I was born of poor but humble parents in a log cabin in Kentucky. Wait a minute, I’m confused—It was Lincoln, not me, that was born in the log cabin. Dang. Sometimes these details get me all muddled up.
Okay, let’s try again: I was born in a hospital in Philadelphia in the middle of a snowstorm in the middle of the night. My parents weren’t exactly psyched about the timing of my birth but there wasn’t much they could do about it. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t psyched about it either: I was supposed to have been delivered two weeks later, on February 29th. For years I harbored a small grudge against my mom for cheating me of my right to be born on leap-day (which, when you’re in fourth grade, is a really cool thing, along with being able to turn your eyelids inside-out).
Since we’re on the topic of my parents, let me tell you about them: My parents were party animals. I know: this can be hard to imagine that when seeing them now, but remember that this was 40 years ago—they were a lot younger then. They liked to drink, and my mom was a smoker. At one point I asked my mom, “How come you smoked and drank while you were pregnant?”.
My mom gave me that soulful look that moms are so good at giving and said, “We didn’t know any better Brian; they didn’t understand those things until years later.”
I sometimes imagine my parents trying to cut down their natural partying habits to accommodate my mom’s state of pregnancy:
- Okay Alice, that’s your last gin & tonic.
- *(patting her distended stomach)* The baby won’t notice one more gin & tonic.
- For crying out loud, Alice, it’s got nothing to do with the baby—we’re out of gin!
- *(rolling her eyes)* Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—have we run out again? Be a doll and pass me that pack of cigarettes. How are we doing on Scotch?
Har—I am such a crack-up! I hope my parents never read this.
Actually my parents have read this. My mom was shocked, “That never happened—you made it all up!”
“Really. We never drank scotch. Jim, did we ever drink scotch?” she asked my father.
“I don’t remember drinking much scotch,” said my father.
“Then what did you drink—Manhattans?” I asked.
“No, we didn’t drink manhattans, but we did drink whiskey. Irish Whiskey.”
“Jameson’s,” offered my dad.
“Yes,” said my mom, her eyes taking on the faraway look of someone remembering a golden time, a time when they were young and beautiful and the whole world was spread before them like an oyster. “We drank a lot of whiskey sours. Remember? We had that machine that made whiskey sours.”
“It was a gift,” said my dad.
“We made whiskey sours every night. We went through a lot of whiskey. Why did we stop drinking whiskey sours?” asked my mom.
“The machine broke,” said my dad.
There was a moment of silence while my parents remembered and mourned the loss of their whiskey sour machine, a good friend who was just too frail to withstand the rigors of my parents’ partying habits.
Since we’re on the topic of my parents, they used exclamations that I haven’t heard elsewhere: I suspect that since they were both of old Irish stock (I think that their ancestors immigrated to the US in the nineteenth century), that these exclamations came from Ireland and were passed down from generation to generation. Unfortunately neither me nor my siblings have picked up these expressions, so I’m going to record them for posterity:
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph”
This expression is used to denote wonder and amazement, usually at someone’s boneheaded decision; e.g. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—what were you thinking when you lent him our car?”
“For Crying Out Loud”
This expression can be used interchangeably with “For Christ’s Sake” or, as it’s sometimes abbreviated, “Fer chrissakes”. Note that my parents’ version has the advantage of not taking the Lord’s name in vain, which, if you’re worried about breaking that particular commandment, is a definite advantage.
This expression is used to emphasize your wisdom in having made a particular decision; e.g. “For crying out loud Alice, he needed a car to get to work!”
“Christ Almighty, Saints Above”
This is the heavy artillery: I always knew that something was going down when my parents pulled this one out of their arsenal. They only used it when they were no longer concerned with the dignity of the other party; e.g. “Christ Almighty, Saints Above! The reason he didn’t have a car to get to work is that he totaled his two previous cars!”
We didn’t stay in Philadelphia long—my father was working for IBM and they transferred him to Vienna, Austria, when I was two years old
It’s interesting how a child’s view of a foreign city can be dramatically different than that of, say, a travel writer. For example, we lived in a house that was older than Columbus; however, what I remember about it was that the walls were really dry—they were so dry that you could lick them and they would still be dry and your tongue would be dry as well.
My parents sent me and my brother Jim to the English School during the day in Vienna even though we were too young for kindergarten because, as my father later confided to my sister, “Mom wasn’t ready to handle three boys.” Brendan stayed at home because he was too young.
I was at the English School when the Queen of England came to visit us. I must admit I was disappointed when I saw her. For one thing, she wasn’t wearing a crown. And no robe either. She looked like an ordinary woman (in fact she looked like my mom).
If I was king, I would always wear my crown and my robe. And carry my scepter, which I would use to smite my enemies or, at the very least, my younger brother.
I was at an age where I liked licking things and putting them in my mouth. Austria had coins, and those coins were not safe from my curiosity. At one point I had a groschen (or perhaps it was a pfennig) in my mouth and I decided it was time to take things to their natural conclusion—I swallowed it! This caused no small amount of concern on the part of my parents but didn’t bother me at all. In fact to this day I think that the dangers of putting currency in one’s mouth are drastically overrated (“Doctor, were you able to save the patient?” “No Nurse, it was too serious—he had put a penny in his mouth!”).
I remember my first dream. It was quite vivid: a witch turned my family into pancakes. I remember asking my mom why she wasn’t a pancake, and I explained to her about the witch. She said that it was a dream, and that dreams weren’t real. Thank God: I couldn’t imagine life with a family of pancakes. Especially since there was no butter or maple syrup in the dream.
In Austria I learned from my mother my first German phrase. I was young, and already overwhelmed with learning English, but through the dint of daily repetition, my mom was able to drill an important German phrase into my head, a phrase which has stood me in good stead over the years: “Du bist ein schlimmer Bub!” (“you are a bad boy!”)
I just want to say for the record that I was never really a bad boy, it’s just that my mom had very high standards: she expected me to behave like a highly-refined English ambassador (“Excuse me milady, but my diaper appears to need changing; perhaps I could trouble you, when you’re not so terribly occupied, to change it?”).
The house in Austria was built, needless to say, before they had invented central heating, and it became terribly cold in winter. Finally, my mom confronted the landlady, Mrs. Albrecht:
- The house is very cold.
- Mrs. Albrecht
- Put on another sweater.
We wore a lot of sweaters in Austria.
We lived in Austria for three years, and then we moved back to the States, this time to New York, just in time for my sister’s, Maureen’s, birth. We settled in a small town, Larchmont.
Philadelphia is the “City of Brotherly Love”, but I’ll always remember Larchmont as the “Town of Brotherly Combat”. My younger brother Brendan, though eighteen months younger than me, was, through a fluke of genetics, as big as me, and thus was a worthy opponent. We fought almost constantly. It was a lot of fun, at least for me.
The fighting was not limited to my brother: my classmates were willing co-conspirators. In first grade, Michael Carty and I would walk home together, and we would stop in front of the police station, which had a well-tended lawn which was quite suitable for fighting, and I would say, “Let’s fight!”, and he would say, “Yeah!”. And we’d throw down or schoolbooks and go at it in front of the police station. There was something incongruous about two six-year-old boys dressed in catholic school uniforms wrestling in front of the police station. The police never bothered us.
Sometimes my family would make pilgrimages to Philadelphia to visit my Grandmother. My parents made us call her “Gram,” and that’s what they would call her, too, at least when she was around, but when she wasn’t around, they referred to her as “the General.” She was very bossy.
My Grandmother was a big battleship of a woman. She knew what she liked and what she didn’t like. She felt that the police brutality was often warranted, and she believed that Frank Rizzo was the best mayor that Philadelphia ever had. She complained a lot about “colored” people. She liked to drink manhattans. After she drank a couple of manhattans, she would confuse the words “thermostat” and “photostat.” When she would visit us, my dad would mix her a couple of manhattans, and then ask her if it was too cold and whether he should turn up the photostat.
Our dad decided he would give us an allowance in order to teach us the value of money. He gave Brendan and me a quarter every week. He must have felt guilty about such a small sum because he would tell us, “John D. Rockefeller only gave his children a dime every week to teach them the value of money.” We didn’t know who John D. Rockefeller was, but we were sorry for his children because they couldn’t buy comic books, which were a quarter. We went out and bought comic books. Our dad was not happy with our choice, and made a rule that we couldn’t spend our allowance on comic books. That was a bummer.
In 1974 IBM moved my family to Paris, where we lived for the next three years. I’m sure there were many incredible stores in Paris, but the one I’ll always remember was the one under Avenue Foche: it was a dingy one-room affair in an underground garage run by a magician in his sixties who had seen better days. He sold us something that we couldn’t get elsewhere, something that was highly sought after and illegal: firecrackers. Yes, he was our connection. I would wax rhapsodic about firecrackers but it’s rather pointless. I’ll just say this: when you’re ten years old, there’s nothing more enjoyable than blowing things up. Especially when we didn’t have a TV.
My father, when we moved to Paris, got rid of our TV set because
there were only three channels and they only spoke French and there was no football it was a bad influence on children, and that the best thing he could do to foster our growth would be to remove that pernicious influence from our household. We had no TV set in Paris, so instead Brendan and I fostered our growth by stealing into my parents’ bedroom and borrowing our father’s trashy science fiction books. We read a lot of trashy science fiction books. Some of them had cut-up covers because my mom would take a pair of scissors and remove any illustration she found offensive. I remember one book in particular had a depiction of the Egyptian Sphinx, breasts and all. The breasts did not survive the encounter with my mom’s scissors.
It wasn’t that my mom was a prude. She didn’t mind naked women if it was a painting or a sculpture in a museum. In fact, my parents had a reproduction of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss that they kept in their bedroom. But that was art: if a naked women was on the cover of a sci-fi book, it was trash, and needed to be snipped.
My mom did not approve of sci-fi. She did not like the covers, and she did not understand the content. What could be so compelling about spaceships and time-travel? She stuck to her mystery novels, and remained suspicious of the fascination that sci-fi held for me, my dad and my brother. Sometimes she would take to hiding our sci-fi novels. I remember once, when putting the dishes away, I came across a book hidden in the back of the cabinet that had disappeared years before. I think that she believed that, with the loss of our sci-fi books, our interest would have turned to the classics.
We lived in a house in Paris. Unlike our house in Larchmont, which had a hedge, this one had a ten foot high fence with eight-inch spikes at the the top to discourage break-ins. That’s was one of the first differences I noticed between the French and Americans: Americans would use barbed wire, which had quarter-inch barbs which would cut you and cause discomfort; the French used eight-inch spikes which would disembowel you.
When Brendan or I forgot our keys, we’d simply scamper over the fence. The only tricky part was at the very top, where we had to balance carefully before descending the other side.
When my mother discovered what we were doing, she became quite upset.
- Don’t you ever climb over the fence again! Do you hear me? Never again!
- What are you worried about?
- I’m worried about the spikes: you might impale yourselves on them.
- But we’ll never get caught on those spikes. Besides, the tips are really dull.
- Brendan (chiming in)
- Yeah, you really need to sharpen them.
It was in Paris that I was first diagnosed with severe scoliosis. My mom had taken me to a doctor for a routine checkup. I was in his office for three minutes when he went and got my mother and brought her in.
“He has severe scoliosis. Look at the curvature of his spine,” the doctor said to my mom. My mom looked at my spine: indeed, it was horribly curved.
My mom has a certain talent for diagnosis herself, and my respect for that talent has only grown as the years have passed. In this case her talent surpassed that of the doctor’s, his years of seeing patients notwithstanding. My mom sized up the situation, and offered her solution: she said, “Brian, take off your other shoe.”
Unfortunately my teeth were not so easily fixed. I had a large gap between my two front teeth, a gap which only seemed to get larger as I grew older. I want to say that this gap was never a problem as far as I was concerned; in fact, I thought it was damn cool. It was more than cool: it was useful. When I filled my mouth with water I could squirt it between the gap as a makeshift water gun. Furthermore, if I widened my lips I could make the water spray through all the gaps in my teeth, turning my mouth into a water sprinkler. This was a talent I would exhibit at every opportunity, much to the dismay of people standing nearby.
My parents were not amused; they took me to see an orthodontist. The orthodontist took impressions of my teeth, discussed with my parents a possible treatment, and then handed them the bill. This was the conversation on the way home:
- That’s a lot of money
- A *lot* of money
- I think that his teeth might grow in just fine.
- Yes, many kids have gaps in their teeth, and they go away by the time they’re adults.
- (Warming up to the topic) Besides, gaps in the teeth have a certain charm; many actors have them.
- Like who?
- (Long pause)
- Sidney Greenstreet?
I never got braces. I’m glad—I never wanted them.
But what I really wanted was something I was never given: I wanted glasses. Unfortunately I was cursed with perfect vision. I felt a deep sense of injustice: Everyone else in my family had glasses, yet I had none. My brother had glasses. Wire rim. It seemed that every time we fought they would get broken. And then I would get punished for breaking his glasses. If I had my own pair, then they would get broken too, and then my brother would be punished as well.
Paris was when I first noticed that changes were happening to my friends. Sure, we were getting bigger, but other things were changing too: voices were cracking. And the girls were starting to grow breasts and wear bras.
I had just learned from my friend Ricardo how to “snap” a bra (for those of you who don’t know, here’s a quick explanation: place your finger near the top of the victim’s back, then pull your finger down quickly, snagging the bra along the way. When you have built up enough tension (usually when bra is stretched so much that it won’t go any further), let go. It will make a satisfying “snap” noise and attract the attention of the victim). Anyway, I decided to snap Michele’s bra (hey, when you’re eleven and you’ve just learned about something you want to try it out). I snapped her bra, and was laughing when she turned around and slapped me so hard that she brought tears to my eyes.
Now many of you readers have probably not been slapped by someone as versed in the art of slapping as Michele Kafer. Michele had it down. For one thing, she always started the slap with her hand down by her hip so that you weren’t prepared. Most people raise their hands when they’re about to slap—this is poor form, for it telegraphs your intentions and limits your momentum. The true slap-master always starts with an almost straight arm (think golf-swing). Michele was indeed the slap-master. I guess technically she was the slap-mistress, but I want to avoid that term lest the overly kinky among you get too excited.
Schoolyard is that grudges aren’t held very long. I think she was angry at me for less than a minute. And besides I never snapped her bra again (or anyone else’s for that matter).
I remember later that year playing Spin the Bottle with her and three other friends on this very long train ride to Switzerland and hoping I’d get to kiss her—she was a cutie! You just didn’t want to piss her off.
In Paris, it was very important to my mom that we all ate dinner together. So to spare ourselves the discomfort of communicating with each other, we would bring books with us and read while eating. That lasted about five minutes before my mom said, “no reading material at the dinner table.” We had to talk with each other. It was difficult, but somehow we managed.
It was at dinner when I first learned about prejudice. Now, many people talk about prejudice in very sweeping terms—prejudice against people of different skin color, against people of different sexual orientation, etc. But the prejudice I’m talking about is much more immediate: the prejudice that the son is an uncouth lout, and that the daughter is an exquisitely refined lady. Here’s a typical dinner conversation (yes, this really happened):
- *Loud belch.*
- Brian, don’t belch at the table; it shows poor breeding.
- But it wasn’t me!
- *Laughs hysterically.*
- Maureen, don’t laugh at your brother: you’ll only encourage him.
Maureen, not only being gifted with with the ability to belch loudly, was also blessed with a strong sense of justice touched with a dash of sadism. I remember her confronting my father when he got home:
- Brendan and Brian have been bad.
- Dad *(amused)*
- Oh really?
- Yes. You should punish them.
- Dad *(still amused)*
- I should punish them?
- Yes. Make them cry.
My parents lived in Paris for three years, and though they only picked up a smattering of the French language, there was one French custom they really latched onto: sending the kids away to camp. Yes, my parents had that love for their children that could only be fully expressed by sending them several hundred miles away. I went to summer camp in Brittany, winter camp in the Italian Alps. School trips to Holland & Provence.
My parents were under the impression that these camps were wholesome places where we learned how to get close to nature and bond to our fellow campers. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
I guess I shouldn’t be too harsh about these camps—we did learn a lot of things. At one camp, for example, we befriended the chef who taught us how to smoke cigarettes. And I also learned to spit properly (if you didn’t know that there was a proper way to spit, then you’re probably spitting the wrong way). I also learned how to play a game which involves throwing a knife as close as possible to your opponent’s feet.
We also experienced Nature in all her glory, at least as far as bugs were concerned. Everywhere we camped seemed infested with earwigs. Now remember, this was before Wikipedia, and my primary source of information was other twelve-year-olds. I quickly learned two things about earwigs:
- When you’re asleep, they crawl into your ear and eat your brain. That’s why they’re called “earwigs”
- When you’re asleep, they crawl into your ear and lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch, the baby earwigs eat your brain and then crawl out your nose.
I was quite concerned about the danger that these earwigs posed, and I would spend minutes at a time scouring the tent for earwigs. I was armed with a tiny folding knife, which I would use to cut the earwigs in little pieces. I’m not sure why I felt the need to cut them into little pieces; probably because I wanted their chopped-up carcasses to serve as a warning to other earwigs to stay away, and partly because twelve-year-old boys like to chop up bugs.
And twelve-year-old boys like knives, too. I remember one winter camp when we were on a bus to Switzerland. For some reason we stopped at a store that sold knives. Almost every boy bought a knife. Within an hour everyone’s fingers were bleeding (most people closed the blade on their finger once. Some especially gifted children did it several times before they learned).
My parents wouldn’t let us own knives or guns. Even at that young age I was able to ascertain my parents motives and did my best to allay their fears: “I promise I won’t stab Brendan,” I told them seriously. “Really, I promise. Not even if he deserves it.” They wouldn’t budge.
We invented games for ourselves. One game we played was jumping up and down on the bed, usually Maureen’s because hers was the biggest. One time Brendan, Maureen, and I were jumping up and down on her bed, and somehow Maureen managed to execute a perfect swan dive into the radiator. We heard a loud crack as her head connected with the radiator. She fell to the ground, crying, a huge cut in her forehead pouring blood.
My brother and I looked at each other. This was serious: our sister had sustained what was possibly a mortal injury, and we needed to act quickly and decisively. Brendan spoke first.
“Where should we hide?” he asked. “Under the bed,” I said firmly. We knew that when Maureen got hurt, we got into really bad trouble, but if we were hiding under the bed perhaps our parents wouldn’t find us.
Once, when we were traveling in Spain, we stopped in a Burger King. Now you might ask why, when we had the whole of Spanish Cuisine at our feet in Madrid, would we eat at a Burger King? The reason is this: nostalgia. We had been away from America for over two years, and we hungered for anything American.
My brother, who always had an inquisitive mind, lifted the ketchup squeeze bottle and peered inside the nozzle to see what it looked like. This proved too much a temptation for me, and I reached over the table and squeezed hard.
My brother later told me that he didn’t know at first what happened, merely that everything had suddenly turned red.
Brendan was covered with ketchup. Most of it was on his face, but a lot of it was on his shirt, too.
My father was angry. I tried explaining to him that it was Brendan’s fault, that if he hadn’t held the ketchup squeeze bottle pointing at his head I would never have squeezed it, but my arguments were to no avail.
My mom was away when it happened, but she was angry, too. She was mad at me all day:
- Are you still mad at me?
- Yes. I can’t believe you sprayed ketchup all over your brother.
- But mom, he was holding it pointing right at his head! I couldn’t resist!
- He was holding the ketchup bottle pointed at himself?
- Yes: Brendan was holding the ketchup pointing at his head. He was trying to look inside it. Didn’t daddy tell you?
- Dad *(to Mom)*
- I didn’t want to tell you that part.
- Mom *(rolling her eyes)*
- Oh for crying out loud!
Our last summer in France was special: My mom took the three of us to the French seaside resort of Trouville, a beautiful, relaxing town where we swam at the beach and learned to sail sailboats. My mom still reminisces fondly about that summer: “You were terrible,” she says, “I couldn’t wait for your father to show up.”
It was during this summer that my sister developed an imaginary friend, Mary Cugfai. Mary Cugfai was a sort of fairy godmother to my sister, and would leave inspirational notes like the following on the typewriter:
Dear Maureen, You should try to be nice to your brothers even though they are nasty toads. Love, Mary Cugfai
The letters had a common theme: that even though her brothers were brutes, she should try to rise up above those petty animosities and strive to be a better person. These messages affected my brother and I profoundly. We realized that these notes on the typewriter had infinite potential. Besides, we knew how to use the typewriter. Soon, messages like these started appearing:
Dear Maureen, You should do everything that your brothers tell you to do because they are handsome princes and you are a bad girl! Love, Mary Cugfai p.s. You are very bad!
Over the next few days, scores of letters appeared from Mary Cugfai, exhorting my sister to do a wide variety of things ranging from giving her desserts to her brothers, to not talking for an entire month. She ignored them. Somehow she could tell that these letters were not from the real Mary Cugfai.
We moved back to the States again in ’77. High School. Moving around can be hard: it’s hard to move to a new place and make new friends all over again, especially if you’re younger and smaller than everyone else. And, at the tender age of twelve and a barely five-feet tall wisp, I was one of the youngest and shortest of my class of four hundred.
Since I spoke French so well, they put me in an advanced French class with juniors and seniors. I remember one of the juniors, Chris Crean, was kind to me, so I followed him around all day. Finally, towards the end of the day when he was hanging out with his friend, he turned to me and said, “Brian, you can’t hang out with us. You need to hang out with the other freshmen. We’re juniors.” It hurt. I didn’t follow him around anymore.
I made friends. One of my friends was a rather creative and very politically incorrect fellow freshman, Joe W. Joe loved inventing games. One of the games he invented was “hit the retard,” a two-person game that involves one player throwing tennis balls at the other. He also invented a game called “roll up a bunch of newspapers into tubes and beat the crap out of each other.” It was always a lot of fun hanging out with Joe.
But my brother was fun to hang out with, too. My brother and I had Star Trek action figures. I had Captain Kirk, and he had Mr. Spock. Sometime in ninth grade, my teacher, Mr. Reep (whom the students referred to as “Reep-the-Jeep” on account of his not-inconsiderable girth) had us purchase single-sided razor blades with which to dissect frogs.
As a side note, Mr. Reep knew that in ninth grade most kids would do what their teachers told them to, and he took advantage of that.
“Brian,” he said, “You’re a good kid. I want you to go to Arnold’s [a hot dog stand behind the high school] and buy me a hot dog. And a pack of cookies. And a diet coke. Here’s $5. Bring me back the change.”
My eyes would inadvertently be drawn to his waistline whenever he said, “diet coke”. If he was trying to lose weight, he’d be in a better position if he passed on the hot dog and the cookies.
Mr. Reep was one of those teachers who had long ago given up on the joy of teaching, that is, if he ever had it begin with. Some days he couldn’t bear teaching at all, and he’d play a movie for us.
“Have you seen this movie before?” he’d ask the class. It was the one on parasites, a movie made in the 1950’s, with a narrator making stentorian pronouncements about the backwards sanitation of the Chinese. We had seen it several times.
“No, we haven’t seen this one before,” we’d say in unison. Hey, we didn’t want to learn, he didn’t want to teach—it was a match made in heaven.
He’d turn on the projector and retreat to the room in the back of the class and practice his magic tricks while us students would joke around and ignore the film.
Sometimes the projector broke down and he’d be forced to teach; he did this grudgingly, and you could tell he was annoyed.
But back to the razor blades and Star Trek action figures. My brother and I decided that Mr. Spock would look more realistic if his ears weren’t completely attached to his head. With some careful surgery with the razor blade, Mr. Spock’s ears looked much better.
This was only the beginning: both Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk soon had nose jobs. Up until this point, we were improving on the originals. Little did we realize that we were on a slippery slope. Soon we decided that Mr. Spock had been captured by aliens, and they wanted to peek inside his brain. Snickety-snack, Mr. Spock’s head now opened up. And we decided the aliens wanted to torture Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock by cutting off their noses. And lips. And gouge out their eyes.
We had taken it as far as it could go: Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk were but shadows of the men they once were. We were now ready to explore new frontiers, i.e. my sister’s Barbie Doll collection.
This was where we ran into resistance. My sister did not share our enthusiasm for our single-sided razor blade surgery and threatened to tell mom if we touched her Barbie dolls.
We lived in a drafty Victorian house with high ceilings. In winter it was terribly cold, and the most comfortable place to sit was not the Biedermeier couch, nor the French loveseat, nor the comfy chair: it was the cast-iron radiator. When my mom wasn’t sitting on it, Brendan, and Maureen, and I would fight for it.
It was really cold in that house. My parents kept the thermostat at fifty degrees. They would have probably kept it lower, but that’s as low as the thermostat would go. It was so cold that we could see our breath when we woke up. My sister’s friend, Abbie Kunath, would sometimes sleep over. Abbie’s most vivid memory from High School is how cold our house was.
Sometimes I would complain to mom how cold it was, and she she would cackle fiendishly from her perch on the radiator, “Put on another sweater! Put on another sweater!”
But in other ways my mom was great: she would make me five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for lunch. I loved lunch. I still eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day. Every morning I ask myself, “Brian, what should I have for breakfast today?” Then I say, “Let’s have peanut butter & jelly sandwich!”. And I’m totally psyched every morning
But wait, I was going somewhere with this: Oh yeah, five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Usually I started eating the sandwiches before lunch. And then my teacher yelled at me for eating my sandwiches during his very important indoor-golf class. Some people take their jobs way too seriously. Mr. Holub was one of those people. He asked me in a rather sarcastic voice (which by the way was completely lost on me—I was a rather naive high school junior), “What are you eating?”
“Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches,” I answered.
“Why are you eating them?” he asked.
“Because I’m hungry,” I replied.
He must have thought that I was poking fun at him because at that point he lost his cool and started shouting about how I should wait until lunchtime to eat lunch. I knew then that this was going to be a problem: it was clear that he wasn’t going to allow any sandwich-eating while teaching us the important art of whacking tiny wiffleballs with golf clubs. I was straddling the horns of a dilemma: on one hand I was hungry, on the other hand I didn’t want to unnecessarily antagonize our half-crazed indoor golf teacher. My solution was born of pragmatism: I would sneak bites of my sandwich while his attention was otherwise occupied. Ah, the perils of high school.
I would like to point out that my scholastic accomplishments were uneven at best. On second thought, “uneven” is an inappropriate term, for it implies successes and setbacks, which was was not the case with me: my achievements were uniformly dismal.
During my first quarter sophomore year, my grades were so terrible that I knew my parents would punish me, so when my report card arrived in the mail I intercepted it, tore it up and buried it in the bottom of the trash can.
This technique proved so effective that, when my grades failed to improve the second quarter of my sophomore year, I again intercepted my report card and tore it up.
My parents could be pretty gullible, but only up to a point. They contacted the school, the deception was uncovered, and I was duly punished.
Our parents had limited options when it came to punishing us. Grounding us to our rooms wasn’t effective because we were quite happy in our rooms: we would either read books or draw pictures of airplanes shooting our enemies. They could withhold our allowance, but it was pretty meager to begin with, and we weren’t allowed to buy comic books anyway.
So my dad would most often punish us by sitting us down and asking why our grades were so bad. This interrogation followed a fairly predictable path: We’d first claim that we weren’t sure why our grades were bad, and then, under further questioning, we’d venture that perhaps it was related to not having done all the required homework, and then maybe we’d confess we had done hardly any of the homework. And then he’d start asking us why we hadn’t done the homework.
One time my brother and I made the mistake of telling my dad the truth, i.e. we never did the homework because the homework was boring. This did not go over well, and that was the last time we tried that particular approach. Instead we found, through years of experimentation, that the best approach was to say as little as possible, appear to not fully understand why our grades were so terrible, and to nod in agreement to his exhortations to diligently do our homework in the future. Besides, my dad would lose steam after twenty minutes, and then we’d be in the clear for the next few months.
Once we drove up to Vermont for a ski vacation. For some reason my father felt compelled to drive even faster than usual, so much so that my younger brother was finally driven to say, “Dad, could you please slow down? You’re driving really fast.”
My father did not take kindly to my brother’s suggestion, and told him so. Fifteen minutes later we were pulled over by a Vermont policeman.
When confronted by the cop, my father said as little as possible, appeared not to understand how he could have been driving so fast, and nodded his head in agreement when the cop encouraged him to drive more carefully in the future.
As children, we didn’t have the breadth of experience to appreciate how different our father’s driving was than other drivers’. He had been a cab driver for several years in Philadelphia, and that experience had permanently warped his driving technique. For most people, getting into a car was simply another mode of transportation. For us, getting into a car was a death-defying experience.
My sister recalls the first time her boyfriend took her for a ride in his truck. It was a pleasant drive through the gentle hills of Marin County. Finally, he pulled over and looked into her eyes and asked, “Were you scared? A lot of the people who ride with me are scared because I drive so fast and take the sharp turns really quickly.”
My sister looked at him incredulously and said, “You have no idea.”
In my junior year in high school, my Grandmother moved in with us. We settled into a gentle routine: My dad would mix manhattans for her and ask her if the photostat was turned too low. When she wasn’t drinking manhattans, my Grandmother would tell my parents that they were doing things wrong. My grandmother was also a wealth of medical information. Little did we suspect, but at the time epidemics of tuberculosis and pneumonia were raging through town of Larchmont. Fortunately my grandmother set us straight: “If you go out in the rain without a hat, you’ll get pneumonia.” she told us. Or she would tell my mom, “For crying out loud, Alice, listen to that cough: your kid’s got TB. Take him to the doctor.”
I knew things weren’t going well when my mother took me aside and said to me, “Brian, no matter what happens, never let us move in with you. Do you understand me? No matter what. Put us in a nursing home.”
Next week, my parents put Grandmother in a nursing home. I think my parents had run out of manhattans.
My father, in our Junior year of High School, bought a boat. And then joined a yacht club. Actually, the events occurred in a different order: first we joined the Larchmont Yacht Club, a rather exclusive sailing club located two blocks from our house, and then, a year later, my dad bought a boat. I was not happy.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I didn’t mind sailing when there was a purpose to it. One time my friends JB, Jay Isbister, Lance Klein, Paul Melamed, and several other people sailed our Sunfishes (a very small single-sail sailboat) out in the Long Island Sound in order to have “Sunfish Wars”, where we tried to board each other’s Sunfishes and capsize them. It was a lot of fun.
Yes, Jay, Lance, and Paul were very good at taking boring adult games like sailing and turn them into exciting games like “Sunfish Wars”. Later, in Winter, they took the boring game of paddle tennis and turned it into the exciting game of “Gladiatorball”: three people on each side, and three balls in play, and the goal was to hit the players on the other team with the ball.
One of Jay’s great traits was that he rarely concerned himself with consequences. In fact, it often fell to us, his friends, to temper his natural exuberance for what could be potentially fatal ideas. One time, during a hurricane, Jay called me up.
- There’s a hurricane.
- Let’s take my Dad’s sailboat out—I’ll bet there are some really good winds.
- Pick me up in 15 minutes.
Needless to say, we often fell short when it came to tempering Jay’s ideas. In fact, I think we were friends partly because we were so terrible at tempering each other’s bad ideas. If anything, our role was less that of a moderating force and more that of a cheerleader. Thus, when Jay suggested sailing in the middle of a hurricane, my natural response was to say, “Let’s do it!”
We were in the boat within the half-hour. We hoisted the mainsail and shot out of the harbor. We passed a few sailboats who were rushing in. We shouted at to them:
- Good winds?
- Them: (shell-shocked look on their faces)
- Oh, yes, quite. Unbelievable winds.
We didn’t stay out long: we had forgotten to put on our life preservers, and besides, the mast was about to snap. But at least for a little while we were the only sailboat in the Long Island Sound.
High School. I learned many important things in High School: it was, after all, a place of learning, a place to try new things. Having no gift for languages, I decided to enroll in Latin. I have no idea what led up to that decision—the reasons are hazy to me now—but I suspect that I believed at the time that knowing Latin would impress the chicks. Really. So I enrolled in Latin.
Before I knew it, it was the time for the first exam. Now, had I been a better student, I would have studied. But I made it a policy to never study, a policy I violated only under the most desperate of circumstances. So I knew I wasn’t going to do well on this exam. I pondered my options, and came up with a solution: I would cheat. I would cheat on the exam by writing out the first and second declensions on the back of my hand. My plan worked flawlessly until the teacher, Mrs. Friedman, passed out the exams. I had placed my hand on the desk. She took one look at it and asked, “What is that on your hand?”
I looked at my hand, horrified. I briefly wondered: should I act indignant and say, “my goodness, what foul cur has violated my hand by writing the first declension on it? Believe me, Mrs. Friedman, we will work together until we have solved this mystery and the guilty parties have been brought to justice!”
I quickly discarded that as a plan of action. Mrs. Friedman had big, fat flabby arms, and I was worried that if angered she might strike me with them, which would literally be a double whammy: first I’d get hit with her arm, and then a second later the rest of her arm-flab would catch up and hit me a second time.
I would like to point out that a favorite pasttime of the students of Mrs. Friedman’s Latin class was to watch the flab on her arm rock back and forth when she wrote on the chalkboard: Her arm would move one way, and her flab would roll the other. My friend J. J. Schwartz told me that if she wrote out the right sentence, her flab would reach its oscillating frequency and would explode. J. J. was really funny. Later on he became a black belt in martial arts and became much more serious. Apparently making jokes about exploding flab was not appropriate behavior for a martial artist.
“Well?” Mrs. Friedman asked. I didn’t know what to say; my planning had not accounted for this situation. I managed a rather weak, “Uh.” which trailed off into an embarrassing silence.
“Go and wash your hand. I want every bit of that cleaned off. Then come back and take the test,” she told me. My first and only attempt at cheating had failed miserably.
Taste and decorum are not common in high school, but even in ninth grade I realized that there was something wrong with the name of Paul Dillon’s german shepherd, the one he brought to school every day, the one who waited patiently on the grass outside the main entrance until the final school bell rang and Paul came out.
The dog’s name was Hitler. I guess Paul named it Hitler because the dog was a german shepherd and Hitler was a German dictator. I think that was possibly the limit of Paul’s grasp of history, which was slippery at best, as I came to realize when I shared a history class with him. He never raised his hand once.
Well, that’s not quite true: he did raise his hand once. The teacher, Mr. McCrae, had asked the question, “What started World War I?”
Even at the young age I had a precocious understanding of European history, possibly because I had lived there for seven years. I would have happily raised my hand and expounded on the difficulties of pinpointing an isolated incident as the cause of war (i.e. in this case, the assassination of the archduke Ferdinand by bomb-wielding anarchists) without placing it in the context of nascent German nationalism, a multi-lateral arms buildup, the loosening of familial bonds between the rulers of the various nations (i.e. the death of Queen Victoria, “the grandmother of Europe”), the French desire to recover Alsace-Lorraine after a humiliating defeat to Prussia, and so on).
Of course I didn’t say that: I did not want to be labeled as a brown-noser and a teacher’s pet. I raised my hand on occasion, but was careful not to do it too much: I didn’t want to alienate my classmates.
Besides, Paul Dillon had raised his hand. It was his turn to take center stage.
“Yes Paul?” said Mr. McRae. “What started World War I?”
“The Germans bombed Pearl Harbor.”
One thing about Mr. McCrae—he was an unflappable. And I don’t remember him doing anything but encourage his students. He said, “Well, you’re close, Paul. Although it was the Japanese, not the Germans, who bombed Pearl Harbor. And that was World War II, not World War I.”
My classmate Neal Shultz was not so kind. He had turned to me with his eyebrows raised and hissed, “wrong country, wrong war!”
Neal Shultz was not very tolerant of people who raised their hands in class with a completely wrong answer. It probably didn’t help that Paul Dillon had named his dog Hitler and Neal’s parents were German-Jewish, but I think the wrong answer had riled Neal more.
There was one group of people Neal hated more than people who raised their hands with the wrong answer: grade-grubbers. And there was someone in the class who was an unapologetic grade-grubber. Indeed, this person’s pursuit of high grades was so unbridled that it even offended the other grade-grubbers. Yes, I’m talking about Tom Morse, the student who, when he scored a perfect 100 on a chemistry exam, ran through the halls shouting, “I pegged a ten-squared!”
This was too much for Neal, who had only scored a 98 on that exam, but who, even if he had scored 100, would have had the decency not to run through the hallways shouting his grade—he would have only told a few close friends. Well, maybe all his close friends.
Neal decided that something had to be done about Tom. So, after the next Chemistry exam, Neal and I snuck into the classroom and found the pile of graded tests. We quickly rifled through it until we found Tom’s. He had done well—he had scored a 98. But by the time we were finished, Tom had scored a 88. Yes, Neal had taken a red ballpoint pen, identical to the one that the chemistry teacher used, marked several of the answers wrong (it’s surprisingly easy to change a checkmark into an “x” and a “98” into an “88”).
The look on Tom Morse’s face when he picked up his exam was priceless.
Yes, revenge is sweet. And the sweetest revenge was the Boston-cream-pie-in-the-face revenge.
I should backtrack: Donny Dowd had committed the unforgivable crime of making fun of Jay’s nose. Now, truth be told, Jay had a rather large nose. In fact, one of the first times Jay and I had hung out, I had repeatedly made fun of Jay’s nose until he got so mad he started bashing my head against the radiator while I alternated between laughing uncontrollably and asking him to please stop banging my head against the radiator Mr. Big Nose. But I digress.
Anyway, Donny had persisted in calling Jay, “Toucan Sam”. This annoyed Jay to no end, and he repeatedly warned Donny to shut up, but Donny wouldn’t listen. Donny had to be punished. So we smashed two boston cream into his face during french class, while he was taking an exam. Yes, we wore ski masks. No, we were never caught.
I went out for the fencing team. Our coach was Dr. Schlick, the overly flamboyant Assistant Superintendent of the school system. He could have been the Superintendent, but he had too much flair for the school board; they would never promote him, even after the previous superintendent, Otty Norwood, left. I think the final straw came when Dr. Schlick redecorated his office for a rather extravagant amount of money. I only saw his office once, but I will say this: he had taste.
My parents, recognizing that my catholicism was tenuous at best, decided to send me to CCD (religious instruction) in my sophomore year of high school. It met once a week for two hours after school. I think my parents hoped that being sent to class would deepen my faith and strengthen my bonds with fellow catholics. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect.
The first thing I noticed that my classmates were, plainly put, the thugs in high school. They wore leather jackets, cut class, and hung out in the hallways terrorizing the other students. I must admit that I was surprised to see these thugs in this class; they wouldn’t be caught dead in anything like religious instruction. Shop, sure; religious instruction, no way. My conclusion was that their parents must have made them show up, which indicated that their parents were more terrifying than they were. I hoped I never met their parents.
John was our CCD teacher. I didn’t envy the guy: he had a tough job. I remember when one class when he had to show us a film about premarital sex. It was totally lame. I think the movie climaxed when the protagonist, a devout high school boy, announces to his girlfriend that he is not going to have premarital sex with her in spite of the peer pressure.
The thugs in the class watched the movie with an incredulous look on their faces: clearly they were having difficulty suspending disbelief. Before the movie finished, half the class was snickering. I felt awkward and embarrassed for John. He would have been on safer ground if he focused on not worshiping foreign idols, or keeping the sabbath holy.
But the worst was yet to come. Having showed the movie, John clearly felt that the best way to drive the lesson home was to share something from his own personal experience. He talked about he once had a girlfriend, and how he wanted to have sex with her. But then, after much introspection, decided that it would be wrong to have sex before being married. And that was the better approach, and he was glad he did that.
Everybody just stared at him. The other members of the class stared because they couldn’t believe that he chose to not have sex with his girlfriend; I stared because he had so grossly misjudged the rest of the class. It wasn’t his choice not to have sex that was flawed—it was his reasoning. He should have said, “I decided not to have sex with my girlfriend, and I was glad because later on I found out she was really a guy dressed up as a woman.”
I went to college. I screwed up the rooming application, and instead of living with my friend Josh Hodas, I lived with a football player and two pre-meds.
The football player was Tony from Chicago. Somehow an Italian Catholic from the windy city had wound up in a predominantly Jewish East Coast university. He was a bit of an anomaly, in some ways more exotic than a Chinese exchange student, for the exchange student was obviously foreign. Tony was American, but from an America that I never knew existed. He had strange customs. For example, he had Jordache jeans. I only wore Levi’s, and thought only girls wore Jordache jeans, but I never bothered to tell him that.
He was different in other ways, too. His music tastes. He loved listening to Frank Sinatra. Now this was the early eighties, and New Wave music was all the rage: The Cure, Orchestral Movements in the Dark, INXS, Spandau Ballet, XTC, Blue Monday, EMF, Dead or Alive. And yet here was someone listening to Frank Sinatra, someone my age listening to Frank Sinatra.
It never dawned on him that not everyone shared his enthusiasm for Sinatra. He sometimes would use Sinatra to make a point:
Ya know, Sinatra wrote a song about New York. ’New York, New York’. But what you probably didn’t know was that he wrote two songs about Chicago. So there.
I nodded in agreement. I wasn’t quite sure of the point he was making, but I think that he was trying to say that Chicago was twice as good a city as New York because Sinatra had written twice as many songs about it. Or maybe he was trying to say that he was twice as good as me because he was from Chicago and I was from New York. Either way, I didn’t want to get into a debate with Tony: he was easily excitable. One Saturday night he came home, spurned by a girl at a party. He put his fist through the livingroom wall. I don’t understand how putting his fist through the wall helped him cope with rejection, but I wasn’t going to question him, certainly not then.
This set an unfortunate precedent, for our other two roommates felt that in order to maintain their masculinity, they, too, needed to get drunk and put their fists through the livingroom wall. Our livingroom wall had a lot of holes in it. Fortunately, with strategic placement of various posters, we were able to obscure the damage until move-out.
My roommate situation was awkward, but my academic situation was disastrous: I flunked calculus 3 the first semester and was promptly put on academic probation. I remained on academic probation for the next two years, after which they decided to take me off the student rolls. I had flunked out.
This was a devastating turn of events: I had tried hard and failed. Well, that’s not quite true: I didn’t try hard at all, and that was part of the problem.
But I was haunted more by the shame of failing rather than the actual failure. My main thought wasn’t, “How do I repair my academic career?” but rather, “How do I keep my friends from thinking I’m a total loser?”
The answer was simple: I lied. I told everyone that I was taking the year off. And then, behind the scenes, I campaigned vigorously for re-admittance.
I returned to college after my year of suspension with a renewed sense of discipline. With breaks for partying, of course.
I was no stranger to hangovers. I remember one particularly bad hangover in Philadelphia, during the summer. Under the impression that milk would help keep me from vomiting, I decided to make the arduous two-block trek to the Seven-Eleven (actually, it was called the Wawa market, but it was basically a Seven-Eleven). Halfway there, I knew that it was a mistake. I was going to die. I lay down on the sidewalk because I couldn’t stand up any longer.
Philadelphia, known as “the city of brotherly love”, would be more aptly described as “the city of gross indifference”. Pedestrians walked around me. No one stopped to say, “My good man, you are lying on this sidewalk, clearly you are not in good health, or at least lacking in good eyesight, for the pigeons have been using the sidewalk as a chamberpot. Should I summon an ambulance?”
As I lay dying, I pondered William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying. Clearly Faulkner had also suffered from near-lethal hangovers (had they been completely lethal, he would never have been able to finish his book, As I Lay Dying). I wondered if his hangovers qualified as near-death experiences. I know that mine certainly did, and that if the experience got any nearer to death I would be, well, dead.
I have never actually read As I Lay Dying. I wanted to have read it, but I didn’t want to go through the trouble of actually reading it. William Faulkner was a great writer, and great writers are notoriously difficult to read. In fact, William Faulkner wasn’t just a great writer: he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which makes him a really great writer. This means that his books are almost impossible to read.
Truthfully, Faulkner wasn’t impossible to read. I did read one of his books, Light in August, for an English class. The only part of the book that I remember was a steamy affair between Joanna Burden and Joe Christmas, and that was only a few pages. I draw a blank when I try to remember the rest of the novel. That doesn’t mean that he was a bad writer, just that he should have concentrated on the sex scenes, which he did fairly well.
But Light in August was not the only book that I read that year that had sex scenes in it. There was another. One of my roommates had found a volume in a dumpster and brought it home with him. The title of the book was Nurse Victims of the Japanese, and the author was Dick Waggin. I was unfamiliar with Dick Waggin, and he certainly wasn’t the best speller in the world, but he made up for his poor spelling with vigorous enthusiasm for the material, much of which was new to me. I had not realized this, but during World War II a Japanese warship, captained by the lusty Baron Omo, captured an American ship of young, innocent nurses and forced them to participate in unseemly and degrading acts. My roommates and I would read passages out loud to each other, and to this day the phrase “kiss the rod of power” causes us to burst into laughter.
Far be it from me to compare the writing skills of William Faulkner to Dick Waggin, but I will say this: If Faulkner had concentrated on the sex scenes, there’s a chance that my roommates and I would have read his passages out loud to each other as well.
I graduated, then took a job in New Jersey with AT&T, and then later moved to Manhattan to work for IBM (and later Hewlett-Packard). I was not wealthy, and for years I had roommates to help defray the costs of housing.
Opera Joe was one of the more flamboyant roommates. He was an aspiring opera singer, and he certainly had the build for it: He was 6’3” and weighed 350 lbs.
“I peaked at 500lbs.,” he once confided in me. “That was when I worked at the deli.”
He supported himself by working nights in a law firm. One day he told me he had been fired. I asked him what had happened. This is what he told me:
You see, there was a food thief at the law firm. Someone was stealing food from the fridge. Anyway, they never discovered who it was, but they decided it was me, and so they fired me.
I took a long look at Joe: I could see why they thought he was the food thief. In fact, I suspected he was the food thief. Joe had a flexible sense of ethics.
“I was shoplifting at the grocery store the other day,” he once said. “I slipped the smoked salmon into my pants. The clerk saw me. So you know what I did? I went straight up to him and asked him where the beans were. He became flustered and told me aisle 3. And then I left the store. You see, if someone catches you stealing, you have to go up to them right away because they won’t be expecting that, and that gives you time to leave the store.”
Joe had a hard time coming up with the rent money after his dismissal, so he soon moved back to the Midwest.
And two years later, for reasons that, to this day, I still don’t fully understand, I decided I needed to move. San Francisco was the easiest choice because my sister and some of my former roommates lived there. I moved there in February 1996.
It was a very different city than New York: almost everyone owned a car. Even my roommate, Chris, owned a car. But he avoided using it, especially when he had a good parking spot.
This caused some tension with his friend Rocky. Rocky was possibly the laziest person I had ever met, and though he only lived a few blocks away, he always wanted to Chris to give him a ride home. Chris made the mistake of once giving a ride home to Rocky, and after that Rocky would beg and plead for a ride home every time he was over:
- Give me a lift.
- Come on.
- No—I have a good parking spot.
- You’ll get a better parking spot.
- No I won’t.
- Come on.
- I came over here.
- So if you came to my house I would have given you a lift home.
- No you wouldn’t have.
- Yes I would.
- Well I’m not giving you a lift.
- Come on.
This would go on for a half-hour until Rocky gave up, usually because he was hungry and needed to get something to eat.
Sometimes Rocky rode his bike over to our house. He would ride his bike to our house, but he wouldn’t ride the bike back because there was a mild incline from our house to his house, and Rocky didn’t like pedaling uphill. As as a result, Rocky’s bike was in our living room for weeks at a time. One of my friends even offered to buy it.
Chris was a great roommate, but neither of us were diligent about housecleaning, so we hired a house cleaner, who was simply awesome, but she stopped coming because there were too many roaches and it creeped her out. “I think the roach problem is gone,” I said to her. “I’m pretty sure they’re all dead.” But she only fell for that once.
In August 1999, as the dot-com bubble was nearing its peak, I joined my first startup, a small company in San Francisco.
It was a slow motion trainwreck. Not the startup, which is still happily in business, but rather my tenure there. Within a year my boss gently informed me that I was doing a terrible job. Well, not so gently: he had said, “You’re doing a terrible job.” Sugarcoating was never his strong point.
I realized then that things were wrong in my life and that I needed to make changes: I needed to get another job. And while I was at it, it probably wouldn’t hurt to quit smoking marijuana all day long.
Within a week I was interviewing, and I said things I shouldn’t have said:
- Well, that about wraps it up. Do you have any questions for me?
- I just want to add that I have a drug and alcohol problem, but I’ve taken care of it, and I’m proud to say that I’ve been clean and sober for the last forty-eight hours.
- Let me walk you to the door.
They must have been desperate: they hired me. Within two days I was working at my second startup, and I began to notice a pattern in Silicon Valley startups. These startups, though in many ways the iconoclasts of American Corporations, adhered to the same standards of corporate decorum as the Fortune 500: respect for the individual, non-offensive language in the workplace, etc.... But sometimes these standards were unwittingly broken by the many foreign workers employed by these startups. Rather than victims of culture-clash, these standards were victims of English as a second language.
“Katherine, please tell me: what is ‘choking the chicken’ that I hear people talk about?” Diego Garrido, our Brazilian programmer, asked Katherine Bretz, our recruiter. Diego tended to talk loudly, so his voice was clearly heard several cubes away.
The question took Katherine completely off-guard. She turned bright red, and started laughing so hard that she couldn’t speak.
“Why are you laughing?” asked Diego, “I am serious. What’s so funny about ‘choking the chicken’?”
This only made Katherine laugh harder. Unable to speak, and realizing that she wasn’t the best person to answer his question, she turned around and started walking back to her cube. This was, in retrospect, a dreadful mistake. Diego was extremely persistent, a quality which worked well for him in his job as a programmer.
“Katherine, why are you walking away? What is this ‘choking the chicken?’ Why it make you laugh? Just tell me what is ‘choking the chicken’? Where are you going? I hear on TV ‘choking the chicken’, and I just want to know what it means. Where are you going?”
Katherine, laughing too hard to speak, trying to get away from Diego, inadvertently led Diego through the entire company cube farm. He diligently followed her, continuing to ask what ‘choking the chicken’ meant, raising his voice each time in case Katherine hadn’t heard him clearly.
My second startup was located in Palo Alto, so after commuting from San Francisco to Palo Alto for a year, I decided to move closer to work. Serendipitously, my old high school friend, Max Bernstein, was looking for a roommate at the time, so I moved in.
The place was a slightly dilapidated cottage in the barrio of Mountain View. It had some shortcomings: it needed more telephone lines to handle the DSL traffic, and the electrical outlets weren’t grounded.
But there were other shortcomings that were not so obvious to Max and me, but were noticeable to peple who had a sense of taste. yes, I’m talking about the linoleum. If you’ve seen our linoleum floor, then you know what I’m talking about. I remember when my roommate’s mother first saw the linoleum:
- Max’s Mom
- *(uncontrolled gasping)*
- What is it?
- Max’s Mom *(regaining composure)*
- The linoleum! It’s terribly ugly. It has to go.
- Are you kidding? It’s a rental. Why should we waste over a thousand dollars on something we don’t own?
- Max’s Mom
- If you’re worried about the money, don’t. I’ll pay.
I thought that Max’s mom was a little over-sensitive, until my parents saw the linoleum. They were very forthright and candid about their feelings towards the linoleum, and although I don’t remember exactly what they said, I remember the following terms being used:
- “Jesus Christ!”
- “...ugliest thing I’ve ever seen...”
- “God’s name in Heaven”
- “...our son, living like this...”
- “Jesus Christ!”
The linoleum remained. Mine and Max’s efforts to brighten up the apartment were focused elsewhere. For example, for almost an entire year a huge Van de Graaff generator dominated our living room. Imagine, if you will, a seven foot tall brushed-aluminum mushroom. We considered the height of fashion to have it in our living room. The only problem was that we couldn’t plug it in because it had the unfortunate tendency to kill people that got too close to it. You may ask, “Where did you find a seven foot tall Van de Graaff generator?” I’m glad you asked. It turns out my roommate’s boss, Yvonne, had one in her garage. Actually, it wasn’t hers: it was her husband’s. He collected those type of things. She wouldn’t let it into the house—she had no appreciation how unbelievably cool it was. In fact, she didn’t even like it in the garage, and encouraged Max to borrow it. Many of our guests commented on our Van de Graaff generator:
- “What is that?”
- “That’s quite...something.”
- “It certainly is big.”
- “Does it ever topple over and land on somebody?”
- “It’s not plugged in, is it?”
- “It goes quite well with the linoleum”
Our chests swelled with pride when we heard our friends praise our fashion derring-do: Nobody else could brag that they had a Van de Graaf generator in their living room.