Princeton – Part I

I Meet Mark, Become Friends with Derick; Start & Finish My First Programming Job

[The blog isn’t really a great place to tell long stories like this post.  Nevertheless, I’m going to keep adding to it; but at the same time go on with the rest of the blog.  Last added is at the bottom on April 8, of ’09]

****PART A ****

I finished the three semester programming course at Columbia University and was recommended by my teacher for a job in Princeton, New Jersey.  I was living on the lower east side at the time.  But you know how it is with that first job.  You pretty much take whatever you can get.

My interview with Mark went something like this.  He was at the Princeton trainstop to meet me in a used BMW.  Mark was stocky, with darting eyes, a close-cropped beard to hide the double-chin, and did I say darting eyes.  When I say darting eyes, I mean – they didn’t stay still for a minute.  There was a combination of dark weird stuff in them, and a hard sort of humor.  First thing he did was take me to a local Princeton restaurant where he raved about the whitefish salad.  I don’t like whitefish salad.  He spread it on a bagel and wolfed it down in such a way that I don’t believe he tasted any of it.  He would turn out to be a wolf and a predator.  A cunning,  unfeeling man – much like the robots he had designed while at NASA.  Mr. logic.  And at the same time there was a craftiness in him.

He drove me to Marklin which was on the outskirts of Princeton in what had once been some kind of factory.  (Oh, the name: Mark & Linda were the married couple that ran Marklin).  I had never been in a BMW before and he drove like the nut that he was, and scared me pretty good by the time we arrived.  Or maybe I scare easy.  He extolled the virtues of feeling the road and all that crap.

Whatever.  I remember that he still had whitefish salad on what there was of his beard.

THE MARKLIN FACTORY

When you walked in, it was a big cold creepy place filled with the old-style green cathode terminals; and a bunch of housewives (mostly) doing keypuch in front of them.  Maybe 20 terminals.  He walked in without saying a word to anyone, but muttering about some problem he was having with the network.  And I followed him into his office which was separated from the rest of the factory by a glass wall with a door in it.  This was his office.

I noticed that the all the bookshelves, and they ran from floor to ceiling, were crammed with floppy disks of all sizes.  He sat down behind his desk in a swivel chair, put his feet up on the desk – and with those deadly darting eyes – began peppering me with technical questions.

Had I ever used Unix?  Did I know what the asci code was for something.  If I were going to write a program in “C” how would I… Frankly, I don’t remember what he asked me.  I was nervous as I usually am during interviews since I wanted the job; and incidently – one of the great lessons I learned is that it’s only when you don’t want the job that you really do your best during the interview.

Eventually, I showed him some programs I wrote – mostly in assembly code – which dealt with possible interfaces for make-believe programs.  I was interested in that sort of thing which later would become the graphical user interface, but this was before graphics.  I had written dropdown menus and most of what you see now in a menu system, but it was all done in assembly code.  Not a note from his face to show approval or disapproval.  Only more questions.  But you can only ask questions so long before you must get to the meat of it, and he offered me the job, told me what it paid, and a little bit about what they did in this factory on the outskirts of Princeton.

Now I want to cut – so to speak – to the interesting stuff.  And that is most certainly not Mark, but the character that I met the following day: Derick.

I really don’t even feel like describing him, other than that he was from Belgium, had taught chemistry at various colleges, and would eventually become a great friend.  He too had been recommended to Mark from the Columbia Program and Derick and I would work as a team for several months.  I was responsible for the front end (how the program looked) and he did the backend database stuff.  No doubt that Derick was a brilliant guy – but more than that – he became a sort of Zen Guru for me.  Not that he practiced Zen, but he had a Zen way about him.  I never saw him flustered by any of the hardships we went through together except this one time – and that’s what all this is leading up to as a way of describing Mark and Derick.

Derick and I had been working there for about three months.  And Mark was a slave driver.  Every morning, he would arrive at 9:00 on the dot, and before going into his office he would stop by where Derick and I sat – back to back at our terminals – and without a good morning, or anything remotely civil – Mark would say:

– Is it done yet?

This was like the dentist in Marathon Man asking – Is it safe?

No matter how hard we worked, we were always behind because we were simply assigned more than could be done by two people in the allotted time.  And we worked like dogs.  This was, as I say the first professional programming job for both of us – we were way passed the normal age for starting a programming career – and we wanted to make good.  But it just wasn’t possible to please Mark.

The pressure was definitely getting to me.  I was thinking seriously about quitting.  And I was unhappy being away from New York.  When I would tell this to Derick, he would let me know that all this fretting on my part was not necessary.  That he, Derick, would never let anyone like Mark get on his nerves.  In fact, one day, Derick tells me that the next time that Mark asks, if it’s done yet, he (Derick) is going to examine his nails.  That’s what he’s going to do.  Instead of paying any attention to Mark, he’s going to look at his nails, one by one and maybe, when he’s through looking at them – he’ll let Mark know that the bit of the program he was waiting for wasn’t finished yet.  He warns me not to jump into that awkward silence with any answers.

And so, the following morning, Mark approaches with the usual sadistic grin, and asks, Is it done yet?  And as planned, Derick stares down at his nails and begins to look at each cuticle.  One by one without answering the boss.  This goes on for what seems like hours, and I’m watching steam forming in Mark’s cranium; and his face, for the first time goes from pink to red.  I have to bite my tongue to keep from speaking.

Finally – Derick finishes looking at all possible digits and turns back to his computer without a word.  I watch Mark turn on his heel, and huff and puff back to his office and if he could only have slammed the door he would have, but it was a glass sliding door.  Derick turns to me with a grin.  You see, he says.  That is how you handle a bully.

But it’s not going to change anything, I say.  It’ll go on like this.

And Derick:  Maybe.  But when we’re done, we’ll let him know.  And not before.  And then we go on to talking technical stuff.

Mark steers clear of us for a few days.  But eventually, returns and instead of looking at Derick – looks directly at me:  Is it done yet?

Derick: Dave’s part is finished.  But I’ll need another few days to finish the backend.

Mark: Another few days?  I can’t wait that long.

And so Derick stares at his fingers again.  And holds his hand up a bit towards his face to study the fingertips.

Mark: I want to see the two of you in my office, now.

And we look at each other, and follow Mark into his office.  He closes the door behind us and sits at his desk glowering.

Before he can sputter out a word, Derick begins: We know that you need this and we’re working as fast as we can.  But it doesn’t do any good to keep badgering us every morning.

Mark: Badgering you!  I’m not badgering you!  I want to know when this will be finished.  I want to know what’s taking so long.  Here I have two guys working on this one bit of program and I could’ve done it myself in one day!  Less than a day!  And you’ve been at it for a week!

Derick: I doubt very much whether you could’ve done it in one day. (And now he starts looking at his nails again and when Mark isn’t looking – winks at me).

Me: You know – we’re working something like twelve hours a day for the last few weeks.

Mark: I don’t care how long you’ve been working.  I can’t help it if you’re both slow.

Me: I really don’t think we’re slow.  It’s a complex —

Mark: Of course it’s complex.  I know it’s complex.  But I need to —

And now Derick seems to come out of the long trance he’s been in.  Mark, he begins, Dave and I have been working more than 12 hours a day.  No days off.  For at least a month now.  We don’t get paid overtime.  But we’ve both given up a lot to work on this and get it done.  Don’t you ever wonder why you haven’t been able to keep programmers here for more than a couple of weeks?  You just can’t drive people like this.  What are you trying to do – give us heart attacks?  Is that what you want.

Mark: (and now there’s a gleam in his darting eyes) You think you’re gonna have a heart attack?  Well just don’t have it here!

That arrow went right through Derick.  He sits there – stunned – and then gets to his feet and walks out of the office leaving the door open.  I turn around and watch him walk to his computer, pick up his stuff, and simply walk out the front door.

Mark yells after him, Where do you think you’re going!  Get back here!  I’m not finished.

I suppose I must have gotten up at some point and left his office, but I don’t remember that part.

I stayed at my station, doing what I could.  Mark eventually got up and left, and people came over in a big bunch asking what had happened.

When I got home that night – I called Derick – but there was no answer.

The next day, he simply didn’t show up for work.  No call.  No nothing.

After two days of calling, I decided to go by his apartment…. (to be continued)

****PART B ****

Derick lived in what I called a square-C complex.  Three sides of two stories houses, all exactly the same as far as I could tell, looking out on the parking lot, and beyond that an access road to the bigger road which lead to the highway.  There’s no reason, as far as the story goes to tell you what kind of apartment complex he lived in, other than later on it will play a minor role in the story of another character.

As in cliff-hanger style, we last left our hero having walked out on the boss, Mark of Marklin Software, after being told by his boss that it was just fine with him (the boss) if Derick had a heart attack – so long as he didnt have it on the Marklin Software premises.  And then no appearance of Derick for three days.  Derick lived in one of those sterile little houses on the first floor and I approached his door and knocked.

No response.

Knock louder.  Put ear to the door.  Sound of running water.  The door is locked, and I have no idea where the super (if that’s what they’re called out there in the suburbs) is – but I knock loud enough and eventually his upstairs neighbor comes down.  She has the key and we let ourselves in.  The living room looks nice and tidy, and the bathroom door is ajar.  I open it to find Derick, wearing a sort of eastern sarong thing – sort of sparkly – in the bath – surrounded by empty bottles of whisky, and enveloped in a cloud of pot.

He’s staring at the ceiling when I come in with the neighbor – and eventually – turns slowly – a sort of Jack Benny slow take – and pulls his right hand from the water and stares at his fingers.

Me: Are you alright?

Derick: Just fine.  But I’m never going back to that crazy slave driver again.

He didn’t seem drunk or stoned, just calm and at peace.  So I said, “but what about that whole thing of not letting these things bother you.”

Derick: As you can see, Dave.  They don’t bother me.  Not now.  But there does come a time when enough is enough and that man has driven me to it.

Me: But what are you going to do?  Are you quitting the job?  Are you leaving me alone with this lunatic?

Derick: Everyone has to make their own choices.

I got to know Derick even better when we both quit and came back to New York; both finding places relatively near each other on the upper east side.  He found a job at a prestigious database developer (yes, you’d know it if I named it but I don’t think he’d like me to); and I ended up at another programming job for Ann Klein in Monachie, New Jersey.

We had what I call the old man ritual of going for walks every Saturday morning to discuss where we were going – and how to get there.  At that time he wanted to climb the American Corporate ladder – and for a while – he did okay with it – getting more and more responsibility.  The same for me – though I was already trying to figure a way back into photography.

Whenever I would bring up the Mark / Bathtub incident – to show that he was only human and could only take so much – he assured me that I had got it wrong and that he hadn’t had any kind of a breakdown.  To this day – that is still his take on it.

According to Derick – when Mark said that he didn’t care if he had a heart attack so long as it wasn’t on the premises, he went into some sort of Zen state (helped no doubt by bottles of liquor and reefer) and was able to quickly put the affront aside.

My own take on it – was that he was driven to the breaking point because he refused to admit how angry he was.  You know how they say, it’s always the quiet ones.  Not that he was a quiet one – but by refusing to confront an emotionally-charged onslaught directly – it nearly drove him mad.

I’m not like that.  I grew up in a household where if you didn’t defend yourself – and do it quickly while you were still hot – it would just fester.

Although by nature – I’m quiet and maybe timid – I overcame that when attacked.  And I had to.

(to be continued…)

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Dave

My name is Dave Beckerman. I am a photographer and programmer working in New York City.

2 thoughts on “Princeton – Part I”

  1. When will you be writing your autobiography? I think you would be amazing at writing books, non-fictional and semi non-fictional alike.

    And just so you know, when you’re complaining about how hard your life is and going on about the grass is always greener on the other side bit, just think that maybe what people envy isn’t necessarily your lifestyle but the fact that you know who you are for the most part and you haven’t been afraid to get out there and try for what you wanted.

    People envy those who go for what they want, even if they don’t always succeed the way they had expected to. At least a full out attempt was made. Sometimes the hardest part in life is in knowing what you want but not having the confidence to just go for it.

  2. I’ve been writing my “autobiography” on the side for a few months now. I’ve just been posting bits of it in the blog to see what they read like, or if I have nothing better to post. One day, they’ll all be put together into a book.

    And I agree with you – about where the envy comes from. At least partially. I try to explain that I’m as fearful as anyone else – I just happen to be equally driven to do what I want.

    I think the grass will be greener on my side of the lawn in a few months 🙂 I go up and down with this struggle.

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