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Why saving on heating bills isn't a good idea!

January 16, 2014 14:07 IST

Why saving on heating bills isn't a good idea!

Ashwath Nityanandan

Indian American Ashwath Nityanandan recollects a particularly cold winter that cost him a job interview.

My son speaks English with a gravelly western New York accent. My daughter has a light mid-Atlantic lilt. I tell them that they would both share the same Bay Area dialect today if my answering machine had not frozen up one New Year’s Eve many moons ago.

The answer-phone was a cutting-edge piece of Radio Shack technology with two cassette tapes, several delicate knobs and buttons and temperature-sensitive moving parts. In an age before mass e-mail and wireless telephony, it was my employment lifeline during a snowy December in Rochester.

Though we had little money in the bank, my wife and I were kid-free and mobile. We had already bought tickets to San Francisco for the holidays before my career hit the deck. So we decided to go freeload off my friend Pannir in Berkeley anyway.

I justified this New Year’s junket as a job-hunting investment by adopting another friend’s address and phone number in Silicon Valley as my own. Prospective employers would, I hoped, jump at the chance of interviewing a good engineer who appeared to be just down the road at Velu’s address, rather than an expensive airfare across the continent.

The only catch was that Velu himself was going the opposite way to watch the ball go up in Times Square. He promised to check his own answering machine regularly and relay the messages to my answering machine in Rochester, which I would in turn check remotely from the west coast. In theory, I would then pounce on the killer local interviews that I was sure were awaiting me everywhere around the Golden Gate.

This byzantine scheme faded after a week in California. Bored of idling in Pannir’s pad, we arm-wrestled him to sneak his borrowed 1977 Chevy station wagon away for a lazy drive past redwood forests and up to Yosemite. His roommate Zhing came with us. Zhing said little, but he was fond of driving and we let him drive all he wanted. Lacking the nerve to camp in the frost of high altitudes, we spent a comfortable night in a heated cabin. Then we circled back down to do some sightseeing north of the bay.

Every few hours, every day, my fist-sized answering machine remote control screeched into a pay phone somewhere as I checked my messages in Rochester. Nothing but silence greeted me.

By the time New Year’s Eve had arrived, I had given up any pretense of job hunting and was ready for some real action. My wife had taken over the driving from Zhing at the end of our cruise. As we entered San Fran, she took a deep breath and ended the year on a crazy bet. She launched the giant car at rocket speed down the 120 degree zigzag incline of Lombard Street. Weak with laughter, we checked the wheel rims down on the waterfront and wondered where we should find ourselves at midnight.

We soon discovered where Zhing would be. When we got home to Berkeley we found seventeen platters of dough skins scattered about the apartment, along with huge pots of raw cabbage, pork and ginger. Zhing had rounded up a group of his friends to make potstickers, apparently a Chinese New Year tradition. We wished them well and went out on the town.

After a couple of hours of dallying we ended up in a dark and grimy bar in Oakland. This unimpressive locale turned out to host the best blues band I have ever heard. The black lead man played his mouth organ with a radio-controlled amplifier strapped to his belt. Its shrill brilliance transfixed the crowd table by table as he walked around and serenaded each of us at point blank range.

Halfway through the performance another African-American walked into the tavern. The musicians slowed their pace and turned to look. The lead man dropped his harmonica, walked up and hugged the newcomer. He waved him onto the stage and motioned to the bassist to hand over his instrument. The unexpected guest shrugged and strapped it on.

While the rest of the band played on uninterrupted, his hands hung motionless over the bass strings for a few seconds. They suddenly came to life. As he picked up the riff to perfection, I felt my hair standing on end.

If this had been a cheap 21st century novel, my cell phone would have rung at this point with a call from Velu, capping the perfect evening with a midnight interview call.

Unfortunately the technology was not there yet, and neither was my luck. I had no way of calling Velu, so I had nothing to worry about except watching for the countdown recorded in New York three hours earlier.

It turned out that the band had other things to worry about. As they finished their gig, a hat was passed around. The lead man laid down his harmonica again, this time to cry out: “Give generously! Keep us out of jail...”

We stayed well past midnight. Long after the music was over, we walked into Pannir’s apartment to find Zhing and his friends in utter hysterics over a bottle of whiskey. There were potsticker remains scattered all over the place. We had a flight back east at six am, and sleeping in the midst of that mayhem looked impossible. So we packed up and said goodbye.

The flight back was cold and listless after a week spent playing in the sun.

Rochester surprised us with a flash of blue sky as we turned over the edges of the Great Lakes.

Feeling a little better as we entered our own apartment, we rushed to turn the heat back on.

Turn the heat back on. I could not remember turning it down that far...fifty degrees Fahrenheit? Rubbing my hands, I walked over to the answering machine.

It showed a green light, but when I hit Play nothing happened. An icy horror crept up on me. There was a message there, but I could not play it.

I paced about the defrosting apartment for more than an hour before I heard a beep. The answering machine had finally warmed up out of its hibernation. This time the Play button brought up Velu’s voice.

Where the hell are you, man? These guys in Cupertino keep calling for you and I don’t know what to tell them.

Yes, I finally did go back to California for the interview a few weeks later. But by then I was second in line for the job. They said they really wanted me, but they really had to wait for the first guy to say no. The first guy said yes.

We ended up moving around the country to clean up our career messes. We have long since put away our brooms and settled in, but I never again tried to save on heating bills over New Year’s. And my kids still don’t sound like they are from the same family.

Ashwath Nityanandan sits on the diversity council of a large corporation, where his job is in manufacturing infrastructure. His professional interest lies in studying the effect of human systems on technology, especially on the factory floor.

Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/