(This is chapter 45, the next-to-last chapter of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
One evening in early January 2003 I showed up at Hendriks Institute’s main campus in Westbury, Long Island to begin teaching a course called Relational Database Programming With Oracle and SQL.
I was supposed to meet a teacher named Oscar, who’d taught the same group of students a Visual Basic course last semester. He was going to walk me through the materials and the syllabus before I met my class. I was in for a surprise.
I showed up to meet Oscar and found a very angry person. This was his last day at Hendriks, he told me. Dave Hendriks had just told all the teachers that their hourly rates were being cut from $50 to $35. Oscar was so mad he could hardly talk. He’d been waiting for me to arrive so he could dump the materials in my lap and get the hell out.
“Everybody’s quitting,” he said. “$35 an hour. I’ve been here six years. I don’t know what kind of teachers they think they can get for $35 an hour.”
Since I’d obviously just accepted a position for $35 an hour, I recognized Oscar’s intended insult, and realized the best thing I could do was get my syllabus walkthrough as quickly as possible and let the guy leave. But he had more to tell me.
“The class you’re teaching tonight?” he said. “They’re gonna be spittin’ mad when you tell them I’m gone. I was supposed to teach this course. They all liked me. I’m a great teacher, and these poor students have been fucked over by this piss-ant Hendriks family the whole last semester. Half of them don’t even want to be here anymore. They applied for a refund, but Hendriks won’t give it to them.” He laughed. “You can’t give a refund when you’re broke.”
My new teaching job. Great.
Oscar threw a bunch of instructions at me, showed me the password to his computer, and told me I’d have to burn ten copies of a four-CD Oracle software set for the students to install.
“That’s forty CDs,” I said. “The class starts in two hours.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a fast computer.” I could see that Oscar wasn’t going to be much help, so I let him go and called Dave Hendriks, who reassured me that Hendriks wasn’t as bad as Oscar said, and wasn’t nearly broke yet, although it was true that they’d had to cut the hourly rates. “Some of the teachers are a little peeved,” Dave told me.
He also admitted that a few students weren’t happy with the school. “I’m really hoping you can go in there tonight and do a bang-up job,” he said. “If you can get some of them to stop asking for a refund, that’ll really help our finances a lot.”
Nothing like joining a stable, secure firm. I told Dave I’d do my best.
I spent the next hour and a half burning forty CDs and carefully labelling them “Oracle 1”, “Oracle 2”, “Oracle 3”, “Oracle 4” before making a quick run for Taco Bell and coffee and returning to meet my ten students, a slightly surly-looking group of older adults mostly looking to gain new skill sets after losing their jobs.
They’d been expecting to see Oscar, and greeted my news that I was Oscar’s replacement with a few grunts of derision. I intended to win the group over, though, and I even caught a few approving glances when I told them I’d built Bob Dylan’s website and had more than ten years of solid database application experience with firms like Time Warner and JP Morgan. Since relational database technology is a subject I can really get passionate about, I decided to improvise an introduction before jumping into the courseware. I told them about how IBM invented SQL, or Structured Query Language, in 1970, and how it quickly came to dominate the field of database programming. I said that each of them had probably already interacted with several SQL databases that very day, because SQL was everywhere from cash registers to ATMs to libraries to traffic light systems to websites. Most technical standards are platform-specific, but SQL is used on every single platform from the largest mainframes to the smallest network servers, and on every platform from Windows to Linux to Mac. By learning SQL, I told them, they were learning the secret language that powered nearly all the business or media applications in the world.
By the time I was finished, I had their full attention. I can talk pretty good about SQL databases, once I get on a roll.
I then handed out the CDs and began walking the class through the software installation process. Two minutes later, a student piped up: “disk read error”. Ten seconds later, another one said the same thing. Soon the entire class was having the same error.
I thought I was handling the class well, but I wasn’t prepared for this sudden change of mood. I froze, my composure momentarily lost. The oldest student in the class, a gray-haired man with a rangy, weather-beaten face, stood up. “Goddamn this school!” he yelled. “Cheap CDs! They can’t even afford CDs that work!”
I looked at the CDs. They appeared to be the CompUSA house brand — cheap, sure, but not usually defective. I had done a test install with my source CDs, so I knew they weren’t defective either. “Hang on,” I said. “Let’s take a ten-minute break and I’ll try burning a new set on a different computer,” I said.
“How are we going to all use one set?” a woman asked.
Another one piped up: “It’s too early for our ten-minute break.”
“This should have been done well in advance, and the disks should have been fully tested,” said the angry old man, obviously an expert in process management.
I went back to the teacher’s office with my source CDs, rummaged through the supply cabinets until I finally found a dusty box of Memorex CD blanks, switched on a different computer, burned two new sets and rushed back to class. I handed the CDs to the two quietest students in the class, praying for good luck.
They began the install. “Disk error,” one of them said. The other quickly agreed.
At this, the uproar fully commenced. Some of the students began packing up to leave, while the angry old man pulled out his cell phone, called Dave Hendriks at home, interrupting his dinner and insisting that Dave drive over right now. A few minutes later Dave walked in. I hoped he’d be able to calm the class down, but he didn’t turn out to have great people skills. “I don’t like your tone of voice,” he told another angry man who’d taken over the yelling so the older angry man could take a rest. They all yelled for a while and we finally all agreed to call it a night and come back tomorrow, because there was nothing else we could do.
It didn’t help when we all walked out to the parking lot together and everybody got into their crummy beat-up cars while Dave Hendriks stepped shamefacedly into his shiny new, gigantic black Infiniti QX4 luxury SUV.
Sitting that night on the Long Island Railroad, staring out the window into the darkness, stunned and drained, I began idly fingering the Sharpie pen in my shirt pocket. At that moment I suddenly noticed that this Sharpie was not actually a felt tip pen. It was a pen with a metal tip.
I’d probably been the cause of the disaster myself, because you scratch right through a recordable CDs magnetic surface if you write on it with a metal tip pen. In fact, I’m sure I was the cause of the disaster. I have never told this to anyone before.
These early months of 2003 were tense and exciting months. As the economy plummeted, our government was completing its final preparations for the invasion of Iraq. It felt surreal to watch it all slowly happen once it began in March — the missiles suddenly flying, the tanks rolling. I followed it all closely in the newspapers and on TV, tracking the progress, hoping for the best.
I was caught up in the excitement in April when Baghdad fell, when the statues of Saddam were torn down in the streets. Maybe, I thought, this would actually end well. But I couldn’t understand why American forces stood by as looting began all over Baghdad. Why didn’t Donald Rumsfeld direct his forces to establish calm in the city? Others had the same question, and it was during one of his explanations that Rumsfeld delivered his famous quote: “stuff happens”.
By April I was teaching two courses — my Oracle/SQL course, which really never recovered from its terrible start, and another course in Macromedia Dreamweaver whose original teacher had also left in a huff. I was now earning just enough money to pay my rent and child support each month, though not enough to also buy food or pay my credit card bills. At least I was staying alive, though I was slowly racking up more debt.
I’d decided to take a break from running LitKicks poetry readings for a while, and instead had more fun showing up at other people’s events. Brian Hassett began organizing Sunday open mics at the Back Fence, an agreeable little sawdust-floor hole in the wall on Bleecker Street a block away from the Bitter End. Caryn and I would show up there, or at the Bowery Poetry Club, where one day I met a vintage-era spoken word poet named Cheryl Boyce Taylor along with her famous son Malik Taylor, also known as Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest. I’d never known that A Tribe Called Quest had spoken-word roots, but it made perfect sense once I thought about it. A month later I got to participate in a reading with Cheryl Boyce Taylor, Daniel Nester and Reggie Cabico, along with an old LitKicks friend, Judih Haggai, who’d come from Israel. Caryn and I showed up when Doreen Peri and “Lightning Rod” put on a show in an art gallery in Bethesda, Maryland, and another for the Fringe Festival in downtown Washington DC. Probably the greatest bang-up reading of them all was Jamelah’s second Battle Creek, Michigan shindig, which due to it’s faraway location turned into a weekend party. Caryn and I met many great LitKicks friends there, and even got to tour the factory where Kellogg’s breakfast cereals were made before we left.
Meanwhile, back in the online world I was locked into tiresome “policy debates” with various members of the Literary Kicks message board community. Following the best practices of all well-managed community websites at the time, I took the liberty of deleting messages intended to harm the site or attack other members. This caused a furor because it apparently proved that I was a “fake beat” since Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac would have never deleted anybody else’s beautiful messages. I replied that this was probably true, but Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac would have never been able to manage a community website, and also that I didn’t care if I was a “fake beat” because I never wanted to be “beat” in the first place.
By the end of every incident, my complaining members always wore me out. They seemed to have endless energy to argue back. But Caryn and Jamelah and I became seriously worried about one of them, an apparently financially independent young man from Suffolk, England who called himself “Caliscouri”. His rage at me for deleting his messages took a turn towards the psychotic. We dealt with the “Caliscouri” drama for over a year. An example of his handiwork is a court summons that showed up in my post office box one day declaring that I was being sued for 14,000 pounds.
Nothing on this summons was real, including the summons itself. I called the Suffolk Court in England and verified that he must have simply taken a summons form home, typed it up and mailed it without ever filing it in the court. I often wondered at the time if “Caliscouri” was actually insane. I’ve known people with schizophrenia or other serious mental illnesses, but I didn’t see those signs in “Cali”. I think he was just a guy with way too much time on his hands and nothing in the world to do.
The war in Iraq was supposed to be winding down by April 2003, and there was incredible military bravado in the air around this time. Observing the reactions to the successful invasion of Iraq, I started to realize that for many Americans the greatest horror of the September 11 attacks hadn’t been the waste of innocent life or the affront to global civility but rather the insult to American pride, the sense that we’d been beaten by an unworthy opponent. The victory in Iraq seemed to help a lot of Americans get their swagger back.
It was hard not to get caught up in the vengeful spirit of new victory. I even bought myself a pack of “Iraq Most Wanted” playing cards (Saddam Hussein, of course, was the ace of spades). I watched on TV in early May as George W. Bush flew onto an aircraft carrier and emerged for the television cameras decked out in a high-tech military flight suit to deliver his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech. This was before anybody in the Bush administration learned the fact — they could have looked it up — that Iraqi society was deeply divided between Sunni and Shiite Muslims who would not be able to form a government together without slipping into civil war.
I started to worry a little about my financial situation one day when a piece of mail came from my bank: my last paycheck from Hendriks had bounced. I called Dave and he assured me again that Hendriks wasn’t going out of business, that summer enrollment was looking great, that everything was fine.
Two weeks later the check still hadn’t cleared, and I was walking to the train station when Dave called my cell phone. “Don’t bother coming in tonight,” he said. “We have to close the school down for just a little while.”
I should have expected this — stupidly, I hadn’t. They now owed me nearly two thousand dollars in back pay, two thousand dollars I needed to pay rent and child support bills that were already late.
“What about my back pay?” I asked.
“Oh, we should be getting that to you soon,” he said. Based on his tone of voice, I sensed that I would never see that money, and would never hear from Dave again.
There’s an expression we use in software architecture: “single point of failure”. A single point of failure is a component in a system that can take the whole system down if it fails. A good software design avoids single points of failure by including redundant components that operate in either dual mode or failover standby mode, ensuring that no one isolated event can cause everything to crash.
In regular life, we run into single points of failure a lot. When I was scrambling to burn those Oracle CDs during the first day of my class, I tried a different computer and a different brand of blank CDs. But I didn’t try a different Sharpie, and the Sharpie turned out to be my single point of failure.
As the Bush/Cheney administration began to lose its grip on occupied Iraq, it began to seem that the unexceptional mind of George W. Bush, the self-styled “Decider”, had become the United States of America’s single point of failure.
I have no idea what “Caliscouri”‘s single point of failure was, but it must have been a doozy.
As for my financial situation, I really thought I was getting it back on track by the middle of 2003. I was working four days a week, planning to expand my hours in the fall, hoping to soon start making a dent in my credit card bills. My single point of failure, it turns out, was those Hendriks paychecks. Now I didn’t even have time to plan, didn’t have time to think about who I could possibly borrow from, what kind of horrible crummy job I could find next. The rent and the child support were already overdue. I was busted, and I didn’t even see how bankruptcy could help me dig my way out.
Picture me sitting in the office of a grimy social services office in Jackson Heights, Queens, explaining to a young case worker for a government-administered private charity why it was I needed a handout immediately.
I had literally become a beggar. I was there to get help from a charity created by local church groups to help New Yorkers who’d lost their livelihoods in the post-9/11 economic crash. As a software developer, I easily qualified. My case worker agreed to arrange payment of my rent for one month from the charity fund. I would scrape by with my other payments, and we’d meet again in two weeks to see if my situation had improved.
Since I would have a lot of time on my hands, I also joined a “therapy group” for other jobless adults held every week in this office. The group would meet for ninety minutes, and I eventually told this group my own story: how four years ago I became a paper millionaire after one of the biggest IPOs in history, how ten years ago I’d been an eager young programmer on Wall Street, just hearing about this thing called “the Internet” for the first time. That was when the trouble started, I told my group.
I guess I must have had a lot to be ashamed of at that moment, getting a handout and spilling out my woes to a roomful of other losers. I didn’t really feel ashamed, though. I just couldn’t figure out what my next steps ought to be.