Sunday, September 27, 2009

San Francisco Travel Diary

I always tend to find any given business trip to be a Barton Fink-esque experience. Whenever I'm away from home, weirdness just seems to envelop me. Here are some notes from my most recent business trip to San Francisco, where I demonstrated some new features I've added to our Intel® My WiFi Technology product.

  • When the clerk at the car rental place asks if I need directions to the hotel, I proudly respond that I don't, because I've brought my very own GPS. She acts impressed, so prepared and worldly am I. In the car I tell the GPS to guide me to the hotel, whose address I had uploaded into the unit the previous night. (So. Goddam. Prepared.) I confidently follow the calming, feminine electronic voice into the bowels of San Francisco. After about 20 minutes, just as the GPS announces, "You have reached your destination!" a pod of meth addicts shuffles zombie-like across the street in front of my car. I look around and notice that nearly every car parked along either side of the road is occupied by a solitary, menacing driver in a hoodie or a fitted cap, staring silently into nothingness. I also determine that my hotel, the 38-story San Francisco Westin, is nowhere in sight. Perhaps I could have used those directions after all.

  • I locate the hotel several miles away (apparently it's the other 50 Third Street in town). The only on-site parking the hotel offers is $50-a-day valet, so I find an underground parking garage nearby and walk my luggage around the block to the hotel lobby. On the way I am approached by at least three panhandlers who make direct eye contact and demand, simply, "Yo, gimme some money." I am aghast at their poor marketing skills. Not one of them attempts to weave a sympathy-building tale, and there's not a whimsical or heartbreaking hand-scrawled cardboard sign in sight. Well, except for the guy with the big sign that says, "MY WIFE HAS BEEN KIDNAPPED!!!" but I'm not sure what's going on there.

  • I check into the hotel and find my room to be unbearably hot. The thermostat indicates the current room temperature to be 72 degrees, but the fact that I'm drenched in sweat wearing nothing but a t-shirt and boxers would contraindicate that assertion. I angrily stab the down-arrow button until it reaches a target temperature of 62 degrees. Doing so makes no difference at all, and I consider my theory that hotel thermostats are really just placebos to be confirmed.

  • After unpacking I retire to the bathroom for a scalding hot shower. The tub fills with water even though the plug is up. The next day, when I desire a bath, I discover that the Westin has furnished my bathroom with a tub that in fact defies physics. It leaks when it's supposed to fill and fills when it's supposed to drain. I find that removing the plug from the drain completely allows me to finish my bath at my own pace.

  • Gary and Roald have lunch at a restaurant across the street from the conference center one day. While they are dining, a panhandler comes in off the street and interrupts people at every table in the restaurant, asking for money. Roald, who lives in the city, explains that business owners are virtually helpless to prevent this sort of thing. I'm sure that's really great for business.

  • The bathrooms at the conference center are disgusting. Every toilet seat is drenched with urine, and not a single toilet I encounter has been flushed before my arrival. Every person attending this conference is either an engineer or a physicist who has mastered the electron but apparently cannot operate either a penis or a commode.

  • As I'm walking back toward the hotel after a day at the conference center, a nicely-dressed man bolts past me at a frenzied pace. At first I think it's because he's trying to catch the bus, but he just runs past the bus and then disappears around a corner. I stop at a 7-Eleven to purchase my dinner of snack chips and sports drink. Just as the cashier hands me the receipt, the nicely-dressed man I'd seen before materializes to my left, screaming, "WATER! WATER!" The vietnamese cashier recoils in terror, squealing, "WHAT YOU WANT? WHAT YOU WANT?" until Nicely-Dressed Man dashes back out of the store and vanishes into the night.

  • The first couple nights at the hotel, I wonder why so many military jets keep wooshing over the place. The room shakes a little whenever they do it, and it seems to happen every few minutes. It makes me worry that there's some kind of national security issue going on that the public doesn't know about yet. On the third day I discover that the only thing between my room and the elevators is a linen closet, and I realize that it wasn't military jets at all I'd been hearing all this time. Somehow this revelation makes the constant rumbling and wooshing more annoying by a factor of about 10.

  • One morning, while setting the room service tray out in the hallway, the door to my room accidentally locks behind me. I am embarrassed when I take the 32-story trip down to the lobby to request another key. I am more embarrassed when I take the 32-story ride back up only to discover that my wallet- and thus my key- has been in my pocket the entire time.

  • One night on my way back to the hotel from the conference, a hooded man bearing more than a passing resemblence to George Clinton glares at me and shouts, "LAPTOP!!!" I am not impressed with his deductive powers- it's pretty much a given that a guy shuffling around San Francisco with an Intel shirt and a backpack is concealing a laptop somewhere on his person. My hooded friend actually has no idea how right he is, however, for at that moment, my backpack is stuffed with not one but three laptops and their respective power supplies and accessories. In fact I am so top-heavy at the moment that if he had just tapped my chest with his pinky I'd have toppled onto my back, unable to right myself, much like a flipped turtle.

  • The conference is at once exciting and demoralizing. Almost without exception evey person I speak to about our WiFi technology is impressed and excited by what we've done, and wants to know when it will be available to consumers. The thing is, the technology actually debuted on the market nine months ago and is installed on tens of millions of computers. Nobody knows it's there, and nobody understands what it does until I demonstrate it to them. I discuss my observations with our Marketing team, and their experiences corroborate my own. The Marketing guys also believe they know why no one knows this feature exists: "Shitty marketing."

  • This conference has taught me three things: 1. Our product is cooler than I thought it was, even if no one knows it exists. 2. I'm pretty good with strangers in this kind of setting; 1-on-1, conversation with a purpose. 3. My body was simply not designed to stand for hours at a time. Even after the first day my feet and calves ache from overuse. Over the course of the week I am consoled to find that all of my peers are having the same problems. Each night we limp home like a band of retirees escaping from the assisted living center.

  • There are no chairs on the showroom floor, nor is there any appropriate seating anywhere else in the city-block-sized conference hall. There are some weird cushiony cubes on the 3rd level, but they are unstable and offer no back support. I am overjoyed when I discover some benches on Level 2, but I quickly learn why no one is sitting on them. They are constructed of brushed aluminum, and built in just such a way that if you attempt to relax in them you slowly slide out of the bench and, ultimately onto the floor. The benches were intentionally designed to keep you from sitting on them. This reminds me of the terrible cookies my grandmother always bought to fill her cookie jar. When my dad and his siblings asked Mama why she always got such wretched cookies, she responded matter-of-factly, "Well, if I got good ones you'd eat them." The Moscone Center in San Francisco has shitty benches because if they had good ones you'd sit on them.

  • There is a booth at the showcase demonstrating a technology for computer-assisted driving. They have a demo where you can sit in a carseat and drive a simulator with a realistic steering wheel. I spend a lot of time at this booth, and I bring several of my peers along with me for repeated test runs. The folks running the booth believe we're there because we're interested in forming a technical partnership with their company, but really we're only at the booth because the simulator's the closest thing to comfortable seating in the entire convention center.

  • On my repeated treks between the hotel and the conference hall I observe dozens of people avoiding eye contact with the panhandlers and ignoring their demands for spare change. I believe it's rude to ignore people, so whenever someone accosts me for donations, I look him directly in the eye, shake my head sympathetically, and reply, "No." I do this about three times, and after each encounter I hear the men I've turned down emit low, bestial growls; ticking time-bombs of rage. Apparently it's more acceptable to simply be ignored than being unequivacally, flatly rejected. Like the rest of San Francisco, I decide to pretend that these guys are simply not there.

  • It's my second-to-last day in the city and I'm walking back to my hotel for a break between showcases. While I'm halfway across 4th street, a gray-haired woman walking beside me in the crosswalk turns toward me and screams, "You want to make fun of me?" and pulls up her green sweater to reveal her naked, deflated bosoms. She only flashes me for about two seconds, but it is long enough for me to notice that her breasts resemble half-full sacks of oatmeal. I don't, in fact, want to make fun of her- truth be told, I hadn't even noticed she was there until she began screaming at me. But since she asks, I reply, "Nice mudflaps, grandma," although I am smart enough not to utter these words aloud. The strangest thing about this unprovoked display of rage and sweater meats is that, unlike the raving street maniacs crowding the streets of San Francisco who LOOK like they'd do this sort of thing, this woman appears completely "normal." She looks like somebody's grandma. I've seen somebody's grandma's breasts.

  • My final day in the city is uneventful, as is the plane ride home, but things become awkward once we land in Portland. I have lost some weight over the past two months and the pair of boxers I'm wearing at the moment are probably a couple of sizes too large. As I head toward Baggage Claim I can feel the boxers slinking down my cheeks and dipping into my pantlegs, finally draping over the inner crotch of my jeans. While the sensation of my sausage swinging freely in my jeans is not altogether unpleasant, it is novel and I feel naked. I don't have a chance to address the matter until the airport shuttle deposits me back in the Economy lot. I sneak between a couple of SUVs and discover that my boxers have disappeared so deep into my pantlegs that I have to unbuckle and unzip my pants just to retrieve them. I hope there are no security cameras aimed in my direction as I make things right, and then resolve to retire this particular pair when I get back home.

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