizarre figure passing by, but mostly they were not really there at all. Their minds were elsewhere. Their minds had already hopped the plane and traveled ahead to their destinations, to prepare the way. Their minds were there now, waiting for them, like dogs that have run ahead on the trail and then turned at the crest of the hill to make sure they are coming.

I shook my head free of its cobwebs and chose the Mexican Grill for dinner. I waited in line by the sneeze guard. Rows of square stainless steel tubs held grilled fajita vegetables, source cream, guacomole, and beans floating in a thin watery broth. A young woman dressed in uniform and with carefully manicured and frosted eyebrows spooned my selection onto a large flour tortilla, wrapped it into a cube with plastic gloved hands and wished me a good day. I could not tell if her salutation was for me or for the next customer whom she was already looking at while talking to me. Just like the travelers, her mind moved ahead to some destination, perhaps a bath at home, or a night out with friends, or a date at the cinema. But she was working, so she kept her mind on a lead, letting it sniff ahead only as far as the next customer and then back, then the one after that, retrieving each minute back and forth until the shift was over.

My sack of food sat by the cash register where the the Wicked Witch of the West waited for my money. At least, she looked like the Wicked Witch. Her nose was hooked, her eyes were large and droopy, her hands were beginning to show wear and tear through the plastic gloves, but she had the gentlest smile.

Before I gave her my credit card, my eyes passed over the chocolate chip cookies by the register and my thoughts moved in a well-worn groove – the primitive urge for carbohydrates, the slight salivation, the anticipation of the chocolate melting on the tongue. But I was so tired, and my mind moved so slowly, that I could see each of these deep, banal, subconscious thoughts that generally pass by wordless and unnoticed. I watched them unfold in slow motion and then stop. For one bizarre, unearthly moment, I saw the cookies, the actual real cookies in front of me, wrapped in industrial saran wrap, square blocks of mass produced dough baked by the gross in factory pans. I remembered the stale, coated feeling of the sugar on my tongue that always comes five minutes after binging on cookies, the precursor to terrible halitosis that would hound me six hours on the plane. And suddenly my desire for it turned instantly to disgust. I felt like Harry Potter fighting the Imperious Curse.

I claimed an empty table and unwrapped my burrito cube. It was warm and comforting and marginally nutritious, marred only by an occasional twinge of cilantro. I peeled away the foil wrapper and bit into the unnaturally soft tortilla. As my tired body absorbed the first rush of carbohydrates, I succumbed to blank, vacant staring, mindlessness. I cannot remember the next ten minutes of my life. They are completely gone. Perhaps I even slept, but when I returned to my body, the burrito was gone.

Atlanta

I opened the passenger door and kept one hand on the door jamb to control my fall into the bucket seat of my brother’s convertible. The interior, cluttered with the detritus of multiple projects, resembled the inside of a writing laboratory. In fact my younger brother does refer to his car as the Alchemy Car. It leaks the Air (Tires), Fire (Gasoline), Water (Coolant), and Earth (oil). I tried not to step on anything important, but my vision was obscured by the notebook computer on my lap.

The car had plenty of papers, folders, books, plastic clips, DVDs, magazines, but no actual trash, no sticky spills, no unpleasant smells.  Some undecipherable organization, known only to my brother, distinguished figure from ground, foreground from background. Clearly the most important object was the IPod which sat in a prominent space above the unused parking brake, attached by a wire to the stereo. My brother caressed it with his thumb as he backed the car out of the driveway, dividing his attention between the LED display and the rear and side view mirrors. I barely had time to locate both ends of my seat belt before we were on the road. His seatbelt remained neatly stowed and secured in its holster over his left shoulder.

Instant social and ethical dilemma. To nag, or not to nag. Because there is no direct or indirect way to tell an inveterate seat-belt ignorer that he needs to wear his seat belt. And I really did not want to hitch hike the rest of the way to our parents house. My brother reached his fortieth birthday on the coattails of triple bypass surgery, and if open-heart surgery did not alter his risk-taking behavior, no pathetic nagging on my part would make an impression. On the other hand, were we to be in an accident and he were hurt, my technical innocence would not have assuaged my conscience. I could not honestly have said, I did everything I could do.

The stereo kicked in just then. I knew I would not recognize the music, that it would be something breathtakingly eclectic, and I was right. Tom Waits performing a repetitive tone poem/song by Daniel Johnston about King Kong. The lyrics were a Freudian book jacket summary of the old black and white movie. The music undulating and rhythmic. I admit I was intrigued, and I used it as an excuse to drop the unlifted subject of traffic safety.

It was a twenty minute ride to our parent’s house where my wife and children, and my other brothers and their wives and children would be noshing on low-carb snacks and soda in preparation for dinner. My brother shifted into high gear on the perimeter highway, and I brought my laptop out of the bag to collect some sample GPS data. I tapped the keyboard along with King Kong, though it was tricky to get the touch pad mouse to behave in the Alchemy Car. It seemed to take every pothole and bump as a personal insult. I had to hold my hand quite steady as we rattled along, the sub woofer growling the suffering of a misunderstood monster.

The computer responded slowly. I cannot imagine why a machine that sends binary electric messages at nearly the speed of light can be so slow, but, wait, that’s a lie. I am a computer programmer, and so I know exactly it can be slow, and it is not the machine’s fault. While I waited, I chatted with my brother, mostly about his writing and theatre projects/plans. We spoke with the peculiar, restrained intimacy of brothers who see each other once a year with only ancient history and mutual admiration and affection in common. His theatre plans, and some of his life choices, are not ardently supported by every member of the family (there, was that politic enough?), so perhaps I pushed the limit of my own business, or at least what he might comfortably answer. But I can still share secrets with my brothers, no matter how lacking in embarrassing or revealing or scandalous tidbits.

“Oh, no,” I said, interrupting his story in the middle.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing! I’m fine! Just fine!,” I said, emphasizing the word fine for affect. “Except my computer is frozen is all.” I clicked mouse buttons, the Escape key, Control-Alt-Delete, and eventually the Power button. We took a sharp curve. Without looking my hand instinctively reached for the handle above the window and scraped the steel alloy struts of the convertible roof. I swore, mildly – I am a parent of preschoolers – and the computer started up again, displaying the Windows logo in white pixels against a black background and lighting the interior of the car in a flickering, metallic glare. Then the computer swore back at me, beeped, and a single sentence appeared.

“Oh damn!”

“You OK?”

“No.”

I cold booted but the same thing happened.

Beep!

“What’s the problem?”

“Do you have any idea what ‘Primary hard drive 0 not found.’ means?”

“Is that bad?”

“I can’t even get to the boot option screen.”

To his credit, my younger brother, who happens to be my the chief technology officer of the company owned by my oldest brother, did not immediately offer me technical advice or ask if I had a backup. It is entirely possible he had no advice to give or experience to share, but this has never stopped anyone in my family in the past.

This was December 24th. My wife and I had loaded the minivan with clothes, toiletries, nut-free organic food, games, books, gifts, and children for its maiden cross country voyage. Two thousand miles down the East Coast in three days for my father’s 80th birthday party. In order to justify the driving, I planned to work remotely from Atlanta for a week with my laptop computer. Unfortunately, I had not made a backup for two weeks. And there were deadlines looming.

I woke my boss up on Christmas morning to tell him. My family did not think this was a brilliant career move, and to be honest, I had not expected him to be sleeping at the hour I called, even accounting for the three hour time zone difference, but he took it in stride. We’ve known each other a long time and leaned on each other more than once. Like every member of my family had already done in the previous 24 hours, he went through a trouble shooting list of options, though unlike my family, he knew what this error meant and what could and could not be done about it. And in fact, nothing could be done. The drive was dead and had only two possible future vocation in desk art or toxic waste. And even though my boss sent me a brand new laptop computer overnight with all my work software preloaded, it would be weeks before I was able to retrieve any of my personal files from various backups.