I had a succesful Kickstarter to launch a novel, way back in July of 2012, and now, just a little more than two years past my incredibly optimistic target date, it’s ready to purchase! You can buy it in physical book form or as an ebook. Here’s the first chapter!
All four of the railfans from the Internet were standing at the fence when Kate and Mesut got there. This was not the plan. The plan was really quite clever and well thought out, but this wasn’t it. They didn’t want to be first, which would have involved a certain amount of awkward standing around and wondering if they were at the right spot, and also would have given them an edge in establish- ing themselves as de facto leaders of the group, if they wanted that edge, which they didn’t. They also didn’t want to be last, because then everyone who was eager to get moving (which was everyone, they were working on the assumption that it would be everyone, that’s why they were here) would resent them. And besides, who wants to be last? Cool people, probably. Kate and Mesut were trying very hard not to be cool.
The actual precise right moment for Kate and Mesut to arrive would have been after at least one other person had shown up but before the last person had arrived. This would have put them in the middle of the group, literally and metaphorically, which is what they wanted. The metaphorical one. They didn’t want to come across as a gang of two. They wanted to blend in.
“What would be really good would be if we arrived at different times,” Mesut had said the night before. Kate had invited him to Pickles Pub, a bar near her apartment. It was her favorite place to go, and yet she had a moment of panic about it when she got there and saw him standing out front. It was raining and something about the cut of his pants (narrow) and the length of the sleeves on his jacket (a little short) reminded her that he was European. Europe- ans thought American things were lame, right? Especially Ameri- can chain restaurants? Pickles probably wasn’t famous enough for Germans to know about and make fun of (she imagined Mesut at home with some shadowy German friends, watching a TV show where dumb Americans go to a TGI Fridays and are stupid, with all the Germans laughing uproariously at how dumb the Americans and their restaurants were). Still, there were three or four Pickleses around D.C. and maybe he’d seen another one already. Was there one at the airport? Oh, God, she was pretty sure there was one at the airport. He probably saw it. It had the exact same decor as the one they were sitting in now, except one wall was missing, confront- ing diners with the terminal concourse and Dulles’s dingy carpet. Surely he had seen it. The jig was up.
But once they were inside, Mesut seemed completely uninter- ested in harshly judging the decor, which was all wood paneling and old-timey colored glass. What Mesut was primarily interested in was beer and talking about the next day’s live-site.
“They don’t know we know each other outside the message boards,” he said, drinking beer number three, “and I think perhaps we should not tell them that we do.”
This was going to be the first live-site where Kate was the lead, and she wished that she were doing it with another Agent. Mesut knew in broad strokes what they were up to, of course, but he was thinking about it all engineer-y, or at least all engineer-after-three- beers-y. He wasn’t showing any signs of intoxication, and yet he was saying things like this: “Ideally, one of the other people should get there first, then I will show up, then another person, then you, then the last one. That way we are seamlessly integrated into their group. Like the teeth of a zipper.” He pulled the zipper of his jacket up and down a bit, in what he appeared to believe was a meaningful fashion.
Kate started to explain how hard it would be to hike to a remote location and slot their arrival amongst a group of people whose precise arrival times they had no way of knowing in advance, but the thought of it gave her a headache, so instead she just said, “But we’re meeting four of them. The way you described it, it sounds like there’s only three.”
Mesut looked crestfallen but respectful that she had found a fatal flaw in his math. “Another beer, please,” he asked the waitress as she walked by. She was no longer fazed that he wasn’t asking for any particular brand.
Even though they knew they couldn’t time their arrival with teeth-of-a-zipper levels of exactitude, they at least had high hopes of not being first or last. These hopes came to nothing when, parked in front of Mesut’s hotel the next morning, Kate began to program their destination into her phone, only to have the sinking realiza- tion that “where the chain-link fence angles off to the east along the Orange Line a quarter-mile north of Addison Road” was not some- thing that Google Maps would understand. She began to worry less that Mesut would think she was a dumb American and more that she was just dumb, in a nationality-neutral kind of way.
He made a muffled noise that Kate assumed was judgmental, until she saw that he had a mouth full of candy bar and was peer- ing at the archaeological layers of textured sugar making up the half that he hadn’t eaten yet. This was, apparently, his breakfast, or maybe an after-breakfast snack. “This is very much like a brand of chocolate bar we have in Germany, except” — he chewed thought- fully — “I think this has less peanut butter?” He looked at the label. “Why is it a ‘Clark Bar’? Who is Clark?”
Kate began to think that Mesut might not, strictly speaking, be the coolest kind of European they had on offer, which was just fine by her.
They did, eventually, find an abandoned gas station on Addison Road where they could park, surrounded by tall grass. From there it was a short hike along the shoulder to the path that led uphill through the woods. It was still early in the morning, and the grass and branches were a little wet and the cuffs of their pants were get- ting damp. They only hit one dead end — to be fair, it was the one that the description she’d printed out from the message boards said they’d hit — and it was around 7:10 a.m. when they abruptly emerged from the trees and saw the chain-link fence along the ridgeline and the four railfans standing along it.
Only ten minutes late, but still late enough to be last. So much for plans.
“Hi! I’m Kate. kmac1987.” She gave her board name even though it was obvious who she was. She was the only woman here. Mac was as in MacAlister, her mother’s maiden name, not that she had told anyone that, and she was actually born in 1989 — you try not to give anyone anything they could Google — but when the forums software asked her whether she was male or female, she had been honest, out of necessity if nothing else. She knew other people at the Agency who juggled online personae of different genders, the better to gain trust or social currency or just alleviate boredom, but this was an obvious bad idea if there was a chance that things would progress to a live-site.
Still, introducing yourself was good protocol, as was smiling and making eye contact and a whole host of other things that she wasn’t entirely sure her fellow trainspotters were going to do. She was pleasantly surprised on three out of four counts. Charlie, aka Rail- Fanner, was a portly, grinning, bearded white man in his 50s; his coveted board nickname was a testament to how early he had joined the community. Darius, who went by foamerguy, was younger, shy, tall and skinny, African-American — just a kid, really, and Kate knew that he and RailFanner spent a lot of time skulking around train yards. They were generally the instigators of in-person outings.
Jack, aka The_Real_Jack, was small, stooped, white, bearded, somewhere in his 40s or 50s. It was hard to tell. He looked suspi- ciously at everyone while tugging on his mustache and didn’t say much at first. His username was the end product of a battle for dominance with a different Jack on the boards on the question of whether Federal Railroad Administration rules ought to be relaxed for commuter lines in order to accommodate new diesel multi- ple-unit trains coming over from Europe, and also on whether the now-vanquished Other Jack had any business talking about trains with anyone, anywhere. The fight had ended as the stuff of legend, with Jack as The_Real_Jack. Finally, there was Rajiv, aka Rajiv, a thin Indian-American almost as young as Darius, who was also making his first organized raifanning trip. He had a camera that was impressively enormous, though he kept fiddling with it as if he weren’t sure what its many buttons were for.
For a moment she tried to see herself as they might: short, white, red hair pulled back in a ponytail, glasses that weren’t intimidatingly chic and weren’t outright dorky but also weren’t hipster dorky. She had agonized more about the glasses than any other part of the outfit, since for the rest — anorak, comfortable jeans, white sneakers — she had decided fairly quickly that clothes that conveyed a message of simple functionality would strike the right note, not draw attention to her, and also be, in practice, simple and functional.
“And I’m BerlinZug,” said Mesut. “Real name’s Mustafa.” This brought Kate up short. Live-site best practices were that you used your first name or a variation of it, because otherwise you risked reacting unnaturally in conversation. She was sure she had told Mesut this at Pickles, though that might have been around beer three. As she looked him up and down, it occurred to her that his clothes, which had seemed so European last night, might just be the wrong size.
“You a Siemens guy, Mustafa?” asked Charlie, jovially. “Deutsch- land über alles?” Kate’s stomach tightened and flipped. She was under the impression that Germans didn’t like being needled with Nazi slogans, especially Germans like Mesut whose parents were from Turkey. And Mesut was a Siemens guy — specifically a junior engineer for Siemens SA, Rail Systems division, which was why he was here with Kate and the others along the Washington Metro Orange Line tracks in the first place.
Live-sites are not under strict control. So went the wisdom from Christine, the Agency’s founder. They are minimally managed by design. Be prepared for potential ancillary awkwardness. This was one of the scariest and most important things about live-sites. Mesut, to her relief, did not look surprised or offended. He blinked quickly a few times, but he did that a lot anyway. “It’s mostly Sie- mens equipment on the U-Bahn and S-Bahn in Berlin, though there’s some leftover stuff from the DDR times here and there. But I came out here because I want to see what WMATA has in use. Breda and CAF, right?”
Charlie grinned. “Yeah, though most cars on this line are from Adtranz — before Bombardier bought it. Stuff from the early ’90s. Ugly sons of bitches. Shitty seats, too, and the speaker systems are always on the fritz. If we’re lucky, though, we might get to see the railcars WMATA has from up your way in here for testing this morning.”
Mesut and Kate remained poker-faced.
While they had been talking, Darius had turned his back to them. Kate had filed this away — notice, but do not judge, unusual social behavior was a helpful Agency guideline — but now she realized he was taking the fence apart. Some of the links had been snipped, probably a long time ago; to a casual observer, the fence looked sturdy, or as sturdy as a chain-link fence ever looks, but when Dar- ius unlatched a makeshift hook, he was able to peel some of it away, revealing a portal just big enough for a person to squeeze through. Like a door for elves, she thought, except instead of a twee little world of miniature shoemakers on the other side, there were enormous pieces of machinery purchased with millions of tax dollars.
“Gentlemen,” Charlie said, then caught himself. “Sorry, it’s usu- ally kind of a sausagefest out here. Ladies first?”
Kate smiled and nodded and slipped through the fence, then moved to her left so the other railfans had room to stand. The fence ran along the top of a ridgeline, leaving her standing precariously at the top of a steep hill, which ran down around fifty feet, through tall grass and prickly bushes and the occasional tree, to the railroad tracks that ran along the lowest point of a little valley. On the other side of the tracks, there was another, gentler hill, more heavily wooded. It was a pretty scene. The green of the trees was starting to fade into fall colors. Then you looked more closely and noticed the strewn bits of trash, wrappers and mysterious abandoned piles of paper. On the other side of the tracks there was a toilet, lying on its side in a puddle.
Mesut was the last through the hole in the fence, Kate noticed; she hoped this satisfied whatever need he had to arrange the two cuckoos symmetrically among the real baby birds in the nest.
The portion of the rail line that they could see was a long arc through the woods, and they heard the train coming before they could see it. Thousands of pounds of metal, thousands of moving parts, rattling against each other and cruising along steel rails at sixty miles an hour. It was early in the morning commute. Inside the train were eager office achievers who were going to get so much done on their spreadsheets before their lazy co-workers rolled in at 9, or people who worked under the careful eye of the clock and needed to be in at 8 so they could take their hour-long unpaid lunch later. Maybe some shift workers were making a reverse commute from the suburban office park where they sat behind a security desk to their little apartments in the District, where they’d draw the curtains and try to sleep. They read or listened to music or stared into space or napped. Most of them probably didn’t think about what it was that was taking them where they were going. It was grubby in there. The colors were what WMATA’s low-bid branding consultants thought were cool in 1991. Some of the passengers didn’t like the look of some of the other passengers. In at least one car, something or someone smelled like urine, and everyone was trying to figure out who or what it was without being obvious about it.
And yet. When the front of the Orange Line train to Vienna turned the corner, Kate gasped, because it was still amazing. Charlie waved his hand, gesturing for them to crouch in the weeds, and they did in a half-assed way for form’s sake, but mostly they just gawked.
This was Kate’s favorite part of a live-site: the part where every- one shut up and loved it. All six of them silently watched six hun- dred feet of train go by, not so silently. It was different from being on the platform in a station, when people have places to go and you have places to go and you’re trying not to trip over anybody and the train is just a box that gets you there, hopefully soon. That morning, none of them wanted anything from the train except for it to be itself, metal and loud and fast. It was, Kate thought, the difference between seeing an animal at the zoo and seeing it in the wild. It wasn’t here for them. It was in its element.
Part of Kate’s brain could feel the joy vibrating off everyone else hunched awkwardly in the tall grass. That part vibrated along with the resonant frequency; that part was key to making this live-site work. It only takes a few minutes for an enthusiast to spot a phony. But as she enjoyed feeling the train’s roar in her guts, other parts of her brain were assessing each of the trainspotters in turn. The client was going to make a multi-million-dollar pitch to a regional transit agency; this was way beyond a consumer-level play where you’re trying to pick out who in the gang was the coolest, for whatever definition of “cool” had emerged from the group dynamics. Which of these guys was going to go to a public meeting at a middle school auditorium on a weeknight? And of those, which of them would come across least like a crazy person? Darius had barely made eye contact with anybody but Charlie, and Rajiv hadn’t taken his face away from the camera from the moment the train had come around the bend. That left two candidates.
The train rounded the curve and disappeared behind the trees, heading in the direction of its distant terminus. Jack was the first to break the silence: “What a cheap pile of garbage.”
A little bell started ringing, loudly and insistently, in the back of Kate’s head.
“Way to kill everyone’s buzz, Jack,” Charlie said. He wasn’t unkind about it. This was a conversation that, as Kate could tell from the discussion boards, had been going on for years.
“If you cretins want to go gaga over an ugly train that cost too much and breaks down all the time,” said Jack, “be my guest. I’m sure the WMATA assholes who signed that purchase order are thrilled you’re all fans of the worst decision they ever made.”
Action opportunity: When an enthusiast’s affection for a category and his disdain for a specific instance of that category combine to cause internal dissonance —
Charlie shrugged. “Yeah, yeah, they’re ugly. Not gonna argue. Doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the moment.”
“The air conditioning’s out in how many cars in that train, do you think? Two? Three? I’m sure all those sweaty chumps are really enjoying their moments.”
— he is open to having his category affection rekindled by a new instance, even if he doesn’t know it. Kate remembered the first time Christine had told her this. She had been cheerful, conspiratorial, as if letting Kate in on a great secret.
Charlie shook his head and gingerly picked his way down the side of the hill. “Whatever, man. We should get moving if you
wanna get a good look at the new one. How else are you going to decide what you hate about it?”
Kate positioned herself to make sure she was closest to Jack for the hike down. Darius, who had been mostly silent, was excited, or maybe anxious, or both. “My friend told me the new train is run- ning on schedule block 1456. That’s the next block.”
“That’s if your guy is right,” Charlie said. “They might have put it off for a few days.”
“1456,” Darius said. “Next block.”
The six of them made their way down the slope to get closer to the trackbed. They could have covered the distance in a run if they didn’t mind possibly stumbling onto the tracks, so they took it in a sort of slow trot. Kate was aware that Mesut was brushing past her to catch up with Charlie, but she stuck by Jack. “Did you see the pics of the S360s online?” she asked him.
He snorted. “Glamour shots. Taken inside a factory. I think most of the pictures of the interiors are just for show, not even installed in a car body.”
“Someone’s gotta be the first. I mean, we need new railcars. You said it.”
Jack looked at her, brow furrowed. “What do you think of the pictures? You ask a lot of questions on the boards, but I never hear you offering much by way of opinions.”
She shrugged. “I like the materials they’re using for the interior. The surfaces have some give but are still impermeable. The rugs, the cushy seats on the Adtranz — God, they get disgusting. And the nextstop display looks awesome. Huge screens. They can put up pictures of the tourist stuff so that even the dumbest people can’t miss it.”
“What d’you think of the braking system they use?” She shrugged. “I don’t really know much about brakes.” Jack’s mouth twitched in what was probably a smile. “Neither do
I, to be honest. I was hoping you might. Read something about how they’ve had some trouble in France. But in France they put rubber tires on subway trains, so who the hell knows what goes on there.”
They were almost at the bottom of the slope, and Kate could see Mesut gesturing grandly as he talked to Charlie. She was hoping he wasn’t overselling the S360, or at least wasn’t overselling it in a way that sounded like selling. There was always the potential for a live- site to get unstealth in a hurry, especially when a client was involved.
“You know they bought S360s for the new metros in Dubai and Mecca?” Kate said to Jack.
“Hope the air conditioning works.”
“I know, I thought about that the other day when I was on the Orange Line and the AC was on the fritz, so I looked it up. The systems they use have crazy uptimes, 98 percent or something like that. Siemens does design-build-operate there, so it’s written into the contract.”
“Is that right.” Click, she heard in her head.
They had gotten as close to the tracks as they dared, about five or six feet away. Kate had caught up with Charlie and Mesut. They were talking about brakes, though Kate was surprised by Mesut’s take.
“Oh, absolutely the design Kawasaki uses is much more clever,” he said. “You can run several tests on it and find it scores so many points better on whatever brake quality score you come up with. But, you know, they’re both quite within every country’s safety param- eters. It is the difference between a one-in-a-billion and two-in-a- billion accident rate. Twice as good, but both fine for the real world.”
The only client-employees allowed on live-sites were people who worked on the products, engineers like Mesut, not sales or mar- keting. Genuine enthusiasm is not totalizing and can accommodate criticism, another oft-repeated Agency maxim.
“Well, you better hope those brakes work,” said Charlie, “because here it comes.”
The Siemens S360 emerged suddenly around the turn. This was the train that Mesut had helped design, that Siemens wanted, with the Agency’s help, to sell to WMATA. They had paid who knows how many millions to ship a prototype to Washington for test runs. It was the train that, with any luck, an unusually large number of interested, well-informed, slightly obsessed citizens would praise on their own accord at informational meetings, and would say nice things about in letters sent in response to Requests For Comments put up on obscure websites.
It was much quieter than the older Adtranz train they had seen from up above. If they had really wanted to get a good look at it, take in its details, their original vantage point would have been better. But then they might just as well have watched and rewatched the videos on the Siemens YouTube channel. The point of driving out to a pre-arranged spot near Addison Road and slipping through a hole cut in a chain-link fence was to have a more visceral experience.
“1456!” shouted Darius. “That’s my guy!” The cab window on the Adtranz train had been a tiny portal, but the operator at the front of the S360 sat in what was almost a fishbowl. This was one of the many WMATA employees whom Darius had cultivated through his awkward, irrepressible love of trains and buses and everything else, and he nodded and smiled at the trainspotters as the S360 barreled towards them. It really was beautiful, all curves and sleekness where the Adtranz train was boxy and clunky. And someone at Siemens, in a charming but surely expensive gesture, had decided the whole thing should be orange — orange for the Orange Line — a more muted version of the color than what you saw on wayfinding signs, nothing garish.
Despite the S360’s quieter motors and improved aerodynamics, the wind howl still quickly built up to near unbearable levels. Kate realized that some of the noise was coming from her because she was shouting. They all were, Rajiv behind his camera, Darius jump- ing up and down. Even Jack was smiling. And then the train was on them, flying at top speed, a huge orange blur, and Kate, who was by far the smallest one there, felt herself picked up and knocked to the ground by the blast of air that the train pushed ahead and around it. It was the difference between seeing an animal at the zoo and having it charge at you in the woods.
Mesut did a double take and kneeled besides her. “Are you all right?” she assumed he was shouting. She gave him a smile and a double thumbs up. “This is amazing!” she shouted. If before she had been experiencing joy vibrations, now she was feeling joy in her lungs. She was breathing it in and out. They all were, and it felt fantastic. Joy, joy, joy, joy.
The train passed by and Kate jumped up and everyone was laughing and talking at once. Darius high-fived everybody, then hugged Charlie. Kate scrambled to pick up the stuff that had tum- bled out of her purse. They had been trespassing long enough, and it was time to scram. They ran up the hill, that-was-greating and did- you-seeing and I-can’t-believe-you-fell-overing, heading for the hole in the fence. Left behind on the ground, difficult to spot among the trash, was a card that had fallen out of Kate’s purse, which she was lucky none of the trainspotters had seen. It read:
subconscious agency * enthusiasm is our business
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