Toy company, my ass

“It could be a hundred miles away, it could be next door, it could be underground, it could be in a sky-rise.”

I’m at a party. It’s a pretty good party. It’s thrown by a girl I met on a train. That’s actually only half-true — the second part, that is — but “a girl I met on a train” sounds so much better than “a girl I met at Starbucks while waiting for a train.” We did share a train ride together, after all, so it doesn’t sound like that much of an exaggeration.

I’m at a party. Actually, no. Let me rewind to 2006, when I was temporarily living in Zürich, waiting for the gods of American immigration to grant me the entry to the U. S. of A. as an alien of that favourable, legal persuasion. One of the evenings, bored out of my mind — it was Zürich, after all — I started looking at the shooting locations of my favourite movie ever. IMDb had most of them: Four Bay Area bridges were the obvious part, I found out that the heroes’ hideaway was actually the Fox Theatre in Oakland, and the hand-off scene happened to be located on The Embarcadero in San Francisco.

And then there was the fake toy factory, the movie’s most important architectural artifact, which the protagonists go to great pains to locate and break into in the latter part of the movie. In the fictional universe, it’s on the other side of San Francisco’s Dumbarton Bridge. However, with Hollywood famously impervious to limitations of time and space, my digging around on the Web located the building much closer to Los Angeles, in Southern California’s Simi Valley.

But that’s as precise as it got. So, since I was bored out of my mind — it was Zürich, after all — I freeze-framed the movie, fired up the nascent Google Maps, and methodically went through all the buildings trying to find one that looked alike. (Fortunately, a part of the movie takes place on the roof, which made it easier to imagine it from a satellite’s point of view.) It took a better part of an hour, but I found it. At least I thought I did.

I sent an excited email to some of my nerdy friends, wrote down the geographical location, and promised myself to visit this place in some distant future. I never really questioned why. I guess I like my fictional worlds so much that I want to inhabit them, even though I know it’ll never be possible.

“I just love it when a man says that to me.”

I’m at a party. It is a pretty good party. It’s thrown by a girl I met on a train.

Now, at any given party there will be subjects of conversations — food, politics, The Situation — where you will find me mostly silent. This is not because I’m disinterested, but most likely because I feel I can’t contribute all that much.

Conversely, there are topics where it’ll be hard for me to shut up. One of those topics is movies. This time, specifically, everyone’s favourite movies. I’m eagerly awaiting a pause to insert myself into the conversation and give everyone all those clever and important reasons why I love the movie that I consider the best. But before that happens, I hear a girl next to me finishing her sentence with “…oh, yeah, and Sneakers.”

I will rephrase this moment, put it in its own paragraph and italicize to better convey its importance:

A girl next to me mentions my favourite movie before I do.

Let me rewind to early 1993. My family’s semi-legally received Sky Movies channel was saturated with Sneakers trailers and featurettes, and I followed each and every one of them, eagerly awaiting the movie. I saw it at the premiere day in my hometown’s small theatre aspirationally named Colosseum and even though the movie’s lightheartedness surprised me, I could no longer let go.

My life ever since has been punctuated with little events related to Sneakers.

Like one of college projects that had me come up with a network infrastructure for a fictional Setec Astronomy branch, complete with a futuristic company logo. (Even though I majored in networking, you could tell what my priorities were.)

Like the day a friend of mine “found,” on the pre-Napster Web, James Horner’s excellent Sneakers soundtrack, later shamelessly ripped off by Horner himself for both Bicentennial man and A beautiful mind.

Like the moment I realized that WarGames, another one of my favourites, was written years earlier by the same people — and even though it doesn’t share any of the plot or characters, it definitely is Sneakers’ spiritual predecessor if you know the right way to look at it.

Or the day I learned that the creators of both movies will come to visit the Google campus in the afternoon — and my immediate mad dash back to San Francisco to bring and rip apart my framed poster so that I could get it signed.

And so on, and so on. I made Sneakers wallpapers. I bought the VHS, Laserdisc, and HD DVD editions, each one ever so slightly more useless than the previous. I recreated the My voice is my passport dialogue. I found myself adopting the protagonist’s nickname. I could (and have) quote large parts of the dialogue from memory — hell, I learned some English from that movie. I formed theories on what makes great movies great movies, and understood how the best stories about computers are really stories about people. I fell in love with the idealistic, romantic portrayal of hacking, back when “hacking” as a word was still free of all its modern pejorativeness. I admired the rare phenomenon that was a movie having a perfect cast. (I even designed a rough draft of a T-shirt saying “I knew of David Strathairn before he was nominated for an Oscar and then you forgot about him but I didn’t.”)

And I remember the exact moment I realized this must be my favourite movie ever, and the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes with finding out you have a certain favourite something — that you can return to it, treasure it, refer to it, stopping just short of being defined by it. Or not even?

And then, I’m at a party. And a girl next to me mentions it before I do.

That, understandably, gets me excited. What follows is a blur. I tell her half of the above in a voice way too high-pitched for anyone’s good: The previews. The movie. The soundtrack. The poster. The autographs. The wallpapers. The geocoding. The promise.

Two seconds after that, in a parallel universe where we are all cartoons and Comic Sans is a cool font, a lightbulb flickers and subsequently blows up right above my head. In the three years since, I already visited some of the locations: the hand-off scene that happens to be right next to Google’s San Francisco office, the Fox Theatre… but not the toy factory. And I am going to Los Angeles the very next day my friend’s wedding, and I have the whole Saturday for myself with absolutely nothing planned.

Thus, a plan is set in motion. That, understandably, gets me even more excited. Not that I have much to lose — the girl must already be thinking I’m crazy.

At home after the party, I figure out how to retrieve my old email from an even older Outlook Express and dig out the coördinates. The building is some 1½ hours away from the airport, although by that time I know I’m going to drive there no matter the distance.

Thus ends Friday the 13th. Then again, I was never particularly superstitious.

“That’s laser fencing. There’s high voltage on the perimeter. The whole building says ‘go away’.”

At any given moment, there are about five bad jokes in my head. Holding them in requires a lot of energy and sometimes one slips out. That’s happening right now. “Why do you need more numbers if you already have infinity?”

I am at Hertz at L.A.’s John Wayne Airport. Given that I’m suddenly doing quite a bit of driving, I decide to upgrade my ride. The lady suggests Infiniti and asks me to choose between models 35 and 37. The bad joke follows. A laughter does not. Even a courtesy one.

That doesn’t matter. I get into the car, plug in my iPhone into The Worst-Designed iPod Integration In Human History!™, put on the Sneakers soundtrack, and off I go, averaging what seems like 90 miles per hour. Oh, irony of ironies, the first time in my life I am actually enjoying driving is in freaking Los Angeles.

The GPS system in the car, confusingly both futuristic and anachronistic at the same time, tells me I’m almost there, but I can’t see anything from the highway. I take an off-ramp, then a right turn. A no trespassing sign appears out of nowhere and stares me right in the face.

My first instinct is to say “well, I tried” and give up. But I didn’t drive here all the way from the Orange County? or Zürich? or Poland? to turn around now. Besides, it seems appropriate to just, you know, at least try to sneak in.

There is no gate, so I drive further. The road twists and turns. There are more signs essentially proclaiming when we’re done with you, you will wish it was 2010-era TSA handling your balls. Eventually, I drive all the way up. I watched the movie during the flight, taking relevant screen caps to help me identify the building. But that’s not necessary. I see this and I know I’m in the right place:

I park cautiously as far away from the only other car in the lot as possible, and wait, ready to be approached by security and thrown out of the property. But that doesn’t happen.

After updating my Facebook status (otherwise what’s the point?), I get out. Slowly, I walk around and check out the building. In my head, I am still coming up with a number of excuses why I am here, all the while trying to reassure myself my East European accent really is, as someone once put, “relatively unthreatening.”

The building looks exactly the same as in the movie. The only change seems to be that the two little roundabouts flanking it — the same ones that made it easy to identify the place from above — are now surrounded by foliage. Deep inside, I am irrationally disappointed by the lack of the PlayTronics: The Future of Toys plaque. But this is real world. In real world, another boring corporate branch of Bank of America will have to do. Not that it stops me from imagining Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix and the rest of the gang standing right there where I’m standing, almost two decades earlier.

(I also find it funny how Hollywood magic locates this building far away from everything else, at the end of a private, desolate road; in reality it’s right next to a highway, and opposite Office Depot and McDonald’s.)

Since no uniformed people are approaching me, I get a little bit more daring. I power up my camera and start taking some photos. I retrieve my tripod, plug in a cable release, and pose myself. I try to look inside the building, wondering if the lobby looks the same as in the movie (the reflective glass makes that impossible to determine). I eventually even try to get inside — my plan is to walk in and ask “may I use your john, please?”, mirroring River Phoenix doing the same in the movie — but everything’s closed shut. I suppose it is Saturday after all. No one’s working today.

Then, right on cue, just as I finally start feeling safe, a car appears and slowly pulls next to me, while I am still sporting a hunk of a camera and an even bigger tripod.

Great, I think. I’m finally in trouble.

“You’ll be caught in a steel-reinforced booth, while the guards with the shotguns are called.”

But even with that thought, I realize I am still smiling. And thus, an impromptu strategy is born: why not try to preemptively disarm whatever angry taser-sporting, shotgun-loving security guard just found out about my existence? What do I have to lose, right?

So, as the window rolls down, I summon however much of Tom Cruise-inspired smile I possibly can, and excitedly point out “Hey, do you know this building was in a famous movie?”

What follows is a blur. That blur, fortunately, does not involve tasers or shotguns. Instead, there’s a friendly gardener called Hector, who never watched Sneakers, but still was happy I was there: He just trimmed all the branches earlier that day. We chat for a bit — “Poland, right between Germany and Sov… Russia” — and then he drives away. The thought “what if he’s a fake gardener, like in the movie?” fortunately appears too late to matter.

Since this is now a bank building, it has an ATM machine embedded in it. I go there, take out $20 and a receipt as a souvenir, promising myself I will never ever spend it. I think to myself “my mission here is done.” For the first, as it later turns out, of many times that day.

Let me rewind to earlier in 2009, when I quasi-accidentally ended up at the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve in California. It’s a hauntingly beautiful preserve, draped in one of the most austere colour palettes I’ve ever seen — mostly just blacks and yellows. I hiked there for a couple of hours, and then, returning back to the car, tired and ready to head home, I noticed a hill in front of me.

It took only a couple of seconds for a thought to materialize in my head. I had to climb that hill. To this day, I don’t know why. Right there, on the spot, that hill became a challenge.

Now, I should not be allowed to climb anything ever. I had neither proper shoes nor proper attire. I carried a bulky camera and an even more hike-unfriendly camera bag. But I went up anyway. There were moments during the climb where I felt unsafe, moments away for sliding all the way down… and yet, somehow, I made it. An hour later, I was there at the top with a feeling of immense satisfaction; ninety minutes after that, I returned to the bottom (I had to take a circuitous way back). I didn’t realize yet a bit just flipped in my head. Possibly forever.

“He’s just wearing four safety belts this time.”
“What, no parachute?”

That bit is awakened as I am standing in front of the Sneakers building. It is 2pm, I have no plans for the rest of the day, and there are two huge hills right next to me. I figure I would go for a hike and take some more aerial photos of the building — see whether the roof looks the same as in the movie — but that was just a rationalization. I just want to climb.

I get back into my G35, drive around the hills, and park next to what turns out to be an entrance of a waste management facility. (You should have figured by now that my self-preservation instinct is vestigial enough that this did not raise any red flags at the time.) Then, I go up.

Of course, I have not learned anything since the last time. Still the same shoes, still the same attire, still the same studio-friendly camera and a bulky camera bag. On top of that, contrary to the preserve before, those two hills in L.A. were never meant to be climbed by human beings. That meant no trails and me improvising — and you don’t want me to improvise while hiking. At various points I trip, I slide down, I drop my camera, and I hit my elbow so hard it starts bleeding. Not to mention the photos all turn out pretty bad.

Still, I manage to traverse both the hills. What greets me at the end of my journey, though, is something rather unexpected — a fence and a gate, and another no trespassing sign. Except, the sign is on the other side: as it turns out, I’m already trespassing. I guess no one thought of someone being stupid enough to climb the two hills, so the entire area wasn’t fenced away — but at some point during my hike I crossed the boundary and ended up on a private property.

At this point, I can neither walk around the hills because of the fence, nor retrace my steps because at many points the hills became too steep for me to climb them back. So I have two much less handsome choices: either I go back and try to find another route, possibly taking forever and risking venturing even deeper into a private territory… or I climb the gate.

Now, I should not be allowed to climb anything ever. Let me rewind to 1997, during our first high school offsite, where we were all jumping a fence… and I was the only one who didn’t make it. I was the butt of jokes for months to come — even though, ironically, I landed on my face. The only difference between then and now? This gate is taller.

Also, it has barbed wire on it.

But there’s really no choice. I slide my camera bag underneath the fence, and I start climbing. I go all the way to the top, and then try to solve a complex equation with variables involving gravity, wobbliness of the gate and my physical ineptitude, and solutions including ripping my flesh, falling on my face, and possibly after all that landing on the same side of the gate I came from.

Minutes pass. I am still at the top without having made much progress. Then a car appears on the other side.

Great, I think. I’m finally in trouble.

“That’s not easy, what I just did.”

I will admit, I am a bit afraid. But just for a little while. Then I realize how ridiculous this must all look from the outside: here I am, at the top of a barbed-wire fence, with a bleeding elbow, and inexplicably, still, a huge smile.

Since my impromptu strategy worked before, I give it one more shot. As the car door opens and a person steps out, I excitedly exclaim “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to have a key to this gate, would you?”

A brief pause seems to be going on forever. Then I hear:

“As a matter of fact, I do.”

But it’s not what the person says, though, but her tone of voice that lets me know everything’ll actually be okay.

I climb down. She opens the gate. We exchange our stories. I talk about Sneakers, taking photos, climbing the hill, a life-long tradition of making life-threatening decisions, and my man-crush on Will Smith. (The last bit has no relation to anything whatsoever. I just like talking about my man-crush on Will Smith.)

Lora helps me take care of my elbow, and then tells about where I am. This whole land belongs to the waste management facility. It’s one of the biggest open ranches in L.A. and, since the facility does not really need most of it, it rents it to people like Lora — who’s a veterinarian medical representative — to keep their animals there.

It gets better. “Say,” she asks, “would you like a tour?”

I didn’t drive here all the way from the Orange County? or Zürich? or Poland? to turn around now, did I? So we drive in. Then I meet what seems one of the most interesting collection of creatures on planet Earth.

I get to know Pistol — Lora’s own horse who is fond of performing a “nice to meet you” trick — and a couple of other horses.

I get to know a blind goat nicknamed “Stevie Wonder” — the reason is hard to explain in words, but makes perfect sense — that comes with one of the most touching stories I heard. The goat became blind as a result of an infection, but Lora and other people refused to put her down. And here she is, years later, running around in a little pen that she has had all memorized, having just given birth to completely healthy offspring.

I get to know some of the most stupid sheep in the history of sheep stupidity, and a ghost of an evil turkey eaten by a coyote.

I pose in front of a shack built by Hollywoodians for one of those prisoner-of-war movies. As it happens, since such vast land is a rare thing in the L.A. area, many movies are shot here. This particular shack looks solid, but like all Hollywood, it is built out of reinforced fake and you can literally move it with one hand. I theorize that at some point in this ranch’s history, some location scout saw the building on the other side of the hills and took a note — and that’s how it ended up being used for Sneakers.

I see rangers with their huge trucks. I see all sorts of activity that’s exciting to me in a very unexpected sense: everyone here lives a life so very different than my own cozy existence surrounded by bits, tweets, tags, and other virtual, man-made ephemera. I can’t recall ever being close to a horse before — and if I were, I am pretty sure I hated it. But here and now, I am having the time of my life.

After the tour, Lora drives me back to my car, and, either knowing or sensing I have nothing to do, invites me to a dinner at her house; some of her friends are supposed to be there already.

I hesitate for a bit. The fact that at this point we both are making jokes about one of us secretly being a serial killer does not guarantee all that much. But then again, given everything before, what could still possibly go wrong?

I follow Lora’s car to her place. I never actually followed anyone in a car before. For a moment there, in my head, my name’s Martin Bishop.

“It sounded like… a cocktail party.”

I’ve always been proud of having friends both inspiring and interesting, but Lora’s are giving mine a run for their money. I get to meet a professional stand-up comedian, an L.A. court reporter, a TVsoundtrack composer (soon to be shortlisted for a Grammy), and someone working directly for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not to mention two rescue dogs and two rescue cats.

The dinner that follows is a blur. As a Silicon Valleyian I am tasked with fixing the AV setup, and at some point I actually figure it out. I hear stories about a really gross thing Michael Jackson once did. Or Mike Judge’s intelligence really being a product, not a sum, of both Beavis’s and Butt-head’s. And how to give a proper workout to a 30-pound cat that’s left at the veterinary clinic because its owners got bored with it. And how to win horse rides. And how to make — but mostly, how to enjoy — incredibly funny jokes.

I leave around 9pm, not because I want to, but because I have no other choice; there’s a 2-hour drive back to my hotel and a wedding to attend the next day.

Hollywood is fond of dramatizing events in people’s lives so that they’re full of blacks and whites. Real life never cares enough to be like this. The days just follow one another; some of them slightly better than the others. Sometimes we’re happier, sometimes we’re sadder, but typically we wake up swearing at the clock, count down the hours at work, and then plop ourselves in front of a television set, watching fictional adventures precisely because they are more interesting and dramatic than ours. People made out of TV pixels experience crazy adventures filled with spot-on dialogues, and their lives change drastically, usually as a result of specific, singular events.

Not in real life… except that day. That day was a Hollywood day for me. As I write this more than one year later, I know that something changed in me then. Something validated those hours spent daydreaming of non-existent worlds, that naïve belief in people being inherently good, that fascination with secrets of cryptography, that child-like perception of the world as merely a canvas for unbelievable adventures.

All of this because I fell in love with a movie, I met the girl on a train, her friend mentioned Sneakers, I was invited to a wedding, I drove to see the building, decided to climb a hill, and said “yes” to myself or others in all the situations where it would have been wiser to say “no.” One day this might get me in real trouble. I will write another story then. But this rare one, appropriately for Hollywood, wrapped up with a very, very happy ending.

My friend’s wedding was fine. I was smiling the whole time. I was the only one who knew the real reason why.

Written in San Francisco, January 2011. With thanks to Crystal for inspiration and proof-reading.

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Designer/typographer · Writing a book on the history of keyboards: https://aresluna.org/shift-happens

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Marcin Wichary

Marcin Wichary

Designer/typographer · Writing a book on the history of keyboards: https://aresluna.org/shift-happens

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