Ten minutes after 1 p.m., and the lunch rush showed no sign of slowing down. A line of young male engineers snaked out the door. Tung Kee Noodle House was in full swing -- white-shirted waiters lifting trays of steaming bowls, chow mein and glasses of sunset- and radium-colored tapioca noodle drinks.
The meals were good, but the efficiency was terrifying. Tung Kee was a model study in time and motion. The busboys never stopped moving; tables were bussed, wiped down and set up in seconds. Each dish had a number -- no name, no substitutions. Waiters beamed orders to the kitchen with hand-held wireless units. The food arrived quickly -- so quickly, in fact, that it sometimes arrived before your waiter had made his way back to the kitchen. Paul found this breach of dining cause-and-effect to be obscurely unnerving.
But you could get lunch for $3, which ensured that the place was constantly packed. At other times of the day you might see a wider sample of humanity: teenagers, older people, Asian and Latino families. But at lunch, the engineering-aged male ruled.
The waiter had wedged Paul and Steve into a window booth. It was cramped, but the entertainment was a consolation: The congested traffic struggled comically down Castro Street. Hostile, high-strung Silicon Valley hard-chargers leaned on their horns and jockeyed for position, a festival of low-speed road rage.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
In the next booth, a tech-support rep yelped into a cellular phone, guiding a customer through a router configuration. Steve gave him a sidelong glance and rolled his eyes.
"Look at this guy. He's going to spend three bucks on lunch and 20 on the phone call. Pager, cell phone, palmtop -- he might as well be wearing a leash. And a shirt that says Property of The Man."
"Hey, I resemble that remark," Paul commented dryly, fresh from his own client's site. "It's just the nature of the beast, isn't it?"
"Naw, just the latest iteration of Decline and Fall."
"Oh, you going on with that cyber-commie shuck-and-jive again? I can never quite figure out what you're talking about."
"OK, I'll give it to you one more time," Steve volunteered. "Look, the soul of this place was forged by hobbyists -- the home-brew folks, the guys with the Altair kits, all the people writing freeware just for the joy of watching the bits jump around. Most of those guys were real weirdos. Nobody had any idea what they were up to. They were in their own little world, doing it all on their own time, with their own money.
"But they didn't care what people thought about them, or how they looked. We're talking real misfits: fat, pasty, wearing the same jeans and T-shirt every day, no shoes, bad personal hygiene, the full deal.
"Now this place is run by The Man and his money. But he likes to tell his slaves a little fairy tale about how they're just like those old hackers who started things off -- so they get to wear the jeans and the T-shirts and the Birkenstocks. But it's just a pose. They're all wearing suits and ties on the inside. The rest is just jive.
"The whole scene was just stolen outright by business and venture capital. They'll tell you a different story -- they'll say that innovation is rewarded, and the cream rises to the top, but that's bullshit. Greed floats. Treachery gets rewarded. Steal your act from PARC and you're a genius just because they were too lazy to go after you and take it back. Hell, if innovation was really rewarded, Ted Nelson would be as rich as Seattle Bill. Last I heard he was shilling at some Japanese consumer electronics trade show. Is that pathetic or what? The large and the nasty reap the rewards. True hackers are nearly extinct -- hunted down and run off the landscape by cyber-capitalists.
"But that's cool. The Man is going to get his, 'cause he already killed off the golden goose. It's only a matter of time before he runs out of Big New Ideas, because he's murdered the soul of the place. When the money dries up, this place will be just like anywhere else. It was never the place, anyway -- it was a unique approach to problem-solving. These days, the whole scene is growing less unique by the nanosecond."
"Right on, comrade," Paul said sarcastically between slurps. He wasn't going to give up any ground to his childhood friend.
But he had to admit, as he picked through his large No. 11 with plastic chopsticks, that life in the valley wasn't nearly as much fun as it used to be.