I had set my alarm for seven AM to make sure I made it to the special alumni breakfast. I called Donald.
He said in a hoarse voice, “Wassss happenin!”
“Not much. I’m just about to go down to the lobby. Will you meet me up by the desk?” I said.
“Yup. I’m already there.”
“Wow. You’re up bright and early,” I said, a little surprised.
I took an elevator down to the first floor. In order to find the front desk, I had to navigate through the casino maze designed to get you to stop and plunk a few dollars into the slot machines. I kept my money and made it through.
Donald was tottering a bit when I saw him.
“Ok, let’s find that breakfast, Don.”
By Ed Zachary he meant “exactly”. His clever joke. If Donald was one of those pullstring dolls, this would definitely be one of the phrases. He rarely veered from Wassss Happenin, Ed Zachary, Adios Muchacho, Cluster Fuck, and SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fucked Up), and whatever other military acronyms he knew.”
I asked him how his night was and did he sleep well.
He made a pouty frown and said, “I never made it up. I’ve been at the poker tables all night.”
“Don!” I exclaimed. “Jesus.” This surprised me. I’d never been on a trip with him before, and it seemed an awfully irresponsible thing to do.
“Yeah, I was up four grand around five in the morning. You should have seen it!”
“Wow, that’s great,” I said, but I knew where this was headed.
“But I lost it all. I’m 500 in the hole now.”
I looked at my shoes and said, “Oh. That’s too bad. Ok, well where’s the breakfast?”
He started walking to the door, swaying a bit. “It’s in the Venetian. Conference room 3A and 3B”
The heat wasn’t bad by Las Vegas standards and we took it slow. It was only a couple of blocks away. I heard Don grunt a bit as we walked, and when we reached a McDonald’s with a shady outdoor patio, he sat down heavily in one of the chairs.
“Buddy? Are you ok?” I asked.
He held up one hand and said, “Bah, yeah I’m fine. I just need to rest a bit.”
I sat down across from him at a patio table. We sat for a few minutes while he smoked a cigarette. His breathing was heavy. His complexion had turned a purplish red. Sweat was pouring off his forehead.
After awhile he waved me toward the street saying, “Danny, you go on ahead. I’ll meet you there. I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Are you sure? Do you need to see someone?”
“Naw, I just need to catch my breath.”
So I slung my laptop bag over my shoulder and walked on to the Venetian, which was the site of the 20 thousand attendee conference that we had flown all the way from Kansas to attend.
I’d never been in the Venetian before, but I was looking forward to it. Having been a trained as an opera singer at Kansas University in Lawrence, I was looking forward to hearing all the young Las Vegas opera singers who had taken jobs singing in the indoor piazza and canals. As I entered the hotel, I heard the echoes of O Sole Mio down one of the canals, but had no time to listen. There was breakfast to be had.
My eyes were a little itchy so I stopped by the gift shop to buy some eye drops and found the nearest men’s room to squeeze them in. In the mirror, I could see that they were indeed a little red. But the drops cleared them up well enough.
Rooms 3A and 3B were one large space with the dividers pushed like accordions to either side. There was a rather lavish buffet and many large round tables filled with business reps from Computer Associates and people like me who had attended the conference before; alumni, they called us. I think the idea was that returning conference attendees were more likely to purchase software than first timers. Or perhaps it was just as innocent as they would have me believe; that they simply wanted to show their appreciation for coming back. It didn’t really matter to me. A conference was a place where I could be whomever I wanted to be. Maybe I was a big shot who could spend money? I just wasn’t quite should exactly who I would be.
I put my bag down at a table that had two chairs together in case Donald was able to make it, and headed for the buffet. I was on the lookout for breakfast link sausages. The kind you find at hotel breakfasts, but I never had them at home. I wasn’t quite sure where to find them. I didn’t know what they looked like uncooked. And to my great delight, I did find them. I also found scrambled eggs and a little fruit to balance it out. Fresh pineapple was also special to me. I skipped the grapes. Who eats grapes for breakfast? I thought. Just cheap filler. I took one slice of cantaloupe for color, and the rest all pineapple. In my mind, this was a splendid start to the conference.
I took my seat with a little trepidation. Although I was somewhat skilled at small-talk with strangers, it was like jumping into a cold swimming pool. Once I was there, I was fine, but taking the initiation to jump in was unpleasant. Plus, I preferred not to speak while I was eating.
Next to me sat a woman in a sharp black business suit. I don’t know what you call this kind of suit other than it’s a not the kind with pants. I got a peak at her shapely legs as she turned to face me. Her blond hair was wavy. No bangs. Brushed to the side. She had a sharp nose, full lips and warm brown smiling eyes. Maybe 40.
“So…” she glanced at my “My Name Is” badge, I hadn’t registered for my conference badge. And said, “So, Daniel, I’m Kaitlin.” I took her hand and shook it not too firmly. I was never quite sure what to do with a woman’s had. Shake it like a man’s? Take just half the hand? Take it in both hands? Kiss it? In fact, I was never good at any kind of hand communication from men and women. I knew one thing: how to give a firm hand shake to another man. None of those crazy high five, low five, hand jive stuff that smooth, cool men learn.
“Nice to mean you,” I said, swallowing a bit of sausage.
“Where are you from?” Her eye contact was so bright and steady that it embarrassed me. My easy social abilities from the day before were gone for the moment. I had to look a way. At least for a moment.
“Yeah. I’m from Kansas. I work for a little software company just outside of Lawrence. We build software for power utilities and energy traders.”
“Wow! That sounds fascinating.” I could tell by her response and her badge that she was an employee of Computer Associates. She wasn’t really interested in me.
“So which of our software suite do you use?”
Yeah, just as I thought. “We use Harvest Software Change Manager, to manage all of our development. It’s good. Very powerful and flexible platform. In fact, I’m writing some web extensions to it. That’s one of the reasons I’m here. I have questions.”
She seemed impressed. She leaned in a little closer. “Listen, what if I could get you in front of the father of Harvest: James Chi. I’ll bet he could answer any questions you had.”
“What I’m trying to figure out is how best to integrate the Harvest API and command line utilities into a multi threaded web container so that…”
She nodded enthusiastically, and interrupted, “Yes yes. That sounds amazing. Just give me your cell and we can make it happen”
“Wasssssss happenin’!” came a familiar voice from behind me.
“You made it!” I exclaimed, relieved. “I thought you were gonna die back there.”
“I liked ta did. But I felt better after having some water and looking at the pretty waitress.”
“Caitlin, this is Donald. He’s our Harvest Administrator.”
He crammed some eggs in his mouth and to avoid reaching over my plate smiled and waved to her.
The hours and days that followed were just what I expected out of a conference. A very enthusiastic young CA employee named John, introduced me to Mr. Chi. He solved all of my problems in all of 2 minutes. That night, I saw a Circque du Soleil show and was immensely satisfied with it.
We did have one bit of fun during the week. Every tech conference has an enormous exposition floor full of every kind of software vendor imaginable. They are sponsors for the conference to help defray the cost of attendance. The fun of this is that they all give little gifts when you stop by. We call this “swag”. I do not know why. I grabbed my swag bag and made my way through the rows and rows of booths. The other bit of fun in doing this is that the booths are manned by beautiful girls. “Booth Babes”. They have to be nice to you know matter how many warts you have or nose hairs protruding from your nostrils. Their job is to lure you in and hand you off to the sales force.
When Donald and I made our way to the far end, we saw a roped off area with a sign that said VIP only. It was a martini bar.
I turned to Donald, “Wow. wish we were VIPS!”
He grinned as if he had a secret. He relished the moment. then said, “Compadre, we ARE VIPS because of new contract we signed with CA. Lesssssss drink!”
We walked up to the make shift bar. The bartender was wearing a short waisted tux, like a maitre d’e.
Donald turned to me, “I’ve never had a martini. I’ve had a few bottles tequila, but no martini. What do you recommend?”
I looked at the menu. I didn’t realize there were so many different kinds of martinis. I’d had a couple, up dry with an olive. So I did my best to talk him through it.
“So an apple martini tastes like an apple Jolly Rancher….but that may be too girly for….”
“Yummy! I love those Jolly Ranchers. That’s what I want.”
I took just a straight martini and we sat down with some other attendees who were already quite happy. Donald was not shy at all and they all made fast friends. I gingerly sipped my drink, remembering that the last time I’d had a martini on an empty stomach, I had thrown up violently out of a car door.
But Donald was drinking them as fast as they would serve him. I told him that I was going to look around for some food. They usually brought our appetizers after five. When I came back with some fried chicken fingers in my belly, he was sitting in front of a dozen or so cocktail glasses with a thimble full of green liquid in each. He was spread out so that he was taking over half the table. His face was lit up. He could not have stopped smiling if you put a gun to his head.
“Wasssss happenin, muCHAcho!”
“Wow, looks like you had a few appletinis,” I said, smiling.
“Losssssst count after 13!” He raised his eyebrows and began to laugh. His new found friends laughed with him. And that is where I left him that evening.
On the last day of the conference, CA threw us a final “appreciation” party at a nice restaurant with a patio. It was warm, but there were misters to cool us down. Donald stuck with his poker game at Harrah’s so I was flying solo. It was just as well with me. I was in a social mood, and didn’t want to be attached to his weighty presence.
There was no meal served, but there were wait staff serving upscale hors d’ouevres. Fine cigar smoke wafted my way from time to time. I began looking for the source. I ordered a scotch and soda with a lemon twist. I had not begun my love affair with single malt, so a Dewer’s and soda was just fine with me.
Conversations were lively around the patio. I’d come a little late and most people were already several drinks in. I found the man smoking the cigar. His face was ruddy with drink and he handled his cigar with skill. He appeared to be in his 50s. There was something powerfully joyous in him. There were four chairs arranged across from one another all occupied with beautiful women sipping martinis and margaritas. Many others stood around them. This was, I thought, the heart of the party.
I looked for a chance to butt in and ask where he got the cigar or was hoping that he might offer me one.
I said, “Hey, man that cigar smells great. Where did you get it?”
He looked up at me, took a drag from it, cocked his head back to the restaurant, and said in a boisterous, gravelly voice , “Back in there there’s a cigar bar. This here is the best one they got. Not bad!”
I knew that “best one” probably meant the most expensive one, and I was almost out of cash. But I really wanted to join in the fun, so I meandered my way through the crowd. I brushed up against a women in a silk summer dress. It was innocent enough, but she turned and looked at me with a smile as silky as her dress.
I said, “Excuse me. I’m just going to squeeze by you.”
To which she responded, “Squeeze all you like. I won’t bite.”
I blushed, but a thrill went through my body and straight down between my legs.”
I smiled, perhaps more boldly than I would have otherwise. I wanted to grab her around the wasted and pull her close, but I knew that that wasn’t the sort of thing I would do. I was married. I knew the man with the cigar would have, but I just walked away, glancing back at her as I did. She had turned back to her companions by then.
I had smoked cigars before, but I wasn’t too sure of myself. How to cut the end. Light it. Hold it. Draw the smoke and taste it fully. And, of course, how to blow it out without looking like a blow fish. But with a drink in hand, I didn’t really care.
Then I saw someone familiar. Or maybe he saw me first. It was the young man who worked on the sales team for CA and we’d had a conversation on the expo floor. He was the one who helped me find Chi.
“Hey! Daniel. Wasssup?!! You gotta a drink and a cigar, that’s what I’m talking about.”
He wound his way through the beautiful CA staff and the shlumpy attendees quietly sipping drinks speaking with no one.
He patted me on the arm. “Hey, man,” he leaned in to say something a little more intimately. “I want to introduce you to a few people.”
He took me to the far end of the patio where there were two beautiful women. Perhaps in their late twenties.
“Girls, this is my good friend Daniel. He’s doing some awesome stuff with Harvest.” Then he turned to me.
“Daniel, this is Gloria, ” he point to a latina woman in a pant suit and high heels. “And this little hottie is Shawna”
Shawna was the same girl with the silky dress I had bumped into before.
She didn’t say anything. She just gave me a sly open-mouthed grin and stepped into me very close to speak in my ear. “Hey, I was hoping to meet you.”
I felt the same thrill as before.
And this time I did put my hand on her curvy waste. She giggled a bit and then put her arm around Gloria and offered a laughing toast to the four of us. After we had all become a little acquainted, John, who had brought us together took off. I wondered if he were some sort of party starter for CA. Soon after, Gloria left as well. Only Shawna and I remained.
As they left, I began to lose my confidence and I wasn’t sure what to say, so I asked if I could get her another drink.
“Aren’t you sweet!” she said, touching my arm. “I probably shouldn’t, but I’d take another gin and tonic. And can you make sure it’s a lime wedge and not a twist,” she grinned devilishly. “I like to suck the juice out of it.”
When I came back from the bar, she was gone. I looked around for her, but I couldn’t find her. The party was beginning to break up so I started making my way to the door. And there she was, with some guy I hadn’t met. I still had her drink so I went to offer it to her.
“Hey…is it Daniel? This is my friend Joshua. He covers the Unicenter Suite. You ought to get to know him. Does your company use Unicenter?”
I could feel the life drain out of me. I was out of their league and I began to wonder if this whole party was a sales pitch.
“Naw, just Harvest. Good to meet you Josh.” I extended my hand, but he had already turned to talk with someone else. They left together. I was learning that Harvest was not the cool kid on the block. And what did it really matter who she left with? Why did I even care? I had no intention of making anything happen. I guess I just liked the attention. Women didn’t notice me. It seemed a miracle that Ashley had married me in the first place.
But she liked that I was shy and modest and faithful. I made her laugh. Not always because I have a sense of humor, but because I’m peculiar and she loves that about me.
I didn’t follow them out. I was embarrassed and I didn’t want to be around them, so I turned and scanned the patio. Just as I was about to turn and leave, there was John again. More excited than before.
“Hey, brother! Let’s go to a party!” he said, nearly shouting.
“I thought this WAS the party,” I said, lamely.
He stepped in close as if he was bringing me in on a secret. “No, this is just the attendee mixer. I’m talking about the PARTY. VIP’s only. It’s mainly just for CA employees, but I can get you in, bro.” He reached in his pocket and handed me a glossy ticket with the words LUX Vip Pass CA World.
I took it. “I dunno man. I gotta get up early to catch my plane.”
“Shit! Don’t be that way. You don’t want to miss this party. The LUX is the hottest club on the strip. We have our own VIP area with tons of booze and women.”
I bit my lip. My eyes were itching again. And then something cracked ever so slightly in me, like a dam beginning to yield to a rush of water. “Ok. Ok. Let’s do this!”