A New Short Story by Helen DeWitt Recommended by Sheila Heti

“On the Town” is a fantasy tale about having competent people in charge

AN INTRODUCTION BY SHEILA HETI

You are about to read a comedic tale by the brilliant and inimitable Helen DeWitt, patron saint of anyone in the world who has to deal with the crap of those in power who do a terrible job with their power, and who make those who are under their power utterly miserable. She is also the patron saint of those who would like to do an honest day’s work, but can’t because of the stupidity of other people. How would a parable read if it expressed the fantasy that one simple man might swoop in and make order out of the chaos and stupidity of the world? Who would be Helen DeWitt’s Jesus Christ — making order from disorder and bringing joy to so many — who goes about his fixes in utter innocence and simplicity, and whose straightforward goodness triumphs over the complications of the world, untangling them?

While Jesus was sent down to earth to clean up our messes and save us from ourselves, in her story “On the Town,” DeWitt’s Iowa-born protagonist was sent to the seat of civilization and inefficiency (or, rather, he sent himself): to New York. He will save these New Yorkers. He will save them from themselves. He will make things good.

Certain stories have something in common with dreams: they’re expressions of the creator’s wish-fulfillment. Helen DeWitt’s wishes are distinct in American literature — in world literature, as far as I know. What other writer wishes as fervently that someone capable could be put in charge here? What other writer regards with such irritation and rage business as usual — which prevents the natural flow of genius, productivity, profitability, creativity, and happiness?

A house in Pittsburgh. A crap-free deal. A refrigerator that doesn’t electrocute you. Software that works on both a PC and a Mac. Are we asking for so much here?

That we heathens (or New Yorkers) were waiting for a rube whose dream is to eat pancakes in the same diner as Harvey Keitel — that this man knows how to fix things up good, and that it’s this man who saves the day, this cowpoke — well, doesn’t that show how dumb we are, us arrogant New Yorkers? We pick up books like Helen’s to read, us intellectuals in the culture industry, but learn nothing from her pages. We, who run the world, are slower even than that cowpoke, Gil.

Sheila Heti
Author of Motherhood

 

A New Short Story by Helen DeWitt Recommended by Sheila Heti

“On the Town”

by Helen DeWitt

Benny Bergsma didn’t like to talk about his father, but people who had loved the Automatika series as children always wanted to hear about him. If the subject came up he did not know how to back away.

What he would say was that his father did not discuss the creative process.

He would say, if pushed: “If a contract has to be notarized he won’t sign it.” He was always pushed.

He would say, if pushed further: “If there’s going to be a movie, he doesn’t want to go to the premiere.” He was always pushed further.

What it meant was that his Craigslist ad, offering thirty square feet of subprime real estate in Benny’s loft in Dumbo, had to be reposted eight weeks in a row, while Benny sifted through the hundreds, nay thousands of applicants who proved, upon investigation, to have read and loved the Automatika series in their rugrat days. So the Boy from Iowa was a shoo-in. Gil had not read the Automatika series because it was not set in New York.

There are 7 billion people on the planet. Of these, a mere 17 million have the privilege of living in the New York Greater Metropolitan Area. If you want stories about people who don’t live in New York, was his attitude, real life offers such stories in appalling abundance. And if you are one of the real lifers who happen not to be one of the 17 million, reading about New York is as close pending a change of luck, as you are going to get. Why would you read a book set anywhere else? [1]

As a non-fan Gil had no interest in Jaap Bergsma per se, but rooming with the embittered alcoholic son of the author of a cult series, this is very New York. Very unIowa.

He paid the deposit by PayPal, turned up a week later with his backpack, unloaded it on the bed and headed back to Manhattan.

It was his first day in New York! And on his very first day, when he hadn’t even unpacked, he saw Harvey Keitel eating a pancake in a diner! A diner in the Village! Needless to say he immediately entered the diner, not to intrude on Mr. Keitel, obviously, but simply to order the identical pancake.

Gil checked the listings in Time Out. He had saved up a list of films that he wanted to see for the first time in New York (Jules et Jim; Breathless; Battleship Potemkin; La Dolce Vita; Bicycle Thieves; The Leopard; all of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu, because if there is a season you want to be able to immerse yourself in the oeuvre), holding out, somehow, in the face of often almost irresistible temptation, till the age of 22. [2] And now, by an amazing piece of luck, Jules et Jim was showing at the Tribeca!!!!!

Five hours permitted a preliminary pancake-fueled exploration of the island before box office time.

Gil had never had any desire to go to France, he had simply wanted to watch French films in New York. And when he saw Jeanne Moreau, at last, declaiming “To be or not to be,” he was glad he had waited. He was glad he had held out for something special.

He got back to the loft at ten p.m. or so. Benny was sitting crosslegged on a downtrodden sofa, morosely leafing through the Wall Street Journal.

Gil shared the glad tidings: “Dude!!!!!!!!! I saw Harvey Keitel eating pancakes!!!!!!!!!”

Benny: “Huh.”

It seemed best not to add to the man’s misery by mentioning Jules et Jim.

“Want a beer?” asked Ben.

“Sure,” said Gil. He felt slightly the worse for wear, truth be told, having been up since dawn the previous day, what with all the packing and discarding and fare-thee-welling not to mention actual traveling, not to mention the excitements of the day, but Iowans take their sociability seriously. He took a cold Sam Adams from the case in the fridge and joined Benny on the sofa. Benny lifted his beer-in-progress in downbeat cheer.

Benny, it quickly emerged, did not so much not want to talk about his father as not want to talk about anything else, the problem being, rather, that he did not like having to temper the wind to the shorn lamb.

“See, what happened is,” said Benny, “my dad read a letter from Roald Dahl to Kinglsey Amis saying write for kids, that’s where the money is. So he did, and there was, it just wasn’t enough.”

The more money there was, the more thousands of nauseatingly cute letters or, more recently, e-mails poured in from kids, kids who imagined that world peace could be achieved if we all just sat down and popped popcorn together. Or swapped knock-knock jokes. Or played ping pong. Why can’t we all just act like cute little kids?

A fifth of Jack Daniels into the day, Mr. Bergsma could not be guaranteed to ignore and discard. Dear Tommy, he would reply genially, Thank you for your interesting suggestion. I will pass the proposal on to Mr. Milosevic. Yours, J P Bergsma.

Only to get, meanwhile, in a mud- and bloodstained envelope, a heartrendingly charismatic letter from some kid whose whole family had been blown up when he was nine, a kid who had walked 500 miles through a warzone carrying only a battered copy of Automatika for comfort, a kid who had stowed away in a truck and now lived, sans papiers, on the streets of Paris, the whole couched in an uncomplaining stoicism, a nonchalant wit and erudition, which put the luckless Benny to shame. Mr. Bergsma would organize, at immense personal inconvenience and expense, a school, lawyer, bla. Doing irreparable damage to the personal fortune whose accumulation was the whole point of writing for kids in the first place.

The result being that Benny could never have music lessons, go to computer camp, go to private school, anything.

Gil could see why this might be somewhat disillusioning to fans of the series. While somewhat chilling and egotistical as such, anyway, though, it was the kind of thing he would definitely have expected of the embittered alcoholic son of the author of a cult series for kids. Very New York.

“Couldn’t he hire someone?” he asked.

Benny said that his father’s life was a ruined landscape of burned-out deals.

Gil would have been happy to crash at this point, but Benny, far from moving gracefully on, seemed to see a roommate as an economical substitute for a therapist.

Once, for instance, Benny elaborated, when Benny had just been accepted for admission at Choate, Jake Rabinowitz, a top entertainment lawyer, had negotiated a movie deal which included the right to two first-class tickets to the premiere.

Total dealbreaker.

Mr. Bergsma: “What is this. What the fuck is this.”

JR: “I got them to agree to first-class tickets to the premiere.”

Mr. Bergsma: “Look. I don’t want this. I never for this. I don’t want to clutter up my head with this crap.”

JR: “The contract does not require you to attend the premiere.”

Mr. Bergsma: “I don’t want to get into all this crap about what I want or do not want. I am trying to write a fucking book. You have now used up bargaining space, you piece of shit, you have squandered leverage, for something about which I do not give a fuck. I want this out of the fucking contract. I want a Crap. Free. Deal.”

Given that the whole issue of the premiere had been raised, given that it was not possible just to get on with the fucking book, given that it was necessary to discuss, Mr. Bergsma discussed the sort of thing he would have discussed had he chosen to discuss. But his lawyer, it evolved, would lose face if he went back to the other side with points the client actually cared about, such as fixing up a fixer-upper in Pittsburgh, rather than issues that were recognized as deal points by his industry peers.

Mr. Bergsma: “Look. I’ve managed a bar. I’ve had to fire people. I never do that without giving people a chance. What I say to people is, I didn’t fire you, you fired yourself.”

So that was that deal.

Benny cracked another beer while Gil made friendly Iowan noises to endorse the mild humor of the story.

Mr. Bergsma had hired all kinds of people — lawyers, agents, accountants, assistants, you name it — and they kept willfully firing themselves. To the point where he would explain the value of a fixer-upper in Pittsburgh from the get-go. You can get a house for as little as ten grand, he would explain. The value of it, obviously, is not simply the monetary value of whatever would otherwise have had to be paid for, the value is the amount of crap Mr. Bergsma’s mind would otherwise have had to be clogged up with at a time when he might otherwise have been writing a fucking book.

Somehow, though, instead of picking up the ball and running with it, people began pre-firing themselves. To the point where Mr. Bergsma just had to do everything himself.

Benny went on, for illustrative purposes, for another 15 deals, winding up 10 hours and 30 beers later, at eight a.m. Eastern time (seven a.m. Central), not because more, much more could not be said, but because his audience was semi-comatose. What it all explained was why Benny was forced to sublet space in his loft.

“Not that I’m not glad to have you, dude,” said Benny. “It’s just the principle of the thing.”

“Dude,” said Gil, “I’m wrecked.”

He sprawled on the bed beside the stranded backpack. Darkness claimed him.

With the wisdom of hindsight, it’s interesting that Benny had this wealth of privileged information at his disposal for 27 years, while Gil, when he went into action, had had a mere smattering for little more than a week.

In the morning, or rather late afternoon, of Gil’s second day in New York, he woke to find Benny incensed. A wall of the bathroom had this longstanding moldy seepage from the apartment upstairs. The seepage had now developed into a perceptible flow. It was the kind of thing Gil would have assumed was just normal in New York, but apparently a barrier had been crossed.

He would have liked to go back into Manhattan for pancakes, but an Iowan does not like to leave his fellow man in distress.

“Dude,” he said, “hey, look, I’ll go upstairs and see if I can fix whatever.”

Gil’s father had thought every boy should build his own treehouse; while not typical of Iowa, this is more easily achieved on a five-acre property with several 150-yearold trees than in a Manhattan apartment. Gil and his four brothers had each had a tree, and had, needless to say, engaged in cycles of competitive upgrading over the years, learning skills, as his father pointed out, that would stand them in good stead all their lives. [3] As now.

Gil had, obviously, brought his tool kit from home. He took it from the backpack and went upstairs and knocked on the door and a dude within told him to fuck off, which is so New York.

Gil talked on with the candid friendliness of the native Iowan. Presently (and he was too new in town to know how unthinkable this was) the dude opened the door a crack, leaving the chain on.

Gil talked nonjudgmentally on about the seepage escalation and his skills, such as they were, in plumbing and construction. The dude, eventually, did something even more unthinkable and let him in to see the source of the damage.

“Uh huh, uh huh,” said Gil, looking at the standing pool around the base of the toilet. “Well, I’m pretty sure I can deal with this.”

“We’re going out of our minds is all,” said the dude. ‘We’re trying to do an IPO. We spend all our time interacting with people. We don’t have interaction skills to spare, is the thing, on something like dealing with building management. And as for plumbers, forget it.”

The dude was wearing a T-shirt that looked like an archeological dig showing strata of pizza over the eons.

“See, if you decide that a user-friendly program needs an interactive paper clip to befriend a certain type of user,” he said, “it’s ultimately not a problem, because even if it does take more memory it’s just a question of getting more RAM, we’re talking a hundred bucks, max. But if you’re doing software development you can’t just upgrade the memory or processing speed of the human brain. Yet. To introduce spare capacity for dealing with morons. So there’s trade-offs. So, obviously, we thought the IPO would be a done deal a year ago, but see, if we had diverted interaction capability to dealing with plumbers we would probably have alienated investors even more.”

Gill was nodding and opening up his tool kit and turning off the water supply. The dude remembered the importance of names for human interaction and provided his, which was Dave. He outlined the initial business plan and the unexpected obstacles it had encountered.

The initial business plan had been, if we get lots of money we can free up our own time to do inconceivably brilliant things and we can also hire some other really smart people and just free them up to do inconceivably brilliant things, and we can also hire lots of people who are not that smart and pay them to do all the boring things we don’t want to do, freeing up even more of our own time for really interesting stuff. If we have enough people, we can deliver whatever we decide to do really fast [4] and it will make humongous amounts of money for people who are interested in money. [5]

This was a business plan that had worked for Dave’s older brother in 1996, but in the climate of 2007 it had needed fleshing out. Dave had drawn the short straw and been forced to make presentations, and in the midst of a presentation he had commented that actually they were now thinking it might make more sense to just rebuild from scratch using Lisp.

Bad move.

It had then been necessary to make a lot more presentations to new investors, investors who had not heard about the Lisp idea and could still be shielded from the full brilliance of the dudes. Dave had been forced to buy a suit and wear the fucker. But by this time, though Dave had made the ultimate sacrifice, it was 2008, and in the climate of 2008 the amount of aggro involved was making them wonder whether anything could be worth that amount of aggro.

“Uh huh uh huh uh huh,” said Gil, “do you have some kind of bucket or something I could use for the sources of blockage?”

“Um. A bucket?” said Dave. “Well, we maybe have some Colonel Sanders Chicken Buckets around, any good?”

“Good to go,” said Gil. A small horde of roaches poured from the pipe like the wolf on the fold, their cohorts gleaming in basic roach black. All very New York, but Dave seemed unhappy with the development.

“Hey,” said Gil. “I really need to replace this gasket anyway. I can pick up some roach stuff at the same time, no problem.”

Not because Gil was exceptionally nice or helpful or friendly, by Iowan standards, but because this was the way everyone talked where he came from. It would not have won him any Brownie points back home, but Dave was charmed, disarmed.

The Humble Simple Thing

Gil went back into Manhattan for a late late breakfast of pancakes. Harvey Keitel wasn’t there today, but the point is, Gil was having pancakes knowing that at any moment Harvey Keitel might walk in. In some ways this was actually better than having Mr. Keitel physically on the premises. The pancakes were not, truth be told, better than his Mom’s, but his Mom, obviously, could not offer the possibility of Harvey Keitel just walking in off the street.

He bought roach stuff and a gasket at a hardware store that had probably been there since 1847. He bought a bucket, dry plaster, and a trowel. He bought an item of signage indicating that sanitary products should be disposed of in the receptacle provided, and a receptacle.

La dolce vita was on at the Angelika!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

He had some time to kill, and while killing time he passed a bookstore, just walking down the street, and in the window was a collection of essays by John Cage!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Which in future he could read over his pancakes in a place where, at any moment, Harvey Keitel might walk in.

After the film he got to talking to some dudes in the lobby, who invited him back to a party in their loft on Canal Street. In no time at all he was doing lines of cocaine with three investment bankers!!!!!!! Which was exactly why it was worth waiting to see La dolce vita in New York. At the age of 12 Gil had decided not to experiment with drugs, he wanted his first cocaine to be special, he wanted to try cocaine for the first time in New York, and it was definitely worth the wait. Because now, see, it was part of this whole experience of dressing like Bret Easton Ellis [6], seeing La dolce vita for the first time and going back to a loft to get high with three dudes from Morgan Stanley.

Gil started talking to a girl called Loopy Margaux, who said her dad had left his old job and gone to work for a hedge fund because it was less stressful.

“What was his old job?” asked Gil.

“Oh, arbitrage,” said Loopy. “What’s in the bag?”

Gil explained about the dudes upstairs and about the treehouse and such. With coke-fueled eloquence he elaborated on the sound system he had installed in his treehouse.

“Oh,” said Loopy. “You know how to install sound systems? I should introduce you to my dad. He had one installed by someone all his friends use, and it’s driving him crazy. If he took the business elsewhere word would get out and he would be ostracized. But if one of my friends came over it would be okay. Not that he wouldn’t pay you for fixing it on a friendly basis.”

“Sure,” said Gil, “no problem,” and meanwhile word percolated out that this was a man who had plumbing skills, electrical skills, construction skills and extermination skills, with none of the correlated obduracy, and in no time at all he had been offered three months’ free accommodation in a loft in TriBeCa in return for fixing stuff its owner was temporarily unable to pay to get fixed. Plus the offer of two tickets to Lohengrin in return for fixing more minor stuff another dude was temporarily unable to pay to get fixed. Plus other prepaid entertainment opportunities too numerous to mention. Such that Gil was able to ask Loopy if she would like to see Lohengrin in two days’ time and she said Yes!

It was nine a.m. Pancake time!

At two p.m., after a brief foray to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he was back in Dumbo, back in his work jeans and a clean T-shirt, conferring upstairs with a different dude.

Dude B (Steve) said the dudes were thinking at this point they might be actually better off if they just went open source. If they went open source they would be dealing exclusively with their fellow hackers, and it would be fun.

“Uh huh uh huh,” said Gil, laying out the wherewithal of roach death.

There was friction among the dudes, because Steve was a Perl guru, whereas Dave was a total Pythonhead (not that Dave could not grok Perl or Steve Python, it was the philosophical issues underlying white space), but at least it was a relationship of mutual respect [7]. Whereas.

Recently Dave had presented the software, which had some powerful mojo under the hood, to investors. The display had yet to be finalized, it was just this black-and-white thing. But all the investors could talk about was the display.

“Uh huh uh huh,” said Gil. “Yeah, funny, display can totally eat up your time.” He tightened the gasket. “Hey, if you do another presentation maybe you could do a Gantt chart using my Gantt chart app.”

He began sweeping up roach remains.

“See, when I was a kid I had this Entenmann’s cookie empire, where in the early days I would buy a box of Entenmann’s for $1.19 and sell individual cookies for 25 cents at lunch and recess, and I kept growing my business to the point where I needed a web presence, and I had all these other irons in the fire, plus schoolwork. So I started doing Gantt charts in Excel. Which totally sucked, but I got a kick out of the Gantt charts, so I did an app, and yeah, it’s amazing how much time it took doing the display.”

The dudes checked out Gil’s Gantt chart app online and took in the cool display. They checked out Gil’s website, and the Mint analytics, similarly cool. A single brilliant idea occurred to the triumvirate.

Look. As things stand, using Dave for presentations, they are losing a minimum of one-third of their brainpower to fundraising crap. Instead of having three geniuses at work on the actual development they have two, and the work of those two is being delayed, in many cases, because they do not have stuff that Dave should have been developing.

But look. Why can’t they just coopt not just the Gantt charts and the cool display, but the creator of same? Why can’t they just make Gil a partner and have him do the presentations? The company has, at a stroke, 100% of its genius power available for serious work! It means assigning maybe 15% of the stock options to Gil, but the massive gains in productivity will add such colossal value to the end product that they will, in the long term, end up getting more. In the short term they will not have to pay him a salary.

This cool idea was also, needless to say, a hand-me-down from Dave’s older brother.

One with, you might think, little to recommend it at the worst time in history for an internet flotation.

Little to recommend it, at least, to a man with solid treehouse customization skills.

Gil, though, as it happened, though, had spent his teens fine-tuning his business plan, first just using Excel, then enhancing with a dashboard constructed in MicroCharts [8], and he had also spent countless happy hours playing around with R, an open source statistical graphics package. Then, as a senior at the University of Iowa [9], he had picked up a free academic license for Inference for R, a plug-in for Word and Excel which enables the user to insert R code and graphics directly into Word, or, as it might be, Excel. You set up your dataframe in R, you attach it to your document in Word or Excel, and hey presto! You can generate multivariate plots using Deepayan Sarkar’s Lattice package! Directly in Word! Or, as it might be, Excel! [10] Only problem was, it did not work in PowerPoint, which is, obviously, the weapon of choice for presentations. But, just before leaving home Gil had gotten an e-letter announcing an upgrade, such that Inference could now be used with PowerPoint. [11] Too late for his Entenmann’s empire.

Now, anyway, here was a chance to actually try out Inference in PowerPoint, with Lattice plots, in a legitimate business activity! And it was only his third day in New York!

On his fourth day in New York Gil went to B&H just to check the place out, because a tech store, run by Hassidic Jews, recommended by Joel Spolsky on joelonsoftware.com, it’s hard to get more quintessentially New York than that. He talked to some dudes who were studying film at NYU and had just won a prize for a short at Sundance. He went to fourteen galleries on 11th Street, four of which were having vernissages that very night. He met a transvestite who had unresolved plumbing issues. He met a woman who had nearly been electrocuted by her refrigerator and said it was preying on her mind — who knew when it would lash out again?

On his fifth day in New York Gil went to see Lohengrin at the Met with Loopy Margaux. On his sixth day he met Mr. Margaux, who said his sound system had a mind of its own, with an IQ of about 68.

“Uh huh, uh huh,” said Gil. There seemed to be no tactful way to say that he had better speakers in his treehouse. (His treehouse, admittedly, did not have a triptych by Francis Bacon, a Rauschenberg, a Jackson Pollock, and four flags by Jasper Johns.) He confined himself to the factual, making a number of recommendations which could easily be implemented with modest expenditure at B&H. He mentioned, shyly, the thing uppermost in his mind, the amazing Inference in Powerpoint presentation on which he had been working for the past four days, and Mr. Margaux, as a personal favor, looked at the prez on Gil’s laptop, and was sufficiently charmed to offer, as a further personal favor, to pass the word along to a couple of people who might be interested.

Gil walked back down the island through Central Park. He bought a New York hot dog with New York mustard and a New York pretzel. A troop of men on fixed-wheel bikes sped past. Pedestrians told them to fuck off. New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town!

On his seventh day in New York Loopy Margaux had scary news. She had decided to move to Berlin.

“Berlin?” said Gil.

Loops was 26 years old and had nothing to show for it. She was throwing her life away to keep a roof over her shoe collection. This was the gist. “Look,” said Loopy, and she took a print-out from her Marc Jacobs bag. “I can get a 1000-square-foot apartment with 13-foot ceilings and crown molding for $800 a month including bills. What have I been thinking?”

If Loopy had explained that she had just tried cannibalism, and that human flesh actually tasted better than pork, this he could have coped with, because cannibalism, this is something that you can imagine a New Yorker, not any New Yorker but some kind of New Yorker, doing. Or if she had confessed to a string of serial killings. But moving to Berlin? And the whole shoe stockpiling thing, the point is, this is a very New York thing to do. The idea that you would rather have a month’s rent in Berlin than a pair of Manolo Blahniks, well, huh.

Loops was saying she had sacrificed her goals, her dreams, everything she ever wanted to achieve, just to live in the City.

This sounded totally reasonable to Gil, who did not really care whether he ended up being a bartender, waiter, short order cook, or homeless dude living out of a shopping cart as long as he could stay in New York [12], but Loops made it sound like some kind of indictment.

Gil went back to the loft in Dumbo. Brooklyn was already starting to feel like exile. At some point he was going to have to break the bad news to Benny, namely that another dude must be found who had not read the Automatika series as a kid.

When he got in there was no sign of Benny. Instead there was a man who had the tormented, windswept look of Andrew Jackson as seen on a $20 bill.

“You must be Gil,” said the dude. “I’m Benny’s father. I had to come into town on business.”

Gil had heard so much about Mr. Bergsma (one night had not been nearly enough to exhaust Benny’s fund of aggrieved reminiscence) that he was surprised by how reasonable the dude sounded. Not a flamethrower in sight.

Gil said something polite. He wanted to try something new for his PowerPoint presentation. What if he used Hadley Wickham’s ggplot2 package? He took out the Sony Vaio and was soon deep in thought.

Mr. Bergsma came up behind him.

“What’s that?”

Gil explained the MicroCharts backstory, he explained about R and Bill Cleveland and Deepayan Sarkar and Hadley Wickham, and as he explained he did, in fact, generate a plot in Inference for R using ggplot2.

“When I was a kid my parents wouldn’t even let me touch their Smith Corona,” said Mr. Bergsma.

Gil remembered his chagrin at the belated release of Inference for R with PowerPoint interface. He could totally empathize.

“But yes, yes, yes, there is definitely a certain appeal. If they ever make the movie this kind of thing would be perfect for the Automatika machine.”

“Is there going to be a movie?” asked Gil.

“All I want is a crap-free deal,” said Mr. Bergsma. “It doesn’t seem much to ask. What is there about the concept that is hard to grasp? I’ve been sent a contract which includes clauses about the ice show and theme restaurant rights. They want me to get it notarized. I can’t just snap my fingers and conjure a notary public out of thin air.”

He extended a longfingered, largeknuckled hand and gently stroked the glossy metal. “Sparklines, though. Multivariate plots. I was trying to think of something fun for the new Automatika book. This looks like something kids would get a kick out of. I’ll just download this now, if you don’t mind. Maybe I can do some actual work for a change.” He sighed again. “Is it just me, or is there something sinister about Vista? Have you ever wondered whether the Church of Scientology might be behind it? It would explain so much.”

Gil went back to tinkering with ggplot2.

When he looked up five hours later Mr. Bergsma was at the far end of the loft, typing morosely into an antiquated IBM Thinkpad.

Gil went out to the kitchen for a cold Sam Adams. The contract was in the trash. He took it out.

He started looking through the clauses, and for sure the contract went on a long time.

On Day 8 Gil went back to the Margauxs’ to finalize work on the sound system. [13] This time he met Mrs. Margaux, who turned out to be the woman with electrocution issues. Which he was naturally also only too happy to resolve.

“Uh huh, uh huh,” said Gil, inspecting the rogue appliance, while Mrs. Margaux deplored Loopy’s new plan.

“What if she comes back with a German boy?” said Mrs. Margaux. “I don’t want to think of Hitler every time I sit down to dinner.”

“Eeeeeezy does it,” said Gil, edging the fridge gently forward.

“As if I don’t have enough on my mind. Kooky Fairweather has manoeuvred me into resigning from the Board of the Met. Lottie Rosenthal has just asked Dodie Pierpont onto the Board of the Balanchine. I can’t take much more of this.”

“Uh huh, uh huh,” said Gil. “Yep, I think I see what the problem is.” Three tiny mice slept unsuspectingly in a small nest of shredded paper towel.

Mrs. Margaux explained that meanwhile, in just the last month, eight of her closest personal friends had been coopted onto the boards of eight grant-making foundations for the arts, and she had not even been asked.

“Mmmm,” said Gil. He dropped a chamois on top of the nest and swept it nonchalantly up and into his tool kit. Though extermination, probably, awaited the rest of the family. “Well, what you could do…”

“Yes?” said Mrs. Margaux. (What could a mere Iowan know of the cutthroat world of New York philanthropy?)

“…is outflank. I don’t know if you know this, but J. P. Bergsma has this thing about wanting a fixer-upper in Pittsburgh.”

“Pittsburgh?” said Mrs. Margaux.

“I know,” said Gil. “I know. But see.”

He was about to make a simple, crap-free suggestion, to the effect that Mrs. M could end the 13-year dry spell of this much-loved author and be instrumental in facilitating a much-longed-for film, simply by organizing the unpopular Pittsburgh fixer-upper element which had been a stumbling block so many times in the past. One of his 200 newfound friends was a dude whose brother was a subcontractor in Pittsburgh, a dude facing problems because the developer he was working for had suddenly filed for bankruptcy. How hard could it be?

Fixing things on a case-by-case basis, though, is such an inelegant solution. It lacks scalability. It lacks grandeur. And it doesn’t give you data, that you can analyze. Whereas.

He said, “See, for ten, fifteen, twenty-thousand dollars you can get a house. A residency is normally for a maximum of 8 weeks. A typical grant is for $45,000, $50,000 for a year. So, say you go to these 8 entities, you offer the grant of a fixer-upper, for the people on the shortlist who didn’t make the grade. Among whom Mr. Bergsma is merely one. In return for a percentage of whatever artistic earnings they achieve over, say, 10 years. With some kind of cap? Making it, potentially, self-sustainable? Do a different city every year? Allow swaps? You then compare the achievements of your also-rans with those who got the actual award. And see, you could have a web presence, you could have something like minglebee’s Grand Prix dataviz, that lets you drill down to look at individual performance? And Mr. Margaux could potentially even devise an investment vehicle?”

The refrigerator was purring softly. Mrs. Margaux was initially skeptical, but when Gil called up www.minglebee.com, and she was able to see for herself the fun that could be had drilling down, well. Adam got so cross when people kept asking him for checks, but my goodness, this would actually be fun. Gil left her clicking on drivers in the Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix, 10/19/2008.

This elegant solution had the drawback of deferring, probably indefinitely, the resolution of Mr. Bergsma’s specific problem. Mr. Bergsma was saved, in this instance, by circumstances beyond his control.

The dudes who had won at Sundance, who thought funding was solid for their first feature, had suddenly found that the money had dried up because the producers wanted something guaranteed bankable and commercial. But the dudes had a soft spot for Automatika, the one commercial project they could even contemplate, unsurprisingly, really, because the kind of dude you would meet in B&H is the kind of dude who would have been that kind of kid as a kid. And, another of Gil’s 200 newfound friends was an entertainment lawyer with extermination issues. So, though it was not really in the spirit of rigorous experiment design, Gil pushed ahead.

Within a day it was the donest of deals. The lawyer’s extermination issues had been resolved; a crap-free two-pager, with an unconventional real estate clause, had been sent to Gil as a PDF attachment. The subcontractor had agreed to organize purchase and fixing-up of a fixer-upper in Pittsburgh, within walking distance of Carnegie-Mellon, subject to bank appeasement. One of the NYU dudes had lowered himself to make contact with his contact at Fox. Fox wanted in. And Mr. Bergsma, presented with the deal, had assigned the rights, minus the costs of the Pittsburgh fixer-upper, to Benny.

Mrs. Margaux, meanwhile, brought pressure to bear on Mr. Margaux; within a week she was able to go to her “friends” with an offer they could not, in all decency, refuse, using the new vocabulary item “drilling down” to killing effect.

Time passes.

The Dumbo dudes achieve a successful flotation and do, in fact, do something so inconceivably brilliant that their investors are happier than they could reasonably have expected. Thanks to the Iowan Investor Interface the dudes are spared actual personal contact with said investors, so they too are happier than they could reasonably have expected.

Mr. Bergsma moves to Pittsburgh and immerses himself in his Automatika world. Fifty creative types move to Pittsburgh and comprehensively outperform the types who pipped them to the post in their initial grant applications. The subcontractor realigns his construction business. Automatika the movie succeeds beyond the wildest dreams of the NYU dudes, such that they can select their projects. Loopy Margaux packs the bare essentials (five suitcases of shoes) and goes to Berlin to pursue her dream. Mr. Margaux has fun. While the actual money involved is peanuts, his genius for applying financial acumen to support of the arts and urban renewal is noticed at the White House. Mrs. Margaux is the envy of her friends.

Benny gets $500,000.

Benny got what he always said he wanted, the freedom to do what he wanted. He’s not as happy as he might have expected.

Mr. Bergsma had been talking for years about the kind of deal he was looking for, and Benny, Lord knows, had the inside track. So what was to stop Benny from pulling a CFD out of a hat? What was to stop Benny from finagling the fixer-upper? What was to stop Benny from expanding the Pittsburgh idea, to the point where Mr. Bergsma looked like a visionary instead of a crank? Meanwhile some kid just walks in the door, a kid who has never even read the books, and hands him the CFD on a plate. The son he never had.

Benny hates talking to people about his father.

Gil, needless to say, moves into Manhattan, where he lives to this day.

[1] Except, obviously, to avoid looking totally uneducated when you actually get to New York. Kafka, Borges, Proust — these you should read. Return to text

[2] There was a second list of films which he had had to downgrade to “Okay to watch in Iowa,” because he did not want to come to New York and look completely uneducated, but he had never felt good about it. He had mental conversations with an interlocutor who said “Wild Strawberries? Are you telling me Wild Strawberries doesn’t deserve first-time-viewing-in-New-York? Are you serious?” to which Gil would mentally reply that it was not a question of the artistic merit of the film, on which, as someone who hadn’t even seen it, he was unable to comment, but a question of what felt right for the viewing experience. That was the mental reply, but he felt bad about relegating Bob le Flambeur, The Crow, La Ronde, Wings of Desire, La Strada, 8 1/2, Solaris, plus much of Hitchcock, much of Mamet, all of Tarantino and others too numerous to mention. to the Iowa League. He wished he had grown up in New York, so these invidious choices would not have been forced on him, but what was he to do? The third list of films, obviously, was the list of films set in New York. But we digress. Return to text

[3] If you have never thought of a tree house as requiring plumbing and electricity, it’s probably because you have never seen tree house-construction as a competitive sport. You don’t come from a family of boys, is the inference. Return to text

[4] Dave and his partners had unhappily failed to read Frederick P. Brooks’ The Mythical Man-Month. If this business plan sounds remotely plausible to you, you may want to read F. P. Brooks’ classic work before proceeding. Return to text

[5] Dave was, obviously, not explaining the details of the actual project to Gil, because explaining the project to clueless morons who know nothing whatsoever about programming was what he did, these days, for a living. No way was he going to squander what few vestiges of patience remained on a mere randomly presented plumber. We’re talking nonrenewable resource here. Return to text

[6] Gil was wearing a slate gray shirt and slatier gray jacket that he had bought on eBay as looking like an ensemble seen in an author photo of Bret Easton Ellis, when in New York dress like Bret Easton Ellis being the thought; he attributed his ease in blending in, among real New Yorkers, to the infallible dress sense of Mr. Ellis. Return to text

[7] Dude C, Gary, was the dude who had wanted to go back to first principles and use Lisp. Return to text

[8] MicroCharts is a plug-in for Excel which enables the user to replicate the sparklines of infoviz guru Edward Tufte, emeritus professor of graphic design, politics and economics at Yale. ET’s pioneering Visual Presentation of Quantitative Information and its successors have never been reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times or the Economist; a sparkline, assuming you innocently placed your trust in the WSJ, FT or Economist to keep you au fait, is a small information-dense word-shaped graphic, enabling you to embed, as it might be, a time series or bar chart in text. MicroCharts, like its rival, Sparkmaker from Bissantz, runs only in Windows; Gil was a total Machead at heart, so he totally resented having to buy a whole separate laptop on eBay with Windows XP, after spending hours trying, to no avail, to get the fucker to work in Parallels or Crossover. Return to text

[9] The appeal of the University of Iowa to an Iowan father of five is pretty much self-explanatory. Return to text

[10] While R could be run in a Mac environment, Inference worked only in Windows, meaning that Gil spent further countless hours trying to get the fucker to work in Parallels or Crossover, finally retreating, bloody but unbowed, to his trusty Sony Vaio. Return to text

[11] Having read ET’s “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,” Gil knew that his god saw PowerPoint as the work of the devil, so he did not feel good about wanting to use it. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board had concluded: “As information gets passed up an organizational hierarchy, from people who do analysis to mid-level managers to high-level leadership, key explanations and supporting information are filtered out…it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation.” Hard to feel good about colluding. But if you are addressing the business community people expect a PowerPoint presentation. But, if you could do a PowerPoint presentation drawing on the Trellis plots of Bill Cleveland of Bell Labs (from which the Lattice package derives), the presentation would be data-rich and it would be totally okay. Return to text

[12] Did Giuliani realize that being President would involve moving to Washington? For four years? Was the question Gil had naturally asked himself when the nomination was up for grabs. Or, was it just part of a deeplaid plan to move the nation’s capital back to New York, where it belonged? Return to text

[13] He was not able to go back on Day 7, which was Saturday, because B&H is closed on Shabbat. Return to text

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