Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I DON'T KNOW YET by Leëta Damon

I recently attended the Grace Hopper Celebration, a conference for women from around the world, who work in technology and computing. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was new to this organization and sitting in the midst of a career and personal crisis when I signed up to go. I’d been to several other conferences in the past, but only as an employee of the host organization, never purely as an attendee. It was to be one week in Atlanta in the fall, in a luxurious hotel. I decided I was going to go, leave my life and work behind -- just soak up possibilities, and unwind by indulging my senses. Intellectual stimulation, good food and wine, and bubble baths awaited. . .

Well, there’s planning and hoping -- and then, there’s execution. In the space of time between making a reservation and getting on a plane, my lap top dies and a few other big bills come in. So downgrading my hotel to one a few blocks away seemed the sensible thing to do. The week before I was due to leave I was still deeply ingrained in a project at work that I was hoping to be done with before I left, and clearly wouldn’t be. In that last week, I wasn’t sleeping well, or fulfilling anything off my carefully constructed prep lists. A sleepless night of packing, weather woes leading to 3 reroutes, and 15 hours after arriving at the airport, I was finally in Atlanta.

Had I stayed in the same hotel my conference was in, given the sheer onslaught of information and human energy, I probably would have retreated to my room and ordered room service. I would have missed the 4 block walk each day through oddly deserted side streets, at least twice a day, that was somehow uphill both ways. I would have missed the 2 horse drawn carriages that rested at a taxi stand on my hotel’s street, just past the unassuming but loudly grooving supper club with no windows onto the street, only a facade that looked like someone’s front yard and door. Across from it, the snazzy “tallest hotel in the western hemisphere”, that had it’s first 2 floors on this side covered in scaffolding. Around the other side of the block, the drive-up entrance was a level lower (being downhill you know), and bustling with cars and bellmen.

I would have missed the panhandler that pointed me the way to my hotel that first night before hitting me up for change. I paid him a buck, after all he’d offered me a valuable service. On the way to the hotel, I passed this odd parking meter looking thing in the middle of the sidewalk outside the police station -- a collection point for the local “No Panhandling” campaign. (Oops.) I would have missed the police officers nonchalantly patrolling on segway, horse and bicycle. I would have missed that simple dance of meeting eyes or not, as we walked down the street -- the ‘how’ of which is often telling about one’s origins. I would have missed the foreign nationals walking around, scowling at the maps trying to get oriented and find their next destination.

As I’d been properly brought up in a paranoid city, I was careful to do such scowling before leaving my room each day. Having done so though, I walked about the streets with a certain comfort that eventually had those same foreigners asking me for directions. Hearing the accents and languages from all over the globe (like Japan, South Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan), I was thrown back to my teen and young adult years in Manhattan, doing the same thing. That music is one of the few things I miss about living in a metropolis. Atlanta is called the NY of the south, and I can see why, it feels much like that social home of my youth, but a little cleaner, a little saner, a little friendlier -- most of the time. I was happy to see a good number of couples of mixed-race comfortably walking about, but could not fail to notice that white men on the street almost invariably did not meet my eyes.

My formal conference sessions finally over, I head back to my room to prepare for the last event of this gathering, a Sponsor’s Night party to be held in the local aquarium. There was the promise of much dancing, something I do far too little of late, as well as good food and wine. I’d done relatively little of the indulging I’d planned on, since I was working between sessions or was too worn out to go out after the evening sessions of the conference. The aquarium was on my list of things to do in my carefully planned out first day and a half, designed to transition me from my always-working state to something a little more civilized. Unfortunately, Mother Nature and the entity I work for had different ideas of what I should be doing with that time; I was glad for this opportunity to see the fishes and such.

Back in my room I spruce up a bit, artfully slap on some warpaint as armor against the social onslaught I was walking into (2000+ women blowing off steam from an information-packed week is no joke), and put back on the only pair of shoes I had with me -- though somehow I’d ended up with something like 4 purses when I unpacked. (Such are the decisions made by a sleep-deprived brain.) The walking map said it was only about 4 blocks away, and the desk clerk confirmed that earlier. There it was on the edge of the Olympic park, piece of cake. The route I choose to avoid walking along the park as a woman alone, takes me down the steepest hill yet, and then uphill (of course) to the aquarium’s front door.

Walking into that dark throbbing womb, filled with sweaty, eating-drinking, dancing-laughing-talking women (a few men sprinkled here an there for good measure), was the sensory assault I expected. Jeans and evening gowns and glitter and glow sticks abound. Luckily the music wasn’t too loud, probably a by-product of the 40+ year spread of ages in the room. I bought a couple drink tickets, and got a glass of wine, saving the soft drink ticket for later. The ball room we were in had 2 huge glass sections on perpendicular walls, one looking into the tank of a pair of beluga whales and a pair of harbor seals, the other into an enclave of small sharks.

I spent some time up close with the whales, only a few inches of glass between us -- and, you know, thousands of gallons of water. At first I was wondering how the almost shamanically deep bass line was going to affect them, given the water’s and glass’s amplification properties. The whales seem genuinely unfazed -- enjoying themselves perhaps. They kept swimming very close to the glass wall, seemingly offering up their bellies for a good scratch as they slipped past. They seem amused as I refer to them as “little one” in our mental conversations. Turning away, I slip out of this main ballroom, have my 2 drinks and a bite, nodding at a couple people I’d met earlier in the week. Then having met my tolerance for humans and noise, retire.

In the morning, having been thwarted in my request for a late check-out, I have a choice: to make the mad dash out into the city and see a few tourist things on my neglected list, or to wander in a mellow fashion, just soaking up atmosphere and sunshine in this lovely southern city, I choose the latter. It’s a gorgeous early fall day, The weather has wormed up from the unseasonably cool temperatures of the last few days. Here in a business district on Saturday morning, traffic’s pretty light. I don’t even see the 2 horse drawn carriages yet. I head up the hill for the 2 pieces of unfinished business I left in the mall. A few serious indulgences later, I return with my still smoking credit cards (so much for downgrading).

I finally have my items packed and logistics worked out to get home, but my flight doesn’t leave for several hours. So I stack various carefully packed bags onto my newly purchased luggage cart and rolling suitcase, look around one last time, stack up my trash and recyclables and struggle out the door and down to the lobby. Leaving my bags with the valet, and waiting until I see him put them into the locked room, I step out into the delightfully warm and sunny day.

I head across the street, through the parking lot across the street, towards Ted’s Montana Grill, and turning the corner toward the restaurant, and spot Mr. Turner himself, mustache and all, deep in conversation, carrying a briefcase that is a little at odds with his chambray shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. I smile a bit and continue on. I walk in and for the second time this week, am shown to a paneled booth. Dark wood and leather banquettes reign here, giving a homey cave-like air even on such a bright day.

I choose one of the “only available on Saturday” meals, and pull out my book: Eat Pray Love. Reading it on this trip, I’ve been chuckling a lot, recognizing more and crying a little. I must find more by this author. I feel like I’ve known her for years. Lunch comes and I enjoy this gently barbecue-sauced, long simmered bison short rib, fork tender and toothsome. It’s paired with the most genteel garlic mashed potatoes I’ve ever had -- I swear they simply waved the bulb of garlic over the pot and muttered some vague incantations. Perhaps this town needs a few more Italians I decide as I continue to read about the author’s adventures in Roma and Napoli, and munch away.

Atlanta - what was that line I heard the other day? “All your dreams could come true or you can get killed at a stop light, you just don’t know... You just don’t know.”