Cross Country

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The AAU Cross Country Nationals were held in Rock Hill, South Carolina this year. My little guy, Coleman, is 8 years old and he qualified in his age group, the Sub-Bantams. I think that means little chickens and I try not to read anything more into it than that. Cole runs Indoor Track, Outdoor Track and Cross Country. He’s always been fast and annoyingly energetic but track has given him confidence, discipline, a team he loves and a place to belong. He identifies with his group, which can be a two edged sword but the coaches are adamant about supporting the sport through respect for all runners regardless of team affiliation.

Cole has qualified for The Nationals before but we never went to anything beyond the Regional Championships. It isn’t the kind of thing we can really afford but at the same time, he’s been running track for about a year and a half and this is his last go ’round as a Little Chicken. He loves it and we’re very proud of him; we just felt like he deserved it and once he moves on to Bantam, being on the younger end of that group, he may not qualify again for some time. We booked the flight, a car rental and the hotel. The whole team has a block of rooms at the Rock Hill, Holiday Inn, and we’re all set to go.

Why is it that just when you think you’ve got things pretty well figured out, that’s just about the time when they fall apart?

Two days before the flight we get a message on our answering machine. The message is from Randy, the manager of the Rock Hill, Holiday Inn. Randy says our 99 dollar room was booked wrong and do we still want it for 227 dollars. This is not good. It was a stretch to go in the first place. The added expense makes the whole thing suddenly seem like a bad idea. And by the way, what do they mean it was booked wrong? We called Holiday Inn’s 800 number and booked it more than a month ago. They gave us the room! They told us the price! It’s not like we haggled over it and they reluctantly accepted our ridiculously low offer. And why, a single day after the booking deadline, after mind you, not before but after, has this become an issue? I call the hotel and what sounds like a female parakeet with a southern drawl answers. I explain the message and she says she’s sorry but the manager has gone home for the night but we can call back in the morning. I can see our hotel room, with it’s plush kingsize bed and free continental breakfast, dissolving in front of my eyes and I launch:

 

“Look lady, you need to call the manager and he needs to call me and explain why
I am holding an 81/2 x 11 sheet of paper, complete with confirmation number
and price, that you are about to sell to the highest bidder. Now listen to me!
I do not want to get down there and find my room gone.
Do you understand me?”

~

“Yes sir, I’ll call him! Thank you for calling the Rock Hill, Holiday Inn.”

~

I email the coach and he says he’ll follow up. The next day I get his email; the hotel manager is immovable and the booking agent is claiming ignorance of the whole thing.

One way or the other, I always believe a claim of ignorance.

I don’t hear from the hotel manager or anyone else before the flight and I have to say I’m worried. I feel like my only chance is to have a face to face with this guy but in my heart I know it will be useless. There is money on the line and I have no leverage whatsoever.

The night before leaving I have a dinner date in Philadelphia with The Fungi Social Club, about whom I may write at a later date. I make my way to Philly and stop at my mom’s. I don’t write much about my mom. What can a person say about their mom that won’t end up sounding schmaltzy or maudlin or get everyone at the bar crying in their beer. Better to acknowledge the lady respectfully and move on. Everyone, or at least every son, knows what I mean. But setting all that aside for a moment, it is worth mentioning that my mom has a better Scotch collection than your mom.

I was sampling some of that collection and recounting my Lilliputian woes because moms always like that kind of thing; they always take your side and occasionally they even have good advice. This wasn’t going to be one of those occasions. Her logic was that Southerners are well mannered people and therefore I should basically throw myself on the mercy of a court that still seems to be licking wounds suffered during the Civil War and its apparently endless aftermath.

I have often wondered about that; how The Civil War seems to be a defining part of Southern identity, especially when compared with The North. I’ve worked with a lot of guys from The South and invariably there is a Confederate flag somewhere in the mix, often tattooed directly upon their person. In The North it is a non issue on every level. It is not on anyone’s mind in the slightest. Except as an academic matter, it is a fully forgotten event. No grudge is borne, no resentment nursed, no offense taken. There is no gloating or self satisfaction regarding the war. There are no meaningful reminders; nothing to jog the collective memory but even if there were, nobody cares. It is not part of how Northerners define themselves for the very simple reason that Northerners don’t define themselves as Northerners. Only Southerners do that.

There are monuments of course; there are always monuments. But Civil War monuments are few and discreet and really kind of anonymous. Monuments are meant to evoke history but in fact they seem to isolate and entomb it. Stone is noble and there is stately grandeur in the Beaux Arts and NeoClassic architecture typical of the period but that’s all you get. On the actual subject at hand, The Civil War, the stone is mute; bloodless; amnesic even.

Just to go that extra mile, because I’m an extra mile kind of guy, I have returned to my old neighborhood. For a time, I lived on West 89th street. At the end of the block, in Riverside Park, is Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Every time I walked the dog I would go look at it; try to imagine a past when it was new. When the war was still a memory within easy reach. Nothing.

Now I’m here in Morningside Heights, 122nd and Riverside Drive, to stand in front of Grant’s Tomb, just to check for residual emotions and I’m getting nothing. It doesn’t help that in 1865 my people were busy being persecuted in Eastern Europe but still, I’m an empathetic person and I have a good understanding of history; I’ve done my reading. Also, I’m a middle child; I see everyone’s point of view and they are all equal before me. I have no trouble putting myself in your shoes or anyone else’s shoes; the more so if you’re sporting an 11 1/2 wide, in which case we’re as good as siblings. When confronted with history I can usually force an emotion but then, I get choked up over the pastoral section of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture too. But honestly, Grant’s Tomb elicits nothing. A total blank. I mean, who the hell is buried here anyway?

Ok, so back in Philly I wandered off to my dinner, which included a Scotch tasting, a wine sampling and an excellent bottle of Port. I shall forever be grateful that the last bus back to New York was a 9 o’clock. Had it been an 11 o’clock, I may well be there even to this very day. An evening like that can so easily slip down that slope that can only end in Tequila and regret. I made my farewells to my fellow club members and scooted back to the safety of Brooklyn and the promise of an afternoon flight into an uncertain set of accommodations.

I spent a mostly sleepless night rehearsing the coming confrontation with the front desk. I tapped around the internet looking for a Bed & Breakfast in the Rock Hill area figuring that this event alone would probably use up almost every available hotel room. I was encouraged to find some beautiful spots at a fraction of the cost of my anonymous room; if that room was still even mine. The only real advantage of staying at the hotel is mixing with the other kids and parents on the team. It may not seem like much but really it is a very rich part of the whole experience.

The next day Cole and I made it out to LaGuardia without running into traffic. The plane ride was smooth and uneventful and my hangover was well within the nausea control limits recommended by the F.A.A.

So far, so good.

With the ultra-friendly chatterbox Dean, at the wheel of the Dollar Rent a Car bus, we headed out to the aptly named Rental Car Road. As a person who gets lost almost every time I get behind the wheel, I appreciate that kind of simplicity. I would recommend a trip to the Charlotte Airport based solely on the chance of getting a ride from Dean. He is too good to pass up just because you have no reason to be there. Personable doesn’t even begin to describe this cat. With the looks of an aging Rock-a-Billy star and a kind of affable southern charm, he strikes me as a man who, in another time, would have been a riverboat gambler. And not just any old riverboat gambler. A real cardsharp. The kind they used to hang. He would have worked the Proud Mary or the Natchez or the Mississippi Queen. And you know what? I would have considered it an honor to lose my paycheck to him. Dean seems to me to be an inhabitant of the new south but a product of the old. Not only that but he’s super helpful and inquisitive beyond anything that can be covered in a 4 minute bus ride. I want to tip Dean just for being Dean. As I reread these last sentences I have to wonder if I have an unusually low threshold for what constitutes acceptable entertainment. Whatever the case, this trip is starting out well even as we are heading towards the OK Corral of booking conflicts. We step out of Dean’s chariot and into the Dollar Rent-a-Car office:

 

“Welcome to Dollar Rent-a-Car. How are you today?”

~

“I’m good. How you doin’ ?”

~

“I’m fantastic!”

~

And you know what? She is fantastic! Her name is Shelae and she is an attractive black woman in her early thirties with an attitude so positive, so genuinely upbeat, that she makes me feel ok about renting a compact car. As if it really isn’t a reflection on my personal prosperity, not to mention my manhood. But I have my son, my smile and my strong chin; I can get by on that.

“How can I help you today?”

~

“Yeah, me and my friend are here to pick up our rental.”

~

At first she’s confused; maybe she’s thinking I’m schizophrenic. Then she leans over the high counter and spends a few moments exchanging pleasantries with Cole. She makes a nice attempt to seduce me into some unneeded insurance and points us towards the area where the compacts are. I ask her to repeat the directions because without a doubt I am going to get lost in the parking lot. Shelae cheerfully escorts us out to the compacts. She’s a sweetheart. I feel bad about not buying the extra insurance. I don’t need it but I feel like it would have made her even happier, if that’s possible. I’m starting to sense a trend here. Something about southern hospitality and being pleasantly separated from one’s money.

We’re in the lot now and there are no compact cars:

 

“Oh well.” says Shelae. “Take any car you like.”

~

I’m really beginning to like it here.

So let’s see. There isn’t a lot of choice. I can either take a Nissan Something-or-Other or a Dodge muscle car. Come to think of it, I guess there’s really no choice at all. We exit the lot, I put the pedal to the metal, skid around a corner and off into the North Carolina afternoon with squeals of terror and delight coming from the back seat.

We shoot down I-77 and cross into South Carolina. Over the border, I-77 becomes The Billy Graham Parkway. For an urban sophisticate, that’s creepy. It’s creepy for me too. A quick station seek on the radio reveals about nine stations. Most of them are religious gobbledygook, one is political gobbledygook and the remainder are playing the top 7 songs of their respective genres in lightning fast rotation. It looks like the genteel hand of civility is fixed to a strong arm of conformity. This does not appear to be an environment of competing ideas. Lots of black and white; not a whole lotta grey.

Exit 79 off of I-77, a left, pass a giant shopping center, two lights and another left, to the back of another giant shopping center and there it is, the Holiday Inn. The hotel looks the same as the surrounding car dealerships, the Sears, the chain stores, the chain restaurants and every other retail outlet I’ve seen thus far. I know that as far as I may travel in this state, every town will be dominated by a shopping center and every shopping center will be identical. I believe they call this Low Risk Architecture; not because it can’t offend anyone, or inspire anyone for that matter, but because it is built so economically that even a total business failure isn’t going to cost anyone a whole lot of money. Pour a concrete slab, throw up the prefab stucco walls, fill it with cool stuff from China, man it with low wage workers, open the doors and complain about how your culture is disappearing. Or, as I like to say, “Aim Low.”

Ok, so we enter the lobby and I see a young guy at the reception desk. His name tag says Randy. Randy is the manager. From my perspective, Randy has been the point man for the hotel in this debacle. Everyone who has tried to correct this situation, the booking agent, the coach, whoever all else, have had to deal with Randy but I haven’t actually talked with him yet. Randy is just finishing talking with a very large and clearly irate black man. I can see the hopelessness of my situation but Cole is by my side and I have to both spare him any anxiety about this, his first big trip, and get him to the bathroom because he’s turning yellow.

I am all smiles and urgency. I ask where the bathroom is and ever so nonchalantly slide our reservation across the desk. Who knows, maybe we’ll slip through the corporate cracks.

When we return, there is a local cop standing by the desk. I think the big black guy rattled Randy and he’s decided to call in reinforcements; a little bit of cavalry. Better to have and not need, than need and not have. Turning to me, Randy says there’s a problem. So much for corporate cracks. The details of the conversation are not interesting but the bottom line is that he, as the local representative of Holiday Inn, can not honor this reservation which was made by them, the Corporate Holiday Inn.

I’m calm and make my case; he recounts the recorded conversation of my wife and the Holiday Inn 800 number operator. Our mistake was not booking through the local, graft approved, booking agent. How that bears on the 800 number folks I can’t say; either can Randy. He parses the language but his case is weak, or would be if he weren’t holding the magnetically encoded key card to my room. I ask him if I’m the only one who is having this problem and he says no; not by a long shot. He’s had cancellations and arguments all day and most of the guests have yet to arrive.

My assessment of the man and the situation is rolling over and in all fairness I need to adjust my expectations. He’s not a bad guy but he’s been put in a bad position by a system that doesn’t integrate the local booking process with the national booking process. Throw in a wildcard third party like the booking agent and it’s time to call the sheriff. Randy’s kind of been left holding the bag by an uncaring machine whose executives would never dream of staying in one of their own hotels. I see him as just another little guy. Unfortunately, I’m littler still. Our conversation has been cordial but has come to an impasse.

Randy offers me the room at $227 a night and assures me that this is the discounted price. For that kind of money I could have stayed on Times Square but then, we’re not on Times Square. When handed this defeat I turn to the only option I have left and wouldn’t you know, it’s my mom.

You see, I’ve lived in New York City for half my life and I have found that New Yorkers have a very fine sense of injustice and are hair trigger adamant about their rights. When you live in an eat or be eaten environment it only makes sense to bite first but it can be cause for misunderstanding. However today, with my mother’s gentle guidance, and the good manners and quiet nature borne of my native Philadelphia, I have not bitten. Dean and Shelae have prepared me for this:

 

“Would you still like the room?”

~

I do not let slip any anger or resentment. He has won the battle and it’s time to move on. My tone is all good humor; our conflict, no more than a game of checkers:

 

“Well, we’re not gonna chase all over town looking for a room. Sure, I’ll take it.”

~

Randy prints up the papers, I sign them and he hands me the key card. That’s when I make my move; after the surrender of Fort Sumter. But here’s the thing, it wasn’t premeditated; it just came out:

“Hey man, is there anything you can do for me so that I won’t feel so bad about this?”

~

Randy takes a moment and I can see he’s honestly reflecting. Then he says:

“You know, you’ve been so nice about this, how about dinner for both of you.
And drinks. As much as you want.”

~

He hands me his card with instructions to the restaurant staff. It reads:

:

—Dinners free. Drinks free. Everything free—

~

“Wow, that’s great! Thank you so much. Honestly. It makes a big difference.”

~

“And full breakfast too. As long as you’re here.”

~

“Wonderful! Thank you so much!”

~

“I’ll tell you what. Let me change the price of the room.”

~

He tears up the contract and I get a much more reasonable rate. Coupled with dinner, drinks and breakfast, I’m shaking his hand across the fortification of the the front desk and we’re pals. Truly and honestly.

Randy notes that we are in a room with a single king size bed and he offers to upgrade us at no charge.

I say:

“Look Randy, unless this is the honeymoon suite and you need it, you’ve already been really good to us.

Really, we’re fine. Thank you.”

~

So I sign the new contract, he hands me the keycard and the last thing he says is:

“I gave you free Internet too. The code is inside your key envelope.”

——

When we get to our room I have to laugh. It was all so easy. Like the song says:

As easy as

ABC123

Which, perhaps not coincidentally, happens to be the access code to the Internet.

~

A little while later Cole and I are sitting down to dinner and the influx of guests has begun. Arguments are breaking out even as a second cop arrives. I have a nice piece of fish with lightly sautéed vegetables. Cole has a hamburger as big as his head. I am sipping a craft beer and Cole is working on a lemonade. We have a low angle view of the devolving state of affairs at the desk. The booking agent, wherever he may be, has outdone himself. Rooms have been changed, without notice, to other cheaper hotels but the booked price remains the same. Rooms have been given away without warning; tensions are escalating.

“Overbooked?!”

 

The word is spat like an obscenity; an outrageous question; an inconceivable statement. Voices are being raised and fingers are being pointed. It’s a profit taking frenzy and poor Randy has been left to fend for himself. He’s doing his best but he’s been surrounded. I find myself witness to one individual’s capacity for stubbornness as he fights off one assault after another. I am reminded again of Southern pride and Southern sensitivities. His professionalism and dedication to the cause of hospitality, whose motto could easily be:

 

The Customer Is Always Right In All Matters That Don’t Concern Money

 

are the only things that can explain his not yielding to a demand for unconditional surrender. That and the fact that he’s probably the only one here who is actually armed. Bottom line: Corporate policy sucks and the booking agent has clearly screwed everyone; communication between the elements is non existent and the situation is simultaneously unraveling in both an ad hoc and post hoc manner, which I guess is kind of an accomplishment.

I feel bad about it and especially bad for Randy but the parties have engaged and there is no turning back. Fresh skirmishes are breaking out all over the lobby; North and South are locked in a struggle, the scope of which neither understands and the forces of which are out of either’s control. Forces at a distance, powerful and determined, have set events in motion. Once again the result is conflict, played out at a local level between individuals who don’t understand each other. One party cannot let go of the past and the other does not recognize the past even when it is staring him in the face, asking for a credit card.

Cole and I were the sole exception. We the meek, we the pacifists, we the noncombatants. The generosity of our host was not just our good fortune. It was a peace offering to god, before the onset of hostilities; our dinner, a sacrifice cast upon the waters in hopes that the inevitable conflict could somehow be avoided. Of course, nothing inevitable can be avoided.

Later, after the money is shed like blood, the rivals will retreat to the bar. There, they will nurse their wounds, have a nice snack and wonder at the conflicts unfolding on the wide screen TV and at the ever present possibility of man biting man.

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3 Responses to Cross Country

  1. Ma says:

    Perfect in every way, just like you.

  2. Bethany says:

    What an awesomely fun read. You nailed it. -NC born & bred 🙂

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