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”

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