December 31, 2007 9:57 pm ET by Kyle Whelliston
Comfort, Enemy of Progress
When folks find out I sleep in truck stops and live out of my suitcase during college basketball season, I can't blame them if they're not impressed. If my life was a Richard Dawson survey-says, the number one reaction would be horror, followed closely on points by the kind of sympathy that prompts people to offer five bucks, you know, "for something to eat." That's fine, I'm not offended, but keep the cash.
When folks find out about the elaborate survival system I've developed over three-plus years on the hoop highway -- either by direct conversation, hearsay, or this website -- they're usually a little bit impressed, at least enough to wonder what kind of a moron I am. Some are even curious about the origins of the system, how I came up with this particular brand of madness. Here goes.
It was March 2004, the season before the 100 Games Project that started off this website and earned me enough national attention that I started to get valid job offers like ESPN.com. I went to 82 games that warmup year, and nobody knew about it except my (annoyed) girlfriend-at-the-time, who I lost in the process. This was all about the love of the game, not about publicity or ego. I bought my tickets, I watched and I learned.
The grand conclusion was a trip to Kansas City for the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament. We'd had regionals in Philadelphia and I'd break the bank to get into those, but this was the first time I'd seen the real mid-major madness up close. And it was a hell of a weekend: Pacific from the Big West beat Providence, then gave Kansas 30 minutes of fight before falling. Oklahoma State was the other survivor fromt hat pod, they'd go on to break the hearts of all Saint Joe's fans everywhere in the Elite Eight.
I cashed in a bunch of frequent flyer miles from my computer job, and shacked out at an Econo Lodge near KCI airport. On the offday between rounds, I hung out at a great pizza joint in Liberty (forget the name), where I pounded $1 Old Styles with adoptive Pacific fans, and I spent the nights at the Harrah's "riverbank" casino, where I found out that if it's on the water, it's within the rules.
Between the slots and buying rounds of buck beer, I lost a lot of money on that trip. I'd also wanted to take a spring training trip down to Fort Myers to see my Twins prepare for baseball season, but the bank account was getting dangerously low, down into the bounce zone. Even though I already had a roundtrip Amtrak ticket to Orlando, I needed to get creative if I wanted to manage the rental car and hotels.
Fueling up at a TravelCenters of America truck stop near downtown on I-35, inspiration struck. Standing in a long line waiting to pay for gas, I looked around the facility and noted all the amenities. They had laundry, over there down the hallway. Over the speakers came an automated voice: "Driver 335, your shower is ready." You could get clean there too.
Showers and laundry... what else do you need on the road? Sleep -- overrated anyway -- can be done in a car. It was all right there, there at the truck stop. I knew about the power of truck stops from my hitchhinking days as a teenager -- up until 1992 or so, you could still thumb rides by hanging out in the parking lot. I went from Chicago to Sacramento that way once.
I never went to Florida that spring -- I lost so much in the casinos that I was joke-broke for a month. But I had discovered the genesis of a travel system that would serve me well, beginning just eight months later.
I've learned a very important lesson these past few years, a lesson about comfort. Security makes you fat and inept, and it's better to stay rabidly hungry. Comfort takes time, too... check in, check out, relax, unwind... and that' time that competitors are using to steal what's yours. That's why I'm in no hurry to upgrade my travel. Also, whenever I do, disaster tends to strike.
Like the time I stayed at an expensive downtown hotel during BracketBusters weekend. I was on deadline for a game story, and I turned out the most awful, disjointed mess I've ever written. Why? Because I couldn't wait to get it finished so I could check out the oversize TV and kick back in the Sleep Number bed. I recognize those desires now for the weaknesses they are.
Then there was the time I had an Embassy Suite for two nights, and by the time I checked out I was too disoriented and drunk with comfort that I had no desire to watch basketball. Three nights in Flying J parking lots later, I was back to normal.
I'm married, and I love to get my wife involved in my travels. She doesn't like the truck stop life as much as I do, however. She likes the kinds of things that classy modern women enjoy, things like fancy hotels, shopping and New York City. So when I invited her to join me for a NYC weekend tacked on to a December Ohio-Maryland-Pennsylvania trip, I didn't need to ask her twice.
For the weekend before Christmas, I booked a 3.5-star Hilton near the Newark airport through Hotwire (only rich morons stay in the city, what with all those taxes), and she bought a ticket down from Providence. I'd go to a Pepperdine-Manhattan game up in the Bronx on Friday night, she'd come in, and then she'd go shopping in the city while I did a Saturday doubleheader at Iona and Fairleigh Dickinson. We'd have all Sunday together, then we'd tag-team drive the rented silver Mazda 3 back to Providence airport before a week off for the holidays.
The plan was perfect. Too perfect.
After spending most of Friday driving across Pennsylvania, I checked into the Hilton around 4 pm. In the lobby, I took a moment to compare the high ceilings, deep pile rugs and burnished-gold accents with the I-80 rest area I'd spent the previous night in. The hotel was soul-caressingly warm, too, more so than the running car I'd woken up in.
But from then on out, it was advantage rest area. I was issued a room on the 12th floor, the top floor, and I dragged my suitcase to the elevator. On the top level, I found room 1231 in the far corner of the hallway maze, and inserted the card-key.
The lock clicked once, twice, then a light on the lock burned yellow. Another try, and a red light. The knob wouldn't turn, wouldn't let me in. Back down the elevator, to the front desk. The lady at the counter didn't recognize me from just five minutes before.
"I'm so sorry," she said once I reminded her of my room number. "Let me get you another key."
Back up the elevator, back to the room, another red light. Back down again.
"So, so sorry," the clerk said, handing me a yellow card and sidestepping my request for a different room. "Please accept a complimentary breakfast coupon."
"It won't do me much good if I can't get into the room," I said.
"Here's another key," she replied. "If this doesn't work, I'll have a technician look at it."
Up again. Red light. Down again.
"Oh dear, I'm so sorry," she said. "You're in 1234. My apologies. I'll have a concierge accompany you to the room."
"I'll carry my own baggage," I said to the cap.
The lock on 1234 was as unyielding as 1231. But the concierge had a skeleton key and let me in.
Twenty minutes later, the technician arrived with a tested key that worked.
"I was told to give this to you and put it in your shirt pocket," said the technician. "Keep it away from all wallets and cell phones, or it'll get demagnetized."
"Hold on a second," I said as calmly as possible as I could under the circumstances. "Are you saying the front desk is blaming me for this?"
"I'm just the messenger," he replied, holding up two meaty paws. "Don't shoot."
Seven hours later, back from the Manhattan game, I was relaxing with my feet up, watching ESPNNews on the plasma television. I heard scratches at the door, and when I opened it, there was my wife, loaded down with baggage. "The key you left me at the desk doesn't work," she said. "Just like you were talking about on the phone earlier."
"That's it, I'm going down there."
"Please don't," she pleaded, in the please-don't-embarrass-me tone ever husband knows all too well.
"You don't know what I'm capable of," I said in a clumsy attempt to sound dangerous and cool. "I'm capable of extreme niceness."
There are three rules of consumer justice: be patient and suffer well, don't raise your voice and put them on the defensive, and give them the opportunity to feel like they've done their jobs well.
"We're sorry for the inconvenience, Mr. Whelliston," said the night manager once I'd relayed the full story. "I'll make six keys and accompany you upstairs to test them. Can I offer you some drink coupons for our bar... will four be okay?"
Back up at the room, my wife was already in bed, in an oversized T-shirt.
"Get dressed," I said joyfully. "We're going out for drinks!"
It was last call at the Hilton bar, a carved-out corner of the lobby with dark wood, gold accents and mood lighting. Warm jazz chords mingled with the conversation as I ordered a Manhattan, she a gin and tonic.
We toasted the holidays, our fourth year of marriage, as well as the nearby New York skyline. We talked of the week that was, Christmas plans, the opportunity to spend a week together.
"How's your drink?" she asked casually, smiling sweetly.
I paused. "Too much 'Man,' not enough 'hattan'," I replied, wrinkling my nose. "There's hardly any vermouth in here."
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