If I’m So Smart Part Twelve

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10, Part 11

Continuing from the previous part, from 2011 to 2012, I had the job from hell. This place was simply unbelievable on so many levels. At the most basic, someone could be fired for going home and leaving a sweater hanging on the back of their chair. If they brought in a small potted plant to put on their desk, they’d get a warning. The bulk of the company’s business came from having a small army of people creating reports by cutting and pasting out of various Internet databases. These people had to work 12+ hours per day and frequently on weekends in order to meet their quotas. I got yelled at more than once for not requiring more weekend work from my team. The head of the company didn’t believe in giving annual raises just to match inflation. He didn’t believe in bonuses for anyone but the senior management team. And he didn’t believe in stock option grants.


(Sorry for the cat photo but it really fits.)

I was expected to have monthly new product releases for 15 different software products, even though I had only 4 or 5 programmers on staff – and just 5 analysts to write up requirements and documentation, and just 3 QA staff. I could go on. I managed to get a lot done and I was quite proud of what I accomplished, especially considering those adverse circumstances. The turnover rate for staff was greater than 30% – and even higher on the senior management team, which saw each position being filled and re-filled multiple times within the company’s very short history.

After a year, I was fired, with no prior warning or notice. “You were warned, weren’t you?” asked the company’s HR director the day she gave me the news. Nope, I never got any warning. I reported to the head of the company and he made damn sure that he was out of town when I was given the word – no phone call, no email, basically just a “don’t let the door hit you on your ass on the way out.” He also made sure that my laptop was taken and all of my accounts were closed before I even had a chance to send a “goodbye” email to anyone else in the company.

To answer the question you’re going to ask, yes, I had indeed been searching for a new job for months – not the easiest thing to do when you’re working a 60-70 hour week under intense scrutiny but I did what I could. I’d spent months searching and in that period, not even one interview. Recruiters I’d talk to would see where I was working and they’d all say the same thing. “We know this company. We get CVs from people working there every day. What’s wrong with that place?” Or I’d be talking to a recruiter and the conversation would go like this:

Recruiter: So you work for XYZ. I know the head of the company, his name is Joe Blow, right?

Me: Yes, I report directly to him.

Recruiter: So why are you looking to leave?

Me: Joe Blow

Recruiter: Say no more, I understand.

So now I’m out of work again. I got a few interviews here and there but no offers. I tried to put myself out there as a consultant or a contractor until something more permanent came along but, as hard as it may be to believe, I was not successful in marketing myself. I picked up one gig from a friend which was good for about HK$5,000 per month. I picked up a freelance thing writing web site copy, another couple of thousand per month.

I reached out to everyone I could think of, both in Hong Kong and globally. Some offered to help – and did – and others were indifferent. I knew that I had hit the point where my age had become an issue. I was competing for positions against people 20 years younger than me. In many cases, I think the depth of my experience scared companies off, some thinking that I’d be too expensive and they wouldn’t be able to afford me, so why even bother to talk to me? Also I think that my self-confidence was at an all-time low, only natural coming from a job where I was abused on an almost daily basis by a tyrant whose main interest was building up a company on an unsustainable business model to the point where he could fool someone into buying it and give his staff a final screwing. As one friend put it, I was starting to smell desperate, and that’s never a good thing when you’re looking for a job.

Hong Kong is an expensive place to live. We downsized – we moved to a cheaper place, we stopped going out, but I was burning through my savings at an alarming rate – and I had never saved a lot to begin with. I didn’t touch my pension plans but I went through everything else and soon I had to borrow money from my mother.

I ended up being out of work for nine months. Finally I came across a job posting on LinkedIn from a company I knew. I called up one of the founders and said, “what about me?” We met for lunch the next day and the following day I received the job offer. The thing was, I told them what I was making in my previous job and was initially told that it “shouldn’t be a problem.” But when the offer came through, it was 25% lower – which meant that I’d be earning almost exactly 50% less than I had been making 5 years earlier. But I had no choice. There were no other offers or even interviews coming up. I had to accept this one, and I did. It was painful – I’d downsized a lot but not quite that much.

I will say this about my current job. The place is run by humans and run for humans. In the balance of things, I learned long ago that given the choice between a pleasant place and tiny salary vs. a hellhole with a larger salary, I’d opt for pleasant almost every time.

December 2013, I got married for the third time. We went to Paris for our honeymoon in January. I’m determined to make this one work if for no other reason than I’m too old to start over again if it doesn’t!

This more or less brings me up to the present time. Stay tuned for an epilogue or afterword in which I’ll discuss my reasons for writing this twelve-part series and in which I might reveal some of what’s coming next for me.



If I’m So Smart Part Eleven

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9, Part 10

During the 00’s, in all those years when I was being as bad as I could possibly be, I kept telling myself that I was looking for a relationship. I dated a lot of women, but I always ran away from them on even the slightest pretext. I went through this phase of dating women in Shenzhen because I could spend the weekends with them but they couldn’t come to Hong Kong and see what I was doing the rest of the time. I dated several Hong Kong women and I dated a TV star in Guangzhou. But none of these lasted more than a couple of months. I wasn’t ready to be in a relationship yet but I was fooling myself.

As time passed, I realized that my lifestyle was starting to yield greatly diminishing returns. I was going out more, I was drinking more, I was spending more money, but I was enjoying it a hell of a lot less.

My mother didn’t know very much about what I was doing but she asked me an unexpected question: Don’t you miss intimacy? I told her I didn’t, but the question stayed with me. I thought about it a lot and I realized that I might be ready to make a change.

The change finally happened because of K, a fabulous woman – beautiful, educated, “age appropriate” – whom I met at the end of 2007. For a brief while it seemed as if she might be the one. I think even she saw it that way. Any time she would drink more than a couple of glasses of wine, she would look at me and say, “You’re going to have to marry me.” But the next day she’d always deny it.

I wrote a column about our relationship in BC Magazine.  I even took a solo trip to Bangkok (medical reasons) in which I pointedly did not have sex with anyone, in part to prove to myself that I could do it.

But the relationship onlyly lasted for six months. Looking back, I think the novelty of the thing was what fueled those first few months. We were each so completely different from anyone the other had dated before. Once that novelty started to wear off, perhaps the writing was on the wall. She had, early on, told me that she didn’t want to date an only child when she found out I was one – “they’re so selfish with their time,” she said, and that probably turned out to be true, although I denied it vehemently at the time. She had two young children and they scared me. She dumped me, we reconciled, and then we parted again.

But this at least told me that I really was ready for a relationship again and not just saying it. I think I’ve been better in each relationship I’ve been in. I’ve matured from a selfish asshole into a not-so-selfish asshole. I’m more able to put myself into the shoes of the person I’m with and treat them as human beings and not just as objects or accessories.

This is something I just read tonight, from I’m Your Man, a biography of Leonard Cohen that I am absolutely loving:

“Everything changes as you get older,” Leonard said. “I never met a woman until I was sixty-five. Instead, I saw all kinds of miracles in front of me.” In the past, he had always viewed women through his own “urgent needs and desires,” he said, “and what they could do for me.” But in his midsixties – which roughly coincided with Leonard leaving the monastery and his depression starting to lift – “that started to dissolve and [he] began to see the woman standing there.”

A bit too egotistical for me to compare myself in any way to Leonard Cohen? Of course. Yet those words and sentiments describe me as well.

So in the summer of 2008, I proceeded slowly with someone I had met a year before. We accidentally bumped into each other on the street one Saturday afternoon and later I thought to myself that I would take a chance with her. See, it’s easy for me to find someone I can be with for an hour or a night, but I have always found it difficult to find someone I can be with for more than a couple of days at time. We started with a weekend, then with a week, then with a month. The first year was difficult, the second year even more so … in December 2013 we got married.

Work continued on as it always did. Except things were changing at Warner. My boss, roughly the same age as me and someone I considered a friend, died in his sleep one night. My mentor, the CFO, left Warner after decades there.

Meanwhile, people had stopped buying DVDs. Just a few years earlier, home video accounted for 60% of the studio’s revenue and making DVDs was a lot like printing cash; people couldn’t buy them quickly enough. But now DVD sales were falling through the floor and neither digital nor Blu-Ray was picking up the slack. Warner had to make drastic changes.

First, they shut down a significant portion of their operations in Asia. With the exceptions of China, Australia and Japan, all of the other affiliate branches were shuttered or converted to digital-only. A few hundred of my friends got laid off.

At the same time, they made the decision to outsource almost all of their technology support globally. I could understand outsourcing infrastructure support but they also laid off all of the application support people, people who had a better understanding of business operations than most of the business people there. More than 1,000 Warner technology people got the axe … and I was one of them.

I was treated very fairly throughout this entire process. I was given six months’ notice and a huge retention bonus for sticking out those six months, as well as a more-than-reasonable amount of severance pay. I was told there was no job for me with Warner in other locations (I didn’t really want to leave Hong Kong, but I asked anyway) and because I’d been hired on what were essentially local terms (and because by now I had HK permanent resident status), there was no relocation package.

But I wasn’t too bothered by this. First, I used some of my severance pay to join some friends in opening a photography studio, PASM Workshop. At the time, I did it in part to support my friends and in part to give me a place to hang out that wasn’t a bar. And hanging out at the studio re-awoke my interest in photography and gave me another creative outlet.

Also, the former president and former CFO of Warner were starting up a new business. They had signed deals with almost all of the Hollywood studios plus Microsoft and Intel. They told me that once it got off the ground, they would hire me to run Asia for them – not technology in Asia, the business in Asia. This looked like it was going to be a dream job for me.

And then a few months later the entire thing imploded. It was not going to happen. I was left feeling pretty crushed – and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

I’m not really superstitious, but sometimes I think I must have done something to give me seven years bad luck – let’s say it started on the day I got notice of the upcoming layoff at Warner, roughly March 2009, so sometimes I fear I’ve got another two years to go before my luck changes. No, I know, you make your own luck. But it seems to me that in the years since then, good breaks have been few and far between. There’s been the photo studio. There’s my wife. But very little else.

So now I had to find another job. Something came my way rather quickly and I took it. I shouldn’t have, because it was with a local Hong Kong company, but I had never worked for one of those before and I didn’t realize what that might mean. I think I should have held out for something in a multi-national. But I knew several of the people at this company and it seemed like an interesting opportunity. So despite a huge cut in pay from my previous job – roughly 35% – I went with it.

I spent a horrible year there. First off, I was in “operations” rather than technology. The duties of the job were poorly defined, the landscape kept changing, and I wasn’t really allowed to do any of the things I might have done well. Second, I think I was pretty horribly treated at this place – I’ve written about it in some detail before.

I did catch a break of sorts. I got my next job before I left this place, so there was only a week between jobs. Another low-paying job with a local company that treated its staff like shit, it actually made the previous place appear reasonable. To put it another way, this is pretty much a direct quote from the president of the company to me. “When I ask you why you didn’t do the thing I told you not to do, and you tell me by quoting my own words back to me, it makes me feel bad, so stop doing it.” That was one of his better moments.

If I’m So Smart Part Ten

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8, Part 9

Allow me to digress and talk about the blog that you’re reading right now.

Hongkie Town got its start on December 4, 2004, over at Blogger. Let me tell you why I started it.

The first reason is the most obvious. I was reading a lot of blogs. And one day I told myself, “I could do this,too.” I wanted a creative outlet to contrast with my day job. The question was, what would I write about? What could I contribute that would be different from all of the other blogs out there?

The answer soon became obvious to me. Every book store at every airport in Asia has a section called “Asian Interest.” I spent a lot of time in airports and so I spent a lot of time in those book shops and picked up or at least looked at many of these books.

I felt that most of these books were essentially the same. They’d be written by some American,  Brit or Australian guy who came to Asia as an expat. Once here, each guy thought he was the Marco Polo of sex – that he discovered sex. And then his next thought was, “This is fucking amazing! I can’t believe it! I gotta tell the world about this!” Followed by, “I’m educated. I’m a lawyer (or a banker), I can write a book!”

Those books were almost always the same. A detective story. Pulp fiction. Expat goes to Bangkok/Manila/Hong Kong/Phnom Penh and falls in with a bad crowd, falls in love with a hooker, starts doing drugs or drinking heavily, goes missing. The wife back home hasn’t heard from the husband and hires a private detective to go find out where her husband is. The private detective goes there, falls in with the same bad crowd, starts doing the same bad things. At the end someone is always dead or a hopeless drug addict or a homeless bum. A morality tale.

This pissed me off. I knew plenty of guys who were living this lifestyle and not suffering any ill effects – well, at least nothing as drastic as was being portrayed in those books. Mostly they were just falling in love with the wrong women and spending way too much money.

So I wanted to tell a different story. I wanted to tell the story of what this life was really like, from my perspective and personal experiences – and not anonymized to any extent beyond changing the names of the people.

And so I went public. My first blog post appeared on December 4, 2004. As you might guess, it didn’t take too long for the blog to start catching peoples’ attention. And most of the feedback I received was positive. First of all, I was really interested in writing about the women and their lives and how they found themselves in this line of work, and I was pretty good at getting them to talk to me about it. I never posted any photos of women and I never referred to women as bitches or ho’s.

Something totally unexpected happened. I started getting emails from women who were curious to meet me. I even had one or two local feminists write to me – and it wasn’t hate mail.

I never wrote about the sex. I think I just didn’t see myself as a good enough writer to make that part interesting. People are interesting, everyone has a story to tell, and that’s what I concentrated on. Blog readers would write to me and ask me to describe the sex but how many different ways are there to write, “and then we fucked”?

Mostly the only hate mail I received was from guys who said I was giving away all of the secrets and screwing things up for them. How dare I tell the world what was the best bar on a given day of the week and time and screw up their good time? I ignored those comments.

Back then, I thought I had to have new content every day, in order to keep people coming back. I didn’t go out every night and even when I did, not every night was an adventure worth writing about. So I started “filling in the gaps” with other stuff – record and movie reviews, politics, basically anything else that was on my mind when I had a few spare minutes. I mean, it was my blog so I could write about whatever the hell I wanted to write about, it’s just that I ended up writing about a greater variety of topics than I’d originally expected.

That led to my having a regular column in BC Magazine for around 4 years, until the publisher and I had a major falling out. I’m pretty proud of that column, I think a lot of my best work was there.

When I started writing the blog, my idea was that I was going to stay out of relationships. But it wasn’t too long after I started writing that I found myself in a relationship, one that I did write about for awhile, in great detail. But clearly it wasn’t in line with my original intention.

Also, at one point I got “caught”. I’d written about a night with one woman and it turned out that one of her friends read the blog, was able to figure out who I was writing about and showed it to the woman in question, who was quite unhappy about it. No big scene, she just asked me to delete the post about her and of course I did.

But It finally dawned on me that one day I could just as easily get caught by someone who worked at my company. The blog was relatively popular and the stats showed that I had a truly global following.  If someone at my company found out, I would lose my job. Was this worth losing my job over? Definitely not.

And so I deleted all of the old stuff. I wish I could say I had saved all of it before deleting it – I thought I had, but a couple of years ago when I started going through my files, I discovered there were some big chunks missing. Some of it I’ve been able to recover, some of it is gone forever.

Of course the blog continues to this day. I still hear from people who tell me they “miss the old blog.” My response is always “thanks but I don’t live that kind of life anymore,” which is true. I moved on from that scene years ago. Regrets, I have a few, but I did what seemed right to me at the time, both in terms of the lifestyle I led and also in terms of writing about it publicly.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled program.


If I’m So Smart Part Nine

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8

In 2004 and 2005 I worked on a massive project. Warner decided to do a home video distribution joint venture in Mainland China. I was involved in most aspects of the project, and it was a godawful mess.

The CFO asked me what kind of person we should recruit as MD of China. I told him it should be someone born in China, educated in the US or UK and with some western work experience before returning to China. This way the person would understand the local market and the western way of doing business. We found a great guy who matched this profile.

But for some reason Warner decided to put the global head of supply chain in charge of the project overall. He was a former head of sales and didn’t have a great understanding of how things operated in China. He thought it was like the U.S. – in the U.S. the stores couldn’t stock our DVDs fast enough and they were used as loss leaders to get people into the stores. In China, no one gave a shit about legal DVDs – our licensee there was charging the equivalent of US$15 for a DVD, compared to the $0.50 you’d pay on any street corner for pirate copies. The few stores in China that stocked legal DVDs didn’t put them up front by the entrance or the cash register, they were hidden away in the basement. This SVP thought he could dictate commercial terms on our DVDs to the major Chinese chains, all of whom told him where he could stick his DVDs.

Our China MD was great. He knew business – and he also knew how to work hard for 12 hours and then gather up everyone in the office and go out and party for another 6 hours. It would get to be 8 or 9 PM and he’d gather up all the women in the office (and me) and we’d go out to consume massive quantities of food, drink and fun. But he was getting frustrated. He’d ask me why we hired him, with all of his experience and knowledge, and then try to dictate to him how to run the business, especially when he knew we were wrong. He resigned after six months.

He was replaced by a guy from the UK who had been to China once as a tourist. But the new guy followed orders. I also grew frustrated with the supply chain SVP because he didn’t believe in using project plans. Our weekly conference calls went like this: Dept A: we are three months behind schedule. And then two hours spent with all the other department representatives asking how that would impact their project schedules. I kept asking for a consolidated project plan to make management easier. He kept telling me he didn’t like Microsoft Project.

I moved most of my Hong Kong team to Shanghai to work on the project and tried to move there myself, getting a service apartment near the office. Then regional management asked how I could manage the region from Shanghai (um, email? telephone?) and made me move back to Hong Kong.

One adventure (out of many) that I’ll share. There was this place, I think it was called Malone’s. Great burgers and a Filipino cover band. I’m there one night having dinner and I see this gorgeous Chinese woman at the bar. I also see at least 10 different guys hitting on her and all striking out, so I don’t even bother to try. A few hours later I’m at California, a disco owned by some of the same people who owned the place of the same name in Hong Kong. I knew one of the owners, so I had a member card. I’m walking past the dance floor and I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around and it’s that same Chinese woman I’d seen earlier in Malones. We dance, we drink, we talk. She tells me she’s from Hong Kong, works in the fashion business, and is in Shanghai to meet some designers. I’m thinking, “Great, she’s hot, she’s from Hong Kong, maybe this can turn into something.” Around 3 AM we head back to my place. We get to my place, get in the door, and the first thing out of her mouth is “Amy no money.” Well, it’s 3 AM, I’m drunk and horny and open to suggestions. Except her suggestion was that I should give her 3,000 RMB. My suggestion was that she should get the hell out of there but she wasn’t leaving. We negotiated. We argued. I think we finally got tired and passed out. The strangest thing is that she kept texting me for another two years telling me how much she missed me.

Anyway, the project finally completed – my parts were done on time and under budget – and the office opens for business. Everyone flies out from Burbank for the opening party, including the CIO who hates my guts. He walked around the office, followed by his little entourage, inspecting everything, looking for something he can use against me. Finally, not finding anything else, he asks me why I chose the tax reporting system that was being used. I told him, “I didn’t choose it, the Chinese government told me which system I had to use.” But this guy was obtuse. “Well, surely they gave you a list of choices and you picked one from the list, why this one?” I told him there was no list, this is China, the government doesn’t offer a choice. He didn’t get it. We did the same dance three or four times, surrounded by people, until others also spoke up to set him straight. It became another reason for him to hate me.

Having the Shanghai office gave me a small advantage. I was able to enroll at Fudan University to study Putonghua. I could go to class for three hours in the morning and then work in the Shanghai office in the afternoon. I stayed in the Foreign Students Dormitory (US$400 for a month) and bought a cheap bicycle for getting around.

My first day at the school, they asked us each what Mandarin we knew. I knew only one complete sentence and I said that and they thought I was an expert. They put me into an advanced class. I had to beg for three days to be put back into a beginner class.

Everyone else in my class was a university student from Europe, part of a larger group, there for the summer. They’d all go out together after class, more than likely speaking their native language to each other all day long. I’d go out alone and had to use what I was learning. Lots of conversations with taxi drivers on my way to the office – they always figured I was a professor and were always surprised to discover I was a student. And when I’d tell them what I was studying, I’d get additional lessons in the taxi.

You probably won’t be surprised to find out that I managed to find a girlfriend in Shanghai, a sweet young woman who didn’t speak any English. This really gave me incentive to up my game. She would laugh like crazy when helping me study, telling me that it was the kind of basic stuff they teach to five year olds. Even though I ended up getting sick my last couple of weeks there and missing a lot of classes, I passed the final and got my certificate.

I also got to be friendly with Koji Hase, the co-inventor of the DVD. Koji was at Toshiba at the time. He was the head of their CD-ROM division. He had an idea – get the CD-ROM drive out of the computer and the office and into the living room. But he’d need software for that. At the same time, Warren Lieberfarb (the founder of Warner Home Video and its president for 25 years) knew that the rental business wasn’t cutting it for Warner. VHS tapes sucked and no one was buying laser discs. He wanted a new format. Koji called Warren and suggested they meet to discuss a new idea. Warren said that he would give Koji 30 minutes. Koji figured this was a big enough idea and he flew from Tokyo to L.A. for that meeting. He walked into Warren’s office – there were 2 sandwiches and 2 bottles of water on the table and Koji thought, “that’s it, I’m really only getting 30 minutes.” Eight hours, and several bottles of wine later, they had an agreement and the DVD was born. Toshiba and Warner would share the patents for the DVD, something which brought Warner billions of dollars. Warner later fired Warren for demanding his share of those profits (long story for another time, it involved the whole mess that got created when AOL bought Time Warner).

When Koji left Toshiba after 30 years, Warren hired him at Warner as head of Asia Pacific. Koji knew nothing about the business. Warren said, “Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.” And then Warren got fired. All of the other executives in the company looked at Koji, this brilliant sweet guy, and thought his English was funny and ignored him. Then Koji made what was seen as a major error – one which I won’t go into now but which cost the company a few million bucks in Japan. Koji was convinced he had done the right thing but the pencil pushers back at HQ didn’t agree. He was pushed aside as head of the region and given a “window seat”  – a job with nothing to do, the ultimate insult in Japan. He’d never much liked me; he thought I was pretty strange, and I probably was. But I always made it a point to stop at his office whenever I came to Tokyo to say hello. No one else was doing that anymore. “You know I never liked you, why do you always come to my office to greet me?” And I said to him, “You’re Koji Hase. I wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for you. I don’t care about the others, I want to show you the respect you deserve.” We became drinking buddies, going to these expensive bars that I could never afford and letting the nights go by consuming bottle after bottle of whisky and soju, having what at least seemed like deep philosophical conversations.

With the successful launch of the China business, and my large role in it, I thought I was going to get promoted to VP. Then they promoted my counterpart in EMEA to VP but not me. I asked where my promotion was. And I found out that both the CIO and the supply chain SVP had blocked it. I’d made some pretty strong enemies.

So I started job hunting. I found something. Something that looked pretty good. Since my boss was a friend, I told him what was going on. He begged me to stay. He told me he’d get me the promotion I deserved. I turned down the other offer and stayed. He didn’t get me the promotion. To be exact about it, instead of being promoted to Vice President, I was promoted from Director to Executive Director, with no increase in salary. All I got out of the deal was a new business card.

(All of us Directors in the technology group in WB always had the same request – a business card that just said “Director” without mentioning our department or anything else. The request was always rejected.)

So I was pretty pissed off. But I managed to rationalize it. I was making a relatively large salary. I loved the people I was working with. My job wasn’t very difficult or stressful. (Asia represented around 10% of the company’s gross revenue. My boss was kept busy dealing with issues from the US and EMEA. As long as no one in Asia was complaining about me – and they never had any cause to – he basically left me alone to do my thing.) So I figured to myself, okay, I’ll just ride this out for a few more years. I’ll get my finances straightened out, sock some money away, and probably be able to retire when I’m 60 or 62.

But as they say, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

If I’m So Smart Part Eight

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August 2001. I’m back in Hong Kong. One thing I should have mentioned in the previous “chapter.” When it came time to negotiate my deal with Warner Bros., I remembered what had happened to me after three years at Merrill and so I told them that I did not want an expat package. Of course I wanted them to pay for my relocation and of course I needed visa sponsorship, but I didn’t want the rest of the usual expat benefits – housing, tax equalization, home leave. When they asked me why, I told them the truth – that I loved Hong Kong and wanted to stay there and didn’t want to get moved around every three years. So no benefits but give me a higher salary to make up for it. They went for it.

The way my job was explained to me, I was going to basically be the only IT person in Asia (aside from a few junior support people here and there). I was to go around to each country in my region (which initially was Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Philippines, Australia and New Zealand) and send all their IT requests back to the international support team in London. My boss was against my traveling at all but the CFO understood that in Asia, things were done face to face and not over the phone. He called my boss and told him, “Spike travels where he wants, when he wants, you have no say in it.”

I quickly found out that their IT support model wasn’t working. The London team was so busy handling EMEA requests that APAC had service requests outstanding for a year or more. So together the CFO and I put together a plan to staff up in Asia. I thought I needed 15 people, spread throughout the region, to handle all of the application and infrastructure support and he agreed. I’ll come back to this in a little while.

The company arranged a service flat for me, two small rooms in a hotel in North Point. About two weeks after I arrived in Hong Kong, I was having dinner one night in the McDonald’s across the street from my hotel and my mom called. She asked me if I was watching CNN and told me that she heard something about the World Trade Center being on fire. I figured she gets a lot of stuff wrong so I didn’t pay much attention to it. After dinner I returned to my room, did some email and then switched on the TV just in time to see the second plane go into the second tower.

I went into a state of shock. How many times had I been in the World Trade Center? Having worked in banking in downtown New York, how many friends did I have who passed through that building every day? Between watching CNN and trying to call or email everyone I knew, I didn’t leave the hotel room for three days. When I finally made it back to the office, everyone asked if I was all right and tiptoed around me for a week.

I soon got back into the swing of things and started spending nights in Wanchai. Wanchai had changed since I last lived there. In the 90s, the so-called “pay for play scene” consisted of the rip-off go-go bars, night clubs and saunas. I think the Asian financial crisis in ’99 resulted in a flood of women coming to Hong Kong, mostly from Thailand and the Philippines, on their own or via a “manager” to work as prostitutes for however long as their tourist visa would allow them to stay. Many of these women were single mothers trying to support their families. Some had previously had their own shops or businesses that failed. All of them realized that what they could earn in one night in Hong Kong equaled what they could make in their home country in a month doing “honest” work. With my wife still in the U.S., I dove straight into the deep end of this scene.

After a few months on the job, I got a call from the CIO at Warner. He hadn’t been to Asia in more than 5 years and wanted to do a tour of offices in the region and wanted me to be his tour guide. He said he wanted to hit Hong Kong, Tokyo and Sydney and asked if that was enough. I told him I didn’t think it was. I thought he needed to visit a shithole to get a real idea of the challenges our people were facing in the region. He said, “Okay, which shithole should we go to?” I told him Manila and he panicked. Abu Sayyaf was pretty active in Mindanao in those days and I guess he thought he was going to lose his head. “Can’t we just go to Singapore?” “If you’re going to Singapore, you might as well just go to New York.” The CFO told him, “Spike’s right, you should go to Manila. Get a fucking map and get on the plane.”

This was a guy who was the CIO of one of the world’s top corporations and had never delivered a speech at a tech conference or published a technical white paper or book. He got out to Hong Kong and first he informed me that he didn’t eat seafood of any kind. Can you imagine that? I was going to have to go out for dinner with him every night for two weeks in some of the seafood capitals of the world and no seafood. Was he allergic? No, he just didn’t like seafood.

We did Hong Kong and then Tokyo and then got to Manila. He actually quite liked it there. It was the only place he agreed to go out for a drink after dinner. We went to the Hard Rock Cafe in Makati and two seconds after he got his beer, a girl came up and put her arms around him. He almost dropped the beer, told me he’d see me tomorrow, and ran back to the hotel (alone).

Now we’re sitting in Sydney. The last night of the two week trip, we’re having dinner and he finally says to me, “I’m told you want 15 headcount for Asia. I’ll give it to you. Just tell me which 15 people in London I should fire.” I was almost at a loss for words. I told him that he shouldn’t fire anyone; that the people in London were already 110% busy dealing with supporting Europe, and that Asia would never grow unless the company invested in it. “As sure as I’m sitting in front of you,” he said, “I swear that you will never have any headcount in Asia.” Two months later I had 15 headcount – with no one fired in London. He never forgot that and held it against me for the rest of my time at Warner.

Anyway, he got back to the U.S. and I got just one email from him. “Spike, while we were in Asia, everywhere we went, I saw a sea of flat screen monitors. In Burbank you have to be a VP or above to get a flat screen. Heaven forbid someone travels out to Asia and sees all of that. How can we stop it?” I wrote back and told him I would be happy to enforce any corporate standards and that he should send me a list of them, knowing full well such a list didn’t exist. (This guy also declared that one needed to be a VP or above to have a company-paid Blackberry. I was traveling more than 50% of the time and thought I needed one and had to escalate around and over him to finally get one.)

A few months later, I was managing the set up of a new business in Taipei. I sat down with the newly hired Managing Director of Taiwan to go over what was needed. He told me he wanted everyone to have flat screen monitors. I said to him, “I have to tell you that the company policy is that only VP’s and above get flat screen monitors.” His jaw dropped. This was Taiwan, where flat screens were made. They were half the price of the older CRT’s, used half the energy and generated far less heat. Then I said, “However, you are the managing director of your territory. You tell me what you want and I’ll get it for you.” I was very popular with management in Asia, perhaps not so much back in Burbank.

After a few months, my wife told me she’d be returning to Hong Kong. It was time to get out of that service flat and find a place to live. I rented a place in Sai Kung, a house right on the water, something that I couldn’t really afford, but I assumed that she’d go back to work and between our two salaries it would be easy. But once she arrived, she announced that she didn’t feel like working. The rent on this place was 40% of my salary but she wouldn’t budge on her decision. I was less than happy about that, to put it mildly.

Time passed. I hired my 15 people and turned them into a team. I upgraded all the systems in Sydney and Tokyo, did two office moves in Manila and helped start a new business in Taiwan. The work was good, my team was great, management in the region loved me. And most of the executives from the U.S. loved me because they knew that when they came to Asia, I could help them find what they were looking for.

But my marriage was on its last legs. As I look back on it, both of us would have been better off if we’d stayed split up after 1999. Now I was traveling 50% of the time and when I’d get back to Hong Kong, we weren’t spending time together. She’d gone back to work and a night out for the two of us generally meant going in separate directions. We moved from that expensive house in Sai Kung to a flat in Kennedy Road (same building we’d lived in before but a different apartment). She asked me to cut out all the fooling around. And, as bad as I know this will make me look, at that point I weighed the options and told her no, knowing full well what the outcome would be.

Our split was not an amicable one. She’d sold her apartment in KL years ago when we got married. Now she wanted me to buy her a new one. She also wanted a lump sum of cash as well as monthly payments. This worked out to almost all of my savings. I told her that the law said we should split things 50/50 but she didn’t care about the law. She wouldn’t budge. I realized that I was going to lose the money either way – if not to her, then to a lawyer.  I wanted things to be over. I figured I’d sooner give the money to her than to a stranger. I felt guilty and thought I owed it to her.  So I gave in, we got divorced and she went back to KL. The only thing I wouldn’t give her in the settlement was the dogs (we’d brought the one over to HK with us from SF and got a second dog in HK). She held this against me for years. It was only after the first dog died and was no longer between us that we could become friends again.

Now that I was single again, there were no restraints on my behavior. When I was in Hong Kong, I was in Wanchai almost every night, and of course all day on Sundays. I was as bad as one could possibly be – and publicly bad, as I started writing about it on the Internet. At first I was contributing to various nefarious forums but in December 2004, I started blogging. I wrote about everything I did. Everything.

But I’m not going to repeat those stories here. That’s for another place and another time.

If I’m So Smart Part Seven

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6

I’d always wanted to live in San Francisco even though I hadn’t spent much time there previously. It just seemed to be the kind of place I would like. I got a service apartment and started looking for a job. It didn’t take long. Coming from a VP spot at Merrill, it took me no time at all to get a job at Schwab.

They put me in charge of the decimalization project, when the U.S. stock exchanges were converting from fractional to decimal pricing. Their theory was that this was almost the same kind of task as a Y2K project, so I’d be well-suited for it. I put together teams to work on management and methodology. I got onto some Securities Industry Association sub-committees. I was kept pretty busy.

On the other hand, I found myself in the midst of a political tug of war. My boss was a genuinely nice guy. Meanwhile the head of trading fancied himself to be another Wolf of Wall Street, larger than life kind of guy. I was caught in the middle and just wanted to get my work done.

Meanwhile I rented a house in Twin Peaks, with the hope that my wife would decide to join me in SF. With the economy booming, it was hard to find a nice place to rent. I went to this house and there must have been at least 10 other people looking at it at the same time. The owner of the house was Chinese, so I showed her my HK ID card and said she should rent to me. She asked me a question in Cantonese, I responded in Cantonese, and she said “the house is yours.”

So I had a job and a place to live but on a personal basis I didn’t know if I was coming or going. I was lonely but I didn’t want to start dating anyone because I was hoping that my wife and I would reconcile. My spare time was spent going to strip clubs, massage parlors and Taiwan night clubs (a friend introduced me to this somewhat hidden scene), all of which probably only served to make me feel lonelier. At a Korean massage parlor, the girl looked at me for a long time and said, “I’ll bet you were handsome when you were younger.” It was the first time someone had ever said that to me, but not the last.

The political mess at Schwab was getting worse but the job market was booming and pretty soon I had an offer from a start-up that was too good to turn down. This company had just closed their third round of funding and had raised a total of $300 million from top Sand Hill Road VCs. They had a veteran management team and a product that they planned to sell at a profitable price. They were offering even more money than Schwab was paying me plus 40,000 options. I accepted.

Before I started the new job I took a quick vacation. I flew out to Hong Kong, met up with my wife, and we went to Cebu together. A more permanent reunion seemed possible.

The new company was called Yipes and they were doing metro area and wide area gigabit networks. They leased dark fiber in all of the NFL cities and were building out the last mile from the fiber rings to major office buildings. I was in charge of getting all of the internal apps up and running as well as all of the external and internal web sites. It was a pretty good gig for awhile.

They kept shuffling the management team around. My first boss was one of the founders and we remain friends to this day. He got pushed aside after a few months and they brought in someone from one of the big telcos. We all wanted to hate her. The problem was she was beautiful, funny and smart. We all fell in love with her. And then she got pushed aside and this time we got stuck with the guy who was the head of the network stuff, and he was someone who was brilliant with that network stuff (he had several patents and he’s now a big cheese at Google) but had absolutely horrendous people management skills.

A little more than a year after I left Hong Kong, my wife quit her job in Hong Kong and moved to San Francisco to be with me. I was thrilled. I got her a dog and a car and things seemed to be going well for us.

She didn’t work at first. She wanted some time to get used to the U.S., which seemed fair. Her days were mostly spent taking the dog to dog parks or to the beach. Eventually she felt settled and got a job. But overall she didn’t like San Francisco and, to tell you the truth, neither did I. I was feeling as if leaving Hong Kong had been a mistake. I couldn’t really acclimate to life in the U.S. again. Getting around in SF sucked. The public transportation system couldn’t hold a candle to Hong Kong’s, it was impossible to find a taxi and impossible to park. If we wanted to try some hot new restaurant in the Mission, we would have to include an hour for looking for a parking spot. The only things I liked about SF were that you could get decent Asian food there and it was close to both Napa/Sonoma and Monterey/Carmel/Big Sur. One day my wife told me that she wanted to go back to Hong Kong and it would be with or without me. I was fine with going back but I had no idea of how to accomplish that.

My hot little start-up was not doing well. Earlier they’d turned down a $600 million acquisition offer, saying they thought the value was more like $2 billion. But they were burning through their VC money. Every building they “lit” cost them $100,000.  They built a world class and very expensive Network Operating Center in Denver that I had to visit once a month. I joked that I used to have a job that took me to Bangkok and Tokyo and now I had a job that took me to Denver. They were trying to close a fourth round of funding but it wasn’t looking good.

My wife and I drove down to Los Angeles for a week of sight seeing. I had a friend from high school, Don, living there. I knew he was at Warner Bros. but I didn’t know what he was doing there. We met him and his wife for dinner. My wife bitched about the U.S. and I bitched about my job. Don said, “Send me your resume.” “Why, what can you do?” “You don’t know, so send me your resume.” It turned out he was a senior vice president there with more than a little bit of power.

Around a month later I got a call. “Hi, this is Warner Bros. We have a new position in Hong Kong and Don says you’re the only man for the job. Are you interested in returning to Hong Kong?” Yes please.

I went down to L.A. for a series of interviews that culminated with the CFO of the home video division. I sat in front of him in his humongous office while he took phone call after phone call. He barely knew I was there. I figured I had to do something to catch this guy’s attention. I looked around the room and saw these huge framed portraits of Hollywood stars from the 30s and 40s – and one of Nastassja Kinski. So I asked about that. He stopped, looked around, and told me he’d never even realized it.

Outside of his office he had these racks that had every WB DVD. He told me that DVDs were starting to do really well for them and asked if I had a DVD player. I told him that I had three, not just one, and I had a rack of DVDs at home that resembled the rack outside of his office. He realized that I was a true movie lover – and actually there weren’t that many of those in Warner any more but he was definitely one. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, it was the start of a beautiful friendship. He became my mentor and we’re still close to this day.

I went back to San Francisco. My company was doing yet another round of layoffs. I went to talk to my boss and asked him if I was next. “I don’t know,” he said. “Never mind, I’m resigning, I’m going back to Hong Kong.” He was pretty surprised.

Before I left, and before the bottom dropped out of the telecom industry, I did a very dumb thing. I exercised all 40,000 of my options. Remember that $600 million offer that the company turned down? A year later the company would be sold for $2 million plus $18 million in assumed debt. My 40,000 shares were toilet paper.

I did a quick trip out to Hong Kong to meet the people I’d be working with and stopped off in Bangkok for a few days before coming back home to pack. At which point my wife had a surprise for me. She wanted to stay in San Francisco a little while longer, so I could go out to Hong Kong and get everything set up and she’d join me a few months later. (It turned out one reason for this was because she was having an affair with a co-worker.)

I returned to Hong Kong in August, 2001, 2 years and 4 months after I’d left. It felt like victory. Plus the fact that I was managing technology for a movie company (okay, it was the home video division but it was still a major Hollywood studio) made it feel as if everything had come full circle from my days as a film student.


If I’m So Smart Part Five

aka The Never Ending Story?

Part one, Part two, Part three, Part four

This entry covers just one year. I tell people I was reborn when I moved to Hong Kong and I mean it. My first year in Hong Kong, despite some notable lows, was one of the best years of my life.

April, 1995, I arrive at Kai Tak with two suitcases and a backpack. I’m ready to start my life in Hong Kong. But when I arrived, my boss had an unpleasant surprise for me. In order to get the New York office to agree to transfer me, he had to agree to loan me back to them. So within days of arriving in Hong Kong, I was on a plane back to New Jersey. I spent several weeks in a miserable roadside motel in Jersey, right in the middle of the state, too long a drive to go to either NYC or Philly, night after night alone in that motel watching TV. I was feeling pretty miserable.

I got back to Hong Kong from that and within days they put me on a plane again, this time to Kuala Lumpur. I had never heard of Kuala Lumpur. I had no idea where it was or even how long it took to get there. I had to look it up on the Internet.

I went down there for some meetings with a Malaysian bank. We had one person stationed down there on the project, a nice Jewish Canadian guy and his wife, and they took me around a little bit, showing me the sites. The KL branch of the Hard Rock Cafe was in the lobby of the hotel I was staying in, so that gave me a place to hang out – and my first experience with an Asian hooker. I’m not going to go into any details here. I’ll just say that I was lonely, it was my birthday and I thought it would be okay to buy myself a present.

Finally in June I got back to Hong Kong and could start putting together a life there. I found a small apartment in Happy Valley. It had a view of the race track (everything except the finish line) and since my office was in Times Square, I could walk to work. It was a furnished 2 bedroom flat – they told me it was 700 square feet but I think it was closer to 500. The living room was furnished with all this junky stuff with plastic horses heads. The mattress was so bad that I had to sleep on the floor; finally I bought my own mattress but the landlord would neither collect the old one nor let me toss it, so it filled up the 2nd bedroom almost completely.

I started making friends in the office. I told the local guys, “When you go for lunch, please bring me along. You don’t have to go to any special place, you don’t have to order any special food, you don’t need to talk in English.” “Really?” “Really. I want to learn by going where you go and seeing what you do.”

There was also a Canadian guy in the office who’d arrived just a few months before me. He taught me his “restaurant game.” Pick a side of the street, pick a number – for example “left 5.” And then go to the 5th restaurant on the left no matter what it was. It worked out quite well for us.

There was, naturally, an incredibly beautiful local woman in the office. It was all I could do to keep my tongue from hanging out of my mouth whenever I saw her. I found out that her father owned the franchise for a major automobile brand in Hong Kong. I asked her if she ever dated white guys and she said no. I asked her why not. “If I dated a white guy and my father found out, he’d take my car away, and I could never let that happen.”

A few months went by and I was sent back to Kuala Lumpur again, this time with 3 other guys from the Hong Kong office and this time for a month. The first great thing about this trip was that the hotel was a block away from Jalan Alor, a famous night time food street. We went there every night and ate like kings for very little money.

One restaurant on the street was called Fatt Tuck Choy. We sat outside and I noted that our waitress was extremely cute. We came back two nights later and before we sat down, I walked up to her and asked, “Did ya miss me?” and without missing a beat she nodded her head and said “yes.” The next time we came back she came right up to me and asked, “Did ya miss me?” and I said, “Of course, that’s why I’m back!” I thought this might get interesting.

Our first weekend there was a three day weekend. We woke up the morning of the holiday and decided to rent a car and go up to Cameron Highlands. We went to various car rental agencies, none of which had cars available, which left the four of us standing around just cracking insane jokes. Then I said, “Hey, our hotel has a travel desk. We’re staying there for a month. They have to figure something out for us.” The woman at the travel desk was wearing the shortest possible skirt and the tightest possible blouse. Every joke we made, she threw right back in our faces and topped. And after telling us we were all insane, she somehow managed to find a rental car for us. This woman, S, would become my second wife.

So we get in the car and for some reason everyone decides I should drive. I had only driven right-side drive once before in my life and that was ten years ago. Within 15 minutes, I managed to hit a bus – a bus that was standing still. The entire left side of the car was smashed in, but not bad enough that we couldn’t still use it for the weekend. We had our weekend in Cameron Highlands, driving through rainforests and touring tea plantations and staying in little shacks. It was great. When we returned the car, S just looked at us in disbelief. I paid for all the repairs and it was all cool.

Every time I’d go through the hotel lobby, if S was at the travel desk, I’d stop and talk with her. At the same time, I was also trying to pursue the waitress from Fatt Tuck Choy. It turned out her family owned that restaurant. She was going to university during the day and waitressing at night, and would only agree to meet me in the afternoons for coffee.

For the following weekend, one of my companions and I booked a package for Langkawi. But before the trip, one night, my 3 co-workers went out without me to a nearby bar. When they got there, they saw S, who was ruling the pool tables. They each took turns playing pool with her, buying her drinks and hitting on her. They all struck out. But they told me she asked them, “Where’s the other guy, the crazy one?” That was enough for me. I had to ask her out.

When I went to the desk to pick up the Langkawi tickets I asked her out on a date. She said she was working half a day on Sunday, she knew what time my flight landed, and if I could get back to the hotel before her shift was over, she would consider having dinner with me.

Langkawi was a pretty strange place. The Malaysian government was trying to pitch it as a tourist destination but there wasn’t too much there at the time. The first bad news was that the hotel had screwed up the reservation. The only room they had for me and my friend had just a single queen sized bed, which we had no choice except to share. It was especially pleasant the second night, when he started having stomach problems.

Anyway, the first night, I’d noticed a sign for some sort of disco. I walked half a mile down the road back to that sign, which pointed to a trail that led through the woods. After walking through the forest, I came to a barn. There was a guy sitting in front of the barn wearing a sport jacket and tie. I paid the cover charge and went inside. There was a stage, a lot of tables and sofas, a few waitresses and me. After awhile a band came out on stage and played a song by Fleetwood Mac and a song by Santana and then everything after that was Malaysian pop songs. After an hour, not many people had shown up and I left. I got back to the main road and got chased back to the hotel by a pack of wild dogs. I stopped in at the hotel bar where there was a Filipino band playing American country and western songs.

The next night, my friend was sick and there didn’t seem to be anything to do or anywhere to go. I walked across the street from the hotel to this small roadside restaurant. Everyone was sitting outside watching a really bad VHS bootleg of a really bad movie. I stood there for a few minutes. No one saw me. Finally I cleared my throat. Everyone jumped up and stared. “Um, er, can I get a coke?” They got me a coke and got me a chair and put me in the front row and I sat there and watched the rest of the movie and played with the kids.

Finally, Sunday, fly back to KL, taxi back to the hotel, me staring at my watch hoping I’d make it back in time. S was still there and we went out for dinner and talked non-stop through the evening. The next day, I called her to ask her out on another date. “There’s something I didn’t tell you last night,” she said. “What? You’re really a man?” “No. I’m married.” Oh. She went on to explain that she liked having western friends because she liked the western sense of humor and if I wanted to go out with her as a friend, that would be great. Oh.

And then, back to Hong Kong. I was ready to take my first Asian vacation and decided to go to Phuket. I also signed up in advance for a scuba diving course. And then I thought to myself, “Hmmm, I know there are girls in Bangkok but maybe there are no girls in the rest of Thailand. Maybe I should invite someone to join me.” So I called the Filipino girl I’d met in February. I told her that I would pay for everything. I also warned her that I would be taking scuba lessons every day but she would be free to sit by the pool and order poolside service to her heart’s content. She agreed to join me.

I got there a few days before she did. I was staying in Patong Beach. Yeah, I figured out what’s up there pretty quickly. Two days later, my friend came to join me and I also figured out pretty quickly that inviting her was a mistake. She did nothing but complain and we couldn’t wait for the trip to be over and to get away from each other.

Back to Hong Kong and back to Kuala Lumpur. S saw me at the hotel and kept after me to go out for dinner or a drink. I kept trying to get out of it but she kept after me and finally we started going out as friends. I kept thinking that I liked her too damned much and thought that maybe her marriage was on rocky ground, or perhaps I was just hoping it was.

About a month later, we went out for dinner and got pretty blasted. Then she took me to a nightclub where her best friend worked as a hostess. I was surrounded by gorgeous women and had to work overtime not to stare at anyone other than S, and these girls were trying their hardest to distract me too. And then, around 2 in the morning, S ended up back at my hotel room.

So now I’m back in Hong Kong. S and I are talking on the phone for hours every night. There was no Skype, no nothing, I was spending thousands per month on phone bills. Every weekend I’d fly back to KL. The problem was that since she was a travel agent and her husband was a tour guide, they were both known in every 5 star hotel in town. So we stayed in love hotels and snuck around hoping that we wouldn’t be spotted by anyone she knew.

But one night she said she wanted to take me to her favorite restaurant. She said they were like family there, that she had known the family that runs the place since she was a little kid and played mah jong with them on a regular basis. Can you guess which restaurant it was? Yeah, it was Fatt Tuck Choy. We get there and the whole family comes running out but they all ignore S and coming running up to me and hugging me. All except for that waitress, who refused to come out of the kitchen the whole time, just sticking her head out now and then to stare at us.

A few more months passed and S decided she was going to get a divorce and move to Hong Kong to be with me. I told her that I figured that even though she had no college, since she spoke ten languages she could probably find a job easily enough. This did not turn out to be the case and so every month we were doing visa runs to Macau.

Meanwhile my work was now keeping me in Hong Kong. I did little bits and pieces of things for the Hospital Authority, the Police Force, Octopus Card and the Jockey Club. I wasn’t working on anything substantial and I was getting bored and it probably showed.

I tried switching over to pre-sales but it wasn’t a great fit either. Then things went seriously south. We had a client in Hong Kong who was having a huge performance problem. It was something that I could have solved in a one minute phone call. But the sales guy on the account wanted to sell them a consulting engagement and I was forbidden to just give them the solution on the phone.  All I could say was, “Yes, I know how to solve it, you have to pay US$2,000 a day and I’ll come in and fix it for you.” And they couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t do it for free. So they called up the general manager and complained.

He brought me into his office along with the sales rep. He started yelling at me, saying that I can’t talk to a big customer like that and that maybe it was time that I should return to New York. You’d think the sales rep might have spoken up at that point and said, “he was just following my instructions.” No, that dickless wonder sat there and stared at his shoes.

So the GM finished his explosion, the sales guy was quiet and I said, “It’s okay, I’ve got another job. I’m giving you my notice right now. And by the way, ask idiot over there why he’s not telling you that all I did was follow the instructions

I hit my one year anniversary there and my boss said it was probably time for me to go back to New York. I told him, “That’s okay because actually I was going to resign today. I’ve got another job.” And I did.

If I’m So Smart, Part Four (!)

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

And the story continues ….

So it’s 1994 and I get the call that my dream is coming true and I will be going to Tokyo. Ten days, all expenses paid, teaching two classes at a western bank. I’m giddy with excitement.

And then a moment of panic. I’ve never had sushi in my life. It didn’t exist in the U.S. when I was a kid and it wasn’t something I sought out as an adult. It was something I made bad jokes about. (“If I’m going to eat at a restaurant, I expect them to cook the food.” Rim shot.) But I figured I didn’t want to embarrass myself in Tokyo and I’d better do something about it before I got there.

I got in my rental car and drove down to Atlanta from Norcross and stopped at the first sushi place I could find. I sat down and told the waitress, “I’ve never eaten this in my life. Give me an assortment and don’t tell me what anything is.” I was afraid that lifelong built-in prejudices would kick in if she told me that something was octopus brains or guppy gonads. She brought me a plate with 8 different things, I ate them all – and liked them all. “Okay, tell me now, what was the pink one, what was the white one ….”

When I arrived in Tokyo, I was the epitome of the dumb American tourist. “Oh look, they have trees!” My hotel was on the dividing line between Shinbashi and Ginza, if I recall correctly. I dumped my bags in the room and hit the streets. It was night time. I walked around with no idea of where I was going. I met some Japanese businessmen. They were already drunk and it was a scene from every guidebook you’ve ever read. “Can we practice speaking English with you?” “Okay.” Laughter. “Where are you from?” “America.” Laughter. “What do you think of Japan?” “It’s beautiful.” Laughter. Apparently I was the funniest person they’d ever met. But not funny enough for them to invite me to join them for a drink. Oh well.

I got to the office the next day just in time for lunch. “We’re going out for lunch. Do you eat sushi?” “Of course!”

It turns out I wasn’t supposed to go to the local office. They were quite unhappy to find out that the Hong Kong office had booked a Tokyo job. Well, no one warned me.

There was one American working in that office and he took me around Roppongi that night. Mogambo, Geronimo, Motown House, Baccarat, all the popular gaijin spots.  It was really easy to meet people and make connections. There weren’t as many westerners there as there are today. So if you were in a bar and saw another white guy, you instantly had something in common and would start talking. And one other thing I found out – white guys were in season. We were the latest fashion accessory for Japanese girls. Having a foreign boyfriend was seen as a desirable thing, and they went out in packs in Roppongi hunting for us. At least, that’s what I was told.

The next day I started work. Midway through that morning, an earthquake hit. It was the first earthquake I’d ever been in. It was a small tremor, nothing to worry about, but my heart leapt into my mouth as my students all ran to the window to watch the other buildings sway back and forth. I got over it quickly enough. The next time there was an earthquake and everyone jumped up, I looked at them and said, “What’s the matter? It’s just an earthquake. You have them every day. Sit down. Back to work.”

Nights were a drunken haze. For most of my first week, I was the ugliest Ugly American ever to go to Tokyo. Every night I got drunk and every night I acted like a total asshole. It took about a week for me to settle down. I scolded myself. “What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you acting like this? What gives you the right? Just because you’re in a foreign country? Because these women are Asian?” I calmed down and went back to being myself and almost immediately after that I found myself a Japanese girlfriend.

Actually, she found me. The temperatures in Tokyo were running above 40 degrees, even at night. One night I barely made it up the stairs to Geronimo. I walked in, closed the door, and collapsed against the wall in a puddle of sweat. This woman at the table right next to where I was schvitzing invited me to sit with them. She was cute but her friend was even cuter. The only problem was that she was passed out. She woke up eventually and the three of us went to Gas Panic to dance. And at some point the cute one, the one who was passed out earlier, asked me if I wanted to meet her the following night.

My friends told me, “She’s Japanese, she’s not going to show up to meet a gaijin alone. She’ll bring a friend.” She showed up alone. And we were together a lot after that. She was a nihilist. She always dressed all in black and wondered pessimistically what was the point in almost everything. But she was also as sweet and as nice as anyone you could hope to meet. One thing I remember – one day we went walking through a Japanese garden and an elderly Japanese man came up to us. She translated for me. “He’s wondering if you, as a foreign barbarian, can appreciate the beauty of a Japanese garden.” I smiled and told him I thought it was really beautiful. That made him happy.

I finished my work after ten days. I didn’t want to leave. I had some vacation time coming so I just stayed on. I moved to a cheaper hotel with a tiny little room that didn’t even give me enough space to open my suitcase; I had to drag it out into the hallway. Every morning I’d check my bank balance and my vacation balance and push back my return flight by another two days. I met a much-younger Jewish Canadian woman and started spending a lot of time with her. I was surviving on McDonald’s every day, the cheapest thing I could find, until I finally discovered ramen shops. I think I had ramen 3 meals a day for the rest of my stay there.

I don’t remember exactly now, but I was there for somewhere between 3 and 4 weeks. I finally ran out of money and ran out of vacation time and had to go back to my empty life in New York. I said goodbye to my new friends and told them I’d be back.

As it turns out, it was four years until I got back to Tokyo. I stayed in touch with both of those women via letters for years. I never saw the Canadian woman l again. It was 4 or 5 years until I saw the Japanese woman again, and at this point I was married to my second wife. We still traded emails from time to time until she got engaged. Her fiance found out about me and somehow felt threatened by our platonic friendship and wrote to me, asking me to stop emailing her. I figured if she found someone and she was happy, I was happy for her.

I was determined to find a job in Tokyo and move there. I called headhunters like crazy. I sent my resume everywhere. Nothing. Not even a nibble.

And then 5 months later, someone pointed out to me that the company I was working for had an opening in their Hong Kong office. The job requirements fit me to a “t” – they wanted a Principal Consultant who was also an architect. As near as I could tell, I was the only person to apply for the job. I think I was the only Principal Consultant in the company who was single and free to make that kind of move. Plus the Hong Kong office remembered how well my Tokyo gig had gone for them.

I thought to myself, “Well, it’s not Tokyo, but it’s closer to Tokyo than New York.” I told my company that I’d never been to Hong Kong, I wasn’t sure if I would like it, and would they fly me out there for a week so I could check it out and see if I really wanted to move there. They agreed.

So in February 1995 I made my first trip to Hong Kong. I felt comfortable from the minute I landed at Kai Tak. I knew no one in Hong Kong, but someone in my office in New York had a friend there. He gave me his number and wrote to the guy to tell him I’d be coming. My first night in Hong Kong, that guy brought me to Wanchai. At Rick’s Cafe, he ran into a girl he knew, and she was there with a friend. That friend and I hit it off pretty well. My friend dragged me to more bars until finally I told him, “I’m still thinking about that girl at Rick’s. I’m gonna go back and see if she’s still there.”

She was still there. We drank and talked some more. She was a television producer from Manila, visiting Hong Kong on a business trip. We went to the MTR to head back to our respective hotels. On the train she turned to me and said, “I’d invite you back to my hotel but I’m sharing my room with someone.” To be honest, I’m not sure that the meaning of that sentence really registered with me. Without stopping to think, I replied, “I’ve got my own hotel room.” And she said, “Okay.” And came back to my hotel with me.

So now my first day in Hong Kong is over. I’m thinking that I’ve lived in New York for decades and can’t meet a woman to save my life; I’m in Hong Kong one day, I know no one, and I’m getting laid. Yes, I can live here.

Of course I wasn’t going to tell them that in the office. I wanted to let the entire week go by before announcing my decision. My future boss decided to play tour guide and show me some of the other benefits of Hong Kong. One day we were walking around Aberdeen. He suggested we should go to Lamma for seafood. We just missed the ferry so he suggested that we get a sampan. We found one, got in, and the woman took us out of the harbor. Then she put on her coat, rubbed cream on her hands, handed me the tiller, pointed out into the fog and lay down and went to sleep.  So now I’m driving a sampan through one of the most congested shipping lanes in the world and it’s so foggy I can’t see where I’m going let alone what’s around me. Somehow we made it to Lamma. We had to wake the woman up because we couldn’t figure out how to cut the engine. She asked if she should wait to give us a ride back. “What, you’re gonna want another nap?” I asked.

I’d made a little list of ten things to do to see if I could survive in Hong Kong on my own. One thing on the list was to have a dim sum lunch by myself. I walked around Causeway Bay and Wanchai and couldn’t figure out which restaurants served dim sum or would even speak English. Finally I passed a restaurant that had a “Welcome” carpet in front. “English! I’ll try here!” I went upstairs and waited. I saw other people coming in and getting seated by the hostess. I thought to myself, “Jeez, is this like Tokyo, they don’t want to deal with foreigners?” I went up to the hostess and said, “What about me?” “I thought you were waiting for other people,” she replied in perfect English. Of course. Because who goes for a dim sum lunch alone? She seated me at a big round table already occupied by a couple in their 70s. They saw how clueless I was and helped me order and showed me how to eat, even sharing some of their food with me. Yes indeed, I could live in Hong Kong.

So that was it. Back to New York and two months to get ready for the move. I got rid of a lot of stuff and put almost everything else into long term storage. I arrived in Hong Kong in April 1995 with just two suitcases, ready to start my new life.


If I’m So Smart part three

Part 1 here, part 2 here.

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.


If I’m So Smart part two …

Continuing on from part one …

So it’s 1982. I’ve walked away from managing the band and I’ve walked away from working in my cousin’s TV store. I really have no clue as to what to do next. I did a few projects out of Mark Moogy Klingman‘s studio, nothing that really amounted to anything, public access cable TV stuff. I got hired by some company to do income tax preparation but one day of that was all I could take.

I’d always told myself that if I couldn’t get any other job, I could still drive a taxi. So I went out and got a taxi license. It was easier in those days because you would just pay the taxi company a percentage of what you booked on the meter rather than having to lease it out by the week or the month. As a new driver, I had to work Saturdays and Sundays, my shift was 5 AM to 3 PM. My first day was super embarrassing – I picked up some guy who wanted to go to JFK airport and I got lost going there. Yeah, I lived in New York my whole life but how often had I gone to the airport? At that point, maybe once. I ended up driving the taxi for a year (I believe I’ve posted tales about this before). Four celebrities, a lot of hookers and drunks, and NYC traffic day after day after goddamned day. I had an uncle who had done this his whole life and now I understood him a whole lot better.

On my days off, I went to electronics school, figuring I could study for a year and get a job as a radio or TV engineer. The first month of that was easy but once the math started getting more intense, my brain switched off and I dropped out from the class.

My wife was working full time, but it was a relatively low paying office job. She was lost as well. She’d graduated with a teaching degree, but a month before graduation she decided she didn’t want to teach. We were living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Rent was a hell of a lot lower then than it is now, plus we were living in a 300 square foot studio with a loft bed. We stayed in that apartment for 10 years.

I was a crappy taxi driver and I was earning next to nothing. I had all those credit card debts from the band and I couldn’t make the payments. The bill collectors were calling every day and I was sinking deeper into depression.

March 2, 1982 is the day that Philip K. Dick died. I read mostly science fiction in those days and following his death I probably read everything he wrote. It’s arguable that Dick was schizophrenic – well from 1974 onwards there’s really little doubt. And he wrote a lot of himself into the characters in his books. So here I am, sinking into depression, reading books written by a schizophrenic, and I decided I must be schizophrenic as well. I think I self-diagnosed to somehow justify to myself why there were an increasing number of days when I couldn’t even make it out the front door of our apartment except to buy cigarettes. My wife never mentioned a word about any of this. I’m honestly not sure if she didn’t notice it or if she did but didn’t know how to deal with it – or perhaps 30-odd years later it wasn’t quite as bad as I remember it as being. At any rate, the debts got to the point where the banks were going to take my wife’s salary, which would have really left us with nothing. I tried to negotiate better payment terms but they all basically said they’d prefer it if I just declared bankruptcy. And so I did.

As a life-long record collector, all the record shop owners in the village knew me. One day I parked my taxi in front of my favorite shop, to take a break and see what was knew, and the owner told me he was going to open a video store with a partner and asked if I wanted to stop driving the taxi and work there instead. Yes please.

While I’d like to report that by working in a video store I became Quentin Tarantino, or at least had a life and career similar to his, you all know that’s not how things worked out. What I can say is that I really enjoyed working there and it snapped me out of my depression. With its prime Greenwich Village location, we had a lot of celebrity customers, everyone from Daryl Hall to Rod Steiger. One night Sigourney Weaver came in with Wallace Shawn – she was looking at all the titles while Shawn seemed to be smiling and laughing and going, “I’m with Sigourney Weaver!”  Grace Jones and Dolph Lundgren were frequent customers and every time I’d deliver to them, I’d end up hanging out at their place playing with Grace’s kid. Grace was the total opposite of her image – warm and smiling and sexy. We asked how she and Dolph met and she told us that one night she saw him at a party and walked up to him and said, “I’m going to have you.”

The store was just off Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue. At least 2/3rds of the customers were gay and of the staff, only the owner and myself were straight. The store did a huge business because it stocked and rented the latest in gay porn, right alongside all the newest releases and deep, deep catalogue of classic and foreign films. If I wanted to go out with my co-workers after work, it meant going to gay bars, and this led to my doing the video systems for almost every gay bar in the Village.

I was also at Ground Zero when AIDS started to really hit New York. Every time a friend got sick, the fear was that it could be AIDS. I’d go visit friends in the hospital, holding their hands or hugging them, so the nurses all assumed that I was gay and that I also probably had AIDS and they treated me like shit. Relatively little was known about the disease back then but I wasn’t about to desert my friends. It was a time of incredible emotions and irrationality. Some friends went monogamous, some went completely celibate. All were living in fear.

At some point in 1985, I went back to my friend the record store owner and suggested that he and I open a store together selling only CDs. And so we did. It was the second CD-only store in New York City and the first one to sell used CDs. There were lots of problems. Tower Records was just blocks away and I was trying to compete with them on price but I didn’t know enough about business to be able to do a budget or base my prices on anything other than pure guesses and my partner, who had demanded 51% ownership in return for letting me use his name and logo, offered little or no help. Perhaps he assumed I knew what I was doing but actually I was pretty clueless. For six months we barely made enough to pay the rent.

Problems kept mounting up, not the least of which was this ring of crooked United Parcel drivers. They basically stole everything they wanted from their trucks every day. They figured it was covered by insurance and therefore a “victimless” crime. One day they stole a bunch of CD players so now they wanted CDs. They told me I should make a freaking huge order from my distributor, that they’d steal it off the truck, take out what they wanted and then sell me the rest for half price. I said, “Don’t you think it will stand out to them that I’m placing an order 5 times the size of my regular order? And don’t you think I’m the first one the police will come to when it goes missing?” I refused to go along with their little scheme. To try to get revenge, and since I paid my bills mostly in cash, they then tried reporting me to their managers and the police as having received orders without paying for them and accusing me of theft. But it was such a stupid story that the spotlight very quickly was on them instead of me. I was in the clear. I believe they were all fired and at least one went to jail.

Then, as luck would have it, I made a connection in the UK. He would call me every Monday and read me the list of the latest releases. I’d get a box from him every Thursday. Back then, some major stuff was coming out in the UK weeks or even months before the US, stuff like Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, Depeche Mode. I’d get this stuff a week or two before any other import store in the village and I was selling the imports at a reasonable price. Word got out and soon I had people driving a hundred miles or more to come to the shop to get their hands on this. I even started “wholesaling” to other shops. The money was rolling in.

The problem with this was that it was all illegal at the time. Parallel imports. Some nearby record store, jealous of the business I was doing with this stuff, reported me to the RIAA. They sent me a cease and desist letter. My partner panicked. His vinyl stores were doing a huge business – and what he was doing in the stores (and in the back of the stores) wasn’t entirely legal either. All the big DJ’s of the era shopped at his stores, all of them. And when Madonna did an in-store in New York, it wasn’t at Tower Records, it was at his store. So when I got the cease and desist, he was afraid that if I tried to fight it, the inspectors wouldn’t just stop with the little CD store, they’d go across the street to the vinyl stores and start looking around. So he ordered me to stop selling the imports. I had no choice but to comply and within a couple of weeks, my business dropped off by 75%.

Technically speaking, what he did to me was also illegal. He couldn’t purposely hurt one business to try to save another. But that didn’t stop him. He “fired” me and offered me no money at all for my 49% of the store, saying it was essentially worthless. So I sued him. And he counter-sued me.

For awhile we were deadlocked and it seemed as if it was going to go nowhere. Until one day when we sat down across the table from each other with our lawyers. His lawyer opened the proceedings by telling me I had no case and I would never see a dime and I should just walk away. Before my lawyer could open his mouth, I pushed him away and started talking. Here is what I remember telling them that day:

“I happen to know that you’re paying your lawyer $150 an hour. See my lawyer? That’s not just my lawyer, that’s my buddy Joe. I love Joe. We’ve been best friends since college. He’s charging me $50 an hour. Joe and his wife wanna have a baby and I don’t mind giving Joe money so he and his wife can have money for their kid. And if I have to pay Joe for the next three years, I don’t mind. And I know whatever I pay Joe, you’re paying your lawyer three times as much, so even if I never get a penny, it’s worth it to me knowing how much it will cost you. So go fuck yourself and the horse you rode in on.”

The lawyers quickly pulled us into separate rooms. Joe said to me, “I’m not charging you $50 an hour, it’s $53. And don’t ever again tell anyone what you’re paying me.”  Meanwhile I think my partner’s lawyer must have said to him, “This guy’s fucking nuts. Let’s just settle and get it over with.” So minutes later they came back with an offer to repay me every cent I’d originally invested in the business, and I accepted.

(Joe and I are still friends to this day. He has two lovely daughters whom he has wisely kept away from me.)

So fine. I got my money back. And fortunately my next job was already waiting for me. One of my steady customers in the store was this guy who produced a syndicated radio series of hour-long rock concerts. He would come in the store every week and ask me a hundred questions about CDs – when is something coming out; which sounds better – the US, the UK or the Japanese release, and so on – and I could always answer his questions. So a lightbulb went off in his head. “What if the entire country could ask Spike questions and get answers the way I do?”

So he hit me with this proposal to start up The CD Hotline. And I got somewhat fucked in the process. See, there were to be two owners. The radio guy and his partner, the grandson of an extraordinarily famous writer. The radio guy knew how radio worked and had all the connections. The writer’s grandson had connections and real estate. When I asked, “So do I get some shares in the business?” I was told only if I put up some cash. My lawsuit wasn’t settled yet and I had no money and so I got nothing. If I’d been smarter back then, I might have countered that they wouldn’t have any business without the knowledge in my head and that should have been worth something. But I was stupid and desperate for a job and so I went along with it.

The majority of the seed money ended up coming from the Grateful Dead Pension Fund. Who had any idea back in the 80s that the Dead were so well organized financially? Well, they were.

We sat there and divided up who was responsible for what between the three of us. They pointed at me and said I was in charge of computers. Why me? Because I had an Atari, which was more than either of them had.

So I sat in the basement of radio guy’s brownstone for six months, typing everything I knew about CDs into a database. The database software had been written by this genius quadriplegic guy who lived way upstate. He basically taught me everything about computers over the phone since he couldn’t come down to NYC.

Meanwhile radio guy set about trying to sell the concept. The initial idea was a one hour syndicated program in which we’d review CDs, take questions and play music. But the feedback from program directors was unanimous – they had a million guys trying to sell them one hour shows but the idea of the database was unique. (Keep in mind this was the 80s and there was no www back then.)

So the idea morphed into a 2 minute thing. Radio stations could brand it as their own (“The WXYZ CD Hotline!”) and do an announcement for it every hour, giving out an 800 number to call, and giving us a minute or two of commercial time to sell every hour.  The program director from WBCN Boston came down to the basement and quizzed me hard. Every question he asked, the answer – the correct answer – was already in the database. Sold. And soon after more than 100 radio stations across the country signed up.

At that point we moved into a warehouse in Williamsburg. We had 20 people answering phones and a computer network that was probably pretty advanced for 1987 running. I got my phone lessons from the distant programmer in DOS, dBase III and C and I taught myself Novell Netware. It all came really easily to me. I was supervising the database entry by half a dozen staff, training new staff and keeping the computer network running.

The problem for me was that the money was rolling in and I was just a (low) salaried employee. I was earning more than I ever had before. But I was watching the two partners go off to their summer rentals in the Hamptons and they’d ask if they could leave their dogs with me for the weekend.

(One time, the writer’s grandson invited my wife and I up to his compound in Vermont for a weekend. We had our own little bungalow there. The grandson had a lot of celebrity friends. He was known to spend weekends in Aspen skiing with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Willis and fucking Playboy Playmates. But the closest person to a celebrity I met that weekend was Mrs. John Oates (of Hall & Oates). She’d been a super model before getting married and for some reason my wife became convinced that she was coming on to me. I said, “What are you, nuts? She’s a super model married to a racing car driver rock star, she doesn’t even know I’m here.” But we left after just one day there. So much for the High Life.)

I guess at this point the only good thing about the job was that it got me on the mailing lists for some record companies. I was getting dozens of CDs a week for free.

Also, since the 70s, I’d been writing professionally on the side. I started out writing for college newspapers and magazines. After that I wrote for a large variety of smaller magazines – record reviews, videocassette reviews, things like that. I started publishing my reviews to various forums on CompuServe, where I served as “co-sysop” on RockNet and the Consumer Electronics Forum. I also picked up some part time work consulting to RCA Records on their back catalogue, but I was never able to turn that into anything permanent. One person I met was Bill Levenson, head of back catalogue at Polygram. Bill first came to fame when he produced the Eric Clapton Crossroads box. Bill told me he’d started out as a computer programmer, was working for IBM, got assigned to a project at Polygram, got hired by Polygram, and moved from programmer to producer. This was a life I wanted.

My mom, meanwhile, knew this guy who owned a toy company that had been bought out by Universal. So my mother suggested that I should write to Universal (MCA) Records and say that I know this guy and ask if there might be a job for me. A week later I got a call from Irving Azoff’s secretary. He was coming to New York and wanted to meet me. It seemed that he was looking for a new head of back catalogue. He was impressed by my knowledge of and my love of music. I thought the job was mine. The problem was, I don’t think my mother every called that toy company guy to let him know what was up. So when Azoff’s people called that guy to check on my references, that guy probably said he had never heard of me. And I never heard from Azoff or MCA again.

The money kept coming in at CD Hotline but I wasn’t seeing what I thought should have been my share. These guys had the idea to license the database to places like Tower Records, which had kiosks with computers where people could use our database to look up stuff. Long after I’d left the company, my database became the first database Amazon used when they started selling CDs. Eventually the two of them sold off the company and I’m sure they cleared a very comfortable amount of money in the process. I never saw a penny of it.

I had no idea what I was going to do next. I thought at best I was qualified to be a $5 an hour stock boy at Tower Records. Then one night my dad called me up. “Kid,” he said, “you ain’t getting anywhere with this art shit, are you?” “Um, no dad, I guess I’m not.” “You seem to like fooling around with computers. You ever think about going back to school and studying that and then doing that for a living?” Well, my father almost never gave me any advice, so on those rare occasions when he did, I paid attention. “No dad, I never thought about it, but that’s a damned good idea!” And I meant it.

See, I had no idea that there was any value in what I’d already learned about computers. I didn’t know that I could take what I already knew and was doing and get some corporate IT job somewhere. It came so easily to me, so naturally, that I figured it had to be the same for everyone, wasn’t it? I later found out no, it wasn’t.

So I started looking around for classes I might take. I thought I’d take a month-long course in something like dBase or FoxPro and then try to sell myself as an independent programmer, much like my phone buddy in upstate New York.

But one afternoon I wandered into a presentation from Columbia University. The guy was talking about all of this stuff I had never heard of. At the end, I raised my hand and asked, “But what about dBase?” The answer I got was so informative and so patient that I said to myself, “That’s the guy I want to have as my teacher.”

My father wasn’t thrilled that I was going to go to a year’s worth of classes rather than a month’s, but he gave me the money for the tuition. For the next year I still worked day time at CD Hotline while going to school at Columbia 3 hours per night twice a week, and most of every weekend spent in their computer labs.

So I took six courses in a year, mostly having to do with relational databases but also structured design and the system life cycle and some general programming courses as well. We went from Assembler all the way up to C, which was about as modern as it got back then. Databases came easily to me, perhaps because I’d already been working with them for a few years at the CD Hotline. Third form normalization? I could do that in my sleep. My final project was a 200+ page document representing a redesign of the CD Hotline database and application. I was never much of a student in my youth so I was probably more surprised than anyone else when I graduated with 5 A’s and a B.

Okay, that’s the end of part two.