Thursday, November 18, 2004

The view from Atlanta (posted from back home)

Tonight I'm in Atlanta.

I arrived yesterday. It was a long trip. The actual flight was only an hour and a half or so, but there was lot going on before and after.

I'm down here on business for my company. I'm assuming the duties of a writer down here to look after a product we're now developing back home. I feel a little guilty about it because I'm sort of taking someone else's job. She's a contractor, and I guess the company just thought there was more logic in maintaining an employee, and especially one at the same facility where the product's being developed. But anyway...

P-Doug picked me up yesterday just after noon, which was great of him. Dropped me off at the airport around 1. I stood in line for my ticket. Stood in line to clear customs. Stood in line for the baggage check. By then, it was 2:15.

Then the waiting started.

My flight was scheduled for 5:20; we actually took off just a little after 5:30 or so. So for about three hours, I sat there, and read Schindler's List. The flight, when it took off, was actually pretty smooth. I was flying with Delta, and it was kind of weird not having all the in-flight instructions repeated in French. No Spanish, either, which I would have assumed to be the second language if there were one.

When I got to Atlanta, I got on this little train thing that takes people from the gates to the terminal. There, I located the company where I had a car reserved... supposedly under my boss's credit card. Nope. The car was reserved all right, but I was on the hook for it. Now I have a large credit card debt that I shifted to the bank and it will take another two and a half years to clear. So I keep my credit card inactivated. Luckily, I thought to bring it with me. I stepped away, called their 1-800 number, and got it activated. So, I got my car, a nice red Alero. Cool; I used to drive an Olds till last April.

I got out on I-85 and headed north. Americans here drive a lot gustier than they do when they're visiting Ontario. I suppose that's for the same reason I was taking it easy -- they don't know where they're going in Ontario anymore than I do in Georgia. Incidentally, last night was the first time in my life I ever drove in the United States... or possibly outside Ontario even, I'm not sure. It's interesting that the highways here don't have overhead lights on them. They just count on the ambient light of the city. Maybe it's a weather thing. They're also pretty smooth, but I imagine that's because there's a whole lot less frost heave in the winter here than up north.

I got to the Marriott in Norcross (where I'm typing this) and the same deal. Yes, you have a reservation, no, we need a credit card. Fine, so the room is also on my personal nickel. Frankly, I think this is all pretty slap-dash. I've worked for the company about four years now, and just at the last minute, they decide I need a corporate credit card (for which I, a Canadian, had to fill out some IRS form for because the account to pay the bills is in the US), which they don't even manage to get to me before the trip they seemed to feel was necessary. If I hadn't brought my credit card, I'd still be sitting in that airport with my thumb up my Royal Canadian ass.

The room is pretty nice. Big bed with soft pillows, couch, desk, big TV, coffee machine with complimentary coffee. I put my things away in the dresser and found a copy of the Book of Mormon in one of the drawers, left by some kind soul, no doubt. On the first page, some other kind soul had advised the curious browser in black ball-point pen "This is a CULT & there is a hell!"

And I sure can't complain about the location relative to the office, though. I could walk there in under 15 minutes. It's almost literally across the street. Half the women in Georgia seem to be named Jennifer. The woman I'm training with, the head tech writer here, the woman at Target where I bought the Diet Mountain Dew I'm drinking... There are a lot of black people here in Atlanta (no surprise), but everything's cool. It sure looks to me like the bad old days of people knowing their "place" are over and done with for good. Mind you, I'm not black, so I guess I can't really say with authority. It's just how it seems.

Jennifer, the woman who's training me in her job, is the spitting image of Jane Curtain. Even her mannerisms are the same. Similar voice, too. I'd swear they were sisters. Imagine Jane Curtain with a North Carolina accent and you've got it. She's funny, patient, kind, and professional. Exactly the kind of person managers anchor their departments on. I wouldn't mind having Jennifer for my boss for one little minute.

The other Jennifer took me around the office to meet a lot of people whose names I instantly forgot (no reflection on them; I just suck at remembering names). Suggested we go out for lunch tomorrow. So get this: I'm down here in Atlanta, on a business trip that's costing my company somewhere in the neighbourhood of fifteen hundred bucks, and what will I be doing tomorrow from 9-11? Phoning in to Toronto to listen to a "town hall" meeting being given by one of our execs from Milwaukee. Right afterwards, I'm going to lunch. Wednesday morning, I have to dial in to a defects meeting being held across the company for about an hour. So in other words, out of the 20 hours or so I'll be in the office here, about 25% of them are about to be gobbled up by socializing, hearing people drone about defects I can't do anything about yet, and listening to some report on how the company's doing being given in the city I left to be here! Does that make sense to you?

Restaurant food is fairly cheap here, I'll say that. Last night and tonight, I ate at IHOP. We don't have them in Canada (at least, not that I know of). Last time I ate at one was in Florida when I was 15. Yesterday I was bad and had fries and a sour dough burger (well, half. I ate the rest for breakfast). Tonight I was better; I had a southwest chicken soup (very nice!), a baked potato and a chicken breast. Aside from the butter, pretty much guilt-free. The total was $8.46, and I left a $3 tip. Now back home, that would have been a fifteen-dollar meal easy (including the tip). It's no wonder people eat out so much here.

Being the States again so soon invites inevitable comparisons. I went down to Dallas for Jody's funeral in June. I really expected Texas to be overflowing with loud displays of belligerent patriotism. But it wasn't. No more so that we are back home, anyway. That impressed me. Here, it's a little different. It's much more overt. Half, maybe more than half the cars I've seen have American flags and slogans on the bumpers, in the windows, on the aerials. As I was led around the office today, I was struck by how many of these people had patriotic motifs to things. Flags, picture frame, shirts, drawing by their kids. One guy had all this Bush/Cheney stuff in his cube. Now, this is Georgia. I know that most of the people I see around me either voted for, or at least support, George Bush. But it was weird seeing it right in front of me, just a naked as you please. I mean, yeah, it's the guy's right, but given that Bush is roundly disliked where I come from, it's a real shock to encounter the other side. I didn't bring anything with me that would tag me as a Canadian (other than a $20 bill and my identification). I have to wonder if I would draw stares if I were wandering around with a maple leaf on my shirt. Would I be confronting these people with the sudden reality of the rest of the world (unrepentant, unlike immigrants who come to "become American"), something they usually only glimpse on television? The Other, made doubly shocking by just how similar he is, and yet, is somehow foreign? It's hard for me to say, and I have no intention of finding out. People in the office certainly know I'm from Toronto, but they're used to dealing with us... the company's one, exotic, foreign office. So they don't bat an eye at it. But somehow, I don't think that'd be representative. Everyone here is so mutually-congratulatory about being American that openly being anything else must be like having three nostrils or something and making a big show of picking your nose.

The money, too. It's weird using $1 bills again after all these years. Also weird is how many you have to use. They don't use the $2 bill here. It's kind of a pain; you spend 90 cents of $10 and they're forced to give you five bills (and a dime). Back home, you'd get one bill and three coins (two toonies and a dime). Also, the money all looks the same. When I was at Target this evening I was trying to get $7 together. I've got my two ones, and I'm looking for my five, but I'll I've got is two more singles, and I'm going, what the hell? Then I finally realized one of the "ones" I was already holding was my five. Yeah, I know, how hard is it to read numbers? But back home, you don't have closely examine the bills. A blue one's a five. A purple's a ten. Green, twenty. Red, fifty (yeah, like I see a lot of those). And since we don't have the $1 or $2 bills anymore, it's even easier. Reach in your pocket; a big coin's going to be either a loonie or toonie. Pull it out and the colour will instantly tell you (bronze, loonie; silvery, toonie).

It's still green down here, but I was surprised to see the trees starting to turn. I didn't think that happened in the South. I'm told it snows in Atlanta, too. That really surprised me. As I was coming in last night, they told us on the plane the temperature was 11 degrees (Celcius). I thought, wow, that's not much better than home, really. I always thought the one saving grace of the South was that they didn't have to put up with bullshit weather (hurricanes notwithstanding). Turns it that's only true even further south than here. What a gyp!

I'm used to American TV, of course, but the lack of an alternative puts the differences into sharp contrast. There's no leisure to anything. It's all rapid-fire. News commentary programs on CNN, which I admit I haven't watched in years, suddenly have an open and unabashed slant, and don't blanch at name-calling. An awful lot of the commercials are aimed at alarming people and then telling them how spending a lot of money, spread out over a number of small payments over several months, can save them. I saw a home defibrilator kit being sold. At first that seemed like a sensible idea, but then I started thinking, well, what else could they offer you? The home dialysis kit? The home liver transplant kit? You could sink yourself saving yourself. As similar as we are to the Americans, there's a real different point of view these days.

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