Doc Szandor’s a good egg. He’s keeping the shrinks at bay, spending more tim_ith me than is strictly necessary. I hope he isn’t neglecting his patients, but it’s been so long since I had a normal conversation, I just can’t bear t_ive it up. Besides, I get the impression that Szandor’s in a similar pit o_ad conversation with psychopaths and psychotherapists and is relieved to hav_ bit of a natter with someone who isn’t either having hallucinations o_ttempting to prevent them in others.
“How the hell do you become a user-experience guy?”
“Sheer orneriness,” I say, grinning. “I was just in the right place at th_ight time. I had a pal in New York who was working for a biotech company tha_ad made this artificial erectile tissue.”
“Yeah. Synthetic turtle penis. Small and pliable and capable of going larg_nd rigid very quickly.”
“Oh, it was actually pretty cool. You know the joke about th_ircumcisionist’s wallet made from foreskins?”
“Sure, I heard it premed—he rubs it and it becomes a suitcase, right?”
“That’s the one. So these guys were thinking about making drawbridges, temporary shelters, that kind of thing out of it. They even had a cute nam_or it: ‘Ardorite.’”
“Ho ho ho.”
“Yeah. So they weren’t shipping a whole lot of product, to put it mildly. The_ spent a couple of weeks in Manhattan housesitting for my friend while he wa_isiting his folks in Wisconsin for Thanksgiving. He had a ton of this stuf_ying around his apartment, and I would come back after walking the soles of_y shoes and sit in front of the tube playing with it. I took some of it dow_o Madison Square Park and played with it there. I liked to hang out ther_ecause it was always full of these very cute Icelandic au pairs and thei_ots, and I was a respectable enough young man with about 200 words o_celandic I’d learned from a friend’s mom in high school and they thought _as adorable and I thought they were blond goddesses. I’d gotten to be friend_ith one named Marta, oh, Marta. Bookmark Marta, Szandor, and I’ll come bac_o her once we’re better acquainted.
“Anyway, Marta was in charge of Machinery and Avarice, the spoile_onsterkinder of a couple of BBD&O senior managers who’d vaulted from ar_chool to VPdom in one year when most of the gray eminences got power-thraxed.
Machinery was three and liked to bang things against other things arythmicall_hile hollering atonally. Avarice was five, not toilet trained, and prone t_ripping. I’d get Marta novelty coffee from the Stinkbucks on Twenty-third an_e’d drink it together while Machinery and Avarice engaged in terrible, life- threatening play with the other kids in the park.
“I showed Marta what I had, though I was tactful enough not to call i_ynthetic turtle penis, because while Marta was earthy, she wasn’t that earth_nd, truth be told, it got me kinda hot to watch her long, pale blue finger_ondling the soft tissue, then triggering the circuit that hardened it.
“Then Machinery comes over and snatches the thing away from Marta and start_ounding on Avarice, taking unholy glee in the way the stuff alternatel_oftened and stiffened as he squeezed it. Avarice wrestled it away from hi_nd tore off for a knot of kids and by the time I got there they were al_rowded around her, spellbound. I caught a cab back to my buddy’s apartmen_nd grabbed all the Ardorite I could lay hands on and brought it back to th_ark and spent the next couple hours running an impromptu focus group, watching the kids and their bombshell nannies play with it. By the time tha_arta touched my hand with her long cool fingers and told me it was time fo_er to get the kids home for their nap, I had twenty-five toy ideas, abou_ight different ways to use the stuff for clothing fasteners, and a couple o_iscellaneous utility uses, like a portable crib.
“So I ran it down for my pal that afternoon over the phone, and he commed hi_oss and I ended up eating Thanksgiving dinner at his boss’s house i_estchester.”
“Weren’t you worried he’d rip off your ideas and not pay you anything fo_hem?” Szandor’s spellbound by the story, unconsciously unrolling and re- rolling an Ace bandage.
“Didn’t even cross my mind. Of course, he tried to do just that, but it wasn’_ny good—they were engineers; they had no idea how normal human being_nteract with their environments. The stuff wasn’t self-revealing—they added _illion cool features and a manual an inch thick. After prototyping for si_onths, they called me in and offered me a two-percent royalty on any product_ designed for them.”
“That musta been worth a fortune,” says Szandor.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Actually, they folded before they shippe_nything. Blew through all their capital on R&D, didn’t have anything left t_roductize their tech with. But my buddy did get another gig with a compan_hat was working on new kitchen stuff made from one-way osmotic materials an_e showed them the stuff I’d done with the Ardorite and all of a sudden I ha_ no-fooling career.”
“Damn, that’s cool.”
“You betcha. It’s all about being an advocate for the user. I observe wha_sers do and how they do it, figure out what they’re trying to do, and the_oss the engineers around, getting them to remove the barriers they’ve erecte_ecause engineers are all basically high-functioning autistics who have n_dea how normal people do stuff.”
The doctor chuckles. “Look,” he says, producing a nicotine pacifier, one o_hose fake cigs that gives you the oral fix and the chemical fix and the habi_ix without the noxious smoke, “it’s not my area of specialty, but you see_ike a basically sane individual, modulo your rooftop adventures. Certainly, you’re not like most of the people we’ve got here. What are you doing here?”
Doctor Szandor is young, younger even than me, I realize. Maybe twenty-six. _an see some fancy tattoo-work poking out of the collar of his shirt, see som_elltale remnant of a fashionable haircut in his grown-out shag. He’s got t_e the youngest staff member I’ve met here, and he’s got a fundamentall_ifferent affect from the zombies in the lab coats who maintain the zombies i_he felt slippers.
So I tell him my story, the highlights, anyway. The more I tell him abou_inda and Fede, the dumber my own actions sound to me.
“Why the hell did you stick with this Linda anyway?” Szandor says, sucking o_is pacifier.
“The usual reasons, I guess,” I say, squirming.
“Lemme tell you something,” he says. He’s got his feet up on the table now, hands laced behind his neck. “It’s the smartest thing my dad ever said to me, just as my high-school girl and me were breaking up before I went away to me_chool. She was nice enough, but, you know, unstable. I’d gotten to the poin_here I ducked and ran for cover every time she disagreed with me, ready fo_er to lose her shit.
“So my dad took me aside, put his arm around me, and said, ’Szandor, you kno_ like that girlfriend of yours, but she is crazy. Not a little crazy, reall_razy. Maybe she won’t be crazy forever, but if she gets better, it won’t b_ecause of you. Trust me, I know this. You can’t fuck a crazy girl sane, son.’”
I can’t help smiling. “Truer words,” I say. “But harsh.”
“Harsh is relative,” he says. “Contrast it with, say, getting someon_ommitted on trumped-up evidence.”
It dawns on me that Doc Szandor believes me. “It dawns on me that you believ_e.”
He gnaws fitfully at his pacifier. “Well, why not? You’re not any crazier tha_ am, that much is clear to me. You have neat ideas. Your story’s plausibl_nough.”
I get excited. “Is this your professional opinion?”
“Sorry, no. I am not a mental health professional, so I don’t hav_rofessional opinions on your mental health. It is, however, my amateu_pinion.”
“So where are you at now, vis-a-vis the hospital?”
“Well, they don’t tell me much, but as near as I can make out, I am stuck her_emipermanently. The court found me incompetent and ordered me held until _as. I can’t get anyone to explain what competency consists of, or how _chieve it—when I try, I get accused of being ‘difficult.’ Of course, escapin_nto the roof is a little beyond difficult. I have a feeling I’m going to b_n pretty deep shit. Do they know about the car?”
“In the parking lot. The one that blew up.”
Doc Szandor laughs hard enough that his pacifier shoots across the room an_ands in a hazmat bucket. “You son of a bitch—that was you?”
“Yeah,” I say, and drum my feet against the tin cupboards under th_xamination table.
“That was my fucking car!”
“Oh, Christ, I’m sorry,” I say. “God.”
“No no no,” he says, fishing in his pocket and unwrapping a fresh pacifier.
“It’s OK. Insurance. I’m getting a bike. Vroom, vroom! What a coincidence, though,” he says.
Coincidence. He’s making disgusting hamster-cage noises, grinding away at hi_acifier. “Szandor, do you sometimes sneak out onto the landing to have _igarette? Use a bit of tinfoil for your ashtray? Prop the door open behin_ou?”
“Why do you ask?”
“‘Cause that’s how I got out onto the roof.”
“Oh, shit,” he says.
“It’s our secret,” I say. “I can tell them I don’t know how I got out. I’_ncompetent, remember?”
“You’re a good egg, Art,” he says. “How the hell are we going to get you ou_f here?”
“No, really. There’s no good reason for you to be here, right? You’r_ccupying valuable bed space.”
“Well, I appreciate the sentiment, but I have a feeling that as soon as yo_urn me loose, I’m gonna be doped up to the tits for a good long while.”
He grimaces. “Right, right. They like their meds. Are your parents alive?”
“What? No, they’re both dead.”
“Aha. Died suddenly?”
“Yeah. Dad drowned, Mom fell—”
“Ah ah ah! Shhh. Mom died suddenly. She was taking Haldol when it happened, _ow antianxiety dose, right?”
“Probably she was. Probably she had a terrible drug interaction. Sudden Deat_yndrome. It’s hereditary. And you say she fell? Seizure. We’ll sign you u_or a PET scan, that’ll take at least a month to set up. You could be a_pileptic and not even know it. Shaking the radioisotopes loose for the sca_rom the AEC, woah, that’s a week’s worth of paperwork right there! N_horazine for you young man, not until we’re absolutely sure it won’t kill yo_ead where you stand. The hospital counsel gave us all a very stern lecture o_his very subject not a month ago. I’ll just make some notes in your medica_istory.” He picked up his comm and scribbled.
“Never woulda thought of that,” I say. “I’m impressed.”
“It’s something I’ve been playing with for a while now. I think tha_sychiatric care is a good thing, of course, but it could be bette_mplemented. Taking away prescription pads would be a good start.”
“Or you could keep public stats on which doctors had prescribed how much o_hat and how often. Put ’em on a chart in the ward where the patients’ families could see ’em.”
“That’s nasty!” he says. “I love it. We’re supposed to be accountable, right?
“Give the patients a good reason to wear their tracking bracelets: redesig_hem so they gather stats on mobility and vitals and track them against you_eds and other therapies. Create a dating service that automatically link_atients who respond similarly to therapies so they can compare notes. Ooh, b_omparing with location data from other trackers, you could get stats on whic_herapies make people more sociable, just by counting the frequency with whic_atients stop and spend time in proximity to other patients. It’d give yo_mpirical data with which you track your own progress.”
“This is great stuff. Damn! How do you do that?”
I feel a familiar swelling of pride. I like it when people understand how goo_ am at my job. Working at V/DT was hard on my ego: after all, my job ther_as to do a perfectly rotten job, to design the worst user experiences tha_lausibility would allow. God, did I really do that for two whole goddamne_ears?
“It’s my job,” I say, and give a modest shrug.
“What do you charge for work like that?”
“Why, are you in the market?”
“Who knows? Maybe after I figure out how to spring you, we can go into bi_ogether, redesigning nuthatches.”