PROOFS AND NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Copyright İ 2001 All Rights Reserved
seen servants upon horses, and princes walking like servants...
Does anybody really know what time it is?
It was early Thursday morning in the city's Technical District. The early bird commuters, all waiting for the 5: 45, already filled the chilly
underground subway. Most, cheerfully alert, sat and stood at various places on the platform, some of them aching to turn to page two of their romance
novels or thrillers, some chatting, others musing, or humming the latest My Rock hits, while a few others struggled with the effect that the whoosh
sound coming from trains in the distance had on them. It was like a soporific for those few, inducing somnolence that hung around their heads
like invisible clouds.
Concession stands lined the back wall of the train platform. Cash registers breathed cheery "good mornings," while vendors hawked their wares. At
the middle concession stand, a middle-aged man scratched his bald head, rubbed his paunch, then counted the dailies while yawning repeatedly behind his
Lexan window. The subway ceiling illuminated with a rude glow, for the few.
Those few didn't want to wake up.
The 5:45 glided in silently above its superconducting tracks. The train
doors opened, and the commuters boarded.
At the far end of the platform two figures were suspended in timeless
caricature: A cop poking a vagrant' with a nightstick. The object of the transit cop's irritation slept soundly on a bench, his backpack serving as a
pillow, a violin gently cradled in his arms.
That's you, in Cornell's graduate library. And I didn't forget the
"Chicago" song, dad. I do know what time it is.
"Good news, Howie!"
"Whatıs that, Kim?"
"The grant-the grant for the foundation-it actually went through!"
"Eh, that's super! Now we've got a real bona fide research foundation
instead of just an idea on paper!"
"Not very impressive, dad....Three small rooms with blackboards, a small
computer lab. But it's good enough. Itıll serve. We're three bright young people. We'll come up with the solutions. We'll show mankind the way, not
with hardware lives and investments, but with human minds and hearts. . .
"This model is essentially mine, guys. Maybe it'll give us some insight
as to how to stop world hunger. Notice the bifurcation set when I use Third World military cost and government waste as control
parameters. Can't wait to see values for our own military expenditure."
"Celles fonctions là sont peu conventionnels. Howie, I do not
understand the functions you have up there."
"No, Jill? Well, I know they'ıre unconventional. Let me explain what I
did. Here-let me erase this first. Hey, Chinnie--will you please stop poking me in the ribs with my slide rule? Put it down. It's a valuable item, you know.
And say, I don't remember loaning it to you any--"
"Hey, Chinnie! Will you please stop--"
"Come on, buddy. Get up. And my name's not Chinnie. What kind of name
The vagrant' woke up with a moan and a grumble and surveyed, visually, the
cop, an attractive Hispanic woman with plenty of affectation and with all
the confidence of a rookie. Wide-eyed, fumbling to lock keys onto her belt while at the same time securing her pokingı nightstick on the belt as well,
she looked much more like a high school student preparing to receive her diploma than a police officer.
"Huh? Oh, oh yeah. Itıs what we called Chinua, this crazy Nigerian we
all knew. Um, what time is it, officer?"
"Hernandez. Quarter to six."
"Quarter to six. Yep. Okay. Hey... glad you didnıt kick me angrily in
the head, like Patrolman Syd does."
Officer Hernandez blinked her eyes twice, rapidly.
"Oh. Well you can register a complaint with the Department...."
"Nah. Shit'`1s the way of the world." He watched her as she diverted
away from him to look into the gathering subway crowd.
"Thought that was Weasel. Heıs a pickpocket."
"Yeah. Heard of him."
"Yeah? What have you heard?"
"Just talk. Believe me. Just talk."
"Well, just donıt follow in his footsteps."
"Donıt worry. I donıt want a career exploring boredom disease."
"What? Boredom what?"
"A pandemic. Caused by absolutely nobody negating the will."
"You sure talk weird." She glanced around with an official air, as
alerteveryone she really was on the job. "Anyway what are you doin down
here? Why didnıt you go to one of the shelters last night? It was coooooold!
And there was some wicked drafts in here last night I know."
"Hate those places."
"Whatsa matter? Not classy enough for you? Whatıs your name?"
"Shannon. Howie--" he interrupted himself with a
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-five? Young guy like you?"
Howie studied her face, optimistic, angelic, and her officerıs cap, only a
bit too large for her young head, and at her long brown hair, tightly pinned
up and stuffed into the cap but still trying to tumble out, stubbornly.
"Young guy like me? I look older than you do. Officer maam."
"Nevvver mind that, and the officer maam stuff. You shouldnıt be
like this. You donıt look like someone whoıd be a homeless person."
"I donıt, huh?" Well, there are Van Goghs and Marian Andersons out
"Graduated in Oh--Nine. And two years of grad school."
"Yeah, huh? So what are you living out here like this for?"
"Everybodyıs not out here because they wonıt stop drugging. Sometimes
do take a turn for the worse, you know? First I lost my job over a
ridiculous misunderstanding with a security supervisor. Then on the same day
anotherwise mild mannered Haitian guy named Pierre suddenly went ballistic,
set fire to the apartment building I lived in because the landlord none of
us ever saw went up on the rent so that Pierre wound up paying over sixty
percent of his monthly income, without utilities. Guess you could say he
cast a fiery, passionate, dissenting minority vote with a can of gasoline
instead of a punch card."
"Oh my gosh!"
"You must have heard of the patience of Job. Well, ever heard of Job?
the patience. Job?"
She pointed at his violin, then at its case on the ground, with her
"A violin. You play, then."
"Say- -arenıt you the young guy some of the winos around here call the
professor? Plays the violin around the Tech District, down in the subways?
Real math whiz?"
"Yeah, yeah, I guess thatıs me." The policewoman crossed her arms.
"Well, professor, you gotta get a move on. Canıt lie around here all
"Yes, maam, I know. Iım leaving right now." Howie, groggily, put
into its case, slipped his arms into his backpackıs straps, then walked down
the increasingly noisy platform.
"And donıt call me maamı! Call the First Lady maamı. And hey! Who
Maybe your luck will change over the weekend! Never know! Hope so!"
Howie turned and gave her a smile.
"Thanks, Officer Hernandez! That makes at least two people out here
the few, the compassionate, the crazy!"
Officer Hernandez smiled and shook her head as she slowly moved on.
"Just like I said. You sure talk weird."
Howie ran up a flight of subway stairs and was nearly pushed back down the
stairs by a blast of cold wind when he reached the street. He buttoned his
coat and pulled his woolen skullcap further down so that it covered his
It was still dark in the Technical District, but he could just manage to see
bright rays of daybreak trying to squeeze between the many towering
highrises that made the whole District resemble some urban petrified forest
with giant sequoias of plastic and steel. Even this early he could see quite
a few techexecs, men and women, walking around with clocklike precision,
exuding airs of insensate efficiency.
"Never in years measured by relativistic proper time would I want to
"You can be a mathematician if you want, son. Be anything you want in
Please, though, donıt be some Wall Street trader, or something? Just like
Iım telling the congregation tomorrow. You canıt slave for two masters. You
canıt serve God and Mammon....You cant serve God and Mammon....You cant
serve God and..."
He saw a gas station across the street and was just about to cross over to
itwhen he almost got hit by a guy in a sports coupe about to go up the ramp
leading to the West Expressway while kissing his girlfriend, all without
bothering to slow down.
"Hey! You almost killed me, Adonis!" Howie slapped the hood of the
girl screamed when the guy rolled the window down.
"Watch where youıre going, you useless crud!"
"So sorry. Did I dent your precious Galileo?" The girl giggled
swear words seeped through the rapidly rolled up window, and the Doppler
effect slowly killed the horn.
"Boredom diseasers!" Obviously, they didnıt hear him, but he
didnıt care. He
crossed the street.
Good. Now I can hear....
Police whistles, more horn blasts, noisy drills from the hardhats in the
street, angry merchants screaming at each other on the sidewalk, the yelping
of some wealthy womanıs terrier as it left its puddle underneath one of the
Districtıs many artificial trees.
"I feel like a guy in a Paddy Chayefsky film."
"Uh huh..." a skinny, mousy man with bifocals, thick,
and the Wall Street Journal gripped in his right hand like a baseball bat.
"Think Iım crazy? Thank God, boredom diseaser."
"What the hell does that mean?"
Ignore him. Todayıs weapon of choice.
He entered the gas station and saw a portly man of about fifty sitting in
the office reading a newspaper.
"Whadayawan, cyberpunk made flesh?"
"Cyberpunks are in the future. This is the present." Howie rested
case down on the manıs desk and stared, intently, into his eyes, while
"So please donıt call me that, okay, sir?" He picked up the case
"Can I use the menıs room?"
"Ainıt gonna shoot up or Bliss or anything?
"Cross my heart and hope to die of boredom disease."
"Around the corner. Itıs not locked." The man quickly pushed the
contents of a package of peanuts into his mouth, then frantically brushed
off the salt that spilled on to his brown jersey.
"And by the way. Cyberpunks are extinct in science fiction now. Take it
me, I know. Itıs the genetically enhanced, Multinat scientist now, and the
smart lawyers at Titan Hydrocarbons."
He found the bathroom, went inside, and locked the door.
"Cyberpunk! Freak! What the hell ever!" The manıs indictments
through the door.
"Yech! Itıs ripe!" Howie wrinkled his nose, then covered it with a
He squinted his eyes when he saw all the graffiti on the walls: phone
numbers of people with easy virtue, obscene drawings, an angry spectrum of
racial slurs, a swastika. He put his things down, stripped down and scrubbed
all over with soap and hot water from head to foot, before shaving, then
thoroughly drying himself with paper towels.
He paused to study the face staring at him in the mirror. A long, impish
nose. Brown eyes, wide-eyed, wanting to trust, sensitive, but an
infuriatingly perpetual smirk on his mouth he couldnıt get rid of. Premature
aging lines crept across the youthful features. He pressed his lips together
tightly, as if he had just sucked a sour lemon, and wiped the wet strands of
black hair from his eyes.
Blast him. What was the matter with him? He had graduated from Cornell, of
all places, and had learned from the greatest mathematical minds in the
country. Why didnıt he just march to the tune like the doughboys, the
insider traders and the technoyups had done? Not him. He had to be a
nonconformist, an idealist instead of an ideologue, a dinosaur. Like dad was
in the sixties. What did it get him? J. Edgar Hooverıs interest, and an FBI
What will it get you?
"Trying to be another Thoreau, protesting some Mexican War, only to be
tossed into the worldıs prison of apathy for life instead of overnight,
He left graduate school; six years of Academiaıs computer program instead of
a matrix for independent thought was too much. Asked business execs to log
their ID before sinking his head into Le Guin and Bear somewhere away from
his post whenever he had the time to learn how to boldly write what no one
had dared to write before and how and how not to handle theme. And what did
that get him? Rejection slips. Big Market Decision rejection slips. Only
Georg Cantor could transfinitely count them all, a pink slip after
Lieutenant Hanley found Le Guin closed and carelessly left on the security
desk. So now he was out here, a silly mathematical Jeremiah absolutely
nobody paid any attention to but Gene Roddenberryıs orbiting atoms and the
other Jeremiahs, living and dead.
"Ah, that life and the Big Mass Market needs. Some lines of exposition
dialogue on page thirteen.ı" So reject it. "Some misplaced commas.
you proofread?ı" So reject it. "A sexist on page twenty, racist
and racial slurs on page nineteen.ı" As if that crap doesnıt still go on.
reject it. "Itıs not melodramatic, action-driven science fiction for the
mindless, itıs a controversial, soft science fiction novella for the
thoughtful.ı" So reject it. "Well, this one is good, but I dont
either, so Iıll wait half a year before telling him I simply had to reject
it. Didnıt send it, simultaneously, elsewhere, while waiting, did you?ı"
"Who the hell you talkin to in there? Some boyfriend for hire? Iım
the cops! Now, cyberpunk freak whatever!"
"In the future, mister! In the future!"
Howie heard the manıs footsteps angrily stomping away.
"Uh oh. Time to go."
He quickly put his clothes back on, grabbed his things and fled, while his
stomach growled rudely.
When did I eat last, anyway?
He searched through his pockets, and after what seemed like an eternity,
finally, found a five dollar bill, next to his decision penny in his pants
"Well, I can get a coffee and two donuts, anyway...."
He walked through the maddening crowd and its ignoble strifeı until he got
to Bytes. Only a few people were in the place: A young man in a Brooks
Brothers suit, reading The Wall Street Journal. A very attractive black
woman in her early fifties sitting legs crossed, skirt slipped slightly
above the knees, daintily sipping coffee while she read The Hi-Tech
Industries Report. He felt the curious and rebellious sensation of wanting
to be thirty years older and a black applied mathematician at TRW. A young
woman lawyer smiling falsely, talking quite animatedly with an elderly,
well-dressed venture capitalist. She repeatedly floated her hand over to
touch his arm.
Howie sat alone at a table by a back wall and slipped his five into the
computer server there.
"Can I help you?" The machine droned the question out.
"Large coffee, black, no sugar. And two lemon powder donuts."
"One moment, Please. The time is seven thirty-eight. Todayıs mean
temperature is eight degrees Celsius. Todayıs main headline? Yesterday the
Governor refused to read the petition submitted to her by the Coalition of
Former Men and Women Prisoners. The Governor stated publicly that the
organization was comprised of a bunch of losers and that the organizationıs
contention that their members could not be free and equal citizens if they
were not allowed to vote in the state was an invalid argument. Governor Amy
Brightman is a graduate of Harvard Law School. Coalition Members plan to go
to Washington to speak to members of Congress in an effort to persuade them
not to pass the Hamilton Bill, which would deny voting rights to anyone
convicted of a felony even after they have served their time. Congressman
Hamilton vowed he doubts anyone in the Congress or even the Senate will give
the group a hearing, and that the best way to deal with silly groups like
the Coalition is to ignore them until they break the law again."
"Break the law again? Guess youıre right, Inspector Javert. Hmmmmm. I
not pick nobodyıs pocket, Herman. Course, I donıt vote no way no how anyway.
But Thoreau could vote, even after jail. Things are obviously improving."
rested his chin in an open palm and drummed the table with the fingers of
his other hand. "Just as well, my ballot would be tossed out, the places my
friends and I hang out. But nice to talk to an intelligent, sensitive
He patted Hermanı on its top panel, but the machine ignored him as its
opened to give him his tray and his change, nineteen cents. Howie took the
tray with change on it out, and ate the donuts so quickly that he was
surprised when they were all gone.
"Two honey-glazes and a large coffee. Black, no sugar."
Howie looked back at another nearby table with its server. A lean, bravely
bare-headed man about thirty years old and wearing a heavy dark blue
overcoat and black workmanıs boots impatiently stood there, stomping his
feet and rubbing his bare hands. Everything about him screamed: Lower
"Hey! A fellow minuteman. We even eat the same."
The man looked over at Howie.
"Shut up, you homeless mole. Who let you in here anyway?"
"Five dollars. Now excuse me while this mole contemplates writing his
from the underground novel someday."
Howie watched as the man, ignoring him, sat down with his tray and pulled
out a pocket-tel from his pocket. Howie turned away as the man turned the
small television on.
That foundation could have done some good, he thought. Then the grant
request turned down and their four unified dreams shot to hell by President
Leibkowitzıs Administration and its Ayn Rand objectivist claptrap. America
wants to be capitalist? Fine. But why did the demands of Market Capitalism
determine the worth of everyone and everything? Business never made any
culture great--ideas did. Even in business, ironically, that was true. Would
there be Voice/Windows Recognition 2012 if a Harvard school dropout hadnıt
first run brilliant, innovative ideas in his head in the last century?
But what good are noble ideas in a self-centered, quick gratification,
cotton candy age gleefully plunging over the precipice? Youıre an
anachronism, Howie old boy, just like dad when he died...a pure
mathematician in an age of hi-tech flash and splash. Just like that
beautifully weird black mathematician science fiction screenwriter teaching
Functional Analysis at Berkeley. Heıs really Till Eulenspiegel, making
things go wrong for the stupid. How? Wish I could....
His train of thought was interrupted by something he heard on Mister
Working Classısı television:
"...the joint American-Russian mission for Mars planned in
"Say mister. The guy talking on your TV. Is that Professor William
"Yeah, thatıs him, the egghead."
"It was just talk, years ago during the summits. So now theyıre really
"Yep." Howie got up and went over to look at the screen.
"Who invited you over?"
"Oh, I donıt bite."
"Of course NASAıs Sagan One probe
found no evidence of life
there two years ago. But, who knows?
There could be something
kilometers underneath the surface. If not evidence of an indigenous
civilization, then perhaps evidence that extraterrestrials visited our
System eons ago. Elias Huffman, a Computer Scientist at Thorpe Aerospace,
worked with me and others in our younger days on the binary--type code for
the Arecibo Message. He and I both agree on this."
"You should know what this Huffman guy heıs talking about knows. Then you
wouldnıt be sleeping in dumpsters at night," said Mister Working Class,
laughing. "Knowledge is Power. Hey, why dont you go find him, this Elias
Huffman guy? He might turn your life around." Laughing again.
"Knowledge is power, sometimes. You really should say, knowledge with a
little good luck is power."
"Gotta make your own good luck."
"When will people learn?" asked Howie, in a voice that pleaded,
at the lights glaring from the ceiling, splaying his arms away from his
sides like a bird about to fly, only to slap his sides. "If you make your
own good luck it isnıt good luck! If I help you or you help me and neither
of us was expecting it, then thatıs good luck! And Chance or probability
determine lots of things."
Mister Working Class grunted disapprovingly. Everyone else nearby ignored
"They must be interviewing him at Cornell," said Howie.
Armstrong." I took a course in Stellar Astronomy from him some years ago,
the same semester I took Discrete Math, and Coding Theory."
Mister Working Class put his coffee down.
"Stellar Astronomy. When I was a student at Cornell. Itıs not widely
but he was a student of Carl Sagan himself."
The man waved his right hand in the air as if he were gesturing during a
"You was at Cornell? A homeless, jobless bum like you? You, with
started picking on Howieıs coat with his thumb and forefinger, as if he were
pulling off lint, "the beat up, faded green Salvation Army coat and the
holes in your gloves and skullcap? You was at Cornell, huh?"
"Yeah, believe it or--"
"Eh, get lost. I aint got time for your delusions. You must be one of
loonies without their Thorazine roamin the streets screamin they got
Martians in their underwear!"
"Donıt blame me for being homeless. Breathing the air in Academia was
like trying to breathe on Titan! So I became a working stiff like you,
although I really couldnıt afford twenty eight hundred dollars a month for a
two room apartment!"
Mister Working Classı snorted, then turned his attention back to his
pocket-tel, safely leaning on a napkin dispenser.
"Ahh, I really didnıt go to Cornell."
"Yeah, just like I knew. You donıt look like no Cornell grad."
"Iım really an actor rehearsing a scene for a Frank Capra movie."
The man turned around angrily to face Howie again, while slapping the table
with an angry hand.
"Oh so now youıre a million dollar an hour actor? And who the hell is
"Somebody you sure as hell wouldnıt like. So donıt go see the
went back over to his table, a triumphant smirk on his face. He finished off
his coffee, then went back out into the bitter cold.
The streets were even busier now. Business people and technical people
hustled and bustled everywhere, briefcases and laptops in hand, everyone
ignoring the cold. They all marched up and down, Howie thought, like
wound-up toy soldiers formed from malleable little blocks of tin,
equidistant from each other along a swiftly moving conveyor belt. He walked
up Fifty-Eighth Street until he reached the Fifty-Ninth Street subway
Still hungry. Well, work for your lunch.
Two young women oblivious to everything but their conversation rudely
jostled him on their way up as he went down the subway stairs. Both wore
their physical attractiveness in the same way they wore their expensive
designer coats, Howie thought. As status symbols.
"Why donıt you look where youıre going, tramp!" The blonde. Howie
she looked just like grown up Kelly Bundy, still trapped on the Married with
"Yeah, you bum!" The redhead, suddenly clutching her handbag.
"Somebody should do something about these people."
"I know it. If somebodyıs life screws up, itıs their own fault."
"You tell him, Cindy. They should stick them on a reservation!"
clutched her handbag too. A case of shared memes? Howie asked himself.
"Get a job! God helps those who help themselves," said Cindy, when
reached the street.
"If somebodyıs life screws up, itıs their own fault?" shouted
Howie after he
ran back up to watch them prepare to join the crowd. "God only helps those
who help themselves? What the hell do you need God for, then? How do you
explain the Bible book of Job, then? What the hell is faith about? Not that
I have any in Him, mind you!"
They ignored him.
"Say. Did you see the new engineer in Robotics?" asked Kelly.ı
"Yeah, heıs really cute....," said Cindy.
"Iım dying to meet him. Jimmy and I split up. So I hope he doesnıt
Howie heard their voices die away into the ambient gibber.
Tsk tsk. Glad Iım not that engineer. All four of youıve got boredom
He ran back down the subway stairs, took off his backpack and leaned it
against a wall. He took out his violin and bow from the case, then he took
off his skullcap and set it on the sagging backpack upside down, so that it
looked like a basket.
Swallow the pride, you would be Gauss you....
He heard a soft thump! sound, so he turned around. Two young businessmen
were standing at a wall waste basket. One had just thrown something away.
"Why did you do that?" asked one.
"Shitty novel. If the action doesnıt begin on page one, Iım not
"Herman Melville wouldnıt get published today, I guess. The real action
Moby Dick doesnıt begin until well after page one." Both men laughed, then
rushed to catch an incoming train.
Howie tuned the violinıs strings, then began to play. He played, first, the
main theme from the Second Movement of Mendelssohnıs E Minor Violin
Concerto. His playing, sweet as well as technically precise, filled the
subway like a sweet fragrance. But he sniffed repeatedly as he played
because the pungent odor of days--old urine coming from somewhere rudely
filled his nose.
As the hours progressed, Howie played one beautiful melody after another:
the slow themes from the Beethoven, Brahms, and Sibelius Violin Concertos,
the Meditation from Massenetıs Thäis, Bachıs Air On A G String,
Tchaikovskyıs C Major String Serenade, his own arrangements of Samuel
Barberıs Adagio for Strings.
The sound of rushing feet, constantly shuffling and running up and down
stairs and across the platform, along with ceaseless chatter and laughter,
bounced off the subway walls. Tokens clinked down turnstyle slots. The
dissonance of My Rock music boomed forth like the belch of an insane god
from the other platform across the tracks, while a young crowd gathered
around the boombox of the couple who played it. Hawkers in the concession
stands shouted about the latest news of the very married Senator Malcone and
the very-married--to--someone--else Hollywood actress Jill Zeeman, caught in
bed together at some Malibu Bed and Breakfast. Crowds gathered around to get
their latest issues of Them.
Howie played on until noon, when the human traffic really got heavy. He
suddenly stopped playing, right in the middle of his improvisation on a
theme from Yo Yo Maıs 2007 Cello Sonata, to gawk in amazement at a young
technoyup couple standing beside him. They were french-kissing, necking,
groping. Howie felt indignant. Not jealous, indignant.
Holding hands is sweet enough. But this?
"Hey, I donıt believe this, man! Out in the open, like that? No class,
People got no class! Egoizing in public like that. Like the Urrasti couple
the physicist Shevek saw practically doing it in public in Le Guinıs The
Dispossessed! Why donıt you take it home, huh? Itıs noontime. Or at least to
the office? Like the last days of ancient Rome!"
Howie giggled. He was in the zone.ı
"Hey! Thatıs what we need! Roddenberry had it all wrong. And there is
Prime Directive. Maybe we need Type Two extraterrestrial barbarians to help
inspire a permanent clean--up. Hey, hey, maybe Greg Bearıs Forge of God
Machine. Oh if only the Moms were around to get me the hell out of here!
Meanwhile must be too much lead in the water...." he broke to slow down his
giggling. "Hey why donıt somebody haul over a mattress? And throw em
Now it was the young womanıs time to be indignant. She glared at him while
Howie felt triumphant inside.
Finally, something wasnıt being ignored.
"You idle, homeless misanthrope! Mad because you donıt have me?"
"Do you have your AIDS vaccine yet, sweetheart?" he asked, trying
like Humphrey Bogart. "I know you guys can afford it. True love in a smelly
subway. Ignoring the stink, huh? I donıt believe--"
The man went over to Howie, grabbed him by the throat, and lifted him up, so
that the violinist-mathematicianıs feet dangled like the feet of a puppet.
"Want to see how black your eyes can get? Huh? As black as some
boy in the hoodıs face? Want to see your cheeks bulge with that fiddle? Want
to see me make you chew it, you useless, homeless subway rat?" The guy was
well--dressed, but big and muscular, like a professional bull who lived his
life in a ring that all the bullfighters in all the rings in all the worlds
Hemingway could have dreamed up wouldnıt have stood a chance in.
Howie strained to breathe.
"No argument, man. No argument," he managed to push out his throat.
"Glad to hear it. No hard feelings." The man knocked Howieıs
hat over, then began climbing the stairs with his girlfriend. Howie watched
as their faces transformed from the aggressiveness of hate to the tenderness
"Eh, now that was really mean-spirited, you know? I was only joking, no
reason to-racist asshole!" He looked at the spilled cash, a small puddle of
pennies, nickels and dimes, and a few dollar bills.
"I donıt believe this! All morning I been playing some of the greatest
the world has ever- -and. . . ?" He sucked his teeth. "Cheap! People
cheap today! Geez!" He stooped down, gathered up the money, and counted it.
"Seven dollars and three cents. Thatıs how much Mendelssohn and Brahms
worth today." He shook his head in disgust and put the money away in his
"Say, professor." Howie turned around. A wino stood behind him.
"Huh? Oh, how ya doing, Felix?"
"Your playing was magnificent as usual, young man."
"Listen, professor. I, um, well, Iım a little short of cash today and,
well," the wino swallowed hard, then cleared his throat, "I could use
bucks if you could spare it."
"I would Felix, but, well, I havenıt eaten anything decent in days,
Just coffee, doughnuts, potato chips. And my little music business is bad
right now. These technoyups arenıt too much into Brahms these days, and, oh,
well . . . shoot. Okay. Three bucks, alright Felix?"
"Yes, professor. That would do nicely." The wino watched with eager
Howie went into his pocket. He ran an ungloved dirty hand through wild, gray
dirty hair, then rubbed the beard-stubble on his face while licking dry lips
before coughing violently.
Suddenly Howie stopped, his hand suspended in his pocket, while he sniffed
"I need it for Thelma."
"No. Really. "You know me, professor. Iım like General Grant. I
Iım not workin. Well, today the labor pool couldnıt find nothin."
"No rebs to ideologically fight on the job today, huh?"
"Funny. I thought we were the rebs." He belted out wheezy laughter,
coughed for twenty seconds, while Howie pulled his money out.
"Lessee...fifty, seventy-five, one dollar, buck twenty-three, four,
seventy-five, two..., a few seconds more, Felix."
The wino waggled his tongue, then pressed his trembling hands flatly against
his bulging sides and moved them downward toward his waist, as if they were
two divers diving into the invisible pool around the ragged coat belt.
"...Ninety-five, six, seven, eight, nine--three, Felix." He dropped
coins into the winoıs hands.
"Hey, professor. I really appreciate this."
"Howıs your other half, Felix?" Howie watched as the wino stuffed
into a pocket with trembling, shivering fingers.
"Thelmaıs at the Public Library, listening to Kathleen Battle CDs.
todayıs technowinners still ainıt heard of."
"But we have, Felix. The three of us are like Bradburyıs Fahrenheit 451
people, walking around with despised Classics along with their long
forgotten meanings in our heads. Thatıs what really counts."
"You said it better than I could, but then you are the writer. I still
mine." The wino pulled out a ragged copy of Dostoyevskyıs Poor Folk,
it to Howie, then put it back. "In my pocket next to my heart and in my
"Hmmmm. My favorite was Notes From the Underground."
"And Weaselıs is Crime and Punishment. Weird, huh?"
"Funny. I was told not to follow in Raskolnikovıs footsteps today,
"Just donıt kill any pawnbrokers, professor." The wino laughed and
again. "Oh--almost forgot, professor." he reached into another pocket
pulled out a large sheet of folded up paper. "For you," he said,
"A genuine Goya." He gave it to Howie, waved goodbye, then disappeared
Howie unfolded the paper and looked at it. It was a very good pencil sketch
of the Technical Districtıs highrises, with a giant waving a fist, horns
issuing from its forehead, towering above everyone as it grinned while
looking down at the activities below. But the little ant-sized humans
walking about below didnıt seem concerned over the demon at all. In fact,
some pointed to it and laughed, while others walked away ignoring it. Howie
stuffed the drawing into his backpack in a place where he kept several other
drawings from the street artist.
Geez, Iım hungry. Four dollars and three cents left, which maps to a small
coffee and a bag of chips.
"Where shall we dine today, Galois who hopes not to end up like Galois?
stand down here, or at the Thorpe luncheonette? Tsk tsk."
Decisions, decisions. Time for one out of ten thousand Bernouilli trials.
He pulled out his 1948 decisionı penny. His father had given it to him
years ago, before he died, telling him Harry Truman, Thomas Dewey, and
Statesı Rights segregationist J. Strom Thurmond had run that year. Everybody
expected Dewey to win.
Truman won. Was it luck, chance, or both? Howie wondered.
Heads the stand, tails the luncheonette. He flipped the coin and it spun in
the air rapidly before landing back into his hand.
He went upstairs and walked down the street to the luncheonette in the lobby
of the Thorpe Aerospace Building. When he got to the counter, sat down and
placed his violincase on it, he was surprised to find a waitress on duty, an
unassuming, black-haired, wide-eyed woman in her late twenties.
"Whatıs the matter with the server?"
"Not working, sir. Iıll take your order."
"Sir? I mean, large coffee, black, no sugar. And a bag of chips."
punched the appropriate buttons on the computerized grille while Howie
clapped his cold hands once, blew on them , then rubbed them together
"Is that all sir?"
"And a giantburg with fries--ketchup no relish and onion rings and, and
of those little baked pies," he said, hastily. Hunger placed the order
before reason said no. He tapped the table with nervous fingers until it was
"A violin. You play?"
"Uh huh. The problem is the listening."
"She smiled. Oh, youıre hard of hearing? Just like Beethoven. What
She turned toward the computer-cook for Howieıs tray.
"Did you and your colleagues upstairs come up with a better way for
computers to talk yet, sir?" she asked, while smiling politely and handing
him his tray.
"Nah, not yet. Weıve been trying LISP code for months now to try to get
damned computer to imitate better what it hears. So far no success." What
the hell am I talking about?
"Lisp, huh? Well, thatıs way over my head. Excuse me?"
"Sure, lady. I mean, sure." He watched as she served someone else,
ate like anyone would who didnıt have a decent meal for months would. He had
to force himself to slow down, or else someone watching him might start
There was a black man sitting beside him, thirty-ish, with no facial hair
except for eyebrows, wearing sunglasses and dressed in standard business
clothes underneath an unbuttoned black trench coat. Tall. Lean. He slowly
took sips of coffee in thirty second intervals, and watched the door to the
menıs room behind and to the left of the counter.
Howie kept on eating, desperately trying to think of a way to evade paying
the waitress until he could earn enough by playing.
The black man observed with keen interest when he saw a wary looking man of
about thirty-five, wearing a black woolen skullcap and a black goosedown
coat go into the menıs room.
"Finished, sir?" The waitress, wiping a part of the counter with a
Howieıs heart began pounding.
"Uh, er, yep." He reached, nonchalantly, into his pocket, then
frowned as he
went through all his pockets with frantic motions. "Geez--my wallet--itıs
gone!" He momentarily placed his right hand on top of his head and looked
the waitress with anxious eyes, as the hands searched on, frantically. "No,
no, waitaminute. I got my credit card and, oh, shhhhh!"
He snapped his fingers.
"Naturally, itıs in the wallet! Oh, man! oh man oh man oh maaaaan!"
slapped the top of the counter with a hand. "Somebody lifted my wallet when
I was on the train! What a naive, innocent little gullible sap I must have
proved to him!" He looked at the black man and laughed with nervous, even
girlish laughter, which made him angry with himself.
"You know? Hee, hee....Hey, look miss..."
"Jeanetta? You know, Iım good for, just let me, but I do have some
change. How much is, is everything?"
"More than twelve bucks? Hell, I donıt even think I--man! Somebody
Howie put all the money he had on the counter and counted it out.
"Four dollars and three cents. Hey, Iım good for, I mean--listen,
Iım in a fix. Could you loan me a buck twenty-five for a phone call? I know
Christmas was last month, but, well Iıll pay ya."
The man put his coffee down, and, with a sigh, reached into his pocket to
give him five quarters.
Howie jumped up.
"Hey, youıre swell. A real card, man."
The man lifted his sunglasses up off his eyes and propped them on his
"Swell? A card? What are you, some afficionado of ancient movies?"
"Yeah, man. Old TV too. Capra, Chayefsky, Serling. Guys with desperate
lessons to tell, man. Hey--be right back!"
The black man sighed again and pulled his sunglasses back down over his
"Iım into Spike Lee, myself," he mumbled.
The pay phone was on the wall next to the menıs room. Howie pretended to put
the five quarters in, dropping one in the process. When he stooped down to
pick it up, he glanced at a very tall man in a black parka who had just
entered the front lobbyıs revolving doors to go over to the black man in the
"The Indiana Pacers must be in town," Howie said. Preoccupied with
concerns, he fake punched a number.
"Hello, Al? Al how ya doin? Say, Al, Iım at the Thorpe luncheonette and
in a jam because, well I was coming back from the Conservatory, and, this
amoral jerk with a point to prove lifted my wallet right out my pocket!"
Howie turned toward the wall. Unseen to him, both the black man, with a
sigh, and the man in the black parka, left the counter to go out the
revolving doors for an intense conversation while people streamed in and out
"Yeah, thatıs right....No, on the train, I said. Didnıt find out till
back here. Hell, yes it was embarrassing! Can you help me out? Five minutes?
Say, youıre a card, pal. Iıll wait."
He hung up and went back over to the counter, standing there, drumming the
top with nervous fingers.
"Friend of mine from Quality Control. Heıll help pay for this in a
"Okay, sir," said Jeanetta, with her pleasant smile.
Howie pointed to the menıs room.
"Just going to the john," he said. To figure out what to say and do
He went to the menıs room and put his hand on the door but paused because he
Tseww! Tseww! Tseww!
"Huh? What the hell was...?"
He opened the door and wished he hadnıt.
A man on the floor of the large restroom, dead, with three holes oozing
blood in the body, the killer in the goosedown coat standing over the body,
raising a smoking gun with a silencer, toward Howies head.
Howie rushed toward him. Tseww! The fourth shot missed his head by inches.
In an instant Howie was on the killer and the two fell to the floor,
punching, grappling in a frenzy. Howie punched the killer in the face and he
dropped the gun. Howie reached for it but in the struggle the killer
accidently kicked it two feet away as he got back on his feet.
The gun had slid across the floor to collide with a thik! against the base
of a commode in one of the empty stalls. The killer rushed toward the stall
door to retrieve it but Howie pulled him backward, back down to the floor.
Howie tried to pin him down but the killer broke free, got up and reached
for the stall door.
"Nice try, you little homeless wuss loser."
Howie kicked him, savagely, in the back, a Martial Arts trick that his
friend, the boy named Sueı, Kim Oshimura, had taught him at Cornell.
"Ahhhh!" The killer fell forward, head slamming into the stall
The man grunted savagely, swung around and held Howie in a vicious headlock
while opening the stall door and dragging him to the commode. He pushed
Howieıs face down into the commode water and felt around on the floor for
the gun with his other hand. Howie, his breath filling the commode water
with bubbles, pushed blindly out with a hand, trying to find the killerıs
face. When he felt it he pulled his hand back slightly then stabbed out
toward it, fiercely, and into the killerıs eyes, Moe Howard style.
"Owwwwww! You little shit!"
Howie pulled his head out, gasped for air and dried his eyes, then rushed
out the stall in time to see the killer, hands covering his eyes, stagger
out the menıs room door.
He waited for his heart to stop pounding crazily.
"Tried to kill me, drown me in a toilet!" Fled is that killer.
faint, or puke?
He rushed over, on trembling legs, to the body. The dead man was about sixty
something, dressed in a beige suit and blue tie, a cassette tape in his
hand. Howie searched through his pockets for identification. When he found
the manıs wallet, he went through the contents carefully: five hundred and
three dollars, credit cards, membership cards to the IEEE and the Society
for Industrial and Applied Mathematicians, The Planetary Society, and
others. Also, a Thorpe Aerospace photo ID.
In the wallet he also found an old photograph of the dead man standing with
other engineers and scientists in front of a huge radio dish.
"Is that Frank Drake heıs standing near? Picture so faded, canıt
He was no astronomer, but he had been into science fiction and he knew
important fiction and science names for that field, like Asimov, Sagan,
Frank Drake. Robots, wormholes with exotic matter in them that led to
Sagan's novel, Contact, and SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial
Howie put everything back except for the old photograph and the Thorpe ID,
having made sure those fingertips that peeked out his hole-filled gloves
didnıt touch anything.
"Doctor Elias Huffman, Digital Flight Control Research Department,"
mumbled, looking at the Thorpe Aerospace ID. "Huffman, Huffman, where have
heard that name before? Obviously not the famous Information Theory Huffman
He shook the picture up and down, as if it were wet, and he wanted to dry it
Where did I see that radio dish before?
He put the ID and picture back, then pried the cassette out from between
"Enough to kill for..."
He heard something, a brief thumping sound against the door, so he turned
quickly toward the door, poised to jump up.
You idiot. Last thing I need is a murder pinned on me. With the kind of luck
the absent God and the ubiquitous Devil give me, itıd probably stick...."
No one entered.
He put the cassette into his coat pocket, carefully feeling around inside
there with his fingers. Any holes? No. He checked around to make sure
nothing fell out his backpack, then left quickly, relieved to see no one at
the phone or in the immediate area except for an elderly Hispanic woman
mopping the floor next to a short corridor that led to an exit door.
So you made the thumping sound, Mrs Diaz....
People seldom used that restroom; the lobby was big and had three menıs
rooms besides this one. He went over to the luncheonette counter; Jeanetta,
Mister Sunglasses,ı both were gone. To his immense relief, the violin,
still in its case, remained on the cluttered counter. No waitress was behind
the counter at all.
Four people sat there: a young woman with shopping bags, trying to give a
small, torn off piece from a sandwich to a noisily protesting toddler, the
mousy businessman he had seen early that morning who had held the folded
Wall Street Journal up like a weapon at him.
And two armed security guards. Howieıs heart skipped a beat.
"Told Jeanetta Iıd keep an eye out for your violin, mister," said
them, finishing off his cheeseburger with rapid bites. The other one quickly
drank down the last drops of Coca Cola in his glass, while getting up.
"Uh huh. Geez...thanks." Howie picked up the violincase.
"Hurry up, Joey," said the guard with the Coca Cola glass.
Howie turned and walked slowly toward the lobby doors, almost as if he were
Five men came, together, through the lobby doors without seeing him; Mister
Sunglasses was one.
Howie went out the revolving door farthest from the ones they had entered,
reached the sidewalk, and melted into the safe and secure oblivion of the
The five men went to the restroom. Then Mister Sunglasses and two men slowly
came back out, looking in all directions before going up to the luncheonette
counter. The guards were gone, and now a young waitress was behind the
"Pardon me, miss. The waitress that was here before you. Do you know
"Jeanetta you mean? Sheıs on a lunchbreak," said the waitress, a
with black hair so long it fell across her small shoulders and abundantly
down her back. Bangs draped her forehead, and her oval face would have
captivated an art student.
"Did she mention to you anything about a young guy, about twenty-four or
five, wearing kind of raggedy clothes and carrying a violincase?"
"Come to think of it, she did."
"Whatıs your name?"
The girl looked over at the menıs room, where two of the men had just
emerged, while the black man with sunglasses stood in front of her flanked
by the other two.
They all looked like Men In Black.
"Well, Annie, thereıs nothing to be afraid of. Just tell us."
"Well, yes she did. Said he was kinda weird."
"Yeah, that he was."
"She thought he was one of the A. I. guys from upstairs. Some of them
millions but dress so tacky?"
"A. I. guys?"
"Artificial Intelligence." The girl smiled as she handed a customer
giantburg, onion rings and coke. "Theyıre mostly kinda weird, you know?
eat down here sometimes, talking shop talk nobody understands. Anyway
Jeanetta said this guy youıre asking about said his wallet was stolen or
something and that he went to the menıs room."
"Did she see where he went afterwards?"
"No. In fact she never even saw him come out."
"Okay, Annie. You better have someone call for the police. Thereıs been
Annie covered her mouth with her hands.
"OmyGod!" She looked over at Mrs Diaz, who was mopping around the
"Mrs Diaz--somebody? Get security!"
Mrs Diaz heard her, dropped her mop, and picked the guard phone receiver up.
"When they get here, give them my card." He reached into a breast
gave her the business card, which had a fierce looking bald eagle in the
upper right corner:
WHO YOU GONNA CALL?
When she regained her composure, she took it.
He went over to a pay phone, put in five quarters and punched in a number.
It rang twice, then someone picked it up.
"Huffmanıs dead, but weıll get him. Donıt worry. We know heıs headed
Frankfurt by United to meet some contact."
"George and Thomas didnıt find it on the body."
"You two are aware of the time constraints, arenıt you?"
"Yeah, yeah. Please donıt pressure us. We know how important it
"Any clues as to its whereabouts?"
"Thereıs this kid...."
"Homeless, I think, although some young girl behind the counter here
heıs in Artificial Intelligence."
"You donıt think he has it?"
"Dunno. Might. But if heıs into Paganini I donıt think heıll make
out of it. Just sounds like a drunk guy at a harpsichord."
"What are you talking about--Paganini?"
"He carries a violin around. He must have seen the whole thing in
"Find out who he is. Hear?"
"Sure. Wonıt be hard."
"Check all the shelters."
"You know it, Smiley."
Smiley hung up with a click.
One hour later Howie found himself walking aimlessly down many busy streets
in the Technical District, thinking about the mysterious dead engineer and
about the man in the out of fashion goosedown coat.
The guy had actually meant to kill him; that was the first time anything
like that had ever happened to him. Yes, he had blundered into the wrong
place at the wrong time because of the flip of a coin. It was weird how
Chance could determine things, almost as if Chance itself were the
Insouciant but Compassion Posturing Almighty, giving out rewards at times
because of oneıs merits, and at times because of oneıs opportunities. What
else could explain why a well to do suburban doctor could win a ten million
dollar lottery after buying a ticket for the first time in his life, as had
happened last year, while a short order cook in a rundown restaurant run by
a manager who couldnıt afford computer servers, could spend one hundred
dollars a month on lottery tickets for ten years, only to win nothing? How
else could you explain why a man with no experience in government whatsoever
could become, first, Governor of New York, and then, after only one term,
President of the United States, when the only thing he had going for him was
looks, tons of wealth and a software company, while a truly compassionate
man who was a Vietnam veteran and a Senator for thirty two years received
only a trickling of the popular vote? He wished he could step sideways in
time, into a wormhole, like the ones he used to write about, and make his
inherited penny come up heads instead. That way, there wouldnıt be five men
possibly gunning for him, and a possible murder rap. Just the mathematical
proofs in his head and the notes from his violin, both mingling together in
all the underground subways and on the street corners in the Technical
District when the weather was warmer.
What did you blunder into? A blackmail scheme that went wrong?
He roamed the cold streets, trembling as much from fear as from the cold.
And he found himself staring suspiciously at all kinds of people as he
passed them, afraid some shadowy figure without a face would stick a gun in
his ribs, hustle him into a nearby alley and whack him, to split with the
tape he was carrying. Only the rats would witness the crime and not ignore
the poor violinist-mathematician, as they sniffed around the dead, homeless
bastard to see if he had any food on him.
He reached Seventy Fifth Street and turned left on Morse Square, walking
past the Telecommunications Museum. He looked at the blown-up photographs of
Sputnik, Telstar, Mariner Nine, Vikings One and Two, Voyager and Galileo, in
Then he saw a photo of an immense radio dish resting in a valley, surrounded
by hills of grass, breathtakingly green.
Howie slapped the top of his head with a hand.
"You getting senile out here? Thatıs Arecibo in Puerto Rico! The Dish!
Thatıs where he was standing! And professor Armstrong on Working Classıs
He ceased talking; a concerned woman old enough to be his great grandmother
had stopped to look at him.
"Iım, Iım an actor, lady. Just, um, rehearsing some lines by this
who adapted Meet John Doe for the stage. Walter Brennanıs helots and all."
"Oh," she said, with a timid smile. She walked away slowly.
"I remember seeing Walter Brennan in it, and Gary Cooper with Barbara
Stanwyck in it, of course. But a Professor Armstr...." She vanished into
Howie went down into the underground subway at Technology Plaza to play the
violin for a few hours, but his playing, obviously, was not up to its usual
He couldnıt stand it any longer. He took the three dollars and eighty one
cents out his skullcapbasketı, stuffed it into a pocket and went back
upstairs to walk to Chandraıs Pawn, on the first floor of the Kornelius
The Hindustani pawnbrokerıs items showed in the windows facing the street:
guitars, violins, gold chains, rings, televisions, VCRs, PCs, software.
Forgive me, violin.
Howie went inside and got into a line. Twenty--nine people, arms filled with
stuff to pawn, crowded the small place, people of every age, race, sex,
sexual orientation and description, huddling impatiently around the three
windows in irregular lines. In half an hour it was Howieıs turn. Chandra was
at the window.
"You must have seen me around every now and then, Chandra. Especially
outside in the Spring and Summer. Lots of millionaires in this building, you
know. Ever hear me play outside?"
Chandra, a middle-aged man with gray streaks in his hair, adjusted his gold
rims to inspect Howie more closely.
"I have heard of some young street violinist called the professor, but
have not heard you play. It gets busy in here all times of the year."
Howie carefully took the violin and bow out the case.
"Itıs real good," he said, resting the case on the floor.
He carefully showed Chandra the front and back of the instrument. "Used to
belong to some musician who actually played in Bruno Walterıs orchestra,
"No joke." He played several bars from the main theme in the Rondo
Beethovenıs D Major Violin Concerto, then slid the violin, bow and case in
through the window.
"Manufactured in Berlin back in forty-nine."
"How much do you want," asked Chandra, turning the violin over and
inspecting it carefully.
"Geez, you canıt go a little higher?"
Howie sighed. "Oh, okay. Fifty, then. Say, can I get twenty dollars, and
good cassette player for about thirty?"
"Donıt see why not." There were rows of goods arranged behind each
on shelves, benches, tables. Expensive clocks, jewelry, old Macintoshes and
word processors, laptops, toys, electric typewriters, porta-tels, cassette
players of every size. Chandra shuffled over and returned with a combination
cassette player/television the size of a paperback book. He passed it
through to Howie, who looked it over.
"Yeah, this is what I need."
"Twenty dollars, register." Chandraıs cash register pushed out a
twenty dollar bill.
"Here you go." Howie took the money.
"You must sign this." Howie signed the small contract Chandra
passed to him,
after carefully reading it.
"You have sixty days. After that," Chandra shook his head.
"Right. Seven hours of minimum wage slave labor. No problem."
Chandra gave him his pawn ticket.
"Thanks Iıll be back later for it. This friend named Felix will help me
Howie put the cassette player into his backpack, quickly left the shop and
nearly ran up the street.
Got to be alone.
He searched until well after four in the afternoon, nearly freezing to
death. Finally, twenty blocks away from the Kornelius building, he found a
Fifty years ago, during Lyndon Johnsonıs Administration, a low-cost housing
complex had been built there, but poverty and crime, little imps in want
just like those hiding underneath the skirts of Charles Dickensı Ghost of
Christmas Past, combined with galloping indifference and Ayn Randıs old
Objectivist doctrine, cloned by President Leibkowitz and newly dubbed,
"competitive efficiency for maximal growth," made it an eyesore for
seven figures a year crowd who worked in the nearby highrises. Actually,
President Leibkowitz had learned the phrase from a Scientific American
article he had read fourteen years ago. He took to it, so it became a slogan
for his 2008 Presidential Campaign. Now it took to the nation, even among
those who didnıt know what it meant.
Competitive Efficiency For Maximal Growth. It once went by the uglier
expression Social Darwinism,ı Howie thought to himself. Whatever one chose
to call it, it inspired the millionaire crowd to tear down the eyesoreı to
make way for the construction of technoyup condominiums. Tens of thousands
of the former residents became people just as displaced as Howie was. Just
like Herbert Hooverıs Bonus Marchers. Just like the squatters in the South
Africa of the Seventies. A continuously tolerated, continuously ignored
National Embarrassment. Only Realpolitik and the Dollar Signıs feelings
concerned the majority. The only people who dared to react with outrage
about everything were an independent minority condemning the societyıs mad
leap into the Pastıs abyss of Group Allegiance, scapegoat--searching and
rampant heartlessness. They all belonged to different political parties and
religions, all stigmatized as bleeding-hearts and troublemakers, and as tiny
in number as the Physicistıs dimensionless Fine Structure Constant. The
Prime Minister of France, Yvette St. Clair, was outraged too, but what the
hell did a foreigner know?
"If somebodyıs life screws up, itıs their own fault."
"If somebodyıs life screws up, itıs their own fault."
"If somebodyıs life screws up, itıs their own fault...."
In the previous year religious pollsters revealed that at least seventy-one
percent of Americans still believed in a God, whether they went to a church,
temple, mosque or not. Well, how did belief in a just God of love, and
Social Darwinism, mix?
He asked himself that question now, as he did everyday.
He finally found a gap large enough for him to squeeze through in the fence
around the site, so he stood there, cautiously looking around.
Does anybody really know what time it is?ı Well, I know and I care,
The Sixtiesı rock group Chicagoıs enlightening song title. His father had
taught him all the famous 1971 lyrics from the song back in 97 when he was
eight, along with several lyrics from other famous songs, including the
famous line of Simon and Garfunkel that spoke about prophetsı words on
subway walls. Howie had seen those words written on the subway walls of
2014, but the words, too grimy- -looking to the masses, just never sold as
platinum. The crazy, protesting Jeremiahs and the angry Isaiahs always wound
up getting kicked, clubbed and arrested, like the unendingly warring
Croatian, Cambodian and Haitian gang members, for defacing public property.
"Hey, Mrs World! I think youıre failing to seduce me!" he suddenly
Chicago. 1971. War. Hate. World Stupidity. A three-cycle element from the
permutation group of order six.
He squeezed through the gap, found a construction workerıs wooden stairway
and went up. When he reached the third floor landing he walked across the
sheet rock construction floor and sat down against a wall.
"Geez. What am I into?"
He popped the cassette into the player, but heard nothing at first. He
started to pull it out to play the other side, when he heard something, part
of a melody, played in a slow tempo:
The musician, whoever he or she was, played on a synthesizer that had a
harpsichordıs tonal quality.
It was the eight note motif from Johann Sebastian Bachıs Art of Fugue.
More music followed after a suspenseful pause, but the notes in the treble
and bass clefs seemed random and polyrhythmic. There sounded, on the right
hand treble clef, only two, randomized musical notes: Doh--Sol, on the A
Minor musical scale.
What the...was this guy Blissing, or what?
The performer played A Minor triads in the base, which varied, rhythmically,
from measure to measure. Eight bass chords in the first bar, five in the
second, and in each bar the bass chords sounded before the treble chords.
The whole compositionı lasted twenty minutes. Howie played it eight times
until he was familiar with it, then he turned the cassette off.
A and E notes in the right hand....A code....And the Bach fragment is a
He shivered; the place was cold.
"Two musical notes? But..."
He pulled out one of Felixıs drawings from his backpack, turned it over and,
starting at the top, wrote the right hand pattern of notes, Aıs and Eıs,
down exactly as he had heard them played. He listened to the tape
repeatedly, a few bars at a time, until he got the pattern down correctly.
When he was finished, he looked at the seemingly meaningless lines of
musical notes and was dumbfounded.
"Could go to the Brary, use a computer there." If I knew more
Huffman, knew what he did...
"Wait a minute!" He slapped his forehead. "Somebodyıs tripped
over his body
He turned on the pocket-tel part of the cassette player.
"Is that your final answer?"
"Well, yewrrre right! The line--Whereıs the rest of me?ı--was spoken
film Kingıs Rowı by the then actor Ronald Reagan!"
Bob Bartlyıs game show and the undying cliché remark of the twenty-teens. A
hopping, giggling Mrs. Whitman from Cheyenne, Wyoming, blonde hair whipping
her eyes, grabbed Bartly and kissed him while the audience went
wooooo!--raved and applauded.
"Well, Kelly, you just won a brand spanking new 2015 TDW!"
After listening to the raucous drumming and the sour trumpets of the showıs
taped music, Howie endured the sound of the hysterical voice-over describing
how to become a contestant on the hottest game show in America.ı Finally
the six oıclock news came on.
War in Central Europe, South America, West Africa, the Middle East.
Terrorist bombings in Washington, D. C., Boston, New York, London, Paris,
Brussels, on a Lufthansa flight to Buenos Aires, on the luxury liner
Budapest in the Mediterranean. The increase of slavery in North Africa,
child prostitution in Asia, an Israeli military massacre and cover up of two
hundred captured Palestinian soldiers, in retaliation for the Palestinian
militaryıs massacre of ninety-seven captured Israeli soldiers. An attempt on
the life of Great Britainıs King Charles, and an interviewed MIT economist,
warning that a world recession was imminent.
Does anybody really know what time it is? Who the hell cares?
Then the local and national news. Howie gritted his chattering teeth.
More local cases of the fatal, sexually transmitted HECT virus. A gorgeous
looking, all American Yale law student couple, convicted of second degree
manslaughter and sentenced to two years for setting fire to a homeless,
Chinese American woman with a history of mental problems, and who they had
encountered fast asleep on a New Haven park bench. The jury had pressed the
judge for leniency in sentencing because of the attractive coupleıs love for
each other. A fire, spreading away from a suburban Michigan house to kill a
total of seventeen people, after the homeownerıs expensive Technodyne
Technologies Automatic Fire Control System failed to work. And in New
Jersey, two police officers, acquitted of reckless homicide for using deadly
force on Christine Todd Whitman Avenue, when an off duty black FBI agent, the jury agreed, did reach for his identification too quickly.
"The trial, which held the attention of the American public
for the last eight months, was closely followed by Georgia
white supremacist activist Gabriel Harmon, who, like most
of the country, praised the jury for its verdict, telling one reporter,
We who are the real Americans all want the same thing. Some of us
just go about it differently. Harmon, whose organization
has nine hundred followers and is slowly growing in
several Southern states, plans to run for a seat in Georgia's
State Legislature. After the explosive trial, jury foreperson
Mildred Trainor responded to Harmons remarks by stating--
We jurors have no need for the likes of a Gabriel Harmon in our lives."
"A local computer scientist was found dead today in the
public restroom of the Thorpe Aerospace Building, located in
the Technical District."
"Finally, lady!" Howie sneezed again.
"Doctor Elias Huffman's body was found by police shortly
after noon today. The victim had three gunshot wounds to the chest.
Police say the murder was probably the result of a foiled robbery.
Doctor Huffman worked at Thorpe Aerospace for ten years. Before that,
he was a civilian communications engineering consultant
for the Navy, and, prior to that, Doctor Huffman was
an engineer at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, a
member of the scientific team that designed the Arecibo Message,
an interstellar code transmitted via radio signal to a local
cluster of galaxies to leave a record of our Earth civilization
with any extraterrestrial life forms there. Doctor Huffman's present
work at Thorpe Aerospace was classified."
"Didn't mention a description of me, thank Something. But, Arecibo!
That picture! But, robbery? No way."
Selling national secrets, probably. And Mister Sunglasses knows something, too. Howard Frederick Shannon, with the flip of a coin you projected
yourself into a world of secret codes and foreign agents.
He slapped the top of his skullcap covered head with a hand.
"That Arecibo message was in binary code! Binary code!"
Hand still poised on top of his head, he recalled everything he had read about the Arecibo message, from Carl Sagan and other sources. One thousand,
six hundred, seventy-nine bits of information, all in binary code, arranged in a seventy-three row by twenty-three column matrix, transmitted to M13 at
the fundamental frequency of hydrogen.
The two musical notes on the tape, A and E, tonic and dominant, stood for zero and one.
But which was zero, and which was one?
"Lessee....Tonic is the point of repose, meaning equilibrium. Well, A is
the tonic note in the A Major scale. Could that be zero? If it really is binary code, Howie old boy, then those notes are strings of zeros and ones in a
matrix. But what kind of matrix? How many rows and columns? The same as the Arecibo matrix?
He slowly counted all the letters he had written down. There were three hundred seventy eight As and Es, and he realized they should all be elements
in a matrix. But then if there were X elements, then the number of rows and columns in the matrix depended on the factors of X. He quickly scribbled out
all the factors of three hundred seventy eight: one hundred eighty nine and two, twenty-one and eighteen...
"Wait a minute. The matrix used at Arecibo had a row number and a column
number that were primes. And the Message was designed to reveal info, not conceal it, like the message hidden on this tape!"
He listened to the tape yet again, and detected something he had not noticed before: There was a pause after every sequence of twenty-one notes played in
the right hand's treble clef, eighteen pauses in all.
"Eighteen rows, twenty-one columns, man! Which came first, the computer,
or the homeless mind? Hoo hoo hooooo!"
He clapped his cold hands three times then rubbed them together before putting the matrix down on paper with a pencil, 0 for A, 1 for E, everything
arranged into eighteen rows and twenty-one columns.
I need another clue....
He slapped the top of his head.
"Great guns! A matrix of zeros and ones, á la Bach! Now what?
He listened to the beginning of the tape again.
"Bach's melody is followed by its mirror inversion. What does it
It was dark on the site now. His only illumination came from two streetlamps and distant city lights outside, pouring their stale, artificial gleam into
the windows to spill down as two light pools on the sheet rock floor where he worked.
And it was so chilly in there. Howie sneezed again and rubbed his hands, before lowering his threadbare scarf to rub his throat.
"Sore. Yeah, I think I'm--"
He heard a noise outside so he got up and ran, frantically, to a window, relieved to see that it was only a dog scavenging through garbage cans.
Before going back he paused to look at his reflection.
"You look terrible, man. What would Erdös or Euler say about
this?" He sighed as he headed back to sit down again. "Maybe Erdös would understand.
He hardly ever had his own place."
Little girls out here trying to look like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver.
Old people about to die...their own faultı losers...waste....waste....
"Jimmy? Rosalyn? You two still building houses for every kind of poor
stripe someplace?" His impulsive, top of the lungs shout surprised him.
Back to my construction.
Suddenly his face brightened with an idea.
"Howie, you stupid--" he started to slap the top of his head again,
instead, went back over to his think tank' station on the floor in the
corner, picked up the paper, and held it to the glass when he went back to the window.
He realized now that the Bach fragment with notes was a clue, saying
something about the matrix. Bach took his original Art of Fugue melody and reversed it around the submediant tone--the fourth note up on the musical
scale--as if that tone itself were a mirror. Yes, Bach's mirror inversion, which the performer was playing, was the clue which indicated the matrix was
reversed too. Its mirror image was what he really needed. He sat down to rewrite the matrix again, mirror reversing the columns until he finally got
the matrix he wanted:
There had to be another clue, however. The chords played with the left hand meant something. He reasoned that perhaps it wasn't the notes themselves
that mattered, but the number of chords in every bar that did.
He counted them.
"Eight in the first bar, five in the second, three in the
chanted, writing the number sequence down.
"Great, forty-one numbers. Now what, Sherlock?"
He started coughing.
"Cold, cold in here...."
He stuck his fingers underneath his skullcap, scratched his head, then
rubbed them together.
Huffman, Slepian, Viterbi, all were twentieth century communications
engineers who developed methods to encode, efficiently, English text. And Huffman Codes, he knew, involved binary encoding by using word
probabilities. Could the Thorpe Aerospace Huffman have used that means to encode his message? It was a delicious irony, really. Both were
communications engineers. Both were named Huffman.
He slapped his knee.
"Dammit! That is what he did!"
In Huffman Codes, words of English text were listed in descending orders of probability, the probabilities depending on their frequency of appearance in
the text. You drew a choice tree,' the first branches joining together low frequency words, like verisimilitude,' then two joined branches for the
next two higher up, and the next two, and the next two..., the top branch always labeled 1, the bottom 0. Then the branches were all joined together
and each word encoded into binary digits by following along the branches which led to it, encoding by writing the ones or zeros down the branches
leading to the word. So many bits per word produced the most efficient
"Yeah, that's what he did. the left hand chords mean the number of
digits in a block of binary characters following it. And if this thing is
error-corrected, he might have stuck in a superfluous row and column, which I can find out for sure if all the ones in each row and column are even."
He checked; they were. So he erased the first row and first column.
"Voilá! Now let me break up the rows into separate blocks of digits
here...," his speech trailed off as he began. When he finished, he looked
it all over.
"Blocks representing English text words. Yes or no?"
He knew that if it were the right kind of digital code, he could find the
entropy, the amount of uncertainty in a message when transmitted, by using the formula:
H = -SP(i)LOGP(i)
Hold it....I'm talking efficiency for old radio and television
transmissions, but my Huffman didnıt need efficiency. Only concealment.
"This thing is like a clever schoolboy cipher! Not encoded words, but
He remembered when he was an undergraduate in Cornellıs Cryptography Club, and how his friends, boy named Sue,ı Kim Oshimura, and Urkel from
Nigeria,' Chinua Otombo, would try to stump him with one cipher after another, simple substitution ciphers, multiple substitution ciphers, date
shift ciphers, Polybius, Porta, Playfair and Vigenère ciphers. Kim would always make him feel like two cents if he couldnıt crack one without a
computer, and he could hear, even now, Otombo's rapid fire hehh hehh hehh! laughter in the background.
"What would Alan Turing say about you, man?"
"Give him the Number Theory book, Chinnie, and let him write code in the
Lab." He just can't do this one."
Then two sympathetic pats on the back. So Howie studied everything he could on secret codes and ciphers, even memorized letter frequencies in the
English, French and German alphabets, in case they used foreign language ciphers on him. Soon he became so good at solving them that both guys grew
reluctant to give him one.
Howie smiled, then started coughing as he wrote down the list of the most commonly used English letters along with their probabilities, the highest
frequency letter at the top, the lowest on the bottom:
Then he drew his Huffman choice tree,' pairing off successive letters and linking them together, with a 1 assigned to the top branches, and a 0 to the
bottom branches. Soon he had a network of branches running from left to right across the paper, each branch labeled with either a 1 or a 0.
"Time to test my constructivist proof."
He selected a test letter': E. It had a single number representation, 1,
on the choice tree. So at every block of digits consisting of the single digit 1, he put an E'. Next test letter? T. Its number was 110. He reversed those
numbers and searched for appearances of 011, placing a T' beside each one. After reversing 0100 to 0010 and labeling it N'ı, he did the same for each
His eyes widened.
"Not bad for a homeless, jobless bum like me with a faded, green
Salvation Army coat and a so on and so on!"
He had constructed the word: ONE.
He kept working. The emerging letter patterns made more and more sense. At last, he had the message:
CITY'S MAIN LIBRARY THIRD FLOOR BOOK GQ TWO NINE ONE
"Okay, Howie old boy. We'll check it out tomorrow."
What time is it? He turned the pocket-tel on again and found a computerized news station. Black letters glided into life across a bright green
background, and spoke noiselessly about war, famine, revolutions, race riots, terrorism, while the station itself played soft, soothing FM radio
type string music. He looked at the bottom of the screen: 2:07 A. M.
"Ten hours I been at this?"
But I cracked the binary code, and without a computer. Not bad.
Homeless Gauss put the tape and cassette away in his sack, then placed the papers with the decipherment into his inside coat pocket.
One final comment before he fell asleep.
He rushed down Fifty Ninth Street the next morning, sneezing repeatedly. It was about eight thirty, he guessed. The sidewalk was thick with pedestrians,
"Damned Pottersville," he grumbled, while walking down the street,
sneering up at the highrises looming like stone sequoias everywhere, and at the shops
with expensive store fronts, watching diamond merchants, furriers, men and women in town from Wall Street.
The moral dumbing of America, of the world....
He raised and shook an angry fist at the buildings. "George Bailey was
never born, no Clarence. But real Potters every damn where!" The industrious folk
on the sidewalk ignored him.
His thoughts then deviated from the wrathful to the reflective.
When I find Felix, I'll work for a while, get paid, then look for this book at the--
He spotted "Mister Sunglasses" hurrying across Fifty Ninth and Ike,
dressed in a long, black leather coat, black hat with a rim so floppy it nearly covered his face, and still wearing the signature sunglasses. Another man
rushed beside him, grim, with a prominent forehead and a nose so hawkish it nearly curled over a mouth that drooped. His blue eyes were set inside a
face so angular it looked like a face carved from a granite block. He had on a hooded black parka. Yes, he was the same man Howie had seen enter the
Thorpe Aerospace building yesterday around lunch time.
They were heading directly for Howie, and he knew they weren't after five quarters....
"Uh oh. Something possibly wicked this way comes."
He turned and walked quickly in the other direction, but it wasn't long
before walking turned to desperate running through a thickening ocean of people. He looked like a fish trying to swim upstream.
And he wasn't fast enough. He turned his face to check on their progress.
"Yo yo yo!"
"Get him! Get the mutha--"
Mister Sunglasses was the one who punched him in the face while Granite Face knocked him down and yanked off his backpack while dragging him around in a
circle doing so, to get the straps off his arms. In the turmoil Howie could hear screams from shocked pedestrians ringing in his ears. All he could see
there on the ground were four feet running off.
The screams faded away quickly after the attackers vanished. Faces became apathetic again, and feet hurried on to some point at infinity, Howie told
"Thank God it wasn't me! That it, people?"
Get up! He tried to.
"Ow! Watch it, will you, lady?" A woman wearing sunglasses, wearing
a fur coat and momentarily looking down at him, had stepped on his hand with a high heel. From his vantage point there on the ground, she looked like some
giant, expressionless mannequin.
She walked on while he tried to get up again.
"Hey, will ya, watch it will ya, didn't you see I was jus--wait a
plea--ow! Hey, mister, you just kneed me in the--geez!"
"Yes, son. Guy dropped dead from heart failure on the floor of the New
York Stock Exchange while everyone else marched on to Dow Jones' fife."
"Tsk tsk. Trader's life screwed up."
Finally he stood up, dazed, shaken, rubbing his face, otherwise okay. He headed down Fifty Ninth again, but then stopped, groaned and slapped the top
of his head when he realized the two muggers spies extortionists whatever had everything.
"Damn! What am I gonna do?"
He turned around and started the very long walk to the library, getting
there in a little over an hour and a half.
"Eh, look! It's the professor!" It was a petite black woman in her
fifties, dressed in a man's tattered overcoat covering a clean but wrinkled, ankle
length dress which had once been bright green. Both the coat and the dress had fresh detergent streaks running through them. The black woman's legs
moved as if she had no knees that could bend. Her long gray hair shot out everywhere like Einstein's hair. She had two missing front teeth, and her
eyes twinkled mischievously, as if her mind retained valuable information which she refused to share with a world she had deemed too stupid to know
She stopped pushing her shopping cart.
"How you doing, Thelma?"
"Endurin," she said, cackling softly. "Say did you see Felix
today? Is he still up on Fifty-Ninth studyin people like some art-journalist?"
"Nah, haven't seen him today but I suspect he is."
"I know they say he's nuts up there, runnin up into people tryin to
Howie glanced at the new' gloves on her hands.
"Oh. Like em?" She held her hands up. "Felix bought em for
me last night at the Salvation Army Goodwill Store. I'm glad too because those old
hole-filled gloves had my fingers freezin."
"Uh huh," said Howie, looking at his own hole-filled gloves.
"Say, so how's about playin some music for me, Einstein? Let's hear
some Bach. Air on a G String, huh? I knew a Mississippi Baptist preacher who used
to play it on his hi fi when I was just a little seven year old thing. Plus when I was older he taught me how to sing Mozart's Voi che Sapete, you
"Yes, I know, Thelma. I didn't forget. From The Marriage of Figaro."
"So how's about playin?" asked the black woman.
"Can't. I'm really sorry, Thelma."
The black woman squinted her eyes as if straining to see, while leaning back away from the cart, hands still gripping the handlebar.
"Oh. So where's your violin? I thought with you it was always have
violin will travel."
"Let's just say someplace near, yet far."
"Now you're into riddles?" She cackled softly again. Stick to the
"Gotta go, Thelma."
"Bye." The black woman pushed her cart off and away while Howie
went into the library and ran straight up the stairs to the third floor.
An automated librarian's assistant, a computer server the size of a jukebox, sat in the doorway that led to the room with endless shelves of
"Book G. Q. two nine one, Herman?"
Numbers between two hundred and two ninety nine, along with different letter combinations, scrolled quickly across the server's screen. Then the
scrolling stopped as the book classification number was color highlighted.
"Third aisle on your left," the server droned.
"Thank you, Herman," said Howie, patting the top of the
assistant's console. "How's the wife and kids?"
Herman' ignored him.
"Turing Machine you ain't." Howie went to the aisle to find the
GQ-291 Korrelationstheorie der stationaeren stochastischen Prozesse
Khinchin, A. Y. SER. MAT. (1938)
He blew the dust off.
"No wonder Huffman put whatever in here." While he searched through
it, a small envelope fell out. He picked it up and looked inside. There was a small key, and a note:
POST OFFICE STATION 1501 BOX 502
"Way back up to Technology Square, dammit!"
He coughed, sneezed, then put the book back and left the library.
When he reached the Technology Square subway forty-five minutes later, he ran down the stairs to the turnstyles. When he got to them, he saw a transit
starter in the booth, reading a hard core S and M magazine with plenty of pictures.
He didn't have six dollars for the two tokens, and the guy wasn't going to let him through out of the kindness of his heart.
"Yes, son. Guy dropped dead from heart failure on the floor of
Howie looked around; all eyes were elsewhere. Like the poet T. S. Eliot's crowd on London Bridge, everyone had their eyes fixed before their feet, but
only the mathematician-prophet could hear distant bells intoning with a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
He bent over, wrapped his arms around his stomach, contorted his face, staggered to the turnstyles.
"Help meeee!" Please hellllp me!" He leaned over a turnstyle.
"Pleassssse. Somebody? Anybody?" Helllllp me! Pleassssse!"
Commuters moved to and fro, in and out turnstyles, up and down stairs, into and out shops, toward and away from concession stands. Those traveling
together talked about raises, recently purchased condos, weekend getaways, investments, food, wine, sexual relationships, traveling plans, investments,
popular books, job promotions, cars, soap operas, investments, sexual relationships.
The starter kept reading S and M.
Howie tumbled over a turnstyle onto the train platform and hunched up against a wall, clutching his stomach, moaning in "pain."
Two schoolkids between twelve and fourteen years of age pointed at him and laughed as they ran by. A couple in their early thirties approached and
stood beside him as he moaned. Their clothing, Cartier watches, jewelry and shoes all looked, to Howie, as if they were bought in a trendy Parisian
store. The man mumbled in her ear, then bit it playfully. Howie could only make out the single word: cunt. The woman giggled loudly, then suddenly
stopped to give Howie a glance of indignation as if he were someone's discarded, five cent, empty Pepsi can.
Howie turned away from them, smirked, then rose to his feet.
His sneakers felt slippery, so he glanced down at them.
He had stepped into someone's vomit when he leaned over the turnstyle.
"I'm innocent, I tell you! I didn't pick that guy's pocket! It was
this pale looking guy I think with twitching eyes and sunken cheeks like." A
handcuffed Cambodian kid about nineteen years old, dragged down the platform toward the underground Transit Technology Square Police Station by Officer
Syd Wickermann, as if he were a rabid dog that had to be destroyed. He
looked back, frantically, at his luggage, left behind, unattended, on the platform.
"Fuck you, you little gangmember! All you Nine Bamboo hoodlums say
innocent! And nice try! I haven't seen Weasel all morning. And one more thing. It's these hardworking commuters you see out here who are the real
innocents, you little asshole!"
"Gangmember? I'm not in the Nine Bamboo! And Weasel? Who the hell is
Weasel? I just got off Amtrak less than an hour ago! I'm from Fields Corner in Boston! That's eight hundred miles away from here!" His voice, clashing
with Patrolman Syd's, died away as they reached the platform's end. "And I thought this happened to us Cambodians only in the Bronx over in New Yor..."
Howie, still trying to follow the now distant and largely ignored drama,
momentarily glanced at the youthıs luggage. A small U S Flag decal showed on the Samsonite.
"Geez. One nation under God.' Sorry, Joseph K. There's just no Perry
Mason around. I just can't look at the last page of your trial."
In fifteen minutes the train, crowded with two groups of people, one angry, and the larger group insouciant looking, finally arrived. Howie got on with
the rest and struggled through the rapidly moving can of human sardines until he could steady himself by grabbing a pole with both hands in front of
the doors near one end of the train compartment.
"What frickin good are ya? What frickin good are any a ya? How will any
a ya ever stand out? What will ya do if Christ comes back? What will ya do when the Klingons land?"
Somebody somewhere screaming at the top of his lungs.
"Crazy," sighed a fortysomething blonde woman with glasses, reading
Businessweek, standing next to Howie, who found it impossible to see the screamer. Howie saw the woman's lips move slightly as she read her article,
her eyelids closed, it almost seemed. She looked as if she were in prayer, he thought.
"Herd! Ya stupid herd! Ya stupid herd! I can't stand it! Ya
After twenty minutes the train stopped in Post Office Station. Howie rushed out the doors, through the turnstyles, and then down the Main Corridor. He
reached the Post Office and found the box easily. He put the key in the slot and opened the door. There was a small
briefcase inside. He took it out.
The subway Post Office was in a plaza which had several expensive gift shops, restaurants, a movie theater, a Goldman Sachs office, and a
MCDonalds. Howie went into the MCDonalds and sat down at a table in the back.
He anxiously opened the briefcase and found five thick folders inside, along with two packages of computer software--CD ROMS and floppy disks--
--and a seven hundred page manual filled with specifications and other
written material about some kind of jet plane called the MATS. Everything had CLASSIFIED US GOVT stamped on it, even the briefcase.
He went through the folders first, one at a time. Four of them contained copies of correspondence between Thorpe Aerospace managers, and officials in
the Department of Defense. They discussed, in management engineering terminology, the latest state of the art in superfighter technology,
something about an upcoming performance trial for some recently built superfighter prototype, and something about its pilot. Only, the documents
kept saying: "our pilot," not "the pilot": "only our
pilot will be able to..." "our truly unique pilot will advance the art of
A glossy photo appeared in the fourth folder: a computer graphics
simulation. Airflow patterns around a very sleek, streamlined fighter
He sat there studying everything until time went into the second hour. He
read, carefully, technical descriptions from the manual for thirty minutes more, and studied illustrations, schematics, aerodynamic equations.
What the...hell? Advanced Very High Speed Integrated Circuitryı?
Something...called focal plane array?
He managed to understand that had something to do with the pilot seeing enemy aircraft twenty miles away by somehow utilizing the aircraft's heat
engine sensors. But there was something very strange; the written material often referred to "our pilot" utilizing the focal plane array even
when he was not flying the plane in person.
He read on until he understood, then he slowly, slowly, stood up, placing his hand on top of his head.
Thorpe Aerospace...they've got a defense contract for a supersonic
superfighter with a cybernetic pilot! He can get way better simulations of enemy topography, quicker calculations of optimal flight paths through
He whistled aloud when he sat back down; something was even more shocking.
This souped-up superfighter was completely controlled by a human pilot with a microchip in his head! All he had to do was think commands and transmit
them to a special nuclear powered satellite always fixed above him. The satellite retransmitted to the plane, and the superfighter responded to him
almost instantly, even if he were one thousand miles away!
How many bits of information per second, the entropy, did the microchip and its very energetic molecular power pack and amplifier' enable it to
transmit or receive, he immediately wondered? Were both sources--satellite and pilot--ergodic?
It was way, way fantastic, called Mind Access Tactical Superfighter.
All controlled by some dude who doesn't have to push a button in a cockpit! He could be sitting up in bed someplace in Washington, D. C., and bomb
Baghdad! The satellite has little rockets on it, for translation, rotation....Quaternions involved for guidance or navigation? So this is what
Huffman was selling.... he must have chickened out, gotten patriotic at the last minute. There was no way enough money on his body for him to have been
Suddenly, he had a gruesome thought and his pulses quickened.
What the hell is gonna happen to me?
"Wanna introduce you to a friend. Name is Gun. Nine Millimeter Gun.
Kinda shy, stays in my coat pocket a lot. But somehow he has a knack for getting
all kinds of people to do what I want. I don't think you'll be an exception. Do you?"
The voice was soft and cool. Cool as a knife blade on top of an ice block. Howie looked up and saw Mister Sunglasses, standing next to Granite Face,
who stared at him with blue eyes that just didn't look too compassionate.
"Let's go," said Granite Face. "I'll take that." Howie
handed him the
folders and other material. Granite Face stuffed everything into the
briefcase then all three left with Howie, obviously, in the middle.
He wanted to scream. The goons were giving him the creeps, and the flood of commuters and shoppers drove him to an unbearable exasperation, talking
among themselves, he thought, about nothing, and rushing from nowhere and into nowhere.
They went upstairs and across the street to a parked car. Behind the
steering wheel sat a bulky, round-headed man dressed in sunglasses and unbuttoned beige trench coat. He looked so tough Howie was sure he was
either a hit man or someone who tore houses down with his bare hands. He thought about running, but Granite Face grabbed his right arm. Was the man a
mind reader? Howie looked at all the traffic, both on the street and on the sidewalks, but he knew screaming would not help. He looked up, then across
the street. A young woman, delicious-looking auburn hair, arranged into
Shirley Temple curls the ends of which bounced just above her shoulders, oozing sexuality inside her coat some leopard had died for, prancing up and
down the sidewalk in fishnet stockings and in heels high enough to give the contour of her shapely ass the required liquefaction as she moved, stopped
beside the passenger window of one of three cars which pulled up to the curb for her. The male driver rolled down the window. After the short conference,
she jumped in.
"That's Wendy. Fourteen going on nineteen. I told myself last night.
She shows now." They ignored him. Wendy's driver sped away, tires viciously
"Get in," said Granite Face. Howie slid into the back, seated
between the other two, as Roundhead drove off.
"So, um, do you guys mug people for a living, or is it an after work
hobby of yours robbing the poor to give to the rich, or...?"
Silence as both men looked out their respective windows.
"Hey I really need that cassette player back, man. I've got to swap it
for my violin, at, at the pawnshop. My mom got it for me. She bought it from this guy in Germany? It's my only means of livelihood. And, uh, you guys
know kidnapping is a federal offense?"
"Shut up," said Roundhead, glancing in the rear view mirror.
Howie got quiet fast.
Roundhead turned on the radio: a classical station played the funeral march from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, which didn't help his nerves any. He
sneezed. Mister Sunglasses gave him a handkerchief.
"Don't mention it."
After an hour's drive they pulled into a motor lodge outside of the city. Everyone but Roundhead got out and headed to a motel room. Granite Face went
in first, looked around, then shut the door. For two minutes Howie heard a faint beep! sound inside, then Granite Face opened the door again.
Howie and Mister Sunglasses went in.
"Sit down," Granite Face said. Howie sat on the bed.
"Hope Smiley calls soon," said Mister Sunglasses.
"Question is, what should we tell him," said Granite Face, looking
grimly at Howie. "Okay, kid what do you know, when did you know it, who did you know
it with?" he asked.
"What do you mean? Know about what?"
"You were there when Huffman was killed," said Mister Sunglasses.
"Hey, you know, I didn't see nothing, man. I didn't see anyone get
shot. I don't know what all of this is about. Why not let me go?"
"What were you doing with this then?" asked Granite Face, showing
Howie the briefcase.
"You sure as hell canıt deny having the cassette."
"Hey, um, listen. I donı' know what all of this is about, but, I don't
want to get into anything."
"You're already into something, kid. Up to your neck." Mister
Sunglasses emphasized his point by making a slicing motion with an imaginary knife
across his own neck.
"And cut the innocence crap." The veins in Granite Face's temples
were throbbing. "You arenıt a virgin, I don't think."
"I don't know. Maybe he is," said Mister Sunglasses. No history of
girlfriends or even boyfriends at Argyle Academy in Minneapolis. No history of girlfriends or boyfriends at Cornell. If so, the Reverend Shannon brought
his third kid up squeaky clean. Provided you really are Howard Frederick Shannon."
"Yeah, thatıs right," said Granite Face. "For all we know,
you could be an enemy agent who murdered off the real Howard Shannon and then had plastic
surgery so he could take his place."
"That's really outlandish," said Howie, trying to stand up, only
Granite Face push him back down again. "That's like something I could have written before I wound up on the streets. Or a cloned mathematician maybe,
whose clone kills him to take over his life. Damn, it's so formulaic and mediocre, if I had written that I could have gotten published."
They asked him the same questions over and over again for an hour, what was he doing in the restroom, what went on in there, did he know the man who
shot Doctor Huffman, what possessed him to take the tape, did he realize he was up to his neck in trouble, etc, etc, etc.
But something wasn't quite right, street instincts told him. Why no drugs, beatings, torture? He had been hit and roughed up only during the fake
mugging. And in the Thorpe luncheonette, Mister Sunglasses was watching the restroom door as if someone inside was under...
"Wait a minute. Are you guys feds, or something?"
Mister Sunglasses and Granite Face looked at each other.
"I mean, if you are, you've got to tell me, right? I mean, even a
homeless person should have rights, like it or not. You've got to tell me."
Granite Face sighed.
"Call me Macklin."
"That your real name?"
"Okaaay...." Howie breathed a sigh of relief. And you're a fed
"My name is Ralph. We work for a company, and that's all. Remember
"Thorpe Aerospace Security?"
"Cut the levity," said Macklin.
"A company," said Ralph.
"Of course! you mean the company!"
"A company, kid, Let's leave it like that," said Ralph. The less
you know, the better."
"Okay, Ralph. I'm not hard to get along with. Hey is it true you guys
really know more about the JFK hit than you--"
"Never mind about us," said Macklin. "You're in real trouble.
We caught you with classified government material. Know what would happen to you if the
FBI knew you were walking around with classified material of the United States government? They'd lock you away until James T. Kirk is born."
"What went on in that restroom?" asked Ralph.
"I just came in to use the john, that's all. And there was this guy
standing in there with a smoking gun with a silencer and another guy dead on the
floor. Next thing I know, guy's trying to kill me, man. Tried to drown me in a toilet."
"Drown you, in a, toilet?" A blast of incredulous air spurted out
between Ralph's lips.
"Sure did. Good thing it was flushed. But I broke free from his
headlock. When I went for the gun, he split."
"So Huffman was dead before you got there?"
"Practically, Ralph. I heard three shots. You, know, each with that tsew!
silencer sound. I opened the door, saw Huffman on the floor, and the other guy holding the gun."
"Tell us about the cassette," said Ralph.
"What do you want to know?"
"Tell us why you took it," said Macklin.
"Curiosity, I guess. Guy did try to kill me. The cassette was obviously involved. Had to find out what was on it."
"So you got a cassette player listened to the cassette and deciphered
the message. Right?"
"Right, er, Agent Blue Eyes, sir." Howie saluted.
"Where's the computer you rented time with?" asked Ralph.
Howie pointed to his head.
"Jump out the shuttle," said Macklin.
"Yeah, it's true I'm not liked much and people would like to see me
get lost. But I'm no depressed NASA astronaut named Bill Wendel."
"Ahhh..." Ralph waved an incredulous hand at Howie. "You
expect us to believe you solved a complex cipher like that without hardware? Now, listen,
kid. Huffman was alive when you found him, right? He told you where to find the classified info, right? Gave you the tape, right? Asked you to find
everything before you-know-who did. Right?"
"No, man! I solved it."
"After that fake mugging--"
"You mean your fake mugging."
"After we fake mugged you then," Macklin continued, "we used
our computers. Even our best computers couldn't crack that--"
"You should have a computer with perfect pitch, like I do." Howie
tapped his head with a finger. "Then they wouldn't have a problem. After all, this
may be the dawn of the Voice Recognition Age, but not the Music Recognition Age."
Ralph crossed his arms and tilted, slightly, his head.
"It was easy. The two musical notes on the tape--A, and E--since they
were the only notes the performer played with the right hand, I figured they stood for zero and one. I guessed he used a Huffman Code
because of his name, the irony, you know? Hell, at least I saw it. Then I guessed he either
could have encoded the message using blocks of binary characters for words, or maybe blocks for enciphered letters. When I realized he only wanted
concealment, not efficiency, I guessed he enciphered letters."
"Where's your work? Show us." Howie pulled the papers out his
pocket and gave them to Ralph, who looked them over with Macklin.
"Macklin? I think this kid really did it." He looked at Howie with
"Son of a gun. A homeless kid did it. Homeless kid."
"Crazy. No one can do that. Crack this without hardware."
"Don't tell me that, Macklin," said Ralph. I'm a cryptananalyst
as well as a cryptologist. Learned everything from Turing's work on Enigma at Bletchley
Park to the latest techniques of today, straight out of Number Theory. And I'm still in my prime."
"Very funny," said Howie.
"I don't get it," said Macklin.
"You have to be a mathematician, Macklin," said Howie. "Huge
prime numbers are usually involved in encryption research."
"Look, boy wonder," said Macklin. Deciphering is one thing.
Handling classified government material is another. How much do you know about the
"I'll tell you guys if youıll answer a question for me."
"Yeah? Okay," said Ralph.
"Was the guy who tried to kill me an enemy agent? He did try to kill me,
I have a right to know, you--"
"Alright, alright," said Ralph. "A freelancer. A businessman
who had a lot of dealings with certain foreign governments. Tried to get rich by selling
top secret material overseas. He probably was going to take this briefcase to foreign agents when you interrupted him from getting the tape. We don't
know who, the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Japanese, or even the North Koreans, for all we know. His network was so big we had to handle things."
"Where's the guy now? In jail?"
Ralph looked at Macklin, then back at Howie.
"Well, don't worry about that....Let's just say if anything happened,
happened overseas. Good thing for you, kid. Believe me."
"So Huffman was selling out, Ralph? That it?"
"Yeah....The guy you fought with was blackmailing him. We won't tell
you over what. Let's just say that it was something that would have ruined his career, not to mention his marriage. Now what do you know about the
"Not much. Something about its phased-array radar system, a little about
its sensors and a more improved focal-plane array system, and--oh yeah. Something called Mind Access."
Geez. Now you're going to wind up paying for being sarcastic.
"Yeah. You know a lot. Too much." said Ralph, flashing an awkward
smile. "I wouldn't put it past you to build a prototype from what you got out of those
folders. Man, if this doesn't beat all. A homeless kid who deciphers complicated digital ciphers without using hardware. A mathematician who
plays the violin."
"Hey, there was Einstein, although he used the Applied, not the Pure,
"Yeah, but Einstein wasn't homeless," said Macklin.
"No but before his job at the patent office, when he was wandering
around on European streets, and even years later in New Jersey, he looked it, no
socks, handkerchief on his head, and all. One thing about this Tactical superfighter though," said Howie. "The whole system for one MATS costs
ten point five billion, according to that manual. For one plane? How many homeless people could have decent, low-cost housing built for them with only
a smidgeon of that money, huh? Like former President Carter is doing even without that money, even as old as he is." He continually sliced the air
with the passionate motion of a hand as he spoke, just like Mister Working
Class had done yesterday morning. "How many poor, starving people
throughout the world could be fed with some of the dough for this human mind driven,
hi-tech destructo weapon? Huh? Don't you think it's about time this techno savvy world should do something about the poor, and about all the shit in
it? Now we that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. That sound like Ayn Rand? This is supposed to be
one nation under God, right, compassionately conservative Christians?"
"One of your dadıs sermons," said Macklin. Very funny, you little
hypocrite. You don't even believe in God."
"That's exactly my point," said Howie. But, weirdly, Sopranos go
to Church, and everybody still loves them even while they whack on after fifteen years,
while remembering some priest's homily on Thou shalt not kill."
"Want to quote scripture? Jesus said something about having the poor
with you always."
"Yeah, Ralph, but he also said something about loving thy
"I do. But the poor donıt live next to me, Father Shannon."
Suddenly, Howie noticed how the two agents lacked all emotion save cynicism. They were mechanical, just like the FBI men actor James Coburn's
psychiatrist character had encountered in the brilliant film, The President's Analyst, or like Jack Webb and Harry Morgan's characters on
Dragnet. So their three-way conversation continued to bounce around the room like a ping pong ball.
"Look at President Leibkowitz's granddad," said Ralph. "Got
Buchenwald dirt poor. In less than eight years he had four tailor shops in Munich and his grandson wound up born in America to get a Masters Degree in
Electrical Engineering, starting his own five billion a year software company, winding up as Governor of New York and later becomes the President
of the U S of A. Nobody has to stay poor, kid. If someone's a loser, it's their own fault."
"At least grandpa Leibkowitz was able to endure and get out of
Buchenwald, physically, emotionally, as well as mentally," said Howie.
"What?" asked Macklin.
"General George S Patton, Macklin? About Jewish people in the camps?
No people could have sunk to the level of degradation these have reached in the
short space of four years. Meaning it was their fault they were losers and in the camps. President Leibkowitz could call him a white Louis Farrakhan,
just like he calls Farrakhan a black Joseph Goebbels, if he were brave enough. Why is truth so one-sided for so many?"
"Hey. Don't smear God fearing General Pattonıs name," said
"Sorry to deflate your icon with my sharp pin, but he really did say
that, among other anti-Semitic and racist things," said Howie. "No person or
majority is Infallible. Henry David Thoreau taught that lesson years ago, and the majority still won't accept it. Iım a mathematician, man...."
"As well as a whistleblower," said Ralph.
" So were Woodward and Bernstein. Ralph? Macklin? If a statement ain't
true all the time, then it ain't true. Like the statement The polynomial X squared minus X plus forty-one always cranks out a prime number for every
positive integer X, just ain't true. That's the truth, not political ideology. Blaming the victim and loving the bully always leads to boredom
disease. I had an aunt who was raped? My uncle blamed her and two years after the rape, divorced her. He hates her to this day, but he forgot all
about what the rapist did. They had three kids together." He sadly shook
his head. "Boredom disease."
"Leibkowiz doesn't have any answers. I don't have any answers. I
don't think anyone does," said Ralph.
"But at least somebody should try to find them."
"Go out and vote like everyone else does," said Macklin.
"Voting is not going to do it. The Majority changing will." Howie
dropped to his knees and wildly waved his arms. "Repent! Repent!"
"Hey, cut that out!" Macklin looked worried. "Somebody will
only hear you
screaming in here! Get off the floor!"
"Okay, King Herod. Can I watch Salomé strip before you all chop my head
Howie stood up again.
"Enough. We've got to figure out what to do with you," said
"Hey, look, man. I'm not gonna go squeal to the press. The way I look,
they wouldn't believe me anyway. They'd just think I'm a homeless mental guy without his Thorazine, Martians in my drawers. Why not just let me go my
Ralph grabbed Howie by the arm. "Say. I've got an idea. How'd you like to work for us? We can use good
mathematicians like you at our headquarters in Virginia." "Work for the, the..."
"Yeah, I know. Sounds like a dirty word to you. But there's great job
"If you're not an overseas operative," added Macklin. "Yeah," said Ralph. "Or what about the NSA? They're always
bright math whizzes." "Nah, forget it, you guys. Cloak and dagger's not for me. Not even able to
tell people where I work? Besides I turned you guys down once before, when I was an undergrad."
"Yeah, you did," said Macklin. "Shame on you." Howie watched Macklin go to the windows and peek through the curtains,
making certain nobody had heard the screaming of the homeless John the
"Don't worry, G men. I'm not inclined to talk about all this. But I'm
going to shamelessly exploit this."
"How much?" asked Macklin, still looking out the window.
"Money? You think I want money? Well, yeah, I do. And favors. But not
for me. Four of us had this foundation idea in grad school. We would tackle world problems and offer world leaders and others solutions for--"
"Yeah, we know all about that," said Macklin, still searching for
"Oh? well, we were interested in nonprofit research in Catastrophe and
Game Theory, Physics, Mathematical Biology, Economics. It wouldnıt cost much."
"Done," said Ralph. Howie's mouth hung open stupidly.
"Serious? Just like that? How?"
"You'd be surprised what we can do," said Ralph. "Especially
if you keep quiet."
"And I haven't had a decent meal in I don't know how long. Giantburgs
just don't count. I'll pay you back. Honest."
"I've been meaning to ask you about that," said Ralph, watching
Macklin finally leave the windows. "Your file shows you avoid the shelters a lot.
Howie widened his eyes.
"A file! You got a file on me?"
"We've got files on lots of people, kid," said Macklin.
"Worldwide. You're not unique. Course, we means the entire, well, community. Not just us. The
Bureau had a file on your antiwar, divinity student hippie dad, as a matter of fact."
"Yeah, I knew that."
Howie watched as Ralph took forty seconds looking him over.
"What is with you? You sleep in underground subways and avoid shelters
even when it's freezing. Theyıve got food, beds, everything."
"You don't know what it's like in some of those places. The best ones,
like the ones two friends of mine out here mostly get into? They're mostly filled
up. At the others everybody scratches and claws to get the best beds. People hoard food by the beds and that attracts roaches and mice. And some homeless
people have lice on them, like this guy named Sean who bunked next to me a month back. Not me, though. You ever catch lice, G men?"
"No and I don't hope to," said Ralph, waving his hands at Howie as
if he were refusing something distasteful to eat.
"People chain smoke in those places," Howie continued. "And
questions they ask for you to get in. I can't deal with it, man. Oh. I left
out the schizophrenics, many off their meds. No institutions to take care of them, just a columnist in the Register every now and then who spews out his
contempt for them for being stupid enough to get a chemical imbalance in the brain."
"Hey you know Hitler euthanized the mentally ill, my grandfather told me
back in Eighty-five," said Macklin.
"Shit, always the compassionate guy," said Ralph, shaking his head.
"Where you going to sleep tonight?"
"Fifty Ninth Street underground subway, probably. I have my own alarm
clock, you know. Officer Syd's legally shod foot."
"Okay kid, look--we want to do something personally for you," said
Macklin, sitting on the bed and slowly rubbing his palms. "Not just a foundation and
your cosmopolitan Cornell friends. You did solve this cipher, I mean. And you got the classified stuff before we did. We can find you a nice place to
stay, a decent place to wash up in, some decent food and clothes...." He took a handkerchief and wiped dried soapsuds from off Howie's jacket collar.
Howie emphatically shook his head.
"Uh uh. No handouts man. Ain't joining the I got mine, Jack's crowd.
So don't try to buy me. Okay?"
"No, no, no, kid," said Ralph. "You don''t understand. "Macklin
has work in mind."
"Like we said before. We're loaded with work for good, talented
mathematicians," said Macklin. "We and the NSA. Remember?"
Howie repeatedly shook his head.
"I think you guys just want to seduce me. I won't do it. Relax. I'm
not into politics. Besides, Communism's as dead as the Apatosaurus."
"No, you still donıt understand," said Ralph. "You'd be like
a part time freelancer. Work when you want--a consultant, maybe. You'd give us advice on
tough ciphers or codes, or we have some stochastic problem that needs the human maverick touch. You wouldn't be working for us. In fact, we could
spread the word we know this dependable young mathematics consultant. Anyone from the U S Postal Service to the Federal Aviation Administration. Stuff
like people waiting in lines and, and the best airplane scheduling."
"Queueing Theory and Optimal Control Theory, huh? Well, maybe something
like that," said Howie. "As long as no bombs come out of it and no innocent
lives are lost."
"Course not," said Macklin.
"What you said a while ago. About helping me get my foundation? You guys
really mean that? Not putting me on?"
"Think so? Macklin, what about it?" Macklin got up and went over to
the other side of the bed where the bed table was. He dialed a number. Howie watched in amazement when he spoke, immediately, to a human party on the
other line, not voice mail. After taking out a writing pad from his breast pocket and writing on it, he hung the phone up.
"Know where the Federal Building is, on Seventy Fifth and Clinton? Be at
the National Science Council Office for Nonprofit Research Funding at nine sharp
Monday morning." Macklin visually assessed Howie from his sneakers to his ragged skullcap, pulled down over his ears. He pulled out his wallet and
gave him three hundred dollars. "For a suit. You want to be taken seriously
"Geez! Thanks--okay!" Howie took the money and put it into his
pants pocket. "Although I hate suits. I'll pay you back someday. But isn't their money
for conservative think tanks?"
"Usually, but strings can be pulled. Plus keeping you busy with this
foundation will keep you out of our hair."
"Uh huh," said Howie.
"When you get your foundation, bounce that Game Theory ball around with
your fellow math eggheads real extensively. Good world solution models involve both competition as well as cooperation. I don't know if thereıs a God or
not who deserves my faith, but I got faith in you, kid. You give me reason to. Enough people around the world like you would create a God for me to
worship." He had shot a finger out at Howie while forcefully saying the
word you. With a white goatee and a top hat with a red, white and blue banner,
he would look like an African American Uncle Sam, Howie thought.
I want you, freelance math whiz!
"What are you, daydreaming?" asked Ralph.
"Sorry." Howie stood up, laughed and slapped the top of his head.
"Doesn't that hurt?"
"No, man! All with the flip of a coin!"
"My favorite penny, Macklin! Thursday I flipped it to decide where to
eat lunch! If I had gotten heads, no foundation!"
"Maybe God spun it in your favor, kid," said Ralph. "A
favorable outcome from an unfavorable sample space."
"For an atheist? Heıs never helped me out before!"
"Equal time for everyone, maybe," said Macklin.
"Nah, I doubt it. It was the Blind Will of the Cosmos at work."
"One Higher Power is as good as another," said Ralph. Macklinıs
cellphone rang. He yanked it out his breast pocket and answered it.
"Everything's taken care of. We got the kid and the hot
"What does he know?"
"Plenty, but Ralph and I we worked something out."
"Good. After all, we can't commit righteous crime on Free Domestic
Soil, can we?"
Macklin chuckled and hung up.
"Guess we can't," he said, to a bewildered Howie. "Enough
talk. Case closed. Let's go to a very late lunch. I'm starved."
"I'm used to it," said Howie, laughing so long he knew Ralph and
Macklin were wondering if he would ever stop.
"Let's get that late lunch dammit," said Macklin. "We've
been here long enough, enemy agent science fiction clone." Howie could hear Macklin's
"Say, wait a minute, you philanthropic G men. There's something still
up in the air."
"What?" asked Macklin. All three had stopped in front of the door.
"Can we get my violin out of hock?"
"No problem," said Ralph. "I'll take care of it myself."
"Geez! Okay. Thanks."
Macklin reached for the doorknob.
"One more thing."
"Yeahhhhh?" Macklin's hand stopped midway between his body and the
"How long is this one more thing going to take? You said something
about favors, didnt you?"
"Remember that mugging? That sure hurt, man."
Macklin suddenly looked like a guy caught in bed with someone not his wife.
"Oh, yeah. About that," said Macklin. Now wait a minute, ki--"
Howie didn't. Ralph got it first, on the chin. Then Howie reeled around, his other fist cutting a graceful arc in the air until it plowed into Macklin's
stomach, which Macklin immediately clutched.
"Now if only that lady with the fur coat, warm, gloved hands and sharp
high heels were here." He looked at the heel on one of his sneakers. "Geez.
Not sharp enough."
"Damn you're dangerous," said Ralph, rubbing his chin. "But,
yeah--okay. Yeah, I could deal with--'s alright, man."
"Okay so it was a wallop," said Macklin, "but a little one.
Like what my little sister used to give me."
"By the way, Ralph. One yo!--is sufficient out here on the streets.
Yelling three just isn't necessary."
"Very funny," said Ralph.
"Another math joke," said Macklin.
Howie cleared his throat. Loudly, then held out his right palm, wrapped his fingers around an invisible pencil and placed left hand to right hand as
if checking something he had just written down on a notepad.
"Time for my wish list, trillion dollar G men."
"You sure push it, push it, push it, you know."
"Yeah, he does, Macklin, but we owe him. But Christmas was a month
"It was? Okay." He cleared his throat again. "Time for my late
wish list then."
"Oh for the love of....!" Now it was Macklin's hand slapping the
top of his own head as he slowly turned around in an unbearable exasperation.
"Be patient, guys. Good things come to those who wait. Hate clichés,
but, well," he cleared his throat again. "Gift Item One. There's a
fourteen year old girl out here on the streets working steadily, if you know what I mean.
Wendy Papoulos? She had a leopard coat on when I noticed her today. Fishnet stockings. Practically an invisible dress. Got in a john's car when you guys
escorted me to yours. Get her off the street?"
"Wendy Papoulos. Leopard coat. Fishnet stockings. Got it," said
"Thanks. But whatever you do, don't send her back home to her peculiar
dad, and uncaring mom. At least not without an exhaustive investigation."
"Poor kid," said Macklin.
"Yeah, I agree with you, Macklin, but she is not the only poor folk
loser out here." He cleared his throat again, as imaginary pencil tip went back
on to imaginary notepad.
"Gift Item Two. Two people out here. Felix and Thelma Wetchel? They've
been together for thirty years. I'd like you to twist his arm and get him into a
detox, please? Plus I think he might need treatment for TB. And find someplace decent for them to stay. Somebody tore their home down to make
space for poorer people to live. He works practically everyday, sometimes as a temp cleaner in government buildings, or unloading trucks, stuff like
that. He dropped out of art school thirty years ago. And she can play the piano. You wouldn't think she could when you hear her talk but you should
hear her sing and play when she's at the Salvation Army or the Humanity's Inn shelters."
"Done," said Ralph. Howie cleared his throat and went through the
"Gift Item Three. At Technology Square Subway today? This out of town Cambodian kid, looked like a college student, sure wasn't dressed like a
pickpocket. Got arrested for being one though, by Transit Patrolman Syd Wickermann. Wickermann doesnt care whose innocent life hell ruin with an
arrest record, or worse, so long as he meets his arrest quota for the month. Got cleared four times for using excessive force while the city lost half a
million dollars in lawsuits. Actually it would be cheaper if the Department just got rid of him, but that'll never happen. Mad Boredom disease caused by
nearly everyone eating too much bad ground pabulum."
"How do you know the kid wasn't?" asked Macklin. "A real
pickpocket, I mean."
"Kidding? I've been on the streets now for a little over two years. I
know who all the pickpockets are. Knowing Weasel, he probably did it while the kid was standing next to Weasel's target. And all so Weasel could prove his
point that Moral Crime does pay, not being innocent."
"Crime does pay?" Ralph waved his right hand contemptuously.
"A nut. Tell that to some guys my dad's friends used to know."
"Moral Crime I said, Ralph," said Howie. "There are no laws.
misleading store fronts and power. Weasel says that too. Moral Crime is a set. Crime is just its proper subset."
"Math talk," said Macklin. "You two may understand it but I'd
just as well not."
"Arabic and Hebrew written down look a little like math if you ask me,
language expert," said Ralph, laughing.
"Geez, homeless mathematician," said Macklin, trying to imitate
Howie's slightly nasal, heavily twang filled intonation. "That sure isn't much on
your wish list, is it?"
"No, Santa Claus, and thanks for letting me finally get things off my
"Finally," he said.
His hand reached for the doorknob while Ralph and Howie stepped closer to the door.
Howie cleared his throat.
"Shit! How long we been here?"
"Oh for, for the love of...!"
"Absolutely the last Gift Item, guys. I'd like to make a long distance
phone call." He looked at Ralph. "Can Uncle Sam afford it?"
"Go on," said Ralph, pushing Howie toward the phone with an
Howard Frederick Shannon, homeless mathematician-violinist extraordinaire, called Cornell University's School of Graduate Mathematics Studies and then
an extension number.
"Kim Oshimura, Please." Howie hummed Beethoven's Ode to Joy theme
from the Ninth Symphony while he waited five minutes for Kim to come to the phone,
and while Ralph and Macklin gave each other continual Do you believe him? looks.
"Hey, boy named Sue."
"Howie? Howie! Hey, Howieeee!"
"Stop screaming in my ear, will you, Kim?"
"How the hell you doing, man?"
"Triumphant now through hell and high water. Say. Remember the
foundation we talked about?"
"Absolutely. No one's seduced the three of us, yet."
"And you must remember that old song I used to sing. The Chicago tune I
sang so much that you, Jill, and Chinnie used to run screaming from the Lounge? Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?ı Asking if anybody cares?ı"
"Yeah, man! Jill screaming in French out in the corridor that she was
catching a plane back to Belgium! Eh, you better stop this, science fiction writer. We're using exposition in our dialogue! You know nobody ever talks
Kim couldn't stop laughing, so Howie continued, rubbing his fingertips on his jacket, then looking at them. "Kim? I just plead my case before the
"Government bureaucrats at the National Science Council? They just heard
out for over three hours and I just got through resting my vocal chords five
minutes ago, man."
"So that's what we are," mumbled Ralph, staring at an indignant
"We're getting that foundation you guys, starting Monday morning at
nine, and that's a given fact. Because I do know what time it is, Kim old boy. And
I really do care. I always have!"
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Betts, who was born in Boston and currently resides there, is a
medically disabled "babyboomer" who started his youth studying
Electronics Engineering at Wentworth Institute of Technology (Boston,
Massachusetts, USA), and who spent more than thirty years both writing and
pursuing a degree in Pure Mathematics at various universities and also at the
University of Massachusetts at Boston so he can go on to graduate school.
Sounds absurd? One female student in his Mathematical Logic class was a
retired Russian mathematician from Saint Petersburg who was over sixty.
He plans to enter graduate school to pursue his studies in Mathematics
next year. He is a student member of the Mathematical Association of
America, The American Mathematical Society, and The Planetary Society.