Saturday, May 5, 2012

Rise of the Silver Stalker

Traveling to Chicago for the International Reading Association convention was quite an experience for me. So much happened on this trip and I learned many new things. As usual, there was no shortage of entertainment and/or drama.

A better way to fly.
My travel compadre, Bob was scheduled to fly to Chicago a day early to set up our booth for the show. Mind you, there is NEVER a trip with Bob that something doesn't go wrong (or, at least, amusingly off-kilter). First, his flight is delayed three hours because the plane had to be diverted to Indianapolis due to "mechanical problems." JUST what you want to hear when you are about to fly. Praying that he made it to Chicago in time to set up the booth, he boarded the "broken plane" three hours behind schedule.

About eight hours after leaving his house, Bob made it to McCormick Place in time to set up our booth. Unfortunately, when he got there, the booth, it was bare. The logistics company "misplaced" our entire shipment, including our displays, banners, projector, screen, literature, etc. INCLUDING the blue tube pictured to the left.

My flight from Fort Lauderdale to Chicago would be my first solo flight ever. At age 41, I had never flown without a companion of some sort. Little did I know that I would meet one at the airport who would essentially "stalk my whole entire life at McCormick Place" [Pauly D voice] for the next three days.

As I was sitting at the gate waiting to board the flight, I was checking my phone, when I heard someone say, "You must be going to IRA." I looked up to see a smiling man in his late 60s. I replied that I was, and asked how he knew. (I was kind of being a smart ass, seeing as I was wearing a VocabularySpellingCity shirt.) He responded that my shirt didn't say anything about Math. Oooooo Keeeee.

He didn't say anything else, so I went about my business. We boarded the plane and I prayed for a safe, uneventful flight. I had a good boarding position, so I chose a window seat in the second row. The two other seats in my row were quickly occupied. The man who sat in the middle seat automatically assumed that both armrests belonged to him and that he was entitled to a portion of my personal space. I noticed that the guy who sat in the first row (where there are no seatback pockets) must have requested a barf bag. Instead of one of of the little paper airsickness bags, the flight attendant brought him a large plastic garbage bag. Yeesh, we hadn't even left the ground, how sick was this guy? I said a little prayer of thankfulness that he hadn't chosen to sit next to me.

Is there a Doctor in the House?
Space Invader
Not 20 minutes into the flight, just after the captain turned off the fasten seat belt sign, I noticed an older man slowly making his way up the aisle (I assumed toward the restroom). The man was holding on to the seats as he walked, which I didn't find too unusual, until he stopped and started leaning forward. The flight attendant (who had provided Ralph with the garbage bag), stepped up to the man and asked if he needed help. She told him to hold on to her and she would help him to the restroom. He then collapsed on her. Uh-oh. A lady in the front row got up so they could sit the man down. He was barely responsive. So, the flight attendant gets on the intercom and asks if there is a doctor or a nurse on board. (Yes, sometimes that does really happen!) Fortunately, there WAS a nurse on board. After evaluating the man, she suggested that they try giving the man some orange juice. They did and he perked right up. He just had low blood sugar (thank the Lord!). Crisis averted. By the way, the nurse got a round of applause when the plane landed. :)

We made it to Chicago on time. As I was making my way to baggage claim, the man who had asked if I was going to IRA started walking and chatting with me. Now, I am not opposed to talking to strangers (unless they are REALLY strange). I firmly believe in the proverb, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I try to be nice to people and hope that people will, in turn, be nice to me...karma and all that. The man tells me that he is a retired administrator who is giving a presentation at IRA. His presentation is the next day, so he's heading straight to his hotel instead of the convention center. Since my boss is always encouraging to make contacts, I thought that he might be an important person to get to know. He offered me his business card, and I gave him mine. Oh, how I would grow to regret that...

Braille Travel
I walked away from him at baggage claim, collected my luggage and proceeded on to the GO Airport Shuttle counter, where I had a reservation to go to McCormick Place. This was an experience in itself. As I waited my turn, I noticed that the agent was a middle-aged man with thick glasses and pretty severe strabismus. He reminded me of Widow Hen's son. I told him I had a reservation and handed him my confirmation. He asked if I could read the number to him. When I did, he literally put his face within three inches of the keyboard and typed in the number, then looked up at the computer screen (equally closely). Realizing he must have mistyped it, he asked me to repeat the number. I did and he repeated the procedure. I bit my lip. He got it right the second time. Now, I think it's great that this vision-impaired man is gainfully employed, but I can't imagine that a job where he has to type and read a computer screen for frantic travelers in Chicago is an enjoyable occupation. Couldn't they have gotten him a braille keyboard? Surely they exist! But, he handed me my ticket and I was on my way.

So, I go out to catch the shuttle. Several passengers are on board and the driver tells me to sit in the front passenger seat because he'll be dropping me off first. (The inner "Wang" in me was thrilled because I figured I could take lots of unobstructed photos through the front windshield - clearly I was unaware that the scenery from Midway to McCormick can't really be called "scenery.") A couple minutes later, the retired administrator/IRA presenter approaches the shuttle and waves at me. He climbs on board, telling me that he decided to take the shuttle too, and he asked to  be "put on Nancy's shuttle." OK, now I'm getting a little creeped out. When the shuttle got to McCormick Place, I retrieved my bag and booked it to the Exhibit Hall, without looking back. I might have left skid marks. 

The Show Must Go On
I arrived at our booth, which was tucked waaaaaaay in the back of the convention center. Bob was at the booth, but our displays, equipment and literature (except for a few brochures and mousepads Bob had thankfully brought himself) were not. Our shipment was MIA. "No worries!," I said. "We can DO this!" And so began DAY ONE...

We carried on with the show. As usual, it was wonderful to meet teachers and hear about how their students love our site, "especially the game with the cat and mouse!" Traffic at our booth was lighter than usual, but I think that had more to do with the poor location than our lack of "stuff." Our booth was clearly NOT impossible to find, at least, not for a former administrator armed with a business card and a convention program. Yep, I soon received a visit from my "Senior Stalker" (as he shall be called from this point forward). Feeling uncomfortable, after our initial greeting, I left him talking to Bob at the booth, hoping he'd get the hint. He didn't.

Not One of the Fifty Shades of Grey I Had in Mind
Day two. More help arrived in the form of our newest sales team member, but our shipment was still missing. The show must go on...and it did! The second day was busier and more productive than the first. I also received another (and more disturbing) visit from the Senior Stalker. He stopped by the booth when I was there alone. He asked about the show, then asked when I was flying back. I told him I was leaving Wednesday night. "Oh, 7:05?," he says. Turns out we are on the same flight home. (Lord, help me.) He asked me what I did for SpellingCity, and I explained that I did marketing and social media. He then informed me that he tried doing social media for his company, but that a bunch of "porn people" tried to "friend" him. [This is the part in a show where you hear the record needle scratch across the album, then silence...] As I was praying that at least one member of my sales team would return to the booth and save me, the Senior Stalker asked me to join him for an early dinner at the airport before our flight. I didn't want to be mean (I SHOULD have been mean!), so I told him that I really didn't know what our plans were. Again, hoping against hope he would take the HINT. Bob returned to the booth and the stalker left. 

That day, I also got to meet an extremely entertaining presenter, Danny Brassell (click on his name and be sure to check out the video, "You Have Something to Teach Me,") who talked about VocabularySpellingCity in his presentation on vocabulary instruction and joined us for dinner that evening. Danny was neither creepy, nor stalker-like and his great sense of humor really helped lighten my mood and ease my increasing paranoia. In his presentation, Danny always reminds teachers that his last name is spelled like "Bras sell," so naturally, on the walk back to our hotels after dinner, the Wang in me couldn't resist asking him for a photo in front of Victoria's Secret. He very graciously obliged. ;)

Wednesday morning, I contemplated changing my flight to an earlier one, but the cost and inconvenience seemed to outweigh the relief of avoiding the Senior Stalker. Maybe he would take an earlier flight himself, after all, he had no reason to hang around, right? Bob had attended Danny Brassell's presentation on Tuesday (where he talked about VSC) and really enjoyed it. Danny said that he was doing another presentation Wednesday afternoon and invited us to come. I decided to take him up on it and I am oh-so-thankful I did. 

She's Too Young for You, Bro
Before the session even started, I received a text from Bob: "You just missed the stalker." No WAY! I was sure he was kidding. He was not. Bob told me that the Senior Stalker came to the booth asking for me. (He said that he actually snuck up on him!) Bob told him that they sent me home. Stalker replied, "No, I'm flying home with her." [Imagine crickets chirping.] On the same plane, perhaps...WITH me, I think not! Bob again told him they sent me home and he left. 

By that point, I was looking over my shoulder like a fugitive. Why on Earth did this man think that I wanted to hang around with him? I didn't even KNOW him, and he was old enough to be my father, for goodness sake! I was beginning to think that it might be time to rethink my policy on friendliness to strangers. By the time I got through the 45-minute security line at Midway (the WORST I've ever seen) and naturally I got in the longest line, I was anxious and paranoid AND hungry. After a burrito and a beer, I felt a little better, but I knew I still had to go to the gate and face the inevitable. UGH! :(

I asked Bob what the stalker was wearing and he told me he thought he was wearing a blue shirt. Approaching the gate, I spotted S.S. in a green shirt. Bob leans over and says, "Oh, he's wearing a GREEN shirt, not blue." Thank you, Captain Obvious. I was thankful that I had changed out of my VSC uniform into a black shirt (more ninja-like). Lucky for me, Stalker was engaged in conversation with a lady much closer to his own age, so he didn't see me sneak into the gate area. (Bob laughed and said, "Looks like you've been replaced by a cotton top!") I breathed a sigh of relief. We snuck around to the other side of the terminal and I made my bodyguards (LOL!) sit on either side of me, while I slunk down in my seat. 

By the time I boarded the plane, Stalker was already on board. When he spotted me, his eyes lit up and he said,  "Hey! I didn't see you in the terminal! I would have saved you a seat!" I can just imagine the look of pure terror on my face at this point. I responded with a hasty, "No thanks, I'm gonna go back and sit with my guys." To which he responded (rather snarkily), "OH, I see." Yeeesh. 

After that, aside from the crying 9-week-old baby in front of us, the return flight was uneventful. I gladly took the middle seat (and even kept my elbows to myself). When I spotted the Senior Stalker at baggage claim, I made a quick 180 and hid behind Bob, who stayed with me until S.S. left the building. I just wanted to get home to my family. 

I haven't seen or heard from the Stalker since the flight home (except for the pictures of him posted around my office - thanks, guys - I thought you were my friends! ;) ). I'm hoping he lost (or even burned) my business card. {BTW, he didn't. He ended up trying to "friend" me on Facebook a few days later. I permanently blocked him.}

Aaaaaaaaaaaaye! :)
As always, the show was an experience. Our shipment did show up Tuesday evening, but by that point, we just asked the logistics company to ship it back to our office. We really did okay without it. I got to meet some wonderful people, saw a couple of famous authors (including Henry Winkler, a.k.a. The Fonz) and had a good time (when I wasn't glancing over my shoulder). I am thankful to have had the opportunity to see a new city, and a beautiful one at that. I really loved Chicago (what little I got to see of it), and I'll blog about that soon.

Mostly, I'm happy to be back with the people I love, where I feel safe and stalker-free. Pauly D., I sympathize with you Bro. There's no place like home...

With Love and Aloha ~ Nancy


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