Expensive way to make a point

October 26, 2007

Casual clobber might have a certain credibility on campus, says Kevin Fong, but it doesn't win you much respect in the real world. Within universities our ability to reject the power suit in favour of something altogether more chilled out is surely cause for celebration. I used to take great pride in my lecturer's anti-uniform, often dressing so casually that I was indistinguishable from my students. This I thought improved my corridor-cred, demonstrating without question that I was down with the kids.

So I turned up for a conference in Silicon Valley looking like that. The average dotcom innovator looks not dissimilar to any other Californian skateboarder dude, and again I congratulated myself on my carefully cultivated slacker image.

The problems began after the conference when I briefly ventured into the real world.

Getting off the train in San Francisco, attired in shorts, T-shirt, flip- flops and backpack, I began hunting for a place to stay.

I found a respectable looking woman and, in my best Hugh Grant accent, asked her where I might find a hotel.

She smiled and without missing a beat pointed down the street and said: "The youth hostel is that way." I smiled back, understanding where she was going with this and assured her that I was looking for a hotel.

Respectable Looking Woman frowned, did a bit of thinking and then told me that the less expensive hotels were quite a few blocks away. I asked her where I might get a taxi, which as we all know is the international code for "despite appearances, I'm a fellow professional and a man of means".

She frowned again, waving vaguely in some direction or other before telling me that I'd be better off catching a bus. Defeated and insulted I stomped off down the street.

Still hurting from this encounter I hit the main downtown drag determined to find quality accommodation befitting a globetrotting flashpacker. And there, as if in answer to my prayers, I stumbled upon the San Francisco Hyatt Regency like a glittering palace, an "up yours" to that silly old bag and her obsession with budget bed and breakfasts.

I figured it might be priced on the higher side but I only needed a room for a night: how much could it possibly be?

The answer to this question was $320 (£160). As I reeled from the shock of that number with the receptionist shooting me a sceptical "You? Stay here? Yeah right" kind of look, I thought carefully about my dilemma.

To turn around and mope off into the distance would confirm the worst prejudices of the hideous you-are-what-you-wear brigade that seemed to inhabit this town. Worse still, it would make me look cheap. But to stand on principle and hand over my credit card would make a gargantuan hole in my home finances from which I might never recover.

Thirty minutes later I found myself standing in a room overlooking the Bay Bridge in temporary possession of Egyptian cotton sheets, a king-size bed, less money, low self-esteem and the thorny problem of how I would eventually explain this item on the credit card bill.

There too was the depressing realisation that Trinny and Susannah might be on to something after all and that perhaps I should start wearing some slightly more grown-up clothes.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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