South by South West Interactive
My suitcase was all packed. My apartment was ripe for abandonment. I had driven down to the Vanguard Office and submitted my Visa application to the Consulate via fax and I had waited around the Downtown area all day for confirmation that the application was being reviewed. They said it would be returned to me in the morning. The Vanguard had some priority agreement for the press that allowed them to get Visas fast tracked, but that didn’t do anything to calm my nerves. I was restless. If I played my cards right this would surely get me into a University graduate program. Hell, if I did a good enough job, it’d be much more than a ticket to graduate school.
The stakes were high. I technically still had nothing. My future was $50,000 from being paid off, dangling in front of me like a fish about to jump off the hook, but the dots were starting to form into a shape.
I decided to spend the evening at the bookstore checking out the Chinese history section. A couple books for the road wouldn’t hurt. What else would you do on a twelve-hour flight? At around 9:00PM I became so anxious I had to stop reading, so I threw the books I’d purchased in the back seat of my car and started walking down the streets of Downtown. As I passed by the historic Driskill Hotel, I remembered Paul was throwing a party around the corner. I thought I should go and let him know I was leaving. The thought of free booze to pass the time didn’t hurt either.
The official badges for the festival cost about as much as five months of my student loan payments. Let that sink in. I’ll be in my forties when they’re paid off. Probably living some domestic life in a town like Small Town, thinking it’s not too late for a break, and I’ll finally have the temperament and the focus to make it happen. But I won’t have the energy or the resilience. If I’m lucky, I’ll be in a house that was just a great deal. But I’ll wonder how the hell did I get here? Maybe in that world there’s a kid running around, and I’ll be so busy trying to provide a life for said offspring that I’ll miss out on the moments that matter. I’ll be worn down, starting to show wrinkles, and wondering how to tell the story with a picture of Colonel Sanders on my wall, next to a picture of Heinrich Schliemann taunting me, next to a picture of Theodore Roosevelt cackling at me, his jaw agape. And I’ll bait the kid with exaggerated stories that’ll make my prospective daughter or son want to work hard enough in school that they won’t have to pay for it.
Back to the festival. The events are overpriced to say the least. They’re always overpriced. The trick to getting your money’s worth out of South By South West is knowing what you’re there to sell, and taking the time to figure out how to get the word out without paying a dollar. For the people who can afford to pay $1,500 for a badge, or tens of thousands to host an event, the networking possibilities are endless. But those people already have good jobs, or a strong skill set, or a steady revenue stream. For the rest of us a badge can actually be bad news. You need an ironclad pitch to show people your value, or they’ll remember you for being a waste of space. That gives the whole festival a bad name. It puts the event at risk.
I parked my car at the bookstore and left it there. It was a mile or so from my destination, but the spot was free. Paul’s company was located in a big office on the corner of Seventh and Brazos and it sat a block away from the heart of all the madness high on a hill where you can spy on the herds of drunkards from a safe distance.
There were plenty of companies who setup shop in high traffic areas offering entertainment, and food and drinks for the evening. And there was no shortage of media at each event. Some of them even wore their badges prominently because they wanted to be pitched stories. They carried cameras, or notepads, and they just waited for people to come up to them. Gave out a seemingly endless supply of business cards. Those writers were a special breed. True hustlers. But the odds that they’re going to write about you are pretty slim. Here’s a good rule of thumb—if the person you just met isn’t tired from the onslaught of conversations, then their publication needs the content, and they’re looking to build their audience from the ground up. It doesn’t make them any less legitimate, it just means they have a lot of work ahead. They might even require you to share the story with your network. The others, the journalists from the reputable sources, have hidden their badges, or at least they’ve covered the name because they have a very specific task and purpose. They’re deep in conversation with someone, and they’re always beyond reach, in a VIP area, or somewhere exclusive.
Red solo cups filled every hand by the front door as I entered. There was nobody checking badges at the door, no guest list to sign into. Just walk in, grab a cup, and start networking. The companies who sponsored events like Paul’s company have just gotten seed money to the tune of a couple million and they’re trying to attract talent. They’ll give presentations to get some exposure and spread the word, and smaller companies manned by one or two people setup booths to show off their new toys. The really great companies, the ones giving presentations, do this because they believe in offering value across the board. Give away something good for free, and it’ll pay off in the end. Their presentations also tend to be more interesting. They’re doing things you’ve read about in Forbes, Tech Crunch, or Mashable, and they’re maybe even the first company to do it. These presentations are the kind where you hear about new buzzwords; only these aren’t the headline events so they don’t get nearly as much attention. Big data, PR 2.0, Web 2.0, Social Media 2.0, anything you can think of point “o”. It’s first mentioned here, and then digital media “Webutantes” spread the word to the farthest reaches of the United States, and back to Silicon Valley for a big self-gratifying circle jerk in open-concept company bathrooms. I’m kind of bitter I’m not among the crowd if you can’t tell. I’m not one of those people anyone gives a shit about at the festival. I’m just another head in the crowd. Just another name to put on the email list.
Paul’s company did something with drones, or the technology that went into running them, but I couldn’t remember what exactly. Might have been a special kind of chip manufacturing. He was some sort of backend developer who made sure all the servers that communicated with the device stayed up and running and were talking to each other. This sounded to me like someone who read a diary written by an adolescent computer chip. I have no idea the title for this position, but I think he introduced himself to people as a product manager.
“Art!” someone shouted from deeper in the building. It was Paul. He pushed through a crowd wearing a company t-shirt and jeans. The design on the front depicted a pyramid with an eye floating above it.
“Paul, hey!” I said. “Good to see you.”
“You too, man,” he answered. “Did you get a drink?”
“Let’s get one.”
The crowd was very professional looking. Young, early to mid twenties, and bright smiles. The strobe light seemed to emphasize their vitality, as they smiled in the short spurts of light coming out of the bulb. The flash was near blinding as we approached the bar.
“What do you guys do again?” I asked.
“Cloud computing,” he said.
“That’s right.” Everyone seemed to be in cloud computing. It was just another way of saying you rented the computers you used, and you had no idea where the data was stored. “Big industry,” I said.
“No kidding. I’m under a lot of pressure right now. We’re testing this system that’s incorporating more networks, and more devices than I’ve ever worked on in my life. Like imagine if the UN had one interpreter for every language to make sure there was one source for recording an entire international discussion.”
“No kidding,” I said.
“Yeah. They won’t even tell me what it’s for, but it’s like a Mars Rover.”
Paul reached behind the counter and grabbed a bottle of Patron. Tequila was his drink of choice. He drank it to celebrate, to unwind, to work, to think. He spent nearly sixty hours a week on his projects. The last four years of his career had been driving him to the brink of exhaustion, but he’d gotten a handle on it when he started working here. This company was the one that would define the rest of his life. He was sure of it.
“How was your night last night?” he asked, raising his arm and flagging someone down.
“Great. Actually, I got a job offer. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
He leaned in like he didn’t hear a word I said.
“Did you say you’re going somewhere?”
“Yeah,” I shouted. “Beijing.”
He leaned back, and said, “No shit?”
“Yeah, I got an offer to help research this story.”
“Congrats, man!” he shouted, holding his fist out, and bumping mine. “What’s the story about?”
“I don’t know if I can say exactly, but it’s a book, and it has to do with China. I’m helping the author research some sources for it, and I’ll be writing a piece about the project.”
“What are you a journalist?” he asked.
“I think so,” I answered. “I just gotta write a good story.”
“Congrats, man!” he said, as he lifted his cup to cheers mine.
“Did you say Beijing?” he asked.
“I might be there in a few weeks to meet a client.”
“No shit?” I said. “I’ll be in a couple different places for the trip, but Beijing’s one of them, so email me and we’ll figure out a way to meet up.”
“Definitely,” he said. I’ve never been.”
“I can show you a couple great places.”
“Yeah, let’s figure something out,” he said. “That’s crazy good news, ma…”
I imagine he was about to say congratulations when a woman came into my view from across the room, her legs carrying her like a cruise missile as heads turned to follow her. She was 5’7”, blonde, beautiful, and aware that I was looking her way. Everyone was. The noise around me suddenly disappeared except the bass, which sent crushing shockwaves through my chest, making my hair stand up. Nobody else seemed to be bothered by it. She walked, undisturbed, as half a dozen guys followed her out of the corner of their eyes. Half a dozen conversations had just gone completely dead.
Slightly freckled cheeks, big lips, bright eyes, and a look of “I get it already” gave her face that callous indifference like she was ready for her next disappointment. I started to think that I may want to die an old man with dozens of offspring surrounded by dark, red wood, with old books, and photo albums decorating my walls. But like she would never be the one to settle down with. She would never be the adventure of a lifetime. Still, an image flashed through my mind of young children running down the halls and finding grandpa passed out in the study with a book on his chest, and his hands folded over the cover. Maybe a glass of lemonade sweating on the armrest. I could get behind that.
I must’ve been staring at this point. She came nearer and looked at me like she was in my head this whole time. I thought about turning, but I wasn’t listening to a word Paul was saying, if he was still talking. I tried to stay relaxed but felt a rush of adrenaline. My mind began to race as it quickly led me to the distinct conclusion that I’d wasted my life up until this point. She stopped walking and I leaned forward, opening my mouth, completely unaware of the words that had started to emerge. “Can you do that again?” I asked, realizing I’d been staring at her since she was on the other side of the room.
“Sorry, there’s no do overs,” she said, her chin tilted down.
“No? I guess I’ll have to remember that moment for the rest of my life then.”
She smiled. “I probably won’t. Don’t take it personal.”
I held up my hand. “I won’t sweetheart.”
She smiled again. “And what do you do? Marketing? Engineering? Sales?”
“No, nothing that exciting. Actually, I am, was unemployed and now I’m a world class adventurer, and would-be writer on the cusp of changing history.”
“Sounds dangerous,” she answered with a playful glance.
“What are you writing about?” she asked.
“I’m researching and writing about undiscovered history.”
She smiled at me and looked to the door like she wanted to leave, like maybe she even wanted me to give chase. But like she didn’t want me to walk alongside her. She seemed too focused for distractions. Like her plans would go down exactly as she expected. At least that’s the first thought that came to mind when she started biting her finger and looking at me. Well, maybe not the first thought.
“What do you do?” I asked, trying not to seem too interested.
“I destroy men who call me sweetheart,” she said smiling.
Off to a good start.
She smiled again. “I write about the intersection of business and technology. Trying to stay on top of the next big thing.”
My body quickly moved to fight or flight, like everyone around just got hostile, and my heart started to pound. My thighs were twitching, and I tensed up, taking a deep breath and putting my chin down. Looking down on her curves was better than the view from the top of the Empire State Building or the Pearl Tower. Especially the way she stood like she didn’t give a fuck about what I had to say. I really dug that. I felt myself pulled back to Earth as Paul chattered on about a huge story being published in some national tech blog. He patted me on the back, as he cut between us.
“Let’s get you a drink, and toast your trip.”
“Um, have you two met yet? Natalie, this is Art. Actually, you two probably have a lot in common, this is excellent. Hang out, I’ll grab us some drinks.”
He made his way to the counter. How did people celebrate success before alcohol? It seems like most people at the top greet you with some kind of mind inhibiting liquid wrecking ball you’ve never had. And do people who ‘give it up’ find something else to celebrate the end of a job well done? Was there ever a time when they could drink and not worry about going overboard, or was it predetermined that alcohol would fundamentally transform them into some violent, self-destructive and base human travesty?
Paul came back with some neon green test tubes, and handed two to each of us. “To living your dreams no matter the cost. And to the adventures you never plan for,” he said.
I gulped down the first one quickly; pausing to make sure nothing dripped down my chin before I gulped the second.
“I was going to guess your name was Helen.”
“Does that make you Herodotus?”
“Definitely not Agamemnon and I’d like to think I’m more courageous than Paris, so I guess our story hasn’t been written yet. Which is good because I don’t remember the Iliad having enough focus on female satisfaction. Seems like a common theme in the classics.”
She let loose a laugh and raised her eyebrow at me, adding a few beats to my heart. “You’re such a pig… Where did you say you were going?”
I said, “Beijing.”
She finally smiled. “No kidding, I used to work there. I worked at a P.R. firm. Spent two years there, then I found greener pastures in graduate school.”
“Let me guess—Ivy League, Stanford?”
She said, “Stanford is Pac Twelve, sports guy. Rice. English.”
“And now you’re at the epicenter of the economic miracle that is Austin, Texas reporting from the front lines of the future. Did you go to China for the same reason?”
She gave me all of her eyes for an uninterrupted six seconds before I had to blink, but the image stuck in my head. “And I guess you’re some kind of China expert?” she asked.
“You know I hate that term, but it sounds pretty good when you say it. I am a lucky man in an otherwise poorly timed universe, and I am the product of having a very limited set of options.”
“Timing is everything,” she said.
“It sure is.”
“Tell you what,” she said as she reached for a card, “When you get there, call this number, the one I’m writing down,” she smiled. “I made some friends in Beijing. Mention my name and they’ll take you out to see some things you’ll never forget. This is my card. Send me an email.”
“Now, wait a second, sweetheart. I just met you. Why should I trust you?”
She leaned in, and I anticipated a catastrophic meltdown, an airborne toxic event, a full on assault, but then she whispered, “because, you can’t help yourself.” She smiled and grabbed me by the collar slowly pulling me in. She held me tight, and looked at my lips, then up at my eyes and she said, “And don’t call me sweetheart. Got it?”
I stared at her as she slowly let go of my collar. She held her stare. The scent of her hair wafted in my direction. I was close enough to count the lines in her lips. She walked past me without looking back.
Her card was simple and elegant. Her handwriting was sloppy, but lacked the usual smiley face and heart bullshit some girls never grow out of so I took that as a good sign. Her body fit into her dress like a chemical solution formed perfectly to her shapely curves. She was every forbidden fruit depicted in writing, an ageless Eve, a daring woman. And she wasn’t going to play nice, because she knew that she could get more if she didn’t. She was someone men didn’t write about in the modern day. We were too scared she’d find out.
Paul smiled at me like he didn’t hear a word of our conversation. I couldn’t help but think he was trying to suggest she’s a “great girl.” It was in his eyebrows.
“I need to go sleep,” I told him.
“Alright, hey, good news, man. This is going to be an incredible experience. I can feel it. Maybe we can do a thing in Beijing.” He nodded. “Who are you writing for again?”
“The guy is from Austin,” I said. “His name is Wyatt.”
“That name sounds familiar,” he said. “We’ll talk soon.”
We shook hands and I walked to the door. The clock on the wall said 9:30PM. Forty-eight hours to go. I had no idea where I was going to be in a year, or whether my life would be better at that point. I’d gotten used to the feeling. It had been like that by default. I decided to leave and headed to the nearest hotel bar, for no other reason than that it was time to do something different. It was late, and I was too drunk to consider going anywhere near my car. I clutched Natalie’s business card and shoved it into my pocket as I walked toward the Driskill, carefully avoiding the large crowds as I descended the hill toward the hotel entrance.