Chapter 1: The Nonsense Virus

The subway ride downtown is as much of a circus as usual. This morning’s entertainment involves a slightly nasty competition between a busker who is singing Motown classics for tips and a gospel singer whose soulful performance is an unpaid advertisement for her church in Astoria. Fortunately, the hostilities are limited to looks and not deeds so I easily remain detached.

The jostle caused by the train leaving City Hall station allows me to read a headline over a nearby shoulder: US adds $3 trillion to economy, year to date. I think, “One entire Canada and one quarter to go”. Unbelievable. The companion story laments traffic congestion in the Tri-state area.

Our train screeches into Fulton St. station and I exit along with half of the commuters in my car. The rest will get out at Wall Street, the next stop. At the exit turnstiles, the passengers from my overcrowded train mix with passengers from 10 others, the locals maneuvering for minor positional advantages in order to exit as fast as possible. I lose this round of turnstile arbitrage to a large woman and her wide-eyed child, which is just as well because the child looks like he is about to die from fright.

Once out of the subway I figure I’ll easily see the World Trade Center. I can’t. All that I see is a cluster of grungy, though ornate, retail buildings on Dey Street. I catch a headline from CNN news, on a television in a bar window: record volumes result in record highs on both NASDAQ and NYSE. I follow a swollen stream of people west across Broadway, and then the Twin Towers swing into view. They are huge, more so in contrast with the small, beat-up walk-ups around me. The crowd pushes me westward past Century 21 and across Church St. I flow through the WTC plaza, the book store Borders is on my right and a silver and sculpture of a meteorite on my left. I enter the North Tower through an anonymous, though impressively arched alcove. I take the escalator down into the shopping concourse where security is located. The concourse is a clone of every rich mall in America, with striking exceptions. In the heart of the main promenade there is a bank of escalators to the Port Authority trains up which cascades an endless, well-dressed stream of commuters from New Jersey. More people than I’ve ever seen before, and they keep coming.

The lineup at security is long. As I wait, I watch the goings-on in a shoe store right beside me. Although the store is microscopic – perhaps 5 metres wide – the sales-people are wearing head-mounted microphones: two people standing side by side with outstretched arms can touch facing wall. There is no apparent business reason for the headsets, so I imagine that they have a vanity purpose, perhaps a direct connection with the store’s owner, who wants to pretend she’s managing while drinking pina coladas on a beach.

Security is the tightest I’ve experienced outside of Germany, and just as efficient. Before I know it I’ve got a temporary photo id and am on an express interior elevator to the 38th floor. There is no reception. Of course. Information Technology has few admins. My photo-id doesn’t work on the scanners near the frosted doors so I sneak into the offices behind some soon-to-be co-workers.

I’m intercepted by Debbie from Human Resources, who is primly, yet sexily dressed in a pin-striped blue blazer, skirt and white stockings. We’re both exactly on time.

She’s too efficient to introduce herself when its obvious who we each are. She curtly says, “Now that you’ve passed your drug test…”

“I studied hard.”

“… all you have to do is sign some papers. Here’s your contract.” She manages to be both brusque and desultory when she adds, “Welcome to the team”. Up until this moment I thought I’d just scored by landing this job, but her manner makes me feel like a loser, which I guess on one level I am because I’m a software developer not a banker. Nevertheless, I move to shake her hand, which I understand is appropriate when being welcomed to a team. She puts a letter into my proffered hand, on which I can see my three sentence contract.

The contract is typewritten which disturbs me given my career goal of working with cutting edge technology. I scan Debbie quickly looking for evidence of contemporary technology. I notice the tip of a cellphone peaking up out of the rim of her breast pocket, and, to my surprise a pager nestled beside it. It had never occurred to me that a mid-level HR employee would need a pager. Is there ever that kind of urgency to hire … or fire, I wonder? The sinister thought lingers while I read what I’m about to sign.

Brothers International Enterprises (BIE) agrees to hire Patrick Coffey for $115,000 per year (US dollars); BIE may supplement Mr. Coffey’s salary with a bonus. For 1999, this bonus is guaranteed to be at least $25,000. Either party to this agreement can terminate it at any time, with no cause.

The last line makes me think of Debbie’s pager.

I pretend to read the dozens of pages of Compliance documents that are attached to the contract. I know what they say, “BIE owns everything that I do. If I fuck up they’ll fire me and don’t talk about business with anyone outside the firm.” I sign the last page with a flippant wave of my hand. With that, we’re done. Debbie snatches the signed docs and flees south. I set out to find the so-called ‘fishbowl’, where I’ve been told my new office is located.

I follow the smell of stale farts and acidic coffee to a beverage station where I figure I can get both a coffee and directions. The lighting makes most people look sickly though those with fair hair and skin do look striking. It makes sense given that this is their habitat. I impatiently wait in line as an overweight blond-haired man wearing grey pinstripe pants held up with red braces fills a one litre Dunkin’ Donuts coffee mug with French Roast coffee made on the espresso setting.  [My powers of detection identify him as one of the contributors to the office’s methane problem.]

As I prepare my own mug of strong coffee, I ask litre-of-espresso-man for directions to the fishbowl. He smiles knowingly (let-us-say-a-prayer for those less fortunate than us) then points north. I know its north because I can see Tribeca through distant windows.

Although the grey, black and white décor is forgettable, the view outside the 15 foot high windows is terrific, though depressing. Metro News is right: today traffic congestion is general in the tri-state area. As I approach the northern windows I can see cars flow ever so slowly along highway 278 in Brooklyn and a mirror image of the BQE traffic jam on the FDR. The Brooklyn Bridge, joining the two highways, looks like a still-life. On the west side I see cars crawling north along the Hudson in a slow-down that probably stretches to the Tappan Zee Bridge. In the far west I imagine that I can see the Meadowlands through a fog of roads, smog and airplanes.

The fishbowl is a square glass-enclosed room on the first isle beside the north windows. Its an after thought architecturally – it has no structure behind its temporary walls. It is enclosed for security reasons: inside there are direct telecommunications connections to a dozen different exchanges on four continents, as well as a high-bandwidth pipe to our trading floor on the 37th floor. [The security concern is more that someone will trip and unplug a key computer in the middle of a batch, than hack something with a stolen password.]

I enter noticed but not commented on. 

“What’s going on?” The question comes from Ashulm,  my new boss, who I have inadvertently pushed behind a stack of servers as I entered. In the half-shadows he looks like a stick drawing of a mean man: he has a spiky military haircut, horned-rimmed eyebrows and is wearing an expensive 30’s style suit that hangs poorly on his angular frame. His shoulders are elevated almost to the level of his chin, and rise and fall as he speaks.

The angles slide from Ashulm’s frame to the man beside him, Janus, whom I recognize from the second interview. Janus is shaped like a linebacker, so he is built of right angles, in contrast to those of Ashulm’s which are acute. Janus is also dressed in Brook’s Brothers retro, though he makes a better Gatsby than Ashulm. (Ashulm makes me think of Warren Harding.)

The angles theme ends abruptly with Opia, whom I met in the first interview. Though dressed in the same blue pin-striped uniform as Debbie, she manages to look both sexier and more austere, and though her lines are more or less vertical compared with the men she is curvaceous. She is standing in front of a mainframe terminal, with her back to me. Beside her on a metal rack, within easy reach of her right hand, is a nest of branded accessories including a purse and silk scarf. She abruptly turns around to greet me, which stirs the air up enough that I can smell her perfume. Opium. We lightly shake hands; I vaguely bow. She responds by vaguely curtsying, and then turns back to her work.

“Patrick, what do you know about nonsense?”

My eyes are lingering on Opia which interrupts my concentration, you I miss Ashulm’s question. Achilles gently kicks me in the calf – more a nudge – which allows me to remember what he just asked. (aural cache)

But I don’t understand. I blink stupidly.

In my book, two consecutive stupid blinks is always excessive, particularly when discussing a problem with your new boss. This time I’m saved by Lance, from interviews one, two and three, who prompts me with a peace sign while lip-syncing the word “virus”. Lance is the most comfortable looking man I have ever met. He doesn’t give the impression of someone who is comfortable because he has found his habitat, so much as he is someone who could be comfortable almost anywhere because he knows how to make places his own. Which he has indeed done in the fishbowl, if the surround-sound speaker system quietly playing Dark Side of the Moon is any indication.

Virus!  I now understand what Ashulm is talking about. I say, “You mean the Nonsense Virus? I’ve heard about it. It scrambles data, but keeps the check-sums intact so no value is ever added or subtracted to a message or packet. Because of this its damage often is invisible to integrity checks. Its like a newspaper with a bad editor.”

“Hah argghh bah”, Ashulm replies, which I think signals agreement.

[I had no idea expletives could be so dyspeptic.]

sI ask, “How many trades could be affected and how many do you think actually were?”

The question centers Ashulm. He says, “1 million and less than 1 percent.”

Ashulm’s voice is less carnivorous now that we have defined our problem. He continues, “Those damaged trades are your needles, but check the entire haystack, every trade, not one faulty trade can go out.” We all know why. Finance may be a shell game but reputation matters.

Ashulm straightens up and says, “Task time. Achilles, restore Fixed Income from last night’s backup so we can do regression tests. Patrick you help him. ” I turn to face Achilles. We haven’t been introduced this morning because I already (sort of) know him. He marshaled me through the hiring process and his support got me here. He is my ally. We’re both dressed like we’re about to go clubbing in Soho – with narrow modish wool dress pants, pin striped shirts, styled black jackets and identical Kenneth Cole shoes.

[Comic book logic tells me one of us must be the evil twin]

I pull up a seat along the metal workbench where Achilles is assembling a server. The counter is strewn with parts, tools and screws. He’s taken off his jacket, which reveals a tailored shirt and cuff-links studded with tiny diamonds. It seems a bit much for IT, but I realize he’s dressing for our clients, the investment bankers.

As I take my seat Opia crosses between Ashulm – who is exiting – and me. Strangely, her shadow seems to illuminate Ashulm rather than casting him further into darkness. I notice his red eyes, and the band of gray, mottled skin which encircles them. He’s not going home to sleep, though he needs it. He affectionately pats Opia on the back and opens the door. I notice that the tension in his neck and upper back has raised his shoulders up to his ears. He hrrmphs and then – as if he has just come to a decision – stops and turns to face us, the left side of his face in the shadow of the door, the right illuminated by blue light.

“Gang, this is not a trivial problem. Nonsense – and all viruses – are an existential threat to order; they’re anarchy and they’ve got to stop.” Without another word he strides away. What strikes me about his exit is that he ended on a point of philosophy. If I’d given the pep talk I would have never have turned this into a Manichaean battle between order and anarchy. I’d have focused on team spirit.

Opia says the moment Ashulm leaves, “I agree. This is just like Star Wars. There’s no middle ground.”

Achilles – the person in charge of everyone in the fishbowl now that Ashulm has left – smiles and says, “Exactly.”

34 hours later, blank eyed and barely able to move I slog along Dey St. to the Fulton St. subway station. Just west of Broadway I pass by a car that has fallen halfway into a hole in the pavement, out of which is hissing a cloud of steam. A couple of city workers are hanging around the orange pylons surrounding the scene, pointing at it and laughing. What else is there to do? The hole has been punched into what is probably the gnarliest piece of transit in this city of fucked up infrastructure: it goes down past the ACE, NR, JMZ, 2/3 and 4/5 subway lines, doubtless intersecting with one or two levels of hell on the way. I think, Someone else’s infrastructure problem. I still have enough energy to smile, but hesitate to stop and look in case I’m too tired to start walking again.

I stumble upon a rat who has miscalibrated his scurry path and rebounded from my shoe into the hole I just passed. I’m surprised to realize that I’m more curious about where the rat just scurried to than revolted that it just bumped in to my foot. The workers are looking the other way so I walk through the security pylons and peer into the hole, looking for the rat. At first I don’t see it, then I spot a dozen proxies or more, depending on whether the clusters of white lights I see everywhere are eyes or reflections of eyes against metal, peeking out through a mesh of structures down to where I know there is bedrock. A city of rats built on granite.

All the dingy shops at the subway entrance are closed and Fulton St. station is deserted except for a homeless woman who is fastidiously applying makeup, and a twitchy black man with gray, curly hair who I assume is her boyfriend. My metro-card is empty, there is no attendant and the card machines are broken. I just don’t have the energy for this. Fuck fuck fuck. Twitchy man approaches. “I’ll sell ya ride.”

“How much?”


$1.50 for one ride. Exactly what it would cost me to buy a token. I give him $2.00 and let him keep the change he claims not to have. He scans me in.

Fair trade.

The subway ride is mercifully, though terrifying fast. I exit through the main hall at Grand Central and take my glorious end-of-day walk home down Lexington, past the Chrysler building on my left and the Chanin building on my right. Lex turns residential at 41st St. Two blocks of brownstones later I’m home.

Crazy Dewey is sitting on the stoop eating an ice cream crêpe that my roommate Earl has doubtless just given to him. He is tapping out a complex beat, as usual. “Hey Dewey”, I say. “Hey” he replies. I wonder if he even recognizes me. I nod as I walk up the stairs and open the door. The main entrance way is full of marijuana smoke. Earl-Jay and Gina are in good spirits, methodically preparing a tremendous meal of grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches with made-from-scratch ice cream crêpes for desert. The cooks are huddled around the stove with their backs to me.
I hear muffled sounds from Troy’s room – he’s probably fucking his boyfriend Angel. I discretely enter the kitchen, open my nightcap beer and exit through the living room to my bedroom with the sound of “Want some bacon?” trailing behind me.

“Naw. I’m beat. ‘Night.”

I don’t turn on the light. Still mostly clothed, I do a face plant onto my bed. My shoes fall off my feet onto the floor. I close my eyes. They pop open. I desperately try to catch some sleep. Even though my mind is moving at a million miles an hour I don’t succeed until moments before dawn.

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