Thursday, May 27, 2004

Went to sleep in Chicago, woke up in Boston

I went for an overnight trip to Chicago yesterday, which was a strange experience. I've made quick business trips before, but I have never stayed overnight somewhere yet still spent fewer than 16 hours in the city. Nor have I gone to work, then flown somewhere, and been back at work before lunch the next day. It doesn't feel right. If I'm going to get on a plane it should feel like a trip, not a commute. And I shouldn't have to get up at 5:00 in the bloody morning, ever.

This was a sales trip, something else that I don't get to do very often. You see, I'm usually the guy trying to explain to the client that the sales guy was clearly high on a controlled substance when he issued that quote, and that they should be sure that he will be dealt with severely. I've always wondered how they got to the point where they were willing to mortgage the souls of an entire project team in order to get a stranger to give them a PO number. Now I know.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, let me tell you about the plane ride. You've heard of the Ship of Fools and the Village of the Damned? Well, I flew on the Flight of the Queerly Proportioned. Looking around the gate area for my flight was like looking in a hundred funhouse mirrors. There was the extremely tall thin man standing next to the short, round, potbellied plumber. Side by side, they made a giant exclamation point, an excited response to the eternal question mark that was Ultra-Skinny Girl With the Bad Slouch. Everywhere I looked, super-sized bodies advertised the abundance, if not the quality, of airport cuisine, as they waited to be let onto the plane by the flight steward with the abnormally large head. How did all these people come to be on my plane? Was I unwittingly joining some genetic experimentation convention? It was an unsettling beginning to my journey, like crossing into the world of The Triplets of Belleville.

The thing I like most about traveling by myself is that I can read. It's been a long time since I read an actual novel, so I went to my ever-growing To Be Read pile before I left the house and chose what turned out to be a heady read. I highly recommend The Life of Pi to anyone who wants to think and feel while reading a great story. I haven't finished it yet, but my head and heart are already full from it.

One thing I noticed on this trip more than at other times was the complete ubiquity of cell phones. The sound of the airplane door closing was accompanied by a chorus of chirps, farewell songs, and other multi-toned goodbyes from cell phones being powered down. When we landed, the chime of the seat belt sign being deactivated at the gate was nearly drowned out by the sounds of all those phones snapping open and signing their cheerful welcomes to their human traveling companions.

I thought about this as I walked through O'Hare, and I think I now know why cell phones are everywhere now. It's not really about efficiency or getting more work done anymore, is it? It's because we are so very afraid to be alone, even in a crowded airport. We can't bear the noise of our own thoughts, our own pain, so we drown it out in conversation. We call someone, anyone, to let them know that we made it, that we are on our way, that the large man in the seat next to us (after he has walked away in the crowd) had a strange odor of teryaki sauce clinging to him. We check our voicemail because it reminds us that we are necessary, that other people need us to do something for them that, apparently, only we can do. Instead of connecting with the crowd around us, or with ourselves, or with God, we isolate ourselves in a mobile phone booth. It's an amazing sight, to see thousands of people, all moving, all talking, and yet not one of them talking to each other.

On to dinner. As far as I can tell, this was a typical get-to-know-you sales dinner, starting with a bound PowerPoint presentation over drinks. We got the business out of the way early, so that we could enjoy dinner without having to keep working the conversation back around to "why you should hire us." I appreciate this approach, because it saves you from some rather awkward transitions:

Client: While we wait for our appetizers to come, I think I'll head to the restroom.

Sales guy: That's good idea. Speaking of rest, have I mentioned that our clients can rest easy, knowing their project is in good hands?

Client: Um, yeah. I just need to relieve the pressure in my bladder after those six drinks you bought me in the bar.

Sales guy: That's nothing compared to the relief I'll feel when we close this deal.

Client: Look, I'm just going to go pee. Stay here (runs off).

Our prospective client, in this case, was a former sales guy himself, so he knew how to get the work out of the way and get to the fun. Since we were working this deal through another company, their sales guy had come to Chicago as well, and I had my sales guy with me. So, there we were, the three sales guys and me, or as I came to think of it, Alcoholics and Anonymous.

I think there's a reason for all of the old traveling salesman jokes, and the fact that he always ends up trying to sleep with the farmer's daughter. Nearly every sales guy that I have met fits into roughly the same mold: the drink like Vikings, brag constantly about their conquests (women or customers, there's very little difference), and are driven by the fear that someone, somewhere, is having a better time than they are. Their business trips are an eternal quest for the best party ever.

I had little to add to the dinnertime discussion of parties, wild trips, and interesting places to vomit. Fortunately, I couldn't have gotten a word in edgewise even if I had wanted to. I did learn some things, though:

  1. Chicago is known as the best place in America for a business trip one night stand, since half of the bargoing population on any night is in town from somewhere else. Like Vegas, what happens in Chicago stays in Chicago.

  2. No matter how fun it sounds at the time, it is never a good idea to take off all of your clothes and throw them off the balcony when you are 6 feet tall and spending the night with a 5-foot-tall flight attendant. If, however, you decide to do it anyway, remember to take your wallet out of your pants first.

  3. No matter how hot it is, Cabo San Lucas taxi drivers discourage taking off all of your clothes in their cab in an effort to cool down, especially if you are sitting in the front seat.

  4. Finally, it's OK to take your drunk buddy's wallet and use his money to get a room in another hotel (one with functioning air conditioning), but only after he has passed out and with the provision that you owe him a drink the next day.

Needless to say, it's good to be home.

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