My first experience with business travel


Monday morning, I'm awake in Manhattan, at the Ethical Culture Society. A woman named Shelly wakes me by knocking on the door. 5:30 AM. I put on pants, sign their paperwork (Name: Paul Ford; Position: Volunteer), say goodbye as the women trudge upstairs for the bus. Then I brush my teeth, pee, and pack up the bed. Check my keys and wallet, and walk downtown to 15th St. for work.

An uneventful day, so I go home to Brooklyn, pack some clothes for my trip to Memphis, and fall asleep.

From Brooklyn on Tuesday morning, back to Manhattan on the F, for work. At five I go downstairs and wait for car service, with my big purple bag.

The car service guy chats for several blocks, but then we both realize he's from the wrong company. Someone from the same office building is on their way to LaGuardia, too. We turn around and drive back.

The next driver is an angry Iranian. We need to pick up the ticket in Queens, because of some travel agency mixup. We find the place with a little difficulty. I get the tickets.

As I get into the car, I check the ticket envelope. There are no tickets inside. I turn back into the travel agency. The agent laughs at the amusing situation.

At Laguardia, an airport free of architecture, I check in. I wait thirty minutes. I am flying "AirTrans." The name is familiar. Two minutes before my plane arrives, it doesn't arrive. A man with a ferret moustache announces a two hour delay. "And those connecting to Memphis will need to be put up in a hotel overnight." I am disappointed.

On the plane, I am shoehorned into a space that only a yogic master would appreciate, a window seat. My neck bends against the curve of the cabin. The seat to my left is filled by another beefy guy. He is drunk. "Yo," he says.


"Yo, I'm drunk."

"Cool," I say. I am reading "Web Techniques" magazine. I realize that the only way to validate this trip is to pretend to be a real businessman on assignment instead of a schmuck visiting the branch office in Memphis to document some computer processes.

"We will be experiencing turbulence most of the way to Atlanta," says the intercom. Then I remember--Airtrans is the new name for ValuJet.

.  .  .  .  .  

In Atlanta, you must take an internal train to get to baggage. These trains are parodies of subways: roomy, polite, clean. I wait with my purple bag for the Quality Inn Shuttle Bus, with my free hotel room voucher in hand. It is almost midnight.

The bus arrives. It is a van. 50 people wait, some of them pregnant. It only fits 15.

Twenty minutes later the van arrives. 35 people wait. 5 more take cabs in desparation.

15 people. I climb into the back with the luggage. I squat on the spare tire, stare out the back windows, and plan the lawsuit. A moon faced woman from Jacksonville crams beside me.

"I prefer to travel this way," she says, grinning toothless like a Jack O'Lantern. "Who needs a seat?" I don't have an answer.

At the Quality Inn, I check in. It is slightly after 1. My room is functional. After a shower I'll be able to get some sleep.

In the shower, the yellow soap is already out of the package and bristling with pubic hair. I find some other soap by the sink. I leave the door a little open to let the steam out.

As I shampoo, the pipes begin to squeal. The sqealing becomes louder as I turn off the water. Something in the room is giving off an incredible, perpetual shriek.

I step out of the shower and a few seconds later get up from the tiled floor, my hip out of whack and my head bruised, realizing I'd fallen and knocked my skull. The noise is the fire alarm, it's squeal launched by the steam.

I try to press the button to turn it off, but no luck. The shriek moves around the room, echoing at unbelievably high frequencies.

Naked, bruised, still soapy, I call the desk. "My fire alarm is going off and I can't get it to stop."

"Oh, sir...ha. You were smoking."

"I was not smoking, goddamn it. It's two AM and my fire alarm is going off and I want you to come up here and fix it right now. Come up right now and fix it. I want you to fix it, goddamn it, it's two AM, I was not smoking, that's bullshit, and I want it fixed because it's two fucking AM and my fire alarm is going off."

"Someone will be up soon."

I put on my jeans and a shirt, shampooed hair sticking up, and put my hands over my ears. There is a knock on the door.

She is neither man nor woman nor black nor white.

"That's loud," she says.

"Yes," I say. "I think so too."

She gets a chair, stands on it, and rips the fire alarm open with her hands, prying and yanking. Then she tears at the bare wires.

"That's plugged into current," I say. "Be careful."

"Electricity doesn't bother me," she says. She covers the piezoelectric speaker with her finger. "There, that's quieter."

"Yes," I say. "Stand there and I'll get to sleep."

"You'll need a new room," she says. Then she walks out, leaving me with a screaming fire alarm and bare feet.

I pack my stuff and prepare my speech for the desk clerk. I vow not to be patient or understanding with hotel management. I close the door on the horrible whining alarm and walk down to the office.

"My fire alarm went off. It's still going off. I need another room right now."

"What? Did you call anyone?"

"My fire alarm went off. It's still going off. I need another room right now."

"Sir, Is it bothering the other customers."

"My fire alarm went off. It's still going off. I need another room right now."

"Sir, I don't know if I can give you another room."

"My fire alarm went off. It's still going off. I need another room right now."

She understands, and she digs up the passcard to room 315. I walk over to the other building, barefoot, with my bag. It is chilly.

In the room, I want to wash my hair of the shampoo. But I'm too scared to turn on hot water, so I stick my head under a stream of cold water in the sink. Then I can't sleep. I turn on the TV.

At 2:48 AM, I fall asleep to Sissy Spacek at the prom. Sissy is covered in pig blood, killing her peers with brain waves. I understand how she feels.

On Wednesday, the wake-up call comes at 6. I wake thinking it's the fire alarm going off, so I scream at it. "You're not going to get me again, you fucking bastard! I'm staying asleep!" A few minutes later it rings once more and I wake up, realize I'm going insane, and brush my teeth. Then I find that my dress shirt is somehow soaking wet, so I go to the hotel laundry and put it into the dryer. I return to my room, don the moist-but-warm shirt with a tie, and look in the mirror. I look like bleached shit.

I consider, briefly, pissing on the floor of my Quality Inn room. To register my dissatisfaction. But decide to head for the continental breakfast, instead.

There is no bus to the airport, so I split a cab with a cranky businessman whom AirTrans has fucked in an equivalent manner. At the airport I find the right hub, a few stops on the train, and check in. Because I am so surly, they upgrade me to business class. This means I receive a muffin when everyone else gets cookies. I don't feel grateful. The stewardesses are cheerful airheads. If a meteor hit the plane, and the cabin depressurized, I'd hope one of them could be put to use plugging the hole.

I get picked up by Phil at the airport. The guys in Memphis seem great. I write a great deal of what they say in my notebook. They eat meat twice a day down there, steaks. One of them orders fried ice cream for dessert. I am impressed.

Then back to the hotel, a Hampton Inn. The credit card reservation doesn't count; I must pay cash for the room and have it expensed later. The room is $65.97. I have $78 in my wallet. I breathe a great breath of calm. It is almost over.

In the room, I consider ordering up "Squadron 69," the story of "young, nubile special operatives on duty during World War II" on the video system, then paranoia gets to me. And I have a four AM wake up call, so I can meet my plane by 5:45. No time for naked special operatives.

Four AM, Thursday morning. I realize I've had seven hours of sleep in two days. I feel sick. I go downstairs, turn in my card. The shuttle bus arrives.

Then Atlanta. They almost reroute to Jacksonville for fog problems, but God intervenes. We land in Atlanta.

Where there is another delay of four hours.

Then LaGuardia, six hours late. They wanted me in work on Thursday. Fuck it.

Then--the bus and train back to Brooklyn, and twelve hours of sleep.

Friday, I'm up in Brooklyn, and go to work with the same purple bag, stuffed with cleaner underwear.

An uneventful day of work, then Penn Station and the train to Philly via Trenton. My Dad picks me up. We go back to his giant one room apartment, a 1000-square foot rectangle with 18-foot ceilings. I drink a diet coke and watch the local news. None of the news is very good. I help him with his new computer, do a little setup and maintenance, then I fall asleep on a sofa he salvaged before a neighbor threw it away.

Saturday morning, Dad drives me to West Chester. I visit with my grandparents. My grandfather is still alive, but time is linear. He's been in the hospital for 20 straight days, and looks it. We talk about nothing, both enjoying the fact that he's still kicking. My grandmother is rolling along. They both like to laugh, so I make them laugh, telling them about the plane to Memphis.

Then I visit a man who does my taxes. We do them for last year and this one, because I never paid for last year.

I take my mother out for dinner. No screaming happens. We go to the Red Lobster near Pottstown. Nothing goes wrong in the car. I have blackened catfish. It's bad, but I'm used to New York. Mom likes her shrimp and salad. It's all rustic wood and nautical prints ordered from the Red Lobster Franchisee Official Catalog of Nautical Prints. On the way back a tire blows. I huff and pry and jack and turn and we're back on the road in fifteen minutes. The week feels like a syrup. I wade through it waiting for the next thing to turn strange.

She drops me off at 741 S. Franklin St, my childhood home, where I walk around one last time. The house will finally be sold sometime in the next few weeks. I breathe it in. I can't capture fifteen years of early life in one night, so I just sit in the tub for a while, until the hot water runs out, then go downstairs to the old cot and fall asleep.

Sunday morning both parents arrive; my father drove back in from Philly, picked up my mother, then they came to fetch me. My mother shows my father the house, one last time. He touches a door, the doorknob falls off, and she begins to cry. "You ruined the house like you ruined me," she says.

As I put on my tie, they try to fix the door, like savages with screwdrivers. As the screaming escalates, I walk into the room.

"You both need to separate and let me work on this," I say. I begin to examine the door. My mother returns and hovers. She begins to pick lint from my pants.

"Get out! Let me do this!" I yell at her. She leaves me alone. In five minutes, I fix the door. I show them how--

"See, you just stick the screwdriver in..."

"Jesus Christ, let's go," says my Dad.

So we do. My mother tells stories in the car. Each involves a tragic figure whom ends up better through my mother's "intervention." (I might say "meddling," but I'm not very tragic.) The one-legged Mexican janitor who now can get pills for his eyeless daughter, because Mom found a Catholic optometrist. The Chinese woman, pregnant by God-knows-who, trying to get herself through night school in hairdressing, who needs assistance filling out the paperwork for her green card. And on and on. I try to change the topic--

"Hey! Look at those ducks!"

Which only reminds Mom of some battered ducks she helped through a hard time. And I remind her of the ducks we had when I was a kid, eaten by the neighbors tomcat in a flurry of blood and feathers. So she begins to cry.

"Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ" says my Dad.

At my brother's, they are dressing the baby in her white gown. She's off the monitor and seems fine, healthy and fat despite being three months premature and coughing though three weeks of brutal baby pneumonia, a sometimes fatal strain. Her parents look like veterans, my sister-in-law tired, my brother puffy in the face, his other two children yelling and playing blithely, everyone embracing, soda in the fridge, have a pretzel while we're waiting.

Maura is in her white gown, all smiles and coos. Cars fill. We drive to the Church of the Incredible Assumption. I get all the brochures with pictures of the pope and stuff them in my pockets, while no one is looking. My social circle appreciates pope-mockery.

It's after services, just family, the sanctuary mostly empty. Tricia's side is eighteen grandkids strong, all under five years old. A lot of tottling yelps and yelping tots. Maura's cousin is being baptized, too. There is crying and splashing. The priest is ten years older than when he married my brother to my sister-in-law; so am I. The kids run around the sanctuary and bump into the baptismal.

Finally, a reception, with ham and casserole and beer. Everyone joking, nodding. People greeting me as Greg's little brother. They saw me at the last christening, when I wasn't speaking to my Mom, when I was a sophomore at Alfred. Jokes about Clinton. And then the hours go by, the cake is served, and into the car, back to West Chester. I say so long to my grandparents, embrace them both as they sit up in bed. My father and I head to Philly in his little rental car. It's ten thirty when I get the train at Penn Station, and I'm back to the city by 1. Where I walk to the F by Macy's and get back to my little apartment by 2, one week ago today.




Ftrain.com is the website of Paul Ford and his pseudonyms. It is showing its age. I'm rewriting the code but it's taking some time.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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