No Speak Engrish

At the 1:18 mark, an Al Leong death scene.

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I don’t blame the consultant for wanting to pack the room (at $300 per head), but thirty-some people split into five teams turns out to be too many. At my table there are seven representing six companies: developer, product manager, analytics guy, three UX designers, and me.

Six men, one woman. Over the course of the day, three of the men will assume the role of Holder of the Sharpie. The woman, it is decided, will sketch the personas. The two minority reps (me and a South Asian) take a back seat to the proceedings; the room has glass on three sides, and the echo of “them” drowns out both of us.

Listen to us require some effort, Kemosabe — we no force you, if you not want

One of the slides in the consultant’s deck (barely visible because of the sunlight flooding the room) is a black-and-white picture of a rock guitarist. “Okay, so I’m dating myself a little with this slide,” says the consultant. “Does anyone know who this is?”

"Greg Allman?" asks a guy in the back.

"No. But that’s a good guess — similar era. Anyone else?"

From my seat, all I can see is the hair. “Malmsteen?” I ask.

The consultant laughs. “Malmsteen! No, it’s not Malmsteen. But I haven’t heard anyone guess that before. Malmsteen…I like it.”

After learning why this photo is relevant to our business model, we do a fifteen-minute hypothesizing exercise. The echo of Kemosabes reverberates before I can chime in with a suggestion:

We believe that [opera singing lessons] for [張] will achieve [increased volume and range of the upper register]. We will know this to be true when we see [him voluntarily sing “Strong as Death" at his next karaoke outing.

11th Street Vineyard

11th Street Vineyard

Aurora bagelalis

Aurora bagelalis

The landlord finally breaks out the scraper and the solvents…

She spares Jake and Elwood.

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Upon our arrival, my colleagues and I discover that the Lean Commando has decided to combine our session with one he had been planning to do with an actual startup company. Which is to say, Team Enterprise is about to get schooled today by a pack of bro-coders…

…who, by the way, seem like a nice bunch of gents, decked out in their red and yellow ochre pants, their rectangle glasses, their look-ma-no-socks-with-my-blazer uniforms. I notice that men with thick accents are being tapped to front the bro-coders’ easel presentations. It could simply be a matter of giving them more practice. Or might it be a deliberate choice based on some tech blogger’s latest listicle? (No. 29: Any good pitch should be in simple enough language to overcome the mangled participles and missing articles of a non-native speaker.)

The other half of the room consists of people I’ve never met but who share my employer.

"What does ‘SMB’ stand for?" one of them asks. I think she’s in marketing.

The bro-coders roll their eyes. The Lean Commando politely answers the question and then forges ahead with his deck.

During our first ten-minute break, I can sense the dread at my table about the afternoon half of the workshop.

"Does anyone have a project we can talk about, for after lunch?" a product manager asks. "None of mine are currently in developmental phase, and they are rather difficult to explain."

"Really?" I say, and I ask her to explain. I don’t follow any of it.

"Yeah, my work is more about internal strategy and is not focused on a customer-facing product," says another. He looks at me: "What about you, 張? Do you have something you’re working on that we could use?"

"Um, well, I might have something." I am also thinking, I could have leveled the playing field here if two hours ago I had introduced myself with a heavy Fujianese accent

At noon we line up at the back of the room for lunch: wraps for carnivores, pasta salad with pesto and grape tomatoes, the obligatory cantaloupe and honeydew slices (blackberries are a nice touch), a tray of cookies. While the bro-coders slip out for a smoke, the Lean Commando and I remain in the conference room and discuss the Games of Our Youth.

"I can still remember the aortic block,” he reminisces. “I could never fucking fix that guy, it was so frustrating. I must have killed him thirty, forty times.”

He asks about the product that my table will be working on. “So it’s B2B?”

"Yeah," I say.

Of course, at the four o’clock debrief I will not be the one presenting our idea for a quantitative evaluation. Two of the people at my table have accents — I’ve decided it’s going to be one of them:

My mother
told me
to
pick
the
very best one,
and that
is
Y-O-U
.

I have this feeling that much of what I’ve been working on lately won’t get past the rolling-pin stage.


Zhang Yimou, A Simple Noodle Story (2009)

I’ll just hold my breath if I can’t locate a bunker.

I’ll just hold my breath if I can’t locate a bunker.

I used to know his name — he’s an old timer who always sits in the back, near the prep station. Said he used to work at a bank. A couple years ago I heard him describe the inside of the Meserole theater to a woman who had just moved to the neighborhood.

"There’s this World War II movie with Brando in it that I was thinking about the other day,” he says. “Can’t remember the name of it. He dies in the end. I forget what it’s called.”

On my left, Ed, who will occasionally try to sell you on the cure-all properties of raw cider vinegar, is busy reading W.E.B. Griffin’s Blood and Honor. On my right, Angelo, waiting on an egg sandwich, shakes his head.

"I probably seen it but couldn’t tell you the name of it."

Back in my Allstonian days, I would sit at the counter of Twin Donuts on a Saturday and listen to the Old Folks Council of Brighton Ave reminisce about Pearl Harbor. There was one guy on the Council who would go on about the Japs and this and the gooks and that (never mind that a Cambodian family owned the place)…

The retired banker sitting by the prep station is talking about DVD extras: “I make sure to watch them all. Sometimes they got those newsreels from the forties and fifties. I miss that stuff.”

Across from him, another old timer — one I don’t recognize — takes a seat at the counter and orders a small coffee and a plain cruller. He slowly leafs through his copy of the Post.

The banker asks out loud, to all of us within earshot, “How come all the great ones are about the second World War? Never Korea, never Vietnam…”

The man with the cruller looks up from his paper. ”Pork Chop Hill,” he declares, and then he goes back to ignoring us.

Fall tagging season begins.

Fall tagging season begins.

There’s a younger version of myself that might have paid more attention to this subtitle, and made an effort to file away the scene with a bunch of others that could be loosely categorized as Out-of-the-Blue Bluesy Moments in Movies — a hodgepodge that includes the bar scene in Star Trek Into Darkness (Albert King in the background), the Chuck Berry cameo in Alice in the Cities (for some reason Wenders — or maybe it was a post-production hack — flopped the frame and Chuck plays left-handed for a few seconds), the Django toe-shred in Triplets of Belleville, Romain Duris miming bass to Ali Farka Touré’s “Ai Du" in L’Auberge Espagnole, the fifty seconds of stride piano in Follow the Fleet, Atsuki Kimura losing all the R’s on “St. James Infirmary" in Metropolis, and Willie Lomax’s ”Back Rub" turning up in Tully.
But there is a process that goes along with this task of categorizing — it would also mean digging up an old record, listening to it, reading up on the diddley bow she made to record it, and then a few hours of binge-listening and binge-reading. The kind of stuff collectors do.
I’ll let someone else do it.
—A Prophet (2009)Directed by Jacques Audiard

There’s a younger version of myself that might have paid more attention to this subtitle, and made an effort to file away the scene with a bunch of others that could be loosely categorized as Out-of-the-Blue Bluesy Moments in Movies — a hodgepodge that includes the bar scene in Star Trek Into Darkness (Albert King in the background), the Chuck Berry cameo in Alice in the Cities (for some reason Wenders — or maybe it was a post-production hack — flopped the frame and Chuck plays left-handed for a few seconds), the Django toe-shred in Triplets of Belleville, Romain Duris miming bass to Ali Farka Touré’s “Ai Du" in L’Auberge Espagnole, the fifty seconds of stride piano in Follow the Fleet, Atsuki Kimura losing all the R’s on “St. James Infirmary" in Metropolis, and Willie Lomax’s ”Back Rub" turning up in Tully.

But there is a process that goes along with this task of categorizing — it would also mean digging up an old record, listening to it, reading up on the diddley bow she made to record it, and then a few hours of binge-listening and binge-reading. The kind of stuff collectors do.

I’ll let someone else do it.


A Prophet (2009)
Directed by Jacques Audiard

I don’t recognize the area code, but I pick up. A woman introduces herself, and then drops a name.

"I realize it’s been a while since you’ve worked with her," she tells me. "But she listed you as one of her references, and I can’t seem to get hold of the other ones. Would it be okay if we talk about her — just a few minutes or so?"

"Sure. I’d be happy to."

"Are you still in touch with her?"

"Yeah — postcards, mostly.”

In another city and another era, I played this song on a radio show that, over the course of a year, received exactly two phone-call requests (one from a girl who had google-stalked me and “just wanted to reach out”).

This was a pre-YouTube, pre-Wikipedia time, and I was a long way from hearing the 1954 Marvin & Johnny originallet alone the George Carlin version on Arsenio

I’d found the ’Fess album at Planet Records in a bin labeled “Am. Ethnic.” At the time I was much more into the guitar player on the session, Snooks Eaglin, than ’Fess. But the Professor finally got me on “Cherry Pie” — that clanging doo-wop riff with the left hand, the triplets with the right, the unsteady warble of his voice. It might be the most primitive thing he ever recorded. 

I keep it in a crate. Smiley Lewis, Irma Thomas, Sam Cooke, Bobby Patterson, Howard Tate, Z.Z. Hill, Percy Mayfield, Ann Peebles, Junior Parker, Syl Johnson — they’re all in there too.

Occasionally, someone will ask: “What’s in the crate?”

"Cherry pie."


Professor Longhair, “Cherry Pie”
Recorded in Memphis, 1972