Role Playing

There is something hazy and indistinct about San Francisco, made all the more so after another bout of projectile vomiting behind the drag karaoke bar down from the Safeway on Market. What was I thinking, anyway, downing that bucket of Thai fire mussels after the fifth of Bombay Sapphire and the Tequlia back? Probably, on reflection, I was not. But life hands you surprise after inglorious, undignified surprise and the only preparation you have is to dull your senses and pretend everything is okay.
“Mussels,” I thought, thinking, “what was I thinking?”
So, as I paused between the satisfying pain of dry heaving into a patch of aloe vera, it was probably fate that my Nokia chose that occasion to start ringing at 3:18 in the dark, moist morning with a giant picture of Liz Phair glowering down over me reflecting how unhappy she is in her Calvins. I was unsure if the burbling chirps were coming from my jacket pocket or from yet another falsetto version of Tainted Love warbling its way through the concrete into my fuzzed sensibilities. Again, I regretted not going ahead and getting the throbbing comfort of a vibrating battery pack. At least I could gain some slight erotic thrill when I’m being bothered.

“This is Lance,” I answered. I can’t just say “Hello” anymore in my phone. I’m always on call and one never know if one is being contacted by a co-worker, a client, a friend or relation, a lawyer or some heinous combination of all the above. “Go.”
“Lance. Veen.” The Veen. Of course. No one rode as high or as long as he. One of the powerful few like The Carl which you could attach ‘The’ to and everyone knew which Carl or Veen you meant. Who else would know I would be ready to answer my phone at this hour, when everyone else in the city that always sleeps would be in a decaffinated coma dreaming about car horns and the scent of urine? “Got a second? Got a proposition.”
Danger signals that might otherwise have started flaring brightly across my vision were masked by the pain shooting from my frontal lobes. Where the hell was the Meth? “I have one second. Prop me.”
“A gig. Atlanta. Hotlanta. Three days. Two big P’s, one small. My stuff, your voice.”
“Pay or play?”
“Pay. Remember who you’re talking to.”
It was a fair argument. The lessor of us may volunteer to take a bus to Fresno to stand up before a crowd and ramble incoherently about XML for little more than a pass to the festivities and the fare to get home. Not Veen. He was a Master of the Universe.
“Big P’s?”
“Hour each. Browser compat, redesign schpiel. Angle on usability, consistency, yodda yodda yodda.” I could see him making vague jerking-off actions with his hand. “Then a site review. Usual stuff.”
“Two presentations and a panel and you’ve done the footwork. What’s the catch?”
“Starts Sunday. I’m tied to some site revisions and last-millisecond negotiations. Bad stuff. Black market code. Thick and stinky.” He paused, probably sensingthat the words ‘No thanks’ were sitting on my tongue, delayed only by milky morsels of shellfish gumming up my molars. “It’s a paying gig.”
“Where,” I asked, “do I sign?”

Wild Blue Yonder

Getting out of any previous commitments at World Dom HQ would be a cinch. Those plebes are eating out of my hand, scrambling like a disturbed ant mount after a good kid pissing. Things at the ‘dog were in turmoil since the opening of the West Coast operations. They’d paid through the snout holes to grab the necessary floor space in SOMA, taking seven floors of a new highrise from which one could piss into PacBell Park and everyone was either pointing a finger or coming up with justifications. “What’s this invoice for 27 Apple Cinema Displays?”; “Who authorized the Odwalla fridges on every floor?”; “How are we expecting to get the air hockey in through the 12th floor windows when they’re hermetically sealed against the toxins?”
You know, the usual. And we weren’t even a start-up. I couldn’t imagine what would happen if the heady scent of pre-IPO meat starting wafting through the Moscone lobby. Sharks were already circling to feed off the imported talent, and it was taking everything management could throw to keep the good people—and even the people who think they’re good but really suck almost entirely and we’d can their asses but they have an air of usualness seemingly necessary to get the office space here in the first place (“You’re on the Web? But your hair is so… combed.” “Here, this is a picture of our SysAdmin. His name is Rugburn. He legally changed it.” “Sign here.”)—to keep the place occupado.
I called in. “Hey, it’s Lance. Uh, I’m going to Atlanta, design conference, four days. Leaving Sunday. Have Cynthia water the ficus, make sure someone else feeds the iguana because she won’t get within four feet of it, splice in a few hours of consulting and design review on any open Gantts, billable of course, usual rate, and I’ll zap you the contact data for hotels, et cetera, when I’m there. Use the Sprint account, not the Motorola. Need voice on this one. I think I’m supposed to be at a party Tuesday, some industry thing it would be nice to have coverage on. Don’t send Randa, she tends to piss people off. It’s a first impression gig, no air quotes, but remember where we are. No suits, no shiny shoes with tassles. Uh, also call Carl. Don’t say anything, just call him. I’ve been fucking with him lately, I think it helps his writing. If we can’t fill the Director of Customer Experience position with anyone except another runny-nosed brat who thinks because he can parse a server log he knows what people want, eliminate the position. Better idea, rename it Executive Creative Process Management and stick the iguana in. See if Sciant’s paid the Kool-Aid bill, if not, send in the muscle. Lastly, and sorry for this, but the Norad account is backed up in R&D and I don’t need to tell you that unless we resolve the targeting issues, we’re all pretty much fucked and I’m talking globally, here. I keep hearing something like ‘the legacy system’s proprietary something something won’t something with the client something.’ I wasn’t really listening. See Mook about that, he’s into all that detail shit. If anything happens I need to know about and you can’t get a secure channel, plug in the encrypted node on Jargo and post a new PopDem. I’ll decode from here. Thanks.”
Having taken care of business, I tucked the cell in my breast pocket, passed through the noise of a rather sodden rendition of “Believe” and hailed a cab. There were things to get before boarding the plane to Dixie.

Grand Delusion

Life in the gutter called Web Development is a lot like driving a cab. You sit alone for long periods of time in the middle of the night, and it seems like everyone wants you (particularly when it’s pouring). You’re getting called to go here and do this, go there and do that, other people are trying to get your attention just to answer their questions for them, knowing that in other circumstances that “opinion” turns into “consulting” and you can charge them obscene amounts of cash for telling what they already knew, but were unwilling to believe until they could throw their wallet at someone else to confirm it.
Being an ID in the field, the breakdown of which was either interpreted as being “In Demand” or “IDentified” as someone who people know as a ‘The’, was certainly lucrative if not exactly convenient. When everybody wants you, and there’s only so much you to go around, splitting your time between coasts and commitments becomes like breathing. Veen had it down to a science, but he could afford to. Maybe Lycos had its head up its ass out there in Waltham, Mass, but they certainly knew a cash cow when they bought one. Me, I was attached to some fly-by-night non-existent corporation with offices disuised as bank branches (a smart move, it turned out, since nobody actually attempts to go into banks anymore as long as there’s a stocked ATM outside) and interests so far-flung that actually caring where their highest-profile “personality” was at any given moment was not as important in the bigger scheme of things as making sure no one could trace their responsibilities for all the Black Ops crap they laid down in Third World countries like Mississippi.
Sure, I had responsibilities as well, but they weren’t anything a trained poodle could perform given a PalmVII, a platinum corporate AmEx account and a 2-pound bag of blow in the glove compartment. Stepping out for a trip down South sounded like just the thing, and who cared if I made any sense up on the stage? Everyone knows that these Web conferences are a front for prostitution and gun running, anyway.
“Lights,” I said, entering the Lancetorium hidden down an alley off Fell in the fashionable Hayes Valley district. A soft amber glow filled the foyer and I dropped my keys on the Eames ottoman where they bounced once and landed on the ugliest rug in the world. The TV winked on as I passed it, sensing I was nearby and wanting nothing more than to please me. A porn DVD kicked in, showing alternating views of some guy’s ass doing God knew what, but I was already ignoring the moaning and pumping up the Alex Gopher on the Denon, the subwoofer knocking plaster loose from the cieling. I slipped on the Sony PLM-S700’s and felt all Han Solo, adjusting the LCDs inside the glasses to focus on my retinas and waved my hand in the air like a conductor, feeling my touch across the virtual desktop only I could see. I grabbed the incoming mail box and opened it, spilling the contents across the display.
“Delete, delete, ignore, mark sender as SPAM, delete, file in personal, delete, delete, ignore, ignore, delete…” It went on and on until I’d managed to filter out all the crap my auto-filters couldn’t catch and then I sorted through the messages I couldn’t ignore or delay.
“Respond. Skip down three. New line.” The Dragon Systems beta was working out well. I made a mental note to get some stock. “Entry: Derek, forget USA. It’ll go nowhere. Those people are not your people. If you really want this FrayTV thing to fly, get in touch with Lifetime. Chicks dig that stuff.” I scanned down. “Skip down seven. Delete to end. New line. Entry: I’m working on the roller skate thing. I’m on my way out the door to Atlanta right now. I’ll work on it on the flight and get it to you ASAP. Ignore Winer. He’s an asshole and everyone knows it. Ever wonder why so many people subscribe to his email effluviance? It’s because we all enjoy a good laugh in the morning. Besides, he got it all wrong as usual. *I’m* the guy who hates Weblogs. Everyone knows that.

Wild Blue Wander

The phone was ringing. I ignored it, letting the system answer. I needed to sleep, but there was no time. I needed to eat, having emptied myself under Liz’s watchful eye, but I didn’t “feel” like anything. That meant chips and salsa, which always tastes good even when you’re not hungry. I slipped off the Glasstrons and padded to the kitchen, pulling out the plastic container of Casa Sanchez Hot Salsa Roja and grabbed the bag of tortilla chips, slurping in my first bite as I sat my ass back in the Aeron and continued my mail sorting.
I glanced over at the clock in the corner of the display. I sighed. I shrugged. I went to rub my eyes and shoved the screen against my eye.
Friends, that’s a pain that lingers.
I opened IE and scrambled to the conference site to see if anyone else I knew would be doing the performing monkey thing with me. There were the usual suspects giving the usual presentations that everyone has already seen a dozen times or more, but somehow that never stopped the masses from figuring out how to wrangle a three-day vacation ostensibly linked to a Web conference from an unsuspecting boss who’d actually believe it when the employee returns tanned, fit and slightly high talking about changing paradigms and improving the user experience without a single iota of proof to verify they knew any more than they did before.
Quite the scam, but a profitable and, I’m glad to say, monthly one. Now it was my turn to walk the boards and talk into the bright light of cyberlebrity. Scanning the presenters, I saw two names I knew well and felt comforted that I would be meeting up with familiar faces over drinks at the bar.
“Have you had your bags in your possession at all times?”
Hmm, let’s see. I had them when I was putting the toot in the zippered compartment. The amyl and lithium are disguised as cologne and shaving cream, respectively. I couldn’t get the absynthe like I wanted, but other than that, “Yes.”
“Has anyone unknown to you attempted to give you something to take onboard with you?”
There’s the grass in my breast pocket, but no one ever checks there for anything that’s not metallic. Besides, I got that from someone I know, and he said I shouldn’t take it on board with me. So, “No.”
“Thank you for flying with us, Mr. Arthur. That’s gate 32a, just to your left.”
“Thank you.”
Sitting in first class is something everyone should experience at least once. When you start racking up the air mileage, you get the free upgrades all the time and get into a rhythm:

  • Arrive at the gate half-an-hour before scheduled departure.
  • Head directly for the gate. If they haven’t already started boarding the first class passengers, it is imminent.
  • Hand your jacket to the waitress as you enter, stow your carry-on in the overhead.
  • Order two drinks. You’re in first class, they haven’t taken off yet, it’ll take the cattle 45 minutes to figure out that all the overhead compartments are filled and they should quit whining and sit the fuck down. Meanwhile, you’ve had two drinks!

Simple as pie.

Up, Up & Away!

I was sitting next to some young guy I didn’t recognize, which meant either he wasn’t in New Media or he was and I didn’t like his work. “Hello,” he said. His voice sounded lubricated. It slipped from his throat with a smoothness that suggested one thing quite loudly to me.
“You’re in marketing, aren’t you?”
“How’d you guess?”
I smiled my party smile, the one I keep for occasions when I need to talk to someone but not think about what I’m saying. “You with a start up?”
He nodded too forcefully, meaning they were Pre-IPO and he still had hope in his heart. “Yeah, we’re in SOMA!”
I stifled a groan and I think I did a good job of hiding the disdain from my features. Or maybe I just looked like I had gas, which I often do. “Oh?”
Another incredibly enthusiastic round of nodding. “It was very hard to get the space, buzz buzz buzz drone drone drone blah blah blah!”
“And what is it your firm does?”
“Oh, I’m afraid I can’t discuss it with you unless…” I already had my Montblanc out and was signing the non-disclosure agreement before he had it unfolded. If you live in San Francisco and do anything even remotely connected with Web development, you use these things for toilet paper. They are, literally, used to paper the fences at construction sites to hide the posters for post-IPO start-ups. “Okay, what we’re doing, see is leveraging the…”
“Did you just use the word ‘leveraging’?”
His grin did not diminish. “Yes! We’re leveraging the power of the…”
“Whoa, stop right there, buckaroo. Does this in any way involve either content distribution or niche product marketing and sales?”
His diploma was showing. “I see. To put it more clearly, is this company you work for that has you seated in first class on a plane where you’re handing out NDAs like drink coasters at Butter attempting to corner the market on collecting and redistributing reams and reams of text that no one wanted to pay for in the first place, and/or cornering the market on the sale of some incredibly slim sliver of merchandise like bar stools or”
“And if I were to walk into your digs there in South Of MArket, would I perhaps see a receptionist sitting behind a $2,000 SGI flat screen handing out fortune cookies customized with your logo burned into each thin strip of translucent and possibly carcinogenic plastic folded inside, telling me that you’re burning through your first round in the form of useless gimmicks and hardware dressed to impress?”
“And, upon venturing further inside, would I be accosted by at least two dogs, one in heat, and some guy on roller blades on his way to a foosball tournament on the second level of the space you’re paying way, way, way too much for?”
“And once I had managed to avoid being wrangled into a good-natured game of nine-ball by an Odwalla-wielding code grrl raking an ironicly fish-shaped comb through her fuscia locks, would I encounter an ad hoc meeting taking place in the center stall in the men’s room because all the meeting ‘spaces’ are already occupied by an assortment of, you should excuse the expression, marketing types trying to figure out how to sell your services when you have yet to legally obtain a name for your dot-com?”
“Fish comb?”
“And as I was sitting under the exposed beams and metal girders, listening to some droning, pirated thump-thump music being pumped from the MP3 server which has no doubt been given some cute and violent network name like Pink Thunder or Bloody Pussycat, will I be amused by the assortment of cheap plastic gumball machine trinkets and McFarlane toys depicting mechanical dino-terrors influenced by the stacks of Manga in the corner?”
“Um, I don’t…”
“Been there. Done that.” I stood up and extracted the laptop from my shiny black Respect LapPak, explaining, “I’d love to sit and chat with you, but I have some Sims to torture.”
“I’m sure you understand. Waitress! What’s the Merlot? I’m parched!”
In relative silence, broken only by the sound of sweat from one seat over, I enjoyed ritually building and destroying lives made possible by the continually inspiring brain of Will Wright and his cohorts at Maxis. It was a completely satisfying ride into Atlanta, where I landed at 12:30AM on a Monday morning, ready to check-in at the Hyatt Regency.

Atlanta, At Last

The Hyatt in San Francisco consists of a very large open area decorated with a gigantic replica of one of Cher’s earrings and a drooping forest of hanging plants like one might find at your favorite abandoned drive-in theatre swap meet. The Hyatt in Atlanta, by contrast, consists of a very large open area speared through with what appears to be the title cage from “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” and a column of glass elevators which face out to the lobby so you can see the oddly tiled floor from 12 stories up where the pattern probably manifests into some acid nightmare illustrated by William Stout.
I was put into a room in the International Tower, named so I assume from the late, lamented Olympic games and terrorist haven. It was a large room, as befits someone of my ego, complete with an L-shaped desk in one corner, a 27″ TV with HBO playing at all hours, a king sized bed covered with a duvet apparently depicting the fall of Atlantis and a complimentary plate of fruit and cheeses of the world. There was a small envelope propped against the runny mess, which had apparently been patiently awaiting my arrival since that afternoon in the 80 degree room.
‘Mmm,’ I thought, ‘cheese.’
It was only 10:00PM Pacific time. Although the scent of the plate was very tempting, especially when I considered that I could smell the thing even though it was tightly covered with plastic wrap, I decided instead to simply lay my head down on one of the pillows—one was so soft that I might have smothered in my sleep, the other as hard as a small dog—and try to get some sleep before tackling Veen’s presentations and correcting all their insane conclusions and incoherent rambling discourse. It would be a long Monday.
P.S. None of what you just read was real.

February 18, 2000

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