The relative peace of indulging in a late morning flight to Puerto Rico instead of the usual six am cheap tickets is shattered the night before. At midnight I awake to the first automated distress texts dinging on my phone which I ignore. Within a few minutes it escalates to calls from the network operations center staff as they work their way through all my contact numbers - cell phones and landlines ring in counterpoint until I groggily answer and let them know that yes indeed I am aware of the problems. I stumble in the dark to my office, lighting my way with the cell phone though the entire household is, at least for the moment, awake.
After hours of trying to fix the problem remotely, it is clear that I have to go in – going back to sleep is impossible. I can already feel the anticipatory adrenaline from the prospect of getting on the flight flood my system, that vestigial primitive flight-or-fight battle raging inside me with no outlet - nothing to run from, nothing to fight – chilling me to the bone and diminishing my vision to a darkening tunnel. I grab my laptop, my packed bag and am out the door in the ambiguous darkness before dawn, the front yard turned foreboding by the giant hedges separating our house from the urban street. The large dark evergreens tower over the house, a special effects transformation from the usual charming secret garden ambiance. The cold predawn air presages an early autumn; the damp breeze tastes of ocean, an unusual reminder of how close the water really is anywhere in town.
Settling into the car, happy to have something that demands my physical attention, I hurtle down the Jamaica Way at more than twice the posted limit, the race against my own record occupying my entire consciousness, searching for that elusive oneness with the car. It is a fast car – cheap and small but dangerously fast – the engine producing an outsize basso note as it bumps against the rev-limiter with every deliberate snick of the shifter, brap-brapping as I dump revs on the downshift. This road is the platonic ideal of the sinuous country road, bordered by parkland on one side, canopied over by centennial trees, an artificial construct from Olmsted’s pen. Usually choked with traffic but deserted at this early hour, I take advantage of it, using the entire two lanes searching for each curve’s apex with irresponsible abandon.
The reprieve is short lived. As I stop at the first light waves of nausea wash over me, there is a hollowness in my bones, a dry imperceptible tremble of my entire body against the car seat that completely paralizes me. I pull aside and reach behind for my laptop bag and get the pills out of the front compartment. I have waited a long as I can, a mild sedative, suavecito said Dr Graupera, just something to take the edge off - take one an hour before boarding. I am hours away from takeoff. I take two. I don’t care at this point, nor do I believe him that it will work at all. I feel my fear like a cornered wolf growling in my chest and I am afraid that a mild sedative will only make the wolf mad and sleepy.
After a few minutes of sitting there sweating I theatrically slap my face which much to my surprise works enough to get me in motion again. I make it to the data center in record time as dawn grays the sky.
The center is trying to practice security through obscurity – no visible signage, the only door in the back of a nondescript urban low rise office building along the swath of postindustrial blight that borders the remnants of the elevated highway exiting Boston to the north. Unfortunately the modernish entrance, all weathered zinc, bare concrete and chromed reflective glass and the giant diesel generators and HVAC cooling towers are a dead giveaway for all but the most clueless potential terrorist or industrial spy. I walk up to the door, open the weatherproof phone box and pick up the dial-less phone which starts ringing immediately; I tell the person who answers that I am at the door and they buzz me in.
Now, most visits I am greeted – from behind a one inch bulletproof Perspex window - by someone whom even out of context you would immediately identify as an IT worker. They are usually almost ironically clichéd: an ever present vendor logo polo shirt, khakis or jeans, pasty and perhaps a bit overweight, a cell phone or two holstered around the belt, a set of ID’s on a lanyard and a whiff of blue collar boredom about them. Today I am received instead by a very young man in a blue suit, skin the color of espresso with just a touch of milk in it. The suit is slightly ill fitting and on closer inspection standard issue from the security company that it is now clear to me he works for. He is polite and efficient as he runs through the entrance routine, an exchange of ID’s and signatures, my license to him for safekeeping, a laminated visitors pass on a lanyard that I must don. The rumpled geeks that have chaperoned me before on these little outings – never the same one twice – have all been lackadaisical almost to the point of lethargy, arising suspicion that I have woken them from a nap amongst the blinking lights and humming machinery. My escort today is awake, almost vibrating with energy – not nervous – but alive and fully there.
Not much interaction is needed as he opens the door for me and we walk shoulder to shoulder down the long corridor – I am already feeling the wash of the decay of the adrenaline – a bitter taste in my mouth but I am wondering as well if the new found calm is the product of the drug. I mean, it could be working through my skepticism. Along with this I get a full sensorial feel for the young man walking almost comically in sync next to me. He has no appreciable accent but exudes the earnestness of a fellow immigrant, though he might simply be escaping Mattapan and not Zimbabwe. He is not an IT pro but he seems knowledgeable and comfortable and what’s more, interested – maybe he is a security guard for the flexible hours that he can work into his schedule at the nearby Bunker Hill Community College. I can see him getting ready for work in a small cramped apartment, in a dirty and peeling pale blue triple decker at the outskirts of Somerville with a chain-linked wasteland for a front lawn under the dusty shadow of I-93. There is also the faint echo of perfume about him, not something he has put on for work but maybe lingering on his shirt from the weekend, as I did before coming to the US and realizing in college that intellectuals don’t wear perfume. I get a sense of him getting ready to go out with friends, to clubs I know nothing about, vast gulfs of class, ethnicity and age separating us, ensuring our paths will not cross.
I want to talk to him, check my flash constructed story, but it is too early, and the wolf seems to have gone to sleep only to leave me with the bigger dread of the point of my trip to Puerto Rico. It is my mothers 75th and I have decided to surprise her, a decision that took much going back and forth and sleepless nights. There is no amount of bracing that can ready me for the visit – usually just a long tense trip on a zipline before she cuts it down for one reason or another. The blast of air from the open doors to the data center, kept at pressure to minimize the intrusion of dust, brings me back to the moment. As we walk to our server cage, I am deriving strength from my companion – his quiet efficiency a calming presence. If he can be that way with all the struggles that I imagine he has then why am I such a mess? He leaves me and I finish what I need to do. By the time I leave, the shift must have changed for a standard issue IT geek is there to let me out. I get in the car already exhausted and I have not even gotten to the airport, there are hours of airplane related indignities to go through as well as four hours of actual flight and the arrival into the hot, humid third world mess of San Juan. But right now, I am strangely at peace, the various somatic responses to the wolf in my chest subdued.