(This is chapter three of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry)
By the time I stumbled onto the Internet in 1993, there were a small number of literary sites available. Ed Krol’s 1992 guidebook The Whole Internet listed exactly two literary magazines on the Internet:
Athene and InterText, electronic magazines devoted to short fiction, are archived here.
Access via: ftp quartz.rutgers.edu; login anonymous; cd pub/journals
I went to the FTP site and found a directory for the magazine called InterText (I never found a directory for Athene, and never heard of it again). About a year and a half worth of past monthly issues of InterText were available for free download in either PDF or ASCII text format. I checked a few out and liked what I read. These were clever stories, somewhat collegiate in tone but serious and well-edited. Several of the pieces had a Twilight-Zone-ish feel. I sent an email to the editor, a Berkeley journalism grad student named Jason Snell, announcing that I planned to submit a story.
For the last couple of years, my then-wife Meg and I had both been submitting short stories to literary journals like Story, Glimmer Train and Ploughshares. Sometimes we got back stiff rejection letters, and sometimes we got nice notes saying “please think of us again”. The carrot and the stick. I considered sending InterText one of the stories from my rejection repertoire, but I had a better urge to write something new.
I also wanted to write something more techie than literary, something that would fit into a brash and quirky publication like InterText. I spent one slow afternoon at my desk writing a humor piece about working in a bank exactly like JP Morgan. I called the story “Jeannie Might Know”, emailed it to Jason Snell, and was absolutely thrilled when he quickly wrote back that he and his co-editors liked the piece and would probably use it. He asked me for an author bio and this is what I sent back:
Marc Stein (firstname.lastname@example.org) works as a consultant to Wall Street banks eerily similar to the one depicted in this story. He is married and lives in Queens. He spends his time eating Mexican food and teaching his eight year old daughter and three year old son how to do Beavis and Butthead impressions.
Then I started having panic attacks.
“Jeannie Might Know” described my life as a software consultant at JP Morgan in rather bitter terms. I was an employee of Sybase New York Professional Services, which had a multimillion dollar contract with JP Morgan. I could just see my boss calling me into his office: “You published a satire about our client on the Internet?” I couldn’t go through with it. A couple of days before the new issue of InterText was about to appear, I emailed Jason Snell a quick “STOP THE PRESSES”. He gave me a day to come up with a new name.
I was happy with this solution to the problem because I’d never liked the sound of “Marc Stein”. A friend once described my name as sounding “lumpy”, and I think that describes the problem. I wanted a beautiful name, a writer’s name. Also, like many ethnic Jews in America, I resented having a German last name, so I chose a few Hebrew first and last names that appealed to me, tried out a few different combinations, and focus-grouped my top choices to Meg and our daughter Elizabeth. We settled on the best of the lot: Levi Asher (this is actually two last names, representing two of the biblical twelve tribes of Israel). I also liked the echo of Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev. Levi Asher … sure, that was a name I could walk around with.
I emailed the pseudonym to Jason Snell, who seemed a bit puzzled by the whole thing but said okay. A couple of days later, Intertext issue 18 (March/April 1994) came out, and I was very pleased.
As humble as the publication was, InterText changed my attitude about writing. I knew at this moment that I would never submit another short story to Ploughshares or Glimmer Train again. Intertext had no literary reputation at all, and my story would not be considered for Best American Short Stories of 1994. Yet, somehow, I sensed that I’d stumbled onto something better than the literary journal scene, something more immediate and alive. The fact that the submission process had been so easy and pleasant also seemed like a good omen, as did the fact that editor Jason Snell had been such a nice and down-to-earth guy, unlike the typical frosty literary journal editor.
Also, Meg and I had just learned that she was pregnant with our third child. So it seemed to be a time of good omens and new beginnings all around.
I still felt paranoid about the story at my client site on Wall Street, so I made up an excuse to be at the Sybase main office near Bryant Park on the day the new issue was scheduled to come out so I could print a few hard copies on the company laser printer. I showed the printouts to two work friends, who were both confused by the format and the name. “Who the hell is Levi Asher?”
It’s a question I’d be asking myself often in the years to come, and I never quite found the answer. However, I never stopped using the name, and I still prefer it to the one I was born with. I was never exactly sure who Marc Stein was either.
InterText was only a file-download site at this time, but the World-Wide Web phenomenon was about to take off, and Jason Snell eventually morphed the magazine into a website and went on to publish 57 complete issues before closing up shop in December 2004. Jason Snell is now the editorial director of MacWorld magazine, and an influential figure in the Mac community. I’ll never forget the early encouragement he gave me, and I’m sure he’ll never forget the day a writer made him stop the presses so he could invent a new name.
Here’s the story. I still think it’s pretty good.
Jeannie Might Know
I hated Jeannie Barish the first time I met her. She was a consultant with a productivity-management firm, and at first I tried to avoid her. But then my boss, Lew Parker, made me attend her presentation on how to conduct solution-oriented meetings. This was a new methodology wherein a sheet about twice as complicated as a dental insurance form had to be filled out before, during and after every meeting. It actually had a beneficial effect on our department, because for about three weeks after Jeannie’s presentation everybody was afraid to have meetings, and we got a lot of work done.
But Lew Parker lived for meetings, and finally he couldn’t stand it anymore. He called us into Room C and said, “Did anybody tell Jeannie we were here? No? Good, let’s just talk quick before somebody catches us.”
He was there to tell us about the transition. Recently our bank had been bought by another, larger bank, and departments were being shuffled. As of today, Lew Parker told us, the head of Management Information Systems would report to the Vice President of Commercial Markets Quality Assurance, whose boss, the head of Global Systems Development, was being transferred to Network Integration, where he would report to the Director of System Administration’s next door neighbor’s piano teacher. Or something like that. Whatever it was, none of us knew what it meant, except that Lew Parker was clearly upset about it.
Some people get real mean and scary when they’re upset. Other people just get cool, and sinister looks creep onto their faces, and you know they’re plotting revenge and it’s going to be great when it happens. But Lew Parker didn’t get upset in either of these two ways. He just started coming unglued. His collar button would pop open, he’d sweat, his eyes would bulge, and we’d all sit there feeling sorry for him.
Two days after the meeting Lew called me into his office, shut the door and said, “Jim, I can’t figure out how to get the new word processor program working.”
All of the programs we’d been using had just been replaced, because the company that had created our desktop software had recently merged with another company. Now instead of MaxWord and MegaSpread and WonderGraph we had SuperWord and CalcPad and PresentStar. Everybody was a bit on edge about this. “I guess I can help you figure it out,” I said, reaching for the keyboard.
He blocked my path. “Well, it wouldn’t help me very much if you did figure it out. Because I also need to import a graph from PresentStar into CalcPad, and I can’t even get CalcPad to come up on my screen.”
“Okay, I’ll take a look at it,” I said.
“How is that going to help me?”
“Well, it’s what you asked for.”
“That may be so, but it isn’t going to help me, is it? Because the fact is, all our goddam software is completely incomprehensible to me now, and Chuck Harrison has been expecting me to hand in my Third Quarter Strategic Direction document for three days now and I don’t have a damned thing to show him, because I can’t get PresentShit to talk to fucking MaxiPad, and so I can’t do a goddamned thing at all now, can I?”
At least I knew now why he’d been so upset lately. He was terrified of his desktop software. This was ironic because he’d always been very proud, almost to the point of bragging, about his proficiency with the old programs. But he’d never even developed more than a superficial understanding of them. He was like somebody who learns how to play “Three Blind Mice” on the piano really fast, but can’t play anything else.
“If you want,” I said, “I can look through your manuals–“
“No, no. It’s beyond that, Jim.” He started to get a misty look and I got a scared feeling that he was about to pour his heart out to me. “It’s just that, sometimes… it’s like we run and run just to keep up, and we’re running faster and faster, but are we producing any more? Why are we going faster? Who does it help? I mean… sometimes I just don’t understand what’s going on.”
Nobody wants to hear his boss blubbering like a drunk on a bar stool. It’s demoralizing. “Wait,” I said. “I’ll find someone who can teach you this stuff. Let me ask around. I’ll be right back.”
“No,” he said. “I don’t want you walking through the halls announcing that Lew Parker is a technical moron. I’m supposed to be the manager here.”
“I’ll be discreet,” I said. “Please. I’ll find someone quick.” I escaped and walked down the halls asking who could help Lew Parker with the desktop software–in effect, announcing that he was a technical moron, but what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. The problem was, everybody I asked suggested I talk to Jeannie Barish. All I heard was, “Jeannie might know,” “Jeannie’s great with that stuff,” “The only one who knows is Jeannie.”
Who was this Jeannie, anyway? I knew she worked incredible hours, until eight or nine o’clock at night on a typical day, Saturdays and Sundays a few times a month. But she wasn’t assigned to any project and nobody knew exactly what she did with her time. She was no older than the rest of us, but she wore expensive clothes, which made me think she was making more money than I was. She always had a smile on her face, and kept asking people to go on ski trips or join the ‘group’ for Friday lunches at T.J.’s. For all these reasons I always tried to steer clear of her, but now but I had no choice but to go to her cubicle and ask for help.
I hadn’t seen her cubicle before. It was bigger than mine and had real oak furniture. In terms of decoration, it was a veritable shrine to skiing. I’d had no idea she was so ski-obsessed. There were ski calendars, ski posters, ski trail diagrams. “Hi!” she said. “How’s it going?”
“Okay,” I said. “Can you help Lew Parker figure out the new desktop software?”
“Sure! Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you, how come you didn’t answer my e-mail about the ski trip?”
“I don’t like skiing.”
“It was just a questionnaire. I wrote that it was for everybody to answer, whether you like skiing or not. I was thinking that if some other winter sports are popular we might try to put together a different kind of trip. Like bobsledding, maybe.”
“I don’t like winter sports,” I said. “Winter sports are the opiate of the masses.”
She didn’t seem to understand what I’d said, but clearly didn’t like it. “Now why would you say something like that?” she asked, knitting her eyebrows with concern and disapproval.
I shrugged. “Can you please go help Lew Parker before he has a nervous breakdown?”
Two hours later, Lew Parker called me into his office. He was sitting at his desk with Jeannie at his side and a broad, idiotic smile on his face. He looked deeply relaxed, happier than he’d appeared in months. “This woman is a gem!” he told me. He turned to her. “Jeannie, I only wish we had three of you. No, ten of you. Thank you so much.”
“No problem!” she said. “Glad I could be of help.”
She began to leave. “Hey,” Lew Parker called after her. “Maybe I’ll even put together one of those Solution-Meeting things soon!”
“Great!” she said.
She left the office and a serious look came over his face. “Jim,” he said, folding his arms. “Jeannie tells me you seem troubled.”
“Something or other about you not going on ski trips or joining the group for lunch at T.J.’s.”
“I’m not required to go to T.J.’s!” I said. “I hate places like that. The last time I went I ordered the pepper steak and they put cheese on it!”
“Jim, relax,” he said. “You’ve been nervous lately. A ski trip or a nice leisurely lunch would do you good. Get with the crowd a little more.”
I left his office in a state of shock. Now I really hated Jeannie. I started asking around about what she did. Nobody knew. I saw a pamphlet for her consulting firm, and it said that their mission was to help companies provide solutions. What did that mean? It’s like saying your job is to go around doing good things. What the hell did she do? I kept asking around, but nobody had ever worked with her on a project. And yet she was famous for working incredible hours, sixty to seventy a week.
One morning I found a piece of e-mail waiting for me:
Have a great day !!! :^) :^) :^)
Perhaps figuring that we were now friends, she stuck her head over my cubicle wall that afternoon and asked if I wanted to join the crowd for lunch at T.J.’s.
“I’d like to,” I said. “But I just heard a rumor that the original T.J. was a Satan worshipper, so I can’t.”
She frowned and left me alone. Three days later I found a troll with blue hair and a sign reading “Thanks for all your hard work” sitting on my keyboard. The cute little imp found a nice home at the bottom of my garbage receptacle.
All this coincided with some other problems I’d been having. I’d applied for a raise a few months ago, because my bank had been reporting record profits since being acquired by the larger bank, and yet whenever I talked to the head of Human Resources about my salary I was made to feel that the immense burden of my measly paycheck was already so devestating to the Board of Directors that the bank was hardly able to continue to do business and pay me at the same time. I lived in a slum apartment in one of the worst areas of Manhattan, where I ate spaghetti for dinner and watched cable TV because I couldn’t afford to go out. There was never any movie I’d heard of on cable, and I was starting to suspect that Jeannie had something to do with that, too.
Since my raise request had been turned down, my mood at work had been getting worse and worse. I worked on the 18th floor, and it was starting to drive me crazy the way the elevator stopped on every floor before mine and all the people who came in were friendly and happy. Sometimes they stopped the door for each other, or held it open while they chatted brainlessly about their plans for the weekend. It had also been driving me insane that people called pastries ‘Danish’ in our coffee boutique. Danish what? It’s a nationality, not a fucking food.
Everything made me feel poisonous. Xeroxing some papers, I saw one of my co-workers had left his phone bill, sealed and stamped, in the box for outgoing mail. It made me so mad I didn’t know what to do. It scared me that things like this brought me close to boiling. I was afraid I’d boil over and do something I didn’t want to do.
One morning I read in the Times business section that Jeannie’s consulting firm had been bought by another consulting firm. That day Jeannie appeared slightly disoriented. She blinked more often than usual, and spilled her coffee at a meeting. A few weeks later she arrived in the morning with the tails of her blouse sticking out from the hem of her skirt.
Soon I heard that her stay at the bank was ending and that she’d be moving on to her next client. She wasn’t allowed to tell us who her next client was, but she seemed to be very upset about something. She’d always worn her hair moussed up high in front, but one morning she showed up with a big thick clump of hair pointing straight out of her scalp like an asparagus stalk, dried white mousse caked between the hairs. There was clearly something wrong. One day she was in my cubicle because she needed to write a summary document about her work with us, and I had to describe to her the Commercial Trading Interface, which was the program I’d been writing. The word ‘commercial’ referred to commercial loans, but we just called them ‘commercials’ as a bit of trading systems jargon. When Jeannie tried to come up with an example to help her understand what I was explaining, she said, “Okay, so like somebody would enter ‘Star-Kist Tuna’ here and somebody else would ask for ‘Energizer Bunny’ here…”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “What the hell are you talking about?”
She looked at me, frightened.
“Jeannie,” I said. “We’re not talking about TV commercials here. It’s commercial loans.”
“I know,” she said, her face red. “I was just trying to give a different kind of example.”
“That wasn’t a different kind of example. That was a stupid kind of example. Goddammit, you’ve been here for six months–don’t you know what we do?”
Suddenly she burst out in tears. “Okay!” she yelled. “Everybody hates me here!”
My phone rang. I moved to pick it up. “I don’t want to go to Azerbaijan!” Jeannie cried, apropos of nothing.
It was my mother on the phone. She was upset because she’d just gotten a letter from the hospital where my father had recently had heart surgery. Their insurance company had recently been bought by another insurance company. They hadn’t read the fine print on the new policy, and now they owed the hospital four million dollars. My father was in a state of shock and had been watching SportsChannel for the past seven hours.
I was about to say something to my mother when the mail boy rolled his cart into my office and I looked up and saw that it was Lew Parker. I’d heard a rumor about more management shuffles, and now I knew it was true.
“Hi,” I said weakly.
“Hi,” he said.
What with Jeannie crying next to me, my mother waiting for me to talk on the phone and Lew Parker trying to hand me my mail, I suddenly saw a horrific vision. I can’t exactly describe it except to say that I suddenly realized that human existence is spinning crazily out of control, that everything is worse than it seems, that we go to work each day and eat Danish and pay phone bills because we don’t want to face the truth that is closing in on us, the truth that all mankind is heading for a disaster like none that has ever been seen before.
The vision ended. I told my mother I’d call her back, I thanked my former boss for my mail, and I told Jeannie I was sorry for calling her stupid. After that day I tried to mellow out a bit. Now Jeannie’s gone and I realize we were better off with her here. I hated her when she was around, but after she was gone I realized that she symbolized something important, something we all need.
Now I sometimes go to T.J.’s alone and eat Thai Chicken with mozzarella or some similarly ghastly concoction. Sometimes I even think I might learn to ski. Racing toward the bottom of a hill, going down, down, down, trying to keep your balance… somehow it strikes me this is a skill that it might be smart to practice.
— “Jeannie Might Know”
— by Levi Asher
— InterText Magazine March/April 1994