Can you smell that?

Take a deep breath. Yes, the point is, in fact, to inhale. That smell, my friends, is the scent of Day Five. Day Five – the penultimate day of my trip to Atlanta.

Today started much like the first four days – I woke up. Well, I guess this is not unique to a day away from home in any way, but it’s always best to start a story from the beginning, right? So, I woke up, got ready and put on my lemon-scented shirt again. So far, no one has complained about a vile stench around me, though I had a dream last night in which someone in a dark robe came into our booth and said in a high-pitched, feisty, asthmatic voice “You…. Yoooouuuuu… have a vile, unpleasant aura about you…. Be afraid!” In the dream, I responded, “You go five days without coffee and see if you can avoid an unpleasant aura.” And then I woke up, sweating bullets, afraid that it was a premonition that I’d have to go five days without any real coffee. I’m not convinced that the junk I had a couple days ago was actually coffee, so I’m already at like three days without coffee and a fourth day would be today if I can’t find any real coffee.

Anyway, the point I was trying to make was that either the dish soap is working well enough or folks simply are not inhaling around me. Either way, I want a good cup of coffee and some dessert; if my shirt is starting to smell like ripe lemons, that’s the least of my concerns.

So, dressed and (hopefully) fresh and lemony, I headed downstairs and bribed the barrista for a slip of paper with the free WiFi code. As I write this, the lyric from an old song has popped into my head: “There’s a card game in the corner, and the barmaid smiles at me. Well, I slipped her a silver dollar and she brought me a drink for free.” It’s like the perfect lyric for this situation. Except that in the corner there wasn’t a card game, there was a computer and some hoodlumskids were trying to hack their way out of the business portal on it. And the barrista was male and just kind of glowered darkly in my general direction. Oh, and I didn’t give him any money. But he did give me that slip of paper for free. So, it’s like totally the same thing. My ticket for the information superhighway in hand, I plopped down to check email and make sure that no one had sent me any hate mail for not getting back to them for a few days. I was waiting for the rest of my crew to come downstairs anyway, so it was a good use of my time I thought. My roommate joined me a few minutes later and we waited. Eventually, he called upstairs to the rest of them and learned that we were skipping breakfast at the conference and instead having breakfast in the concierge lounge. So, I finished checking email and ordering a birthday gift for my daughter (don’t tell her – it’s a surprise!) and headed back upstairs to the 24th floor.

Here in the concierge lounge, I found eggs and bagels and muffins and yogurt and fruit. There were juices. There was more of that stuff they’re calling coffee. And then I saw it – like the bright sun burning through a thick fog or a bright beacon in the night guiding me to the promised land. There were angelic harps playing and lots of winged creatures crying out with a joyful noise. For, in a humble yet shiny stainless steel tray above a modest Sterno cup – there were grits! Yes, finally, on Day Five of my trip, there was an actual grits sighting! I threw down my bag and raced over to grab a plate, knocking over a little old lady in the process and getting—

Okay, I made that last sentence up.

I was trying to make this story more exciting than it really was, and since television has taught me that exciting things seem to happen when little old ladies get knocked over by someone rushing to get grits, I threw that in there. It was pure fiction, and I apologize for sliding off the path of truth and righteousness in an effort to use a one-time gimmick to make my story more compelling. I hope you’ll forgive me.

Where was I? Oh, yes. I threw my bag down and walked, calmly, over to get a plate. There was no one else in line, so there was no need for me to knock anyone over, old or otherwise. I set a bagel in to toast and filled my plate with eggs, fruit and several large spoonfuls of grits. I know this may sound corny (get it?), but my heart was pounding in anticipation of eating the one thing I had been looking forward to eating all week, so I focused on the other items on my plate. First the eggs, then the fruit, then the toasted bagel. Then, finally, I ate the grits. They were a-maize-ing, ahem, I mean amazing and all was right in the world, at least for a few minutes. For dessert (yes, I have now progressed to having dessert with breakfast, too), I had a cranberry muffin of some sort and that extended the bliss. I toyed with the idea of having more grits as a second dessert, but I needed a plan such that I wouldn’t look too gluttonous. I was making progress until I was derailed in my Grits Acquisition Roadmap planning efforts by my cell phone, which decided to take that moment to start blowing up.

In this case, the phrase “blowing up” has nothing to do with actual explosiveness and everything to do with ringing. It’s the lingo we use in the biz, ya dig?

Anyway, I answered the phone and really couldn’t hear the caller at all aside from figuring out that it was the guy from the body shop calling about my car. I don’t think I mentioned that on Friday, before catching the train to the plane, I dropped off my car so that it could go through a water test to try to determine why water was leaking into it during rain storms. I had isolated the leak to the region of the trunk around the driver’s side taillight, but I couldn’t figure it out any further myself and every time I climbed into the trunk during a rain storm carrying towels and a flashlight, I was getting more worried that someone would be videotaping me. So, I admitted defeat and dropped it off since I knew I wouldn’t need it for a few days, seeing as I was going to be in another state and all.

I abruptly left the concierge lounge and went down to my room, where I knew the cell worked, and I called him back. Except he didn’t answer. I called again, no answer. Third time turned out to be the charm when a receptionist answered and transferred me to him. They found the problem – a seal between two of the body panels had deteriorated and cracked and was allowing water to seep in. The fix is to rip out the seal, clean it all up, re-seal it, let it dry and then re-test it. Total cost: $340. I approved it and he said he’d only call again if the re-test showed that there were still problems. Here’s hoping I don’t get another call.

Next up was the daily trek to the conference center. Today we reverted to our tried-and-true path from the Marta train to the conference center – no shortcuts or alternate routes allowed. Once again I was going to be rooted firmly in the booth and so I headed straight to it, but today’s sentence was only from 10:30 to 1:30. Traffic was a lot lighter today; I suspect a lot of people had flights today and left. Nevertheless, we got a few good leads and some people who threw their cards in the fishbowl just to get a chance at free consulting for a product they don’t have. Or maybe they’re hoping to win the camera. I guess it could be that.

I’d love to relay some kind of amusing anecdote about the booth time, but it was really kind of dull today. Sorry.

Lunch today ended up being boxed. They brought in vegetarian boxed lunches, so I figured I’d just go that route rather than trekking to the dining hall. Mostly, I wanted the cookie that was in the boxes my colleagues had. So, I grabbed a veggie box, opened it up and…

There was no cookie.

There was an apple.

Now, I like apples. I love apples, really (though the store bought apples have been knocked down a notch after the two amazing harvests of apples we got from our own tree before it collapsed a few years ago). But no matter how much I love apples, they’re not cookies. Why do the flesh eaters get cookies when I get a conventionally grown apple? It’s not fair! I mean, why is it that if you order a veggie burger in a restaurant, by default you get pasta salad while if you order some cow matter on a bun, you get French fries? Aren’t I allowed to want French fries? Last time I checked, French fries resembled potatoes and potatoes are vegetarian-friendly.

But I digress. Good thing I don’t digress too often, right?

Internal, silent tantrum over, I grabbed the sandwich and took a bite. It was all bread. I took another bite and it, too, was all bread. I opened the sandwich and found that there were, in fact, veggies on the bun, but it was just a few strips of roasted red and yellow peppers and some onions. I think there was one little piece of squash, too. But the entirety of the veggies didn’t even cover the bun. Shrugging, I put the lid back on the sandwich and finished consuming it. There was a pasta salad cup in there, too, so I ate that. Note that in the meat-eater boxes, they had potato salad… Then I ate the bitter, Red Apple of Cookielessness. It got stuck between my teeth and, as luck would have it, I forgot my handy-dandy dental floss that I never leave home with. I wandered back to the booth, trying to dig the bits of apple out with my tongue, my thumbnail, a bit of notebook paper, a golf pencil I found near the restroom – whatever I could find that might be able to be wedged up into and around my gum to release the Red Apple of Cookielessness from its Perch of Doom between my teeth.

That’s when I noticed the person waiting for me to give her a demo. I extracted the pencil, paper and my fist from my mouth and launched directly and smoothly into a demo. It soon became clear that she really didn’t care about the demo as I had already hooked her on the benefits of the product. She asked about who we were and I explained. “Oh,” she said, eyes widening. “You’re one of the 5000!” It was almost as if she was honored to meet one of us lucky losers who were honored with a layoff, as if we’re somehow celebrities. She was not the first – probably a dozen or more people reached that light bulb moment in the middle of a conversation with one of us, where they realized they were in the presence of Greatness, I mean, in the presence of one of the five thousand. It was kind of weird, I’m not sure if it was weird in a good or bad way, though. She dropped her card in the fishbowl and left. I pulled her card and wrote notes about the demo and dropped it back in. Because that’s what we Fivethousanders (the lingo for us in the biz) do.

This interaction left me thinking that we should try to setup a world tour or something – kind of like the American Idol tour they have all the time where all the show’s losers go around and sing bad songs to people who don’t want to hear the music but hope to get on TV – we could have the Microsoft 5000 tour. That might be awesome, so long as I can do it in slippers, sitting in my living room. Have I mentioned, that I hate travel? No? Well, let’s just say that it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t become a major league baseball player or a rock star, and that interstellar astronauts are not currently a highly-needed profession; my top three career choices would have required a lot of travel and clearly that means those jobs would have taken my soul.

Now’s the time I should admit that I finally broke down and tried some of the liquid that was in a brown, fabric-covered container in the exhibitors lounge. I think my grandmother had a couch covered in this same brown fabric. It had a little sign on it that said “coffee” and it, or something like it, had been there, ignored by me for the past day or two. So, I figured I’d give it a try. I poured a small amount into a cup and put in some non-dairy creamer to whiten it up. I put it to my lips and tipped it back… and nearly choked as the swill reached my tongue! It was more of that brown food color infused water. Maybe it was chicory, though I’ve had chicory “coffee” before and it was better than this. Maybe they brewed three or four pots from one set of old, stale Postum grounds. I don’t know. But it was certainly not coffee and I was certainly not happy. Well, I guess I was happy that I only poured a little bit into the cup – you know how much I hate to waste things.

At 1:30 everyone was kicked out of the expo hall. I mean, literally, right at 1:30, security guards started coming around, demanding to see badges to make sure that the people still in the room were authorized to be there. It took us a half hour or so to break down the booth and pack it all back up in the little oval carrying box thing (I’m still impressed at how well these things are designed). If you are keeping track, the swilly taste of that faux coffee was still in my mouth despite a couple the couple of cans of Coke I used to try to wash it down.

Next up: Taco Mac. Airport Colleague #3 needed to get three more beers in order to earn bragging rights (and a $5 tee shirt) as an official Taco Mac Brewniversity Pledge. He ordered some dark lager thing that tasted like chocolate. It had no chocolate in it at all, but somehow the thing tasted just like chocolate. I took one tiny sip, just to see… and I was full. That beer was heavy! So, I washed it down with a couple of Cokes.

I’ll tell you, the day shift at this bar was very, very different from the night shift. Each of the nights we were there, we were waited on promptly and efficiently. Our waiter interacted with us, made fun of us and made sure we didn’t get hungry or thirsty. This waiter on the day shift basically didn’t pay any attention to us at all. It was, err, like night and day! Eventually we got the third beer and then a long eventually later, the tee shirt came out rather unceremoniously. I think Airport Colleague #3 was relieved that this was finally over and that we’d stop making fun of him for losing to some Former Colleague We Had Not Previously Met in the great race to pledgehood bliss. Ha! No mere tee shirt will stop us from making fun of him over this, that’s for sure!

For dinner tonight, one of our local colleagues, Atlanta Colleague #1 (the one who loaned me the company shirt I’ve been wearing all week), invited us over to his house for a barbecue. We headed back to the hotel to change out of our logo-wear before heading to his house. In the meantime, storms blew in, cooling the air and wetting the ground. Winds were whipping again.

Have I mentioned that I travelled all the way to Georgia and not only did it take me five days to find grits but also the weather was cool, almost chilly? It has been windy much of the week and on one day it was dark, stormy and downright yucky (as we call it in the biz). I think the weather forecast is calling for it to get warm the day after tomorrow here in Georgia; of course, I’ll be in New Jersey by then. Hopefully it will be nice there, too, though dreary and yucky is just better in New Jersey than it is anywhere else.

So, we took the Marta to the stop near his house. There were some interesting passengers on the train at rush hour, that’s for sure. This one dude kept holding his shiny, bald head in his hand and shaking his head. Then he’d draw something in the dust and grime on the floor of the train with his finger, look at me and laugh. Then he’d repeat the ritual. The voices in my head told me not to worry, for they were talking to him, too. So, I ignored it despite my jealous rage. But I couldn’t help but wonder what he was drawing. I assume it was a caricature, since we celebrities are often caricatured by our fans. Anyway, we got off the train at the correct stop (thankfully) and our host (eventually) came and picked us up. We were getting to the point where we were considering walking, but Airport Colleague #3 couldn’t get the silly iPhone GPS App to work due to “interference” (this is the same App that wanted to lead us past our destination on Friday night). But no harm or foul on this one as our ride showed up in a sporty mini-van, complete with car seats. We all climbed in and headed back to his house.

The house was very nice and it was an honor to be welcomed there! There were plenty of drinks and chips and snacks. The gracious host made shish kebabs and had a set of them specially set aside for me with lots of veggies on them. Probably the healthiest meal I have eaten since breakfast on Friday! So, if you’re reading this Atlanta Colleague #1, thanks again! Veggie kebabs finished, it was time for dessert (of course). Two homemade pies were available and it clearly would have been rude to only try one of them, so I had some of both. One of the pies had been targeted for attack by some Camponotus pennsylvanicus; well, I cannot be certain that it was Camponotus pennsylvanicus as this is just one of the more than 12,000 species in the family Formicidae. Plus, Camponotus pennsylvanicus is a large species and the species on the pie was small. I just like typing Camponotus pennsylvanicus because it needs to be in italics.

I <3 italics.

In any event, the tiny little things don’t eat much so that didn’t stop anyone. As a vegetarian, I clearly couldn’t eat them, so any I found were removed and placed on the plate of whichever meatie was sitting next to me. What? It’s not like they’d notice – ants are just meat anyway, right?

Dessert finished, we headed down to the basement and spent some time making fun of each other, reminiscing about the conference and going through the business cards. First we drew the winners of our three prizes (two consulting sessions and the camera). That was exciting, as I’m sure you can imagine. There were lights flashing and celebratory drinks being passed around. There were pictures taken. There might have been some high fives. It was clear that we were all quite tired so the evening wound down relatively early so that we could get back to the train before it stopped running. Besides, our stupid noises and laughter were probably freaking out the kids upstairs who were trying to sleep on a school night, so departing was clearly the right thing to do.

Back in the hotel, we all headed back to our own rooms and called it a night. At least that’s how it happened so far as I know. Perhaps the other folks went and partied, but if they did, they were on their own and will have to write about the shenanigans on their own travel blogs. I pride myself on my journalistic integrity and so I cannot undermine the trust I have built with you, dear reader, by making assumptions or fabricating stories about what other people were doing outside of my presence. If they were out there visiting seedy night clubs or buying fancy clothing and shoes, or singing karaoke to Culture Club songs, that’s their right. So, stop being so judgmental of them, okay?

I will close tonight as I have each of the other nights, with valuable statistics:

Total steps for today: 9,138

Total desserts for today: 3. Well, 4. I guess the apple was my dessert at lunch.

Total number of members of the family Formicidae eaten: 0, though I’m pretty sure Airport Colleague #3 ate some of them.

Total coffees for today: 0. Well, one-sixteenth of a cup. Sort of. If you consider that swill I tried this afternoon to be coffee. I don’t.