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NUMBER ONE EATER
IT WOULD HAVE BEEN nutritive gel for dinner, same as always, if I had not discovered stuck to my apartment’s front door a paper menu advertising the newly expanded delivery service of a neighborhood restaurant.
I was just home from work and my face felt brittle from stress—this wasn’t unusual—and I would not normally have been interested in anything unfamiliar. My nightly ration of Slurry waited within.
But the menu intrigued me. The words were written in a dark, confident script—actually, two scripts: each dish was described once using the alphabet I recognized and again using one I didn’t, vaguely Cyrillic-seeming with a profusion of dots and curling connectors. In either case, the menu was compact: available was the Spicy Soup or a Spicy Sandwich or a Combo (double spicy), all of which, the menu explained, were vegetarian.
At the top, the restaurant’s name was written in humongous, exuberant letters: CLEMENT STREET SOUP AND SOURDOUGH. At the bottom, there was a phone number and the promise of quick delivery. Clement Street was just a few blocks away. The menu charmed me, and as a result, my night, and my life, bent off on a different track.
I dialed the number and my call was answered immediately. It was a man’s voice, slightly breathless. “Clement Street Soup and Sourdough! Okay to hold?”
I said yes, and music played—a song in some other language. Clement Street was a polyglot artery that pulsed with Cantonese, Burmese, Russian, Thai, and even scraps of Gaelic. This was none of those.
The voice returned. “Okay! Hello! What can I make for you?”
I ordered the double spicy.
* * *
I CAME TO SAN FRANCISCO from Michigan, where I was raised and educated and where my body’s functioning was placid and predictable, mostly.
My father was a database programmer for General Motors who liked his work and had endeavored to surround me with computers from toddlerhood onward, and whose plan succeeded because I never thought of anything except following his path, especially at a time when programming was taking on a sheen of dynamism and computer science departments were wooing young women aggressively. It’s nice to be wooed.
It helped that I was good at it. I liked the rhythm of challenge and solution; it felt very satisfying to solve programming problems. For two summers during college, I interned at Crowley Control Systems, a company in Southfield that provided motor control software for one of Chevrolet’s electric cars, and when I graduated, there was a job waiting for me. The work was minutely specified and cautiously tested, and it had the feeling of laying bricks: put them down carefully, because you won’t get another chance. The computer on my desk was old, used by at least two programmers before me, but the codebase was modern and interesting. I kept a picture of my parents next to my monitor, along with a tiny cactus I’d named Kubrick. I bought a house two towns over, in Ferndale.
Then I was recruited. A woman contacted me through my stubby LinkedIn profile—her own identifying her as a talent associate at a company called General Dexterity in San Francisco—with a request for an exploratory phone call, which I accepted. I could hear her bright smile through the speaker. General Dexterity, she said, designed industry-leading robot arms for laboratories and factories. The company needed programmers with a background in motor control, and in San Francisco, she said, such programmers were rare. She explained that a software sieve had flagged my résumé as promising and that she agreed with the computer’s assessment.
Here’s a thing I believe about people my age: we are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted.
Sitting there in my car in the little parking lot behind Crowley Control Systems on West 10 Mile Road in Southfield, my world cracked open a tiny bit. It was only a hairline fracture, but that was enough to see through.
On the other end of the line, the talent associate conjured difficult problems suited to only the fiercest intellects. She conjured generous benefits and free food and, oh, was I vegetarian? Not anymore, no. But maybe I could try again, in California. She conjured sunshine. The sky above the Crowley parking lot was gray and drippy like the undercarriage of a car.
And—no conjuring here—the talent associate made an offer. It was a salary that represented more money than both of my parents currently earned, combined. I was a year out of college. I was being wooed again.
Ten months into a Michigan-sized mortgage, I sold my house in Ferndale at a very small loss. I hadn’t hung a single thing on the walls. When I said goodbye to my parents, I cried. College had been less than an hour away, so this was the real departure. I set out across the country with all my belongings in the back of my car and my desk cactus strapped into the passenger seat.
I drove west through the narrow pass in the Rockies, crossed the dusty nothing of Nevada, and crashed into the verdant, vertical shock of California. I was agog. Southeastern Michigan is flat, almost concave; here was a world with a z-axis.
In San Francisco, a temporary apartment waited for me, and so did the talent associate, who met me on the sidewalk in front of General Dexterity’s brick-faced headquarters. She was tiny, barely five feet tall, but when she took my hand, her grip was viselike. “Lois Clary! Welcome! You’re going to love it here!”
The first week was amazing. Grouped with a dozen other newly Dextrous (as we were encouraged to call ourselves), I filled out health insurance forms and accepted a passel of phantasmal stock options and sat through recitations of the company’s short history. I saw the founder’s original prototype robot arm, a beefy three-jointed limb almost as tall as me, set up in a little shrine in the center of the cafeteria. You could call out “Arm, change task. Say hello!” and it would wave a wide, eager greeting.
I learned the anatomy of the software I’d be working on, called ArmOS. I met my manager, Peter, who shook my hand with a grip even firmer than the talent associate’s. An in-house apartment broker found me a place on Cabrillo Street in San Francisco’s Richmond District for which I would pay rent fully four times larger than my mortgage in Michigan. The broker dropped the keys into my hand and said, “It’s not a lot of space, but you won’t be spending much time there!”
General Dexterity’s founder, an astonishingly young man named Andrei, walked our group across Townsend Street to the Task Acquisition Center, a low-slung building that had once been a parking garage. The cement floor was still mottled with oil spots. Now, instead of cars in long lines, there were robot arms parked thirty to a row. Their plastic cladding was colored Dextrous blue, the contours friendly and capable with just the faintest suggestion of biceps—gentle swells marked with General Dexterity’s logo, an affable lightning bolt.
The arms were all going at once, sweeping and grasping and nudging and lifting. If it was supposed to impress us: it worked.
All of these were repetitive gestures, Andrei explained, currently executed by human muscles and human minds. Repetition was the enemy of creativity, he said. Repetition belonged to robots.
We were on a quest to end work.
And it would involve: a shit ton of work.
My orientation week ended on Friday night with celebratory beers and a ping-pong tournament against one of the robot arms, which of course emerged victorious. Then my job began. Not the following Monday. The next morning. Saturday.
I had the feeling of being sucked—floop—into a pneumatic tube.
The programmers at General Dexterity were utterly unlike my colleagues at Crowley, who had been middle-aged and chilled-out, and who enjoyed nothing as much as a patient explanation. The Dextrous were in no way patient. Many of them were college dropouts; they had been in a hurry to get here, and they were in a hurry now to be done, and rich. They were almost entirely young men, bony and cold-eyed, wraiths in Japanese denim and limited-edition sneakers. They started late in the morning, then worked past midnight. They slept at the office.
I hated the idea of it, but some nights I, too, succumbed to the cushy couches upholstered in Dextrous blue. Some nights, I’d lie there, staring up at the ceiling—the exposed ductwork, the rainbow braids of fiber channel ferrying data around the office—and feel a knot in my stomach that wouldn’t loosen. I would think I had to poop and I would go squat on a toilet, doing nothing. The motion sensor would time out and the lights would click off, leaving me in darkness. Sometimes I would sit like that for a while. Then a line of code would occur to me, and I would limp back to my desk to tap it out.
At Crowley Control Systems in Southfield, the message we received from Clark Crowley, delivered in an amble around the office every month or so, was: Keep up the fine work, folks! At General Dexterity in San Francisco, the message we received from Andrei, delivered in a quantitative business update every Tuesday and Thursday, was: We are on a mission to remake the conditions of human labor, so push harder, all of you.
I began to wonder if, in fact, I knew how to push hard. In Michigan, my colleagues all had families and extremely serious hobbies. Here, the wraiths were stripped bare: human-shaped generators of CAD and code. I tried to emulate them, but something hitched inside me. I couldn’t get my turbine spinning.
In the months that followed, I had the sense of some vital resource dwindling, and I tried to ignore it. My colleagues had been toiling at this pace for three years without a pause, and I was already flagging after a single San Francisco summer? I was supposed to be one of the bright new additions, the fresh-faced ones.
My face was not fresh.
My hair had gone flat and thin.
My stomach hurt.
In my apartment on Cabrillo Street, I existed mostly in a state of catatonic recovery, brain flaccid, cells gasping. My parents were far away, locked in the frame of a video chat window. I didn’t have any friends in San Francisco aside from a handful of Dextrous, but they were just as traumatized as I was. My apartment was small and dark, and I paid too much for it, and the internet was slow.
* * *
TWELVE MINUTES after I had called it in, my order from Clement Street Soup and Sourdough arrived, carried to my door by a young man with a sweet face half hidden inside a ketchup-colored motorcycle helmet. A soft oonce-oonce of music emanated from within the helmet, and he bobbed to the beat.
He boomed his greeting in a heavy, hard-to-place accent: “Good evening, my friend!”
Greatest among us are those who can deploy “my friend” to total strangers in a way that is not hollow, but somehow real and deeply felt; those who can make you, within seconds of first contact, believe it.
I dug in my pocket for cash, and then, as I paid him, I thought to ask, “What kind of food is this?”
His face lit up like a neon sign. “It is the food of the Mazg! I hope you like it. If not, call again. My brother will make it better next time.” He jogged toward his motorcycle but, halfway there, turned back to say, “You will like it, though.” Above the rev of the engine he waved and repeated: “You will like it!”
Inside my apartment, on my kitchen countertop—utterly bare, free from any sign of food preparation or, really, human habitation—I unwrapped the sandwich and opened the soup and consumed the first combo (double spicy) of my life.
If Vietnamese pho’s healing powers, physical and psychic, make traditional chicken noodle soup seem like dishwater—and they do—then this spicy soup, in turn, dishwatered pho. It was an elixir. The sandwich was spicier still, thin-sliced vegetables slathered with a fluorescent red sauce, the burn buffered by thick slabs of bread artfully toasted.
First my stomach unclenched, and then my brain. I let loose a long sigh that transformed into a rippling burp, which made me laugh out loud, alone, in my kitchen.
I lifted the lone magnet on my refrigerator, allowed a sheet of shiny pizza coupons to fall to the floor, and stuck the new menu reverently in its place.
* * *
I CALLED CLEMENT STREET SOUP AND SOURDOUGH again the next night, and the next. Then I skipped a night, feeling self-conscious, but I ordered again the night after that. For all its spiciness, the food sat perfectly in my traumatized stomach.
In the month that followed, I learned about it bit by bit:
• The restaurant was operated by two brothers.
• Beoreg, with the sweet voice and the perfect English, answered the phone and cooked the food.
• Chaiman, with the sweet face and the earbuds never not leaking dance music, rode the motorcycle and delivered the food.
• When pressed for more information on “the food of the Mazg,” Chaiman would only laugh and say, “It’s famous!”
• Beoreg and Chaiman had been slinging spicy soups and/or sandwiches in San Francisco for just over a year.
• They possessed no storefront: they cooked where they lived, in an apartment whose precise location they were reluctant to disclose.
• Chaiman said, “It is okay. Just not legal. Definitely okay, though.”
• With the double spicy, one bonus slab of sourdough bread was included, always, for dunking in your soup.
• That bread was the secret of the whole operation. Beoreg baked it himself every day.
• That bread was life.
Most nights, I called ahead and waited on hold (though I was recognized, and the greeting from brother Beoreg was not “Okay to hold?” but “Lois! Hi! I have to put you on hold. Just a second, I promise”) with the music in another language I’d grown to appreciate—it was sad, in a nice way—and then, rescued from purgatory, I placed my order (the same order every time), and when brother Chaiman brought it on his motorcycle, I greeted him warmly and tipped him generously, then carried my double spicy inside to eat it standing, my eyes watering from the heat and the happiness.
One Friday, after a particularly shattering day at the office, in which my code reviews had all come back red with snotty comments, and my manager, Peter, had gently inquired about the pace of my refactoring (“perhaps not sufficiently turbocharged”), I arrived home in a swirl of angst, with petulance and self-recrimination locked in ritual combat to determine which would ruin my night. On the phone with Beoreg, I ordered my food with a rattling sigh, and when his brother arrived at my door, he carried something different: a more compact tub containing a fiery red broth and not one but two slabs of bread for dipping. “Secret spicy,” he whispered. The soup was so hot it burned the frustration out of me, and I went to bed feeling like a fresh plate, scalded and scraped clean.
Is it an exaggeration to say Clement Street Soup and Sourdough saved me? At night, instead of fitfully reviewing the day’s errors while my stomach swam and churned, I … fell asleep. My course steadied. I had taken on ballast in the form of spicy broth and fragrant bread and, maybe, two new friends, or sort-of-friends, or something.
Then they went away.
It was on a Wednesday in September that I dialed the number and was greeted by Beoreg, who said “Okay to hold?” as if he didn’t recognize me, then abandoned me to the sad-but-nice music for a very long time, so long in fact I suspected he’d forgotten me. When he came back on the line, he accepted my order dutifully and told me his brother would bring it soon. “Goodbye,” he murmured before hanging up. He’d never actually said that before.
When Chaiman knocked on my door, his sweet face was morose. He wasn’t listening to any music. The night seemed suddenly oppressively quiet.
“Hello, my friend,” he said limply. The bag containing my double spicy dangled limply from his fingers.
I took the bag and cradled it, felt the warmth of the soup across my chest. “What’s wrong?”
“We are leaving,” he said. “Visas, you know?”
This was unacceptable.
“We cannot stay. I would try, but Beoreg says … he does not want to be hidden forever. He wants to have a real restaurant. With tables.” Chaiman rolled his eyes, as if wishing to serve customers in a physical establishment constituted Versailles-level extravagance.
“We will miss you,” he said. “Me and Beoreg both.”
The bag in my arms crinkled, and so did the skin around my eyes. I wanted to wail, Don’t leave me! What will I eat? Who will I call? But all I could muster was “I’m so sorry to hear about this.”
He nodded. I did, too. It was September, and the air was very cold. He said, “I should tell you … Beoreg and I have a joke. When he gives me the bag”—he poked at the food in my arms—“and says, for Lois on Cabrillo Street, we always say together: the number one eater!”
I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew I had never been one before.
“It’s supposed to be nice. Because we like you. You know?”
Astride his motorcycle, Chaiman raised a hand and shook his index finger emphatically. Above the rev of the engine, he cried again: “Number one eater!”
Copyright © 2017 by Robin Sloan
Map copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey L. Ward