Of Two Minds
At some point you're willing to take a job, any job, just to break the dispiriting cycle of looking for work: hopeful application, positive interview, anxious wait, polite rejection, numbing disappointment. Getting tipsy and wandering onto the Golden Gate Bridge in a deep fog was an optional step six, and then it was back to step one again.
Six months of this Sisyphus routine had been especially frustrating to a computer security guy like myself. Despite the sour economy, Silicon Valley recruiters were practically accosting security programmers like me as they walked to their cars in the Safeway parking lot anymore, but demand for expertise in security was stronger than ever; yet here I was with thirteen years in the field and sterling recommendations, getting one great interview after another--and having the door slammed in my face each time.
I'd sunk through Foolish Paranoia--had an unknown enemy put a voodoo curse on me?--all the way down to the rock bottom of Grand Doubts: Was this just an extended run of bad luck, or had something gone irrevocably wrong in my life?
Despite this low ebb of self-assurance, I began my usual Sunday morning job hunting ritual with a strong feeling that my luck would change. Since my networking and online efforts had failed so miserably, I'd gone back to squinting at classified ads. After filling my big "Grand Canyon" souvenir mug with coffee and a dollop of half-and-half, I flattened the San Francisco newspapers' "employment opportunities" on our ancient mahogany dining table and readied my pen.
While I scanned the listings, my cat Krypton curled up in a black ball on the window seat nearby, dead-center in the swath of bright sunlight warming the red cushion. As she tucked her head under her paws, I felt a surge of envy for her serene oblivion to my financial worries; even the rusty snips from my landlady's battle with the wild bougainvillea beneath our window failed to disturb her.
Although my roommate Greg insisted I was fabricating the whole thing, I'd noticed that our landlady Jan--an arty type who often smelled of wet clay--had an uncanny knack for stopping by on the rare evenings we had female guests; she also seemed to save any yardwork for the weekends that Greg's girlfriend Lena slept over. I don't know if she was hoping to witness a full-blown orgy, or if she was just checking that we weren't damaging the Victorian woodwork with bachelor highjinks, but her timing was beyond coincidence.
When I closed the classified sections an hour later, my collection of ads was depressingly small. The best prospect was Intext, a software company down in San Jose. The commute from San Francisco would leave me a bleary-eyed zombie, but at this point I'd grab the first job that came my way and hold on for dear life.
That evening I gathered up the newspapers and tossed them into the recycling bin by the front door. The help-wanted section was on top of the pile, and my eyes were drawn to a dried coffee ring from my mug in the upper-right corner. Inside the muddy round stain was a listing that I'd somehow missed that morning.
STRIKE OUT ON YOUR OWN. Lucrative and unusual position. Computer and psi experience a must. Apply in person Monday, May 3 only, 9 am to noon, 24 Bridgehead Road, San Francisco.
I reckoned "psi" was some new software tool—it was depressing to think I was already out of date after a mere six months—for it couldn’t possibly be a reference to hokey parapsychology. But "lucrative" and the nearby location were enough for me to tear off the page corner and answer the ad the next morning.
A hazy fog partially obscured the sun; from Bridgehead Road, a quiet industrial street off the Embarcadero, the milky white disk suspended above the East Bay looked like a full moon.
Number 24 was a narrow old red-brick warehouse overshadowed by the Bay Bridge's massive silver span. The grimy facade looked like a child's drawing of a robot face; two narrow horizontal windows formed sleepy eyes above the square mouth of an open roll-up door. Faded "For Lease" signs in the middle of each window and luxuriant dark-green weeds sprouting out of the sidewalk spoke of long neglect.
I pulled out my triangle of newsprint to confirm the address. This was the place, alright, but it sure didn't look like a computer company--or any other business with a pulse.
A bearded man in a glossy new black leather jacket emerged from the fog a few yards away and then stopped uncertainly when he saw the forlorn warehouse. He retrieved the classified section of Sunday's paper from inside his jacket and appeared to check the building's address. After a brief hesitation, he strode toward the gaping door.
Despite my misgivings about the cryptic ad and the decrepit building, I wasn't about to let Mr. Black Jacket or anyone else snatch a job from me. I dashed forward and made it through the door just ahead of him.
A feeble light filtering through rust-streaked glass skylights suffused the cold interior with a dim glow; the dust-laden air smelled of old motor oil and long abandonment. Neat rows of beige folding chairs had been set up between a long white Formica counter in the middle of the cavernous building and the entrance.
About forty other jobseekers were already scattered about, either hunching over applications at the counter or slouching restlessly in the uncomfortable seats, and my spirits sank at the sight of so much competition. A hand-painted banner of bright red letters hanging from cobwebbed rafters declared: "Please do not leave until your application has been reviewed."
Behind the counter, a row of white plywood cubicles about eight feet tall had been hastily constructed against a drywalled partition that hid the back of the warehouse from view. A bespectacled man came round the partition and scurried purposefully into one of the cubicles, slamming the thin door behind him with a bang.
Why a tech company would recruit with such ancient methods as a cattle-call and paper applications, I had no idea, but it lowered my already faltering expectations. Maybe it wasn’t a tech company at all, and “psi” was a trendy name for a new epoxy, in which case I might be applying for a job to operate a computer-controlled spray rig.
Spotting a neat pile of applications on the counter, I picked one up and then hesitated. Realistically, what were my chances of getting chosen out of this multitude? Slim, I concluded sourly, especially since I didn’t even know what this "psi" experience could be, but since I was already here. . . despite its customized format, no company name appeared anywhere on the form. I quickly scribbled in minimal answers and handed the page and my resume to a gum-chewing clerk with a wild tangle of dyed blond hair.
She glanced over my application and resume with eyes laden with purple eye liner and then flicked a numbered card onto the counter.
"They review the apps in batches," she said without looking up. "Here's your number. Be about half an hour."
Charming, I thought to myself. If this was the firm's idea of frontline service, I was wasting my time even applying. As I turned to sit down, the clerk cracked her wad of gum. The loud pop echoed off the rusty sheet metal roof like a small-caliber gunshot, startling awake a plump man in a hideous green plaid coat who'd been snoring peacefully in the front row.
I followed the man's malevolent glare back to the clerk, who broke into a self-satisfied grin.
"What company is this?" I asked her.
She shrugged. "Don't know. I'm just a temp."
I smiled thinly and tried again. "This doesn't look like the typical computer company personnel department," I said casually. "Is their main office in Silicon Valley?"
She examined her long violet-painted fingernails with the dull glance of the terminally bored. "It's a one-day job. That's all I know."
I didn't move and she considered me with purple-hooded eyes for a moment. Then she leaned forward and whispered, "They paid me double wages. In cash."
I nodded, taken aback by her conspiratorial manner and the unusual payment. She raised her eyebrows theatrically and then walked my application back to a cubicle in a rear corner of the warehouse. Taking a chair next to the side wall, I watched the clerk return to her station and begin practicing her .22-caliber gum crack.
A half-hour slowly drifted by; no one was called for an interview, and it seemed clear that answering this peculiar ad had been a complete waste of time. I actually stood up to leave and then thought, what the hell, might as well satisfy my curiosity about the outfit staging this absurd application process.
I sat down and picked at the sandy, crumbling mortar in the brick wall next to me with my fingernail, annoyed that I'd forgotten to bring my issue of Scientific American. The other applicants sitting nearby weren't so unprepared; a young woman in a tailored white pant suit and teal blouse concentrated on a romance paperback, while the man in the fancy black leather jacket had closed his eyes and was tapping his booted foot to an invisible tune.
"Number 44 . . . Garrett Trask," the clerk suddenly shouted. "Come on up. Numbers 26 through 50, thanks for applying."
The smartly-dressed woman glanced at her numbered card, flung it down on the oil-stained concrete floor with a heartfelt oath and then stalked off. I suppressed my astonishment at being called and approached the clerk, who swung open a small section in the counter and crooked her finger at me to come through. As I followed dutifully, she led me to the cubicle at the end of the partition.
She stopped at the hastily painted door and gave me a mischievous smile. "You're kinda cute for a computer type," she said flippantly. "You marked 'single,' on your app. You got a girlfriend?"
My lack of enthusiasm caused her to frown. "You're not gay, are you?"
"Nope," I replied with a strained grin.
Her smile returned. "I didn't think so. I can usually tell."
She was probably a very sweet girl, and her body had certainly been genetically engineered to attract any male with correctable eyesight--but I was unmoved, and I wasn't sure why. Having a woman come on to me wasn't exactly a daily occurrence. Either Natalie had spoiled me, or my dismal dating history since she'd left a year ago had soured me more than I'd realized.
I'd spotted Natalie at the Art Institute's annual graduate show at Fort Mason. She'd been momentarily alone with her dense abstract paintings, a detached-looking beauty with smoky gray eyes, long brown hair and a model's elegant neck. She was leaning lightly against the display wall in a sleeveless linen dress, running her forefinger nervously around the rim of a plastic cup of champagne. After a moment of indecision I'd ventured over, made some fawning comment about her work and then bought a vibrant painting of a blood-red orb that I'd taken for the sun.
Of course she had to come to my flat to help me decide where to hang it. A few weeks later she dropped her impecunious, chain-smoking artist boyfriend and moved into my North Beach apartment.
She was absorbed by her painting and her friends; even so, I felt fortunate. Though men's eyes would rake her and then glance at me in envious appraisal, she was more than a sexy bounce; she had a quick mind, an instinct for color and a slightly twisted sense of humor that delighted me even after four years together. And, irresistibly, she liked my cooking and my lovemaking.
The clerk brought me out of my clouded memories by slipping a folded square of paper into my suit pocket. "Call me this weekend, okay? We could have some fun."
I smiled wanly. "That would be a nice change of pace," I said as convincingly as I could, but inwardly I winced at the memory of my single post-Natalie one-night stand--a nightmarishly unromantic, absurdly unpleasurable evening with a brunette weightlifter. Nice girl, if you like Greco-Roman wrestling. That disaster had been set up by--who else--my roommate Greg.
The clerk opened the flimsy door and immediately wrinkled her nose. The interior reeked of new paint and the sappy aroma of freshly cut lumber. The cubicle contained only a cheap card table and two folding chairs.
"Today's your lucky day," she announced. "They've only interviewed one other guy so far." She cracked her gum and gently teased her ratted blond mane with manicured fingers. "Call me on Saturday, okay?"
I nodded gamely; she gave me a saucy grin and then strolled back to the front counter.
I squeezed behind the card table and sat down on one of the creaky metal chairs. The cubicle had no ceiling, and a sharp cough from someone waiting in front echoed off the rusty corrugated roofing far above me.
As usual before an interview, I began worrying about my presentation. Maybe I shouldn't have worn my navy blue suit; it was as outdated as my red tie. I've got to force myself to go shopping for some new shirts and ties, I thought, even if it meant running up my Mastercard. On the other hand, why bother wearing a suit when you’re applying to run a spray rig?
Maybe I should have gotten a haircut; though I usually kept my hair short--Natalie had said it made made me look younger--it was now a dark-brown thatch touching my ears and collar. Too late now, I fretted.
After wiping the clammy dampness off my palms with a handkerchief I practiced my relaxed smile. My technique was to close my eyes and recall a deep blue, perfectly peaceful lake I'd once visited with Natalie; it lay in a glacial bowl high in the Sierra, surrounded by granite walls and permanent clefts of snow unmelted by even the summer sun. Then I'd think of my favorite "Zippy the Pinhead" comics until I couldn't help but chuckle.
Despite these precautions, a small fear nagged at me. Would a poisonous whiff of desperation somehow leak out of my smile and handshake?
Also as usual, I fought these doubts by running through my standard checklist: don't stand up, emphasizing my six-feet-one-inch height, if a guy was short; keep my eyes on any woman's face--and nothing lower; and fake a sincere enthusiasm for the job, no matter how utterly tedious it might sound.
A balding, gray-haired man perched on the far edge of middle-age darted into the cubicle and slammed the door shut behind him with a loud bang. I stood up and he quickly shifted his clipboard so he could extend his hand to greet me.
"Mr. Trask? I'm Julius Feinbaum."
His slight build and energetic handshake reminded me of a hungry squirrel twirling an acorn. A pair of slightly askew gold-rimmed spectacles sat half-way down his aquiline nose; he lowered his head to examine me over his bent glasses with roving, friendly eyes the color of damp clay.
The keen focus of his gaze belied the academic air of distraction conveyed by his rumpled clothing and hair; from the way some gray strands ran forward and others lay toward his ears, he'd obviously parted his remaining locks without benefit of a mirror.
Feinbaum plopped down across from me and set the clipboard in his lap. Then he reached into his frayed tweed jacket and pulled out a deck of bright lawn-green playing cards.
My eyes must have widened in surprise, for he half-smiled. "We're looking for some unique talents."
This is a first, I thought wryly; if I win gin rummy, I get a job.
He fanned the cards out face up. "This deck has five kinds of cards--circle, triangle, square, lines and wave. See?"
I'd never seen cards like this, and my puzzlement grew. He expertly slapped the cards face down in neat rows of six and looked up at me. "Now guess which of the five symbols will turn up in the first row."
I stared at him as if he'd just asked me to gaze at the full moon, howl twice, and foretell his future. I forced a polite smile. "I think you've got the wrong cubicle. I'm here for a job interview."
His smile flickered back to life. "This is it."
I searched his face for some sign of guile. "This is a joke, right?"
He shook his head. "I'm afraid not. I test people like this all the time. Now just go ahead and guess."
It occurred to me that if he ran these card games all the time, they probably weren't job interviews; maybe this was a local university's clever way of trying out a new psychological test. Might as well humor him, I thought sourly; the morning's shot anyway.
I concentrated on the marigold backs of the cards and felt a prickly selfconsciousness warm my face. What was I supposed to be doing? Trying to see through the cards? They all looked exactly the same. After a moment of embarrassed hesitation I said whatever symbols came to mind. "Circle, triangle, square. . . uh, line, triangle, wave."
He marked my answers on a clipboard and then turned the first row over. To my surprise I'd guessed the two triangle cards correctly.
"You see?" Feinbaum said. "It's easy. According to statistical chance, you should have guessed only one right. Let's do the next row."
My success in future runs was mixed. Sometimes I guessed two or three correctly and other times none at all.
After we'd gone through the deck several times he collected the cards and then pushed a blank sheet of paper and a small rose-colored stone pendant on a silver chain across to me.
"Now write down something about the owner of this pendant."
I picked up the smooth pink oval. "How am I supposed to....?"
He gave me a patient smile and set a gold Cross pen on the table. "Just guess."
Sighing heavily, I thought, what the hell, there's no harm in playing along for a few more minutes. The job offer was a sham, a cover for some hokey parapsychology research after all, and a familiar bitterness welled up inside me—another dead end.
The pendant felt warm in my palm, and I wondered vaguely if it really belonged to a woman or if Feinbaum had just bought it an hour ago off a department store rack.
Fingering the stone absentmindedly, I gazed at the rough knotholes bleeding through the plywood walls' fresh paint for a moment before taking the pen and writing: "She's very attractive, in her 30s, but she had a bad relationship recently so she's single. She's stronger than she looks, and likes foreign films."
Hoping it wouldn't be too uproariously off base, I slid my profile across to Feinbaum. He read it, suppressed a quick grin, and then readied his clipboard. "Now concentrate on the next cubicle and tell me what's in there."
Enough already, I thought irritably. "Sorry, my X-ray vision's a little weak today. I really need to go."
He smiled patiently. "Mr. Trask, we're just trying to find out how sensitive your mind is. Now what's in the next cubicle?"
Figuring it was a trick question, I smiled back and announced, "Nothing."
Feinbaum eyed me sternly through the scratched lenses of his bent glasses. "No, there's something in there. You have to make an effort, Mr. Trask."
With another heavy sigh I glanced at the white plywood. God only knew what weird collection of garbage might be stowed behind it. While Feinbaum gazed impassively at his clipboard, I considered the possibilities and eventually settled on a simple guess. "Water."
I rejected the mental image of a half-filled glass and then shrugged. "I have no idea."
"Come on, Mr. Trask. Let's make an effort," he said scoldingly.
Wishing just to escape the absurd interview, I said, "It might not be real water. It could be a photo of the ocean or a river."
"Anything else?" he asked.
Just to supply a serious-sounding answer to his prodding, I replied, "Something that comes in big sheets. Paintings . . . or maybe blueprints."
After scribbling some notes on his clipboard he abruptly scooped the pendant into the pocket of his worn tweed coat and gave me a friendly smile. "Well, that's it for me."
"Mind telling me what all this has to do with computers?" I asked.
His lingering smile closed like an old theater's thick velvet curtain. "Sorry. I can't tell you. Just wait here for the second interview."
He scurried out and banged the thin door shut behind him.
Taking a deep breath, I exhaled loudly. Who's next? Another old guy clutching a ouji board? After a few moments, curiosity got the better of me and I climbed on the rickety folding chair, hoping to look into the next cubicle.
The rapidly approaching clicks of hard leather heels on concrete outside warned me off and I sat down just as the door swung open. A slim, dark-haired woman in a pin-striped gray suit entered and quietly closed the flimsy door behind her.
I stood up and hoped my welcoming grin didn't look too guilty. She gave me a perfunctory smile in return and set her clipboard down on the table. As she did so, her straight black hair fell in a silken cascade over her shoulder. She brushed it back with a practiced gesture and then offered me her hand in the chilled manner that sexy women use to factor their femininity out of a business meeting.
Her fingers were warm and almost masculine in strength. "Hi, I'm Jeannette Makoto," she said coolly. "You must be Garrett Trask."
As she looked me over I admired her eyes. They had the lustrous depth and gold-flecked light of a lacquered oak table, and the hint of an Asian fold. Her surname sounded Japanese but her height--at least five foot seven--and her slightly pronounced cheekbones, small pert nose and creamy skin also suggested a happy marriage of Asian and Anglo blood.
Breaking my rule, I surveyed her slender body. Her gray pin-striped suit and natural silk blouse were plain to the point of severity, but they failed to hide her graceful neck or the curves of her hips. A small pin on her lapel--a single pearl set in gold--and lip gloss were her only concessions to decoration.
I kept my gaze on her too long; her lips formed a small smile and she sat down across from me. Despite the heavy odor of the cubicle's new paint, I caught a whiff of her perfume. The musk-sweet, slightly flowery scent was familiar, but I couldn't place it.
Jeannette studied her clipboard for a moment and then looked at me evenly. "So you were a software systems designer at Cybertek until you were laid off six months ago."
"Yes. The axe fell on a bunch of us."
"You were there almost five years. That must have been tough."
Trying to hide my bitterness behind an expressionless mask, I nodded brusquely.
Her brows knitted as she read my application, and I suddenly wished I'd worn a more dashing tie. The faint freckles on her cheeks made her seem younger than her true age, which I guessed to be mid-thirties.
She continued reviewing my application. "So you're 35 years old, single, in excellent health--"
Jeannette glanced up and gave me another appraising look. "You look awfully fit for a techie."
I'd recently started jogging again after a ten-year hiatus. "I'm trying to get back in shape, but most of the time I feel like a wheezy old man."
She smiled politely and then returned to the form. "Does the thought of working overseas appeal to you?"
Since I'd been working in windowless offices for a decade, employer-paid travel seemed like an incredible bonus. Then a vision of malarial villages buzzing with fat flies popped into my mind. "Well. . . where?"
"Sounds great," I said with unfeigned enthusiasm.
"Would you be free to travel for several months at a time?" she asked. "You couldn't take anyone with you."
I hesitated. Ah, you mean a lover, I thought bitterly. Though Natalie had left me a year ago, the hurt felt as fresh as if it had only been a month. "No, I'm free."
She met my gaze and I shifted uncomfortably, unable to tell how much she had sensed in my simple answer. In an obvious effort to put me at ease, she set the clipboard down and said, "So tell me a little about the projects you worked on at Cybertek."
Finally, I thought with relief; a question I'm prepared to answer. We chatted about my successful product launches for a few moments, but then she deftly steered the conversation from products to my decision-making--specifically, on how often I'd used "gut feelings" when I had to make tough choices.
It was all too bizarre to be a real job interview, I thought dejectedly; and so there was nothing to lose in being honest. "There isn't really a job behind all this, is there?"
Jeannette glanced up at me quizzically. "Of course there is," she said. "What did you think?"
She'd have to maintain the fiction, I thought skeptically. "It could be one of those psychology tests that just looks like an interview," I replied evenly.
She grinned and pulled out two forms. "No, it's a real job. In fact, I need you to sign these." The first gave them permission to do a background check on me; the second was a standard confidentiality agreement. Neither one identified the company conducting the interviews.
Still skeptical, I gave her a disarming smile. "Isn't it a bit early for this? I don't even know what I'm applying for."
"It just says you'll keep this to yourself," she replied soothingly.
Of course, I thought with a smirk. The forms seemed harmless enough, so I signed both documents and she placed them in her clipboard.
"What's the job description?" I asked.
"They'll go over that if you're selected."
I nodded politely and said, "The ad mentioned ‘psi.’ What does it mean?"
"They'll cover that, too."
I looked into her steady mahogany eyes, but she did not look away. "How about the contents of the mystery cubicle?" I asked.
"I'm sorry, but I can't reveal that." She stood up and opened the thin door. "I won't keep you."
She waited outside while I extricated myself from the cramped cubicle and its pungent aroma of new paint. As I joined her, I again noticed her flower-scented perfume. I'd smelled it before somewhere, but I couldn't quite identify the setting or the fragrance.
Jeannette glanced toward the counter, signaling the end of the interview, but I tried one last question. "Can you at least tell me who you work for?" I asked.
"I'm sorry. It's restricted."
"Even the C.I.A. identifies its ads," I said with a wry grin.
The corners of her mouth turned slightly upward in a faint Mona Lisa smile. "This isn't the C.I.A.," she replied coolly, but her guarded eyes could not quite mask the gears of a busy mind.
I hesitated and she extended her hand. "It's been very interesting to meet you, Mr. Trask."
Her grip was again firm, but her skin seemed as cold and clammy as mine had been prior to the interview. I held her fingers a few seconds longer, trying to think up another question, and her lips pursed reprovingly. I reluctantly released my grasp and she gestured to a narrow steel fire door in the corner. "You can go out the back."
I nodded glumly and a pensive look clouded her eyes. She abruptly turned and disappeared behind the partition, and the sharp click of her receding heels echoed hollowly off the old warehouse's rust-stained roof.
Copyright 2008 Charles Hugh Smith all rights reserved in all media. No reproduction in any media in any format (text, audio, video/film, web) without written permission of the author.
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