I have never been a morning person. That I get up somewhere around 5:30 most mornings is entirely due to a paycheck being attached to the alarm clock. The fact that the potential paycheck attached to the alarm clock on this particular morning could reach seven figures did not make up for the fact that I was up even earlier than usual. And any possible grain of enthusiasm that might have been present when I dragged my hibernating butt out of the sack was immediately nullified by a look out the window.
Even in the darkness, one could see the effects of a winter storm that had blown through overnight. Or, perhaps more accurately, was still blowing through at the moment; even though the snow had apparently stopped, the wind was still howling. The temperature at midnight was six degrees above zero – and that was as warm as it was going to get that day; by now, it was likely closer to zero, with a wind chill somewhere around “is that even a number?”
Oh, crap. What do the runways at the airport look like? If they are anything like our driveway – a legitimate question, inasmuch as we live a mere two miles from Central Wisconsin Airport – this is going to be touch-and-go; our driveway, though passable for our car, was drifting in several spots. Is this flight even going to get off the ground? And, if not, will there be any alternatives? This is CWA, after all – not O’Hare; I had no idea as to what other flights might be available – or, more importantly, of any use to us. No sense in worrying, though; all we can do is load up the car, bundle up, and hit the road.
Once we got to the airport, we found out that there should be no problem. I did not like that word “should” as used in that context; my mind immediately began flashing alternating images of 1) a cancelled flight, and 2) getting pretty much airborne, only to have Unforeseen Circumstances occur. Which would pose marginally more of a problem than option 1, if I dare say so myself. Adding to the mix was the fact that I never enjoyed flying commercial under any circumstances – although over the years the certainty of my impending demise on any given flight that I was about to board had dropped well below 99 per cent (by which I mean that the fraction following the 98 was a miniscule fraction, indeed).
But this was all hypothetical, of course; we were assured that once we got airborne, it would be a smooth ride. Somehow, though, my gut hunch was that “airborne” necessarily implied “an altitude of thirty miles”. Or something like that. And then, of course, there was the matter of squeezing my five-foot-fifteen-inch frame into a space designed to accommodate Gumby, both in matters of height and skeletal flexibility. If, as we found out later, the whole in-studio Millionaire experience was designed to take contestants out of their comfort zone…well, this was a very good start in that matter. But I had already resigned myself to that, uhh, inconvenience…suck it up, buttercup. A connection in the Twin Cities did give me a chance to stretch my legs for a merciful few minutes, and then it was off to our next stop.
New York City. The Big Apple. New York, New York (quoting Sinatra). Newww Yorrk City (quoting the Pace Picante Sauce ads). I had flown through some big-city airports (notably Chicago) from time to time – but never as a destination. And then, on arrival, we had always either been met by friends or we headed straight to the rental car area. But we had never experienced anything like this. Ever.
We had been told to watch for a limo driver (a limo, for God’s sake!) holding up our last name on a cardboard sign. That our name was ever-so-slightly misspelled was not unnoticed by me…but, hey, at least the poor guy didn’t have to try pronouncing it. Anyhow, we made the connection, and were ushered out to our ride. And what a ride it was. Not a stretch limo, to be sure…but the vehicle in question said “luxury” all over. Actually, “said” might not be the proper word, so much as “whispered”. Or “cooed”. I had never before ridden in the back seat of a car where one had the sensation of literally being enveloped by the seat; this was an utterly foreign sensation to this small-town boy. The driver was a treat…at once warm and professional, talkative and discreet. We made easy small-talk conversation as we passed through town; my favorite line from him came when I asked how often he got to drive a VIP to his or her destination. Without missing a beat, he sincerely replied “All of my passengers are VIPs.” Sadly, I did not think to take a picture of him; he was our first exposure to the hospitality that, stereotypes be damned, became New York City to us.
Soon enough, we arrived at the Empire. To be honest, this hotel was a grand dame well past her prime, carrying all sorts of memories inside her but sadly unable to cast the spell that she surely had cast back in the day. Like that grand dame, though, she was still able to command a formidable sum of money when called upon to do her thing. Fortunately, our very modest room – like our plane ticket and limo ride – was paid for by the show, as was some of our meal expense (each contestant received $150 cash for dining at the contestant meeting…more on this shortly). We checked in and, having some time to spare, went to find a place for a quick bite. Before hitting the door, though, we checked the weather report, which warned of the apocalyptic cold that was out there. Donna and I pretty much rolled our eyes as we zipped up our winter coats and pulled on our gloves and knit caps, and headed out for a nice little stroll. The walk, although a bit chilly (somewhere in the mid-to-upper thirties and a bit breezy) was no big deal to these Wisconsin kids…and certainly not when compared to what we had left behind that morning.
As we walked along, I was impressed by the cavernlike vibe offered by the skyscrapers; even though there was still plenty of late-afternoon daylight left, the sensation was that of impending sunset, inasmuch as the low December sun had no chance of making it to street level. And, to be sure, the place we finally chose got a bit chilly when the door was opened, although this was mostly due to the wind blowing straight in.
The edge now off our hunger, it was time to get back to the hotel and report upstairs for the contestant meeting. Nothing terribly remarkable here – save for the fact that all ten contestants were middle-aged white males. This came on the heels of a rather unfortunate comment to the media made by the show’s executive producer not long before lamenting the preponderance of middle-aged white guys in blue shirts making up the contestant pool. Hoo boy, is he going to love this lineup. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the time came to select the outfits for tomorrow’s taping, I was told to wear my green shirt. The meeting broke up soon thereafter and we all went our own way for the evening.
When we inquired at the front desk as to a good place to eat, the clerk told us that there was a good steak house located in the same building as the hotel, and suggested that we check it out. Not a bad idea, we thought, especially with a hundred and fifty bucks of meal money at our disposal. What was the dress code, we asked; “casual” was her response. Good, that.
Before I go any further, dear reader, there is something you should know. Or, perhaps more accurately, something that “I” should have known. And that, of course, is the definition of “casual dining” in New York as opposed to that in small-town Wisconsin. Up here, “casual” can imply either “washed” or “no noticeable holes or patches”, and if you can satisfy both of the above prerequisites, so much the better. In Manhattan, by contrast, it is defined as “tie-optional”. Which, of course, is something of which we were blissfully unaware. And as we were led to our table, the words “faux pas” flashed through my mind.
No, I am lying to you as I type this; the actual words in my mind were more like “oh, shit”. Now, I hardly looked like a slob; I was wearing a nice UW sweatshirt in gray, with a brand-new pair of black denims. Clearly, I would not have been welcome at the Tuxedo Club, but then, this was “casual” dining.
After about thirty-seven hundredths of a second, I hastened up to our room, replaced Bucky Badger with a nice pullover sweater, and then returned appearing much more appropriately attired. Looking around the room, I saw a guy I remembered from the meeting – a fellow contestant named Richard Driggers, as it turned out – and, for a moment, I considered going over to say hi before quickly thinking better of the idea. I then turned my attention to the menu. The words “ribeye steak” caught my eye…as did the price of thirty-five dollars. A bit pricey, we both agreed (and please keep in mind that these are prices from fifteen years ago) – but paying almost twice what we might pay for a ribeye dinner in Wisconsin was not that big of a deal – and certainly not with the cash we had just been given a short time before.
And then we looked at the menu some more…and noticed that there was also a price posted next to the salad selections, as well as next to the various choices of potato. I had just been introduced to the concept of a la carte pricing for the first time…and now, I was suddenly glad that I had the foresight to bring some extra cash for the trip, as we would likely have otherwise been relegated to dumpster diving for the remainder of our stay.
The food was good, though – although this was also the first time that I had seen an actual “rib” in a cut of “ribeye”, which made the steak even less of a deal. A couple of beers to go along with the meal was a good idea as well, as it helped me get to sleep once we got back – this, in spite of the noises both outside our hotel and inside my head. No sense in staying out too late, though; tomorrow was going to be a very long day.