On the Road Again.
When we left our fearless hero in the last episode, she was sitting in Registration Row wondering why the hell hotels have to be so cold… (Click here to read Part 1).
And so it was. After a few words about Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Carol would become my single serving friend for the short time that we shared a block of the alphabet in the Registration hall. (Lower attendance this year in turn meant fewer days needed for supplemental staff). And Carol loved to talk, which was perfect for me, because I prefer to listen. Over the next few days, I would learn that she was a former school teacher, although not by choice. Previously working for a school as their truancy officer, following-up with chronic absentees and testifying in social services hearings, she was asked to be the emergency substitute for a teacher who took ill, only to become the teacher’s permanent replacement. She taught several grades over the years, but when I heard high school was among them, I asked what she thought of it, expecting her to roll her eyes at the reminder of having to deal with teenage arrogance for a living. But, surprisingly, her recollections were mostly positive. Now retired, she was a sometimes teacher to her grandbabies, as she lovingly referred to them, showing me the small packs of flash cards and little Scholastic paperback about a Unicorn that she carried in her purse. Although, the muscular temp coordinator would come by the day after Carol left to see if anyone had found a book about… unicorns, as he sheepishly described it. Carol also packed a few bags with things we had intended to throw out, suspecting she could use them to keep her grandchildren occupied with various craft projects.She was certainly a frequent source of advice or help, and her cell phone rang off the hook despite her attempts to silence it and inform callers that she was working.
Adjusting in her seat, Carol gestured at her jewelry and remarked to me how she no longer desired expensive things; the indifference towards materialism rooted in the loss of her family’s home to a fire. This was the first story she told me, and I didn’t know how to respond. What do you say in these moments of somber testimony? Like the temp last year in San Francisco who talked about the frequent suicide attempts off of the Golden Gate Bridge, wondering what could you do for people in that situation? On the night of the fire, Carol luckily noticed the flickering reflection of the flames on the ceiling of her bedroom in time to wake her husband and mother-in-law to get out of the house. Everyone was okay, but everything was a different matter. The house was condemned and most of their possessions were destroyed. Furs. Jewelry. Electronics. Sex tapes.
Wait. Did she just say sex tapes?
Actually, Carol was remarkably candid for someone I’d only just met. At another point, she was talking about a few instances where she had to go to the hospital. Once, for an illness that took her doctors a while to identify as a thyroid complication. Another to have surgery on cysts that had formed where the sun don’t shine. The surgery was done in a teaching hospital, and Carol uncomfortably sat on a bed with her legs in stirrups as doctors crowded around to inspect. That they wanted to take pictures for what I presumed would probably be documented as part of a case study, though the request made her even more uneasy. “One doctor got in so close down there, I didn’t know if he wanted to lick me or eat me.” Oh boy… moving on.
While Carol might have lost her fondness for material possessions, she was frequently bothered by the loss of her physical features to age. This is a woman who was quite proud of her body in her youth, although I thought she was in great shape for a woman of 67. As she removed a zip lock bag from her purse containing a daily dose of vitamins, she recited a laundry list of vitamins and remedies that she recommended I take, picking up several to demonstrate what they looked like and explained their benefits. Zinc for vision. Calcium for bones. B-vitamins. Multivitamins. I soon got lost in the alphabet. Finally, she suggested I start taking pre-natal vitamins. Is that good for just general use?
Perhaps the most interesting discussion we had was during the last afternoon that Carol worked with us. She was trying to make sense of stories from the Bible. I kept quiet at first, not wanting to have to defend my lack of faith in the logic of these stories to someone who attended church regularly, nor could I remember much from the passages I was forced to remember as a little kid in parochial school, anyways. But, to my surprise, Carol found holes in these stories, too. Particularly those of Adam and Even and the Tower of Babel being implausible explanations for the variation of skin color and language. Somehow, this led us into a tangential discussion about foreign policy. Afghanistan was once again in the headlines at the time when one routine American general replaced another who resigned after exposing what should have been critical focus about internal disagreement over policy. Carol seemed to sum up Iraq as unjustified colonialism. Though, by confessing this to me, she was preaching to the choir.
Aside from her sometimes odd choice of words, I liked Carol, though I wondered why she continued to work temp gigs at her age. Was it a source of independence? Of income? Maybe both? Her husband was retired, and together, they helped their daughter who had small children, a teenager, and a job. I wondered whether her distaste for luxuries actually did stem from choice or a defense of necessity, not that it would have mattered to me one way or another. She was good company for what would otherwise be unbearable hours spent trying to stay awake in Registration Row.
Of course, it’s not the only place to meet interesting people. For a few hours on a Sunday, we associates in the department represent Team Research at the poster session. That makes it sound something like a Science Fair where we stand in front of poster boards confidently summarizing complex research to a blue ribbon committee. But, for lack of a spunkier title, it’s actually a kind of zone within the exhibit hall where non-profits, government agencies, and university research centers who operate social science databases can demonstrate their products. Of course, the booths become Schwag Central in hopes of luring hesitant browsers. Keychains. Pens. Low-grade flash drives. We went for the bag of expired Reese’s peanut butter cups which by then had also reshaped after some melting during shipment.
I know what you’re thinking (assuming you’ve been paying attention). Sure, this whole thing is our meeting, but even the research department could use any opportunity for publicizing its work. Or, at least to leave stuff on a table and pretend we’re not looking at people who might come by seeking freebies. How much traffic we actually get depends, of course, on location. We had the ideal spot last year at the front and center of the opening to a large ballroom where all the foot traffic passed through to get from one session to the next. Although, this also left us a little vulnerable to the lost and complaining, like the old woman who vented on behalf of her husband for his not having access to the exhibitors area to meet his editor because he lost his badge and telling me how many years he had been a member. “Really? That’s terrible! Would a research brief on faculty salaries make you feel better?”
But this year, we were shoved out in No Man’s Land. At least we had the company of Team US Census Bureau at the table next to ours who seemed to be jockeying for all the attention like the cool kids recruiting at the student union activities week. One of their guys, who was about our age, lingered between the camps, indulging what was basically the perfect opportunity for a single guy to flirt with the better-looking and more charismatic of our unit of four young women standing around awkwardly waiting to interact with membership about funding opportunities and research. He was basically the Census salesman of sociology data, so he had that kind of easy-going personality. I arrived after circling the booths for signs of data resources that might be of use in our work and I shook hands with the guy. He said hello and addressed me by name. (We begrudgingly wear name tags at the meeting). “Hi Adam how’s the family?” I asked, taking advantage of skipping past the “what’s your name?” part. He laughed nervously and replied, “Woah! Ha ha. I don’t have any kids!” It was funny, his assumed definition of family, and his quick defense comically exposed his desire to flirt. It’s okay Adam, I’m not here to cock-block.
With not many people stopping by our table, I wandered over to the other end of Team Census’s table and hovered curiously near their computer set up with a new data system called Social Explorer. It was like playing the May I Help You Riff because the head rep, who works with our organization quite frequently, I found later, came over. He was so tall, and towered over me as he introduced himself. When I told him where I worked, he said oh, I know your boss, we were trapped in a room together for two days.
Um, okay? But, he didn’t follow-up with a story, so I politely laughed and steered conversation towards the dataset. Somehow, this led him to getting me an invitation to a reception being held the next night at the Georgia Aquarium by one of the publisher groups that had partnered with them to work on the dataset. I figured I just struck gold, getting to go to the Aquarium for free, and with the added bonus of free food and alcohol. Unfortunately, as I would later find out, the Balooga Room, where it was held, was not in fact the whole section of arcitc sea life I had seen with Tom and Matt when we went to the Aquarium a few nights before, but instead, referred to the small reception area that you had to access by walking around the entire Aquarium. But there were indeed two beautiful white beluga whales who entertained the guests as they clung to small plates of various cheeses and glasses of wine. I stood amidst the chatter feeling a bit out of place with plans to have a beer or two and then leave for the next event of the evening (probably another reception). There was a funny moment revealing how we tend to view academics — as stuffy and proper. As one of the two chubby seals that shared the tank with the whales floated by, one of the academics remarked to the other how it looked like a “turd.”
Oh, the pedestrian conversation we could all be sharing right now!
Actually, when one of the Aquarium volunteers, a well-tanned woman in her 30s who wore sea turtle earrings came by and started talking about how one whale was female, and the other, a younger and slightly more aggressive male than her previous tank companion, the conversation instead turned to jokes about whale lust.
There’s an opportunity to attend a lot of receptions at the meeting. They host several every night in the first few days of the meeting, and they’re a great way to get a cheap dinner and free drinks if you’re exhausted from the work day. Oh, and to mingle, too. The most fun of these are the opening night reception (except that it gets irritably crowded) and the Minority Affairs Program reception (where we huddled in the back last year developing strategies to open the cork on a wine bottle with just a dinner fork). I missed the opening reception entirely this year since Tom, Matt and I took advantage of the High Museum’s one night of evening hours, and was rather disappointed by the Minority Affairs one this year, mostly because I finally caught the cold bug going around at the meeting and was quickly starting to feel miserable and home sick. Outsider receptions, on the other hand, are rare. My boss dropped by my office earlier in the year to ask if I wanted to attend the dinner being hosted by the Sociology Women’s Society, and I agreed after she ran off the list of coworkers who were going. I thought it might be an opportunity to finally put this “networking” business into practice until we showed up late to the French restuarant they booked for the occassion and were parked upstairs in the last remaining seats. The only networking I managed was purely by chance: the president of the association was in the ladies room the same time as me, said hello, introduced herself, and ask who I was. I told her. I’m with the —. We’re all with the —, she laughingly replied. I said, “No, but I really am with the —. I work in the research department.” She laughed and shook hands, and that was that. So much for networking.
(TO BE CONTINUED)