Monday, February 21, 2011

Oil & Hay - 16

I'm following Sutcliffe during Friday morning practice, a mist hanging in the Ardennes. It could rain any minute, or it could not, as is always the case at Spa. I measure my progress in telephone poles, in people crowded on the hills, in the groves, the grandstands, in houses and in fields dotted with their cones of hay. My task–my obligation–is to make them disappear, again and again and again.

This track is skittish, temperamental. Deeply unnerving to drive. You're a pest on the body of a beast, vexing its rest; at any moment it might shudder and shake you off.

The rain starts falling in earnest now. Great plumes of spray rise from each of Rodney's rear wheels. He was never too fond of the wet. He enters the corners timidly, erratically, not quite sure when to brake. He overcompensates on the way out, accelerating too soon, letting the rear twitch and go squirrely. He's driving scared and angry, a toxic combination. I know how he feels.

Something terrible happens at the Masta Kink. Rodney's carrying far too much speed into the chicane; he navigates the left sweeper wide but can't turn back into the right. He loses it just before the house on the corner, hits the little concrete lip at the edge of the asphalt and flies off in a shower of mud, grass and debris.

I pulled over on the Holowell straight, got out of the cockpit and ran back to the scene of the shunt. I recognised from a hundred feet away the characteristic aura of the motorsport catastrophe. In the immediate aftermath the atmosphere grows eerie and unstable, as though breached by a precipitate void to which serene, surrounding nature must suddenly conform.

Where was his car?

This phenomenon, this nauseating mood–it occurs no matter what, I realised. Whether the driver's dead or halfway 'round the track on his merry way back to the pits. Is it in my head?

I followed the tracks in the grass past a row of bushes, down a little gulley and back up towards a farmhouse lined with pines. A haze of smoke, faintly discernible in the rain, emanated from a maw in its stone façade. Oil smoke—at least for now.

I scrambled up to the house, climbed through the shattered wall and entered a peaceful living space, a peasant's home adorned with tasteful, bourgeois furnishings and details: a side table with a lace cloth and a vase, a scroll-armed burgundy settee, sepia-toned ancestral portraits on the walls, a crucifix, a cuckoo clock. An antique globe had been devastated, with planet earth torn from its axis to roam around the hardwood floor like a marble. A wrought-iron chandelier swayed creakily overhead.

The gleaming green chassis of the Hewitt-Apogee lay sideways between the salon and kitchen, twisted and bent, hissing malevolently in a deepening pool of its precious fluids. I was struck by the absurdity of its black, diagonal number, on a circle on the bonnet. A scene of such violent incongruity, one world intruding upon another, and here was the only symbol I could see, the only code: 12. I thought again about what Melanie had said. I was frightened. Three wheels were missing but the fourth still spun.

Where was Rodney?

I examined the floor around the car. Nothing. He must have been ejected–mercifully–onto the soft, wet grass outside. I was about to climb back out the wall to look for him when I heard murmurs from down the corridor. I followed them to a partly open door. Pushing on it, I found Sutcliffe lying on a bed, bleeding from the forehead. He was soaked in petrol–its venomous stench filled the room. Two nuns ministered to him on either side, gently fiddling open his fire-retardant suit, dabbing his wounds with a towel.

"Rodney!" I exclaimed. "You're looking a bit second-hand."

"Malcolm, my friend," he answered airily. "My old, dear friend."

"Who are the nuns?" I asked.

"Aren't they lovely?"

The one to my right, the older one, turned to me with a stiff little smile and a bow.

"Monsieur," she said. "Nous étions de passage." We were passing through. Rodney gazed up at the other like a hungry babe.

"Ou sont les... habitants?" I asked in my heavily accented French.

She shrugged. "Ben, ils sont à la course, monsieur. Au Grand Prix. La d'ou vous venez, donc." They're at the race. Of course.

"C'est pas la course aujourd'hui, ma Mère," the younger nun corrected, her eyes fixed on her patient. "C'est les essais." It's not the race today. It's practice.

The other gave the faintest little shrug: Race, practice. What do I care what these men do? What do I know of these things?

It occurred to me that we must leave with the utmost urgency.

"Faut partir! Faut partir tout de suite!" I yelled.

The younger nun and I each took one of Rodney's arms over our shoulders and the three of us staggered back out the bedroom, Mother Superior in tow. Down the corridor we went, past the wreckage, out the kitchen and down a little path to the dirt lane that led back to the track. There we found a gendarme who advised us that an ambulance was just now on its way. We waited there, Rodney splayed out on the grass, the nun pressing the bloodied towel against his brow as the Mother knelt piously nearby. Arms crossed, the cop beheld our little scene impassively. Then we heard a hollow boom.We looked up to see a fireball engulf the farmhouse, black smoke and sparks beating up against the rain. From far away we heard a siren's dreary melody grow louder.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I descended into the 15th Street station, noting how clean it seemed, and empty. Lying in my path as I turned a corner was a toothbrush.

On the train a discarded Coke can fell over from the motion and leaked a slow rivulet down the center of the car. A man at the end halted his conversation to peer at the nearing trickle.

The Enterprise - 29

Neil was pissed. He called a meeting, all the execs (minus Sam), the team leads, plus me and David. Sales, dev, creative, marketing and operations. Judy and Bill were to call in from out west. He included links to some of the more provocative user session transcripts in his e-mailed invite and noted that he wanted these to serve as a "kickoff point" for a brainstorming session to "determine lessons learned," "adapt to new realities" and "establish best strategies moving forward." He remained standing even as the rest of us were seated.

"Did everyone take a look at the links I sent?" he began.

We nodded and murmured our assent. Neil made a brusque gesture of his open hand, signaling impatience.

"And?" he demanded.

A few seconds of silence ensued.

"Anyone have anything to say about it?"

Finally Bob spoke up. "It's interesting."

"Interesting?! What kind of a goddamned thing to say is that?"

Bob smirked and twiddled his pencil.

"Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone wanna tell me why I'm just a little concerned about our user base? Anyone?"

Dennis, our amiable and ingenuous COO, spoke up from his seat in the back of the room.

"They struck me as a little bit rude, Neil."

We agreed, thankful that someone had confronted the question at last. We looked hopefully at our leader.

"And why the fuck are they rude, Dennis? Why?"

Dennis grimaced and recoiled into a helpless shrug.

"Can't anyone in this room tell m–"

Just then Judy's voice crackled through the tricorn phone. "Neil? Neil? Neil?"

"Judy?" Neil responded, leaning over with his hands on the table. Debbie was visible behind him, poking her camera around his shoulder. Its lens ranged over us like the snout of a predatory beast.

"I don't know what everyone's observing on your side," Judy began diplomatically, "but my takeaway is that our audience skews young."

Neil stood straight back up and launched a volley of sarcastic applause.

"Thank you Judy. Thank you." Then he addressed us all again. "That wasn't too goddamn hard, was it? Do you all understand what Judy is saying here?"

"Our demographic is young?" piped in Derek.

"THEY'RE KIDS!" howled Neil. "THEY ARE FUCKING KIDS! For Christ's Jesus sake."

"Well, of course they're kids," Tom rejoined bravely.

"Of course they're kids?!"

"They are early adopters of technology, man."

"That's it," chimed Bob.

Neil shook his head incredulously and emitted a coarse, unhappy chuckle.

"Guys, guys, people: they are early adopters of shit."
"But Neil, kids are on the leading edge of texting, of instant messaging," Cindy noted.

"They're on the leading edge of profanity, Cindy," Neil groaned. "They are pioneers on the frontier of vulgarity. They are the explorers of the scatological depths. They are–what do you call it? In the caves?"

"Spelunkers," I offered.

"Spelunkers. Thank you, Paul. They are spelunkers in the ass of our culture."

"I dunno, Neil," Bob insisted. "The kids of today are the adults of tomorrow." He looked around for some support. "Am I right?"

"Bob. Did you read the transcripts?"

Bob sighed and bowed his head. We all knew Neil was right.

"Question: How the fuck do we monetize this? Excuse me. Sorry." Neil closed his eyes and drew a breath. "Rephrase that: How do we monetize this? I'm serious. I'm all ears."

After a sad lull, Bob responded: "Let's instruct them to find their mother's purses, take out the credit card."

A ripple of dark laughter traversed the room.

"Type the digits into the little window. Please? Kid?"

"And the expiration date," added Derek.

"The expiration date. Four digits always," said Bob.

"We'll need the full name as it appears on the card," Cindy added.

"Mrs. Whatever. Whoever Whatever. Your mom's full goddamned name, kid."

"Mrs. Mommy Mom," I said.

"The special code on the back," David noted. "Three-digit code."

"Three or four depending," Bob corrected. "American Express."

We all were laughing hard. I looked up at Neil. He was laughing too. At least for now.

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Enterprise - 28

I'd managed to leave my last job for this one rather than get laid off, which would soon have been my fate. It was another Web startup,, founded by a few American ex-pats in Budapest in the mid- to late-nineties and transplanted to New York City when it caught wind in the first boom.

Its arc was emblematic of the era: a few friends – smart, young, ambitious – intertwine their fates, breaking down the barriers between work and play, between the professional and the personal. They observe sweatshop hours, they drink and fuck, they snowball-fight in the cobbled streets of a medieval city recently liberated from Soviet rule. Soon strangers are hired, strangers much like themselves but strangers nonetheless. Some are American, some Hungarian. Most are agreeable. Some less so. One has body odor and carries his belongings in a backpack everywhere. All are integrated into the fold. They are called upon to believe that the world is changing; that they are agents of its change; that they shall inherit it, too.

Like magic one day, an intrepid and visionary investor rained millions of dollars upon the venture. Its holding company came to be traded on the Vienna Stock Exchange. The headquarters were relocated to a vast space on Broadway just below Prince, with shiny wood floors. Satellite offices opened in London, Chicago, San Francisco.

What did this company produce? Games. Not graphically sophisticated first-person shooters, adventures or races, but rather trivia games of various configurations. Short ones, long ones. Individual player. Multi-player. Music trivia. TV, sports. History. True or false, multiple choice. All of the above. I was hired to write the questions.

When I arrived in 1999 the office had just moved from SoHo to the garment district, from retail to wholesale, to 35th Street, in the workaday shadow-realm between Penn Station and Times Square. The reason for this was its acquisition of, merger with, or acquisition by another concern that specialized in one thing: prizes. They awarded shiny merchandise to anyone who lingered long enough on their site, clicking around, absorbing brand impressions. You could collect points and bid them on a mousepad, a travel alarm, six Omahan filet mignons in dry ice. The executives and boards of both companies agreed there were tremendous synergetic opportunities here. Huge upside. Big gestalt. Their union seemed to be written in the stars.

The first order of business was to merge the two databases of tens of millions of registered users. Engineers with thick accents were flown over from Hungary to evaluate exigencies, examine risks, model schemas and perform test runs. Shouts were often audible from behind the conference room door. An atmosphere of solemn purpose permeated the office, as one might find at NASA ground control or Allied Headquarters in the weeks before D-Day. I kept my head down. Wrote the trivia.

By November, a site redesign had been launched to decidedly mixed reviews from both inside and out. Millions were spent on an ad campaign: national television, radio, billboards, digital. The TV spot featured a group of businessmen in suits busting out of prison and running jubilantly through a field, doing cartwheels, tearing off their ties and hurling their briefcases into a pond. No allusion was made anywhere to the purpose or even the characteristics of the site. The company also underwrote a backmarking team in the CART open-wheel racing series. One morning on my way to work I was jolted from my sleepy stupor to find our name and slogan – "There's a riot going on!" – adorning the side of the bus I was to ride.

The combined company grew bigger still. One day in December, a global e-mail announced that, moving forward, we would all be required to share our cubicles. My mate was a female database manager from India who smiled shyly and spoke halting, fractured English. She reported to the CTO, a Chinese wiz known as Dr. Bill. He came around periodically to bark out instructions in his own stilted syntax. "Prepare user geography distribution statistics for analysis! Column here! Column B! B!" Then he'd wander off and she'd poke around her screen for a couple of hours. It appeared to me that she never understood a word of Bill's commands. Then she'd speak to her husband on the phone for fifteen minutes, put on her coat, and leave with a smile and a wave goodbye.

A public offering on the NASDAQ exchange was scheduled for early 2000. It happened that a week beforehand, the market, which heretofore had emerged as the newest wonder of the world, magnificent and ever glorious, had plunged by about ten percent. The new president of the company, Jeff Travis, gathered everyone in the unoccupied tenth floor of the building for a pep talk. All was well, he said. Evidently he and the CEO and COO had been on a dog and pony show, lining up investors around the globe. Pension funds, mutual funds. Hedge funds. A spendthrift Arab prince. "We're gonna get there," he said. "Keep doing the great work that you're doing."

I chanced upon the three executives on my way out of the elevator one evening as they returned from a few days on the road. Their spooked, ashen faces gave the impression that they'd each, in turn, tiptoed to the edge of the abyss and taken long, pensive looks into its darkest reaches.

Many of us participated in the pre-IPO reserved for employees and other privileged parties. The strike price was thirty-four dollars per share. I threw in, I don't know, five thousand dollars. I even roped in a friend of mine to do the same. I parried his doubts about the investment with something like this: People will always love trivia. But something didn't feel right on the big day. We all observed the price obsessively. It twitched up to thirty-five then slid slowly over the course of the afternoon, settling at thirty-two something. I remembered some fine print somewhere about a twenty-four-hour grace period. I phoned the Merrill Lynch broker who was in charge of our accounts and canceled my bid. The following day, the stock tumbled another five points. Within a month it was trading in the low single digits.

A round of layoffs soon came, followed by another a few weeks later. The second took my own boss, Margaret, a fastidious and demanding editor with decades of experience. Finally we remained a patchy crew, barely able to keep the site updated. We devoted ourselves desperately to the slightest revenue-generating hope. Most were dashed as advertisers pulled out of deals and partners closed shop.

There was a methadone clinic next door. As the weather warmed, junkies sometimes lay passed out against the wall, legs splayed like they'd been shot.

Most nights, we'd gather after work at the wood-paneled Irish bar on the corner, making dark little jokes about the way things were.

The company was sold again, on the cheap, to a direct marketing billionaire. He installed his dour, headstrong, imbecilic son, who appeared to be about twenty-three years old, as chief executive of the dying operation. They picked our bones and declared that virtually everyone would be laid off come September. I was told I'd keep my rum ration if I stayed aboard the sinking ship until the last mast disappeared into the sea. I got my new job instead.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

There's an undercurrent of disenchantment, bitterness and regret in middle class American life that's not present in Europe or elsewhere. This is attributable to the "American Dream" and all its derivations and perversions. We have high hopes here. High aspirations. What that means, of course, is that many - perhaps most - of us will be disappointed. In Europe, they may take to the streets, they may or may not extract what they desire from their authorities, but when they put up their feet for tea (or wine, or beer) they are largely content. Here we seethe through an evening's reality TV until our senses are sufficiently numbed to drift into fitful slumber. I am also certain that this, combined with our fetishization of guns (maybe the two are related) is why we experience gone-postal massacres with a regularity you could set your watch to. The Land of Opportunity is necessarily also the Land of Failure.
Sometimes it seems like she knows something I don't. Not the other way around. Somewhere between her helplessness and her inarticulate demands there lies a spirit of daunting authority, all the more powerful for its inscrutability. And sometimes she smiles as if to say, "I know you know."

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

I noticed the synagogue on Eighth Avenue for the first time today as we took the baby to the doctor for her shots. A vast building with stained glass and a Star of David perched atop the cupola, stark in the white winter sky. I felt foolish for not having noticed it before. This is our neighborhood.

A minute later, a thin woman pushing a stroller smiled at us and stopped.

"Excuse me," she said. "Is there a synagogue near here somewhere?"