Perfectly nice guys all, huddled in a spartan office in the corner of the basement, creating web pages and software for the school system. Being IT, they were all guys, a bit timid and bland, but perfectly nice.
Jim's stature of 6'3" would have made him the impressive one if his belly didn't pop a dress shirt button or two on a regular basis. The only time we ever saw Jim and his tieless crew of four was at lunch in the cafeteria, taken immediately and together, at noon. They would then disappear at 12:20 until they all went, amoeba-like, back into their cave at 1:00.
Very few of us ever really noticed them. I made a regular point of popping in on the way back from collecting photocopies, joking and asking about "life in the cave", and getting quiet, patient smiles in return. If I ever asked about any member of the team that was not present, one would mutter something that resembled "bathroom" or "out" but with minimal clarity. It didn't really bother me, at least at first.
You know when something feels funny, odd? Well, the straight answer was that these guys were developing code that was being used for testing and evaluation in the district school system; but I never really got it. I mean, I learned coding early on in the '70s and had worked with geeks and nerds to build my own rudimentary website in the late 90s, so I knew the kind of people these guys should be. But they weren't. They were geeks, for sure, but like Jim's shirts in the afternoon, they smelled of something I couldn't identify.
The guys had a boss upstairs, implausibly named Ralph. In his early 60s, Ralph was likely a product of two Brooklynites who liked "The Honeymooners". He even spoke like a Ralph. You almost expected him to say, "One of these days ... one of these days ... POW, right up the kisser!" But he didn't. He just had a thick Brooklyn accent and a big mouth. Everything just seemed to be worth shouting about.
"Hey, youse guys. Get to woyk." Made funnier by the fact that the school system we were in was in New Joysey. "Great place, Joysey. Living in the city would gimme a haat attayuck." Anyway, you get it. He came across as bigger than life, had a paunch like the much younger Jim, and we sort of understood what he did. He was the project manager in charge of making sure that the new one-to-one laptop program in Joysey schools went ahead smoothly. First the teachers got them, then the students. We were starting the second year of Middle School students and we had about 40 pilot schools. I taught in the small pilot school right in the district building. Well, right next door.
We had the fastest internet connection in the state. It made teaching fun and the new laptop program more than doable. No one ever complained about the program; speed, all the programs we could ever want, and service right there if anything went wrong. I think I counted ten IT people other than the four guys. A pilot school with money. If you are a teacher reading this, are you jealous?
Well, don't be; something was rotten in the state of Joysey. I smelled it first when I visited Jim one day and walked around to where I could see him better. Only polite, I thought, except he shifted his computer screen so there was no way I could see it. Even though it seemed to have a filter on it so the screen was only visible from directly in front. Odd.
The next day, Ralph found me at lunch. Teachers got to eat with the district people unless they had student cafeteria duty: better food and adults only, a welcome break from 12 and 13 year olds. Ralph brought his tray over and crumpled down opposite me. We were alone and he started right away.
"Why so interested in the IT department? You a coder or sumpin'?" Shouted, as always, a bit of an accusation?
"I used to code a thousand years ago. But, yeah, they always seem like they are doing their own thing, so I pop in once in a while." (I guess I've got a bit of '60s sh*t disturber still in me.)
"Yeah, well, Jim says you're disturbin' their concentration. Why don'tcha just find'em at lunch? Would help me out a lot, OK?" Quieter, a bit.
I didn't know quite how to answer that one. So I said "Sure", finished eating a couple of minutes later, and left, politely enough.
But, I wondered what they were doing that was so special to Ralph, to the district. Or perhaps to some others. Other than the four guys in the basement.
PART II ... next week