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By Matthew Arnold Stern All Rights Reserved ©



In 1985, Laura Rodriguez came to Silicon Valley to start a career as a computer programmer. She wound up in a quirky startup run by a family with secrets. In 2016, Laura faces growing professional and family crises, as well as the most divisive presidential election in recent history. She fears losing her job in the wake of a merger, and she distrusts her new millennial boss. Her daughter has cancer, her son quit a lucrative programming job and moved back home, and her marriage is crumbling – especially when an old flame reenters her life. Laura must find solutions from a past she wants to forget. She may find them in an old, but still powerful computer, the Commodore Amiga.

June 1985

He picked up the blue linen paper. “Miss Rodriguez?”


I smiled. My faculty advisor taught me to smile at interviews. By the time I got to this one, I had been in enough of beige, aluminum, and glass conference rooms and sat in enough knock-off Herman Miller chairs that smiling started to seem natural.

The conference rooms started to look the same. So did the managers who interviewed me. The men, and they were always men, wore ties. Wide, conservative striped, and usually in beige and brown tones. That was the type of tie worn by the man who picked up my resume. He introduced himself as Doug Staley. He was the lead programmer. I knew he was a programmer because his tie was crooked and loose. He was probably going to yank it off and toss it in a desk drawer as soon as my interview was finished. He had a wispy blond mustache and wore oversized glasses with thick smudged lenses.

He introduced the other men. Jim Fowler was the manager of the programming department. He also wore a loose beige tie and an ill-fitting brown sports coat. At the end was Kevin McGregor, the director of engineering. I could tell he was a director because he wore a proper navy blue suit jacket and a yellow power tie with small navy blue designs. Seated next to me was the HR representative, Louise Stansfield. Her oversized gold loop earrings nearly brushed against the inflated shoulder pads of her aggressively cobalt blue dress.

“It says you have a master’s degree in computer science from Cal State Northridge.” Doug spoke slowly and methodically, like I would expect someone who was entering code all day to sound like.

“Yes. I graduated last month. Magna cum laude.” I left that out in my first few interviews. I never felt comfortable about tooting my own horn, even though my faculty advisor gave me tips on how to do it without sounding like I’m bragging.

“I see.” Doug didn’t look up from the paper. He seemed unimpressed.

I straightened my glasses. “My thesis was on managing local memory when processing high-resolution graphics in modern personal computers. I showed how the Motorola 68000 is the best microprocessor available today for handling such...”

Jim interrupted. “Do you have any work experience?”

“Yes.” I kept smiling and sat up straighter. “I worked in the computer lab on campus. I helped students with projects and assisted with upgrading our 3270 terminals to IBM PCs.”

“Any programming experience?”

“During summers, I worked in the computer department at West Valley Savings and Loan.” I turned to Doug and noticed he hadn’t looked up from my resume. “I have that listed under work experience.”

Jim continued. “What did you do there?”

“I maintained accounting programs developed in Fortran on an IBM System/36 as well as creating an interface with a Diebold TABS 9000 series ATM. By creating the interface in-house, the bank saved thousands over hiring a consultant.”

“You assisted a programmer?”

“I wrote the interface myself.”

Jim stared at me. I couldn’t tell if he was impressed, or if he couldn’t believe that a 24-year-old could have created such a complete mission-critical ATM interface herself. Actually, I was 21 when I wrote it. I didn’t tell them that, or why I felt so motivated to create a way people could bank without seeing a teller. It might have helped if I mentioned those things because the men didn’t seem that interested with anything I’ve said so far. Doug kept staring at my resume. Kevin, who hadn’t said anything so far, seemed to be focused on my breasts.

Doug’s eyes moved to the top of the paper, “It says you live in...Reseda? Is that in LA somewhere?”

“Yes, but I’m planning to move to the area if I’m hired. I’m staying with a friend in San Rafael in the meantime.”

“You’re not looking for a relocation package, are you?” The way Jim asked it, I assumed one wasn’t available.

“No,” I kept smiling. “I’m excited about moving to Silicon Valley. In the computer industry, that’s where the action is.”

“It looks like you received an impressive number of awards.” Doug said the first positive thing about me in the interview, but he spoke in his flat, methodical voice. “You won a $2,500 scholarship from SHPE. What’s that?”

“Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.”

Then, Kevin blurted out the first thing he said in the interview. “Are you an American citizen?”

My back stiffened. I took a small and silent breath.

“Yes. In fact, my father served in Vietnam. He died in combat.”

Doug looked up from my resume. The room fell silent. I may have won my self-respect, but I knew I lost the job.

Louise escorted me out of the conference room. As soon as we were far enough away, she put her arm around my shoulders and pulled me close.

“Laura,” her voice tinged with condensation. “Let me give you some advice as one working girl to another.”

She stopped and let go of me. I turned towards her. She gave a small snarky smile.

“Men like girls who are smart, but not too smart, and certainly not as smart as they are. And men don’t like a girl who tells them that they’re wrong, even when they are. There aren’t too many girls in computer programming, so you should be very careful how you present yourself. Especially a girl like you, Miss Rodriguez.” Her curt tone emphasized the Spanishness of my name.

I stood silently in the hallway. I would walk out of that place without a job or my dignity.

“And one other thing.” She looked down at my black dress slacks. “Wear a skirt.”

They say the Golden Gate Bridge is romantic, but it felt less romantic each time I sat in the mass of cars inching towards those orange Art Deco towers.

I went through all of the interviews in all of the beige conference rooms with beige men. I did everything my faculty advisor told me to do. I checked and rechecked my resume for typos. I focused on my work experience. I treaded the careful boundary between selling myself and bragging. I focused on results from my work experience. What was I missing, besides a penis?

It took me an hour and a half to drive from Silicon Valley through San Francisco traffic. I might as well stayed at home in the Valley and commuted to Orange County. I was glad I bought a 1984 Honda Civic hatchback before I left college. At least I didn’t have to go broke driving to interviews at places that had no intention of hiring me.

I should have felt relieved to pull into the parking lot of the apartment complex after spending way too long in a car. I knew what was waiting for me when I got to the apartment. I smelled it before I stepped in the door.

I found Tina cross-legged on the floor and leaning against the sofa. She hunched over the bong that was between her legs, like she was fellating herself with a glass smoke-filled dong. She exhaled, adding to the raunchy smelling haze that filled the living room.

“You look stressed. Take a hit.”

She raised her bong towards me. I stared at the yellowed water and dark brown resin stains and shook my head.

“I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not.” She set down the bong and reached into a baggie for another pinch.

“Really, I’m fine.”

“Suit yourself.” She packed that pinch into the bowl.

I turned away from her and headed towards the hallway.

“But seriously, Laura. You should try it. Marijuana is good for you. It’s natural. It grows from the earth.”

“So does hemlock.” I walked down the hall.

I entered what was her office and closed the door. The hazy stench from the living room managed to follow me there. I opened a window and turned on the ceiling fan.

This had been my bedroom for the two weeks since I started applying for jobs in the Bay Area. Tina and I met in junior high and hung out together in high school. We went to CSUN together as well, but she got tired of living with her parents and the San Fernando Valley in general, so she moved to San Rafael. I wasn’t sure what she did for a living. She did some graphic design, maintained databases for different social activist groups and politicians, and had a talk show on KPFA. She must have managed to piece together a good living. She had an Apple II and a Macintosh, and those were really expensive.

I had to sleep on her sofa. I didn’t mind because she was doing me a favor letting me stay here, even if her place smelled like a Grateful Dead concert on 4/20. I also had ready access to the phone. That reminded me that I owed Mom a phone call. I set down my purse, pulled out my wallet, and took out my MCI card.

“Don’t be so discouraged, Laura.” Even over a long-distance line, her voice sounded like her hand caressing the side of her face.

“I didn’t think it would be so hard.”

“Most worthwhile things are.”

“Thanks, Mom.” She knew the right things to say. Sometimes.

“And if things don’t work out...”

“Mom, I’m not going back to work at the bank.”

“But they love your work.”

“Mom, they program in Fortran. With punchcards.”

“It’s a programming job.”

“But it’s not what I want. There are so many exciting things going on in the computer industry right now. I don’t want to be left behind!”

“I know. I just want you to remember that have options. There is a path for you, Laura. You will find it, I’m sure.”

Perhaps Mom was right. Perhaps I would find my path. But first, I had to eat. And I couldn’t eat in an apartment full of weed odor.

“Hey, Laura?”

Tina’s voice had a serious tone. But it was hard for me to talk seriously someone whose eyes were as red and glazed as hers. Still, I focused on those eyes and listened.

“You know, Dean’s coming back from grad school next Thursday, and well, I’d really hate to have to...”

“I understand.”

“You do?”

I put my hand on her shoulder, even at the risk of getting a contact high.

It was a bit of a relief that I had to leave Tina’s. I felt uncomfortable about imposing on her. She was a friend, but she wasn’t my best friend. Come to think of it, I really didn’t have anyone I could call a best friend.

At least I had a favorite place to eat. It was a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant called Golden Dragon. It was on Fourth Street next to some men’s clothing store named Schwartz. It was in walking distance of the apartment, but I didn’t want to walk that late at night. So, I decided to drive. A strange choice since I had been in my Honda Civic for most of the day.

As I drove through San Rafael, I wondered if I would miss it. San Rafael was stuffed into whatever flat space they could find between hills, and it spread into the hillsides when they ran out of room. San Francisco felt like that too, and so did most of the other cities in the Bay Area. It didn’t feel like home. Home was a flat, expansive valley with streets in a perfect grid. No skyscrapers, no roller coaster-like winding roads carved into hillsides, and no pale men and women staring at your breasts and skin tone and telling you to leave.

Mom was right. I had options. And I had the option of going home. Even if it meant coding with punchcards like it was 1965.

I would miss Golden Dragon and Mrs. Lee. She and her husband owned the place. He worked in the kitchen, while she took orders up front. It was an energetic, noisy place. The chatter of the diners, the clanking of utensils against steel woks.

Mrs. Lee’s wrinkled face opened into a smile when she saw me. “The usual?”

“Yes, please.”

She wrote Chinese characters on an order ticket. I didn’t have to read Chinese to know what it said. “Kung pao chicken, spicy, light on the peanuts. White rice. To go.”

“$4.25, please.”

As I pulled a five out of my wallet, she tore off the perforated slip off the bottom of the ticket with my order number. I handed her the five, she gave me three quarters, which I put in a glass tip jar.

“Thank you.” She smiled and handed me the slip. “You’re number 58.”

I nodded. “Thank you.”

I left the counter and threaded through the tightly packed tables to the back of the restaurant. Next to the restrooms and pay phone was a corkboard plastered with ads and announcements. It was San Rafael’s local message board. If there was an apartment to rent or someone needing a roommate, I’d find it there.

Mom said I had options. I also had the option to stay in the Bay Area and continue my job search.

I scanned through the collage of photocopied flyers stapled to the cork board. One with a black-and-white picture of President Reagan with a Hitler mustache announced a “Punks for Peace” concert with a bunch of bands I never heard of. It partially covered an index card with crude hand-drawn letters, “Roommate wanted. Smoker OK.” Not for me, especially after breathing pot-infused air for two weeks. A couple of index cards were in Spanish. I took a couple years of Spanish in high school. I learned enough to buy a pair of gloves in Madrid, but not enough to hold a conversation.

That’s when I found it. I straightened my glasses and leaned in close. I had to read it twice just to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me.

Programmer Wanted

Must know 68K assembly language. No experience necessary.

The bottom was fringed into tearable strips of paper with the phone number to call, 415/555-1115.

Was this real? Who would advertise a programming job by sticking a flyer on a corkboard? Was this job legitimate? Was this some sort of scam?

And why was I standing there staring at it?

I knew Motorola 68000 assembly language. I based my master’s thesis on it. Whoever was looking for a programmer was obviously developing for a 68000 machine. Probably a Macintosh, but I’ve seen stories in the computer press of some other companies developing products for it. Perhaps this was a startup, something out of someone’s garage. This could be the next HP. Or Apple. Or an underfunded pipe dream that makes people work for free with the promise of stock options, only to fail in three months.

I looked at the phone number dangling at the bottom of the flyer. Do I take it? So far, no one had.

If I did take this job, I would have to find somewhere to live. Would this place pay me enough to cover my rent and my other expenses? And what if I applied, and they didn’t take me? Could I endure any more rejection? I could just as easily pack up and head back to Reseda, where I knew I had a job and a place to live. No more painful interviews. No more uncertainty.

“58!” Mrs. Lee called.

I stared at the flyer again. I tore off a strip with the phone number.

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