Episode 169 – David Mikics

Virtual Memories Show #169:
David Mikics

“These days, we tend to think of identity as something chosen; we put on certain masks or we identify as this or that, culturally, ethnically or politically. Bellow is interested in something much more basic: who we really are.”

David Mikics joins the show to talk about his wonderful new book, Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art (Norton). We get into Bellow’s legacy, his fall from academic favor, his transmutations of life into art, David’s humorously accidental introduction to his work, what Jewishness meant to Bellow, whether Philip Roth was right when he told Bruce Jay Friedman, “Saul Bellow am de daddy of us all,” and more! Give it a listen! And go read Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art.

“Bellow once said that the reason writers had such messy personal lives is because they didn’t know what to do with the afternoon.”

We also talk about David’s experience as a professor, why writing is harder for today’s students, what it’s like to teach course called, “Is Life Worth Living?” and “The Human Situation”, which science fiction novels warped him as a youth, why we need Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, what contemporary books look like they’ll last, and why he eventually came around on Faulkner.  Go listen!

“Canonicity is not where you find it, but where you make it.”

There’s a BIG list of books we talked about, but it’s only available to supporters of The Virtual Memories Show, so go to Patreon or Paypal and make your contribution to this podcast!

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! You might like:

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

David Mikics grew up in Carteret, New Jersey and Atlanta. He went to college at NYU and earned a Ph.D. at Yale. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Victoria and son Ariel, and teaches every year at the University of Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English. He is the author of six books, including Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (Belknap/Harvard) and Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art (Norton), and is a columnist at Tablet magazine.

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at David’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. Intro was recorded on the same setup. Photo of Mr. Mikics by me.

Episode 135 – Irvine Welsh / Dmitry Samarov

Virtual Memories Show #135:
Irvine Welsh / Dmitry Samarov

“What would young, pre-Trainspotting Irvine Welsh think of you now?”

“He’d think I was a total wanker.”

Irvine Welsh has created unforgettable characters in his novels, beginning with the cast of Trainspotting in 1993. We caught up in his Chicago home and talked about writing, boxing, the art world, the White Sox, the creative flourish that’s seen him publish three novels in four years, the perils of success and exhausting your autobiography, the periods of life he’s interested in writing about, his first meeting with Iggy Pop, his childhood and the school-days’ balance of being a reader and being a jock, the narcissism of online living, Trainspotting over the years, Edinburgh’s failed gentrification, the ways that America’s friendlier than Scotland, and more! Give it a listen!

“I think it’s good for me as a writer not to be hanging out with writers all the time.”

We also talk about his critique of global capitalism, the problems with permanent austerity, American and UK tabloid culture, standing up David Bowie (twice), returning to Ulysses every few years, the ways William S. Burroughs helps rewire his brain, and the great anonymous allure of the first-time novelist.

“Instagram is like Methodone to Twitter’s heroin”


Then Dmitry Samarov rejoins the show to talk about his memoir-in-progress, his paintings, his latest readings, and his decision to jump off the social network treadmill. This episode also includes my justification for being a New York Yankees fan, as well as my problematic relationship with superhero comics. Give it a listen!

We mention quite a few books in this episode. Here’s they are:

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! You might like:

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guests

Irvine Welsh is the author of Trainspotting, Ecstasy, Filth (adapted for film in 2013), Glue, and Crime, among other works. His latest novel is A Decent Ride. Welsh is also producing movies and writing screenplays. A native of Edinburgh, he lives in Chicago and Miami. You can find a more extensive bio at his website.

Dmitry Samarov was born in Moscow, USSR, in 1970. He emigrated to the United States with his family in 1978. He got in trouble in first grade for doodling on his Lenin Red Star pin and hasn’t stopped doodling since. He graduated with a BFA in painting at printmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993. Upon graduation he promptly began driving a cab — first in Boston, then after a time, in Chicago. He is the author of two books, Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab, and Where To?: A Hack Memoir. Go check out his paintings, and maybe buy some.

Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald. The conversations were recorded in the homes of Irvine Welsh and Dmitry Samarov on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on the same equipment in a hotel room in Washington, DC. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro.

Podcast – Simple Tricks and Nonsense (ep. 101)

Virtual Memories Show:
Levi Stahl – Simple Tricks and Nonsense

“The biggest thing I learned editing The Getaway Car is that a working writer’s work is never done.”

Let’s kick off 2015 with a podcast about one of the 20th century’s great America writers, Donald Westlake! Our guest, Levi Stahl, is the editor of The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany (University of Chicago Press). We talk about his history with Westlake’s crime novels, why Parker is Westlake’s greatest achievement, why the author wrote under so many pseudonyms, what it was like to be a working writer and how that concept may not exist nowadays, and what Westlake project he’d love to bring into print.

Levi Stahl on The Virtual Memories Show

We also talk about Levi’s day job as publicity manager for U of Chicago Press, his advice for people looking to get into publishing, why he loves twitter, how the internet has helped and hurt book criticism, what makes him put a book down, what he’s learned about book marketing over the years, his favorite menswear store in NYC, how he can support both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs, and more! Give it a listen!

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! You might like:

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Levi Stahl is the publicity manager for the University of Chicago Press. He has served as the poetry editor for the Quarterly Conversation, and has written for the Poetry Foundation, the Chicago Reader, the Second Pass, the Bloomsbury Review, the Front Table, the New-York Ghost, the New York Moon, and McSweeneys Internet Tendency. He tweets at @levistahl

Credits: This episode’s music is Life of Crime by The Triffids. The conversation was recorded on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Stahl by me.

Library of America: Fuck Yeah!

Library of America was having a 20% off sale a few weeks ago. Also, they discount the books on their site AND they’re a non-profit doing the Lord’s work, so I kinda splurged.


If necessary, I can explain myself:

  • Thoreau – Walden – I never read it, and there’s a seminar on it this May at St. John’s College.
  • Dos Passos – USA trilogy – I never read it and who knows?
  • Saul Bellow – They were selling all 4 collections of Saul Bellow’s novels as a group for $115 (before the 20% discount), and I figured I need to add more heft to my 20th century Jewish writers shelf, alongside Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, Bernard Malamud, Joseph Heller and James Salter (nee Horowitz).
  • Susan Sontag – Essays of the 1960s & 70s – I never read her, and really have to correct that.
  • Philip Roth – Nemeses (novels 2006-2010) – I own these books separately, but I have the rest of the Roth L.O.A. collections, and I’m a completist.
  • Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology – it was only $9.95, and I’m now interested in LA after a my trips there this year.

Why don’t you come by and check out the library sometime? And go buy some books from the Library of America!

Podcast: Bookslut’s Holiday

Jessa Crispin on the Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories Show: Jessa Crispin – Bookslut’s Holiday

“You would be surprised at the level of craziness and hostility that exists in the literary world if you share a different opinion than somebody.”

Last week’s guest was quintessential bookman Michael Dirda, and this time around we have Jessa Crispin, founder of Bookslut! Ms. Crispin recently stepped down from blogging at Bookslut after a 12-year run, which is like 500 years in internet-time. We talked about that decision, the advice she’d give her 23-year-old self, the downsides of learning to write online, why lack of ambition was key to Bookslut’s success, her take on the state of book reviewing, her upcoming book, The Dead Ladies Project (2015, from University of Chicago Press), how she learned to love Henry James while nursing a breakup, and more!

“It’s been my experience that in your hour of need, the book that you need to read will find you.”

We also discuss how she escaped the Outrage Machine by moving to Berlin, how she pared her library down to 17 books, why joining the National Book Critics Circle was her biggest mistake during the Bookslut era, why Belgrade was her least favorite city to visit, and why she’s more afraid of reading her blog archives than her old margin notes. Bonus: I accidentally mix up William Safire and William Buckley!

“It isn’t the case of ‘I’m only going to review the nice things’; it’s more the case that I can cultivate the world that I want to live in. I can invite people in rather than constantly defend the gates.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of the literary magazines Bookslut.com and Spoliamag.com. Her first book, The Dead Ladies Project, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, fall 2015. Born in Kansas, she has lived in Texas, Ireland, Chicago, and Germany. She has written for many publications, some of which are still in business. Her personal library currently resides in Berlin.

Credits: This episode’s music is No More Words by Berlin (see, because Jessa isn’t writing any more blog posts for Bookslut and she moved to Berlin a while back, and — oh, never mind). The conversation was recorded at a housesit in Brooklyn on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Ms. Crispin by me.

Weakly – May 6: The Miracle and the Wrigley Killing Field

[This is the fourth in a series of long-ass rambling posts about my travels in Chicago and Toronto from May 3-9. Part 1 is over here and part 2 is over there. Now, where did I put part 3? Oh, it’s right here!]

Where were we? Oh, yeah: I had gone to bed at midnight, head pounding, anticipating a hangover to rival Informex in Las Vegas 2004. That time, my publisher, a sales-pal of his, and I started drinking sangria around 4 p.m. when the show ended, and kept going until around 11. That was the time I discovered you could be hungover while still drinking. The cab-ride to the airport the next morning was no doubleplusungood. However, the early-morning flight back to Newark was filled with TV executives, and they were all coke-burnouts, so my omnipresent sunglasses and greenish pallor went unremarked.

This time around? Sure, I’d taken the ibuprofen & Gatorade combo that served me in pretty good stead back in grad school, but I didn’t have high hopes.

And then I opened my eyes at 6 a.m. and felt perfectly fine. I was puzzled. I immediately ran my hangover-diagnostic, rolling my eyes up, down, left and right, waiting for the brain-crippling pain to strike. But it never came. I cautiously got out of bed, expecting to find that

  1. I was still drunk and couldn’t stand up straight,
  2. I was dead and that a bright white light was going to stream through the door of the hotel room and take me to that great mall in the sky, or
  3. I’d crapped the bed.

Astonishingly, it turned out to be none of the above. A miracle had transpired, right there in my overpriced hotel room in Chicago! I’ve long sworn by the notion high-end gins as being less damaging to one’s health than a Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray, but the two Hendrick’s at dinner were pretty sizable and (for me) quickly consumed. I didn’t recall pacing the North Shore & tonic over any appreciable length of time. And I’d neglected to mention the beers earlier at the conference, a couple of Sam Adams bottles courtesy of the nearby Massachusetts pavilion, because I didn’t want you to think ill of me.

With relative vigor, I strode into the bathroom and peed for about five minutes straight, during which time I checked my iPhone, which I’d left charging on the counter. It was there that I’d received the bad news to counter my awesome start to the day.

My pal Tom, who was planning to join us in Toronto for the weekend, had to cancel his trip. His mom (and travel partner for this junket) had taken ill the night before the flight to Canada, and he could neither compel her to risk her life on a plane or abandon her, what with it being Mother’s Day weekend and him being a decent human being. Beyond my worries about his mom’s health, this bummed me out because I was hoping to spend some time shooting the breeze with Tom during the trip. Also, he was supposed to moderate an all-star panel of cartoonists at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival during the weekend, and I knew how much he was looking forward to that. And then there was the panel we were supposed to moderate together . . .

He’d e-mailed 40 minutes earlier with the bad news and asked me to call. It was 4 a.m. local time for him, but I followed his orders. He told me that his mom had been able to rest once Tom had convinced her that she wasn’t “ruining everything” by getting sick. I’m sure the anxiety over a canceled trip exacerbated the health problems she was having. Tom was sad about having to miss TCAF, as well as dining & conversation with me and Amy.

A week earlier, he asked me if I’d be interested in co-moderating a panel with him during the festival. It would consist of the two of us interviewing one of my favorite cartoonists, Roger Langridge. Tom figured that I could focus on Roger’s earlier “alternative” work, while he would tackle Roger’s most recent project, an ongoing comics adaptation of The Muppet Show. I was thrilled to have been invited, but by the end of our conversation this morning, I had volunteered to conduct the interview solo. It’s funny how these things happen. Once we were off the phone, I wrote down in my notebook, “Pick up Langridge books!” I was only going to be home for about 10 hours between flights, and would likely forget something important; I’d need to read through some of Roger’s comics to put together some good questions for him.

Meanwhile, I still had another day of BIO ahead of me! The only appointment on my calendar had fortunately rescheduled from an 8 a.m. breakfast conversation to a 1 p.m. stop at my booth. Hungover or not, I was happy not to have a conversation about bio-manufacturing market issues before I’d metabolized my morning coffee.

Also, it’d give my skin time to settle down. Between the harsh soap of hotel sheets and pillowcases, and the need to shave every morning (I usually go 2 days between shaves), my face can get pretty scratchy and irritated in the morning. There are many little aspects of business travel that make it a pain.

So I packed, cleaned up, put on “final day” clothes — suit-jacket, dress shirt and tie and khakis, rather than a full suit — and headed out for the show. The stop for the shuttle-bus was gone, as our corner of E. Illinois St. was blocked off for some sort of Top Chef competition and taping. A cardboard cutout of Padma Lakshmi leaned against a production truck. I wondered if I could get it onto the airplane that evening. The new stop turned out to be around the block, and I shared the trip with another pal from the same Belfast-based company. His accent is easier for me to understand than Philip’s, but he’s a quiet-talker, so I was back at square one.

For some reason, the conference organizers had decided that the final day of BIO should run a full 9:00-5:00 schedule, a bizarre move considering that

  1. shows always have shorter hours on the final day, because that day is slower than molasses and it’s ridiculous to make exhibitors stand around with no one to see for 8 hours, and
  2. this would result in hundreds — if not thousands — of people streaming out to cabs and airport shuttles during Chicago rush hour.

My flight home was 7:15, and I already anticipated that I would have to get out of a traffic-stranded cab, grab my suitcase, and start running down the highway to get to O’Hare in time. Fortunately, my boss realized that it was a little unfair to have me on setup and teardown duty with my mini-vacation schedule. He paid the show organizers to take down the pop-up, pack it, and ship it back to us. This meant I could bolt by 3:30 or 4:00. I was relieved.

“It’s a pity you didn’t come to dinner with us last night,” my boss said. We nicknamed him Captain Zagat because of his devotion to finding great restaurants wherever we go.

“Where’d you eat?”

“We went for Italian,” he said. I looked puzzled; what with him being a goombah from NJ and all, I didn’t think he’d bother with Italian anywhere but home. “Yeah, yeah, I know. This is probably the first Italian restaurant I’ve gone to west of New York. But it was amazing! The only problem happened at the end. . .”

The dinner party was just my boss, my sales director, and my associate editor. The latter two headed off for the ladies’ room while Cap’n Z. settled the bill. The owner came by the table to talk to him, and he told her how this was one of the finest Italian meals he’d ever had. She chatted with him for a second, then suddenly ran away from the table.

He wondered what he’d said to cause that reaction. Then she came running back, carrying a glass of water from a nearby table. Apparently, when my sales director had gotten up, she’d tossed her cloth napkin on the table and it landed on a candle. The owner was able to douse it before the fire spread, but my team was pretty embarrassed.

I was glad I went with My Dinner With Sid instead.

As is my wont, I meandered around the exhibit hall on and off throughout the day. Most of my advertiser pals were happy to shoot the breeze, since most attendees had already blown town. I was trading travel plans with a pal of mine. He was headed back to the Pacific Northwest the next day, so I gave him the location of the lounge I hit the night before, along with the name of that amazing gin.

I told him, “At some point, I thought it was smart to get a flight home that lands at 10:30 p.m., then get a flight at 11 a.m. the next morning for Toronto.”

“You’re dumber than you look,” he remarked.

His new CEO, a smooth businessman near my age, was in earshot, and asked, “Why are you visiting Toronto?”

I thought for a moment about how to answer this. I could’ve just gone with, “I have family and friends up there, and my wife loves the restaurants.” After all, this guy represented one of our major advertisers, and I didn’t know him well enough to judge how he’d react to finding out the editor of one of the major pharma B2B magazines is also an indie-comic geek.

On a whim, I said, “There’s a comics and cartooning festival going on up there, and I’m moderating a panel.”

He brightened. “Really? There’s a fantastic comic store in Toronto that you have to visit!” he exclaimed.

I was flabbergasted, but was able to say, “You mean The Beguiling?”

“No, no! That’s good, too, but you have to get to The Silver Snail! It’s on Queen Street! It’s amazing!”

I told him I’d check it out, depending on how much time I had. He was heading out from the show, shook my hand, and left.

My pal stared at me, and said, “I don’t believe that just happened.”

“Neither do I! He likes comics?”

“Dude. That’s so bizarre.” He gathered up a few coworkers to tell them about the exchange, and all of them were incredulous. Between that and the discovery that my pal Sid went to college with my future sister-in-law, this trip sure kept me on my toes.

My 1:00 p.m. appointment rescheduled for 3:00 and, while it went well, we were often interrupted by the noise of people tearing velcro displays down, or sealing boxes with packing tape.

Around 3:30 the marketing director asked, “What time are you heading out?”

“As soon as we’re done talking,” I told her.

“Oh, my gosh!” said the VP of business development. “Why don’t you head out? We’ll talk more once we’re back in the office!” We traded cards and they left for their booth.

Here are the two biggest lessons I’ve learned in my <gasp!> 15 years covering trade shows for business magazines:

  1. wear comfortable shoes
  2. keep outgoing cards in one pocket, incoming cards in the other

The first is pretty obvious: you’re spending hours and hours walking through a lightly carpeted convention center hall. The second? Think of how dopey you look when you hand someone your card and then realize it’s another person’s card. You end up fumbling through a stack of jumbled cards, trying to find one of yours. It’s unprofessional and easily preventable: just keep your cards in one pocket, other people’s cards in the other. Don’t say I never did anything for you.

(Note: you could go with a fancy-looking card holder, but nobody trusts someone who uses one of those.)

Around 3:45, I closed up the booth, putting the remaining magazines out on the table, and headed for the cab stand. There was no line, which worried me. As it turned out, that was because every single person at BIO was already in a cab on the way to O’Hare. Seriously, the traffic was insane. I marveled at the idiocy of stretching the last day to 5:00 p.m., and was thankful that I wasn’t going to be there for it.

The 20-mile drive to O’Hare took more than hour. I put on my iPod, listened to The National, in anticipation of their new record, and watched the scenery, such as it was. The only noteworthy sight (well, the only thing I can recall) was a strange billboard for the Chicago Cubs:

It’s not opening day.

It’s opening year.


Year One? Eek! Apparently Pinella was overthrown by Pol Pot, the Cubbies are playing at Wrigley Killing Field and Carl Zambrano’s stint “in the bullpen” is just another version of the re-education camps. I can’t imagine what they’d do to Steve Bartman.

Anyway, the airport was uneventful. When I checked in at an e-kiosk, I was offered $200 to defer my flight till next morning. For a split-second, I thought, “I could change tomorrow’s ticket on Porter to a Midway-to-Toronto, and Amy could drive herself to Newark in the morning.” Then I thought, “Only if they add a zero or two to that offer.” They didn’t, so i spent some time in the Red Carpet Club (United’s version of the President’s Club), saw the news about some wild stock market gyrations, read some of that Mitchum biography, continued to marvel over my lack of a hangover, and chose not to tempt fate by having a Hendrick’s & tonic at the club bar.

I got in to EWR safe and sound, hit the ground running (well, relaxedly strolling) and walked in the door at home at 11:30 p.m., greeted by wife and tail-wagging, face-licking doggies, the latter of whom had no idea I was going to be out the door 10 hours later.

Next: Ame and Squalor Victoria

May 3: Bloodshot Eye of the Tiger

May 4: Skokie, the Germans, and the Lost Ugandan

May 5: “Jumpin’ with my boy Sid in the city”

Weakly – May 5: “Jumpin’ with my boy Sid in the city”

[This is the third in a series of long-ass rambling posts about my travels in Chicago and Toronto from May 3-9. Part 1 is over here and part 2 is over there.]

Before heading over to the McCormick Center for the second day of BIO, I made plans for dinner with my old pal Sid. We’d gone to the Graduate Institute at St. John’s College around the same time (I was 1993-95, and he was 1994-96). He’d seen my White Sox post on Monday (oh, and I forgot to mention: The national anthem at that game? That was sung by The Maytag Repair Man) and dropped me a line. We hadn’t seen each other in 15 years, so I was looking forward to catching up. I’ve been working pretty hard lately at not Doing All The Talking; I wondered how that would work out.

Meanwhile, if it’s Wednesday, then this must be Singapore! I had a 10 a.m. appointment with the Singapore delegation, which wanted to talk about the city-state’s biomedical initiatives and how I might be able to develop some good articles about the place. The three Singaporean representatives talked for a bit about the history of their home, the generational trends — founding generation was concerned with survival, second generation with building a middle class, third generation with entrepreneurialism — and the importance of moving from services to innovation. We were later joined by an American who was working for the group, and he gave me some western perspective on the business and social atmosphere. “You can get a green card there in two weeks! I’m not kidding!” he told me.

When the PR people for Singapore first contacted me six weeks ago, I had to do my standard check on far eastern countries that want publicity: do they hate Israel? A few years ago, I wrote about how Malaysia wanted to meet with me at BIO, and how that country’s stance against Israel — as in, it doesn’t and shouldn’t exist — put them on my “no fly” list. Singapore, it turns out, was quite the opposite; Israel was one of the first countries to recognize its independence, and the IDF may have helped Singapore build its army.

The conversation went well, concluding with an open-ended invitation to visit (on their dime, I think). I’m sure any such visit would end in my making an inadvertent transgression that leads to a judicial caning, but we’ll see.

From there, I hustled over to one of our advertisers. They had a new marketing team in place and wanted to talk with me about the state of their industry and their company’s place within it. That was an interesting conversation, because I thought the company had engaged in a flawed expansion strategy in the early part of the decade. It had gone through awful struggles based on one major acquisition gone wrong (c.2004), but even before that, I suspected the company was a house of cards.

We bickered a bit on disproving a negative — would the company have fallen into trouble without that big acquisition? — then moved on to the question about the viability of trade shows. Neither the new marketing director nor I knew if it made sense for companies like his to attend big trade shows (like BIO) anymore. For the past few years, we’d all seen attendance drop at the major events, and I’m convinced it’s only partly because of the economic slowdown. Companies exhibit at these shows to meet leads and try to develop new business, as well as to catch up with existing clients, keep up a presence, and otherwise keep abreast of industry happenings.

Some argue that, even though attendance at the major shows is down, but that the quality of the attendees is up. That is, the people who are attending are the real decision-makers, so you’re getting your money’s worth out of exhibiting. Others disagree and have withdrawn from a few major trade shows in recent years, which can have a domino effect: “If [X] isn’t there, then it must not be a major event anymore, and we shouldn’t be there either.”

I’m lucky, inasmuch as my presence at trade shows is for not-directly-commercial purposes. I’m there to make contacts, trade info, get story ideas, and keep up with our advertisers. Whenever anyone asks me, “How’s the show going?”, I tell them, “I’m not selling anything, so it’s going just fine!” Of course, we’re all selling something.

But it raises the question of where these contract service providers are supposed to make new leads, if not at trade shows. Print and online advertising are important, but the serendipity of an attendee walking by a booth and realizing, “Hmm, [company x] may be able to handle that assignment we need done,” is irreplaceable. At our own annual show, a much smaller affair than these multi-thousand attendee events (we have 140 exhibitors and around 350-400 attendees, depending on how good a lineup of speakers I come up with), we’ve had exhibitors tell us, “I wish we could pull out of [major show x] and just exhibit at your event. We get more leads here in one day than we do in three days there.”

So companies are re-assessing where they’ll exhibit and which shows deliver the attendee base they’re looking for, since attendance is suffering everywhere. More to the point, they’re trying to develop new models for how they make connections.

Which brings me to my evening with Sid.

I caught the shuttle back from BIO around 5:30 (no Uganda Limited this time), cleaned up, and went for a walk around the neighborhood. There was a used bookstore nearby, so I stopped in to, well, walk around a used bookstore. You know what I’m like.

I was hoping to find a present for Sid on the shelves, but they didn’t have any of my faves on hand. So I headed back to the lobby of my hotel, read Robert Mitchum’s biography on the Kindle app on my phone, and waited for my pal.

A few months ago, Sid’s Facebook status mentioned that he was staying in a hotel about 15 miles from my house in NJ for a corporate event. He was busy the whole time, so we couldn’t meet up. I was left to ponder what sort of company books national events in suburban NJ, only 10 miles away from New York. A quick look at his FB profile before our dinner in Chicago, and I discovered that he worked for a wine company that’s based in Fair Lawn, NJ: question answered.

So, about Sid: when we met at St. John’s, I thought he was older than me (I was 23-24). He worked as a cook at Harry Brown’s, a bar & grill in town, and it seemed like a more grown-up job than my gig as a GED/literacy teacher for state highway workers. Also, Sid was pals with another new grad student, Miguel, who was 8 or 9 years older than me. It turns out that he was a year younger than me, graduating college in 1994. He felt like a contemporary this time around, esp. since we’re both recently(ish) married, no kids, and too smart for our own good.

This is what we looked like in 1995, when we went to Miguel’s wedding. Sid’s the guy in the middle. In my memory, the guy on the right looks like Tim Kazurinsky. Now I realize he was actually Mark Mothersbaugh. I’m the guy who looks like he has AIDS:


Sid’s job means he’s in deep with the booze & hospitality biz, I think. At least, I assume that’s why the manager of the hip restaurant he took us to came over to say hello and shoot the breeze for a bit. We tripled down on tuna dishes for appetizers and entrees, then spent dinner catching up on the past 15 years, trading stories about our hometowns (it turns out his little Pennsylvania town has an analog to my town’s Jackson-Whites), lamenting the lack of St. John’s-style conversation in our lives, explaining our jobs, and not explicitly wondering how we got here. Oh, and in a wonder of retcon, it turned out that he went to college with my sister-in-law as well as the daughter of Chip Delany, one of the authors I used to publish. Small world.

I was burned out from the day at BIO, and my Hendrick’s & tonic got to me a little early. In addition, we were eating on a sidewalk patio, and the dropping temps and breeze made me a lilttle shuddery and headachey. I was hoping it didn’t show, and it did help me with my Not Doing All The Talking.

That said, I really enjoyed the conversation that evening. It was good to get away from BIO for a bit, even if my coworkers were disappointed that I didn’t join them for dinner that night (they hadn’t told me about any dinner plans until I mentioned that I was going out with an old pal; we don’t always disseminate information well, which is sad inasmuch as it’s only a four-person team). I was happy to hear someone’s stories and just talk about our lives and our respective mid-life crises. I’m not going to go into depth recounting everything, because so much of it was just an easy back-and-forth between a couple of guys closing in on 40, with no need to impress each other. I haven’t even described what he looks like now, I realize. Here you go: big white guy (not fat, particularly), shaved head, goatee, wearing a brown seersucker jacket with a light plaid shirt underneath. At first I was concerned at the conflicting patterns, but they grew on me as the evening progressed.

As we finished our ahi burgers, Sid asked, “You wanna have one more G&T and then get a drink at this place I know?”

The equation flashed through my head:

2 G&Ts at dinner


1 more drink at a lounge/speakeasy/den of iniquity (at a minimum)


blown-out hangover the next day.

“Sure!” I said, thinking about how horrible Thursday’s flight home (and possibly Friday’s flight to Toronto) would be. But seriously, I don’t have a drinking problem.

We talked more as I polished off my Hendrick’s. He was embarrassed when I asked him what he’s been reading. I realized that Sid reads this blog and my literary ramblings probably make it sound like I’m always reading snooty-ass highbrow books. I assured him that Robert Mitchum’s bio wasn’t exactly St. John’s fare, and that most of the fun/light stuff I read is online, not in book form, so it doesn’t always make it onto the blog.

He told me he was reading Bill Bryson lately, about whom I’ve heard good stuff. Yet another author on my list. Sigh.

Over my protests, Sid took the bill for the meal, and took me on to The Drawing Room, a gorgeous underground lounge in the Gold Coast neighborhood. During our walk from the car to the lounge (Sid had only had a single beer over dinner), he regaled me with stories of municipal corruption in Chicago. I countered with, “In Bloomberg’s New York, any of his moneyed pals can build anything they want . . . except for a new building at Ground Zero, where no one can make any progress!”

We were seated at a corner to each other, with a square pillar between us, so that we both had to sit at an angle to see/talk to each other. Must be why they call it “hip.”

When I mentioned that Sid reads this blog, I should have pointed out that he pays particular attention to my gin-related posts, like Geneva Conventional a few weeks ago. In fact, he apologized at dinner that the restaurant didn’t serve my snooty Q-Tonic.

Our waiter brought over drink menus, and I asked what gins they had available. He named several of my high-end faves, then mentioned a local one called North Shore, which Sid had mentioned to me earlier in the evening. I asked what tonic they served.

“We make our own tonic in house,” the waiter said.

I nodded slowly. I could feel Sid’s grin through the pillar. “Uh-huh. I’ll have a North Shore and tonic, please.”

Sid, valiantly drinking lightly in order to not DWI, said under his breath, “champagnecocktailforme.”

The waiter walked off and, despite my pounding headache and slight nausea, I asked Sid, “You sure you don’t want a cranberry juice with that, you pussy?”

And it was back to old times, except I’m more fun now than I was then, or so I like to believe. He regaled me with stories about our pal Miguel, and their hijinks at work and in class. The waiter returned with our drinks, which were accompanied by a pair of narrow, frosted shot glasses. “The bartender would like to offer you a complementary Aviation,” he told us, gesturing at the shots.

I’d wanted to try one of these for a while, thanks to my wife’s pal Claudia, who loves the things. The problem is, two of the ingredients — maraschino liqueur and creme de violette — would never find any use in our house, and we’d be stuck buying two $25+ bottles for a single drink, so I’d never tried one.

I sampled (drank) the Aviation and concluded that we could probably stand to have more maraschino and violette in our diets.

Then I turned my attention to the gin & tonic. “No lime?” I said to Sid.

“It doesn’t need it.”

I held the glass below my nose and inhaled, trying to parse some of the botanicals. Its yellow tint implied saffron, but there was a weird spice-mix below the dominant juniper notes that added to the mystery. Good to know that, even headache-wracked, I could try to bring a discriminating palette to my booze.

I took a draw from the glass, eyes closed. “. . . Cinnamon?” I said

“Isn’t it great?” Sid asked.

“This may be the greatest G&T I’ve ever had,” I told him.

Hangover be damned. I marveled over the subtle warmth of the gin, how superior it was to the chilly florals and cucumber notes in the Hendrick’s I’d drunk an hour earlier. My only regret was that I would associate this drink with That BIO Show Where I Was Totally Wrecked On The Last Day. (Like that Interphex in 2005, except without the blackout.)

After the drink, we headed out. Sid was a good sport about my maunderings; I think I belabored the point about how he should get down to Decatur to visit our friends Miguel & Joy, because you never know what’s going to happen in this world. At some point, I asked him if he’s happy, which is something I like to ask old pals when we catch up. Not out of any preciosity, but just to find out how they’re doing in the all-important happiness scale. He said, “I’m around 85%. That sounds about right.”

On the drive back to my hotel, Sid mentioned a post I’d linked to a while back, about an Archie comic where Jughead becomes a punk-rocker. He told me that he and his brother were huge comic readers in their youth, and he remembered that issue backward and forward. Again, it struck me as funny that the Sid I knew at St. John’s was That Older Guy Who Works At The Bar, but in reality we were awfully similar people, except that it, um, never occurred to me to get a real job in order to be able to afford things. Outside of that, we were more alike than I imagined, right down to our shared affinity for Ambush Bug.

Sid dropped me at the corner and I made him promise that next time his company brought him out to Fair Lawn, he would spare some time to have a meal at our place, meet the wife and doggies, and otherwise let me reciprocate his hospitality.

As he drove away, I looked at the entrance of my hotel, teetered on the sidewalk, and decided to cross the street and hit up Walgreen’s for some Gatorade and ibuprofen. It was my hangover remedy at St. John’s and, while I was likely too far gone for it to matter, I decided to give it a shot for old time’s sake.

Back in my room, it occurred to me that meeting up with Sid was of a piece with the earlier conversation about trade shows. Sure, we were lucky that we’d managed to cross paths, but we also had the infrastructure in place to “make our own luck,” in the form of Facebook. Without it, this reunion wouldn’t have happened.

Just around midnight, I finished off the last of the 20-oz. Gatorade, turned out the lights, and went to bed.

Next: The Miracle

May 3: Bloodshot Eye of the Tiger

May 4: Skokie, the Germans, and the Lost Ugandan

May 5: “Jumpin’ with my boy Sid in the city”

Weakly – May 4: Skokie, the Germans, and the Lost Ugandan

[This is the second in a series of long-ass rambling posts about my travels from May 3-9. Part 1 is over here.]

I woke up earlyish on Tuesday (6:30 a.m. constitutes ‘sleeping in’ for me), took care of a little work, ironed my suits and shirts, and made an early start to the convention center. Even though I had setup duty, and even though it would turn out that I was the only one of my four-person contingent who booked a return flight late enough to actually cover the end of the show on Thursday (someone has to be on site to turn in the paperwork, pack up the booth and miscellany, and otherwise keep the place covered), I still felt compelled to get to the exhibit hall a little early on BIO opening day, get the magazines and subscription forms out, and scope out the environs.

It wasn’t going to be a short work-day. The exhibit hall was open from 10:00-4:30, with an in-hall hospitality reception going on till 6:30, but I had a big date ahead of me that night. With Germans. In Skokie. (Make your own ACLU joke here.)

I took the sponsored shuttle bus to the McCormick Center. One of my advertiser-pals turned out to be staying in my hotel and boarded the shuttle ahead of me. We shot the breeze during the ride, but his accent — he’s from the company that flew me out to Belfast for a press event two years ago — always makes him a little tough for me to follow.

I didn’t really get a chance to look around during Monday’s cab-rides and airport shuttle adventure, so I occasionally took my eyes off of Philip’s mouth — sometimes it’s the only clue as to what he’s saying! — and gazed at the scenery. I always liked Chicago’s architecture, at least around the Loop. Even the big buildings don’t feel like they’re bearing down on you, the way they do in NYC. Out by the convention center, the buildings aren’t so good. There are a bunch of apartments and condos that look like they’re deliberately quirky, an attempt at attracting hip people with money or something. Some were truly ghastly industrial nightmares, with acid-etched aluminum facades. Or maybe they were just run down and this was a bad neighborhood to be in. On the upside, there’s a special route for buses to get to McCormick, so we got a different view than the standard cab-route (part of it was underground, which was a plus).

On the way into the convention center, the bus passed some protestors. Now, protesting the BIO meeting is a long-standing tradition. At the first BIO I attended (Boston, 2000), a squad of butterfly-people-on-stilts shouted at attendees about genetically modified seeds. Those GM guys were a mainstay, outnumbering the “drugs are too expensive and/or too dangerous” crowd, as well as the batshit-crazy animal-rights protesters.

In San Francisco a few years ago, where they have a professional protesting class, there were a lot of black ski-mask types, people who would dive on the street in front of the shuttle buses or shout your name on their bullhorns (we wear name badges; one of the big hassles of trade shows is remembering to take off your badge when you leave for the evening. Otherwise, strangers address you by name while you walk down the sidewalk, sorta the opposite of that great song by The National). Sadly, a year later in Philadelphia, a cop had a fatal heart attack while scuffling with some protesters. Given the city, my money was on at least a couple hippies suffering unfortunate injuries.

The big joke about the GM food protesters is that agricultural biotech is actually a pretty small part of the BIO meeting. It’s too low margin, relative to biologic drugs. But nobody expects butterfly-stilt people to have much business sense.

This year, the only protesters I saw were a gaggle of 9/11 Truthers. “That’s odd,” I thought. “They must’ve taken a left turn at Albuquerque.”

As I walked down our aisle of the hall, I noticed a couple of uniformed guys standing by our booth. I hoped that they were just taking a break from patrolling around the hall, but as I got closer, I saw that they had pulled our fiberglass display cases out from behind the popup display.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“Is this your booth?”


“You can’t keep these cases behind your display,” said the policeman.

“Why not?”

“It’s a fire hazard,” said the fireman.

“And a security risk,” said the policeman.

“They’re . . .  just empty cases,” I said. They’d already removed the tops.

“We’ve got two former presidents here this morning. If you can’t get these cases under that table, we’re going to have to take them,” one said.

It wasn’t quite a non sequitur, but I could see where they were coming from. Obviously, there was intel about a plot to kidnap Presidents Clinton and Bush, stuff them in orange fiberglass shipping containers, and send them to Ramsey, NJ. Or they were taking our new promotional T-shirts — “Contract Pharma: We’re The Bomb!” — literally. I was hoping they didn’t find the box-cutter we keep in our meeting-miscellany bag.

I moved the boxes of magazines out from under the table, put the cases there, and put some magazines out on the table. The men in uniform were satisfied and meandered along. At least the presence of the Truthers made sense.

I had no appointments scheduled for the first day of the show, so I strolled around the exhibit hall and stopped in on various advertisers and other acquaintances. The hall at BIO is dominated by regional economic development groups — the show was once described to me as “a singles bar for governors and venture capitalists” — so there’s plenty of regional fare. The Louisiana pavilion, for example, was serving king cake and chickory coffee. The Canadian pavilion brought Tim Horton’s coffee, but no pastries this year. A few years ago (Boston, 2007), the Nebraska pavilion had staffers grilling steaks for much of the show. It was about 15 feet away from our booth and smelled awesome for a little while.

I tend to run on a different metabolism at conferences. Most daytime meals tend to be pastries and/or chocolate, and I drink smaller amounts of coffee more often than I do during a normal day. The result of the constant walking, conversing and low-intensity snacking is the realization that I’ve just gone 8 hours without a pee-break. What I’m saying is, it’s a very different rhythm, being at a show.

I had some good conversations over the course of the day, picking up industry gossip and getting a feel for the tenor of — and expectations for — the conference. (More on that in the next post.) During my time at the booth, I was happy to get some praise for the magazine and my wacky editorials. I know that this blog is where I get to have fun, but it’s gratifying to have people who aren’t already my friends tell me how much they enjoy my writing.

And then there was Skokie.

A month or two before BIO, the PR agency for Vetter, a contract manufacturer based in Germany, told me that they wanted to host a press event at their new clinical development facility in Skokie. They asked me what day I thought would be best for it. I advised against Tuesday, since that was the day of the hospitality reception, and it’s my tradition to drink too much wine at the Australia and New Zealand pavilions. Sadly, they scheduled it for Tuesday, and it was set to run from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., which meant that my work day was going to run more than 12 hours.

I neglected to print out my confirmation e-mail from them before leaving for Chicago, so I stopped by the company’s booth to see where we were meeting. Peter, one of the executives, told me, “We’ll meet downstairs between the two buildings and leave at 5.” He said that someone would be holding the red “lollipop” sign with the company’s name.

“‘Downstairs between the two buildings’?” I thought. “Well, Peter’s German, and they’re not known for verbal ambiguity, so it must be a glaringly obvious location.”

I talked with attendees and exhibitors at my booth till around 4:45, then packed up my things and hurried downstairs. Between the two buildings.

There was, of course, no sign of anyone from the company, no special shuttlebus, and no red lollipop.

I scurried around between the north and south buildings, between the south building and the adjacent hotel, between the devil and the deep blue sea. By then, it was 5:05. It didn’t take any great familiarity with Germans to know that the shuttle was going to leave at 5:00 on the nose.

I went back up to the company’s booth, and found only one representative, an older American employee. I told him that I’d missed the shuttle and he basically gave me a “what do you want me to do about it?” look. So I took a walk, met up with more of my pals, and felt bad that I’d missed the event.

It’s not that I was pining to take a tour through an unfinished clinical development vial-filling facility, but I try to make good on my obligations, and I worried that if they had a small turnout, my absence would be conspicuous.

Around 5:45, I stopped by their booth again, to leave an apology note. This time, three younger staffers were present. The first one I spoke to, a German man, stared at me as though he didn’t speak english when I tried to describe how I’d missed the bus. Then one of the Americans heard me, and she said, “Wait, you’re supposed to be at the Skokie event?”

“Yeah, but Peter’s directions were for shit. ‘Downstairs between the two buildings,'” I said, lightly mimicking his German accent, right next to the German employee I’d just been speaking to. “So please give ’em my apologies for missing it.”

“No,” she said. “You’re going to Skokie.”

I laughed. She picked up her cell and called one of the PR reps who was already at the site. She wrote down an address, several cell numbers, and then got out her purse. She handed me $80 and said, “Go get a cab, give the driver this address, and tell him to avoid the highway, because the traffic is hell. When you get to the industrial park, call Christine at this number and she’ll direct you to the right building.”

“The cab line’s going to be hellish,” I told her.

“So get going now!” I later found out she was former military, which made sense.

The thought of a post-show cab-line made me flash back to the 2006 BIO meeting, the last time the event was held in Chicago. I had to stay late at the show one afternoon to interview someone. When I finished, I discovered that the taxi line was about 2 miles long, and there were only 2 cabs outside. I thought I’d be smart and go to the hotel next door. The taxi line was around a mile long, and there were no taxis. I started to walk, even thought it was a long-ass hike through some crap neighborhoods back to my hotel. I fell in behind some venture capital guys in nice suits. We passed one of those buses that’s made up to look like a trolley. The driver was outside, leaning against the door. One of the suits said, “Hey, pal, how much to get us downtown?” The driver laughed.

I said to him, “I will give you $20 right now to get me the f*** out of here and back to my hotel.”

He looked at me for a second, grokked my utter seriousness, then said, “Get on!” I called to the VC guys to get on the bus: “$20 each. Let’s go!” They jumped aboard, and off we went. It’s my addition to Tom Chiarella’s great Esquire article on the $20 Theory of the Universe.

So I had visions of that episode as I hurried back downstairs to the taxi line. The line was huge, but the cabs were coming in a steady procession this time. One of the women at the front of the line saw a friend of hers approaching and said, “The line’s about 10 minutes long!”

I got on and waited. When my turn came, a beat-up minivan was my ride. The taxi attendant opened the door, and I got on. She slid the door closed . . . and it slid right off the railing.

My driver leaped out of his seat, ran around the cab, and fiddled with the door panel, which was hanging precariously from the side of the cab. He blamed the attendant, which made me laugh, and kept sliding the door and pushing it in, till it finally caught and closed. I tried to get out and take another cab, but he wouldn’t let me go.

And off we went.

I decided my driver was Ugandan, because it explained his clipped accent, his exceedingly dark skin, and his uncanny resemblance to Idi Amin. I gave him the paper with my destination, and he stared at it, puzzled. He soon called someone and got general directions to Skokie. Meanwhile, I was plugging the address into my iPhone, hoping to get some idea of where I was headed.

Traffic was insane, and apparently normal for 6:15 on a weekday. The driver took me on Lakeshore Drive to avoid the highway, but we were still crawling. I passed the time by trying to understand anything he said.

When I figured out that trips to the suburbs incurred a 1.5x charge on the meter, I told him, “Oh, so when that thing hits $50, you may as well kick my ass out of this cab, because I only have $80 on me.”

We slogged on. My Maps-app told me we were 26 minutes away from my destination, but that wasn’t taking the traffic into consideration. Ten minutes later, I was 24 minutes away. I wondered if this was Zeno’s App.

The cabbie later refused to believe that Rt. 41, Lakeshore’s alternate name, continued on to Skokie. Instead, he took us through some gnarly-ass neighborhoods, before getting onto Touhy Dr. Then he asked me for directions. I became his turn-by-turn GPS, all the while keeping an eye on the meter.

By 7:15 or so, we reached the science park. I was going to call for final directions, but noticed the shuttle bus parked outside a building. We drove to it, and he shut off the meter. The final tally was $58, so I gave him $70 and got a receipt. I used the door on the other side of the cab. It didn’t fall off.

Throughout the drive, I tried to come up with dramatic entrance lines. I refused to be embarrassed by missing the bus, given the shoddiness of Peter’s directions. Instead, I played up a combo of brashness and rogueness, telling myself, “Take command of this situation! So what if they’re German? Don’t be intimidated! You’ve seen Inglourious Basterds twice! Including opening day!”

It turned out that they were the ones who were embarrassed and apologetic. My PR contact swooped outside, took my arm, and kept telling me how sorry they were that I was inconvenienced. (You should know that all of my stereotype-goofing on Germans is actually a silly affectation on my part, sort of a “I’m Jewish therefore I goof on Germans” shtick. People from this company always been polite and non-pushy to me. The one time they screwed me over on an article (top-level management used to be very micro-managing and cautious; they’re much more open nowadays), they were so embarrassed that they sent me a high-end backpack for the holidays, because I once wrote an editorial that mentioned hiking.)

“How was your ride?” she asked.

“. . . Educational,” I told her. She got me a name badge and led me into a conference room where they were giving their pre-tour presentations. I was gratified to discover that the presentations were largely a rehashing of information about the facility that I’d already seen. In other words, the hour-plus I missed turned out to be utterly missable! And I got the crazy experience of the Ugandan Limited, to boot!

The facility tour was fine. I won’t bore you any further with those details, except for one great moment near the end.

See, what Vetter does is aseptically fill vials, syringes, ampules and other vessels that deliver high-value drugs. They do it really well, and they develop advanced systems for the injectors and other delivery devices. They do commercial-scale work at their Ravensburg facility; this new site is intended only for materials to be used in clinical trials. So it’s smaller volumes of vials and such.

After showing us the labs, filling suites, lyophilizers and other equipment (or spaces where equipment will soon arrive), we saw the visual inspection room. Here, a woman picked up four vials, held them up against a white cardboard background, rotated and agitated them, holding them up against a black background, and peered into the liquids, looking for contaminants, particulates, and Stuff That Shouldn’t Be In There. (Like rubber, fiber and/or metal.)

Our guide told us that Vetter’s visual inspectors are very well trained: “They  have very specific amounts of time they can work before they have to take breaks, and very specific exercises they have to do during their breaks, to make sure their eyes are good and they are not slipping. They are tested often, as it is critical that we do not ship vials that have contaminants in them.”

We watched her pick up another four vials and go through the same routine of inspection. “You see,” the guide said, “Suzanne spends her days looking for defects.”

“Eureka!” I thought. “I now have the female lead for a romantic comedy set in a pharma facility!” My mind was flooded with images of her at home, visually checking all of the little ways her husband or boyfriend disappoints her around the house. Would she ever meet the one man who had no visible defects or flaws? Paging Nora Ephron!

We had a light buffet dinner after the tour, around 8:45. I sat down with my buddy Peter, and said, “‘Downstairs between the two buildings’? Next time, let’s just meet up at your booth!”

“I am so sorry, Gil. But at least you made it!”

And I managed to get on the shuttle bus back to the hotel, too! Day 1 of the show came to an end around 10:30.

NEXT: “Jumping with my boy Sid in the city”

May 3: Bloodshot Eye of the Tiger

May 4: Skokie, the Germans, and the Lost Ugandan

May 5: “Jumpin’ with my boy Sid in the city”

Weakly – May 3: Bloodshot Eye of the Tiger

[I did a lot of things from May 3-9. I’m going to write about them for the next few days.]

It was Monday afternoon. I sat in the bulkhead window seat of a small jet, an Embraer RJ-145. It was a packed flight, but most of them are nowadays. The plane was taxiing to the runway, and it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember where I was going.

The previous two work weeks had been pretty stressful, between a conference in NYC and a heavy-duty deadline week, and I had spent the morning crunching stats for a big industry survey, but surely I wasn’t so burned out that I could get on a flight and literally forget its destination. I  don’t travel so much as to be this jaded.

I knew I was heading to the annual BIO meeting, and that I would end the week on a mini-vacation in Toronto. If I just thought about it a moment, I could surely reassemble the evidence in my head and recall where BIO was being held this year . . . “Chicago. That’s right,” I said aloud, probably spooking the guy next to me. He offered me some gum. I declined, put on my big-ass noise-canceling headphones, and started watching You Kill Me.

My itinerary for the day was: check in at the hotel, get to the McCormick Center to pick up my registration badge and set up the booth, and get down to Comiskey / U.S. Cellular to see the White Sox take on the Royals.

The driver of the Airport Express shuttle enjoyed my conversation so much that he dropped me at my hotel last among his six passengers. Once there, I realized that he passed my hotel twice while dropping off the others. Why, oh why did I talk about baseball with him?

I hustled to unpack and get a cab to the convention center. There would be no time to stop back at the hotel, so I spent a minute or two in recharge mode, then briefly contemplated the cost of a bottle of water and some cashews from the mini-bar. I decided that booth-setup duty justified a couple of refreshment charges on my hotel bill.

Our standard booth at these conferences is an 8′ x 8′ erector-set popup frame, with a cloth panel of graphics from our magazine & website velcroed to it. It looks better than it sounds (see left), and takes about 1 minute to assemble. I took care of that, stowed the shipping cases behind the display, organized the boxes of magazines under our 48″ high table, stepped back to snap a picture to e-mail to my publisher, and headed out for a cab.

“I’m going to Comiskey,” I told the cabdriver.


“. . . U.S. Cellular.”

“You go Cubs?”

“No, White Sox. Cubs are out of town.”

“Park on 35th Street?”

“. . . Yeah, I guess.”

The cabbie got on a highway, zoomed along for a while, then turned the meter off and tried to tell me something. We were going 80 mph with the windows down, so I told him, “I couldn’t hear a word you just said.”

He raised the windows, said that he’d missed the exit, and was shutting the meter off because he didn’t want to overcharge me. I’d been told that the White Sox field is in a shitty area of Chicago, so I wasn’t looking forward to finding our way through the neighborhoods. Fortunately, he was able to make an illegal u-turn on an exit, get back on the highway and bring me to the park. He asked me for $10, though the meter had run up to $17. I felt that was fair.

Which brought me to the game. Or, as I like to call it, “Idiocracy made real.”

Before I get to it, I should say that there’s nothing wrong with the park itself. It’s a bit bland, but that’s only because it was the last park to go up before Camden Yards flipped the script on baseball. It’s the 12th MLB park I’ve visited, and it’s certainly better than some of the oldies where I’ve seen games (several of which were converted football stadia, like Philadelphia’s Vet). And I had really nice seats. I posted a pic from there onto Facebook, because we live in the future.

The problem is that the fans, even in the relatively nice seats down the first base line (I got mine for $25 on Stubhub, but their face value was twice that), are drunken wrecks. And I’m saying that as a guy who spent numerous summer days in the bleachers at the old Yankee Stadium, watching Long Islanders pass out in the sun. I’ve drunkenly heckled Ken Griffey, Jr.; I almost landed on him while celebrating a Joe Girardi home run (they were rare). I’ve seen drunken fans. I’ve never seen such human detritus as I did at this game.

Oh, dear reader, you missed out on the tit-toos, the avalanche of empty and not-entirely-empty Miller Lite bottles, the cursing voices that sounded like they’re coming from an 80-year-old with emphysema, but actually emanated from cigarette-wrecked women half that age, the poorly scrawled sign drawn on — no lie — the back of a Jim Beam poster: Hieronymous Bosch would’ve had a field day with this band of grotesques.

(You also missed out on pre-game music performed by Survivor, who capped things off with their 8 millionth performance of Eye of the Tiger. And an opening pitch thrown out by Justin Bieber. That’s legit; I didn’t mention him in order to get more pageviews from 12-year-old girls. I swear.)

There was a “normal,” sober family sitting a row away from me, and I felt a little sorry for them. I thought maybe it was a good thing to bring your kids to a spectacle like this, so you could tell them, “THAT’S why you have to go to school and THAT’S why you shouldn’t drink! You’ll end up like these people!”

At one point in the 4th inning, I heard a rising cacophany among the fans somewhere behind me. It was the sort of crowd noise that accompanies a fight among two fans: not quite cheering or booing. As the noise grew, I turned around to see what was up. The tumult was caused by a single fan, walking down the aisle to his seat.

In a Cubs jersey.

Literally hundreds of people were heckling him, including fathers of kids who couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6 years old. He was a good sport, giving everyone the finger with both hands. So that was awesome, in a “decline of western civilization” kinda way. Especially because this was a Monday evening.

Once Chicago starter Jake  lost his no-hit bid, I got up and walked around the park. I saw a nice array of bronze statues of White Sox heroes: Harold Baines, Billy Prince, Minnie Minoso, Bizarro Carlton Fisk, and a few others. There was also a shower in the back of the center field walkway, apparently brought over from old Comiskey. During my stroll, I saw a security woman tell a couple of young yahoos that they were cut off from any more beers. I wondered what atrocity you have to commit to achieve receive that sanction. And I wondered if it was a point of pride.

After the 6th inning, I decided to head back to my hotel. I walked up to a security guard and asked which exit would leave me closest to a taxi stand. He directed me and I thanked him. Then he held out his fist. I looked at it for a second and was almost as puzzled as I was on the plane that afternoon, when I’d forgotten my destination.

It took me a moment to realize that he was waiting on a fist-bump. I’d never actually fist-bumped with someone before, but took care of my side of the deal.

No: I’d literally never fist-bumped with someone. I never really envisioned a scenario when it would come up, frankly. During the presidential campaign, there was all sorts of palaver that it was some sort of terrorist sign, but now I’m convinced that it’s just a Chicago thing. It doesn’t stand on propriety; it’s a state of mind.

I caught a cab home. As I was getting ready to crash, my phone buzzed; a pal of mine from grad school had noticed my White Sox photo on Facebook and wrote, “What the hell are you doing in Chicago and not telling me?”

NEXT: Skokie, the Germans, and the Ugandan

BONUS: Coincidentally, a writer from Toronto attended that very same game as part of his tour of all 30 ballparks. Check out his writeup! He corroborates the Bieber thing. And the human wreckage.

May 3: Bloodshot Eye of the Tiger

May 4: Skokie, the Germans, and the Lost Ugandan

May 5: “Jumpin’ with my boy Sid in the city”