I Wish I Didn't Know The Way To San Jose: 48 Existential Hours Of Business Travel In Silicon Valley (2013)
I was warned.
When I mentioned that I was headed to San Jose for work, a friend simply commented, "I'm sorry". But how could it be bad, I thought? Isn't it a land of Bacharach/David songs and sunshine?
A day later - as I sat shivering in a room in that city's finest "business hotel", trying to get the wifi to work so that I could, in turn, work - I wished I'd never been so naive.
When Up In The Air was released, audience reaction fell into one of two camps: "What a horrible, empty life that man leads", and "Frequent flyer points, work travel and endless hotel rooms! Think of all the free UHT milks!!" Around 99.78% of the audience fell into the first group, and I into the second. I bought it hook, line, and sinker. I rushed home and applied for a Frequent Flyer membership number.
In a twist of fate, this coincided a marked increase in work-related travel, and I was happier than a pig in shit - until my trip to San Jose gave me a total immersion experience that finally taught me the proper way to feel about Up In The Air.
On paper, the hotel looked ok: "Our modern, sophisticated hotel offers a plethora of amenities such as spacious guest rooms featuring luxurious new bedding, enhanced bath experience, full service restaurant, bar, room service and an outdoor, heated pool." Alright! Enhanced bath experience!!
Like most work trip hotels, I only needed to spend a night there and do some work upon my arrival; basic mod cons are fine, particularly if they come with an Enhanced Bath Experience. It was not to be.
The sense of foreboding began to settle over me when I arrived at SJC airport and found it nearly deserted at peak hour on a weekday. Isn't this a centre of dotcom industry? Where are all the young millionaires?
To find the hotel shuttle area, I walk the length of the baggage claim and out through an underground carpark, where three ground staff workers ceased conversing with each other and turn, silent, to watch me pass. Do they know something I don't?
When I make it to the hotel, I realise they were the airport equivalent of the horror movie gas station foreshadowing.
It's February, but even for winter it's unseasonably cold in San Jose; they're expecting snow that night, I hear someone say as they pass. As the sliding doors open and close every few seconds and an icy wind barrels into the foyer, I believe them. The staff at the check-in desk, huddled around personal heaters, look like emperor penguins settling in for the long winter.
I check in and make my way to my room, eager to file my stories so I can take the rest of the night off. I pass a vending machine that is playing some sort of MIDI-based funeral dirge; outside, steam rises from the aforementioned heated pool as rain - possibly sleet - falls heavily.
Upstairs, there's something a little Overlook-y about the symmetry of the hallways, but I forge on, looking forward to a bath and my night off.
Once in the room, I rush to check out the Enhanced Bath Experience, but find only a tub that has seen better days. I can't seem to find a plug for it, either. Oh well, I think, perhaps there are other pleasures awaiting me, and so I look around the rest of the room. Two out of three globes have blown, and the wifi doesn't seem to work. Someone has - in desperation, perhaps - stuck six Coors Light bottle caps to the ceiling:
Unable to get the wifi to work, I pop down to the front desk. As I stand in the hallway awaiting the elevator, a Cedar Rapids type bails me up: "You work here, don't you" he says, not so much a question as a statement. I shake my head, no, and he disappears into the labyrinthine halls to seek enlightenment.
Front desk seem bemused if not panicked about the lack of functioning wifi in a hotel that has a mainly business-related clientele in a town known mostly for technology development, and over the course of the next 35 minutes I am instructed to try connecting the wifi in two other rooms on the same floor.
Forty-five minutes later, still without wifi, I slink to the foyer to do my work. As I type, a woman in the adjoining bar laughs so hard I start to feel teary at the memory of relative silence. An ad for Flight inexplicably loops on a flat-screen TV above my head.
Eventually, I finish my work, and return to my room: still no wifi with which to download the documents I need to read ahead of the following morning's interview. I wonder how long I could read a novel-length PDF on my iPhone before I start to go blind.
I return to the foyer to knock about and ponder the meaning of life and work. With the ill wind blowing through the two front doors, I take refuge in the restaurant; surely the heater will be on in there, I think, and I can at least raise my core temperature with a hot meal. I think of the Coors Light hieroglyphs on the ceiling and wonder if they were a warning.
Any hopes of warmth - literal or figurative - are dashed as I enter the restaurant, where the air-conditioner is blowing a gale while Coldplay whines quietly on the stereo. Determined to eat something, however, I take a seat at a table - alongside two other single diners, one of whom appears to be in the throes of a full scale existential meltdown as he stares at his breadsticks - and have a look at the menu.
A suspiciously cheerful waiter materialises at my table. "Is this--" [I point to 'fettucine with caprese sauce' on the menu] "--the only vegetarian option?" I ask, hopefully. The waiter, suddenly no longer cheerful, makes a face like he's trying to swallow a lemon and nods solemnly. "Well," he says, as though he might be able to pull some strings, "you could have the caesar salad without the chicken?"
My memory flashes back to the guest's compendium in my room, with its embarrassment of adjectives and copious boasts about accommodating guests' dietary needs, whether "low carb, gluten free, or vegetarian".
"Okay," I say, crestfallen as the vision of a hot dinner evaporates in my mind, the steam blown away by the freezing wind pouring in the front door of the hotel, "I'll have the salad, and--" [I smile winningly, pushing my luck] "--could I get some fries on the side?" There's a moment of silence - fries are not listed on the menu - but the waiter takes pity on my shivering form and agrees.
While I wait for my scurvy-encouraging dinner, I realise I am wearing every item of clothing I've packed, and I'm still shivering. I look around the restaurant: Mr Existential Meltdown sits quietly, contemplating his glass of water, while another woman talks loudly about shrimp. Somewhere in the distance, I hear the hyena-laugh of that woman in the bar.
I wonder if the hotel was designed by Samuel Beckett or perhaps Ingmar Bergman as I start to develop cold-related rigor mortis. I also feel an intense compulsion to start laughing hysterically. Instead, I try to make the most of my caesar salad - cos lettuce and caesar dressing with a half-hearted sprinkle of parmesan cheese - and mourn the completion of the bread basket that I have long since emptied in a frenzy.
Roughly $35 later, cold and still hungry, I crawl back to my (third) room, the will to live leaking from every pore. The TV cabinet doors swing open of their own volition. Maybe a poltergeist stuck those Coors Light caps to the ceiling. I change my theory about the hotel's designer from Samuel Beckett to Michael Haneke or possibly Dr Weir from Event Horizon.
Once again I ring tech support, and eventually "Jason" manages to get the wifi working. I download my PDF, read it hurriedly, then go to have a bath. This room's Bath Experience has at least been Enhanced by having been installed some time in the 21st century, but again there is no plug. I MacGyver one with a facewasher and try to raise my core temperature by submerging various bodyparts in the 5-inch deep water. I think about the inevitability of death and whether you can truly trust anyone.
Desperate to raise my daily food group intake to at least 1.5, I order a cheesecake, fruit and a cup of tea on room service, and weep with joy as I regard all of its ($30) beauty before me. I fall asleep in front of The Fugitive at 11:45pm.
I wake at 6:40am; I notice The Fugitive is on TV again and wonder if I have become stuck in a temporal anomaly. I get dressed to hit the breakfast buffet and head downstairs. In the elevator I notice a photocopied poster big-noting about how the hotel aims for "A+ service".
Installed in the (still air-conditioned) restaurant, I grab my plate and head to the row of cloches; breakfast is hard to get wrong, I reason with myself, here comes the triumphant conclusion to this troubling 18 hours. I fish a few pikelets from the bain marie and head back to my table... only to find that they are, in fact, desiccated French toast slices. Two tables away from me, a businessman coughs as though his life depends on it. Behind the folding doors that separate the function room from the restaurant, someone hocks up a loogie. I promise to myself that I will never again step on an ant or use God's name in vain.
Forty or so minutes later, I pack my bags, bid farewell to the Enhanced Bath Experience, check the TV cabinet for ghosts, and close the door behind me.
As the penguin at the front desk signs me out, she asks how my stay has been. I briefly turn to my right - the sliding doors open and an Arctic gust of air makes itself at home - then turn back to her, hand her the form and pen and smile broadly, "It's been fantastic, thanks." And I finally knew how George Clooney felt at the end of Up In The Air.
Dreams turn into dust and blow away
And there you are without a friend
You pack your car and ride away