Monday, April 04, 2005

Subsisting on Appetizers: My Weekend at the OAH

In graduate school once, I pulled a quadricep muscle while lunging for a box of mini donuts. The donuts were left-overs from some kind of faculty/staff meeting, and they wound up being remaindered in the graduate student lounge, where all forms of uneaten food were exiled to a stale, lingering death. That morning, I wandered into the lounge and, upon seeing undisturbed pile of mini-donuts glistening at a 65 degree angle from my current trajectory, quickly — all too quickly — switched direction, as the sudden stabbing pain in my leg brought me to a heap in the middle of the room. Crawling and then hopping toward the box on the table, I managed to dump half the donuts into a paper bag which I then stuffed into my coat pocket. The rest I consumed on the spot. The limp endured for at least a week.

This sort of mooch-mindedness represents one of many pathologies for which graduate school serves as a vector, and my weekend at the Organization of American Historians' annual meeting reminded me of how little that dimension of my life has changed after three years in a tenure-track job. Because my University offers its faculty pathetically-slim travel allowances — an amount usually sufficient to cover the airfare from Juneau and little else — every expense I incurred after stepping out of the San Jose airport was on my nickel, a tax deduction at best. Determined to keep those deficits to a mimimum, I spent the entire weekend grazing for scraps while attending as many panels as possible. Lunch on Friday, for example, consisted of two nut-topped, frosted brownies and two sodas, generously provided by OAH at the book exhibition. Several book vendors (usually the big textbook companies like Prentice-Hall and Longman) also provided casks of coffee and assorted muffins throughout the weekend, although I learned quickly that the full-strength coffee tended to disappear by noon, the muffins considerably earlier. Friday evening, I joined my well-connected Long Beach friends at the American Antiquarian Society reception, held at a German pub a mile from the convention center. There, I inhaled several plates of gravy-drenched meatballs, a good loaf's worth of crostini, and at least a half pound of tiny German quiche-like squares. It was a Teutonic feast. The AAS reception had nothing on the Longman reception, though, which we crashed in its last half hour. Publishers have bigger budgets than research libraries, so the booze was free and the appetizers consisted of fat-ass shrimp and numerous species of kabob. Standing shamelessly beside the buffet table, I drank two beers and kept another hand in constant motion — platter to mouth, no paper plates to interrupt the mechanical flow of it all — for 20 minutes before running off, half-drunk and sated with meat, to a thoroughly depressing evening plenary session on the Vietnam War.

Saturday proceeded in more or less the same fashion, although everyone knows that the real horn of plenty is to be found on Friday. Some group called the Bible Study Fellowship was having its (much larger, sadly) annual ham-bone tent revival at the San Jose Convention Center as well; after a morning panel on US imperialism in the Pacific, I attempted to crash the BSF coffee and snack table but was frightened off by some frosty-looking goons. Hungrily, I moped back to the publishers' exhibit, drank free coffee and looked at books, my afternoon fast broken only by an awful, "pizza-stuffed" pretzel which I consumed recklessly. With fewer evening receptions to choose from, I somehow found myself in a hotel suite with the generous and forgiving members of the Society for the History of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). My friend Brett — who actually studies this period — was my sole source of legitimacy, but he left after about 25 minutes, leaving me behind to nod helplessly through conversations about the origins of the Southern middle class and some damned obscure court case, the details of which I've forgotten. Food intake was slight here, a bag of chips and small tub of guacamole being the only thing to dilute the glugging of Sierra Nevada and Moosehead, each of which I consumed in pairs before stumbling to the OAH President's Reception. Here, I hit rock bottom for sure. By this point, the reception was nearly over and the room empty of all but three clusters of chummy, older professors, none of whom I recognized. Piling high two plates with bruschetta, fried shrimp, and hunks of cheese, I consumed my only "meal" of the day in about five minutes. Most places, people like me would be escorted quietly from the premises, but I had my conference badge on, which pretty much makes a person immune from too much scrutiny.

Satisfied with the day's kill and unwilling to feign a higher purpose for attending, I disembarked for my hotel room, grabbing a handful of hard candies from the hotel bar on the way to the elevator.

Cost of weekend's food consumption: $3.75
Cost of weekend's beer consumption: $10.00
Living within my university's stingy-ass travel allowance: Priceless. Humiliating, yes, but priceless.