A cautionary tale about where to turn when your juice runs low on the road

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Thursday I'd catch a flight from Boston to San Diego, arriving in time to relax before the dinner at which I was to say a few words. Friday I'd drive to Burbank for business and then visit friends for the weekend. Sunday I'd board a plane for Seattle to report a story. And on Tuesday I'd catch the red-eye home.

I had a desk full of things to do, but I planned to use my time in planes and hotel rooms to work on files I'd loaded onto the hard drive of my freshly charged notebook computer -- a Toshiba Satellite T2400CT -- and to correspond by E-mail with my colleagues at the office (where I am notorious for being an E-mail junkie) and the freelance writers with whom I was working to produce a special issue of Inc.

I'd start by making notes for my dinner remarks and then faxing them to the front desk of the hotel so that I could use the printout when I spoke Thursday night. The notebook was a godsend, my ticket to productivity, a magic machine. By the time I got back to Boston, I'd have my Seattle column practically written.

The dinner went well, exactly as planned. At the hotel I'd taken the machine to the pool to write up my notes -- unplugging the recharger, which I'd plugged in for a battery charge to replace the juice I'd used on the flight.

The next morning I headed up the coast to Burbank. Somewhere around San Clemente, a chill came over me. You know the feeling. You think you've forgotten something -- like turning off the stove, or closing the back door, or making sure your two-year-old is in the car for the family trip. Sometimes the panic is for naught. This wasn't one of those times. I reached for the Toshiba, unzipped the case, and felt inside. No recharger. No electrical cord. I'd forgotten to plug the recharger back into the machine after I took the notebook to the pool. I knew what that meant. I'd used up 56% of the juice at the pool. With a 44% charge left on my computer, I had less than an hour's worth of power left -- roughly 52 minutes and 48 seconds -- before I'd be unproductive, out of touch, doomed.

I pulled off to the side of the road and called the hotel. Could the people there please retrieve the charger and cord and send them to me right away? Housekeeping hemmed and hawed. "We can't check your room till this afternoon," the woman on the other end of the line told me, "and even if we find the charger and cord, we can't commit to sending them."

What to do? I'm a journalist for God's sake. I face crises all the time. (All right, I'm a business journalist. I face other people's crises all the time.) And besides, I'm more than halfway to Burbank, which is just outside Los Angeles. How hard could it be to pick up a replacement recharger and a cord?

Very hard. No. Let's make that impossible. On a Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, it's impossible to find a store with a recharger and a cord in stock. I know. I tried.

I arrived at my friends' house in Burbank, got the niceties out of the way, and then said: "You've got to help me find a power cord before everything closes, or I'm screwed." We tore through the Yellow Pages, calling every shop with a Toshiba logo in its ad.

"It'll take at least a week" was the best we heard. I called the chain stores. No go. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

Then one of my friends remembered that a CompUSA store had just opened in the area. There was no listing in the phone book yet, so I got an 800 number from directory assistance.

CompUSA, like an increasing number of businesses, has this nifty technology featured on its 800 number. A voice says you have five choices. You can press your choice or say it aloud. I said "two" and was connected to the nearest CompUSA store. It turns out that the chain has nifty technology but no Toshiba recharger and cord.

"We'd be glad to order it, sir . . ."

"Can you get it to me by Sunday before my plane leaves?"

"This Sunday?"



I'd already calculated that the power I needed to download my E-mail messages from the office would leave me with just 40-something minutes on the notebook. By Sunday, I'd have about half an hour left for the rest of my time in Seattle and my flight home to Boston on Tuesday. So much for productivity. I passed on downloading my E-mail -- a sure sign that anticipatory postpower depression was setting in. Big time.

Then it hit me. The CompUSA store in Brighton, Mass., near where I live back on the East Coast, has a service area that sometimes sells reconditioned machines. Maybe, just maybe, the service area in the Los Angeles store would have a used cord to sell me. I called the 800 number once more. When the lovely computer voice again asked for my selection, "Connect me to the damn service desk" was all I could think to blurt out.

When I finally connected with the service desk in Los Angeles, the people were incredibly helpful. (Okay, so I did hear someone in the background say, "He left his cord in San Diego? Why's he calling us?") They checked for reconditioned Toshibas, rechargers, and power cords in their stash of used goods. Nothing.

"Well, (let's call him) Barry, what do you think I should do?" I didn't expect an answer. I was resigned to making 52 minutes and 48 seconds of power last me the rest of my life.

"Try giving Battery World over in Woodland Hills a call," Barry responded. "Maybe the guys over there can rig something up for you."

"Huh? There's a place called Battery World?"

"Sure. Here's their number. Tell them that Barry from CompUSA sent you."

I called Battery World. At first I got the now-standard "You did what? What do you want me to do about it?" response. But then the tide turned: "Oh, I don't stock Toshiba rechargers, but what are you looking to do?"

"At the very least, I'm looking for something that will let me plug in my machine so I don't eat up any of the 52 minutes and 48 seconds I have left."

"Maybe I can help you," said Mike Hileman, as he put me on hold. Now, when CompUSA puts you on hold, you get music, advertisements, and chatter. On hold at Battery World is deafening silence. You know. That we're-rifling-through-our-dustbins-about-to- tell-you-we-had-what-you-needed-but-just-sold-it silence.

"I got it," Mike the Powerful said when he came back on the line. "We take a car power cord that will plug into your machine and into a car cigarette lighter. We use an adapter to change the cigarette lighter part into an ordinary two-pronged plug that you can plug into any wall socket. The thing won't recharge you; but you'll be able to hold whatever charge is on the machine now. It'll cost you $123.35 with tax."

The next morning I drove to a small strip mall on Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills. There it was: Battery World. Behind a counter in a small retail area was Mike.

"You're the guy," he said, reaching under the counter and getting the parts I needed. I had my Satellite with me, and we tried out the rig. It worked.

"Remember, this won't recharge your battery," Mike cautioned. "When you plug it in, it'll just give you electricity so you don't drain the battery anymore." My 52 minutes and change were frozen in time, as long as I kept the machine plugged in with my new power source. I could work in my hotel room for the two and a half days I'd be in Seattle. Then if I used the machine wisely and efficiently, I'd have enough time on the flight home to eke out a rough draft of a column. (Okay, so maybe not a rough draft. Maybe a detailed outline.)

Somewhere over Cincinnati, the power began to dwindle. I saved my work, shut the notebook, zipped up the case, and slid the machine under the seat in front of me. Sometimes you just don't want to press your luck.

* * *

As an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine, Jeffrey L. Seglin (jeff_seglin@incmag.com) spends a lot of time on the road. If he's low on juice, don't expect a quick response.

* * *

Power Tips on the Road
Keep your battery as fully charged as possible.

Carry a backup battery.

If you need computer parts or help, forget the retail salespeople; call the service people at a place that sells computers. They or someone they know can jury-rig something for you.