Sunday, June 25, 2006

summer intern

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t even my summer intern job. They’d offered the scientific programming internship to another girl, but she'd backed out at the last minute. The gods of aerospace neopotism had smiled upon her. Belatedly. But they'd smiled nonetheless and she got a better offer than this particular scientific programming internship. So Digital Command and Control was left with money in the budget and a reluctant 17-year-old intern understudy in the wings. Me.

"You can start Monday," they told me over the phone on Thursday. Their real intern hadn't shown up.

That other girl, the one favored by the gods of aerospace neopotism, must've gone to my orientation, because I didn't. No-one told me about the Summer Intern Orientation. I appeared on Monday promptly at 9:30am.

Almost 2 hours late.

Almost 2 hours late and an understudy to boot: I felt like the last donut in the box. A Friday afternoon donut. The one with congealed pink icing and sprinkles. The donut that's left when the coffee's turned to mud and the non-dairy creamer floats in it in little partially-hydrogenated islands. The donut that's still in the box when everyone's ready to head on over to Building M. M for Marguerita.

"I'm heading over to Building M," Kitty would say. If I looked over my shoulder into her office, she'd be reapplying her makeup. Friday afternoon. Building M. Digital Command and Control would soon be out of control.

Building M was the code word for a local restaurant that served giant Margueritas, endless bowls of tortilla chips, and vats of salsa. My co-workers would head there several times a week for lunch and sometimes after work too. Building M. I never went along. I’m not sure whether they didn’t invite me, or whether I had the great good sense to know that I couldn’t possibly pass for 21.

In fact, I seldom left Building R6 during the workday, even to take a turn around its soulmate, Building M5. R6 and M5. Aptly named buildings. (Every once in awhile, I harbor the disturbing thought that I've got them mixed up, M5 and R6. Then I harbor an even more disturbing thought that it matters which one was R6 and which one was M5. What if it's even worse than that? What if it's really R5 and M6? A girl could make herself crazy thinking about things like that!)

I hadn't thought about my summer intern job in the Digital Command and Control division for many years. But a college-aged friend was describing her lame summer intern job to me last night. How it'd almost be better to be a barrista at Starbuck's. How the summer was promising to be endless in a way that wasn't exactly Endless Summer.

It's a matter of perspective, really. It's why a certain infamous summer intern thought she was in the throes of an intense, passionate relationship with the POTUS and the POTUS thought he was picking low-hanging fruit, conveniently ripe and obscenely juicy. It's like that. You're a summer intern and nothing is particularly obvious to you, except that you're the Last Donut in the Box.

"Why did they hire me if there's nothing for me to do?"

But in my case, there was nominally something for me to do: write an algorithm to analyze LSI designs to find shortest-path connections between electronic components. I developed an algorithm that might've done that. It might've worked. It might've. But maybe it didn't. I had no idea what the designs I was supposed to analyze even looked like, nor what the real input data was. It was before you could simply google, download some Java code, and be done with it. By the end of the summer, I suspected no-one was very interested in my algorithm. I don't remember anyone asking me about the algorithm or the file on the CDC 6500 that contained the Fortran code. I might as well have written a book report on John Rechy's City of Night, the book I read while I ate my bologna sandwich at my desk. Every day. One piece of bologna. Two pieces of white bread. A yellow swath of French's. A Delicious apple. And a chapter or two of City of Night.

My boss Virgil wore disco bell bottoms and had his brown hair permed into a white-boy Afro. His divorce became final a few days into the Endless Summer. He flirted with the beautiful Pilar, our secretary. She was only four years older than me, but she was married and had a two-year-old son. Sometimes Virgil typed his own stuff, sitting at Pilar's IBM Selectric. He jabbed his index fingers at the keys until Pilar came back from lunch and rescued him. To this day, I can’t remember talking to him beyond my initial interview. He was suffering too. Everyone was suffering.

Surely I must’ve taken a whiz that summer. Perhaps not. No-one told me where the bathrooms were. Maybe I pissed in the corner behind the file cabinet. Nor did anyone let on where an intern could pour herself a cup of coffee; after all, if they showed me the coffee, certainly they’d have to point out the restrooms. I never found the vending machines either. The long windowless corridors with security posters -- "Don't let the cat out of the bag!" "Share your rides, not your secrets!" -- didn't invite exploration.

Digital Command and Control. What did that even mean? I didn't know at the time.

I spent a lot of time on the Harbor Freeway that summer, Rosecrans to South Arroyo Parkway at rush hour. I marked the days by looking for the fluorescent yellow tennis ball trapped in a grate where the Hollywood Freeway peeled off to the left. It was better than thinking about earthquakes, stopped there amid the giant overpasses and the other distracted commuters. What were they thinking about? Not the yellow tennis ball. That was mine. My tennis ball. I saw it first!

They called our work schedule flex time. It meant you could start anytime between 7:45 and 8:05am. And you could leave anytime between 4:45 and 5:05pm. But you couldn’t come in at 8:05am and leave at 4:45pm; it wasn’t that kind of Flex Time, where you could scrub 40 minutes per day off the time you spent in Building R6. 40 minutes x 5 days x 11 weeks. That'd be 2200 minutes less of Endless Summer! Then Flex Time would've been an actual benefit. But as it was, Flex Time was a cruel joke.

My housemates hated me. I parked my Opel station wagon on the scrubby brown lawn behind the house, under the persimmon tree. Where the birds could crap on it freely. The Opel was an inappropriate shade of orange, lighter orange than a persimmon, but oranger than a car should ever be. It started with great reluctance and stalled with even greater enthusiasm, especially at 6:55 A.M. My housemates hated Flex Time almost as much as I did.

My Opel would start and stall, start and stall, start and stall the whole length of our driveway out onto California Boulevard. That way I restarted my Opel under each roommate's window. John, Beck, Blue, Jeff, Chuck. I'm sure they hated me, Flex Time, and my orange Opel. In a way that increased monotonically every morning.

My last day of work, my co-workers finally took me out to Building M. We ordered drinks. I could easily pass for 12 when I went to the movies. Naturally the waiter carded me, and denied me my due on that last day of that Endless Summer. It was Kitty, I think, who ordered an extra drink and mock-surreptitiously passed it to me. They weren't unhappy to see me go.

That last afternoon of work dragged on even longer than usual with a mild alcohol buzz and the creeping hint of a headache. I had nothing to pack except my copy of City of Night. I don't think I even bothered taking any office supplies (for that's the first joy of the workplace, discovering that there's a supply cabinet where you can get free office supplies. Free! Office supplies! Staplers! Tape! Pens! Quad pads!). Nope. I didn't even make off with any office supplies. It was that bad.

The fog had already begun swirling in by the time I left at 4:57. The tennis ball was still there when I drove up the Harbor Freeway.

Being a summer intern can suck.


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