My first day working for the Conference felt good. It was the first time I had a “real,” full time (not temporary), office job. It felt good to ride the metro into work wearing a suit and tie with all the other people. I felt like I got back on the track I had fallen off after graduating from college an in the same league with my peers.
The Conference, established by the Clinton administration, was tasked with setting up a conference for the U.S. travel and tourism industry. The attending delegates would be industry leaders including CEOs of major tourism and transportation corporations as well as state and federal legislators and other politicians. Its purpose was to establish a national tourism strategy as most other countries had rather than 50 different state level strategies. This was important because the tourism was the second largest industry in the US after healthcare. I joined the staff about a year before the conference took place.
They paid me $24,000 a year, which at the time seemed like a fortune. I remember a negotiation with Pierce on the phone where he tried to negotiate a lower salary for me but then probably felt bad for me and settled at $24,000. I had no health insurance and no taxes withheld so I had to set aside a good deal of my paycheck for quarterly filings. So it actually ended up being a lot less than I expected. But it was enough to move out of my sister and brother in law’s condo and live meagerly.
At first, I answered the phones and relayed messages to the upper management, consisting of just about everybody else except myself and this other guy Ted. Later Pierce had me entering a huge volume of contact information into a mailing list database. I guess I was not entering the information quickly enough because one morning Pierce came down and asked me to come with him to his office. We silently rode the elevator up to his floor and went into his office. He chewed me out for a while about not taking my job seriously enough. I thought I had been taking it seriously and felt really humiliated. For the next few weeks I came in the office at 5:00am, left late and worked weekends to populate this database. Later on Pierce seemed surprised at what I had accomplished and apologized for yelling at me. I think I might have over reacted to his criticism which, looking back on it, was probably in reaction to someone shaming him.
At some point each state department of tourism sent in recommendations as to what they wanted to happen during the conference and what they wanted the conference to accomplish. Their recommendations were in the form of 1 to 50 page documents. I was told to go through the documents and compile a list of the recommendations making note of the more popular ones. I took this project by the horns and developed an Excel spreadsheet summarizing all the recommendations by state and compiling a list of the most popular.
The management seemed happy with the results and took me to a conference in Nashville at the Opryland Hotel. I remember one meeting. I was told the dress was casual and showed up wearing shorts and a polo shirt. Everyone else had on a suit and tie. I felt embarrassed but tried my best to continue on as if everything was okay. At the meeting the subject of the Grid came up. Pierce suggested that it be used in the materials distributed at the conference. One man (I forget who) vehemently said, “No!” When asked why he said, “Because I don’t think it’s credible.” He went on to say that he could not find what the grid indicated in a specific state’s recommendations. I remember thinking of a reason why that might be the case but did not stand up for myself. At the end of the meeting the man turned to me and patronizing said, “I’m sorry I criticized your grid report.” That felt humiliating.
At some point the law school in Loyola Law School in New Orleans told me that I had been accepted for the following fall. I asked them to defer my admission one year so that I could finish my time with the Conference and they agreed. Later I had another trip with the conference to New Orleans and checked the law school out. I had not seriously considered attending this third tier law school but after having fun in New Orleans the idea seemed more plausible to me.
I assumed the role of the funny guy working for the Conference. Pierce often commented that I did not say much but when I did it was always funny. I liked having that reputation. It did not really afford me the respect needed to be assigned serious projects. I always felt under utilized and considered to be not all that capable. I did not really know what I could do differently to change that, however.