For management training at Borders Inc. I was sent to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for one week in November, 2002. I missed the shuttle that brought trainees from the airport to the hotel, so Borders allowed me to rent a car for the week. We had classes until around five and a thirty dollar per diem.
Since Borders hadn’t held a training session in some time, it was the largest group they’d ever taught. The youngest of us was twenty two, the oldest in her fifties. The first night I got the itinerary and my room assignment (with Steve from Boston), then I wandered the hotel. The second night, after a day of classes, I wandered the hotel again. I had a few conversations here and there with people I’d sat with at lunch (people who’d shared assignments with me, for the most part), watched “Snatch” on HBO with Steve from Boston, and went to sleep.
The conversations were superficial and work-related. I’d already seen “Snatch” in the theater, and Steve fell asleep during the movie. Clearly, the week was doomed to lifelessness.
On the third day, an odd group of managers-in-training somehow found each other. It started in the morning when I offered to chauffeur anyone who didn’t want to take the shuttle to the training center. A good-looking guy with two small, silver hoop earrings, square glasses with heavy, black frames, and a crew cut died white blonde asked if he could smoke. I said sure. The car ended up with five people, counting me. No small feat for a compact. We started off talking about work and making introductions, but by the time we reached the training center, we were breaking each other up with laughter.
Say whatever you like about smoking; smokers are the cool kids at the party.
After a rigorous day of training I’ve long since forgotten, we ended up shooting the shit in a corner of the hotel until the wee hours. There were six of us, three guys, three girls, from points across the US. We shared stories about growing up in our different parts of the country, debated movies and music, and told embarrassing stories about our sex lives like we were long lost friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while. A lot of people came and went that night, interesting people who seasoned the group, but over the course of the hours something cemented between our hardcore six-pack.
Maybe a shared perspective brought us together. Similar interests, similar experiences. We were all roughly the same age. The other two men were gay. I talked about my wife Andi a lot and they heard me talking about Andy and before I knew it I was gay, too.
The way the women relaxed and the men embraced me made me avoid using pronouns to feed the illusion of my gayness. I’d dated men in college and for a few years afterwards, so I easily swapped sex stories. I also found if I left out certain specifics, I could say whatever I wanted. Who you’re fucking might change the plumbing, but the emotionality and fumbling and fury and sensuality of sex stay the same.
The next night we went out for drinks. I made a great designated driver because I hadn’t had a drink in nine years and didn’t plan on starting. One manager was familiar with Ann Arbor and found us a very cool bar in the basement of a hotel. We toasted and laughed and enjoyed each-other’s company. Risking my new found camaraderie, I peppered my conversation with “she’s” and “her’s.” After a few clarifying questions, we shared a good laugh over my coming out as hetero. They were more fascinated with my sobriety than who I chose to sleep with.
The fifth day, we skipped lunch to save our money. Since the hotel provided breakfast, we each had thirty dollars each to spend on a nice Italian place downtown. I invited fourteen managers and everyone showed up. Given the vegetarians who didn’t spend nearly enough, and the few of us who didn’t drink, we were able to have several bottles of wine and a delicious, epic meal. Afterwards, I used the company card and everyone signed the back of the receipt with their name and store number. It was all Border’s money, but I felt like a high-roller.
We went bar hopping until the wee hours. I had left my reserve back home with the change in time zone. The nine o’ clock me would never sing along with the jukebox to a room full of strangers like it was a karaoke bar, but the ten o’ clock me did exactly that. The ten o’clock me would never bum a cigarette, knowing it would lead to buying a pack the next day and full relapse by the end of the week. The eleven o’ clock me smoked away, confident I’d leave the smoking behind along with Ann Arbor (which I did).
It was the first time I’d ever felt socially accepted by a group of people. For a nerd, the joy of college is reinventing yourself however you’d like. That didn’t happen for me. The New Yorkers at Syracuse University saw straight into my doe-eyed, small-town heart and turned their backs. Or maybe my lack of acting and singing ability in class made being my friend outside of class a poor choice when it came to building social capital in the theater department. Or maybe I just tried too hard.
Ann Arbor was the first time I’d ever walked into a group of strangers and made friends by simply being myself. I’ve forgotten the stupid corporate nonsense of those management meetings, but that’s one lesson I’ve taken away.
And if you don’t like me, your loss. Because I’m fucking awesome.