I am writing this post sitting in my car and watching a bunch of workers install a drilled shaft foundation for a bridge in western Iowa by the Missouri river. I am about 120 miles away from home and have been here for the past couple of cold and windy months. I stay at a hotel, drive a rental car and eat out every day. I get to go back home for a couple of nights on the weekends but I am always back here Monday mornings. I don’t even bother to check out of my hotel when I go home because I know I am coming back there in a couple of days. And every time I come back to the room, it is exactly how I left it – empty and desolate. I have lived this lifestyle for long stretches before, and I shall be doing so once again till the end of this winter.
Traveling is an inevitability for a civil engineer. And in the initial stages of my career, these visits typically last several months at a stretch. It means being away from home for long periods of time. It means I don’t get to eat home cooked food, sleep in my own bed, listen to my records, hang out at the neighborhood bar, or even see familiar faces for a while. Yes once a week or two, I get to do most of the things above. But the lack of continuity makes it that much harder to fully dwell in its satisfaction. And in the end, I usually find myself unable to build on the connections back home, and being short on time, opportunity and desire to forge new ones on my travels.
The hotel room is one of the loneliest places on the planet. It is not a prison, yet I feel trapped in the inevitability of my own solitude in it. The hotel may even be filled with such people – each in their own rooms – people who have nothing but the silence of the inanimate furniture to return to in the evenings. And I am one of them. I return to a newly made bed, emptied trash can, new set of towels, vacuumed floor, new soaps and shampoo – all done by nameless, faceless people I never get to meet or thank. Expectations of the paid orderliness has become a part of my everyday lifestyle. But it has always failed to offset the glaring absence of anything living or breathing to come back to. Instead, the hotel room has only provided the comforts that were absolutely necessary – those that would have been noticed only in their absence.
I have always cherished the privacy offered in the hotel room. But I have also sought for something that is one step ahead of privacy – anonymity. Nobody bothers me once I am in my room, and I truly like that. But for whatever reason, I wish to be not noticed at all when I am in the hotel but outside my room. Perhaps I get a little self-conscious coming back from the field with my boots and clothes caked in mud. So over the course of my stay, I have found a very convenient work around for this. I simply choose hotels that have a side/back entrance with an elevator close to that entrance, and I ask the hotel to assign me a room close to that side/back entrance. With this, I can simply park my car next to the side/back entrance and quietly slip into my room unnoticed. And this one small thing has provided me with a great sense of fulfillment – a satisfaction for a need that I still, however, cannot clearly define.
And once I am in, the reality of the hotel room – in all its limitations and absences – begins to sink in – which is why I have almost always tried to stay away from my room once I am back. The only sustainable activity for me inside a hotel room would be reading a book. And since I can only read so many books, I try to get out and explore – seeking out new restaurants, coffee shops, record stores and watching a lot of movies. Which brings me to my next point of discussion – eating out by myself.
Eating out alone ranks only slightly lower than going back to an empty hotel room in the list of loneliest things I can do. And it is almost as depressing as cooking food and having to eat it all by myself. It was only a couple of weeks ago when my friend asked me a question did I realize something fundamental in the choice of restaurants that I frequent. Her question was simple: “Do you usually sit in a booth/table or do you sit by the bar counter?” I answered, “Usually by the bar counter, unless the place doesn’t have one.” And when I thought about it a little more, I realized that not only do I prefer to sit at the bar counter, but also that I tend to stick with/revisit those restaurants that have the bar counter. But, the question was, why?
I have come to believe that the booth/table includes a certain expectation of occupancy that does not apply to the bar counter. There is a sense of zoning and clearly defined capacity that goes with the booths – a separation of groups, with each group occupying part of or the full table/booth. The larger space available in a booth, I believe, is meant to be occupied, and not to be left alone. So when I see a single person in a booth, the absence of additional people filling the empty seats turns out to be more conspicuous than the guy/girl actually sitting there and eating. And at that point, the perceived expectancy of occupation is not met and I feel that there is something out of place there. Which is what I try to avoid with myself by instead sitting at the bar counter.
The bar counter, on the other hand, has none of these features. It is a continuous zone which does not have a beginning or an end, and definitely no pre-defined capacity associated with it. People of different group sizes can sit at the bar counter with absolutely no perceived expectancy of occupation. People eating alone can sit at the bar counter and the empty stools around them will not appear conspicuous in their non-occupancy. And this suits me just fine. My mind will not worry about the empty seats around me and I can instead just focus on the food.
So yes, I prefer restaurants that have a bar counter and I feel comfortable and not incongruous with my surroundings. But as much as that may provide a slightly satisfactory platform to have my meal, the fact that I am performing the activity by myself is what I seem to carry with me on my way out of the restaurant and into my hotel room.
Sometimes I just miss being home. I think about kneeling down on the floor, going through my record collection, picking out one of my recent acquisitions and placing it on my record player. As the record starts spinning, I go back to sit on my couch and get comfortable, waiting for the music to take me places. The needle lands on the record setting off a few pops and crackles before the music fades in and slowly takes over my apartment and my world. And just as I am about to give in and go on this highly anticipated journey, I open my eyes – instead making the trip back to the less desirable universe of me sitting on my bed and trying to read my Kindle in my hotel room. I sigh, quickly try to shake off the memory like it was a bad dream and go back to my book.
But it is not long before I make another journey to the more desirable universe. This time I am at my neighborhood bar with my gin and soda, looking at my phone and trying to decide which song to play on the jukebox. I make a selection and look around the bar to see if anyone else I know has showed up. I have already said hi to the regulars and am now talking with one of my close friends who just got a new job. Somebody in the crowd around me then decides to buy a round of shots to celebrate something – or nothing. I call for a Butter Crown. The bartender brings everyone their shots and we say cheers and bring our glasses together. I can already smell the Crown Royal in my shot as I bring the glass to my lips to drink it. And just as I am about to do my shot, I am unceremoniously ushered back to the less desirable universe by a new text on my phone. The Kindle in my hand then makes me aware of my temporal travels to a better place. And the moment of return and the associated disappointment work together to tarnish the memory of the more desirable set of circumstances.
I look at the clock and decide to call it a night. I turn off the lights and slip under the blanket telling myself that I will be traveling to a lot of different universes in the next 6-7 hours – most of which are likely to be more desirable than the one I currently find myself in. And as I close my eyes and let the sleep drift into me, I can still smell the Crown Royal in my shot – and this time I drink it.
I suppose it isn’t fair to portray my experience traveling for work purely in such a morose, bleak and gloomy manner. I do get some perks as part of it – I get to see a lot of different places in the state; I make significant dough working long hours in the field; all my loyalty programs get a big boost – hotel stays, car rentals, etc – which I have redeemed for great satisfaction in the past; I have even seen plenty of concerts during my travels.
So whether to look at the whole experience as a painful one which comes with its own perks, or as too high a price to pay for getting something that may not be absolutely necessary is up for debate. I am acutely aware of how many things I am missing out on, and how many times I have questioned myself if I’d rather be somewhere else. But I am largely tempted to rationalize my choices and circumstances to make myself feel better, so I will probably pick the former.
I am still sitting in the front seat of my rental car. It has been a few days since I started writing this piece. The sun is out today on a rare clear and slightly warm day. And I am enjoying it pretending to be completely oblivious to the snowstorm due to hit the city in a few days. I am scheduled to work late night tonight and will continue to be on site till the end of this month. At the end of it all, I hope to go home to sleeping in my own bed, cooking my own food, familiar neighborhood and familiar faces, a bigger bank balance, and plenty of free hotel stays and car rental days. And till then I have my desolate hotel room to go back to, the bar counter to feel inconspicuous in, and weekend trips back home to remind myself of what awaits me at the end of my stay here.
PS: A couple of hours after I finished writing this in my car, I learnt that I would be staying here, working through the weekend. So much for looking forward to being reminded of what I do not have – even if it was just for a couple of days.