March 30, 2004

Chris vs. The Big Easy

As destinations for business trips go, you could do a lot worse than New Orleans. It became clear to us last week that the program that I was working on had issues that could only be resolved by working on-site. So we got our team together. Anthony is the big, fun-loving Project Lead, Pete is the middle-aged Business Analyst, Matt is the young, athletic-looking programmer from the Denver office, and I'm the other programmer. Since we booked last-minute, we were able to get first-class seats, a luxury I've only enjoyed once before. I'm not sure if the hospitality of a First Class Ticket can be fully enjoyed on a 1 1/2 hour flight, however.

We flew into New Orleans Tuesday night, found our rental car, a new Bonneville. Amazing how a car that takes up a quarter of a city block can still somehow manage to cramp all four passengers of average size. It's like a TARDIS in reverse. Anthony had been here many times before, so he's the cruise director. After dropping our luggage at the hotel, we're off to Zea's, a fancy brewpub near the mall. We get seated and I glance over the menu saying to myself "Let's see...Jambalya, jambalaya, no jambalaya?"

"You want some Jambalaya?" says Anthony. "Yeah, I like the stuff," I said, looking ove the top of the menu, "and this is where it's supposd to come from, right? So this is my goal of the trip: To find some good Jambalaya." "I'm sure we can do that," says Anthony. Well, they didn't have it at Zea's, so I ordered a Chicken dish that ended up being twice as large as anyone can eat, and order a mug of the house porter. After two pints and half of my plate, we are headed out to the car when Anthony informs us of a very southern law loophole in New Orleans.

"Open Container Laws," He starts, "They don't consider it an OPEN container unless there's a straw in it." So because of this loophole, there are Drive-thru Daquiri joints every few miles or so in New Orleans. "You're kidding," says Pete. "Honest to God," proclaims Anthony, "you can drive around with a Daquiri in your car's cup holder, and as long as there's not a straw in it when the cop pulls you over, you're clear." We all have a good laugh, and curiosity makes us pull into the first one we see. We pull around the building into an alley barely wide enough to drive through, as many 10-foot-long scrapes on the far wall suggest. Anthony puts it in park next to the menu, and we all get a good laugh, mainly at the "Gallon To Go."

I'm sitting behind the passenger, farthest from the drive-thru window, so I don't see the face of the girl in the tank top who takes our order. Anthony and Pete order, Matt and I pass. The headless tank top with the bra straps sliding down returns with two Orange Anti-freeze's, which Anthony takes. "Is this considered an open container?" he asks. "Um, it will be in a minute," she replies. They drain them on the way back to the hotel and we turn in for the night. My room is large, but it's mostly unused space. A real waste of money, unless you're driving a 5 foot-wide wheelchair. A long-distance call home later, I'm out like a light.

I couldn't make out where we were at night, but I saw it clearly at dawn. I arose at 6:00, still on Eastern Standard Time, and took a look outside my window. There was a bridge leading from the road outside the hotel, heading over a body of water, stretching off over the horizon. Two thin lines of car lights, heads and tails, led off into the foggy morning, straight as an ironed trouser seam, and I can't see the end of it. It had to be at least twenty miles long. Shaving under the bathroom's rusty showerhead forced me to try to remember the year of my last tetanus booster.

I was the first one in the lobby. I put on my headphones and read through my files. Even with the Propellerheads blaring in my ears, I can't tune out the creepy guy at the offics desk in the lobby. He's not the Concierge, but he's addressing a group of 18-somethings and handing them pamphlets. "Military Recruiter," Pete tells me when he arrives. Kids come here for orientation, he sends them to a certain room for briefings, and they get their temporary room assignments before shipping out to basic training. I find it a bit odd that the hotel lets the armed services use their hotel as a recruiting station, but this is not my town.

The first day is uneventful, as always. We arrive at the bank's Data Center, which was accurately described as "Fort Knox." Everyone has to get their laptops re-configured, get new logons and troubleshoot database connectivity issues most of the day. We break for lunch with a help desk guy named Jimmy and a reclusive DBA named Chris. It's a nice enough place, and after we order, we all are struggling to talk about non-work topics. Anthony poses my question of where to get some good Jambalaya. Jimmy scratches his stubble, "I don't know, it's mainly a home-cooked dish, and everybody makes it, so when people go out, it's not really an in-demand dish, if you know what I mean," Regardless of that fact, he rattles off half a dozen places around town, complete with directions to each. The DBA blinks out of his silence and offers some others. And so it continues, for the better part of the hour, a tennis match of Zagat ratings from these two, listing off scores of possibilities, but none of them sure things. I think to myself, "These are either the most helpful people I've ever met, or they have WAY too many restaurants here."

Late in the day, I start making some progress, and think I have a bead on the program that's been giving them so much trouble. It ran on my machine, but it needed to be tested on the real network, without all the hacking. From what I can tell, it works, but there's more to be done. We finish late, around 7:00 PM, and leave for dinner. Anthony drives us to "Copeland's Cheesecake Bistro," a nice joint in the tradition of Atlanta's Cheesecake Factory. All they have is Jambalaya Pasta, which ends up horribly pedestrian and unsatisfying. Hotel, Calling Card, "Love You too", sleep.

The next morning, Anthony makes a deal. Shannon, the resident Betty Crocker of the office, promises to make us Jambalaya for Friday's lunch if we get all our interface issues resolved by then. Now THAT'S incentive for me! Bad news is that my home-brewed coding solution hits a snag on the real database, and even my program manager can't help me. The program was supposed to run last night, but all it created was 85 MB worth of error file. It looks like I'll have to restructure the whole program, and I didn't write the thing in the first place, so that wil be no easy task. Bad news all around. Anthony is understanding, though, saying he has faith in me to find a solution. He's a good guy, and an even better project manager. He has the charisma and friendly demeanor that one needs 75% of the time, and enough authority and resolve to be firm in the remaining 25%. He is covering all of my expenses, since my company AmEx card expired, and whatever the company isn't reimbursing him for, he's paying out of his own pocket.

We roll out of there late again, one of the last to leave the building, and I can't shake the funk of failure. To celebrate our successes with MOST of the issues, Anthony takes us out to the French Quarter to a great seafood joint called Deanie's. I ordered Crawfish four ways from a gender ambiguous black waiter(ess) with half an eyebrow on each side. The dish was not only delicious, but again, twice as much as the average man can eat. We walk the rest of the way to Bourbon Street, and I find that it's much smaller than I imagined.

It's a narrow street, closed to all but pedestrian traffic, lined from end to end with souvenir shops, Mango Mango Daquiri bars, peep shows and music halls. The street even has it's own particular...boquet, shall we say? A heady mix of spilled alcohol, horse droppings and beer piss. (Toilets are only for paying customers, but by the time you have to go, you're a mile down from the place you bought your drink.) It's sensory overload for my troubled mind, so I need a Hurricane to soften the blow. As we walked the street, music of all kinds came from each bar we passed, like flipping through radio channels in a strange city.

"Now since my baby done left me, I find a new place to dwell..."
"Sweet Home, Alabama, (Lou-siana!) Lord I'm coming home to you..."
"Everybody, Stop children, what's that sound, everybody look what's going down..."
"Got to come down, and stop cryin' those D.D.S. Blues!"

(Okay, so that last one was 2NU, sue me.)

Halfway down, we stop into a Mango Mango and Matt & I get ourselves a Hurricane to go. Pete points out a sign reading "2 for 1 of the following shots: Sex on the Beach, Blow Job, B-52, Lemon Drop," and Anthony can't resist asking the blonde barmaid in the tight top abut giving the 2-for-1 Blow Jobs. (It's a shot with a bit of cream on top, and you're supposed to drink it without hands, by putting your mouth over the glass, so I'm told.) We slowly make our way through the crowd to the end of the strip, where a man in an inflatable Hand Grenade costume greets us at the door. This is Tropical Isle, home of the "Hand Grenade," a secret mix of liquor tha makes for the strongest drink on the street. Anthony & Pete each grab one, served in a long, neon yellow plastic cup with a grenade-shaped bottom. Anthony gives a grin as the liquor afterburn kicks in, Pete just looks at his cup, probably wondering how it's not melting.

On the way back, we stop with the crowd at a Balcony Bar. There's a number of women up there, shaking beads at the crowd, where there's about thirty balding mid-forties men with digital cameras at the ready. Frat Boy Matt lifts his shirt and shows off his six-pack to a delighted shriek and a small shower of beads, which he shares with us. He throws two strands back up and a girl returns the favor. A quick cheer from the crowd, but they were all looking through their viewfinders, and missed most of it. This happens from time to time, but it's no "Girls Gone Wild" or anything, thank God. Matt and I get a good laugh seeing a father pushing his 4-year old son in a stroller, and lifting him to catch some of the raining beads. Halfway back down the strip, we stop at Tropical Isle #2, where we all get a Hand Grenade this time. No doubt, it's the most powerful thing I've drank, besides that expariment with a cup of Gem Clear 190 proof (the orange flamability warning sticker was bigger than the product label) and half a can of Gatorade.

After a few sips, I'm feeling good. There's a band called "Late as Usual" playing "Fins" by Jimmy Buffet in a cramped corner, and I've forgotten why I was feeling so stressed a few hours before. Unfortunately, I also forgot that Louisiana is an hour behind Atlanta, and I've neglected to call home. I get a well-deserved "what happened" and a quick goodnight from Melissa, promising we'll talk when I get home tomorrow. We make our way back to the car, Anthony trying to trade his beads to passers-by, but no luck. We each fall on our beds into the deepest sleep in a long while.

I wake up at 6, before my alarm, as usual. Luckily, my hangover cure of "2 Tylenol and three glasses of water before bed" still works, and I'm fully functional. I sit down after the shower and brainstorm for a bit on my program issue. After 20 minutes of flowchart sketching and a slow continental breakfast to run through it, I have my solution. I don't have to re-write the main program, I've worked out how to fix it locally, and with only a small bit of code. I found it amazing that I could have such a "Hangover Epiphany," given the night before, but then I remembered something from my UGA days. "Brain Cell Darwinism," I think it was called. The theory goes like this: Given, alcohol kills brain cells, but it will likely kill the weakest brain cells. Therefore, the more powerful brain cells survuve to reproduce. After that morning, I've starting to take this theory more seriously.

Shannon brought in a crockpot of her homemade Jambalaya, as promised, along with brownies and lemon cake. The slow simmering smell provides a happy backdrop to the morning's work. I put on my headphones, start up my MOJO MP3 Player, and set to so me furious coding. After three hours, I have it working. Half an hour later, it's tested out and debugged. My fingers and ears are a bit numb from the exercise, but I've solved the problem and it feels incredible. That's what I love so much about programming, it's gratifying to find creative solutions to real-world problems. As intelligence and common sense go, I'm fairly unremarkable, but give me some tools, some time and the latitude to be creative, and I can be McGyver.

The four of us dig in, and it's the best damned Jumbo I've ever had. It's got shrimp, crawdads, spicy sausage & chicken, and a NICE afterburn that creeps up on you four minutes after taking a bite. We each down two bowls and thank her over and over. A few brownies and a couple of status e-mails later, we're packing up and on the way to the airport. I told Melissa that I'd hitch a ride up to Alpharetta, north of town, so she can pick me up there instead of driving across the city and back at 5:30 on a Friday.

We drop off the Bonneville (good riddance, that knee-crusher), saw Matt of to Denver, and discovered that we were in time to catch an earlier flight back to the ATL. We each ask for the switch and head to the terminal. Anthony runs ahead, and Pete & I trail behind, coming up on our terminal as last call is announced. I offer my boarding pass, and the attendant says "Sorry, sir, this is for the NEXT flight." My check-in lady didn't transfer me, and my bag was checked for the later flight. So I say goodbye to Pete, and plan to catch MARTA through the city.

"Well, at least I've got my laptop, so I can write up this trip report," I say to myself. The battery reads "93% - 58 Minutes", that should be enough. Five minutes later and one paragraph in, the "Low Battery" warning flashes, and I barely have enough time to save my work on floppy before it shuts down. Oh well, at least I've got my book, no batteries on that. An hour later I settle into my seat, still unaccustomed to first class.

After everyone is seated, a cheerful, plump stewardess with a south Georgia accent starts taking drink orders. Then I overhear her : "Sorry sir, ends up we're out of Crown. We drank it all on the way here." I can't help but laugh, and she smiles over at me. I had some fun, but I'm going back home to my own witty girl, and that feels best of all.

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