There was a moment during my stay in Atlanta last week, which just happened to double as an experience in the Western Hemisphere's tallest hotel, where I thought could reach up and just feel all the corporate goo in the air.

I and two others were contained in this clean, automated universe of money, money, money sprouting into the sky. Forget genteel. Forget Southern accents. The capital o' the Peach was a perfect reminder that cash is the world's best means of integration in a region steeped in tradition. Either way, the convention we were in town for, no less than the town itself, provided an interesting view of another world.

The Westin Peachtree hotel is undoubtedly the tallest hotel in the United States. It says so right there in the brochure. Seventy floors. And 70 floors equals 20-minute waits for elevators.

There was a sign, right at the bottom of the hotel, that said they were "modernizing" the elevators. That sign will be up for 10 months. There is no more modernizing left to do. Nah, they're just slow.

Automation forces ya to do funny things. To go down the elevator, you get on when it's going up. Then stop at every floor until 70. Then stop at every floor on the way down.

And watch more and more people try and pack into the elevator. Women and children first. On the fourth day, things boiled over into a fight.

Two girls, same age, one taller than the other, both wearing those shoes that alternate, clip-clop, against feet and floor. Both blondes. Both all dudded up, out for a hot night on the seasonably mild town. Both in the midst of a 20-minute elevator wait on the 60th floor.

Girl 1: "And so we did this thing in our class about the Civil War, I don't know, some story about a battle that happened back then ... "

Girl 2: "Omigod. You should talk to my dad. He's so into that crap. We used to go to all those battle places all over the South: Antietam, Lexington, Bull Durham, Vicksburg, that court house in North Carolina ... and I was like 'Omigod, Dad, get over it, these people died like 100 years ago. It's ended.'"

Girl 1: "No kidding."

Southerners are picky. A McDonald's wasn't too far away from the 70-floor elevator wait. Sixty people in line for breakfast. And the man in front of me, Bible in hand, big fancy suit hanging off his shoulders, orders the following: coffee, muffin and one of those Styrofoam cylinders of hot cakes and sausage. Simple enough. And so he got his food on a plasti-tray and the demands began.

"Three jellies," he says.

So he gets the jelly.

"Not strawberry. Grape."

So he gets grape.

"I need one cream, six sugars for the coffee."

Cream and sugar.

"Two of those stirring things."

Two stirrers.

"Couple more syrups."

That'll cost ya 40 cents extra, preacher man.

"I'll pay for it."

He's got the syrup.

"Cup of water."

Cup of water.

"Bigger cup."

Bigger cup.

"No ice."

No ice.

"Uh, I need another tray."

Nine minutes later, I didn't have to heart to ask for my basic food staple of ketchup, which I eat with everything. So I ate my McMuffin in defeat, minus the tangy goodness.

Atlanta is the headquarters for, among other things, CNN. They've got this show, "Talk-Back Live" (where YOU can TALK BACK LIVE!) Our editor, Josh, smooth smoothie that he is, filched some reserved tickets the night before when we snuck in to look at the new basketball arena. So we got prime seats.

The show isn't all it's cracked up to be. Only about three people spoke live on the show. Still some guy saw me on the tube, so my 15 minutes of fame, at least in that guy's eyes, are over. Our topic was the Cleveland school closing Friday because of another Columbine-type plot. Kinda boring.

CNN itself, at least the part I saw, was impressive. There's a hotel in there.

Unfortunately, Larry King is in Washington, not Atlanta. And James Earl Jones, I don't know where he lives.

I was on my way to a movie. I got lost. Which is the best thing that could've happened.

It forced my eventual stumbling upon the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center, a place I wanted to see while I was there but couldn't find. Sounds stupid, but it found me.

I always had a keen sense of King's place in American history. And his memorial, like his life, is pleasantly stripped of fancy or grandeur. It is a honest, respectful place, worthy of his reputation. It was the highlight of the trip.

The Olympics, held here in 1996, still hang in the air in Atlanta. Centennial Park (bomb central) was a half block from the hotel. Olympic Stadium, now renamed Turner Field, isn't far away either. Atlanta knows how to keep its tradition.

Take its old baseball stadium, now made into a parking lot. The walls are still up, as is the spot where Henry Aaron's 715th home run went out of the park. At night it's lit up, and I had to walk down to see. It was a fine memorial. And it smelled like shit.

I walked around to the back of the thing and looked. And there was a meaty loaf, still reasonably fresh.

"Homeless," a guy said from behind me. He was taking pictures.

Not of the memorial. Of the shit.

Hsu's Chinese Restaurant had a certain charm of the second rate. Food was great - service, too - but the owners of the place had put up pictures of celebrities that had been there. There was LaToya Jackson. Keith Carradine. Other folks long forgotten or relegated to late-night TNT.

"Is that (Boston pitcher) Pedro Martinez?" one patron asked.

"No," a waitress said. "That's his brother, Ramon."

There was a conversation from the table next to me during dinner. I was eating alone - I do that often, even in towns I've never been to before. Don't know why. The two guys talking were clearly business partners, not to mention recovering drunks.

"I remember I used to wake up in the middle of the night," the old man said, "just to have a drink. The bottle would be gone by morning. Gone."

"We were stiffs, both of us," the other man said. "We had to learn that first. Everything in moderation."

"Whatever addiction it may be," the old man said, "sex, drugs, booze, money, love, hate - it has to be moderated. Life is a series of moderations."

"Who said that?"

"You did."

"Fuck, no. I don't remember it. When did I say that?"

"At a party once. You were drunk."

"I don't remember it."

The old man took a drink of his water.

"I have never forgotten it."