Standing in the Shadow of a Giant

I once stood only a few feet away from greatness.

Walt Mossberg, the renowned journalist who writes for The Wall Street Journal, was waiting for his luggage at the Sahara Casino in Las Vegas.

We were both there for a reason. Back in the heady days before the Sahara turned into a ghost town blocked by do-not-cross signs and barbed wire fences, when the carpet wasn’t caked with tequila stains and coffee burns, this fine establishment was as close as you could get to the Consumer Electronics Show without having to hail a taxi. In the morning, you could sit down for a $15 leisurely breakfast buffet before taking a walk up to the show. Rooms were $89 a night, sans cockroaches.

I was waiting for the valet. Back then, I had made arrangements to test out an Infiniti G37 during the expo, which someone had driven up all the way from LA. I noted the difference in our attire. I was wearing dress pants and a suit-coat, a clear sign that I was either a well-paid public relations staffer or a clueless blogger. And, I wore dress shoes and black socks.

Mossberg was wearing brown khaki pants and running shoes. They were not the expensive kind, probably Brooks or New Balance.

He seemed relaxed and unencumbered, likely because it was only Day Two of the convention and he was already headed to the airport. This could only mean one thing: he had probably arrived early for NDA meetings, knocked off a few booth tours, and had already seen everything worth seeing. I was barely even cognizant I was in Vegas, let alone at CES, with a full plate of meetings set for days to come.

Coincidentally, his taxi pulled up at the same time as my Infiniti. I thought, this is my chance. I’ll explain that I’m also a journalist visiting the convention for a few days. I had the conversation all planned out.

“Well, originally I had arranged a Mercedes S550, the model with attention monitoring, but I was more impressed by the lane-keeping intervention system of the G37,” I’d say, showing my automotive acumen.

“I never imagined!” he’d say with awe and possibly a hint of jealousy.

“You learn the tricks,” I’d say. “Takes a while. You have to call ahead first and make arrangements. Explain your testing regimen.”

He’d smiled knowingly at my journalistic foresight. As you can guess, The Wall Street Journal does not employ schmucks. Mossberg would know all about a testing regimen, having received so many early peeks at Apple products and written so convincingly about laptops and tablet computers. He’s in a different league, the kind that stays at the Sahara Casino knowing you can walk to CES. The kind that wears running shoes.

“I’d stay and chat with you, Walt, but I have a meeting with Microsoft in a few minutes. I’m cutting it close, but I don’t mind keeping Steve Ballmer waiting. Keeps him curious, you know?”

Of course, I’d be lying through my teeth.

The truth is, when I have meetings with Microsoft, they are usually to see new keyboards. The closest I’ve come to meeting Steve Ballmer was that one year, when I sat in the fifth row during his keynote address. And, honesty, I usually have to buy Apple stuff. I’m one of the minions with enough name recognition to get a CES badge and a two-day with Infiniti.

I do have a few journalist goals, though. I want to make my mark on this world, have my day in the sun. In other words, stop using so many cliches.

A friend of mine likes to joke with me about how many products I’ve tested over the years. I keep saying 12,000 but it is probably more. One goal is to test a refrigerator in my own home. That’s unlikely, given the shipping costs. I might have to settle for a dorm model. (Ironically, that almost happened this week; it’s a long story I will probably tell in my next post. Bated breath, right?) My other goal is to write for the New Yorker, probably a fiction piece or possibly something on conflict minerals in smartphones.

Anyway, to finish my story, I never did have that conversation with Walt Mossberg. He slid into the backseat of his taxi, and I plopped my bags into the trunk of the Infiniti. He drove off, and I could still sense his jovial mood – whisked into the fast lane, spirited away to the big time.

I saddled into the G37 and thought about my lot in life. See, for the first three or four years of my writing career, I was the freelance router guy at LAPTOP magazine – the kind of lofty position you dream about in grade school. I didn’t have to call people about testing a new router model, they called me. I had a rigid testing criteria that involved producing robust benchmarks and reporting on all of the sanguine details. There are people who still talk about my reviews from back in those early days, usually with an airy fondness.

Eventually, I landed a few more gigs. I’ve written for both Pop Mech and Pop Sci. At one music magazine, I’ve been a reviewer for so long I’ve had two editors named Tyler. I once interviewed 50 Cent, and I almost interviewed Tim Tebow. But in terms of any grand journalistic gesture, a magnum opus if you will, I’m still waiting for that to happen. Some 8,000 articles later, I can say I have my picture in a national magazine every month. I took it myself.

Journalism is a bit like pushing a large boulder up a street. You keep one eye on the business at hand, and one on the road ahead. You’re always pushing, trying to get somewhere, but you’re not always sure where.

Someday, I’d like to find out where the heck I’m going.

But here’s the funny part of my story. I was fresh out of cash that day when I picked up the G37. So I had to apologize to the valet. She gave me a death stare and walked off. Seated in the G37, I clicked into drive and edged away from the valet stand. But I had forgotten to close the hatch. The valet clerk was pointing and laughing at me. And I think I heard her say something…

“Yeah, he’s not exactly Walt Mossberg, is he?”

No, not exactly.


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