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E1. Lou Reed's Nephew on Pedagogy
I heard his voice as soon as I stepped off the elevator, muffled only a little by the security door. I swiped my card, releasing the lock with a satisfying click, and swung open the enormous glass slab.
That’s when I heard him, Lou Reed’s Nephew, in full voice.
“If one is to be respected by one’s peers,” he declared with a conviction that would become all too familiar, “one must speak in the ways others do, even if this is not speech at all, but text. Here, here. Hold it like this. Get it in your thumbs. Trust it. Trust the tiny computer inside. It knows how to talk. Look. When you try to type ‘cool’ it changes it to ‘book.’ Isn’t that funny? When was the last time you read a book?”
“That’s right. Trust your thumbs … and the tiny computer.”
I went to my rented cube, a uniform enclosure lined with brown-beige fabric, the fifth one down in the second row from the elevator. Its walls were higher than in a regular office to deter, if not prevent, late-night coders from foraging inside for snacks and thumb drives. It occurred to me daily—as Ulugbek and I chased our ever-receding go-live date—that working inside was like working at the bottom of a cheaply upholstered grave.
I undid the opening, secured by two panes of corrugated plastic joined by a clumsy hinge. This was before such spaces became standardized and manicured, like hotel lobbies. The impatient South African who owned the place had done his best, roughly brushing every aluminum surface—from the refrigerator to the elevators—with a Black & Decker grinder, but the place retained the feel of a sweatshop and a lingering smell of grease.
I sat down and tried to glimpse my new neighbor as I plugged in my laptop. I took it home every night after my previous one had vanished, along with a transparent plastic cylinder of Twizzlers a customer success manager sent me with her business card tucked inside and an old Blackberry I had clung to for too long.
Swiveling in my chair, I saw that his panes were pulled closed. I could only make out a slim figure—like a killer outside a shower—wildly waving its arms.
“That’s all we have time for now,” he announced.
The panes opened. I got my first look.
He was twenty-six. Or younger. Not older. He had dark hair. Narrow nose. Narrow face. Unremarkable but expensive glasses. Preppy clothing laundered by three decades of hip-hop. He wore a pressed, striped oxford, untucked from crisp, stiff jeans that broke as perfectly across the shell-capped toes of his sneakers as his shirttail fell just past his beltloops. As he pulled back the panes, I saw his clients, both female, wedged in a space no larger than a fitting room.
The first was in her late thirties. My age. (More or less. I was forty-three and rounding down.) She had the glow of a determined divorcee. She might still have been married, but such was the availability of her glow. She reminded me of Renata’s college acquaintances, whom we ran into in every bookstore aisle and juice bar line in our neighborhood.
It was mid-January, when such New Yorkers dress like extras from The Matrix or Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang. This woman had attempted a difficult hybrid. She wore black Lycra tights—as snug as jodhpurs but decidedly thinner and infinitely more futuristic. They disappeared into a pair of shrimp boat-grade galoshes stamped with a repeating pattern of tiny skulls. Above the waist, she was all woolly Victorian. She wore an over-sized black and red checked coat, topped with a coy newsboy made from the same fabric. She was not, however, wearing antique automotive goggles around her yoga-toned neck. These she had surrendered to her daughter, a perfect little Emily—the most popular name for ten-year-old girls in New York City in 2013—the year of my brief acquaintance with Lou Reed’s Nephew.
Emily also wore tights and a newsboy, a black and red coat like her mother’s, gel-injected death booties, the useless goggles slung around her pale neck. She held a freshly unboxed iPod Touch between her peach-colored thumbs, pressing away, oblivious to the fuss taking place around her entirely for her benefit.
Mom took out her checkbook, an object that confused Lou Reed’s Nephew. When she was done scribbling, he took the check between his fingers like a tissue he’d found on the street.
“Keep it up,” he told the girl, who ignored him, responding only to her mother’s hand on the back of her neck, guiding her out of his cube, down the aisle, and to the elevator. He walked behind them, calling to them as they fled.
“Trust your thumbs!” he said.
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He returned, shaking his head. He walked into his opening and turned to catch me staring.
“You teach texting?” I asked, flummoxed.
“As much as I can,” he said.
“Hard to find students?”
“Hard because I don’t know anything about it.”
“As little about that as about anything else.”
“You sounded convincing,” I said.
He sat in his chair and swiveled toward me. He held his phone in his lap—trusting his thumbs—looking up only occasionally.
“If you don’t know anything, confidence goes a long way,” he said. “Scolding, too. Mothers love scolding. Especially if you have a British accent. Or a French one. I forgot my accent when I picked up the phone on this one so I’m stuck charging American rates. It’s harder.”
“Because everyone knows Americans are stupid,” he said. “Especially Americans.”
“You are an American.”
“And you don’t know anything about texting?”
“What is there to know? It’s like talking. And that’s not what they pay me for anyway. They pay for the performance. A woman comes in and I talk to her for a few minutes—possibly with a Belgian accent—and I tell her that she is doing the right thing. ‘You are doing the right thing, Andrea,’ I say, being sure to use her name.”
“You are a student of the human condition.”
“True. I am. It’s important to use people’s names when you talk to them. It helps them narrate your interaction when they’re at dinner with friends, who are all potential customers. Boring people have their own literary point of view, you’ll notice. It’s formally innovative but entirely exhausting. I call it free second person indirect. It’s like free indirect or third person close, but they don’t teach it in writing programs because it’s so ponderous.
“Most people speak in the first person, of course, but profoundly boring people drift into quotations of other people addressing them in the second person. And those people are always complimenting them, the boring person.
“‘That’s so clever, Andrea, hiring a Norwegian to teach your daughter to text.’”
“Do they always use their own names when …”
“Invariably. So, I help Andrea by including her name in my comments, the way “Ambulance” appears backwards on ambulances so you can read it in your rear-view mirror. Then I tell Andrea that her child’s socialization is crucial to her popularity, because popularity—not so long ago a dirty word to our Andrea—is making a comeback since it is a guard against bullying, which for Andrea is like GMOs and tone deafness rolled into one.”
“That woman’s name was Andrea?”
“I don’t remember. But Andrea—and her wine o'clock cohort—are very worried about bullying. Though she probably pierced her tragus with a compass when she was thirteen so she could stand out and attract a few bullies—those constant consorts of genius—Emily will be allowed no such risks. Emily will have her tragus pierced professionally.
“I don’t know about yours, but my parents understood that bullying and being bullied were rites of passage. Like sin and suffering.”
“Your parents must be very old.”
“Ancient.” he said. “And cross-addicted.”
“You should write a memoir.”
“Never,” he said. “I live by the old ways. If you’re crazy, keep it to yourself. It’s good for you and a favor to the rest of us.”
“But if your story could help just one person ….”
“Memoirists are so easy on themselves,” he scoffed. “Always setting the bar too low.”
“You have a better idea?”
“Twenty percent of adults eighteen to forty-four. Help that many people or keep it in your diary. We’ve got to draw a line somewhere or these truth tellers will eat us alive with their misery.”
“In any case, I tell Andrea she’s doing the right thing. I don’t say, ‘Because the world is scary and children are cruel.’ That goes without saying. We wouldn’t be talking—I in a delightful Portuguese accent—if Andrea didn’t already believe that.”
“That woman who just left? Was her name Andrea?”
“Let’s see. No, here it says Stephanie.”
He handled the check suspiciously.
“Anyway, I don’t need to give Andrea or Stephanie fear, because they already have that.”
“Was the child’s name Andrea?”
“Of course not. That’s an old-fashioned name. The child’s name was Jane.”
“A really old-fashioned name.”
“So old it’s new. But names don’t matter. What I’m trying to explain to you is that the mother, whatever her name is, is afraid. She is afraid for her child who, in this case, is named Jane, and I am the solution to her Jane-based fear. I sit with the child—this Jane—knee-to-knee, thumbs-to-thumbs, and I teach her ‘how’ to text so she will fit in, find friends, and escape bullying.”
Lou Reed’s Nephew threw air quotes around “how” as he spoke.
“Why do you throw air quotes around ‘how’?” I asked.
“Because I’m sure Jane knows more about it than I do. I have nothing to teach. I am only there for the fear. Jane and I both know this. I have no expertise, but a few talents. One is knowing how to talk to parents. Another is letting children know that I know their parents are idiots. I teach Jane nothing and Jane knows I have taught her nothing. Jane does understand implicitly, however, that this play about teaching her something is good for everyone—most of all for her and for me.
“How much do you think such a service is worth?”
“You’ve already said it’s worthless.”
“That’s not what I said exactly. How much do you think she paid me?”
He seized the check between two fingers and teased me with it.
“Five thousand dollars.”
“Afraid to guess? Afraid you might get angry?”
“I guess five thousand dollars.”
“Wrong. Five hundred.”
“For an hour?”
I was getting angry.
“That seems like a lot.”
“Andrea doesn’t mind.”
I squirmed in my Aeron chair, worried that my new neighbor could sense my discomfort. Instead, he sunk into concentration on his flying thumbs, trusting them completely.
“Who is Andrea?” I said.