Thursday, June 26, 2014

Cash Is King…At Least in Portsmouth

I had a blog all ready to go. I really did. It covered the past five weeks where I explained that while it was supposed to be a quiet year of limited travel it was suddenly not turning out that way. I explained that I have been to California three times (twice to Fresno (you can’t get there from here) and once to Los Angeles for an hour meeting). I made a last minute trip to Michigan by car…a mere 1121 miles of pure turnpike bliss. I talked about how I discovered a “bonus” in my salad in Phoenix (live insects) and how during one of my return trips home from the airport I encountered an “Epic” hailstorm…so epic the insurance company wrote us a nice check because Sue’s car was damaged. I even explained in depth how I felt after last week’s “Red Eye” home from yet another trip west (Wakeful coma is pretty much spot on…with red eyes of course). But all of that went out the window because of what happened in Portsmouth, New Hampshire last night…

I was scheduled to negotiate a contract in Manchester, NH and instead of staying in Boston, where the hotel prices have gone through the roof, at least for the summer; I decided I would stay in scenic, historic Portsmouth, NH. It was closer and the rates were much better. I don’t stay in Manchester because unless there is a presidential primary going on, there just isn't much going on in Manchester. I don’t really do much other than go out to dinner anyway but I don’t like the feeling that I am the only one in town going out to dinner. In Manchester you can feel that way...unless of course there is a presidential primary which there wasn’t...so Portsmouth was the destination.

From the beginning things did not go quite according to plan. I had all day Monday to make the drive and this led to me procrastinating. I did not leave the house until 1PM and shortly after leaving, Mrs. Navigation let me know I had seven hours ahead of me. I knew her to be wrong as I would hit some traffic either in Hartford or in the outskirts of Boston.  I wasn’t that worried as I had made up some time at home. I pride myself on being “efficient” and I was very efficient…during the last fifteen minutes I was home. I was cleaning out the car while it cooled off inside, I gathered up my computer as I came downstairs with my bag and I let the dog out. Tasks were being completed at a fever pitch and I was on a roll. I left at 1 PM as I had said I would…at noon. Ten seconds into the drive Megan called me. “Dad?” “Yes Megan…miss me already I take it?” “Nope. You left your luggage in the front hall.” She hung up. I went back and got my luggage and thanked Megan declaring her “The coolest person in the world”. She barely noticed. The ramifications of not receiving this call are too much for me to get into here. Megan remains…”The coolest person in the world.”

Nearly eight hours later I made it to my hotel…and I wished I hadn't. It was a dump…I know, sounding like a hotel snob now but it was a dump. The rooms were dirty and outdated but the lobby was fixed up. The truest definition of putting lipstick on a pig. It wasn't working for me. I wanted to change hotels in the worst way but it was past 9 PM. I stayed. I did go downstairs to the “new” lobby and grabbed a snack that did not count as dinner and I noticed this hotel did not sell my company’s beverages. I had an out. I found another hotel nearby; made sure they sold our products and booked it for the next night. I settled down for the night and discovered there is a reason why my profile asks for “feather pillows”. Feather pillows allow your head to lie mostly flat. Non-feather pillows (in this case basketball pillows) do not.  

Tuesday was a short negotiation day followed by a cram prep session to see if we could finish Wednesday (We did!). I checked into my new hotel and decided I would venture into Historic Portsmouth to enjoy the town…the reason I stayed here. One “hiccup” in my plan was that most of my preferred chain hotels were “Just minutes away from historic downtown Portsmouth” which meant nothing was in walking distance. The hotel offered a shuttle but my negotiation team had informed me that “There is a parking garage right downtown that you should use as parking in the summer is impossible.” Duly noted. The hotel had a shuttle but I avoid these as I like to control my schedule and my experience is that shuttles run “Every twenty minutes unless the driver doesn’t adhere to this schedule.” I am always at the mercy of airlines, traffic and rental car bus drivers. I had a car, a parking garage and I was ready to dine like it was a presidential primary year.

Unlike Manchester, Portsmouth was crowded. Despite the fact that I knew I could park in the garage I decided to “troll” the town to both see it and to see if I could snag a free parking place. I passed on two parking spaces…the last one exactly across from the parking garage entrance. I drove into the garage. I exited on the top level (it was packed) and made my way down the five flights of stairs. I noticed, almost as an afterthought a sign that said, “Cash or Check Only.” I exited into an alley...Earlier on the trip I had spoken with a friend who knew the area and I asked for some restaurant recommendations. She informed me that “Portsmouth is great but I rarely had dinner there.” She also said, it is totally safe but “Joe”* (A co-worker) was once mugged there as surprising as that sounds…I think he must have wandered around the back streets for that to happen.” I now laughed at the irony.

I made my way to the square and discovered that any restaurant that hinted at having seafood was jammed…line out the door jammed. I don’t wait in lines other than for the TSA and communion. I wandered into an “Irish Pub” and justified the choice based on available seating and the fact that I could have “Cod” if I wanted. I didn't. I had a better than average meal and a better than average ale…just one followed by four club sodas. I opted out of “trivia night” and asked my server if they “validated parking” as I had seen that as well as I wandered out into the mean streets of Portsmouth. Sadly she said no but directed me to an ATM close by. I paid my bill and made my way (backpack over shoulder) to the ATM…which was located in a back alley.  It was one of those that required you to swipe your card to enter the enclosed ATM zone. I was appreciative as I knew someone who had been mugged on just such a street. As the door closed behind me I inserted my card into the slot and began the process that literally millions of people do multiple times per day. As I removed my card, the machine asked for my pin number…a typical request. Based on my internal reaction you would have thought it had asked me for the code to stop to diffuse a live bomb. I drew a blank. Meaning…I drew a blank.  I had NOTHING. No clue. I did not know my pin…I knew it had a six in it but even that was not a certainty. My brain had said “enough.” I was at a loss. It occurred to me that all of the years of changing bank accounts with every move, dealing with hotel room numbers (sometimes like this week, multiple rooms) and countless airline flight numbers, car reservations and T and E reports, my brain had just hit the saturation point. That or I had Alzheimer’s. I tried a combination of numbers that seemed familiar; the machine tauntingly took me through each step only to announce at the last possible moment that “My transaction had been canceled due to an incorrect pin number”. This happened to me two more times (once with the existing card and once with my “backup card” which has the same number…I did this so I would not forget it).

Truth be told, I don’t use the pin very often. I use the “credit” feature since it acts like a debit but it takes the bank three more days to remove my money. My stinginess was costing me. That and the fact that I used to have somewhere near $100 in change in my backpack but it had started to get me pulled over by the TSA so I had removed it. I was out of luck and money.

I don’t carry cash. When I have cash it is extracted from me by children, my spouse who then gives it to the children and I sometimes make dumb purchases given the means. I literally did not have two pennies on me. I wandered the streets of Portsmouth for the next ten minutes trying to let my brain do its work and recover the lost pin that was somewhere inside it. I knew that some stores validated parking so I started to look for the little insignia on the windows. It was dark now and in some cases I had to get very close to the window to see what the various stickers affixed to the window meant. In one case the stickers were on the window near a table at a restaurant. I ruined a nice evening for a couple by seemingly peering in at them for an extended period of time. There were a lot of stickers on that window. Portsmouth would probably be off their tourism list thanks to the strange peering man with the backpack. I found a yogurt shop and wandered in. I stood in the middle of the store and looked around. I did not see anything that gave clarity about their parking validation policy. I finally asked the teen behind the counter. She asked if I wanted anything and I said I did but if I did order would they validate my parking? She said no and I left…the strange, peering, inquisitive man with the backpack had struck again.

I wandered back to my car and walked up the five flights of stairs. I felt like I was visiting a hostage. I got in and turned it on. I apologized to it. I did. I called my wife and had her go to my desk where right smack in the middle of my desk is a list with all of my passwords. She found it! I had not listed my pin numbers. After her initial laughing fit she was sympathetic and offered me solutions…I called my bank and was put through a series of invasive questions that became more detailed at every level. I began to fear I would choke and stumble on my zip code which would require me to have to answer the question about the name of my favorite pet…”I don’t have a favorite” probably wasn't going to cut it. To my surprise I made it all the way to level 5…the level where they believe you are you. After all of that along with my explanation the best they could do was mail me my pin. I had visions of waiting in the car roughly for a week, finally having my wife call me with the number, getting out twenty bucks and realizing my parking bill was now more than my daily withdrawal cap. That wasn't going to work. I was apoplectic now. They did reset the number of times I could try my card and I went back to the only ATM I knew existed in Portsmouth where I failed three more times and wandered the streets again without my backpack this time.

Finally I decided I would simply tell the parking attendant that I had no cash. When it was my turn to exit (it was now 10 PM and everyone was leaving the parking garage) I explained what happened. His first question was “Do you have a check?” I laughed. I wanted to say “Let me see. I usually keep them right here in my 8 track player…no, not there. Do you accept Bitcoin” (I didn't have any by the way). It was a ridiculous question. In today’s society checks are for people you don’t like. It forces them to bank the old fashioned way. And no…I don’t carry checks. Who doesn't take credit anymore? I have been to Farmer’s markets that do. I bet (don’t know for sure) some street drug dealers use the little square for their “business” transactions. But The Portsmouth Garage that holds five thousand cars only takes cash or check. I was allowed to fill out a form and I can send my debt by U.S. Postal service. The final tab came to $2…yes $2. I checked in my car. I had 73 cents in change.

It took me awhile to fill out the form where I again worried I would forget a key personal detail like my address and the growing crowd of people exiting in their cars was getting impatient. I made it out and arrived back at my hotel psychologically concussed. The desk clerk asked “Did you enjoy Portsmouth?” All I could muster was “They have a parking problem”. She said “Didn't you take our shuttle?” The elevator door closed before I could answer.

*Joe is his real name