Usually when someone tells a story that ends with, “… and there I was in the hotel lobby, wearing only my underpants” — it’s either the result of obliviousness brought on after having a few drinks or carelessness resulting in an irrevocable mis-step. My story embraces both.
This was years ago, my first real “business trip” — heading out of town for several nights, many hours of travel, representing the office on my own. I was headed for Cedar Rapids, Iowa and booked into the Five Seasons hotel. Now, I’d heard of the Four Seasons before, a chain of luxury hotels found in some of the most desirable travel destinations around the world. For Cedar Rapids to have a FIVE Seasons… I figured I was really in for a treat. Did I mention I wasn’t a very seasoned traveler at that time?
I flew in on a Sunday afternoon so I’d be in place and well-rested for a first-thing-Monday-morning start. Connecting through Detroit I had my first experience on a puddle-jumper, landing in Iowa a bit queasy but otherwise intact. I cabbed it to the hotel from the airport and entered into an immense lobby — a multi-story atrium with full-grown trees; quite striking. I was relieving another co-worker on a long-term project; she told me she’d arrange to have some materials placed in my room. I entered and saw a stuffed manila envelope on the desk — along with a copy of the Sunday New York Times and two bottles of beer. Wow! What a thoughtful gesture from my office mate. As I found out later, she had left only the packet; my lovely wife had called ahead to the hotel to request the newspaper and beer as a kind gesture to make this first trip something special and comforting. Once I unpacked my suitcase, washed my face, and filled the bucket with ice to chill the beer, I struck out to see what kind of adventures could be found in downtown Cedar Rapids on a Sunday evening.
We’ll get back to those adventures in a moment (SPOILER ALERT: there were none; at least not outside the hotel), but the first thing that struck me was the odor of cereal. The *overpowering* odor of cereal… mixed with something like rotting meat. You may know (I certainly didn’t) that Cedar Rapids is home to the world’s largest cereal manufacturing plant. Also a sizable dog food factory. Sometimes you smelled Cap’n Crunch; sometimes you smelled Alpo; sometimes you were afforded the opportunity to take in a commingled lungful of both. Reeling from the choking atmosphere, I staggered along a few streets in the downtown area, crisscrossing the mighty Cedar River that bisects the city, in search of a nice restaurant or pub. At 6:00 P.M. on a Sunday evening there was nothing to be found. I even passed a 7-Eleven that was closed Sundays.
Giving up on stumbling across a food find, and now stumbling because of the onset of darkness along with the relentless olfactory assault, I returned to my hotel room resigned to settling for room service. I had those cold beers waiting for me and so felt some “comfort food” would make for the perfect meal. Fortunately the menu featured pizza and wings (and a patty melt — of which I was suspicious due to the hotel kitchen’s proximity to the dog food plant, and a fish fry — of which I was suspicious because I had just seen the condition of the river), so I placed my order. Once it was delivered to the room I figured it made sense to strip down to my skivvies so I wouldn’t get any pizza grease or wing sauce on my shirt and pants. I dug into my dinner, washing it down with both beers while flipping through the paper and watching sports on TV. I was now quite full and pleased to end my long day of travel to unfamiliar surroundings tired but with a pleasant buzz.
The dining platter came with a card indicating which extension to dial on the room phone to request the tray’s removal. However, I’d noticed empty trays left on the floor next to other doors, and rather than cleaning up and getting re-dressed just to let someone into the room I decided to ditch my tray in the hall as others had done. I swung the door open and stepped into the hall to place the tray on the floor. My plan was to do this quickly and catch the door before it swung shut. Unfortunately my timing was a bit off, perhaps because as I bent down my head started to spin from the beer. Before I could stand back up I heard a click and now the door was locked. I was standing in the 14th floor hallway of the Five Seasons hotel, in my underpants (since I’d also removed my t-shirt after dripping sauce on it), with no key in my pocket (since I was pocket-less), locked out of my room. I think this is the kind of dilemma that Google now uses as a screening exercise when interviewing job candidates to see how they’d react: “You’re standing in your underwear, locked out of your 14th floor hotel room. How would you extricate yourself from this situation? Also write a program to check if any room numbers on your floor have rotational symmetry.”
The Five Seasons was a big hotel and at that moment the hallway looked about a mile long. I started to walk in search of a house phone, thinking I could dial for assistance but didn’t find one in either direction. I was too embarrassed to knock on any doors where I saw trays, plus it was now late in the evening and I didn’t want to disturb anyone. My only option was to head down to the lobby and ask for another room key. The elevator arrived in response to my summons with no one else on it, so that was a gift. I exited on the ground floor, walking around a corner into that massive lobby where, miraculously, no other guests were milling about. I dashed over to the lobby desk, which was set up so I was about chest-level with the counter top. There were two female clerks on the other side; neither looked up until I was directly in front of them and so they didn’t see my barely-clad approach. However, the clerk who acknowledged me arched her eyebrows slightly before asking how she could help since she could see my bare shoulders. I explained that I’d locked myself out of my room and needed another key. Without missing a beat, the other clerk told me they were all out of keys and I’d have to spend the night in the lobby. She was kidding — I think. I joked back that was fine with me; give me a pillow and blanket and I’d set myself up on a couch. We all laughed and then she provided me with the replacement key. Problem solved.
Except, of course — even though I’d made it to the lobby desk unnoticed there was NO WAY IN HELL I was going to walk away from these two without them taking full notice of my almost-nakedness. I offered thanks for the key, turned around and returned to the elevators around the corner. As I pressed the up button I heard nothing… not a peep or a titter from behind. An elevator arrived; the doors opened and I stepped into an (again, fortunately) empty lift. I punched the button for my floor and just as the doors slid closed I heard the two women burst into laughter so raucous that it echoed throughout the entire lobby and likely awakened guests sleeping in the penthouse suite.
The rest of my week’s visit was not nearly as calamitous. Well, other than when there was a tornado warning and I had to run for shelter into the basement of a neighboring abandoned department store until the all-clear sounded.
While I haven’t had an urge to actually return to Cedar Rapids, occasionally I’ll reminisce as I’ve done here, and when I want to pull up memories of my visit I fix myself a bowl of Cap’n Crunch. And dump a can of Alpo on it.