I comically underestimated the amount of time it takes to get to Newark airport from Astoria, Queens, and when my plane took off, I was sitting in traffic somewhere in New York City. I had never missed a plane before and was unsure of the procedure, but I figured I would settle all that once I got to the airport. I would have to get there somehow—Nortel, the giant communications company, was paying me several thousand dollars to give a four-hour seminar on the basics of the Internet. Plus I was allowed to attend the company's banquet, at which Ray Charles would be playing. All in all, a good gig.
But I had overslept, and had decided just to throw on last night's clothes, throw better clothes into a suitcase, and get into a cab. I would shower and shave when I got to my hotel in Atlanta.
But now, instead of relaxing on the plane, I was sweating in a taxi. It was another half an hour before we pulled in to the gate at Newark, and I was hoping against hope that my plane had been delayed. But of course that never happens when you need it—my plane was long gone.
With a sigh, I approached the ticket counter and was put on standby for the next flight, in 90 minutes. I didn't check my bags because I never check my bags. I was only going to be staying one night anyway. This new flight would get me in around 4:00 p.m. I would get to my hotel, get cleaned up, get dressed, and make my way to the banquet hall, wherever that was. My seminar was at 10:00 a.m. the next morning, would end at around 2:00 p.m., and my flight home was at 4:30 p.m. I'd walk back into my apartment at around 8:00 p.m. or so, and a few weeks later a check would arrive in the mail.
I was hungry and thought about getting a snack, but I only had about $35 on me, and I had no idea how much the cab would cost from the Atlanta airport. I figured they would give us something on the plane, so I sat there.
The 90 minutes passed, and, thankfully, I got called for the flight. Predictably, I was put in a middle seat way in the back of the plane. The man to my left had a toddler sitting on his lap. The woman to my right was large. The plane took off, and I took out my laptop and went over my presentation. Drinks and peanuts were passed around, and I took a ginger ale, and the toddler, whining, kicked it. The spillage narrowly missed my laptop keyboard, but by no means missed me. The father apologized profusely and spoke sternly to his child, who cried. I closed my laptop and then closed my eyes.
We landed. I found a cab, which took quite a bit of my $35 but got me to my hotel, the Radisson, in the heart of the business district. I checked in and inquired about the Nortel convention. Was the banquet in this hotel? The clerk knew nothing about Nortel and even less about a banquet. It occurred to me that my ignorance was nearly total—I didn't even know where I would be speaking the next day. I hoped that the guy who hired me, Gary Bernstein, had been good enough to leave me some information. Were there any messages for me? There were not.
I went up to my room and channel-surfed, hoping for one of those hotel-only stations that gives you information about local events. No dice. No mention of Nortel, or a banquet. I had no idea how to contact Gary Bernstein—I didn't know what hotel he was staying in.
I wandered back down to the lobby. Perhaps a different clerk would have more information. I stood on line, feeling precious minutes tick by. (Among the other things I didn't know, I also didn't know what time the banquet started.) The new clerk also knew nothing of a Nortel convention, but allowed how many conventions made use of the convention center, just two blocks away.
That sounded good to me, and I bolted out of there. The convention center turned out to be a glass and white-steel affair… and was empty. It was not, however, unlocked, and so I went in and was almost immediately stopped by a uniformed guard who demanded to know my business. I told him, and he informed me that the convention center was closed and the official meetings did not begin until the next day, Monday. He knew nothing about a banquet. He showed me the door.
I stood outside, in the broiling humidity, trying to get my thoughts together. My clothes were sticking to me—I still hadn't showered, and these were still the clothes I had been wearing yesterday. A red T-shirt, now stained and sticky from the ginger ale, and a pair of old blue jeans with large grass stains on the knees. And I was getting very hungry. They had only served peanuts on the plane. I could practically see the word BANQUET like a mirage, in front of my face like a carrot on a stick.
I started back to my hotel—to do what, I didn't know—but then stopped. Right outside the convention center door, in preparation for tomorrow's full day, was a sandwich board sign listing all of the available shuttles… and the hotels they stopped at. There were five hotels, not including my own. Well, sure—my hotel was just two blocks away. Which meant that these hotels were even further away. And of course the shuttles were not running now.
I committed the list to memory, and ran back inside to ask the guard how to get to the first of them—the Sheraton. He looked like he wanted to arrest me for some reason but eventually I got some directions out of him. The hotel was a good seven blocks away. I got hopping.
I was giant ball of panting sweat by the time I got to the Sheraton, and my stomach was growling. The lobby was on the second floor, and I took an escalator up. I was about to stand on line and ask for Gary Bernstein when I heard the chattering murmur of a large party. It was coming from above me. I got on another escalator, and rode it up. Directly in front of the escalator, coming slowly into view as I ascended, was a large party room. People in tuxedos milled about. A large buffet was set up. I was put off only slightly by the tuxedos, but I sure wasn't going to let my dress stand in my way. Now that I knew where I was, I would grab a few hors d'oeurve, find out when Ray Charles was scheduled to start, go back to my hotel and get properly cleaned up and dressed. No problem, and if I missed the beginning of the concert, well, that was cost of missing one's flight.
I strolled into the room and saw immediately it was not the Nortel banquet. A large banner strung across the stage pronounced this to be a meeting of the… oh, who knows. Something like the American Association of Aristocratic Automobile Aficionados. I glanced around, looking for some kind of food I could just grab and leave—pigs in a blanket, or something. But everything was being served buffet style, and there was a long line for that. I turned around and left.
So now what? I supposed I had to get to the next hotel. Or, wait, I had never really checked out this one. Go back to the lobby, see if Gary Bernstein was checked in. Yes. I glanced at my watch and was amazed to see it was past 6:00. I was seized by the idea—the virtual surety—that I was missing the banquet right now. It was happening somewhere in this city, and I had no way of finding it.
Around the corner came a young man in a purple crew shirt, and embroidered over his heart, stitched in green, was the simple word: Nortel. I almost couldn't believe it, and it took me a second before I found myself and pounced on him.
Amazingly, he also did not know of any banquet, and I almost strangled him on the spot. He also didn't know Gary Bernstein. But he saw desperation in my eyes, and told me to follow him. We went up an elevator and through an unmarked door, where a few tables and chairs had been set up. Other similarly attired Nortellians were gathered, and I wondered if I looked nearly as much like a madman as I felt. The young man went to the phone and spoke into it, and then, to my surprise, handed it to me.
“Gary?!” I couldn't believe it.
“Where are you?”
“In the Sheraton, somewhere. I don't know where anything is. The banquet or where I'm supposed to be speaking tomorrow or...” I couldn't think of a third thing I didn't know. Moments ago, it felt like there were hundreds of things I didn't know.
Gary said, “Are you dressed?”
That threw me. “I'm in a red T-shirt and jeans.”
“All right. Meet me in the lobby in five minutes. I'll find you there.”
I thanked him and hung up, and then thanked the young man and all other Nortellians and scampered back to the lobby, keeping both eyes fixed on the light that had suddenly appeared at the end of this long, dark tunnel.
Gary and I had never met, but he found me easily enough. We shook hands and I met his wife. They were both dressed in evening clothes, and it now occurred to me what Gary meant when he asked if I was dressed. He gave me his wife's banquet pass. I wondered, not out loud, how I was ever supposed to get into the banquet without such a pass, even if I had known where the banquet was.
Gary laid out the plan, and I was happy to stop thinking and put myself in his hands. We would take the shuttle from this hotel to the Omni Center, which was a different convention center, further away from the one I almost been arrested in earlier. That's where the banquet was being held, and where Ray Charles would play at 9:00. I had missed nothing. Appetizers would be had around 6:30, dinner would start around 8:00, and the concert after that. Once at the Omni Center, I would take a different shuttle back to my hotel, get myself cleaned up, and then shuttle back here in time for all the festivities.
On the shuttle ride over, I expounded on my day so far, and further expounded on my gratefulness to have found Gary and my relief that this whole thing was coming to an end.
We all got off the bus, and Gary and his wife entered the Omni Center, and I looked at the long row of buses. There was no sandwich board signs like at the other convention center, and that was probably because everyone was coming here—no one was yet going back. I climbed on each bus and asked if it would be going back to the Radisson. A bus driver said yes, and I settled into a seat with a large sigh.
I watched the city move past me and even drifted off for a few minutes. Talk about your long days. My stomach, which had been temporarily quelled by the simple notion that I would soon be eating, was getting impatient and was making all kinds of noise. We stopped at a few other hotels and the bus filled up. No one sat next to me.
A few minutes later, we pulled back in front of the Omni Center. It took several seconds for me to believe my eyes. The bus doors opened and people debarked. It was true! I was back where I started!
“Hey! What happened to the Radisson?!” I still couldn't believe this.
The bus driver turned around, astonished. “What?” she said.
“The Radisson! The Radisson hotel!”
“Oh! I'm sorry, I thought you said the Ramada.”
I gawked at her. And then, quietly and with no fanfare, I simply gave up. I got off the bus and walked over to the entrance, where two ladies were checking banquet passes. I showed mine and was admitted. I was half expecting to be turned back for serious dress code violations, but they clearly chose not to challenge me on the issue.
Everyone was gathered in a large lobby, and long tables had been set up with all manner of appetizers. I didn't wait a moment. I grabbed two of this and three of that and found a corner where I could eat in peace. I fully expected to be grabbed at any moment—at best, I looked like a party crasher, and I probably looked crazy, to boot. My intention was to eat until the police arrived.
Amazingly, that did not happen, and soon the doors to the banquet hall opened, and we all gathered inside. Some tables were reserved, but most were open to general seating, and were marked with different regions of the country. I found a table marked “New York” and, what the hell, sat at it.
Soon others joined me, and there were introductions all around, and I explained about my unusual dress. We sat and waited for dinner to be served. It occurred to me that I should find Gary Bernstein—in case something did go wrong, it would be good to know the location of my one and only ally. I wandered around the absolutely huge banquet hall, and finally found Gary sitting a scant twenty feet away from the stage. Well, he was a vice-president of something or such. He glanced at me and noticed I was unchanged. I quickly gave him the rundown on my 25-minute tour of Atlanta, ending with the bus driver's punch line. (“I thought you said Ramada!“) Gary turned to the rest of the table and said, “This is the young man I was telling you about, the one having a bad day.”
Everyone said “Ahhhh.”
Gary then invited me to join his table—someone's girlfriend was a no-show. I glanced at that stage where Ray Charles would be playing, close enough to throw a paper airplane at, and happily abandoned my fellow New Yorkers.
Oh, the food was good. I tore through it like a man possessed, while chatting amiably with the vice-presidents of this worldwide conglomerate. We discussed the coming Internet revolution, and how I had come to be hired by Nortel in the first place: Like most of my gigs from that time, someone with no idea how to find a speaker on the subject of the Net had called Internet World magazine. My friend Andrew was the senior editor, and always recommended me.
“But you know why I really hired this guy,” said Gary, leaning in, “is because he likes Ray Charles.”
I smiled politely. He continued, “Who would have thought that someone his age even knew Ray Charles's music anymore?”
That puzzled me, but I kept smiling. Ray Charles wasn't exactly a niche attraction. Who wouldn't choose to see him in concert, especially if you were getting paid to do so?
“And that's why,” Gary concluded, “you're going to come backstage with us after the show.”
I nodded. Then I said, “What?”
“After the show, a number of us are going to get to meet him. You'll come with us.”
I was stunned, but not so far gone as to argue with him.
The concert started, and what can I tell you about watching Ray Charles perform that you don't already know? Mesmerizing, glorious music—and yes, hearing him play “Georgia on My Mind” while actually sitting in the state of Georgia gave it a little extra something. He ran through all the songs you know, played several I hadn't heard before, and kept us enthralled for two hours. I was deeply impressed that he could bring this much passion and energy to a show which was, basically, a corporate paycheck. Then again, I don't think he had the capacity to phone it in.
He did his final number and bowed, and Gary was tapping me on the shoulder and beckoning me to follow him. Good God, he wasn't just kidding around. I was going backstage to meet Ray Charles.
There was a hullabaloo backstage, the distinct chaos of a show having just concluded. Techies were dismantling things, backup singers were getting to their dressing rooms, and big, large, HUGE bodyguards were keeping watch over the situation. Ray Charles had been led by a handler to a spot where he could meet the Nortel executives. This was part of the corporate paycheck, no doubt, but the man was used to it. He was beaming like a lighthouse. People stepped up and had their picture taken with him.
Gary said, “He's with us,” referring to me, to a bodyguard who was clearly wondering how this ratty looking kid had gotten back here. We stepped into position.
I have met celebrities before, and generally I simply treat them like human beings. Some appreciate this, and some, detecting a lack of deification, do not. There was only one time where I found myself completely, absolutely starstruck, and this was it. I am standing next to Ray Charles! “We are really big fans,” said Gary Bernstein.
“Why, thank you!” said Ray Charles.
“Yes,” I said. That was my entire contribution to the conversation. Everything was happening too quickly. We were guided into position and a flash went off, and then it was time for the next group to meet him—we were ushered away. It took perhaps five seconds for me to have the pained thought that I had just met one of my musical idols, but as far as he knew, I had never been within 10,000 miles of him. Unless he smelled me, which at that point was not impossible.
Still, a heady experience. We left through a backstage door and walked around the building to the buses. I very carefully found the right bus back to my hotel. Found my way to my room and more or less passed out.
My presentation the next day went over great. Gary stopped in and I think was surprised to see me in slacks and a tie. One month later, I received my check. Accompanying it was a photograph.