1999 was an amazing year of travel for me. Some of it was to make personal appearances at film festivals. Some of it was vacationing on a scale I'd previously been hesitant to attempt. But I was also lucky enough to land a couple of sweet job trips. One sent me back to San Francisco very shortly after I'd been there for the very first time. Then came another one that would make all the rest seem like a play-date with Tinky Winky.
I knew that there was a huge conference coming up in New Orleans, and that many people in my office were vying for the opportunity to go. I didn't think much about it. With my sleep problems, travel and long, boring presentations are like death to me. Plus I wasn't all that keen on Louisiana in late August. The third strike was that I had been on the wagon for some time, and New Orleans to me spelled Bourbon Street in bright neon letters. I let everyone else scamper around and make political wranglings to get on the list.
Then one day my boss came into my office. He very casually asked if I'd be interested in going, since I was the only one in the department working in a particular business unit. If I didn't go then that business unit would be completely unrepresented by our department. With neither enthusiasm nor reluctance I replied, "If you're asking me to go I'll go but if there's any question about funding I'm perfectly content to stay home." He said right then and there that I was approved.
In the weeks that led up to the trip my mood was one of mild trepidation. I knew that I'd either have to hibernate in my hotel room the whole time, or walk around like a zombie and sleep through all my sessions. There was really no middle ground for me. It was only a couple weeks before the trip that I realized that no one had been seeing to my travel arrangements. My best bud in the office Ron was also going and was also in the same situation. We rolled up our sleeves and started looking into the availability of flights.
We were having a real tough time finding anything, since this was a huge conference and we'd totally waited until the last minute. Having flown home from San Francisco at 7:00AM twice in recent months, I was absolutely unwilling to take an early morning flight. Ron, with a wife and daughter, wanted to return as early as possible after the conference concluded. Things were not going well. I came this close to walking into my boss's office and asking if it was too late to bag the whole idea. But before I had a chance I was handed flight options that weren't too terribly bad. It was more or less a compromise between Ron's and my desires. We would take a 7:30AM flight out of Ithaca, and return on Friday, one day after the conference ended. I was still a little miffed at having to get to the airport so early, but I'd rather do it when I'm waking up in my own bed with my own trusty alarm clock rather than in a strange hotel room a million miles from home.
Over the following fortnight my enthusiasm didn't improve much. I was resigned to the trip, but looking forward to it like a visit to the Spanish Inquisition. I'd tell people I would be out of the office for a week, and when they asked where I was going I'd say, "Straight to Hell."
Finally the tide turned, if only a little. An old email acquaintance of mine, Jeremy, sent out a broadcast message stating that he'd be in New Orleans labor day weekend for Southern Decadence. Jeremy is someone I met quite early on in my internet exhibitionist journey. We'd communicated on and off for several years, but we'd never had the chance to meet face to face. My intuition regarding people I've met over email has proven to be pretty good, and Jeremy struck me as someone I'd get along with very well.
I replied to him asking for more details on his travel plans, and what this "Southern Decadence" thing was all about. I'd never heard of it. It turned out that he wasn't arriving in town until the day after I was to leave, but he sent me the URL of the Southern Decadence site and encouraged me to reschedule my return flight. I had a look at the page and discovered that it was like a gay Mardi Gras. It was an enormous gay gathering in one of the biggest party towns in the world, and the further into the weekend it gets the more guys wander around in jocks, harnesses, or just bare-ass naked. This really appealed to me. I mean, the site of a bunch of semi-nude men walking the streets was pretty intriguing, but the prospect of *being* one of those semi-nude men was compelling.
I really started to consider Jeremy's offer. The words he used were, "We could tear up the town together." It looked like a great party, I'd always wanted to meet Jeremy, and tearing up the town was exactly my idea of a good time. But there were a couple things working against me. The first was that I'd never changed flight plans before in my life. I really, really, really hate to get stuck waiting in airports, especially for significantly prolonged periods of time. I've never had any major hassles or serious delays, and I attribute this exactly to the fact that I've never even attempted to alter my reservations. I was very reluctant to do so this time. The other factor was that I would have been in town the entire week preceding the festivities, and I fully expected to be partied out by the time my return flight came. I knew that I'd be longing for home rather than itching for still more partying. I decided not to alter my reservations at this time, and decide later if I really wanted to stay longer or not.
Saturday, August 28, 1999
Finally the day arrived. I was to be at Ron's house at 6:30AM, and we'd car pool to the airport. I had been lazy about preparing the night before, and I got up with some preparations still remaining. The worst was my sink full of dirty dishes. Coming home to that sight is bad enough, but when they've been fermenting for a full week it's intolerable. When I had everything else together I did a hack job at the sink and put the semi-clean dishes in the drain rack. By this time I was running very late. I jumped in my car and flew to Ron's at 75-80MPH. I got there and he said I'd just made it, because he'd already called the 2-minute warning. He was surprised, because usually it's I who's waiting for him. I'm *never* late, and he was afraid something was wrong. But I made it before he'd totally given up on me, so we just got in his car and sped to the airport. We parked and got checked in just in time to walk directly on the plane.
The flight from Ithaca to Pittsburgh was typically brief. Once off the plane Ron and I wandered around the Pittsburgh airport for a while with our mutual friend Stephanie. Steph wasn't originally going on this trip, but someone else had canceled out at the last minute, and she had managed to weasel her way into the slot. Before too terribly long it was time to board the plane to New Orleans. It took off without delay. It wasn't a very long flight, and I managed to doze most of the way. I awoke in time to gaze out the window at the bizarre swamp terrain that surrounded the city for miles. We touched down and disembarked.
Steph decided to go off and schmooze with some higher-ups. Ron and I grabbed a cab with two other Cornellians. The drive was longer than expected, but eventually we got off the highway, cruised past the Super Dome, and were at our hotel on Canal St. We checked in, and Ron and I happened to be put on the same floor. It was very high up in the building. We had to take the express elevator that skips the bottom half of the floors. We decided to go to our rooms, unpack, and wander out to find something to eat. I went into my room and tossed my bags on the floor. To me, that's unpacking. I went to Ron's room and knocked on the door. When he opened it he was surprised to see that it was me. "That was quick," he said. I sat down and watched him methodically hang up all his clothes and put stuff in drawers. This went on and on, until I said, "Hey, who's the fag here, huh? I'm ready to roll. Can we get going?" In addition to being a Neanderthal when it comes to homemaking, I was really hungry and needed some food in my belly. He finally finished and we headed back downstairs.
We got to the lobby and whom do we bump into but Steph. She'd been ditched by the higher-ups and wanted to tag along with us. She was to go drop her stuff off in her room and come back down. "Better hurry," Ron said. "Toaph's pretty cranky, and we all know what *that* can be like." Steph dutifully returned in mere minutes and we were on our way. We went around the corner to a small sandwich shop that the concierge had recommended. It was hot and muggy out, but not swealtering as I'd feared. We went inside and saw that they served INSERT SANDWICH TYPE HERE sandwiches, which had been recommended to us by a co-worker who couldn't come along. We ordered three of them and dug in. It were basically a French bread sandwich with lots of ham and melted mozzarella. It was really good, except for these strange pickled veggies that were in with the melted cheese. I dealt pretty well at first because it made the sandwich spicy, which works for me. But as time went on I realized that it wasn't spicy as much as it was briny. I eventually picked most of them off and enjoyed what would otherwise have been an outstanding sandwich.
Having satiated my hunger, my cranky mood had evaporated. I was still quite tired, however. I decided to wander around the French quarter with Ron and Steph until I'd had enough, at which time I'd return to the hotel and leave them to their own devices. We found Bourbon St. and headed down. The ubiquitous wrought iron balconies were as I'd expected, but it was much more narrow than I had always imagined it. All the streets in the French Quarter were very narrow, and this was no exception. I always knew that Mardi Gras was a very crowded festival, but I couldn't imagine tens of thousands of people crammed down this tiny street.
With nowhere better to go we just kept walking down Bourbon. It was an interesting amalgamation of sights, sounds, and smells. Every so often we'd see a couple of skinny young black kids tap dancing for spare change. Many of the bars and restaurants had men standing out front to advertise the specials. Some were animated barkers, but other just stood there like human sign posts. Having recently been to the Haight Ashbury many times, I kept expecting panhandlers to hassle me for free cash with every step I took. I was surprised to find them almost entirely absent. There were a number of street performers ranging from talented to bogus, but virtually no deadbeat panhandlers.
As we strolled along Ron said that he thought he saw some rainbow flags hanging from the balconies up ahead. I told him he must be mistaken. I couldn't imagine openly gay establishments right on Bourbon Street, the Mecca for all jocks and frat boys who aged but never grew up, located in the heart of the Deep South. We continued walking, and to my surprise we did, indeed, come upon rainbow flags hanging right out in the open. One building was a bar. The sign said "Oz." I recognized the name from the list of events on the Southern Decadence web site. I peeked inside and there was no question but that it was a gay bar. "Well bend me over and make me squeal like a pig," I exclaimed. I had assumed that all the Southern Decadence venues would be large, modern clubs located in outlying areas that would be effectively inaccessible to me. Never in a million years did I expect that everything would be within walking distance from my hotel room. This definitely changed my expectations for the upcoming week.
We continued wandering around the French Quarter. There were plazas with vendors, and tarot card readers, and street performers. Some of the people I saw were apparently local residents. Others were wandering around agog as I was. As I experienced all this I pondered the nature of tourism. Not the tourism industry, but the experience of actually being in a place you've only ever seen pictures of. In the old days, travel to any legendary site would have involved a significant pilgrimage. But in our day and age we can climb in a metal cylinder in our own back yard, and in a matter of hours be transported to any place on the globe. It's too easy.
I felt as if I was walking through a theme park. Even though I knew everything was real, it didn't seem real. The whole theme park phenomenon, with its simulated authenticity, tends to dilute the true authenticity of actual places. The appearance of the French Quarter was entirely distinctive. No other place looked like that, unless it was mocked up to look like it. But my artist's mind was having difficulty processing the fundamental difference between the genuine article and the mock-up.
How would my experience have been different if I had been walking through a simulated environment? If I had gone to "French Quarter Land," instead of the actual French Quarter, I would have taken a flight, unpacked in my contemporary hotel room, and walked into the visually interesting enclave surrounded on all sides by modern civilization. I had just gone through that exact process. On a pragmatic level, the experience was largely the same.
When I was in Venice I had the same sensation. I rode a modern train, arrived in a modern train station, and entered Venice to look at the sights. It wasn't until after I'd been there for a few days and wandered down deserted back streets and corridors that I began to understand better. For tourists who blip in, dig the scene, and blip out, it might as well be a simulation. But I realized that for those who actually lived there, who saw those sights day in and day out as part of the routines of their daily lives, it was an entirely different experience. These people used these buildings for their homes and places of business. Behind the decorative facades that the tourists saw were actual practical structures, and not just skeletons to prop up the facades themselves. Venice was a living, breathing city, not simply a decorative plot of real estate. The simulated theme parks that litter our countryside do lessen the grandeur of the places they're meant to mimic, but the true sense of authenticity comes with time and experience.
I continued strolling the French Quarter. I allowed the theme park experience to go on, knowing that it would fade with time as I grew more accustomed to the surroundings and inhabitants. I kept walking until I felt dead on my feet. I told Ron and Steph to look for me poolside before dinner. The good thing about the French Quarter is that you can't really get lost. It's laid out in a perfect grid, and the imposing sight of the 40-story hotels on Canal Street make it easy to find your way home. I went directly back to my room, kicked off my sneakers, and snoozed for about an hour.
When I awoke I put on my swim trunks and headed for the pool. Every swim suit I have is a speedo, except for the one pair of trunks I keep for more discrete settings. My choice to bring the trunks wasn't so much in deference to all the family people I knew would be there as much as that I didn't want to hear Ron give me shit about it. Even Steph had an almost primal aversion to guys in speedos. I splashed around the pool amidst fat old ladies with vericose veins, pretty girls with their bikini bottoms riding practically under their armpits, and overweight hairy fathers who flipped their screeching little daughters ass over teacup into the water over and over and over again.
Just as I was about to take off, Ron and Steph came down to join me. They hopped in the pool and told me of the things they'd done since I left them. They said that they had decided where we were going to have dinner, and that I would not be permitted to decline. They had chosen Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffett's local restaurant. Ron and I had had an ongoing feud between the comparative merits and flaws of Parrot-heads and Deadheads. The dining choice was Ron's way of sticking it to me, but it was an easy sell. For all the teasing I give Ron, I have no problem with Buffett or his music, and it sounded like a fun place to go. I figured the food would probably be pretty good. I did, however, fear that it would be a tourist trap worse than a Hard Rock Café with a Starbucks on either side and a Planet Hollywood across the street.
After a while in the pool we all went back to our rooms to shower and dress for dinner. We met in the lobby, and then took a rather circuitous route to the restaurant. Ron and Steph wanted to show me some of the places they'd scoped out earlier. Soon we came to Margaritaville. It was an unassuming place; spacious, but not in a "mass market" kind of way, and they could seat us immediately even though we didn't have reservations. The live music in the front room was a bit loud, but at our table in the dining room we could carry on a conversation without strain.
The waiter came by and asked us if we wanted any drinks. Ron and Steph both ordered margaritas. I had been on the wagon for some time, and I paused as I decided if I wanted to fall off or not. My proclivity for relapse isn't based so much on a lack of will power as an absence of will power. As soon as I'm faced with temptation I say to myself, "well, you're not going to be able to resist it anyway, so don't bother trying." I ordered a margarita. When the waiter returned for our orders I requested the broiled shrimp. I'm not much for sea food, but I really love shrimp, and this variation sounded good.
While we waited for our food, Ron and I rekindled our perennial Parrot-head vs. Deadhead debate. It's a stupid argument, really. It all began with a bet as to whether Buffett was a bigger concert draw than the Dead were. This was a debate in which I could engage because it was based on simple metrics. Unfortunately neither Ron nor I were privy to the necessary ticket sales statistics, so we couldn't ever resolve it. We refined the argument to account for the fact that the Dead toured thrice annually while Buffett only toured once. We even agreed to consider the number and size of venues in coming up with a just verdict of who was the bigger concert draw. But without any hard numbers to go by the debate always degenerated into "Parrot-heads are dumber than Deadheads" and vice versa.
What this silly debate really was was a way for Ron and me to practice our routine. Our relationship is founded on good-natured mutual disagreement, and our conversations can be quite entertaining. Give us any topic and we can be like Siskel and Ebert on crack. In the taxi on our way into town we had our fellow Cornellians snickering and chuckling to themselves. But Stephanie had experienced this routine all too many times. She was tolerant, but in this case sided with Ron, and my arguments were going nowhere. After a pause I decided to throw Ron a bone. "Actually," I said, "I saw on TV that Buffett is such a successful business man that many of his associates don't even know he's a touring performer."
Ron suddenly went berserk. "Hey," he ranted, "think about where you are. You don't come into *my* house and say things like that about *my* man!!!"
Steph and I were both dumfounded. "Dude," I said. "That was supposed to be a compliment." Steph even came to my aid, pointing out that I'd said nothing confrontational. Ron sat back and smirked, almost sheepishly. I think he'd been rehearing that comeback for my next saucy remark, and unfortunately played it the one time I said something supportive.
Soon our food arrived. The guy handed Ron and Steph their respective fettucini dishes. Then he handed me a small bowl of large creatures that resembled shrimp in the way that a muddy, drooling cow resembles a steak. These were mammoth, full-bodied shrimp straight out of a Jacques Cousteau special. I'd had peel-and-eat shrimp before, and was accustomed to the tails and myriad flea-like legs, but the ones I was handed were complete with pointy noses and beady little eyes staring up at me. There were antennae everywhere. And the size of these things was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. My first instinct was to recoil and call out, "Is there an exterminator in the house?!?!?"
I managed to play my best poker face until the waiter left us alone. Before I had a chance to say a word Steph and Ron chimed in with their own comments. "They have more appetizing meals on the Klingon Home World." "After you eat those do they crawl back out again???" I was resolved to overcome this situation with grace and confidence. I grabbed my knife and fork, wishing actually that I had a dissection kit, and went to work.
I severed the head of my first victim. I was at first fretting over where to make the incision. I didn't want to waste any good meat, but at the same time I didn't want any brains on my first bite. It fell apart rather easily. But now I was faced at how to proceed. I was basically back to the peel-and-eat paradigm, albeit on a grander scale, but these guys were swimming in a buttery sauce. I announced to my dining companions that there was no tidy way to do this, and I plunged my fingers into the sauce and started ripping the little bugger's body off.
Peeling shrimp is pretty easy, once you overcome the tactile stimuli that your brain filters from your fingers to your appetite center. What you do is grab as many of the little legs as you can between your thumb and forefinger. Then you pull away and around his little body, peeling all the legs the dorsal plates off the inner meat. Once you get the hang of it you can practically peel a shrimp in one smooth motion. This took a little more work, first because I was out of practice, and second because the increased scale really required gorilla hands to execute it properly. Once I had it completely peeled I realized that it was about the scale of a typical jumbo shrimp (which is, by the way, my favorite oxymoron). The head and complete exoskeleton gave the illusion of it being bigger than it truly was.
I took one bite and I tasted the best shrimp I'd ever had in my life. I don't make statements like that lightly. I rarely put cocktail sauce on shrimp because it eclipses the natural, delicate taste of the meat. That's how much I savor the taste of these morsels. The meat was fresh and flavorful, and the sauce was a marvelous compliment. I quickly transitioned from apprehensive biology student to ravenous carnivore.
The one thing I was unsure of was whether it was typical to create the kind of Frankenstein stew that was assimilating in my bowl. I tossed the waste parts of peeled shrimp right back into the bowl, and soon had to fish for intact bodies. I also had to thoroughly rinse every piece of meat in sauce to ensure that I'd washed off every unwanted body part. It eventually got so murky that I assumed I'd finished them all, when I found one last survivor languishing at the bottom beneath his disemboweled brothers.
Both Ron and Steph finished their dishes before I finished mine. They were spared the manual labor my meal required. We each had one more margarita before we settled the bill. Then we were off to do whatever. We got to Jackson Square and decided to take a Handsome Cab ride. It was $40, which was a little steep, but we were in the party spirit and had been resigned to spending a little extra money anyway. We climbed aboard and away we went. I expected to just clip-clop along as we chatted quietly, but within a few yards our driver stopped, turned around, and started describing the historical points of interest that were before us. He was a black man with a booming theater voice, but he was speaking Ebonics with a Southern accent and I could only understand about 60% of what he was saying. This was compounded by the fact that I wasn't really listening. I was interested in learning more about the area, but at this particular moment in time I was sedate and lethargic. I was content to allow the images to flow passively into me, complimented by the tranquilizing nature of the motion of the horse-drawn carriage. The soft jerk-jerk rhythm was almost like the rocking of a crib. As we rode along the sun had gone down, and I could have curled up and gone to sleep on the spot.
When the ride was done we paid the driver and gave him a generous tip. Ron asked what was next. I requested that they escort me to Oz where I'd strike out on my own. They were cool with that. As much as Ron and Steph would have liked me to stay with them for company and comic relief, they sincerely wanted me to have a good time and knew that I would be happier with my own ilk. The French Quarter is a pretty compact place, and we were upon Oz more quickly than we expected. They both stepped in briefly, and then right back out again, just so that they could say that they'd been in a gay bar on Bourbon Street. They bid me adeu and continued on.
I had peeked inside Oz earlier in the day, but hadn't really gone in. When I enter an unfamiliar gay bar on my own I regress back to the early days when going to a gay bar was a significant, traumatic experience. There were only a handful of people inside. One was a leather boy who was gyrating to the pervasive dance music. He was pretty hot, but I knew he was looking for someone to dance with, and I'm not much of a dancer. I know that this is a serious handicap for a single gay man, but... like, welcome to my life. I just didn't feel the right vibe. I walked across the street to another gay bar. It was crowded. A bit too crowded. I walked up to the next corner where the next gay bar was located. There seemed to be about the right number of people inside. I inched my way in, found a spot at the bar, and ordered a rum and coke. Whenever I order a drink I closely watch the alcohol/mixer ratio, perceiving it to be reflective of the bargain I'm getting as a consumer. It's not so much an alcoholic thing as it is a skin-flint thing. The cost of the drink wasn't quite as much as I'd expected, and one sip revealed that I'd gotten quite a bargain at any rate. I lit a smoke, glanced around the bar, and sipped my drink.
There was an interesting mix of people in attendance. It appeared to be the local, older crowd hangout. But there were also plenty of young men present. One gaunt black guy with short, nappy blond hair reminded me of Teck from MTV's Real World Honolulu. There was one fellow who looked about my age, trim, and fairly handsome. I contemplated approaching him, but I decided not to get involved in anything. Despite my naps on the pane and in the room, I was utterly worn out. I puffed down another smoke, finished my drink, and went back to my room. I collapsed on my bed and passed out.
Sunday, August 8, 1999
The conference didn't officially begin until Monday, but there were some special interest sessions on Sunday. Being the sole representative of my business area, it was incumbent on me to attend. My "boss" stayed home, but the principle representative from the functional side was in town, and I knew he'd be at these sessions. I had been leap-frogged to a rather high level in my department earlier in the year. This individual, Rick, was the highest ranking Cornell management person with whom I'd ever worked. I knew that his opinion of me would dictate my boss's opinion of me. I'm pretty mellow (read: ignorant) when it comes to office politics, and I have the schmoozing talents of Cancer the Crab. I either connect with people or I don't. Some people I connect with instantly (e.g. Ron), some people it comes with time (e.g. Steph), and some people I just never connect with at all. I didn't know where Rick fit in with this, but I hadn't felt a connection yet. Hanging out with him was like hanging out with my father. My dad is a nice guy, and so is Rick, but I feel like I have to be on my best behavior, and that it would be unwise to let my true uninhibited side show.
To make matters worse, my new position had landed me in unfamiliar territory. I knew Rick's business area. Actually I knew it pretty well. But I'm a wrench and screwdriver kind of guy. Give me a job and I'll do it. I'll do it practically better than anyone else at Cornell can. But my situation with Rick was much more nebulous and ill-defined. It was all about "strategy" and "positioning." Instead of talking data and info tech, I had to talk "vision" and "leveraging." Send me to a business unit and I can analyze it down to the last bit. But ask me a question like, "What solution will maximize the buy-in of the stakeholder community," and you'll draw a blank stare from me. For months I'd been in weekly meetings with Rick and my boss, and the best contributions I could ever make were bullshit responses to amorphous inquires that would occasionally flounder my way.
Cornell was spending a lot of money for me to be at this conference. I hadn't asked for it, but the fact that I'd accepted the trip meant that I'd accepted the responsibility for getting the most value out of it. I wanted to come back with some valuable knowledge, but at the moment I merely wanted to be perceived as if I was accumulating valuable knowledge.
I hopped on a shuttle bus in front of the hotel and quickly arrived at the convention center. It was enormous. I mean, this thing must have been a half-mile long. It took the worst design elements of airports and shopping malls, and combined them into one massive, ugly structure. I walked on an on, making my way up into the labyrinth of upper levels, and finally managed to find the room where the general session was taking place. I saw Rick as soon as I walked in. He was schmoozing with other people so I didn't go over to him right away. I saw Steph. I went up and chatted for a while. She and I were both under the special interest umbrella, but Ron was main stream. When the speakers took their positions I left Steph and sat over by Rick. He said hello politely, as is his instinctive response to all social situations. He asked me how I was liking New Orleans. I hadn't heard every word he said, and rather than risk answering a question he didn't actually ask me, I made him repeat it. He asked me how I was liking New Orleans. Some jumbled words came out of my mouth. I think I adequately communicated the concept of, "Okay." The speakers began speaking, and as our attention was distracted I felt like the Chris Farley character who smacks himself saying, "stupid, stupid..."
I sat through the session. My attention span was in the toilet. They were talking product strategies and I was thinking about how tourists perceive strange places like theme parks. They were talking forward vision and I was considering returning to Margaritaville for more shrimp. Fifteen minutes into the talk I looked at my watch expecting forty-five minutes to have gone by. I looked at the furnishings. I considered the architecture of the convention center in which this room was located. From time to time I tried to pay attention. I would say, "Okay, from here on listen to everything the speaker says." For thirty seconds or so I'd listen, until ultimately the irrelevance of the monotone drone would lead my mind to fantasies of running naked down Bourbon Street a week hence.
When the session finally ended we broke out into "birds-of-a-feather" groups. Our group was so small that the few of us present moved our chairs into a circle rather than feign the pretense of a lecture format. Everyone spoke about product strategies and leveraging positions, and it was the same mumbo-jumbo I'd heard for months now. I don't mean to be critical. These discussions have to take place. It's just that I usually don't go to work until such discussions had been resolved. I just sat there the whole time trying to think of something, anything to say, that would have at least a shred of insight. It was like the time I was backstage with the Barenaked Ladies. It was the only time I was ever with real rock stars, and I couldn't think of a damn thing to say that was anything more than facile fan drivel. Likewise, in this intimate setting, I sat idly by like a mute imbecile, unwilling or unable to say anything. There was actually a moment when a constituent shared a tale of an experience at her institution that was astonishingly similar to an experience we'd been having at Cornell. Rick and I made eye contact, and both made facial expressions like we wanted to break into the conversation. The woman continued talking, however, and neither of us could get a word in. Ultimately, I completed the entire discussion session, without saying anything more than "mmhmm."
When the session ended Rick was distracted with folks coming up to make random comments. Without him paying any attention to me, I high tailed it out of the room. I hopped on a shuttle bus and went right back to my room. I rang Ron but he wasn't in. Being in need of sustenance I ran across the street to the Popeye's Chicken joint. There is a chicken-oriented restaurant in Watkins Glen, near my home in Ithaca, that serves a chicken and gravy over biscuits dish of which I'm particularly fond. Popeye's advertised chicken and biscuits. I figured I'd give it a try. I went in and looked at the menu above the serving counter. I didn't see a chicken and biscuits dinner. I asked the black girl behind the counter if they served chicken and biscuits. She laughed and looked down at her feet. The menu actually resembled that of KFC. I ordered a 2-piece dinner. She put the chicken pieces on the plate and tossed a biscuit on it. Not what I was expecting. I choked it down and went back to my room.
There was a message from Ron on my phone. I called him back, and he said that a number of Cornellians were going out to dinner together. I told him that I'd already eaten, and that I figured I'd seek out my indigenous people. While the Cornell folks gathered for a synergistic repast, I made a bee-line for Oz.
I arrived at the establishment and walked in without blinking. I was surprised to see male dancers on the bar. They weren't totally nude. They either had on boxer-briefs or were otherwise covering their groins. Once I managed to break my gaze I approached a bar tender and ordered a rum and coke. This time it only cost a buck and a quarter. And it was entirely as strong as the one I had ordered the previous night. As I sipped my drink I cased out the surroundings. I was in a small, square room with tall ceiling and square bar in the middle. In an adjacent square room was the dance floor, echoing with throbbing dance music, and dark except the sparkly light projected from the disco ball above.
I skulked around for a bit as I quaffed down my drink. I ordered a second rum and coke. I realized that there was an internal balcony looking down upon on the dance floor. After a few minutes of reconnoitering I discovered the stairway that led up there. I ascended to see a bathroom door directly beyond the top of the stairs with a sign blazing "only one man to a stall at a time - violators will be removed! NO EXCEPTIONS" On one side was a small room with a small bar playing porn videos on a TV. On the other side was a larger room with a larger bar which actually shielded a lot of noise from the dance floor. I went in and ordered a third rum and coke.
I discovered an exit that led out to the balcony overlooking the street. I had somehow assumed that these balconies were privileged spaces and generally not open to the public. But here it was. I wandered out and stood there for a while. I had a pretty good buzz going by this time. I wandered back inside and stood on the balcony overlooking the dance floor. After a few minutes an event of some sort was starting. They cut the music and got everyone off the little stage at one end of the room. A really femmy guy came out with a microphone and announced that the strip dance contest was about to start. This peaked my interest. I was buzzed enough that I could manage the nerve to get out there and take it all off. But I quickly realized that it was only for the "professional" dancers in the employ of the bar. They were all buff muscle guys against who's physiques my skinny body couldn't compare. I watched as each of the three of them took turns dancing to the hoots and hollers of the crowd. People were giving them dollars, which they would occasionally toss back to a waiting bouncer when they'd accumulated too many to hold. After each had taken their turn the femmy guy conducted an applause-based judging of who was best. The biggest, beefiest guy won. The music came back on and things went back to normal. "That was a waste of time," I thought to myself.
I went back downstairs and got yet another rum and coke. I stood by the dance floor and felt my legs involuntarily start bopping to the beat. My interest in dancing, like everything else in my life, is either on or off. The overwhelming percent of the time I have no interest in it whatsoever. But when I get enough drinks in me I sometimes get in the mood. I rather ease into it, but eventually transition into the "dancing fool" stage. I was well on my way. I saw guys dancing up on raised platforms on either side of the little stage. When one of them opened up I decided to hop up and shake my stuff. I was wearing white tennis shorts that barely went down past my crotch, and a shirt which had already been off for some time at this point. I danced for a while, really getting into it, until it dawned on me that I could easily drop my little shorts and dance in my underwear. I was buzzed enough that I didn't let myself think twice about it. Off the shorts came, and there I was wriggling around in my white Hanes briefs. After a few minutes went by I started shaking it more and more. I started doing the pelvic thrust thing to make my package jiggle inside my underwear. Just as I was really going crazy, a bouncer came over and told me I had to put my pants back on. So much for that.
I hopped off the stage and went back up to the balcony that overlooked the street. I struck up a conversation with another guy who was hanging out up there. It turned out that he was a court reporter. I asked him questions about how you work the keypads on those little steno devices they use, and about the stress of having to get every single word exactly right in case they ever have to base a verdict on the transcript. I wasn't really listening to his answers. After a while we went back inside and down to the dance floor. I started dirty-dancing with the guy, rubbing my butt up against his crotch. This went on for a while until I had to go upstairs and take a leak. When I got back down he was nowhere to be found. After a few minutes I started dirty-dancing with a couple of other guys. We made a sandwich with me in between. It was all butts and crotches rubbing back and forth against each other.
This went on for a while until a voice inside my head said it was time to go home. I don't know where this ray of reason came from, but I decided to listen to it. I staggered out of the bar and made my way back to the hotel. As soon as I got into my room I collapsed on the bed and passed out.
Monday, August 9, 1999
Even before I went out the night before, I decided that the general session on the first day was not worth attending. I wasn't interested in a massive, "We're so great" sales pitch. So I slept in and made my way to the convention center in time for other morning sessions. I bumped into about every Cornellian except for Ron and Steph. I attended a couple of morning sessions until it was time for lunch. I walked and walked and walked until I came to the room where lunch was served, which was all the way at one end of the building. I went inside a room so huge they could have parked a 747 inside. I got in line and grabbed some chow. When I sat down and dug in I discovered that it was actually quite good. As a matter of fact it was very good. I wolfed it down and then went off to my afternoon sessions. When I figured I'd learned about enough for one day I got on a shuttle bus and went back to my room for a nap.
The social agenda that night consisted of parties that the consulting firms were throwing. Most people were going to the one that was held in the warehouse where the Mardi Gras floats were stored. It was a place that I'd seen in about every New Orleans travelogue I'd ever watched. Ron, Steph and I met up and got on the waiting bus. We went on this long, circuitous route only to find ourselves at a building practically directly across the river from the French Quarter. We went inside and looked around. It seemed more likely that the floats here were derelict old things that weren't used anymore. Most of them were in pretty rough shape. The party had open bars and free buffets all over the place. We got some drinks and some snacks and wandered around.
There were people doing face paintings, tarot card readings, and drawing caricatures. I wasn't too interested in any of that, but most of the other folks were. Steph got in line for a caricature. Ron sat down to get his face painted. I scoped out the place more. In the main, large room was a band playing cheese rock. All the tables were taken. My feet hurt, I was a little tired, and all I wanted to do was sit down and chill out. I saw an area that looked like it was for employees only, but I decided to explore it. It went past the kitchen entrance, but then led into another large room. There were tables set up and a group of old black guys playing Dixie Land Jazz on the stage at the end of the room. It was practically empty. That was the spot where I wanted to hang out. I went back to collect Ron and Steph. Steph's caricature was almost done. It wasn't a caricature as much as a nice pencil drawing with her head preposterously large compared to her body. Ron's face was all painted. It actually looked really cool.
I told them about the quiet room and they were keen on hanging out there. We got some more drinks, went in, and sat down. The band was playing some song that wasn't exactly Dixie Land Jazz. When they were done they said that they took requests. Ron asked me for the names of some songs. One Summer when I was in college I worked as a bus boy at a resort where they had a local Dixie Land Jazz band play for their Sunday brunches. I used to know the names of all the songs they played, but the only one I could think of at the moment was "All Of Me." Ron ran up and requested it. The guys were only too glad to play it. It was a welcome break from the crap that they'd been playing. They struck up the band and it was really nice to listen to.
We hung out for a while listening to the music. We had a couple more drinks and some more food, but before long people started leaving. We got on a bus and headed back to the hotel. I was going to go to bed, but Ron and Steph coaxed me off to another party. This one was closer by. We went into the bar where it was being held. It was noisy and crowded. On top of that, it was a cash bar. We were pretty disappointed. After a while we discovered that the people representing the consulting firm that was hosting the event were giving away free drink tickets. It was apparently a way to incite people to talk with them. We scored some tickets and ran off to the bar. We had a drink or two apiece, and soon decided it was time to go back. It wound up being a waste of time. I would have been much better off avoiding the extra drinks and getting a little more sleep. We got back to the hotel around midnight, went to our respective rooms, and went to bed.
Tuesday, August 10, 1999
Once again I slept in rather than going to the morning general session. From what I heard it was actually rather interesting. It was about high-tech homes of the future where you can turn lights on and off or start dinner remotely by way of an internet connection. I'm sure I would have enjoyed it, but I enjoyed that extra couple hours of sleep even more.
When I was going into one of my sessions I bumped into Steph attending the same thing. When it was done we met up with Ron at the place they had previously agreed upon, and we went off to lunch together. Once more the lunch food was really good.
I went to a couple of afternoon sessions, but I was really tired and groggy so I went back to my room and took a nap. That evening other people went off to have dinner and do stuff, but I decided I was going to have a quiet night alone in my room and go to bed at a decent hour. I watched TV for a little while, ran across the street and got a fast-food dinner, and watched TV some more. I looked down and saw that no one was in the pool area. I threw on my trunks and went down there. I climbed in the hot tub and soaked for a while. With the whole place to myself I pulled down my trunks for a few minutes and let the bubbly water swirl around my nakedness. I got a bit of a chubby, but soon pulled my trunks back on again.
I went back up to my room, watched TV a little longer, and then turned out the light. Then I lay awake in my bed. Then I lay awake longer. Then longer. Then longer still. It's not at all unusual for me to lie in bed for an hour or more before I finally drift off to sleep. But this was going on a long time even for me. Eventually midnight passed. Then 1AM. I was starting to get pissed. Here I had intentionally stayed in so that I could get a decent night's sleep, and my fucking imbalanced brain decided it was going to keep me up later than if I had gone out partying. That made it even harder to fall asleep because I had to contend with my anger on top of everything else. I think I was finally sleep before 2AM.
Wednesday, August 11, 1999
I had set my watch alarm to go off at 8AM so I could finally make one of the morning sessions. I awoke feeling as tired and wiped out as if I had gotten drunk off my ass the night before. I took a shower, got dressed, and met Ron in the lobby. We waited for Steph to come down. I was feeling really cranky so I just sat there and kept my mouth shut.
We got to the convention hall and had breakfast. I didn't have much of an appetite. Ron and Steph were doing their High School kids routine where they were teasing and taunting each other. I was totally not in the mood for it. I didn't say anything to them directly, but I started spitting and spouting a lot of grumpy rants, rife with venom and bile. Neither of them was going to touch me with a ten foot pole. Eventually I just sort of walked off by myself.
I went to a couple sessions that morning, but I was totally sleeping through them. It was so ironic that I finally decided to be a good boy and behave myself, and yet I felt worse than I'd felt all conference so far. I somehow made it to lunch and went off by myself to grab some food. Once again it was a really good lunch. But I could barely keep my eyes open. There was a session that afternoon that Rick was moderating. There was no way I could miss it, and it would have been really bad if I was sleeping through it. I went back to my room to take a nap.
I slept for an hour or so. I woke up feeling not too terribly bad. I got back to the convention center and found the room where Rick's talk was. He was busy getting things set up, so I just found a chair and sat quietly.
When the session started I realized that Rick was really just introducing another speaker. The guy who spoke, a reasonably nice looking young man whom I'd seen in the vicinity of Rick throughout the conference, actually gave a good talk with useful information delivered with energy and style. It was in fact one of the best sessions I had attended all week.
While the guy was talking I was trying to think of an intelligent question to ask during the Q&A session. I had essentially sat around like a lump every single time I'd been in Rick's presence the whole time. I really wanted to say something, anything, to indicate that I knew what was going on. I thought of a question to ask. It wasn't Earth-shattering, but it was a question. I thought of another one that was not quite as droll. Then as the guy was talking I started wondering about how our experience at Cornell would compare to the story he was telling about his institution. Suddenly it dawned on me that I had my question. Not only would it make for good discussion, I really wanted to know the answer.
The guy got done with his presentation, and Rick stood up to call for questions. I paused just for a moment in case anyone else had anything they wanted to ask. Hearing none I raised my hand and Rick called on me. I started to ask my question. As I was speaking I got caught up in one of those on-the-spot moments. I was listening to myself speak as I was speaking, considering that I was in a room full of people who were listening to my words. My brain sped up as real time slowed down. I considered all the sound waves I was putting out, and how they were traveling to the ears of other individuals in the room, who would each experience and interpret my words uniquely. I thought of how every fraction of a second was trailing off into history forever, and how every fraction of a second that was about to occur was new and unpredictable. I got caught up in the experience of time passing around me, one milisecond at a time, all the while trying to maintain my concentration and keeping my words flowing smoothly. It was a weird distraction, but I ignored it and got my question out.
The speaker liked my question, but he didn't answer it directly. I followed up, and Rick chimed in with his thoughts, then some people in the audience spoke up, and it became an all-around discussion. That was good, not only because it made me look like more than a brain-dead lump, but because it was actually a valuable discussion.
By the time that discussion started dying down time had run out for the session, so they brought things to a close. I hung out afterwards chatting with the speaker and his colleagues. I did this to give the appearance that I was so interested in their information that I wanted to pick their brains further. By a happy coincidence, I actually was so interested in their information that I wanted to pick their brains further.
I left the room with Rick, the speaker, and his colleague. They were off to a late lunch and invited me along. Had I been a little more politically astute I would have joined them despite the fact that I had already eaten and that there was another session I was actually interested in. But I'm not, so I said that there was another session I was interested in and I split off. Still, I was in a pretty good mood, especially compared with my ultra-grumpy condition that morning.
The following session was also rather interesting, but not Earth-shattering. When it was done I decided that was it for me for the day. I went down to the vendor fair and wandered around for a while. Ron and Steph were both into coming away with as much free stuff as they could possibly get. I wasn't into that, first because I wasn't willing to feign interest in the products and services of the people who make you listen to their pitch before they'll give you any goodies, but also because I think it's mostly worthless crap that winds up sitting in the way in drawers and on shelves. I hooked up with one of the consultants I'd been working with for a while at Cornell. He was glad to see me. He gave me a whole bunch of clocks made out of CD-ROMs. That's what his firm was giving away. We hung out for a while, but then I headed back to the hotel.
That night was the big all-convention party. It was to take place in the New Orleans Super Dome. Apparently we had it all to ourselves. That's how big this convention was. When the appointed time came I met up with Ron & Steph in the lobby. I was wearing this silly "Bob's Stores" t-shirt that I'd brought along just for fun. Knowing there was potential that I could get myself into trouble that night, I left my wallet in the room. I had my driver's license, MasterCArd, and hotel key-card tucked into my sock and a few bucks in my pocket.
There was a huge line of people waiting to get on the shuttle busses. The wait didn't turn out to be as long as it looked because the busses kept coming. We got to the dome and there was quite a carnival atmosphere set up outside. They had midway-style attractions set up on the concourse the led to the entrance. We decided to breeze past all that for the time being and head straight inside for the buffets and bars. Once inside the place, it oddly didn't strike me as being as eye-shockingly massive as I'd expected. I'm not sure why, because it was pretty damn massive. Somehow I'd been expecting more. I shared my thoughts with Ron, who smacked me and told me not to be stupid. It was big enough, however, that they had actual carnival rides set up. They had bumper cars, a small Ferris wheel, and others. In the middle was a huge stage set up for the entertainment. The headliners were Earth, Wind, & Fire.
We wandered about for a while and got some drinks. I was going to raid a buffet, but with a drink in one hand and no place to sit down it was impracticable to eat at that moment. There were stationary Mardi Gras floats set up with hot babes throwing beads. Steph, on first sight of beads, had a Pavlovian response and stood below with eyes gaping upwards like a puppy at the dinner table. I stood by patiently waiting. After she'd scored one or two strings of beads we continued on. Further around the floor was a float with a couple beefy muscle boys throwing beeds. This time it was I who had the Pavlovian response. But rather than whoring for beads I just stood there drooling as I stared up at their massive pecs.
After a few minutes of that Ron woke me from my transe. Steph wanted to explore some of the lounges upstairs. She had somehow met a voodoo priestess somewhere who said she'd be at the party. They had arranged to meet up and she'd give Steph a reading. We got in the stands and climbed up to the mezennine level. Circling the structure on that level we found a couple of sizeable lounges, one at either end. One was the "Voodoo" lounge. We went in and poked around for Steph's contact. I found some shrimp, set my drink down on the floor, and dug in. Steph found her reader. She was going to wait in line. Ron and I were to wander around on our own. We'd all rendez-vous at the muscle-boy float at a designated time. I bent down to get my drink and got poked in the eye by some stiff-leaved bayou plant in a pot on the floor. If I didn't wear contacts then it could have been ugly. Rubbing my eye and half-blind, Ron led me out of the Voodoo lounge.
We went around to the lounge on the other side of the dome. It was set up like a casino. They gave us fake paper money on the way in the door. Ron wasn't really into it, but I wanted to play roulette. When I was around thirteen I had a toy roulette wheel and a copy of "Scarne's Complete Guide to Gambling" that I checked out from the library. I sat in my room for days playing roulette all by myself. Eventually I came up with a system. With each roll of the wheel the odds were greater that you'd win than lose, but if you did lose you lost big. In the short run the odds were in your favor, but in the long run they were against you. So in this way it wasn't a true "system," but depending on how long you wanted to push your luck you could come away with some short-term wins.
I ran around the whole place trying to figure out how to exchange this stupid paper money for chips. There were games everywhere, but no banks. Finally we figured out that you got chips right at whatever table you were playing. I went to the least crowded roulette table, got my chips, and started playing. On the first roll I won. Then I won on the second roll. Then again on the third. I was getting a pretty good pile of chips. Ron was getting bored. I figured I'd play one more roll, expecting to lose it all. But I won yet another time. We took off and headed for the floor.
We wandered around a bit, but mostly were waiting for Steph to meet back up with us. The appointed time arrived, and there was no Steph. I was like, "whatever," but Ron was annoyed. We stayed around the muscle-boy float waiting. Soon someone got up on the big central stage and announced that the parade was about to begin and that people had to back out of the way. Some cops came around on their motorcycles with lights ablazing. They cleared a circular path in the crowd around the circumference of the arena. Ron and I were right on the edge of the clearing. We weren't really sure what was going on. But then this little mardi gras parade started unfolding before us. There were floats, and funny figures walking around, and marching bands. This one band stopped right in front of us as they marched in place. A black kid was inches away from me. I leaned over to Ron and said, "I could reach right out and touch him." Ron's response was, "I don't think you want to be spending any time in a Louisiana prison."
Eventually the parade ended and the crowd started to thin out again. Ron and I stayed right by the muscle-boy float, but there was still no Steph. By this time it was well after the meeting time, and Ron was getting downright pissed. "Dude," I said. "She's off having a good time. What do you care?" Ron's issue wasn't so much that he needed to have Steph around, but the general principle that she failed to fulfil a commitment. We went back up to the Voodoo lounge to see if we could find here. Sure enough, she was right there in the palm reader's tent with the reading still going on. Ron was fit to be tied. I chowed some more shrimp while we waited for her to get done. I figured she either had to have been waiting in line forever, or else she dragged her reading out a really long time. Judging by the applause from the other people in line when she got up to leave, I suspected that it was probably the latter.
Ron whispered in my ear that he was too mad to even talk to her. When she came over I greeted her, but Ron mostly ignored her. We walked out with her and me chatting and Ron giving her the silent treatment. This was a little sketchy, but on a pragmatic level it suited me for the moment. The three of us tend to compete for conversation when we're all together, and this gave Steph and me a chance to chat between ourselves. We walked back down to the arena floor. On our way we passed an exit, outside of which a number of people were smoking cigarettes on the concourse. Once down on the floor we wandered for a bit. Ron was still being quiet. Somehow we decided to go for a ride on the Ferris wheel. We got in the relatively long line. I really started craving a cigarette at this point. I hadn't brought any along because I figured there wouldn't be any smoking inside the arena. But I'd had a few drinks, and the sight of the people out on the concourse had me bugging out. Steph told me to go and get it over with. I scampered off.
Once out there I had the dilemma of bumming a smoke from a total stranger. Having a few drinks in my belly I was a little more bold than usual. I walked up to a group of girls and brazenly asked for a smoke. One of them graciously offered me one, if I didn't mind the long, slender girl's brand. I said I'd take anything at this point. Not wanting to be rude I stayed for a chat while I smoked. It turned out that they worked for the same firm as my friend who gave me all the clocks earlier. They took off before my smoke was even done. When I had finished I strolled back inside.
Apparently the line for the Ferris wheel went a lot faster than I'd expected. Ron and Steph were already on board and yelling down to me from their high perch. I sat at a nearby table and waited for them to come down. Within a few minutes they were let off. I met them by the exit line. Ron walked right past me, but Steph was there to tell me how it was. She said that Ron gave her a good talking to and got his anger out of his system. But now he was mad at me for not going on the Ferris wheel like I was supposed to. "Oh please!" I said. I didn't know if this was for real or not, but I wasn't going to put up with Ron's party pooper mood for even a moment.
If he was truly mad he wasn't particularly acting like it. At least not any more than the general malaise that had been his mood for most of the evening so far. We decided that we were going to do every ride that was there. We did the bumper cars. We did the loopty-loop thing that looks like a couple of hammers that swing upside down. We did some centrifuge type ride. That one was something I'd never done before. We walked inside like as if entering a flying saucer. There were a bunch of spots all around the inside circumference where people could lie against the inner wall. They shut the door and it started spinning. In a way it was very disorienting, because there were no windows and there was no visual frame of reference. I just closed my eyes and chilled out to the added g-forces. It was kind of a boring ride, but I must admit I was staggering a bit as we walked away.
From here we went back outside arena to the open-air carnival that was out there. They had this gladiator-style game where two people would fight it out with padded thumper sticks. Ron was hell bent that he and I were going to do this one. I had absolutely no desire to do it, and knew that Ron was going to kick my butt, but I also knew it would be less painful to just capitulate and go through it than it would have been to put up with Ron if I had said no. It was a best 2 out of 3 match.
We got up there and donned our helmets. I believe they were using LaCrosse helmets. I had a terrible time snapping my chin strap into place. As we prepared to begin I contemplated my stragegy. Rather than hold the weapon with each hand placed properly along the shaft, I was going to swing mine like a baseball bat with both hands at one end. The plan was to bop Ron in the head unexpectedly and send him flying. Before I had a chance, though, he smashed me in the conventional way. It knocked me back on my heels, and I abandoned my fancy strategy. He pummelled me a few more times. Pretty quickly he knocked me off my platform.
I got back up and prepared for the next bout. But Ron jumped the gun and knocked me off right away. I called foul, that he'd committed a false start. He confessed and we started the second round again. We went back and forth for a while. I actually managed to land a good one right on his head. I didn't knock him off, but I had caused him to lose his balance. He couldn't regain it and eventually fell off by himself. He got back up and we prepared for the rubber match. I was really out of breath. I'd never done a lot of this fist-to-cuffs stuff before, and didn't realize how aerobically taxing it would be. The final match began and it wasn't long before Ron knocked me on my ass. Expecting all the while to wind up losing, I wasn't particularly put off. Once I got my bearings about me we went to do some of the other activities.
The next event was a 3-story inflatable slide. We climbed up to the top and got in these plastic potatoe sacks that the attendent gave us. Of course with Ron, Steph and me involved, it instantly became a competition. We decided that whoever got to the bottom first won. They did standing starts, where the momentum of them jumping into their sacks was supposed to give them an advantage. I did a sitting start, slapping the surface of the slide to propel myself along like a luge sledder. We were off, and I got to the bottom first. We decided to do it again. I won again. We decided to do it again. They talked me into doing the standing start just for something different. On 1-2-3-Go! I jumped in my sack. But I didn't get in it all the way. Not only did I fail to win this one, but I had a massive rub burn on my elbow, which was not fully inside the bag. That was enough for me.
We wandered in a tent where a Zydaco band was playing. They were very loud. But we were pretty buzzed by this time and could deal with the noise. We discovered they had shrimp. Ron got a huge plate of it and we sat there munching shrimp and laughing at all the uncoordinated, drunken computer nerds who were trying to look cool on the dance floor. We all agreed that computer nerds should not be allowed to dance. With a fairly large pile of uneaten shrimp still on our plate, we walked back out again.
After wandering around for just a little while longer we decided it was time to get on a bus back to the hotel. I'm not sure how late it had gotten, but it must have been past midnight. Despite the fact that I'd been sipping drinks all night, I wasn't as drunk as I expected I would be. I had a buzz going, but I definitely didn't feel "drunk." It took a while to get on a bus that was going back to our hotel, but eventually we were homeward bound. To keep ourselves occupied we played a word game that I use to haze pledges when I visit my fraternity. Soon we were back at the hotel.
As we split up to go to our rooms, I was trying to talk myself out of going to Bourbon Street and having more fun. "Southern Decadence starts tomorrow," I told myself. "Get some sleep tonight and have your real fun tomorrow." I went up to my room where I knew I had two cigarettes left in my pack. Being in a non-smoking room, I had to go back down to the lobby to smoke them. When I got back down there I looked around and didn't see any ash trays on any of the lounge tables. That was the loophole that my drunken mind was looking for. "Well I know they have lots of ashtrays on Bourbon Street," I told myself. "Looks like I'm going out after all."
I put one cigarette behind my ear, lit the other one, and I was off. I staggered along at a fairly quick pace. I hadn't gone a block before some big black guy asked if he could bum a smoke. "This is my last one," I said. It wasn't until I'd walked past him that I realized he would have been able to plainly see from the other cigarette behind my ear that this was not actually my last one. But I didn't care. I just kept on walking.
I made a bee-line for Oz as I finished my smoke. The walk was actually kind of nice, because it was early enough that Bourbon St. was still closed off to vehicular traffic, but late enough that the crowds were really thin (relatively speaking). I walked in the door, ordered my Rum & Coke, and went straight up to the balcony overlooking the street. There was a guy just outside the door leaning up against the railling. I walked up to him, pulled my last cigarette out from behing my ear, and asked for a light. He introduced himself as Ryan (not his real name (I'm not protecting his identity or anything, I just can't remember his real name)). He wasn't a bad looking fellow. He had a handsome face with short dark hair, a sharp jaw line, and a slightly pointy nose. He was a couple inches shorter than I am, and he was just a bit on the stocky side, but he looked fit and not a bad overall package. We quickly struck up a conversation. He was smoking Marlboro 100's, so I was able to bum off him and keep smoking. At this point my drinking started catching up with me. I was still only drinking the one drink that I'd gotten since I arrived at Oz, but I was now pretty well in the "trashed" category.
Ryan wound up being fairly interesting. He was a military brat, and had moved around a lot as a kid, but he was originally from Virginia and his family self-identified as Virginians. He actually had quite a line of military men in his paternal family. Until recently he had been a teacher. But a mere 60 days earlier he moved to New Orleans and started making more money as a back bouncer in a bar. His apartment was in what used to be the slave quarters of a nearby historic manner house. We babbled on and on as I asked him ever more deeply probing questions about himself and his past. His father was now dead and his mother had drank herself into a clinical depression. He, however, seemed to be pretty well-adjusted and happy.
After this had gone on some time he asked me if I wanted to go into the bathroom with him. I wasn't sure what he was up to. I was pretty drunk, but I still wasn't up for any sex in a stall, especially after all the overt signs I'd seen everywhere stating that it was expressly forbidden. He pulled a little vial out of his pocket.
"Do some blow," he said.
That was a different matter. Despite my intoxicated condition I still should have had better sense than to say yes. But I hadn't done any blow in a long time. Generally it's about once a year or so that I find myself in a situation where I'm offered some. I never seek it out, but if someone hands it to me I'll usually accept. Based on my long-standing pattern of use I have no fear that it will ever become any kind of dependency. I shrugged my shoulders and we were off.
We went in a stall, locked it behind us, and each did a couple bumps (one for each nostril). It's probably a good thing that I was too drunk to be paranoid, because it was a pretty serious thing we were doing. But there we were. I don't recall anyone else being in the bathroom at the time, but we were hardly hiding what it was that we were doing. It was over quickly, anyway, and we were on our way out with no hassles.
We got another couple drinks. I treated because he was feeding me so many smokes. I don't know what we got. It was some New Orleans specialty that Ryan recommended. I think it was like a toned-down Long Island Ice Tea made with more Southernly-oriented liquors. We went right back out to the balcony and continued our disussion. This went on for an underemined length of time as we discussed topics I've long since forgotten. But the more time went on the more I was becoming enthralled with this character. I think it was a phenomenon analagous to beer goggles, but pertaining to someone's personality rather than his looks. I know he wasn't truly as interesting as I thought he was at the time, but I was getting off on believing that he was. I kept saying things to him like, "How do I always manage to stumble on to these amazing people. All I did was ask you for a LIGHT, and here we are."
We drank our drinks pretty slowly, but we were sucking down the cigarettes at a brisk rate. At one point we went back into the bathroom for another round of bumps. I was wide awake at this point. After some further discussion on the balcony he started making overatures towards inviting me over to his place. I was all fucked up and wired, and as soon as I determined that it was only a couple blocks away, I was like, "Sure, lets go." He remained sheepish, however, and kept making inviting remarks in a very demure way. I was still, "Dude, I'm there." Finally we walked out of the bar and headed to his place. I deliberately said to myself that I should make note of the way we went so that I could find my way home when I left. I then proceeded to wander off blindly as I followed him to our destination completely oblivious to the route we were taking.
Very quickly we came upon a large set of double doors in a large stone building. It was very inconspicuous. It opened up to a stone passageway that led into the central courtyard of the manner house. When we were standing outside I didn't consider the layout of this form of architecture. The facade was unassuming, but the beauty lay within. The courtyard was very narrow, but it extended for some distance. These spaces consumed precious real estate in these tight quarters, and while this didn't seem large at first blush, I knew that it was quite sizeable for what it was. Ryan confirmed my perception by boasting that it was the largest courtyard in the French Quarter. We peered into some of the windows in the main house. The owners were away so we didn't have to worry about disturbing anyone. It was a glorious interior. In many ways it reminded me of the Victorian home I grew up in in Watertown NY, but larger and more grand in this case. The furnishings were exquisite.
Ryan led me towards the back of the courtyard and up some steps to the balcony that overlooked it on that side. This was his apartment: the old slave quarters. We went inside and he turned on the lights. It was actually a delightful little apartment. When I thought of "slave quarters" I thought of windowless rooms and chain brackets mounted on cold stone walls. But in this context the slaves would have had duties akin to those of a butler and maid. There was a quaint old-fashioned kitchen, and a corridor along the bathroom leading to the bedroom.
We sat in his kitchen and lit a couple cigarettes. He asked me if I wanted another drink. I did. He pulled an odd looking bottle out of his cupboard.
"You won't believe what this is," he said. After I shrugged my shoulders, he said, "absinthe."
I didn't believe it.
I first learned of absinthe in Art History class. We looked at one French impressionist painting called, "L'absinthe Drinker." It was a sad looking woman sitting alone in a bar glancing balefully down at her full drink. The point of the scene was that absinthe was an addictive substance. There was an ingredient that I understood to be of opiate origin which caused physical addiction. The painting was a portrayal of the desperation associated with chemical addiction, and the nature of addiction whereby the woman didn't really want any more, and yet there it was in front of her. I learned more about absinthe when I watched the film "Total Eclipse." I only saw it because I knew that Leonardo Decaprio was naked in it. I didn't care for the movie (or Leo's oddly-proportioned pubescent body), but it was all about 19th Century poets in Paris. They were always drinking absinthe, and the mentor character spoke of it as being the poets' secret fountain of inspiration.
I had thought that it was since banned in France, but I KNEW that it was banned in the United States. As a matter of fact, Ryan boasted that he'd had it smuggled in. I forget the source he cited. But the bottle certainly looked like nothing I'd ever seen before, and believe me I've been in a lot of liquor stores in my day. It was a darkly translusent glass bottle with a green tinge of color. It was squarish in shape, tapering with ascending curves to the neck. The label was light green with dark green ink, complimenting the hue of the glass, and was ornate in a simple way. The label looked very old. I mean, the paper was new and it was clearly a fresh printing, but it appeared as if that label looked precisely like all those that had come before it for generation upon generation. I believed it to be authentic, and in a town like New Orleans, black-market absinthe is not an implausible thing.
I never even thought about whether I should have some or not. It was like in that Simpsons episode where Homer joins a traveling show where they shoot a cannon at his belly. He's telling Marge of his plans, and she says, "You don't have to run off and join a freak show just because the opportunity came along." Homer stares at her brifely, and then calmly says, "You know Marge, in some ways you and I are SO different." When it came to the absinthe, I was exactly like Homer. There was nothing to consider. This was a rare opportunity, and one that may never come again. The fact that it was a controlled substance wasn't much of a factor, considering what I'd been up to in the bathroom.
In "Total Eclipse," the absinthe was served in a glass with something that looked like a sugar cube suspended above it. When they were ready to drink it, water was poured through the sugar cube into the absinthe. I was about to mention that to Ryan when I saw him doing exactly the same thing. He said that the absinthe had the taste of licorrice. I winced. Here I was anticipating this magical elixir, and I learn that it tastes like black jelly beans.
There are two kinds of people in this world," I said to Ryan. "No, two kinds of people in this entire solar-- the whole fucking cosmos." Ryan looked back at me hesitantly. "People who love black jelly beans," I said, "and people who hate them." Ryan smiled. "I must confess that I fall into the latter category."
Ryan was still smiling as he looked back down to his task. "You pour it through the sugar because the licquor is kind of bitter. The sweetness cuts it a little bit. You don't drink it for the taste anyway"
That was actually good news to me. One reason I hate those licorrice tasting licquors is because they're so damn sweet. Ryan handed me the glass, we toasted, and I took a sip. There was a distinct licorrice taste, but it wasn't too bad. It wasn't the basis of the flavor. It was as if it was there to cover up an underlying taste that was even more nasty by comparison. It's not unusual for psychadelic potions to be well on the nasty side of tasting. I couldn't complain about this one.
We sipped our drinks as we continued talking. He fired up his computer and I took him to my web page. I tried to explain what I was up to on an artistic level, but Ryan didn't have the attiontion span for it at the time. I brought up some of my favorite images. He wasn't looking very closely at any of them, but I didn't care because I was. That went on for a while, but then I gave up. We continued talking. He mentioned that his grandfather was at Pearl Harbor.
"Really?!?" I said. "Tell me about it."
Things got very quiet as he sighed heavily before telling his woeful tale. He quietly began to speak. His manner of speaking changed some. It went from a subtle southern undertone to more of a Virginian aristocratic speech. He spoke with great pause and subdued emotion. What he said was fascinating, but the way he said it put it over the top. I began to wonder if maybe I HAD stumbled upon someone very special.
"My grandfather was in the barracks," Ryan said softly. "He was playing... pinochle... I believe..." He paused as he looked up towards the ceiling. "And then the planes came." Ryan went on about the battle, and how his grandfather managed to survive, all the while trying to save his fallen comrades. "And that was the last we saw of him," Ryan stated with some finality. "For three... years..." With renewed vigor he continued, "The women all carried on as if they weren't afraid. But in all the things they did... and all the things they said... they could never hide the fact that deep down inside... all they cared about... was when their men would be coming home..."
By the time his pauses finally led to a final silence, I shook my head and told Ryan that I'd never heard anyone tell a story like that before. I said I wished I'd had my camcorder with me so that I could have captured the moment to share with other people.
Ryan snapped back to reality a bit. We refreshed our drinks and continued talking. Ryan had taken himself down a nostalgic road, however. It was a road paved in absinthe and littered with cocain. Before long virtually everything he was saying was wistfully emotional prose spoken in his affected Southern arisotcratic voice. When this all began it was quite gripping, but it was quickly becoming annoying. We managed to keep a conversation going until we ran out of cigarettes. The party was winding down. It was either time for me to go home or for us to start doing something different. It didn't take much for us to get naked and scamper into the bedroom.
We climbed up on his big old-fashioned double bed and started kissing and touching. That led to a little sucking. We were going back and forth and doing this and that, and making pillow-talk. Then all of a sudden he says to me, "You understand that under normal circumstances I never would have invited some like you up here."
"Uhhhh..." I said. "Okay... How come?"
"Why," Ryan said. "Because you're a Yankee, of course."
"Yeah," I said. "Of course." I didn't really know what to make of that, but Ryan was back to fooling around affectionately, so I didn't give it much of a second thought.
We kept getting into it, and the pillow-talk turned to dirty talk. I was lying on my back and he was lying on top of me. I said something. Honestly, I don't remember what it was. It must have been some coy remark about him being a "Southern boy." Whatever it was, he instantly shot up in bed.
"No!" he shouted. "I will NOT have you subscribe to that 'Hollywood' stereotype of the fine Southern people." He was squatting on my ankles, sitting up before me as he began to rant, with me lying naked, essentially trapped below him. He really started to rant, too. I would have been freaked out, but I could tell that he wasn't shouting *at* me. He was proclaiming things to the world. It was all an emotional, but fairly trite diatribe of the Southern plight. He went on about "Northern agression." At one point he said something like, "Virginians FOUNDED this country. It was all Virginians. And we burned Richmond to the ground OURSELVES before we'd let it fall into the hands of the Yankees." Later on it was, "and that DAMN bastard Lincoln!!!" I really couldn't believe what I was hearing. I had heard that they were still fighting the war down there, but I didn't quite expect it to erupt at a time like this in a situation like this. Ryan began to taper off a bit. "And for what..." he said. "For cotton. It was all just for cotton." He caught himself and raised a finger. "No. It WASN'T only about cotton."
This was my one chance to get back in it. "It was about states' rights, wasn't it."
"Yes," he said. "That's exactly what it was about." He went on a bit more, but in a more calm manner.
That was the only thing that I knew about the Civil War. I knew that more than cotton or even slavery, it was about what a state had the right to do versus what the federal government said it had to do. I never thought it would come in handy, but that comment serverd to bring Ryan back down to reality. Very shortly after that he was cuddling up at my side apologizing for his outburst. We just kind of started fooling around again like it had never happened. I was still a little freaked out, but I didn't feel threatened or anything. I knew that he came from a long line of military men, and when I realized that they were all "Southern" military men, passing stories and values down from one generation to the next, that this was something that ran very deep in Ryan.
As if to compensate for the awkwardness, the sex kicked up into high gear. I'll spare the reader the proctological details, except to say that at one point I had Ryan bent over the bedstead, pounding him hard enough from behind to cause the volume of bed's creaking to likely be audible from the street. We fucked eachother until we couldn't fuck any more. Finally I heard my watch beep out in the kitchen. I had set the alarm to get me up at 8AM the previous morning to finally make it to a general session. I had been up for 24 hours. I told Ryan that I really had to get some sleep. Within seconds we were both passed out.
Thursday, August 12, 1999
I drifted in and out of sleep until I heard Ryan's antique wall clock chime. It rang nine times. I'd been sleeping roughly for an hour. Ryan was still sawing wood.
There was a half day at the conference in the morning, and then it was all over. I didn't know what the agenda was, but I knew I wasn't going to see any of it. Ron and I weren't flying out until the next day. All I had to do was get to my hotel room and I could sleep all day.
I extricated myself from the arm that Ryan had draped over me. He didn't so much as stir. I stood up naked and limped into the kitchen. I found my clothes on the floor and got dressed. As I was tying my shoes a stroke of panic ran through me as I realized I didn't know where my ID and key-card were. By the grace of God I found them lying right on the counter. I stuffed them in my sock and quietly opened the door.
I crept down the stairs to the courtyard. The sun was up, but there was a drizzling rain. The courtyard looked vaguely familiar, but I didn't know which way to go. Having only two choices, I found the exit pretty quickly. I walked down to the end of the passage where the large double-doors were. I went to open the door, but it was locked. I checked it out, and was agahast to see that the dead bolt required a key even on the inside. I began to panic. I'm not sure why. I could have just walked back into the bedroom, woke up Ryan, and told him I had to get to the conference. But for reasons I don't understand, that was not an option at the time. I felt like I HAD to get out, and out NOW. I looked at the secondary door. It had vertical dead bolts at the top and bottom. I pulled each one, and was able to ease the doors open with the main dead bolt sliding out of its fitting on the secondary door. I opened them just enough to slip my skinny body through, and then I turned to close them again. I couldn't finesse the dead bold back into place quite right, so I just closed the doors as much as I could and skulked quickly away.
My first concern was finding my way home. I remembered telling myself the night before that I should pay attention to where I was going, but I had no clue where I had gone. I went to the first street corner and looked around. I looked above the buildings. On one side I saw nothing but gray sky. On the other side I saw all the high-rise buildings that line the other side of Canal St. "Whew!" I said, as I ambled off in the direction of my hotel. The rain was drizzling down at a fair pace, but in the steamy August Louisianna climate it was not all uncomfortable. On the contrary. I felt like the sky was God's shower, cleansing me of the previous night's debauchery.
I was quickly back at my hotel. I zipped in the door, and headed straight for the elevators. Fortunately it was late enought that people weren't hanging out in the lobby. I got in an elevator and pressed the button for my floor. As the doors closed I said a prayer that it would go all the way to my floor without stopping. All I had to do was make it past the second floor, and then it would express up to the top half of the building. It was designed to stop on the second floor for other people heading to the upper half of the building, and then went straight to the upper floors. The elevator started moving up, and then it beeped and opened for the second floor. "Damn!" I said to myself.
Who should walk in but one of the Cornell people. "Hey!" he said as he saw me. "Howzit goin'?"
"Uhhhnnn..." I replied.
The doors closed and we started shooting upward. "What time did you get in last night?" he asked me.
I looked at my watch. It was 9:17. "Nine Seventeen," I said.
He laughed. Then he paused. "You serious?" he asked.
I looked down at myself. I was wearing the same silly yellow t-shirt that I wore to the party. I could see that it was splattered with rain drops as I pulled it away from my lithe, hungover body. My eyes were blood-shot and my hair must have looked a mess. "Yes," I said. "I'm serious." The only saving grace of this whole encounter was that the guy I bumped into was fairly young and had a reputation himself as being quite the partier at these events. We rode along in silence as I stared at my feet. We got to my floor and I got off. I walked past all the black cleaning ladies speaking Creole and ducked inside my room. I put the "Do Not Disturb" sign out, locked the door, pulled the draperies, and fell into bed.
I slept on and off for several hours. Later in the day, after the conference had completely wound down, Ron stopped by to check on me. He told me that I now had the reputation among the Cornellians as being the undisputed party animal of the trip. Just what I needed to hear. He told me that he was on his way to the French Quarter to buy souveniers for his wife and baby daughter. He also told me that I was coming with him, like it or not, so I might as well get my sorry ass outta bed and save him from having to haul it out for me. I needed to get out and shake my bones anyway, so I didn't resist.
As I was throwing on some clothes he told me that it was raining out and that I'd need an umbrella. Ron and I have this umbrella thing. I really hate umbrellas and I won't use one under any circumstances. He always gives me grief about it. I have a lot of reasons for not liking umbrellas, but the show-stopper is I don't want to look like a pussy. Ron always argued that he used to think that way too, until once in college he was walking across campus in the rain. He was the only one who didn't look like a pussy, but he was also the only one who was sopping wet. He got over it then and there. He could never accept any of the many other reasons I would cite to him, and it remained a point of conention. But this day I told him to just leave me alone. "I've already walked home through the rain," I said. "It's not that bad."
On our way out of the hotel we stopped in the lobby and made reservations for the airport shuttle the next day. Unlike SuperShuttle in San Francisco which picked you up at just the right time like a taxi, this van came only at a few designated times throughout the day. We had two choices: either ridiculously early or pretty much damn right on time. I always like to have a comfortable buffer, but I really didn't want to be sitting in an airport for a couple hours either. I asked Ron his opinion, but he totally abdicated judgement to me. Usually he's the masculine take-charge type, but I guess he knew I was *way* more anal about these things than he was, and he trusted me to get us there on time. I reluctantly went for the "on time" departure.
We walked out of the hotel and up Canal St. Ron was trying to maneuver his umbrella through the onslaught of other umbrellas out on the street, and I slithered my way through the crowd. The rain felt warm and cleansing, as it had that morning. I still hadn't showered off my previous night's sins. We got into the French Quarter and Ron wandered in and out of every souveneir shop we passed. He really just wanted to get it over with. He was totally not into shopping. But he was also picky about what to get. He wasn't going to just grab the first crap he saw and be done with it. I tried to toss in recommendations. I was role-playing a heterosexual as I evaluated what would sincerely be a nice gift.
"How about a refrigerator magnet?" I suggested. "Then every time your wife opens the fridge she'll see it and think to herself, 'What a thoughtful man I have for a husband.' And, it'll be like when she's getting food out. So she'll want to cook you a big, hearty meal because you're so wonderful." I actually thought I had a good point, but he wasn't buying it.
We walked along for some time. Every bar in the quarter was open. I briefly considered a little hair off the dog, but knew it would be a waste of money. Before too terribly long Ron had found stuff that he was happy with. We wandered around a little longer just for the hell of it, and then strolled back to the hotel.
Later that evening everyone was going out to Emeril's local restaurant. When Ron learned he was going to New Orleans, the first thing he did was make these reservations. I was less than enthusiastic. Earlier in the week he pointed out that I'd have to get dressed up for the event. All week I'd been wearing my standard road apparel of blue jeans and a white under shirt. I didn't even care what Rick would think. That's what I wear when I travel, period. Ron told me that a reastaurant like Emeril's would surely require a colar. I went bolistic. "Hey," I said. "This is what I choose to wear. If some bogus TV personality like Emeril is going to curb my freedom of expression then to Hell with him!" Ron, unprepared for my rant on such a subject, fought back with arguments of culture and decorum. I was unmoved. I eventually decided that I would arrive in what I was wearing. If they sat me then fine. If not I'd walk away. But it was moot at this point, as there was no way I was going to make it to any dinner of any kind.
I went back to my room and hung out while the others got together and presumably went off to the restaurant. Later on I finally had somewhat of an appetite and went out for fast food. After watching more TV I shut off the lights and went to bed. My sleep cycle was whacked, but I was exhausted enough that it didn't take me too long to drift off to sleep.
Friday, August 13, 1999
I got up feeling not too bad. I grabbed a quick shower, threw on some clothes, and walked down to Burger King for some breakfast. It was an interesting experience, with the local weirdo's all milling about, eating their fast food, and speaking in strangce voices about esoteric topics. I wolfed my food down toot sweet and walked straight back to the hotel. Ron was just on his way out. He scolded me for not getting him before I ate, and said my punishment was to accompany him right back to Burger King to keep him company while he ate. Right back in I went, and 90% of the weirdo's were still there in the same places doing the same things.
I grabbed a paper while Ron got his food. He sat down, saw what I was reading, and said, "Do you think the local paper will have any Formula 1 news in the sports section?" Earlier that Summer he and I had been doing a public access TV show on the Formula 1 race season. He always needled me about the popularity of NASCAR in this country, and being in the deep South his ubiquitous barb had a slightly sharper point on it. We talked about how the F1 season was going. We had dumped the show because it took too much time and effort, but the race season was really heating up and there was lots to discuss. I wondered if any of the other weirdo's in the place was listening in on our esoteric conversation.
We went back to the hotel and killed time as we casually packed. I had stuffed all my belongings back into my bag, loaded up my carry-on with CDs and magazines, and was ready to go. Ron was neatly folding all his stuff, putting it in the designated bags, and arranging them by the door just like a homo. I noticed that my throat was kind of raw. It had been a little tender all morning, but I had attributed that to all the butts I'd smoked the other night. But by this time it was getting worse. It started to feel like a throat cold coming on. I wasn't looking forward to that.
We checked out in plenty of time and sat in the breezeway looking for our shuttle. This big Lincoln Continental pulled up and a flashy black couple got out. I watched the porter collecting the bags from the trunk. I noticed he was the only white porter on duty.
"There's something I haven't seen yet this trip," I said to Ron.
"A white man carrying a black man's bags."
We started talking about it. I didn't say it to be mean. It was just a fact that every single service-oriented person I'd seen was black wherever I'd gone all week. I saw blacks serving whites, and blacks serving blacks, but I never saw a white serving a black, or anyone else for that matter. Ron had noticed the same thing. We pondered why that might be.
The conversation abruptly ended when the shuttle arrived. The black driver got out and helped us put our bags in the back. We hopped in, and we were off. I was comfortable. We didn't have a hell of a lot of time, but I expected we would be okay. The airport wasn't that far away. I watched where the driver went to see how good of a sense of direction I'd acquired during my stay. It didn't look to me like we were going the right way. As a matter of fact it didn't look like we were going much of anywhere. We were actually going in circles. I didn't know what was going on, until it dawned on me that we might have other passengers to pick up. Whenever I'd taken the SuperShuttle in San Francisco, I was always the last one to be picked up. But of course that was always at 5 o'clock in the morning. On this occasion we picked up one more passenger. I was praying that we'd head to the expressway. But the driver kept going in circles again. This time he was litterally doing laps around one particular block. Finally he stopped and radioed in to the base. He was trying to confirm where the next pick-up was. Half of me was saying he should just book and get the rest of us there. But the other half thought of how uncontrollably pissed I'd be if a shuttle failed to pick me up. We circled a few more times as precious minutes ticked away. Finally he peeled off and got on the expressway.
The trip went very quickly from here. That is, until we got to the long, long access road that led to the terminal. We had to maintain a very overtly posted 35 miles per hour. More minutes ticked on as we crept along. At least US Air was the first for drop-off at the terminal. Ron and I were the first ones off the van. We speculated on how close we were cutting it as we gathered our bags and headed in.
"As long as there isn't a big line at the counter we should still be okay."
We went inside and saw an absolutely huge line at the counter. At this point I was actually able to put my nerves on hold. We had to wait in this line, period. There was nothing we could do to make it go faster or get them to keep the plane on the ground. We had no control over the situation, so I just chilled.
Then Ron said, "I have a bad feeling about this."
He's usually not one to make comments like that. He's usually an obstinate optimist. I really didn't need to hear him say that. My confident, chilled-out demeanor crumbled.
"So, what were you trying to accomplish by sharing that with me?" I asked rhetorically. "You don't think I've got a bad feeling about this too? Why do you gatta go and validate it???"
"What?" he reared. "I'm just commenting on our situation..."
I grumbled and cringed as we waited in the ridiculously long line. Some times it would move right along. Other times we would stand in the same place for ever. When we got up closer I could see all the people at the counter and evaluate how quickly each one was going to move. I swear, I really don't know what could take so long at an airline counter. I always hand them my tickets and ID, drop off a bag if I'm checking one, and I'm gone. There was one kid in particular who had been there a long time. He was really cute, actually, but he'd been talking to this one lady ever since I could see the head of the line. I began to despise him. As other people continued to mosey along, he remained there.
Eventually a woman entered the scene, opened another window, and proclaimed that anyone for Pittsburgh should go straight to her. At first I was psyched, but it turned out that pretty much the whole line moved over there. Where we previously had 3 operators working for us (it would have been 4 if it wasn't for that damned kid), now we only had one. What was left of the other line was actually moving faster. But we were told that we now had to go only through this one window. At least no one was dawdling. Everyone was processed promptly. In a few long minutes I was at the head of the line. I got through quickly and stepped towards our concourse. I wanted to run *SO* bad! I wanted to sprint to the gate. But Ron had fallen a couple people behind me when they switched to the other window. I knew that if I abandoned him I'd never hear the end of it, *especially* if I made it and he didn't. I tapped my foot like I was driving a rivet. Ron got up to the window quickly, but now for some reason *he* was taking a long time. The marble floor was now starting to crack under my tapping foot.
Finally he was through and we took off. I told him how badly I wanted to run, and he should appreciate my dedication to stand by a comrade. He actually said that in these situations it's every man for himself, and he would have forgiven me if I'd done so.
"Well," I said. "I wouldn't have forgiven you if you'd done that to me. Remember that for future reference."
We got to the gate just as they were announcing the final boarding call. We'd made it. We weren't seated together on the plane, but we were on the plane and everything was fine. The flight to Pittsburgh was noneventful. Once in the Pittsburgh terminal we had a bit of a wait, and then we were on our way home. On this leg we did sit together. We discussed F1. The guy by the window was a NASCAR fan.
We got home on a Friday, so I had the whole weekend to recouprate before going into the office. It was even Labor Day weekend, so I even had an extra dat. The problem was that my throat did get worse, and it developed into a full-blown cold. I was miserable on Saturday. I figured whatever it was, I probably caught it from Ryan. Sunday I started to feel a little better. I felt good enough, in fact, that I had the two beers that had been in the fridge since I'd been on the wagon. That got me enough of an alcohol buzz that I wanted a little more. I zipped to the corner store and got another six pack.
I sat down and started writing this story. I was sucking down cigarettes and swigging beer at an alarming pace. When I write I get totally caught up in it, and it becomes a habit to puff a smoke or sip a drink repeatedly. In a couple hours I'd finished off the whole six pack. That was eight beers in my belly in not a lot of time. And it was still early. I got it in my head to drive out to the local gay bar. It was the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend. There had been a picnic on the grounds earlier in the day, so I figured the bar would be packed. I was still okay enough (in my mind) to drive out there, but I knew I'd have to pimp myself out for a ride home. I was ready to throw caution to the wind.
As soon as I got on the road I started seeing cops. It was a big DWI weekend, and they were out in force. I should have turned right around and gone home, but I was undeterred. I arrived without mishap, and found the place to be practically deserted. There was a dance class going on on the dance floor. It was Argentinian Tango. It didn't look like any Tango I'd ever seen. All the people were moving slowly and were entirely devoid of passion.
I got a drink and weaseled into whatever conversation I could find. I actually met some interesting people as I pounded down drink after drink. I eventually wound up with this one guy. He was probably late twenties and a couple inches shorter than I am. He had beautiful blonde hair, but he was balding badly. Somehow he reminded me of my favorite F1 driver, Jacques Villeneuve. I'm not sure why, because he didn't look a thing like him. But his small stature and fading blonde hair must have been it. It turned out that he lived close to me. He agreed to drive me home.
Soon it was last call. We finished our drinks and got into his car. We didn't talk much as we drove along. I asked him questions but he was quiet and didn't talk much. Finally we got to my place. I invited him in, but I think he was already expecting to come in. We went up to my TV room, where I have a full lenght sleeping mat on the floor. We pretty quickly got naked and started rolling around. But all we did was kiss. I think that was my idea. I like a lot of old-fashioned closed-mouth kissing when I make out. Very few people value that. Whenever I kiss another man he always dives into a wide, open-mouth kiss with his tongue everywhere. This guy and I just kissed and kissed and kissed. It was nothing but lips pressing against lips. We also touched eachother's dicks a bit. He wasn't too big, but he was nice and hard. After a while I realized that he'd been tugging on my flaccid dick for some time. I was so drunk that I wasn't getting hard at all. I grabbed it myself a little, and in a while it came up a little bit.
This went on for a while until we both ran out of steam. It must have been pushing four in the morning. I invited him to stay over and he climbed in bed with me.
The next morning I woke up way earlier than he did. I was now totally horny. I wanted to get off with him, but he was still sleeping. I lay there for a while trying to go back to sleep myself, but it wasn't happening. I got up and went downstairs to kill time, remaining naked all the while. Finally I heard some stirring upstairs. I didn't want to run up and pounce on him right out of bed, so I stayed downstairs for a minute or two. I went up and found him in the TV room totally dressed. I threw on some shorts.
We went downstairs and stood in the kitchen. Knowing that we weren't going to be doing any fooling around, I kind of just wanted him to take off. From the looks of him he just wanted to take off himself. But neither of us wanted to be rude, so we just kind of stood there for a minute or two. But we pretty quickly knew our goals were aligned, so we said goodbye, he got in his car and drove away.
Physuically I felt totally like stool. The cold was back in full force. To make matters worse I was tired and severely hung over... again! I always tell myself that I'll do my partying when I'm on the road, but that when I come home I have to get back on the wagon. I usually have one last in-town fling before I successfully clean my act up again, and this time I certainly had one. The cold had moved down into my chest. I had a lot of congestion, and my voice sounded like Froggy on the Little Rascals. My car was still out at the club, but I couldn't even think about leaving the house to go get it. It didn't matter anyway, because there wasn't anyone I was going to call on Labor Day to fetch my car after my drunken binge. I watched TV all day and went to bed early.
The next morning I had to be to work. I definitely qualified for a sick day and by all rights should have stayed home, but I knew that word would be spreading of my party escapades during the trip. It stood to reason that it would look like I was feigning illness if I was out sick even after having a long holiday weekend to recover. I wanted people to see me and hear my voice and know that I was legitimately ill.
The only problem was that my car was still out at the club. The only other vehicle I had that was road-worthy at the time was my motorcycle. As fate would have it, it was raining that morning. But I could still deal. I had a full rain suit, and all I had to do was ride it to the club where I'd exchange it for my car. I figured riding in the rain was my pennance for my failure to correct the errors of my ways more promptly.
I went out to the barn and got on the bike. I hit the starter button, and it made a sick, uggging sound. The battery was dead. I almost broke down. If I couldn't get the bike going then I was stuck with no transportation. I was trapped in a snarled web woven of my own bad judgement. I was at my wits end. Then I thought about what it meant to be trapped there. I really should have been back in bed anyway, so I just wouldn't come into work at all that day. Hey! Problem solved. It was amazing how simple it was. I decided I'd give the bike one more try, and then I'd go back inside and climb under the covers.
Oddly, the bike fired right up. There must not have been enough juice when I first turned it on cold. At any rate, I was back to Plan A. I rode along in the rain, surprisingly comfortable. I sometimes like riding in the rain. If you have your suit on properly then you remain perfectly dry. It's like you're a space man completely protected in an impregnable protection suit. I got to the club and saw my car was still there. I didn't think the owner would tow it or anything, but I just get to worrying in situations where things can go wrong. As a matter of fact the owner was out in the parking lot doing some odd jobs. I rode up to him an apologized for having left the car. He said that as long as it's not blocking the dumpster then he really didn't care.
I tucked the bike in the far corner of the lot, walked back to my car, removed my rain suit, and climbed in. I got into the office only about an hour and a half after the start of business. I checked my calendar and saw that it was largely clear for the week. I saw a couple of people who could *definitely* tell I had a bad cold. They all told me to get on home.
The cold lasted all week. I got a fever the next day that wouldn't go away. It wasn't a high fever, only around 99 to 100, but it stayed day after day. My throat was also more fucked up than it had ever been. My glands were so swolen that I was afraid I had Toncelitis. I even went to the doctor. She said it looked ugly, but it wasn't serious. Still, it caused me sharp pain whenever I swallowed. Try sleeping when it hurts to swallow. It can't be done. On the worst night I finally got a towel and laid it on my pillow so I could just drool myself to sleep.
My ex Darnell was in town the following weekend. The fevor was pretty much down during the day, but my throat was still a mess. I managed to get out of the house and visit with him for a few hours. I could tell he really wanted to fool around, but it was out of the question. Early into the next week the fever finally faded, and I started easing back into a regular work schedule. It was a couple more weeks before I was finally rid of the cold altogether.
So what did I learn from all this? I learned that New Orleans is the biggest party town I'd ever been to. There was something about it. You can get just as drunk in other places, but you won't be as fucked up. I learned that you can get caught up with wierd people and catch nasty colds when you go home with people you don't know. I still had to wait three to six months to find out if I'd caught anything worse. The big question is, "Did I learn my lesson?" Time will tell. Time will tell...