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:

elsid.jpg

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”

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