Silicon Follies

Chapter 16: Looking for a gal who's quick with a vaporizer

By Thomas Scoville

Published May 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Lunch time at TeraMemory headquarters, and a swarm of harried hirelings gathered for a compressed lunch hour. Twenty minutes was the standard allowance for dining-related non-productivity, though some might take longer if they brought along a laptop or multiplexed a project meeting at one of the larger, expensively Swedish-looking tables in the cafeteria.

Paul sat down at a table with some other guys from the lab. Collectively, their trays suggested a United Nations summit meeting. Each engineer had chosen a different entree from some far-flung corner of the globe, thanks to the hyper-aggressive diversity of the TeraMemory corporate kitchen.

A number of short-order stations offered a dizzying variety of exotic foods. There was a Chinese section, woks aflame, serving chow fun and dim sum. There was a Japanese counter with teriyaki and sushi. There was food from Latin America -- tacos, empanadas and overstuffed, football-sized burritos. The Indian subcontinent landed some punches with a selection of curries, naan and vindaloos. An American-style grill served burgers and fries mostly to the sales force, who tended toward the straight and narrow; they were used to dining on the road while making sales calls in Denver and Peoria. Engineer fare, in all its wild ethnic gyration, tended to induce a sort of gustatory vertigo in the suit-wearing road warriors.

Yet there was something joyless about this luncheon extravaganza. It was not staged for the enjoyment of Tera's employees, exactly. There was an unmistakable whiff of corporate conniving, a not-so-subtle ruse to keep engineering talent on site: Iron Chef meets Human Resources. The surrounding environs -- Mountain View and Palo Alto especially -- were also rich with dining options in every imaginable regional variation. Ordinary cafeteria fare couldn't compete. In the interest of luring engineers to TeraMemory -- and keeping them within walking distance of their cubicles -- a sort of culinary arms race had developed.

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Paul munched on a pot sticker and sparred with his fellow engineers. For once, their lunchroom conversation wasn't technical, nor did it revolve around the Web, newsgroups or get-rich-quick e-commerce schemes. Roger -- a release engineer who worked in the cubicle next to Paul -- had made himself the focus of interest by unwisely mentioning he had recently been out on a date.

Among the predominantly heterosexual male practitioners of software engineering, dating was followed with keen interest and curiosity. It was a mostly hypothetical activity for the technical lions of Silicon Valley, like being hit by a meteorite or taking a vacation. Unlike the cafeteria, the dating scene was not a cornucopia.

It certainly wasn't going well for Roger. The others pressed him for details in that casual, covertly urgent way that fishermen talk about bait.

"I took her to Gordon Biersch," Roger recounted dryly, contemplating a stray sprig of cilantro. "There was a salsa band. She wanted to dance."

The others laughed as they might at a comical misfortune. Nipaul, the optimization specialist from Delhi, couldn't resist a jab. "Don't tell me you actually cut a rug on the first date?"

Embarrassed, Roger began to clam up. Mitch, the C++ programmer from MIT, tried to sustain the inquisition's momentum with a more discreet approach: "Where did you meet her? How did you get her number?"

Another shot from Nipaul: "Yeah ... I can't imagine you actually calling somebody up."

Mitch kicked him under the table.

"Well ... I didn't," Roger confessed. "I'd been admiring her from afar for months ... she's the receptionist at my dentist's. When she called to remind me about my last appointment, well ... You know how hard it is to meet somebody outside your vertical, so I just winged it and asked her out on the phone. Figured I could just change dentists if she turned me down. Surprised the hell out of me when she said yes."

"Oh, you're so smooth," Nipaul mocked. "You waited for her to call you. You're a complete failure as a pick-up artist, you know."

"Yeah, well, it didn't really work out so well. She was into rolfing and macrobiotic food and past lives and other random stuff like that. I could tell that was going to be a problem. But when I ordered carpaccio, she looked at me like I'd killed somebody.

"It was all over by the third course. I told her she should loosen up, but it had quite the opposite effect."

Roger wanted to wrap up his unfortunate exposition, and looked for a way out of the spotlight. He directed it towards Peter, the sys admin from Austin. "So, Petey, when was the last time you had a date?"

"Last year, I think. Gal from 24-hour Nautilus. She was divorced but her ex kept stalking her. Once he appeared out of nowhere and sat down with us at the movies. It was like Friday the 13th. I couldn't handle it, so I bailed."

Richard the database consultant was the next to speak up. "Oh, man, meeting women is such a hassle." He began a litany of grievances, counting them off on his fingers. "No. 1, they're impossible to meet. No. 2, even when the laws of probability are temporarily suspended and you do get somebody's number, finding the time is impossible. Three, if you actually get something going with somebody, your life becomes way more complicated. It takes way too many cycles away from your vertical; you can't even think about pulling an all-nighter on a deadline. And four, women make you completely nuts. Completely non-linear. Small stuff just sets 'em off, like forgetting Valentine's Day. Totally non-deterministic. Nipaul, how about if your family adopts me? Arranged marriage is looking better and better."

Nipaul shot back. "Oh, I think you would look sexy in a sari ..."

When the laughter tailed off, Mitch offered his variation of the lament. "I have no idea how I'd go about finding a date. I mean, even if I could meet a woman in a bar, I couldn't find the time to pursue it, either. I was in the stocks past nine most days last week. And rocket scientist here" -- he poked at Paul -- "has been pulling weekend cubicle duty, I hear."

Paul covered his eyes in a gesture of shame. "Yeah, it's true. All for the greater glory of TeraMemory." He wasn't about to jump into this conversation. His last date had been in the Pleistocene.

"So that leaves work," Mitch continued. "And I don't know about you, but I haven't noticed any women in our group. And I would notice. And I'm not going to resort to those personals ads in the San Jose Metro," he shuddered. "Way too creepy. 'SWF Stanford grad triathlete seeks SWM with lower body fat than hers. Must drive Range Rover ...'"

"So, what are you looking for in a woman?" Richard asked Mitch, a noodle dangling from the corner of his mouth.

"Well ... cute, 25 years old, not too needy, no baggage, has a career of her own ..."

"... nice enclosure, boots quickly, no performance bottlenecks, no 'issues' that can't be resolved by power-cycling the unit," Nipaul interjected.

Randall, the long-haired, introverted Perl hacker who was always a step behind any non-technical conversation, perked up. "Oh, I get it ... You're describing your workstation, dude ... or that cyber-chick heroine in 'Tomb Raider.'"

Mitch brightened, familiar with the improbably busty, computer-generated star of the popular and violent adventure game. "Hey, you're right: Loves adventure, does gymnastic back-flips at the first sign of trouble, quick on the draw with a vaporizer ... yep, she's the one for me."

They all laughed in a hearty way that suggested more distance from the topic than there actually was. Loneliness did that to you.

But unlike Mitch's choice, Paul's idea of the perfect partner had, of late, been poignantly closer to the attainable. He had resolved to find a way to spend some non-work-related time with Liz Toulouse. While he was still young.

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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