Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The consultant's life: Sheila E had it right

I just 'did' West Michigan in 20 hours. Everyone wants to know how I can fly across the country and spend fewer than 24 hours in one place. Well, here’s how it goes….

Hour 1. I arrived in Grand Rapids, grabbed my car from Avis, and cruised over to the Meijer store to buy some water, pomegranate juice, and some apples. But I stole the apples. It was an accident. Really. I was holding the bag of apples in my hand as I passed through the self check-out line where I scanned both of my water bottles and my overpriced pomegranate juice and put them in the bag and walked out of the store. I drove away and that’s when I realized that I had not purchased all of my goods. I had three apples in a bag that I had not paid for. I was mortified. I wanted to drive back to Meijer but didn’t have time so I resolved that I would return to Meijer in one of the next 19 hours before I flew out with a few dollars in hand to repay the fine folks at Meijer.

Hour 2. I sat in the cell phone lot at GRR, otherwise known as General Ford International Airport, in my rental Pontiac Vibe. What makes it international? They may have an occasional flight to Canada. Or maybe they used to. It was warm and I rolled down the window waiting for Paul, my friend and colleague, to call to let me know that his plane – the Northwest Airlines DC-9 that I just saw fly over the highway – had landed and he was in Grand Rapids and waiting for me to pick him up. He called and I swept by the passenger pick-up area and we cruised off to Grand Haven.

Hour 3. We arrived in Grand Haven and decided to explore the town. And the neighboring townships and villages. We drove by the waterfront and then the Meijer – where I thought about running in and giving the manager three dollars for my stolen apples – and we drove by schools and Wal-Mart and a movie theater and the Holiday Inn where we would have to return in another hour. Then we stopped at a pasta joint in downtown Grand Haven and went inside to eat and rehearse our presentation for tomorrow.

Hour 4. I ate walleye, which sort of freaked me out because it tasted a bit like walls with eyes (and fish skin) and said thank you about 15 times to the waiter who seemed to want to leave but was very cheery while he was forced to wait on our table. Paul and I practiced what we would say over and over and then I got really tired.

Hour 5. We drove to Spring Lake to the gloomy Holiday Inn. Walked from the empty parking lot into the gray building and walked up to the night clerk at the front desk. Paul confessed we had a Hotwire reservation for our two rooms, and told the desk clerk we expected cots in the basement. The guy behind the desk had probably heard that one before, but he forced a laugh and said that wouldn’t happen. Instead, we got rooms overlooking the busy highway that was up on a steep hill, which meant that is was essentially right outside my fourth-floor window. The room had purple carpet and weird beige wallpaper. I ironed my clothes with the fancy Proctor-Silex and made phone calls to my friend Joshua who couldn’t talk because his mom was in the car and then Brad, who told me about his exciting day – oh it was so exciting – and I told him it was time for me to go to bed. Then I went on Facebook and befriended the woman I chatted with on my flight from San Francisco to Chicago. I’ll tell you more about her another time. And then I set two alarms and got into bed.

Hour 6. In that comfy Holiday Inn bed, I reviewed the proposal I would be discussing tomorrow and tried to talk to myself. After about 30 minutes I figured I sounded smart enough and decided to pop in my earplugs and turn out the lights. I slept.

Hour 7. I slept.

Hour 8. I slept.

Hour 9. I slept.

Hour 10. I slept.

Hour 11. I slept.

Hour 12. I slept. (I snore, by the way. I don't think it's sleep apnea, but I feel like my throat closes up when I sleep so I can't breathe. I think that's not really good. I think I need to see a doctor and have a sleep study.)

Hour 13. I slept. Just a little more.

Hour 14. I was awake. Both alarms went off at the same time. I showered and dressed and shoved my stuff back in my suitcase. I walked out into the dreary Holiday Inn hallway and Paul was there. Along with my free USA Today.* Does anyone really subscribe to this newspaper? We took the elevator downstairs, snagged the baggies of free muffins and apple juice, and drove to a diner downtown for breakfast.

Hour 15. We ate breakfast and practiced again what we would say if we were asked difficult questions about our skills. I made the mistake of asking the waitress if she could serve me a small portion of the whitefish pate, from the lunch menu, in a little container to accompany a bagel. And I wanted a sunshine fruit cup. Unfortunately, the smoked whitefish pate tasted a bit like smoked walleye smashed into a little tin and nearly made me hurl during our rehearsal.

Hour 16. We headed to the interview at the Community Center. We were seated on a stage and were asked a gazillion different questions by a panel of five people. We gave them a brief presentation, and showed them a short video of a groggy coworker talking about her skills (I made the video using Windows movie maker). And then we answered more questions.

Hour 17. We kept talking and answering questions. This is why we’d flown across the country: to answer questions and let these people know that we really did, in fact, actually know what we were talking about and would be the best damn team for this project. Who knows what they thought? They thought our project budget was too high.

Hour 18. We swung by the local transit agency to pick up the surveys they had collected for us. I promised I would take them home and make sure the data was entered. Then Paul and I drove to the Grand Haven beach and cruised around the parking lot (not in a creepy way or a teenager way). We didn’t park in it because we didn’t want to pay the $8 day use fee for a 20-minute parking bonanza , so we drove two blocks back and parked in a free parking space and walked back along the boardwalk until it got really cold and windy, and the water from Lake Michigan started to crash against the pier. We started to get wet and the man with one leg’s daughter continued to drag the puppy on the leash out toward the end of the increasingly wet pier and the puppy scampered and crawled away from the Lake that seemed to want to swallow it up. So we walked back to the car and drove north to Muskegon, to The Lakes Mall.

Hour 19. We stopped at Starbucks at The Lakes Mall because Paul wanted to pee and get a sandwich. But there were no sandwiches in this little Starbucks in front of The Lakes Mall, so while he went to pee I got some tea. And then we continued driving, up to Interstate-96, taking the freeway to Grand Rapids, passing back by the very smelly stretch of highway near Coopersville. The smell may be related to a sewage plant or a cow explosion. We weren’t sure.

Hour 20. Paul and I stopped for gas at the CITGO, a gasoline retailer I like to support because Hugo Chavez sort of owns it and made it illegal for CITGO employees to carry guns. Some Americans got up in arms (not literally, because they would if they could). So that’s why I get gas there. Not that I like Hugo Chavez at all. I just hate Americans who go berserk when people tell them guns should be outlawed. After getting gas, we drove to Gerald Ford Airport, returned the car to Avis, walked inside the airport and checked in. We went to the bathroom to put on jeans and stuff our interview clothes back into suitcases and get on our planes.

So that’s it. That’s the intriguing hour-by-hour of a consultant’s whirlwind trip from California to Michigan. Now you can see that I’m definitely not in the job for the money: it’s all about amazing experiences, exquisite cuisine, balmy beaches, luxurious hotels and those little perks.

I hopped on the plane and flew away, knowing that if I’d had only one more hour, I could have gone back to Meijer and apologize to a cashier and pay for the apples. The good thing is that even if we don’t win this project, I have another one in Michigan, so I will be back, and I will pay for those damn apples. I promise.

*Sure, they say it’s free, but if you ask to ‘refuse’ your paper, you get a 50¢ credit.

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