Seth loved hotel rooms. He preferred rooms in hotels that were parts of major chains. Motels were OK, but hotels were usually better because they were more likely to offer room service.
Boutique hotels were more iffy. Sure, they might be cute and charming. For example, when he was in Austin once, Seth had stayed at the San Jose Motel. It was very nice, with its funkiness designed to appeal to traveling musicians, its New Age soaps, its outdoor swimming pool and its poster-sized photo in the lobby of Lyndon Johnson rolling what appeared to be a joint but was most likely a cigarette.
Yet his room in Austin had not provided the antiseptic sameness that he craved. Seth had wanted two beds, one to sleep in and one to use as a staging area for his suitcase and other personal items. A big TV with a remote control. A desk that could double as a dining room table when the room service food arrived. A desk lamp that also featured an electrical socket. Two telephones, one on the desk, one on the night table. In the bathroom, a coffee maker, a generous supply of towels of various sizes, and an assortment of soaps, shampoos and lotions in miniature. USA Today delivered to the door first thing every morning.
On his next trip to Austin, he’d stayed at the Radisson.
As a consultant, Seth traveled a lot. He had been to the capitals of almost every state, as well as to almost every major city in the country. He had been to plenty of places where, even when outdoors, it was impossible to determine which part of the country he was in. The first time this struck him was when he was in the parking lot of an airport hotel in Houston. As far as he could see, in all directions, were chain hotels, fast food outlets and highways. There was very little vegetation, and what little there was gave no hint of climate, soil conditions, or even the esthetic judgment of whomever had planted it. He was near Hobby Airport, but he could just as easily have been near Hartsfield or Hartford.
Seth knew that most of his clients, all of whom were liberals, would view this sameness as a sad indication of how Americans made everything, even the land, conform to social norms. Seth liked to focus on another aspect of it. It showed that America aspired to be a classless society. Almost anyone could afford to eat at a fast food restaurant. And the Comfort Inns, Best Westerns and many of the other chains were within the means of many millions of Americans.
But it wasn’t the hotels that rang Seth’s chimes. It was the hotel rooms. The other aspects of travel were often unpleasant. Airplanes were crowded and late. He often got lost when he rented a car and had to drive somewhere unfamiliar. Restaurants were OK, but it wasn’t easy finding a good one in a city he didn’t know.
Finding a decent hotel room, however, was easy, especially if he stuck to the chains. They rarely descended below an acceptable level of cleanliness and efficiency. It was as if he was a turtle and the hotel room was his shell. But it was better than a turtle shell because he didn’t have to carry it on his back. For Seth, these hotels were little oases of calm.
He was in Atlanta because his firm had a contract with the statewide environmental group, the Georgia Environmental Alliance, to interview representatives of four media consultants. Seth had arrived on Monday night and checked into the Omni Hotel at CNN Center. Things had started well. He’d ordered a caesar salad and a pot of coffee from room service. His dinner had arrived quickly and the salad had tasted good. Seth had set up the computer, poured himself some coffee and begun preparing questions for the interviews. But all the questions he could think of seemed trite or silly. He sat and stared at the computer screen. Nothing came to him.
He turned on the TV. It was a Philips TV. Remembering that the Philips Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Thrashers, was physically attached to CNN Center, which was attached to the Omni Hotel, Seth wondered whether the hotel had paid for the TVs or whether it was stocked by Philips as some sort of cross-promotional strategy. Seth, who was often in awe of the clever maneuvers practiced by large corporations, thought that perhaps he should be a loyal consumer of CNN products—when in Atlanta, watch CNN. So he briefly watched first CNN and then CNN Headline News. Neither Larry King’s fawning interview with some right-wing politician nor the recitation of basketball scores held his interest. Then he remembered that CNN was owned by Time Warner. So he was free to switch to HBO. But it was showing a dumb comedy that bombed during its brief theatrical release and it didn’t keep his attention. So he switched to the WB. Nothing worth watching there, either.
So Seth took what, for him, was a bold and radical step. He left the room.
Seth rode the elevator to the lobby and headed for the bar. There were several groups of people sitting at tables and several customers sitting at the bar. They were all dressed in business casual style, all obviously traveling for work. Seth suspected that neither Atlanta nor the Omni were significant tourist destinations.
Seth found a stool at the bar with vacant stools on each side. He ordered bourbon on the rocks. He began sipping it slowly.
Two women in their early thirties were sitting to Seth’s left. The one three seats away from him had short brown hair. The one two seats away had short blonde hair. They were talking loudly and laughing. They were drunk. Not out-of-control falling-down drunk, but slightly-slurring, artificially jovial drunk. They were doing shots.
“Hey you,” said the blonde, facing in Seth’s general direction. “What’re you doing in Atlanta?” She had a trace of a Southern accent.
“Us too. We’re doing a deal with Coca Cola. But we’re drinking bourbon.” Both women exploded with laughter.
Seth sipped his drink.
“What kind of work do you do?” asked the blonde.
“What kind of consulting?”
“I consult on how to hire consultants.”
More explosive laughter.
“So do you tell your clients that they should hire you? If they take that advice, you’ve got it made.” The blonde seemed to be in charge of asking the questions. Her co-worker just laughed and drank.
“That’s not quite it. But it sometimes does seem pretty silly.” Seth took another small sip.
“You drink awful slow. What’re you drinking?”
“What a coincidence. Move on over and join us.” So he did.
“Another round,” the blonde yelled to the bartender. “For all three of us.”
Seth gulped down his bourbon on the rocks so he could be ready for the undiluted version.
The bartender brought three shot glasses.
“What’s your name?” asked the blonde.
“To Seth,” the blonde said.
They each emptied their glasses.
“Thanks. What are your names?”
I’m Carol,” said the blonde. “And this is Barbara.”
“Hi,” said Barbara.
“Nice to meet you,” said Seth.
“Where are you from?” asked Carol.
“New York. How about you?”
“Chicago,” said Carol. “But I’m originally from Tennessee. I think my law firm sent me down here because they wanted a Southerner for this deal.”
“I’m from Chicago, too,” said Barbara.
“They wanted a Southerner just because Coke is in Atlanta?” asked Seth.
“My firm would rather have Southerners when they do business in the South,” said Carol.
“Oh,” Seth said to Carol. Then he asked Barbara, “Are you a lawyer, too?”
“No. I’m an investment banker.”
“So you’re involved in this deal together?”
“Yes,” said Barbara.
“Hey, but we can’t talk to you about it,” Carol said. “It’s top secret,” she added, in a stage whisper.
“Mum’s the word,” Seth answered. “Another round? This time on me.”
“Absolutely,” said Carol.
Seth motioned to the bartender, who brought three more shot glasses.
“I need to sip mine,” said Seth. “I’m not as tough as you.”
“OK. I don’t mind it if you’re a wuss,” said Carol with a smile.
“I’m getting to be kind of a wuss, too,” said Barbara. “I think this will have to be my last round.”
“Well, down the hatch,” said Carol. She gulped her whiskey. Seth and Barbara both sipped theirs.
“Where in Tennessee are you from?” asked Seth.
“Right outside Memphis.”
“Wow. Did you know Elvis?”
“I’m a little young to have known Elvis, don’t you think?” I was only five when he died.”
Seth did a quick calculation. Elvis died in 1977. So that meant Carol was born in 1972. Thirty-three years old. Carol seemed to have that vivacious and flirtatious style that Seth had noticed many Southern women had. He found it difficult to tell whether it was real or whether it was just the regional version of being polite. “I guess so. But he liked kids,” said Seth.
“I think I need to call it a night,” said Barbara, getting up from her stool.
“So breakfast at 7:30?” asked Carol.
“All right. Good night.”
“Good night,” said Seth. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you.” Barbara left the bar and walked toward the elevators.
“She’s nice, but not much fun,” said Carol to Seth.
“Well, when you have to travel with someone for work, even just ‘nice’ is pretty good.”
“Guess so. You really consult on hiring consultants? How does that work?”
“Yeah. I give advice on how to choose a media consultant. If you don’t know what to look for, it’s hard to make an intelligent choice. So what usually happens is a not-for-profit group gets some grant money that requires them to do much more sophisticated media work than they normally do. They need to retain a person or a firm to do the work for them. But they don’t even know how to make that choice. So I get hired to help them figure out what they need. I sit in on the interviews, I discuss the candidates, I make recommendations about who to hire, and I usually negotiate and draft the contract.”
Seth realized he had suddenly become much more at ease now that he was talking about his job and also now that Barbara had left. This was an amazing evening for him. He had left his hotel room and gone to the bar. That was unusual. He actually engaged in conversation with someone at the bar. That was even more unusual. And she was a sassy Southern blonde just a few years younger than he was. That was more than unusual—that was amazing.
“I’m actually a lawyer, too, although essentially a non-practicing one,” he continued. “But the training comes in handy in dealing with contractual issues.”
“Hey, it’s incredible how many niches there are to fill in the service economy. I would never in a million years have figured out that the work you do actually exists. Another round?”
“Sure, but I think this has to be my last. I’m not much of a drinker.”
Carol ordered another round. “I was right. You are a wuss.” She paused. “So what kind of clients do you have?”
“Consumer groups, environmental groups, sometimes women’s groups. It’s the broad range of the liberal intelligentsia.”
“That’s a lot different from my clients. I mostly represent large privately-held corporations based in and around Chicago.”
The drinks arrived. Carol gulped. Seth sipped.
“Hey, Carol, you shouldn’t have said ‘privately-held.’ With an investment banker in tow, I’ll figure you’re probably working on getting Coke to acquire some privately-held soda company.”
“My lips are sealed, Seth. And you probably wouldn’t care anyway.”
“You got that right. So do you like what you do?”
“Not really. But I get to travel, I meet a lot of people, and there’s an adrenaline rush the goes along with making a big deal and meeting a tough deadline. How about you, Seth?”
“I like it most of the time. I feel like I’m doing something useful.”
They exchanged a bit more chit-chat. Finally, Carol asked, “How long will you be in Atlanta?”
“Through Thursday. Two interviews tomorrow, two on Wednesday, and then we make a decision on Thursday. How about you?”
“At least through Wednesday. Maybe all week. It depends on how the negotiations go. Hey, you want to have dinner together tomorrow night? There’s a chance I’ll have to eat with some of the Coke people, but if not, maybe we could get together.”
“Great.” Seth was so shy that he virtually had never asked a woman out on a date in his life. He thought this was pathetic for someone who was thirty-six years old, but he had come to accept that he had certain pathetic qualities.
“Let’s exchange cell phone numbers, Seth. We can check in at around five tomorrow.”
They settled the tab and walked to the elevator together. Seth pushed the button for the tenth floor and Carol pushed seven. When the elevator reached the seventh floor, Carol smiled, waved goodbye and disappeared down the hall just as the doors to the elevator closed.
The next morning, Seth got his wake-up call at 6:15. He was a little hung-over, but still managed to get himself out of bed. His breakfast arrived at 6:30. USA Today had been delivered to his door. He consumed it along with his breakfast.
After he’d eaten and showered, he checked his email, briefly surfed the Internet and then took the elevator to the lobby and walked through the passageway into CNN Center. He passed the Time Warner store, which displayed Bugs Bunny paraphernalia in the window. He walked straight to the newsstand and bought The New York Times. From there, he walked to Dunkin’ Donuts for a cup of coffee. With newspaper and coffee in hand, he sat down at a nearby table.
The ground floor of CNN Center was essentially a giant shopping mall-style food court. On one side of the food court was the CNN office building. On another side was the hotel. The Philips Center was opposite the hotel. Seth wasn’t sure what was opposite the CNN office building, because he’d never walked that far. But wherever he looked up, he saw huge television screens that showed either CNN or CNN Headline News. Although he didn’t know the history of the building, Seth assumed that it represented Ted Turner’s architectural vision for downtown Atlanta. It had no special character, but Seth liked it. Just about anyone in America would feel comfortable there, he thought. Its architecture had a corporate utilitarian quality designed to maximize sales at the food court and provide information to consumers, while also being soothing and familiar to visitors. An impressive mix of corporate and egalitarian sensibilities, he thought.
Seth finished the coffee and the Times. He walked back to the hotel lobby and then out the front door, catching a cab to take him to the midtown office of the Georgia Environmental Alliance.
It was clear after the interviews that one of the firms was capable and the other was not. When the interviews ended, the executive director of the Georgia Environmental Alliance gave Seth a ride to CNN Center. He arrived back in his room at 2:30 and took a brief nap.
Seth woke up at 3:00. After checking his email, he decided to go to the gym. Although hardly a gym rat, Seth tried to get cardiovascular exercise several times per week, since heart disease ran in his family. And as he got older and had developed a bit of a middle-aged paunch, he had become more concerned about his weight.
Seth suited up. He put his iPod in place and went to the gym.
While waiting for the elevator, it occurred to Seth that the hotel’s downside was that it didn’t have a fitness room. Instead, guests were allowed to use the health club connected to CNN Center.
As he walked through CNN Center to the health club, he realized that this downside was really quite significant. It meant that any hotel patron who wanted to use the gym—including hotel patrons like himself who had developed middle-aged paunches—had to walk through the food court without a lot of clothes on. So he walked very quickly.
Seth pedaled on the recumbent bicycle while listening to The Clash. As he was leaving the gym, he was startled to see Carol walking into the gym. She looked awfully good in shorts and a T-shirt. Seth knew he didn’t look nearly as good.
“Hey you,” she said. “You must be done for the day.”
“Yup,” he said, avoiding her gaze.
“So I don’t have to hang with the folks from Coke. What if we meet in the lobby at six?”
“Sounds good to me,” said Seth.
“OK then. Ciao for now.”
“I’ll see you later.”
Seth went back to his room, took a shower and flipped through the channels. The minutes passed slowly. At 5:55 he walked over to the elevators and rode down to the lobby.
Carol was already waiting. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey. How was the gym?”
“Great. I love all the equipment they have. Machines, free weights. Just about everything.”
“The director of the group I’m consulting with suggested an Italian restaurant near here. How does that sound?”
“Sounds great,” said Carol. “Can we walk there?”
“Yeah. I got directions off the Internet.”
They walked out of the hotel into the redeveloped wasteland of downtown Atlanta. A few blocks from the hotel was a touristy area that contained mostly overpriced chain restaurants. It turned out that one of these was the restaurant that had been recommended to Seth. They entered the restaurant and after an overly friendly greeting from the maitre d’, they sat down. They were given menus and a huge wine list.
The waitress arrived. “Would you like anything to drink?”
“Do you want to get some wine?” he asked Carol.
“I don’t know anything about wine,” Seth said. Then he got mad at himself for making this admission so quickly.
“Hey, neither do I. I’m from Tennessee. I’m an expert on Jack Daniels, but I’m clueless about wine.”
“Well you can get Jack Daniels if you want,” said Seth.
“No. Let’s have wine.”
“Which do you prefer, red or white?” asked the waitress, suddenly taking charge of the situation.
“Either is OK for me,” said Seth. He actually liked red wine much better.
“I usually prefer red,” said Carol.
“Great,” said Seth, who was relieved. “What do you recommend?” he asked the waitress.
“We have a very good Montepulciano.”
“Sound good to you?” Seth asked Carol.
Carol nodded. “Whatever it is, that’s exactly what we want,” she proclaimed.
The bottle arrived. Seth went through the ceremony of examining the label and tasting the wine. He nodded his approval to the waitress with what he thought was the proper mixture of enthusiasm and indifference. “We need to toast,” said Carol.
“OK. To what?”
“To us. And our evening in Atlanta.”
Seth looked down uncomfortably but was still able to clink glasses with Carol without meeting her gaze.
“Mm. It’s good,” said Carol.
“Yeah,” said Seth. “Where’s Barbara tonight?”
“She has a college friend in Atlanta, so they were planning to get together.”
“Oh. So how was your day?”
The waitress suddenly appeared. “Can I tell you about the specials?”
“Sure,” said Carol.
The waitress reeled off an endless list of both appetizers and entrees. “Do you have any questions?” she asked. Neither Seth nor Carol had any. The waitress left, reappeared, and they ordered.
“The deal hit a snag,” said Carol, resuming the conversation where it had been interrupted. “I think it’s just a bump in the road, but it’ll slow things down.”
“That’s too bad. What does that mean for you?”
“It means I leave tomorrow morning at seven instead of later in the week.”
Seth felt a pang in his stomach. He knew he had just met Carol and didn’t even know her, but he had hoped to see her the following evening as well.
“So we’ll have to make the most of our time together,” she continued. Seth felt another pang in his stomach, but this time it was accompanied by a surge of excitement that rushed through his entire body.
“Sounds good to me,” Seth said, with what he hoped would sound like wild abandon, but guessed actually sounded like nervous over-exuberance.
Their salads arrived and they started eating.
“What about your day?” Carol asked Seth.
“We interviewed two firms. The more expensive firm, from Washington, seemed OK. I’ve actually done some work with them before. The local firm seemed awful. In fact, we had them leave early. I felt like a casting director who yells ‘thank you’ ten seconds into an actor’s audition.”
Carol chuckled. Seth thought that the chuckle seemed genuine. But he couldn’t really tell.
They engaged in a little more conversation, Carol easily and Seth with some difficulty, although, he noted to himself, less difficulty than usual. Carol joked, laughed and seemed interested in everything Seth said. Seth was always impressed with people who felt at ease in unstructured social situations. And Carol certainly seemed at ease.
The salads were removed and replaced with the entrees.
“Mm,” said Carol. “This is great.” She had ordered the tuna.
“Mine’s good too,” said Seth, referring to his chicken parmesan.
“So you really like your work,” Carol said, in a tone that was half statement, half question. She looked directly into Seth’s eyes. Seth, who thought of his eyes as mud-brown, noticed that Carol’s were deep blue.
“Mostly,” said Seth, looking down at the table. “I like doing something that seems to have some actual social value. It’s not so easy finding that kind of work. So even when the work itself gets boring or tense, it still feels like it all adds up to something.”
“That’s so great. My job is intellectually kind of stimulating, so that’s good, but I’m certainly not doing anything worthwhile for anyone.”
“Do you at least like the people you work with?”
“Some. But there’s all this pressure to make partner. I’m about two years away from a decision. And even though people are nice on the surface, there’s this huge undercurrent of competition.”
“Yeah, that’s one thing I don’t have to deal with. I’m pretty lucky. So how did a girl from Memphis end up in Chicago?” Seth was impressed with himself. He thought the way he phrased the question seemed flirty.
“I went to law school at the University of Chicago. I worked summer jobs there, and got an offer after my second summer, so I just stayed.”
“University of Chicago? With all those nutty right-wing free-marketeers?” Seth suddenly became animated.
“I didn’t know anything about that before I got there. And it really didn’t matter. You can let that stuff sail past you if you want to. Where did you go to law school?”
“Did you like it?”
“No, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as other people’s law school experiences. And I was able to work for an environmental group while I was in law school and afterward as well. That’s how I learned my media skills. And I’ve settled pretty well into the niche I’m in now.”
Seth was surprised with how easily the conversation flowed. They discussed favorite movies (Casablanca for Carol; The Godfather for Seth), music (Elvis for Carol; the Talking Heads for Seth), drugs (alcohol for Carol; caffeine for Seth) and politics (Al Gore for Carol; nobody for Seth). As their empty plates were taken away, Carol said, “We sure don’t seem to have much in common.” And then she laughed.
The dessert menu arrived. “I don’t think I want any dessert,” said Seth. “But I’ll try to accommodate you. Instead of espresso, let’s get some grappa.”
They drank it. Seth felt a nice alcohol buzz, combined with excitement and some anxiety about how the evening would end.
Since both their employers were paying, they decided to split the check. They walked back to the hotel. Right after they entered, Carol asked, “How about one more Jack Daniels?”
“Sure. I’ll need to sip mine. But feel free to gulp yours.”
“Wuss,” said Carol with a smile. This time, he held her gaze. “Seth, I know you can’t keep up. But since you were so nice to go for the grappa instead of caffeine, I’ll sip mine too.”
They went to the bar, ordered and talked some more. When they finished their drinks, Carol asked, “Are you ever in Chicago?” Seth was thrilled—she wanted to see him again!
“I’ve been there for work, but I don’t have any specific plans to be there. How about you? Do you ever get to New York?”
“I’ll be there next month,” she said. This time, Carol looked down instead of meeting Seth’s gaze.
“That’s great,” Seth said. “We’ll have to get together.”
They settled the tab and walked over to the elevators. Seth pushed seven and ten. The doors closed and the elevator rose. When the doors opened on the seventh floor, Carol didn’t get off, and Seth almost remarked on this to her before the doors closed again and the elevator continued its climb.
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