Wednesday, January 18, 2006

That First Day

I remember my first day at work vividly. Actually, no that’s not true. I barely remember it at all which is kind of ironic considering how big it was to me at the time. I remember bits and pieces. I remember gathering in the lobby with a bunch of other recent graduates, secure in the arrogance of youth but nervous and fidgety at the same time. We were all given clipboards and some forms to sign. Afterwards, we were taken around the office by a regular old curmudgeon. Walking past the rows of cubes where people tapped on their keyboards, fielded phone calls or held impromptu meetings in the corridor, so assured of themselves, was both nerve wracking and titillating. I had stepped into this exciting grown up world that previously existed only in my imagination.

I don’t remember much more about that day. I remember the day after we had to go to this other location where we were given our training schedules. That’s where I met V who would become one of my best friends over the next few years until we slowly drifted apart through vagaries of fate and the intervention of time.

The first day I do remember vividly is from a few years later. The wide eyed wonder had been replaced by a quiet confidence, the wide eyed girl of early years by a somewhat poised young woman. I was on a flight to Dallas. The day had started the same as always with a 3 am wake up call, a mandatory groan, a quick shower and a fast drive to the airport. By then the long lines were familiar territory. The laptop was out before I reached the gate and coins and keys were tossed into one of the little plastic mesh jars kept in numbers by the gate before anyone had to prompt me. I knew exactly what to wear. No stilettoes or buckled belts as the metal would set off the alarm. A smart but simple black suit, sometimes with the jacket on, sometimes off. Black loafers with a slight heel. A periwinkle blue shirt or maybe a red tank top if I was feeling daring. In that outfit I could roll off the ramp, drive to work and be ready to stand up and give a presentation to a room full of executives at a moment’s notice.

In the plane I normally just flipped through the in-flight magazine if it was a short trip. For longer trips, I brought a book or I worked on my computer. Sometimes I had the window seat and I would look outside at the mechanics walking around doing their pre-flight inspection. Sometimes when it was cold I would watch the machine spraying the green stuff to melt the ice off the wings. If I had the aisle sit I watched people as they walked in or I read until a flight attendant wheeled the refreshment cart over and asked if I wanted a beverage. "Just water, thank you. And no ice, please." Smile. I never sat in the middle seat. It’s the most depressing seat on a plane when you don’t know any of the people on either side.

When I got into Dallas that day I collected my roller at the gate and marched purposefully towards the rental car exit. I knew my way around airports by then. A bus would come every 10-15 minutes to carry all the people waiting under the little blue rental car sign to the rental car lot. From there you are on your own. You can go inside and book a car or if you happen to be a frequent traveler with a membership number you can proceed directly to the little kiosk to check your reservation and then pick up your car.

By the time I pulled into my client’s parking lot that day it was a little after 11. I had a noon meeting which gave me just enough time to park, rush upstairs and power up my laptop. Waiting for it to warm up I made casual chitchat with two of my coworkers. Weekend plans, incidents during the flight, that kind of stuff. For the next two hours we discussed schedules and dates. We discussed scope, hotly debated "key strategic decisions" and bandied around a few more choice words deeply entrenched in the consulting lingo. It was two weeks before a major delivery and every one was a little on edge. A few tempers flared, a few egos blistered, a few fingers were pointed. I bit back a few angry responses myself and at 2 we went back to our desks.

It was a long day. By the time it was 7 pm I was ready to leave. I think that was the first day I didn’t feel like joining anyone for dinner at yet another quaint restaurant that someone had discovered. Instead, I told them to go on without me and went to check into my hotel.

I was staying at the Intercontinental. I had been going there for the last few weeks and I absolutely loved it. A small town girl from a lower middle-class family hotels had always been a luxury for me until I started working. I still liked them. At the hotel, I checked in, went upstairs and I remember that week I had a room with the most glorious view. I could see thousand little twinkling lights from my window. I stood and stared out the window while I ordered room service and even after I hung up I stayed there for a while. Then I unpacked, shaking out my 1 champagne silk blouse for impromptu fancy dinners, a pair of khakis for Friday, a couple of tops, a nightie, a little plastic bag with lotions and potions and a big round hairbrush that I had just bought the weekend before. By the time the room service knock came on the door I was sitting at the edge of the bed, wet hair stringing down the back, flipping through TV channels. Maybe one of the reasons I remember that day is because that was the day hotel service staff became my extended family.

I don’t remember her name, the woman who came to deliver my food, but she was nice and a little concerned to find me all alone in a hotel room. It’s funny. I have never been able to explain to people that sitting alone has always been one of my favorite activities. We chatted for a few minutes as I signed the bill. She asked me if I had been around the city and I said no. I work and I leave. There never really was much time for sightseeing. The modern day version of Veni, Vidi, Vici! Her anxiety for me seemed to only increase at this despite the fact that I was laughing when I said that. Before she left she gave me directions to several places nearby, a mall, a something else. Things to do, scribbled on the back of some blank hotel bills. Later when I called to tell them the cart was ready for pickup she came back with a bowl of butter pecan ice cream and some butterscotch toffee sprinkles on the side. I tried to protest but she said it was on the house. She was about my mother’s age and probably felt I needed a little mothering that day. When I went to bed at 1 am in the morning I had the curtains open so I could still see the lights.


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