Chapter 4: The claw and the classifieds

Silicon Follies: By Thomas Scoville. Chapter 4: The claw and the classifieds

Published March 25, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Liz sat with her knees tucked up under her chin. Laurel brooded over her mocha, lanks of hair exaggerating her blue eyes' dejected set. The sun eased into the foothills, energizing a riot of clouds with pink light.

"If only I'd had any idea," Liz lamented, "I'd have stayed in school. I'd have changed majors. Gotten a master's. Anything."

A brand new Porsche convertible, too young to have its own license plates, rounded the corner at Printers Inc. It oozed lewdly down the street fronting the bookstore's outdoor cafi. The improbably self-satisfied young Turk at the wheel twisted slightly and angled his smirk at the women as he drove by.

"Oh, I'm in love," said Laurel with a sarcastic curl of her lip. Then her face dissolved into pleading: "I wish it was two years ago, and it was exam time, and that I hadn't studied for anything, and we were sitting in the sun by the claw."

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"The claw" was the nickname of an unfortunately styled fountain in the quadrangle by Stanford's main bookstore. Aesthetically it was hideous, but it served a number of critically important functions in Stanford University life.

It was a great source of school unity. No matter what other academic debates divided the student body, everyone could agree the claw was hideous. This status as a sculptural misdemeanor made it the default point of reference; its nickname was instantly recognizable, because it was so apropos. Tell someone to "meet me at the claw," and they'd understand, even with the frosh orientation still fresh in their ears.

Most importantly, it was the first and most accessible opportunity to express a mild and benign disrespect for the parent institution, so essential to student morale at any expensive, elite liberal arts university.

So the claw was all of these: landmark, catalyst for idle student rebelliousness and backstop for aesthetic critique. What more could the sculptor have hoped for?

Liz Toulouse and Laurel Waites had benignly disrespected with the best of them. First-year roommates at Stanford, they had shared their living situation through most of their undergraduate tenure -- sometimes along with others, sometimes just the two of them, as they lived now, huddled for warmth.

Graduation had emboldened them with hope and high prospects, but that euphoria had been short-lived. Two years later, both women felt like they had no place in the world. Or Silicon Valley, anyway.

Liz, who had majored in English literature, and Laurel, with her degree in art history, had been roundly rebuffed by the job market of the early '90s. There wasn't much demand for editors and art historians, not even with freshly minted Stanford degrees. The interviews were discouragingly competitive, the rejections relentless.

Regular expeditions to Stanford's Office of Career Planning and Placement confirmed what they were already beginning to fear: Their most promising options were as second-string investment banking recruits or over-educated marketing droids for high-tech firms.

They had held out, contemplating the inevitable while supporting themselves as typists and waitresses and teachers of English to Japanese technology executives.

Throughout all of this they endured the spectacle of cocky young engineers tooling around town in expensive, late-model roadsters. They were the darlings of the job market, these socially deficient, overwhelmingly male, tech-savvy careerists, who had graduated from college unable to distinguish McDonald's from Modigliani, DOS from Dostoyevski. Yet they were coveted and prized like champion Airedales.

Liz, being the more ambitious and tightly wound of the two, found this particularly egregious. It was not her nature to sit patiently gnawing a crust of stale bread while hordes of undeserving technocrats feasted at the richest vocational banquet of the century.

But the world of technology repelled her. To Liz it was a colorless place where throngs of badly dressed men with unfortunate haircuts talked for hours in frantic, desperate tones about absolutely nothing important, a blizzard of acronyms and jargon in a vacuum of time-delayed adolescence. Liz had successfully negotiated a working partnership with her own computer, but could see no point in making a career of it.

But then, there was the rent. No small consideration in the most cutthroat housing market since the California Gold Rush.

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"I'm actually thinking about it," Liz said. "I'm actually thinking about submitting a risumi to one of those ads in the Sunday Mercury."

"What ads?" Laurel weakly queried, knowing full well the horror on which Liz deliberated.

"One of those 'seeking dynamic individuals to be a part of our world-class team of marketing associates.' Places like Sun, Oracle, TeraMemory. Those engineers can't write to save their lives. They dance a jig if it passes the spell-checker."

"Oh, honey, has it really come to that? Think about it first. You've got so much to live for."

They sat for a while longer, glumly staring into their saucers like a pair of dejected cats, while the sky lit up like a bonfire.

By Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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