In the Land of the Suits

I’ve gotten spoiled. For more than a year I’ve dressed business casual instead of doing the pants, shirt, tie and dress shoes thing. Actually where I work (U.S. Geological Survey) it’s more casual than business casual. It’s casual pretty much all the time. Jeans and T-shirts at work are okay, almost de rigueur. If you are having an important meeting, particularly with people in other agencies, you might wear skip the jeans and sneakers and go for something dressier. Dressy at USGS means slacks, a button down shirt (no tie) and possibly some leather shoes. I now have a whole closet full of the clothes I used to have to wear every day. It consists of dozens of ties, lots of nice and starchy shirts, shiny dress shoes and even a couple sport coats. Now they have become nearly obsolete, suitable largely for attending weddings and funerals.

And I now have a job three miles away instead of twenty-five miles away. Whereas I used to arise long before dawn I now am generally up with or after the dawn. (It depends mostly on whether I need to shuffle my daughter off to school or not.) Whereas I used to arrive before six a.m. at a carpool lot to board a vanpool for D.C. and spend a day in the city, I now more often hop on a bike and peddle to work. Instead of having to park in some distant space in Pentagon South Parking like I did for nine long years I now park my bike right next to the main entrance.

So I was beginning to forget what it was like to live that other life that encompassed the first twenty years of my career. But today I attended a Service Oriented Architecture Executive Event, sponsored by BEA at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington D.C. That meant for a day I got to play D.C. commuter again.

It’s a game thousands play every workday. In my case it meant getting up before dawn and putting on pleated pants, a quality shirt, tie and my dress shoes. I considered adding a sport coat but figured it would be overkill. It meant dashing through a hurried breakfast, driving to the Herndon Monroe Park and Ride and finding a parking space. It meant waiting ten minutes at a bus stop, making sure I had the right change and entering a packed bus for a twenty-minute ride to the West Falls Church Metro Station. From there it meant doing the Farecard thing, boarding an Orange Line Train then, after paying inflated rush hour rates, having to stand the whole way into the city. It meant juggling my bag making sure I wasn’t inconveniencing anyone else and wedging myself into an odd spot so everyone could get on the train.

On the way into the city I could not help but examine at the faces of my fellow commuters. What I saw were people more like zombies than alive. The more awake ones were reading one of the free papers passed out entering the station (usually The Express). But most had their eyes glazed over and looked like they desperately wanted to be asleep. But like they do every weekday they are operating on too little sleep, insufficient caffeine and subjecting themselves to an uncomfortable ninety minute commute. The announcements, heard a zillion times, served only to annoy and not enlighten.

My destination was the Federal Triangle station, just a hop, skip and a jump from the opulent Ronald Wilson Reagan Building. To call it opulent is to damn it with faint praise. While the public is welcome to come inside, you have to go through the hassle of metal detectors. That meant the same thing I did several times a day when I used to work in D.C. Empty pockets of anything that might be metallic. Show photo ID. Wait in line. Hope that you clear the metal detector on the first try. In short: trust no one. (Thankfully at USGS I just flip my ID at the guards and they wave me through.)

The Executive Forum turned out to really be a forum for executives. I realized as soon as I reached the Rotunda on the 8th floor that although I thought I was well dressed, I was really underdressed. Adding a sport coat would not quite have met their standard. This was three-piece suit city. Virtually everyone (and certainly all the vendors) had perfect hair. Even the waiters were wearing suits. My tote bag was clearly not quite up to snuff: everyone else had snooty narrow leather briefcases.

And it was a good event. I learned a lot about implementing service oriented architectures, even if I can’t see it happening in my agency any time soon because of the niggardly amounts of money Congress throws our way. But even so I found myself fascinated by looking at all the people in suits. The vendors were particularly dolled up and meticulously groomed. I know they were trying to make a good impression. I figured BEA must have had quite a wardrobe budget for its public sales staff. In particular they know how to hire great looking women. I’m sure they would decry any suggestion that they do so deliberately, but these were classy booth babes. My favorite was the thirty something blonde with the D breasts, low cleavage in the vertically striped dress. But please understand they were also entirely professional. And they were on top of us, moving us quickly from event to event and making sure we were shuffling to the right rooms and elevators.

For a free event they didn’t skimp on second-rate food. You sort of expect muffins, bagels and coffee for a continental breakfast. But there were also fancy bottled waters I had never heard about. And by the 10 AM break the confectioneries were replaced with lovely, nearly irresistible cookies. By 11:30 AM my head was buzzing with all this SOA stuff. Thankfully it was a half-day event. But they were not done with us yet. Because apparently BEA thinks it has a pocket as deep as Oracle’s. They are one of the sponsors of Bobby Rahal’s racing team. So who should show up as a featured speaker than none other than Bobby Rahal himself? A lot of people were excited. But frankly I didn’t know him from Adam. BEA must have deep pockets indeed to drag him out from Indianapolis for this minor little luncheon speech, none of which had anything to do with the event itself. But before setting us free they offered us a free buffet lunch that was first class and delicious.

Shortly thereafter my coworker and I left to return to our modest offices in the Reston suburbs. I felt out of place walking around USGS wearing a tie, but fortunately no one of note noticed me. They might have started pointing at me. Who was that dude and what was that strange thing around his neck?

It wasn’t that long ago that living in the land of suits seemed second nature. Even getting out of bed before 6 a.m., while it wasn’t something I liked, was something that became almost second nature. Now I wonder how I endured it all those years. What was with all that suit and tie stuff? Why do people in the city feel the need to be so dressy all the time? Why do they torture themselves and endure ninety minute commutes each way, much of it in the dark, and spend their days in office buildings far from the people they love? How do they manage to keep doing it day after day? The answer of course is that because they need the money and it’s a necessary tradeoff that they made.

All I know is I am not planning to ever find another job. I hope to stay with USGS forever. Not only is it a terrific place to work, but also 30 minutes per day for a commute beats the heck out of 2-3 hours for zero compensation. I have found working nirvana and I am grateful.

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