One night, during my first year in San Francisco, summer of ‘79, my friend Bob leaned over to me, handed me a doob and said, “Brother Kenny, do you need a job?” The thought hadn’t really crossed my mind, but sure, why not? Back then I’d try almost anything.
Next morning we drove together down to Palo Alto, where he worked in Tyler’s crew for a company called Volt Telcom. Volt was selling some of the first digital phone switching systems to offices, hospitals, and businesses around the Bay Area, and Tyler installed the infrastructure of cables and junction boxes and handsets. “Building the Network.” Tyler took a quick shine to me, and I went to work that day. The money was great, the crew was fun, and the work was tolerable, so I stuck with it for quite a while, commuting down from the city with Bob, and then in the white Mustang— my first car.
I spent a lot of my hours working for Volt up on a ladder with my head in the ceiling. Pulling cable. Pulling cable was the grunt work, the main part of the job, really. We all did it, though after a while I graduated to doing some punch-down, maybe because I could remember the order of the colored wires. (blue, orange, green, brown, slate… white, red, black, yellow, violet…) There were some higher level technical folks, splicers and the electronic switch guys we rarely saw. We just put the phones, wiring, and junction boxes in place. So, most of the time I pulled cable, which was fine with me. It didn’t take too much concentration, and I could let my thoughts wander.
We worked for a couple weeks at the VA Hospital in Menlo Park, and one day, as usual, I had my head up in the ceiling. It was a late afternoon, and since our lunch breaks consisted of more pot and beer than food, my head was well up in the clouds, too. Like I said, it was a fun crew! I was perched on a wooden folding ladder in the middle of a beige-painted hallway lined with anonymous doors, a piece of that crumbly drop-ceiling stuff and a chunk of pink insulation pushed aside, my arms and shoulders up in the dim and dusty space above the ceiling.
I sometimes worried about what I was breathing up there, but my boss Tyler would just grunt, “Don’t worry about it!” Still, I’d pull my tee-shirt over my face and take shallow breaths while I was in the midst of all that dust and fluff. Eventually I’d get winded and duck my head below the drop ceiling to take a few deep breaths of clear air. I also worried a little when we worked in a section of a hospital marked with warnings—the well-known radiation and less-familiar bio-hazard symbols decorating the doors we’d prop open, the cabinets and trash cans we tried not to disturb. When I asked if it was safe, Tyler’s response was the same.
The Menlo Park Veteran’s hospital had a mental unit, and someone told me it was in fact the place where Ken Kesey worked when he wrote Cuckoo’s Nest. It had some abandoned, empty wings I’d wander through during my breaks, checking hidden corners to see if there was a vial labeled Sandoz still stashed away somewhere. The hospital also had a research wing, and on this day, that’s where I was working, beyond a fairly extensive labyrinth of those radiation and bio-hazard stickers, along with a few “Authorized Persons Only” signs. Don’t worry about it.
I was waiting for my signal to start pulling on the cable when I heard some commotion down the hall. A door opened, and loud voices and laughter drew my attention out of the clouds. Some kind of celebration. So I lowered one shoulder and my head down through the ceiling, looking sideways toward the noise.
A group of young guys— clean-cut, nerdy-looking dudes in classic white lab coats, four or five of them— emerged from a plain door with a milky glass window you couldn’t see through. They were all smiles and high fives, chattering as they came toward me on my ladder. Usually, we were pretty much invisible to the workers at whatever office or hospital we were wiring. And we similarly ignored the people around us as we went about our work, only interacting if we had to move a desk or interrupt someone to replace their phone with the new ones. Silence was the unspoken protocol on both sides.
But these guys were just about my own age, early twenties at most, and I couldn’t resist my curiosity. “What’s got you all so excited?” I asked as they came near me. I took a step down on the ladder so I could straighten my head. They were happy to talk, and several answered at the same time. I managed to make out from the clatter of voices that they had just finished an experiment— successfully, so it seemed. “Have you ever heard about genetic engineering?” “A little…” I answered.
They clustered around my knees, and one of them lifted up an open stainless steel tray with liquid sloshing around in it. Looked just like water to me. And he looked a little like a waiter displaying a very thin dessert as he balanced the little tray on his hand. “We just spliced genes from a sea urchin into E Coli bacteria!” he blurted out. Yikes. Not quite Crème Brulee. Another round of back-slapping and high fives spasmed through the group. “It’s a first! We’ve got to freeze this sample right away,” one of them explained as they headed off together down the hall.
Now I wasn’t sure if it was better to breathe the air down here in the hallway or up with the familiar fiberglass and asbestos. I stuck my head back into the ceiling, waiting again for the tug on the cable that would signal me to tug in my turn, moving it on down the line toward the junction box. Pulling cable. Building the network.
But my stomach felt a little queasy from what I had just seen, and it wasn’t the greasy burger I had at the bar for lunch. I knew E Coli was the bacteria that live in our gut. That we always have them inside us. And I couldn’t turn off the thought of those tiny bugs sprouting sharp little sea urchin spikes inside my intestines. An open tray? What if it spilled, or I breathed some in? What if sea urchin bacteria were right now growing in me? What if they spread across the world, a spiky epidemic against which we have no immune defenses? Okay, it’s true. I’m a lifetime science fiction reader, so my mind leaps naturally to those kinds of wild extrapolations. And my head was, as I said, in the clouds. It wasn’t a realistic concern; even then I realized that. Those guys knew what they were doing. Didn’t they? The mad scientists of the world haven’t accidentally killed us all yet, have they? In the years since, I’ve taught myself not to worry about it.
But sometimes that image still rises out of memory into my mind’s eye: those young dudes high-fiving their way down the hall carrying an open tray of gene-spliced bacterial chimeras. I think about what must be going on right now, in how many secret locations, behind mazes of unheeded warning signs. I can’t help but wonder what rough crowd of young scientists, in what unknown lab, are sloshing and celebrating along a fluorescent-lit hallway, laughter circling their heads as they awkwardly balance the future of humanity in their unworried hands.
© Ken Zimmerman, 2018