Chapter 4

San Francisco : 2004


The air felt different down here.

“Welcome to the sixth floor,” said Marin’s new boss, Adam Breesman, Pac’s Head of Data and Information Analysis, or DatInf, as everyone at Pac called it. “One half of it, at least,” Adam said.

DatInf shared the sixth floor with the office of Dr. Clyde Wilde, a cosmetic dentist. When Marin had worked for Ray Marcos, whenever she and Ray had been in the elevator together and someone else got off or on at the sixth floor, Ray would either (if he thought the person was a Dr. Wilde patient) bare his teeth in the manner of a child being forced to smile for a photo or (if he thought the person was DatInf) frown in the manner of a child pouting.

Adam continued: “DatInf can be pretty different from other parts of Pac. We don’t do any lending, obviously, no project development, no country reviews. Some people might say that we’re just a bunch of data monkeys. But there’s actually some awesome opportunities for growth here.”

It wasn’t the air that was different, Marin realized. It was the light. Adam’s office had a large window, but, unlike the sunny perimeter offices on the tenth floor where she used to work, the sixth floor appeared to be just in the shadow of a neighboring building.

Someone was popping popcorn in the kitchenette down the hall. Marin could hear the hot whirring of the microwave and the staggered tapping of the puffing corn against the paper bag; the urine-like smell of laboratory-generated butter-flavor filled the air.

“So the databases should pretty much work the same as when you were an RS,” Adam said, “and I’m sure you came down once or twice for a data source file. You’ll get to know the data source files really, really well down here.”

DatInf maintained Pac’s comprehensive electronic database of statistics: they helped Pac’s research officers and project managers to input data from research and development projects in the field in Asia, review the data for reliability and validity, run complicated analyses on it, and otherwise prepare it for publication. DatInf also filed and stored print (for post-1995 projects) and microfiche (for pre-1995 projects) copies of original project results, records, and other source materials in metal filing cabinets arranged throughout the sixth floor in jaunty Tetris block formations. Marin knew that the files were organized by region, by country, and by name of principal researcher (as well as cross-coded on a number of indices in a master database), but there still had always seemed something disturbingly Big Brother about coming across a reference to an obscure 1996 Pac report about Sri Lankan rubber production, calling downstairs for the data source files, and having a manila folder filled with photocopies of the original handwritten ledgers and rubber plantation photos show up on her desk two days later.

“So do you want to get oriented at your workstation?” asked Adam.

“Yes,” said Marin.

“In DatInf we work in labs of four to six. You and your labmates are physically located in the same room and are responsible for cross-checking each other’s work, as well as covering for each other during absences and vacations.”

Adam’s phone started ringing, in extended treble warbles. “Excuse me just one sec,” he said. “I have to get this. It’s—well, it’s Vipool, the new RS for Southeast Asia. The new you.” Adam picked up the phone. “Hi Vipool. Did you click on the link that I sent you?” Adam listened. “Okay, yes. Yes, okay, I just misunderstood what you wanted before.” Adam scribbled something down on a small notepad on his desk. “Okay, sure. Yes, I’ve got it now. Thanks, Vipool.” Adam hung up and turned back to Marin. “He’s such a nice guy,” he said.

Marin’s lab was set up like a computer cluster at a library: six desks in two rows of three, pushed together back-to-back. Computers sat on five of the desks and a large laser printer sat on the sixth. Adam introduced Marin to the four data/information specialists in her lab: Robert Nguyen, a pudgy young Vietnamese man; Kendra Lahey, a pretty brunette in glasses who visibly winced when Adam asked them to “make Marin feel welcome;” Joon Park, a moon-faced woman who got up and adjusted the thermostat twice while Adam was talking; and Sergey Lennon, five feet and four-and-a-half inches of smirking Bolshevik good looks. Robert, Kendra, and Joon were on one side of the cluster, and Marin, Sergey, and the printer were on the other.

When Adam left, Robert schlepped on a huge pair of black padded headphones, glared into his computer monitor, and started typing.

“Adam’s on fire today,” said Joon.

“Maybe he found a Pac-logo-shaped Cheerio in his cereal again,” said Kendra.

Joon snickered quietly.

“That happened once,” said Sergey. “Give the guy a break.”

“The very fact that he is a single forty-year-old man who eats a kids’ cereal for breakfast is justification enough to mock him for the rest of his life,” said Joon.

“He brought the Cheerio in,” said Kendra, “like, to work.”

“It did look like the Pac logo,” said Sergey.

The printer made choppy printing noises, and Sergey rolled in his chair one desk over to the printer desk. With the back of his index finger, he flipped up the corner of the printed sheet that had just steamed into the small valley on top. He cleared his throat at a disproportionate volume to the amount of mucus that he had in it. He drummed his fingers on the laminate surface of the desk as more pages printed.

Marin logged into her personal webmail account. She had two unread emails: one from her father titled “product launch in SF in October” and one from her college friend Nazneen titled “what the hell??” She opened the one from her father first:

The printer quieted, and Sergey grabbed his printed pages with one claw, fully extended his paper-holding arm above his head, yawned, rolled back to his own desk, and violently dead-dropped the papers in a messy pile at the side of his computer keyboard.

Marin clicked out of her father’s email and opened Nazneen’s:

Without replying to either email, Marin logged out.

Marin’s phone rang. The small screen on her phone flashed “UNAVAILABLE ID.” She was uncertain if she should answer it, but she picked up and said, “Hello? DatInf, this is Marin.”

Ray Marcos roared with laughter on the other end of the line.

“Okay, I see how it’s going to be,” she said. The room had quieted, and Joon was looking at her suspiciously.

“Stick it out, learn what you can, and we’ll have you back on a normal floor again soon, I promise,” said Ray.

“I’ll do my best,” said Marin.

“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” said Ray. “I’ve got to run. Vipool, wait, I want to see those. Got to go. Bye, Marin.”

“Bye,” she said and hung up. She sensed three heads refocus on their computer screens, three sets of hands burst into a newly committed flurry of typing.

Was DatInf beneath her? Everyone seemed to think so, including, it seemed, her new coworkers in DatInf. However, the truth was that Marin had taken the job at Pac because it was in DatInf. She had no desire to be sucked back into Ray’s world, with its intricate loyalties and castes, perpetual rites of passage, unpredictable moments of benevolence, and all-consuming intensity.

There was a ripping sound at the door: Adam, tearing open a padded express courier envelope. He had another already-opened envelope tucked under his arm.

“So, okay, I have your first assignments here, Marin,” said Adam. “Hot off the presses from—” he looked at the address slips. “Bangladesh and... Chengdu, China.”

Adam peeked in the Chengdu envelope. “Hm, that’s interesting,” he said.

He pulled up the other envelope to the front. “So this one is a pretty straightforward survey of poverty indicators in rural Bangladesh,” said Adam. “Everything should be on these two CDs—so the data just needs to be imported into PDB, assimilated, and then elevated to analysis,” Adam handed the Bangladesh envelope to Marin. “But this one...” He pulled a stack of papers and a tattered spiral notebook from the other envelope. “This one was done old school for some reason. The data was recorded by hand. I think the project manager left some instructions, but looks like you’ll be entering everything in by hand. Both data sets should be cross-checked of course using the cross-check sheet—any of these guys can help with that. And it might be a good idea to have an additional person cross-check the Chengdu data set. If you have any questions just dial my extension, alright?” Adam rubbed his elbow. “Is everyone else cool?” he said to the broader population of the room. “If anyone has any questions, dial my extension, alright?” He left.

Marin pulled out the two CDs from the Bangladesh envelope. The project manager had handwritten directly onto the disks in black permanent marker: “Bangladesh Poverty 04 Disk #1” and “Bangladesh Poverty 04 Disk #2,” respectively. Marin opened the case of Disk #1, opened the CD-ROM drive of her computer, inserted the CD, pushed the drive back in, and waited while the computer made whooshing and puttering loading noises.

It had been three weeks since Marin’s dinner with Ben at Vaudeville, and she still had not heard from him. That night at dinner, he hadn’t told her too much, only that, as a first time buyer, it was important to buy pieces that complemented each other and formed the basis for a coherent collection. With her budget, she could buy a number of serious but smaller ticket works by some well-regarded contemporary artists at an early stage in their careers. Ben had said that he’d research upcoming market opportunities and get back to her with some ideas.

For the first day or two after Marin had moved back to San Francisco, wherever she’d gone, she’d reoriented herself to things in terms of whether or not she should and/or could purchase them with her $200,000. She’d imaginary purchased an entire block of street-parked cars (an unusual concentration of cute Volkswagens on Sanchez Street one day), her corner coffee shop’s inventory for the year, twenty palm trees, Charter Seat Licenses and season tickets for eight at PacBell Park, two-hundred-thousand raw Tomales Bay oysters, and she didn’t know the exact numbers, but she thought that she could afford at least a 20% stake in her favorite independent moviehouse in the city.

The art-buying idea, Marin admitted, seemed no less indulgent than these fantasies, but she saw it as a purely practical decision, based on the expertise available to her in her immediate social circle. If, instead of Ben, she’d had close, trusted friends working at hedge funds or in real estate, then she would have taken them out to dinner to pick their brains about hot stocks or condos. Besides, she had already promised herself that she wouldn’t buy anything unless there was evidence from multiple sources of its long-term investment value. She didn’t want, and planned to resist the urge, to fall in love.

The computer quieted and a window popped up on Marin’s monitor: “You have entered a disk into drive E:\,” said the window. “What would you like to do with the disk?”

Marin selected the “Open as a Folder” option and clicked “Continue.” There were four files on the disk: two spreadsheets, BANG_04-Whitman_Stats.xls and BANG_04-Whitman_Stats-2.xls, and two word processing documents, BANG_04-Whitman_Summary.doc and BANG_04-Whitman_Full_Report_Text.doc. She opened BANG_04-Whitman_Stats.xls and her computer screen filled with gloomy data.

Some manual adjustments would have to be made before importing the spreadsheet data into Pac’s networked database, PDB. PDB did not accept formulas, for example, and the spreadsheet still had plenty built in. PDB also did not like non-terminating decimals, blank cells in arrays, and certain symbols, even in the label text ($,-,/,&,%,#,[,],?,!, and : being a non-exhaustive list.) Even decimal points were not de rigueur if not flanked on both ends by a numeric digit.

Marin spent the next hour making the necessary adjustments and saved her work as a new document: BANG_04-Whitman_Stats_MCedits.xls. She opened PDB and imported her file. She opened the imported file as a table in PDB, and, although a few of the columns had imported correctly, cells in the infant mortality, birth, and death rate columns were showing invalid values like “2125.23” and “-38.6” and some cells in the other columns were showing actual error messages like “FALSE DATA=ERROR22” and “MISSING SOURCE DATA=ERROR615.”

“Hey Sergey?” Marin said. “I’m getting all these error messages in PDB.”

Sergey rolled over to Marin’s desk and looked at her computer screen.

“Did you have any blank cells?” asked Sergey.

“No,” said Marin. “I typed ‘BLANK CELL’ into all the blank cells, like you’re supposed to.”

“Can I see the source file?” he asked.

Marin minimized the PDB window and opened BANG_04-Whitman_Stats_MCedits.xls. Sergey took over the mouse and clicked around on some cells in the spreadsheet, pulled her error-ridden table in PDB up again, and then clicked back to the spreadsheet.

“Very strange. It looks like you did everything correctly. And these two cells are exactly the same—” Sergey pointed to two adjoining cells on the spreadsheet, both indicating values of 31.56. “And one imported correctly, and the other is giving you an error message. I don’t know. Hey Kendra?”

“Is she getting ERROR615 without a blank cell?” asked Kendra.

“Yes, and 22 without symbols,” said Sergey.

“It’s something to do with the version of software that was used to create the original spreadsheet, but I don’t know how to fix it. She has to ask Adam.”

“Oops,” said Sergey. “I guess Adam knows how to fix this. I’ve never seen this before.” He rolled back to his own desk.

Marin printed both the spreadsheet program and PDB versions of the data set and took them with her down the hallway to Adam’s office.

“Look, I’m sorry man,” a man in Adam’s office was saying, “I know that you have a lot going on. I’m sorry to keep making you redo this.”

“It’s okay Vipool, really,” said Adam. “It’s my own dang fault.”

A tall Indian guy in his late twenties was leaned against Adam’s doorjamb. Adam’s guest was dressed impeccably (if a little too preppily for Marin’s taste) and might have been attractive, but there was something specious and inscrutable in his manner that Marin didn’t like.

“Hold up Breese, looks like you have a visitor,” Vipool said.

“Oh, Marin, hi, can I help you with something?” asked Adam.

“You must be Marin Choo,” said Vipool. He smiled a smile of very small, very white teeth. “Hi, I work with Ray and Jen now. My name’s Vipool. Vipool Parashar. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Ray is a compulsive liar, you know,” said Marin.

“He’s a compulsive many things,” said Vipool.

They shook hands.

This wasn’t the kind of person that Marin had expected Ray to replace her with—not that she’d had any idea that she’d had any kind of expectations in that regard until this moment.

“You and Adam are in the middle of something. I can come back,” she said.

“Oh no, please, go ahead,” said Vipool. “I’m sure Adam here wants a break from redoing my index tables for the thousandth time, don’t you Adam?” He patted Adam forcefully on the shoulder.

“Vipool is publishing in ForeignAffairs and presenting at the CFR conference in August,” said Adam. “So everything’s got to be 110% perfect.”

“Oh, that’s great,” said Marin. “Are you presenting about your work here or something else?”

“About everything and nothing,” said Vipool.

“It’s a really brilliant paper about the relationship between poverty and political unrest in Central and Southeast Asia,” said Adam.

“Breese, you’ve clearly been looking at too many index tables,” said Vipool. “It’s a very simple paper,” he said to Marin.

“Sounds great,” said Marin. “I’m sure you’ll be the toast of the CFR come August. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know.”

“I was going to say,” Vipool said, “I don’t know if I want that job, but thanks, both of you.” He looked at his watch. “I actually have to meet someone in a bit for lunch so I’m going to take off. Breese, call my cell if you have any more questions. Very nice to finally meet you, Marin.”

He left.

Marin wondered, as Adam’s computer beeped several times in succession with incoming email traffic, whether Ray did the smile-frown thing still, and if he did it for Vipool.

“Such a nice guy,” Adam said.

And Marin, without realizing what she was doing, frowned.