Convergence 2010, Day One

Like a child on his first day of kindergarten, I set off with a combination of fear and excitement, dread and longing. With my family watching, I took that first pivotal step away from the car, a giant step toward that door which would lead me to the next big thing in my life, a new adventure in learning and friendship and many other endless, glorious possibilities. The backpack on my shoulder safely carried my lunch and my important supplies for my big day, helping to put my mind at ease just a little bit. Heart pounding, I looked back, half hoping to see my family calling me back, demanding that I stay with them and not walk through that door. Their smiles and waves reassured me that I must continue, so I turned and walked through the door, feeling it close slowly behind me. The click of the door closing acted like a switch and my mind was immediately filled with sounds, scents and sights that were at once uniquely new as well as oddly familiar. I took another step in, allowing myself to be consumed by the cacophony of the other people filling the small room, all, I assume, just as eager and excited as I was.

A blurry-sounding message came over the speaker, sounding much like the teacher from the Charlie Brown cartoons. Ignoring it since I couldn’t understand it, I continued in and settled down on a bench to rest during the thirteen minute wait before getting started. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was on a peaceful, sandy beach on a warm, summer day. Suddenly, the feeling of sharp pressure on my foot brought me back from the beach, back to the hard bench in the dim room, back to the foul stench of humanity which surrounded me in the slimy, dirty train station.

Back to the realization that I hate business travel. Or vacation travel. But especially business travel.

Anyway, I extracted the other passenger’s suitcase from the indentation it had forced into my foot and left the room, heading to the outdoor platform instead. This proved to be the right move, given that the rest of the time I spent with New Jersey Transit during my trek from Hamilton to Newark Liberty International Airport was reasonably uneventful after my foot completed its career as a luggage rack. There were no delays, no unexpected stops and no passengers trying to convince the friendly ticket collector that it was, in fact, alright for him to travel on a half-priced child’s ticket….

Okay, maybe that did, in fact, happen. Eventually, though, the ticket taker convinced the balding, middle-aged man that a full fare was required. Peace ensued.

There was also the lady on the platform in Rahway who was fighting with the paper recycling container. You know these containers that are slotted to accept newspapers, right? Well, she was trying to recycle a bagel, probably with cream cheese on it, along with what looked like a toothbrush. I suppose it could have been a donut, but it seemed to have more structural integrity than a donut so I’m pretty certain it was a bagel. Seriously, I wonder what people are thinking sometimes – the bin was clearly labeled for recycling of paper only, it was clearly slotted to not allow for things like bagels or cream cheese or even toothbrushes, and there was a trash can right next to it! The train pulled away from that platform too fast for me to do anything or note the winner of this battle, but I sure hope it was the recycling bin.

Once in the airport station, things started to look a little bit more like travel usually looks to me. Oh, have I mentioned the hour and a half it took me to figure out how to print my boarding pass last night (spanning two separate internet sessions because I got to a point that I wanted to throw the laptop and decided instead to walk away for a while)? There were so many clicks and so many options to review and so many disclaimers to process, not to mention the stupid $23 baggage fee (it would be $25 in the airport, so the site helpfully recommended that I save time and money by paying it online). Eventually, I printed the thing out, but I was already frustrated and the trip hadn’t even begun yet! So, I guess, it started to look a lot like travel last night, before the trip even began.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. The Airport station from the train. Things started to look a bit more like Travel with a capital ‘T’ once I got off the train. First, the men’s room was out of order in the airport station. Sure, that’s a minor nuisance at worst, but a part of me realized it was simply a sign of things to come. But nevertheless I plunged forward, away from the bathroom of broken dreams and toward the RailLink tram. I got on the first tram that arrived, figuring that I’d just find a restroom later. I did, in fact, find a restroom and you’ll be happy to know that there were no accidents.

I do think, though, that now might be a good time to remind the gentleman who walked into the restroom right in front of me of Proper Urinal Protocol. If you’ll refer to the official Urinal Policy Enforcement Edict of 1962, which should be part of the curriculum of most schools across the globe, you will see that there is, in fact, a codified standard for conduct with regards to urinal usage. For those following at home, please refer to your UPEE pocket guide, page 31, Article XII, Paragraph 3, which states:

“Whereupon a situation should arise such that any string of three (3) subsequent urinals is found to be open and available for use, an incoming Urinal Patron shall proceed immediately to the unit immediately to the left or right, leaving the middle unit unoccupied; that is, a Urinal Patron shall use the first (1st) or (3rd) urinal in any set of three (3) urinals, such that the second (2nd) remains unoccupied. When a second Urinal Patron arrives, he shall take the other unoccupied end, once again leaving the middle unoccupied.

Let it be resolved and made absolutely clear that the only time a Urinal Patron shall proceed to the middle urinal in a string of three is when the first and third are already occupied and there exists no other reasonable means to leave a one urinal gap between Patrons.”

So, to the guy in the restroom in Newark Liberty International Airport, I just want to say: Dude, this is Man Code and you violated it. You should be ashamed.

Anyway, relieved as I was to get away from the disrespecting punk in the men’s room, I knew there were worse things to come as I could smell trouble in the men’s room air. I hate it when trouble is in the air, especially when said air is in the men’s room.

I headed out to check my bag and found that there were hundreds of people in line, most with oversized or multiple bags. Most, it seemed, had not prepaid either, so there was some awesome excitement as they quibbled over the 25 dollar fees. Oh, they were also unhappy to learn that cash was not accepted. Apparently, this is to “speed things up.” Given the arguing, I don’t think it sped anything up.

I eventually got to the front of the line, and having paid online I simply had to wait ten minutes for the one bag taker to come over, look at my ID and slap a sticker on the bag. He then directed me to security, so I collected my wits and walked to the indicated torture area.

Once there, I saw a reasonable line ahead and figured I’d be through security in just a few minutes. As I approached the line, a jolly security guard in a red outfit used a complicated set of gestures and a few words to tell me and those around me that we were to go to a different security checkpoint because there was no line there at all. We circled around and made the several minute walk to the indicated checkpoint at the other end of the building. None of us argued because, as you know, I and most of my fellow New Jersey citizens are decent, law-abiding individuals who follow the rules and do our best to provide a safe, pleasant experience to those around us. So, we walked to the checkpoint with no line.

Anyone who is paying attention should know exactly what is coming next….

I was met by a loud, smelly throng of people, all of whom had been told there was no line at this security checkpoint all the way at the end of the building. Truth be told, there was virtually no line at the “Elite” passenger line, but the rest of us losers were not allowed to use it. Instead, we were required to wait in the security line for about 40 minutes. We waited as people cut in and out of the lines in front of us, some of them encouraged to do so by the helpful and friendly security guards. One group of people was trying to encourage other folks to swap places in line because “it could be fun to confuse the security guards.” Luckily, most of us didn’t join into the game. The person in front of me apparently didn’t understand that the big sign that says “take off your shoes and jacket” was meant for her, too, so she held things up while she discussed this matter thoroughly with one of the security guys. Once that issue was settled, it was my turn and I passed the security test with flying colors. Thank goodness I studied.

So, shoes back on, laptop re-packed and photo ID back in my wallet, I looked up at the big signs that direct travelers to their gates and found that my gate was all the way back at the original security checkpoint I had gone to. So, I trekked back to that area, a few choice words passing through my mind as I found the original checkpoint to be line-free. I grabbed a grossly over-priced slice of pizza and a more reasonably over-priced garlic knot from a pizza joint along the way to my gate and ate while I waited for the plane. Meanwhile, the people next to me in the waiting area decided to setup their FOUR oversized carry-on bags like a set of tables (there were three people and four large rolling bags, not to mention two laptop bags and a purse) and they broke out the cards to teach their teenager how to play poker. It was exciting to watch. Okay, it wasn’t exciting at all. It made me question even more why poker is on sports television.

After I finished eating, I pulled out my Zune and my laptop to try to be an author for a few hours given my assumption that the flight would be well delayed. Believe it or not, the flight was on time. Let me say that again… the 2:50 pm flight to Atlanta was on time. For those who don’t know what this phrase “on time” means, it means that when the big hand was on the 10 and the little hand was on the 2, (well, almost on the 3 really), the door to the plane was closed and we were pushed away from the gate, just like the little numbers on the ticket and boarding pass predicted would happen. Of course, the air conditioning wasn’t working on the plane and the overhead fans weren’t blowing, but what’s a little sweat among travelling partners on an on time flight, right?

I swear that the seats in these planes are getting smaller every time I fly. It is certainly not me getting bigger, I’m sure. I am not overly large, but I barely crammed myself into the little window seat in row 16 (technically, it was row 15 because they skip 13 due to our society’s apparently widespread triskaidekaphobia). A really short lady got the aisle seat – I’m calling her short because she had to stand on the seat in order to put her bag in the overhead container). About 10 minutes later, just before the doors were closed, a large dude wearing a white suit, white patent leather shoes and his shirt unbuttoned down to nearly his navel came onboard, eyes on the middle seat. He shoehorned himself into it and jammed his elbow onto the communal armrest we were supposed to share, effectively forcing me to squeeze further over toward the window. Then, he relaxed, spreading his feet and knees wide apart and into my little area of the plane. I pushed back with my own knee but he didn’t budge. Man Code says that you respect another man’s space, but this guy apparently didn’t understand or respect the man code. As further proof, I’ll introduce the evidence that this guy decided to use the Sky Mall magazine like a fan to cool himself, fanning in such a way that his over-applied lavender-scented cologne wafted straight to me. It was awesome.

I figured I’d ignore my situation by plugging into the in-flight entertainment to watch and listen to “Did You Hear about the Morgans”. Sadly, my headphone jack was not working so all I could hear was static. So, I spent the movie making up words for the actors as they lip-synced to my own soundtrack of life. Hugh Grant has never been funnier.

Thankfully, our pilot was a lead foot and we arrived in Atlanta 40 minutes early. We sat on the tarmac for 20 minutes while they prepared the gate for us, but still we de-planed 20 minutes early. That clearly has to go into the “awesome” column. As soon as we stopped rolling, the big dude in the middle seat climbed out over the short lady and disappeared into the throng of people who were scrambling to get their carry-on bags from over other people’s seats, rather than waiting for the plane to clear so that they could get their bags without tripping on others or slowing the rest of us down (have I mentioned how much I hate to see people in first class force their way back to the back to collect a bag from an overhead compartment over row 26?). The short lady, for her part, waited until it was her turn to go, grabbed her bag from over her own seat and hurried off the plane. Of course, she forgot her jacket (she was using it like a booster seat, I think) so I kindly picked it up and scurried after her after pulling my carry-on from under the seat in front of me. Eventually I caught up to her and reunited her with her coat. Smiles were exchanged and it was evident that the one-of-a-kind New Jersey spirit was alive and well in Atlanta.

I decided I needed to untwist my muscles and joints after being cramped in that little seat for so long, so I skipped the tram thing and walked from concourse E, figuring I’d get to baggage claim easily enough. I kept following the signs to Baggage Claim, so I was pretty confident that it was all going well. At the time I didn’t know just how far concourse E was from the baggage claim area, but really that didn’t matter to me. As it turns out, though, you can’t get to baggage claim by walking from the concourse – you have to use the tram. So, at concourse A, I boarded the tram to go one stop to baggage claim. It took me a few minutes to figure out where my bag was, but I found the correct carrousel and found that my bag was already happily waiting for me. I met up with some of my colleagues and we hit the Marta train from the airport to our hotel.

The Marta trains are kind of like the subway in New York, just a little cleaner, a little less busy and a lot less underground; the announcements of each stop and destination were equally garbled and the wide variety of human specimens was also equally mixed up, thus the accuracy of my comparison. We rode to our stop and de-trained, taking a moment to figure out how to get released through the security gates in the station. Outside the station, we were met by someone who serenaded us with lovely lyrics about how incredibly awful something was and how it was likely our fault. He felt it was really important for us to hear his song, so he followed us for a little while on the way to the hotel, reciting his special variety of poetry at us the whole way. Eventually he turned up a side street when we crossed the road. Don’t mistake my comments – the guy made us feel welcome. Really.

We eventually met up with the rest of our colleagues who were arriving on Friday night and went to dinner at a place that used to be called “The Spotted Dog” but was now called “Engine 11” or something like that. We relied on one guy’s iPhone App to get us directions to it and so we walked right past it at first, stopping only when the musician heckled us as we walked by. Not willing to back down from a guitarist’s heckling, we took a table there in the outdoor part (because the music didn’t suck and the weather was nice). It made me wonder, though, if there’s an App for finding restaurants that have changed their names when you only know the old name and have no idea as to the location of the establishment. Maybe there’s a business opportunity there someday… Anyway, beers and sodas were ordered and then the musician packed up and left; must have been something I said, I guess. Perhaps it was the spicy black bean burger I ordered, mostly because the menu description was “Vegetarian’s Delight!” As a card carrying vegetarian freak, I felt obligated to partake in the delight. It was good, but not as great as the menu made it out to be. It might have been better if there was a guitarist there playing for me, but I suppose I’ll never know.

At some horrifically late hour (11:30 pm is horrifically late to me, as you know), I was back in the room. All-in-all, not a bad day despite the travel. Even the $13 per day internet charge couldn’t spoil it, as I was too tired to go on facebook anyway. So, I turned the air conditioning up (or is it down?) to 74 degrees (it had been set at 58 degrees when I arrived), closed the curtain and laid down to fall asleep to the soothing sounds of ambulances and police cars blaring their sirens 23 floors below me.

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