LIFE’S LIKE THAT M12 THE MAGAZINE
My son speaks English with a grav- elly western New York accent. My daughter has a light mid-Atlantic lilt. I tell them that they would both share the same Bay Area
dialect today if my answering machine had not
frozen up one New Year’s Eve many moons ago.
The answer-phone was a cutting-edge piece of
Radio Shack technology with two cassette tapes,
several delicate knobs and buttons and tempera-ture-sensitive moving parts. In an age before
mass e-mail and wireless telephony, it was my
employment lifeline during a snowy December in
Though we had little money in the bank, my
wife and I were kid-free and mobile. We had
already bought tickets to San Francisco for the
holidays before my career hit the deck. So we
decided to go freeload off my friend Pannir in
I justified this New Year’s junket as a job-hunt-ing investment by adopting another friend’s
address and phone number in Silicon Valley as
my own. Prospective employers would, I hoped,
jump at the chance of interviewing a good engineer who appeared to be just down the road at
Velu’s address, rather than an expensive airfare
across the continent.
The only catch was that Velu himself was going
the opposite way to watch the ball go up in Times
Square. He promised to check his own answering
machine regularly and relay the messages to my
answering machine in Rochester, which I would
in turn check remotely from the west coast. In
theory, I would then pounce on the killer local
interviews that I was sure were awaiting me
everywhere around the Golden Gate.
This byzantine scheme faded after a week in
California. Bored of idling in Pannir’s pad, we
arm-wrestled him to sneak his borrowed 1977
Chevy station wagon away for a lazy drive past
redwood forests and up to Yosemite. His roommate Zhing came with us. Zhing said little, but he
was fond of driving and we let him drive all he
wanted. Lacking the nerve to camp in the frost of high altitudes, we spent a comfortable night in a heated cabin. Then
we circled back down to do some sightseeing north of the
Every few hours, every day, my fist-sized answering
machine remote control screeched into a pay phone somewhere as I checked my messages in Rochester. Nothing but
silence greeted me.
By the time New Year’s Eve had arrived, I had given up
any pretense of job hunting and was ready for some real
action. My wife had taken over the driving from Zhing at
the end of our cruise. As we entered San Fran, she took a
deep breath and ended the year on a crazy bet. She
launched the giant car at rocket speed down the 120 degree
zigzag incline of Lombard Street. Weak with laughter, we
checked the wheel rims down on the waterfront and wondered where we should find ourselves at midnight.
We soon discovered where Zhing would be. When we got
home to Berkeley we found seventeen platters of dough
skins scattered about the apartment, along with huge pots
of raw cabbage, pork and ginger. Zhing had rounded up a
group of his friends to make potstickers, apparently a
Chinese new year tradition. We wished them well and went
out on the town.
After a couple of hours of dallying we ended up in a dark
and grimy bar in Oakland. This unimpressive locale turned
out to host the best blues band I have ever heard. The black
lead man played his mouth organ with a radio-controlled
amplifier strapped to his belt. Its shrill brilliance transfixed
the crowd table by table as he walked around and serenaded each of us at point blank range.
Halfway through the performance another African-American walked into the tavern. The musicians slowed
their pace and turned to look. The lead man dropped his
harmonica, walked up and hugged the newcomer. He
waved him onto the stage and motioned to the bassist to
hand over his instrument. The unexpected guest shrugged
and strapped it on.
While the rest of the band played on uninter-
rupted, his hands hung motionless over the bass
strings for a few seconds. They suddenly came to
life. As he picked up the riff to perfection,
I felt my hair standing on end.
If this had been a cheap 21st century novel, my
cell phone would have rung at this point with a
call from Velu, capping the perfect evening with a
midnight interview call.
Unfortunately the technology was not there yet,
and neither was my luck. I had no way of calling
Velu, so I had nothing to worry about except
watching for the countdown recorded in New
York three hours earlier.
It turned out that the band had other things to
worry about. As they finished their gig, a hat was
passed around. The lead man laid down his har-
monica again, this time to cry out: “Give gener-
ously! Keep us out of jail...”
We stayed well past midnight. Long after the
music was over, we walked into Pannir’s apart-
ment to find Zhing and his friends in utter hys-
terics over a bottle of whiskey. There were pot-
sticker remains scattered all over the place. We
had a flight back east at six am, and sleeping in
the midst of that mayhem looked impossible. So
we packed up and said goodbye.
The flight back was cold and listless after a
week spent playing in the sun.
Rochester surprised us with a flash of blue sky
as we turned over the edges of the Great Lakes.
Feeling a little better as we entered our own
apartment, we rushed to turn the heat back on.
Turn the heat back on. I could not remember
turning it down that far...fifty degrees
Fahrenheit? Rubbing my hands, I walked over to
the answering machine.
It showed a green light, but when I hit Play
nothing happened. An icy horror crept up on me.
There was a message there, but I could not play
I paced about the defrosting apartment for
more than an hour before I heard a beep. The
answering machine had finally warmed up out of
its hibernation. This time the Play button brought up Velu’s
Where the hell are you, man? These guys in Cupertino
keep calling for you and I don’t know what to tell them.
Yes, I finally did go back to California for the interview a
few weeks later. But by then I was second in line for the job.
They said they really wanted me, but they really had to wait
for the first guy to say no. The first guy said yes.
We ended up moving around the country to clean up our
career messes. We have long since put away our brooms
and settled in, but I never again tried to save on heating
bills over New Year’s. And my kids still don’t sound like
they are from the same family. ;
Ashwath Nityanandan sits on the diversity council of a
large corporation, where his job is in manufacturing
infrastructure. His professional interest lies in studying
the effect of human systems on technology, especially on
the factory floor.
on a memorable
New Year’s Eve.