Hotel by Tom III: Northern California (Or, Excerpts from a Journal Never Published), 2010

It might be a dispositional quirk, but for me driving as a passenger down a road called The Gauntlet doesn’t, for the most part, faze me. When I say that I don’t feel better about anything with five pounds of marijuana in the trunk, I don’t mean that I start freaking out — I simply mean that I don’t feel any better about a thing I’m pretty blase about otherwise. I tell myself that calling myself a journalist will save me, despite the fact that I have no journalistic endeavor paying me for my efforts — despite my lack of credentials — …. . But in reality, I know that that ploy must have been tried before, that it probably wouldn’t work. Everyone’s a journalist and nobody’s a journalist. Look at this: it’s a journal –

Much more to the point: to feel blase about driving five pounds of marijuana through The Gauntlet involves deploying your suspension of disbelief. You mustn’t believe that you’ll get pulled over, that you’ll be in trouble if you do get pulled over, or that such a possibility is even within the realm of narrative coherence.

You must cross your fingers, silently pray, and have faith in forces you don’t believe in. You should also try not to act sketchy.

*

“See that helicopter?” Nat says. But of course I see the helicopter. I may be mostly looking at the landscape and pretending there’s no weed in the car, but it’s hard to miss a fucking helicopter here, Nat.

“Yeah, I see it.”

“That’s CAMP, dude.” CAMP is the Campaign Against Marijuana Proliferation or Production or Peaceable Right To Assemble, or some such. I forget what the P stands for. “They’re pulling down someone’s grow.” He points at them, at the helicopter, and I glance over. They see me and a moment of terror passes as I realize that we’ve been outed with five pounds of marijuana in the car and also that we haven’t. Of course we haven’t. We’re pointing at a helicopter landing next to the highway with marijuana plants sticking out of it. Anyone would point at that.

*

Another day in Mendocino and another day of plumbing. I wish I felt more like writing.

*

Charlie left yesterday. My iPod provoked the incident that resulted in his departure. Charlie started giving me shit in the morning about having a password on my iPod, and I walked outside to smoke, said, “Fuck you, Charlie.” Only to see Lauren come outside crying moments later. I asked her what was wrong. “Nothing,” she said. “It’s fine.”

It wasn’t fine. She (the nicest person in the world) and Charlie butted heads for a minute before she told him, basically, to get the fuck out if he wasn’t going to be nice, which isn’t in his nature, and which I really appreciated him for.

He was gone within an hour.

*

I’m situated in the Northern California hills, seven miles to the Pacific Ocean as the crow flies, or so Lauren says — or rather, so her former landlord says, according to Lauren. The fog says they might be right: early morning the hills are flush with it, bobbing in and out of peaks and valleys and redwoods until midday, when the sun is out in force and it coaxes the water back up into the atmosphere. It’s all very pretty, is what I’m saying. And I go to sleep to a symphony of crickets and the starscape from Starry Night, minus the village.

More specifically I’m at the bottom of a hill, next to a pond strangled by weeds and blue-green algae. There are six tents in total, under and abutting a tiny grove of juvenile redwoods. Beside the tents are an empty greenhouse, an empty trailer, and two storage tents with various odds and ends required to run a successful marijuana grow operation. Up the hill, past the gardens and the outhouse, is the workshop and the dry room.

*

My cell phone has been dead for three days, but I don’t care. I only got the spottiest reception anyway, and everyone who’s important to me knows that I’m in mountain lion country. (I spent half an hour last night trying not to breathe, so convinced was I that a cougar was prowling outside; it turns out it was Miranda — girl needs to get a headlamp and stop sounding so much like a large cat.)

This morning, rain. It arrived last night, actually, but I didn’t believe it. Now I do. Now I hope the rain flap holds.

*

Sharing my tent with me are a fly and a daddy-long-legs. I was going to swat them or otherwise get them to leave my general habitat, but I decided that we could share.

I haven’t taken a shower in over ten days.

I’m going to die on this mountain.

*

Josh says “fuck” too much. Uncle John is one of my favorite people of all time. Goat calls me his nigga. Eric plays with some shit he calls “nectar.” Dina is going to celebrate her birthday today if she ever wakes up. Goose has been mastering impressions of all the trimmers for the past two months. Shaggy is being Shaggy. Trish had that seizure I told you about.

Jess had her baby — Lillianna. Lauren isn’t nice, just fake. I miss my friends. And I need to shave.

*

It’s Thanksgiving Day in America and I’m still stuck on this mountainside. Today Goose will deep-fry a turkey and we’ll all try to finish up what remains of the weed to be trimmed. Or, let me put it this way: this movie is about to be over, the credits are about to roll — though I doubt that anyone here deserves any credit for anything.

But it’s Thanksgiving Day in America and I’m still stuck on this mountainside. I’ll tell you what I’m thankful for. I’m thankful that I’m still alive. I’m thankful for the the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever had as a Thanksgiving backdrop. I’m thankful for the friends I’ve made — for Shaggy and Goose and Uncle John and Goose again and Josh, Kimmy, Goat. I’m thankful for the fact that this shitshow is almost over. Now if I could just figure out where my home should be.

Look. Listen. I didn’t plan any of this. I’m tired. I’ve had two slugs of whiskey and I’m working on a beer. Duma escaped from Jess’s spot and is running around the property looking for people who are awake so they can pet her. I’m sitting on a lawn chair in the sun with my winter coat on, sunshine melting the ice that formed last night. My hand is horrendously bandaged from a fall I took two nights ago, stumbling high on mushrooms down the hill to get to my tent so that I could sleep everything off. Look, listen: Sometimes I wonder why we don’t all spend a whole lot more time crying. Sometimes I wonder why we’re pretending to understand what we can’t possibly understand. Sometimes I wonder things like that and then I forget them, because they’re far too depressing to think about most of the time.

And so it’s Thanksgiving Day in America, and I’m stuck on a mountainside until this shitshow is over. I leave with whoever will take me the furthest south. I am lonely and permanently heartbroken. I dread what will become of us all. I really, really do.

Happy fucking holidays.

Rating: 5/5

Hotel By Tom II: Uncle Tom’s Second and More Hospitable Cabin, Brooklyn, New York. Late Summer

At this point, of course, my home has become hotel. Danny and his girlfriend stayed here while I was gone. Aliya stayed here while I was gone. According to them my bed is lumpy.

Hey, assholes: YOU’RE WELCOME!

But seriously, thanks for the plants, the broom, and the toilet-bowl scrubber. Most clutch.

Here is what I can offer you (Should you ever want to AirBNB this shit and be a horrible scourge on the rest of the city):

  • Shower that is really consistently hot
  • Toilet that flushes most poops with one flush
  • Plunger
  • Four plants that don’t need any maintenance
  • Gas range
  • Brooklyn balcony (aka, fire escape)
  • Prime location (this part isn’t a lie)
  • Compliments on your attire from the people at the coffee shop next door

Okay, so maybe not the last one.

Point of the story — somebody probably left a glass of farmer’s market milk in your fridge and in the 24 hours you were in New York before leaving you didn’t even see it, and so when you got back late last night, several days, presumably, after the mysterious substance appeared, you dumped it out into the sink.

Point of the story — it’s pretty much impossible to beat a price that is “FREE” and “NOT INFESTED WITH VERMIN” in New York City, which is why, despite the plants, the broom, the toilet thingy, I’m still waiting on Thank-You cards, guys.

I’m still waiting.

Rating: 4.5/5

Hotel by Tom I: Embassy Suites, Boca Raton, Florida. Late Summer.

I’ve stayed at this hotel before. About a month ago, I was in Boca Raton, where half of my company is based — or really, a third — and trying to figure out what my job was. I still am, but that’s beside the point. Samantha and I got off the plane at 10:30 to meet Susan, who had been wandering around the Ft. Lauderdale airport since she’d arrived in town, waiting for us. She looked every bit as frazzled as she’d said when we texted as I landed. 

“Fair warning: I look like a homeless person with crazy hair.” 

She told us to meet her by the escalators, and Samantha and I bumped into her strewn over some benches there, decked out in a University of Wisconisin-Madison sweatshirt, shorts, sandals, and looking somewhat like a homeless person. Susan is a former librarian, insofar as she spent many, many years working in one, even if she never got her MLIS. Samantha is from Staten Island, engaged, and a Giants fan. I’m Blogbytom. Presumably you already know me.

We get the rental car at the Hertz place, and of course the line is too long and it all takes too long, and whatever. We drive north to Boca, to the Embassy Suites, by Hilton. In Boca Raton, Florida. Late summer.

The Embassy Suites in Boca Raton has a stupid layout. I should just get that out of the way. Think of a giant hall, seven stories high, with a courtyard in the middle. On one half of the courtyard is the breakfast area and on the other the bar and dinner area. The elevators are pushed over to one side, all three of them(!), so you have to walk halfway around the giant amphitheater to get to your room. There are no hallways, only balconies, overlooking the people below, as you make your way around the building. If you wanted to spit on someone, no one would be able to tell where it came from.

The rooms themselves, and on the Very Very Plus side, all have their own balconies. For this, I give the Embassy Suites in Boca Raton, Florida much credit. Because I smoke. And not having to take a shitty elevator that’s all the way over there down six floors to go outside to smoke is really, really convenient.

We all go to sleep and decide that we’ll meet in the lobby at 8:30.

We end up meeting in the breakfast area. Samantha and Susan (both of whom had been there only in January, but hadn’t been aware of the renovations I saw on my first visit) both got lost coming out of the stupidly-situated elevators. We ate eggs and fruit and had coffee. Michael and Renata joined us. We went to work. 

Work was, as it can tend to be in the corporate world, two days of a giant Sales Meeting. It was exhausting. I barely had time to smoke, let alone think. I drew a bunch of doodles the first day, feeling shy, listening but not really contributing. Corey and I have been talking about making my new company a bit more like my old one since I was hired. As if to prompt me, the first day he floated me some softballs, perhaps to get my confidence up. It was a nice gesture, and I appreciated it. I’ve decided I like Corey, even though he’s Sales-bot through and through.

We went out to dinner and it wasn’t good. An old man twice complimented our table of twenty on how wonderful we were, how young we made him feel. The first time, the whole restaurant went quiet. To listen. As he was leaving, he gave the table $20 to “add to the tip” as thanks for bringing his spirits up. He gave a couple of the women in our party affectionate kisses on the hair. I think he probably was a little bit lost up there, but it’s Florida. What do you expect?

It was nice, but in a sad way.

Dennis and I battled it out in front of Emmett today. Dennis is the VP of Sales and Emmett is the CEO. The issue was pricing and how to account for different budgets, different needs, different strategies, etc. I won the argument, for what it’s worth, but in front of your boss, even if he’s put the item on the agenda for discussion, you never say that. Especially not when he’s in front of his boss. Bad form. Not cool. Either way, I got what I wanted when my immediate boss came up to me just before lunch, when I was still a bit shaky from the whole “little-guy-vs-big-buy-in-front-of-biggest-guy” affair (that shit’s kinda nerve-wracking), and said, “Just keep that pricing in your head, and we’ll get it done.”

She also said, at the end of the day:

“Corey, you keep bugging John about that marketing project, and Tom, you keep challenging Dennis on pricing.”

It was nice.

This morning, as I went to put my roller in the rental and return my key, I told the man at the Embassy Suites in Boca Raton, Florida in late summer that I was going to be back for breakfast. He told me okay. It was in the 90’s already, and the palm trees were sweating in the humidity. The grass was still damp on the islands in the parking lot from the morning sprinklers. The sun wasn’t high enough for sunglasses. 

I had scrambled eggs, sausage, and two cups of coffee. 

Rating: 3/5

Moving

This weekend I pack for my third move in three years. Perhaps fittingly for the numerologists out there, I’m 30, so this means something, cosmically. Probably. At any rate, it will be the first time I’ve lived alone since I had a tiny studio in the McGill Ghetto my third year of college. Again with that number. Three. Third year, thirty, third move. Gosh. Everything is destiny.

I’ve also moved, in the past week, into a new job. My new job is basically like my old job, except my new boss is amazing and not a tyrant. Someone on LinkedIn posted something about how a worker’s displeasure with their manager makes one a less productive employee. (Ah, capitalism. Speaking of which, among other fever dreams I had last night, one entailed me arguing with someone about how they weren’t actually a capitalist, since capitalists moved capital for a living, and all they did was work. It’s a line I picked up from a trainee who didn’t make it back when I was a door-to-door hippy for the AFL-CIO, and it’s always stuck with me, to the extent that, evidently, I deploy it in fever dreams.) This is true. I was undoubtedly a less productive employee when my old boss tried to destroy me.

My new manager called me yesterday at the end of the day from Boca Raton, Florida, where she’s based, to apologize that she hadn’t been in better touch and to ask for my advice on a consortial deal her boss had proposed. It affects my territory, so I understand ostensibly why she was giving me the heads-up, but in our conversation, it was pretty clear that she was treating me as a peer.

“I’m generally not a fan of working with aggregators,” I said. You don’t have to know what an aggregator is for the rest of this to make sense.

“Yeah, I’m not sure that this is the best way forward, and I don’t want to shoot you in the foot right off the bat. But this is the first time Christoph has asked for my advice on a deal, and I don’t want to tell him it’s a bad idea. Otherwise, he might not ask me again.”

We laughed.

“Office politics,” I said. “The only ones I’m worried about are RPI and West Point. Oh, and Colgate. Oh, but wait, no. Springer never sold anything to Colgate. We need to just wait for that librarian to die.”

We bandied a few ideas about — compromises, ways to gently say no to a questionable idea from a manager without seeming combative. Alternatives, add-on conditions, exclusions, etc. It was a productive call, and it wasn’t even what she had called me to discuss.

Whatever that was will have to wait until next week. She had to go pick up her boys.

***

In the process of moving there are always doubts. I’m not sure where I’m going. But I like what I see so far.

On escape, and being found

This morning I received a call from Jessica, who extended an offer from a company that competes, in a roundabout way, with my own, to take over a position handling the Mid-Atlantic on up through the Northeast and Quebec and Ontario. I was pretty much high-fiving myself throughout the whole call, so excited to be out from under the reign of a tyrant boss who’s done her best to destroy me for the last six months. I interviewed on Thursday, during the latter half of the USMNT game against Germany where, by losing by one, we actually won. Somewhere in there is a metaphor, I’m sure.

I left the bar where I was watching the World Cup game (drinking cranberry juice, because I’m not that much of an idiot), and the people around me were like, “Seriously? You’re giving up your seat?” And I said, “I have a job interview,” and kinda shrugged my shoulders, and they wished me good luck, and then I nailed it. I fucking nailed it. I wish I could go back to those people today and say, “God bless the USA.”

But this is about escape.

And the important thing to note about escape is that you don’t necessarily recognize it when it happens. I talked to my dear friend and colleague Maura today, to let her know what was happening, and she asked me if I wanted a dinner or a lunch or any kind of send-off, because she’s a doll and I love her, and I said no. No. Because I don’t. Because all I want is to be softly let go. I don’t even know that I’ll give two weeks. I might simply arrive and depart and that will be that. 

Listen. My boss was gunning for me a month and a half ago. She also didn’t realize that I had the law on my side and that having your boss gunning for you can cause some serious emotional issues. Like, for real. Like, I’m not making this shit up. Like, I was crying every day, and that’s a symptom that a certified psychiatrist will recognize as “Not Good.” And so I took leave and my doctor basically told me to find another job, and I did. And now I have one. And so, holy moly.

I’m going into work Wednesday, whether there’s a doctor’s note or not. I’m going in to resign and then I’m going to work for a company with a boss who seems eminently awesome and sane, who understands adult life, who has already proven herself, in a 45 minute interview, to be more mature and understanding than my current boss. And then I’m probably going to leave New York. Because that’s a thing that can happen, too.

Go be free

There’s the concept of the “non-place,” a space where it’s impossible to be comfortable due to its inherent transitory nature. Where I’m remembering this from I forget at the moment, but I find that it’s a rather apt phrase for describing what precisely the life of a traveling salesman entails. To wit, living in places where impermanence is paramount, where there is nothing at all resembling an anchor.

True, Heraclitus brought all of this up back in the Presocratic years, and impermanence isn’t exactly a novel concept – our greatest poets and writers, songwriters and artists have been dealing with this shit for ages – and yet these spaces that are designed to mask them… Hiltons and JFKs and Starwoods – they only end up doing the precise opposite of what they’re intended to. Which is why I never let the housekeeping people clean my room if I’m at a hotel – BECAUSE I DON’T ALWAYS MAKE MY BED AND CHRIST ALMIGHTY AT LEAST LET ME PRETEND I’M NOT A STRANGER HERE.

The sterility, of course, is to be expected. What’s somewhat unexpected is the notion I hear on occasion from some of my friends that what I do is in any way glamorous. It’s not, and in fact it’s terribly lonesome and all I want to do is drown myself in liquor and get fired so that I can escape this routine and this rut of going back and forth and back and forth again and again in between places, never being home, or when at home simply wanting to sleep or be alone or maybe, maybe say hello to you.

This is the life of the road, perpetual anxiety, perpetual groping at strangers for some sort of feeling, and upon finding it, more often than not, losing it the next day.

I look out the window of this little courier jet, seated in the exit row on my way to Sioux Falls, head against the latch, knowing full well that all I have to do is unbuckle my seatbelt, pull the lever, and be sucked out into Dakota country. But life is beautiful and cloying and an insufferable flirt – the only one I haven’t yet given up on.

Vacation as exorcism

In Tofino, I went to the guy who ran a used-everything shop with the copy of “East of Eden” my ex-girlfriend gave me for my 30th birthday. I never read it and I was about as far west as one can be without spilling out into the Pacific, at the end of the Trans-Canada Highway, sniffing sea salt and hyacinths as Spring came up roses everywhere. I asked the proprietor of the shop if he did trades, and he said sure why not, and proceeded to try to sell me a television and a DVD player. I browsed his books and found a Murakami that I already owned, went to the register, and said, “Here. It’s a good deal.” He agreed, and I left. Ben and I drove back east.

The previous night, Ben had been completely shitfaced. He left the restaurant we were at fifteen minutes or so earlier than I did, went back to our motel room, and crashed, hard. It was around midnight. When I got back, I found that he had deadbolted the door shut, which wouldn’t be a problem if I’d had a key for the deadbolt, but which was because I didn’t. I pounded on the door for what seemed like an eternity. A woman below us came outside to let me know that people were trying to sleep.

“I’m kind of S.O.L. here,” I said. “If I had my car keys I’d just crash in the car, but those are in the room and my buddy is wasted and passed out.”

She said, “Okay, well, just don’t knock for too much longer.”

Thanks, lady.

After calling the emergency motel number and receiving no answer, and weighing the pros and cons of walking into town and trying to find another room, I did what any former house painter would do — I walked around to the back of the motel and asked myself if I thought I could climb up to our room. I decided that Ben was probably too drunk to have locked the balcony door, that I saw a route that wasn’t too perilous. I began my ascent.

In retrospect, I don’t recommend doing what I did, because it was incredibly dangerous. Shimmying along balconies and using dividers as footholds and saying to yourself, “You’d better hold on and PULL now, because if you don’t, you’ll break your fucking neck” — none of that is OSHA approved, even less so in pitch black. When I finally thrust myself over the railing and opened the door to our room, I went to Ben and shook him awake and yelled at him:

“You’re a fucking idiot! What the fuck?” I said. “I just had to risk my fucking life to get into this fucking room because you’re too dumb to lock a door properly!” Ben apologized, I went out to the balcony for a cigarette, and when I came back in, he was passed out again.

*

My friend Will told me to go to Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park to romp around in old-growth forests, and so we did, Ben and I. I picked up our car at the Enterprise station in Victoria Tuesday morning. The gas tank was 3/8 full. No problem. We’d fuel up in Port Renfrew before we went into the trees.

Which is a good idea in theory. In practice, you should know that Port Renfrew’s one gas station is closed for six months every year. When we arrived in town, I slowed down at the sign that directs tourists to food, accommodations, gasoline. Beneath the pump symbol was a single word, all caps: “CLOSED.” I couldn’t help but laugh, point.

“What?” Ben asked.

“The gas station is closed,” I said.

We went to the general store and talked to the woman behind the register who told us that the guy who runs the dump might have gas, as he apparently did quite a fine side-business selling it to tourists who are too dumb to realize that, duh, Port Renfrew doesn’t sell gas in the winter. His name was Evan. “It’s just up the road on the left. Make a turn on the dirt road and drive up the hill. You can’t miss it.”

Of course, we missed it. We pulled up the second dirt road, where there was another man who lived in a trailer on grounds that could pass for a dump. We were greeted by his dog, yipping like a little shit and trying its very best to get run over.

“Hello?” we called out.

No response.

As the dog continued to bark, the man in the trailer was eventually roused from his sleep. It was probably around 1:00 in the afternoon. He did not acknowledge our “Hellos,” instead simply telling his dog to shut the fuck up and come here. I went around to the back to ask if he had gas. There, he put a shirt on and opened the tarp that separated him from the wild, informed me that he wasn’t Evan, and told us to turn around and go to the next dirt road. He was the picture of Santa Claus, if Santa Claus lived in abject poverty in the Canadian outback.

We left.

Evan was expecting us; people in Port Renfrew apparently call one another to tell them about the idiot tourists in their midst. Ben didn’t have any cash, so I paid with American dollars. $25 for half a tank. It was a bargain, and I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as happy as I was when we finally left, knowing that we could get to wherever we needed to end up without the car dying in the middle of the wilderness. We went into the forest and flirted with 1,000 year-old giant trees, and then drove through the mountains and the rain to Nanaimo, where I flirted shamelessly with a young woman from Germany named Anita before Ben and I eventually went back to our room and slept.

*

In Courtenay, we were greeted by Ron and Leanne. Ron is one of Ben’s dad’s oldest friends. We brought them beer and scotch to thank them for hosting us for a night, and Ron took us out on a tour of the area at dusk to see deer and geese in the pastures.

I told Ben, “I fucking hate deer.” But I didn’t tell Ron.

Ron is kind of a hippy and not-a-little-bit nutty, but he’s got a house and a barn and horses and chickens, and he lives like he wants to live, so I have nothing but respect for him. As the night wore on, I snuck out to the car to smoke cigarettes and drink whiskey and look at the stars. Jesus Christ, the stars. And eventually, after his son and daughter-in-law had left, we all decided to hit the hay for the night. I told Ron, “Oh, I’ll be up at 6:00 or so, so we can do coffee together before your doctor’s appointment.” Ron has a bum knee that won’t go away. It’s probably somewhat shitty getting old. I guess I’ll know soon enough.

I was up at 5:30, and Ron was up an hour or so later. We had coffee and talked about this and that as Leanne got up. We watched the morning news before Ben came downstairs and Ron left for the doctor. When he came back, it was pouring rain and I helped him with some firewood and we all pretty much agreed that the conditions were pretty shitty for the fishing we had planned. Instead we played cribbage. Ron won the first game, and I won the second. Leanne went to her spin class and Ben and I gave her hugs and thanked her for everything. Then we went out for lunch.

Ron brought us to what might be the shittiest diner I’ve ever been to, but it was the thought that counted. I had a sandwich. Ron paid. At the end, when we were leaving and doing another set of hugs, Ron told Ben and me, “Take care of one another.” Which maybe is what the whole vacation had been about, after all.