My ‘day job’ has me traveling today. I am in rural MA, but I could be anywhere. Looking at this hotel and the surrounding…um…civilisation, I am actually nowhere. That has nothing to do with the city, though. It has everything to do with the effect this economy is having on the people.
I’ve traveled for business for a couple decades now and I have this habit of getting up at the crack of dawn, showering, getting dressed and being the first one down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. It gives me a little mental edge to know that I’m prepared and ready for the day and I avoid any risk of becoming – that dumbass that rolled into the meeting late with his necktie crooked and his cell phone unmuted.
In my sunrise dining, I am always alone at a table, eating every possible thing of interest to me. I act like an immigrant uncle that survived a war and who hits a free meal with all the zeal of someone about to cross the sahara on camel for 40 days. It’s probably a good thing I am alone, because I am no doubt, repulsive to look at in my free food frenzy.
My solo epicurean excursions also make it easy for me to eavesdrop on the conversations around me. I listen to what people might be in town to sell or work on or to see on vacation. I like to piece together where they are from, what products they are talking about or what I think of the personalities of the people I am listening to. For the last two decades of such anthropological data mining, I have seen nothing new. I can typically count on some blowhard opining about how the world is and some poor sap having to sit there and agree with the gasbag out of some ranking and pecking order arrangement between them. Sometimes, there are more intimate conversations like a festering argument over money, family or the passiive-aggressive ballet of two people angry at each other while going through the motions of having a pleasant breakfast converstation. I must confess that too much exposure to the last example, makes me automatically wish that I was at a bar, well into a dozen Manhattans.
Today marks my first trip during this economic crisis, and I am surprised at how different things are. The faces of people are washed. There’s no life in them.
- Solo diners used to chime in, practically whistling Dixie as they went about their mini-vacation that work was paying for. Today, they look nervous and frightened, just moving in and out with wet hair and not a smile to anyone.
- A table of engineers talking about selling some measuring equipment. Those conversations used to be peppered with NASCAR references and tales of other towns and other projects and the names of people they all know that did good things. Today, just going through the motions, exchanging data and no excitement.
- The lobby in the early morning is usually abuzz with early risers staking claim to choice chairs for people watching, drinking coffee, reading a paper and looking for friends to walk by and socialize with. I am sitting here in my hotel room myself, after looking over the scene downstairs. It is like sitting in a mortuary that has been closed for about two years. Not even scary, just morose.
Last night, I ate at a Texas themed steakhouse in the middle of MA. What should have been a funny experience in the clash of two completely different cultures was more like a parade of plague survivors bathed in the glow of beer signs and drenched in easy-listening Country music.
If anyone wants to know how the economy is affecting people’s lives, go on the road. It’s like Mad Max, set in a mall parking lot.
I did meet one man, still breathing, yesterday in the queue to board the plane. We struck up a conversation about the trade show he is attending. He was obligated to the venue already, but the site wanted him to pony up $80k for a deluxe booth. He told me that he can either spend the money on a booth or not fire one of his employees. The choice is either one or the other. He’s keeping the employee and for one more day, he breathes the air of the living.