So now it’s the beginning of 1990. I’ve graduated Columbia but I have very little confidence in my new computer skills. My professor, the one I’d met a year ago at that dog and pony show, kept telling me that I knew a lot more than most people. I didn’t believe him until I went for a job interview at Barclays. I’d used my final project from Columbia as “proof” of past work and the guy who interviewed me stood me up at a white board and grilled me about it for two hours. “I wanted to hire someone with more experience but you know this stuff better than anyone else I’ve interviewed.” The job was mine.
So there I am, on the eve of my 36th birthday, with my first suit and tie corporate job. It took some getting used to. At the time my hair was down past my shoulders, I had a beard and an earring. I wore 3 piece suits but wore sneakers for my commute and often would forget to change into the dress shoes that I kept in a drawer in my desk. “How’s it going Spike?” a VP asked me one day in the hallway. I knew how he meant it so I turned around, looked him in the eye and said, “Thanks, I’m keeping that.” And I became Spike.
At first, the work there really sucked. The new projects I was hired to do weren’t approved and I was doing maintenance on crappy little applications that no one used or cared about. My boss’s boss took pity on me and gave me some marginally less boring tasks to work on.
Fortunately, I smoke. Back then every floor had a smoking room. I’d go for a smoke every hour and I met every other smoker in the bank. The guys who worked in the cubicles next to me knew no one and were known by no one. I was popular. I was told by more than one person that I was the first IT guy they’d met who had a personality.
The first thing I learned in the smoking room? Business trips. This VP told me he was going to London. “For vacation?” “No, it’s a business trip.” “Who pays for the plane ticket?” “The bank.” “Really? The hotel too?” “Of course. All my meals, too.” “I want that!” I realized I could see the world and get someone else to pay for it.
Soon, they were putting together a team for a major new project. Everyone knew me, so I got to be on this project as the development DBA. I’d been with the bank for a year and suddenly I was designing the database for the entire commercial loan system, which they were going to migrate from mainframes to client/server. They took my design and put it in front of a committee for a week to poke holes in it. There were no holes to be poked.
So now I’m going back and forth to London on a somewhat regular basis. I’m staying in a service flat in The City. The guest register indicated that the prior occupant of my room was J.G. Ballard. It was actually a horrible place. Everything closed at 7. When I needed to do laundry, I grabbed my stuff, got on the first bus that came by, sat on the top deck and got out when I finally spotted a laundry place. Everyone else in there was a Cockney. They were quite amused to have a Yank in the shop and kept trying to stump me with their accents and rhyming slang but I already knew most of it.
One night I went to a party. Everyone else at the party was couples. I felt like sticking needles through my eyes. I sat on the sofa, alone, beer in hand, wondering how I could get out of there and where else I might go. Then this beautiful woman walked in through the door. “Please don’t let her be here with a guy.” Right behind her – another woman. How was I going to talk to her? What could I say? Within minutes M came and sat down on the sofa next to me. “I heard you’re American. I just came back from a trip to New York City. I miss it so much and I love your accent. Can we chat?” We sat on that couch talking for five hours and I took her home.
For whatever it may or may not be worth, up until that time – for 14 years, in fact – I had never cheated on my wife. But I was an ocean away, this girl was easily one of the most beautiful women I’d ever met, she was an artist, and she had that accent. When I had the opportunity, it never even occurred to me to say no.
I flew back to New York and tried to write it off as a one-weekend stand. But I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I asked my friends what they thought I should do. All of them, even my female friends, told me the same thing. “As long as I’ve known you, you haven’t been happy. You’re still young. Do something that makes you happy.” When I suggested a separation to my wife, she told me we should just get it over with and get divorced. It was completely amicable. We divided up our stuff and got our downstairs neighbor, a lawyer, to handle all of the legal bits and pieces for us.
I wrote a 20 page letter to M explaining the situation. Her friends were all telling me, “You know she’s not well, right? That she can’t work, that she sees a shrink 5 days a week, she’s on all sorts of medication?” Well, she was a poet and I just thought that’s how poets are. I told them, “Yes, I know, but I seem to be good for her. She’s normal and happy with me.”
And after she read that letter, she pronounced it the most beautiful letter she’d ever read and said that I should get back to London as quickly as possible. And so I did. One image I will never forget is her waiting for me at Heathrow. She was wearing a torn green sweater; the holes in the sweater revealed a bright pink bra underneath. Her skirt couldn’t have been any shorter. Her stockings were ripped and she had these great boots. A real gorgeous British punk artist.
I stayed at her place (a council flat I think it was called, government subsidized housing). She had books stacked floor to ceiling along every wall in every room. We talked about art, we talked about literature, we talked about politics, we talked about having all her friends over for dinner to meet me and renting a car to go to Wales to meet her family. And then on the 4th day we woke up and she didn’t know who I was. She completely freaked out and started screaming at me to get out of there. I didn’t know what to do. This was totally beyond the realm of my experience and completely unexpected. I panicked. I got out of there. I checked into a hotel and then kept calling and calling until a day later her sister answered the phone. “Why did you leave? You never should have done that. Now she never wants to see you again.” And I never did see her, or even hear from her, again.
I sat in the hotel for three days, not eating, not sleeping, just drinking and playing R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” over and over and over again. I finally recovered, went back to work and a couple of weeks later I flew off to Amsterdam and a haze of beer, grass and hookers helped me put all of this behind me.
Back at work, I was supposed to get promoted to AVP for my work on that big project. My boss loved me. She looked like a very proper British lady but she’d regale me with tales of going to see the Sex Pistols wearing nothing but garbage bags. She told me that she and her husband decided that I must have some British blood in me. I knew she meant it as a compliment. The Americans working for the bank all thought, “Oh, I work for a British bank. I have to be very reserved and proper!” But the Brits didn’t have that baggage. They were wild and crazy and fun and I fit right in with them.
The VP who was assigned to give me that promotion was the same guy who’d first called me Spike. He called me into his office in New York one day and here’s what he told me. “They tell me you should get a promotion. Looking at your work, there’s no doubt you should. But you’re weird. If I promote you, everyone will ask who promoted that weirdo? And then they’ll look at me. I’ve been here ten years and no one looks at me and I want to keep it that way. So no promotion.”
So I asked my boss to move me to London. She looked around and said there was nothing in London but there was an architecture position in Manchester. I hadn’t been there but I thought, why the hell not? So they started pulling all the paperwork together. And then the bank laid off 5,000 people in the UK. “We can’t very well bring you over here after just doing that, can we?” My boss told me she’d be leaving soon and that I should probably consider looking for another job as well.
Back in New York, I had this contractor working for me. He was an ex-NYC cop on a disability pension, with movie star looks. He spent his summers in nudist colonies. The winters were spent having weekend orgies at the nudists’ homes. He invited me to join in and even fixed me up with a secretary from another department – he said he’d been telling her about these parties and she was interested to check it out and needed a ride. J was blonde, pretty and had an amazing body. It seemed like a good deal to me.
I picked her up and we drove two hours to the party house. Maybe you won’t be surprised when I tell you that there was almost no one there even slightly good looking or remotely fit (aside from the guy who worked for me, his wife and my date). There were 50 people fucking in every nook and cranny in the house and I felt absolutely no urge to join in. J was also just watching from the sidelines and I thought, “She’s my date, this might go somewhere, I should just stay with her.” So I sat out the festivities.
The next day, driving back home, I asked J what she thought of all that. “I’m glad I saw it because now I can pray for all those people.” Maybe that should have set off some warning bells. But within a short span of time we were a couple.
(Six months later J and I went to another orgy, this time a private party in a lower Manhattan bar. We’re dancing and I tried to grab her and she said, “Stop, everyone’s looking,” and I said, “No one’s looking at us, they’re all too busy fucking.” And when I looked at a naked woman dancing next to me, she said, “You’re looking!” and I said, “Of course I’m looking, she’s right next to me and completely naked, what do you expect?”)
Since she lived in Jersey and I lived in Queens, I moved to Jersey to be closer to her. We were always together. Everyone assumed we would get married. But she drank. Every night. She drank cheap wine; $5 for a gallon in a cardboard carton lined with plastic. And once she got drunk, she was a mean drunk. She was an abusive drunk. I told her that I couldn’t put up with it, that one day she was going to have to choose between wine and me. Finally one night she passed out at the dining room table in the middle of sentence. When she woke up I told her, “It’s clear that you’ve made your choice. We’re finished.”
At this point, I’ve left the bank and I’m working for Sybase, a database software company. I got hired as a Senior Consultant. You’re supposed to get at least a week of training when you start, but on my first day they sent me out to a project at Pepsi. This was the biggest project I’ve ever been involved in – before or since. It was the redesign of their entire North American soft drink ordering and delivery applications. There were more than 600 consultants and contractors working on this. Fortunately for me, 5 of them were also from Sybase, and they covered for me until I got up to speed. I didn’t get that first week’s training until I rolled off the Pepsi project after 9 months.
I became a performance and tuning expert. Every day I’d have to read through 500 to 1,000 pages of printouts of application code, looking for ways to optimize it. Yawn. But I had a direct line to the guys who wrote the SQL Server code and they gave me all the inside tips. The work itself was boring but Pepsi was a fun place to work. Right in the middle of a huge park. All the free soda you could drink or carry home. Free Lays potato chips and Doritos. The employee cafeteria was all KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, since Pepsi owned those at the time. The only thing we couldn’t get was the thing we needed most – Stolichnaya Vodka, which Pepsi was distributing in the US until someone decided it was bad for their image.
I did really well at Sybase. I won two “consultant of the quarter” awards. I was the regional lead for their Replication Server product and helped write the training course. I co-wrote the Sybase project methodology. I did six projects at AT&T. I did one project at Lehman. The guy at Lehman offered me a job and when I turned them down I got the “you’ll never work in this town again” line. Instead I got promoted to Principal Consultant and led what I was told was the most profitable project the consulting division had ever had.
All well and good, except that my social life had dwindled down to zero. There was an Olympic swimmer but that didn’t go very far. I was spending all of my time working and commuting. I was living in Jersey, doing projects in Jersey or a plane ride away, and a big night out for me was browsing in a local book store and having dinner alone in a diner (one that later appeared in many episodes of The Sopranos).
I was, in short, absolutely fucking miserable. I was in beautiful, exciting Norcross, Georgia working on another AT&T project in the factory where they were manufactuing fiber optic cable. I got a call and was told that Sybase Hong Kong needed someone to come out there for a couple of weeks and was I interested? Um, Norcross Georgia or Hong Kong, which would I pick?
Then it turned out that I wouldn’t be going to Hong Kong after all. I’d be going to Tokyo. Why was the Hong Kong office booking a Tokyo assignment? I didn’t ask. Tokyo was #1 on the list of places I wanted to go to. I thought it was so far away and so expensive that I’d never get there in my entire life. And now I was going to go there for 10 days, all expenses paid.
I was ready.