The Accidental Tourist: A literary guide to business travel, basically

It’s been a couple of decades since my college girlfriend loaned me her copy of The Accidental Tourist, but it’s a book that’s stayed with me — not because of its theme of embracing life and moving outside your comfort zone but because of what it taught me about how to pack a suitcase.

Anne Tyler’s book is about a guy named Macon (William Hurt in the movie), who writes passport-sized travel books for “accidental tourists” — business travelers, mostly, who have to leave home and want to make the trip as painless as possible.

Of course, the point of the book isn’t to give travel advice. Being an accidental tourist is really just a metaphor for Macon, who divorces his wife (Kathleen Turner in the movie) after their son is killed, only to get involved with a free spirit (Geena Davis), who brings him back into the world.

I think that’s what it’s about, anyway. I don’t really remember much about the plot. What I remember, every time I take a business trip, is the travel advice:

  • “Bring only what fits in a carry-on bag. Checking your luggage is asking for trouble.” This is absolutely true. Since I read the novel twentysome years ago, I think I’ve checked luggage only a couple of times, and both times, it got lost.
  • “One suit is plenty…. It should be a medium gray. Gray not only hides the dirt; it’s handy for sudden funerals and other formal events. At the same time, it isn’t too somber for  everyday.” One suit (I go with dark gray), a couple of shirts and a couple of ties, and you’ll be fine. I’m told it’s different for women, that they’re expected to wear something different every day, but I’m a guy, so no one expects anything of me, fashion-wise. One suit is plenty, and only the shoes you’re wearing.  
  • “Always bring a book, as protection against strangers.” I used to bring a book. Now I carry a tablet. Either way, it’s good advice and worth following, even though it works only about 50% of the time. I don’t think I’m a rude traveler. I’ll smile, say excuse me and engage in small talk while we’re getting settled in, usually something like, “Boy, they don’t give us a lot of room, do they?” but then I’m done. I’d rather read. It’s amazing, though, the number of people who don’t notice or deliberately ignore basic social cues such as their seatmate’s refusal to make eye contact or his responding to their questions and comments with a simple, “Uh-huh.”

You might disagree and think I’m a jerk because I don’t want to talk for a couple of hours to the random person wedged into the seat next to mine, and that’s fine, you might be right, but trust me on taking only one carry-on bag.

Where the streets have one name

Image by twentysixcats via Flickr

The joke about Atlanta is that every street is named Peachtree.

Of course, this isn’t true. Only 71 streets in metro Atlanta are named Peachtree, and many of them intersect with one another, and while locals know which Peachtree they’re talking about, it isn’t always obvious to out-of-towners.

I drove to Atlanta the other day on business. I printed out my hotel reservation. It said my hotel was on Peachtree Street Northeast, but when I plugged the address into my GPS (you don’t want to drive in a city where 71 streets are named Peachtree unless you have a GPS with updated maps), it came up dry.

The hotel’s website listed the Peachtree Street address, too, so I called the front desk. The bored-sounding woman who answered said to look up the same number but search for Peachtree Center Avenue Northeast. (I’m guessing I wasn’t the first person to call for clarification.)

It turns out that Peachtree Street Northeast is one block over and runs parallel to Peachtree Center Avenue Northeast, and my hotel was smack in between them. Exit on one side of the lobby, and you’re on Peachtree Street. Exit on the other side, and you’re on Peachtree Center Avenue Northeast.

When locals talk about Peachtree, they’re usually talking about Peachtree Street, which is Atlanta’s main street. Peachtree Street, though, eventually becomes Peachtree Road, Peachtree Boulevard, Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and Peachtree Parkway — 5 names, same street.

Downtown, there’s also West Peachtree Street, which runs parallel to Peachtree Street and at one point crosses it.

What’s funny is the different Peachtrees weren’t named for an actual peach tree.

According to historians (OK, Wikipedia), Peachtree was named for a Creek settlement called Standing Pitch Tree. Supposedly, the Creek used the pitch, or sap, from pine trees in its ceremonies. “Pitch tree” didn’t sound right to European settlers, so they called it “peach tree.”

Which is interesting but isn’t going to help me get back to the interstate.

6 things you won’t be ordering from SkyMall

SkyMall is the catalog that’s in the back of airplane seats.

It’s what you read when you forget to bring a book or a magazine or the free USA Today from the hotel and you’ve already thumbed through the in-flight magazine, twice.

What’s interesting is that SkyMall has built a successful business (it’s been around since 1990) selling things no one especially wants (such as a 4-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower for $199.99) in a location where it’s pretty much impossible to buy things on impulse (8 miles above Mississippi).

It’s hard to imagine buying a 28-inch garden sculpture of Bigfoot ($115), for example, if you’ve had a few minutes to think it through.

Of course, not everything in SkyMall is nutty or ironic. I wouldn’t mind having a seat from Yankee Stadium ($799.99) or a boxing glove signed by Muhammad Ali ($1999.99).

On the other hand, you have products like these:

  • Head massager ($49.95). The catalog says, “This patented Italian design incorporates Japanese engineering and utilizes acupressure to relax and soothe your problems away.” It also looks like something that’ll wind up as a prop in SyFy channel movie.
  • Toilet-seat adapters for potty-training your cat ($49.99).
  • A 6 foot-by-2 foot photo of the Cincinnati skyline, at least not at these prices ($319 unframed, $499 framed).
  • Shower head studded with color-changing LED lights, to “create a spa-like environment in the comfort of your own shower,” assuming you shower in the dark ($49.99-$59.99).
  • 6-foot replica Easter Island monolith ($995). I can imagine someone buying this as a temporary decoration for a pool party or cookout, but $1,000 is a high price for irony.
  • The Encyclopaedia Britannica ($1,395). We’re talking 32 hardcover books that are so bulky, there’s an extra $40 delivery charge. When I was a kid, my parents paid a small fortune for a set of World Book encyclopedias and annual updates, but this was before the Internet. OK, Wikipedia isn’t as authoritative as the Encyclopeadia Britannica, but it’s awfully useful (and cheaper), and it can point you to better sources online (that are also cheaper). SkyMall seems to understand this. It also sells a set of 3 different versions of the Encyclopeadia Britannica — aimed at elementary students, teens and adults — on DVD-ROM for $39.95.