Away as a Stranger

I’ll admit it. One of the things many scholars secretly enjoy about the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is discount rates at fancy hotels. Unless things have changed drastically since my teaching days, professors don’t make enough to spend nights at four-star hotels as a matter of course. This year, however, Routledge pulled the rug out from under me less than a month before the conference. I had to cancel my reservation and forget the dreams of a leisurely train ride to Baltimore, a nice walk to a luxury hotel, and four days of schmoozing with the intellectuals (or at least those who are considered smart enough to write books). Then, Oxford University Press. I started work on Monday, and by Friday I was attending AAR/SBL. But with a twist. All the hotels were full—not a room in Bethlehem, I mean, Baltimore. So I had to find a run-down hotel several miles away and drive four hours to get there frazzled and decidedly unacademic. Still, map is not territory.

worldmap

Getting back to the hotel from the Convention Center, I had technology issues. You see, I didn’t have time to plan the trip out this year. I had no maps, figuring my smartphone was more intelligent than I (I don’t set a very high bar). Alas, for the GPS on my phone knows Baltimore less well than me, apparently. When the scenery turned industrial and I could see the ocean although my hotel is miles west of the city, I knew I was loss. My GPS, groping for dignity, kept instructing me to make u-turns on the interstate. Finally, I pulled off an exit and tried to use dead reckoning. Baltimore, like most cities, has problem areas. My GPS took me on a tour of them, as darkness was falling. Boarded up row houses leered at me as I took each turn the phone dictated. I noticed with alarm that the low battery indicator had come on and I was nowhere near anything that looked like a conference center, highway, hotel, or even Salvation Army. I had trusted technology, and it had let me down. Finally, with 8 percent battery power remaining, I spied my seedy hotel in the distance. I was never so relieved.

I have attended this conference since 1991 (I’ll leave the reader to do the math), and only one year did I not stay at a conference hotel. I think I remember why. People are discarded here. Entire cities left to crumble. Without a map, I witnessed territory that I’d rather not have seen. My academic friends, I know, were tipping back a glass, knowing that they had only to find the elevators to be home. Map is territory. And the terrain is untamed. We have created our urban jungles, and it will take more than a GPS to get our way through them. Tomorrow I will try again, if my trembling fingers can find the ignition, so that I can drive to where the more fortunate dwell. Some dreams are best left undreamt.

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