Techies in this town have faced a tough crowd, both during the dot.com era of “Die Yuppie Scum” and the current time of critical articles in every issue of the local weeklies, and high-profile protests like blocking the famous “Google buses”. They’re a bunch of really smart kids, and they have a lot of money, but it isn’t mere envy of their fortunes that so drives the angry local hordes. No, it’s their frustratingly dogmatic and miserly refusal to part with one red cent of their bountiful riches that has everyone all, well, atwitter.
My roommate, N, is one of that new breed of techie arrivistes that so many reflexively anti-gentrification folk in SF love to hate. Me? Well, I don’t necessarily want the already ridiculous rents in this town to go any higher; I’m damned lucky to be the beneficiary of 10+ years of rent control in our big 4-bedroom flat. Those techies, earning 6-figure salaries, and some flush with ridiculous amounts of brand spankin’ new IPO riches, think nothing of paying upwards of $4,400 per month for their 1 bedroom. But most of my friends in this city are techies of some sort, and they are stupendous and generous humans. And while some of them do make pots of money, well, that’s how this modern job market cookie crumbles. And San Francisco fared much better than the rest of the country during the recent recession, and is now again in the high times of another California Gold Rush.
But they’re not all like that. What I have noticed, to my consternation and disappointment, is the tendency amongst many of this techie generation to be frustratingly miserly with their newfound riches. This functions on an empirical level, as the stupendously paper money-rich tech companies are notorious for being less-than-ideal corporate and public citizens. Their record of charitable works and contributions is laughably poor, and they haven’t given much back to the city that so assiduously courted them with very generous tax deals. Of course, there are exceptions, like Bill Gates, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerburg. But for every Bill Gates, there is a Steve Jobs who had “virtually no public record of charitable giving.”
And then there’s the personal level. Techies have long been attached at the hip to a brand of libertarianism, and the same ultra-logical thought processes that drive their employment are part of a tendency towards extreme personal fiscal conservatism. Which brings us to my roommate. N moved in about a year ago, and fit right in to our little 4 person two boy and two girl household. We’re all independent and responsible adults and get along with each other really well, although none of us are the bestest of buddies types; we tend to come and go on our own with a certain degree of personal privacy.
N, in his late 20s, hailed from Boulder, CO, and he had a bit of the high-altitude snowboarder dude about him, along with a brand-spankin’ new engineering job, a Suburu WRX, the not-inexpensive cult car of the techie brigade, and a room full of just-out-of-the-box IKEA, tastefully chosen and arranged.
We, through the utterly criminal lack of any market competition, are forced to get our broadband internet and cable TV through the evil machinations of Comcast, and their purposefully confusing and limited bundle deals with come-on pricing that lasts for 6 months, and then they really sock it to ya for the rest of your time with them, nearly doubling their rates with some packages. Our solution to this was to rotate the Comcast account between roommates each year, so as to take maximum advantage of the come-on pricing, and pay the bend-over rates for the shortest time possible. N was the chosen Comcastee this time around, and in June, he took over the account.
I had been the account holder 2 years before, and when E took over a year ago, he didn’t want to deal with the monthly irritation of dealing with the somewhat complicated Comcast bill that was unequally divided between us 4, due to some people having TV and some not, and then required monthly collection. So I continued in my role of accountholder administrator though E actually held the account, requiring that he trust me enough to grant me access.
Comcast, probably due to their monopolist hold on most of the markets they’re in, has horrible customer service that you are forced to use way more often than you’d like, due to frequent billing fuck-ups, and service outages that occur far too often for the rates we pay. This means that whomever holds the account calls up Comcast right at the beginning of assuming the account duties, and gives them the names of everyone else in the house to be “OK” to call up Comcast and request customer service; otherwise, unless you are the actual account holder and have the proper ID, they won’t serve you.
For years, this is how we did things, and I arranged to pay the bill monthly with ePay, then I collected from the roommates by posting a simple breakdown on the fridge, with check-off boxes for everyone to pay. Our current household is the best I’ve ever had as far as people paying rent and bills ontime. Past disasters have included one flakey dude’s rent getting to me on the 10th,11th and 12th every single month, me learning the really hard way not to accept personal checks until I really know someone, and one fine day, the electricity clicking off due to the account holder’s tendency to collect our shares, then not share them with PG+E.
I should mention that I am what is considered the “master tenant”; the only one actually on the lease, the one the landlord deals with, and the one who collects the rent each month, turning it into a single cashier’s check. Because I’m the only one on the lease, I can, if necessary, and sadly, it has twice been necessary, kick someone out on their keister.
The flakey bill payer also happened to be a sadistic asshole who regularly caused epic and oft times scary household dramas in a house where no one was really socially involved with each other. The bouncy check writer also lost his job and became a meth-head, not necessarily in that order, holing himself up in his darkened room all day and night, and smoking what had to be 4 stinky packs a day. They got the boot, though I must confess that I am no great tyrant landlord; I was terrified through every step of the process of giving a 30-day notice.
Sooooo, back to N and the Comcast account. The first inkling that things might be amiss occurred during the first few weeks of his accountholder reign. We had to return all of the equipment and have Comcast issue and install all new equipment that was exactly the same as the old. I know. I tried reasoning with them, but those of you who deal with Comcast will instantly feel my pain.
N had the initial installer appointment scheduled in kind of a timely manner–we only went 5 days without service. But the installer only brought with him one TV box, and there are two of us who use the TV service. Since I was there, I got the box. But S also needed one, so I mentioned this to N and asked him to request one from the installer. For whatever reason, he didn’t. I noticed this after the installer departed, and told N to get on the horn and maybe get the installer back that same day. He didn’t do that either.
After a couple of days, I noticed that S still had no TV. And we had all decided to painstakingly divide up the bill according to whom used TV, and whom used internet. To my great annoyance, which I politely kept inside after things were decided, this meant that the big screen TV in the living room would no longer have a cable box, because the two roommates who would not pay for TV service didn’t want to have a communal TV that they couldn’t use.
Privately, S and I thought this was cheap and silly–that magic $10 a month they saved seemed hardly a worthy reward when it meant no more impromptu gathering around the boobtube to watch the presidential election returns, the World Cup, the Giants in the World Series, Niners in the Super Bowl and the Olympics. But, so it goes.
I advised S to politely inform N that she didn’t want to pay for those days in which she had no service, which now had stretched into a week and a half. And I would then politely inform N that I would not be taking on the entire TV charges because S had no service; that billing share would be paid by him, since he was the one in de facto controlling whom had TV service.
I texted N every 3rd day or so that S still needed TV service. And I began to wonder what exactly it was that was taking N so long to simply pick up the damned phone and make the call. I mean yeah, no one really likes dealing with the multitudes of Comcast’s tangled phone menus and the often clueless actual live person from whom you try and wrest resolution of service. But it really only takes 10 or 15 minutes. And it really needed to happen. What could possibly be keeping him???
Finally, a package arrived in the mail addressed to N: a self-install kit for S’s cable box. I took the initiative of opening it, verifying that it was the right item, and letting S know that her TV had arrived; who knew when N would “be available” to do so. And more than one entire month later, S had TV service. And it shall be noted that N empirically decided that the first month’s bill should be divided equally in fours, “because it was easier”. Never mind the fact that N had been the one who initiated the whole new unequal billing process and deactivation of communal TV, citing “the principle of the thing”, and really should have taken on S’s share of the TV. S and I just kind of let that one go in the interest of “the principle” of domestic tranquility.
Alas. This was only the first instance of N’s control issues with the stupid Comcast account. On 3 separate occasions, I needed to contact Comcast about various service issues. In each case, I told N about the problem, and he would nod in acknowledgement that I needed assistance, then he’d simply do nothing about it. By the 3rd instance, I had grown understandably weary of the whole process of asking for help, not receiving it, then texting and emailing him to remind him that I still needed help, only to receive no response at all. It was beginning to become a real issue, and when I desired to change our premium channel from HBO to Showtime, I finally just gave up in anticipation of the whole anxiety-producing process and accepted paying extra each month for a premium channel that wasn’t my first choice. I should mention that yes, I watch a lot of TV. I have a severe chronic illness condition that leaves me disabled and in bed for around 10-12 days each month, and TV is a blessing and lifesaver during that period. It’s important to me, and I brought that up during our house meeting to discuss the new Comcast billing procedures to divide up TV and internet access, so N knew of this.
For whatever reason, N had rather deep-seated issues of control when it came to the Comcast bill. Not being able to call up Comcast when we needed service help felt an awful lot like being a helpless child, with a controlling parent “looking out for us”. And our household was otherwise a very functional home of financially responsible adults; neither S, who had the PG+E bill nor myself who had the garbage bill and the rent, attached restrictions of control to our respective account services. N’s billing behavior, in context of how the house operated, was increasingly paranoid.
Things recently came to a head again when I busted my ethernet port, which I had been solely using for internet access, and needed to get the wireless password, which had never been given to me. In previous Comcast account cycles when I handled the bills, I had dealt with the wireless router setup, and had posted the password up on the fridge. I also was the one who used the router dashboard software should anything come up that required its use, but I gave out the software password to S, who several times needed to fiddle with the router for her own usage. Naturally, this would not be the case in the N administration. N was out of town, and I texted him explaining my need for the password, and he in return texted me that it was “complicated” and required setting up my computer’s MAC address as a client.
Well, anyone with a scintilla of computer experience can do this really simple task; it’s not some super-complicated process known only to the techie gods. But I suspect that N fancied himself the tech expert, equipped with superior tech wizardry that the rest of us non tech job-having mortals could not possibly grasp. I texted back that I knew how to do this; could he provide me with access to the router software so that I could do it myself?
Now, keep in mind that this whole time I’m going without internet access. While not having TV access is annoying, in this modern world, not having internet access is akin to not having oxygen; I’m sure all of you can relate, and imagine your discomfort at having to face an open-ended period of time with no internet access that hung on the mere access to a fricking wireless network password.
I received the terse return text that he was importantly “on a plane taxiing on the runway”, and couldn’t help me, and that he “maybe” might be able to set things up the following evening–no indication of what time. Note his passive/aggressive refusal to admit that he actually wouldn’t allow me access because he needed absolute control of “his” wireless network.
Coincidentally and unfortunately, I also had a very time-sensitive need to collect for 7 months of a garbage bill that I’d been ePaying, but had neglected to collect in a timely manner; the garbage bills came out every 3 months and were easy to overlook. I sent out an email to the household on Sunday saying I needed prompt payment by Wednesday at the latest, and the other two roomies, S and E, paid on Monday. N also had been paying his rent either 1 day late, or as close to the 5-day grace period deadline as was humanly possible, PayPal-ing me his rent late at night before the last day I could receive it, download it, then wait the 3-5 business days for it to hit my bank account. On 3 separate occasions, N made the rent late, or forced me to have to hand-deliver rather than mail it because he neglected to account for non-business holidays or weekends, and every month, I now got to look forward to the anxiety that his rent roulette caused me.
N neither made good on hooking up the wireless network, or paid his garbage bill, which I should note was a mere $60, or around $8.50 a month. I aired my frustration to S, and she, and then E, noted that N never actually gave them the password. Like an all-knowing paternalistic techie wizard, he set up their computers and typed in the password without actually giving it to them. But I wasn’t even to receive that service. He came home and collected his mail sitting outside his door, which I noticed; I was there the entire time; and then never contacted me to spend the 3 minutes setting up my computer before he left again. He spends a lot of time at I assume a girlfriend’s house, and it isn’t easy to physically connect with him. But this was ridiculous–could he really be so busy on a Monday night that he couldn’t knock on my door and set up my computer–or ideally, just give me the fucking password???
I’ve had to text him 3 separate times about the bill and the password, and have yet to receive a single reply, making me feel like a fool, and the biggest naggy bitch, as I can imagine him seeing my text come in, silently cursing my existence, and then callously ignoring me. Feels real good, don’t it? I have a feeling that he is going to question the minutiae of the garbage bill, as he himself emailed us with a freaking 2 page Excel spreadsheet detailing the cable bill, and his, I kid you not, “projections” of the rest of the year’s monthly bills, because “(he’s) such a nerd”, and he “believes in complete transparency.” Now, I can sort of understand this impulse; sort of. He figured out a most exacting way to digitally transmit the most intricate details of our cable bill, and because he could do this, he did. But then again no; it’s fucking ridiculous; we’re talking about a $30 max per person per monthly bill. A bill that previously, we all had managed to pay on time like the adults we are, with no big questions or problems, or curiosity about the details.
Which brings me to the whole libertarian/miserly techie personality thing. There’s a very unlovely elitist streak masked with supposed libertarian rugged individualism amongst the techie class. Their whole lives, their ability to excel in maths and science has anointed them as the Smart Kids who have access to a trove of elite techie knowledge that the rest of us liberal arts types can’t possibly understand. I think it simply would not compute to N that I actually was a biochem major for 3 out of my 4 university years, and made it through Inorganic Chem, Calculus II and Math Analysis, and due to the primitive computing technology of the time, became very adept at self-taught UNIX programming. To N, and others of his techie ilk, I’m merely a Lit major muggle.
Couple this with the techie’s wonky tendency to see things in overly simplistic purely logical terms, and to live their lives adhering to the strict “principle of the thing”, as if life operated with the same black and white simplicity of a math problem. If it’s possible to create an Excel spreadsheet detailing the “projections” of a year’s worth of cable bills, then this should be the universal norm, and I should do the same with my garbage bill that costs each resident a mere $8.50 a month, and requires its administrator to perform the unthinkably complex mathematic magic of dividing the total bill by 4. It’s the principle of the thing. Never mind that we are talking about sums of money with the cable bill that max out at $30 per month, and access to a household account and a wireless router’s dashboard software that, to my knowledge, is not currently connected to any high security banking networks or national defense platforms. Nope, it’s the principle of the thing. (And what about that other vaunted techie value of elegant simplicity???)
Some iteration of this tendency is what I suspect drives those techie companies to go to ridiculous extremes when vetting charities to possibly receive a tiny fraction of their vast millions, or billions, as has been reported in local weeklies. It’s OK to receive the charity of the city’s very generous tax relief in order to secure their corporate headquarters in our downtown–this means that once again, their techie genius was able to score a win in free-market capitalism. But when it comes to returning the favor as good corporate citizens, impossibly complex procedures are enacted, and our many needy charities end up either waiting forever, or giving up when faced with the massive number of hoops they must jump through to possibly receive a comparatively minuscule slice of their rich techie pie.
What the techie “elite” almost comically does not realize, or “compute” as it may be, is that they have ended up taxing themselves with a huge amount of extra work and bother by insisting upon being the controlling elitist wizards, and they are actually revealing a huge weakness in their lack of ability to be pragmatic. By simply following the house traditions we’d established over years of household accounts, N could have saved himself untold hours of spreadsheet creation, coordinating with 3 other roommates to administer their TV and internet service needs, and texting back and forth, then becoming annoyed with all of the resulting nagging behavior of that irritatingly needy and pesky roommate. And more important, N could have maintained household peace, something that I believe to be more important than the “principle” that dictates if you can analyze and number-crunch a thing, you should do so.
And those techie companies, who are increasingly gaining the reputation of most-hated gentrifying arrivistes, could solve many of their PR problems in one fell swoop by simply throwing open their coffers to the many local charities in need, becoming the good corporate citizens they really should be already. Locals would be less likely to barricade the Google buses and relentlessly blog about the gentrifying evils of the techie invasion if we had the Twitter-St. Anthony’s Dining Room, Zynga Head Start or Yelp Free Clinic. Of course, this sort of seemingly simple pragmatism and generosity of spirit is something we lowly liberal arts Luddites already inherently “get”. Maybe it’s time for us to bestow some our wizard-like humanity upon our baby genius comrades; I for one know of a particular software engineer in need.
(And as of today, I officially still have neither internet access nor garbage bill payment. Of course, S so kindly lent me her USB Ethernet dongle, allowing me to be online, but don’t tell N that! Though I’m sure he probably is monitoring the router dashboard as I speak…)