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March 24, 2005

Keep Austin Weird

The Detritus Of A Failed Technology Revolution

Like many modern cities, Austin is afflicted with the blight of urban sprawl. Endless acres of big-box stores, above-ground utilities, and pawn shops. The thing that struck me the most though, were the tell-tale signs of the South. Mom-and-pop barbeque stands, neon crab shacks, and Tex-Mex restaurants.

At work, a few dozen government employees were stuffed into a large windowless office. Drop ceiling…raised floor…pale walls…dim fluorescent lights. No cubicles to protect personal space. Every nook and cranny was stuffed with obsolete technology. The detritus of a failed technology revolution. Everyone afraid to toss something out without a mandate from the state.

Computers were stacked on top of computers. Office desks were pushed back to back like partners desks. Faded monitors sat on unopened reams of paper. Rotting mouse-pads…school-room clocks…faded dreams.

The clients commuted unhurriedly to work from aging brick cells in the suburbs. At work, they shuffled across the squeaking raised floor of the office. They spoke into their phones in hushed whispers and secreted cokes in illicit, clandestine refrigerators.

The consultants flew in and out of town like a metronome. They ate out and lived in hotels, kissing their cell phones goodnight. Brightly polished and noticeably decorated, they walked delicately through the office toting laptops, palm pilots, and MP3 players. Jetlagged and strung out on Starbucks, they mingled uneasily with the clients.

I was passed from person to person like a baton in a Special Olympics relay. From Cecelia to Millie to Sandra to Jill. A hot potato that no one wanted to deal with. The client had no idea who I was or what I was there for. But it didn’t matter. The taxpayers were footing the bill.

“Here’s a badge. You can sit there or there. Try not to make too much noise. Don’t leave any food on your desk, and watch out for Oscar.?

“Who’s Oscar?? I asked.

“He’s about this long…and has a tail about as long again.?

“Did this use to be a computer room?? I asked. I had noticed the raised floor and the Halon fire extinguishers in the ceiling.

“Yeah. Because of the raised floor, it’ll get unbelievably cold in here too. You’ll want to bring a jacket.?

I accepted Jill’s hint and offered to take her to lunch. Outdoors, at The Central Market, she removed her jacket. It was 86 degrees, and 100 percent humidity. I saw a bumper sticker on a car parked beside us that said Keep Austin Weird.

“It’s cold in the office. Don’t forget to bring your jacket next week.? She cautioned.

“I won’t.?

“I’ll need your timesheets once a week. Are you going to work four tens…Monday through Thursday?? She asked.

“I’m aiming to.? I replied.

“Well…we probably won’t get forty hours this week. Maybe next week though.?

When we returned from lunch, a large truck was partially blocking her reserved parking place. It was a Ford F150 truck with a crew cab and the full-length eight-foot bed.

“Probably another consultant? she mused. “He’s probably living in the back of it.?

After lunch, I went to meet with Betty. She had wandered in around 9:30, and postponed any work related discussions until the afternoon. But now, she decided that I should wait another hour.

Whilst I waited, I downloaded the Novell client for my laptop. The entire world had long ago abandoned Novell in favor of NTFS and NT domains. Somehow, the client had missed the bulletin.

For reasons that weren’t clear to me, they hoarded reams of legal-sized paper at the office. They whispered to each other, winked, and nodded about their secret caches of paper.

“I’ve got a ream in my filing cabinet…An’ I know where two more are if y’all promise not to tell…?

At my desk, I went through every drawer, and read every scrap of paper. It’s sort of expected that you will do this. In theory, it’s not that I’m nosy, it’s that I’m just trying to get myself up to speed. In reality, it’s because I’m nosy. I found a StarTac cellphone charger in the bottom drawer. Score!

After a while, I finally got a chance to meet with Betty. She explained to me the progress she had made on the commitment accounting. She showed me some documents she had prepared…horribly complicated graphs, charts, and spreadsheets…probably all just gibberish. I decided to call her bluff.

“What about this little squiggle here? Does Commitment Accounting really feed Payroll?

“Payroll reads commitment accounting to get the actual budget amounts? she explained…a look of concern and pain slid uneasily across her face.

“Oh sure. Yeah…there’s always that…? I countered.

It was readily apparent that she didn’t need my assistance. But I asked if I could copy her notes and review them. She agreed, so I spent the rest of the day making copies of documents. After returning her originals, I reviewed my copies, and marked on them generously, pretending to understand them.

After everyone else had left, I slipped out of the building and headed down to the University of Texas. Along the way, I suffered the violently brutal heat of the Texas summer. No one could deny its misery. On campus, I deduced that school was out for the summer. The late afternoon sun had chased off any superfluous pedestrians.

Later, I paraded up and down Sixth Street, delusional, mumbling to myself about the heat until I fell inside a jazz club to ameliorate my suffering in the air conditioning over a fried oyster po-boy. It was shaping up to be a long, hot summer.

One Step Forward – Two Steps Back

Tuesday morning, we had a meeting with the end users. The end users are the people that actually have to use the PeopleSoft application. They get paid to try to hammer people into the system, by hook or by crook, to get them hired, enrolled in benefits, and paid on a regular basis. Their job would be challenging for an intelligent person, so one can only imagine how frustrating it must be the imbeciles and circus pinheads that they hire as end users.

When you’re new to a group, the org chart looks as flat as a Texas highway. Usually, even the introductions are superficial.

“Hi. I’m Joe….I’m Kristine…I’m Janet.?

You need to know who the rainmakers are. Nothing is so futile as trying to kiss up to the people that can’t help you. You have to watch closely to try to divine the org chart. The subtle nuances in the communication. You watch to see who interrupts whom. Verbal inflections. Body language. Eye contact.

At the meeting, Kristine was clearly the king of the frogs. For years, she’d been asking for the IT department to copy the funding distributions from time and labor into commitment accounting, and somehow they still couldn’t get it right.

“Can you help us straighten out this mess?? Kristine asked, looking at me, and turning her back on the IT department. When she spoke, they rolled their eyes like they were in a Broadway play. It was the quintessential opening salvo.

“I’ll try to.? I offered. “I’ve set up commitment accounting before, but everyone does it a little differently. What seems to be the problem??

“Mostly the users keying in bad data? the IT department fired back. When they spoke, Kristine closed her eyes like she had a migraine. “Someone keyed in that they worked negative three hundred hours in May…things like that.?

“I’ll take a look at it.? I offered, not wanting to allow anymore grandstanding that absolutely necessary.

“Also, we’re going to change every department in the system at the same time we go live with commitment accounting and roll over to the new fiscal year.? Kristine continued.

“Why not?? I thought. No reason in keeping things easy. I could see she was insane. She had no idea what she was saying. Possibly, she had an undiagnosed tumor, making it impossible for her to think clearly. I considered suggesting she get an MRI on her lunch break.

“You’d need to rebuild your Time and Labor profiles, all of your department budget tables, insert all new effective dated job rows. You can do it, but it will take a lot of work. We’ll need to test it. Right now, our interface is off by eighty thousand dollars, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.?

“We also want to get rid of a lot of the account codes in HR. There’s a lot of account codes set up that we don’t use. It’s confusing.? Kristine explained.

“We can inactivate the ones that you’re not using. I’ll look into it.? I offered.

The DBA spoke up. “We want to just delete them.? She offered.

“We’re not going to delete them.? I said, more flatly than I had intended. “PeopleSoft doesn’t use Oracle’s referential integrity. It will allow you to delete valid data. You’ll lose the account code descriptions in other tables. We’ll inactivate them instead.?

“But they take up space. I want them to go away.? The DBA whined. The DBA is a position for women. It allows you to give them something to do that is technically technical, but not as challenging as programming. It was fairly easy to do, and once it was set up, it was hard to screw up. They just liked to keep things neat and orderly. The DBA’s spend most of their time surfing the web and take three hour lunches. Any janitor could do it, if they didn’t mind working during the day.

“Then buy more hard drives. You’re only talking about thirty thousand rows, anyway. Disk space is cheap. We’re not about to start deleting rows from the relational database.?

People began to scribble notes on their notepads. Things were beginning to look up. Suddenly, it seemed like there might be some work for me. Maybe I’d be asked to stick around until October.

“Robert isn’t going to be here after September first? Jill interjected. I felt like a dove shot from the sky by a 12 gauge.

Pig Knuckles

By Tuesday afternoon, I finally had e-mail. When I came back from lunch, a morbidly obese man was in my chair, stabbing at my keyboard with fat, stubby, pig-knuckle fingers. His skin was stretched taut over an ocean of fat, like the skin of a grape. Sweat dripped from his uncertain fingers into my keyboard.

“I’m just setting up your Outlook account…if I can remember how to do it.?

By the end of my second day on the job, I had a phone, an email address, a computer, a security badge, and IDs and passwords to Novell, Oracle, and PeopleSoft. This was practically unheard of. So what if the computer was slow and the computer monitor seemed somewhat diminutive. I was working!

Armed with my technology, I decided to wade through the application and research the funding adjustment problem they’d reported to me. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. The distribution percentages didn’t sum to one hundred percent. The grand totals didn’t match. The reports didn’t show any error messages. Just really junior-league type problems.

These are the meat and potato problems of consulting. Trying to explain to the techies how calculate percentages from flat amounts so that it sums up to exactly to 100 percent. First explaining why it matters. Then explaining how to do it. Then explaining why a report needs to have error messages if there are errors. Then explaining that a report has to balance to the penny. Then explaining how to balance the report to the penny. The techies always figure that rounding somehow introduces an certain percentage of error that is endemic to mathematics. This drives the end users crazy, and they end up addicted to Demerol and awash in over-priced consultants.

I spent half the night Monday trying to install the Novell client onto my laptop. I spent half the Tuesday trying to uninstall the same software, after I decided I didn’t really need it. Novell is so desperate for clients, that they don’t include an “uninstall? option in the software. Once it’s installed on a client, it’s taken root and has the tenacity of a virus.

Hotel Living

To the uninitiated, living in a hotel may not seem like a tough row to hoe. Possibly even alluring. Daily maid service…trash service…high-speed internet connections…room service…continental breakfast. The thin veneer of novelty rapidly oxidizes, however, revealing a disturbingly depersonalized, Spartan hell. Every day, a sprite comes into the room. The armoire is moved back to its original position. The television is turned the wrong way. The blinds are opened. The thermostat is adjusted. The giz-soaked comforter is tucked in with enough force to tilt the Empire State Building. No one on Earth knows you are here, but the light on the phone is flashing. “Hello…you have a message?…better get out the phone training manual…see if you can figure out how to retrieve a message.

You undress in the living-room-bed-room-kitchen-all-the-same-Lilliputian-room, before you notice that the sprite opened the blinds again. It’s dark outside. And well lit inside. And you’re on the 18th floor wearing nothing but a wife-beater, when you realize…people could see me from 30 miles away at this altitude.

Frantically, you staple the blinds shut and scribble a note to the maid-sprite:

“If you open my blinds again, I will cut off your fingers and feed them to the alley cats.?

But it doesn’t matter. The maid doesn’t read English. You have a friend transcribe your note into Mexican, but then they swap out the Mexican sprite for a Russian one or a Vietnamese one. And so on and so on ad nauseum.

On Thursday morning, all the consultants checked out of the hotel. It was absurd and sickening to watch…each of them towing their lives behind them on wheels.

Hell’s Kitchen

There’s apparently a crowd of regulars that meets at Harlan’s BBQ in Austin’s Bergstrom International Airport on Thursday afternoons. They’re the last of a dying breed. The consultants that are still hanging on somehow.

The interior of the plane was hot enough to cook meals if there were any, which there weren’t. There’s not really any shade at the airports to park the planes in, so they tend to bake when they’re sitting on the tarmac. They’re scorched by the June sun from above, and infused with radiant heat from the concrete below. For some reason, the fans never work when the planes are on the ground. My kingdom for an engineer to design a plane that can run a fan whilst at rest.

We were half way to Denver before I felt compelled to close the air vent. The flight attendant even suggested that everyone on the port side of the plane close their windows to help the plane’s air conditioner catch up. This only confused the huddled masses. The windows were opened or closed on various sides of the plane, as the poorly-heeled second class Mongols glanced about nervously, like long tailed cats in a room full of rockers.

The commode made a noise like a car driving on a flat tire. The little metal flap in the bowl was flapping up and down, loud enough that you could hear it in the first few rows of second class. Whap-whap-whap-whap-whap-whap-whap it went. The little toe-head next to me was playing with a Nintendo Gameboy. Beep-beep-beep-beep-beep. Somewhere behind us, a baby was crying. That international cry from an immigrant’s baby that will grow up with English as a second language, destined to a life of servitude. I retrieved my earplugs from my backpack and crammed them deep into my inner-ear canals until I felt certain I would to have them surgically removed. It helped, but I still imagined myself suggesting to his mother that he be taken to a vet or an E.N.T. and debarked.

The flying waitress came down the aisle collecting garbage in a hefty bag. She was like every other fat, ugly flight attendant you’ve ever seen, except that she wasn’t fat and she wasn’t ugly. In fact, she was drop-dead gorgeous. Blonde haired…blue eyed...tall…thin…young. No wedding ring. The kind of girl that made you want to buy a cement mixer and pour a new patio in the middle of the night.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we just entered into a holding pattern in Denver due to weather. We have an expected clearance in 33 minutes. Now would be a good time to stretch your legs if you’d like.?

“Stretch your legs? is pilot’s jargon for using the restroom. He should have said “If you’re daring enough to tempt the commode of death, I’d recommend earplugs and a wrist-to-ankle wetsuit.?

Beneath us were the barren fields of Eastern Colorado. So arid, no farmer wasted his toil on them. Fields as bare as the dust bowl in the dirty thirties. Unmolested by tractors. Untainted by vegetation. Above them, we circled. An aluminum vulture on rising thermals. A traffic jam at thirty thousand feet. A mobile dystopia that Orville and Wilbur could never have envisioned.

The tragically hip, gay, heroin addicts from Denver flittered between their seats and the defective forward lavatory. Goatees…shades…short sleeved shirts with abstract patterns. They staggered from the lavatory…pallid faces…sunken eyes. They had to be doing heroin. I began to wonder how low I would sink during my stint in the land of the Austinites.
A Sudden Change In Cabin Pressure

If you’ve ever wondered what it is like to be on a plane when it loses cabin pressure six miles above the Earth, I can tell you its no picnic. Last night, we were flying Frontier Airlines Flight 214. Just as we got up to cruising altitude, the plane unexpectedly began to descend in an ear-popping dive. The blood left my feet and rose into my face. No one made a sound. The intercom was silent. The plane began to plummet.

The plane banked, and began a sharp turn to port, as it continued to fall from the sky. The Boeing began to bounce…turbulence?

The passengers were sweating like sinners in church. Everyone was looking around, but no one had answers in their eyes. Just looks of confusion and fear. The flight attendant walked quickly up the aisle to the cockpit. She stopped at the closed cockpit door and did a secret knock on the reinforced, locked door.

Three sharp, loud knocks, separated by about one second each. The door opened and the flight attendant disappeared into the cockpit.

The other flight attendant was jabbering rapidly into a phone, strapped securely into her jumpseat. My ears were popping. Every time I cleared them, after another minute or two, I’d need to clear them again. Thirty minutes after liftoff, the flight attendant came on the intercom:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are losing pressure. We have turned around and we are going back to Denver. The air masks are going to drop. Do not be alarmed. We are losing pressure.?

Suddenly, everyone in the cabin was talking or waiting for their turn to talk. Some whispered. Some talked out loud. The flight began to deteriorate. The plane bumped and weaved as it dove, and entered yet another sharp turn. A loud hiss or rushing air erupted from the front of the plane, and silenced the spectators. The air grew stale. It was harder to breathe. Where were the oxygen masks? Why wouldn’t they drop? The flight attendants were walking around and smiling, calm as Hindu cows. They were trying to keep people from panicking, answering questions, staggering through the aisle, struggling to stand up. People were holding hands, praying, saying Hail Mary’s, holding coffee cups over their ears. Over the din of the cabin, the loud rushing hiss of air droned on. The flight attendants stayed on their feet, braced betwixt the overhead bins.

The pilot came on the intercom for the first time.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We’re doing fine. We’re going to be landing in Denver. Everything will be OK. Nothing to be alarmed about right now. We’re going to descend to a lower altitude. There is a pressurization problem with the aircraft. Everything is normal for right now. Should be on the ground in Denver in 15 minutes. The fire-trucks will follow us as a safety precaution. Any time we have to return, they do this for us. Don’t be alarmed. We’ll have you on the ground in just a couple of minutes.?

They shut down the airport while they cleared us for emergency landing. Our landing was uneventful, and the cabin erupted into applause after we safely touched down. The fire-trucks chased us down the runway. Us going a hundred and fifty in a Boeing 737. Them going thirty-five in four-axle foam fire-trucks.

In the hazy euphoria of our escape from a potential catastrophe, people looked around at each other and smiled. We were all glad to be alive, and every person couldn’t help but feel that they’d cheated death. At the airport, they had another plane waiting for us at the with complimentary drinks, but some people decided to that they didn’t need to get to Austin that badly. As we raced down the tarmac and lifted off beneath a waning sunset, I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d had an epiphany that was beyond my comprehension.

Gay-Friendly Hemp-Friendly Roomies

Time was when the client paid all the expenses. Nowadays, I end up paying my living expenses out of my pocket. So, it’s ‘Bye-Bye Hilton…Hello roommate.’

On a project, your stay is usually a fairly tenuous one. They agree to bring you on for a month or two, and the contract says they can send you packing with two weeks notice or less. You may end up working on the project for 18 months, but you can’t count on it. So, you don’t really ever feel comfortable signing a six-month lease on an apartment. Usually the best thing is to try to just rent a room in a house. People renting out junior’s bedroom now that he’s fled the nest are more flexible than an apartment manager. They’ll agree to rent the room on a month-to-month basis, as they can pretty much judge what kind of person you are.

Looking for a roommate in Austin gives you a pretty good impression of the zeitgeist. Almost without exception, they’re looking for a roommate that is friendly. Hemp-friendly. Gay-friendly. Pet-friendly. Cool. They brag that they have high-speed Internet access, but no TV. Being close to a bus line seems to be a major concern. Everyone tries to insinuate that they are more central than the other people in Central Austin. Central in Austin means being close to campus. Close to 6th street.

I was looking for a place where I could rent by the month. Preferably with other “professionals?. Professional is a pseudonym for “not a student?. “Student?, of course, being a euphemism for “unfettered youth, fueled by hormones and adrenaline, driven by ecstasy and tequila.? I wanted to keep clear of them. It brought back the memories of my first two years as a freshman at Tulane.

In 2002, I spent many sleepless nights in Houston. In a cavalier spirit, I’d rented an unfurnished room in a house infested with students. It was one of those large houses built at the turn of the century with high ceilings and high hopes. Over the decades, it had nourished generations of termites as it atrophied beneath the monsoonal rains that ravage the southeast. When I found it, it had been carved into makeshift apartments. At night, the cockroaches would drop from the ceiling onto my bare skin as I lay on my donor mattress, suffering through the Houston summer. They’d get stuck beneath a newspaper and make enough ruckus that I was obligated to wake up and kill them before I could sleep through the night. My roommate smoked cigarettes…pot…God only knows what else. We shared a bathroom.

Downstairs, the college-age delinquents raised the roof. They threw parties in the middle of the week. Without inviting me. They turned the stereo up loud enough to make me want to call the police. Sometimes I did. It wasn’t pleasant.

I wanted to avoid that. But I was paying $75 a night to stay in an extended stay hotel. Every night, when I staggered in from work, I’d pay an additional six bucks to use the high-speed internet connection. I needed to find someone that would rent me a room on a month-to-month basis and let me move in immediately.

So that was how I found myself surfing roommate ads like “looking for cool, gay-friendly, hemp-friendly roommate to share five bedroom two-bath house on bus route. Walking distance to Mr. Natural (a vegetarian Mexican restaurant, of all things.) No TV! CACH, $450 - ABP.?

In any event, I drove over to the wrong side of I-35 to look at the place in my rented car. Josh greeted me and showed me around the place. The room for rent had a bath and a private entrance from the outside. They’d provide a bed to sleep on. And, it had high-speed Internet which I would split three ways. Josh was quick to point out that the only person in the house with a television was moving out, and would be taking the television with him.

“We don’t watch much television here…? he offered. I was afraid to ask what they did do. Probably drop acid and watch the cockroaches battle for scraps in the kitchen. They were in the process of carving another bedroom out of the house. It seemed to sprout bedrooms like a potato sprouts eyes. Out back, it looked like a tornado had reduced a trailer into rubble.

“We’re doing some work back here…? he offered.

I looked at what appeared to be either a still or a meth lab. “What would you say that is?? I asked, gesturing with hesitant consternation at the apparatus.

“We brew our own beer here.? He explained. I looked at him. It was clear that he didn’t believe the cover story any more than I did. I decided not to force the issue. Sometimes its best to let sleeping dogs lie.

Maybe its that I had a hard time finding an ad that said “Looking for straight-white-male roommate that lives in a different time zone and may be here for a week or may be here for a year to share bungalow with a young, single-unattached-straight-nonsmoking nubile college senior named Lisa.? Maybe its that I yearn to be in the middle of everything. To delude myself into thinking that I am still cool enough and hip enough to mix it up with a bunch of collegiate party-mongers…which I am not.

Whatever the case, Josh agreed to take me on in the animal house for a reasonable sum. I wrote him a check and asked him where I could find a Wendy’s.

Josh looked at me crossways and said “I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to send you down to Mueller’s BBQ or Hoovers. Now…if you want a big sit-down dinner, go into Hoover’s and order you a smothered Pork Chop. If you don’t have that much time, you can go across the street to Mueller’s and get a BBQ sandwich to go.?

Josh was nothing if not a salesman. I was reasonably sure that he was too high to walk outdoors, but he did have enough good sense to know that no one in Texas should resort to eating fast food from a Wendy’s. I was glad that he didn’t reprimand me for suggesting as much, as I surely would have deserved it.

Mueller’s BBQ was voted “Austin’s Best Barbecue? for 2003 by the Austin Chronicle. This is not an accolade to be taken lightly. I personally can attest the fact that it is much better that Bone-Daddy’s, Poke*e*Joe’s, and Harlan’s.

Crepe Myrtle Grackles

Texas has long been known as the buckle in the bible-belt. A soulless, cultural desert, known for oil wells, carbines, and doublewides. For just as long, Austin has been known as a cultural oasis, inexplicably situated in the heart of the Texas hill country. Austin has long been a college town and the state capital. It’s small, green, and hilly, surrounded by lakes, rivers, and creeks, infested with crepe myrtles, grackles, and mourning doves. It doesn’t have the crime of Dallas or the pollution of Houston. If you have to live in Texas, Austin is the place to be.

Austin is widely known for its counter-culture…the “annual tv smash?, drugs, and sexual perversions. Almost like a diminutive San Francisco, without all the fog. Portland without all the homeless heroin addicts.

But, slowly, over the last decade, Austin sprouted “Silicon Hills?, a cancer not unlike the “Silicon Valley? blight that affects San Jose and the peninsula of Northern California. The technology revolution opened up Austin’s spleen to an unwelcome crusade of computer nerds. Predictably, Austin found itself sustaining a population of drones, incapable of creative thought. Automatons that dine in chain restaurants, shop in malls, and watch reality TV on plasma HDTV.

The city swelled. The streets widened. Traffic lights appeared like fireflies on a sweltering East Texas night. The old mom and pop local restaurants sold out when they widened the roads, making more than they’d ever dreamed. The corporations smelled profits and the chain-stores moved in. The land-rapers felled the live oaks and installed lego-like subdivisions with crepe myrtle medians. Austin’s hills were crowned with cell towers and carved into million dollar mansions overlooking Town Lake, Lake Austin, and Lake Travis.

When the computer industry unraveled, the uneasy truce deteriorated. City Hall had become addicted to the intoxicating revenue stream of the technocrats. Their knee-jerk solution was to enforce all manner of laws to compensate for their revenue shortfall. They passed laws against billboards, posting of public bills, notices, and banners, strangling Austin’s creative artists. They began writing citations for noise ordinances, parking violations, and jay walking. The draconian municipal regime that seized Austin in a coup when the economy was booming, swallowed its own tail in a desperate gasp for revenue when the economy collapsed.

These days, Austin is the lone guard, fighting a losing battle against the relentless onslaught of sameness. The ceaseless, insidious pressure to sell its soul. To open up and swallow the medicine. For the weird, idiosyncratic, hamlet of Austin to fall in line and become a mini-Dallas or wanna-be-Houston.

While the indifferent stood on the sidelines, the indignant took to their kitchens. They boiled flour into wheatpaste, and took to the streets, laminating the back alleys and lambasting the sheople. A spontaneous movement arose to “Keep Austin Weird?. A cause celebre. KeepAustinWeird.com.

The students circled the wagons around campus. The government was fighting for control of the populace, and the populace revolted. When the city council mulled a smoking ban, a transvestite ran for office. Artists wheatpasted the streets, inundating the media with nonsensical slogans like “You Smell Like Robots? and “Andre Has A Posse?. Pictures of steaks…eggs…bananas…broccoli. A lifetime of conditioning to ignore the superfluous signs was unraveled. Suddenly, the noise had to be studied carefully, to see if there was a signal.

A fierce, protracted battle broke out between the old-school taggers and the wheatpaste warriors. The taggers defaced the wheatpasted nonsense, and the wheatpasters plastered their bills over the taggers’ graffiti. Every utility box, every garbage dumpster, and every wall became the battleground in the new war. Was nothing sacred in the battle to keep Austin weird?

Lot Lizards

I saw this sticker in Chuy’s. “No Lot Lizards?. A lizard with red hair smoking one cigarette, and lighting a second one off of it. Austin is a weird place.

I’ve been nursing a fading Austin memory for over a decade. The recollection is of a crystal clear river running through the center of Austin, with a diving board over the river, and lifeguards in chairs on the banks of the creek. When I made it back to Austin, I drove across Town Lake and Lake Austin, but I didn’t see anything that resembled my memories. Perhaps it was something I had dreamed. Absurd really, when you think about it. Lifeguards were stationed at pools, not swimming holes in rivers.

But mostly my days are spent indoors, working for a computer. Debugging the logic of imbeciles who don’t understand basic accounting principles. They write reports that don’t cross-foot, with no error handling routines, and no comments. Spaghetti logic. And, when they’ve worked on it for two years with no success, they bring me in to clean it up. A glorified janitor.

The longer they’ve worked on it, the worse it is. The program lives and breathes. It grows more complicated over time. Every discovered bug gets a patch or a new subroutine. A few more lines of code. A new author. The programs I’m troubleshooting now go back a few years. So they’re loads of fun. Ten hour days. Lots of typing. Coffee. Diet Coke. Lunch at Mueller’s BBQ. I ask my vegetarian co-worker if she eats animal crackers. The days drag on.

After a long workday today, I decided that I wanted to go to Barton Springs. Some people had assured me it was the coolest place to go swimming in Austin. Living in Colorado, I don’t get much opportunity to swim. So, it seemed to me like something that might be fun to do since it was so warm and sunny in Austin. After work, I drove to the animal house that I live in and got my swimsuit and a towel, and drove off in search of Barton Springs.

I managed to find the swimming hole without much hassle. It’s on the south side of Austin. South of Town Lake. West of South Lamar. On Barton Springs Road, as it turns out. So, it wasn’t really hard to find. I didn’t really know what to expect. Word of mouth said it was a cool place to swim. Not much else to go on.

I decided to do some reconnaissance. I emerged into the humidity from my air-conditioned Honda Accord. A computer consultant in a foreign land. Long sleeved shirt. Khaki pants. Sweltering summer heat. Laptop. Cell phone. Palm Pilot. I looked at all the accoutrements of the digital revolution. My cell phone beeping painfully…dying a slow and painful death as the life drained from the battery into the void. I was suffering from “Useless Message Burnout Syndrome?. In one hand, I hesitantly collected my bathing suit and towel. It seemed almost inconceivable that I would soon be diving into a pool and swimming with the fishes.

As it turns out, Barton Springs is the place that I remembered. A dreamy, idyllic river, fed from beneath by a natural, cold water spring. A small concrete dam creates an insanely large swimming pool, over a natural creek bed. The crown jewel of Austin. For $2.50. With lifeguards and a diving board. The locals all hang out in the parking lot until 9:00 p.m., when the lifeguards go home and they can go in for free.

I paid the $2.50 and swam through the cold, river water. It was built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), back during the depression. Because the water is so clear, the bottom looks much closer than it is. Its twenty feet deep beneath the diving board. The uneven bottom is covered with algae, plants, and you can occasionally spot a turtle or a fish.

I swam the length of it, doing the backstroke, looking up at the sun setting in the clouds. All of the stress of the day drained away into the depths of the lake. It seemed too good to be true. I turned around to see if I wasn’t about to swim into a concrete wall, or be run over by a Jet-ski. But there was nothing around but water and sky. I put my head back in the water, and continued to drift, lazily, down the creek. I was drifting though the pool the same way I was drifting though life…unfettered…final destination unknown.

Strangling Figs

One night at the animal house, I found Josh out back trying to jumpstart his meth lab.

“What’cha workin’ on there, supercool?? I asked.

“I’m brewing beer.?

I surveyed the apparatus. Copper tubing. Lots of hoses and valves and gauges. Large vats. It had all the trappings of a meth lab, and smelled like a rotten corpse, but he assured me he was brewing beer, and I decided to allow him this one delusion. It was, in the end, his house, and I was just a tenant. I was reasonably sure that would hold up in a court of law if some hostile variant of the alphabet soup agencies, the INS, DEA, or BATF stormed the compound.

I surveyed what might pass for a tree in Austin. A tall plant, sparsely populated with broad leaves, denigrated by numerous golf-ball sized tumors. Further east, it would be called a bush or a weed, but Austin is the boundary region between the rain-soaked east and the arid west. In Austin, it passes for a tree.

Haphazardly, I reached out and liberated one of the olive-colored fruits to inspect it. A white frothy substance boiled from the wounded stem. I pinched the sap between my thumb and forefinger, admiring its glue-like properties.

“What kinda’ tree da’ya reckon this is?? I asked Josh. He was stirring a massive heat exchanger with what appeared to be a midget’s canoe paddle.

“That’s a Strangling Fig Tree? Josh offered. “Be careful with that sap. It’s caustic. It'll burn your hands.?

As I began to try to discreetly wipe away the white sap that was erasing my fingerprints, his wife materialized and reached into the tree like Eve in the garden.

“That one’s not ripe.? She cautioned. She studied the tree momentarily and plucked a different one from the same vicinity.

“Here…try this one? she offered as she palmed me a smooth, green fig. I studied it deliberately, like a sea lion on an oyster bed. The fig was covered in a thick, soft skin. I’d already been nearly poisoned by it, and was slowly gaining a healthy respect for the peculiar plant.

Josh was stirring his concoction, sweating, and monitoring a temperature gauge on the end of a copper coil. His wife was standing barefoot on the patio in a sleeveless shirt, arms across her chest.

“You reckon I should peel it?? I asked no one in particular.

“I peel them. He doesn’t.? Eve offered. “It’s your call.?

I peeled the fruit, exposing a pink, grapefruit-colored meat. It was sweet and delicious.

“Damned thas’ good.? I stammered. It didn’t taste anything like fig newtons. Made me want to sell figs on the street corner out of a cooler.

I retreated inside and tried using rubbing alcohol and 409 to get the sticky sap off my hands. Neither worked.

“My dad used to tattoo us with figs.? Josh would later explain. “We’d wipe that white sap on our skin, and it would burn a pattern on that lasted for about a month.?

East of I-35

West of I-35, students channel their parents’ savings into beer bongs and hash pipes. East of I-35, a socioeconomic stalemate plays out in the collapsing suburbs of the racially challenged. Illegal immigrants and the progeny of slaves are carted across town in open truck beds; shuttled between the hilltop mansions. Staring forlornly from the backs of pickups, the despondent cesspool of the human genome suffers the conspicuous cruelty of the market economics. The illegal immigrants will not be permitted to scale the economic ladder or share in the American dream. They’re relegated to performing manual labor for cash, huffing gas in the shade, and cursing the system in a foreign language.

Though they had no way of knowing it, they were but a generation away from an engineering breakthrough that would make them obsolete. ConAgra would invent a lawn that didn’t need mowing or weeding, and an entire race of humanity would become obsolete one Monday morning. They would apply for protection under the Endangered Species Act, and huddle under South Congress with the bats.

Against the advice of my co-workers, I lived at the intersection of Manor and Cherrywood, on the East side of I-35. What my co-workers did’t know is that all the best restaurants are on the East side of I-35. West of I-35 is vegetarian Mexican food, Starbucks, and Wendy’s. East of I-35, Austin deteriorates into a dystopia of urban blight and shattered concrete, the commercial districts are unsullied by the national restaurant chains. On the East side, the streets resonate with the hum of deep fat fryers and smokers the size of trailers. Restaurants owned and operated by the proprietors serve a fusion of humans of all forms and screeds. Hoover’s Cooking. Gene’s Soul Food. Mueller’s BBQ. Restaurants that focus on the function instead of form…food instead of atmosphere. Large open rooms…tables shoved too closely together. Rolls of paper towels instead of napkins. Daily specials. Portions that challenge the appetite.

Barton Springs at Zilcher Park

They say that summer lasts nine months in Austin. I can’t confirm the veracity of this bit of folklore, but I can tell you what its like in July. The mornings are cool and plausible before the sun rises above the hills. By noon, the sun seems to fill the sky. The heat runs down to paste the parking lots and charge the steel. In the afternoon, the still air is humid, suffocating, and indifferent.

In a desperate attempt to do something, the Austinites organize themselves into queues to pay tribute to the snow-cone stands, levitating above the roaring asphalt, sheltered by buckets of umbrellas. Inside the snow-cone stands, young girls shave blocks of ice into a summer concoction. In the air-conditioned temple, the young pubescent girls proffer indescribable delicacies. Strawberry-Watermelon snow cones with cream.

And then there is Barton Springs. Barton Springs is the kind of swimming hole that, if it didn’t exist, would have to have been invented. A natural limestone creek-bed fed from below by a frigid 68 degree fresh-water spring. Barton Springs is the antidote to the sinister Austin summers. A favorite for the Indians for 10,000 years, it is the crown jewel of Austin.

Through small caverns in the limestone floor, torrents of water spring forth. Water as clear as the Bahamas and as cool as the Rockies. In the bottom of the swimming hole, bream and crawfish dart among the rocks and beneath the limestone shelves.

The pool spreads pain with an even hand. Brain numbing cold stunts the senses. Slowly, the senses return. The mind compensates. The body adapts and adjusts. The water is not dangerously cold, just surprisingly so. Once the body has grown accustomed to the water, the pool tames the Austin summer and flagellates the sun.

Lake Austin etches an impression of a long, narrow body of water through the hills west of town. Hills molested by exaggerated mansions. The water spills from the depths of Lake Travis into the mouth of Lake Austin…brisk, deliciously cold, superchilled waters. Wake-boarders cringe when they fall from their perch into the icy waters. Cypress trees define the riverbanks. Hydrilla-choked channels torment the Air Nautique ski boats and Skeeter Bass boats alike. Their owners pass by each other deliberately, each one discretely ridiculing the other’s lifestyle.

The next door neighbor Matt woke up drunk Sunday morning, and decided to throw a party. He’d been working on the upstairs for four years, but still wasn’t finished. He had a partially built deck that was even with the second story. People sat perched on the upper deck, listening to the live music below. Josh charged some of his “Dead Man Walking? beer in a two-liter bottle and we struggled next door. We spray-painted the poison ivy with silver paint. (No Roundup, or it will interfere with the pesticide free garden.) “OK Beth? played (an all girl band). The cops came at 11:00 p.m. They were cool. Keep it down. No problem.

Austin City Limits

You might think from the name, that the bar “Austin City Limits? is near the city limits. It isn’t. You might think from the show that you can go up on the roof and watch the stars and drink. You can’t. You might think that the bar doesn’t exist at all, and that it’s just a studio prop that only exists for the brief duration of the show. On all of these accounts, you’d be wrong. Austin City Limits is a bar, inside of a studio, on UT campus in the center of Austin. It is open daily, but they only film there every so often. You can’t really see the stars from the roof, as it is inside another building, and the stars are a studio effect.

The Heavily Bruised Woman

At a rot-gut Mexican hole, we were inhaling margaritas under the well-worn premise that “it must be noon somewhere?, when we were approached by a strange woman.

“Excuse me,? she offered apologetically, “I just wanted to tell you that you have the most beautiful ears I have ever seen. Has anyone else ever told you that?? She was speaking to Brin, but standing behind him, and out of his field of vision.

Brin started to turn to face her, but thought the better of it, and caught himself at about 60 degrees. Ignoring the interloper, he returned his attention to the queso.

It was more than I could stand. I glanced at Carmen. We could scarcely contain ourselves.

“That’s not all he has that’s impressive.? Carmen quipped.

“Don’t you think he should take better care of them? They’re getting sunburned on top. I keep asking him to wear a wide-brimmed hat.? I chimed in.

“He’s an ear model.? Carmen explained.

I looked closely at the woman. Her arms were lily white, and covered from elbow to shoulder with quarter-sized deep blue bruises. One could only image what caused them. Heroin? Domestic violence? A vicious thrashing in a Ping Pong tournament?

Eventually, she allowed Brin to grieve unmolested, and retreated to the redoubt of her own table. Humbly, Brin quietly pleaded with us have the decency to postpone the humiliating flogging until she had left the restaurant. We whispered that the pass would only hold until she departed, and then forgot the entire affair by the time we drained our second margaritas.

Afterward, Brin shuttled us around Austin in an E-class Mercedes, pointing out the mansions of the tragically rich. We offhandedly suggested that we might could make a run for Sno-cones down on South Lamar, but when he saw the line of patrons blistering in the July sun, he waved us off and scuttled the Sno-cone venture. As soon as we left Brin’s house, Carmen turned to me.

“Let’s go get sno-cones.?

“You read my mind.?

Sno-cones are a national pastime in the South. They take the bite out of summer. And if it means standing in the sweltering July sun for fifteen minutes, then so be it. As we assumed our position in the queue, the clouds rolled in and squelched the sun, allowing us to stand in line unmolested by the sun. Everyone stood in line, counting down the minutes until they’d be able to taste the nectar. Most of them were repeat offenders. Each drone carried a mental blueprint for the perfect sno-cone…a cherished recipe passed from sibling to sibling…handed down from generation to generation.

“I wonder what I should get? Carmen mused.

“The money shot is a the Strawberry-Watermelon with cream.? I offered.

A bitter woman in front of us felt offended enough to pivot and confront us.

“Oh no.? She countered. “The best sno-cone is the coffee sno-cone with cream.? This touched off a genteel debate over watermelon, raspberry, and mango that seemed destined to escalate into a full-scale riot. In the south, BBQ and sno-cones are debated as earnestly as religion, firearms, and canine genealogy.

“Where’s that cold front coming in from?? Lucy asked, back at the office.

“Cold front?? I stammered. It had been in the 90’s every day that I could recall.

“Yeah. It’s only going get up to 94. Today.?

“Are you serious?? I asked.

“Yeah. But I don’t know where it’s coming from.?

“I hope I don’t have any pipes burst? I mumbled.

The Office

The office is a surreal dystopia. Sandwiched between the simpletons in the IT department and the circus pinhead end-users, I struggled to stay sane. It became difficult to discern what was real. All sense of normalcy blurred and my insomnia returned.

We have one employee that claims to have a sleep disorder. He puts his feet up on the desk, reclines, and takes a nap. They can’t fire him, though, because he is disabled. Everyone in the office made as much noise as possible when they walked by him to try to wake him up.

Betty was in charge of testing the conversion to the new fiscal year. She was as sharp as a marble, and prone to intervening in as many issues as practicable to make sure that she inflicted the maximum amount of stupidity onto her coworkers. Lately, I’d been getting the brunt of it. I’d explain to the client that we needed a file formatted differently. She’d intercept the email and tell them to ignore my request. Then I’d have to explain it so that even she could understand it, and then I’d have to re-issue the request to the client. Betty was doing positive harm, but the client was oblivious to it, and you seldom make yourself look better by trying to make other people look bad. So, I’d just sort of force a smile in meetings and go forward as best I could.

Janet was one of those girls who could never finish a sentence. She talked in circles...like a rabbit running from a hound. Her thoughts seemed to run in recursive loops and her mouth was hard-wired to her brain, so listening to her talk was maddening.

If listening to her speak was tedious, debugging her code was excruciating. She wrote programs based on impromptu, water-cooler conversations. She wrote code without comments. Without specifications. Her logic ran in circles, like her speech. Most programs I’ve seen reference multiple tables. Her program referenced only one. A custom view she’d created based on dozens of underlying tables. All garbled and smeared together, like cotton candy in the rain. Untangling her logic was like pulling a gill net out of a boat propeller. In all my years of programming, her code was the worst I’d seen. At nights, I’d wake up dreaming that her code was strangling me.

The parasitic consultants would stay late into the night. They couldn’t breath unless they were billing the client some exorbitant rate. They clung to the client like a tick to a hound. Afraid to go home for fear someone would realize that they were no longer needed and then the billing would have to stop.

At night, the cleaning crew came in wearing their ATI shirts from the American Trash Institute. They train people to collect trash…blind, deaf, mutes…it doesn’t matter. Most people can be trained to collect trash no matter how disabled or foreign they are.

Our trash men were ‘the money’. We had two guys that were both cross-eyed, deaf, and mute. One guy was also, apparently, severely retarded. He would come in grunting, making sounds like a raccoon raping mountain lion. He would sweep the floors and buff the carpets with a large buffer designed to buff hardwood floors. I’ve never seen anyone buff carpets before, but if you’ve ever seen it, it’s not something you’ll forget soon.

Bring Out The Gimp

Anyone who’s ever spent time around a computer has felt the angst. Computers can sense fear, and they suffer fools poorly. They are obstinate, belligerent, and contemptuous. Even the brightest are stymied by them. The deeply stupid are perpetually tormented and occasionally mortally wounded.

Last weekend, I decided to change the Operating System on my laptop. Changing the operating system on a computer is like trying to change a tire while you’re driving down the road. Its intuitively obvious to the casual observer that its a bad idea from the start, and, in all likelihood, you’ll end up harming a lot of innocent people before you’re through.

Over the weekend, I deleted my primary partition, created a new partition, and reformatted the hard drive, loaded all of the drivers, and re-installed most of the software. Unfortunately, the software didn’t all take. MS Word ran, generated all sorts of error messages, seemed to be missing most of the fonts, and generally misbehaved like a petulant child.

On Monday morning, at the office, I figured that I’d just reinstall Word. But I needed to map a drive on my laptop to the LAN for this to occur. I decided that I’d ask Stan from the Information Technology (IT) department for assistance.

The IT department is a graveyard of failed dreams. A gathering place for people who went to college, but never knew what they wanted to do with their lives. They never planned to work for computers. But when they found themselves a wallflower on the dance floor of corporate america, they accepted the opportunity when it was presented. People don’t plan to fail. They fail to plan.

Stan is a tall pasty robot. He is nearly deaf, and speaks poorly because of his hearing disability. When I first heard him talking, I assumed he was retarded, and had a hard time not laughing. He has an office off the main hallway with no name-plate...only a plaque that says “304?. His office would be easy to miss, but he doesn’t spend much time there anyway. He scurries in and out of the computer room like an albino cockroach, talking too loudly and slurring and spitting whenever someone pushes his buttons just right.

I asked Sean if he could help me map the drive. We spent some time ascertaining what User ID and password we should use. But were not able to map the drive. Eventually, Stan overheard our confused babblings and began to offer suggestions in his slurred, booming, baritone voice. He spoke with conviction. “It isn’t case sensitive.? “The Windows Networking Password is different that the Windows Password?. “You don’t need the IPX/SPX protocol installed.?

I looked at Stan closely for the first time. He looked like he’d led a hard life. His aged hands were lily white. Knuckles swollen from years of repetitive stress. Anxious to solve the problem, I stood up and offered him my seat.

He sat before the two computers, switching back and forth between the keyboards, pecking furiously and muttering to himself in techno-babble. “This doesn’t look right? and “I don’t like this? was all that I could discern from his ramblings.

“Wait right there....I need to go check something. I’ll be right back.? This went on for some time until, eventually, he reached an impasse. At this point, I was ready to toss my laptop into Lake Austin. But these techno-geeks are as persistent as hounds. They can’t stand to let a computer get the best of them. Once you put them on the scent, they aren’t easily dissuaded.

“It’s not that big of a deal.? I offered. “I’ll just run down to the Hula Hut after work and toss it into Lake Austin when no one is looking.? Somehow it seemed appropriate to throw the Dell laptop in the lake in plain sight of Michael Dell’s 30,000 square foot mansion on the hill.

Stan stood up. He was as thin as a toothpick. He wore generic black jeans and an excruciatingly plain long-sleeved shirt. His shirt was missing a few buttons and he looked as though he might start drooling at any moment.

“I’m going to have to get Tim.? He explained. My mind raced to the scene from Pulp Fiction.

“Bring out the gimp.?

“The gimp's a sleep.?

“Guess you have to wake him up now, won't you??

Eventually, Tim staggered out of the computer room. He was a rotund red-haired worker bee that apparently had never been afflicted by daylight. He probably lived in a subterranean room beneath the computer room. He pounded on the laptop for a few minutes and said “I’m going to have to synchronize all of the domain controllers. Follow me.?

In a trance-like state, I followed him into the computer room. I was afraid that I’d discovered some critical flaw in the system and they were going to have to strangle me behind the mainframes. I felt like I was walking through the CIA corporate headquarters in Langley with a gun in my back.

I was ushered through the largest computer room on the planet. Rows and aisles of computers stacked floor to ceiling. Each one humming and operating within the given parameters. Racks of servers with hot-swappable RAID Level 5 disk arrays. Mainframes and midranges. Servers and clients. Raised floors, drop ceilings, and Halon fire extinguishers. I couldn’t imagine why I needed to be in the depths of the technology arena. What secret had I discovered that necessitated my demise? All I knew was that I couldn’t map a drive. Why was that so sensitive that I would have to be strangled behind the servers?

Eventually, I found myself face to monitor with an impressive looking computer. According to the “take me to your leader? theory, I assumed this to be the king of other computers.

“Type your password in here and see what happens.? Tim commanded.

Predictably, it gave me an error message or three or five, but eventually, I was able to change my password which was then synchronized to all of the domain controllers. Eventually, I was permitted to return to my desk unharmed. I felt like I had just escaped from a near-death experience. I made up my mind to take my laptop down to the Hula Hut and drink a margarita or two before making a final decision on whether to keep the laptop or commit it to the deep.

Nightmare on Manor Street

As the job prospects dimmed, my nightmares returned. Lucid, vivid dreams too realistic to ignore. Hallucinations that cut so close to the bone, that I’d wake up sweating, and not really relieved to be awake. The problems were real. They fueled my dreams. Some people are afraid of terrorists. I’m afraid of the economy. I’m afraid that the clients won’t need me any more. That I’ll lose my collection of WWII firearms and vehicles.

As my memory failed me, I relied heavily on my camera. I shuttled around Austin taking pictures like a lunatic. I shot a lot of pictures of graffiti and wheat-pasted flyers. But mostly, I just liked to push the button on the camera. The digital camera takes pictures essentially for free. It snaps a picture of something...whatever happens to be in the front of the lens. If I don’t take the pictures, then I don’t retain as much. Seeing the photos later makes the situation more real. Provides a sense of permanency to an ephemeral existence. A sort of a digital memory. I’ve heard some people say that they don’t understand the rise of camcorders, arguing “when would they ever have time to watch the movies?? but I have time. In the 9 month winters of Colorado. I find plenty of time.

Going Live

As the new fiscal year approached, the murmurs grew to a crescendo. The office was just about to come off the rails. The printers were printing...cell phones ringing...People were standing in line two and three deep to get questions answered, get data corrected, and amplify their understandings. Eight-hour days bloated into twelve-hour days, and twelve-hour days mutated into fourteeners. Lunch breaks were cut short, and finally eliminated. I ended up surviving on a diet of vending machine Butterfingers, supplemented by Diet Cokes and black coffee.

At the back of the room, the H1B immigrants from deepest, darkest India dropped all pretense of professionalism and began bantering back and forth rapidly in some foreign tongue. It sound like a coup-de-tat was in the offing, but I later learned that they were just upset that some stocks they had shorted were going through the roof.

We bounced around the open room from computer to computer, pointing out anomalies in the data, copying tables back and forth, running SQL’s and SQR’s to try to tame the information. But there were too many processes...to many people working on the datum. It was wildly unmanageable, and the processes would stagger the brightest of minds. I found solace in the fact that I was merely a bit player.

Every day, the powers-that-be would stop by, unannounced, wringing hands, trying to read the tea leaves to discern if we would make the deadline. Would be able to somehow miraculously squeeze the organization down into 130 departments? Would we be able to set up the funding for the new fiscal year in time?

There’s an art to dealing with management. It’s very important to portray success as obtainable, but difficult. It involves a lot of brow furrowing and hand clasping. Obfuscation is allowed, but not necessarily required. You don’t want to make the bosses think that the work is a cakewalk, even if it is. When you come in to solve a problem that has plagued them for years, it’s to no one’s advantage to make the solution seem trivial.

When they came to me today, I sat back and surveyed the room...the chaos boiling visibly around us. I clasped my hands together below my chin, as though deep in thought, and furrowed my brow. I mumbled about some arcane problem that was in our sights at that particular instant and followed it up with “But I think we work very hard, then we should be able to minimize the impact of the errors.?

The Longest Day

Eventually, my last day rolled around. The last day in the office is an awkward day. Full of platitudes, awkward goodbyes and thankyou’s. Even if you loved the project and the people, you know that, in all likelihood, you won’t set eyes on the people, the town, or possibly even the state, ever again. But you entertain delusions that you might return one day, and if you don’t you’ll at least stay in touch. It’s a comforting little white lie we all collectively nourish, because it makes the goodbyes more palatable. It’s easier to say “I’ll see you later...? than “Have a nice life.?

The day is inevitably the busiest day of the project. The clients, sensing the confusion, move in for the kill. They queue up with their wish lists in hand. A fusillade of queries is foisted on the hapless consultant. “You set this up wrong?, “This still doesn’t work like it’s sposed to...? and ?What time are you leaving today? Can you puhleezzee look at this before you leave??

Every promise must be fulfilled and delivered, or explicitly broken in an exceptionally humble email. The doctrine of business continuity dictates that knowledge be sparged upon the human capital left behind. The knowledge must transfer to the other team members at a blistering pace through emails, handouts, and spontaneous outbursts over the printer and in the men’s room.

“Don’t forget that if we have employees getting paid overtime in September in Fiscal 2004 for the month of August in Fiscal 2003, the dollars will be posted to the suspense account and we’ll have to correct it with a journal voucher into GL.?

For the consultant, it’s a nightmarish task of trying to tie up every loose end before a fixed deadline. For the client, it’s like trying to drink water from a fire hose. We fought fires all day, trying to straighten out the row-level security, the funding adjustments, and the commitment accounting. By 10:00 p.m., we finally had everything squared away, which allowed me to settle down and start choking the email server with outbound directions, instructions, and politically incorrect humor.

I put all relevant files from my PC on the LAN and onto my laptop, deleted everything from the PC. I cleared out the history in my Internet Explorer browser, deleted all the cookies and temporary Internet files, and emptied the recycle bin in Windows Explorer.
I went through the stacks of paper on my desk, examining each one closely before throwing it into the trashcan. About three inches from the top of the stack, I found my Palm Pilot. It had been missing in action for about three weeks, and I was glad to have it back.

This has to be the best part of being a consultant. You get fired, so to speak, at least once or twice a year. And get to throw away everything you’ve been working on. It’s a clean break from work. You turn in your security badge and your parking permit. They suspend your IDs and your passwords. There is no permanent HR file for them to update and pass on to your next manager.

The deaf, mute cleaning crew comes in. Their watches beep fiercely on the hour, but they continue to sweep and take out the trash, oblivious to the beeping of their timepieces. A signal broadcast in a medium that they harbor no antenna for.

At some point early in the morning, I walked outside the building. That weird feeling that you’re leaving something behind, or forgot to lock a door, or turn off a light, nagging me fiercely. Once the door closes, I’ll never go back inside the building again.

I drove the car to the house I’d called home on Cherrywood Road. I parked it under the vitriolic live oak in front, where it would be shaded should the sun ever rise again. I let myself into the animal house for the last time. If I could fall asleep, there would be seven people sleeping in the house. People slept in bedrooms that sprouted like mushrooms after a summer rain, on mattresses that littered the sprawling abode. It seemed to go on without end, without reason, a hedge maze with an 8-foot ceiling. During their waking hours, Josh and Kristi were clandestinely plotting to build another house on the back of the lot.

I removed the keys from my key-chain, the house key and the car keys, I laid them on the nightstand next to my bed. I shoved all of my belonging into my roll-aboard suitcase and checked the time on my laptop. That’s not bad, I thought. It’s only 2:30 a.m. Then, I checked my phone, it was actually 3:30 a.m. Central Time. And I had to catch a 6:45 a.m. flight to catch at the airport. So, that didn’t leave a lot of time to squander sleeping. I set the alarm clock for 5:00 a.m.

“That’s OK. I’ll sleep when I die? I mumbled to no one in particular.

Posted by Peenie Wallie on March 24, 2005 at 9:10 PM


Then, I -- that is it, nothing more

stories are great and can't seem to stop reading them

Posted by: L on June 2, 2007 at 8:51 PM

Doh! This one had a problem with the last paragraph that has been fixed now.

Posted by: Peenie Wallie on June 2, 2007 at 10:07 PM

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